“Kantian Ethics is the most useful approach to making decisions in Business.” Evaluate this statement. (40)

In 1997 Freeman and Evan published an article proposing a Kantian stakeholder theory of corporate responsibility, which was (from 1998) included in “Ethical Theory and Business”, the Cambridge University Press reference work in this area.  This article awakened interest in applying Kantian Ethics to business, using it to improve decision-making, broaden its ethical concern and counterbalance the superficial utilitarianism that had dominated discussions about business ethics in the later 20th Century.  Shortly afterwards in 1999, Norman E. Bowie, one of the editors of “Ethical Theory and Business”, published “Business Ethics: A Kantian perspective,” through which he argued that Kantian Ethics was indeed the most useful approach to making decisions in business.  Since then, a number of other writers have developed their own explorations of how Kant’s ethical principles might inform Business decision making and other scholars have criticised this approach. The major “Kantian Business Ethics: Critical Perspectives” edited by Arnold and Harris, which was published in 2012, outlines the debate.    In short, Norman E Bowie’s argument for a Kantian Approach to Business Ethics falls well short of addressing the true implications of Kant’s work for Business, preferring to characterise Kantian Ethics in simplistic terms as the demand that businesses should act consistently, considering the effect of actions on stakeholders and on the long-term reputation of the business.  While Kant would not disagree with the need for people to act consistently, consider the effect of their actions on those persons directly affected and on the precedent set to society in general, Kant’s philosophy raises deeper questions about the ability of a business to make moral decisions at all and about the morality of any person agreeing to be employed by a business and make decisions on its behalf which Norman E Bowie neglects.  Because of this, while it might be fair to say that Bowie’s ethical guidelines would be a useful way to approach making decisions in Business, it is a stretch to call these guidelines truly Kantian.  Kantian Ethics when properly understood, would be very far from a useful approach to making decisions in business.

In the first place, Bowie argues that a Kantian approach to decision-making demands that businesses act consistently, yet for Kant the Categorical Imperative is about more than mere consistency, it is about always doing what is universally right.  In the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals Kant recommended that people should “always act so that the maxim of your action should become, through your will, a universal law”… this has far wider implications than just choosing to do whatever you do consistently.  The categorical imperative demands that people choose to do only what they could rationally will for all other people to do, ignoring the particular detail of the situation.  When facing a decision about marketing a product, the Kantian should strip away the detail about the decision being made in the content of a business seeking to make a profit and focus on whether the maxim of the action is universalizable.  Kant famously argued that lying to a suspected axe-murderer to save the life of a friend was not universalizable, so it seems probable that he would argue that the exaggerations, selective use of information and misrepresentations that are the heart and soul of advertising could not be universalised.  Both lying to an axe murderer and lying about the efficacy of a face-cream or the healthiness of a yoghurt are based on the maxim of lying… which is not universalizable.   By deceiving the customer-base the business also uses persons as means to the end of making profit.  As Karl Marx observed “capitalism is theft”… the business marketing face-cream relies on using cheap ingredients and paying its workers a lot less than the product finally sells for.  The essence of marketing is in making the consumer believe that the product is worth more than it is.  In this way, Kantian Ethics demands far more than consistency of decision-makers and decisions in business are unlikely to be consistent with the demands of the categorical imperative.

In the second instance, Bowie argues that a Kantian approach to decision-making demands that businesses consider the impact of decisions on stakeholders.  Yet, Kant’s Practical Imperative, the formula of ends and means, demands much more of decision-makers.  In the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals Kant wrote “always act so that people, whether in the person of yourself or another, should be treated as ends in themselves and never as means to an end”.  Notice how Kant speaks of people, not stakeholders.  As Freeman and Evan suggested in their 1997 article, the stakeholders that a business should consider include shareholders, employees, customers and local community.  Even by this relatively generous definition, there are many people who do not count as stakeholders.  Further, Bowie makes little mention of the idea that Kant demands more of decision-makers than an impact assessment.  Treating a person as an end in themselves is not just minimising harm to them, it is about recognising that as a person they have inherent value equal to that of all other persons, including the decision maker.  The person living in the Maldives has the same value as the President of the Corporation and must, by Kant’s logic, be treated as an end in themselves.  If Kantian Ethics are taken seriously, there is no way a business could justify prioritising the short/medium term interests of its shareholders over the longer-term interests of its poorly paid employees or indeed the interests of the person in the Maldives in not having their home flooded by rising sea-levels which result from climate change.  In this way as well, Kantian Ethics demands far more than assessing impact on stakeholders; decisions in business are unlikely to be consistent with the demands of the categorical imperative.

Thirdly, although Bowie suggests that businesses should make decisions on the basis of Kantian principles, Kant’s writings reject the idea that a non-human agent can act morally.  As Matthew C Altman argued in 2007, a business is in itself neither free nor rational and cannot have a “good will” as Kant described it in the opening lines of the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals.  Further, business decisions are made by people, who do have moral agency, but by people who are acting under the principle of limited liability.  For Kant, the idea that a person could sign an employment contract and so limit the extent to which they are morally responsible for their actions would be ridiculous.  For Kant, to be good a will must recognise its freedom and choose to follow the demands of reason anew in every individual moment.  Any action taken out of habit, fear, deference to authority etc, however good it may seem and whatever positive results it might yield, is in actuality an evil action and contaminates the will in a way that seems irreversible and which precludes the possibility of the eternal reward that reason makes us postulate.  By Kant’s understanding, the managers who make decisions on behalf of a business are – both in a moral sense and eternally – responsible for those decisions, whatever legal waiver might be in place.  Further, if a manager makes a decision because they have been trained to do so, out of fear for losing their job, because they have been instructed to do so or to conform with an agreed policy, their action is immoral and their will eternally damned regardless of whether the decision is in itself universalizable or compatible with treating persons as ends.  It seems that Kantian Ethics, when considered in its entirety, would not only make it impossible for a business to act ethically, but would also make it impossible for anybody to be employed by a business to make ethical decisions on its behalf.  In this way Kantian Ethics, when properly understood, is very far from a useful approach to making decisions in business.

In conclusion, Kantian Ethics is not the most useful approach to making decisions in business.  This is not to say that Bowie’s principles might not be a useful basis on which to make business decisions, but it is to say that it is a stretch to call these principles Kantian. 

Critically assess the belief that God is omnipotent. (40)

Omnipotence is a central attribute of the Christian God; as the Nicene Creed affirms

“we believe in One God, the Father, the Almighty…”

Nevertheless, Christians struggle to agree on precisely what it means.  Broadly, there are two approaches to understanding God’s omnipotence.  Classical Theists, including many Roman Catholic scholars, argue that God exists eternally in the sense of being outside time and space and so wholly simple.  By this definition, God’s omnipotence means that he caused everything, even time and space, to exist but it does not necessarily mean that God can act directly in time, such as by performing a miracle in response to prayer.  By contrast, Theistic Personalists reject the timeless-eternal model of God because it makes God too remote for most Christian doctrines and practices to make sense.  If God is wholly simple, how can he also exist in three persons?  If God is beyond time and space, how can he know when He is being worshipped or understand the contents of peoples’ hearts, let alone speak to or appear to people through mystical experiences?  As Nelson Pike observed, the actions of the God of the Bible are “unavoidably tensed”. For Theistic Personalists, including many Protestant Christians, God must be everlasting but within time.  This means that God has the power to act responsively and directly to change aspects of creation, but this comes at the price of making God’s understanding of the world and his actions depend on time and space and events within them, seemingly making him less than supremely powerful.  It is clear, therefore, that both approaches to understanding God’s omnipotence entail God’s power being limited in some way.  Either God’s power to act responsively in time is limited by God’s timeless nature, or God’s power is not supreme because his actions are bounded by time and dependent on events outside of God.  In this way the belief that God is omnipotent is incoherent.

Controversially, Rene Descartes argued that God’s supreme perfection entails omnipotence to the point whereby God could make 2+2=5 if He so wished, suggesting that God can do the logically impossible, such as by creating a stone too heavy for him to lift… and then lifting it anyway.  Descartes wrote, “God could have brought it about … that it was not true that twice four make eight” (Descartes 1984-1991: 2:294).  Nevertheless, even Descartes had to accept that God’s power is limited in the respect that God cannot lie or will his own non-existence.  Tacitly accepting St Anselm’s argument, He wrote to a correspondent “God does not have the faculty of taking away from himself his own existence.”  Later proponents of the Ontological Argument Leibniz and Ross both developed this point, arguing that God exists necessarily in any possible world.  Further, as well as not supporting God’s omnipotence entailing unlimited power, Descartes position suggests that the laws of logic and nature are arbitrary, raising questions about God’s goodness.  As Plato pointed out in Euthyphro and as Bertrand Russell later argued, a God who decides what is good and bad arbitrarily, going on to reward and punish people eternally for jumping or failing to jump through a meaningless moral hoop, is no better than a tyrant and certainly not worthy of worship.  In this way, believing that God’s omnipotence means that he can do the logically impossible is both incompatible with the Christian belief that God is all-good and incompatible with God’s supreme perfection.  This demonstrates that the belief that God is omnipotence is incoherent when defined in this timeless-eternal sense.

St Thomas Aquinas argued that God is eternal in the sense of being wholly simple and outside time.  In this way, God’s creative action must be single, limiting God’s power to what is actually possible, logically possible and compatible with God’s timeless nature.   Much as Descartes later did, Aquinas argued that God could not act in a way that conflicts with his God-like nature, such as by doing what is evil.  For Aquinas, God’s actions are also limited by what is possible in this world, so it is not possible for God to create a square circle or make 2+2=5 within this world. Because his creative act is timeless and so single and simple, God cannot do x and not x in the same timeless act of creation.  Nevertheless, Of course, Thomist scholars like Gerry Hughes SJ have reasoned that God’s omnipotence means that He could have created another world in which different logical rules apply, but only if such a world was consistent with what Richard Swinburne has called the Best Possible World Type. It would not be actually possible (consistent with God’s nature) to create a substandard world, so God’s power to create a world with different logical laws in which 2+2 could =5 depends on that world being equivalent to this in terms of fulfilling God’s purpose for it.  Aquinas’ argument is problematic in this respect.  How could God create more than one world if He is indeed timeless and spaceless?  Multiple acts of creation imply a separation in time and space that is inconsistent with God’s timeless nature, making it not actually possible for God to have created any other world.  In the end, Aquinas’ argument is no better than Descartes when it comes to defending God’s unlimited power.  For both Descartes and Aquinas then, God’s power is significantly constrained by His own nature, making the belief in omnipotence, when understood to mean having timeless-eternally unlimited power, uncoherent. 

