Proving the Existence of God

A great deal of philosophical energy has been expended over the centuries in efforts to prove the existence or non-existence of God.  Each philosophical effort to prove God’s existence has been met with objections, which objectively seem sufficient to leave the premise unproven.  Likewise every attempt to prove philosophically that God does not exist has been shown to be inadequate.  From the perspective of philosophy it might be said that God has not been proven either to exist or not exist.  One might reasonably go further, and suggest that philosophy will never be able to produce a conclusive proof of the issue.  Considering the philosophical objections to the various proofs that have been offered for God’s existence and for the existence of miracles, I conclude that only the eschaton will finally settle the issue.  Skeptics and atheists will be able to meet any argument or experience that may be offered in proof of God’s existence.  It will remain impossible to prove the existence of God to the satisfaction of all, absent an overwhelming natural manifestation of his existence, such as has never before occurred.  For all practical purposes, we may say therefore that the matter is not provable.

The arguments offered for the existence of God are well-known, as are the responses to them.  Theists offer the historical evidence, as set forth in sacred texts, such as the Christian Bible.  Skeptics and atheists respond that the books are fantasies or are unreliable and nonhistorical.  Some theists, such as Anselm, have argued that God is ontologically necessary, a proposition which can, however, be reasonably opposed.  Others have advanced a cosmological argument, relying on the notion of a first cause.  This too is philosophically challenged, and the same argument may reasonably be made to oppose the existence of God, for example by arguing that if everything requires a cause, then an uncaused thing (such as God) could never exist.  Likewise the teological argument, represented by the famous watch-watchmaker analogy, has been met with reasonable objections, such as its failure to distinguish appropriately between animate and inanimate objects.  The experiential argument is ultimately objectively unconvincing because it is by nature subjective.  And of course the moral argument is met by the atheist’s strongest argument—the problem of evil.

What of the atheistic attempts to disprove the existence of God?  Of course it is notoriously difficult to prove a negative, making their task a formidable one.  Given the alleged nature of God—transcendent, invisible, beyond human comprehension—it will impossible for the atheists to succeed.  Their best arguments, the problem of evil and the supposed absence of scientific confirmation, merely cast doubt on the existence of God.  They do not adequately or conclusively disprove his existence.  The Free Will Defense as articulated by Alvin Plantinga conclusively demonstrates at least the possibility that both God and evil could exist.  And although scientific discoveries may discredit prior thinking about God and history, they cannot disprove his existence.  The most the atheists can hope to accomplish is to prove that the existence of God is unlikely.

What then of the theistic attempts to prove the existence of God?  I suggest that no amount of historical or archeological evidence could ever conclusively prove the existence of God to the satisfaction of skeptics and unbelievers.  Naturalistic explanations would be advanced to meet any supposed confirmation of historical supernatural activity.  The world’s most famous atheist—Richard Dawkins—has even acknowledged a willingness to believe that extraterrestrial beings may be responsible for the “seeding” of life on earth.  This is indicative of the kind of response that can be expected to any natural “evidence” that may be offered.

I suggest that it is unlikely that any significant new advances in thinking can be expected with respect to the traditional philosophical arguments for the existence of God, other than those that rely on interpretation of scientific and experiential data.  God will not be proven or disproven by reason, by appeal to moral order, or by cosmological arguments.  There will, however, be continuing religious philosophical debate over the meaning of new scientific discoveries, such as those that have followed the confirmation of the Big Bang, and those that have arisen out of the discoveries of the properties of subatomic particles in the fields of quantum physics and quantum mechanics.  But I suggest that as new information comes to light, it will only strengthen or weaken the arguments of the theists and the atheists, without conclusively proving the positions of either of them.

The great hope of those who want to prove conclusively the existence of God then must be experiential evidence.  Most believers, philosophers or not, have come to their belief in God as a result of their personal experiences having convinced them of his existence.  These experiences are typically, however, personal and not objectively demonstrable to others.  For example, religious experiences that suddenly convince people of the existence of God are almost always entirely personal.  That is, they tend to be emotional, resulting in changes of heart.  The person may exhibit dramatic objectively observable changes in behavior, but the observer will not be able to conclusively determine from those changes that God exists.  Rather, the observer will only be able to conclude that the person has come to believe that God exists.  In order to be conclusive proof of God’s existence, the observer would likely insist that he too must have such a personal confirmation.  He might reasonably decline to accept the existence of God based solely on the personal experience of someone else.

What then of a miraculous demonstration of God’s existence?  Might not a miracle conclusively prove the existence of God?  Almost certainly not, I suggest.  Historical evidence of past miracles would be challenged as unreliable, or an alternative non-miraculous explanation would be advanced.  Suppose, for example, that artifacts were discovered, proving the existence of the remnants of an ancient Egyptian army under the Red Sea.  Is there any doubt that scientific and historical arguments would be advanced to account for this in a way not dependent upon a miraculous act of God?   Surely not.  We could not reasonably expect the unbelieving world to accept this discovery as proof of the occurrence of a miracle or of the existence of God.

The most convincing miraculous demonstration would be one that occurs in the present and is observable objectively.  But even in such an event we should expect that, like Hume, many if not most unbelievers would find a non-miraculous counterargument more persuasive.  If a long dead Queen of England should suddenly appear and retake the throne, Hume would refuse to believe the event was a miracle.  “I should rather believe the most extraordinary events to arise from their occurrence, than admit of so signal a violation of the laws of nature,” he says.  And I suggest that we theists should not be too harsh in our judgment of Hume.  Surely if some such apparent miracle occurred in the context of some religion other than our own (if a Hindu religious leader should seem to rise from the dead, for example), we would be very unlikely to attribute it to a miraculous act of God, and would be far more likely to consider it a hoax or human error.  Even if some universally observable seemingly inexplicable phenomenon should occur, such as for example twenty four hours of worldwide darkness, I suggest that most people would assume the event had a non-miraculous explanation, even if not readily determinable.

Christians believe that someday God will reveal himself in such a way that the whole world will have to acknowledge him.  Certainly God is capable of doing that.  But we might reasonably conclude that until he chooses to do so, humans will never “prove” God’s existence.  I conclude therefore that the question of God’s existence or nonexistence will not be settled by philosophical debate, scientific data or miracles.  While such things may be evidence that either side of the debate may use to make their claims more convincing, they are not sufficient to prove the existence or nonexistence of God.

Love Wins