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The Limited Value of Logical Arguments For or Against the Existence of God and His Characteristics

In the process of my return to Christianity I spent a fair bit of time dealing with what I thought was a foundational issue, that is, Does God Exist?  The rest of Christianity’s claims seemed to rise and fall on that.  This was the days before the Internet made everything easy, so my quest found me in the college library reading Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas’s Summas.    Here he produced ‘proofs’ of God’s existence.  For me at the time, the thing that surprised me most was finding out that Christians had been working through these issues for thousands of years.  I had it in my head that I was the first to raise my concerns.  Silly me.

Humbled, I found the most important proposition to be that an actual infinite regress is logically impossible.  In a book covering a debate between a theist (whose name I forget) and atheist Kai Nielsen, the theist described the problem as trying to jump out of a bottomless pit.  That picture helped me make up my mind on that matter.

It wasn’t long before I was arguing these ‘proofs’ with atheists.  I learned that they will say the craziest things!  The problem with a ‘logical proof’ in this sense is that there is literally no coercive power to this tool if a person doesn’t want to be persuaded.  In an argument about whether or not a baseball thrown at such and such speed at your head will inflict such and such damage to one’s nose, if all else fails you can move the discussion off the page and test it against one’s face.  With an argument on logic alone, the other can simply say “No, I disagree.”  If you say he’s being unreasonable he can just say, “No, I’m being perfectly reasonable.”  This reality is not confined to the atheism-theism debate.  Philosophers of all stripes have for all time disagreed on everything that could be disagreed upon.

Beginning not long after I first encountered Aquinas’s “five ways” I realized that the logical arguments were almost always powerless to handle the most important questions.  For example, even if you proved that God existed because there must be a first cause, that doesn’t tell you very much about God’s nature.  You might be able to infer that God is omnibenevolent, that is ‘all good’ but that won’t help you establish what constitutes ‘good.’  This sort of reality is not confined to God.  For example, the reader has good cause to know that I, sntjohnny, exist, but you have no idea that I enjoy coffee (for example).  For many of the most important things we will want to know, revelation is necessary.  I will have to tell you I enjoy coffee.  God will have to tell us what constitutes as ‘good.’  Etc.

Let me be clear.  I’m not saying revelation would be nice, or helpful, or optional.  I’m saying it is necessary.  More on that in a moment.

The other development in my attitude towards ‘logical proofs’ is that they don’t even speak to the most interesting facets of reality!  The strange correspondence between abstract logical concepts and reality as we experience it is much more interesting and much more telling.  In other words, why does logic work in the first place?   About the only place where we ever see pure logic applied is mathematics.  Physicist Eugene Wigner, in his paper titled “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Physical Sciences“says in describing the purpose of his paper,

The first point is that the enormous usefulness of mathematics in the natural sciences is something bordering on the mysterious and that there is no rational explanation for it.

Logic works.  Why does it work?  As often as I’ve posed the question to skeptics the answer typically is:  we have to assume it works, so what’s the point of asking the question?   Indeed, if we ever used our logic to determine that logic didn’t ‘work’ we’d be cutting off the limb we were sitting on.  Similarly, if we used a logical argument that would undermine our confidence in the effectiveness of logic, we’d be taking out our own epistemology at the knees.  But surely this reality is as worthy of explanation as anything else we encounter as we trot around the universe?

In my view, choosing not to deal with the fact that logic ‘works’ because it has to or we couldn’t use it and we’ve got nothing else to use as we process the world around us is a cop out of colossal proportions.  The atheist says “In my worldview, I conclude there is no God, and I base this by choosing to offer an explanation for x, y, and z, but I do not believe I must also account for the reasonableness of reason.”  I say the reasonableness of reason requires an explanation as much as anything else does.  If you agree with that, you will pretty much always infer that God- a transcendental yet immanent, non-contingent agent- is the best explanation.

Notice that I have changed tacts.  I didn’t say “God is the explanation we must infer.”  I said it was the ‘best’ explanation.  The problem with using the mind to formulate arguments is that we are also capable of inferring logical possibilities unconstrained from any known realities. For example, a person may disagree with me that an infinite regress is logically impossible, and against that logical assertion, they will raise the contention, “But I can conceive of it as logically possible that an infinite regress is possible.”  I disagree with that kind of reasoning, but I can escape it altogether by pointing out that in 99% of our daily existence we don’t make judgments and conclusions about reality based on airtight logical ‘proofs.’  We must make inferences to the best explanation all the time.