Theistic Personalists such as Richard Swinburne, Brian Leftow and William Lane Craig have sought to make sense of the belief that God is omnipotent by arguing that God is everlasting in time.  They reject the Classical Theist argument that God can be timelessly eternal on the basis that such a God is inconsistent with the Bible and tenets of Christian doctrine like God existing in three persons or becoming incarnate and because, as Sir Anthony Kenny argued, the idea of God existing or acting in a timeless way is “radically incoherent” given that the matrix which makes existence and action possible is time.  The idea that God is everlasting in time is supported by the Bible, in verses such as

“The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary” Isaiah 40:28

In this case, God’s omnipotence entails being able to do everything that it is logically possible to do from a point in time.  As Swinburne wrote in 1973

“[God] is omnipotent at time t = if  [God] is able at t to bring about any state of affairs p such that it is consistent with the facts about what happened before t that, after t, [God] should bring about p…”

By this analysis, given the facts the go before the present moment t, in this moment God could not create a square circle or create a rock too heavy for him to lift and nor could God do something evil or act so as to bring about a worse result.  Also, God cannot change the past or, arguably, know the future outcome of free actions. Despite this, both Swinburne and Leftow argue that God is omnipotent.  They reject the claim that not being able to do something logically impossible or inconsistent with one’s nature is a real limitation on power.  Nobody thinks Donald Trump is not powerful because he cannot fly, give birth or make square circles!  By this definition, God being omnipotent entails him having power in much the same way as human beings have power, only to a much greater degree.  Nevertheless, surely this univocal interpretation of God’s omnipotence is unsatisfactory.  Not only does it seem to anthropomorphise God and sell short the belief that he is supremely powerful, but it is also inconsistent with the Bible, as in Isaiah 55:8

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord.

In this way as well, believing in an everlastingly omnipotent God is incoherent. 

Further, when it comes to an everlasting God in time, what evidence is there to support belief in the existence of a God who exists and acts like an invisible superman?  The arguments for God’s existence do nothing to support the existence of such a God and, if William James’ analysis of genuine mystical experience is to believed, neither do Religious Experiences.  It is true that the everlasting God of the Theistic Personalists makes far more sense of God’s actions as recorded in the Bible (if not all of God’s words) than does the eternal God of the Classical Theist tradition, but what is the rational basis for accepting the Bible as the primary, in fact almost the only, authority for the existence of such a God?   Given the insights of Biblical Criticism, it seems that having faith that God exists – and is omnipotent – on the basis of scripture alone (Sola Scriptura) cannot be rational.  Further, even if faith is “assurance about what we do not see.” Hebrews 11:1, the Bible is inconsistent in what it suggests about God’s omnipotence.  In Genesis 2 God searches for a helper for Adam, trying out each animal before settling on making woman out of Adam’s rib… not even very competent!  Yet, in Matthew 19:26 Jesus affirms that “with God all things are possible.”  It seems that believing that God exists and is omnipotent in a way that is everlasting in time on the strength of the Bible is incoherent. 

In conclusion, believing that God is omnipotent remains a central part of Christian doctrine and yet is it an incoherent belief.  This demonstrates the extent to which faith is not a rational position to hold.  Of course, this makes little difference to those believers who understand faith to be non-propositional, constituting…

“confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” Hebrews 11:1

Yet, for those looking for propositional faith, faith that is well supported by evidence and argument, the incoherence of omnipotence as a key attribute of God and its lack of compatibility with either God’s goodness or the Bible will make it difficult to remain a Christian. 

St. Anselm succeeded in demonstrating God’s existence from reason alone. Discuss [40]

Most of the arguments for God’s existence start with observations of the natural world, concluding a posteriori, after the fact, that God’s existence is the most probable explanation of those observations.  As such, most arguments for God’s existence are inductive and so are subject to the problem of induction; even when these arguments are strong, they do not provide proof but only a high degree of probability. Their conclusions are always falsifiable if and when observations are found to be flawed or incomplete (and the premises of the argument thus shown to be untrue), as well as if and when a more probable explanation of these observations is suggested.  Because of the limitations of arguments for God’s existence that start with observations, St Anselm sought to demonstrate God’s existence from reason alone.  In his Monologion (1075-6) he proposed a deductive argument based on the grades of perfection in things, arguing that the existence of God as supreme perfection is contained within claims that other things are more or less perfect.  Nevertheless, Anselm’s argument was criticized by his predecessor as abbot of Bec, Lanfranc.  Lanfranc argued that Anselm had not succeeded in demonstrating God’s existence from reason alone, because the premises in his argument depended on observations, even though they did contain his conclusion.  Because of Lanfranc’s criticism, Anselm determined to try to demonstrate God’s existence from reason alone in the Prosologion (1078).  Anselm developed two novel a priori arguments in this work and he remained confident of his own success, despite criticisms leveled during his lifetime, writing…

“I BELIEVE that I have shown by an argument which is not weak, but sufficiently cogent, that in my former book I proved the real existence of a being than which a greater cannot be conceived; and I believe that this argument cannot be invalidated by the validity of any objection. For so great force does the signification of this reasoning contain in itself, that this being which is the subject of discussion, is of necessity, from the very fact that it is understood or conceived, proved also to exist in reality, and to be whatever we should believe of the divine substance.” Concluding words of Anselm’s “Responsio” to Gaunilo

Nevertheless, history has shown that St Anselm did not succeed in demonstrating God’s existence from reason alone. 

In the Prosologion Book II St Anselm presents a simple version of what Kant later termed an Ontological Argument from God’s existence.  He started by quoting Psalm 14:1 and claiming that atheists are fools because they accept that God is “that than which nothing greater conceived of” and claim that there is nothing by that definition that exists in reality, when existence is a perfection and so my definition a property of “that than which nothing greater can be conceived of”.  For St. Anselm, if God only existed in the mind, it would always be possible to conceive of something greater, namely something that existed in reality, so existence in reality must be a property of God.  This argument was criticised by Gaunilo of Marmoutiers in his wittily titled “On behalf of the fool.” Gaunilo objected to St. Anselm’s claim that Atheists accept his definition of God as “that than which nothing greater can be conceived of.” He argued that people can recognise a word without forming an idea of what it refers to in their minds and that is particularly likely in the case of God, because it is a word which refers to something that is unlike any other thing and which is beyond most peoples’ experience.  Further, Gaunilo argued that it is possible to have in one’s minds all sorts of ideas of things which do not exist in reality.  He then used St Anselm’s own example of a painter and a painting to reason that the idea of something in the mind must always precede understanding that that idea also exists in reality.   St Anselm rejected Gaunilo’s points in his Responsio, arguing that if Atheists do indeed recognise the word God but not have any idea what it refers to then so much more are they fools!  Later, Descartes’ examples of triangles and valleys support St Anselm’s reasoning here – how could somebody claim to recognise the word triangle without understanding its essential predicate of three-sidedness?  St Anselm then reasoned that God is not like the idea of a unicorn or a Gruffalo, because unlike any other imaginary thing, the idea of God is of a being whose supreme nature logically contains existence in reality.  He hit back at Gaunilo, claiming he never intended his example of the painter and painting to be used in the way that Gaunilo used it.  Nevertheless and despite these responses, Gaunilo’s criticisms are effective.  Having ideas “in intellectu” for words to refer to depends on experience, on having ideas about similar things to draw on.  When an artist paints, they form an idea of what they want to paint in their minds that usually draws on experience before they then apply paint to the canvas and come to understand their painting as an object that now exists in reality as well as in the mind.  When an artist paints a triangle, they have experience of three-sided shapes to draw on and if not that, then some experience of shapes full stop.  However, if an Artist tried to paint God, they would have no comparable experience to draw on at all, so the idea of God in the artist’s mind would always be prior to and separate from the idea of God existing in reality.  Atheists have no experience of God and so the word “God” is just a sound, a sign without anything to point towards.  Later, St Thomas Aquinas agreed with Gaunilo.  While he accepted that God’s existence can be said to be self-evident and known through reason alone to somebody who really understands all that can possibly be known about the nature of God, Aquinas noted that in practice most people have little concept of what God is.  In Summa 1,2,1 Aquinas wrote: “Now because we do not know the essence of God, the proposition is not self-evident to us; but needs to be demonstrated by things that are more known to us…— namely, by effects.”  In this way, St Anselm failed to demonstrate that Atheists are fools because God’s existence can be known from reason alone.

Further, a version of St Anselm’s argument in Proslogion II presented by Descartes was later criticised by Immanuel Kant and Bertrand Russell.  Persuasively, Kant pointed out that St Anselm and Descartes are wrong to claim that existence is a perfection.  Taking the example of a job interview, a candidate who exists is not more perfect than a candidate who does not, rather the application of the non-existent candidate is meaningless.  Superficially, it might seem that Kant is nitpicking.  A real chocolate cake, any real chocolate cake, will always be greater, more perfect, more tasty etc. than any imaginary chocolate cake, even an imaginary one with zero calories.  No less authorities than St Anselm and Descartes saw this as a matter of common sense.  Despite this, Kant’s point deserves deeper consideration.  In logic, following Aristotle, there are two kinds of predicates – accidental predicates and essential predicates.  Accidental predicates are properties that an object may or may not have – like cherries or cream in the case of a chocolate cake.  Essential predicates are properties that an object must have or not be that object – like chocolate-flavour in the case of a chocolate cake.  In the Critique of Pure Reason (1781) Kant argues that existence is neither an essential predicate of anything, nor really an accidental predicate.  Focusing for the moment on existence as an accidental predicate, existence cannot be seen as a quality that an object might or might not have in the same way that cherries or cream are qualities that a chocolate cake might or not have.  To explain this point, Bertrand Russell used the example of a claim such as “the present King of France is bald” – it seems like a meaningful claim and capable of being true or false, but in fact because there is no present king of France the claim is meaningless.  St Anselm implies that there is a scale of perfection, the idea of an imaginary God appearing lower down the scale, with Gods having more or less perfect attributes appearing alongside, with the real God at the top of the scale.  In fact real existence is a precondition of appearing on the scale and being capable of comparison.  Russell points out that when St Anselm defines God as “that than which nothing greater can be conceived of” he begs the question and smuggles the existence of God as the object into the premises of his argument, reasoning that existence must de dicto be an accidental predicate of God.  If there is no “that than which nothing greater can be conceived of” then predicating anything of it is meaningless.  St Anselm needs to establish the existence of God before his demonstration of God’s existence will work, so the argument could only ever succeed for a person who had reason to believe already, on other grounds.  For these reasons as well, St Anselm failed to demonstrate God’s existence from reason alone.

