God after Kant

Our Lord, we know, is a shoving Leopard.

the Reverend William Archibald Spooner (1844-1930)
[quoted by William Spooner Donald, Horizon, Volume XI, Number 4,
Autumn, 1969, p.120]

Εἶπεν ἄφρων ἐν καρδίᾳ αὐτοῦ· οὐκ ἔστι Θεός.
Dixit insipiens in corde suo non est Deus.
The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God.

[Psalms 14:1, Greek text, Psalm 13 in the Septuagint]

I have previously considered "What would God be?," but the existence of such a being is another question entirely. In modern philosophy, arguments for the existence of God were common and expected in the major philosophers, like Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, etc., until the coming of Hume and Kant. Then we get a withering critique of all such arguments; and although that did not end them, their fortunes among major philosophers henceforth declined steadily. "Natural theology" began to disappear from metaphysics, as metaphysics itself even came to disappear from much mainstream philosophy in the 20th century. The end of rational arguments for the existence of God did not always mean the rejection either of God or of religion, for, of course, religion long existed prior and independently of philosophical arguments. In the 19th century, a tradition began, perhaps with Kierkegaard (relying in great measure on Kant), that natural theology and theoretical arguments were unhelpful and inappropriate for religion. This would be the mainstream approach of subsequent Existentialist theology, whose inspiration I would also trace back through Russia to the theology of Mt. Áthôs.

In a Kantian approach to metaphysics, the general idea is that attempts to conceive of transcendent objects fall into into mutually contradictory requirements, what Kant called "Dialectical Illusion." Thus, Kant's "Ideas" of Reason -- God, Freedom, and Immortality -- generate Antinomies, in which the evidence or argument for mutually exclusive theses is equally good. As can be examined at the link, I have expanded Kant's own Antinomies from four to ten. It is well to keep these paradoxes in mind, for even were arguments for the existence of God to work, that would only be the beginning of the matter. Most people who disbelieve in God do not do so because of the failure of positive rational arguments, but because of problems that the existence of God would generate in its own right, particularly the Problem of Evil (the Eighth Antinomy, of Theodicy), why an omnipotent, omniscient, benevolent God would allow the effects to occur in the world from natural evils or from the actions of evil men. The Israelites held in Egypt and forced to make bricks without straw were brought out by the Mighty Hand of the Lord, while millions were allowed to die in German death camps without a hint of supernatural rescue. Hume's critique of miracles, and the disinclination of philosophers as rationalistic as Kant to credit them, has removed from the modern world the sort of public recognition and belief that once mitigated the ferocity of natural and moral evils. It is also difficult to sustain that recognition in a time of photography and live video from news-crews down to cell-phones. The horrors, crimes, and tragedies are constantly captured. Divine intervention is not. At the same time, if God knows by his foreknowledge that Hitler will kill millions and then be damned to Hell for eternal punishment, it is not obvious why all, including Hitler, would not be better off if God were to intervene and prevent his birth, or even his conception.

However, even this again is only the beginning of the problem. Whether God even has intentions and designs was a matter of sharp disagreement between philosophers such as Spinoza and Leibniz; and although most theistic belief is untroubled, and unaware, of such disputes, were the nature of God again to become a matter of serious ontological theory, the considerations of the Rationalists, and the paradoxes they expose, would immediately cease to be curiosities.

Nevertheless, there is a level of public discourse where traditional arguments of natural theology are still given credence. This is especially conspicuous in continuing attacks by the religiously motivated on Charles Darwin. It has now come down to a large scale political effort to promote some version of the Argument from Design (St. Thomas's Fifth Way below) as part of science rather than a controversial thesis in philosophy or theology -- the previous effort to sell a young earth (i.e. a six thousand or ten thousand year old universe) "scientific creationism" as science was a disastrous failure -- firmly rejected by all courts as a religious doctrine unsuitable for public schools. In the course of my treatment of the design movement, I also discovered columnist Pat Buchanan repeating the Prime Mover argument originated by Aristotle (the First Way below). Thus, it would be useful to examine the kind of classic arguments for the existence of God that we find in the "Five Ways" of St. Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274), as detailed in his Summa Theologica [Part I, Question 2, this translation from The Basic Writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Vol. I, A.C., Pegis, ed., Random House, 1945, quoted by John Hick, Classical and Contemporary Readings in the Philosophy of Religion, Prentice-Hall, 1964, pp. 40-42].

