2.1. Standard proofs

If we want to make this a serious as well as an honest investigation, then before starting the argument that I think actually does establish the existence of something infinite, we ought to take a look at the attempts that have been made throughout history, both to prove that God exists, and to prove either that he doesn't, or that there's no need for a God, and see if any of them work.

So we won't yet be making much use of the elaborate apparatus we came up with in the preceding chapter, but just of the general concept that a cause is something necessary to make sense out of what otherwise would be a contradiction. If some alleged "effect" turns out not to be a contradiction between facts, then the desire that it have a "cause" is not enough to establish that it has one.

For instance, God is not the cause explaining why anything exists at all, unless you can show what it is that is self-contradictory in saying that there is something rather than nothing--and frankly, I defy you to do that. Not to mention that, since God exists, he would on this showing "need a cause." No, the fact that something exists is just a fact, and facts by themselves need no explanation; it is only if the facts contradict each other as known that they need explaining. In other words, not every "why" question is a real "why" question.

Also, as we will see in many of the arguments that follow, if it is possible to explain the effect discovered without resorting to an infinite being, then despite the fact that an infinite being could be the causer of the particular effect, It would not be necessary to explain the effect, and so the existence of an infinite being would not be proved.

I thought it would be a good idea to give the standard arguments first and show that in fact they don't prove the existence of an infinite being, because the argument I am going to give--the only one I think is valid--is quite complex (in fact, you might find it mind-boggling), and you might wonder why bother with something so arcane when there are simple ways of arriving at the same conclusion. Obviously, you should resort to the complicated procedure only if the simple ones don't prove what they say they prove.

I hasten to add that I'm not going to try to give all of the proofs on both sides offered throughout history; that would be a multi-volume book in itself. Further, it's not really necessary, if what we are interested in is the question of whether an infinite being exists or not, since some of the "proofs" are simply silly, and others are variations on a few standard arguments. So what I'm doing here is boiling down the arguments into several, as it were, "model" arguments, making out the best case for each by modernizing some of the ancient ones with scientific facts that were unknown to the original formulators; and then seeing if the argument thus "fixed up" can prove what it says it proves. You will, of course, have to take my word for it that when I modify some famous historical argument, I am strengthening it and not setting up a "straw man" that I can easily knock down.

Let us, then, in this chapter take up the standard proofs for God's existence.


You should be advised that the burden of proof is on the person who claims that God exists. If the world makes sense without assuming that there is an infinite being, then a rational person would take it that there is no infinite being.

Why? Just because of the nature of cause and effect, as I said just above. If you want to claim that God is somehow the cause (or causer, but at least contains the cause) of something (or everything) that goes on in the observable universe, it follows by definition that the universe without God is a contradiction of one sort or another. That's what you mean by an effect. Hence, if the universe makes sense by itself, then there is no cause of it. You can't have it both ways. You can't say that the universe makes sense without God and God causes (is necessary to make sense out of) the universe.

2.2. Where did you come from?

The first argument, I think, should be the one you have probably heard in discussions of the question: the "origins argument," or the "Where did you come from?" argument. It generally takes the form of a dialogue between a believer and a non-believer, and it goes more or less this way:

Believer: Where did you come from?

Non-believer: My parents, of course.

Believer: And where did they come from?

Non-believer: Their parents.

Believer: Well, where did the first set of your ancestors come from?

Non-believer: From some pre-human animal.

Believer: And where did that come from?

Non-believer: Well, ultimately from the first living organism.

Believer: And that?

Non-believer: From the pre-living conditions on the earth.

Believer: And where did the earth come from?

Non-believer: Probably from material from a star that passed close to the sun.

Believer: Then where did that star come from?

Non-believer: From the coagulation of interstellar hydrogen.

Believer: And the hydrogen.

Non-believer: It was just there.

Believer: You see, I've got you. It had to come from something.

Non-believer: Why?

Believer: Because everything has to come from something.

Non-believer: Then what do you say it came from?

Believer: It came from God.

Non-believer: Oh? And what did God come from?

Believer: God didn't come from anything. He always was and always will be.

Non-believer: Well, if everything has to come from something, then God had to come from something. And if not everything has to come from something, why can't it be my interstellar hydrogen rather than your God?

Obviously, the "proof" as it stands proves nothing, because its premise (that "everything had to come from something") makes it a contradiction to stop anywhere.

So unless the believer can show (a) just what it is about the things he asks about that demands that they "come from something," (i.e. what it is about them that is a contradiction unless their origin was caused), and (b) that the interstellar hydrogen has this contradiction, and God does not have it, the "argument" is invalid.

This is not to say that this cannot be done. There do seem to be some suggestive points in its favor. For instance, if something begins to exist without having existed before, this does look as if it can't be self-explanatory. How could it have brought itself out of non-existence? Even if it is only a re-configuration of already existing material, this particular configuration can't account for how it got to be what it is; that has to be accounted for by condition of the material it came out of. So it does look as if it doesn't make sense to say that something that came into existence didn't "come from" something other than itself. That doesn't mean it came from God, of course.

But if you push the argument back another step, then you're in the "big bang" view of the origin of the whole universe (i.e. all the material that everything "came from"). And if you want to make sense, you can't just stop, as some physicists do, and say, "Well, we don't question this. It just happened."

That's irrational. Why? Because if the first moment of the universe-as-we-know-it was an explosion, this means that the material was unstable. But what is unstable is by definition in a self-contradictory condition: it can't exist this way, and destroys the form it's in, and reconfigures itself into something that can exist (in this case-high-energy radiation, which gradually interacts with itself and forms protons and electrons, which form the interstellar hydrogen, which then collects into starts and galaxies).

Now either the material of the whole universe (1) suddenly came into existence, and was not a reconfiguration of preexisting material, in which case, it clearly had to "come from something" that could bring something absolutely into existence--for which God sounds like a likely candidate--or (2) it came from a preexisting material in equilibrium, in which case (since equilibrium remains the same unless it is disturbed from outside) something other than the material we now call "the universe" disturbed it and made it explode--but this need not be something infinite, or something that people call God, because a tiny shock can make stable nitroglycerine explode, for instance--or (3) it came from the collapse of the preceding phase of the universe, which alternately expands and collapses for all eternity.

This last point would imply that the universe as a whole is basically in a kind of "oscillating equilibrium," much like a perfect pendulum, with energy neither leaving nor entering it, and so not really changing. This is just its activity, much as your heartbeat is how you maintain your stability, and does not really need an external cause.

The problem with it, however, is that the General Theory of Relativity, on which the "big bang" theory rests, predicts that the universe will oscillate in this way only if the total mass is beyond a certain point; and there doesn't seem to be that much mass in the universe. Now it could be either that (a) Einstein's theory is off, or (b) the mass is there, but just not observable by us. Still, the fact is that, based on what we can observe, the universe seems to have come into existence at a definite point in time, and be expanding without limit. This would militate against the self-sufficiency of the universe.

Well, when all is said and done, where have we got in the analysis of this argument? First of all, as it stands it proves nothing. Secondly, even when you fix it up with the physics of the "big bang," it doesn't prove that there's an infinite being, because there are other alternatives, including the possibility of an oscillating universe, which needs no external cause at all, let alone an infinite one.

I should say that the universe's coming suddenly into being is consistent with its being brought into existence by an infinite being; it's just that there are other possibilities, so there's no proof here.

On the other hand, note that the possibility of the (self-sufficient) oscillating universe supposes that there exists something (the amount of mass) that has not been observed, so you can't say that the universe as we know it to be makes sense by itself. So there's no proof here either that God didn't bring the universe into being or that you don't need a God to explain the universe's origin. The reason for this last statement is that if in fact there isn't the right amount of mass, then you need some external cause, and it's not obvious that anything short of an infinite being could do the job.

