I have been prompted to write this essay by conversations with a number
of friends. In particular, I would refer my readers to the excellent presentation
of "The Anthropic Principle" by Dr
Paul Miller; excerpts of which are included in this text.
This question has been central to the life and concerns of humanity
since the earliest days. Perhaps it was at first taken for granted that
God or "the gods" existed. How else could primitive men and women explain
the wonders and horrors of life and the world in which it was played out?
Over time the question has become more contentious as many have come to
believe that belief itself is at least misguided and delusional
and at most pathological. Before considering the arguments in favour of
"the existence of God" (not all of which I approve of or agree with!) I
shall review some of the arguments against belief in God, and before
that I shall address the prime issue "What is God?"
What is God?
Note first that I ask what and not who is God. This discussion
is not going to be getting to the God of any (ostensibly) "revealed religion".
I am here dealing with the God of "natural theology" or metaphysics. Although,
a Catholic I believe in a personal God,
I shall endeavour not to involve any such notion in what follows. The concept
of God I will be dealing with is that of some source of being or reality
or value that is "out there" and distinct from "the Cosmos". A source of
reality that is itself not dependent upon or derivative for its being on
any thing that we could experience. Of course, the "gods" of some religions
don't qualify as candidates for such a God. Indeed, the kind of "God" that
some Christians informally profess belief in doesn't either!
Some believers are happy to attribute to God dependencies upon the Cosmos
that make the "divinity" nothing more than the most elevated of all things:
not absolutely distinct from everything else, but only the greatest thing
of all. This is normally done on the basis of portraying God as compassionate,
loving and caring: all of which I believe God to be, in a fundamentally
important but not simple sense. The ultimate version of this doctrine is
"patripassionism", the notion that God the Father suffered in the crucifixion
of Jesus; something that was unequivocally condemned by the Early
Fathers of the Church. Such a "divinity" is simply not divine. At best
it is the "demi-urge" of Gnosticism, an instrument that God might use to
do the dirty work of creation. There are echoes here of Arianism,
the doctrine that the Christ was not God, but only "divine" in the sense
of (very) god-like. There are understandable motives for such a view of
God, as I shall describe in my brief treatment of the "Problem of Pain",
but these do not excuse the simple metaphysical mistake. If God is not
absolutely independent of the Cosmos, utterly other and sovereign then
God isn't God and we are talking incoherent nonsense.
What is existence?
In passing, one should also remark on the word existence. In its Latin
origins, this word means "to stand out proud from", as an embossed pattern
stands out from the smoothness of the bronze shield which it decorates.
As a physicist interested in "scattering theory", this has a particular
resonance, for me. In the formalism that I am familiar with, something
when it differs (locally) from the general environment. Things are simply
deviations from the norm. That norm may itself may be composed of
other smaller things: in a hierarchy of being, on many scales of time and
space. In this strict sense of existence, the question "Does God exist?"
has a trivial answer: "No!" God isn't a thing like this at all.
God is not a part of a greater whole. He cannot be associated or categorized
with anything. God is utterly other. God doesn't inhabit some environment
of things (even Heaven) which can form a backdrop from which God can "stand
out". God doesn't have a context. God is not an actor on a stage. God
is no-thing at all. A better question to ask is simply "Is God?" but
this sounds affected in English. For a discussion of this topic, I recommend
the play "Jumpers" by Tom Stoppard, in which the hero agonizes over this
question at some amusing length.
Some misexplanations of Theism
An emotional crutch
I think that it is manifest that some people choose to profess belief
in some kind of divinity in an attempt to make sense of their lives. Perhaps
they feel unloved, or that life can have no meaning without some great
figurehead "up there". Perhaps they feel overwhelmed by their troubles
or just by the size of the Universe. Whatever the reason, a perceived emotional
for something to be so does not, I am sad to say obviate it to be
so. When I was deeply and pathologically in love, my need for that
love to be requited had no causal effect. I could whisper the magic words
"I love you"
as a mantra as often as I cared to, but they did not achieve the object
that I intensely wished they would. They helped me to get through the agonies
I subjectively endured, but they did not affect objective reality.
Of course, the fact that some people entertain the notion that "God
is" from personal inadequacy does not mean that "God is not." The fact
that many people find such an inadequacy within themselves is rather some
sort of an argument for God's being: but not a very good one, I think.
A support for sanity
This is a more sophisticated and significant version of my first bad reason
for theism. The idea is that as humanity evolved physiological self-consciousness,
and individuals grew aware of their mortality,
the thought that their lives were futile would have inevitably driven
them mad unless a parallel evolution of ideas hadn't developed. This was
the comforting (but erroneous) hypothesis that there was an ultimate
purpose in life: beyond, above and apart from their doomed mortality.
This transcendent significance was labelled "God". So God, on this
account of the matter, is a convenient expedient "developed for us by nature"
to stop us going mad! God is an indispensable component of the mental framework
of any self-conscious rational being: a conceptual antidepressant, if you
I find this highly plausible, except for the fact that there
are many people who profess to be agnostic or atheist, have no notion that
their lives have any lasting or objective significance and yet seem to
maintain their sanity well enough. I'm not sure that I could do this, if
I became unconvinced of God's being: after forty years of theism!
However the fact that they can and do invalidates this argument,
it seems to me. In any case, I would argue that belief in God doesn't really
answer this purpose. The futility of final extinction is no more mitigated
by the fact that "God is" than by the fact that friends and family may
survive one's death - for a while. The horror of the termination of my
particularity of personhood can only be mitigated by a belief in some kind
of continuity of life, experience and activity
Of course, this has most definitely not been a core feature of
all religions. While the Egyptians had a sophisticated doctrine of the
immortality of the soul, the Hebrews got by very well for over a millennium
with no belief in any kind of worth-while after-life. Even in Jesus'
day, the elite Sadducees rejected the novel doctrine of the populist
Pharisee party in this regard [Mat
22:23]. For the Sadducees it was good enough to be faithful to God,
that was its own reward [Psalms 1 & 118].
