Philosophy

Four Centuries of Trying to Prove God’s Existence

Whether God exists or not is one of the most important philosophical
questions there is. And the tradition of trying to establish God’s existence involving evidence is a long one

Attempts to prove God’s existence continue today. But they are on nothing like the same scale as they were hundreds of years ago, with secularism now being as common among philosophers as it is among the general population. And this is not the only difference to have occurred since that golden age, which is the focus of the book, Proofs of God in Early Modern
Europe. Here are three other things that have changed over the centuries:
Aims.

When contemporary thinkers try to prove God’s existence, their aim is usually to show that it is in fact reasonable to believe in God. For example, in New Proofs for the Existence of Gpd, Robert J Spitzer advances a series of proofs that together constitute evidence “capable of grounding reasonable and responsible belief in a super-intelligent, transcendent, creative power”. Such an aim would have struck early modern philosophers as odd, because back then the default view was that belief in God was perfectly reasonable. Indeed, in early modern times, religious belief was so widespread in Europe that the idea of someone sincerely denying God’s existence was often considered to be absurd – if not unthinkable.  So why did early modern philosophers feel the need to construct proofs for something that was already widely believed to be true? Often, they sought to prove God’s existence because of the central explanatory or theoretical role that God played in their philosophical thought.

René Descartes (1596-1650)

famously claimed that proving the existence of a perfect God
was the only way he could be certain of the reality of the external world. He held that what appeared to him to be true really was true, since it was beyond doubt that a perfect God would not engage in deception or give him senses that were unreliable. For Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), establishing whether there is a God had important repercussions not just for what we can know about the world, but also about how we should live. He believed the greatest possible contentment we can experience in this life comes from our knowledge of the essence of things – which in turn comes from understanding God’s attributes. The more we understand things this way, the less troubled we will be by strongemotions and the less we will fear death. For the great thinkers of early modernity, then, establishing God’s existence was of paramount importance.

But perhaps the biggest difference between contemporary and early modern attempts to prove God’s existence lies in the source of the opposition to these proofs. Many of those who oppose efforts to prove God’s existence today are either atheists, who claim there is no God, or agnostics, who are neutral as to whether there is a God or not. Both atheists and agnostics have a vested interest in undermining proofs for the existence of God.

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