Does God exist? It’s a fair question. I am not a betting man, but I can do the arithmetic of chance versus reward. And this is quite straightforward. I can decide that God exists and, if I’m right, I have the prospect of eternal happiness. If he does not exist, then I will return to the same nothingness that I had before my conception.
You will, of course, have recognised my version of Pascal’s Wager. Philosophers have argued about its validity but there was an occasion, 20 years ago, when it was useful to me. I was lying in my bed, somewhat sedated, waiting for open-heart surgery. Although the risk of mortality was small, I had made my general Confession and written a farewell letter to my wife, with messages for the children. Would I still exist by the end of the morning? Then Pascal came to my aid. If he was wrong, it didn’t matter for I would never know. If he was right, then I was prepared. My mind was now at ease, and I dozed off.
Of course there are specific ways of demonstrating the existence of God. We are in debt to Aquinas for the most traditional. The concept of the first cause seems the simplest to me: everything comes about as a result of causes. It follows that nothing would exist if there were not an uncaused first cause. That first cause is what we call God. Neat; but few are convinced.
A different approach is the argument from design. Were we to find a pocket watch we would not suppose that its precise mechanism had come about by chance; it has obviously been designed by some intelligence. But the whole of our world, from the overall to the detail, is a mechanism. We must surely accept a designer, whom we call God. Again, there are sceptics; they suggest evolution as the impersonal agent of design – and perhaps point out natural disasters as evidence of, at least, a poor job.
I am attracted by the “ontological argument”, which seems to have first been formulated by St Anselm in the 11th century. He said that our concept of God was that of the greatest being. But since existing was greater than not existing, God must therefore exist. This is a tricky one: Bertrand Russell said, in his History of Western Philosophy, that although it seems to us to be fallacious it is hard to detect where the fallacy lies. It implies that the human mind, by its nature, has a grasp of the existence of God. Ontology was further developed but in the 19th century the Holy Office demurred. Fallacious or not, it does point to our recognition that there is something over and above our material experience, and towards which we are drawn.
We are concerned to find meaning. But a world limited to the material can display no overall meaning. We have a concept of infinity but we have no way of grasping or even visualising it. We explore the spiritual in many manifestations, and we experience it as both other than and higher than the material world. We recognise the unique qualities of love and have an imperative sense of right and wrong which transcends the utilitarian.
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