By Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.
Welcome to another discussion of “The Great Ideas.” Today we’re going to consider the idea of God. It should not surprise you to learn that the idea of a Supreme Being is itself supreme among “The Great Ideas.” In the Syntopicon where we were working on the 102 Great Ideas of Western thought we found this out as we went through all of the 102 ideas, we found that the idea of God was the idea to which there were more references in the literature of western writings, poetry, philosophy, theology and science and references by more diverse authors, different kinds of authors than occurred in the case of any other idea; both in the extent of the references and the variety of the references, the discussion of God is the largest single discussion that has gone on in the intellectual tradition of the West.
Now in this extraordinary discussion over twenty-five centuries there are four main questions that have been raised and debated. The first is, does God exist? The second is, what is God’s nature? What is God like? The third is, can we know God’s existence and nature? Can we know God’s existence and nature independent of revelation and religious faith by the operation of reason, by the natural processes of knowing? And finally, the fourth question is, what is God’s relation to the world and to man?
Now to these four principle questions there are a number of answers, the names of which I think you are acquainted with. Let me do this very quickly to just remind you of the fundamental positions that men have taken on these four questions. To the first question, does God exist? The basic issue is between the atheist who says that God does not exist and all forms of affirmation. There are many varieties and many different ways in which men affirm the existence of God. All of these are opposed to the atheist.
Next to the question, what is God’s nature? What is God like? Some of the fundamental oppositions, not all, some are the oppositions between the polytheist who thinks of the divinity and the plurality of forms and the monotheist who says that God is one. And among monotheists as we know in the West, there are those who are Unitarian, that the divine nature is absolutely simple; and Trinitarian, who find in the divine nature three persons in the Godhead, as in the case of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. And then there are those who think of God as an impersonal force in the universe and those who talk of a personal God. A God which is a spiritual being and a spiritual being having an intellect and will in whose image man is made.
Next, to the question, can we know God? Can we know God’s existence and nature by the natural processes of our minds? There is the answer first of all given by the agnostic who denies not that God exists but who denies that we can know that God exists or what God is like. And he is opposed by all, all those who in various ways claim to have knowledge, natural knowledge of God.
And finally, to the question, how is God related to the world and to man? There is the double opposition here first between the deist and the theist. Deism holds that God having created the world, set laws for it to obey and no longer governs it, is not concerned with it by His providence, does not watch every–as the saying goes–His eye is not on every sparrow. Whereas the theist holds that God not only created the world but governs it from moment to moment and that the divine providence is concerned with every aspect of the world in which we live.
Then there is the other issue between the theist and the pantheist. According to the theist, God is in the world but also transcends it. He’s in it by His power but He’s not identified with it. He transcends the world. There is God and the world. Whereas according to the pantheist, the world and God are coextensive, in a sense, God’s whole being is in the world, the world is itself the body of the Divine Being.
But first, we must ask about God’s nature before we ask about God’s existence. We must have some meaning for the term “God.” We must use that word “God” with some definite significance before there’s any way we can reasonably inquire whether the thing we are naming and signifying by the word “God” actually exists. For certainly if what God is is unknown to us and unknowable to us, then the word “God” can have no meaning and there could be no sense to the question, “Does God exist?”
I want you to note something here. It is possible to give the word “God” very definite meaning in our minds without begging the question whether God exists. No matter how we conceive God, how definite our conception is, that still leaves quite open the question whether the thing we are conceiving, the object of our conception really actually exists outside our minds and independently of our thinking.
Now when we ask the question, “What does the word ‘God’ mean,” how do we think of God? What is our conception of God? Three basic possibilities occur. And I think that these three possibilities are quite exhaustive. First, it is possible for us to think of God as totally, I emphasize the word “totally”, as totally unlike anything else we know, totally unlike anything else we know. But if we think of God this way then we can have no definite conception of God. For if God is totally unlike anything else we know, we have no way of going to the things we know to our understanding of God. That is, we can have no carry over. We can attach no meanings to any of our settled meanings and understanding. Hence if we take this possibility, we eliminate any further inquiry into the existence of God.