Perhaps aware of the shortcomings of his argument in Proslogion Book II, in the Proslogion Book III St Anselm had already presented a different type of Ontological Argument, reasoning that it is greater to exist necessarily than only contingently, so necessary existence is a property of God as “that than which nothing greater can be conceived of.”  Here, St Anselm is arguing that existence is not just an accidental predicate of “that than which nothing greater can be conceived of” but is actually an essential predicate of God, to use Descartes’ later example as three-sidedness is an essential predicate of being a triangle.  In his “On behalf of the fool” Gaunilo criticised this argument as well, trying to reduce it to absurdity by using the analogy of a perfect island.  Nobody but a fool would believe that an island exists simply because somebody says that it is a perfect island, so existence (necessary or otherwise) must be predicated of it.  In this last criticism, at least as applied to the argument presented in Proslogion III, Gaunilo fails to show that Anselm’s argument is flawed.  As St Anselm wrote in the Responsio:

“I promise confidently that if any man shall devise anything existing either in reality or in concept alone (except that than which a greater be conceived) to which he can adapt the sequence of my reasoning, I will discover that thing, and will give him his lost island, not to be lost again.”

St Anselm is right to remind Gaunilo that necessary existence cannot logically be said to be a property of islands, unicorns or gruffalos for that matter.  Such things exist within time and space, contingently.  No contingent existence can necessarily exist.  Only God, who is “that than which nothing greater can be conceived of” has and must by definition have the unique property of necessary existence.  Despite this, however, St Anselm assumes that the idea of necessary existence is possible.  Persuasively, Immanuel Kant argued that because all our possible knowledge is of contingently existing things, any claims about necessary existence are like a “cupola of judgement”.  For Kant, all existential claims must be synthetic, capable of being verified through sense-observations.  We simply cannot claim to know that anything necessarily exists, so St Anselm’s argument is speculative and must fail to demonstrate God’s existence from reason alone.  Further, Kant argues that existence cannot be an essential predicate of anything.  He wrote:

“If, then, I try to conceive a being, as the highest reality (without any defect), the question still remains, whether it exists or not. For though in my concept there may be wanting nothing of the possible real content of a thing in general, something is wanting in its relation to my whole state of thinking, namely, that the knowledge of that object should be possible a posteriori also…”

Kant is effectively agreeing with Gaunilo, although supporting his argument rather better, in reasoning that existence is “out there” in the world of the senses and so incapable of being demonstrated analytically, through reason alone, and without reference to the senses.  Today, the vast majority of people would side with Kant and Gaunilo in their understanding of what it means to exist, and for this reason St Anselm failed to demonstrate God’s necessary existence from reason alone.

Nevertheless, after WWII Kant’s world-view started to be questioned and along with it his claims that all existential statements have to be synthetic and that existence cannot be an essential predicate of anything.  Perhaps drawing on those like Hegel who drew attention to cracks in the foundations of Kant’s critical philosophy early in the 19th Century, scholars such as Hartshorne and Quine pointed out how dogmatic Kant’s understanding of existence and meaning was.  For Hartshorne, Kant’s criticism of seeing existence as an accidental predicate is fair, but ignores the possibility that necessary existence could be an essential predicate of God and only God.  Hartshorne reasoned that either God’s existence is contingent (which it cannot be, by definition), or God’s existence is necessary and necessary existence is impossible or God’s existence is necessary and possible, in which case God exists.  Rejecting Kant’s limited world-view, Hartshorne argued that God’s necessary existence is not impossible, so God necessarily exists.  Of course, Hartshorne’s argument depends on his ability to reject the claim that necessary existence is an impossible concept.  JN Findlay strongly disagreed with Hartshorne on this point, arguing that by showing that God’s existence can’t be contingent and can only be necessary when necessary existence is impossible,

“it was indeed an ill day for Anselm when he hit upon his famous proof. For on that day he not only laid bare something that is of the essence of an adequate religious object, but also something that entails its necessary non-existence…’ [First published in Mind, April 1948] 

While others have agreed with and built on Hartshorne’s reasoning, including Norman Malcolm and later Alvin Plantinga, those who side with Hartshorne tend to be those who believe in God on other grounds.  Again, attempts to revive the Ontological Argument serve to show that Anselm failed to demonstrate the existence of God from reason alone to anybody who doesn’t already believe in God on other grounds.

In conclusion, St. Anselm’s arguments in the Proslogion fail to demonstrate the existence of God from reason alone.  Gaunilo, Kant and Russell among many other critics have shown how St. Anselm’s reasoning is problematic, firstly by showing how Atheists need not accept the first premise of the argument, that “God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived of” and by undermining the whole attempt to demonstrate existence by analysing the concept of anything, and then by showing that existence is not a perfection or quality that can properly be accidentally predicated of anything and that necessary existence is impossible, because existence cannot be an essential predicate of anything.  That is not to say that St Anselm’s arguments have no value.  While they fail to demonstrate God’s existence from reason alone, for those who already believe in God – or at least for those who already reject Kant’s critical world view with its limitation on possible knowledge and meaningful claims – the arguments remain an important part of articulating their faith and revealing the nature of God.

Aquinas’ first cause argument successfully proves the existence of God. Discuss. (40)

Aquinas’ first cause argument is the second of his three versions of the Cosmological Argument, which form the first of his three ways to God in the first part of the Summa Theologica.  As a Cosmological Argument, Aquinas’ first cause argument starts from the observation of order, in this case causation, in the universe.  The word “Cosmological” derives from the Greek “Kosmos” which means both “order” and “universe”.  As Anthony Kenny[CV1]  explains, Aquinas relies on Aristotle’s theory of causation, as outlined in the Metaphysics Book IV.  Aristotle argued that all things in the universe have four causes, which can by understood in terms of the material, efficient, formal and final.  Material causes are the physical ingredients of things, efficient causes the agents that cause them to exist as they do, formal causes the definitions of things which make them what they are and the final cause to which things aim is their goal or telos and ultimately flourishing.  Focusing on efficient causation, Aquinas’ second way to God argues that everything in the universe is caused by one or more agents outside itself and nothing causes itself to exist.  If this is so then there is a problem – what was the first efficient cause.  An infinite chain of efficient causes makes no sense, because without a first cause nothing would exist.  Something cannot come out of nothing.  There must be a first efficient cause, but this must itself be uncaused, which makes it unlike any other thing.  The uncaused cause of the universe could then be said to be “neither something nor nothing” and, Aquinas concludes, this is what everybody calls God. As an inductive argument the conclusion of the Cosmological Argument, that God exists, is supported by observed premises which are falsifiable.  Because of this, Aquinas’ first cause argument cannot be said to prove God’s existence.  The problem of induction ensures that the most that the argument can be said to achieve is a very high degree of probability that its conclusions are, in fact, true[CV2] . Leaving the problem of induction and the issue of proof to one side: Aquinas’ first cause argument is still a convincing argument for the existence of God and, as William Lane Craig continues to argue, it is a useful means of defending the rationality of faith[CV3] . 

An immediate criticism of Aquinas’ argument is that it assumes that EVERYTHING in the universe is caused.  Although this claim is supported by Aristotle, it may be fair to suggest – as indeed JL Mackie did in “The Miracle of Theism” (1982[CV4] ) – that there may be things in the universe that are uncaused.  Indeed, Quantum Physics has concluded that there are sub-atomic particles that are in a sense uncaused. It could be that Aquinas’ first premise – that everything in the universe is caused – is untrue and if that is the case then the argument would fail. Nevertheless, it would be going too far to suggest that Physics has proven the existence of uncaused things in the universe.  Quantum particles could well be caused, for all we know, even though they appear not to be.  The most that Mackie’s criticism achieves is to show that Aquinas’ first premise must remain uncertain.  Although it seems likely on the basis of present experience that all things are caused, as Hume observed it is always possible that there are things in the universe that are uncaused and that these could explain the universe without recourse to God[CV5] . In this way, although Aquinas’ first cause argument is not entirely successful as an argument for God’s existence from observation, it is able to survive an obvious line of criticism.

In Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779) Hume went on to suggest that the universe itself could be the uncaused cause of itself.  Russell made a similar point in his debate with Frederick Copleston[CV6] , suggesting that the universe should be seen as a “brute fact”.  This is certainly possible; Aquinas’ might be guilty of committing the fallacy of composition in reasoning that just because things within the universe need causes that the universe as a whole needs a cause.  Russell gave the analogy of mothers – just because all men have mothers doesn’t mean that the human race has a mother.  While Hume and Russell could well be right and the universe might be the cause of itself, this goes well beyond our experience.  It is just as difficult to theorise about the universe being self-causing as it is to theorise that it has an uncaused cause.  Neither conclusion can be drawn with any degree of confidence.  What does seem certain is that Aquinas is correct to reason that the universe must be explained in terms of something that is uncaused, whether that is within the universe, the universe itself – or God.  William Lane Craig[CV7] , in adapting the Cosmological Argument for modern Christian Apologetics, chooses to leave the argument at its first conclusion – that there must exist an uncaused causer.  He leaves it to Theologians to convince people that the uncaused cause is in fact “what everybody calls God” and it seems that his caution is sensible. Neither Aquinas’ first cause argument nor any other version of the Cosmological Argument can conclusively prove the existence of God, but the argument can point to the rationality of faith given the necessity for a cause for the universe which is unlike anything within our normal experience[CV8] .

Immanuel Kant advised such caution when in the Critique of Pure Reason he argued that the Cosmological Argument, like other inductive arguments for God’s existence, goes beyond the boundaries of what we can claim to know.  It is reasonable to observe that all things are caused and that there is a tension implicit in this which demands explanation – but it is not reasonable to draw conclusions about that explanation when they go beyond possible experience.  Perhaps this is where faith comes in; the first cause argument cannot successfully PROVE the existence of God, but it can point towards a mystery which is evident in the observed universe, a mystery which is suggestive of the existence of something supernatural if not of the God of Classical Theism.  As Hume pointed out, the first cause argument cannot claim to lead to the God of Christianity – even to a single God in fact – but limited as it is, the argument provides a useful defence for the believer[CV9] . 


