Natural Theology


1. A Supreme Being?
Part of the questioning of metaphysics is whether existence explains itself or whether there is a need to find an explanation for it. Why is there existence? Why is there a universe? Is there a cause underlying it all? Is there a point to it? Is there an intelligence greater than us, a creator? Basically, is there a God, a supreme being?

Almost every philosopher has at one time or another developed, improved upon, tried to, fix or tried to disprove a theory on a supreme being (from now on “SB”). Some have said there is no need to demonstrate it or prove its existence since knowledge of the SB is inborn or obvious, it is simply a fact to be recognized. Others say no demonstration is possible since man knows only the sensible, and concepts without a sensible reference are meaningless. They deny the ability to know any metaphysical ideas such as cause, effect, etc. and whoever claims to is deceiving themselves. Others say science can explain everything eventually, we only think there is a need for a God since we have not yet explained somethings yet.

Most philosophers in history held that some type of SB exists and that we are capable of knowing this in greater or lesser degrees and by various ways. The trends of modern philosophy tried deny that anything could be known truly, or known beyond the sensible, so philosophy had nothing to say about an SB.  We will look at some answers given throughout history, not religious answers, but what can we know with only the use of reason, without referring to any scriptures or holy books or revelation from the heavens. While there may be truth in certain scriptures, they are not part of a philosophical investigation.

Those that hold that the mind is too weak, unable, or too prone to error, to know are called agnostic, from “a” – meaning “non” and “gnosis” - meaning knowledge.

Those that believe they have a proof or claim to “know” there is no SB, are called atheist, from "a" – meaning “non” and “theos” - meaning god.

2. The Ways of Proving.
Many demonstrations have been proposed for the existence of a SB throughout history, and they all sort of fall into four general types. These four types are traditionally called 1) cosmological – from the experience of the cosmos or world. 2) ontological – from reason alone. 3) teleological – from the finality of things, and arguments from design or order get lumped in here too. 4) moral – from the ideas of good, or from human conscience. We will look at a few main formulations of these.

The Greeks were generally polytheists culturally, but as philosophy matured Plato and Aristotle developed philosophical ideas of one supreme deity behind everything. History does not find philosophical proofs or systems for multiple gods, since metaphysics points toward unity of being and cause. Even polytheistic cultures like Hinduism, have a tendency in higher levels to converge on one ultimate being. Polytheism crumbles quite quickly when looked at philosophically, since if there is more than one supreme being, then something differentiates them, thus they are each lacking something, thus they are not “supreme”.

In the middle ages, many of the proofs were gathered, elaborated and structured by Thomas Aquinas, in what is called “the 5 ways”, one of the most famous writings on the SB. The 5 proofs of Aquinas are not easily understood, although written fairly simply, since they require first an understanding of metaphysical principles. Some of the prerequisites that need to be held before the proofs work are what we have seen in the sections on cosmology and metaphysics: 1) humans have valid knowledge.   2) the external world exists. 3) the principles of causality and act and potency we saw are true.

The 5 ways are structured to start with a common experience, then apply the principles of act and potency and causality to lead to a SB. The proofs do not go so far as to prove the Jewish or Christian God, they simply prove the conclusion of the demonstration, such as first cause, or first mover, or necessary being, etc. If you refer to Aquinas' text you will see how at the end of each proof of an SB, Aquinas then says “and this is understood as God” or “and this everyone calls God”, the proof does not prove God directly, but proves the existence of a principle or cause that everyone has traditionally associated with God.

The Five Ways
1    The First Way: From motion or change.
From the experience of change (motion) is proved the need for a first mover itself unmoved. The proof goes like this: 1) things we experience are changed/moved (goes from potency to act). 2) but what is changed/moved is changed/moved by something else (the potency is enacted by something already in act, potency cannot actualize itself). 3) If everything was moved by another in infinite levels, then there was never a first or primary one. 4) But if there was never a first, then there could never have been a second, third, etc, thus there would be none. 5) But secondary movers exist. 6) therefore a first mover must exist.

