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For centuries, believers have sought to provide logical proof that God exists.

Due to the many contradictions in the holy books, it has always been difficult to convince skeptical people to believe based purely on the written word. Several philosophical arguments for the existence of God have led to spirited debate, but they all ultimately fail the test of reason and have been refuted time and again by critical thinkers.

Probably the most popular argument is called the Cosmological Argument, sometimes also called the First Cause Argument. It is based on the notion that every event we can witness appears to have been caused by a prior event.

It rains today because clouds rolled in on air currents carrying humid air, which resulted from evaporation from surrounding bodies of water, which filled due to groundwater, which accumulated from past rains, and so forth ad infinitum. If one carries that thinking back to the beginning of time, there is a point where nothing existed, and therefore the idea is that the very first cause was uncaused itself, and the name believers give that first cause is God.

Originally proposed by Aristotle and venerated by Moses Maimonides and St. Thomas Aquinas among others, it carried serious weight and stimulated centuries of debate, but it can be dispelled by a simple insight. If one requires all effects to have a cause, what caused God? It is just as logically valid to assume the universe always existed. David Hume and Immanuel Kant also proposed more complex refutations of this argument, but the common-sense concept is the simplest.

Originally proposed by Socrates, a second widely known argument is called the Teleological Argument, or the Design Argument. Teleology suggests inherent purpose to things — the reason we have fingers is so we can send text messages. It’s based on the idea that the universe and all of its creations are simply too complex to have arisen by processes such as evolution and gravitational attraction. An analogy often used is that a watch must have a watchmaker, because the watch cannot assemble itself.

Proponents of this argument will point to “irreducibly complex” biological organs such as the eye, arguing that this organ would be useless in a transitional form so it must have been constructed in its present form by design.

Evolutionary biologists, however, can demonstrate many transitional forms of eyes, from crude light-sensitive patches of tissue all the way to the human eye. All forms confer a selective advantage to the organism, and therefore are perpetuated by evolution. Aside from the demonstrable fallacy of the argument, it’s difficult to believe an omniscient designer would create a world with such obvious flaws, such as parasitic disease, geological disaster and the like.

A third argument, conceived by St. Anselm in the 11th century is quite abstruse but held sway among many prominent thinkers, including Rene Descartes and Baruch Spinoza. It’s called the Ontological Argument. Its premise is that anyone who can understand what is meant by the word “God” can see that such a being must exist. God is that being “than which none greater can be conceived.”

Because I can understand that, I can conceive of God. Anselm claimed that, because it’s greater to exist in reality than only as an idea in the mind, God therefore must exist in reality.

Even Aquinas believed this argument to be false, as he thought God must first exist before we can make any claim about his nature. The monk Gaunilo pointed out that the argument can be extended to ridiculous analogy, such as claiming that there exists a perfect island: the perfect island must exist, for if it did not then it would be possible to conceive of an island greater than that island than which no greater can be conceived, which is absurd.

The most powerful refutation, generally taken as the final word, came from Immanuel Kant. He argued that the claim that existence is greater than non-existence is logically indefensible, and that our concept of a thing is as complete whether or not it exists in reality. The details require much study to truly grasp but have stood the test of time.

Despite the best efforts of many generations of human minds, we have yet to produce an empirical argument for the existence of God. That, of course, does not mean we can state definitively that there is no God, but it means we cannot make any claim to knowledge one way or the other.

Because no holy book offers any insight, we are left where we started thousands of years ago — choosing to believe on faith or withholding judgment until the evidence improves.

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Matt Runde is a memberof the La Crosse Area Freethought Society.

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(19) comments

Cassandra

Since this can't be proved, let's have a war over it!

strodell

Nice job Matt. My only observation is that you have fallen victim to the prevailing monotheistic bias. Commentary like yours does great good by adding clarity to the public conversation of such matters. I only wish you had taken the opportunity to remind your theistic readers, with subtlety, of this prevailing bias by using "a god" instead of "god" throughout your text.
Whenever asked if one believes in God, the best initial response is to ask for clarification about which god the questioner refers. Only then can one comment whether or not they have such a belief.
The experts tell us that humans, over the ages, have conjured up roughly 2,500 different gods and I suspect of those currently on the planet, there must be belief in dozens of those gods. The all too common monotheists among us always assume monotheism for their Judeo-Christian god. Those of use who fail to hold such beliefs should take every opportunity to point out that theism comes in many different flavors.

neandros

In the book "A Universe from Nothing," physicist/cosmologist Lawrence Krauss argues that our universe could have popped into existence spontaneously, as real/virtual particle pairs do all the time. Quantum events are often acausal, therefore no gods or first causes are necessary.

Positing an eternal, omnipotent being with exactly zero substantiation is the epitome of foolishness. Faith in gods = superstition.

