Wherever human beings are found, invariably they believe in what they call God. To the best of my knowledge, there is no ethnic group that does not have what Laplace called the God hypothesis.
How each human group came up with the idea of God would be an interesting subject for study. In the West, our present situation, we know something about how Greeks pondered on the origin and nature of God. Therefore, let us start with the Greeks.
Early Greeks (aka Dorians), like preliterate people all over the world had their ideas on God; since those were not written down we do not know much about them. Perhaps, the earliest information about Greek gods that was handed down to us is what was written by Homer in his immortal works, Iliad and Odyssey. In those two epic stories of the exploits of Greek heroes, Homer managed to tell us a whole lot about Greek conception of God. We were told about Zeus (the chief God) and a myriad other gods. The gods were given human forms and qualities and actively engaged with human beings in the management of human affairs.
However, the first systematic discourses on the nature of God that the Greeks handed down to us were those of Plato and Aristotle, so let us examine what those two gentlemen had to say about God.
Plato looked at human beings and saw that they are wondrous but nevertheless imperfect in forms and behaviors. He reasoned that something or somebody more perfect than they must have created them. In his view, since man is imperfect there must be a perfect form of man out there. There must be archetypes (ideals) of what is on earth that while manifesting on earth somehow became imperfect. The best lived life, Plato reasoned, is one dedicated to trying to discover what the archetype of perfection is and living in accordance with it. Thus, the mission of philosophy, according to Plato, is to investigate the good, to discover the perfect and approximate it in our lives. In as much as philosophers seek the perfect, theoretically our truth, they are engaged in the highest calling. Thus, to be a philosopher, a thinker seeking the truth, the perfect of things is to be in the best of professions.
But how do we know that there are ideal forms of what is imperfect on earth? If I close my eyes I can imagine an ideal form of me but if I open my eyes I see no ideal me. I know that I am imperfect in form and behavior and would like to be perfect in form and behavior but I also know that ideals, perfect is merely my wish; I do not know that they exist apart from my wishes. Since when has the world existed in accordance with my, human wishes for ideals?
It seems to me that Plato was engaged in wishful thinking (magical thinking). He probably imagined that there must be perfect versions of himself and people and everything in his world and somehow took his imagination as reality. He used complex philosophical arguments to make it seem that he had won the argument. I am thinking about his cave analogy.
In that analogy he talked about people in a cave; those folk lived in a cave for a rather long time (Europeans used to live in caves so his analogy was probably derived from history). They got acclimated to the cave’s darkness (and possible glimmer of light). They see shadows of themselves reflected on the walls of the cave. In time, they came to believe that they are the shadows they see reflected on the walls. Because they have no other way of seeing their selves as they are they now believed that their shadows are their real selves.
One day someone managed to get out of the cave and saw bright sun light everywhere he looked and thus saw his self and the world in a different light. Upon returning to the cave he told the cave dwellers of how bright and sunny things outside the cave are but they would not believe him. Indeed, they thought that he was telling lies and was insane and wanted to kill him.
The point of this analogy is that we live in darkness with a glimmer of light that makes us see shadows of who we are and now we believe in those shadows as our true selves. Every now and then a philosopher comes along and tells us that we have different selves, bright and beautiful perfect selves and since all we know is the shadow self we doubt him. We even accuse him of being mad and often kill him (we kill our prophets).
We are habituated to the darkness we live in and doubt the light of perfection that is our true self. Our true selves are perfect; our true forms are perfect.
God who is the source of our perfect true selves must be perfect, Plato reasoned. This is pure idealism for it is ideas derived from human mental cogitation and there is no evidence for ideals in our world.
Idealism contrasts with realism where we content ourselves only with what we can see with our very eyes (as David Hume and other logical positivists would say, with empiricism).
There is a human trait to build from the imperfect stuff we see in our world and conclude that perfection exists; we often infer that there are perfect versions of things. Thus, I understand what Plato was doing 25000 years ago but I do not think that idealism is the answer to human imperfection.
