The Existence of God – Jonathan Dolhenty

philosopherThe Philosophy of God
A brief introduction to theodicy
(The Classical Thomistic Doctrine)
Adapted from various sources and edited
by Jonathan Dolhenty, Ph.D.

Part One: The Existence of God

A. God

The word “God” means, to the learned and the uncultured alike, a Being superior to this bodily world and all it contains; a Being that has produced the world, is in charge of it; a Being that is self-existent and self-explanatory; a Being that has no other superior to Itself, and is therefore Supreme. Rightly did St. Anselm say that “by the word God we mean the greatest Being that can be thought of.” This is the meaning of the word God, even in the thoughts and speech of such persons as deny Him. For if a man says there is no God he confesses that he knows the meaning of the word God just as plainly as if he had said that there is a God. It would be impossible to have any discussion of this question of God’s existence, nature, and activity, unless men were agreed upon the meaning of the terms of the discussion.

Our discussion centers upon the One Supreme Being. There are theories which appear to cloud this issue, but back of them all is this focal point: unique Godhead, deity, divinity. For our more ready understanding of all that is to follow, we list here the more notable theories on the theological question:

  • Theism is a general theory of God; it is the doctrine that God exists.
  • Atheism is a theory that there is no God.
  • Deism is a belief in God, but not in His Providence or Government of the world.
  • Agnosticism is the theory of God as the Great Unknowable.
  • Pantheism in one way or another identifies God and creatures.
  • Monotheism is the doctrine of one only God.
  • Polytheism is the doctrine of a plurality of gods or world-rulers.
  • Ontologism is the theory that the idea of God is the first idea acquired by man, and that this idea is necessary for the acquiring of any others.
  • Traditionalism is the doctrine that the only certitude of God that man can attain comes to him, not by reasoning, but by receiving the human tradition which reports a primitive revelation made to our first parents.
  • Rationalism is the theory that human reason can thoroughly investigate and understand all truth; that anything involving mystery is therefore fictional; that God, inasmuch as reason cannot fully comprehend Him, is to be denied or ignored.

B. Demonstrability of God’s Existence

A truth is demonstrable when it can be completely proved. A strict demonstration is a reasoned proof, as in the case of a theorem in geometry. A less strict demonstration is an experimental proof, as in the case of the laboratorian who shows by an experiment that water is H2O.

A strict or reasoned or philosophical demonstration is either a priori or a posteriori. An a priori (“from beforehand”; “antecedent to experience”) demonstration proceeds from the known nature and efficacy of a cause to the character of its effect. An a posteriori (“from afterwards”; “consequent on experience”) demonstration proceeds from the fact and nature of an effect to the fact and nature of a cause adequate to account for the effect. If the argument is in this shape: “Here is a cause of a definite and known nature and efficacy; its effect will necessarily be so-and-so,” it is an a priori argument. If the argument is in this shape: “Here is an effect of a definite and known nature: its cause must necessarily be of such-and-such nature and efficacy,” it is an a posterior argument.

A demonstration is direct or indirect. A direct demonstration shows that a thing is certain by setting forth its own causes or reasons (and a cause is anything that produces or maintains; a reason is anything that explains). An indirect demonstration shows that a thing is certain because its denial involves contradiction, or impossibility, or absurdity.

Can the existence of God be demonstrated? Can it be proved that there is one Supreme Being? There are persons who freely admit the existence of God, and who pay Him honor, worship Him, pray to Him, and yet who say that His existence is not a thing that can be proved.

If a thing cannot be proved, this fact is owing to one of two reasons:

  • the truth proposed is self-evident, and proof is neither needed nor possible; or
  • the truth is not subject to demonstration, and can be known only upon authority (of this type, for example, is all human historical truth).

Now, neither of these reasons is here available.

Some, adducing the first reason, declare that God’s existence is a self-evident truth which needs no demonstration and can have none. We answer that since God is the Necessary Being, it is true that the idea of the existence of God is every part of the idea of God Himself; He is the Being that cannot be nonexistent. The predicate “exists” belongs to the subject “God” just as necessarily as the predicate “round” belongs to the subject “circle.”