2    The Second Way: Like the first way, but with efficient causes.
1) Everything in the sensible world is caused by something else, it cannot cause itself since it must then be prior to itself (in time or ontologically) which is impossible. 2) causes cannot have infinite levels since there would be no first and thus no following ones. 3) If you remove the first cause all the secondary causes are removed as well. 4) secondary causes exist as is obvious. 5) therefore the first cause exists as well.

3    The Third Way: A different cosmological approach.
By looking at the finite, un-necessary, contingent type of being we experience in the world. (Think absurdity of Kafka, Camus, Sarte...). 1) We see that all things decay, their (our) being is temporary, just a “possible”, a being that could be or just as easily not “be”, un-needed. 2)   But if ALL things are only contingent and possible, then it is impossible that they have always been, since that which is only possible to exist, at some time was not. 3) thus if all things are only possible, then at one time there would have been nothing. 4) But if this were true, then now there would be nothing, since things can only come into being by means of a cause that already exists. 5) but things are now in existence as is obvious. 6) therefore there must be some being that necessarily exists, that cannot not-be, that does not rely on something else for its being.

Another way to look at the 3rd way is that all things we experience, since they are merely contingent, are equal to a zero concerning their necessity. But all things as zeros added together is a zero. The universe equals zero if all is merely contingent and is generated and decays, possible not to be. Thus there is no explanation as to why things are, unless there is a necessary being, one that could not not-be.

 4    The Fourth Way: a type of Moral way.
From the degrees of perfection found in simple beings, is determined the need for a being of the highest degree of perfection. 1) Among beings are found some more or less good, true, beautiful, etc. 2) but we predicate good, true, beautiful, etc according to how they resemble a maximum. 3) so there needs to be a being possessing the highest grade of metaphysical perfections of true, good, one, beautiful etc. To speak of grades presupposes a standard that they are measured against. This way is similar to Plato's theory that the world's goods are only good in as much as they participate in the eternal form of Goodness. This is a complex and difficult proof to understand, and many have wondered long about it, not sure how it pieces together, but it is intriguing.

5    The Fifth Way: A teleological way.
The textbook gives a lot of space to Paley's watch argument – that the universe runs like a complicated watch, and if you saw a watch you would not expect it to have come there by itself, so there must be a watchmaker. This is not the 5th way of Aquinas, although they get lumped together. The 5th way is from the finality (governance Aquinas calls it) of the world, not from the intricate order of things, although the two concepts are similar. Per Aquinas: 1) We see that things that have no intelligence, such as natural bodies, act for an end, which is obvious from their always, or almost always, acting the same way so as to obtain the best result, not randomly, its action “has a point”, or fulfills its nature. 2) but whatever lacks intelligence cannot move toward a specific end unless guided by a being with intellect, for example the arrow is shot to the bullseye by an archer. Its movement cannot “have a point” by itself. 3) therefore some being with intelligence exists that has guided all being toward its end.

The Ontological Proof
A little before Aquinas, a man named Anselm wanted to find the one perfect proof. He wrote the Proslogion, and came up with an argument relying only on reason, not on the world. It was named The Ontological Proof, by Immanuel Kant. (Read it on page pg 322 in White).

One short way to express it is: 1) The concept of God is a being than which no greater can be conceived. 2) If you have the concept, then He exists at least in your mind. 3) But then it is possible to conceive a being existing in reality, which is greater than a being existing in mind only 4) Therefore God exists.

Another way it is structured is, 1) to have the idea of God in your head means to have in mind the idea of that-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought (TTW). 2) but it is greater to exist in reality than just in the mind, 3) therefore the TTW is not the TTW unless it is thought to exist in reality, 4) so you cannot think of the TTW (God) without thinking of it as existing.

Another way yet again, 1) the TTW must exist or else it is not the TTW, 2) God is the TTW, 3) thus God must exist.

Many have written since Anselm's time to refute his argument, Guanilo, a monk, being the first, claiming it is wrong to believe that what one thinks must be in reality, what if I think of the most perfect Tropical Island, and since according to Anselm, to be most perfect means to exist, thus because I thought it, the most perfect island must exist. Anselm replied that it only applies to the concept of God which is unique among all concepts. Thomas Aquinas criticized it as well, but Descartes accepted it and tried to develop it.