Somebody needed to inject some realism to Plato’s excessive idealistic philosophy. Pure thinking is enchanting but only that thinking that takes into consideration the empirical world provides us with information on how to adapt to our world. Thus, I can understand why the citizens of Greece thought that Plato is a dangerous man: the man was getting folks to ignore the realities of this world and focus on the imaginary ideal world, what could be but is not what is in fact.
Plato was accused of corrupting the youth of Athens, getting them to focus on asking questions (sophism)without answers to them (such as what is perfection, Justice etc.) and not devoting their lives to working for the Greek polity’s good in the here and now world. He was tried and condemned to death. He was given poison (hemlock) and drank it and died.
One of the youth he was accused of corrupting was Aristotle. Aristotle took off from where his master stopped. On the question of God what Aristotle contributed shaped the Catholic Church and, indeed, extant Western science.
In our daily experiences we perceive that everything is in motion. We also perceive that every object in motion was moved by another object. Something makes you move. You make something else move. Whatever made you move probably was made to move by something else. Thus, there is a chain of causation.
Aristotle reasoned that the chain of causation (movers) cannot go on infinitely; he posited the argument that somehow there is an unmoved mover who set everything in motion. To him God is that unmoved mover that got everything in the universe of motion moving.
Subsequently, Europe accepted the argument that there must have been an uncaused cause, an unmoved mover. Thomas Aquinas made it the corner stone of his theology (see his Magnus opus, Sumna Theologica).
But is it true that there must be an efficient cause that was not caused by other things? How do we find out that there was a cause that was not caused? In our daily experience we know that there is always a cause but our experience tells us that we cannot possibly infer the first cause of things since we can go on and on tracing the causes of things. The best that we can do is trace causes to as far back as we can and then give up and say that we no longer have information on prior causes. In effect, Aristotle’s uncaused cause cannot be logically inferred from our daily experiences; it is an assumption to say that there is a first principle that brought things into being. Thus, in so far that folks accept Aristotle’s argument they could only do so on faith, not based on evidence.
Empirical observation cannot prove that there are ideal versions of what is, as Plato posited, or that there is a principle of uncaused cause in the universe, as Aristotle posited. We are thus left without adequate answer as to whether God exists or not.
Over the years Western thinkers have posited four arguments for the existence of God; these are called: ontological, cosmological, teleological and moral. Let us briefly examine each of these arguments to see if they hold water.
Anselm is the thinker most associated with the ontological argument. Ontology is a branch of metaphysics. Metaphysics, as its name implies, is that which is beyond physics; it wants to understand the essence of things beyond what physic (physics is Greek for Latin, nature). Metaphysics aims at figuring out the truth of things, what is real and what is mere appearance. The ontological argument in essence wants to understand the truth about God that cannot be contradicted by reasoning, if you like, a consistent idea about God. The ontological argument says, in effect, that in our thinking we can conceive of something being great. We live in a world of big, bigger and biggest. We can imagine how things are big and from that infer that there must be something so big that nothing is bigger than it. We can conceive a being that nothing is greater than it; this great being that nothing can be greater than can be called God.
It is rather easy to dismantle the ontological argument. First of all it is ideational; it is based on pure thinking, on ideas, on concepts, not on verified reality. The fact that we can conceptualize a being that nothing is greater than does not mean that such a being exists in fact. In my mind I can imagine myself the most powerful man on earth but that does not make me in reality anything but who I am, a being made of flesh and blood that is as fragile and vulnerable as a fly. Thomas Aquinas did not accept the ontological argument. He built his religious philosophy on the Aristotelian belief (aka the cosmological argument) that there must be ant uncaused cause, an equally unsound idea.
The cosmological argument goes something like this: there must have been an uncaused cause that set everything in motion. As noted, Aquinas accepted this view and built his Catholic Church (still current) theology on it.
Aquinas wrote in the 1200s; at that time Islam was at the apogee of world civilization; Islamic scholars indeed were responsible for bringing Greek writings back into Europe hence stimulating European interest in rational thinking, the Renaissance. Islamic thinkers such as Avicenna and Averroes had accepted the Aristotelian uncaused cause argument and used it as rationalization for their belief in God; Aquinas accepted these Muslim ideas and used them to shape his own Catholic theology.
