Does God exist?

“Spinoza does not have to prove the existence of God; existence IS God.”

~ Goethe, Letter to Jacobi, 1785

There is a prior question to the question of whether God or Gods exist:

“when you speak of God or Gods existing or not existing, what in particular are you speaking about?”

If we assume that what is meant by God is an old man in the sky with possibly infinite powers, watching over us and occasionally intervening, few people would be interested in the question.

In a similar kind of vein, it may be tempting to think of a creator God as the “first cause”. Does this lead to an infinite regress? Because if God is the first cause then what caused God? Perhaps the point we might want to make is that this infinite regress is God. God is the cause that doesn’t need to be caused. Such ideas were dismissed by Kant and Heidegger. (See the Mary-Jane Rubenstein video below.)

Apparently three (not very interesting) principle arguments have be expounded which argue for the existence of God:

(1) The Design Argument and related to this the Fine Tuning Argument argues that the nature of the universe (such as the value of cosmological constant, the gravitational constant G, and so on) and the objects and organisms in it (such as the physiology of animals) imply the existence of a benevolent God (who set the parameters exactly right so as to make us possible). This is partly what appears to bother some of the physicists who are now pursuing Multiversal theories — see discussion below.

(2) The First Cause Argument requires “less evidence” (of the scientistic kind) that the Design / Finetuning argument— it argues only for the existence of God as an explanation that something exists rather than nothing.

(3) The Ontological Argument does not rely on (scientistic) evidence. Instead it argues that the existence of God necessarily follows, a priori, from the definition of God as the supreme being.

Each of these arguments for the existence of God shows itself up to be a not very interesting argument for the existence of a God of a particular kind: abstract, remote, theoretical — a “god of the philosophers”.

“Give me the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and not the God of the Philosophers.” ~ Blaise Pascal

So how does the “God of the philosophers” differ from the God of Abraham?

“Their God was a present God, having all the positive possible properties, the Good in Plato. As they sometimes said a God that the mind could contemplate. Pascal said our God is a hidden God. He’s never present. You can’t see him. The whole Jewish thing — you can’t make pictures of them. Moses only got to see his backside as a special favour at one point. That’s a very hidden kind of God and that’s important. If you don’t understand that you don’t understand this whole tradition. Because the point is you can prove the existence of God and you can prove the non-existence of God. That’s what they’ve been doing but they haven’t realised that that shows that God’s not available for that kind of understanding. [This being the Judeo-Christian that’s opposed to the Platonic and the middle ages.] You could say God was the unrepresentable and that’s the most important thing about God according to Pascal.”

~ Hubert Dreyfus

So if we follow these various philosopher’s arguments for and against the existence of God that have been propounded over the centuries through, we see these arguments are all about the existence of an abstract, remote, theoretical, boring kind of God. The kind of God that no one would really ever be interested in singing or dancing or praying before.

Leaving this kind of theoretical, abstract and emasculated God behind, we may be able to see a more interesting question arising:

“what ways of understanding the nature of God or Gods is most [X] ?”

— where X is whatever you or I value enough to care.

God, we could say, following Peterson (see below), is not so much a question of what is matter? — but more a question of what matters?

Peterson says there are two important questions for us: What is the world made of? and How should we conduct our lives? — and there is no way of deriving an ought from an is.

For example, X could be:
(1) what alleviates most suffering
(2) what provides greatest psychological benefit
(3) what provides the best guide to living the our lives most satisfyingly
(4) what is most beautiful
(5) what provides greatest community benefit or global benefit
(6) what allows us to understand ourselves best
(7) what best reduces conflict between people
(8) what provides the best available understanding of the nature of reality and the nature of human life within that
(9) what gives life most meaning
(10) and so on and so forth

X could be anything you or I value enough to care about the answer.

Here’s some more possible things that we might care about:

Wittgenstein said “God is the meaning of the world”. So, from this perspective, to posit that God does not exist would be to posit that meaning itself does not exist.

For many, their conception of God is something like “the unknowable” or “the unrepresentable”. From this perspective the idea that you could prove or disprove the existence of something (some non-thing) whose very nature defies objectification is obviously missing the point.

For others, God may be the name they give to their highest ideal — the pinnacle of their hierarchy of values. We all have experiences, attitudes, behaviours and things that we value. But some of these values we value more, and some we value less. What name should we give to the value by which we judge all other values? Perhaps God is a good name for this?

