Author Information: Eugene Loginov, Moscow State University, http://hisocrates.com/portfolio-view/eugene-loginov-2/
Loginov, Eugene. “Steve Fuller on Proofs for God’s Existence: An Interview.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 12 (2016): 1-3.
Editor’s Note: A philosophy student at Moscow State University, Eugene Loginov, recently interviewed Steve Fuller on his views about arguments concerning the existence of God. The interview will be published in Russian in the philosophy magazine, Date-Palm Compote. Below are Loginov’s questions and Fuller’s responses.
Image credit: Tom Davidson, via flickr
Eugene Loginov (EL): What is your position regarding the general idea of making arguments for the existence of God? Do you think it to be valid at all? Why?
Steve Fuller (SF): I think that arguments for the existence of God are among the most psychologically revealing philosophical projects that one can engage in. This is especially true of ‘God’ in the Abrahamic religions, in whose ‘image and likeness’ humans are supposedly created. The sort of arguments that people find persuasive for the existence of God says something deep about the nature of their own connection with the world. For example, the more secure we feel about our place in the cosmos, the more persuasive the ontological argument will seem, since it is based on faith in the workings of our own minds. I identify this orientation with a broadly ‘Augustinian’ approach to Christianity, which stresses the overlap between human and divine being in terms of access to the logos: God creates by the Word and we can understand through the Word.
(EL): If you tried to prove God’s existence (or to make a claim against its existence), what definition of the notion of “God” would you use? Do you think that the classic definition of “God” as “the all-good, omniscient and omnipotent creator of the world” is still the suitable one?
(SF): I would go with the idea of God that I find in Duns Scotus, and Leibniz namely, that God is the transcendental optimizer of all the virtues. In other words, God is not merely all good, all powerful, etc. After all, any of one of those qualities taken to the extreme may be incompatible with the others—and may turn out to result in more bad than good. (Think of what might happen to humans if God were a ruthlessly efficient superintelligent computer.) It follows that God contains all the virtues in a way that enables them to cohere together in his person to maximum overall positive effect—a convergence to a ‘divine singularity’, if you will, or what Pierre Teilhard de Chardin called the ‘Omega Point’. However, it may not be obvious what such a transcendental optimizer would look like, since such a God would be constituted in a way which appears—at least from a human perspective—to involve trade-offs between the virtues.
(EL): Which of the various arguments for God’s existence (or claims against its, or His, existence) you regard as the most valid and/or the most interesting one?
(SF): My answer to [your second question] (see above) is a version of the ontological argument, which I believe is the most intellectually interesting and challenging argument for God’s existence—because it basically makes our own existence (at least as thinking beings) co-dependent with God’s existence. Philosophers tend to focus on whether the ontological argument is valid, when in fact they should pay attention to the consequences if it turns out to be invalid. More than simply the existence of God is at stake. The constitution of our own minds is also on trial here. Partly influenced by Kant, Darwin believed that humans were unique as a species—due to our overdeveloped cerebral cortex—in taking its own ideas seriously even if they lack any direct relation to empirical reality. He believed that this liability (at least from an evolutionary standpoint) resulted in brutal intra-species wars and might ultimately lead to the extinction of the human species altogether. For Darwin, ‘God’ was clearly one such idea, especially when defended by the ontological argument.
(EL): What are your thoughts regarding significance of demonstrations of God’s existence (or claims against its, or His, existence) in history of philosophy, science, religion and culture in general?
(SF): The best way to answer the question is to consider what happens when arguments for the existence of God are not taken seriously. The first thing that happens is that belief in God goes underground. In other words, God becomes something whose existence is implicitly affirmed or denied but does not make a material difference to other propositions that one might believe or defend. The second thing that happens is that the ‘hole’ in public discourse formerly filled by God talk becomes colonized by, on the one hand, humans-as-gods and, on the other hand, an outright denial of the order and goodness to reality that a rational belief in God was supposed to underwrite. So there are seriously value implications for denying the seriousness of arguments for God’s existence.
(EL): There is a widely held opinion that Kant’s critique of the arguments he was aware of was so devastating, that the very question of making arguments for the existence of God ceased to be philosophically relevant. Do you agree? Why?
(SF): As a matter of historical fact, Kant dealt a serious blow to formal arguments for the existence of God, since he basically diagnosed all of them as pathologies of reason of one sort or another. As I said in answer to [your third question] (see above), this opened the door to Darwin’s diminished view of human cognitive aspirations. However, it is worth pointing out that much of 19th century philosophy of science—I think here especially of William Whewell and Charles Sanders Peirce—stressed the ‘pragmatic’ side of Kant’s position, which accepted the motivational role that God’s existence played in driving science towards a unified worldview and conferring on humans a sense of purpose more generally.
I would also observe that Kant seems to have thought that any attempt to prove the existence of God must start by imagining ourselves to be radically different from God, and so the point of the ‘proof’ would be to gain epistemic access to this ‘other’ being called ‘God. However, the Cartesian tradition (including Malebranche and Leibniz) does not presume that sense of radical difference. In other words, these rationalists took rather literally the idea that we are already equipped to access the ‘Mind of God’. This effectively modernizes Augustine, which later philosophers further secularized as the ‘a priori’ and ‘innate ideas’. However, the challenge—already recognized by Augustine—is how to translate God’s infinite and transcendental status into our necessarily finite and temporal understanding of things.
Perhaps the most concrete expression of this challenge occurs over the ‘problem of evil’, the subject matter of theodicy, which queries God’s apparent tolerance or indifference to the world’s massive harms and imperfections. It was in this context that arguments for God’s existence based on ‘intelligent design’ (i.e. a deeper design than would appear at first glance) were developed in the 18th century, culminating in the work of William Paley, whose natural theology famously drove Darwin away from a belief in God.
(EL): What text (or texts) is in your opinion the most important one (or ones) for understanding the problematic in question?
(SF): Interestingly, I don’t think there is a single book that really discusses classic arguments for the existence in God in all their historical, philosophical and sociological richness. However, I recommend the works of Peter Harrison, as one contemporary historian and philosopher of science who shows repeatedly how key doctrines relating to a belief in the existence of God—such as the need for a personal encounter with the Bible and the doctrine of Original Sin—operated as what Imre Lakatos would have called as ‘positive heuristic’ in facilitating the inquiring mind during the 17th century Scientific Revolution.