Is It Still Reasonable To Believe In God?
by Don Boland
I. There seems to be little doubt that Western civilization has lost the strong faith in God that it had for centuries under Christianity.
Indeed, though it is somewhat of a generalization that allows for notable exceptions, it is safe to say that unbelief in God has never been so public in the whole of the history of the West, from its pre-Christian or pagan beginnings in Greece and Rome to today.
2. There have, of course, always been atheists and agnostics among intellectuals and other people who give little or no thought to the existence of God and who live out their lives as practical materialists, but they have lived and functioned within a society that generally paid homage to a divine reality of some sort.
Today, however, the situation seems to have finally been reversed. The public attitude to religion and belief in God in most modern nations nowadays and particularly in Australia is generally disdainful and at times hostile.
3. That public stance is not necessarily a true reflection of the popular feeling. This can be, and often is, religious in some way or other. But in regard to the public profession of faith in God and things religious people generally tend either to be "a silent majority" subdued to some extent by the mockery of the more clever and powerful elements in the modern "democracies", or a silenced majority cowed by the menaces of those in power as is manifest in an extreme form in modern totalitarian regimes.
4. This state of affairs has not appeared overnight. The study of its genesis would involve a close examination of all aspects of social and religious history in modern times. This is not possible within the limits of this paper but in order to address our question it is necessary to understand something of this history. For it is relevant to the test of "reasonableness" that is to be applied.
5. By way of preliminary let us say that part of the difficulty lies in the fact that our attention has been deflected from those aspects of things about us that point to something divine. We might call it being "form-blind" or "tone-deaf" by analogy with someone who has no natural appreciation of art or music. To demonstrate the beauty of something to someone there needs to be some modicum of a sense of beauty in the observer or listener.
6. But, the sad fact is that our modern education system tends to destroy the sense of wonder, or the appreciation of the wonderful in nature. This is no accident, and it is connected with the rise to dominance of modern science and technology, which affects strongly the way we look at the world.
For the scientific method is akin to the way children seek to satisfy their curiosity regarding something by first destroying it, i.e. by pulling it apart. There is nothing unhealthy in that as such for it is an essential part of the process of learning. But it is only a part and indeed the inferior part of the effort to understand things. As they come to know more about things children begin to see how all the parts fit together in the whole and develop the integrative side of their minds.
7. In regard to the study of nature, this other part of our mental makeup constitutes an insight into the unity of the object which in works of art we still call its "form" but in natural objects we struggle to find a word for. The reason for this is that we have become unaccustomed to pay much attention to this aspect of things, preoccupied as we are with examining the parts down to the minutest detail. It is rather as if one insisted on examining a painting as close up as possible. For certain purposes this is necessary and valuable, but not for appreciating and enjoying the painting - as a whole.
Even when the scientist looks at the stars in the heavens his interest in them is of a similar nature to the anatomist - to learn what we can by dissecting the object - rather than to the artist - to capture somehow the wonder of the whole. Immanuel Kant, who was something of an astronomer, was speaking as a philosopher when he said: "Two things fill my mind with awe; the starry skies above and the moral law within".
8. We have of course not lost the capacity to appreciate and enjoy the beauty of nature. Nor do the true scientists ever deny this aspect of things. But they are in the engine room as it were of the workings of the natural world and their focus has to be on the parts, or the materials, rather than the wholes or the ""forms", which we can only appreciate if initially we draw back from the close study of, or abstract somewhat from, the details.
9. If, as is the case, the modern mind elects to confine the notion of science to such detailed examination of objects then we may call the other natural wisdom or philosophy. But we should avoid, as unfortunately has happened, setting up an opposition between these two approaches to the understanding of things, or worse still, inverting the proper relationship between the two.
For what has happened in modern times is that the scientific method, for various reasons not the least of which are related to religion, has come to be regarded as the only valid way of understanding reality. Socially, this "intellectual" position has been made official, so that all publicly endorsed education must subscribe to it. Though seemingly an "objective" or neutral stance as regards education it is in fact one that can be, if one is not careful, totally destructive of the sense of all that is good true and beautiful in the objects of natural study.
10. So it is that not only religion but also philosophy has all but lost any public standing within the community. If you are discussing matters religious or philosophical, you are free to indulge in these as expressions of private opinions, but do not expect any public recognition of the truth value of your contributions. If they are used to criticize the supremacy of science in the area of public education or in the formulation of public policy they will be treated with disdain and even hostility.
