I recently came across an argument which attempts to prove that God does not exist. It’s interesting for two reasons:
- It’s not the standard dodge of saying that the burden of proof is on others, as if all of life is a debate, rather than the burden of investigation being on all rational people to find out what is actually true of the world.
- It seems to be a novel argument, which would mean that Saint Thomas did not in fact give an exhaustive list in the Summa Theologica. (This is of course possible; Saint Thomas was only human.)
The original version of the argument apparently comes from a book, but is summarized here. It is fairly long and uses a term which it doesn’t define, “meaningful conscious relationship”. There are several possible meanings according to ordinary English usage, each of which makes the argument break down in different places. If it’s not obvious where, let me know and I’ll explain in detail, but suffice it to say it is not explained what would be wrong with a meaningful subconscious relationship.
It is not explained because “meaningful conscious relationship” is useful in this argument precisely insofar as it means “belief”, in the sense of “propositional belief”. That is, the sort of belief you state in words. If you have in your heart a conviction you can’t articulate that the world actually means something and isn’t just a bad joke with no punchline, that is a belief in God but not a propositional belief in God, since you can’t articulate it.
So right away, this argument can be more briefly stated, “If God existed, he would make everyone believe in him because to not know that God exists would be unthinkably cruel.” (There are variants which assume that God’s #1 priority is having people believe in him, as if he were Apollo from the Star Trek episode Who Mourns for Adonis? and the existence of atheists proves that he is not omnipotent, but this is idiotic and I prefer to focus on the most favorable interpretation of someone’s position.)
The problem with arguments from how unthinkably awful something is consists in the fact that they are never thought through. How can you know that something is so awful that no good could possibly be greater than it, except by thinking out in detail how bad it really is? And here we come to the real crux of the problem, for it should be obvious by now that this is just another phrasing of what C.S. Lewis called, “the problem of pain.” (It was Saint Thomas’ first objection to the existence of God.) No one can think out exactly how terrible something is in detail, nor can they think out what sort of goods might be better and available only if the bad thing is permitted. No one can do this because there are too many details. What a person can know is how afraid he is of some particular suffering as he imagines it, and this is invariable what we are actually presented with. This is not thinking, this is being afraid.
What we cannot know because our experience and our minds are finite, God can know because he is not finite. There is no suffering so terrible that it is not theoretically possible that permitting this evil allows greater good to be brought about. And so we come to the real answer to the problem of pain: trust God. God is good, wise, and powerful, and though we cannot see how things are presently being worked to the good, our sight is so very limited there is no reason to expect that we could see it. Not seeing it is, therefore, not only not a contradiction to faith in God, but actually consonant with what we would expect if we are being realistic.
Incidentally, this last part is also why freedom can only be found in obedience to God. To be free, one must be able to choose. But to choose, you must be able to apprehend what it is you are choosing. On our own, since we have no idea what the full consequences of our actions are, but the consequences of are actions are in fact the content of the action, we cannot actually choose anything on our own. Apart from God, we are simply slaves to our environment. We can hope, but our hopes are invariably disappointed. Only by joining our will to the will of one who can apprehend our actions because he knows the consequences of our actions, can we actually do what we intend. It is true we do not apprehend the action in its fullness, but because we will to do good, and God wills that we do good, by joining our will to his in obedience, we actually do accomplish what we intended, though we find out what the intention was after it happens while God knows it in his eternal now. This is the most that freedom can mean to a finite creature that lives in time.