  1. St. Thomas's first argument is to the "Prime Mover." This argument suffers the most from the reliance on Medieval physics, which of couse has been superseded by Galileo, Newton, Einstein, etc. Thus, until Galileo, it was believed that rest is absolute, nothing moves unless it has been pushed, and in the absence of further pushing, motion ceases. The existence of motion thus implies a mover. While for Aristotle, God as Prime Mover was responsible for rotating the heavens in a geocentric universe, St. Thomas tries, badly, to generalize the argument to all motion. If this is the "more manifest way," then all such arguments are likely to be in trouble.

    The first and more manifest way is the argument from motion. It is certain, and evident to our senses, that in the world some things are in motion. Now whatever is moved is moved by another,

    That was true in Ancient and Mediaeval physics, but Galileo introduced the concept of "inertia," according to which an object continues in a given velocity unless a force acts upon it to change that velocity. Also, interial frames of reference are equivalent, which means that one's motion is relative to that of others. Although there was the expectation of an absolute frame of reference for linear velocity, this was impossible to determine in Galilean and Newtonian physics. St. Thomas's language, however, threatens a truth by tautology, since something which is "moved," in a passive construction, may be said to necessarily be moved by an agent. But if things can be moving without being moved, and so subsequently move the "moved" things, the real argument must be that anything in motion must be moved. In Greek philosophy the Atomists like Epicurus already believed that there was an eternal "rain" of atoms, things that had been moving without being moved. That was not in accord with the accepted theory of motion in Greek physics, so St. Thomas reasonably could discount it; but inertia makes it possible again, allowing something that cuts off St. Thomas's argument.

    for nothing can be moved except it is in potential to that towards which it is moved; whereas a thing moves inasmuch as it is in act. For motion is nothing else than the reduction of something from potentiality to actuality. But nothing can be reduced from potentiality to actuality, except by something in a state of actuality.

    In other words, the potential is to be at some other location, and then the actuality of moving and being there. This argument requires that something else must make an object move to a new location, which is what was believed in the physics of the time, but no longer. An object with a pre-existing velocity actually "moves itself," something St. Thomas will shortly deny. It has an actuality that succesively takes it to potentially new positions. The considerations of actuality and potentiality sound a bit like modern ideas of kinetic and potential energy, but this is far beyond the reckoning of Mediaeval physics. Even the modern theory of the Big Bang, curiously, involves a great deal of kinetic energy becoming potential energy (rather than the other way around) in the expanding universe.

    Thus that which is actually hot, as fire, makes wood, which is potentially hot, to be actually hot; and thereby moves and changes it. Now it is not possible that the same thing should be at once in actuality and potentially in the same respect, but only in different respects. For what is actually hot cannot simultaneously be potentially hot; but is it simultaneously potentially cold.

    Unfortunately, we now know that there are degrees of heat, which means that an actually hot thing has the potential to become even hotter, with not much in the way of a practical upper limit. St. Thomas might have known this in his day, since workers in iron knew that color changes in the metal indicated higher temperatures, but this might not have been general knowledge. Color changes in hot iron were not matched up to actual temperatures until the 19th century.

    It is therefore impossible that in the same respect and in the same way a thing should be both mover and moved, i.e., that it should move itself.

    This is a curious statement, since from the Greeks onward the general view was that living things move themselves -- that was in effect the definition of life. Does St. Thomas really want to say that nothing can move until it has been, ultimately, been moved by God? That certainly was not quite what Aristotle had in mind. Aristotle's Prime Mover does not set things in motion at the beginning of time, since Aristotle believed that the world is eternal and that there is no beginning of time. St. Thomas certainly wants to shift the sense of the argument over to addressing the initiation of motion at the moment of a temporal Creation, but from its Aristotelian origin, the argument may not actually be suitable for that. Aristotle's Prime Mover is responsible for a particular motion right now, namely the diurnal motion of the heavens. Otherwise, he allows that other motions, from the characteristic movement of each planet to the irregular actions within the sub-lunary world, to originate from other self-moving things, namely the "intelligences" that move the planets, and living things on Earth. Aristotle's God cannot be responsible for irregular motions since Aristotle's God, unlike St. Thomas's, does not have an arbitrary will or make particular choices from moment to moment. St. Thomas must have been aware that borrowing arguments from Aristotle held the danger of dragging along characteristics of his God that were not suitable for a Christian God. Mediaeval critics of the use of Greek philosophy for Christian theology were fully aware of that danger, and St. Thomas himself knew that he was walking a thin line that held the potential for accusations of heresy. Since St. Thomas would later, literally, be canonized and made a Doctor of the Church, the questionable nature of his project would then be quite forgotten.