11. Unfortunately in such an atmosphere, which all must breathe, those wishing to defend religion or simply a holistic approach to the understanding of things can easily slide into an anti-scientific mode of argument or, as is common lately, into claiming scientific value for their philosophical or religious arguments.
We have to be careful, therefore, in how we argue from the insights pertaining to philosophy and the natural truths of religion or even how we defend the rights of religion and philosophy in education. The correct approach should be apparent from what has been said above. It does not have to be either scientific or anti-scientific.
12. It should be clear, then, where the difficulty lies today in demonstrating the reasonableness of belief in God. For, in restricting human knowledge of things exclusively to what can be known from close observation and measurement, or to empirical observation and experiment, the notion of reason itself is severely constricted. If "reasonable" means only "scientifically demonstrable" in that sense then it is unreasonable to attest to the beauty of the forms of nature, as it is to admire paintings, not having examined them under the microscope.
Our eye for forms is of a different order to our eye for details. So it is that no one has any problem discerning the difference between the trunk of a tree and the trunk of an elephant; for we see them in the context of the whole things. But ask the scientists to tell us the difference and they will note that the difference becomes less and less as the parts examined become smaller until any difference eventually disappears, leaving us only with particles of undifferentiated matter common to both.
Indeed, the scientists, if not allowed any discernment outside their own particular approach, will have difficulty in detecting any difference between the tree and the elephant. It is not surprising then that they smile at the "forms", "souls" and "spirits" that the philosophers, such as Aristotle, and the theologians, such as Aquinas, speak of.
13. But then it is not the scientists' business to be discussing such things. It is not the scientists themselves who arrogate to science all knowledge and insight into reality. It is those who, for reasons outside science, want to set science over and indeed against philosophy and religion.
The benefits of the scientific approach, minutely observant and empowered by a seemingly endless improvement in the art of exact measurement, are not to be denied. It is a God-given power belonging to our knowledge of the world and ourselves. By analyzing things we understand better how they are constituted or made and how they may be re-made or imitated. It is an approach, however, that serves for the use and control of things, including our own bodies, rather than for the total understanding and appreciation of them as forms of being which have their own special kind of beauty and truth, the contemplation of which raises one's mind to their Maker.
14. God is not to be found at the end of a process of the reduction of things to their smallest parts. The general concept one reaches by this approach is Matter. But, if one looks at things in their perfection, or as wholes, one is able to contemplate the beauty of their forms and the marvelous order in the adaptation of their parts in the whole. Then one is almost immediately carried to the divine origin of beauty, as Plato was; or to the mind (nous) that must be responsible for such work of divine art, as was Aristotle.
One does not have to be the greatest of philosophers to stand in awe and admiration before creation and reason easily to the existence of a Creator. In fact, the more uncomplicated the mind the more readily does it make the connection.
15. The ways to God, or the rational proofs of the existence of God, cannot be governed by the scientific method. Indeed, by this kind of reasoning one is not able to prove that God exists.
For, once the scientists go beyond the field of sense observation and the limits of quantitative measurement scientific propositions become hypotheses which need to be verified by an extension of our experience or by experiment. A sufficient degree of such verification may in these cases found a scientific theory; but the scientist can never know that that is the complete explanation or final truth in the matter. The scientific theory is therefore inherently provisional; and this belongs to the very nature of the scientific approach once it ventures beyond the range of experience.
This remains true even though the range of our experience is not something fixed, but is being continually extended by inventions such as those of the telescope and the microscope, and by the discovery of phenomena, such as X-rays and radio waves, that are detectible by sophisticated instruments, whereby our scientific knowledge expands enormously and we can develop more and more sophisticated theories.
The scientists also are concerned only with causes that are within nature, which the philosophers call secondary, not primary. Moreover, in Aristotle's scheme of causal influences, the interest of the modern scientists lies on the side of material and efficient causes rather than formal and final ones: hence their disdain for anyone wanting to introduce forms and ends into a scientific discussion.
16. But a world without the appreciation of the beauty of forms and the goodness of ends is a very dull and bleak one indeed. Such a world is one that we cultivate if we reduce the range of our knowledge to that which science, as understood today, can tell us.