3. Critique of the Proofs of the SB.
Various philosophers have tried to disprove the SB. Every argument for the SB, has someone trying to develop and argument against it. The cosmological proofs of Aquinas are strong proofs if one accepts the prerequisites, so it is these prerequisites that are usually denied. Most refer to David Hume, British philosopher. By denying all ability of the intellect to know concepts with no reference in a sensible thing, he denies the ability to know anything metaphysical. He denies causation. He claims if I swing a bat and smash some glass, you cannot say the hit caused the breakage, you only saw a swing, a hit, and some breakage, but your mind improperly links them together as a cause, you never saw the “causing” itself, you just saw a series of events. Hume is what is called a skeptic philosopher – denying knowledge.

Hume also claims that the universe itself could be the first cause, there is no reason to propose one outside the universe. This claim does not invalidate the arguments, it simply tries to put the primary cause within the universe. But with Aquinas' metaphysics this is impossible. All matter implies a division of act and potency, and a first uncaused cause, or prime mover, must by definition be pure act, no potency. Thus no material thing can be the prime mover, so it cannot be “the universe”.

Hume's skepticism, while popular among atheists of his time, is not tenable by anyone who works with the real world in fields of science. Since to accept Hume, is to stop believing we can study and form ideas or concepts about the causes and universal laws of the natural world. Science relies on causes.

Immanuel Kant, while not accepting Hume's conclusions, followed his path and also denied the validity of the cosmological arguments, since he denies that humans can know the “thing in itself”, rather we only know the appearance of the thing in our mind. But knowledge of the world is one of the prerequisites for Aquinas' proofs to work. Kant does accept a different type of argument based on morality.

4. Attributes of the SB
Under the metaphysics of Aristotle and Aquinas, if we assume that at least one of the five ways is a valid argument, we can apply some metaphysical principles such as act and potency, to try to understand what kind of SB it would be. These are commonly called the attributes of the SB.

For example, as first cause of all, and as necessary being, the essence of the SB would be pure existence, the “Ipsum Esse Subsistens” lacking no aspect of being. Since the SB is total being, there is no potency, only pure act, no division of matter and form, or no specific difference, this is called Simplicity of Being.

As cause of all other grades of perfections, the SB must need be Perfect in every aspect of being, pure goodness, truth, oneness, beauty (see 4th way).

Since pure act, with no limit of potency or matter, the SB is Infinite, not in the sense of going on indefinitely, but infinite in degree, having no limits, not being held back at all.

Since change is a movement from act to potency, and the SB has no potency but is pure act, then the SB is Unchanging. And since time is the measure of change, and thus started with and is tied to the start of the material universe, the SB is outside time, Eternal. Not eternal like living year after year, but without time, possessing life perfectly and all at once, as Boethius would say.

5. The problem of evil.
Critics often used the presence of evil to disprove the SB. It is one of the most common difficulties brought up, including in the textbook. It is used against the fourth and fifth ways most often. The problem is stated like this: If the SB is all powerful and all good, then it can either eliminate evil but won't, (and thus is not good), or it wants to eliminate evil but can't (and thus is not all powerful).

This not actually an argument against the existence of an SB so much as what kind of SB. Others have pointed out that actually, without the existence of an SB, there would be no evil, so the presence of evil is an indication of the existence of an SB. The issue at the heart of the question is, “who is responsible for evil?”

Aristotle and later Augustine analyzed it and defined evil thus: Evil is not an existent thing in itself, it can only exist in some other thing, which since it is, is good. Evil is a lack of some good or perfection proper to a being or act. It exists as an accident, not as substance. For example, blindness is not so much a thing, as a lack of the good of sight.

He also divides evil into two kinds. 1) Moral evil is the free act of rational beings with a will that choose wrongly and thus lack the value of good that they or their act should have. 2) Physical evil is the pain caused by actions and reactions of the laws of nature. Sickness, volcanoes, etc.

So how is this reconcilable? The textbook uses the fact that men do evil against the 5th way, stating the presence of evil shows there may be a defect in the design of men, and thus the design is not good, and does not indicate the existence of a designer. But we saw in the fifth way that it is not so much the order of the universe, but the finality that guides the demonstration. In this sense, unlike inanimate things that have their end in them, if a goal or end of men is to freely choose the good, and by this to guide themselves to their end, then freedom is integral to reaching the end. But the presence of freedom must allow for the possibility of evil choices. There is no choice without the possibility of choosing badly.

