(theology/philosophy) Reflections on Whether God Exists

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I'm gradually starting to feel that I'd rather focus for now on posting all kinds of fascinating essays that I'm discovering, and sacrifice -- at least for the moment -- my getting overly involved with all of the threads, which I'm already starting to find is getting to be more and more difficult; and since I'll be off line a chunk of next week -- impossible anyway, during that period.

This controversial little piece is from

Reflections on Whether God Exists

Reflections on Whether God Exists

Tibor R. Machan, Professor of Philosophy, Auburn University

I do not believe that God exists. I am, therefore, an atheist. There are other atheists who claim that God does not exist. I take that to be an unjustified claim because I am not sure what it means, not having a clear idea of what the word "God" means.

There are those who believe in God, although they would not claim that God exists, not at least in any sense of the term "exist," whereby such a claim would have to be backed up by some demonstration, proof, evidence or whatnot. They believe in God and they mean by this that they accept God's existence on faith.

I am not one of those people. I have no faith in God or anything much, although I do trust my friends and colleagues in most matters, as well as most people whose products and services I make use of. Faith, as far as I understand it, is belief in the incredible and while now and then I may believe in the incredible, I regard it as a fault. For example, I once believed that someone I loved very much would come to love me and it was really quite incredible, from what I am now willing to admit about that person, that this should have happened. And I blame myself for not thinking the matter over more clearly, letting some impulse or need dictate my actions instead of clearer thinking on the matter.

When I am asked whether I believe in God, I first ask what "God" means. Then I ask whether what "God" means exists. If I could answer this in the affirmative, or even as a credible proposal, I would believe in God. That is in fact how it went with me when I first seriously considered this issue in my life.

What I am saying about this matter is not something I just came upon or figured out, but there was a time when I was struggling with the issue because I, like so many millions of others, was told by my elders - parents, teachers, priests - that God exists and is watching me and I need to pray to God and I am expected to obey his will, and so forth. So for a long time I just accepted all this. But then, after a while, I started to reflect on what I believe, especially about important things that would guide the rest of my life. And at that point I began to think about the question of God's existence and eventually answered that I could not believe that God exists. But here are some of the details of my thinking as it occurred over 35 years ago, when I was twenty one or so.

In my view, when asked the question about whether God exists, to answer it one needs first to know what the question means. This is so even though we are faced with a very ancient question. Each of us could face the task of attempting to answer it afresh.

To ask whether something exists is to ask whether we have reason to conclude that this something is part of the world that contains whatever exists. Yet in this instance this is a troublesome way to begin because of what "God" is generally taken to mean. By "God" we tend to have in mind something that is not simply of this world, if it exists, but prior to the world, transcending it, and very different from anything of this world. "God" is generally taken to mean a being that is eternal, timeless, omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent. This, at least, is the way the idea "God" has been understood in most monotheistic religions and theological systems.

So now we need to consider what would establish the existence of such a being. Clearly, we could not learn of its existence the way we learn of the existence of beings of this world, namely, by means of experience or inference, the way we learn of the existence of a new species of mice or of black wholes, respectively. Rather, we are often told, what we need to do is believe in the existence of God, independently of experience or inference.

Here is where my first problem arises with our question. I have no clear idea how to form a belief in something that I not only have not experienced but could not experience and am unable to infer from a sound theory. Rational belief formation - for someone whose faculty for learning about the world happens to be rationality (that is, the capacity to experience the world and integrate such experiences into theories from which inferences about possible or probable experiences may be drawn) - does not yield an answer to our question. That is my first and main reason for not believing that God exists. Similarly, I do not believe that ghosts or miracles or extrasensory perception exists.

But with at least extrasensory perception I can imagine that I will come to believe in it because when characterized in certain ways it has some plausibility. Science fiction stories capitalize on this, although often enough they also invoke impossible ideas - that's one reason I have difficulty in taking them seriously and treat them more like fairy tales.

There is another reason why I do not believe God exists and this reason is a bit more decisive. It has to do with the definition of the idea "God" sketched before.