CONCLUSION: The evidence here does not prove that there is an infinite being, nor that there is no infinite being; but it strongly indicates that there is something beyond the universe as observed, and more weakly suggests that this something is probably greater than anything in the universe or even than the whole universe.

2.3. The need to believe

Another "rough-and-ready" argument comes from William James, who as a pragmatist holds that truth is "what works," or what makes your life make sense. The idea here is that many, many people think that their life is just meaningless and absurd unless there is a God, and makes sense and so on if they suppose that God exists and is watching over them and will ultimately "wipe every tear from their eyes," as Revelation says. By his criterion of truth, then, God must exist. That is, if there wasn't a God, we'd have to invent one, or human life wouldn't be bearable. Therefore, there is a God.

The trouble with this is that you can find other people who find life unbearable and absurd if there is a God, and who seem to have a need to believe in the non- existence of a God. So by this criterion of truth, you would have to say that for them, there is no God. But there can't both be and not be a God.

There is a kernel of truth in the "argument," in that contradictions can't exist. But what that means is that facts can't contradict themselves. The "contradiction" in the cases in question here, however, is not between facts, but between the facts and the ideal you have of the "right" or "meaningful" life--the life you would like to see exist. That is, when you say, "My life is meaningless unless there is a God," what you are really saying is, "I can't live the kind of life I want to live if there isn't a God (who will reward my virtue, or whatever)."

But this ideal is created subjectively by abstraction from and rearrangement of real situations (by using your imagination, in other words), and is not itself a fact; it is just an idea you made up. But if reality contradicts an idea you made up, there is no contradiction between the facts, and so no argument can be made from it.

Otherwise, the fact that there are people whose lives are made meaningful and so on if there are witches or horoscopes, or Santa Claus, or the Great Pumpkin, or all sorts of things would force us to say that all these things really exist. So the fact that people have a need to believe doesn't prove that what they need to believe exists.

Nevertheless, at a deeper level, there is also something suggestive here. The argument goes this way: Human beings have no goal for their lives built-in by nature (as other animals and plants seem to have); a human being cannot avoid setting his own goals for himself and trying to reach them, simply because, when confronted with alternative possible courses of action that you are aware of, you cannot avoid making a choice among them (even to choose not to choose is a choice--the choice to let circumstances dictate what will happen).

Now once you do set a goal for yourself, this sets up an unstable condition within you (an internal contradiction), which prevents your continuing to exist as you now are, and makes you move in the direction of the goal--just as letting go of a ball you are holding makes it unstable and incapable of staying at that height, and so it immediately falls to the ground, which is its equilibrium energy-level (its "natural" condition, to have the lowest amount of energy possible).

The point here is that there is a real internal contradiction involved in instability, which is resolvable only at the goal (the equilibrium) the instability points toward: it is impossible for an unstable thing to exist in its unstable condition; it must move out of it toward equilibrium. (Of course, it can be forced to stay in the condition by some external cause, as when you hold the ball up, keeping it from losing its excess energy. But that doesn't affect what I am saying here.)

The second step is to say that the process toward the goal makes no sense if the goal is impossible to achieve. Why? Because the goal is the state that removes the internal contradiction in the changing being; and if it can't exist, then the changing being cannot in principle get out of a state that contradicts itself. But contradictions don't exist, because in the last analysis, contradictions are nonsense, ways we have of speaking gibberish; apparent contradictions are always effects.

But what this means in the human case is that, since there is no natural goal for the human organism, its only goal is the (complex) one put there by the person's choices. But if it is in principle impossible for the human to achieve his goals, then his life contradicts itself.

But even when a person achieves an important goal of his, he is not really at the goal, because he does not want to lose the success he has achieved; so his goal implies, "I want to do X and I want to keep doing X."

Now since human beings die, their goals in this sense are in principle impossible to achieve, unless there is a life after death in which they are able to be fulfilled.

Stating the argument this way, then, it looks as if there is an actual contradiction in human life if human life ends with death--whether or not any given person actually wants to live forever.

Now of course, all this argument (if it is valid) proves is that there is a life after death such that a person's goals can in principle be achieved, not necessarily that (a) all goals of a person (some of which themselves may be self-contradictory) have to be achieved, nor (b) any goal necessarily has to be actually achieved; it is enough for the argument if it is possible to achieve at least some goals after death.

The argument as it stands does prove an afterlife. It could be refuted if you could show (a) that instability is not a contradiction with an in principle impossible goal, or (b) that choices do not set up real instabilities in a person, or (c) that death does not make it in principle impossible for the instabilities to have a realizable goal. I don't see any evidence that would establish any of these three propositions--which doesn't mean there isn't any; but if you're going to deny the conclusion, then you have to state what the evidence is.

In any case, this argument, though it proves an afterlife, does not prove that there is a heaven, still less that there has to be an infinite being governing the afterlife-condition, whatever it is. It is consistent with there being a heaven and a God who rewards good people by fulfilling their ambitions; but it doesn't prove that there is one.

I should point out that I know of no person who thinks that life goes on after death who does not also believe in some kind of a God who is running things. But that does not mean that the evidence for an afterlife establishes the existence of a God. The afterlife could, for instance, just be a natural psychological state of experiencing oneself as the kind of person one has chosen to be, now that one does not have the body interacting with a world to force one to "wake up," as it were, from this self-contained mental condition. That would fulfill the needs of the argument, without implying any kind of "reward for doing good."

CONCLUSION: The "argument" from the need to believe of itself proves absolutely nothing; but the more subtle argument from the goal-setting nature of human beings does prove that life must somehow continue after death, in such a way that at least some goals of some people can be achieved. But this does not imply that there is an infinite being.

2.4. The moral argument

There is another argument that sounds a good deal like the one just discussed, except that it tries to make out a case that acting immorally is a contradiction unless basically there is punishment in an afterlife, presumably administered by an all-seeing God who is just.

The argument (in a nutshell; it's pretty complex) goes this way:

A morally wrong act is an act which is inconsistent with the person acting. For example, stealing is taking something that doesn't belong to you, which means acting as if it belonged to you when it doesn't. Murder is acting as if the victim had no right not to be killed when in fact he does. Lying is stating as if it were a fact what is known not to be a fact. And so on.

Now then, an immoral choice is the deliberate choice to do an act that you think is morally wrong; hence it is a deliberate attempt to do something that contradicts itself in some way. This implies that, in some respect, you want the act to be different from what you know it really is. For instance, the liar, since he wants to be believed, needs the other person to take what he's saying as a fact; and he would clearly prefer that the other person would do so because it really is a fact, since (among other things) in that way he would not be found out. But of course, the lie does not just communicate the opposite of a fact; it also has other (desirable) effects on the other person (you cheat on an exam, the teacher thinks you know the subject, and he gives you an A). You would prefer to get the A by writing down the known answers, but you don't know them, so you pretend that you do.

The point here is that there is some aspect of the goal you want to achieve in such a choice that is in principle impossible, because it is a contradiction. This may not be the most important aspect to you; but since the morally wrong act contradicts itself in some respect, there will always be this greater or lesser impossible aspect to the goal.

But having a goal that you can't achieve is the definition of frustration. So every immoral choice involves a deliberately self-induced frustration in some respect; you are deliberately trying to do something that in some respect you know you can't do (but can only pretend you are doing).

It would seem, then, that you are necessarily worse off for choosing to do wrong than in choosing to do the right thing. But, of course, it's not that simple. Take cheating. It's frustrating to cheat to get an A in a course (because of the lie involved); but it's also frustrating to take a course that you can't pass--which might mean that you don't get your degree, and so the career you have set your heart on. And it may be that you can't pass the course, for some reason, unless you cheat.

In the real world, it is very often a good deal less frustrating to choose to do what is morally wrong than to choose the right thing and be frustrated by circumstances beyond your control. So in this case, the more rational thing to do is the wrong thing.

