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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Augustine's Proof of the Existence of God

Sometime ago, over at Unqualified Offerings, I plunged into a thread where some atheists were contending that suggesting there is some link between the existence of genuine moral standards and the existence of God is just absurd. I argued that they were, in fact, confused, because acknowledging the existence of universal moral principles already is acknowledging the existence of God, since, in the Western metaphysical tradition, that is what the word God means. I was greeted with howls of execration (what's that from?) and accused of just making definitions up to suit my purposes. I cited Collingwood in my defense, but this was unconvincing.

I now wish to call another witness to the stand. I've been reading Augustine's On Free Choice of the Will, in which he leads "Evodius" to acknowledge that the fact that we have rational standards by which we judge, say, that "2 + 2 = 4" alone is sufficient to show the existence of God, because the existence of such rational standards is what is meant by the term "God." Yes, of course, in mainstream Christian theology much more than that is meant, but remember that Augustine, even after his conversion, is still very much a Platonist, and he recognizing that in this metaphysical tradition, the name for the "universal light of reason" is God. Once someone has admitted that there are universal standards to which we must submit if we want to reason correctly, speak truthfully, behave justly, etc., the argument about the mere existence of God is over, if not that about God's full nature.

So there you have it, folks -- if you admit that arithmetic is universally true for all rational beings, you are not an atheist. You may call yourself one, but you are mis-using the term in the light of the tradition of Western metaphysics. (Einstein, for instance, recognized this very well, which is why so many atheists keep trying to dismiss all of his statements about God as "really just about the rational order of the universe"... well, precisely!

In the first comment I've pasted in a sample of Augustine's dialogue, just so you can see I'm not making this up. Note carefully the point he is making at the end -- he's not saying that, once you admit there are universal standards of truth, then you must admit there is something else besides and separate from those standards called God -- no, he's saying the proper name (in our philosophical tradition) for such a standard is 'God.'

9 comments:

  1. AUGUSTINE: So whatever this thing is by which we perceive everything we know, it is an agent of reason. It takes whatever it comes into contact with and presents that to reason so that reason can delimit the things that are perceived and grasp them by knowledge and not merely by sense.

    EVODIUS: Yes.

    AUGUSTINE: Then what about reason itself, which distinguishes between its agents and the things that they convey, which understands the difference between itself and them, and which affirms that it is itself far more powerful than they are? Surely reason does not grasp itself by anything other than itself, that is, by anything other than reason. How else would you know that you had reason, unless you perceived it by reason?

    ....

    AUGUSTINE: So a nature that has existence but not life or understanding, like an inanimate body, is inferior to a nature that has both existence and life but not understanding, like the souls of animals; and such a thing is in turn inferior to something that has all three, like the rational mind of a human being. Given that, do you think that you could find anything in us--that is, anything hat is part of our human nature--more excellent than understanding? It is clear that we have a body, as well as a sort of life by which the body is animated and nourished; both of these we find in animals. We also have a third thing, like the head or eye of the soul, or however reason and understanding might be more aptly described; and this, animals do not have. So I ask you: can you think of anything in human nature more exalted than reason?

    EVODIUS: Nothing at all.

    AUGUSTINE: What if we could find something that you were certain not only exists, but is more excellent than our reason? Would you hesitate to say that this thing, whatever it is, is God?

    ....

    AUGUSTINE: Well then, tell me this. Can you think of anything 8. that is common to all who think? I mean something that they all see with their own reason or mind, that is present to all but is not converted to the private use of those to whom it is present, as food and drink are, that remains unchanged and intact whether they see it or not? Or do you perhaps think that nothing like this exists?

    EVODIUS: Actually, I see that there are many such things, but it will suffice to mention just one. The order and truth of number is present to all who think, so that those who make calculations try to grasp it by their own reason and understanding. Some can grasp it more easily than others can, but it offers itself equally to all who are capable of grasping it; unlike food, it is not transformed into a part of the one who perceives it. It is not at fault when someone makes a mistake; it remains true and complete, but the less one sees it, the greater is one's mistake.

