Can Reason Prove the Existence of God?

Back in 1974, after five or six years of atheism, I began to believe in the existence of God. I couldn’t have been more surprised. I thought my atheism was rock-solid. So what effected the change? A philosophical argument. Yes, you heard me right—an argument. Not a burning bush experience. Not a still small voice in the silence of night. Not the exuberant witness of a born-again believer. No, just an argument. Its author was James Kiefer, a mathematician at NIH. I no longer remember the details of Jim’s argument, but its conclusion went something like this: the reliability of our cognitive faculties implies the existence of a transcendent designer. Unfortunately, Jim never published his argument in a scholarly journal, but he did share it with philosopher Richard Taylor, who included a succinct version in his book Metaphysics. At some point (late ’74 or early ’75), Jim also gave me a draft of a paper he was working on. I carried it with me for over thirty-five years. Unfortunately it, and several other boxes of books and papers, had to be thrown away after our basement flooded in Johnstown. When Jim died last year, I feared that his paper had died with him. Imagine my delight when I discovered today that my old friend Ronn Neff, with whom I have not been in contact for decades, has made his paper available on the internet: “Objectivism and Theism.” Ronn was the person who first introduced me to Kiefer’s argument and subsequently to Kiefer himself. After my graduation from Bard College, I returned to the D.C. area and began Inquirers’ Classes at the parish where Jim and Ron were worshipping, St Paul’s Church, K Street. And that, as they say, was that.

By the time I finished seminary, the Kieferian argument from design had ceased to be important for my faith—not because I had become convinced that it was invalid but because I had come to understand that the life of discipleship inescapably involves existential risk and commitment. The philosophical argument had served its purpose, but it was time to move decisively forward. One cannot sit around forever waiting for scholarly consensus to give the green light to follow Jesus. “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62).

Atheism was not a challenge St Thomas Aquinas needed to address in the thirteenth century. God was the air he and his friends breathed. No one felt they needed a philosophical argument to justify their belief in an eternal Creator, though medieval philosophers were happy to provide such justifications. And so right at the beginning of that most famous of elementary textbooks of theology, the Summa Theologiae, stands the five ways. When one thinks of Aquinas, these are what first come to mind. Thomas intends each as a cogent answer to the question, Does God exist?

Thomas believes that if we attend to the world in all of its workings, we will be led to a rationally-grounded belief in God. Despite the abstract language of the five ways, they are all quite ordinary, as Denys Turner explains:

If we know God “rationally” it is as rational animals that we do so, and not as quasi-angelic hybrids. The most cursory glance at those five ways makes the point clearly enough. Each begins from basic human, earthbound experience—typically Thomas avoids illustrative examples and sticks with generalities: we observe material objects to be set in motion, we observe one thing to cause change in another, we observe things to come into existence and pass out of it again, and so on. We, however, might fairly fill out his abstractions: a rock falling down a hill in a landslide will do to launch the “proof from motion” a stonemason chipping a corbel for Notre Dame cathedral will do to get off the ground the proof from “efficient causality”; a daffodil blooming, fading, and dying would open up the third argument from “contingency”; one corbel being better than another is material enough for the fourth way; and an apple seed’s meeting one’s expectations of its becoming a tree will do for the fifth. The arguments for God are rational because they make their way to God beginning from the world human beings inhabit as animals and interrogate rationally. (Thomas Aquinas, pp. 132-133)

Scientists and skeptics will immediately protest: there’s no need to invoke a supreme deity to explain the phenomena of nature. Thomas would no doubt agree, only pausing to explain that he is not doing modern science, which restricts itself to the quantitative study and measurement of objects in motion (see Stanley Jaki, Science and Religion: A Primer), but what we today would call metaphysics; that is to say, he is contemplating reality at a deeper level. It is at this deeper level that the question of God is posed. While the modern scientist must remain content to quantify the processes of nature, the philosopher is free to probe and analyze the fundamental structures of reality, asking questions of act and potency; essence and existence; form and substance; material, formal, efficient, and final causality—and ultimately, the nature of being itself (see Edward Feser, Aquinas).

Each of the five ways, Frederick Bauerschmidt tell us, “seek to move from something that is manifest to the existence of something that is not manifest, but which must be the case if we are to account for that which is manifest to us” (Thomas Aquinas, p. 95). Each way identifies the self-insufficiency of the world: “nothing moves itself; nothing causes itself; nothing is the source of its own necessity; nothing measures itself; the universe as a whole does not guide itself” (p. 95). And since the world is not nothing, then there must be that unconditioned and absolute reality “which everyone gives the name of God” (ST I.2.3).

Thomas knows full well that he has not proven the existence of the biblical God, but he does believe that his arguments demonstrate the existence of a being who is the perfect and infinite actuality of Being (actus purus). Human reason cannot demonstrate what God is; but it may prove that he is. Through reason we may know that there is an answer to the most fundamental of all questions—why?