But, while we need no proof that a circle is round, but have this truth necessarily and self-evidently in our knowledge of what a circle is in itself, we do need proof of God’s existence. For we have no such complete and adequate grasp of the idea “God” as we have of the idea “circle.” God is not a figure traced on a blackboard before our eyes. He is not manifest to the casual glance, like the rising sun. If we had minds capable of instantly taking in, with full clarity and distinctness, all the implications of the idea “God,” then the existence of God would be a self-evident truth to us. But, as a matter of fact, we have not such minds.

We need to reason out the existence of God. And while no normal man can come to the full use of his mental powers without being aware, at least in a vague way, of the existence of a Supreme Being, this awareness is a reasoned awareness. We have here on earth no direct intuition, or immediate view, of God. Hence, although the truth of God’s existence is a self-evident truth in itself, it is not a self-evident truth to mankind. Therefore, we can demonstrate or prove the existence of God.

Other objectors say that the truth of God’s existence is not subject to demonstration. They maintain that we must stay within the realm of the laboratorian, in the world of “phenomenal things.” Why, such persons would rule out of existence all pure mathematics. They would even cut the ground from their own position, for every laboratorian experiment rests ultimately upon reasoned truths or non-phenomenal assumptions. If we cannot trust human reason to work our a problem to its end, we cannot trust human reason to being the problem.

We assert, therefore, that neither of the reasons which would render useless or impossible the demonstration of God’s existence, has any force or value. We require a demonstration of the existence of God; such a demonstration can be had.

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Our demonstration of God’s existence is direct, indirect, a posteriori.

  • It is direct: we assign reasons, and compelling reasons, which demand God’s existence.
  • It is indirect: we show the impossibility, the contradiction, the absurdity, the chaotic consequences, which come from the contradictory doctrine, that is, the doctrine that God does not exist.
  • We cannot prove God’s existence by an a priori demonstration, for, as we have seen, such a demonstration proceeds from cause to effect. Now, God is not an effect; God has no causes. He is the First Cause Himself Uncaused. Hence, our demonstration of God’s existence must be a posteriori.

C. Proofs of God’s Existence

We follow here the traditional proofs elaborated by St. Thomas Aquinas.

1. Proof from Motion

  • If there is motion in the world, there exists a mover, and, in last analysis, a First Mover which is itself not moved.
  • Now, there is motion in the world.
  • Therefore, there exists a mover, and, in last analysis, a First Mover which is itself not moved.
  • This First Mover we call God.
  • Therefore, God exists.

Motion is any change.

  • There is change of substance, which is corruption-generation;
  • There is change of quantity, which is increase or diminishment;
  • There is change of quality, which is alteration;
  • There is change of place, which is local movement.

All these types of change are familiar to us in our daily experience. And each change is an example of motion.

The principle (that is the intellectual principle, the guiding truth) about motion is this:

Whatever moves is moved by something other than itself.
The word “moves” in this principle is to be understood as an intransitive verb. It is not difficult to see that this principle is absolutely justified. For what moves (the verb is intransitive) receives the motion, as the hand receives its motion from the man who writes or gestures. Anything movable is in a state of capacity or potentiality to receive motion. But to say that a thing moves itself is to say the thing gives motion to itself and receives motion from itself; it is to say something as contradictory as that a man lifts himself by his bootstraps.

Motion is not self-originating. Of course, there can be a series of movers. A man’s fingers are moved, as he writes, by the muscles of hand and arm; these are moved into action by the motor nerves which center in the cerebrospinal axis; these are set to motion or use by the man himself, and precisely by the man’s will. But the will is a faculty used or set in motion by the soul. And the soul is set in motion when it is first created, and as it is preserved and concurred with by its Creator. Thus, we come back to a First Mover.