And for Pantheists, as hinted in the Geothe quote at the top, God simply is Nature itself. This vision is not one of a super-natural God, but rather a God that expresses itself perfectly through the workings of the natural world just as it is or as we find it.

Below are some videos which helped me to frame some of my own personal understanding of this very interesting and controversial topic.

Hubert Dreyfus

A good clear summary

Mary-Jane Rubenstein

Debunks onto-theology and other various things — a very approachable elucidation.

Richard Rorty

Proposes that religious practice is compatible with scientific practice. Rorty is about a rigorous an academic as you could hope to meet (I mean if he was still around).

By the way, I think Rorty is mistaken in his talk here, where he characterises Heidegger as having given up on the idea of things having intrinsic natures. Understanding how Heidegger was a realist in significant respects is discussed in the following books:

Heidegger’s Being and Time (William Blatner): http://amzn.to/2ciOmMG (I have written a book summary of this book here: https://medium.com/thortspace/heideggers-being-and-time-reader-s-guides-shorter-version-d1635ad1e008

Retrieving Realism (Hubert Dreyfus & Charles Taylor): http://amzn.to/2ccFr3G

Skillful Coping (Hubert Dreyfus): http://amzn.to/2ccFXyH

Groundless Ground (Lee Braver): http://amzn.to/2ciI9Aq

(

A big list (well, sphere) of many of my favourite books with links to Amazon listing pages is here:

)

Related:

https://physicstoday.scitation.org/doi/pdf/10.1063/PT.3.2689

Jordan Peterson

Points out that actions speak louder than words. People may profess to atheist beliefs, even while their actions and the functioning of the society they live in are steeped in ethics derived from the Western Christian tradition.

Ken Wilber

Wilber is slightly flakey in some ways but deeply insightful in many. Wilber seems to think of religious / spiritual practice as a kind of “science of the interior realm”, accessible in a reproducible way by practices such as meditation and yoga.

Emailed response from “a committed Humanist” (published with permission)

(I have made a few clarifying edits to my notes above since I received and published this email.)

Sat, 11 Apr at 12:15
Many thanks Andrew for referring us to your informative web-site, which you obviously have put quite a bit of effort into. However, I would like to make a few comments on the content of your website as follows.
I have copied exactly the text from the website and my comments are in bold italics.

I think, there is something wrong with the above and I will try to put my finger on it.

You say, “when you speak of God or Gods existing or not existing, what in particular are you speaking about?” Not the old man with a white beard in the sky — that’s OK.

Then you say “if you follow the various arguments and counter arguments that have been propounded over the centuries” (the proofs for the existence of God?) the question now somehow changes to “the interesting question becomes: what ways of understanding the nature of God or Gods is most [X] where X is whatever you or I value enough to care.”

So now we are to try to understand the nature of God, but we still don’t know whether he / she / it exists.

Then we are presented with a list of very important questions about what we might value, e.g. “what alleviates most suffering.”

I take all of those questions very seriously, having spent my entire working life trying, in a small way, to alleviate (materially, i.e. crop production) suffering of some of the poorest farmers in the world.

But what are we suppose to do with his list? Are they a wish list for God’s
intervention (it hasn’t worked so far) OR are we supposed to forget about God and concentrate our lives on those questions? (Good idea).

Here’s some more possible things that we might care about:
Wittgenstein said “God is the meaning of the world”.
So, from this perspective, to posit that God does not exist would be to posit that meaning does not exist.

I don’t know the context in which Wittgenstein said the above quote, but taking it at face value as you have done, does that mean, that meaning does not exist for the likes of Bertrand Russell, Stephen Hawking, A.C. Graying, Jim Al Khali, Brian Cox, Stephen Fry, (David Hume?), Sandie Toksvig, Carl Sagan and to too many more people to mention?

For many, their conception of God is something like “the unknowable” or “the unrepresentable”. From this perspective the idea that you could prove or disprove the existence of something (some non-thing) whose very nature defies objectification is obviously missing the point.

