Thursday, October 21, 2010

Proving God’s Existence

A spate of recent books have been written promoting atheism and agnosticism. Most of these are quite shallow. To counteract these, a new book presents a rather sophisticated case for theism.

Robert J. Spitzer, New Proofs for the Existence of God: Contributions of contemporary physics and philosophy, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010, 319pp + xiii.

Dr Spitzer is a philosopher, a Jesuit priest, and a former president of Gonzala University. His (5) proofs are not really new. Rather, they are updated versions of old proofs going back to Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274) and earlier.

The first two proofs draw upon recent developments in physics. Applying the latest results in big bang cosmology, quantum physics and string theory, Spitzer argues that any feasible big bang cosmology must start off as an expansion from nothing a finite time ago. Nothing can come from nothing. Thus Spitzer concludes that it is reasonable to infer the physical universe had a non-physical, transcendent cause--a creator.

The next proof concerns the implications of design in big bang cosmology. Spitzer examines the values of twenty physical constants such as the speed of light and the mass of the electron. Had these been only slightly different, Spitzer argues, the universe would have been hostile to life. Hence the physical constants appear to be fine-tuned for life. Spitzer infers that the extremely small likelihood of a livable universe such as ours arising by chance points to a supernatural Designer.

The second part of the book presents three philosophical proofs. The first proof argues that, underlying physical reality, there must be an “unconditioned reality”—something that upholds everything else but is itself independent of anything else for its existence. Spitzer contends that this “unconditioned reality” must be unique, absolutely simple, and unrestricted. It is the continuous Creator of all else that exists. A further proof builds on this to show that the “unconditioned reality” must also have unique, unrestricted intelligibility.

The final philosophical proof aims to demonstrate the impossibility of infinite past time. From this it follows that time must have been created a finite time ago, by a Creator who is not dependent on time.

One chapter is devoted to proving the impossibility of disproving the existence of God. The next chapter aims to show that the Creator would be perfect in being, truth, love, goodness and beauty. The final chapter argues that humans possess five desires (i.e., home, truth, love, goodness, beauty) that can be satisfied only by the “unconditioned reality”.

This book certainly succeeds in presenting profound arguments for the existence of God. It challenges those who would deny God’s existence to argue at a deeper rational level. This comes, however, at the price of making this a difficult read for the average person. The first two chapters require a rather advanced grasp of physics; the rest involves intricate philosophical argumentation. Of course, the reader who perseveres will learn much in those disciplines.

The book has a number of shortcomings. One problem is that the scientific arguments are based on the presumed correctness of modern physics, including big bang cosmology, general relativity, quantum mechanics and string theory. Much of this is, however, highly speculative. Big bang cosmology has numerous deficiencies; there is as yet no viable theory of quantum gravity; string theory is not yet well established and is currently untestable.

Moreover, Spitzer's evidentialist apologetics assumes more neutral ground between Christians and unbelievers than is warranted. He does not sufficiently take into account the fact that observational data can be interpreted within various worldview schemes. Consider, for example, big bang cosmology, which Spitzer accepts as true. Since this cosmological model contradicts the Biblical account of creation, it undermines Biblical authority. Hence it would have been more prudent for Spitzer to avoid such commitment and to simply argue that modern naturalist cosmology, based on the current most popular scientific theories, has theoretical implications that contradict the naturalist worldview.

The philosophical arguments, while interesting and complex, are ultimately not compelling. The recalcitrant atheist can always find logical loopholes and alternative explanations.

For example, I believe that Spitzer’s argument against an actual infinity is fallacious. Actual infinities are used in modern mathematics; they are not incoherent. Moreover, Spitzer’s argument against an actual infinity of past time proves too much; it would count equally against an actual infinity of future time. According to Spitzer, this is not the case, since the future is not a completed infinity but only an endless growth. But surely God comprehends all of time as complete: God sees the past and future with equal clarity. God is “from everlasting to everlasting” (Ps.90), “whose years shall have no end” (Ps.102), which suggests that God’s eternity encompasses both past and future infinite time.