Can anyone imagine the effect that sort of education must have upon the minds of children? Must it not stunt them mentally and depress them emotionally? Moreover, diverted from seeing the wonderful and "magical" in nature, the danger is that they will be drawn into an unreal world of black magic and unnatural wizardry. There will not be lacking those who will unscrupulously exploit this.
So far as the social effects on adults are concerned, we can expect that the sense of morality, personal and political, will suffer too. For, these are dependent upon an understanding of human nature that is not scientific.
17. But it is the effect upon belief in God that we are principally concerned with here. For the ways of approach by reason to God, or the proofs for the existence of God, are methods of reasoning that belong not to science that tends to the accumulation of specialized knowledge, but to philosophy based in common sense.
Belief in a God of some sort follows spontaneously in one who reflects as Kant did on the wonders of the night sky and the commands of one's conscience. No one but a fool can be so dull of sense not to be in awe on experiencing these. "The fool says in his heart: there is no God."
18. We can refine somewhat the rather indistinct notion of God that we initially have by the further use of our reason that we call philosophy. This involves in this regard what it does in all philosophical questions, i.e. defining better our ideas of the things within our experience, judging truly what attributes belong to them and arguing from these to the logical consequences that follow. In this particular case, the consequent or conclusion is "that God is or must be".
The particular proofs, whereby we can prove rationally what sort of God there must be, were drawn by St. Thomas from the various great thinkers who preceded him. He reduced them to five. These are not the only ways in which our minds are led to belief in God. There are as many ways as there are starting points in our experience. Some, for instance, prefer to take their point of departure from the internal sense of morality; others from the external order of the universe. We do not exclude of course the mysterious ways in which the Spirit of God works to manifest his presence to people.
But we are concerned here with those proofs which others can recognize as derived from reason or are "reasonable", i.e. capable of moving an unprejudiced person to accept the premises as true and the reasoning as valid. It is these sorts of proofs that St. Thomas reduced to five.
It is not possible, within the confines of this paper, to deal with each proof adequately. This would require some preliminary clarification of concepts and discussion of the conditions of proof even if there were "a level playing field". But, as may be appreciated from what has been said above, that luxury is accorded today to science only. Accordingly, there is much clearing of the ground required before we can even begin to construct the philosophical argument.
19. Nonetheless we can say something about the proofs in support of their "reasonableness".
The first three, however, which argue from the facts of change, causality and contingency within our experience, we will postpone to another time. For, though we can refine our notions in this regard for our philosophical purposes, they relate to facts that are particularly central to the concerns of science and so it would require some degree of intellectual effort to distinguish the scientific notions from the philosophical.
The other two depend upon an appreciation of the significance in the world of our experience of forms and ends, of which we have spoken above. These aspects of reality are of interest to the philosopher (and the artist) rather than to the scientist. They thus serve to highlight the difference between "reasonable belief in God" as seen by the scientist and the philosopher.
20. The scientist may dismiss any proofs which depend on suchlike evidence. But then he will be gratuitously narrow in his outlook and indeed will be adopting an intellectual stance that is not fully human and rational.
21. The proof from forms is the one most congenial to Plato's way of thinking. He expressed it in terms of the idea of beauty. Considering the various beautiful forms of being he asked himself: What must Beauty itself be? For all the particular beautiful things we know do not possess the whole of beauty, no matter how many there are. Thus they can only be participations or limited imitations of beauty as such.
In order to appreciate this proof we have to be fully sensible to the forms of beauty as really existing in things. Many are mislead by the saying: "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder"; as if that meant that the things beheld are not really beautiful. What it means is that the notion of beauty is not had without reference to someone seeing or appreciating it. Hence, one has to have an eye for beauty in order to see it. But no one who sees what is beautiful is in any doubt wherein it lies. At its most sublime it takes one out of oneself (one is ecstatic).
So we are not talking here about beautiful ideas, but beautiful forms of things. Confusingly, Plato called such forms Ideas. But, as with Kant, the intent of what he says and his philosophical insights in this regard go beyond the peculiarities of his general philosophy. Plato is expressing here that character of form which takes us upwards, unlike matter, which takes us downwards.
And he is talking about beauty as a reality experienced. It expresses a certain splendor of the form of the thing and signifies a perfect and harmonious unity of its parts which points to a principle of such unity from without. Beauty, as a reality, would not exist in a mixed form unless it first existed in a pure form.