    Therefore, whatever is moved must be moved by another. If that by which it is moved be itself moved, then this also must needs be moved by another, and that by another again.

    Thus we get back to the essence of the argument, that motion implies a train of one thing moving another, which is untrue either in modern physics, with inertia, or in the physics of St. Thomas's own day, which allowed self-moving entities.

    But this cannot go on to infinity, because then there would be no first mover, and, consequently, no other mover, seeing that subsequent movers move only inasmuch as they are moved by the first mover; as the staff moves only because it is moved by the hand. Therefore it is necessary to arrive at a first mover, moved by no other; and this everyone understands to be God.

    But, in principle, motion can go on to infinity. St. Thomas makes it sound as though the absence of a first mover makes all motion impossible, when that is a good reason only in a circular argument. It would have to be the case that there is a first mover because motion cannot go on to infinity, not that motion cannot go on to infinity because there must be a first mover, something which has not otherwise been established. This is the point where the argument should show that there must be a first mover, and it can only do that with a principle that motion cannot go on to infinity. St. Thomas may obscure the point because he is faced with the awkward truth that Aristotle, to whom he owes this argument, believed that motion did go on to infinity! Aristotle, to be sure, did not believe in infinite quantities, but he qualified that to mean actual infinities. Eternity is not an actual infinity, because only the present in time actually exists. St. Thomas would argue elsewhere against the eternity of the world; but we must be sensible that this argument relies on that result without actually saying so. Once we are aware of that point, and especially when we are aware that Aristotle disagreed with the result, and that Aristotle's Prime Mover argument establishes something rather different from St. Thomas's argument, the whole business is gravely compromised. And when we realize, with Copernicus, that God does not need to move the heavens around every 24 hours, then Aristotle's own role for God in natural motion disappears. That also sinks St. Thomas's argument, unless, of course, he makes other, arbitrary, changes in the physics, such as to deny self-moving objects. I have rarely, if ever, seen open acknowledgement of the extent to which St. Thomas must make arbitrary changes in Aristotle's metaphysics simply to accommodate Christian belief.

  2. St. Thomas's second argument is to the "First Cause." This is rather like the first argument in that it turns on the same point, though now the issue is more abstract, for, indeed, an object that imparts motion is already an efficient cause. This means that if the second argument works, the first argument is reduced to a corollary and a redundancy.

    The second way is from the nature of efficient cause. In the world of sensible things we find there is an order of efficient causes. There is no case known (neither is it, indeed, possible) in which a thing is found to be the efficient cause of itself; for so it would be prior to itself, which is impossible. Now in efficient causes it is not possible to go on to infinity, because in all efficient causes following in order, the first is the cause of the intermediate cause, and the intermediate is the cause of the ultimate cause, whether the intermediate cause be several, or one only. Now to take away the cause is to take away the effect. Therefore, if there be no first cause among efficient causes, there will be no ultimate, nor any intermediate, cause. But if in efficient causes it is possible to go on to infinity, there will be no first efficient cause, neither will there be an ultimate effect, nor any intermediate efficient causes; all of which is plainly false. Therefore it is necessary to admit a first efficient cause, to which everyone gives the name of God.

    The ultimate issue here, as in the First Way, is the denial of the possibility of an infinite series in time, in this case of causes as previously of movers. But St. Thomas is faced with the same embarrassment as previously, that Aristotle did not deny an infinite series of causes in time, since he believed in the eternity of the universe. But the argument, perhaps to avoid this problem, does not make explicit appeal to a principle of the impossibility of infinities. Instead, it looks like St. Thomas begs the question. If there are intermediate and ultimate causes, then there must be a first cause; and causes cannot go on to infinity, because then there would not be a first cause. I think this amounts to arguing that there must be a first cause because there must be a first cause. The existence of intermediate or ultimates causes only means that there are prior causes, not that there is a first cause. In an infinite series of causes, it will simply be the case that every cause is an intermediate cause. As Kant understood in the First Antinomy, the real problem here is that arguments for and against infinite series in space and time are equally good. If so, then all the arguments of Aristotle or St. Thomas that turn on the denial of an infinite series, whether of movers or causes, lose their force.