I think, to say this is rather convenient!!. Because on the one hand God is
“unknowable” or “unrepresentable” but on the other hand we seem to know a hell of a lot about what God is and wants. In spite of God / deity being something undefined, ineffable, or too mysterious for finite minds, religious defenders actually have a lot to say about such a thing! Not just that it exists, but it has a specifiable nature — it is love, it is omniscient, omnipotent, morally pure, etc. and they know what it requires of mankind in the way of behaviour and commitments. I know I am talking about one interpretation of God (probably the most common), but it seems to me you can’t have it both ways.

Does the Multiverse Exist?

Whereas Peterson speaks for the divine father, I rather suspect that Rubenstein speaks for the divine mother (or an integration of both the divine mother and the divine father)— in what she likes to call Pantheism (a word that was apparently coined as an insult to apply to Spinoza).

At the very least we can say that Rubenstein and Peterson are a good counterpoint to each other. I would love to see them in discussion with each other.

More of the discussion above is here:

The fine tuning problem

The universe is so fit for intelligent life that it must be the product of a powerful, benevolent external deity. Or, as popular theology might put it today: all this can’t be an accident.

Modern physics has also wrestled with this ‘fine-tuning problem’, and supplies its own answer. If only one universe exists, then it is strange to find it so hospitable to life, when nearly any other value for the gravitational or cosmological constants would have produced nothing at all. But if there is a ‘multiverse’ of many universes, all with different constants, the problem vanishes: we’re here because we happen to be in one of the universes that works.

~Mary-Jane Rubenstein, New Scientist

Rubenstein’s Dec 2018 book: “Panthelogies, Worlds and Monsters” is here:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Pantheologies-Worlds-Monsters-Mary-jane-Rubenstein/dp/023118946X

“Spinoza does not have to prove the existence of God. Existence IS God.” ~ Goethe, Letter to Jacobi, 1785

Conclusions

The main thought I started with here was this: In order to say that God, understood in a particular way, does not exist, you need to clarify what particular kind of understanding of God you are arguing against.

If you fail to state explicitly the nature of the entity you are arguing does not exist, then you fall into the trap of tacitly assuming a particular understanding of God, and usually a not very interesting one at that.

Equally if you are to argue for the existence of God, it seems reasonable to ask this same requirement: that you elucidate what in particular you are saying exists.

In both of these cases, my main point (that there is a prior question — see top) stands simply as a request to say what it is you are talking about, when you say that God does or does not exist.

Possibly you might be arguing against the use of the word “God” at all. If God is meaning, or God is nature, or God is the unrepresentable, or God is the highest pinnacle on your hierarchy of values, * etc., then why not just say “meaning”, “nature”, “the unrepresentable”, “highest value” — and avoid use of the G word altogether? Maybe then the “atheists” would be satisfied, and leave us to our religious practices in peace?

* or indeed if God is any of a wide range of possibilities that we might understand God as being ... a character or characters conveyed in mythic stories about Gods and heroes, a question to contemplate in meditation, an experience that arises in an elevated meditative state, ...

My humanist friend, in his email, seems to want to take issue with my main thought, here. He seems to want to deny my freedom to use to the word “God” to mean something that he doesn’t want to allow it to mean.

Also he is suspicious. He suspects that if he accepts my using the word God to mean something other than his boring abstract “God of the philosophers” (the one that “does not exist”), I will use such ways of understanding to smuggle in some other belief about God that he finds even more objectionable. He worries that when he turns his back I might start saying that my understanding of God is worth killing people for, or justifies subjugation of one group of people by another. Perhaps he worries I will use it to justify some lack of intellectual rigour at some point in the future.

It is true that so long as we live in cooperative communities, (as Wittgenstein made rigorous in his thinking about the possibility of a “private language”) we can’t just use words to mean anything we like.

But if my understanding of God, as perhaps a synthesis from many of the voices I have listened to, can be communicated to and understood by a community that I count as adequate, perhaps my humanist friend should consider supporting me in speaking and listening, and exploring, and contemplating, and meditating and investigating, and acting from … a conception of God that I find to be most [X] (see top).

However, perhaps when speaking to a room full of atheists, it is better to just not use the God word. Afterall, most possibilities are translatable into multiple different ways of talking. And just cos I never call him or her or it “God”, that doesn’t need to mean that he or she or it doesn’t exist.

Andrew is a Product Designer at https://medium.com/thortspace - #3D #collaborative #thought_mapping #app. See it more than one way!

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store