 [CV1]Precise relevant detail and range of scholarly views

 [CV2]Acknowledging & engaging with the precise wording of the title – This also works to show the LIMITATIONS of the argument.

 [CV3]THESIS

 [CV4]Using a range of scholarly views.  This paragraph also serves as the COUNTERCLAIM, as it does cede some of the point that Mackie makes.

 [CV5]Evaluating the “maybe not everything has a cause” criticism, linking to the THESIS, justified, developed…

 [CV6]Range of scholarly views – again a bit of counterargument (balance) here, allowing that Hume and Russell have a point.

 [CV7]Range of scholarly views

 [CV8]Evaluating the fallacy of composition criticism and linking to the THESIS – justified, developed, sustained…

 [CV9]Drawing in Kant’s criticism & another of Hume’s in drawing the final CONCLUSION, which restates the THESIS – successful argument.  Builds step by step and is therefore convincing.

Plato’s theory of the forms is unconvincing. Discuss (40)

Plato’s theory of the forms is developed in several different places.  Most famously, Plato describes the world of the forms and how it relates to the world of human experience through his Allegory of the Cave, found in Book VII of The Republic.  Here, Plato describes how human beings are like prisoners, trapped by the cave of sense-experience and how it is possible to escape – through reason – coming to the realization that Ultimate Reality is metaphysical in the world of the “forms.”  Elsewhere, Plato used the analogies of the Sun and the Divided Line to explain his theory differently, but nowhere did Plato provide any systematic account of or argument for the theory.  It seems that for Plato, a form is the essence of something, what makes it what it is.  It is what enables us to recognize what something we encounter is and what makes it possible to judge whether it is a good (or bad) example of its type.  The word “form” is also used to refer to the model which a mason used to ensure all his carvings were the same; it is the blueprint, the type, the design.  Unlike things that we encounter through our senses, the form is unchanging, perfect, complete and it is this which makes it more “real” than physical things in the ever-changing partial and imperfect world of the senses.  “The Platonic idealist,” said George Santayana, “is the man by nature so wedded to perfection that he sees in everything not the reality but the faultless ideal which the reality misses and suggests.”  However, Plato is not clear how many forms exist – is there a form of everything or only a few or even one ultimate form?  Further, Plato fails to argue for his position, preferring to describe a worldview using allegories and analogies.  Julia Annas observed that

Plato not only has no word for “theory”; he nowhere in his dialogues has an extended discussion of Forms in which he pulls together the different lines of thought about them and tries to assess the needs they meet and whether they succeed in meeting them” An Introduction to Plato’s Republic, p217 

While it has been enormously influential and while it does have intuitive appeal, Plato’s theory of the forms is unconvincing because of this lack of coherent argument. 

Further, nothing much seems to separate Plato’s theory of the forms from speculation.  As Aristotle pointed out in Metaphysics Book 1,

“… If, then, a man has the theory without the experience, and recognizes the universal but does not know the individual included in this, he will often fail” 

Plato’s focus on reason as the only source of wisdom – and his belief that sense-experience could actually mislead people – means that his theory is not supported by any observable evidence.  There is no way to see, hear, smell, taste or touch the forms and, while Plato would suggest that this is just the point, what then distinguishes Plato’s theory from baseless speculation?  Take flat-earth theory or young earth creationism.  It is, as Bertrand Russell pointed out, impossible to disprove the idea that the universe was created with all the appearance of age 5 minutes ago… or indeed something over 6000 years ago in a period of 6 days.  While this would raise serious questions over His goodness, a mischievous creator could well have planted “fossils” in rock strata and rigged the moon-landings to deceive credulous scientists and identify those few with unshakable blind faith in what goes against the evidence to elevate to their eternal reward.   In the same way – in the absence of the sort of freak-chance-escape Plato describes in his allegory – it is impossible to disprove Plato’s proposal that we exist in a shadowy prison of the senses and that ultimate reality exists beyond in some forever-unattainable world of the forms.  Plato even acknowledges how the revelation of such news would be received by those still in the cave. In the absence of supporting evidence – and when Plato’s theory seems to call for an active suspension of disbelief – how is it more credible than flat-earth theory or young earth creationism?  In this way as well, Plato’s theory of the forms is unconvincing. 

Aristotle also criticized Plato for being inconsistent in his speculations; must there me a form of the yellow pencil with blunt lead and the form of my half-drunk cup of tea?  Why shouldn’t there be a form of evil, sin etc?  Also, what prevents there being an infinite regress of forms?  Plato himself acknowledged this as a problem for his theory in the dialogue Parmenides – in what Bertrand Russell in his “History of Western Philosophy” described as one of the most remarkable cases in history of self-criticism”.  Here,Plato seems to suggest that where things display a particular quality, such as greatness, there must be a form through which we perceive it to have this quality, a form of greatness through which to appreciate its greatness. The Form of greatness must be unchangeably perfect, supremely great as an example of greatness, but if the form of greatness is itself great, and thereby an example of greatness, there must be a separate form through which we perceive the greatness of the form of greatness… and another form through which we perceive the greatness of the form of the form of greatness and so on to infinity.  A similar problem was highlighted by Pelletier and Zalta in their 2003 article “How to Say Goodbye to the Third Man.”  They use the example of ‘Loveliness’: If all things lovely become such and acquire their loveliness by virtue of partaking in the respective Form of Loveliness, then they must themselves be ‘like’ that Form. Following from the “symmetry of likeness” it can be said that the Form must, then, be ‘like’ the objects which partake in it. If this is true, the Form of Loveliness and the lovely objects must resemble one another by virtue of a further Form, of which they both partake. This, again, continues ad infinitum, creating Forms interminably to explain the likeness of the Form to its instantiations.  Plato had no satisfactory answer to these problems, as Aristotle made clear in the Metaphysics, using the example of the third man.  In this way Plato’s theory of the forms is philosophically unconvincing. 

Nevertheless, George P Simmonds argues that Plato’s theory of the forms could survive Aristotle’s criticisms.  He points out that

the Third Man Argument relies too heavily on assumptions generated by a swift and unsophisticated interpretation of Plato’s thinking.”

And goes on to point out that far from being a sign that Plato was abandoning his theory of the forms, Plato’s inclusion of this line of criticism in Parmenides points to Plato’s confidence in his theory and in his students’ ability to see the weakness of this line of criticism. In particular, Simmonds takes issue with Aristotle’s assumption that Plato’s argument with respect of particular things also applies to the forms. Just because the greatness of things in the world necessitates the existence of a form of greatness through which we perceive that greatness, does not mean that the same applies in the world of the forms. Having said that, Simmonds’ defence of Plato fails to justify Plato in being inconsistent in his treatment of the forms or for failing to provide a systematic defence of his own work, so it goes only so far in making Plato’s theory more convincing.  

In conclusion, Plato’s theory of the forms is unconvincing because Plato fails to give a clear, consistent account of his theory.  While this conclusion it may be a little unfair to Plato, given that he lived nearly 2500 years ago and given the fragmentary nature of our records of his work, his theory is frequently presented as a philosophical argument today, and in this context it must be evaluated as such. Further, just because Plato’s theory of the forms is unconvincing does not mean it is not worthy of serious study and development into what may be far more convincing theories.  Indeed, Plato’s belief that ultimate reality is metaphysical is gaining popularity today through theories like the holographic universe and the simulated universe. 

Bibliography

Critically evaluate the view that religious experience is the best basis for belief in God. [40]

When compared with the classical arguments for God’s existence – Cosmological, Teleological and Ontological – Religious Experience might seem like the best basis for believing in God, because the God revealed through well-known experiences is more obviously what Pascal called “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” than the abstract “God of the Philosophers”.  In this way, Religious Experience would better support Religion or Classical Theism than the other arguments, which seem to support deism at best.  Nevertheless, on closer analysis Religious Experience does little more to support belief in the God of Religion, a personal deity, than the other arguments.  Because of this, coupled with the unique difficulties which beset Religious Experience as an argument for God’s existence, Religious Experience is not the best – or even a good – basis for belief in God.

Firstly, as William James argued in his “Varieties of Religious Experience” (1902) genuine religious experiences are ineffable and resist description in what Ramsey called “ordinary language”.  When somebody reports having “seen” the Virgin Mary or having “heard” the voice of God, the experience is not really like other sense-experiences through the eyes or ears.  Further, the object that people experience is not really personal.  As Otto argued, genuine religious experiences are of “the numinous”, “the Absolute” rather than any anthropomorphic being.  Stace concurred, arguing that genuine mystical experiences are of “an ultimate nonsensuous unity in all things, a oneness or a One to which neither the senses nor the reason can penetrate.” Happold agreed, arguing that genuine mysticism is characterized by a sense of love and union with all other beings which overcomes the anxiety we all feel at being separate and alone.  For James, Otto, Stace and Happold Religious Experiences point not towards the existence of “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” but to a “higher power” which, as James pointed out, need not be infinite, it need not be solitary. It might conceivably even be only a larger and more godlike self…” (Varieties of Religious Experience, Postscript) In this way, Religious Experience does not really serve to support belief in the God of Religion or even Classical Theism any more than the classical arguments do and so it is not the best basis for belief in such a God.