  3. St. Thomas's third argument is based on the concept of a Necessary Being, i.e. something which cannot not exist. This may be his worst argument, as it turns on a point that was denied, not just by Aristotle, but by everyone, certainly including St. Thomas himself. The argument was then used in an even clumsier fashion by Locke.

    The third way is taken from possibility and necessity, and runs thus. We find in nature things that are possible to be and not to be, since they are found to be generated, and to be corrupt, and consequently, it is possible for them to be and not to be. But it is impossible for these always to exist, for that which can not-be at some time is not. Therefore, if everything can not-be, then at one time there was nothing in existence. Now if this were true, even now there would be nothing in existence, because that which does not exist begins to exist only through something already existing. Therefore, if at one time nothing was in existence, it would have been impossible for anything to have begun to exist; and thus even now nothing would be in existence -- which is absurd. Therefore, not all beings are merely possible, but there must exist something the existence of which is necessary. But every necessary thing either has its necessity caused by another, or not. Now it is impossible to go on to infinity in necessary things which have their necessity caused by another, as has been already proved in regard to efficient causes. Therefore we cannot but admit the existence of some being having of itself its own necessity, and not receiving it from another, but rather causing in others their necessity. This all men speak of as God.

    The problem here is that the definition of a contingent being, as something that can cease to exist, overlooks something. No one believed that when a contingent being ceases to exist it simply becomes nothing. It becomes something else. For all the changes in the identity of objects, there is an underlying reality, the substratum of change, which carries over from one thing to another. For Aristotle that was matter. St. Thomas accepts that very ontology. A person dies, but their body remains. Wood is burned, but ashes and smoke remain. A statue is smashed, but stones remain. Etc. But if no contingent being simply becomes nothing, then the possibility does not exist, as the argument here requires, that all contingent beings could simultaneously become nothing. Even worse, if it were possible that a contingent being vanishes into nothing, why would the converse not then be true, that a contingent being could spontaneously appear from nothing? St. Thomas explicity denies that, as had every philosopher since Parmenides, but he overlooks the point of equal agreement, that things change their identity, ceasing to be what they are, only by changing into other, equally existing, things. If the argument establishes the existence of a necessary being, that being need only be the substratum of coming into being and passing out of being. Materialism provides such a substratum as easily as theism. St. Thomas, or others, may argue independently against materialism, but that is a conclusion not in evidence here, and it cannot be simply assumed to help this argument.

    Even were contingent beings to simply become nothing, St. Thomas requires a further principle that in eternity every possible thing will happen. Otherwise, it just might not happen that every contingent being is nothing at the same time. Now, this seems reasonable enough, but the principle is only best established by a definition, i.e. that "possible" means "will happen in eternity." I'm not sure we want a mere definition to bear the weight that would be put on it. It is a principle, however, that occurs later in a most curious context, i.e. Friedrich Nietzsche's theory of the "Eternal Recurrence." Thus, since an infinite amount of time divides into infinite amounts of time, every choice we make must occur, not just once with us, but again and again in eternity. So we better be sure that we want to do what we do -- as Woody Allen realizes to his horror that he would have to see the Ice Capades again. How seriously Nietzsche took this metaphysics is a good question. His reason for this doctrine is discussed elsewhere.