There is a principle of reason operative here. It is an application of the principle that every comparative supposes a superlative, or a standard one by which we can compare things. For, we are able to judge that some things are more beautiful than others. But something cannot be conceived as better than another unless we have some idea of what is the best, or at least suppose that there exists a best. When we are judging qualities that are correlative with reality or actual being itself, such as the good and the beautiful, then that best supposed must be thought of as actual as well.
The fact that we are transported to the idea of God from the existence of beauty in things is evidenced by our use of language in this regard. For the more beautiful something is the more we describe it as divine.
22. St. Thomas calls this sort of proof one from "degrees of perfection". It can conclude from other transcendental qualities of things, such as goodness and truth, which make us think of that which is supremely good and true, namely God. But if our sense of the existence of goodness truth and beauty in things is diminished the "force" of this proof will be correspondingly weakened. The total skeptic therefore is inclined to say that God is only in the mind of the believer.
23. The fifth and last proof proceeds from the existence of an obvious order in things, either in the universe as a whole or in particular things. Thus, one can admire this order in the universe as a whole or in the living structure of an eye. In the latter case, the organized structure is patently ordered to that sensing of things that is called sight. The organ is perfectly adapted to this function. In the former case, what the order is for is not so easy to determine. That, however, does not prevent us from being very aware of the order.
Now the existence of order, as the great pagan thinker Aristotle noted, is a sure sign of intelligence. "It belongs to the wise to order". We see this clearly in the case of our own productions. Moreover, to maintain order requires the constant attention of someone. The natural tendency in things made by us, if left to the forces in the mere materials and to chance, is for them to fall apart, to wear out - "to run down". This applies equally to order amongst human beings. Without a leader the tendency is for soldiers to be routed.
The same requirement of intelligent supervision applies to order in nature. So clear is this truth that the great scientist Darwin, despite wanting to exclude God from the origin of species, was constrained to put an idea that supposed intelligence into his Theory of Evolution. For that is what "natural selection" amounts to. He could see that a choice was involved if things were to develop in a way more suited to their survival. But choice supposes intellectual knowledge. One chooses only when one has a number of alternatives to choose from, which supposes that one knows what those alternatives are. Indeed, in nature it is clear that the number of wrong choices possible is almost infinite.
The atheistic evolutionists want us to believe that such a choice is made blindly "by chance". It is true that there is an element of chance in both natural and artificial ordering. Chance and circumstances outside one's knowledge always have some disturbing effect on the result. But that is only where the intelligence involved is not in total control. The influence of chance is part, but obviously not the main part, of the divine plan. Chance itself, however, is synonymous with lack of order. To attribute any kind of order to it alone is completely unintelligent.
As Darwin recognized, the marvelously perfect adaptation of things to their present circumstances or environment had to be assigned to some process of selection. Affected, however, by what he thought was a certain fixism in the biblical account of creation, he rejected any notion of "special creation" on the part of God in relation to the apparent production of new species in the course of nature.
But by excluding God one contradicts the presence of selection in nature. For nature is not intelligent. The order that is in nature has to be referred to some intellect; just as the direction or order of an arrow to a pre-assigned target, which evidently exists in the arrow, is caused by the archer. Darwin failed to see that if he admitted the evidence of selection in things he must acknowledge the existence of an intellect as its cause.
He tried, contradictorily, to found natural selection in chance, or the exclusive influence of circumstances, thinking that the brutal "law of nature" of destruction of the unfit suggested by Malthus was sufficient to account for the origin of new species. But, as stated above the number of wrong choices possible is almost infinite. If the right choice is to be made by chance circumstances rather than an intellect Darwin could see that it would have to take an almighty long time. Hence, there had to built into the theory time beyond measure.
But even if it were true that the process of selection was done over a very long time that would not really avoid the need for a supervising intelligence to account for the origin of new species. One might as well expect to have the Taj Mahal eventuate from a multitude of earthquakes. Quick or slow its construction requires an intelligent builder to supervise the construction. Similarly, whether the present natural order of things has come about instantly or gradually, it still requires a supervising mind to account for it, and, just as importantly, to maintain it for any length of time.
