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God in Philosophy

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First or only principle

Philosophers have conceived of divinity in very different ways. For some, polytheism does not exclude a supreme divine principle like the logos or “immanent reason of the Universe” for the Stoics, but it is more a first principle rather than a unique principle in a world for which, as Plato reminds us, “everything is full of gods”. Plato saw a “good” and unique deity as a first cause, creator or demiurge assisted by subordinate gods, orderer of matter he did not create, and Aristotle as the end of all things. Descartes sees him as infinitely transcending the world he created, Spinoza thinks him immanent (Deus sive Natura), a neo-Platonic tradition argues that God is not because he is beyond Being (negative theology) , etc.

Explanatory principle or active being

In the Vocabulaire technique et critique de la philosophie, edited by André Lalande, God is analyzed along two main lines:

  • God considered as an explanatory principle:
    • From the ontological point of view: unique and supreme principle of existence and universal activity, summarized by the phrase “God is the being of beings, the cause of causes, the End of ends: this is how he is the true absolute “.
    • From the logical point of view: supreme principle of order in the world, of reason in man and of the correspondence between thought and things.
  • God seen as an active being:
    • From the physical point of view: a personal being, superior to humanity, who gives orders and makes promises, to whom prayers are addressed and who answers them if he sees fit. Generally allied and protective of a social group, he can be a god among others with whom he comes into conflict, in mythology.
    • From the moral point of view: personal being such as it is, by its intelligence and its will, the supreme principle and the guarantee of morality.

Kant is then an example of a view of God primarily as an explanatory principle: God exists as the “Ideal of Pure Reason”. Descartes’ definition of God, “God is the perfect being”, despite its ambiguity can be understood as an identification of the ontological order and the moral order. Leibniz’s monadology is an effort to synthesize all these facets.

Arguments for the existence of God

Throughout the history of philosophy many arguments have been given for and against the existence of God or the belief in this existence. Arguments about the very existence of God can be metaphysical or empirical arguments, those about belief in God are called epistemic arguments.

Many positions exist both among the defenders of the existence of God and among their opponents. They can be grouped and schematically distinguished into the following major positions:

  • Strong atheism “God does not exist”
  • Weak atheism “It is almost certain that God does not exist”
  • Agnosticism “We can’t know if God exists”
  • Weak theism “God exists, but it cannot be proven or disproved” (“Existence” which assumes insertion into immanence does not belong to the attributes of God.)
  • Strong theism “God exists, and it can be proven”

Here it is a deliberately limited presentation of the main arguments in favor of the existence of God and their refutation by Immanuel Kant.

Classical arguments in favor of the existence of God

Three classic arguments are a posteriori: starting from the experience taken as consequence to go back to its principle.

  • The ontological argument was notably formulated by Saint Anselm, Descartes, and rewritten by Gödel, it takes the general form of the following syllogism:
    1. God is a perfect being.
    2. Existence is a perfection.
    3. God owns existence
  • The cosmological argument. Proposed by Aristotle, and mostly reused by Christian theologians, it may look like this:
    1. If the Universe is comprehensible, then everything has a cause, the cause itself has a cause and so on.
    2. However, if the sequence is infinite then the Universe is not comprehensible (which violates the first premise)
    3. So the sequence is not infinite. There is an ultimate cause or first cause which is not caused by anything and which can be called God.
  • The teleological argument can be formulated in the form of the following syllogism:
    • There is order in nature
    • But matter does not spontaneously produce order.
    • So the cause of nature’s order is intentional

These three arguments, like all the others, have been the object of lively controversy since their first statement, and in the opinion of most commentators none of them can win support on its own. Pascal, who accepted as arguments in favor of the existence of God only prophecies and miracles (the Pascalian wager not being presented as proof), speaks of it in these terms: “The metaphysical proofs of God are so remote reasoning of men and so complicated, that they strike little, and if it would be useful to some, it would only be useful for the moment that they see this demonstration, but an hour later, they fear they have been mistaken “.

Anselm of Canterbury was the first to offer an a priori argument: the idea of ​​God, and its consequences, necessitates the existence of God without whom there can be no idea of ​​God. This argument is also found in Descartes and Leibniz.

