In Santa Fe I found the rock below which half of Uncle Dick and half of Aunt Mary lie buried. This blog centers on someone they knew, a scholar named Mortimer Adler who in 1980 answered the question, “Does God exist?”
Both Uncle Dick and I owe a great debt to Adler’s inspiring efforts. As a visiting lecturer in the 1930s, he helped establish the Great Books curriculum at St. John’s College in Annapolis, a curriculum continued by my uncle Dick Weigle and persisting to this day. Adler eventually compiled The Great Books of the Western World, 443 titles in 54 hard-bound volumes, published by the Encyclopedia Brittanica in 1952.
My mother enjoyed books as much as her brother, but her fondness would not bring the Great Books into our home when I was young. They cost too much, actually more than I paid to go to college. Fortunately Anita Hutcherson adopted Adler’s inspiration for the sophomore honors class that she led at Ole Miss. She had the university book store stock a set of 14 small books (shown above), mostly paperbacks, from the classics, and these were supplemented by the books of Job and Ecclesiastes in the Holy Bible which everyone had already. As I recall, we started with Greek tragedies and got as far as Machiavelli. It was best course I ever took, and it changed my life forever. Thank you, Ms. Hutcherson and Professor Adler.
A few years ago I went to visit a young man in his 20s who had shown interest in our church. His apartment newly framed from a downtown Durham warehouse was interesting to see, but his possession of greatest pride was a set of Adler’s Great Books. He was reading through them start to finish. We have become great friends.
In 1980 Adler published a book entitled How to Think About God: A Guide for the 20th Century Pagan. Adler’s own best writing has the goal of making philosophy available for the common person and especially for college students. He omits jargon and footnotes. He takes time to explain the foundation of each idea instead of simply referring to someone’s previous work.
Adler is recognized as a modern interpreter of Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle, not as a pathbreaking philosopher. But in How to Think About God, he fulfilled a lifelong quest. He proved the existence of God.
How did he do it? To begin to understand, let’s go back to the “ontological argument” for God first expressed by Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, at the end of the 11th century. Suppose, said Anselm, that we think about God as a being-greater-than-which-none-can-be-thought. That is to say, a supreme being. Anselm then took the crucial next step of deciding that an actually existing being is greater than an imaginary being. So for God to be the greatest or supreme being, God must actually exist and not merely exist in the imagination. Well, imagine that.
Mortimer Adler did not regard the medieval ontological argument as definitive. Judging the degree of greatness of hypothetical beings, imaginary or not, so as to rank them one over another, is a vague exercise. It does not appear that one can get to God that way.
Adler seeks to prove the existence of God through careful philosophical consideration of the idea of causation. An efficient cause is one that supplies from itself all that is needed to bring about an effect, as opposed to a partial cause that may be only one of several conditions required for an effect. God is viewed as the efficient cause of the cosmos, and the cosmos is understood to be everything that exists in nature. Exnihilation (the opposite of annihilation) means to bring something (or everything, the cosmos) into being out of nothing. Exnihilation also means the activity of keeping something (or everything) in existence, when that something (or everything) could possibly pass out of existence at any moment. Something that could possibly pass out of existence at any moment is called radically contingent. God is conceptualized as the necessary, uncaused being who exnihilates the cosmos.
Having set the stage in this way, Adler directs our attention to the key remaining question: Is the cosmos is radically contingent or not?
The crucial step, in Adler’s opinion, is to recognize that the whole natural order does not have to be the way it is. We live in a universe that is just one of multiple possibly existing universes, perhaps even an infinite number of possible universes. A universe that could be some other universe than the universe it is, could also possibly not exist at all. This is true whether the natural universe had a starting point in time or whether the universe always existed as it is. In either case, the natural universe is radically contingent and cannot be the necessary, uncaused, efficient cause of itself. Also, because the natural universe could possibly not exist or could end at any moment, it needs an efficient cause just to stay in existence.
Ergo! God is that efficient cause. The fact that our universe continues to exist, plus the facts that we recognize the radical contingency of this our universe and we accept the principle of efficient causation, together demonstrate the existence of God.
If we are persuaded that it is a merely possible universe, then we are also persuaded that its existence is radically contingent and that it requires an exnihilating cause, either for its creation out of nothing (the actualization of its possibility) or for the preservation of its continuing existence and the prevention of its being reduced to nothing, or both.
I have reasonable grounds for affirming God’s existence.
The cosmos (Greek for “world”) is just another name for the natural universe. Thus I have presented Adler’s version of the cosmological argument for God’s existence. Adler might say it is the argument for God’s existence based specifically on the radical contingency of the cosmos.
