Essentials of Christian Apologetics - Lesson 3

Existence of God (Part 1/2)

Ronald Nash
Essentials of Christian Apologetics
Lesson 3
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Existence of God (Part 1/2)

The Existence of God

Part 1

I.  Introduction

A.  How high should our standards be?

B.  Cumulative Arguments

C.  Deductive or Inductive Arguments?

D.  Scientific vs. Personal Explanations

For more information, see:

The full course, Christian Apologetics, Lecture #8 The Existence of God

Nash, Faith and Reason, pp. 105-120.

Nash, Life's Ultimate Questions, pp. 289-295


These lessons are a summary of Dr. Nash's introductory course to Christian Apologetics. The full seminary level class is available in our Institute Program.

Dr. Ronald Nash

Essentials of Christian Apologetics


Existence of God (Part 1/2)

Lesson Transcript


How then do we? Should we? Can we approach the demand for proofs for God's existence? I answer this way even though it is not necessary that we prove the existence of God in order for God's existence to be rational. That doesn't mean that proofs are necessarily unimportant. It is one thing to me to prove. It is another thing to have a proof. My counsel again is this. Don't fall for the trap that unless you can provide a proof for the existence of God for this particular person who knows what will convince him that God exists. Don't fall into the trap of thinking that that's something you have to do in order for your belief in God to be rational, in order for your belief in God to have warrant. But suppose for the sake of argument that the Christian apologist decides that perhaps in this case it might be helpful for this person if he learns one or two arguments for God's existence. So what I want to do now is pursue that bit of business a little further. And I want to begin to offer some observations about what constitutes a proper demand for any alleged proof for God's existence, what standards should be met. So let me pursue for a few few minutes this question. How high? Should our standards for any argument for God's existence be? What standards must an argument satisfy before it qualifies as a proof? We must be careful here not to set the standards of proof too high. If our standards of proof are too rigorous for the material we're dealing with, we can make our search for the truth much more difficult than it has to be in geometry.


[00:02:43] Such things as probability, personal judgment and the weighing of evidence and non-coercive arguments are inappropriate in geometry. The standards of proof and geometry are as high as they can possibly be. Many people nonetheless act as though any adequate proof for a proposition like God exists must meet equally high standards. In fact, they might say, How can we be satisfied with anything less? Given all that is at stake in our reflection about God, it is important to remember, however, that reasonable people do recognize how different kinds of inquiry can proceed properly with different but appropriate standards of proof. Philosopher REM Edwards wisely counsels that quote, In the final analysis, We must settle for a more modest understanding of what constitutes a rationally justified philosophical belief. He then applies his comments to arguments designed to prove the existence of God. Still, quoting from Ram Edwards, formerly teacher, professor at the Philosophy at the University of Tennessee, Edwards says occasionally, perhaps even some of the traditional proofs for the existence of God have been interpreted as providing conclusive evidence for their theistic conclusions. From the outset, however, we must recognize that it is a mistake. So to regard them, not because we know before we even begin that they do not prove anything, but rather because we know there are no philosophical beliefs anywhere that are supportable by conclusive evidence. To expect indubitable premises and rigorous deductive validity from the traditional proofs for God's existence is to expect too much. No philosophical proofs of anything. Rest on indubitable premises. Philosophical proofs simply cannot meet such exacting requirements. And this is not to make lame excuses for sloppy thinking. It's the end of the quote. Consider the standards applied in many courts of law in criminal cases where the seriousness of the matter could result in imprisonment or execution.


[00:05:00] The law is correct in requiring proof beyond any reasonable doubt. But in many other kinds of legal cases, less proof may be acceptable. Philosopher Stephen Evans explains this quote In a civil damage suit over an airplane crash. It is not necessary to prove beyond any reasonable doubt that the crash was due to the airline's negligence, but only that it seems highly likely or probable that was so in the judgment of a prudent person. The task in this sort of case is to make a judgment which is in accordance with, quote, the preponderance of the evidence and quote, a clear and convincing proof in this context is defined in terms of a high probability. This seems to me, Steve Evans, to be the kind of reasonable case we ought to strive for in religious matters as well. We ought to strive to make a judgment which is in accordance with the preponderance of evidence and which seems highly probable or plausible. Standard quote. If we accept the relevance of Dr. Evans analogy between proofs in the kinds of court cases he describes and proofs for such religious claims as, quote, God exists. Several important points will follow. For one thing, as Evans notes, quote, Good evidence for religious faith will not be some kind of absolute proof that some philosophers seem to seek. Rather, it will be evidence which is sufficient to satisfy a reasonable person, end quote. Though such proofs are appropriate for their subject matter, they will seldom result in universal acceptance. Must an argument be universally accepted to be a proof accepted by all sane people who consider it? Frequently, something like this standard seems to be presupposed in these discussions. But such a concept of proof seems impossibly high. It also seems unfair, since this is not the standard of proof we require for non-religious areas.


