On the Nature and Existence of God
Is it rational to believe that God exists? The answer to this question depends on two elements: a theory of rationality and a theory of the concept of God. Regarding the first, author Richard Gale is only interested in deductive arguments for and against the rationality of believing that God exists. He ignores inductive “arguments based on design, beauty, and law like regularity and simplicity” (1). Regarding the second, Gale assumes that there are two kinds of descriptive properties that are part of the meaning of the concept of God. On the one hand, there are “hard-core descriptive properties,” which are, of necessity, part of the meaning of the concept of God: “Examples of the hard-core descriptive properties of ‘God’ are being a supremely great being, that is, as great as any being could possibly be, and being eminently worthy of worship and obedience” (6). On the other hand, there are “soft-core descriptive properties.” Compared to hard-core properties, soft-core descriptive properties are lower-level properties that are used to explain the exemplification of God’s hard-core descriptive properties: God is the greatest possible being in virtue of the soft-core descriptive properties God exemplifies. According to Gale, different sets of soft-core properties can be associated with the same set of hard-core descriptive properties. Examples of soft-core properties are unrestricted omnipotence, being absolutely simple, or being eternal and immutable (6-8).
On the Nature and Existence of God can be seen as a critical discussion of the plausibility of a particular conception of God’s soft-core properties that is known as classical theism. According to classical theism, roughly speaking, God is the greatest possible being—in virtue of being an absolutely simple, omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent person that exists eternally completely outside of time and creates the world contingently ex nihilo.
The first part of Gale’s book discusses the plausibility of familiar atheological arguments, the aims of which are to “reveal a logical inconsistency in the theist’s concept of God” (13). According to Gale, the problem of evil, the creation-immutability argument, and the omniscience-immutability argument all point to the conclusion that a concept of God that specifies divine greatness and worshipfulness in terms of the soft-core properties of timeless eternity and immutability leads to contradiction: “The underlying problem of theism is that it wants its God to play contradictory roles – to be both a person and a mystical reality that is beyond being, time, and distinctions” (45). Or take this other form of contradiction: “Not only does there appear to be no good argument for why a highest being, a being than which nothing greater can be conceived, must be timeless, there is good argument for why it must be temporal” (76). For Gale, then, an adequate concept of God cannot be that of classical theism.
The second part of Gale’s book discusses theological arguments for the existence of God: that is, ontological arguments, cosmological arguments, arguments based on religious experience, and pragmatic arguments. After a careful analysis of each of them, Gale concludes that none of them is ultimately convincing because none of them shows that the God of classical theism exists. The main reason for their failure consists in this: the God of classical theism exists necessarily, but “God should not be the sort of entity that necessarily exists; for, if he is so conceived, it follows that he does not and cannot exist” (174). Gale therefore concludes “if the only available arguments [for the rationality of faith] were the epistemological and pragmatic arguments examined before, faith would lack any rational justification” (332).
On the Nature and Existence of God was first published in 1991 and it is still a valuable contribution to the philosophy of religion. It deals with important questions concerning the philosophical and theological adequacy of a particular concept of God (that of classical theism). However, although the analyses of the different arguments for and against the existence of God are very thoughtful, it seems that Gale—particularly in concluding that faith would lack any rational justification if the only available arguments for it were those discussed in the book—draws a conclusion that is not supported by the arguments he himself offers. Since faith is not committed to the concept of God as specified in classical theism, only a much weaker conclusion follows, one which fits better with what Gale says towards the beginning of his book: that if the only available arguments for classical theism were those analyzed in the book, then classical theism as a particular interpretation of what it means to be the greatest possible being—not faith per se—would lack rational justification. And this, in turn, seems to be what many a process theologian, open theist, or panentheist can fully agree with today.
Benedikt Paul Göcke is on the Faculty of Theology and Religion at the Ian Ramsey Center for Science and Religion at the University of Oxford.
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