To Believe or Not to Believe – The Existence or Non Existence of God: A Philosophical Look

Written By Thomas Perez. November 1, 2017 at 2:05pm. Originally Written May 23, 2017. Copyright 2017.

The topic concerning the existence or non-existence of God has been discussed since the dawn of humanity. But more so than the non-existence of God, the general belief in a surpreme God, or many gods, flourshed during the ancient world. Many cultures, if not all, demonstrated a belief in a Supreme Being, or beings, of some sort. These beings were often dipicted through; pictograph writings, ante-diluvian writings, hieroglyphics, cuniform writings, alphabetic writings, pre-Abrahamic books, books during Abraham’s day and of course, the Scriptures; namely the Torah. Christians today call the Torah; the “Judeo-Christian Old Testament (OT). And with it, they accompany the OT with their New Christian Testament. These books simply state with a certainly that couldn’t be denied during their hay days, that God created everything. According to the Judeo-Christian Bible, it reads in Genesis 1:1; “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (The Nelson Study Bible 4).

In the ancient world, the concept of atheism was unheard of. But there were some exceptions to this, as the Psalmist indicates in Psalms 53:1 “the fool hast said in his heart there is no God” (932). However, a gradual broader decline among thinkers in the disbelief of God began to surface with the likes of Heraclitus (535-475BCE) and Empedocles (490-430BCE). Others after them followed suit. However, it should be noted that they, along with Philo, c.20BCE- c.50CE), also called Philo Judaeus – a Hellenistic Jewish Philosopher who began to harmonize the teachings of the Torah with that of Greek philosophy, began to discuss the notable ideas of the Sophia – feminine – taken from the word Spirit; the Word – the Wisdom – the Logos in Greek (1756). The Apostle John, the supposed author of the Gospel that bears his name, wrote of the Logos in Greek; proclaiming in the first line of John 1:1; “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God” (1756). Moreover, John also uses the same phrase in his first epistle entitled ‘First John.’ However, the philosophy of the Sophia, Logos/Wisdom can be traced to a much earlier source other than Philo and John. It can be traced as far back to an individual known as Thales (c.580BCE).

But according to Donald Palmer; for Thales; “it would have to be the natural, not the supernatural. This is what primarily separates Thales’ mode of thinking from the mythic form of thought that proceeded him. Myths explain why things are the way they are by tracing these things to their origins. In this respect, myths, (the mythic way of thought) is no different from the Logos (the philosophical scientific way of thought)” (Does the Center Hold? 8). This way of thought, along with those already mentioned, became the standard belief that validated the existence of God through wisdom of thought; namely the Logos. The thought eventually cemented itself and became one of the accepted confessions of faith regarding the Christian religion. But this new form of reasoning did not stop Thales, Heraclitus, Empedocles or Evodius from questioning the existence of God.

Evodius, a contempary to Augustine (354-430BCE), came onto the scene in c. 4th-5th century CE. And once again, we have the question pertaining to the existence of God at hand. This time it is Augustine who takes up the mattel in his dialogue with Evodius in his; ‘On the Choice of the Free Will Book II.’ When Augustine met him, Evodius was already a baptised Christian (augnet.org). It is unclear as to whether Evodius began to doubt the existence of God, while at the same time confessing to be a Christian. Whatever the case may have been, it is apparent that Evodius’ mind was filled with questions of uncertainty as to the validity of God’s existence. Or maybe he simply wanted to expand his way of thinking as to why he believed in such, and to what fashion was this belief the better to hope for and aspire to. Augustine is quick to help Evodius’ questioning mind by presenting him with an argumentive strategy. It is through this method and platform that Augustine uses to prove the existence of God.

In ‘On the Choice of the Free Will,’ edited by Peter King, the argumentative strategy by Augustine is as follows; understanding, which can also be attributed to the one wisdom, as opposed to the lesser wisdoms of our existence, and the being of being alive as the superior (35). From here Augustine builds upon the strategy for the existence of God by indicating that understanding is preceived by the senses; sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. He then uses our ability to reason things out through the senses, but also explains that we can not sense the senses, declaring “in short, it is clear that none of the five senses can be sensed by any of them even though all physical objects are sensed by them” (38). This frame of thought is also similar to Plato’s ‘Similes of the Line,’ as recorded in his ‘Republic.’ The Simile of the Line is a line drawn. On each side of this line are two schools of thought, which can also be of the same essense, so to speak.

In them we have the epistemological and ontological. The epistemological deals with pure reason, understanding, belief and imaging. While the ontological deals with the forms, scientific concepts, sensible objects and images. The forms having it’s values in opinions and knowledge, while the former in the intelligible and invisible world. “What we get here is Plato’s whole metaphysical scheme. The right side of the line is his ontology (his theory of being). The left side is his epistemology (his theory of knowledge)” (Palmer 43). For Augustine, this sense, as in Plato’s ontology, may well be the same for his epistemological sense of understanding the self, or as in the sense sensing itself.