When I was very young I had asked myself the question of whether God could build a rock so large that he could not lift if. It probably wasn't an original question with me but I recall asking it and finding no satisfactory answer because if God could not build such a rock, he would not be omniscient and if he could then he would not be omnipotent. But that was only the beginning. Later, after I studied the various arguments for God's existence and found all of them wanting - the ontological, design, first cause, cosmological and other arguments - and then it was suggested that what I need to do is have faith in God's existence, I considered the problem of evil. This problem may be put simply as "How could there be a being that is all powerful and all good and yet tolerates all the bad things that happen in the world?" Most recently this idea recurred to me when I read about a member of the Detroit Lions football team whose car broke down on the way to the airport where he was planning to board a plane that crashed with over a hundred fatalities. He told the press that "It must have been the good lord who prevented him from getting on the plane." I reflected, admittedly in disgust as well as amazement, how could this man believe that a good lord would save him but tolerate the death of those who did board the plane. At least, I thought, the event should not lead anyone to think that the lord in question was good on account of saving this one man. Such a lord must be extremely capricious, to say the least.

The problem of evil - or, more precisely, the paradox of the existence of an all powerful and all good being alongside a world in which massive injury and hurt to innocent beings obtain - has never been solved to my satisfaction. Nor have I found any sound argument when it comes to trying to establish the existence of God.

I have, of course, been told that one of the achievements of believing that God exists is precisely to believe against all reason, to accept it on pure faith. As I noted before, faith is not the same as trust, which comes from past experience of decency and good will on the part of other persons and even oneself. Faith is acceptance of the impossible - such as a miracle. This point ascribes to ordinary beliefs, based on experience and inference, a quality of under achievement. The idea is that it would count for a lot more to believe in the unbelievable.

Apart from what I have already said - about how it seems to me entirely unreasonable to do such a thing - let me conclude with a point about this issue of taking God's existence on faith that has always struck me as somewhat interesting.

As I said, at age 21 I had struggled personally with the issue of whether God exists. I was not a student of philosophy yet but a member of the United States Air Force and I was concerned about what I should or should not believe about matters of religion. I was raised a Roman Catholic and at this point of my life was trying to make sense of the foundations of my belief. I had a close friend, Father William Novicky, who is still a prominent member of the Roman Catholic clergy in Cleveland, Ohio, who held a Ph.D. in philosophy from Fordham University in New York City. He and I discussed the issue of God's existence by mail and in person, when I visited him. But nothing he told me ever quite clinched the issue.

One night I was performing in a play, Harvey, and I did a very bad job with my lines, partly because I was really worried about the God question. After the play I phoned Father Novicky to tell him how doubtful the idea of God was for me and all he said is "God is putting you through a great test." This was no help since it begged all my questions - I wanted to know why I should believe that God exists before I formed beliefs about what God does to me or anyone else. Late that night I went out on an abandoned runway at Andrews Air Force Base, where I was stationed near Washington, D.C., and I walked around - praying or talking to myself or whatever. As I was talking out loud at one point I looked up and said, somewhat confusedly, "God, forgive me but I cannot believe in you." Why did I reach that resolution? I was indeed confused but by that time also resolute.

Among all the doubts I had it finally also occurred to me that even if in some incomprehensible, mysterious way there is a God, then, if all that is said about his creation of the universe and ourselves is true, God would be insulted if we believed in him. After all, it is supposed to have been God, according to this story, who equipped human beings with a rational mind, the faculty they need most to make a success out of their incredibly complicated and varied lives. Such a being would not commend us if we abdicated and invoked faith instead of reason in reaching such a momentous conclusion as that God exists.