This cosmological argument should not be easily dismissed for our extant astrophysics is predicated on it. Physicists would like us to believe that they do not believe in Christian theology. But look at their story of the origin of the universe and you see the Christian hand all over it!
In the early 1920s, the Russian mathematical physicist, Alexander Friedman said that his study of Einstein’s 1916 Theory of Relativity led him to believe that the universe is expanding (Einstein himself came to the same conclusion but since he believed in the steady state idea of the universe he made changes to his own theory to make the universe seem not expanding).
1927, Lemaitre, a Belgium Catholic priest building on Albert Einstein’s 1916 General Relativity equations concluded that the universe is expanding and that what is expanding must have once been in one place; that is, the universe must have begun in one spot (which he called the cosmic egg).
In 1929, the American lawyer turned astronomer, Edwin Hubble used his telescopes to verify that the universe is indeed expanding (see writings on Doppler Effect and Redshift).
In the 1940s, the Russian American physicist, George Gamow weighed in and argued for a Big Bang origin of the universe.
In 1965 Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, working at Bell Laboratory in New Jersey, observed what is now called the cosmic microwave background radiation (that supposedly occurred at the 400, 000 year mark of the universe, when nuclei captured electrons and atoms were formed and light escaped from what hitherto was a sea of plasma (nuclei, electrons and ions).
We can go on and on but the relevant point is that contemporary Western cosmology and astrophysics is built on Aristotelian and Aquinas’ notion that things must begin at a point in time and must be caused.
Physicists accept that there was big bang, an explosion that produced thermal radiation, photons, quarks, protons, neutrons and electrons. In effect something caused the universe to exist. Now, how do we know that the Big Bang was the cause of the extant universe? Okay, there seems empirical evidence that there really was a big bang but how do we know that the Big Bang itself was not caused by something else, something we do not know?
To say that nothing caused something (as we are currently told...that out of nothingness the Big bang occurred 13.7 billion years ago...when this paper was first written I had said 20 billion years, for that was the then accepted age of the universe), nothing caused the big bang is like saying that there is a first cause that was not caused; it is like making Aristotle’s argument all over again!
What our experience tells us is that there is a chain of causes; it does not tell us that there is an uncaused cause. My intuition tells me that if there was a big bang that it could not have come out of nothing and that something caused it and that something else caused what caused it, ad infinitum. The West, I am saying, is still operating under the influence of the Catholic Church but does not know it!
There are many possible ways of explaining the origin and nature of the universe. It would be interesting to study how Africans explain the origin, nature and end (eschatology) of the universe. Unfortunately, though I am an African I have no clue what Africans say on this subject.
If I may express my own opinion, I tend to agree with Fred Hoyle’s Steady State views on the universe. Hoyle believes that the universe has always existed and will always exist; he thinks that it is true that the galaxies are expanding away from each other but that somehow other forms of existence generate particles and atoms and those come to fill the space created by expanding galaxies. That is to say that the universe would not become empty space, as astrophysicists anticipate would happen in trillions of years in the future; to Hoyle, matter would not die for space would always be refilled with matter that came out of nowhere (quantum mechanics has interesting ideas on how this could happen, at least Hugh Everett has useful musing on it).
My feeling is that there is no creation and no end; I think that things have always existed in one form or another. Of course, matter does change to energy and energy to matter; and energy transmutes itself to the various forms of energy: mechanical, thermal/heat, light, electrical, sound etc.). I think that things eternally change forms and it is a waste of time trying to figure out the infinite forms they have being and will be in the future.
The teleological argument says that if we look at things they seem designed by an intelligence force. Look at your body. Your body is a marvelous machine; even the best machine we have so far designed cannot compare to the wondrous activities going on in a single human cell in your body. Just look at a seed. That seed seems simple but plant it and an oak tree sprouts from it; amazing is the only word for this phenomenon.
The universe is an awesome place; everything seems designed by an amazing intelligence. Take a look at the atom. See how electrons circle the nucleus, the nucleus containing protons and neutrons; protons and neutrons containing quarks. Quarks been congealed light (photons).
