The Proof of God
The Debate That Shaped Modern Belief
By Larry Witham
Atlas & Co., 2008, 217 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - December 15, 2009
This short, but very informative volume tells the history and thinking of three important scholars who addressed the question: Can we prove that God exists? The three are Anselm (1033-1109), William of Ockham (about 1288 to about 1349) and Rene Descartes (1596-1650). All three were believing Roman Catholics. All three tried to prove the teachings of their church and, arguably, failed. The book also tells about other philosophers, such as Thomas Aquinas who offered what he considered five ways that God could be known.
Readers will be fascinated by the history that Witham describes. For example, until the eleventh century, the Roman Catholic Church was radically different than it is today. Hildebrand, who became Pope Gregory VII in 1073, guided his predecessor to begin to exert religious power, centralize the power in Rome, take away the secular rulers' ability to select bishops and popes, strip secular rulers of church ownership, require clergy, who until then married, to be celibate, and broke with the Greek church who refused to allow the Roman pope to lead the church as its top bishop.
One way this was accomplished was by the pope recognizing an adulterous royal marriage. Another was a compromise, the pope would appoint bishops but the bishops would continue to pay a bribe to the kings.
Anselm lived when "scholasticism" began. The church introduced the rational ideas of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BCE) into church teachings, but they refused to mention his name during the early scholastic period because Aristotle was a pagan.
Anselm wanted to go beyond faith and scripture and prove the existence of God based on reason alone. Ancient Christian teacher such as Augustine, like many Christian teachers today, counsel that belief in God is a mystery that must be accepted based on faith.
Anselm introduced what is called the ontological argument to prove the existence of God. He contended, in essence, that if a person could think of something, it must exist. Thus since people think of God, God must exist. The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer criticized Anselm saying his argument "is really a charming joke." Many modern people would agree; people can think of flying horses and friendly idols, but thinking it does not make it so.
Ockham developed what is called Ockham's Razor, but extended the idea too far. He said that when there are two or more possible explanations of a phenomenon, the simplest explanation is generally correct. Thus he claimed that it is simpler and therefore correct to say that the universe caused itself to exist rather than that God it; one thing was involved rather than two. Unlike Anselm, Ockham regressed and insisted that people can only know God though blind faith. Thus many scholars identify him as the founder of the Protestant faith.
Descartes contended that people not say anything unless they can prove it. Thus, he is famous for declaring that basic knowledge is "I think therefore I am." This, of course, is problematical. People could think that they have two legs, while the truth is that a four legged being on the planet Venus is dreaming about them. Descartes also insisted that people have both a soul and body and both are separate. He was unable to explain how the separate soul affects the body; how people, for example, could want to move their leg and do so. He also claimed that belief in God is an idea that God implanted in people. He insisted on these ideas because they were what he understood were the teaching of his church, even though he could not prove them as he was supposed to do according to his philosophy.
Readers of Witham's small book are given a large dose of information concluding with the fact that none of the philosophers proved God's existence, and readers may be prompted to ask, "Were these thinkers misled by their religious teachings?"
Dr. Israel Drazin is the author of fifteen books, including a series of five volumes on the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible, which he coauthors with Dr. Stanley M. Wagner, and a series of four books on the twelfth century philosopher Moses Maimonides, the latest being Maimonides: Reason Above All, published by Gefen Publishing House, www.israelbooks.com.