ETA 8-Apr-15: I am informed (see comments) that the argument I attribute to St. Thomas was in fact made by St. Anselm, and that Thomas refuted it. I take some consolation in not being the only one to make this mistake (again, see comments). But I’m leaving the post alone, because it seems sort of jerky to change it at this point, and because the basic argument remains unchanged.
One thing I’ve noticed in the atheism, agnosticism, theism debate is that it is generally the agnostics who frame the question. That is, the question, as it is normally put, is, “Does God exist?” Put this way, one must answer yes, no, or I don’t know. Small wonder that the “I don’t know (and neither do you!)” crowd finds it so easy to claim to be the only rational kids on the block. Interestingly, St. Thomas Aquinas took the opposite view: using pure reason, he proved that God exists. His argument ran as follows: God is, by definition, perfect. One aspect of perfection is existence. Ergo, God exists. Neat, isn’t it?
But let’s take a moment to look at it. In fact, God is never examined by St. Thomas. God is never placed under a microscope, or studied through a telescope. Skin and hair samples are never taken, blood is never drawn. St. Thomas never even shakes His divine hand. So then, what is St. Thomas actually basing his conclusions on? Not God, but the idea of God. The idea of God includes perfection; hence, we have now proven that the idea of God exists. This, of course, was never in doubt. The idea exists.
But, stay. The idea exists. What does that mean, exactly? Well, an idea is nothing more than the mind’s reflection of the objective world. In the last analysis, ideas are the result of sensuous activity, reflected in our material brains. So, have we now come to the conclusion that God is real because the belief exists? Well, no. There are many ideas that are simply wrong, but are nevertheless reflections of the objective world. At one time, it was supposed that the Sun revolved around the Earth. This idea came from nowhere except observation of the movement of heavenly bodies, as best they could be observed and understood at the time. To put it in more contemporary terms, some guy truly, honestly believes that the world is dooooomed unless a Republican is elected. Another guy believes the same about a Democrat. I, myself, disagree with both of them. Assuming we are all in general agreement about what dooooomed means, two of us must be wrong; but we are all taking our ideas from our interactions with the world, coupled with our method of understanding information, and all of the material factors that have influenced how we view the world.
But that, you see, frames the question entirely differently. If instead of saying, “Does God exist?” we say, “Where did the idea of God come from?” we are now having a different conversation, and, in my opinion, a much more interesting one. We can bring up the degree of knowledge at various points in human history (aye, and pre-history); we can talk about fear of death; we can talk about personal experiences that make one feel one has transcended one’s normal, mundane life, what causes such experiences, what determines how our brains interpret them. But now, instead of the negative (“Prove God doesn’t exist!”) we are putting the question in positive terms (“Whence comes the idea of God?”).
What becomes clear at once is that the answer is knowable. By “knowable” I do not mean, “will someday be fully understood with all i’s crossed and t’s dotted,” I mean that we have taken the question out of the realm of the numinous. We can approach this question as we do any other question of science, and use our best efforts to understand it. We can understand that endowing nature with consciousness is a very reasonable, indeed, inevitable consequence of living under conditions where nature dominated all aspects of life, and could not be controlled; and that confirmation bias would certainly have an effect when attempting to influence whatever aspect of nature was of concern. As the size and complexity of the brain increases, as emotions such as fear become more complex and nuanced, as our capability for imagination grows and the capacity for more robust and powerful forms of communication increases, the creation of phantasms of all sorts, as an explanation for the unknown and a balm for uncertainty, has nothing mysterious about it. And the other side of the coin is that, as more has been learned about the natural world, as we have gradually used the discoveries of science to control more and more aspects of the natural world, the sphere of influence of God–the things that God is in charge of–has sensibly diminished. We can even use the history of religion to draw important conclusions about society; for example, the relationship between the development of early capitalism and the Protestant Reformation–how the first flowering of the commoner as an individual was necessarily accompanied by a faith that permitted an individual, personal relationship with God.
And so we come to method. Do we approach knowledge from the perspective that the world is a reflection of ideas, our own or God’s? Or do we approach it from the perspective that ideas are a reflection of the world? Or, to put it another way, can there be an idea before there is a brain to think it? And to answer that question, we do not go to our thoughts (we cannot prove the reality of our thoughts by thinking), but to our actions–socially, as a species. As we have understood more and more of our world, we, as a species, have used this knowledge to alter our world. We have modified food to make it more easily digestible. We have built bridges to cross rivers. We have created machines that permit us to fly. We have created complex infrastructures of power and shelter, which we use in our constant fight against the destructive forces of nature to keep us warm and healthy and safe. We learn, we act on our knowledge, we correct our understanding based on the results of our actions, we act some more. This process is not only how we improve our world, and not only how we learn more about the workings of the universe (and ourselves), but also, in passing and almost by accident, it answers the question of the relationship between our thoughts and the world around us. Or, as it has been sometimes put: Man answered the question of the relationship between his thoughts and reality thousands of years before it occurred to him to ask.
In comments on the previous post, Nathan S says this: … one wouldn’t say that “I can neither prove nor disprove the existence of leprechauns, yet I do not disbelieve in them.” Why is that sentence unacceptable with something as silly as Irish faerie spirits yet completely acceptable with deities? An astute question, and one we are now able to answer: at one time in human history, belief in Irish faerie spirits was perfectly acceptable and reasonable; but we have gained knowledge, and one thing that has gone by the wayside (with some regret in this case) is the need to find an explanation for certain fortunate or unfortunate events in the actions of the Good People.
When we now return to our old friend God, we find him exactly where He belongs: as another aspect of human thought, of human culture, of the struggle for understanding. We reject God as a being who exists apart from human thought, as we also reject the ahistorical attacks on religion that tell us man “should” never have believed in God–as useful and as scientific as saying that stone-age man “should” have built a superconducting supercollider. We understand God as an idea that has emerged from and changed with certain stages of the development of knowledge and culture as a distorted reflection of the material world, heavily influenced by the needs of the society that produced Him. As Feuerbach said, Man created God in his own image. We have taken the unknowable out of God, and what is left is: us. For me, that is quite sufficient.