It was enough to do what was right, because it was right, and to expect
no reward or recompense except - hopefully - some tranquility and prosperity
in this short life [Job 1:8-11, 42:10].
An externalization of parenthood
This is the first of two related psychological theories of theism. It is
the hypothesis that the unsafe dependency of the infant upon its too fallible
parents is transformed into a safe dependency upon a fictional infallible
parent figure, which is called God. This gives security just as it dawns
upon the child that its parents cannot be absolutely relied upon for truth:
or even sustenance and shelter. This is yet another version of the first
two explanations for theism. It has the advantage of not claiming that
it is necessary to externalize parenthood to maintain sanity, but
only that it is a common strategy employed to do so. Hence it cannot be
falsified, and is not strictly speaking scientific: which doesn't make
it silly or wrong!
Moreover, I suppose that there is a core element of truth in it. If
God was not, then perhaps we would invent God. However, this analysis tells
us nothing whatever about whether God is or is not: only about what
our response might be if God was not! In any case St. Paul admits
the relationship between parenthood and God when he says "....I
bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on
earth is named" [Eph 3:14,15].
Finally, I want to say that problems an individual has with their own
parents tend to have a detrimental affect on their attitude towards God,
especially when God is presented to them as a Father (or Mother!) that
they cannot choose and did not choose them as persons, rather than as a
who they can choose and has chosen them knowing exactly who and what they
A projection of the Super-Ego
This is a more abstract variation on the previous hypothesis. Rather than
identifying the origin of the notion of God as "The Parent", God
is said to buttress or justify "conscience". Whatever the origin or purpose
or function of our moral sense, of our self-judgement, values and internal
ideals: we attempt to bolster them by externalizing and promoting them
to the status of decrees of an objective, all-knowing, all-wise and infallible
judge. We can then use this fabrication either as an emotional crutch,
or as a stick to beat our own backs with: as the mood takes us or psychological
I am quite sure that this process takes place. I think it is manifest
in some of the most extreme forms of fundamentalist religion such as Calvinist
Christianity or Conservative Catholicism.
The opium of the masses
The political theorist gives yet another explanation for theism. Namely
that it is a scheme hatched by secular authorities to enslave the rabble
that they rule. On the one hand, God conveniently serves as a source of
ultimate authority which is useful in order to keep the populace in awe
of their rulers, and so subjugated. On the other hand, God can offer the
prospect of "Cloud Cookoo Land" and "pie
in the sky when you die" ["Animal Farm", George
Orwell], and so calm discontent among the downtrodden and disadvantaged.
is the opium of the masses" [Marx].
It is certain that the idea of God has often been used in this way.
Indeed, even leaders of the Catholic Church have done and continue to do
so! However, the fact that something can be misused and exploited
for ill does not mean that it is wrong or mistaken or evil.
A conceptual virus
This is a sophisticated and telling hypothesis. In brief, the notion is
that an evolution of ideas parallels the evolution
of biological species, and that those ideas, hypotheses and beliefs survive
and prosper which are themselves most "fit" to do so. They can prosper
in at least two very different ways:
symbioticaly: by helping their mental owners to survive and prosper,
but not especially procreate - ideas are passed on by conversation not
parasiticaly: by diverting much of their proponents' energy into propagating
perhaps even contrary to their own self-interest.
Perhaps by wasting many leisure hours generating pages of web-site material
This second kind of relationship is parasitic of the individual in much
the same way as is a physiological child, engendered by sexual intercourse.
Theologies majoring in "guilt" and "threats of damnation", certainly
have the required characteristics: but this theory hardly explains the
undoubted success of more gentle religions like Shikism, Buddhism
(where there is no real basis for a concern for the "salvation" of anyone
else other than oneself, and no tradition of missionary zeal) or Judaism
(where no strategy to spread beyond the national boundary of the Jewish
people has ever taken off, other than in the more aggressive "Jewish
heresies" of Christianity and Islam.)
I suspect that it is a dim awareness of the second possibility (of mental
parasitism) that makes many people wary of "The God Squad". Some forms
of religion certainly match up well with the model of a contagious "social
disease". The evangelical preoccupation with proselytism conforms closely
to this paradigm.
Of course, Christianity claims to be "good news": to have a message
that gives the clue to the living of a fulfilling life. The simple pleasure
and satisfaction of seeing others discover the same truth and delight that
oneself has benefited from is a coherent motive for "passing it on". A
shared joy is a joy multiplied. A problem that I agonize with is how much
I do or don't wish various close non-Catholic friends to become Catholics.
As a faithful Catholic, I believe that it is objectively
right for them to do so. As a realistic person I fear that it may be
subjectively harmful for them to do so. In the present state of the Church,
they are liable to receive only emotional hurt and intellectual misdirection;
and to suffer greatly for no clear purpose. I cannot wish that fate on
The problem of pain
It is with much trepidation that I attempt any account of this subject.
I consider that it is the central problem of religion; or at least of
the justification of God's ways to Man's judgement. Some would argue that
it is not for (wo)men to judge God. I vehemently disagree and will argue
against such a position below. I think that I am in good company here,
namely Abraham [Gen 18:23-33]
and Moses [Ex
32:9-14], the two men who are specifically
The problem is familiar to any but the most callous and hard-hearted
soul. It is this: "How can a God that is supposed to be both good and omnipotent
tolerate evil, death, sickness, suffering, injustice and pain? Either God
mustn't care about such matters: in which case God isn't good; or God is
unable to do anything: in which case God isn't omnipotent."
It is possible to avoid this difficulty by taking one of the two gambits
offered. Now, it may be possible to make some sort of a case for either
a good but impotent God, or for an omnipotent but disinterested God: but
I have no interest in doing so. This paper is not an attempt to score debating
points, but rather to make an attempt on the truth. My intuition, fostered
by the Judaeo-Christian Tradition, is that God is both good and
omnipotent. I wish to explore how this can be, given our undoubted experience
of sorrow and sickness
Clearly, the following partial answers can be proposed:
Some suffering and pain is self-inflicted, and is not God's responsibility.