Secondly, Religious Experience is a weaker basis for belief in a “higher power” God than the classical arguments are.  This is because:

  1. Religious Experience is difficult to define.  While James, Otto and Stace recognize only solitary experiences, Richard Swinburne and Caroline Franks-Davis allow for corporate experiences as well.  While James, Otto and Stace suggest that all genuine experiences are beyond literal description, Swinburne and Franks-Davis allow for experiences which can be described using everyday language.  Because scholars differ about which experiences are possibly “authentic” and which are not, Religious Experience as a phenomenon is a less convincing basis of observation on which to build an inductive argument for God’s existence.  When compared with the Cosmological Argument, nobody questions Craig’s first premise “everything that begins to exist has a cause” even if they go on to criticize other premises or the conclusion of his argument. It follows that because of the difficulty in defining Religious Experience, is a weaker basis for an inductive argument for God’s existence than the classical arguments are
  2. As Swinburne points out, the argument from Religious Experience depends on assuming the Principles of Credulity and Testimony.  While it is far to say that the other arguments from observation also depend on the Principle of Credulity, Hume’s critique of Miracles in “An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding” Section X (1758) fatally undermines the Principle of Testimony as it applies to reports of religious experiences.  It is always more likely that somebody has made a mistake than that their experience, which goes against the established laws of nature, is genuine.  While it is, as Hick pointed out, bad science to ignore such reports, it is, as James pointed out, impossible to exclude the possibility that the person reporting a religious experience is mistaken because credible physiological and/or psychological explanations exist to account for everything reported.  For examples, as James discusses in his chapter on Conversion Experiences, psychiatry might account for very many of these including those of St Paul (as a response to a moral crisis according to Leuba) and of St Augustine (as a delayed adolescent crisis according to Starbuck).  While St Paul or St Augustine might themselves be convinced that their experience was authentic and be justified in believing in their object, there is no necessity for other people to believe either in the authenticity of their experiences or in what they seem to refer to.  So, because testimony always lacks credibility, an inductive argument based on Religious Experience will be weaker than the classical arguments in establishing a basis for belief in God.
  3. Finally, as Swinburne points out, accepting accounts of Religious Experience as possibly genuine depends on prior probability.  If you are what James called a “medical materialist“, reports of religious experience would be their very nature incredible.  In this way, reports of will only be entertained as the basis for belief in anything by those who are already open to the existence of that thing and the argument from Religious Experience is shown to be circular and so not as persuasive as the other classical arguments.

Clearly, Swinburne would disagree and would argue that Religious Experience is a better basis for believing in God than the other inductive arguments.  In his “The Existence of God” (1979) he set out a cumulative argument for God’s existence which employed Bayes’ Theorem to assess the relative probabilities of God and natural causes as explanations of causation, order and purpose, beauty and morality in the universe.  None of these arguments is conclusive in itself, argued Swinburne.  It takes Religious Experience to tip the balance in favour of God’s existence and provide a basis for believing in God.  Nevertheless, Swinburne’s cumulative argument has been widely criticized, not least by Anthony Flew, who compared it with “ten leaky buckets”.  A lot of bad arguments, each of which fails to justify belief in God in itself, are together not significantly better than one bad argument and so fail to justify religious belief.  Further, Swinburne’s contention that Religious Experience is the strongest argument, the argument which tips the balance of probability in favour of God’s existence, seems odd given that it depends on prior probability and so has no force without the other arguments having already established that God is slightly more probable than the natural alternative.  To what extent can an argument which is circular in itself be the deciding factor?  If the other arguments succeed in justifying an openness to the existence of God without depending on Prior Probability or the Principle of Testimony, then surely they are better bases for belief in God than Religious Experience.  For Swinburne, Religious Experience is a better basis for belief in God than the other arguments from observation even though it depends on Prior Probability and the Principle of Testimony because, as he sees it, Religious Experiences support belief in the personal God of Religion.  However, as has already been established here, this is not necessarily the case.  On close analysis, for those who have had no experience themselves, Religious Experiences can support openness to the existence of a “higher power” at most.  By contrast, the cosmological argument supports belief in a necessarily single, all-powerful creator God and the teleological argument supports belief in an omni-benevolent intelligent designer God, at least when “good” is understood in the purely Aristotelian sense.  In this way, Religious Experience is a worse basis for belief in God than either of the cosmological or teleological arguments, even when it comes to believing in “the God of the Philosophers” with the classical attributes.

In conclusion, Religious Experience is very far from being the best basis for belief in God. On close analysis, reports of such experiences fail to justify anything more than an openness to a “higher power” which would not have to have any of the classical attributes of God.  It is as impossible to exclude naturalistic explanations for Religious Experiences as it is to exclude the possibility that they have been caused by God, so the question of what they point towards must remain open.  Further, as an argument for God’s existence, Religious Experience is beset by problems of definition, credibility of testimony and circularity.  It is certainly not the decisive factor in demonstrating the existence of God that Swinburne claims, but is a bucket that is more leaky than most.

“Although it is reasonable to believe in God on the basis of a religious experience you yourself have had, it is wrong to believe on the basis of other peoples’ reports.” Critically evaluate this statement. [40]

This statement largely reflects the conclusion William James came to in his “Varieties of Religious Experience” (1902).  James argued that the people who have a religious experience are perfectly justified in believing in the object of that experience, but maintained that reports of other peoples’ religious experiences could not justify belief in anything more than “a higher power.”  On the basis of James’ conclusion and WK Clifford’s famous 1877 essay “The Ethics of Belief” it  would be fair to say that believing in the God of religion on the basis of others’ reported experiences is wrong because

“it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything on insufficient evidence.”

As Clifford pointed out, belief is not a private matter because belief affects how we act.  He gave the example of a ship owner sending an un-seaworthy vessel to sea on the basis of a belief that the hull was sound.  If the belief is not supported by sufficient evidence and not properly justified, it is morally wrong of the ship owner to hold that belief.  In the case of the title statement, a person who believed in anything more than “a higher power” on the basis of other peoples’ religious experiences would be morally wrong to do so because this belief affects their actions.  For example, a Christian who believed in the Christian God on the basis of the religious experiences described in the Bible would be morally wrong to do so because that belief would direct them to look down on non-Christian religion and make efforts to convert Muslims, Jews and Hindus on the grounds that St Paul reported a vision of the risen Jesus who directed him (via Ananias) to be baptized.  The reported vision in Acts 22 would be insufficient justification for the belief of the Christian today and the Christian would be wrong to believe in more than the existence of a “higher power” on the strength of such reports.  By this analysis, the title statement is correct.

In William James’ Gifford lectures, given between 1901 and 1902, James explored the topic of Religious Experience in detail, considering conversion experiences and mystical experiences in particular depth, before evaluating the extent to which these experiences could be used as evidence to support belief in God.  In Lecture I James challenged the dominant medical materialism, arguing that it is reductive and fails to do justice the the richness of human experience.  He later built on this theme in Lecture III pointing out the naivety discounting any claimed experience of anything which cannot be sensibly perceived because indeed all sense-experiences are mediated through the mind and its categories, none of which can themselves be perceived through the senses. In Lecture II James went on to limit the scope of his inquiry to address only

“the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine” p.32

His inquiry did not, therefore, address corporate religious experiences despite the fact that most previous work had focused on what Durkheim called

“an effervescent group phenomenon”

This was because corporate experiences are more plausibly explained in terms of mass hysteria.  After exploring the important place of religious experience in religiosity and outlining the common features of conversion experiences and mystical experiences, James concluded that there are religious experiences that are not easily reduced to medical or psychological phenomena.  In these cases, James argued, the people who have a religious experience are perfectly justified in believing in the object of that experience.  In fact, they can do no other.  Nevertheless, this left open the question of whether other people would be justified in believing in God on the strength of what recipients of mystical experiences report.  In Lecture XVIII James began to consider this question, discounting the efforts of Philosophers of Religion in proving God’s existence through reason and then pointing out that religious experiences neither support belief in the classical attributes of God nor evidence standard theological doctrines.  For James, then, belief in God as the object of Religion lay beyond rational proof and beyond what can be justified through religious experience either.  Nevertheless, as James concluded in Lecture XX, Religious Experience can and does justify belief in something other and larger than our conscious selves.  As James wrote in his Postscript,

“the practical needs and experiences of religion seem to me sufficiently met by the belief that… there exists a larger power… both other and larger than our conscious selves. Anything larger will do… It need not be infinite, it need not be solitary. It might conceivably even be only a larger and more godlike self…. … my only aim at present is to keep the testimony of religious experience clearly within its proper bounds.”

It is clear, then that James would have accepted the title statement insofar as “God” refers to the God of any specific religion.  There is no sense that others’ reports of religious experiences justify belief in anything beyond some larger power; certainly not being a Christian or defining God in terms of the classical attributes.  It follows that the title statement is correct insofar as others’ reports of religious experiences could not justify belief in God and so would render such a belief wrong by Clifford’s argument.

James’ argument that the human phenomenon of religious experience only justifies belief in a higher power and not the God of religion  is persuasive.  Firstly because Rudolph Otto in his The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational (1917) argued that all genuine religious experiences are encounters with “the numinous” rather than either of what Pascal famously called “the God of the Philosophers” or “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”.  While Otto’s description of the marks or characteristics of genuine religious experiences seems more tightly drawn than James’, his argument supports James’ conclusion that the phenomenon that some people experience for themselves and which others hear or read about points towards a more abstract “higher power” rather than the God of any particular religion.  Secondly because Walter Stace in The Teachings of the Mystics (1960) argued that:

“the central characteristic in which all fully developed mystical experiences agree… is that they involve the apprehension of an ultimate non-sensuous unity in all things, a oneness or a One to which neither the senses nor the reason can penetrate. In other words, it entirely transcends our sensory-intellectual consciousness.” p14-15

Stace’s description of mystical experiences as an encounter with larger reality supports James’ conclusion that religious experiences justify the belief that:

“there exists a larger power… both other and larger than our conscious selves. Anything larger will do… It need not be infinite, it need not be solitary.” Varieties of Religious Experience, Postscript, p.515-6

In this way James, Otto and Stace all support the title statement and agree that other peoples’ religious experiences could not justify belief in the “God” of any particular religion.  It follows that the title statement is correct insofar as others’ reports of religious experiences could not justify belief in the God of Religion and so would render exclusive Religious belief on the basis of reports of others’ experiences wrong by Clifford’s argument.

Clearly, Richard Swinburne would take issue with this conclusion.  In “The Existence of God” (1979) Chapter 13, Swinburne agreed with James that it is reasonable to believe in God on the basis of one’s own experience.  He pointed out that in the absence of any reason to disbelieve it, one should accept what appears to be true and called this the “Principle of Credulity”.  On this basis, Swinburne would disagree with Richard Dawkins who claimed in “The Blind Watchmaker”(1986) that if he saw a marble statue waving at him across a museum, he would sooner check into his local psychiatric hospital than believe his own eyes.   Swinburne also agreed with James’ broader critique of medical materialism, pointing out that accepting his arguments depends on “prior probability” and that those who have already excluded anything supernatural on ideological grounds will remain unconvinced by any evidence for God.  Nevertheless, Swinburne was more open than James to trusting the testimony of others as evidence for the existence of not only a higher power but more specifically the God of Religion.  Swinburne claimed that with the absence of any reason to disbelieve them, one should accept that believers are telling the truth when they testify about religious experiences.  On the basis of this “Principle of Testimony” Swinburne argued that the common occurrence of those Religious Experiences which conform to his broad, five-fold classification makes the existence of a single “God” (with at least the classical attributes of omnipotence and omnibenevolence) more probable than any alternative explanation of the universe.  For Swinburne, believing that God is single is a simpler, more elegant explanation than believing in multiple higher powers.  In this way (by the commonly accepted principle of Ockham’s razor) he reasons that whatever caused and designed the universe and whatever people encounter through religious experiences is more likely to be one God than several.  Further, by calling on the evidence of the Cosmological and Teleological arguments for God alongside Religious Experience, Swinburne reasons that the single God must be both the cause of everything and so be all-powerful and responsible for the order and purpose evident in the universe and so be omnibenevolent.  Swinburne would, therefore, disagree with the title statement and argue that Religious Experiences justify belief in a single all-powerful, all-good “God”, whether you have had one yourself or not.