Now we can go to the opposite extreme. We can go to the opposite extreme and think of God as essentially like, as essentially like everything else we know. Most of the things we know in the world, most of the things in our experience are corporeal, finite, mutable, sensible, imperfect, changing in time. Now if we say that God is essentially like all the things we know from our experience, we must be saying of God that God too is finite and corporeal and mutable and imperfect.
Now what are the consequences of thinking of God this way? Well, if we think of God this way, then first of all, God’s existence should be as knowable to us as any of the other things we know that are finite and corporeal and mutable and physical and sensible. But clearly this is not the case. Everyone, everyone understands no matter what else he knows or what else he thinks that God’s existence is not as known to us or as knowable to us as all the things in the world that are experienced. Moreover, moreover this attribution to God of finiteness and corporeality and mutability, these characteristics that are common with all the things of our experience violates, I think, anyone’s sense of the notion of divinity. And it certainly violates the conception of divinity that is to be found in any of the western religions.
Now there is a third possibility, a middle ground between these extremes. I started out you know by saying at one extreme one could take the position that God is totally unlike any of the things in our experience. At the other extreme you could take the position that God is essentially like. Now then the middle ground would be to say that God is both like and unlike, both like and unlike the things we know, the things of our ordinary, everyday experience.
Now when you say this you’ve got to ask two further questions. How is God unlike the things in our experience and how is God like the things of our experience? The answers are God is unlike the things of our experience, the things we know in our daily experience in those respects in which we recognize them to be the very opposite of divine. That is, the things we must say negatively of God are these: we must say that God is not finite as the things of our experience are, that God is not corporeal as the things of our experience are, that God is not mutable as the things of our experience are, that God is not imperfect as the things of our experience are. In other words, all of these negative attributions must be made if this is the way in which we must understand God as being unlike the things of our experience.
How then is God like the things of our experience? Here we must say that God is like them only in that respect which must be common to whatever is, which must be common to whatever is. Now whatever is, has being. And therefore we must say of God if we’re going to say that God is like the things of our experience in any respect, that God at least has being and whatever properties belong to a thing in so far as it has being, only in this respect are we entitled to say that God is like the things of our experience.
Now this leads us, I think, to a profound understanding of how we must conceive God. For perfectly as the purpose appears if not to all of us that we must not only conceive God as a being, I don’t mean an existent one yet because all I’ve talked about is a being, possible being or an actual being, either way; if we conceive God as a being, we are only conceiving God if we conceive of God as a supreme being. And when we say that we conceive of God as a supreme being or as the Supreme Being, some things follow almost at once from this.
A very famous argument arises at this point called the ontological argument of Saint Anselm. Let me state it for you. Saint Anselm asks us to start thinking about God as a Supreme Being. And when we think of God as a Supreme Being, Saint Anselm says what we are doing is thinking of that than which nothing greater can be conceived. Because certainly if we really are conceiving a Supreme Being, we must be conceiving a being than which nothing greater can be conceived. Because if something greater can be conceived then it is not a Supreme Being we are conceiving. Hence if we conceive of a Supreme Being, we must be conceiving of that than which nothing greater can be conceived. Is that clear? All right now.
Then there are two alternatives. As we conceive of this supreme being as that than which nothing greater can be conceived, either we conceive it as not existing or conceive it as existing. Let’s take the first alternative. If we conceive it as not existing, then it is not that than which nothing greater can be conceived because we could conceive of another being who had all the attributes of this one and also existence. And if it has this additional attribute of existence, this additional perfection, it is a greater than this one. Hence in order to really conceive a being truly supreme, a being which is that than which nothing greater could be conceived, we must conceive that being as existing. In other words, it is necessary to conceive God as an existing being.
Notice now I did not say this proves God’s existence. Far from it. It only shows us how we must conceive God. It is not possible to conceive God in an accurate sense and conceive God as not existing. If we conceive God as a Supreme Being, a being that than which nothing greater can be conceived, we must conceive God as an existing being. This does not prove that the being we have thus conceived exists. That is the question we must come back to now.
