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Book Review: Letters to Doubting Thomas: A Case for the Existence of God

David Roemer

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Letters to Doubting Thomas: A Case for the Existence of God
C. Stephen Layman
Oxford University Press, 278 pp., $26.00

Like most American intellectuals, Professor Layman doesn't have a rational concept of God and doesn't understand the proof of God's existence. I feel lucky because I was not educated by American intellectuals but by the Roman Catholic Church at a college it ran in New York City in the early 1960s. I'll be comparing his ideas about God with those of Karen Armstrong (Armstrong, A History of God).

They both remind me of a story Howard Gardner, famous for his work on the different kinds of intelligence, told at a conference of educators I once attended. One day his daughter, frustrated to the point of tears, complained to him about the difficulty she was having understanding a college course she was taking in physics. Describing himself as the perfect father, he related how he listened patiently while she spoke, praised her industriousness, and tactfully suggested that she discuss the matter with her physics teacher. His daughter said, "You don't get it, Dad. I get hundreds on all my tests."

His point was that students succeed by repeating on tests exactly what the teacher said in the classroom, regardless of whether or not they understand what they were taught. The more successful students become professors themselves and pass on their so-called knowledge to succeeding generations.

I'll begin my critique of Layman's book is with the following quote:

Just as a contingent truth is true but might have been false, so a contingent being is one that does exist but might not have. And suppose we claim, with regard to any contingent being, that it exists, e.g.,"I (Zach) exist" or "You (Thomas) exist." Such propositions are contingent truths, not necessary ones. More generally, we can state the relationship between contingent beings and contingent truths as follows: A being is contingent if (and only if) every proposition affirming its existence is a contingent truth. (p. 85)

Not in the above quote, nor anywhere else in the book, does he say that humans are finite beings and that God is an infinite being. I agree that humans are contingent beings, but this is not as clear and unmistakably true as the proposition that humans are finite beings: Zach exists and Thomas exists, but Zach is not Thomas and Thomas is not Zach. Zach and Thomas are different beings, that is, finite beings. God is a being that is not finite. A finite being needs a cause outside of itself whereas an infinite being can be the reason for its own existence. Since the universe would be unintelligible if every being needed a cause, there must be at least one infinite being. QED.

Like Layman, Armstrong does not understand the concept of the infinity of God. She recalls memorizing, at the age of eight, the following question and answer:

"What is God?": "God is the Supreme Spirit, Who alone exists of Himself and is infinite in all perfections." (p. xvii of A History of God)

Ms. Armstrong's recollections about what she was taught is quite accurate. The second of the 499 points of the Baltimore Catechism is:

2. Who is God?

God is the Supreme Being, infinitely perfect, who made all things and keeps them in existence. In him we live and move and have our being. (Acts 17:28)

Ms. Armstrong's comment on this is:

Not surprisingly, it meant little to me, and I am bound to say that it still leaves me cold. It has always seemed a singularly arid, pompous and arrogant definition. Since writing this book, however, I have come to believe that it is also incorrect. (p. xvii of A History of God)

Layman jumps from his underdeveloped idea that man is contingent to his necessarily underdeveloped idea that God is necessary. This is Layman's "theistic hypothesis":

(1) There is exactly one entity that is (2) perfectly morally good and (3) almighty and that (4) exists of necessity. (p. 12)

This book is written in the form of a letter to an imaginary Thomas (natch), who doubts God's existence. Layman (Zach) expatiates upon these four points in letters to Thomas. He supports points (1) and (2) by referring to revelation, but his explanations of points (3) and (4) are hopelessly circular. "Almighty" means "maximal power" and "exists of necessity" means "cannot fail to exist under any possible circumstances." In short, he fails to explain that the infinity of God is a reference to the finitude of man.

Professor Layman rejects the proof of God's existence I outlined above:

Many people become disappointed with philosophy because they demand proofs. By a "proof" I mean an argument with these two features: (1) Its premises are acceptable to all rational people, and (2) its conclusion follows logically from its premises. Proofs in this sense are rare or nonexistent in philosophy. The defense of virtually any major philosophical position will involved controversial premises at some point, i.e., premises not acceptable to all rational people. (p. 1)

Professor Layman uses another type of argument:

In an argument-to-the-best-explanation, there is a description of a phenomena or fact to be explained. The argument proceeds by giving reasons for supposing that one hypothesis explains the phenomenon better than rival hypotheses do. (p. 3)

Concerning the proof of God's existence, Ms. Arstrong says:

The argument that we are "contingent" or "defective" beings proves nothing, since there could always be an explanation that is ultimate but not supernatural. (p. 379 of A History of God)

Both are butting heads with the Roman Catholic Church and St. Paul:

22. Can we know by our natural reason that there is a God? We can know by our natural reason that there is a God, for natural reason tells us that the world we see about us could have been made only by a self-existing Being, all-wise and almighty. For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and injustice of those men that detain the truth of God in injustice; because that which is known of God is manifest in them. For God hath manifested it unto them. (Romans 1:18-19)

The use of the word "know" and the phrase "wrath of God" constitutes a criticism of the character of naturalists, atheists, and agnostics. Armstrong thinks God's existence is only a possible explanation for the existence of man and not a good one at that. Layman says it's the best explanation without criticizing those who disagree.