A train of cars moving down the track is moved by the locomotive, although each car may be said to be moved by the one ahead of it which conveys the power or “pull” which moves it. The locomotive moves because its wheels move. The wheels move because the driving-rod moves them. The driving-rod is moved by the engine cylinders. These are moved by the combustion of diesel fuel, which acts and reacts according to its nature. This nature is due to the Creator of nature, who moves it into existence equipped with certain powers, and who preserves them and concurs with them. Thus even the common spectacle of a moving train can carry the thinking mind straight to the First Mover, the self-existent, unmoved God. The First Mover cannot be moved, for it is First. It is purely actual, without change or shadow of alteration.

2. Proof from Coordinated Efficient Causes

  • If there exists an order of connected efficient causes, there is a First Cause which is itself not caused.
  • Now, there exists all about us in this world an order of connected efficient causes.
  • Therefore, there is a First Cause which is itself not caused.
  • This First Cause we call God.
  • Therefore, God exists.

An efficient or effecting cause is a cause which produces an effect by its own activity. There may be a series of such causes, each an effect of a prior cause. To illustrate:

  • The sun causes sunburn; sunburn causes pain; pain causes irritability; irritability causes unpleasant social effects.
  • The wheat seed (together with subsidiary causes such as light, heat, moisture, and chemicals in the earth) causes the crop; the crop is a cause of flour; flour is a cause of bread; bread is food which is a cause of energy in the man who eats it; energy is a cause of bodily action, and so on, almost endlessly.

The world around us is a tissue of cause-and-effect. And each cause was an effect before it went to work as a cause of a further effect. But the chain of cause-and-effect cannot be infinite; no process unto infinity is possible in finite things. Hence, there is of necessity a First Cause. And since this Cause is First it is not an effect; it is not caused; for nothing can be prior to what is first. There is, therefore, a First Cause, Itself Uncaused. This we call God. Therefore, God exists.

3. Proof from the Contingency of Earthly Things

A thing is contingent (that is, dependent on its causes) when it has in itself no requirement, no demand, for existence. If a thing might conceivably not be, it is a contingent thing; it is marked by contingency. The opposite of contingency is necessity. A thing which must exist, and cannot conceivably be nonexistent, is a necessary thing; it is marked by necessity. Now for the argument:

  • If contingent things exist, they demand as their ultimate explanation, a Being which is Necessary.
  • Now, contingent things exist.
  • Therefore, they demand as their ultimate explanation a Being which is Necessary.
  • This Necessary Being we call God.
  • Therefore, God exists.

It is manifest that contingency means dependency in being. Now, if a thing depends for its being on something else, what is the status of this something else? Is it also contingent? If so, what is the status of that further being on which it depends? Is this, too, contingent? But the chain of contingency cannot go on endlessly. If one link supports another, and is supported by another, this dependency is all upon some ultimate link which is supported absolutely, that is, by a power which, unsupported itself, supports the whole chain. Contingent being absolutely demands, as the “reason for its existence,” Being that is not contingent, but necessary.

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Now, no sane man will question the contingency of things about us here on earth. Any one of the substances we look at, — our fellowmen, the grass and the trees, the flying birds, the stones and streams, — might not have been. Indeed, there was a time when they were not. They came into being, and most of them will very quickly pass out of it, others more slowly. But, if these things were necessary and non-contingent, they would have to be; they would have been always; they could not perish or pass away. Thus, since contingency demands necessity as its explanation; since contingent things do not render an account of themselves but are accounted for only by the causes on which they depend; since, in a word, contingent things demand the existence of a Necessary Being, we assert the existence of such a Being. This Being is First; it is Ultimate. It has therefore no contingency on a prior thing. This Being, Non-contingent and Necessary, we call God. Therefore, God exists.

4. Proof from the Degrees of Perfection in Things

  • If there are, in things about us in this world, real degrees of greater and lesser, then there must exist a Greatest.
  • Now, there are, in things about us in this world, real degrees of greater and lesser.
  • Therefore, there must exist a Greatest.
  • This Greatest Being we call God.
  • Therefore, God exists.