But that means that the reasonable thing to do is to do what violates, in some respect, your own reality--which clearly is not reasonable. It can't be reasonable to set a goal for yourself that you know you can't achieve. It's only that it's more unreasonable to allow yourself to be frustrated by circumstances you have no control over (when you can avoid the great frustration by making the immoral choice). These situations can often even be life-and-death ones. You might "have" to lie to avoid having someone kill you; you might "have" to kill someone to avoid having Darth Vader kill your wife and children; and so on.

Thus, why should anyone do anything except seek his own advantage? But this means that Stalin and Saddam Hussein did what is rational for a human being to do in their circumstances; they tortured and killed hundreds or even millions of people so that they could live in luxury. And because of people like this, those of us who don't happen to be lucky enough to succeed by destroying others get to be the destroyed, and are forced into an inhuman state of existence that we can't get out of (even if we make immoral choices).

This is how life makes the most sense?

But this is the conclusion you would have to come to unless there is a life after death, such that you are worse off for making an immoral choice than any (temporary) harm that could come to you from doing the right thing.

Hence, either it is stupid for a human being to act in a human way, or there is a life after death. But how can it be rational for a human being to act inhumanly? Hence, either human conduct can make no sense, or there is a life after death such that immoral conduct will be punished with a punishment great enough to make it always worse than doing the right thing.

Now then, in a smaller nutshell, it can be shown (and I'm not going to do it here) that choices, like all conscious acts, have no quantity (or degree), and hence are not forms of energy, and so are not subject to the "running down" aspect of energy, and further need not cease to act when the body disintegrates.

It can also be shown that once a conscious act is made, it can be (temporarily) forgotten by not sending energy into the nerves associated with it, but it can't actually be erased. And once the brain stops acting, then either all consciousness goes out of existence, or all one's conscious acts become conscious together, in a way that is no longer capable of changing (because you need energy to change).

If this is the case, then immoral choices a person made before death are part of his conscious state after death, and so eternally after death the person is striving to do something that he knows he can't do (because the immoral choice points to a known impossible goal). So the immoral person is necessarily frustrated eternally after he dies, by the mere fact that he has made the immoral choice. And, of course, a small frustration that can never be removed is always greater than a frustration or suffering, however great, that stops after a while.

So this argument leads to the conclusion that there is a life after death such that if you set in principle impossible goals for yourself you will be eternally frustrated. But, though it also proves that there is an afterlife, it does not prove that there is a God who will punish you for violating "his will"; the punishment is, on this theory, just the natural consequence of making the immoral choice in the first place--in fact, it is the choice with its impossible goal.

Now of course, this argument in this form is extremely complex, and, while as it stands it is valid, it is possible that new evidence might come to light which would establish (a) that there is a way in which in this life it is always advantageous for a human to do the human thing (that "honesty--in this life--is always the best policy"). I must say that people have been trying to find this for millennia without any great success. Or (b) that there is no contradiction in choosing a morally wrong act; or (c) that choices cannot survive death, that in fact they are nothing but energy; or (d) that life does not go on unchangingly after death--and a number of other points. But absent evidence that can establish any of this, then the argument does prove a life after death.

I might add that if you take this together with the one in the preceding section, the two tend to reinforce each other, because both establish that there is a life after death: the preceding one implies that somehow, non-self-contradictory choices will find (conscious) fulfillment, and this one adds that if you deliberately choose an impossible goal, you're stuck with the unfulfillable striving.

But neither argument, nor both together, proves the existence of a God. They are, of course, consistent with a God who "created" us human and free and therefore wishes us to fulfill our real selves and not to violate our humanity, and who "punishes" us by allowing our immoral choices to have their eternal consequences. But it's also consistent with their being no God at all, and just the eternal, conscious existence after death.

CONCLUSION: So this argument again proves that there is a life after death, but does not prove that there is any Supreme Being connected with this afterlife.

2.5. The "ontological argument"

The next argument has an interesting history. It was first proposed around the year 1000 by St. Anselm, in whose monastery the monks asked for a "simple way to prove God's existence." It immediately caused all kinds of controversy, and was rather decisively refuted by St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. René Descartes revived a version of it around 1600, and Gottfried Leibniz seconded him about a century later, only to have Immanuel Kant refute it again around 1800, with the additional claim that all arguments for God's existence surreptitiously used some form of this invalid argument (Kant was the one who called it the "ontological argument"), and so were invalid; but right after Kant, Georg Hegel agreed that all arguments for God's existence were versions of or involved this one, and it was valid. In this century, the "linguistic analyst" school of philosophy again refuted it, using a kind of modern variation of St. Thomas's refutation; but recently (in the 1980's) Alvin Plantinga has revived it again, refuting the analysts' refutation.

Obviously, it's tricky. You have some of the greatest minds in the world on both sides of it.

In itself, however, it's simple; and even though at first blush it seems obviously invalid, when you try to see just what is wrong with it, it tends to slip away from you and refute your refutation.

It goes this way (I'll include some objections and an Anselmian kind of answer to them): The believer is actually proving the psalmist's line, "The fool says in his heart, 'There is no God.'" The idea is that if you hold that there isn't a God, you're a fool, because you contradict yourself.

So the believer says to the unbeliever, "You believe there is no God. Now what I mean by God is 'something so great that nothing greater can be conceived.' Do you understand that?"

(If the unbeliever says that something like that is inconceivable, the answer is, "Obviously, you misunderstand. Nothing greater than this can be conceived; but it can be conceived; it is the upper limit of conceivability, the greatest conceivable something. But the greatest conceivable has to be conceivable.") "Do you understand what the words mean?"

When the unbeliever says he does, but that he doesn't think that such a thing exists, Anselm's monks then continue, "Then, since you have this concept, this "greatest conceivable" exists at least in your mind, because you're thinking about it.

"Now is it greater to exist in the mind and in reality than to exist just in the mind?" If the unbeliever says there's no difference, then Anselm would ask, "Is something real greater than nothing?" If he says Yes, then "Something real, then, is greater than something merely imaginary, because as far as reality is concerned, what's imaginary is nothing." If the unbeliever says, "Well, all right," Anselm pounces.

"Then if you admit that it's greater to be real than merely imaginary, and you say that the 'greatest conceivable' is merely imaginary, you are not thinking of the greatest conceivable something, because you can think of it as also real, which is greater. The imaginary "greatest conceivable" is so far short of being the greatest thing it is possible to conceive, that thinking of any real thing is to think of something greater.

"Therefore, if you can think of the 'greatest conceivable' something, you can't think of it as not existing without contradicting yourself. In other words, if you say God doesn't exist, you're a fool."

Now if you think there's something fishy here, you're right. The mere fact that you can think of something doesn't make it exist. But Anselm would counter, "Granted, if you think of 'the absolutely beautiful island' that doesn't mean that there is an absolutely beautiful island, because the island has the same beauty if it's imaginary or if it's real. But if you remove existence from 'the absolutely greatest conceivable object,' then you're obviously thinking of it without existence, which is to think of what is less than 'the greatest conceivable object.'"

Actually, the argument is invalid in the point that seems most obviously true: the statement that it's greater to exist than not to exist, and therefore, when you think of something as existing, you're thinking of something greater than thinking of that same thing as not existing. Oddly enough, that doesn't follow.

To see why this is so, we will have to go into a quite complex analysis--which we will do in a later chapter--of what we mean by saying that something "exists," which will turn on what grounds we have for saying that something exists. But not to leave this hanging in the air, I will oversimplify for now and say that what we mean by saying that some definite something exists is that either directly or indirectly, our minds are being acted on by it (i.e. it is the cause of some specific effect in our consciousness).

So, St. Thomas and the linguistic analysts are correct when they say that existence is not a quality things have, like intelligence, or color, which makes the thing itself greater if it has it and less if it doesn't. "Existence" is simply the abstraction of the fact that the thing is acting on me, and I am not making it up.