For God to prevent this pain would involve Him substantially interfering
with human Free-Will. A loving but omnipotent
God has to accept such suffering in His Cosmos and respond to it as an
independent agent: that is by miraculous intervention, as God judges to
be appropriate. The only alternative would have been to refrain from creating
Human suffering was not part of God's "original plan" (whatever
this might mean!) Adam and Eve, Catholic Dogma
teaches, had preternatural gifts (along the lines of paranormal powers)
which would have enabled them to foresee, avoid and prevent much, if not
all, pain. They lost these gifts as an immediate consequence of choosing
to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. On this account, most if not
all human suffering is the fault of humanity!
Some suffering is inevitable in any Cosmos. The physics complexities
that conspire to make a suitable environment for Life unavoidably have
instabilities and other consequences that are experienced as "Earthquakes",
"Tornadoes", "Meteor Impacts", "Cancer", "Bubonic Plague" and the like.
If God acted to systematically prevent such occurrences, their absence
would eventually be noticed and become an overwhelming proof of continual
and direct "supernatural" Divine Intervention.
On the assumption that it is vital that the evidence for God's being is
avoidable, this is unacceptable. The occasional (or even frequent!)
miracle does not have this effect, as any reasonable number of miracles
can always be reasonably dismissed as "as yet unexplainable coincidences"
or "good luck".
Some forms of pain are essential parts of life. The very concept
of "animal life" implies the destruction of other life (food) in order
to construct and preserve itself. Even plant life is competitive and strives
against other plant life to obtain and secure resources, as any gardener
well knows. Life as we know it necessarily involves suffering. According
to my definition of life: "order in flux", competition
for resources is inevitable. Nature is red in tooth and claw neither because
She wants to be so, nor because God chose for Her to be so:
but because there is no other way for life to be!
"For the creation waits with eager longing for
the revealing of the children of God. For the creation was subjected
to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected
it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage
to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until
now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first
fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption
of our bodies."
[Rom 8 19-23]
So according to St Paul, the present natural state of affairs is
to be seen as provisional. It is a temporary subjection of created
being to the process of evolution in order to bring life to birth.
The painful process is justified by the end in view, its teleological
hope. The temporary distancing of the human soul
from God that is characteristic of mortal life on Earth has a similar justification.
It too is painful, it too has a resolution: in the Beatific Vision. Of
course, it is arguably Man's job to mitigate the pain:
"The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden
of Eden to till it and keep it." [Gen
to turn the Darwinian wilderness into the Garden of Paradise, where all
creatures have their rightful place and needful resources, and can prosper
"The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard
shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling
together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall
feed; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw
like the ox. The sucking child shall play over the hole of the asp, and
the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder's den. They shall not
hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of
the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea." [
In the context of eternal life, suffering experienced in this mortal
life can always be compensated for. Through Isaiah, God promises:
"For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth;
and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind. But
be glad and rejoice for ever in that which I create; for behold, I
create Jerusalem a rejoicing, and her people a joy. I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
and be glad in my people; no more shall be heard in it the sound of
weeping and the cry of distress .... They shall not labour in vain,
or bear children for calamity; for they shall be the offspring of the blessed
of the LORD, and their children with them. Before they call I will answer,
while they are yet speaking I will hear. The wolf and the lamb shall feed
together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; and dust shall be the serpent's
food. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, says the
LORD." [Isa 65:17-19,23-25]
St John the Divine sees this prophecy fulfilled at the end of time:
"Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will
dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be
with them; He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall
be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more,
for the former things have passed away." [Apoc
From this point of view, there is no important "Problem of Pain". No-one
will have anything to complain about in the long-term! Everyone will receive
abundant compensation for whatever suffering they have endured.
"I consider that the sufferings of the present
time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us"
However, it seems to me that even transitory suffering has to be justified,
have a purpose or be unavoidably necessary. I do not believe that God takes
the callous attitude "I can't be bothered to make your present life any
easier, though I could do so, I suppose. You will just have to show a bit
of patience. I'll get round to making it up to you after you die".
Death is generally seen to be the greatest evil. It is nothing of the
kind, if it is not the extinction of personal identity, but rather
the transition to the next stage of its existence. Murder is the greatest
crime not because it inflicts the greatest harm on its victim, but
because it is the greatest misappropriation of authority on the part of
The Christian God does not stand by as an impassive onlooker. In
Jesus, God chose to experience the last dregs
of physical and intellectual and emotional pain [Mat
27:46]. Whoever is to blame for suffering, the impassible God chose
to become passible and so bear the whole of the pain of physicality, finitude
and futility in his own Sacred Heart.
This is the core message of the doctrine of the Incarnation.
It should also be noted that even though we have seen that God is impassible,
this does not mean quite what it might seem. Just as the Incarnation enables
God the Son (and through Him, the other persons of the Trinity) to experience
first hand the joys and pains of human life; so God could more generally
experience what it is to be contingent through various energies:
created effluences which God inhabits and through which God interacts with
the created order.
Examples might be Abraham's Angelic visitors
18]; Moses' Burning Bush [Ex
3:2]; the Cloud of God's Glory [Ex
24:15-18, 40:34-35; II Chron 5:14]; and Ezekiel's Throne of Majesty
Much pain and suffering can be transformed into a positive experience,
if only a suitable attitude is adopted towards it. Hence the problem of
pain isn't quite as bad as it would seem. However, I do not think that
this partial truth does justice to the sufferings of starving children
in Ethiopia or sub-Saharan Africa, for example. They are too young to comprehend
such a philosophy or to draw any comfort from it. I do not think it proper
to tell someone who is starving to death that their suffering is all a
matter of perspective, and that they should exercise themselves in adopting
a "positive attitude" to their hunger. Neither do I think that it proper
to tell the starving that they are suffering as a result of "bad karma"
accumulated in earlier lives. Jesus tells us explicitly to seek to alleviate
not just accept it as part of reality [Mat
It can be hoped that God has created "The best of all possible worlds",
no matter how unconvincing this may seem. We cannot judge this, for the
We don't know the alternatives open to God (apart from "this world" and
We can't conceive with any degree of certainty what God's objective was
in creating the Cosmos. All simple answers, such as "God was lonely" are
too naive to be given any credence.