Although we do not and cannot know what God is, we can know that he is. Or, more exactly, we know and can prove that there is something or someone which human beings call ‘God’ or ‘Divine’. We know this, not because we know his existence directly, but because we do know the existence of other things. We have direct acquaintance with all sorts of happenings, changes, productions, things, values, strivings. The famous Five Ways set out to prove that these things simply could not exist, indeed nothing at all could exist or happen, unless something Unknown, which we call divine, somehow existed (I.ii.3). … The Five Ways enable us to know, not the being or existence of God (Dei esse), but only that what men call God is, or exists (Deum esse) (I.iii.4 ad 2). They show that unless there is some unknown ground or source (causa is St Thomas’s word, but this does not of course mean ’cause’ in the restricted sense in which it is used in modern science) on which everything ultimately depends, then nothing could ever exist or happen at all. This is not to say (as is sometimes claimed today) that God is an ‘explanation’ of the universe, for we cannot ‘explain’ what is to some extent known by what is unknown. But we do claim that if there were no God, there could not be anything else.

St Thomas’s position differs from that of modern agnostics because while modern agnosticism says simply, ‘We do not know, and the universe is a mysterious riddle’, a Thomist says, ‘We do not know what the answer is, but we do know that there is a mystery behind it all which we do not know, and if there were not, there would not even be a riddle. This Unknown we call God. If there were no God, there would be no universe to be mysterious, and nobody to be mystified.’ (Victor White, God the Unknown, pp. 18-19)

An answer that is not an answer, an explanation that is not an explanation, a reality whose nature we cannot comprehend, a riddle we cannot solve. Or in Thomas’s words: “God’s effects then are enough to prove that God exists, even if they are not enough to help us comprehend what he is” (ST I.2.3).

(Go to “The Contuition of Divinity”)

Advertisements
This entry was posted in Aquinas and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to Can Reason Prove the Existence of God?

  1. “Scientists and skeptics will immediately protest: there’s no need to invoke a supreme deity to explain the phenomena of nature. Thomas would no doubt agree, only pausing to explain that he is not doing natural science but metaphysics . . . It is at this deeper level that the question of God is posed. The scientist qua scientist must be content to note and quantify the processes of nature, but the philosopher is unconstrained by the rules that bind the scientist.”

    Fr. Benedict Ashley OP has argued well that Thomas would not agree to such a distinction between natural science and metaphysics: http://www3.nd.edu/~maritain/jmc/ti99/ashley.htm

    Like

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Thanks for the comment. It prompted me to add one phrase (“as modern scientists understand it”) that I hope will clarify my meaning, though it probably will not satisfactorily allay your concern.

      In your reading of Aquinas, what is the difference between natural science and metaphysics?

      Like

      • I was careful to say in my post “Fr. Benedict Ashley has argued…” to make clear that I didn’t consider myself an expert on it, to judge who is right :). But, in my opinion, his arguments are good.

        Anyway, I think I know enough to explain Fr. Ashley’s reading of Aquinas. He was a River Forest Thomist. This group of Thomists are known for their emphasis on Aquinas’s Aristotelian background and were disappointed by the neglect that other Thomists gave to Aquinas’s commentaries on Aristotle. Ashley, along with other River Forest Thomists would say that the subject-matter of natural science is changeable being. It involves not only answering general questions like “what is substance?” or “what is motion?” but it also involves what we today call natural science – e.g., “what is the essence of fluorine?,” “what is chemical equilibrium?” etc. (emphasis on the importance of natural sciences for philosophy is a second thing the River Forest Thomists are known for). In contrast, the subject-matter of metaphysics is immaterial being (most primarily God).

        One might just say that “Aquinas and modern scientists/philosophers just define natural science and metaphysics differently – anyone can define anything however they want, what really matters is what they ultimately mean.” This is not totally wrong, but Ashley argues that Aristotle and Aquinas cared about how you defined each area of knowledge because they cared about the classification of knowledge. Since they believe God is the subject-matter of metaphysics and, in their organization of the sciences, no subject proves the existence of its own subject-matter, they would it consider it circular and illogical to define metaphysics so that proving the existence of God falls under it. Aquinas would rather say that natural science, or the philosophy of nature (same thing) prove the existence of a First Cause, while metaphysics considers this First Cause in more depth.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Note X Note says:

    I would only point to the proof of immovable properties. If an immovable God allowed, for the sake of undeniable human proof, Himself to be movable. The proof could be made through reason that God was not because He was and now is again, “whatever”one defines a move. I would add that this proof would still prerequire invisible forces and immovable objects to be assumed by the pensive theorist.The belief would be that the existent God would qualify the request, act with complete absence with a return to existence without disturbing ones thought or reliquishing any of His power.To test this theory, I would like to ask for a volunteer. Ha!

    Like

    • Note X Note says:

      If then, we have no hope to move an existent God to absence, I will suggest the only hope of reasonable proof of God’s existence be found in communion.

