Many Great scholars attempted to prove that God exists, including the Jewish Maimonides and Roman Catholic Thomas Aquinas who offered what he felt was five ways through which God could be known. They all failed. We are unable to prove God’s existence. Maimonides went so far as to say that we really know nothing positive about God. Only negatives such as there cannot be more than a single deity.
The 2008 informative book “The Proof of God, The Debate That Shaped Modern Belief” by Larry Witham 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 addressed the teachings of their church, two tried to show that we can prove that God exists but are recognized by others as having failed.
Readers will be fascinated by the history that Witham describes. The Church’s ideas changed over the years and the church did not always insist that it is possible to prove God’s existence. 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, developed the idea that the Roman Catholic Church should 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 long before this Pope. He lived when “scholasticism” began, another time when Christianity changed. This was a time when 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.
Ancient Christian teacher such as Augustine, like many Christian teachers and rabbis today, counsel that belief in God is a mystery that must be accepted based on faith. Anselm wanted to go beyond faith and scripture and prove the existence of God based on reason alone.
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 mocked 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 also mocked Anselm. He developed what is called “Ockham’s Razor.” He said that when there are two or more possible explanations of a phenomenon, the simplest explanation is generally the correct explanation. Thus he claimed that since it is simpler to say that the universe caused itself to exist rather than that God was involved manipulating the universe; one thing, the universe alone, was involved rather than two, the universe and God, we should accept the simpler explanation that God was not involved and we can only know God though blind faith. Thus many scholars identify him as the founder of the Protestant faith.
Descartes, like Anselm. Tried to prove God’s existence through logic. 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 and people really have four legs. 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 the existence of God is an idea that God implanted in people, thus it must be true. He insisted on these ideas because they were what he understood were the teaching of his church, even though he could not prove them to rational thinkers as he was supposed to do according to his philosophy.
Readers of Anselm’s and Descartes “proofs” that God exists may ask the questions: “Were these thinkers misled by their religious teachings to develop illogical ideas?” Isn’t it true that it is impossible to prove that God exists? Isn’t it also true that this impossibility to prove God’s existence does not prove that God does not exist?