The SB permits this moral evil says Aquinas, by not producing its opposite, not actively stopping it, since it is a choice of a free creature which the SB designed as free. Putting an end to moral evil, means putting an end to humans completely, and thus means to end all the good as well. If there are to be free creatures made by an SB, then evil has to be accepted as an option. So the existence of moral evil does not disprove the existence of an SB, it shows that the SB values freedom as a greater good.

Physical evil is made possible by the SB, since it is a crossing of natural forces. The hardness of the rock, crossed with gravity, and the location of my head, all combine to mean I get hit in the forehead with the stone, causing me pain. The pain in the nerves is a good thing that alerts me to the presence of an unhealthy situation. Or the crossing of humidity, winds, and pressure systems make a hurricane, which blows to a location where there are living beings that can be hurt or killed by it.

There cannot be a world both finite and governed by natural laws, and also perfect. The SB could remove all physical evil by constantly bending the natural laws by an un-ending string of miracles. But this would make the world unintelligible, since there would be no regular laws of the essences of things that we could rely on. One would never know from one moment to the next if metals would conduct electricity, or if hard objects would become soft, resulting in a crazy world without order.

So the three statements that must be reconciled 1) the SB is good, 2) the SB is omnipotent, 3) evil exists, must be looked at within these contexts to see if a reconciliation is possible. Can a satisfactory answer be given? Maybe one looks at it like this instead: 1) the SB exists, 2) evil exists, 3) therefore, evil and the SB are not contradictory.

6. Philosophy and faith.
If one decides that there is no proof of the SB that is convincing, that does not mean one cannot believe in God? Belief in God is an act of faith and does not rely on philosophical proofs. There can be many other circumstances that lead people to accept a SB that are outside the realm of philosophy, such as miracles, or personal sense of sin and forgiveness, etc.

Soren Kierkegaard was a Dutch philosopher in the early to mid 1800's. He dismissed all philosophical talk of God as fruitless and actually harmful to faith. In his view it was senseless to even think that our reason could attain any knowledge about a God that was eternal and unchangeable since we are unable to even understand how these terms could apply to such a thing as God. Kierkegaard was an extremely committed Christian and felt a belief in God needed to be non-intellectual, passionate way, without reason. One must feel it and leap into it, not based on reasons figured out with logic.

In the same century lived Friedrich Nietzsche in the late 1800's. Nietzsche is the flip side of the coin of Kierkegaard. Both lived in a time when the scientific revolution had made it very popular among intellectuals to be atheist. Kierkegaard reacted in one way, Nietzsche in another. His most famous phrase is probably “God is dead”. (read passage) By this he did not mean God once existed and now does not. He meant that our scientific outlook has removed God from the picture of life, that anyone who looks will see that there is no intelligence or power guiding anything, the universe is meaningless. Even any order in nature must be done away with as really only based on a faith in "laws" of nature. But if there is any laws or order in nature, there needs be a designers or lawgiver. Newton believed this, and Nietzsche saw that if God is dead, science, morality, anything besides pure chaos all of it also goes out the window.

However he denigrated those who after accepting atheism as their belief, do not change anything about how they live, they continue to behave as if there was still meaning to existence or life. They behave as if although God is gone, everything God was the foundation of still stands. Nietzsche held that the death of God in society means the death too of all he was responsible for, such as right and wrong, and the way a human should live. He spent much effort writing about how man needs to remake their life in their own image, to take charge since there is no God, to not be law governed or religious, or obedient. Someone who serves his fellow man out of charity in this new world is a slave, there is no sense to it. Honesty in the new world without God means to change all values on thier head and to affirm only those that affirm ones own life. To base morality on ones will, not reason. To accomplish this is to make ones self an Über Mensch, an overman, that is a God unto himself and one that tries to make sense of the meaninglessness of being through other means such as art, and without any cause or God.

Albert Camus, and Jean Sartre and the existentialist philosophy that followed owed its beginning to Nietzsche and Kierkegaard.