Finally, one might wonder, how well do these proofs work? Do they ever really convert anyone? Ultimately, of course, only the Holy Spirit can change rebellious hearts. Yet He works through various means, however imperfect—even, presumably, flawed proofs.

Nevertheless, there is still a huge gap between the God of the philosophers—the First Cause, Designer, Unconditioned Reality—and the living God of the Bible. In this regard it is interesting to recall the 2004 conversion of the prominent atheist Anthony Flew (1923-2010). Flew was not convinced by any profound proof via physics or philosophy. Rather, it was the obviously immense complexity of even the simplest cell that convicted Flew of the need of a supernatural Designer. Unfortunately, however, this led Flew only as far as deism—he never became a Christian.

It is noteworthy that nowhere in his book does Spitzer ever refer to the Bible. There is no mention of sin or Jesus Christ. He does end with a plea to the reader to seek the God of mercy, kindness, humility, love. Yet, where can we find out about this God other than in His revealed Word?



Darren said...

"Ultimately, of course, only the Holy Spirit can change rebellious hearts."

Amen!!! Grace is an awesome thing! Praise God!

Henrietta said...

I honestly don't think that it is part of God's plan that man will ever be able to “prove” that He does exist.

If it can be proven that God does exist, why would faith be necessary? There are so many "faith" verses and even Abraham’s story – how he became the father of all believers because of his faith. Heb 11:6: “But without faith it is impossible to please Him: for he that cometh to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of them that diligently seek Him”.

John Byl said...

Hi Henrietta

You ask an interesting question--"if it can be proven that God exists, why should faith be necessary?"

I would respond that, as your quotes indicate, Christian faith is much more than the mere belief that God exists. "Even the demons believe that God is one--and shudder" (James 2:19). Abraham knew that God existed, since God had appeared to him, but he still needed to have faith in God's promises to him.

I can do no better than to quote the Heidelberg Catechism (Lord's Day 7):

"True faith is a sure knowledge whereby I accept as true all that God has revealed to us in His Word. At the same it is a firm confidence that not only to others, but also to me, God has granted forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness, and salvation, out of mere grace, only for the sake of Christ's merits. This faith the Holy Spirit works in my heart by the gospel."

Doug Schouten said...

But, philosophically, if our created reason could posit God's being on the basis of certain axioms not given by God, doesn't this transgress some sort of circularity condition, or at least bring God down from his throne to be subject to our reason?

I have always been skeptical of "proofs", and would much rather hear terms like "plausibility arguments", or arguments about the irrationality of the contrary (a la presuppositional apologetics).

In my experience it isn't a matter of proof anyway. As Doug Wilson quipped, atheists have two basic statements:

1. God doesn't exist
2. I hate God

In various conversations with atheists, I have slowly come to realize the veracity of this witticism.

Doug Schouten

John Byl said...

Hi Doug

Thanks for your comments, with which I am in substantial agreement. I myself do prefer a presuppositional approach to apologetics.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Byl,

Would you review William Dembski's book, "The End of Christianity"?

Love the blog!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the insightful review Dr. Byl.

In response to Doug, I'm wondering if you would agree that Christians should not attempt to establish the plausibility of God's existence as much as assume that the unbeliever knows this and suppresses this truth, a la Romans 1:18-30?

Anonymous said...

Hi mennoknight,

I don't believe God or his self-revelation *because* of their plausibility; rather my understanding is a posteriori. To paraphrase Lewis, it is not that I see the Son, it is rather that by the Son I see anything. Relating this sight to one who is blinded is in essence a plausibility statement: "look at how much sense you can make of the world when you humble yourself under God, whereas if you reject God, nothing makes sense at all".

However, believing is always a humbling act; it is not only employing our deductive faculties. Indeed, one can always reject God and posit outlandish solutions to the consequent paradoxes of life. Think of the many (infinity) universes theory (a so-called "multiverse of the gaps" solution?) to explain away the anthropic coincidences in nature, as one example.

Anonymous said...


I'm sorry, but I am not following you.

Did you mean "a priori"?