As this example makes clear, we can’t really imagine any logical argument that prohibits someone from conceiving of some other logical possibility for the same thing being explained.  This applies to the question of God and also to questions in our daily existence.  It is logically possible that I am dreaming right now.  I can’t logically exclude it.  However, I make the best inference I can and move on.

Now, in my mind the best explanation for why logic ‘works’ cannot lie within my own mind.  For one thing, there was a time when I was not.  My existence appears to be wholly contingent.  I see no good reason to think the validity of reason regresses back only as far as my own being.   I believe a final regress is a logical necessity, but if you don’t agree with that allow me to settle for a final regress is more probable than an infinite one.  If you don’t agree with that, would you at least agree that in the regress chain the validity of reason does not stop with your own mind?  The way is open to conclude that the best explanation for why reason is reasonable is to posit that there is something other than you upon which the principles of logic rest, and I propose that that best explanation is God, other logically conceivable possibilities be damned.
When we start talking about the best explanations for things we immediately have to ask us what makes something a better explanation than something else.   Instinctively we know that we look for correspondence- does what we think match up with what we observe- and persistent corroboration- does what we think match up with what we observe on a consistent, regular basis.

Our math says that if we send an arrow at such and such speed in this direction, accounting for gravity, it will hit position X at such and such a time.  The math is shown to be solid by actually sending off the arrow within the given parameters and discovering that it did as expected.   But perhaps this was a one time thing? Well, every time we send the arrow out at the given parameters, it hits the target.  We therefore feel that we have good reason to trust the math.  However, it is logically conceivable that we are being deceived, either by our own mind or by nature.   Correspondence itself cannot be proved, and yet we rely on it.  (Best explanation?)

We intuitively recognize that the best test of our logic, in spite of logically conceivable possibilities, is to play it out in the world we occupy.  Here, then, we see another reason why revelation is so critical.   Is God good?  Theologians have been seen to logically derive it, but when we test the conclusion against reality we create what is called the Problem of Suffering, which would seem to war against a conception of God that was actually omni-benevolent.   This problem remains strong and formidable while we allow the problem to remain almost purely logical in form.

I say almost, because on the two sides of the issue, what we allow to weigh against the logical conclusion that God is all-good is the observation in our universe that ‘bad’ things happen.  But why shouldn’t we allow observations to be placed on both sides of the scale?  If we add empirical observation on one side of the scale, isn’t it logically required to be open to empirical observation on the other side, the side that says God is all good?   For example, what if God has good reasons for why he allows suffering to occur and to persist?

The child might think he has a loving father, only to go to the doctor where the father allows the child to be stuck with a needle.  The child might now think his father is not so good after all.  But if the child learns that the needle was an immunization and that the father perceived and was reasonably confident that a long term good would result from the brief pain and suffering  that was inflicted, the child might now find that the equation is balanced.  The scales are equal again:  it is not in fact necessarily a logical contradiction of benevolence if suffering is observed.  And how would the child find this out?

The father would tell him.  He would reveal it to the child.

Logical arguments are put into perspective when we begin to see that whatever we conclude about them, what we observe from reality ought be factored in, and if there is a God, some kind of revelation from him can be rationally expected.  To that end, another way of demonstrating his existence can be inferred.

If, for example, God chose to reveal himself directly in our universe in the flesh, and there were reasonable grounds for believing that this entity making the claim that he was God really was God, that is, the things he does is consonant with his claim, then we could derive our theistic views not from the rare air of abstract arguments but rather from what is observed in reality.

It so happens that Christianity is the only religion that really claims that such a thing happened.  And, incidentally, it has bearing on some of the questions already raised in this entry, including the problem of Suffering.   God is not indifferent to our suffering.  He entered into it and experienced it directly in order to also lay the groundwork for the ultimate defeat of Death and suffering.

Now, the question is moved away from logic and towards simple, relational trust:  Dear child, will you accept the father’s explanation or not?

If you would like to see some debates on some of these logical arguments currently proceeding, you can check out the ones linked to on my forum, below:

Kalam’s Cosmological Argument and Free Will 

 Divine Causation

 Argument Against an Unmoved Mover


1 comment

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    • TheDoc on January 23, 2008 at 10:31 am

    Logical arguments only work when all parties agree to be bound by the structure of logic itself. Logic is more like math in that it has a very well-defined set of “rules.” Because of this logic is universal (just like math). Aquinas and the early apologists knew this which is why he used the tenets of logic. Their arguments were powerful because the people of the time also followed the tenets of logic.

    However, in today’s post-modern (or is it post-post-modern now?) world logical arguments don’t work as well because each person determines their own meaning and rules.

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