Nevertheless, Swinburne’s argument is open to a number of criticisms.  Firstly, his cumulative approach was rejected by Anthony Flew, who compared it with “ten leaky buckets”.  A lot of bad arguments, each of which fails to justify belief in God in itself, are together not significantly better than one bad argument and so fail to justify religious belief.  Although JP Moreland attempted to defend Swinburne, pointing out that:

‘clearly if you jam ten leaky buckets together in such a way as the holes in the bottom of each bucket are squashed close to the solid parts of neighbouring buckets, you will get a container that holds water.

That is pushing the analogy too far.  Flew’s point that Swinburne’s cumulative approach fails to provide sufficient justification for believing in God still stands.  As Carl Sagan and later Christopher Hitchens pointed out, “exceptional claims demand exceptional evidence“.  The existence of the God of religion is certainly an exceptional claim and the evidence provided by Swinburne’s list of inductive arguments in the Existence of God fails to provide sufficient justification for anything beyond being open to a higher power as James, Stace and Otto argued.  Secondly, as David Hume and much later Richard Dawkins have pointed out, when people claim to have experienced something exceptional it is always more likely that they have made a mistake than that they are telling the truth.  While Swinburne criticizes this argument as bad science, it is reasonable for a scientist to explore whether statistical anomalies might be explained as mistakes first, before exploring other possibilities.  In the case of those people reporting religious experiences, there are established and credible physiological or psychological conditions which could explain the experiences without reference to a higher power, let alone a “God”.  This is why James rightly rejects the attempt to use other peoples’ Religious Experiences as proof for God.  Alternative explanations for the experiences can never be excluded, not least because experiences are ineffable, so descriptions of them are imprecise and can’t bear the weight of being used as evidence to justify belief in the God of Religion.  It follows that the title statement is indeed correct insofar as others’ reports of religious experiences could not justify belief in the God of Religion and so would render exclusive Religious belief on the basis of reports of others’ experiences wrong by Clifford’s argument.

In addition, while Swinburne’s reasoning that the “higher power” is more probably single than plural seems sensible, his claim that the higher power must have the attributes of omnipotence and/or omnibenevolence is not.  Firstly, Swinburne accepts that neither the Cosmological nor the Teleological Argument justifies belief in the existence of God in itself.  How then can he rely on the reasoning of the Cosmological argument to support that element of his conclusion which relates to God’s omnipotence or on the reasoning of the Teleological argument to support that element of his conclusion which relates to God’s omnibenevolence?  If an argument can’t justify belief in God’s existence why should it justify belief in God’s omnipotence or omnibenevolence?  Secondly, there is specific evidence against God’s power and goodness.  If God really was all-powerful, why would he need to break the laws of nature periodically to reveal His existence and His will or correct a sequence of events?  Further, if God really was all-good then why would he be so selective and arguably arbitrary in how, when, where and to whom he grants religious experiences?Why would he make eternal salvation dependent on that which only some people have the opportunity to demonstrate, namely having faith that goes beyond the evidence?  Swinburne argues that in the absence of a reason to believe otherwise we accept what we experience and what others report about their own experiences, but surely the fact that these experience point to what is inconsistent and incoherent should count as such a reason to believe otherwise.  It follows that the title statement is indeed correct insofar as others’ reports of religious experiences could not justify belief in the God of Religion and so would render exclusive Religious belief on the basis of reports of others’ experiences wrong by Clifford’s argument.

In conclusion, the title statement “although it is reasonable to believe in God on the basis of a religious experience you yourself have had, it is wrong to believe on the basis of other peoples’ reports” is correct.  In terms of believing an experience you yourself have had, both James and Swinburne suggest that it would be unreasonable to disbelieve the evidence of your own experience.  As William Alston wrote:

“It is clear that if I have directly experienced a personal deity… I have the strongest possible basis for believing that such a being exists; just as I have the strongest possible basis for believing that yaks exist if I really have seen one”

Richard Dawkins skepticism on this point seems at odds with the scientific reliance on personal experience and the fact that the whole of science depends on the cosmological principle, that things are the way they appear to be.  In terms of believing on the strength of others’ reported experiences, the reasoning of James, Otto and Stace that the most other peoples’ experiences can justify is being open to a “higher power” is more persuasive than that of Swinburne, that others’ religious experiences could justify belief in a single, all-powerful, all-good God.  Swinburne’s argument does appeal to common sense.  In normal circumstances it is fair to assume the Principle of Testimony because as Dean Inge pointed out:

“If a dozen honest men tell me that they have climbed the Matterhorn, it is reasonable to believe that the summit of that mountain is accessible, although I am not likely to get there myself.” 

Yet, as Sagan and Hitchens suggest, the exceptional nature of the claims people make about religious experiences mean that a higher standard of evidence is demanded.  By Clifford’s argument, it is wrong to base belief in the God of any specific religion on other peoples’ reports of religious experiences.  It is impossible to exclude a psychological or physiological explanation, people could have made a mistake, be wishful-thinking or outright lying however honest they may appear.  When religious beliefs dictate actions which can harm or even kill other people, it is wrong to hold them on such a basis.

Critically compare the cosmological and teleological arguments for God’s existence. [40]

St Thomas Aquinas presents five ways of demonstrating God’s existence based on observation in his Summa Theologica (1,2,3).  The first four of these ways are Cosmological arguments, reasoning from observations of movement, efficient causation, contingency and grades of perfection in the universe a posteriori to the conclusion that God as a Prime Mover, uncaused cause, necessary being and supreme perfection must exist.  The fifth way is a teleological argument, reasoning from observation of order and purpose (teleology) in the universe a posteriori to the existence of an intelligent designer “which is what everybody calls God.”  Clearly, Aquinas saw both Cosmological and Teleological Arguments as persuasive arguments for God’s existence, however the Teleological Argument offers better support to the God of Christian worship than the Cosmological Argument does.

David Hume criticised cosmological arguments in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779).  His character Philo pointed out that it is based on limited observations of the universe.  For all we know there might be uncaused things out there… as indeed Quantum Physics and Particle Physics has since shown to be the case.  Further, the argument is based on the fallacy of composition, the assumption that just because the parts of the universe have a cause that the whole universe must have a cause.  As Bertrand Russell later pointed out; just because all men have mothers doesn’t mean that the human race has a mother, it could be that the universe is a “brute fact”.  Hume’s criticisms of the cosmological argument are difficult to overcome.  While it is fair to say that Hume’s claims about the limitations of human observations as the basis for knowledge about natural laws are just as much of a problem for science as they are for religion, his other criticisms hit hard.  In truth, the universe might, for all we know, be uncaused or be its own cause.  It is fair to ask why what is true of the part should also have to be true of the whole.  Although William Lane Craig argues that the cosmological argument – at least in his own Kalam version, which stops short of concluding that the Prime Mover is “what everybody calls God” – is the best support for the reasonableness of faith, his claims about the impossibility of an actual infinite and about the Big Bang theory needing a cause have been shown to be mistaken by critics such as Erik Sotnak and Stephen Hawking.  While the cosmological argument might superficially seem to be supported by Big Bang theory, in reality Cosmology shows that the idea of causation cannot apply outside the space-time matrix of our universe.  While it seems incredible, as Terry Pratchett quipped, science proposes that “in the beginning there was nothing, which exploded.” It is clear, therefore, that the cosmological argument is not persuasive. 

Hume’s character Philo also attacked the teleological argument in the Dialogues, criticising the tendency to make the argument using inappropriate analogies and pointing out apparent imperfections in the design of the universe, which might undermine the idea that the designer would be perfect.  Later, both Charles Darwin and JS Mill pointed out the brutality in nature and reasoning that an Ichneumon wasp could not have been designed by the God of Christianity.

Nearly all the things which men are hanged or imprisoned for doing to one another are nature’s everyday performances.”  Mill: Three Essays on Religion

Nevertheless, these critics all failed to exclude the possibility that the universe could be designed to contain evil for some morally sufficient reason.  As St. Augustine argued, it could be that natural evil in the world is a just punishment for sin.  Moral evil could be the necessary bi-product of human freedom.  Evil does not necessarily undermine the claim that the universe was designed by God.  Alternatively, as John Hick argued, suffering could be positively created by God to afford the opportunity for “soul-making” with any injustices being accounted for through an afterlife.  Further, there are versions of the teleological argument which do not rely on spurious analogies – such as FR Tennant’s aesthetic argument and anthropic principle.  These are more persuasive than the cosmological argument.  Hume’s criticisms fall short of undermining Tennant’s claim that God is needed to explain beauty and human consciousness in the universe and evolution through natural selection fails to explain these aspects of the universe adequately either.  Modern Intelligent Design arguments – such as those proposed by Michael Behe from irreducible complexity and by William Dembski from specified complexity – show that evolution cannot provide the complete explanation that atheists like Richard Dawkins claim it can.  While Paley’s argument in Natural Theology can be rightly criticised for its use of the famous watchmaker analogy, its appeal to our incredulity at the scientific claim that all this could have arisen by chance is powerful.  To accept that evolution through natural selection can provide a complete explanation of the universe and that there is no intelligence guiding it is difficult to accept.  Take the Japanese puffer-fish… can evolution really account for the extent of the intricacy and beauty of its designs?  It is clear, therefore, that the teleological argument is more persuasive than the cosmological argument.