Obviously, then, when Anselm asks me to think of the "greatest conceivable," I make up the concept of "the upper limit of conceivability." Hence, I know that insofar as this is simply due to my mind fooling around with combining concepts, this being cannot be said to exist, precisely because the reason I have this idea at this time is not because some external object is forcing me to experience it (which is the grounds for saying "X exists"), but because I have spontaneously created it.

Now of course, this doesn't prove that there can't be such a being, because (under other circumstances) there is nothing to prevent such a being (if there is one) from acting on my mind either directly or indirectly (as the cause of something I directly experience).

Hence, this "greatest conceivable" is simply problematic. The argument actually proves nothing at all, because it misunderstands why we use the phrase "X exists."

As I say, we will have to visit this question of when we can say X exists and what you therefore mean by "X exists" later.

CONCLUSION: This argument is invalid. It neither proves anything, nor is it suggestive one way or the other about God.

2.5.1. Descartes' version

René Descartes had a slightly different take on this argument, which involves a kind of causality. It goes like this:

I recognize that I am imperfect, because I doubt, and I want to know, not doubt, and hence to doubt is to lack knowledge I ought to have. And as I look at myself, I recognize that everything about me is imperfect.

But to know that I am "imperfect" implies that I know what "perfect" means, because "imperfect" is simply the negation of "perfect." But if I and everything I can observe are all imperfect, where did I get the notion of "perfect"? I couldn't have given it to myself, nor could anything else I can observe have given it to me. The only way I could have gotten it is by having it planted in my mind by something perfect. Therefore, there is a perfect being, and this is what people call God.

The reason this is invalid is that, though the word is the negation of the word "perfect," it doesn't follow that you have to know perfection in order to get the concept (any more than you get the notion "not hot" by having a concept of "absolutely--i.e. infinitely--hot." An infinitely hot thing is a contradiction in terms.) Descartes got it from recognizing that he didn't know something that he desired to know; and therefore that he lacked this particular knowledge. Similarly, we know we lack height by noticing that there is a taller person and comparing ourself with this (finite but) greater object.

Then all you have to do is make the abstraction of "lacking" some of X, Y, or Z into the generalized notion of "lacking," and you've got the concept of "imperfection." Then all you have to do is negate that and you've got the abstract notion of "perfection." So it's possible to arrive at the notion of imperfection before you have the notion of perfection, and therefore, it doesn't have to be "infused" into you by a perfect being--and in fact, there doesn't even have to be a perfect being any more than there has to be a being that's "absolutely hot."

CONCLUSION: So not even this version works.

2.6. The argument from design

Another fairly common argument is grossly invalid as usually presented, and seems quite thoroughly refuted by evolution; but on further examination, the very thing that is supposed to refute it turns out to be something that supports it strongly, though it doesn't of itself prove that there is an infinite being.

The usual version of the Argument from Design goes like this:

We see the obvious regularity and systematic action of all sorts of things around us, from the orderly motions of the heavens to the fact that bodies always fall to the ground and inanimate objects act in ways predictable by the laws of physics, that plants and animals also act systematically in reproducing their own kind and growing and so on, as well as interacting together in predictable ways. So there is manifest order in the universe.

But order is rational and disorder is irrational. Hence, order among irrational things can only be accounted for if they are ordered by something rational. Therefore, there must be a rational being, Who has in charge the putting into order of what would otherwise be disordered and random. And this is what people call God.

This seems not only to prove the existence of a Being superior to the universe, but one who is rational (and so in some sense a "personal" being).

The problem comes in saying "order is rational, and disorder is irrational." What that means is that order can be rationally understood, not necessarily that it was produced by something rational. In general, "rational order" in this argument amounts to "what shows constant rather than random behavior." But if a thing has a constant structure underneath its operations, why wouldn't it act constantly, whether it's intelligent or not? In that case, it's not an effect that such a thing (even if unintelligent) would act in a constant way, so there's no need to assert a cause.

Furthermore, unintelligent things sometimes act in a disordered way. In addition to the planets going around the sun, there are comets that don't; and the asteroids and space junk seems to be from the explosion of a planet that used to be there. The animals that reproduce themselves sometimes produce monsters and mutants; and so on. But if God is "the Orderer," why does he produce disorder?

If you say, "Well, this is actually order, but at a deeper level; it just looks like disorder," you contradict the evidence itself. It was because of the observed regularity that you said that there was "order." Hence, observed irregularity contradicts it. If you say that the observed irregularity is just unobserved regularity, you have no retort for the person who says, "The observed regularity is just unobserved randomness."

The fact is that if you leave something with a constant structure alone, the probability is that it would behave constantly as a general rule, but there would be some random variation from this, which is just what is observed. So the mainly-constant-partly-random behavior argues against the Great Orderer rather than the other way around.

So the argument as it stands is invalid; it would be suggestive if there were nothing but order; but given some randomness, it is suggestive in the other direction.

And evolution, as I said, seems to confirm this. Given natural selection (that the better adapted prosper and the worse adapted die off) and random mutation, you can, just by chance, get from the simple beginnings of life to what we have today. And there are analogous scenarios dealing with the evolution of the physical universe from the "big bang" to the emergence of life.

There are, however, several difficulties with this view. In the first place, the driving force of evolution, both physical and biological, is energy; and the basic law of interacting energy is the Second Law of Thermodynamics: that things move from higher-energy states to lower-energy states (dissipating loose energy into the universe) unless forced (by something else that is going from higher to lower energy); and that, statistically, things move from more organized to less organized (more random) states. (That is, the ink drop put into a glass of water colors the whole glassful a faint blue; the blue water never coagulates into a dark blue ink drop in clear water.)

Now once you say this, then you can predict that the universe is going from a higher-energy state (the "big bang") to a lower one--which seems to be verified--but that it should be going from a more organized to a less organized condition. But early on after the explosion, you would have a random distribution of hydrogen gas in the universe. Why would it spontaneously collect itself into stars and systems of galaxies?

Now this is a statistical law, and so it is possible that it could go the opposite way from the one you would expect from the Second Law, just as it's possible for a person without loaded dice to throw a hundred twelves in a row. But if I saw someone do this, I would look very closely at the dice, because it's so improbable. Well, the evolution of the universe as we observe it much more improbable than that.

And when you get into living things, you find that the spontaneous tendency of the living body is to start at a low energy-level, and then move up to a super-high energy-state (which is unstable from the physics and chemistry of the system, as evidenced by the fact that it constantly loses energy and has to use its biological activity to replace it), which it maintains until it wears out enough so that the physics and chemistry of the system catches up with it and it goes down to its ground state (it dies)--but not before it has used its biological activity to produce another organism which preserves the form of life in a different body and the high-energy state continues indefinitely.

Now this the exact opposite of what the Second Law of Thermodynamics says should be happening; and so if living things arose out of inanimate bodies, how could these bodies be bamboozled into doing something directly contrary to (and in some sense superior to, since a higher energy-state than possible is achieved) their natures?

Furthermore, biological evolution, statistically, is a nightmare. Each chance occurrence of a better-adapted organism (one with rudimentary eyes, say) is unlikely to the tune of billions to one against it. That is, the number of possible gene combinations is in the billions, and all but a handful of those will produce dead or less well adapted offspring. But in order to get from the first living organism(s) to the complex ones we now see, you have to have (a) an unbroken string of (b) billions of (c) these exceedingly unlikely events. (On point (a): If the string is broken at any point, evolution stops there, and doesn't get to the organisms we now see.) Further, (d) these organisms ingeniously exploit each other for their own benefit (as bees drink the nectar of flowers), while at the same time benefitting the ones they exploit (as the flowers use the user-bees to pollinate themselves) in an incredibly complex network that works to the common good--in itself much more unlikely than either (a), (b), or (c).