As we do so, let me remind you of the alternatives on this fundamental question. There is the alternative of the position taken by the atheist who says that from the very nature of things we can see that God, conceived as a supreme and perfect being, does not exist. The atheist usually argues from the existence of evil in the world and tries to infer, tries to reason that the existence of the evil in the world about us tends to show or prove that a perfect or benevolent God, a good God does not exist. I want to call your attention to the fact that the atheist never shows or tries to show that a Supreme Being cannot exist. He never tries to show that it’s impossible for a Supreme Being conceived as a necessary being to exist.
Then there is the position of the agnostic who says that from the very nature of God as conceived, in the manner in which I’ve suggested He be conceived, we cannot possibly know whether God does exist or not. But the very nature of God being transcendent, infinite, beyond our range of apprehension is such a being that even as we conceive it we could tell that we couldn’t know whether it’s a being that exists or not.
And finally the third alternative is a position of the philosophical theist, the person who says that looking both at the nature of things and at the nature of God it is possible to infer from the nature of things that a God thus conceived as having the nature of a necessary being does exist.
Now how is such an inference made? How do men reason in this way? I would like to try to show you that now. And I’m going to try to show it to you by explaining an argument or expounding an argument which runs, to put it to you very quickly and briefly in the following manner, that we can infer that a necessary being exists because the existence of a necessary being is required as the cause of the existence of the finite, corporeal, mutable beings we know all around us to exist.
Now in order to state this argument clearly for you, you have to bear in mind the distinction between two fundamental terms in the argument. The first is the meaning of the term “necessary being.” And I’m going to use a circle as the symbol of a necessary being. Now what we mean by a necessary being is a being which cannot not exist. A being of which it is impossible for it not to exist. A being whose very nature is to exist so that its existence follows immediately from its nature. As opposed to a necessary being, I’m going to use the phrase “contingent being.” The very opposite of a necessary being in the following sense, a contingent being is a being which may or may not exist. There is nothing about it which requires that it exist. Sometimes it does exist; sometimes it does not exist. It comes to be and passes away.
You and I, for example, are quite aware that we are contingent beings not necessary beings. We’re aware that we are on the edge of nothingness. In fact, only by holding onto our existence that we don’t fall away into nothingness. And that sense of being surrounded by nothingness, of coming from nothingness, going back into nothingness is our sense of our own contingent being. In other words, that we may or may not exist. Our natures do not require us to exist. Existence doesn’t follow immediately from what we are. And all the things around us are like this. And I’m going to use this symbol; this little opened square as the symbol of a contingent being.
Now when you understand this distinction in necessary and contingent beings, you see one thing at once, that a contingent being needs a cause of its existence at every moment of its existence. For if its existence does not follow from what it is, if its existence does not follow from its nature, then something else outside its nature must cause its existence. And so I’m going to use this arrow drawn as to have the arrow point right into the being itself, into the square, as a sign of the cause of the existence of the contingent being. In contrast, the necessary being is one which does not need a cause of its existence. For what we mean by a necessary being, let me say again, is one, the very nature of which it is to exist. Whereas a contingent being is not one, the very nature of which it is to exist and so needs a cause of its being, a cause of its existence.
Now that phrase, “cause of existence” is a very important phrase to distinguish in meaning from the phrase, “cause of the becoming of something.” Would you think normally that the parents of a child are the cause of that child’s existence? Normally you would. You’d say, “Yes, they cause the child to exist.” No. They don’t cause the child to exist; they caused the child to come into existence. And the moment after, the very moment after the child comes into existence, both parents can die and the child goes on existing. That kind of cause I call–let me diagram it this way–it doesn’t go into the very being of the thing. It’s external. It is a cause of the changing of something. It is the cause of the coming to be or the passing away of something. A cause of existence must continue to cause existence as long as the thing exists. And so, parents are not the cause of the child’s existence since the child continues to exist long after the parents do not exist and they cease to operate as causes.