      Like

      • Note X Note says:

        “So this is my communion hymn
        I want to sit beside you at the feast,
        my friend
        Again, again and again
        And again” Andrew Peterson,Song:I Want to Say I’m Sorry,Album:The Burning Edge of Dawn

        Liked by 1 person

      • Note X Note says:

        This article suggests a contract still in effect and practice in regards to an engagement between the existent God and us. True or False?
        https://whatkylewrote.com/2016/02/10/communion/

        Like

        • Robert Fortuin says:

          Note X Note,

          I don’t think ‘contract’ really comes close to capturing the significance and meaning of the Eucharist. Nor the understanding of the Eucharist as ‘remembrance’ or ‘renewal of vows’ as the author in the linked article suggests. Reading (or participating in, even better!) the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, for instance, provides an entirely different account as to the meaning of Holy Communion/Eucharist.

          Like

          • Note X Note says:

            I have the same argument with the removal of sandals on holy ground being a courtesy ordered of Moses and Joshua steeped in tradition. I am still conceiving my thoughts, maybe the topic will come up for discussions.

            Like

  3. dbdweeb says:

    Have you read Fr. Robert Spitzer’s book, “New Proofs for the Existence of God?” He does a relatively deep dive into physics, big bang cosmology and the rationale behind it, then he melds it with the metaphysical rationale for proving the existence of God.

    What are your thoughts on that approach?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I don’t know enough to have any thoughts. 🙂

      Like

      • dbdweeb says:

        Well I can certainly identify with not knowing enough, but it is the beginning of wisdom. 🙂 The book is designed for us clueless folk while not shrinking back from serious science. You might want to add it to your shelf even though you already have too many books. There are a number of world class physicists who know God because of their profession. Spitzer reviews their physics then transcends to metaphysics. I have the naive notion that good science and good theology are harmonious, and while there is a distinct lack in both, good theology is more sorely needed.

        Liked by 2 people

    • Robert Fortuin says:

      I think Fr Spitzer’s is a great approach, for what it is. Natural theology is not going to convince the atheist bent on a reductionist scientism which interprets the cosmos as self-existent, uncaused material.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I made some minor changes to my article this morning, just in case anyone is interested.

    Like

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      For some unknown reason, yesterday afternoon WordPress substituted an earlier version of my article. It took me a while, but I think I have now restored it to what should be my “final” version.

      Like

  5. DanutM says:

    Reblogged this on Persona.

    Like

  6. I think that the most a person could prove empirically is a sort of Deistic version of God based on materialism. I do at the same time think that Deism is not just tenable, but the only logical conclusion in that instance. Deism however is unsatisfying, it admits the existence of a creator based on what exists; presuming that what exists must testify to its causation. However it leaves us asking why anything exists? Consciousness itself to me is the next level of inquiry. Consciousness demands a source. It is a bit contrived to suggest that consciousness is an emergent property of matter alone. It is in fact immaterial, yet it at the same time it does not exist independently of matter. We cannot point to any one point of the brain and say: here is consciousness. Yet we can see consciousness interact with the material world through the brain. This thing that is consciousness demands more than Deism – a causation for material existence, it demands Theism – a personal causation for space, time and consciousness.

    It is interesting to look at recent scientific theories of consciousness in fact. They sound nearly mystical. The science of consciousness clearly struggles more than others because of the atheistic presumptions of modern scientific endeavor: God must be proven but the absence of God can be taken as a matter of fact. As though Atheism is a null position. Because of this a scientific theory of consciousness must avoid the most obvious answer. Consciousness is not an emergent property of the cosmos, but rather the cosmos is an emergent property of consciousness. In fact it seems rather absurd when we consider that we use our own material consciousness to observe the material, yet deny that there is anything more than material. The starting place is the ‘invisible’ – that is where all thought and rationality begins. At least in my opinion.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Ronald Neff says:

    Thanks for the link.

    James had intended to expand the argument into a book. He never got around to that, but I have a box full of his notes and expanded chapters. I have already put much of that material on the site, and I plan eventually to get it all posted. In both its original form (the audio lecture — of a quality surprising given its age — and the accompanying PDF — both at thornwalker.com/kiefer) and in the projected final form, the argument was cast specifically as a reply to Ayn Rand and her followers to show them that their premises implied the existence of God, not the atheism they professed (and still profess).

    James’s argument is a variant of the one C.S. Lewis used in MERE CHRISTIANITY and MIRACLES. Victor Reppert has dealt with that argument at great length in his book, C. S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea.

    James and I identify other predecessors of the argument here: http://www.thornwalker.com/kiefer/00b-history.html

    Like

  8. Ronald Neff says:

    Correction: where I wrote “PDF” above, I should have written “transcript.” The transcript is available both in HTML format (http://www.thornwalker.com/kiefer/object&theism-transcript.html) and in PDF format (http://www.thornwalker.com/kiefer/object&theism.pdf).

    Like

Comments are closed.