Add to this the fact that when two unlikely events occur, the unlikelihood of each is multiplied, not added (as, for example, there's a one-in-six chance of the one coming up on one die, and a one-in- thirty-six--not twelve--chance of two ones with a pair of dice, and a one-in-two hundred sixteen--6 x 6 x 6--chance of three ones appearing with three dice).

So these events, which are billions to one against in each case, are godzillian godzillians to one against if you string them together. The unlikelihood of what happened's happening by chance is so great that you couldn't write the number.

So evolution extremely strongly indicates that something-or-other is manipulating the chance element in the development of the beings of the observable universe; though, since the development is random, there is the excessively--fantastically--remote possibility that evolution could have happened spontaneously. The problem is that this possibility is so unlikely that for practical purposes it is irrational to suppose it.

Put it another way: If you hold that evolution is "due just to chance," then you are even less rational than the person who buys a lottery ticket when the jackpot is up to forty million dollars and predicts that he's going to win, "because somebody has to, you know." That is not a rational position.

Put it a further way. What the "just chance" person is saying is, "Because you can't prove that evolution is a contradiction unless there is a "manipulator," then I choose to believe that there isn't one." That's not the view of a person who lets the evidence lead him; it's the view of a person who's committed to the non-existence of anything that could be called a God.

Nevertheless, though this argument for practical purposes proves that there is a "manipulator," it does not follow that the "manipulator" is an infinite being, nor that he is a "creator." True, it would be consistent with an infinite being who was also a creator to manipulate the chance element in his material universe so that it would do more than it could be expected to do on its own: to "lift it up" beyond its unaided powers; but the argument of itself does not prove this.

Note, however, that if you add what this argument indicates to what we said that the "big bang" argument suggests about the origin of the universe, there is an accumulation of evidence from science that points toward a being who caused the universe as we know it to begin to exist and to be directing its development. These could be two different beings (and indeed, there might not even be an "originator"); but it would be a pretty reasonable thing to assume that there was only one being involved in both of these effects (though of course, he would be the causer containing two different causes).

This being, however, need not necessarily be God. If we suppose that we are to this being what, say, a model airplane is to the builder, it could be that there are several "levels," as it were, of being, and we happen to be at an intermediate one--with our "beginner and director" himself a finite being who is a creature of a greater being, and so on.

Nevertheless, we can definitely draw the following conclusion:

CONCLUSION: The "cosmic watchmaker" theory of God is false.

Scientific and philosophical types at the time of the founding of this country were "deists," who held that reason established that there was a God, who perhaps created the universe and set its laws, but that once he "set it in motion," it ran by itself, by the laws he imposed upon nature.

The problem with this theory is that we established that if the universe were "running just by itself," those very laws would predict an evolution in many ways the exact opposite of what is observed to happen. Hence, the operation of these laws, in any sane reading of probability, has been interfered with.

Now if you counter to this, "Now wait a minute. It may be that we just don't understand these laws properly. This so-called 'interference' could be just the natural operation." This is an "argument" that is the direct counterpart of the dodge that "disorder is just a hidden kind of order." The evidence we have indicates that the universe ought to have developed in a way different from its actual development; if you want to say that there's something wrong with the evidence we have, find the flaw, don't just assert that there's one.

We can also draw a second conclusion:

Since the evolution of the universe is going in the opposite direction from what it would be if left to itself, this implies that the "manipulator," whatever he is, has to be aware in some sense of what is going on, so that he can direct the interactions of the bodies to make what is extremely unlikely occur. That is, individual events occurring when you would not expect them are what alters the course of evolution; and so this being, whoever he is, has to know about them.

CONCLUSION: The "manipulator" must in some sense be a conscious being.

GENERAL CONCLUSION FROM THIS ARGUMENT: Evolution indicates with great strength that there is some intelligent something manipulating the chance element in the development of the universe. But the argument does not establish that there is an infinite being, or that the manipulator is the same being as the one (if any) who accounted for the origin of the universe.

2.6.1. A note on the supernatural

As long as we have argued to some superior something that is manipulating the universe, I think I ought to clear up a possible misunderstanding about the term "supernatural."

There are those who consider that a "supernatural" being or act is simply a contradiction in terms, because if a being is either beyond nature or acts beyond nature, then by definition it is what it isn't, or does what it can't do. Obviously, to take the word in that sense is either stupid or captious.

First, let us take a supernatural act. You have a three-year-old child, and you want him to sign a birthday card to his Grandma. Well, he can't do it, so you put the pen in his hand and then put your hand over his and guide it so that he writes "Johnny" on the card. That is a supernatural act. That is, his nature by itself is incapable of doing what he just did; but his nature with help can be made to do what it is incapable of on its own. So a supernatural act does not contradict nature, it simply goes beyond unaided nature. And of course, the supernatural act was perfectly consistent with your (more developed) nature. (If you want to object that the boy's nature is capable of writing when it's more developed, you can make Rex your dog write his name to Grandma in the same way--and his nature is never capable of writing his name by itself.)

In that sense, what evolution actually did is supernatural, because, left to itself it in practice couldn't have done it. But there's nothing unnatural in what it did. And presumably, the manipulation is natural for the manipulator.

Now what about a "supernatural" being? If you choose to define "nature" as "material, measurable reality," then anything that wouldn't be material or measurable would be "supernatural." But on the supposition that there is something spiritual (i.e. not measurable), then there's nothing contrary to his nature in being spiritual, even though it's "supernatural" in the sense you define "nature." (I hasten to add that this argument does not prove that the "manipulator" is a spiritual being.)

But in fact, if there is a being superior to the observable universe, there's no contradiction in supposing him to exist (in fact, there's all but a contradiction in supposing him not to exist), and so it's just silly to define "nature" in such a way that it sounds unnatural to have such a being. This would be like arbitrarily defining "nature" to be "inanimate reality," which by definition would make living bodies "supernatural."

The point is that if you understand "supernatural" in any sane kind of way, there's nothing unnatural or contradictory about the concept.

2.7. The "five ways" of St. Thomas Aquinas

The most famous historical arguments for the existence of God are those given by St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologiae (Compendium of Theology) toward the beginning where he claims that the existence of God can be proved in five ways. It turns out that as they stand, each of them is invalid, though it must be said that St. Thomas had in another place used the "contingency" argument (which is the valid one that I will give later) to prove God's existence, and most can be "fixed up" by showing that these are just five versions of a thing's being "contingent.

What St. Thomas was really doing here was refuting the Arabian philosophers who used Aristotle's proof for a superior being who was not like the Christian God to establish that the "scientific god" was incompatible with Christianity. He showed that the Aristotelian proofs, if you took Aristotle as a whole, were actually compatible with a Christian understanding of God. (Aristotle held that there were many "first movers," and they couldn't actually act on the earth, they were finite, though spiritual, etc.)

2.7.1. The first way

"The first and more obvious way [to prove God's existence] is taken from the fact of process. It is certain, and evident to the senses, that there are in this world some things that are in process.

"Now anything that is in process has its process initiated and maintained by something else. The reason is that nothing is in process except insofar as it is in potency toward what the process is directed towards; and something initiates a process insofar as it is in activity. To initiate and maintain a process is nothing more than to bring something out of potency into activity; but nothing can be brought out of potency except by some being that is in activity--just as what is actively hot, like fire, makes wood, which is potentially hot, to be actively hot, and by this initiates the process and alters it.

"But it is not possible for the same thing to be simultaneously in potency and in activity in the same respect, but only in different respects: what is actively hot cannot simultaneously be potentially hot, though it is at that time potentially cold. Therefore, it is impossible for something, in the same respect and the same manner, to be what initiates a process and what is in [that] process, or that it initiate its own process. So everything that is in process has its process initiated and maintained by something else.

"But if the thing that initiates a process is in [a different] process, it must also have its own process initiated by something else, and that one [if the same applies] by still another.