And this is crucial to understanding how I go about this matter. I ask myself whether I ought to believe in some important matter such as God's existence as a matter of faith and answer that it would be wrong - yes, morally wrong - to do so. I would abdicate my role as a rational agent if I believed simply because I wanted to or felt like it would be good or comforting or pleasing to friends or whatever. I need more than that - indeed, in nearly every other realm of life everyone else also believes that more is required. I recall that in 1963, when truth in labeling laws were enacted, I walked past a church in Claremont, California, and saw the big sign, "Jesus Saves," and thought what if we applied the strictures of medicine and product liability law to religion! And I also thought, others may find religion less important than health and nutrition, but I don't, since it aims to address the whole of one's life, guide one in every realm of conduct. I still don't understand why others do not insist on this for themselves. I really don't.

So not only have I no reason to believe that God exists; not only do I suspect that what God is supposed to be is impossible; I also think that if anything like God did exists, He would be offended if we believed in him in the face of lack of experience and theoretically valid inference. In short, believing in God is in violation of those principles of conduct implicit in our human nature, principles that rest, primarily, on the fact that we are all rational animals and can only flourish if we realize the capacity for rationality in our own individual lives, especially when it comes to the most vital questions we need to answer. And if God is our Creator, it would be to betray Him to refuse to use our minds in the matter of his identity and existence, given that He is supposed to be even more important than our actual parents about whose identities we often concern ourselves and in connection with whose identities we consider misinformation extremely disturbing.

There is a final point about this that's worth noting. Some people consider it hubris to render an opinion so contrary to the opinions of the vast majority of human beings throughout history. We should, they hold, trust our fellows' inclinations and not charge ahead with a view so contrary to them. To do so betrays an inflated self-regard, a belief that one is up to dealing with these matters on one's own.

But in fact we are always put in the position of having to make a decision about what the rest of humankind thinks. We have so many different ways of life to choose from that the advice: "Trust others," simply does not help as the central point to heed. It is precisely our human task to choose and sometime this leads us to swim against massive tides. No doubt, our ability to question owes a lot to what we have leanred from others - as individuals we have very few facts about the world that we know on our own, without help, but still, there are something bits and pieces of stuff that gives us veto power.

So not only don't I believe God exists but I consider it morally suspect when people believe that He does exists. This does not mean that I never reconsider the issue - I am committed to doing that both personally and professionally. But thus far I have not seen any reason to embrace belief in God's existence and I admit not being able to fathom doing so very soon. It seems to me, also, that this is the right approach to take for me - anything else would be self-betrayal, going directly against my identity as the human individual who I am.

As to what I think about religion to date, I believe W. Somerset Maugham expressed it well when he tried to address the topic at age 43: "I have read much philosophy, and though I do not see how it is possible to refuse intellectual assent to certain theories of the Absolute, I can find nothing in them to induce me to depart from my instinctive disbelief in what is usually meant by the word religion. I have little patience with the writers who try to reconcile in one conception the Absolute of the metaphysician with the God of Christianity. But if I had had any doubts, the [First World] war would have effectually silenced them." (A Writer's Notebook, p. 145)

-- eve (eve_rebekah@yahoo.com), July 01, 2000


In common sense terms...Nothing can be created without a Creator!

Look at all the creations in this world.....they are extremely complex and totally amazing. Look at how amazing every part of your body was created. Look at your hand and see how versatile and how cleverly it was created and how extemely movable all the joints are to give you the most efficiency! Your hand was created with great intelligence! And so is every thing else!

All these creations totally refute the beliefs of the atheists.

The atheists don't have a leg to stand on.

Without a Creator nothing would be possible!

You can bet on it that there is a God!

-- ... (...@...com), July 01, 2000.


Your argument would be fairly persuasive. But then wouldn't you see a creator such as this as the greatest creation of all? If so, then:

Who made God?

-- eve (eve_rebekah@yahoo.com), July 01, 2000.

Who made God?

You can ask Him when you see Him.

-- God says: I Am (Every Knee Will Bow@Heaven.com), July 01, 2000.

God says,

Do you mean you KNOW I'll see Him -- or that you BELIEVE I'll see Him, based on what you've read?

Either way, do you think this would be your position if a book didn't suggest it to you? Why or why not?

-- eve (eve_rebekah@yahoo.com), July 01, 2000.