I wonder at how thermal radiation produced photons and that stuff is used to construct stars, galaxies, planets, trees, animals.
Look at your body. What do you see? You see flesh. But analyze that flesh. That flesh is made of many elements, especially nitrogen, hydrogen, carbon, oxygen (and traces of potassium, sodium, iron, magnesium etc.). Now break those elements (atoms) down and what do you see? You see electrons, protons and neutrons. Go ahead and break these down and you see quarks; go ahead and break quarks down and you see pure light.
That is correct; where you see your body is pure light (in disguised form). Your body is disguised light (so are animals, trees, mountains, stars, galaxies etc.). Everything is light and that light is used to construct them. It is amazing I say.
Therefore, it would seem that some intelligent being sat around and designed this whole shebang, this wondrous universe. I am amazed, it is awesome.
But, alas, it is not as great as it seems! If there was an intelligent designer, aka God, why the hell did he design a universe that would eventually run down (the second law of thermodynamics, entropy tells us that all things are running down).
Look at your body. From the moment you are born in body that body begins to die. All animals will die, trees will die, the earth will die, stars will die and the universe itself in trillions of years will die (as all stars, planets etc. break up into atoms and those break up into particles and ultimately to nothingness.
Why the hell did the designer design this world knowing that it would die? What was he thinking? Was he drunk or was he amusing himself at our expense? Has somebody around you ever died? Have you seen a woman whose child died? My mother is still depressed from the death of her son. Why the hell would a rational God do this to us?
No, it is better we accepted the atheistic view that there is no god and that things are just evolving mindlessly. The theory of evolution says that at some point the universe produced us and at a certain point would discard us and evolution continues.
The teleological argument that there is a designer and that there is a purpose to our being does not seem to square with empirical evidence. And even if there is a designer who designed him? If there is a God, the question is: who created God?
We always come right back to doing what Aristotle did: arbitrarily end the chain of cause argument by saying that there is one designer who was not designed by someone else.
The fourth argument is the moral argument. Wherever we see human beings they seem to behave morally. Even antisocial persons do not hurt their children (not all of them, anyway). There seem a built it moral proclivity in people; people seem to instinctively know that there is a right way to doing things and when they deviate from doing so they feel bad (guilt). Immanuel Kant made much ado of this morality issue; he argued that there is a moral law, a right way of doing things that if we do not follow it we feel immoral and bad.
If the universe is a moral place then there must be a moral God, the German idealistic philosopher reasoned. But is the universe a moral place?
Consider: a tsunami, earthquake, volcano, flood, drought, plague (of virus, bacteria, fungi) sweeps people, animals and trees to death. If so, how moral is a universe where such things could take place? (In his comedy or is it tragedy, Candido, Voltaire asked similar questions; he seemed to be destroying the moral argument for the existence of God). The sun will sooner or later blow itself up and blow everything on earth to death so how moral is this universe?
Who are we kidding if we say that this universe is moral? Where is the moral God when white folks were enslaving and abusing black folks? Give me a break, will you. And don’t get me started showing my anger at God (I will leave Nietzsche to speak for me). The moral argument for the existence of God does not seem persuasive, at least not to me.
There are, of course, other arguments for the existence of God. As noted the four arguments briefly reviewed above were postulated by Western thinkers. There are other thinkers other than Europeans, you know.
It would be interesting know what Africans arguments for the existence of God are. I do not know much about African theology.
The little I know about Eastern philosophy suggests that they tend to base their argument on God’s existence on personal experience. Some persons claim to have experienced God and from such experiences say that they know that God exists. Ramakrishna, the nineteenth century Hindu saint said that he experienced oneness with God and from that experience knows for sure that God exists.
Even in the West we had folks who claimed to have experienced God. Evelyn Underhill, in her book, Mysticism, narrated the stories of Christian and Islamic folk who claimed to have experienced God; I am talking about Meister Eckhart, Teresa of Avila, Saint John of the Cross, Hilton; Rumi and other Islamic mystics. Whether these folks actually experienced God or were hallucinating is beyond my understanding.
