Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Permission to Believe in God II

(continued from this post)

At the beginning of the Introduction to Permission to Believe, R. Lawrence Kelemen makes an important methodological statement: He is only out to make a rational case for believing in God, not to offer conclusive proof. I think it would help us to discuss why this is important and how it relates to recent developments in this field.

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The earliest discussions of proofs for God were among the Greek philosophers, who offered proofs that seemed conclusive and irrefutable. This area of religious philosophy was developed further throughout the medieval era into the early modern period. However, after philosophers such as David Hume and Immanuel Kant pointed out flaws in popular proofs (which we will discuss when dealing with those specific arguments), these proofs were largely set aside. They were dismissed as flawed.

Click here to read moreThis changed in the mid-twentieth century when philosophers of religion used two main strategies to revive these proofs. The first was the recognition that there are multiple possible proofs within any one strategy (e.g. multiple variations of the Cosmological Argument) and that the major refutations do not apply to every variation. Philosophers focused their attention on the versions that had not been refuted and scrutinized them to see how well they work, refining them to avoid problems. This proved to be very fruitful.

Furthermore, the application of methodologies from the recently developed field of Analytic Philosophy were very useful. Analytic Philosophy formalized the application of the strict rules of logic to a topic, carefully defining the terms and assumptions of an argument in order to evaluate its success. Think about the geometry proofs you had to do in high school, with the list of givens and then the step-by-step argumentation.

Analytic Philosophy, which was traditionally a branch of philosophy that ignored if not dismissed religion, ironically gave us the tools to break down every proof of God's existence into a numbered set of assumptions and steps of argumentation leading to a conclusion. Even if many philosophers can do this intuitively, this allows laymen to think more clearly about these topics. Analytic Philosophy has also eased the process of incorporating complex forms of logic into philosophical arguments, as we will see when we discuss contemporary versions of the Ontological Argument. Using the refined tools of Analytic Philosophy and the recognition that there are multiple versions of arguments, philosophers were able to reformulate troublesome assumptions and logical steps in order to achieve more successful proofs.

Arguments and Proofs

The traditional type of argument for God’s existence is formulated as a proof. By the term “Proof” (capitalized) I mean a conclusive argument that proceeds logically from premises to a conclusion, what is technically called a Deductive Argument. To give the classic example:
1. All men are mortal
2. Socrates is a man
3. Therefore Socrates is mortal.
Such a proof is expected to be conclusive and it fails if any of its premises or arguments are shown to be questionable. Not only must the argument be valid, i.e. flow logically, it must also be sound in the sense of each argument being true. A valid and sound deductive argument is a successful Proof.

However, there are other types of arguments for God’s existence that might not be conclusive or deductive. It could be that the conclusion probably follows from the premises or that it seems reasonable to reach this conclusion from various facts. While these do not satisfy the high standards of the Proof, they are still worthwhile arguments that can inform the religious worldview and imply the rationality of a belief in God’s existence. A non-conclusive proof that is good is still an “Argument,” even if it is not sufficiently definitive to be considered a “Proof.”

Stephen Davis (God, Reason & Theistic Proofs, pp. 1-8) discusses an important result of the above. There can be a Proof that utilizes an assumption that is debatable. This certainly precludes the argument from being a successful Proof because it is refutable. However, if we look at it differently it could still be a successful Argument. Consider the following:

  1. Prayers are answered
  2. Only an existing God can answer prayers
  3. Therefore God exists.
This Proof fails because it has not proven that prayers are answered or that no being other than God can answer prayers. However, if someone is willing to assume those two premises then he has a valid Argument. As long as the premises are stated clearly and the reader can choose whether or not he is willing to accept those unproven assumptions, an Argument can be religiously and philosophically meaningful.

If we can formulate an Argument with assumptions that are more likely than not, then while we do not have a conclusive Proof we have an Argument for the likelihood of God’s existence. But even without this probability, we can allow for a subjective value of Arguments: People who find the assumption compelling will find great meaning in the Argument, while people who find the assumption merely acceptable will not be impressed by the Argument but still accept it; and people who reject the assumption will entirely reject the Argument.