    The classic argument based on the conception of God as the necessary being is not this particular argument from St. Thomas, but the one originated by St. Anselm, later reformulated by Descartes, and finally named the "Ontological Argument" by Kant. St. Thomas rejected Anselm's argument, which attempted to infer the existence of God simply from the definition of God ("that than which no greater can be conceived"). St.Thomas held, as would Kant and most modern philosophers, that questions of existence are entirely different from those of the nature, the essence, or the definition of a thing. The modern principle in this repect is the formula, "Existence is not a predicate." Now, I tend to agree with this, but I do not think that the issue is anywhere near settled or certain. The modern case is compromised with the decision in logic to treat existence as part of the system of logical quantification. I think this is nonsense. In traditional logic and ordinary language, existence clearly is a predicate. A more sophisticated and accurate approach would be to develop the difference between verbal and nominal predicates. Existence would not seem to be a nominal predicate -- though there are indeed languages without a present tense verb "to be" that must use a nominal construction. Thus, quite relevant to the discussion here, we have the assertion of God in the Bible that "I am that/which I am" ('Ehyeh asher 'Ehyeh, Exodus 3:14). In Syriac and Arabic, the verb "to be" is not used in the present tense, and a cumbersome locution is needed to make the statement. The result, literally, looks like: "I, I who he" [note]. "He" in Syriac is and in Arabic huwa. The root here (in languages closely related to Hebrew) looks curiously similar to the name of God, the Tetragrammaton, in Hebrew, YHWH. Now, using a pronoun to express a predicate is certainly nominal, but it is not a common noun or adjective. I suspect the issue has not been explored much because academic philosophers are quieted by the "Existence is not a predicate" formula, they don't have any respect for arguments for God anyway, let alone Anselm's (with the occasional dissent from people, we might say eccentrics, like Charles Hartshorne, who developed the theology of Alfred North Whitehead, one of the few speculative metaphysicians in 20th century philosophy), and they still labor under the evil influence of Logical Positivism and symbolic logic, that the distinctions we see in natural languages, as between verbs and nouns, are unimportant. I do not see that Wittgenstein's respect for "ordinary language" has changed that attitude very much, unless it is just in linguistics itself. Be that as it may, better objections to Anselm may be his presumption to know the essence of God, or even whether there are essences at all -- part of the traditional problem of universals -- something denied, for instance, in Buddhist metaphyics. I tend to think that the principle may be that existence cannot be part of an essence, not because it is not a predicate, but just because it is not what something is, rather than that it is. This may not be any better than the "existence is not a predicate" notion, but it seems natural enough; and, after the previous What would God be? page, this essay would not be necessary in the absence of such a principle [note].

  4. St. Thomas's fourth argument is based on the degrees or "gradations" of perfection. A modern criticism of this could easily be in the same vein as St. Thomas's own critique of Anslem, that a concept, whose meaning may encompass a range of suitable objects, cannot be used to infer the existence of anything, i.e. the most perfect exemplar.

    The fourth way is taken from the gradation to be found in things. Among beings there are some more and some less good, true, noble, and the like. But more and less are predicated of different things according as they resemble in their different ways something which is the maximum, as a thing is said to be hotter according as it more nearly resembles that which is hottest; so that there is something which is truest, something best, something noblest, and consequently, something which is most being, for those things that are greatest in truth are greatest in being, as it is written in Metaphysics II. Now the maximum in any genus is the cause all in that genus, as fire, which is the maximum of heat, is the cause of all hot things, as is said in the same book.

    This is not a helpful illustration, when we now know that fire is not the "maximum of heat" and that there is indeed no "maximum of heat." Because of its nature, there is as it happens a minimum of heat, namely absolute zero. This would not help St. Thomas's argument -- indeed it ruins it -- since he would not want to assert that the minimum of being or goodness would be something like God. If there are gradations of certain qualities in the world, St. Thomas would need to argue independently, for each of them, why there must be a maximum, a minimum, or either.

    Therefore there must also be something which is to all beings the cause of their being, goodness, and every other perfection; and this we call God.

    It seems to me that the most interesting issue in this argument is again the problem about exactly what is being established. Would the maximum exemplars of value, if they exist, necessarily be something "we call God." No. St. Thomas himself would have been aware of an alternative theory that would have done the same job, namely that of Plato. The Platonic Forms satisfy his argument quite nicely, and they do a better job of explaining evil in the world, since the world is necessarily imperfect, only a "moving image" or a "shadow" of the Forms (an opportunty seized with relish by the Neoplatonists and even appreciated by St. Augustine), while the theist has the challenge of explaining why a benevolent and omnipotent Deity does not make the world a better place. St. Thomas would have no difficulty accepting Aristotle's arguments against the Forms, but it not obvious that a personalistic theism (unlike Aristotle's) is less embarrassed by its difficulties than Plato would be.

  5. St. Thomas's fifth and last argument is the significant Argument from Design. This was a favorite of natural theology even in the days of Hume and Kant, classically expressed by William Paley (1743-1805) in his Natural Theology of 1802. Paley's analogy of God as a watchmaker is still remembered, though the example of a watch as an artifact of design existed earlier, and is mentioned by Hume. Watches, of course, did not exist in St. Thomas's day.