Eve, you make creation complicated, when in fact it is very simple.

Just look around you and see all the creations. That is absolute proof there is a Creator. You worry about who created God. Why worry about something we could not possible comprehend?

When you look at the immense vastness of the Universe, and the billions of light years it takes for us to see all these galaxies through the Hubble Telescope, most likely there are billions of Gods. Perhaps we can become Gods as well, and this life on Earth is merely a training experience to higher things to come for us.

The Bible tells us we were created in his image. I'm betting we also have a Mother in Heaven. Why would God want to be all alone? Maybe he has several wives. Anything is possible.

-- ... (...@...com), July 01, 2000.

>> Without a Creator nothing would be possible! <<

You seem to have combined the Argument from First Cause, and the Argument from Design into one rather vague mush.

The Argument from First Cause was first made explicit by Aristotle in the fourth century BC. It more or less runs like this. Everything we can observe in the universe has an antecedent cause. Without cause and effect, the concept of time becomes meaningless. Since we know time exists, and cause and effect exist, therefore they must have a beginning, a First Cause that has no antecedent cause. This first cause can only be identified as God.

The Argument from Design (as I understand) was first made explicit by a Bishop (whose name I forget) who was writing in the eighteenth century AD. The argument goes more or less like this. When we see an object, such as a watch or a clock, we know that it was designed by an intelligent being. If we were to see an object of equal complexity where we are not familiar with the origin, we would feel confident to assign its creation to an intelligent Creator who was capable of designing and creating that article. The universe, as revealed by Newton, is of great complexity and regularity similar to a clockworks. Clearly it has an intelligent designer. We must eliminate the possibility that the universe was created by anything within the universe, or of lesser magnitude than the universe, therefore we must believe in an intelligent Designer and Creator who is greater than the His own creation. This is God.

These arguments have been very popular. Each of them has weak points, but the Argument from First Cause is a lot stronger than the Argument from Design.

The weakness of the Argument from Design is that it is fundamentally an argument by analogy. The entire stength of an argument by analogy is how closely the two things anaologized resemble one another. In this case, we analogize from a clock and its maker to the whole universe and its maker. But a clock is nothing more than a transformation of matter. The maker of the clock is not required to materialize a clock from nothing. Similarly, the argument identifies complexity with design in all manifestations, and yet it does not establish the validity of this identification, but rather asserts it. Seen in this light, this is not an argument, but an assertion of the conclusion, disguised as an argument.

The Argument from First Cause has a stronger basis. In order to undermine it, one must challenge its major premise. This premise is that an infinite regression of antecedents is not as legitimate a possibility as finite regression of antecedents. It suggests that an inifinite regression is implausible, but does not address why a finite regression is more plausible. It isn't. Both are equally implausible. There is no way of knowing which is more plausible, because our minds cannot conceive either possibility. Aristotle simply attaches the label God to an arbitrary point in the regression and stops the enquiry there. This is not a logical necessity, but merely implies that logic has become exhausted.

The attempt to prove God by logical argument will always fail.

-- Brian McLaughlin (brianm@ims.com), July 01, 2000.


Well, the way you just put it...it's hard to disagree -- that was a pretty cool post, ya know. You have some beautiful visions of the way things could be or might be. Now I think we're more closely aligned than before, as I love to let my imagination soar as well with regard to the possibilities.

-- eve (eve_rebekah@yahoo.com), July 01, 2000.


Well put -- I agree with you. Although there are other, entirely different approaches to God, such as pantheism (God is everything). Yet I still love to try and resolve these apparent contradictions, no matter how futile the resolution may be. But I also like @'s imaginatory approach, as he/she's laid it out in his/her second post. That's another very enjoyable journey for me in my contemplations.

-- eve (eve_rebekah@yahoo.com), July 01, 2000.

