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Philosophy Essays On Existence

The Concept of Existence: Definitions by Major Philosophers


I think an almost unbelievable amount of false philosophy has arisen through not realizing what 'existence' means.

Bertrand Russell - Logic and Knowledge. Essays 1901-1950 - Edited by Robert Charles Marsh - New York, Macmillan, 1956, p. 234.

"Philosophical discussion of the notion of existence, or being, has centered on two main problems which have not always been very clearly distinguished. First, there is the problem of what we are to say about the existence of fictitious objects, such as centaurs, dragons, and Pegasus; second, there is the problem of what we are t o say about the existence of abstract objects, such as qualities, relations, and numbers. Both problems have tempted philosophers to say that there are inferior sorts of existence a s well as the ordinary straightforward sort, and they therefore often suggest that we use the word "being" to cover both kinds but restrict "existence" to "being" of the common, non-fictitious, non-abstract sort. (Sometimes the term "reality" is proposed for "existence" or for "being.") T he problems of fiction and abstraction are different, how ever, for there are both real and fictitious abstractions. For example, the integer between two and four is real, but the integer between two and three is fictitious. On the other hand, there are both concrete and abstract fictions; for example, the winged horse of Bellerophon and the integer between two and three. Accordingly, philosophers have often dealt with the two problems in quite different ways and perhaps ought to do so.

While these are the two main problems, there are others, f or example, that of what we are to say of the being of objects which have not yet begun, or have now ceased, to exist. The history of this subject, moreover, has been tangled with theological issues, to which it will be necessary to refer at certain points."

From: Paul Edwards (ed.) - Encyclopedia of Philosophy - New York. Macmillan 1967 - article Existence by Arthur Norman Prior, p. 141

"The Indo-European languages in which all the philosophers from Parmenides to Sartre have written have a verb represented in English by 'be', which some of the time at least does the same work as is done by 'exist'. Everything that can be called philosophy of existence that was written by the Greek philosophers of antiquity was expressed with the help of 'einai', the Greek equivalent of 'be'; and it is impossible to reach any clear understanding of their doctrines without examining how they used this word, and how its synonyms in other languages are used." (Preface, p. VIII-IX) "German and French idioms, which most frequently use 'Es gibt' and 'Il y a' in place of 'There is', seem to show a stronger awareness than English of the difference between existential propositions and propositions ascribing properties to objects. Nevertheless even these languages have forms 'Es ist' and 'Il est', which make use of equivalents of the verb 'be', as English uses 'be' in 'There is' and 'There are', and one would have to look further a field to find languages where there was no possibility of construing an existential judgement as predicating being of an object or objects in the same way as dwelling in Transylvania or coming down the road can be predicated of an object or objects. Latin, as we have seen, has the simple unadorned use of 'est' and 'sunt' as a possible substitution for the verbs 'existit' and 'existunt'. Classical Greek, which lacks any word obviously equivalent to 'exist', is forced to use parts of 'einai', its synonym for 'be', much more widely than the languages we have mentioned, for the expression of existential judgements. Thereby hangs a philosophical story of epic dimensions, a Great Chain of Philosophies of Being."

From: Christopher John Fards Williams - What is Existence? - Oxford, Clarendon Press 1981, p. 3.

"In the extended discussion of the concept (or concepts) of Being in Greek philosophy from Parmenides to Aristotle, the theme of existence does not figure as a distinct topic for philosophical reflection. My aim here is to defend and illustrate this claim, and at the same time to suggest some of the reasons why it is that the concept of existence does not get singled out as a topic in its own right. Finally, I shall raise in a tentative way the question whether or not the neglect of this topic was necessarily a philosophical disadvantage.