Buggs Raplin

Alas, neandros, Krauss's argument proves nothing. It's just an argument. Again, there may be no God, but there is no way atheists can prove it.

deezus

Maybe deists and atheists are both right. Maybe God pops in and out of existence. :D

wishsciencerules

When children reach a certain age, responsible adults let them find out for them selves, or explain to them, that no Santa exits. The emotional/intellectual adults of our species have this responsibly. Unfortunately, many of the "children" often have more social clout and, in some areas of the world, are often better armed with products made possible by science and critical thinking. One of the best, well written articles I have seen in a long time, comprehensible with out being condescending, in your next life, please teach philosophy. Thank you, Mark Rundie.

deezus

What I wonder is why do people try to convince other people one way or the other? It's such a futile debate.

Buggs Raplin

Absolutely.

Jobaba

Sinatra was a God. But, no more.

Buggs Raplin

In the wee small hours of the morning....

lookout

People have had to believe in something other than themselves since man first started walking the earth. That tells the real story religion. Many people can't believe in themselves and take credit for their own accomplishments. They believe a god helped them achieve what they real did on their own.

Bill Payer

Matt, I'm sure, is a nice fellow but he seems to be behind the times. If anything, modern arguments have bolstered the existence of a creator/god, not diminished it.

1. "If one requires all effects to have a cause, what caused God?". This shows Matt doesn't understand the first premise of the argument he's trying to refute: Anything that begins to exist must have a cause. God is never presented as anything but an eternal being - no beginning, no end. The so-called First Cause that prevents an infinite regress.

2. "It is just as logically valid to assume the universe always existed". Pre-1929, this may have been a good argument to get around the infinite regress. No astrophysicist believes this anymore.

3. "it’s difficult to believe an omniscient designer would create..." . The weakest of all arguments. Basically saying "God doesn't behave the way I would expect him to, therefore he must not exist". Seriously?

Monteee

How interesting that you claim to know what every astrophysicist believes. I'd like to see all the documented quotes from all those astrophysicists.

Modern arguments have in no way whatsoever bolstered the belief in the existence of any deity. Modern arguments, as well as advances in astronomy, cosmology, geology, biology and physical anthropology all support the argument that ancient myths and stories of deities are nothing more than human fabrications.

The First Cause argument is blatantly fraudulent, as it is an intellectual punt. There is no difference between Plato and Aristotle saying, "The Cosmos has always existed." and some preacher of today saying, "God has always existed." Both arguments come from the human inability to comprehend the Universe, infinity and the paradoxes that ensue.

"Everything that exists had a cause....EXCEPT for this ancient Babylonian deity that I want to worship. HE is eternal." It's complete and total BUNK.

MidwestAtheist

Bill, perhaps it is you who is behind the time. Matt accurately stated the cosmological argument. What you are trying to quote is the Kalam Cosmological argument. This basically just took the cosmological argument, and inserted "begins to exist", to try to get around the infinite regress. This is obviously just special pleading. In fact, if a god did exist outside space/time, we have no way to conceptualize this. Thought/action only make sense in a temporal framework. It makes no sense to posit a being that makes an observation about the state of things, decides to create a universe, and then takes action. This only makes sense in a time-based framework. This whole idea of a god outside time makes no sense.

2.Cosmologists don't know what happened before the Planck time. It is entirely possible that a universe has always existed, but existed in different forms, or spawned infinite other universes, ours included. There are not mainstream cosmological models incorporating a god.

Clarification

Confirming the existence of Machiavelli-Fang and Buggsy proves elusive. Legends in their own minds.

Buggs Raplin

I must exist; somebody pays my property taxes.

Buggs Raplin

As a deist, I thought this an informed, well-researched article. As Matt says, we cannot prove there isn't a God, just as we can't prove there is one. Since evidence is lacking on the question, choose the belief you're most comfortable with.

Machiavelli

Buggs: " As Matt says, we cannot prove there isn't a God, just as we can't prove there is one."

I think that Matt was just trying to be nice here: I suspect he means there is no god in the same sense that you can't prove there is no Zeus or Santa Claus.

Just keepin' it real, there is no Christian or Islamic or Judaic version of god. A little basic physics and chemistry knowledge makes the gods of the common religions as implausible as Zeus and Santa Claus.

“Gods are fragile things, they may be killed by a whiff of science or a dose of common sense. They thrive on servility and shrink before independence. They feed upon worship as kings do upon flattery. That is why the cry of gods at all times is “Worship us or we perish.” A dethroned monarch may retain some of his human dignity while driving a taxi for a living. But a god without his thunderbolt is a poor object.” -- Chapman Cohen

Machiavelli

Matt Runde: "That, of course, does not mean we can state definitively that there is no God,..."

Actually, modern physics, particularly quantum mechanics, effectively ends consideration of the god concept as religion has presented it. This should not end your personal sense of mystery and wonder about the 'nature of nature'...instead, it should veer you away from what you once called 'a spiritual journey' toward an even more bizarre and mysterious realm. The quantum reality is strange and is as yet unresolved by man. Study quantum physics and most of the great philosophers you thought were relevant fade away as quaint and uninformed.

Because interpretations of quantum mechanics are all over the map, scientific views about what you might call 'spiritual' are not set in stone as of now:


Are We Real? - Documentary
[Sound gets ok at 01:40 Don't panic]

www.youtube.com/watch?v=jJt3CTGuFVs

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