Kant (in Critique of Practical Reason) has developed the so-called moral proofs, where the existence of God alone is capable of explaining moral conscience, in the first, or the order of human persons, in the second.

Position of the major religions

The Catholic Church, since the encyclical Æterni Patris (1879), reaffirms the validity of the Quinque viae, the “five paths” of Thomas Aquinas which are based on the metaphysical analogy of being and are inspired by the “I am I who am” of the Book of Exodus.

This point of doctrine was recalled by Pope John Paul II in the encyclical Fides et Ratio and several statements. He also states that “when we speak of proofs of the existence of God, it must be emphasized that these are not scientific-experimental proofs.” But rather as a way for human intelligence not to abdicate in the face of the complexity of the world and a stimulation for reflection. They are primarily a support of the intelligence to the faith of believers, and not intended for the conversion of skeptics.

In Judaism, the question does not arise, not by taboo but by the very fact of the conception of transcendence: God totally surpasses human understanding. Wanting to define its concept analytically is doomed to failure by its very nature. Some Jewish authors do not hesitate to deny any possibility of “speaking” of God.

Critique of ontological proof

In Book II of the Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant shows that the cosmological argument and the teleological argument (which he calls the physico-theological argument) are based on the ontological argument. Indeed, after observing the contingency of the world, the cosmological argument must posit the existence of a necessary being; he is then obliged to resort to the ontological argument, which deduces from the concept of God that he exists. As for the physico-theological argument, from the observation of ends in nature, he concludes that it took a creator for the world to exist (cosmological argument), and that this creator must necessarily exist (ontological argument).

If the ontological argument is refuted, the cosmological argument and the teleological argument fall with it according to Kant. Kant therefore proposes a refutation of the ontological argument in the hope of destroying all evidence of the existence of God. For Kant, existence is not an intrinsic property, one cannot legitimately say that existence belongs to the concept of God: it is to confuse the conceptual content and the existential predicate of a thing. Thus, for Kant, the concept of God remains the same whether it exists or not: this “concept of God” proves nothing, only indicating a possibility. To illustrate this, Kant takes the following example: “A hundred real thalers contain nothing more than a hundred possible thalers. Because, as the possible thalers express the concept and the real thalers, the object and its position in itself, in case this one would contain more than that one, my concept would not be the adequate concept. But I am richer with a hundred real thalers than with their mere concept (that is, with their possibility).”

In short: the consequence of ontological reasoning is that the “idea of ​​God” exists, but the very existence of God is not an idea.

Question redesigned at new expense

The philosophy of religions, and the question of the proofs of the existence of God, have experienced a great revival in the wake of the analytical tradition. Authors such as Peter Geach, Richard Swinburne, Alvin Plantinga, Antony Flew, John Leslie Mackie, and Jordan Howard Sobel ask what reasons we have for asserting or disputing the existence of a supernatural being on which the existence of the world would depend.

While the other philosophers are either Catholic, Protestant or Anglican, the characteristic of Antony Flew, which has ensured him an additional notoriety over the past five years, consists in having been, for years, an eminent philosopher of religions and to have asserted his atheism. He came to consider, around his 81st year, that not only was the question of the existence of God important, but also that the existence of God was possible according to a variant of the teleological argument, which the Anglo-Saxons call fine tuning, in a way, the argument of the best of all possible worlds. He considers that, the more the complexity of the world appears in human knowledge, the more this argument is powerful to found theism. Some activists in the cause of atheism were embarrassed by this and declared for some that this conversion was a wishful thinking of believers, despite Flew’s letter to Philosophy Now and for others that the author was already old.

Contemporary philosophies

Masters of suspicion and “God’s Death”

Since Paul Ricœur, the thinkers Marx, Nietzsche and Freud have usually been called “masters of suspicion”.

In the West, starting with René Descartes, Blaise Pascal and Grotius in particular, the existence of God has become subject to demonstration, and increasingly exposed to criticism, concomitant with the crisis of the Christian religion and the appearance of Protestantism. Eighteenth-century philosophers were critical but not atheists.