"But here one cannot go on to infinity, because then there would be no first thing to initiate and maintain the processes, and consequently there would be nothing else in process--since the secondary initiators of processes do not initiate the processes unless their own processes are initiated and maintained by the primary one. For example, a stick does not move something unless it is being moved by a hand.

"Therefore, it is necessary to come to some first thing that initiates and maintains processes, but has no process initiated by anything. And everyone understands this to be God."

Now there is a lot that can be said about this argument; it has been misunderstood in sundry ways, some of which are open to facile "refutation." But let me try to make it clearer and bring it up to date this way: Basically, it says that when something is in process (i.e. is gradually changing), it is acquiring a characteristic that it didn't have before (what St. Thomas calls an "activity").

So think of an object that is gaining energy. St. Thomas's point is that it can't increase its own energy-level by itself (because it doesn't have it to give to itself). Hence, it has to be receiving energy from outside itself. That much is almost self-evident. (His argument, by the way, would not in modern terms apply to the process by which something is losing energy, for reasons I don't want to get into here.)

He goes on to say that if the thing that is giving it the new energy is also something that is increasing its energy-level, then obviously there is needed a third something, and if that's the same, then a fourth and so on until you come to something that isn't increasing its energy-level.

And you have to come to something like this in this case, because the energy-level the whole set is increasing, and even if the set were made up of an infinite number of members, it would still be true that the set as a whole would be adding energy to itself--which is impossible.

So there has to be something that imparts energy to any set of objects which are increasing in energy, which itself is not increasing in energy; and this is the "first mover," which St. Thomas says everyone calls God.

True, the Arabs and Aristotle called this the god, because they were taking the scientific view of the time that all the changes on the earth were due to the motions of the heavenly bodies that went around the earth; and their motions depended on each other. So there had to be something that "moved the heavens around" but was not itself in motion--or in any kind of process.

But in point of fact, even in St. Thomas's philosophy, there are things even on this earth, like choices, which are spiritual acts that can cause changes in our bodies without, strictly speaking, being processes themselves. Thus, while a stick won't move a rock without being moved by the hand that moves the stick, which is moved by the contraction of the muscles that moves the arm that moves the hand, which gets energy from the nerves that contract the muscles, which energy is transmitted from the brain, which has a reserve of energy which is channeled to the motor nerves, the spiritual act of the choice is what channels this energy and stops the series. You don't need to go all the way up to God to account for the series of processes.

So as it stands, the argument is invalid. If you want to fix it up by saying that process indicates a radical deficiency in reality, which ultimately needs an infinite being to explain it, then you're in another argument (the contingency argument) not this one.

2.7.2. The second way

"The second way is from the intelligibility of efficient cause. We find in those perceptible things an arrangement of efficient causes. But it is not found, and it is not possible, for something to be the cause of itself, because then it would be greater than itself, which is impossible.

"But it is not possible that there is an infinite string of efficient causes, because, in all efficient causes arranged in a series, the first is the cause of the middle one and the middle is the cause of the last one, whether the 'middle' is single or actually many. But when the cause is not present, neither is the effect.

"Therefore, if there were no first one of the efficient causes, there would be no last one, nor any middle one. But if there is an infinite series of efficient causes, there will be no first efficient cause, and so no final effect, nor intermediate causes--which is obviously false.

"Therefore, it is necessary to say that there is some first efficient cause, which everyone names 'God.'"

St. Thomas is actually talking here about the same series he talked about in the first way, except that now he is looking at these processes in terms of being the effects of some efficient cause.

First, let me connect St. Thomas's use of "cause" with the one I developed earlier. For him a cause is "that which influences the existence of something else," and this is another way of saying that the "existence" of that other thing would be different without it--and in turn, that means that without the cause, the "existence" of the other thing would be a contradiction (it is different from what it is). So the two definitions amount to the same thing.

Now an efficient cause is a cause which "influences" the existence by acting on it. In other words, its action on the affected object is what removes the contradiction, as, for instance, the energy from the hand imparted to the stick (acting on it) explains the increase of energy of the moving stick. (There are other kinds of causes. A final cause, for instance, would account for something, not by acting on it, but by being the state it's headed toward.)

So all that St. Thomas is saying here is that the series of processes producing processes can also be looked on as a series of effects that have efficient causes; and so the "first mover" has to be an efficient cause. He's countering Aristotle, who thought that if the "first mover" actually acted on the processes below it, it would have to lose some energy, and so couldn't be "unmoved"--and so the "first mover" of the heavenly spheres (which he thought moved eternally) couldn't be an efficient cause, and would have to be a final cause, desired by the spheres, which themselves would have to be living, intelligent beings, capable of desiring and acting on their desire.

What St. Thomas is showing here is that, based on his own principles, Aristotle should have concluded that his "first mover" had to be an efficient, not a final, cause.

Now then, what about the argument? First of all, it suffers from the same flaws as the first way, that the "first mover" could be a (spiritual) choice, which, as not energy, can cause changes in other things without itself losing anything (if it doesn't have an amount, then clearly it can't lose some of itself).

But secondly, the series of efficient causes which are effects of efficient causes only works if you make the distinction I made between cause and causer, which St. Thomas did not make. That is, you have to have a "first" in the series only if the causal action on the effect is what needs an efficient cause. But if the effect is produced by a causer which needs an efficient cause, then the series could go on to infinity, because the causer can act without (now) being caused.

That is, suppose my son is moving a stone by means of a stick in his hand. His choice is the "first cause" of that series; but of course he wouldn't exist and be able to make the choice if I hadn't caused him to be born. But he could be doing this after I die; I don't have to be acting on him in order for him to act. So this kind of a series can in principle stretch out to infinity, because, though each member depends on another, the combination of effect-cause does not. That is, the kind of thing I am now talking about is not like the increase in energy I spoke of in the preceding way, which needed a "first mover."

So it's only the kind of series like that of the first way which need a "first efficient cause." But that's just by the way, actually, since even when there has to be a "first" one, this doesn't have to be any more than a simple human choice.

2.7.3. The third way

"The third way is taken from what is able not to exist, and what is incapable of not existing. We find in things some that are able either to exist or not exist--since we find some that come into existence and go out of existence, and consequently are capable of existing and also of not existing.

"But it is impossible for everything always to be this way, because what has the capability of not existing, at some time does not exist. Hence, if everything had the capability of not existing, then at some time there was nothing at all.

"But if this were true, then even now there would be nothing, because what does not exist does not begin to exist except by means of something that exists. If, therefore, there were no being, it would be impossible for anything to begin to exist, and so there would not now be anything, which is obviously false. So not all beings are capable of not existing, and there must exist something that is incapable of not existing.

"But everything which is incapable of not existing either has the cause of this power to exist forever from outside, or it does not. But there cannot be an infinite series of beings that are incapable of not existing, but have a cause of this power, any more than there can be an infinite series of efficient causes, as was proved. Therefore, it is necessary to say that there is something which in virtue of itself cannot not exist, and does not have the cause of this power from something else, but is the cause of the incapacity for not existing of all the other ones. And everyone calls this 'God.'"

I have translated "possible" as "capable of not existing" and "necessary" as "incapable of not existing" to make clearer what St. Thomas is driving at. This "incapacity for not existing" is, however, a positive quality: the power to exist forever (without being able to be destroyed). The "possible" beings are "capable" of not existing because they lack this power.

What St. Thomas is trying to argue here is that, against Aristotle, who held that there were a whole bunch of "first movers," one for each of the heavenly spheres, who were spirits contemplating themselves (and being desired by the--living--spheres they moved), were more or less independent of each other, but not quite, since there was a system of interconnected eternal movements. St. Thomas is saying that there has to be a kind of "head first-mover" who causes the power that the others have to be incapable of not existing.