    The fifth way is taken from the governance of the world. We see that things which lack knowledge, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result. Hence it is plain that they achieve their end, not fortuitously, but designedly. Now whatever lacks knowledge cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence; as the arrow is directed by the archer.

    While this is a modern view of purposeful action, as requiring conscious foresight, St. Thomas should have been aware that this probably would not have been Aristotle's theory. In Aristotle's metaphysics, natural things, by their essence, possess final causes -- held potentially as the entelekheia, the "end within." Things fall or rise on the Earth, or circle the Earth in the heavens, because they go where they belong. Things grow because they realize their own nature, without direction from without. An acorn growing into an oak is not analogous to an arrow directed by an archer.

    Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God.

    When we realize that there are alternative theories, not just of purposeful action, but of order in nature, then St. Thomas's (or Paley's) argument is not necessarily the only explanation and so is insufficient for the conclusion. Aristotle's theory now seems quaint (though the "monads" of Leibniz contain their own final causes also), but it is not the only thing about Aristotle that would be cold comfort for St. Thomas. Aristotle's God is not a Creator God in the later monotheistic sense. He does not deliberately make the world at some point in time. The world always exists, and Aristotle's God, "thought thinking itself," while existing as himself the ultimate end of all things, is not aware of their individual existence as such and does not direct their individual development or lives. And if there is a possible argument here of God as the final cause of all final causes, the ultimate end of things, we are back to the difficulty with the Fourth Way that another theory, like Plato's, may accomplish the same thing with fewer paradoxes. For Plato, objects in the world "participate" in the Forms and reproduce, in the trajectory of their existence from generation to corruption, an imperfect verion of the original. Unlike Aristotle's entelekheia, Platonic objects are drawn to their end, not by something internal to them, but by a sort of field set up by the Forms. Aristotle's God has a similar sort of overall function in the teleology of the world, which, like Plato's, never allows lesser beings to achieve the same perfection as God. St. Thomas, of course, is happy to deny that things can be as perfect as God, but he is left with the difficulty of why God has not so governed the world as to generate more things that are perfect examples of their own kind. The imperfections of the world do not impeach Plato's Forms or the God of Aristotle or Plotinus, but they do St. Thomas's God, whose "governance" should be more effective.

    A more general Argument from Design is not so much about "the governance of the world," as St. Thomas says, but about the existence of order in the first place. This is an important question that I have considered separately. What an Argument from Design, needs, however, is the principle that order could not exist without a conscious being intentionally putting it there. Paley's example was thus a watch found in a field. The watch did not make and could not have made itself. What Paley overlooked, however, as Hume did not, was that the closest analogy in nature to the watch, the complex systems of living things, do after a fashion make themselves -- they grow into their mature forms starting from seeds. Nobody grows watches. Now, this does not resolve the issue, since the complexity of the organism must in some sense be implicit in the seed, and we must account for the origin of that. But in growth we already have an unfortunate precedent. If organisms, which contain organs of great complexity (like the eye), grow from seeds, where those organs do not exist, what is to foreclose the analogous development, the growth of the seeds themselves from something simpler? Thus, Hume says that the world resembles more closely a vegetable than a watch. Darwin's Evolution by natural selection is simply the analogous organic process of the growth of new species. Also, given a theory like Plato's, evolution could occur without either intentional design or natural selection -- we see something of the sort in discredited "orthogenesis" interpretations of Darwin or in the teleology of Teilhard de Chardin.

    Enthusiasts of Design usually don't seem to notice what they are dealing with. The designs of God ought to reflect the wisdom, foresight, and perfection of their author. Each divine design thus should be optimal for its function and purposes. This used to be an axiom of theology, parodied by Voltaire in Candide (1759), where Dr. Pangloss argues that noses exist for the purpose of holding spectacles -- overlooking the question of why spectacles would necessary, if God had just provided everyone with good eyesight. Evolution as a natural process, however, can be expected to have imperfections, with features that don't work that well, or that are useless remnants of organs in earlier organisms. In earlier natural theology, there was no end to paeans to the perfection of natural organisms. But then people like St. Thomas actually didn't know all that much about natural organisms. Now we see things like wisdom teeth that typically don't fit in the jaw and need to be pulled, wings on flightless birds, the bones of limbs in whales that are buried invisibly and uselessly in blubber, and many other features for which we must use the word "vestigial." Like a surgeon who leaves a sponge within a surgical incision, God has rather carelessly provided whales with bones for limbs that they will not have. Chickens, who like all modern birds have no teeth, nevertheless have the genes for teeth, which the right chemical stimulus can draw out. Or, God has unaccountably built the vertebrate eye inside out, with all the wiring in the way of the light that is to hit the receptors. To get the signal out of the eye, the nerves need to run through a place in the retina, creating a blind spot. At the same time, God used the more obvious and sensible arrangement of the wiring behind the eye in Cephalopods (squid and octopi). I am sorry, but the Bible does not seem to have favored us with the explanation of why God would use a better design for the eye in a squid than in us, favoring an invertebrate. This begins to seem very bizarre stuff, and it really doesn't take many examples of it to persuade the disinterested person that the simplest explanation is that whales derive from terrestrial quadrupeds, that birds derive from reptiles or dinosaurs with teeth, and that different evolutionary pathways, with random variations, lead to Cephalopods and vertebrates. None of this testifies to the perfection of divine design, and the modern Paleys should be embarrassed and shamed to encumber God's wisdom with so much carelessness.

