Saturday, June 18, 2016

Why proofs of God's existence don't thrill me

The other day one of my Catholic apologist friends (I have many online) posted a link to "An Aristotelian Proof of the Existence of God" given by Edward Feser. My friend claimed that atheists shouldn't start with the Bible, but rather with reason and logic, in order to arrive at belief in God's existence.

Now, I don't think atheists should start with the Bible, either. Most people don't when they come to faith--at least, not the whole Bible. If you try to read the good book cover to cover in search of some sort of proof of God's existence, you will only find it by a miracle (which I would not rule out, but neither would I hold my breath). Ordinarily, such a straightforward reading of Scripture will lead you to many scandalous passages and incomprehensible claims about God, and to stories whose meaning is rather obscure without some additional cultural context. Certainly the story of Jesus himself is provocative enough to sell itself, but even in the gospels one is as often perplexed as not.

But I'm not sure the classical "proofs" of God's existence hold much water. Professor Feser is certainly a brilliant man, and his exposition of the argument is solid, but I've just never been impressed with Aristotelian/Thomist arguments that The Unmoved Mover/Uncaused Causer/Purely Actual Being/whatever exists. The same holds for Anselm's Ontological Argument, and any similar methods of proof.

It's not that I wouldn't want to have such a proof. It's not even that I don't like entertaining the arguments. On the contrary, such abstract lines of reasoning are fun for me (which is why I chose mathematics as a profession).

The problem is, I just don't think abstract reasoning reveals God. As much as I love my profession, I don't think its tools are appropriate for theology. In fact, I think of mathematics as the simplest and humblest of all the sciences, whereas theology is the loftiest and most difficult. But I'll get to that.

The word "abstract" literally means "to draw away." It is well known that logical arguments in philosophy or mathematics lead us farther away from our direct experience. This makes them considerably less attractive as aids to knowing God, whose presence is everywhere and is therefore constantly part of our everyday experience.

Not that things which are omnipresent can't be the subject of abstract arguments. Atoms are everywhere, but we need theoretical physics to understand and know them. Yet the problem with atoms is that they are small, not that they are difficult to understand. In many ways, atoms are like numbers. They are highly predictable, following precise patterns expounded by the laws of physics.

Anyone reading this might find remarkable that I say an atom is not hard to understand. But I stand by that claim, and I say that math is even simpler. I appeal to a wonderful quote from the great John von Neumann: "If people do not believe that mathematics is simple, it is only because they do not realize how complicated life is." Mathematics and physics have made such incredible progress by concentrating on things which are simple, meaning predictable, utterly bound by rules. Thanks to this form of simplicity, our abstract arguments are applicable no matter how "drawn away" they become from direct experience.

Neumann hit the nail on the head: how complicated life is! How amazingly different it is from proving a theorem! Living things are not utterly rule bound. Human beings make choices, act spontaneously, and often actively resist the rules which are supposed to apply. How, then, do we seem so comfortable with other humans, and how do we know them so well?

The question would really be a mystery if abstract reasoning were our primal way of knowing, but that is not the case. There is nothing more natural in the world than getting to know other human beings, and it is not because we know what they will do at any given moment. It is rather because we have a built-in desire to be with others. More is gained through the direct experience of their company than through being able to predict their behavior. Only marketers are interested in understanding human beings the way physicists understand atoms. The rest of us just want to be loved.

Which brings me to proofs of the existence of God. No son has ever asked himself, "How do I know my mother exists? What are the properties she should have? From what starting principles might I argue toward the existence of such a being?" A son knows his mother because she is there--to feed him, clothe him, clean him, comfort him--and she always has been. Before a boy can do any abstract reasoning whatsoever, he must learn words, most likely from his parents. The primal form of knowledge is the direct experience of someone. Their presence alone is the start of every other kind of knowledge we could possibly have.

It is true that a son whose mother has long been absent must reason abstractly, saying, "All humans are born to a mother and father, therefore I too must have a mother whom I don't know." This is, at best, the type of theological knowledge which Aristotelian/Thomist/Anselmian/etc. arguments can give us. It is a theology of orphans. It is only useful or necessary if God is absent, and has been for a long time.

"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God." If I understand the Christian faith correctly, I would say that the only thing separating us from God is our sin. God's constant presence ought to be perfectly clear to us, but we are blind. Christ does not offer theorems but rather a way to see again.

I catch glimpses of God from time to time. If I really began to fully repent, perhaps I would see him all the time in everything. But "surely there is no one on earth so righteous as to do good without ever sinning." (Ecc. 7:20) I only know it is that direct experience which sustains me.

I don't want to say that "existence proofs" are a total waste of time. God does often feel very absent, and perhaps we need these arguments to give us a hint of his presence. But I think it's very telling that in Scripture, to know God is to do justice, more than anything else. Christianity's great intellectual tradition notwithstanding, I say it is more a religion of doing than of reasoning.

And I think our theology ought to be done accordingly...

No comments:

Post a Comment

I love to hear feedback!