Explanations play a role in our daily lives and are part of common sense and reason. Scientists propose theories that explain observations, and juries render verdicts that explain the evidence. We also come across them in our relations with other people: "Lucy, you have some splaining to do."

In my opinion, the proof of God's existence is not an explanation, it is logical deduction from the fact that finite beings exist. The proof doesn't say what man is or what the direct cause of man is. The proof only says that there is an infinite being that causes all finite beings. Nor does the proof try to explain what would motivate an infinite being to create finite beings. Rejecting the "supernatural explanation" for man and preferring a "natural explanation" does not refute the proof because a "natural explanation" would only include finite beings.

One of Layman's arguments is that the "theistic hypothesis" gives a better explanation for the fact than humans have free will than naturalism, the philosophy that there is no supernatural being. Layman begins his argument by attempting to define free will:

Free will is traditionally characterized as the power to do otherwise than one in fact does. Let's say you recently voted in a meeting by raising your right arm. If you performed this action freely, then you had the power to do otherwise, to refrain from raising your right arm. If you have free will, then when you face a decision between incompatible courses of action (such as speaking and refraining from speaking), although you cannot take more than one of them, each of them is within your power. Another way to put it: If you have free will, then when you are confronted with mutually exclusive courses of action, which one you take is genuinely up to you. (p. 139)

All he is saying here is that free will is free will. It is another example of circular reasoning. Undaunted by or unaware of his inability to define free will, he goes on to discuss related concepts at great length: mechanism, determinism, compatibilism, and incompatibilism. I agree, however, with the following statement he makes about naturalists:

Many naturalists deny free will altogether because they see it as incompatible with a world governed by natural law. (p. 162)

I think I can do a better job than Layman of explaining why naturalists deny humans beings have free will. A "world governed by natural law" is a world in which there are no persons exercising their freedom. All Layman is saying is that naturalists deny free will because they don't think there is such a thing.

People who deny humans have free will in philosophical arguments act as if they had free will in the day-to-day living of their lives. They have the same experience we all have of existing, being aware of our existence, and acting through time. If they do something wrong they feel guilty, apologize, and promise not to do it again. If they work hard on a project for a few hours or a few days, they take pride in what they did. Their denial of free will is not only irrational, it raises questions about their sincerity and motives.

We can comprehend ourselves and recognize that we are finite beings, but we cannot otherwise define ourselves since we cannot define free will. This leads rational philosphers to say man is an indefinabilty or an embodied sprit, or that man possesses a spiritual soul as well as a body. Thomas Aquinas's formulation was that man is a composition of two incompelete beings: a material incomplete being and an immaterial incomplete being that are metaphysically combined to form one being.

By denying free will, naturalists are really admitting, however perversely, that they agree with the logic of the proof of God's existence: If humans have free will, then they are finite beings. If finite beings exist, then an infinite being exists. If their motive for denying free will is not to refute the proof of God's existence, what is it?

I did not invent the proof of God's existence which is sometimes called the "cosmological argument." It can be found, for example, in the Baltimore Catechism:

10. What do we mean when we say that God is self-existing? When we say that God is self-existing we mean that He does not owe His existence to any other being. I am who am. (Exodus 3:14)

While the answer to the question is as vauge and circular as Layman's "theistic hypothesis," the use of Exodus 3.14 as a proof-text shows the authors understand the proof, which is based on Aquinas's analysis of finite beings. According to Aquinas, a finite being has two principles operating within it: an essence and an existence. To quote from the glossary of a textbook on metaphysics (N. Clarke, One and the Many):

Essence = that in a being which makes it to be what it is, this being and not some other. Existence = that in a being which makes it a real being.

An infinite being can be thought of as a being which does not have a separate essence and existence. In other words, an infinite being's essence is the same as its existence. Its essence is to exist. Just as God told Moses.

David Roemer was employed by the New York City Department of Education as a high school science teacher until I retired in 1998. He currently works as a copyeditor and writer of ancillaries for science textbooks. Romer has a Ph.D. in physics from New York University (1971) and a B. S. from Fordham College (1964).

Posted: 18-Feb-07



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