Episode 248 – Does the Abrahamic God exist?
In this episode, Hugh Harris and Matthew Su debate the existence of the Abrahamic God.
After the podcast, Matthew kindly provided a transcript of his opening 10-minute address.
The ‘Cosmological Argument’- a non-technical presentation
I’d like to thank our host, Trevor, and my opponent, Hugh, for inviting me on the show tonight. The kind of God whom I hope to defend here is the God of broadly Abrahamic tradition: a single, all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving creator and sustainer of reality. I think that this God’s existence is accessible to reason, and these reasons can be shared even with those who do not initially accept the faith. Of course, if anyone has any questions about how distinctively Christian ideas about God relate to the broadly ‘Abrahamic’ God, I shall be happy to field them during Q&A.
In this debate, I hope at least to show that belief in God as the Christians conceive of him, is backed by sound reasons, and that the arguments can withstand rational scrutiny even today, in the age of the internal combustion engine and the electric telegraph.
The Cosmological Argument
So I think we’ll get the most bang for our buck by focusing on one argument: the Cosmological Argument, which looks out into the world for some general feature of things, in virtue of which they do not exist in themselves, but depend upon a single being which is recognisably what we should call ‘God’
The Cosmological Argument as I will present it has two parts:
1. First, a ‘cosmological insight’, which points to a feature of reality which could only come from an independent thing or things.
2. Second, the ‘The back end,’ where we reflect on the attributes of the independent thing, which lead to one another and paint a picture of a single being we should rightly call ‘God.’
The kind of argument I shall make is not what you might be used to. I will not attempt to trace the origins of things backward in time. Rather, I am going to look ‘downwards,’ toward a most-fundamental being here and now keeping things in existence, like a musician playing music. If there is such a being, then whenever the first moment of time was, God was its concurrent source- this argument gets at the source of the beginning, by a different route.
Part I: Contingency and Composition
Now, all cosmological arguments are ultimately arguments from contingency. By ‘contingency,’ I mean that feature of things where they don’t exist in their own right, but ‘through’ something else. Contingent things are ‘contingent upon’ something else. For example, I don’t exist in my own right, since when you take away everything which isn’t me, I wouldn’t exist either. Just imagine it for a moment: The water in my body isn’t me. You can tell that the water isn’t me because when you take out all the water, you’ll still have the water, but not me. I am dependent in part upon this water for my existence- take it away, and I die.
Yet when we think about it, no individual part of me, is the same thing as me either: so if I were to exist truly ‘on my own,’ you would have to take away my organs and limbs, even the thoughts I have, and even the atoms which make me up. What we’re left with, when we try to think of me apart from everything that isn’t me, is nothing at all. It’s precisely because I am absolutely nothing without other things, that I am contingent , and at every moment where I exist, I can only be coherently said to exist in relation to other things.
Now, the things on which I depend might themselves depend upon further things. My organs depend upon my atoms, which depend upon fundamental forces, and so forth, forming a hierarchy of dependence.
We might think of the hierarchy of causes upon which I depend at any particular moment, like a chain of borrowers, where each borrower has all their assets (that is, existence) only in virtue of someone else promising them money, and not in their own right. I don’t have existence in my own right, but I ‘borrow’ it from all the things which make me up, and keep me together. But if my components don’t have existence in their own right, then they too need to borrow it from elsewhere. No matter how many members this chain may have, unless something has existence in an independent way, there could be no dependent things. If no one in a chain of borrowers has any money, everyone is broke. So, though there may be contingent things, not everything can be a ‘borrower’ of existence. At least one thing in each chain of dependence needs to actually have existence in an ‘unborrowed’ or independent way, for anyone to have existence at all.
Part II: The Divine Attributes
Now to say that there is at least one independent thing, is not to say that God exists: maybe they are indivisibles, like atoms. Maybe it’s a field, or some other kind of ‘mystery goo.’ If we want to call it God, we need to derive the divine attributes. So let’s begin with a basic one:
Since composites depend upon their components, the independent thing must be non-composite, or, simple.
