A Sound Mind

by Mordecai Plaut

(Page 2)

From the book "At the Center of the Universe".


A number of important consequences follow from our reinterpretation of the arguments for G-d. The most important of them has to do with the practical aspects of the compulsion to actually believe in Him and act as He would have one act.

In the past, people either accepted the existence of G-d or not — and most accepted it. Recently it has become fashionable to suspend judgement on the issue. Finding the traditional aguments (in their traditional interpretations) uncompelling, yet finding no arguments against the presence of G-d, many people dignify their doubt by adopting the agnostic "position."

Of great comfort to agnostics in their cautious rejection of proffered arguments for G'd's being is the feeling that theirs is the "safe" position. They reason that they cannot be charged with holding a wrong opinion, and their rejection of the proffered evidence for G-d's presence can at most be an honest mistake, which they found no way to avoid.(1) It is notable that, while emphasizing the distinction between an unintentional error and deliberate wrongdoing, such reasoning tends to obscure the more important distinction between right and wrong.

If there were no G-d, of course, it would matter little if they chose as they did or otherwise. In fact, however, agnostics are likely to find their position to be painfully void of G'd. Certainly the most fundamental fact about G-d (as far as we are concerned and insofar as we can make such distinctions) is His being, and the most basic way in which He relates to us is by His presence in our being. This presence gets no welcome from an agnostic, and that is a serious matter. He fails to fulfill the first commandment of the Decalogue. His only "safety" lies in the fact that he did not violate the second. Though the agnostic's mistake is not as serious as it could have been, it is still woefully distant from the truth.

There are, of course, reasoned justifications for the agnostic position. It will, however, be shown here, convincingly I believe, that these arguments are clearly insufficient to support such a position.

The simplest one is that which attaches to the simplest position. It is maintained by some that they have made an exhausting (though certainly not exhaustive) attempt to arrive at some conclusion but have been unable to discover any conclusive evidence for or against G-d's existence. Hence they despair of finding any such evidence and throw their hands up in the air (and, subsequently, their lives too). For many of these people, their lives are completed before their investigation.

A second, firmer commitment to doubt is the position which maintains that no conclusive proof exists, either asserting this unreservedly or at least arguing that it is highly probable. This is supported by a sort of inductive argument: The proponent may take any one of the traditional arguments (in its usual interpretation) with which he is familiar and then show it to be ineffective or inconclusive. Thinking that his effort compromises all proofs and arguments for G-d's being, or at least that his past success indicates a trend, he leaps to the conclusion that no final answer on the matter is available to humanity.

Perhaps the strongest position is the "objective" one. Proponents purport to rise above the arguments on both sides, for or against (against the "for," that is). They claim that at best the arguments for the existence of G-d only lend support to their conclusion, but do not themselves provide complete justification. They then argue that regardless of whether G-d is or not, the lack of a clear and forceful argument for His presence means that one cannot be held accountable for denying it. They claim that there is no proof extant which can make any demand on one who would simply reject it. Such proofs as there are, always rest on an unjustified judgment or on self-contained principles and are thus deniable, they maintain without penalty. Thus, they conclude, they may reject the arguments and fail to conclude that G-d is, without fear of punishment by G-d. Since G-d is just, He could not hold them accountable for their actions if they had no good reason to believe that they acted wrongly in behaving as they did. Their position does appear the strongest but only because it is the most complicated.

To those who would maintain either of the first two agostic positions, we recommend a continuing effort. The issue is central to the human condition; it affects the most basic premises on which one leads his life. It burns for an answer. It is difficult to see how anyone could adopt a position which consists entirely of doubt and questions on an issue as important as the existence of G-d. If someone has not resolved the problem to his satisfaction, he ought to be consumed with the effort to do so. Furthermore, G-d's existence is a fact which is independent of any proof. Any "proof" can only serve to inform one of this fact. It does not establish it. As we will show later on, there is in fact a proof which, if "valid," is necessarily accessible to all too. Thus, ignorance is no excuse.

We may analyze the remaining agnostic position into two assertions: 1) that a clear and forceful proof of G-d's existence does not exist and 2) lacking such a proof, one who fails to acknowledge G-d's existence cannot be held accountable for that failure.

As to the first point, many would say that there are numerous such proofs, among them those given by Maimonides, Descartes, Leibniz, and Newton. In fact, most of the acknowledged great thinkers maintained that everyone should know that G-d exists. Clearly the existence of such a proof is not a settled issue, and one who fails to find one, or who finds the proofs less than convincing, has no grounds for confidence in his conclusion in the face of such distinguished opposition.

Furthermore the assertion that there are no good proofs of G-d's existence is only a matter of opinion. The demand for a convincing, clear, or forceful proof has no objective content. It comes down to a demand for an argument which will command assent, with no a priori or objective specifications such a proof must meet. A proof is convincing if it convinces; there is no standard more subjective than that. Everything is left up to each individual. He is free to decide if a particular argument convinces him or not.

Some would ask for a logical proof as an objective standard to be met. We have pointed out that this is not the kind of proof one would expect to find, based on the kind of question we are dealing with, namely, an ontological question.(2) Furthermore, even such proofs, when they deal with objects (and are not just argument forms) are open to objections; for example, see Lewis Carroll's "What the Tortoise Said to Achilles."(3) Even logical arguments require an unsubstantiated assent to the use of certain forms of reasoning. If one refused to accept a logically valid argument, the logic might "take you by the throat and force you to (accept) it," but such attacks have never been known to be fatal.(4) Thus it is not clear by what standard one could confidently say that a good proof of G-d has not been proffered.