We can't justify any measure of what "best" might be! Even if it was clear
that it was the overall sum of all joy and pleasure and fun minus all sorrow
and pain and misery (which it isn't!) then how such a formula be evaluated?
The philosophical problems involved are immense and varied. I will restrain
myself from discussing them here.
In the end, this is a matter of faith. Once one comes to believe (against
some considerable evidence!) that God is just, then one has no choice but
to trust God, even when it seems to be nonsensical to do so. One
believes in spite of the immediate evidence: because of past personal
experience; abstract intellectual conviction; the testimony of Tradition
and the witness of the contemporary Christian Fellowship (the Church).
Personally, I find the above remarks sufficient to answer the question
I have put forward. I accept that the answers I have given are neither
complete nor adequate. I suggest that a little reflection tells one that
no better kind of answer is possible. After all, we are on the inside of
the problem and so cannot be objective. I know that the occasional cry
of my heart "Oh dear God, why did you make, us when our lives are so full
of tears?" is adequately answered, for me, by the promise of Jesus: "Behold,
I make all things New" [Apoc 21:5],
and this I choose to believe.
Some mistaken ideas of God
One response to the problem of pain is to distance God from responsibility
for and involvement with the Cosmos. The God of Deism is a remote figure
who "watches from a distance" [Julie
Gold], with no particular interest in and certainly no commitment
to "the world that He created"
[Queen]. This is, I think, a logical possibility, and I will not
attempt to refute it here. Of course, it is quite foreign to the Judaeo-Christian
tradition; and incompatible with the idea that God is either loving or
just: but I do not seek to establish either of these propositions here,
dear though they both be to my heart!
Another response to the presence of evil in the world is to hypothesize
that it has a primary source, other than God. This may be Arhiman of the
ancient and noble Parsee (Zoroastrian) religion or "Lord Foul" of Stephen
Donaldson's mythical "Land" [The "Unbeliever" series
of fantasy books]. This makes it possible to insulate God from all
possibility of moral blame. The Judaeo-Christian tradition has always rejected
this. While Satan is a feature of their theologies, the Devil and demons
are only "bit players", they are nothing more than examples of denizens
of entirely spiritual realms who are wrongdoers in the same way
that (wo)men are. Such is the Tolkein's vision of Sauron in his classic
"The Lord of the Rings". While Satan (Sauron) may be responsible for tempting
many humans (the Ring Wraiths) to sin [Gen 3:1, Job
1:6], his responsibility is not different in kind from the responsibility
that a lesser being, for example Saruman, can have in leading others down
the wide road to "The Destruction".
According to the Christian tradition, evil is not a "thing in itself",
a "substance" that can infect, possess or subvert other things, as vividly
portrayed as a smoking coal in the film "The Time Bandits" [Terry
Gillian] or as the "Illearth Stone" in the book of that name [Steven
Donaldson]. Rather evil is a defect in reality, a distortion of
the truth: a disordering of things that are in themselves entirely
good, simply because they are. Evil is a lie, as good is the truth.
It is not true to say that good and evil are two sides of the same coin,
or that each requires the other in order to exist: stand out from its background.
Good is peace, harmony and wholeness: "Shalom", and has no need for conflict,
discord or disease for its excellence to be manifest. On the contrary,
even in the greatest evil there is necessarily a core of good. The most
perverted act is a misguided attempt to obtain what is perceived to be
of benefit. Evil wishes for its own good, and is (sadly) reinforced in
its wickedness by its inevitable failure to achieve this desired end.
Because evil is not a substance (any more than is good, for that matter!)
there is no need to hypothesize a source for it. While good isn't a substance,
the Christian tradition identifies it with "being in itself": the ultimate
good of any-thing is simply to exist, the purpose of Life is to Live! God,
while no-thing: is Being [Ex 3:14]
is Good [Mk 10:18] is Love
[1Jn 4:8]. This analysis contrasts starkly with that of Buddhism,
which tends to identify existence with striving, suffering and pain (so:
existence is evil, not good; and God is not!) and prescribes
the pursuit of passivity and non-existence (blending back into the background)
as the practical answer to the Problem of Pain.
The source of order and meaning
It may seem odd that I give this as an example of a mistaken idea of God.
My point is this: the Problem of Pain can be improperly dealt with by redefining
what is "good" and "nobel" and "just" and "loving" as being whatever
God says it is. This is a cop out! Over two millennia ago, Socrates
asked the question "is piety that which the gods approve of; or rather
do the gods approve of piety?" He meant: is that which is good good because
of an extrinsic arbitrary diktat from heaven, or is it rather that
heaven recognizes what is good as an objective observer, and then recommends
it to us as a friend would? If one says that the purpose of everything;
all goodness and beauty; justice, the standard of what is right and wrong:
"the meaning of it all" are derivative of the Will of God, then one makes
God into a despot. He is free of all responsibility to explain Himself
to us; to set us any kind of example of morality in His dealings with us;
to accept challenge from us. The Problem of Pain does not arise. God is
loving and just only so far as our limited concepts happen to match
up with God's inscrutable nature, and what might seem to us to be reprehensible,
is "in fact" legitimate - just because God chooses to say that it is
Of course, as God is, ex hypothesis, the basis, origin and creative
source of the Cosmos: it is God that determined (to within whatever freedom
logic allowed) the specifics of its constitution. God inevitably decided
"what was good", in the sense that God may have chosen to create one of
a number of possible self consistent realities. To this extent, God rules
His Cosmos by diktat. God decided which Universe to make: this one and
no other (setting aside the possibility that God has made many Universes).
God is answerable to no-one other than God, outside of the Act of Creation:
though in that very act, God took on board a moral responsibility for and
towards what God created. The fact that God made a Cosmos in which sentient
beings consider that a maker has a responsibility of care towards the made
the film "A.I."] tells a great deal about the character of God.