Let me make clear that my thesis is limited to the classical period of Greek philosophy, down to Aristotle. The situation is more complicated in Hellenistic and Neoplatonic thought, (...) I suspect that a careful study of these Greek terms would reveal that even in their usage we find no real equivalent of our concept of existence. In any case, this later terminology (...) plays no part in the formulation of Plato's and Aristotle's ontology, and I shall ignore it here. My general view of the historical development is that existence in the modern sense becomes a central concept in philosophy only in the period when Greek ontology is radically revised in the light of a metaphysics of creation: that is to say, under the influence of Biblical religion. As far as I can see, this development did not take place with Augustine or with the Greek Church Fathers, who remained under the sway of classical ontology. The new metaphysics seems to have taken shape in Islamic philosophy, in the form of a radical distinction between necessary and contingent existence: between the existence of God, on the one hand, and that of the created world, on the other." (p. 7)


To return now to the question with which we began: Why does existence not emerge as a distinct concept in Greek philosophy? In principle the answer is clear. My explanation is that in Greek ontology in its early stages, in Plato and Parmenides, the veridical concept was primary, and the question of Being was the question of "reality" as determined by the concept of truth. Since this conception of reality is articulated in Plato by copula sentences of the form "X is Y," it turns out that even the concept of existence gets expressed in this predicative form: as we have seen, Platonic Greek for "X exists" is "X is something" . In the scheme of categories which Aristotle takes as the starting point for his own investigation of being, this same predicative pattern serves as the primary device for analyzing what there is, and for showing how the various kinds of being are related to one another. So it is naturally the theory of predication, and not the concept of existence, which becomes the central and explicit theme of Aristotle's metaphysics, as it was the implicit theme of Plato's discussion of Being in the Sophist. (p. 15).

From: Charles H. Kahn - Why Existence does not emerge as a distinct concept in Greek philosophy - in: Parviz Morewedge (ed.) - Philosophies of Existence. Ancient and Medieval - New York, Fordham University Press 1982


"We have first to consider how ὑπάρχειν (hyparkein) comes to be used as a synonym for εἶναι (einai) in its "existential" use, and then to follow the history of existere as the Latin rendering of ὑπάρχειν in this sense. Either topic could supply a separate monograph.

ὑπάρχειν originally means "to make a beginning", "to take the initiative", "to take the first step (in doing so-and-so)", e.g. to begin a guest-friendship (in the earliest occurrence of the verb, Odyssey 24.286) or to initiate hostilities (...)

Thus before ὑπάρχειν becomes specialized as a verb of "existence" we find it used in a predicative construction as an expressive equivalent for εἶναι as copula verb.

It is, however, not this copula use but the more frequent construction with the dative that accounts for the first technical use of the verb in philosophy: the use in which it expresses in logical terms the attributive relation which is normally expressed in grammatical form by the copula. Instead of "A is B" Aristotle prefers to say τὁ β τὸ ἀ ὑπάρχειν B belongs to A" (Prior Analytics 25a,5 and throughout). Hence τα ὑπάρχοντα attributes (of a subject) " e.g. at De Interpretatione 16b 10. (And see Bonitz, Index Aristotelicum 789a29-b2; compare the more non-technical use ibid. a12-28.) Since "what belongs to a thing" includes not only its accidents but also essential or substantial attributes in the first category, ὑπάρχειν is said in as many ways as εἶναι, i.e. in as many ways as there are categories or combinations of categories (Pr. An. 48b2-4, 49a6-9). (...)

Apart from this technical use in logic and grammar, the most common meaning of ὑπάρχειν in later Greek seems to be that which we render as 'to exist' or "'to be real'. (This occasionally leads to rather ludicrous confusion, when a late commentator can no longer distinguish between Aristotle's technical sense and his own ordinary use of ὑπάρχειν. (...).

It should be pointed out that although this use of ὑπάρχειν for real existence (in contrast to a mere word or an imaginary object) seems to be the dominant use in late Greek philosophy, the corresponding verb may still be construed both with paralocative and nominal predicates, as we can see from Sextus' discussion of the existence of the gods, e.g. IX-I43 (...).

And the same predicative construction is normal for the corresponding verb exsistere in classical Latin (as will be seen in a moment). In neither case, then, would our familiar contrast between an existential and a copulative verb naturally arise.(...)