Animism teaches that there can be creation and creative energy without there being a need for godhead ora personality/ego driven entity doing the creating(TAO). Animatism teaches that there can be an essential life force giving us vitality without there necessarily needing to be a separate godhead starting said spark(chi,ki,pranya,or bio-electricity)Indeed the notion of any observable phenomena having a definate beginning and ending instead of a constantly changing nature is contrary to what science observes.

-- zoobie (zoobiezoob@yahoo.com), July 01, 2000.

All this intellectualizing gives me a headache. And it proves nothing. Life is short kids. Don't spend much time trying to rationalize the unrationable. Just live. Be good. Be grateful. Be humble. Laugh, love, cry, create, procreate. Don't quibble over how many angels fit on the head of a pin.

-- Lars (lars@indy.net), July 01, 2000.

"Just look around you and see all the creations."

Because we sense it, does that mean it exists?

"That is absolute proof there is a Creator."

Must something be created to exist?

"You worry about who created God. Why worry about something we could not possible comprehend?"

Why is her question not legitimate? What if creation became God? What if God became creation?

-- till (peddle@easy.answers), July 02, 2000.

This guy mirrors my own thoughts. Once I threw off the shackles of religion, I breathed a big sigh of relief and have never felt this burden of being judged by an omnipotent other since. Gawwwd what a relief. I don't need a god to tell me not to lie, cheat, steal and kill.

But of course that's a moot point, for as long as anyone repents of his lying, cheating, stealing and killing, and accepts god as his savior, then they're saved, and will be whisked up to heaven with all the rest of the worthy.

So be bad as you wanna' be, then repent at the last hour, and you're still on the road with the good guys.

-- gilda (jess@listbot.com), July 02, 2000.

Sorry about the sorry grammar--bad sujbject and verb agreement. I was in a hurry to get outside.

Also, thanks eve for this essays. I enjoy all the essays you've posted. Besides it's wonderful to read logic for a change.

..a... "common sense terms????..." I think not. If that's common sense, spare me. Forget the religious dogma, and think outside the box. It's very refreshing.

-- gilda (jess@listbot.com), July 02, 2000.

>> Don't spend much time trying to rationalize the unrationable. <<

Actually, it doesn't take very long to collect all the attempts to "prove" the existance of God and to figure out where they fall over flat. This helps to "clear your mind of cant", as Dr. Sam Johnson was fond of telling young people.

I have long felt that it's a good thing to examine all the precepts that come to me clothed as imperatives - things I'm told I must do or think, or else. The Christian religion is a dominating force in the social life of the USA, and there is a fundamentalist strain of that religion that employs a whole arsenal of devices to legitimate a lot of imperatives. al-d makes a fair representative of the love-drunk wing of this Christian tradition.

As an American, the task of confronting this way of thought was imposed on me by its ubiquity. Just dismissing it out of hand wasn't an option for me. That's too weak an answer for someone who, like me, respects debate and argument as methods for sifting truth. I had to construct a wall of sound reasoning between me and it.

It may take a bit longer to build, but it lasts and makes for a much more comfortable intellectual environment in the long run.

-- Brian McLaughlin (brianm@ims.com), July 02, 2000.

[Look at all the creations in this world.....they are extremely complex and totally amazing.]

Backwards arguments constitute a logical error, but always look appealing, especially when they conform to our preferences.

Here's a fairly simple illustration. Take a ball and toss it into the air. Let it drop and come to rest somewhere. The probability of that ball coming to rest *somewhere* is unity - it's sure to happen every time.

However, since the number of *precise* locations where that ball could have come to rest is infinite, the probability of it stopping wherever it did is infinitesimal. Infinitely unlikely outcomes don't happen by chance, do they? Of COURSE not! Therefore, that ball was placed wherever it stopped *by design*, and we just witnessed a miracle!

Similarly, the "extremely complex and totally amazing" reality we see around us is simply one of an infinite number of possible realities, ANY ONE of which is infinitely unlikely, but ONE of which is guaranteed! By extension, there is an infinite number of possible worlds containing totally different self-aware "people", and ALL of them could look around themselves and be convinced there must have been a "creator", using this same backwards logic.