The argument turns on the statement, "it is impossible for everything always to be this way." The reasoning is this: First of all, what is capable of not existing must at some time not exist, or on what grounds do you predict that it will never go out of existence? Only on the basis of its nature. But that would mean its nature is such that it will never not exist, because (obviously) it can't not exist.

Secondly, if everything (i.e. each thing) is capable of not existing, then the whole set of "everything" (i.e. all of them together) is capable of not existing. That is, it is possible for all of the existing things to happen to go out of existence all at the same moment. Hence, the whole set of these objects is also capable of not existing.

But by the principle that what is capable of not existing actually doesn't exist at some time, then at some time nothing exists. But this "time" would have to have already occurred, since an eternity would have existed backwards from now and obviously, the non-existence would have to occur at some finite time. And St. Thomas's point is that if there ever is nothing at all, there won't be anything after it. No "big bang" is possible because nothing can't "existify" itself.

First of all, it doesn't follow that any being that's capable of not existing must at some time not exist. If it's capable of existing or not existing at any moment, then there's no moment in which it isn't capable of either existing or not. Suppose you just string together all the moments and at none of them does it happen to "exercise the possibility" of not existing.

What I'm saying is that, even given an infinity of time, it does not follow that all capabilities have to be realized. If that were so, then since the being is capable of existing at any moment, it's capable of existing at every moment; but at any and every moment, it's also capable of not existing. If every possibility has to be realized, then the being both will and will not exist at every moment--which is absurd. A possibility is just that, a possibility; it never becomes a necessity.

And that goes for the whole set, too. It is quite possible even that every single being comes into existence and goes out of existence, but that there never is a moment in which all the existing things happen to go out of existence together. In fact, you could imagine a scenario in which things could be so interconnected that in order for one being to go out of existence, it would first have to produce a being which would exist longer than it did--which would mean that each being would stop existing, but the whole set would continue for ever.

But there's no need to continue this. The fact is that, while it's plausible to say that if everything were capable of not existing, there would be nothing at some time, it's not demanded either by physics or metaphysics or logic. So the argument actually doesn't prove that there is any being which is incapable of not existing.

2.7.4. The fourth way

"The fourth way is taken from the degrees that are found in things. There are found in the world some things that are more and less good, true, changeable, and so on. But 'more' and 'less' apply to different things to the extent that they come close in different ways to what is 'most': for example, 'hotter' is what is closest to 'hottest.'

"Hence, there is something that is truest, and best, and most noble, and consequently 'most' being; because what is most true is most real, as is said in [Aristotle's] Metaphysics.

"But what is called the 'most' in any class is the cause of everything in that class; as, for example, fire, which is most hot, is the cause of all heat, as is pointed out in the same book. Therefore, there is something which is the cause of the existence of all beings, the cause of their goodness, and of any perfection; and this is what we call 'God.'"

What St. Thomas is trying to do here, obviously, is to say that the "first first mover" is the cause of the existence of everything else, not, as Aristotle held, a being that is all wrapped up in itself and having other beings "beside it," so to speak, that it only produced changes in.

But there are a number of problems with the argument (though it would, I think, have convinced Aristotle). First of all, as the unfortunate example of heat shows, there is no "hottest" that accounts for all the different degrees of heat. As I said in discussing Descartes' argument, the notion of "more" and "less" can be discovered from establishing somewhere a "zero" and working up and down from that point. You don't need an existing "absolute most" to get the concept of different degrees from.

(Of course, if there are three objects of unequal heat, then clearly one of them will be the hottest; but the object that happens to have the highest temperature is not what St. Thomas is arguing towards here; he means a standard that everything else deviates from negatively, like Descartes' "perfection.")

Secondly, the object that possesses the greatest degree of something is not necessarily the cause of lesser degrees of that quality. That is one of the fallacious inferences you can draw from the "influence" notion of cause: that the causer causes by "pouring some of itself" into the affected object. But that would mean that the beaver has "more of the essence of a dam" within him than the dam itself that he builds. But the probability is very high that he doesn't even have the plans inside him; he just feels like cutting down a tree and dragging it into the water; and he gets satisfied when the water builds up to a certain level.

No, the cause is just the "whatever it is" that makes the effect not a contradiction; and it doesn't mean that the cause has to have the same quality that the effect acquires. For instance, when you rub your hands together, the heat didn't come from what was hotter; it came from mechanical energy.

So if something is "good," say, it doesn't have to have got its goodness from something that is better. My son, I hope, is a better person than I am, and he began to exist because of me (maybe he got the excess from my wife?). But we see brilliant children the offspring of stupid parents and so on.

So the argument doesn't prove what it claims to prove. There may be an absolutely "best" and "existing" being, and an infinite being sounds like a good candidate; and in fact this infinite being might be the cause of the existence (and goodness and so on) of all finite beings. It's just that this line of reasoning doesn't establish it.

2.7.5. The fifth way

"The fifth way is taken from the directing of things. We see that some things which do not have knowledge (that is, natural bodies) act toward an end. This is evident from the fact that they always, or for the most part, act in the same way, to arrive at what is best. From this it is clear that it is not by accident but by intention that they achieve their work.

"But things that have no knowledge do not tend toward an end unless they are directed by something that has knowledge and understanding: for example, an arrow by an archer. Therefore, there is something intelligent, by whom all natural objects are given their orientation toward their ends; and this is what we call 'God.'"

This is obviously St. Thomas's version of the argument from design, which I have already discussed at length; and so, though there are some other things to say, I will not discuss them here, since this chapter is not an exhaustive investigation of historical positions, but of the basic arguments and their validity or invalidity.

2.8. The argument from contingency

Of the main arguments for God's existence, there remains only what Immanuel Kant called the "cosmological argument," which is more commonly known as the argument from the "contingency of being." It is, I think, when properly formulated, a valid argument for the existence of an infinite being, and in fact the only valid argument for the existence of such a being, since you can't prove that an infinite being exists unless you can prove that there is an inherent contradiction in any finite reality just because it is finite. Then, by the theorems that no effect can be its own cause and that identical effects have identical causes, you can argue that no other being which is finite can be the cause of any finite being as finite. That's what we're going to do, but we have to be very careful to make the argument rigorous and not to fall into various traps.

For instance, the reason that Kant thought that the argument was invalid and involved the ontological argument was because he (following other philosophers like Gottfried Leibniz, who thought it was valid) formulated it more or less in this way:

What is contingent is by definition dependent for its existence on something else. But if everything is contingent, then everything is dependent for its existence on something else. Therefore, there has to be something 'necessary' [i.e. not dependent on anything else for its existence], on which everything contingent ultimately depends.

This is actually arguing from the concept of contingency, and saying that because you define it as "dependent," then it has to depend on something; and so if everything is contingent, obviously everything depends on something.

But it completely ignores what it is that makes something "contingent" in this sense. How do you know it's dependent for its existence on something else, and its existence is not self-sufficient? And further, how do you know that there can't be an infinite string of dependent beings, each of which depends on the one before it without there being a "first" (which possibility we raised in discussing St. Thomas's second way)? It won't do to say that you can never get through an infinite string; maybe there's an infinity of time (which, if the "big bang" is the result of a preceding collapse, can't even be ruled out by modern physics).

So Kant was right; in this form, the argument is simply playing with concepts, and tries to move from the logical to the real order. You have to have evidence that finite reality contains real contradictory aspects (not just the concept of "finiteness" has problems) before you can establish that there is something without this particular contradictoriness. And that, believe me, is no easy task, as you will discover.

2.9. Final remarks

These, then, are the arguments for the existence of God. There are, of course, others, but they are either versions of one or another of the ones I have given, or are frivolous and not worth serious consideration. So what is the upshot of all that we have seen?


None of the arguments discussed actually proves the existence of an infinite being, though some indicate or even prove that there is more than the material, observable universe.