[00:07:05] Juries and court cases are not required to seek proof beyond all possible doubt, but only beyond a reasonable doubt. Now, I contend, like many people, that the case for God's existence should be cumulative. This is often overlooked by a lot of people. There is nothing wrong with reaching a decision based on a cumulative argument. As Steve even states, one bit of evidence against a criminal may not be enough to convict him. The same may be said of a second or third bit, or any number of bits when taken in isolation. If each bit does have some force, however, then all of the bits of evidence taken together may be more than enough to convict the accused and send him off to prison. Our judgment in such matters then, is seldom the result of one argument or piece of evidence. And so, Evans notes, the case for religious faith will not be based on a single argument functioning as a proof. But upon the total evidence available from every region of human experience. Now, let me ask the question another question. Should an argument for God's existence be deductive or inductive? Many people approach the theistic arguments, believing that only deductive arguments will do. Many critics act as though there is something suspicious about any inductive argument purporting to support the conclusion that God exists. This deductive or nothing attitude fails to appreciate that inductive or probabilistic arguments are appropriate in some contexts, according to thinkers like British philosopher Richard Swinburne. The proper way to argue for God's existence is to utilize inductive arguments, as Swinburne explains. An inductive argument is an argument from premises to a conclusion in which the premises count in favor of provide evidence for the conclusion without entailing it. In other words, the truth of the premises does not necessarily imply the truth of the conclusion.


[00:09:23] They may only imply that the conclusion is probably true according to this inductive approach. Then the theistic argument should not be viewed as deductive arguments that drive us inescapably to the conclusion that God exists. They should be approached rather as efforts to direct our attention to certain features of reality. The inner and outer worlds. The noted features of reality are exactly what we should expect to find if a theistic worldview is true. The case for theism is made even stronger when we find things in the world that we would not expect to find if naturalism were true or if theism were false. Philosopher Antony flew the same gentleman we mentioned in connection with the debate in Dallas criticizes philosophers who admit that certain arguments fail as deductive proofs and who then attempt to utilize them as inductive proofs. Here's what flu says. Quote, It is occasionally suggested that some candidate proof, although admittedly failing as a proof, may sometimes do useful service as a pointer. This is a false exercise of the generosity so characteristic of examiners. A failed proof cannot serve as a pointer to anything, say perhaps to the weakness of those who have accepted it. Nor for the same reason can it be put to work along with others throw outs as part of the accumulation of evidences. If one I get this example if one leaky bucket will not hold water, that is no reason to think that ten leaky buckets can hold water. But Richard Swinburne, the Christian philosopher from England, answers flu by pointing out that arguments that may be deductively weak can be inductively strong. Here is Swinburne statement. But of course, arguments which are not deductively valid are often inductively strong. And if you put three weak arguments together, you may often get a strong one, perhaps even a deductively valid one.


[00:11:31] The analogy and flu's last sentence is a particularly unhappy one for his purpose. For clearly if you jam ten leaky buckets together in such a way that holes in the bottom of each bucket are squashed close to solid parts of the bottoms of neighboring buckets, you will get a container that holds water. End of quote. Swinburne thinks it is clear that a number of inductive theistic arguments that may be weak when considered alone may, when taken together, make up a strong cumulative case. Sometimes, he admits, philosophers consider the arguments for the existence of God in isolation from each other, reasoning as follows. The cosmological argument does not prove the conclusion. The teleological argument does not prove the conclusion, etc., etc. Therefore, the arguments do not prove the conclusion. End quote. But treating these same arguments as parts of a cumulative case can lead to a different conclusion. I quote from Swinburne again, an argument from Peter may be invalid. Another argument from Q. Two are maybe invalid, but if you run the arguments together, you could well get a valid deductive argument. The argument from P and Q to R may be valid. Here's an example. The argument from all students who have long hair, too. Smith has long hair is invalid, and so is the argument from Smith as a student to Smith has long hair, but put together the argument from all students who have long hair. And Smith is a student too. Smith has long hair is valid. The fact that arguments that may be weak when considered separately may support each other. Becomes even clearer when we consider inductive arguments. Here is Swen Byrne's example, quote that Smith has blood on his hands hardly makes it probable that Smith murdered Mrs.