But even animals can do the same when it feels it is in danger of imminent death. It’s internal sense senses to preserve itself and runs in the opposite direction, away from the danger of death. But the internal sense is not above the senses (King 40). However, the senses do not have wisdom. Wisdom for Augustine is singular. It is a key step to one having a clear overview or general understanding as to what particular wisdom one should aspire to, or which is the better wisdom in reference to its truth. Each preposition by Augustine can be compared to a stairway, or steps if you will. He builds his argumentative strategy step-by-step starting with existence – the being of being alive, understanding physical objects in conjunction with that existence, the five senses as our proof of physicality and thought, but also telling of its non-sense of sensing itself, and reason – as to how we reason things out. Augustine even uses numbers to explain the intelligible, citing; “how do we recognize what we recognize to be firm and uncorrupted for all numbers? We do not come into contact with all numbers through any bodily sense; they are innumerable. How then do we know that it is for all numbers / It remains pure and unchangeable” (48-49).

This answers Evodius’ claim that “I do not call God that to which my reason is inferior, but that to which none is superior” (42). For Augustine, this superiority is finally expressed on the last step of his stairway; the step of the good as being one for all. “In which it is recognized and grasped, namely wisdom, for it must also be one and common to all” (51). However, while some would differ on the means in which Augustine could have presupposed his prepositions on God, many will also defend it, and claim that nothing needs to be added or subtracted from it. His argument is convincing, but only so from the ontological perspective; the intelligible invisible world. It is that which Augustine’s expresses that can be seen through numbers and higher thoughts of reason; namely true wisdom. And it is through this wisdom one can know God or experience God.

Augustine is expressing an innate idea. An innate idea is an idea present at birth, hence a priori (Palmer 439). This Viewpoint was also upheld by Plato. “The truth according to Plato, existed in the slave boys soul. It was a piece of his unconscious knowledge, knowledge based on an innate idea, that is, an idea present at birth in the soul of the individual” (50). Later, Aristotelian empericism countered this concept and was further enhanced by the likes of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274CE) and Rene Decartes (1596-1650CE). But rationalism, as in reason and priori, remained the focal point in Greacian, Roman and Medieval philososphy (51).

To counter this, individuals like Aquinas, Decartes and John Locke (1632-1704CE), set into motion what is known as the Blank Slate. The blank slate “is, in part suggested by Locke’s claim that the mind is like a tabula rasa (a blank slate) prior to sense and experience / This makes it sound as though the mind is nothing prior to the advent of ideas” (phychologytoday.com). For Locke and others like him, this is contrary to Aristotle and Augustine. Both of which insisted that priori stems from innate ideas at birth which existed prior to being housed in fleshly bodies; thus Augustine’s priori, or the “why;” as to why one form of wisdom is the true form of wisdom; namely God. While other forms of wisdom are merely differentiations of the former. A differentiation of which Augustine implies a universal or common oneness.

However, according to Norman Geisler; “there are Seven Major World Views for common oneness, and each one is incompatible with the other, with one exception (pantheism/polytheism). No one can consistently believe in more than one world view because the central premises of each are opposed by those of the others. Logically, only one world view can be true; the others must be false” (Systematic Theology 17). The seven major world views are as follows: Theism; God is personal and exists in and beyond the universe, Atheism; there is no God at all, Polytheism; there are many Gods, Pantheism; everything is God, Panentheism; God is the universe – the All, Deism; God exists beyond and in our universe, but He does not directly get involved with anything, and Finite Godism; a finite God exists beyond and in our universe, but is limited in power, like stopping evil once and for all (18). We can also throw into the mix the concept of Agnosticism; “I can not know that there is a God.” Thus I can not prove or disprove it. Out of the seven world views; it is the concept of Panentheism that seems to want to echo it’s cry in Augustine’s oneness concept of unversal truth. But for Augustine, the view of Panentheism seems to contradict with his view on theism as in “the highest good is known and possessed in the truth, and this truth is wisdom, let us recognize and possess the highest​ good in it and enjoy it completely, since anyone who enjoys the highest good is happy. This truth reveals all true Goods, which people elect for themselves to enjoy – either one or many of them – in accordance and capacity” (King 58).

As I read his final thought on the topic, I can not escape Augustine’s blatant approach to absolutism. the word “the” appears four times, while the word “it” appears two times. What is Augustine comparing his theism to? The word “the,” in this context, reveals a singular wisdom, or God, while the word “it” describes, or points to its direction, towards the singular; the one “the,” so to speak. But is the source of Augustine summary of the singular “the” the highest good, and the highest truth subject to criticism? The answer to that is an obvious, yes!