Finally, it is good simply to be. God cannot possibly vary or spin
this. God is being in itself. From this point of view, God has no choice
in setting up the ethics of the Cosmos. Contrary to my (inadequate!) understanding
of the tenets of Buddhism, the foundational principle
of ethics is the goodness of existence, and all detailed morality
flows from that once the specific nature of the ethical agents and objects
Urizen the Lawgiver
Perhaps the most extreme version of this error was encapsulated by William
Blake, who parodied the god of respectable religious folk and the establishment
of his day as the great rule maker or engineer in the sky. This god, was
for Blake, a source of constraint, guilt and misery: an oppressor rather
than a saviour; a graceless proponent of fear and hatred rather than love.
Ironically, Blake proposed that the popular "Satan" was a happier notion
than this; for the "vice" that he offered was often more wholesome, healthy
and joyful than the supposed virtue of grey ecclesial folk
[Songs of Experience; The Marriage of Heaven and Hell]. Of course,
Blake saw Newton's mechanistic physics as implicated in all this; but at
that time there was no idea that "to determine"
and "to cause" were in any way different.
Some arguments for God's being
Descartes' metaphysical argument
This is a delightful curiosity. It is entirely specious, but worth spending
a moment understanding. It appears to produce God as an absolute certainty
from no premises worth mentioning, and certainly not from a consideration
of the physical order (as we shall see the Catholic faith suggests is necessary).
The argument, put succinctly is as follows:
Consider total perfection. If it did not exist it would not be totally
perfect. Therefore it must exist. This is God. God Exists.
The essential flaw in this argument (which can be made much more convincing
by being decorated and extended in various ways) is that it tacitly assumes
that it is impossible to conceive of something that is not. As many a theoretical
physicist will sorrowfully tell you, this is simply not true: hence Descartes'
ingenuity was in this regard misplaced.
The argument from Design
This proposes that God must exist because the world (and in particular
life) is simply too complicated to have come about of itself. Finding a
watch on the beach is tantamount to knowing that somewhere and when there
is or was a watchmaker. Before it became clear that Darwinian Natural Selection
could effectively favour the growth of complexity and diversity over geological
time, this argument was a powerful one. Nowadays it is generally out of
favour; though in a more abstract form it is re-emerging as "The Anthropic
Principle", which will be discussed below.
The Five Ways of Aquinas
St. Thomas proposed five arguments for the being of God. To modern ears
they are all variations on the same argument, but no less forceful for
that. This single argument can be named "The Cosmological Argument from
Contingency". I believe this argument to be valid. Before spending some
time on it, I wish to give a brief account of the relevant Catholic Dogma.
The teaching of the Oecumenical Council of the Vatican
In brief, it is defined Catholic Dogma that "the fact that God is" can
be known with certainty as a result of the consideration of the nature
of physical reality. Naturally, the use of the word certainty
should not be taken to indicate that this knowledge is more certain
than any other! As a Platonist, I can only
aspire to ortho-doxa (right belief) in this life, and all belief is provisional
and subject to unexpected variation. I take the Vatican Council to mean
by its use of the word certainty that the kind of knowledge that
one can reasonably have of God's being is every bit as good and respectable
as the best of any other kind of knowledge. In other words, we are not
talking about "religious faith" here; though faith of a sort enters into
any knowledge, even that possessed by the most atheistical scientist. It
should be immediately obvious that this conciliar definition implicitly
questions whether any purely metaphysical argument (along the lines
of Descartes' fancy) is possible; though, just as obviously, it does not
exclude this as a possibility.
A physicist's view of contingency
It is a fundamental expectation of physics, based on unvarying experience
of physical reality, that every thing and phenomenon that one encounters,
experiences or interacts (exchanges energy and momentum) with is contingent.
This means that it makes sense to ask of this thing or phenomenon: "Why
is it what it is?", or "How does it come to be what it is?" or "What gave
(or gives) rise to this?" In other words, the physicist presumes that everything
that he experiences or observes requires explanation. It is never good
enough to say that "It is what it is because it is so." Physics does not
deal with "Just So" stories. Now, once one clearly understands this, it
would seem to follow that the whole Cosmos must, on the same basis, be
contingent: I shall return to this point. In which case, the Cosmos itself
requires explanation. Note that the expectation of physics that all things
are contingent only relates to that category of being called "things":
with which an observer can exchange energy and momentum. Of being other
than things (if indeed there is any being other than things) physics
knows, still less expects, nothing!
So, the Cosmos requires explanation: or "cause", speaking metaphysically.
Why is it the Cosmos that in fact it is? Why does it have the dynamics
that it has? Why is it governed by the Laws of Physics that it is governed
by and not by others? Why do the fundamental constants that feature in
these Laws have the values that they do have? Why does space-time happen
to have the dimensionality that in fact it has? Why is the Cosmos in the
particular state now that we find it to be in?
Why is the Cosmos at all?
One can label the
required explanation for all this "God: the
UnCaused First Cause; the UnMoving First Mover; the UnGoverned Law Giver,
All things that are so, are equally removed
from being nothing; and whatsoever hath any being is by that being a glass
in which we see God, who is the root and the fountain of all being. The
whole frame of nature is the theatre; the whole volume of creatures in
the glass; and the light of nature, Reason, is our light. [John
What Causes God?
The immediate howl of derision from the less astute observer (excuse my
humour) to the effect that: This is silly! All
you have done is to replace the problem "Who made the World?" with the
problem "What caused God?" is easily answered. The objector
may be referred to the observation already made: that the expectation that
all things are contingent does not relate in any way to "God". This
is because there is no expectation that God is any kind of thing:
that any observer within the Cosmos (such as you or I) could ever exchange
energy and momentum with God. God is entirely outside space-time.
God is not part of the Cosmos. God does not interact with physical reality
in the sense of exchanging energy and momentum. After all, this would contradict
the law of energy and momentum conservation. Although God is the
foundation of all that physically is, God is not physically
at all! While God underwrites the Laws of Physics, God is not governed
by them: God is no thing and they simply do not apply to God. It
is improper to conflate God with the Cosmos as some larger whole (perhaps
on the basis that God acts miraculously within the Cosmos) and then ask
what is its cause?
