Sceptics often reject theistic arguments by pointing out that they “don’t prove God.” Perhaps the theist has just argued that there’s a personal uncaused cause, or a personal designer of the universe, or a necessarily existent perfectly rational mind, or what-have-you; in any case, the sceptic’s response is to explain how the theist’s argument doesn’t establish that God exists. “How do you know there’s just one uncaused cause? How can you be so sure that the designer of the universe is benevolent towards us?” And so on, and so forth.
As it stands, I don’t find this kind of objection to theistic arguments particularly compelling. A couple of reasons come to mind.
First, that a single argument on its own fails to establish theism does not entail that the argument fails to support theism in some important way. I’d suggest that theistic arguments should be understood not as standalone arguments for the existence of God but rather as arguments in support of the existence of God or some other aspect or aspects of a theistic story. Taken this way, a cumulative case based on theistic arguments may establish theism even if each one of the arguments, taken individually, fails to establish theism.
Second, that a single argument on its own fails to establish theism does not entail that the argument fails to establish some other non-trivial conclusion—perhaps even a conclusion that is incompatible with naturalism or some other non-theistic worldview.
For example, if there’s a personal cause of the natural world, naturalism is false and should be rejected. If the universe is designed, then—for all we know—the designer or designers involved might be interested in human beings, might hold them responsible for certain actions, and might offer the possibility of eternal life (among other things). So to simply dismiss a theistic argument disinterestedly with a statement to the effect that it “doesn’t prove God” seems to me rather strange.
To wrap up, then: I think that theistic arguments are best understood as arguments in support of some aspect or aspects of the theistic worldview, and that a full-blown case for theism probably should be based on a cumulative case that takes into account those theistic arguments; and it’s my view that theistic arguments, even if they don’t establish theism on their own, may still establish very interesting conclusions that warrant further investigation and consideration. (I suppose that similar things might rightly be said about atheistic arguments, too.)
- In this post, I’ll use “theism” to refer to the hypothesis that there exists a being who fits the title “God,” “atheism” to refer to the hypothesis that there does not exist a being who fits the title “God,” and “God” as a title for a personal agent who (uniquely) is all-knowing and all-powerful, perfectly free and perfectly good, necessarily existent and the ultimate creator of everything that is contingently existent (including the natural world). [↩]
Originally posted on my blog.