I guess probability theory isn't taught in grade school...

-- Flint (flintc@mindspring.com), July 02, 2000.

I have reached a stage where I don't have the time or energy to ponder such questions. I think they are unanswerable. I feel no need to figure out the nature of things. For me, such intellectualizations are a recreation and not a very fulfilling one at that.

I accept that we live in a mystery wrapped in an enigma. I have finally realized that life is more to be lived than to be examined.

What's that, "the unexamined life is not worth living"? Yeah, I buy that but only up to a point. I am here after all. At this place, are we living or examining? I would say both.

-- Lars (lars@indy.net), July 02, 2000.

Good stuff all around. I feel a part of all of your beliefs are within myself-this makes sense to me, as I feel we are all one, anyway. I have never heard a sound argument that rationality was the only way to understand the world-I also have never read a "proof" that in order for something to be "real" it must be able to be written out in some kind of equation. This is why I have a problem with positing science/math as the be all, and end all, of inquiry. There is absolutely no need to prove the existence or non-existence of God. Lars has part of this right-live life, love life-but one can live an "examined" life and have all the benefit of living that life- they are not mutually exclusive.

My pet theory lately is that we are all "right"; the atheist and the person drunk on God are both right. Does this lead to an entirely subjective universe? Maybe. More will be revealed.

-- FutureShock (gray@matter.think), July 02, 2000.

Lars, Future Shock, I agree with both of you too. It really doesn't matter. This is a lovely planet, and that's good enough for me.

-- gilda (jess@listbot.com), July 02, 2000.

GOD ,look,s at your heart=attitude---not your brain!!! from book of proverb,s-->lean not to your OWN=understanding!! like as if denying=GOD, WILL MAKE =ACCOUNTABILITY=go away!! like gilda say,s=take all the blessing,s-blow off the =BLESSER!! GILDA=SPREAD YOUR POISON=TIL THE CUP IS FULL=THEN YOU GET TO DRINK IT!!

-- al-d. (dogs@zianet.com), July 02, 2000.

Once more Al Driscol does satan's work by portraying christianity as a crackpot's religion.

-- saved and sane (ch2298@att.net), July 02, 2000.

I ran across this old scribble when posting to FS's poetry thread. For me it's of historical interest. I remember writing it in a time of frustration while sitting in a library studying for my master's degree at night school. I'm not saying that hard work and rigorous self-improvement are wrong but I knew I was living in misproportion and THAT was wrong. Please be gentle, this is one of my first jingles.


Bright flows the time

without a pause but with a pace

that allows love and reflection

Sit not in carrels nor toil in stone buildings

Put on the colored coat

and highstep your parade

to life everlasting

-- Lars (lars@indy.net), July 03, 2000.


If an omnipotent God did exist, it follows that he would be infinitely good since all things evil are self-destructive or suicidal in their extreme. (Kind of like a Midas touch: that is, lies ruin language, hence ruining the vehicle for lies. Murder by living beings destroys life. Slavery enslaves the master. Theft obviates what the theif wants: property....) Given trillions of years of cosmic evolution, one would suspect that any evil (hypothetically) in the Divine would have long run its course of auto-nullification, leaving nothing behind but pure Being and Reality that is Love. I say "love" because somehow we seem able to choose whether or not we want to pay attention to this Being.

I don't think God can rationally be proven--but then again few things are ever "proven." Ultimately you have to make an untestable assumption that makes intuitive sense. For me it is that there is a First Cause that is beyond time and both imminent and transcendent. Call it God if you will. The way the universe appears to me can be readily explained by a God--it is more difficult on an intuitive level to (though ultimately just as rational) believe that we are nothing that came from Nothing, and that all we are is a ripple of order in an ocean of chaos. For chaos to exist in the first place, there needs to be a referent of Order.

Anyway, i'm tired, time for bed. g'night.

-- coprolith (jacothecat@yahoo.com), July 09, 2000.

g'night coprolith. And thanks.

-- Debra (...@....), July 10, 2000.

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