I wonder if Anselm might sniff once or twice and say, “This is what I meant all along. You have ranked greatness in terms of causation. God is the being who ranks foremost in the chain of causation.” Or Karl might say, “This is what I mean by GSOT, the Grand Scheme Of Things.”
But Adler gives a word of caution about his “God of the philosophers” (that is, the God whose existence has been affirmed by his argument):
The God of the philosophers is not an object of worship, not a source of guidance and help to human beings in their trials, not the supreme being one prays to….
There is no rational necessity to think of [this] supreme being as morally good, as just and merciful, or as benevolently disposed toward the world of men.
Now let me ask the question posed by the following pragmatic pair:
- This kind of God exists.
- This kind of God does not exist.
Does 1. versus 2. make any difference for somebody’s predisposition to act?
The answer is – almost no difference at all. This God is a conceptual necessity. Adler confides with us that this God is “exempt from the atheist’s attacks,” because this God neither begs nor persuades any response from you or me.
How is this God anything more than the satisfaction of scratching a philosophical itch?
Let’s see if we can frame the question better. Let’s not ask, “Does God exist?” but rather this –
Does the universe understand me better than I understand it?
Huh? First of all, it’s a strange question. We tend to think of the universe as a collection of whirling gases and particles, condensed into stars and planets and an occasional black hole forming in galaxies separated by almost unimaginable distances. How can that have any understanding at all? So our initial answer to the question is no.
But the universe includes the laws of science as well as the specific boundary conditions leading to the Big Bang and to all the wonders of biologic and social life as we know it. In consideration of these, Albert Einstein answered the question above with a resounding yes. Here is how he expressed it –
…whoever has undergone the intense experience of successful advances made in this domain [of science] is moved by profound reverence for the rationality made manifest in existence. By way of the understanding he achieves a far-reaching emancipation from the shackles of personal hopes and desires, and thereby attains that humble attitude of mind toward the grandeur of reason incarnate in existence, and which, in its profoundest depths, is inaccessible to man. This attitude, however, appears to me to be religious, in the highest sense of the word.
“…the rationality made manifest in existence….the grandeur of reason incarnate….” Einstein’s idea of God is more than just a creating or exnihilating force. Einstein conceives of God as a thinking being.
God, the supreme thinking being, however, is “inaccessible to man.” For Einstein, God is the source and repository of reason, but God is not a person. If by a person we mean one who makes choices that change the course of events, then Einstein actually denies personhood for both humans and God. This is how he puts it –
The more a man is imbued with the ordered regularity of all events the firmer becomes his conviction that there is no room left by the side of this ordered regularity for causes of a different nature. For him neither the rule of human nor the rule of divine will exists as an independent cause of natural events.
Einstein believed in and valued “the Good, the True, and the Beautiful”, but he trusted neither the human will nor the (too human-like) divine will to keep these goals supreme. He sought assurance only in the “ordered regularity” of nature.
But for Charles Peirce the only way to know what-I-really-believe is to recognize that which changes my predisposition to act. And my predisposition to act is nothing more or less than what I recognize as human will.
God, as Einstein conceives God, never asks for a response from human will, never presumes to have an impact on any person’s predisposition to act. Again we perceive a pragmatic pair –
- Einstein’s God exists.
- Einstein’s God does not exist.
Because all that matters is ordered regularity, the question of whether 1. or 2. is true makes no difference at all. And our question
Does the universe understand me better than I understand it?
has very little meaning as a part of GSOT.
Let us try a third time.
Does the universe converse with me and likewise I with it?
This question has greater possibilities. Do I get a message from the cosmos or its exnihilator that may change the way I shall act? Then when I speak or act, will my word or deed change the world at all? Questions like these must be asked if we really want to address the existence of God in a meaningful way.
Uncle Dick and Aunt Mary gained immense joy in the founding of a second campus for St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1,873 miles distant from the continuing campus in Annapolis, Maryland. They loved the Southwest, especially the cultural pinnacle of Santa Fe, probably more than their eastern home. Both asked to be cremated when they died, and their ashes to be split between the 2 sites.
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 Adler, M. How to Think About God: A Guide for the 20th Century Pagan. Macmillan, New York, 1980.
 Ibid., p. 149.
 Ibid., p. 150.
 Ibid., pp. 155-157.
 Ibid., p. 157.
 Einstein, A. Ideas and Opinions. Bonanza, New York, 1954, p. 49.
 Ibid., p. 48.
 Loc. cit.