We speak here of real degrees of perfection in things, not of estimating or opinion in which this or that man holds things; we speak of the perfection of things themselves. Now, it is manifest that there are such real degrees in things. Consider man. He has all the perfection of being that belongs to a plant, and he has much more. He takes nourishment, grows, propagates, as a plant does. But man is moreover sentient and rational. Thus, man is more perfect than plant. And man is also more perfect than animal, for he adds in himself to all animal perfections, those of understanding and willing. The animal, in turn, is more perfect than the plant. For the rest, we are all aware that there are degrees of loyalty, of love, of friendship. We know that things are more or less noble, more or less good.

Now, a thing is more perfect as it approaches to a greater fulness of being. This is the norm or rule and measure of perfection; in the application of this rule we discern the real grades or degrees of perfection in things. But that which approaches (more or less nearly, or more or less remotely) to the fulness of perfection or the absolute plenitude of being, must approach to what is there. Real grades or degrees of perfection would be illusory and meaningless unless they had reference to an Absolutely Perfect Reality actually existing. Now, this Absolutely Perfect Being we call God. Therefore God exists. Deny God, and you deny the essential superiority of mind over matter, of a man over the clod of earth he treads on, of Shakespeare over a stone by the roadside.

5. Proof from the Finality of Natural Things

Things are said to have finality when they are made for a purpose, when they are made for the attaining of an end or finis (hence the name finality). And things made for a purpose are designed or planned for the attaining of that purpose. This argument is, consequently, often called the argument from design. Now, design is a plan; plan is a reasoned thing, it connotes an intelligence. Hence this argument points to the existence of Intelligence, and of First and Supreme Intelligence. The argument may be proposed as follows:

  • If the world, and things in the world, are manifestly designed for an end, then the world and things in the world have a designer, and ultimately a First Designer.
  • Now, the world, and things in the world, are manifestly designed for an end.
  • Therefore the world, and things in the world have a designer, and ultimately a First Designer.
  • This Designer we call God.
  • Therefore, God exists.

To discover design, we have but to look at any natural body. Living bodies particularly are such complex and balanced organisms that no sane mind could doubt their planning. If a building, or a timepiece, or any of the works of man’s art and skill is unthinkable without a design, how much greater is the compelling reason which drives us to acknowledge design in things immeasurably above the capacity of man to envision or produce. Than an eye is made for seeing, an ear for hearing, a heart for circulating and purifying the blood; that the seed is for the producing of a plant, that wings are for flying, — what mind could doubt the purpose of any of these things?

Even lifeless things are manifestly designed. Can man who finds here on earth all that his nature requires, — food, air, water, — suppose that these things are not planned? Can he suppose that the rich deposits of oils, gases, metals, coal, which make the earth a profitable workshop for him, have all come about without any purpose or design? And if man shortsightedly complains that there are imperfections here on earth, we say this: The so-called imperfections of the earth are themselves proofs of perfection; unless a person knows the standard how shall he know what falls short of it? Unless he knows what the perfection of a reality is, how shall he know when it is imperfect?

For the rest, any natural body is replete with such marvels of perfection, and exhibits such plan and purpose, that an honest mind cannot refuse the evidence. Such things as we call imperfections, — if they be imperfections at all, — are as nothing compared to the wondrous order, the complexity, the balance, the government to an end, that we observe all around us. And all this order, all this design, is multiplied for us by microscope and telescope. In small things and large, in the world as a whole and in its tiny part, we discern order, plan, purpose, design.

Consider the full perfection of a design which operates without noise, without waste, without smoke and fuss, all of which are found in operations by which man works out his artificial designs. There is no tapping of hammers, no hissing of steam, no sigh of expended effort, as the thick liquid within an egg shell turns to the flesh and blood and bone and sinew of the fowl, and sets each delicate organ in its place. No one can honestly doubt or question design in the world.

Now, if there is design there is certainly a designer, equipped with intelligence to plan and to execute. And if this designer were a creature, it would have a maker capable of producing the designer and all his powers. Ultimately we must come to a First Designer, in whom all the perfections and the plan and purpose of every creature must find its final explanation. This Designer must be self-existent, for He is First. We call this Designer God, the Supreme Intelligence. Therefore, God exists.