After the wreckage of St. Thomas's arguments, what is the lesson? Where then does this all get us? If a theory of transcendent objects generates Antinomies, i.e. contradictions, does this not, as a reductio ad absurdum argument, discredit such theories? Ordinarily yes, but as Kant discovered, the requirements of morality, like free will, seem to posit one alternative in the transcendent which is contradicted by features of the phenomenal world, like determinism. Perhaps morality is discredited also, as many, like Nietzsche, would enthusiastically accept. But we find a problem not so easily dismissed in Kant's First Antinomy, of space and time. Thus, we discover, to the discomfiture of a reductio ad absurdum argument, that an undoubtedly phenomenal and empirical object, the universe, along with space and time, qualifies as transcendent in Kantian terms and generates its own contradictions. The universe has a transcendent aspect and has its paradoxes because it shares a characteristic of transcendent objects that separates them from all objects of a possible experience, i.e., as a whole it is unconditioned by other objects. For God, freedom, and immortality, it is their unconditioned nature that separates them from the phenomenal. Just as in the philosophical doctrines of Buddhism, phenomenal objects are interdependent and conditioned by other objects. So it is not so much transcendence as such that generates Antinomies, it is the attempt to conceive of objects with unconditioned characteristics.

In those terms, God may be no more a logical problem than the universe. But that doesn't resolve the contradictions. God as conceived in Judeo-Christian and monothesitic terms is not the only such possible conception of the transcendent. Thus, we have theologies as different as those of Aristotle, Spinoza, Leibniz, Whitehead, etc. We have Supreme Beings that are not personal Gods at all, as in the impersonal Brahman of the Advaita Vedânta of Shankara. Or, we have the impersonal Forms of Plato. Indeed, all these possibilities are counter-examples to arguments for God like those of St. Thomas, for although he ends his demonstrations with statements like "This all men speak of as God," there is really a rather large logical gap between an identity like "Prime Mover" or "First Cause," and the God of Abraham and Issac. As in all philosophical natural theology, the outcome is usually some impersonal characteristic that could as easily belong to an impersonal God, like Spinoza's, or an impersonal entity, like Brahman. And then there is Nirvâna. Just as impersonal, just as unconditioned, but without positive ontological content or identity at all. These possibilities are overlooked, not just by St. Thomas, but by people like Kant himself, whose God as a "Postulate of Practical Reason" is really not the only conception that would satisfy what Kant regards as the requirements of morality (karma would do that). In the Friesian tradition, this problem is not much improved even as we move down to Rudolf Otto.

Where this all gets us, then, is that the nature of our transcendent object is undetermined by reason. This may be a familiar God. Or it may be something else, something that may be actually more familiar in other religious traditions. The ultimate Antinomy may be these two irreconcilable requirements:  (1) that the transcendent entity embody the fixity and perfection of Platonic Forms, so that, as Socrates says, we can use it as a model (parádeigma), and (2) that the transcendent entity embody the possibility and the power that we see unfolding in the development of the world and by analogy in our own will. This is the ancient dilemma articulated by Socrates in the Euthyphro and contrasted in the alternative theories of God's goodness and will by Leibniz and Spinoza. I have considered elsewhere, as the "Perfect Fallacy," the bias of Western philosophy since the Greeks for the aspect of fixity and perfection. If, in Buddhist terms, the Antinomies of transcendence occur, not because some datum is missing to resolve them (as Kant believed), but because the nature of the thing defeats rational assertion and predication, then we are left without the comfort of any possible domesticated metaphysics. After all, the God of the Burning Bush does not identify himself as the Prime Mover or the First Cause, but simply as "I AM" ('Ehyeh, Exodus 3:14). In Friesian theory, this is better addressed with Otto's theory of numinosity than with anything else. Thus, in the failure of rational categories, we fall back onto something else, which is more germane, more robust, and more recognizable in actual religions.