The Origin argument and the Argument from Design suggest or indicate that there is something beyond the observable universe; but they leave possibilities that there is no such thing (however unlikely these might be), and also rest to some extent on the present state of scientific theory. If new evidence comes up, changing these theories, then the arguments are either strengthened or refuted. For instance, if it is discovered that the mass of the universe is greater than the critical amount, then scientifically, the eternally oscillating universe is the conclusion, not an "originator." Similarly, it is conceivable, though I confess only barely conceivable, that someone could construct a theory of biological evolution such that chance plus the underlying structure of the organisms would be all that you'd need to be able to predict the kind of complex ecosystems of complex organisms we find. (Actually, the task gets harder the more science learns; when you get down into the molecular level, it is even more formidable than I said.)

So neither of these two arguments is conclusive. But still, there is considerably more reason to accept them than to reject them.

The argument from choice (the version of the "need to believe" argument) and the moral argument do prove that there is a life beyond death. It is true that if the evidence is misread or the logic is flawed, then they are not in fact sound arguments; but that is true of any argument, even a conclusive one. But, as I said, this life after death says nothing in fact about an infinite being.

Still, the reasonable person so far would, I think be strongly inclined to think that there is some kind of a God: a kind of creator and director of the universe, who probably has concern with the kind of life that we live, and who can intervene in the universe if he wants to. But whatever this God is, it is not a "cosmic watchmaker." The advances of science have established just the opposite of what scientists thought as little as a hundred years ago.

But of course, we haven't seen the arguments against God's existence yet; and there is one very powerful one, which seems to indicate that a being who creates and controls the universe and loves his creatures can't exist. So, believers, don't get too cocky. The God you believe in probably doesn't exist--or at least, he's not the way you think he is if he does.

Remember, we're after the facts here, not just something we can trump up to reinforce our prejudices on the subject.


We will not yet make use of the method developed in the previous chapter, but here discuss the standard arguments for God's existence, and see if they in fact prove the existence of something infinite. Note that the burden of proof is on the person who says that God exists, because God is supposed to be the cause of something in the world; and if the world makes sense by itself, then God can't be called a cause.

Where did you come from?: The believer keeps asking the unbeliever where he came from and where that came from until the unbeliever answers, "It was just there," and the believer retorts. "It couldn't be because everything had to come from something," and then claims that God is the ultimate source--At which the non-believer rebuts that by his own reasoning, God would have to come from something. The argument is invalid. The believer would have to show why everything else but God had to "come from" something and why God couldn't have come from anything.

But the "big bang" theory of the beginning of the universe is strongly suggestive here, because the known mass of the universe does not allow for an alternately expanding and contracting universe (which would not need an outside source); and since the original state of the universe was unstable (i.e. self-contradictory) something other than itself would have to have either (a) got stable material into this unstable condition, or (b) started it existing absolutely. But this thing does not necessarily have to be something infinite (and it is possible there is more mass in the universe than we know about). So this suggests but does not prove anything.

The need to believe: If "truth" is "what works," then it would seem that since people's lives are made meaningful if they believe in God, then it must be true that there is a God. But others' lives are more meaningful to them on the supposition that there is no God; and clearly there can't both be and not be a God. The argument is invalid.

Something about the argument, though, does prove that there is a life after death. It is self-contradictory for humans to have to set goals for themselves which are in principle impossible to achieve (because then they are always in a self-contradictory unstable condition). But if life ends with death, then goals can't be achieved (because even if we achieve them, we have the further goal of not giving them up). Hence, either human life goes on after death in such a way that goals are achievable in principle, or human life contradicts itself. This suggests that God might exist (to run the show), but it does not prove it.

The moral argument: An immoral choice is a deliberate attempt to do something inhuman, which in effect sets up a goal that in some respect is a self-contradiction. But "in the real world" a person can suffer much more for avoiding moral conduct than for making immoral choices. This means that it is more rational to act inhumanly (which for a human is irrational); and this is absurd--unless there is a life after death which punishes such immoral choices, making it in the long run advantageous to be moral. This proves that there is a life after death, but again it does not prove that there is a God, since the "punishment" might turn out to be just the natural consequence of making such a choice.

The ontological argument: If you think of what is the greatest conceivable ("that than which nothing greater can be thought") and you say that it doesn't really exist, then you have contradicted yourself, because you can think of it as existing, which is greater than to think of something merely imaginary. Unfortunately, though in fact it is greater to exist than not to exist, the fact that I can say "X exists" does not add anything to X; it simply means that I am being acted on somehow by X--which is not true in this case. Therefore, the argument is invalid. Descartes' version of this argument, that I could not have got the notion of "perfection" from myself or anything in the universe, since nothing is perfect, is also invalid, because I can form the notion by simply denying various "bad" qualities, and then making the generalization of "that which has no bad qualities."

The argument from design: The inanimate, non-rational, universe displays order, which is rational; therefore, there must be something rational bringing order out of what otherwise would be chaos. Unfortunately, "rational" here means "capable of being rationally understood," not necessarily "rationally produced." All you need is a constant structure to get order in the operations, not a "designer." Also, if God is the "orderer," then you could predict that there would be no disorder, which there is. So this seems to refute the argument.

If, however, we look at evolution, we find that its trajectory is the opposite of what you would predict from the laws of chance and the underlying driving force. Hence, though it is barely conceivable that nothing but chance and this force are operating, this is so improbable as to be insane. Therefore, the far more rational theory is that there is something intelligent manipulating the otherwise random operations in the world, directing them contrary to what their natural tendency is. Consequently, the cosmic "watchmaker" theory of God, a being which "started things going, which then continued on their own" is false. Whether this "manipulator" is something infinite or not, however, is not proven by this evidence.

Note that this means that the universe is doing something supernatural: that is, something beyond its unaided ability. But this does not mean that it is doing something impossible if it is helped, any more than the supernatural act of an infant's signing his name to a note to Grandma is impossible if Mommy guides his hand.

St. Thomas's first way states that process, as acquiring an "act," implies that the object has its process produced by something else, and if that object is in process, the pair are receiving something from outside, and therefore there must be a first "unmoved mover" for the series. Unfortunately, even in the Thomistic system, this argues only to a spiritual act (like a human choice), and not necessarily to something infinite. The argument is invalid.

The second way states that in any series of "efficient causes" (causes in which the causality is an action on the affected object), there must be a first efficient cause or there would be no last effect. But again, this only argues to something like a choice and not to something infinite. The argument is invalid.

The third way argues from the fact that things are capable of not existing, and if everything were like this, then everything would at some time not exist--which would have to have happened in the past, and so now there would be nothing. Therefore, there is something that is incapable of not existing (which has existence in its nature). Unfortunately, even if each thing is capable of going out of existence, it does not follow that everything must at some time go out of existence together. This is possible, but not necessary. So not even the existence of something that cannot not exist is proved. The argument is invalid.

The fourth way argues that the degrees in things get the different degrees of the quality in question from what is "most" in that category; and so degrees of goodness must come from what is "most" good and "most" being. But this does not follow, as can be seen from the fact that heat can come from what is not hot, and doesn't have to come from what is "hotter." The argument is invalid.

The fifth way is St. Thomas's version of the Argument from Design, and suffers from the defects of that argument. The argument is invalid.

The argument from contingency, it turns out, is (at least in one formulation, to be seen later) valid. In its common formulation, however, it is not, since it argues in this way: "If there are contingent (dependent) things, there must ultimately be something independent." But this either just argues from the concept of "dependence" to the fact of "independence," which is analogous to the fallacy in the ontological argument; or it argues that you can't have an infinite string of dependent beings depending on dependent beings. But as a matter of fact, there is no impossibility here. The argument in this form is invalid.

Hence, while there are one or two arguments suggestive of the fact that there is an infinite being (and two that prove that there must be a life after death), there is nothing that actually proves that there is one.