Those proofs above are the five traditional arguments for the existence of God. To them we may add a few others.

6. Proof from Man’s Desire of All Good

  • If man, by the irresistible drive of his nature, tends towards universal and boundless good, then such Good actually exists.
  • Now, man, by the irresistible drive of his nature, tends towards universal and boundless good.
  • Therefore, such Good actually exists.
  • We call this Good by the name of “God.”
  • Therefore, God exists.

Ethics and psychology tell us that man is made for the summum bonum, for boundless good. For in every deliberate thought, word, deed, of which man is the conscious master, he tends toward what pleases, towards what satisfies, towards what is desirable; in a word, he tends towards what is good. He may look for good in the wrong places, but it is good he is looking for. He may seek good in immorality, in indulgence of self, even in cruelty; but it is good he is after.

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The will, author of man’s deliberate acts, is a faculty which we define by its object, and we say that it is man’s spiritual appetency, his power of going after good which is intellectually apprehended. The happiness of a man in his health, his home, his property; the misery of a man thwarted in his quest of what he desires; these things alike prove what man is after. He is after what will ultimately and completely satisfy, and this means that he after good. For the good is defined as that which may be appetized, as that which can be striven for as a satisfaction.

Now, man’s nature which irresistibly impels him in the quest of good (however diversely different men may pursue the quest), is manifestly planned and designed for this quest. And our reason cannot accept the supposition that the planning was done to vex man and to see him involved in hopelessness, but assures us that the purpose for which man must strive is a purpose that can be achieved.

Now only the Supreme and Boundless Good can satisfy man’s natural tendency; man wants good; he wants all good; he wants it always. Only the Infinite Being can perfectly answer this connatural need and tendency of man. And reason, which sees that the satisfaction of man is objective and existing, acknowledges that this existing Goal is Infinite Good. But the First and Self-existing Being alone is infinite. Therefore man’s nature points inevitably and infallibly to the existence of the First and Self-existent and Infinite Being. This Being is God. Therefore, God exists.

7. The Moral Proof

  • If man is aware that he is bound by a moral law to avoid evil and to do good, then a lawgiver exists, and ultimately a First Lawgiver.
  • Now, man is aware that he is bound by a moral law to avoid evil and to do good.
  • Therefore, a lawgiver exists, and ultimately a First Lawgiver.
  • We call this Lawgiver by the name of “God.”
  • Therefore, God exists.

When a human person ceases to be a baby, when he acquires some responsibility for his acts, he is aware of a requirement which reason itself manifests. He is aware that he is “to avoid evil and to do good.” He may, in many things, ignore this law, but he cannot be ignorant of it. Every sane adult knows inevitably that there is such a thing as good, such a thing as evil, such a thing as duty.

No talk of conventions, of “mores,” of customs, will explain the manifest fact that no man can retain his sanity and honestly consider all things licit. One may call a certain thing evil, another may call it good, a third may call it indifferent. But the point we make is that all men know the meaning of these terms: good, evil, indifferent. Pride may make a stupid man believe that all things are lawful to him; but let another trespass on his rights, and see whether he have not fault to find and complaint to make as against evil done to him. The normal mind recognizes the objective character of moral good and evil. The normal mind acknowledges the truth that there is good, there is evil; that good is to be done and evil avoided.

Well, all this means that there is a moral law. Now a law without a lawgiver is an effect without a cause. And an inescapable law, imposed on our very nature and made manifest by reason, is not the work of a lawgiver who has neither authority nor power. This is the work of a true lawgiver, one who actually can make his law known, and indicate enforcement. It is the work of a mind, of a will, that is, of a personality. There exists then a personal lawgiver for all men. But this must be, in last analysis, the First Lawgiver. This Lawgiver we call God. Therefore, God exists.

8. The Historical Proof

  • If all men of all times have reached the reasoned conclusion that God exists, then He must actually exist.
  • Now, all men of all times have reached the reasoned conclusion that God exists.
  • Therefore, He must actually exist.