In addition, even if the cosmological argument was persuasive, it would only serve to demonstrate the existence of a Prime Mover, an uncaused cause, a necessary being outside time and space.  It is not easy to see how this being could be the God of Christian worship.  Aristotle stopped short of claiming that the Prime Mover could be a God in any normal sense, its power being limited to supporting the existence of all contingent things and its goodness being limited to being fully actualised and containing no potential. How could a God who is outside time and space act to create the universe when there could be no time before during or after his action and when there would be no space to differentiate the creation from the creator?  Both human understanding and the language which tries to communicate it struggles to cope with objects outside the space-time matrix which bounds our experience.  It might, of course, be fair to say that human understanding and language cannot expect to be able to comprehend or describe God.  Yet, without the ability to claim that God exists, that God is the all-powerful creator and that God is good with some content, it is difficult to see how Religion could prosper.  St. Thomas Aquinas attempted to show how human language could be used to describe God in positive terms as analogies, but even he admitted that he content of attributes such as goodness must needs be limited and cannot be understood in the same way as human goodness.  The teleological argument, by contrast, does not rely on locating God outside time and space.  As the intelligent designer, it seems likely that God would have defined the purpose of the universe from within the same logical framework which governs its operation today.  In this way, God’s power and goodness have real content, as they relate to how He created the complex order and purposiveness we can observe.  It follows that the teleological argument offers better support for the God of Christian worship than the cosmological argument does.

In conclusion, the teleological argument offers better support for the God of Christian worship than the cosmological argument does.  Clearly, the teleological argument relies on the possibility of defending God’s goodness and power against charges of creating or allowing evil and suffering, but it is still more persuasive than the cosmological argument.  Even Immanuel Kant, who rejected all the classical arguments for God’s existence in his Critique of Pure Reason, saw the age and persistence of the teleological argument as pointers to its status as the most powerful of the arguments for God’s existence.

Critically assess the claim that human beings have an immortal soul. (40)

The claim that human beings have an immoral soul is certainly ancient.  It is clear that Plato’s dualism was built on the foundation of Socrates’ belief in immortality and possibly reincarnation.  In addition, evidence from the Bible suggests that belief in an immortal soul predated Christianity – though the belief is not represented consistently in the Old Testament – and became increasingly important as hopes for an immanent eschaton faded with the 1st Century. Further, the idea that personal identity can survive trauma, aging and ultimately death fits with human experience and supports both morality and hopes for life after death which many of us want if not need to maintain.  Nevertheless, despite the persistence and appeal of these beliefs, claims that human beings have immortal souls lack credibility in the 21st Century.

Firstly, as Aristotle observed, “the soul is inseparable from its body” [On the Soul, Book II] He used the analogy of wax and a seal impression to make his point, writing “we must no more ask whether the soul and body are one than ask whether the wax and the figure impressed on it are one.” [Aristotle “Psychology” translated by E. Wallace, p. 61, 1882]  While he accepted that human beings have PSYCHE, and that these come in three parts, unlike his teacher Plato, Aristotle rejected the idea that this could ever be separated from the body or survive death.  As Brian Davies OP has noted, just because I consider myself to be sober doesn’t mean that I am. The fact that I feel separated from my body doesn’t mean that I am.  GEM Anscombe agreed, arguing that the feeling of having a separate soul is not a proper argument for the soul’s separability.  Further, as Gilbert Ryle suggested, the soul is the product of the parts and functions of the body operating together.  When we speak of “the soul” it is much like speaking of “the university” in Oxford or “team spirit” in cricket… these things are an undoubtedly part of our experience, but they cannot be separated from the components which make them up.  As Ryle wrote in “The Concept of Mind” (1949) Chapter 1, belief in a separate, separable and possibly immortal soul is the result of “that a family of radical category mistakes”… continuing, this “is the source of the double-life theory. The representation of a person as a ghost mysteriously ensconced in a machine derives from this argument”. To claim that human beings have separable souls, which – not least given our certain scientific knowledge that bodies decompose – is a precondition of having immortal souls, is to build assumptions on top of gut feelings in spite of the evidence, to make a “category mistake” and to take what is essentially a metaphor literally.  

Secondly, as Richard Dawkins has argued, the theory of evolution can account for the impression of consciousness which contributes to the claim that human beings have immortal souls.  In The Selfish Gene (1976) he wrote “we are survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.” In 1993 he speculated that the impression of consciousness and a separate soul has become an essential part of being human because it confers a survival advantage to our genes, suggesting that “brain hardware has co-evolved with the internal virtual worlds that it creates. This can be called hardware-software co-evolution.” The Evolutionary Future of Man (1993)  Dawkins’ reductive materialism is supported by the famous case of Phineas Gage, who suffered a traumatic brain injury and then experienced a complete transformation of personality and identity as a result.  The mind, consciousness or “soul” is nothing more than the impression given off by the normal operation of the brain.  Change the brain, change the “soul”.  Kill the brain, destroy the soul.  Basic biology shows that the soul is far from being immortal and that any claim that human beings have an immortal soul lacks credibility in the 21st Century. 

Further, Peter Geach agreed with the evolution argument, arguing that human beings are sophisticated animals and that our belief that we are somehow different is no more than “savage superstition” [God and the Soul (1969),quoted by John Haldane in Anscombe and Geach on Mind and Soul (2016)].  It is undoubtedly convenient that human beings claim to have a “soul” where other – genetically similar – animals do not.  For Christians, the existence of the soul explains the unique connection between human beings and God, in whose Image they are made.  Further, the existence of a soul both justifies our preferring members of the species homo sapiens in moral decision-making and supports the religious principle of the Sanctity of Human Life.  If human beings have no separable soul or any claim to immortality then it becomes more difficult to justify decisions which ignore the claim of tribes of orangutans on Indonesian rainforests or which deprive blue whales of their habitats for the benefit of a few human capitalists with financial interests in palm oil or Krill.  As far back as the 18th Century Immanuel Kant highlighted the importance of believing in immortality for moral philosophy.  As he argued, without believing in God, freedom and immortality it would be impossible to explain our duty to follow the moral law as there would be no reason to suppose that the law which appeals to us has authority, that we have the ability to do what we feel called to do or that there could be any ultimate point in doing so.  Without the possibility of immortality, which the separable soul supports, there is little reason to do what is right in a world where goodness is rarely rewarded in this life.  Nevertheless, the undesirability of the alternative conclusion is not a proper argument for the existence of an immortal soul in human beings, so the claim that human beings have an immortal soul lacks credibility.  

Clearly, there are arguments in favour of dualism.

Plato used his famous slave-boy in the Meno to argue that we have memories of the forms, either from past lives or from our soul’s previous home in the world of the forms, which best explain our ability to “learn” mathematics and logic quickly.  For Plato, learning is really remembering.  Today, Noam Chomsky’s work on language acquisition makes this idea more interesting  than it might have seemed a few decades ago, however even nativist accounts of language and research evidence indicating that the human brain is somehow “hardwired for language” does not take away from the possibility that this hard wiring could be explained by evolution, without the need to hypothesize the existence of an immortal soul.  

In addition, Descartes built on Plato’s scepticism about sense-data, pointing out the many ways in which the evidence of eyes and ears turns out to be mistaken.  A stick put in water surely does appear to bend.  Nevertheless, Descartes’ radical conclusion, that the only thing of which I can be certain is “cogito ergo sum” seems to go well beyond the evidence.  In 1968 Norman Malcolm poked holes in Descartes reasoning on a technical level, however even in the most obvious way it is apparent that while the senses do lie, conceptual analysis just as often deceives us.  As Aristotle himself pointed out, “if, then, a man has the theory without the experience, and recognizes the universal but does not know the individual included in this, he will often fail…” [Metaphysics Book 1:1]  Further, Descartes’ arguments for substance dualism, with the seat of the soul in the Pineal Gland, can only in the light of 21st Century science, be seen as uninformed speculation.  Descartes is far from being justified in his conclusion that “it is certain that I am really distinct from my body and can exist without it.” [Meditations Book VI, 54] and the claim that human beings have an immortal soul continues to lack credibility.  

Finally, paranormal experiences and particularly Near Death Experiences have been used to support claims that human beings have immortal souls.  For example, in 1991 American singer-songwriter Pam Reynolds had a powerful experience of being separated from and looking down on her body and of spending time in “heaven” during a stand-still operation for a brain aneurism.  Nevertheless, most of these experiences fail to stand up to careful scrutiny.  Susan Blackmore described her own journey to this realisation, writing

It was just over thirty years ago that I had the dramatic out-of-body experience that convinced me of the reality of psychic phenomena and launched me on a crusade to show those closed-minded scientists that consciousness could reach beyond the body and that death was not the end. Just a few years of careful experiments changed all that. I found no psychic phenomena—only wishful thinking, self-deception, experimental error and, occasionally, fraud. I became a sceptic” The New Scientist (2000)

Further, those experiences which resist explanation in simple physiological or psychological terms, such as those highlighted by Dr Sam Parnia in his Aware and Aware II studies, are few in number and may still be explained by scientific progress.  Just because we cannot explain a few experiences with current scientific models doesn’t give us a reason to ditch scientific materialism and regress to a primitive dualistic world view predicated on supernatural entities for which there is no evidence.  

In conclusion, the claim that human beings have immortal souls lacks credibility in the 21st Century.  While the claim speaks to the experience of being human and supports the convenient belief that human beings are ontologically different from animals, there is no proper evidence or sensible argument to support substance dualism.  Those with religious faith will, of course, continue to make the claim that human beings have immortal souls.  The claim is central to their world-view and it is difficult to imagine how Christianity in particular could function without it.  Yet in making the claim believers emphasize how far in faith they are willing to stray from what can be supported through evidence and argument.

Bibliography

  • Class Notes on Soul, Mind & Body
  • Gilbert Ryle “The Concept of Mind” Chapter 1
  • Susan Blackmore “Consciousness: An Introduction”

“Aquinas’ Cosmological Argument proves that God exists.” Critically evaluate this statement.  [40] 

Cosmological Arguments start with the existence of the universe (Greek = Kosmos) and conclude that God is the most logical explanation of it.  They are some of the oldest arguments for God’s existence and have an intuitive appeal.  As Richard Swinburne observed in “Is There a God?” (1996)

The human quest for explanation inevitably and rightly seeks for the ultimate explanation of everything observable.”

Cosmological Arguments can be found in the work of Plato (Laws Book X) and Aristotle (Physics Book II, Metaphysics Book IV) and make up the first four of Aquinas’ five ways to God in the Summa Theologica (1.2.3).   While Aquinas’ Cosmological Arguments are all framed as posteriori arguments – and so could never provide proof – they do provide strong support for the existence of a Prime Mover.  Nevertheless, Aquinas goes too far in his claim that this is what everybody calls God.