The independent thing, if it is simple, must also be unique.Anything of which there could be many, contains a real distinction between what is common to the
many and what is unique to the particular instance. Say I have a cat. I can have many cats, because there is a way in which each cat is similar to other cats, and there is a way in which each cat is an individual. If each cat contains this distinction, it has at least two components- what is shared, and what is individual. The cat is composite.
So, if there could be many of something, it is composite, and if it is composite, it is dependent. Thus, if a thing is independent, there cannot be more than one, it is simple . If there can only be one independent thing, then and all dependent things must rely on the same being – the single First Cause of everything else which there is or could be.
If everything there is or could be must be an effect of the first cause, the First Cause must be all-powerful.
Since it is simple, it can have no spatial magnitude- we can’t have some of it ‘here’ and some of it ‘there.’ Since everything relies on the First Cause, its effects are ubiquitous, they are not localised in particular places: the First Cause is therefore immaterial.
The First Cause is also intelligent. Let me explain. To say that the First Cause is intelligent, is to say that the first cause does something like what we do when we understand, but more perfectly. When we understand things, we grasp them by means of some general principle , or pattern, which unifies many phenomena. This allows us to ‘contain’ phenomena in our understanding in a general way. This gives us access to particular phenomena in a more precise way than we could do otherwise:
Take the formula we all learned in high school: F = MA. We understand not only this or that particular instance of force, but the ratio of force to mass and
acceleration itself , and implicitly, all of the instances of F=MA. F=MA, as a principle, ‘contains’ all of its instances as implications.
Obviously, our understanding is limited- the principles in our understanding are often provisional and apply to limited domains, and on the whole we only distantly approximate perfect knowledge. If we had an absolute first principle which implies and anticipates everything else, just as our understanding of triangles anticipates every triangle we will ever encounter, we would have perfect knowledge.
The First Cause is, in itself, this very first principle which anticipates everything else. It cannot be some inert particle, because as a part of something larger, it does not anticipate the whole. Neither is the First Cause the same thing as the universe- the universe is extremely composite. Rather, the First Cause is the total origin of all reality. It cannot ‘source’ the reality of other things from anywhere but itself, since it is prior to everything else. Since it is the cause of all things, the First Cause must ‘contain’ the reality of everything else, just as a profound understanding ‘contains’ all of its implications. It is in ‘containing’ the reality of its effects, that the First Cause can be said to have knowledge of its effects.
So the First Cause knows what it causes as their cause. Since it causes all things, it also knows all things: the First Cause is therefore intelligent, and all-knowing. The First Cause is not an ‘it,’ but a ‘him.’
Since the First Cause, being both intelligent and non-composite, can have no unintelligent part of himself, his effects cannot be merely unconscious, impersonal products: rather, they are the objects of an intelligence, and hence, the First Cause wills his effects. In this light, they are not mere ‘effects,’ but creations, which he keeps in being moment by moment. The First Cause is the Creator.
If anything exists at all, then, it is because the Creator wills it to be. Now what is good for a thing, is to attain that way of being which is most proper to it- for us humans, to achieve our humanity in the fullest way is our good. In willing a human’s existence, the Creator must will its proper way of being for it- he must will our humanity for us- if he did not, he would not be creating humans at all. Thus, the Creator, in creating, must will his creatures’ good- in other words, he must love them, since love is to will another’s good. Since the Creator is the creator of everything, he must truly love all his creatures- that is, he must be all loving.
At this point, it would help to retrace the path we have walked. We’ve gone from dependent existence to independent existence. From independent existence, we have gone to a unique, simple, and immaterial First Cause of everything . From the nature of the First Cause, which must ‘contain the reality’ of its effects, we arrive at an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving Creator. To put it another way, power, knowledge and love in us, reflect the nature of the uttermost foundation of reality. The Creator is the kind of being who both can be and wills to be involved in your life- he already is. As the being in relation to whom we exist, and in whose will for us our true good is found, He is the one of all beings most worth knowing. And this is the being, all men call God.