The Argument from the Origin of the Idea of God

This is the twelfth in a series of posts responding to a list of 20 arguments for the existence of god from this article. To be fair, the article does state that these arguments don’t make a case except when taken all together, using the metaphor of a rope, but I am analyzing them individually so I have responses when I encounter the argument later in other sources.

It would be impossible for us to reproduce the whole context Descartes gives for this proof (see his third Meditation), and fruitless to follow his scholastic vocabulary. We give below the briefest summary and discussion.

  1. We have ideas of many things.
  2. These ideas must arise either from ourselves or from things outside us.
  3. One of the ideas we have is the idea of God—an infinite, all-perfect being.
  4. This idea could not have been caused by ourselves, because we know ourselves to be limited and imperfect, and no effect can be greater than its cause.
  5. Therefore, the idea must have been caused by something outside us which has nothing less than the qualities contained in the idea of God.
  6. But only God himself has those qualities.
  7. Therefore God himself must be the cause of the idea we have of him.
  8. Therefore God exists.

Firstly, number 4 is just meaningless, and if it means what it first sounded like to me, it’s clearly wrong. I had a great tirade about how effects are greater than their causes all the time because that’s what evolution shows us: A tiny mutation caused all of life to exist. The invention of cooking is likely the reason the human species exists. Descartes lived 200 years before Darwin, and may therefore be excused for this line of thinking, but we know a lot more now. We know tiny causes can have huge effects. We know great things can come from “bottom up” and need not be “top down”. However, after speaking with my boyfriend, I realized that the statement “no effect can be greater than its cause” is meaningless. What does this argument mean by “greater”? Tiny egg meeting tiny sperm causes enormous human; isn’t that an effect greater than it’s cause? And if not, what does that phrase mean?

Secondly, number 5 is ill-defined. What are “the qualities contained in the idea of God”? That varies wildly among the religions, and even among different denominations of Christianity. For example, some Christians have an idea of a god with the quality of sending all “the gays” to hell, while other Christians have an idea of a god with the quality of loving homosexuals because they are simply acting as he made them. These are clearly contradictory qualities, but both groups of Christians would argue their god is perfect. Therefore, we need to know what “perfect” means in order to respond to the argument.

Thirdly, number 6 sneaks in monotheism unsupported. Nothing in “infinite, all-perfect being” means there can only be one of them, because there can be and in fact are multiple infinities.

Consider the following common objection. The idea of God can easily arise like this: we notice degrees of perfection among finite beings—some are more perfect (or less imperfect) than others. And to reach the idea of God, we just project the scale upward and outward to infinity. Thus there seems to be no need for an actually existing God to account for the existence of the idea. All we need is the experience of things varying in degrees of perfection, and a mind capable of thinking away perceived limitations.

But is that really enough? How can we think away limitation or imperfection unless we first recognize it as such? And how can we recognize it as such unless we already have some notion of infinite perfection? To recognize things as imperfect or finite involves the possession of a standard in thought that makes the recognition possible.

Does that seem farfetched? It does not mean that toddlers spend their time thinking about God. But it does mean that, however late in life you use the standard, however long before it comes explicitly into consciousness, still, the standard must be there in order for you to use it. But where did it come from? Not from your experience of yourself or of the world that exists outside you. For the idea of infinite perfection is already presupposed in our thinking about all these things and judging them imperfect. Therefore none of them can be the origin of the idea of God; only God himself can be that.

Peter Kreeft is supporting this argument with the same logic of the argument from degrees of perfection, and therefore it suffers from the same problems. One example I had not considered before is an excellent way of undermining this logic: Pacman. If you play Pacman, and lose as you probably will, you will realize that it was an imperfect run of Pacman. You might even have an idea of a perfect run, which involves eating all the ghosts and all the pellets. After being able to beat level one, and eventually losing on a higher level, you conceive of a better idea of a perfect run. The perfect run of Pacman would be eating all the pellets and going to the next level forever, and just continuing on to infinity. By this argument, this perfect idea must exist for you to have thought of it. However, there are limitations on Pacman. If a player reaches level 256, the game becomes unplayable. So the argument fails: there is at least one example of a very clear and well-defined perfect standard that is literally non-existent, therefore we have no reason to think this “standard” of “god”, whatever that means, is real.

Not only that, but we have a natural explanation of the origin of the idea of god! Humans tend toward type one cognitive errors and therefore inserting agency where there is none. Many of the early gods were nothing more than parts of nature with agency attached, such as the Sun or the Moon or the cause of lightening. Rituals happened to be performed before needed or wanted results, so early humans assumed that those rituals caused the gods to provide those results, such as rain after a rain dance. Over time, the gods grew in power and became omniscient and omnipotent. Later, it was decided that there was only one, and even later, that that one was all-loving. The idea of Yahweh did not start as an infinitely perfect god; it started as the god of war. So we didn’t go straight from humans looking at each other and thinking “hmm, I bet we could be better” to “There is an infinite and all-perfect god!” Instead, we created gods just a bit more powerful, and then a bit more, and then a bit more, until finally we reached the idea of Christianity as we know it today. No divinity needed – indeed, had there been one, shouldn’t we expect a more common and unified religion, or at least origin of religion? A “top-down” evolution of religion of monotheism being the first and degrading into polytheism, rather than what we observe of polytheism evolving into monotheism?


3 thoughts on “The Argument from the Origin of the Idea of God

  1. Seriously, this would have been cutting-edge stuff, 1500 years ago, when Christians were still trying to adapt Plato to their theology; but this kind of thinking went out of favor even within Christianity when their theologians started to become Aristotelian.

    Kreeft doesn’t even seem to realize that he’s utilizing arguments from two disparate– and often contradictory– systems of philosophy in his 20 arguments.

    1. I honestly don’t know enough about philosophy to realize that on my own, but I still see how flawed arguments don’t add up to a strong case.

      1. Basically, the philosophy that everything for which there is an idea reflects an actual, extant entity comes from Plato. Aristotle disagreed with this point. Church theology took its cues largely from Plato for the first several centuries, but switched to Aristotle after the latter’s works were rediscovered.

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