[00:13:42] Jones. Nor by itself does the fact that Smith stood to gain from Mrs. Jones death. Nor does the fact that Smith was near the scene of the murder at the time of its being committed. But all these phenomena, taken together, perhaps with other phenomena as well, may indeed make the conclusion very probable. Although none of the theistic arguments by themselves prove that God exists, or even that God's existence is probable. Philosopher Louis Poneman argues this quote, Together they constitute a cumulative case for theism. There is something crying for an explanation. Why does this grand universe exist? Together, the arguments for God's existence provide a plausible explanation of the existence of the universe, of why we are here. Of why there is anything at all. And not just nothing. Okay. The explanatory power of theism is based then, not on single isolated arguments, but on a cumulative case. One gets by reflecting on the existence of the universe, the order of the universe, and the facts of human rationality, moral consciousness, and religious experience. Now the last element of my prelude. To the question how should one attempt to prove the existence of God is told? Scientific explanations versus personal explanations. Richard Swinburn has one final contribution to make at this point. He suggests that we view the theistic arguments as explanations. He then sets up a contrast between two antithetical types of explanations, scientific explanations and personal explanations and a scientific explanation. The effect is inferred from accompanying causes, conditions and the relevant laws. The paradigm of a scientific explanation is the way various phenomena are explained in physics. A personal explanation, in contrast, is one where the phenomena are explained in terms of a rational agent's intentional action. Suppose one very cold winter morning you walk out to your car and discover a crack in your car's radiator.


[00:16:15] Remembering your failure to install antifreeze and noting the current temperature of ten degrees Fahrenheit, you discover a scientific explanation for the condition of your radiator. But suppose on some other morning you noticed that all four of your auto's tires are flat. Looking closer, you see that a sharp knife is buried deeply in each tire. Will a scientific explanation be sufficient in this case? Of course not. This time you have to explain the damage tires in terms of some human's intentional behavior. You need a personal explanation. In a typical theistic argument, the theist draws attention to certain phenomena of either the outer world or the inner world. The neat explanation suppose we find that a scientific that is a non-personal explanation fails to do justice to the phenomena. If we have only two choices, if an explanation must be either scientific or personal. And if we discover that phenomena like human rationality cannot adequately be explained in terms of impersonal causes or conditions, it is natural to conclude that we must then seek for an explanation in terms of the intentional action of some rational agent. Swinburne provides an example. Quote one A detective argues from various bloodstains on the woodwork, fingerprints on the medal, Smith's corpse on the floor. Money missing from the safe. Jones's having much extra money to Jones's having intentionally killed Smith and stolen his money. He is arguing to an explanation of various phenomena in terms of the intentional action of a rational agent, since persons are paradigm cases of rational agents. I will term explanation in terms of the intentional action of a rational agent. Personal explanation. That's the end of the quote. Given the kind of phenomena Swinburne describes in this paragraph, only an explanation in terms of some person's intentional action can possibly do justice to the evidence.


[00:18:21] Likewise, Swinburne continues, and I quote again when the theist argues from phenomena such as the existence of the world or some feature of the world, the existence of God, he is arguing to an explanation of the phenomena in terms of the intentional action of a person that is God. A theistic explanation is a personal explanation. It explains phenomena in terms of the action of a person. What's going on in this section is an account of the distinction between natural and intelligent causes. In our everyday experience, we recognize this difference. Police detectives, for example, want to know if a person was murdered or died of natural causes. The difference holds profoundly different consequences for many people. The difference also holds significantly different consequences for attempts to understand and explain the world. Swen Burns Category A personal explanation is an important contribution to the debate over God's existence. When major features of the outer and inner worlds cannot be given an adequate scientific explanation, we will then have to give added weight to any personal explanation that does explain them. Should we ever become convinced that important features of reality require explanation in terms of the intentional actions of a rational being, we will have discovered significant support for belief in the existence of God.