Now I want you to notice this now. That a contingent being is one which requires the cause of its existence to cause its existence at every moment of its existence. Now with these distinctions let me name three propositions for you about these two kinds of beings. The first proposition is that contingent beings do exist. You and I are contingent beings. We may or may not exist. We come into being and pass away. We exist, chairs, tables, trees, cats and dogs, all of these are contingent beings. They exist. So the proposition contingent beings exist is true, is it not?
And the second proposition is from the very understanding of how contingent being that every contingent being needs a cause of its existence every moment of its existence.
And the third proposition is that no contingent being can cause the existence of another. I didn’t say that a contingent being, a parent, for example, could not cause the coming to be of a child. I only said that a parent, which is a contingent being, doesn’t cause the existence of a child. That parent, so long as the parent exists, also needs a cause of its existence. I’m only saying here now that no other contingent being can cause the existence of any other contingent being.
Now one more proposition. And that proposition is that whenever the effect exists, the cause required for the existence of the effect must also exist. Now with those propositions I can state the reasoning to show that God exists. The reasoning runs as follows. In fact, you already have it in mind. All I’m going to do now is put it in good order. Here are the propositions. First, if the existence of an effect, listen to the ifs, if the existence of an effect implies the existence of its required cause; second, and if contingent things exist; and third, and if everything contingent, if everything contingent must have a cause of its existence at every moment of its existence; and fourth, if no contingent thing can cause the existence of another contingent thing, you can’t put a contingent thing here as the cause of existence of this but only can put a contingent thing as the cause of the becoming or change of a contingent thing. Then if these things are true then it follows that a necessary being exists as the cause of the existence of each contingent thing at every moment of its existence.
Let me repeat the argument again for you now. If the existence of an effect implies the existence of its required cause and if contingent things exist and if everything contingent must be caused to exist and if no contingent thing can ever cause the existence of another contingent thing, then it follows that a necessary being exists as the cause of the existence of the contingent things known by us to exist.
Does this argument which I’ve just been expounding to you by means of these diagrams prove the existence of God conceived as the Supreme Being and therefore as a necessary being? Let me say it once that it would prove the existence of God if all the premises in the chain of reasoning could be known by us or asserted by us as true. If all those ifs that I stated in that chain of the argument could be asserted as really true, then I think the person who asserted them as true would be entitled to say he knew God’s existence as the conclusion of a rational process of proof or inference.
Now philosophers and theologians differ about this. Some philosophers and theologians think that we can assert all these premises as true and therefore that we can know by our reasoning that God exists. Other philosophers and theologians doubt, very seriously doubt that we can assert the truth of these premises and therefore they think that we are in grave doubt, as far as our own natural knowledge goes, about God’s existence.
Now my own view here is neither the one nor the other of these two extremes. I think of the four premises or propositions that constitute the body of the argument, I am clear and certain about two of them. I am clear that contingent things, things like you and me or trees and stone, that such things exist. I am also clear that if the effect exists, the cause required for its existence must exist. These two things I’m clear about. But when I come to the proposition that contingent things need a cause of their existence, I have some difficulty understanding that because I’m not sure I know the difference, really understand the difference between cause of existence and cause of becoming. And the most difficult proposition of all for me to understand is the proposition that contingent things cannot cause the existence of anything, they can only cause the motion or change or becoming of things but not the existence of anything.
Now I think that some people are better able to understand these matters than I am. And for people who can understand them better than I, think it is fair to say that they in their understanding really understand and know the truth about God’s existence. I would go so far as to say that even for persons like myself with a weaker understanding of the truth of these propositions, I have some rational grounds for a certain that God exists even though I have to make a leap, a leap beyond those rational grounds to a belief. My reason carries me just so far being weak. My understanding doesn’t carry me the whole way yet. My understanding and reason carry me far enough so that I’m entitled as a rational man, as a reasonable man am entitled to make a leap beyond reason to the belief that God exists. And when I make this leap, I think I make it not to a belief in the God of the philosophers but I think the God I believe to exist is the God that is worshipped by the religions of the West. As Pascal says and other philosophers, “The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”
This is a transcription from the original television series (1953-54). Copyright 1997 by the Center for the Study of The Great Ideas
[Great Books of the Western World GBotWW=”1″]