As to his accountability for failing to accept G-d, we should like to recall that the agnostic's "position" can in no sense be called the true one. If he will not be punished for denying G-d, neither can he be rewarded for accepting Him. According to the more sophisticated views of the relationship between man and G- d, reward and punishment are not separate consequences but rather locations on a continuum. An agnostic may not find himself at the lower end of the continuum, but he would certainly remain distant from the higher end. It is not what many would see as a safe position.

The nature of the proofs for G-d as we have interpreted them should further erode the complacency of an agnostic. As we have explained them, many proofs demonstrate G-d by suggesting methods whose result is to actually experience Him. Such arguments, when successful, have some remarkable properties.

They are conclusive. If one has direct personal experience of G- d there remain no further questions as to His existence. As well as we know anything, we know that G-d is. Perhaps better. The "perception" on which these proofs rest is basic to all human knowledge. It is prior to sensory perception and is the faculty which we use to evaluate all knowledge — even analytic a priori knowledge. It might be understood as direct intellectual perception (unmediated by the senses). That which is perceived in this way cannot be doubted because there is no more reliable means to knowledge against which it may be tested. This is all a more or less academic discussion. In practice, one who has such a perception will be at ease about G-d's existence.

The proofs can be honestly denied. It is not hard to believe that someone has not perceived G-d though he made some effort. One whose attempts at perception proved unsuccessful is unfortunate but perfectly reasonable and understandable. We maintain that anyone who makes a serious, unprejudiced attempt will be successful, though considerable effort may be required. Moreover, some of the arguments themselves are clear and simple and should be accessible to almost anyone. Though the arguments are clear and conclusive, yet an agnostic is within his rights to point out that it didn't work for him. Within his rights maybe, but right he's not.

They are universally accessible. Some may find one particular argument easier to work with than another, yet the basic idea must be accessible to all. G-d is life; He permeates Creation. One would suspect that it is not difficult to perceive Him, and some effort, if it's in the right direction, would confirm those suspicions. It must be remembered that everyone (including those who follow G-d's precepts but have not yet had conclusive experience of His being) has a very strong vested interest in avoiding this perception. Confrontation with one's creator is an intensely humbling experience. It makes one nakedly aware of his or her most fundamental limitations. Overcoming this entrenched prejudice against meeting the Creator, even if one is convinced that He is around, is the source of much of the effortŭreqired to meet Him. Another difficulty may be in seeing the unfamiliar, G'dly aspects of so much which is so thoroughly familiar in other aspects. Nonetheless, all this has its origin in the human psyche and as such may be controlled by us.

If we would meet Him, we will.


On the Objections Raised by I. Kant to the Ontological Proof

The ontological proof, with many variations, has been used by many philosophers. Among those who seemed to have accepted it were Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz. Others have accused it of circularity, but none as thoroughly and carefully as Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason. Since his analysis, it is often thought that the ontological proof has been finally exposed as a petitio principii.

Kant's objection is summarized popularly with the slogan, "Existence is not a predicate." The proof in its strongest form asserts that existence is essential to the nature of G-d, hence we cannot deny His existence without contradiction. Kant answers this with a very careful discussion of the difference between existence and other predicates (such as color, or height, or omnipotence). Existence, he points out, is not something which at all determines the nature of a thing. If we give a full definition of something, and then we say that it exists, we have added nothing by this last assertion. Although many things do exist, this condition is not a part of their definition.

He argues that a hundred real coins are no more than a hundred possible coins. The only difference between real and possible coins is the presence of the object in the case of the real coins. But these coin objects which are added to the concept of the coins already present when the coins are just possible, must be completely separate from the idea of the coins itself. It is what makes the coins and but it is not what makes them coins. Furthermore, if the real thing were in any way different from the concept of its possibility, we would not say that that possible thing really is. The fact that we consider the possible thing to be realized shows that they are the same, that what was added to the idea to produce the real object is not part ofthe idea itself but something separate from it. As people commonly say, "Just because we can think of a thing doesn't mean that it also exists." This is the gist of Kant's argument.

Kant's analysis is very forceful and very clearly articulates the unease felt by most upon hearing the ontological proof. In general his remarks are, of course, correct. However, there is one case (and one case only — the case of the One) in which his analysis breaks down. G-d's existence is of a wholly different kind than ours and all with which we are familiar. His existence is necessary and essential; ours, contingent and accidental. Kant's analysis amounts to the assertion that existence is accidental. For us and the material objects which populate our lives, this is true. For G-d this is false.

In fact, this distinction constitutes the heart of the proof. Acceptance of the proof is dependent on understanding that G-d exists necessarily, not accidentally. G-d is the one being whose reality is a part of His essence. The existence which is attributed to Him by those who advance the ontological proof not the same kind as that which we "attribute" to other objects. The latter sort of existence is not in fact a predicate of its objects. To use it as such is a true confusion of a logical and a real predicate, as Kant complained. However, when we say G-d is, we mean He is necessarily and essentially — and it is a contradiction to deny such being. To be sure, this sort of being is not familiar and the concept is extremely difficult to grasp but it most definitely is. To paraphrase Maimonides: He, may His name be elevated, and His existence are one. Man's mind cannot grasp this completely. Just as man lacks the ability to grasp and understand G-d's mind, as it were, so man lacks the ability to grasp and understand the truth of the Creator (Himself).

  1. 1 It is definitely a mistake, since, at the least, they judged the proposition that the world could have come about by chance to be true, when it turns out to be false.

  2. 2 Note: This should not be taken to imply that there is no such argument, unexpected though it may be.

  3. 3 Newman, James R., The World of Mathematics, vol. IV (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1956), pp. 2402-2405.

  4. 4 Ibid, p. 2404.

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Related essay: How to Succeed in Knowing Without Really Seeing