We can have no expectations of God: except, it would appear, that
is. Unlike all physical things, one can presume that God is noncontingent;
that God is necessary being: God is what God is because God is unavoidably
so. God who is no thing is so, just as nothing else is so!
Of God himself can no man think. And
therefore I would leave all that thing that I can think, and choose to
my love that thing that I cannot think. For why: he may well be loved,
but not thought. By love may he be gotten and holden, but by thought never.
And therefore, though it be good sometime to think of the kindness
and the worthiness of God in special, and although it be a light and a
part of contemplation, nevertheless yet in this work it shall be cast down
and covered with a cloud of forgetting. And thou shalt step above it stalwartly,
but listily, with a devout and a pleasing stirring of love, and try for
to pierce that darkness above thee. And smite upon that thick
cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love; and go not thence
for (any)thing that befalleth.
[Anon "The Cloud of Unknowing"]
Every being that exists either exists by itself,
by its own essence or nature, or it does not exist by itself. If it exists
by its own essence, then it exists necessarily and eternally, and explains
itself. It cannot not exist, as a triangle cannot not have three sides.
If, on the other hand, a being exists but not by its own essence, then
it needs a cause, a reason outside itself for its existence. Because it
does not explain itself, something else must explain it. Beings whose essence
does not contain the reason for their existence, beings that need causes,
are called contingent, or dependent, beings. A being whose essence is to
exist is called a necessary being... God would be the only necessary being
- if God existed. [Peter Kreeft: "The First
Some logical alternatives
It seems to me that there are a number of logical alternatives to this
conclusion, however all strike me as less congenial or more contrived than
the simple conclusion that God is. The alternatives that I can think
The Cosmos as a whole is (somehow) noncontingent, even though its parts
are contingent. This theory is identifiable as Pantheism. It does
not explain why the Laws of Physics are what they are, and more importantly
why there are any Laws of Physics at all.
Many modern physicists pursue this possibility further, conceiving of an
of parallel universes each having its own arbitrary set of laws. In
such a plethora of possibilities, everything is certain and nothing unlikely
- let alone impossible!
It seems to me that this way lies madness, as there is no possibility of
explaining or understanding anything: everything is what it is just because
it is so, in this arbitrary world in which we happen to live, which is
indefinitely similar to an infinity of other worlds only destinguished
from it by vanishingly small discrepancies.
I suppose that it might just about be possible that everything has a Platonic
"participation in being", and that the "larger" something is, the more
fully it "participates in being": requires less external explanation. On
the Microscopic scale of Quantum Mechanics, existence is fragile:
all the problems that physicists have with "the collapse of the wave packet"
and "wave-particle duality"; on the Macroscopic scale of normal human experience
existence is experienced as robust but contingent; and on the Cosmic
scale existence is necessary. Personally, I like this theory as
a poetic sequence of pleasant words, but don't think that it could be made
to mean anything!
The fundamental presumption of Physics is wrong. In fact, there is one
or more noncontingent things (rather like inverse Black Holes) within the
Cosmos: sources of being (the metric itself, space-time and the Laws of
Physics) which are the uncaused causes of everything else. In effect this
is Polytheism. Rather than postulating one transcendent omnipotent
and omniscient God, one postulates an indeterminate number of local deities.
This is, it strikes me, much less tidy; restrained, economical and generally
satisfactory than the Monotheistic hypothesis.
The Cosmos is an illusion and does not really exist. All that exists is
my mind. I am therefore God. This is an extreme form of the Philosophical
system called "Idealism" (named in contrast to "Materialism"). Although
irrefutable, the fact that it implies that I can imagine geniuses such
as Bach and Einstein who are capable of work that is utterly beyond my
own competence makes it implausible, in my view.
The Argument from Design revisited.
Given that I exist, I must of necessity do so in a Cosmos that is suitable
for my existence: hence it inevitably follows that I must observe that
the Cosmos is suitable for me. Moreover, it would seem possible that if
the Laws of Physics were different, then although I would not exist, some
other life form based on a different chemistry (or other non-linear complexity)
might be asking questions like "why is the Cosmos just right for me?" in
my place. However, I shall shortly argue that that if any of the Laws of
Physics were to be changed, even slightly, then no life of any kind could
have come into being. If this is true, it is quite remarkable, that the
Cosmos is suitable for me is in such a baroque manner as seems to be the
case. My friend, Dr. Paul Miller puts
the case as follows:
Although the specifics of carbon chemistry
..... may not be necessary for life .... a living being must contain organized
complexity, or information. The minimum requirements for information content
can be determined by fundamental mathematical theory, and it is clear that
it requires .... a local decrease in entropy. Entropy is .... the disorder
in a system, and for a closed system .... entropy always increases .....
cups fall and shatter, they do not coalesce and jump back onto their saucers.
More importantly, without sustenance and breath, bodies die and decay,
while corpses do not come back to life. A living being with the ability
to ask the question "why am I here?" must contain an incredible amount
of order to be able to frame such a deep, information filled thought, whatever
kind of chemistry or physics underlies the being. So the question is, "what
kinds of universe could allow such order to arise?" If the answer is "just
about any" then we should not be so surprised about our universe - the
right, well suited type of order would arise to fit the environment in
any universe. However, if the answer is "almost none," then we do need
to question why the universe is so special.
Of course, if there are an infinite number of
Universes, with different Laws of Physics: then there is nothing to explain.
No matter how weird it is that a Universe is life friendly, those few that
are so will give rise to life; and whenever that life achieves self-consciousness
it will start writing articles like this one. This is the "MultiVerse"
hypothesis. Of course, one avoids invoking an infinite and impassible "God"
as an explanation for the World, at the cost of invoking an infinite set
of Worlds. Arguably, these are "God" under another name. It is possible
to make the argument somewhat more palatable, as Dr Miller describes:
Many cosmologists are attempting to find
what explanation they can within science, in preference to invoking a Creator
.... the ripples left on the cosmic background radiation .... provide strong
evidence for a period of ..... exponential expansion .... in
the first 10-33 seconds of the universe's existence. If such an era existed,
there is no reason that the universe we observe is all that condensed
.... There could be a plethora of .... sub-universes, that are completely
unobservable to us ..... it is not so surprising that one of a multitude
of sub-universes happens to have the right conditions for life.