A different strategy is championed by Richard Swinburne, an Oxford philosopher, in his magnum opus The Existence of God. He argues for what he calls the Explanatory Power of Theism, using advanced probability to make his point. If a man shoots an arrow at two targets and either aims for one target or the other, based on which target he hits we can infer which one he aimed at. It isn't certain, because he could have accidentally hit the wrong target. But logic allows us to state which target is more likely to have been the one he aimed at. It allows us to say which scenario is more likely based on the outcome.

Swinburne applies this logic to the existence of God. Given various facts that he discusses at length, does the existence or non-existence of God better explain them? He attempts to show that many failed Proofs of God's existence can be restated in these terms and strongly imply that God exists. The Jewish philosopher George Schlesinger takes this approach and combines it with what we just discussed (see his essay “The Empirical Basis for Belief in God” in Encounter: Torah Views on Science and Its Problems, pp. 400-411). If you accept, for example, that there is a high probability that if God exists He would create people and that there is a low probability that humans would evolve randomly, then you can create an Argument for God’s existence based on the existence of people. God’s existence explains the existence of humans better than evolution explains it – if you accept the premises of the probabilities. In other words, he allows for a subjective evaluation of the probability of God wanting to create humans and then applying it to an Argument in the style of Swinburnes’s Explanatory Power.

Swinburne takes his Explanatory Power model one step further. He combines the multiple Arguments and asks whether God’s existence or non-existence best explains the combination of all of them. He points to the fine-tuning of the the universe in multiple, unrelated areas and says that adding together those probabilities, God’s existence is the theory with the most explanatory power. This approach was enthusiastically embraced by the controversial rabbi, Louis Jacobs (most recenty in his Beyond Reasonable Doubt, p. 99). We have, perhaps, traveled too far off topic and will have to return to all of this in our discussion of the Teleological Argument.

Why Argue?

What all of the above allows is, as R. Kelemen attempts as well, to present Arguments for the rationality and even likelihood of God's existence. But that leaves us with the question that R. Kelemen addresses in the rest of his Introduction: Why should we bother with Proofs or Arguments of God's existence? This is a particularly strong question when we take into account that most people have strong emotional feelings on the subject and abstract philosophizing will not usually make much of an impact on a person's beliefs.

There are a few possible answers to this question. In my opinion, the first is that according to many rabbinic authorities, it is a mitzvah to study this topic and to attempt to prove God's existence. As we will see when discussing specific arguments, leading rabbis throughout the ages – particularly from the medieval era but also continuing to today – engaged in this exercise in various ways.

Additionally, in today's environment we find a growing trend of vocal atheism that tries to discredit religion entirely. This blog was even mentioned in the Wall Street Journal for refusing an ad for an atheist book whose publisher was attempting to advertise and proselytize on religious blogs (see this post). It is important for us to demonstrate that belief in God is rational, contrary to the loud claims of these atheists, for the sake of the self-confidence of members of our own community. Not only is belief in God rational, some argue that it is the most rational conclusion even if it cannot be conclusively proven.


What Is God?

Before we proceed with proofs of God's existence we need to define the subject of our discussion -- God. A fairly simple definition of what we are trying to define is: an eternal, all-powerful Creator. This is by no means comprehensive but it should serve our purposes. What we will find is that not every Proof or Argument we discuss will attempt to prove that God in all of the details of our beliefs exists. Rather, they will try to demonstrate the existence of a Creator and we will fill in the other details based on our belief systems.

Defining God, even in an overly simplified fashion, is complicated by the issue, discussed at length by the Rambam and others, of God's unity not allowing us to divide Him into multiple characteristics. Describing Him, and certainly defining Him, is impossible. However, for our purposes here it is best to set those complications aside, use our simplified above definition and proceed with our topic.

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