When we say “all men of all times” we do not mean each and every individual; we mean men in general. Our assertion is that if belief in God, as a reasoned conclusion, has been a truly common and universal fact among men of all times, then God must exist. For the common consent of men on a matter of reasoned truth expresses the very voice of rational nature; and if this voice be false, we have no alternative but to lapse into the insane contradiction of skepticism.

Men may be deceived about a fact of the material order which they judge too quickly upon appearances; so men have been wrong in judging that the earth is flat or that the sun moves across the sky each day. But when there is question of reasoning from certainly known data, this general error is not possible. Men may be wrong about the flatness of the earth, and about the movement about the sun; but they cannot be wrong in their conclusion that motion requires a mover or that a flat surface is measurable by square measure.

Now, the earth is a plain fact; its limitation and contingency are manifest; its order and design are undeniable. To argue from these facts to the adequate explanation of the facts is to follow a course of reasoning. In such reasoning the whole human race cannot be wrong. That all men have actually reasoned to the existence of God is plain from the fact that all men have had some idea of divinity as a power in control, a supra-mundane power. Even belief in false gods, or in many gods, is proof of the point.

We do not assert that all men of all times have known the true God, or have known the true God truly. We do assert that all men of all times have had, as a reasoned conclusion, a conviction of divinity, of deity, of God. The voice of natural reason thus proclaims the existence of God, and this voice is not deceiving. Therefore, God exists.

9. Indirect Proof

  • A truth is proved indirectly when one shows that its denial leads to impossible consequences.
  • Now, the denial of the truth of God’s existence is atheism.
  • Atheism leads to impossible consequences.
  • Atheism therefore cannot be true.
  • And if atheism cannot be true, theism must be true.

Atheism cannot be true because it cannot even be formulated as a positive doctrine. Man’s mind cannot rest in sheer denial. The atheist never utterly denies God; he replaces God by something inferior, which he calls nature, or energy, or forces, or immanence, or even chance. Now, a doctrine which consists of sheer denial is not a doctrine at all, and, as we have seen, it cannot even be formulated as a doctrine. Hence, it is not true, for truth is expressible in a positive statement.

The atheist cannot go on forever saying that God is not, and that the world, its contingency, its order, its design, and all the rest, are not to be explained by ultimate recourse to God. And the atheist, forgetting that he has nothing else to do but deny (for this is impossible), goes on to preach a positive doctrine which amounts to theism. For if “nature” explains things, then the atheist means by “nature” what we mean by “God,” although he probably gives a narrow and imperfect character to “nature” — that is, he sets up inferior gods. But some gods he inevitably sets up.

Atheism is not true because it conflicts with reason. Reason rests upon a sure principle that “everything that exists has a sufficient reason for existing.” There must be an explanation of the world, of bodies, of human life. And the minute a sufficient reason is assigned for any of these things, a god is set up. For the world of bodies does not explain itself; and if it did, the world itself would be a god. The idea of Godhead, of deity, is wholly inescapable.

Atheism is not true because it conflicts with man’s best tendencies. It is in the right and reasonable recognition of his character as a creature, as one therefore bound to look with reverence and gratitude to a Creator, that man shows the best that is in him.

Atheism cannot be true, for it destroys all morality. If there is no God, then man is not answerable to any ultimate authority, and all he needs is craft to avoid being taken up by the police. Morality is then either a set of rule of etiquette, or a code of civil laws. And neither of these bodies of rules would have any true warrant for existing; they would both be imposed by tyranny. Now, any doctrine which cuts away the solid foundation of morality is a false doctrine, for it contradicts the requirements of man’s life, — of his mind or reason, of his will, of his affections. Atheism therefore is a false doctrine.

No, if atheism is false, then theism is true. God exists.

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The late Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty was the Founder and President of The Center for Applied Philosophy and the Radical Academy, and is Honorary Philosophy Editor at Self-Educated American. Self-Educated American has adopted these projects beginning with a republishing and preserving of all of Dr. Dolhenty’s work.

Copyright ©1992 -2011 The Radical Academy. Copyright renewed in 2011 -2013 © The Radical Academy (a project of Self-Educated American).