As someone deeply suspicious of "probability", I
cannot resist pointing out that this argument is all about how "unlikely"
it is that the Cosmos should be how it is. Given that the Cosmos is what
it is, we know the exact probability (in one sense of the word) that it
is so. It is unity! Only if one legitimately conceives of a set of "equally
likely" alternatives (as far as I am aware this necessarily invokes a symmetry
property of some, in this case unfathomable, system) can one start to ask
questions such as: "What proportion of all possible Universes are compatible
with life?" If both the Laws of Physics and the values of the fundamental
constants were to be the same in all condensation
neighbourhoods (as seems most plausible
to me), then the notion of sub-universes does not help to explain anything.
Dr Miller continues:
It is well known that all life on Earth
(barring the strange sulphurous life arising around deep-sea volcanic vents)
is ultimately dependent on the inflowing energy from the sun. The sun is
an average star, and, like all stars, can provide the power for life, by
providing vast amounts of energy (as heat and light) at very low entropy
(from a small region much hotter than the rest of the universe). Hot spots,
such as stars, are necessary to allow any form of organized complexity
to arise. Living things must all take in low entropy (hot or organized)
energy and release it at high entropy (useless waste heat) in order to
increase or at least maintain their internal information. The "hot spots"
which allow any living being to survive, must also be there for it to evolve,
so must remain stable over a large period of time, compared to typical
physical processes in the life cycle of the being. Now, in our universe
there is a specific resonance in the nuclear reaction process, which enables
stars to burn at all, and endure for the billions of years that have been
necessary for life to develop. In a universe almost the same as ours, but
perhaps with a slightly different electron mass, the resonance would not
occur, stars would not shine, and the universe would be dark, dead and
There is a multitude of similarly finely tuned
properties of our universe .... The delicate balance between the original
expansion of the universe and the gravitational attraction, which tends
to pull everything back together, ensures that the explosive debris from
one star can arrive in the vicinity of another star which forms separately.
All life on Earth is made from atoms of debris from the first star, and
relies on heat and light from the second star, namely our sun. In a gravitationally
stronger universe, the first star would swallow the second, while in a
.... more spread out universe, the debris would never reach another star.
This is quite telling. Darwinianism can't help here. Even if the Laws of
the Universe could change, it is difficult to see how the idea of "survival
of the fittest" could apply here. Of course, it may just be that the Cosmos
is a self-consistent solution. This idea I call "The Vorlon Hypothesis"
(apologies to Babylon V.) The idea is that the Cosmos was created
(or the Laws of Physics at least massaged) by gods that evolve within the
Cosmos and then "time travel" back to the beginning of time to ensure that
the Cosmos starts off just right. Dr Miller expresses a related idea, more
A similarly untestable possibility put
forth by scientific sceptics is that the universe is really infinite in
time, and just bounces in and out of big crunches and big bangs. There
is supposedly a new set of laws of physics each time round (though, this
is rather implausible in my view, as the new mashed up fundamental laws
must always lead to another bouncing universe, without being specifically
This is a sequential version of the "MultiVerse" hypothesis.
In contradiction with any form of the MultiVerse hypothesis, it is the
hope of many physicists that only one consistent set of Laws of Physics
is possible. Finding this unique set together with the principle that gives
rise to it would complete Einstein's programme of reducing dynamics and
gravity to generalized geometry or the principle of continuity: "No Action
at a Distance", known to the Ancient Greeks. It would require extending
the treatment somehow to all the forces of Physics withn the aim
of unifying General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics.
If, in addition, these Laws featured no arbitrary parameters, then everything
would be explained (except for the fundamental question: "why is
anything?") It would be astounding (though not "improbable"), if
the only possible set of laws and fundamental constants is exactly
the one that gives rise to life in such a delicately balanced and baroque
manner! This would mean that logic itself indirectly and obscurely
necessitates life! Of course, the prologues of Genesis and John's Gospel
could be taken as suggesting exactly this doctrine.
The Weak Anthropic Principle
This states the obvious fact that because we are here, conditions must
be right for our existence. Those aspects of Cosmic Order that appear tuned
to allow for our specific kind of life provide no reason to go beyond this
proposition. Perhaps if these were different, then another kind of life
would arise: values of the fundamental constants incompatible with the
formation of carbon based macro-molecules would only rule out our form
of life, not all life in general.
The Strong Anthropic Principle
This is the proposal that because the Cosmos is special, in that
almost any alternative would not give rise to stable "hot spots" (stars)
that are absolutely necessary to provide the flux of energy on which life
can feed and in which its order can persist, it requires further explanation.
The suggestion is that the universe was carefully engineered to produce
life. As Dr Miller says:
While scientific sceptics deny the strong
anthropic principle, many theologians and religious scientists embrace
it, as it points to a Creator who stimulates life and enables us to flourish.
The uncovering of such a fertile universe, which is so clearly conducive
to beauty, encourages process theologians, as it appears that the universe
follows a very thin line between rigid order and incoherent chaos. Other
religious thinkers remain wary of the whole argument, and following
the "contrast" viewpoint, are loathe to incorporate any scientific evidence,
which may be later reinterpreted, in their vision of God. As the "many
universe" theories are not completely outside the realms of falsifiable
evidence, it is perhaps right to be patient before hailing the fine-tuning
as proof of God. Nevertheless, I for one do not cease to be amazed by the
transcendent beauty inherent within the laws of nature. These will always
speak to me of the Nature of God.
God is Beauty, Praise Him!
Personally, I am on the side of the "other religious
thinkers" referred to by Dr Miller. I am suspicious of any version
of the argument from Design, and find the Thomistic argument from Contingency
much more satisfactory and less problematic.