Aquinas, Decartes and Locke all conveyed the idea that such a priori need not to exist at all in order for one to believe or understand why he or she would believe in a higher singular being. To claim such an absolute like Augustine did negates the absolute truth in another, who may believe in, say for example, many gods as in polyphenism. For the polytheist to claim that they have the truth is to also negate those who believe in theism or panetheism. Truth is therefore subjective. And with that perhaps the various concepts of the highest happiness and wisdom are subjected to one’s experiences; good or bad, as desscribed in Locke’s blank slate. The blank slate becomes the nesting place of ideas, knowledge, beliefs and faith; based upon what one perceives as a preconceived idea. In reality, innate ideas may become that which are the results from an individual living within a social context.

Primitive cultures express their views and beliefs different to those in the West. Their view on God is perceived as their own truth and thus should be respected as such. Moreover, many primitive cultures are polytheistic and monotheistic – with a belief in one surpreme Being while maintaining several gods under Him, Her or It. No need for the Western Evangelical Missionary to inform a primitive culture of their need to “accept or burn” when all they want to do is live by their own rules, regulation and belief systems. When one implants the ideas of salvation and those of vengeance to a specific God, they have indeed implanted a seed, that if not heeded to that specific God, they will suffer that God’s consequences. For the primitive culture, it is a new idea, the idea of an absolute capable of creation, salvation, anger and destruction if not obeyed. It is because of this tactic that many primitive cultures convert to Christianity and/or Islam. The idols of primitive cultures now exhert idolness to the one “The,” or according to Augustine, the one true wisdom.

For Augustine it is the greatest thing imaginable. The fact that God can be thought upon, spoken with reference to, and conceieved by way of ideas, thoughts, and Logos/Wisdom means that God exists. But Augustine’s arrival at his conclusions is the real issue here since they entail a universal oneness, something contrary to his theism and many Christian Evangelical Fundamentalists of today. However, it should be noted that Universal Unitarianists would have no problem in this apparent contradiction since it is believed among their ranks that God is personal, deistic, all and in all. This is similar to the Christian Gnostics prior to Augustine who believed that knowledge gained was the means to salvation or becoming one with the One, so to speak. But their knowledge was of a different sort. To the Gnostic there were many ways to obtain wisdom, and that if possible, once attained, one can achieve his or her own level of godhood or godliness, always achieving the same ends; as in a universal Christ as opposed to an exclusive Christ. But for Augustine the belief in an exclusive God is contingent upon necessity and prepositions. God is necessary, or necessarily the true in order to explain the priori of the senses; reason, ethics, morals and wisdom as by products of the one unchanging eternal Being.

Many atheists would counter this by indicating that everything is preceived to be so by empirical, scientific and tangible explanations. While the metaphysical belief systems are just that; beliefs and opinions imprinted upon the mind by various cultural and psychological experiences. And depending on the culture, the view upon which it describes the ontological as opposed to something else being eternal like matter, often is shown to be reflective of the histories and traditions of a localized culture and their predecessors; namely their ancestors. For the atheist, “matter (or physical energy) is eternal. Matter has always been, and always will be, as the physicist claims / Energy can not be created or destroyed / This is the first law of thermodynamics” (Geisler 616). Therefore, preception and what we preceive and discover through scientific observations are to be the only conclusive fact of existence for anything. Nothing more and nothing less. One should not add or subtract onto emperical facts something that can not be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, or touched upon a blake slate and claim that it was always there implanted and unconscioualy not known to us. It is Ockham’s Razor; “what can be done with fewer is done in vain with more” (Palmer 79). But the position of atheisms response to Augustine’s argumentive strategies fail to bring into thought the various models of theistic world views as discussed earlier. And while it can puncture holes in Augustine’s theistic model of explanations, it does not affect the possible existence of God, whether personal or transcendent with regards to pantheism, panetheism and deism. Perhaps the middle ground of deism is best served in reference to the two opposing views because the deist simply states a metaphysical concept without incurring on the senses or inner sense, and it’s so-called one true wisdom application of thought as seen in Augustine. Deism chooses not to infringe upon the emperical. In other words, one can have their cake and eat it too.

Bibliography
 
 
 
 
Geisler, Norman L. Systematic Theology In One Volume. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers, 2002.
 
Empedocles/internet encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://www.iep.utm.edu/empedocl/
 
King, Peter. On the Choice of the Free Will. Edited by King. Cambridge, New York, Toronto: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
 
Palmer, Donald. Does the Center Hold?: An Introduction to Western Philosophy; 3rd Edition. United States of America: McGraw Hill Companies, Inc, 2002.
 
The Nelson Study Bible, New King James Version. Nashville: Nelson Publishing House, 1997.