We owe Friedrich Nietzsche the formula “God is dead”, but it was Feuerbach who opened the fire. The theology of God’s death will take him at his word. This current of thought is, moreover, foreign neither to Islam nor to Judaism.

“God is dead! God remains dead! And we killed him! How can we console ourselves, murderers of murderers? What the world has possessed so far most sacred and powerful has lost its blood under our knife. — Who will cleanse us of this blood? With what water could we purify ourselves? What atonements, what sacred games will we be forced to invent? Is not the greatness of this act too great for us? Aren’t we forced to become gods ourselves simply — if only to appear worthy of them?”
—Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science

Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, 1841

Ludwig Feuerbach echoes the mutations of modern Western society such as scientism, Darwin’s theory of evolution, socialism, sharing, among other things, a critique of religious dogma, which opens the way to atheism by considering the notion of God as a social construct alien to reality. The concept mainly developed in The Essence of Christianity can be summed up in two points, namely, on the one hand, God as alienation and, on the other hand, atheism as the religion of man.

It is no longer man who depends on the divine but the divine who depends on man: “the historical progress of religions consists in this: what in the older religion was worth as objective, is recognized as subjective, it is that is to say, what was contemplated and adored as God, is now recognized as human […]. What man affirms of God, he verily affirms of himself.” Feuerbach thus sees theology as an inverted anthropology and God as a kind of social superego, coming under the sociology of religions or individual or collective psychology, in no case philosophy.

Philosophy and theologies of the process

The theology of the process is the name under which we gather the works of this metaphysics on the nature of God. This metaphysics, unlike the previous ones, transcends the boundaries of religious denominations. Even if Christian thinkers (Protestants with John B. Cobb or Catholics with, in a way, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Jean-Luc Marion, or even secularists with Henri Bergson) have published more works, we also find process thinkers in Judaism, Hinduism and to a lesser extent in Islam. It has developed around two poles:

  • the critique of cataphatism through a distinction between the representation of God and his ontological nature. Thus Paul Tillich invites us to think about the distance between the representations of God (transcendent, therefore beyond the possibilities of human expression) and the reality of God. The maxim that would sum up this aspect of Tillich’s thought would be “God is more than what people say“. In God beyond God, he therefore invites extreme caution in asserting that such a doctrine would be the ultimate truth and, thereby, continues a reflection already begun by Maimonides in his Guide for the Lost, and to a lesser extent under certain aspects by Ibn Arabi.
  • the criticism of Thomism of the seven attributes, in particular omnipotence, omniscience, immutability, ubiquity which made Charles Hartshorne’s book Omnipotence and other theological mistakes famous in the Anglo-Saxon world.

However, the leader of this theology is the mathematician Alfred North Whitehead whose book Trial and Reality seems to constitute the systematic theology which remains little known in Europe for lack of translation of his theological work whereas, in the United States, his texts are in the secondary school program.

If the theology of the process is more particularly developed in the United States, it nevertheless finds a certain echo in Europe thanks to the work of André Gounelle who gave an introduction to the various theologies of the process under the title The Creative Dynamism of God.

Whitehead gives no definition of God. It describes its three features:

  • to inject the possible into the real and, thereby, open up to it potentialities, of becoming,
  • sorting out between the potential and the possible and thereby effectively enabling free will,
  • failing to give a meaning, give a direction to the possible. In this, the philosophers of the process provide a reinterpretation of predestination dear to Augustine of Hippo and then to Protestant theologians. This direction is proposed (and not imposed) so as to promote the best realization of each current entity and to tend towards a harmonious world.

Christian phenomenology

For the Christian philosopher Michel Henry, God is nothing other than the absolute phenomenological life which permanently gives each ego to itself and which reveals itself to us in suffering as in self-enjoyment:

“God is Life, he is the essence of Life, or, if you prefer, the essence of life is God. Saying this, we already know what God is, we do not know it by the effect of any knowledge or awareness, we do not know it by thought, against the background of the truth of the world; we know it and can only know it in and through Life itself. We can only know that in God.”

Includes texts from Wikipedia with license CC BY-SA 3.0, translated and adapted by Nicolae Sfetcu

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