Any event in the history of a thing happens at a certain time.
All events are in need of explanation.
The first attempt at such an explanation for some event is to refer it
to previous events. Unfortunately, this kind of explanation cannot be satisfactory,
for two reasons.
Such explanations always involve a reference to general laws as well as
to particular things, persons, and events. Now the general laws are themselves
facts, with no trace of self evidence or necessity about them.
Earlier events require explanation, just as much as the event which they
supposedly explain. No extension of this kind of explanation to remoter
and remoter epochs can remove this defect.
The Cosmological Argument seeks to establish, from the above considerations,
There is a Cause which is neither a part of nature nor the Cosmos as a
The existence of this extra cosmic Cause must be necessary. It is an uncaused
This Cause brings all Cosmic events into being via a metaphysical dependence
different from the physical dependence of a later state of affairs on an
While it is true that:
No explanation in terms of ordinary causation is capable of giving the
kind of intellectual satisfaction about natural things and persons and
events which is obtainable about purely mathematical facts.
If the universe is such that this kind of understanding is theoretically
obtainable about nature, then its structure must be very much as philosophic
Theism says that it is.
The Cosmological Argument can be criticized as follows.
It may be divided into two parts, negative and positive.
At the transition from the negative to the positive part, it is arguable
that there is a suppressed premise.
This suppressed premise is false.
Therefore the argument fails.
Moreover, the conclusion is not only unproven but is either false or meaningless.
This counter argument can be developed as follows [C.
D. Broad: "Religion, Philosophy and Psychical Research" (Routledge &
Keagan Paul, 1953)]. What kind of explanations completely
satisfy the human intellect? Only those when the proposition is seen to
follow by necessary steps from premises which are all seen to be necessary.
This kind of intellectual satisfaction is only reached in pure mathematics.
Whereas the laws of Physics can
be used to accurately project from immediate experience to what is remote
in time, distance or scale length: they do not and can not explain things
in the way that a proof in pure mathematics does. Complete intellectual
satisfaction could be obtained about the causes of events if and only if
the following conditions were fulfilled:
There is at least one necessary
existential proposition: the "Uncaused Cause".
All other true existential propositions then follow
necessarily: "Absolute Determinism".
The Cosmological Argument can be portrayed as claiming to establish that
the universe has this structure. In order to do so it must add a categorical
premise to the undisputed fact that the laws of Physics can not serve this
purpose. This categorical premise is:
The Cosmos is such that mathematical intellectual satisfaction concerning
events is possible.
Is there any reason to accept this suppressed premise? Plainly, it is not
the kind of premise for which there could be any empirical evidence. Nor
is it self-evident. Rather, it would seem that absolute certainty only
arises in the context of the formal relations between abstract entities,
such as numbers or propositions. It is altogether foreign to the context
of either the existence or non-formal properties of particulars.
Moreover, it seems there can be no necessary existential proposition
of the kind envisaged in the first premise. Such propositions always concern
the connexion (or disconnection) of other propositions. They are always
conditional, taking the form: 'If P is true, then Q is true'. It
follows that the conclusion of the Cosmological Argument is not only unproven
but also false.
Even if this objection be waived, an equally formidable one remains.
The difficulty is as follows. Anything whose existence was a necessary
consequence of its nature would be a timeless existent. Now nature is composed
of things and persons and processes which begin at certain dates, last
for so long, and then cease. How could a temporal fact, such as the fact
that there began to be a person having the characteristics of Julius Caesar
at a certain date, follow logically
from facts all of which are non-temporal? The necessary consequences of
facts which are necessary are themselves necessary, and the necessary consequences
of facts which have no reference to any particular time can themselves
have no reference to any particular time.
There is no need to pursue the chimera of absolute certainty. The issue
is rather the mystery of contingency. The question "Why" always arises:
just as much in regards to the existence and form of Physical Law as to
the occurrence of particular events. Whether or not the Laws of Physics
are eventually demonstrated to be necessary, in the sense that if there
are any such then they must be the very ones that they are:
the question "Why are they at all?" will still arise. In the last
analysis, this is a question about being and not-being, not about any particular
Nevertheless, the Cosmological Argument is more an abstraction from
Physics and Epistemology, rather than a deduction within Ontology.
It reflects on human experience of what it is to know, rather than
working from supposed a priori truths concerning being in itself. To treat
it in terms of a formal axiomatic structure is to mistake its import.
The Cosmological Argument is not about positively "completely satisfying
the intellect", but rather concerns itself with highlighting the defect
in all contingent being. It asserts that this deficit must be supplied:
or else one admits that in once case "Why?" is not a legitimate question.
It continues that this can only be done by hypothesizing some non-contingent
being: Being unlike any being to be encountered within the Cosmos: being
that is entirely beyond our experience and is almost entirely beyond our
The Theist should not contend that the Act of Creation was necessary,
in the sense that Dr. Broad implies that he must. Though the uncaused-cause
be necessary, the Cosmos is not created of necessity. It is not necessary
for the truth of the Cosmological Argument that it be so! Neither should
it be maintained that every detail of the Cosmos is pre-determined by the
Divine Act of creation, as Dr. Broad insinuates it must be. The prime deficit
in contingent being is the contingency of the Laws of Physics, rather than
that of events in themselves. It is this contingency that the hypothesis
of the uncaused-cause primarily addresses.
On the one hand, it may prove possible to package-up the contingency
of events altogether in the initial- and
boundary-conditions of the Big-Bang, which may in turn transpire to
be inevitable: if anything is to be at all. On the other hand, it may turn
out that a radical contingency characterizes
all epochs of the Cosmos. Although all events are caused: in the sense
that they obey the Laws of Physics and that "one thing leads to another",
it may be that some, and perhaps many, event sequences converge backwards
to singularities in space-time. In which case, the reason why one such
sequence arises rather than another must be looked for either in its future
rather than its past: and it be admitted that causality runs backwards
as well as forwards in time, or outside time altogether: that is either
to God or some Conscious Agent.