Whether or not there was a big Bang at the beginning of the material universe, to believe that that is a sufficient reason to account for the present order of things is as sensible as attributing the construction of the Taj Mahal to the dynamiter of the rocks used in the building of it. Moreover, the natural evolution of material things, if left to themselves, is backwards and downwards, towards disintegration, not to their integration into more complex and more admirable species.
24. There is plenty of evidence of order in things, then, to show the necessity for asserting the existence of God. As St. Paul says: "For the invisible things of him, from the creation of the world, are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made; his eternal power also, and divinity: so that they are inexcusable" (Rom. 1: 20)
The argument, though still valid, is usually weakened by those who talk of Intelligent Design, or conceive of God as the great architect of the universe. That loses altogether the dynamism of the divine activity in relation to creation. God is a worker concerned with more than the design. He is architect and builder and everything involved in the whole work. Where lesser beings make lesser things working as a team God makes the most perfect as one. But even the construction of something structural does not do justice to God's input. For creation is something on the move, with a life of its own as it were. The order that is to be maintained is a dynamic one, even living in its better part.
The notion of designer is too static and that of architect too removed from the creatures. God is the designer and architect present on the job, putting things in place and maintaining them in their very existence. There is no thing, or rather no one, more intimate to the things and persons he has made than God. What is more no one can love his creations more than God.
25. So it is that we can be confident in saying that it is still reasonable to believe in God. It never will be otherwise. The word of God himself confirms that it is unwise not to believe.
- "And in the wake of this form of rationality, Europe has developed a culture that, in a manner unknown before now to humanity, excludes God from the public conscience, either by denying him altogether, or by judging that his existence is not demonstrable, uncertain and, therefore, belonging to the realm of subjective choices, something, in any case, irrelevant to public life." (Cardinal Ratzinger speaking on Europe's Crisis of Culture before his election as pope)
- The distinctive character of modern science is by no means something that is easy to discern let alone describe. Nonetheless all can see that it is based upon close observation and exact measurements, the features that I particularly point to here. More and more the "facts" obtained by such scientific means are elaborated by complicated mathematical techniques so that it is not possible for one to understand let alone judge the developed conclusions of the science if one is not an expert mathematician. However, the elaboration does not affect the limitations of the scientific method with which we are concerned. Nor are we concerned with arguments about how far scientific observations can go in our attempts to investigate the microscopic and macroscopic orders of things, i.e. whether what are described as scientific observations are or are not already constructs of our imagination upon which further mathematical work is done.
- A good example is provided by the recent proposal by some that "Intelligent Design" should be taught in schools as an alternative scientific theory to the theory of Evolution. It is a mistake to present what is a quite valid philosophical argument as a scientific one. This plays into the hands of the Evolutionists. The educational error lies in the cultivation of the underlying assumption that if there is no scientific "evidence" for God there is none at all. See what Cardinal Pell has written on this in CW 18 Sept 2005, page 6: "Science cannot tell us whether there is or is not a Creator. To claim this (or deny it) we need ...to do philosophy."
- See previous note.
- We say this despite the fact that Kant, so affected by the worship of science that had taken hold of the modern mind even in his day, did not attribute his conviction that God exists to knowledge, but to a kind of blind faith. For, he accepted the restriction of all knowledge to scientific knowledge. But as is clear such a restriction is gratuitous and in fact cuts the ground from under science itself.
- This fixist theory, however, belonged rather to the mechanist science that generally prevailed before his time than to the Scriptural accounts. The Scriptures are not concerned with scientific theories about nature, whether fixist or evolutionist. The fundamentalist creationists and the materialist evolutionists are therefore most of the time confusing the issue by trying to argue solely in scientific terms. Darwin had the great merit of restoring some intrinsic dynamism and direction to the modern understanding of living nature. Descartes had conceived even the human body as only a very well designed machine and such mechanistic thinking dominated the modern mind for a long time after him. It seems to be coming back again, however, in a computerized form in the new digital and DNA analytical approach to the study of nature.
Don Boland is a lecturer at the Centre for Thomistic Studies,in Sydney, Australia.
This article posted Dec 2005. It was published in
Universitas Number 12 (Dec 2005)
Permission is granted to copy or quote from this article, provided that full credit is given to the author and to the
Centre for Thomistic Studies, Sydney, Australia.
We would be grateful to receive a copy of any republication.