The other night I got into one of those internet “black holes” where you endlessly click from one link on a site to the next. Somewhere along the way, I came across this post from J. Cecil’s Progressive Catholic Reflections (a seemingly defunct blog) in which the author offers some defenses of the existence of God from well established philosophers with some commentary on the weaknesses of the arguments. It was brief, but still fascinating. One thing that caught my attention was the section from Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae. I read this section of the Summa when I was exploring Catholicism, and I thought of it then as a pretty solid defense of the existence of God. Of course, I was coming at it from the assumption that God exists. Here’s the passage:
The first and more manifest way is the argument from motion. It is certain, and evident to our senses, that in the world some things are in motion. Now whatever is in motion is put in motion by another, for nothing can be in motion except it is in potentiality to that towards which it is in motion; whereas a thing moves inasmuch as it is in act. For motion is nothing else than the reduction of something from potentiality to actuality. But nothing can be reduced from potentiality to actuality, except by something in a state of actuality. Thus that which is actually hot, as fire, makes wood, which is potentially hot, to be actually hot, and thereby moves and changes it. Now it is not possible that the same thing should be at once in actuality and potentiality in the same respect, but only in different respects. For what is actually hot cannot simultaneously be potentially hot; but it is simultaneously potentially cold. It is therefore impossible that in the same respect and in the same way a thing should be both mover and moved, i.e. that it should move itself. Therefore, whatever is in motion must be put in motion by another. If that by which it is put in motion be itself put in motion, then this also must needs be put in motion by another, and that by another again. But this cannot go on to infinity, because then there would be no first mover, and, consequently, no other mover; seeing that subsequent movers move only inasmuch as they are put in motion by the first mover; as the staff moves only because it is put in motion by the hand. Therefore it is necessary to arrive at a first mover, put in motion by no other; and this everyone understands to be God.
I’m completely with Aquinas, with his quite reasoned and scientific description of motion, until the last sentence, which seems to jump from a description of motion to, “Therefore God,” without any transition or explanation as to what God is and how God fits into this idea of motion. The argument is a more intelligent version of what we hear from people we know, which is essentially, “I don’t understand that, so it must be God,” which is no argument at all. And, on a more intellectual level, that’s what all arguments for God’s existence come down to – “Well, if it can’t be explained, it must be God.”
From my (albeit limited) experience, explanation for why one believes in God boils down to either 1) “God of the gaps” argument, or 2) personal experience. “God of the gaps” argument relies heavily on granted assumptions, and I’m not going to get into that. But, when it comes to personal experience, I don’t like to tell someone that their perceived experience is wrong. I wasn’t there, I can’t say. We all have experiences that we perceive to have happened a certain way that may or may not have actually happened that way. We all have our narrative. And, I’m not going to tell someone that their narrative is wrong, because their narrative is (generally) unfalsifiable.
Here’s the thing – those experiences are subjective and others have experienced things to the contrary. So, it becomes a problem when “Because I feel God is real,” (or “because I can’t explain the gaps”) is extrapolated to “thus God is real,” which is then further extrapolated to “therefore my flavor of Christianity is true,” and further to “which means my flavor of Christianity’s moral codes are from God and thus true,” to finally “therefore those moral codes are applicable to everyone.” Extrapolating personal experiences or lack of knowledge into moral codes that should be propagated universally is repressive. For example, sex and alcohol have generally been positive forces in my life (with a handful of exceptions), and some Christians have problems with one or both of these – and to limit my access to, or ability to safely participate in, these two things holds me back from fully experiencing the truths I find in humanity. Additionally, for others sex and/or alcohol are problematic for them – and it would be just as harmful for me to say that because of my own experience, they should freely partake in those activities because it’s universally positive.
Is there a legitimate, red herring-free argument for the existence of God? No. But, I would never suggest that people can’t personally believe God fills the gaps of the unknowns, or try to take away their personal experiences. But, to have such a large group of people using those subjective beliefs and experiences to try to control other people should not be acceptable in the 21st Century.