What Would God Be? -- with a natural history of the gods

All Living Things, in Seven Kingdoms

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God after Kant, Note 1

The Greek translation of the Septuagint has an interesting twist. It says Egó eimi ho ôn, which literally reads, "I am the being [one]." Greek could have done a more literal translation, Eími hóti eími. Choosing the participle rather than the finite verb makes it a little more grammatical when God tells Moses to say to the Israelites, "I AM has sent me to you" [Exodus 3:15], where the Greek says "the Being [One]" rather than "I AM." In the Vulgate, the Latin is ego sum quis sum, with a finite verb, "I am who I am."

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God after Kant, Note 2

If existence isn't a predicate, we might ask what it is. In modern logic, existence is treated as quantification, replacing the quantifier "some" in traditional logic with the "existential" quantifier, (x). This is universally accepted but it is contrary to the usage of ordinary language and creates difficulties for distinctions commonly observed in ordinary language between factual and fictional discourse. Thus, there are Greek gods who live on Mt. Olympus, others who live in the Underworld; but, of course, no Greek gods exist. Sherlock Holmes lived at 221B Baker Street, even though neither Sherlock Holmes nor even a 221 Baker Street ever existed. In modern symbolic logic, it is impossible to make these simple, true, and unobjectionable statements without creating contradictions.

What we find with modern Aristotelian logicians like Jacques Maritain (18821973) is the suggestion that existence is indeed not a predicate but is the explicit meaning already implicit in the copula, i.e. the "is" that connects subject and predicate of sentences with a nominal or adjectival predicate. Thus, in English we can say both, "the Greek gods are immortal," and "the Greek gods are not." If the predicative and existential uses of "is" are different but nevertheless have an affinity for each other that distinguishes them from other verbs, then we can put existence in a place in between both subjects and predicates. This is consistent with the argument that begins with Plato that the difference between predicative and existential "is" explains the paradox of Parmenides' argument about Being, in that he supposedly confused the two uses. I don't think that Parmenides' argument depends on that confusion, but the point can be well taken that there is a difference.

A problem with Maritain's thesis would be that many languages do not use a copula in nominal sentences. Nominal sentences do not have any kind of verb. This is the case in Arabic and many other languages, e.g. al-waladu saghîrun, "the boy is small," in Classical Arabic (where the "nunation," -un, no longer used in spoken Arabic, is the equivalent of the indefinite article). Thus, one could say that the copula is actually unnecessary and so has merely a structural grammatical function with no real semantic content. On the other hand, it is arguable that in many such languages with nominal sentences, there is an implicit copula that comes out either in certain circumstances, or simply if desired. When Arabic needs to express a past tense, then the verb "be" indeed is used. We also see where the copula simply may or may not be used, as in Sanskrit, where one of the Great Sentences of the Upanishads, "this Self is Brahman," is ayam âtmâ brahma, without a verb, while another, "I am Brahman," aham brahmâsmi, uses the verb "is." These examples would allow one to argue that pure nominal sentences contain an implicit copula, which may be expressed at need or whim, just as the copula itself contains an implicit sense of existence, that always may be expressed when desired.

An argument can still be mounted against this by citing languages that really never use the copula, such as Polynesian languages, where, also, adjectives are treated as verbs. Thus, in Mâori we can say, just like in Arabic (but with the predicate coming first), he iti te tama, "the son [is] a small [one]," or one can say ka iti te tama, "the son [is] small." He is the indefinite article and ka is a particle used before verbs, in this case a "stative" verb which expresses an adjective. In cases like these, it is rather more difficult not to see "is" as simply a verb, which belongs to predication like all other verbs, nouns, and adjectives. A language like English simply always requires a verb, even with nominal or adjectival predicates.

There still seems to be room for argument there, but Maritain might be better off distinguishing between essential and accidental predication, with existence, for whatever reason, as accidental.

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