    ....

    AUGUSTINE: Can anyone say that this truth is his own private possession, given that it is unchangeably present to be contemplated by all who are able to contemplate it?

    EVODIUS: No one could rightly say that it is his own, since it is as much one and common to all as it is true.

    ....

    Now you had conceded that if I proved the existence of something higher than our minds, you would admit that it was God, as long as there was nothing higher still. I accepted this concession, and said that it would be enough if I proved that there is something higher than our minds. For if there is something more excellent than the truth, then that is God; if not, the truth itself is God. So in either case you cannot deny that God exists...

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  2. You are making an important point, Gene, but I still think the atheists at UO had every reason to get exasperated with you in that debate. (I will drop it though, since last time we discussed this you got a potty mouth.)

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  3. "You are making an important point, Gene, but I still think the atheists at UO had every reason to get exasperated with you in that debate."

    They did -- it sucks to have it pointed out that one is engaged in self-contradiction!

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  4. Anonymous12:27 PM

    It seems to me that the "God" Augustine is describing here is

    1. Not necessarily a consciousness.

    2. Not necessarily a creator.

    You can opine all you want about the "Western metaphysical tradition" and claim that reason is the definition of God, but surely you realize you are not exactly debating the point at hand here. The "God" dismissed by atheists is one who must be conscious and all-powerful, and is thus unprovable.

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  5. 'The "God" dismissed by atheists is one who must be conscious and all-powerful...'

    Yes, and this is a sign of historical ignorance on the part of said atheists.

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  6. Anonymous2:01 PM

    I'm not sure if that's entirely fair. It's not historical ignorance to recognize that the definitions of words change with time.

    I would also point out that the concept that Augustine called "God" in this case not only bears very little resemblance what is commonly (modernly) referred to as God, but that it is not only atheists who would make this distinction. If I were to get into an argument with a rabbi over whether or not I was an atheist because I believed 2+2=4, he would (rightly, in my view) dismiss such a claim as a non sequitur, and irrelevant to the concept that we were discussing.

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  7. "'m not sure if that's entirely fair. It's not historical ignorance to recognize that the definitions of words change with time."

    1) It is not that the definition of this word changed with time so much as it is that there have always been more philosophical and more vulgar interpretations of the concept. Collingwood, after all, was writing in the 20th century; and so was Charles Taylor, who introduced this argument of Augustine's to me.
    2) The people at UO were certainly not arguing that I was using an "old-fashioned" definition of God -- the accused me of just making it up!
    3) It is a lot more unfair to destroy the whole moral orientation of a civilization by declaring "God doesn't exist" than it is to chide people for their historical ignorance!


    "I would also point out that the concept that Augustine called "God" in this case not only bears very little resemblance what is commonly (modernly) referred to as God, but that it is not only atheists who would make this distinction. If I were to get into an argument with a rabbi over whether or not I was an atheist because I believed 2+2=4, he would (rightly, in my view) dismiss such a claim as a non sequitur, and irrelevant to the concept that we were discussing."

    That would just show that the rabbi in question was also historically ignorant.

    But there were Jewish sects (e.g., the Sadducees) who held a very high, remote, philosophical conception of God, so if he knew about them, he would not deem what you said irrelevant.

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  8. Anonymous4:10 PM

    It really seems like you're trying to turn an epistemological debate into a semantic one.

    If an atheist claims that "the thing commonly called God" does not exist, and you retort that "a certain thing does exist, and should rightly be called God," I think the only appropriate response is "Well, I suppose, if that is how you are defining those terms, but that's not really what I was talking about."

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  9. No, I'm poiting out that the atheist in question is misusing his terms -- there is a name for the person who would agree with Augustine's argument but deny a personal, "interactive" God -- they're called Deists.

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