There are, of course, purely intellectual discourses on the existence of God; I can think of John Locke (in Concerning Human Understanding he talked about God as eternal ), Gottfried Leibniz (he talked about God as like a seed, Gonad that grows), Blasé Pascal (in Pensees he shared his experience...what is now called mystical experience of oneness with God), Rene Descartes (idea of dualism, Spirit and matter in us) George Berkeley (the idea that the world is like a dream, an idea in our minds, or God’s mind),David Hume (in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion he dismissed the idea of God offhand), Henri Bergan (the idea of a life force operating in matter, Élan Vital), William James (in Varieties of Religious Experience he talked about his experience of oneness with God), Arthur Schopenhauer (building on Hinduism, especially Vedanta in his World as will and idea presented a somewhat oriental view of God), Nietzsche (he presented Jesus as a weakling that has disposed Christians to be weak and unrealistic; throw Jesus and his sissy theology out and act from power, not forgiveness and similar sentimental nonsense) and others; to go into these philosophers in detail would amount to reviewing Western philosophy, which is not our present task.
Let us then just say that the various arguments for and against the existence of God leaves one undecided as to whether there is God or no God.
Life is simpler for religionists who can just believe in what their sacred books tell them about God. Theists such as Christians are told that God is spirit and that somehow he created our world of matter and folks accept that contradictory thesis without question.
Atheists say that there is no God. Having convinced themselves that there is no God they justify engaging in every absurd behavior they could imagine; why not, if there is no God, no after life, no heaven and hell, no punishment there is no absolute morality, no good and bad. Good and bad are men’s constructs and not self-evident.
So, does God exist? In my experience one either believes that God exists or one does not. I have not seen any one who predicates his belief in God on reason and evidence. There are folks with faith in the existence of God but they cannot provide rational or empirical evidence for their beliefs. Right or wrong they use their conception of God and what he expects of them to organize their lives. Then there are those who do not believe in God and no evidence would persuade them to believe in God. Who is to know who is right?
Science does not seem able to help us decide this matter. One can cite seeming evidence from science. The anthropoid principle suggests that there is God. On the other hand, if one asks the question: why would God create a pointless, meaningless and purposeless universe, as existentialists such as Sartre, Camus, Jasper, Heidegger ask things become a bit complicated.
There are those who marvel at the existence of the world, the universe. They have, however, not answered the question: what does the universe exist for?
Why should the universe exist at all? Why should there be something instead of nothing? And if there is something, as we obviously seem to be, what are we living for? What is the point? We are born, live for one hundred years, make noise and die? What is it all about, anyway? Why should we give thanks and glory to God for creating a pointless universe and people who are essentially food digesting machines; people digest food, extract what they need to live from it, live and in time disappear from existence.
As William Shakespeare said in Macbeth, we are like actors on a state and our actions are full of sound and fury but in the end signifying nothing. In Hamlet the immortal bard nailed it on the head: we are food for worms.
So, what exactly has God accomplished by creating us as food for worms (who in turn are food for other creatures)? It all seems stupid, if you ask me.
As Schopenhauer said, human beings ought to not exist; it seems a mistake creating them to live, oppress each other, go to war and kill each other and pretend to be powerful only to die and be eaten by other animals. The God that created this absurd play has an insane sense of humor; take him out of my face, for everything in me wants to crucify him!
Pure reason cannot prove the existence of God. Immanuel Kant’s criticism of pure reason notwithstanding, idealism does not prove the existence of God. Nor have scientific realism jabbering on an expanding universe that came out of nowhere disproved the existence of God.
Let us then agree to leave the question of God’s existence to the individual to decide for him (and not for other persons).
There is nothing taught in Western philosophy, theology, religion and science that prove that God exists or that God does not exist. Reading what philosophers and scientists say about God’s existence is interesting but ultimately are not convincing.
Only the individual can decide for himself, based on his experiences and needs, whether God exists or not. I remain as agnostic as I have ever been and will leave it at that.
*This paper was originally written during the 1970s when I was an undergraduate; I am tempted to modify it, bring it up to date by adding information from contemporary cosmology and physics but will not do so. The overall thrust of the paper still represents me.