The Place of Existence Arguments in Natural Theology

Traditionally, the first item on natural theology's agenda is providing philosophically acceptable evidence in support of the proposition that God exists. For anyone willing to take natural theology seriously, that's a dispiriting prospect. Philosophers have for centuries been raising objections to every known argument for God's existence—a state of affairs that could, by itself, account for natural theology's decline. In such circumstances, can this project get started at all? Obviously it would have to be aborted if there were an airtight proof that God does not exist, but there isn't. The argument from evil is indisputably the most plausible candidate for that role, and it has, especially recently, given rise to rejoinders as numerous and at least as powerful as the many versions of the argument. It warrants all the attention it gets, but I think that the amount of attention it's been getting lately i excuses me from devoting any time to its consideration here.

1 For important contributions to this literature see e.g. Stump 1985; Adams and Adams 1991; Peterson 1992; Howard-Snyder 1995.

So, as I see it, starting natural theology is not impossible, just very hard.

While philosophers were finding fault with putative proofs of God's existence, they were, of course, also discovering comparable difficulties in producing proofs of the existence of other minds, for example, or of the reliability of


2 For a sophisticated and sensible appraisal of the status of arguments for the existence of God, see Ross 1969: esp. ch. 1, 'Arguments and Proof in Philosophical Theology'.

But no philosopher I know of has been dissuaded by such discoveries from undertaking a philosophy of mind or a theory of cognition. That familiar state of affairs has helped to show philosophers that what Aquinas would call 'probable' (rather than 'demonstrative') argumentation end p.54


© Copyright Oxford University Press, 2006. All Rights Reserved must be the norm in philosophy, which includes natural theology. It also helps to account for some recent attempts to show that no philosopher who in those circumstances goes on acknowledging the existence of other minds or the reliability of sense-perception can offer any principled objection to

theism based on the state of the evidence for it.

3 See e.g. Plantinga 1967; also Alston 1991. But while no sane person can in practice sustain agnosticism regarding consciousness in fellow human beings or regarding the existence of the objects we apparently perceive, very many sane, bright people find no such practical difficulty in setting aside or rejecting the hypothesis that God exists. So even the rare philosopher who thinks that the inconclusiveness of the evidence for God's existence is on a par with the inconclusiveness of the evidence for the existence of physical objects and other persons might reasonably think herself practically justified in believing in bodies and minds other than her own while not believing in God. And that familiar state of affairs has helped to motivate the recent upsurge of anti-evidentialism in the epistemology of religious belief, most conspicuously expressed in the thesis of Reformed epistemology that 'it is entirely right, rational, reasonable, and proper to believe in God without any evidence or argument at all' (Plantinga 1983: 17; see also Introduction, sect. 4).

Unlike Reformed epistemologists, I'm not an anti-evidentialist. On the contrary, I think it's obvious that rational theism requires one to provide philosophically good evidence on the basis of which one can rationally believe that God exists. And philosophically good evidence typically comes in the form of arguments, though not in the form of airtight proofs.

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