Aquinas’ first way draws on the Aristotelian concept of movement. In the Physics, Book V, Aristotle wrote, “all things that are in motion must be moved by something.”  Motion does not necessarily mean movement in the sense that things are is moving through space from location A to location B, but rather that they are moving from a state of potentiality to a state of actuality in multiple different respects. As Aristotle wrote, movement involves the… “actualizing of some potency. It is because things have real potencies that they are able to change.”  Aquinas later wrote, “for motion is nothing else than the reduction of something from potentiality to actuality.”  Whereas Plato’s argument, later refined by Muslim scholars of the 8th Century Kalam School and more recently by William Lane Craig, focuses on a temporal series of causes much like a domino-rally, pointing towards a beginning in time, an uncaused cause, which is what everybody calls God, for Aristotle and for Aquinas, even if the universe is as infinite as it appeared to be, there is still the need for a Prime Mover because everything depends on other things.  As Parmenides, Heraclitus and separately the Buddha observed, everything changes or moves and nothing stays the same, but nothing changes or moves without being moved by something else, even if that is just time itself.  As Aristotle wrote, “potential, precisely because it is potential, cannot make itself actual”.  Aristotle concluded that there must be a Prime Mover outside time and space, but stops short of claiming that this is God.  Aquinas went further, claiming that this Prime Mover is “what everybody calls God”, but in doing this he weakened the argument. It is true that the Prime Mover must be outside time and space and thus wholly simple and unchanging, pure actuality and with zero potentiality.  As Aquinas wrote,

“nothing can be reduced from potentiality to actuality, except by something in a state of actuality… it is impossible that in the same respect and in the same way a thing should be both mover and moved…” 

It is also true that everything ultimately depends on the Prime Mover for its existence.  As Aquinas wrote, “therefore it is necessary to arrive at a first mover, put in motion by no other”  However, it is a step too far to claim that the Prime Mover could be seen as the “creator”, let alone act in the world, speak to human beings or be crucified and rise again. When Aquinas writes “and this everyone understands to be God”  He goes beyond the evidence and possible knowledge.  In his book “The Nature of God” Gerard J. Hughes describes the Prime Mover changing potentiality to actuality in terms of a bowl of milk causing a cat to cross a room.  The bowl of milk does nothing, in the way that the Prime Mover – being timelessly unchanging and impassive – does nothing, because it has no potential and is pure act. It follows that Aquinas’ first framing of the Cosmological Argument provides strong support for the existence of a Prime Mover, but not for the existence of the God that Christians worship, because the Prime Mover would be unable to say “let there be light”, work miracles or judge individuals on the final day… all of these require in God potential and the ability to act in time, which the Prime Mover cannot have.

Aquinas’ second way draws on the Aristotelian concept of efficient causation.  For Aristotle, all things have four causes – material, formal, efficient and final.  Efficient causes are agents which bring things into being, in the way that parents bring their children into being or the earth, sun and rain bring the oak tree out of the acorn.  If everything depends on efficient causes to bring them into being, again there is a chain of causation which requires explanation.  The chain cannot be infinite, because if there was no first efficient cause there would be no subsequent causes and the universe would not exist.  Something cannot come out of or be caused by nothing. Similarly, there cannot be a first efficient cause like other things in the universe, as if there were it would need efficient causes of its own and could not, therefore, be the first.  Aquinas concludes, “it is necessary to admit a first efficient cause, to which everyone gives the name of God.” Again, Aquinas’ second Cosmological Argument provides strong support for the existence of an uncaused efficient cause and again, it is a step too far to claim that this must be the God of Christian worship.  This not least because efficient causes do not need to be sustaining causes in esse (as Frederick Copleston later called them) but could be a cause in fieri (again, to use Copleston’s terminology).   An uncaused cause which began the universe but has no further role in it is not the God of Christian theism; at most it supports deism.  Further, Aquinas admits that

There is no case known (neither is it, indeed, possible) in which a thing is found to be the efficient cause of itself; for so it would be PRIOR to itself, which is impossible.”

 This implies that as efficient cause the uncaused cause must be PRIOR to the universe, something which would be difficult to reconcile with Big Bang Theory as this suggests that as time itself was created at the Big Bang, it makes no sense to speak of anything being PRIOR to it or indeed, as Stephen Hawking observed, causing it.  In these ways, Aquinas goes beyond the evidence in claiming that the uncaused cause is that to “everyone gives the name of God”.

Aquinas’ third way develops the idea of the contingency of things in the universe, pointing out that everthing has the potential to be or not to be; “We find in nature things that are possible to be and not to be”.  In an infinite universe, all potentials not to be might be expected to have been realized; as something can’t come out of nothing, nothing would then exist and I could not be writing this essay.  It follows, therefore, that EITHER the universe cannot be infinite – in which case there would have to be a first cause in time which would be what everybody calls God – or the universe is infinite and there exists a “necessary being”, a fully actual “neither something nor nothing” which contains its own explanation and has no potential not to exist.  This, Aquinas claims, is what “all men speak of as God.”  Aquinas’ third Cosmological Argument is just as problematic as an argument for the existence of the God of Christian worship as the first and second.  Not only as an a posteriori argument does it stop short of providing proof, it also goes well beyond the observable evidence in concluding that the necessary being is God as Christians would define Him.  Leibniz later recast the third Cosmological Argument as an a priori argument, writing:

“Why is there something rather than nothing? The sufficient reason […] is found in a substance which […] is a necessary being bearing the reason for its existence within itself.” 

For Leibniz, anything that exists has a cause for its existence, either in the necessity of its own nature or in an external cause.  If the universe has an external cause for its existence, this cause must be God.  As the universe exists, it must have a cause for its existence, either in the necessity of its own nature or in an external cause.  Because the universe exists contingently, not necessarily, the universe must have an external cause and this must be God.  Nevertheless, like Aquinas, Leibniz argument fails to prove the existence of the God of Christian worship.  Causing the universe is not enough to be called God; the Christian God does rather more than an abstract singularity or the Higgs Boson does.  Further, it doesn’t make sense to predicate much of what the Christian God does to the necessary cause of the universe supported by Aquinas and by Leibniz in his supposed improvement of Aquinas’ third cosmological argument.  Both the God of Aquinas and the God of Leibniz are timelessly impassive and it is inconceivable how such a being could act even once to create the world, given that this would involve a change in its being incompatible with being timeless and fully actual with no potential.  Further, as Immanuel Kant observed, we have no experience of necessary beings so it makes little sense to speculate about their possible existence.  Also, it is inconsistent to start an argument by claiming that all things are contingent and conclude by hypothesizing something that is not contingent.  Again, while Aquinas’ third Cosmological Argument strongly points towards the existence of a necessary being or beings in the universe, it is far from being conclusive proof of such, even when recast as an a priori argument and cannot in any case justifiably claim that the necessary being is what Christians worship as God.

While it is true that most of the classical criticisms of Aquinas presented by David Hume and Bertrand Russell fail to undermine his Cosmological Arguments, the point (which they all make) about the Cosmological Argument failing to support the God of Christian worship stands.

Firstly, Hume criticized a version of the Cosmological Argument presented by his character Demea in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779) Book IX.  Cleanthes points out that there is no support for the claim that everything in the universe is moves and is moved, caused and is caused or is contingent.  We have a limited view of the universe and no sensible reason to believe that the universe is homogenous or that we see things the way they actually are, a principle known in science as isotropy.  For all we know, argues Cleanthes, there could be unmoved movers, uncaused causes or necessary beings within the universe which could explain its continued existence.  Nevertheless, accepting these criticisms of the Cosmological Argument entails abandoning Natural Science altogether.  Leibniz coined the term “Cosmological Principle” to refer to the principles of homogeneity and isotropy which all scientists must assume in order to reason inductively towards natural laws.  Without the Cosmological Principle, we could not make many scientific knowledge claims; Cosmology and Quantum Science, Medicine and Biochemistry would all be a waste of time.  In practice, laws of nature supported by inductive reasoning enable mobile phones and space shuttles to work, so it doesn’t make sense to doubt the authority of our observations as Hume, through Cleanthes, does.  These criticisms of Hume’s fail to undermine Aquinas’ Cosmological Arguments insofar as they point to a necessary cause for the universe.

Secondly, Cleanthes continues by criticizing the claim that just because the parts of the universe have causes, so must the universe as a whole.  Demea (and Aquinas) rely on the so-called fallacy of composition.   Further, Cleanthes asks why the universe cannot be the explanation of itself, why there must be an external cause for the universe.  Later, Bertrand Russell asked why the universe cannot be a “brute fact”.  Yet neither of these criticisms is conclusive.  As Leibniz points out, it is difficult to see how a universe of contingencies can itself exist necessarily.  Contingencies involve potential which cannot, by definition, exist within a necessary being.  Further, while characteristics of the parts do not necessarily have to be characteristics of the whole and while (as Russell argued) just because all men have mothers it doesn’t mean that the human race has a mother, it can sometimes follow.  Each strand of spaghetti has two ends, something which also applies to the whole packet of spaghetti.  In a sense and because it is made up of material in the way that things in the universe are, the universe is a thing.  Things exist contingently and need to be moved and caused by things other than themselves.  These criticisms of Hume’s fail to undermine Aquinas’ Cosmological Arguments insofar as they point to a necessary cause for the universe as well.

Nevertheless, Cleanthes’ criticism that the cause of the universe could not be said to have the attributes of the Christian God is, for reasons previously explored, is persuasive.  Again it is clear that while Aquinas’ Cosmological Arguments do offer support to the hypothesis that there is an uncaused, necessary cause for the universe, they are far from proving that the God of Christian worship exists. 

In conclusion, Aquinas’ Cosmological fail to prove that God exists, both because as a posteriori arguments they stop short of proving their conclusions and because even if they are reframed into a format which could provide proof, as Leibniz attempted, they demonstrate only the existence of an abstract necessary being far short of having the attributes of the God Christians worship. 

 

Bibliography

  • Class notes on the Cosmological Argument
  • Aristotle, Physics Book V
  • Aquinas, Summa Theologica 1, 2, 3
  • Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion Book IX
  • Vardy & Vardy “God Matters” Chapters 4 & 5