I have neither space nor skill to follow the history of exsistere, exsistentia in Latin. I note, however, that like other derivatives of stare, exsistere serves in Varro, Lucretius, and later authors as a stylistic variant for esse, often with the nuance (suggested by ex-) of 'emerge' come into being' 'be produced'. As in the case of ὑπάρχειν this quasi-existential sense of exsistere is fully compatible with the copulative construction: (pecora) quae post tempus nascuntur, fere vitiosa atque inutilia exsistunt. (Varro Rerum rust. II.1.7)

The noun exsistentia seems not be attested before Marius Victorinus and Candidus in the 4th century A.D. It is a learned invention, designed to render ὑπάρχειν; in metaphysical texts where the latter term is distinguished from οὐσια (substantia) as the more general concept, sheer being without categorial determination, while οὐσια presents some determinate form of being, like 'substance' in the first Aristotelian category: Id est exsistentia vel subsistentia vel, si ... dicas ... vel exsistentialitatem vel substantialitatem vel essentialitatem (Adversus Arium III.7.9, cited in Pierre Hadot, Porphyre et Victorinus (Paris, 1968), II p. 29 text 40).

But this terminology was not taken up by Boethius, who apparently preferred esse to exsistere as a rendering of the technical use of ὑπάρχειν for pure, indeterminate being. (1)

As we have seen, Priscian in the 6th century A.D. renders ὑπάρχειν as substantivum. Thus neglected by Boethius and Priscian, the technical use of exsistentia as contrasted with substantia in late Neo-Platonism had no direct impact on early medieval terminology.

Abelard's usage is mixed. He often employs exsistere, exsistens for 'to exist', 'existing (thing)', but rarely uses the abstract noun and then in a rather surprising way: exsistentiae rerum seems to mean '(actual) states of affairs' in contrast to res, the existing thing, whose existence may be expressed by esse. (Dialectica, 154, 11 and 156, 29. Compare Kneale and Kneale, The development of logic, p. 206).

Aquinas' usage is even more Boethian: his normal expression for what we call 'existence' is esse or actus essendi. Only with the esse existentiae of Duns Scotus at the end of the thirteenth century do we find existentia firmly established as a technical term contrasted with essentia. Thus the modern terminology of 'existence' seems to derive from Scotus.

What connections (if any) can be traced between Scotus' use of existentia and the technical terminology of Victorinus nearly a millennium earlier, I do not know. In his translations of Proclus, William of Moerbeke renewed the ancient practice of rendering ὑπάρχειν by existentia, (P. O. Kristeller, Journal of Philosophy, 1962, p. 77) and these translations must have had some influence on the shaping of the medieval terminology. But ὑπάρχειν for Proclus is not quite the same either as exsistentia for Victorinus or existentia for Scotus. What role was played here by the concepts and terminology of Islamic philosophy I can only guess. The history of 'existence' seems to consist largely of still unanswered questions."(2)

(1) Compare they key passage of Boethius' De Hebdomadibus with the corresponding citation from Damascius in P. Hadot "La distinction de l'être et de l'étant dans le 'De Hebdomadibus de Boèce", Miscellanea Medievalia, 2, (1963), pp. 147 and 151, n. 25. Boethius shows no trace of the exsistentia-substantia distinction we find in Victorinus and Candidus. It has been pointed out (by Graham, below) that Boethius normally renders the substantival τὸ ὂν by the artificial form ens, but sometimes resorts to the more natural Latin form exsistens for the verbal-adjectival use of the Greek participle as predicate or attribute.

(2) For some remarks on the contrast between Arabic and Greek terminology for "being", see A. C. Graham "'Being' in linguistics and philosophy", Foundations of Language, 1 (1965), 223 ff. For doctrinal contacts between Avicenna and Duns Scotus on the question of existence, see E. Gilson, L'être et l'essence, pp. 128-131.

From: Charles H. Kahn - On the terminology for copula and existence - in: S. M. Stern, Albert Hourani and Vivian Brown (eds.) - Islamic philosophy and the classical tradition. Essays presented by his friends and pupils to Richard Walzer on his seventieth birthday - London, Bruno Cassirer, 1972.


"The contemporary attempts to determine in a purely logical way the nature of existence, by constructing a logic of existence(1) or a free logic which makes "no assumptions about the existence of the purported designata of its terms, general or singular,"(2) seems to be still premature as long as the problem of existence in its philosophical implications is not adequately resolved. Historically, there are three main problems in logic involving a conception of existence, which clearly show that the logical problem of existence has a philosophical background influencing the "logic of existence" in its technical sense.

The first problem arose in the period of the algebra of logic, when G. Boole (implicitly) and E. Schroeder (explicitly) introduced the concept of the empty class. This innovation resulted in a criticism of the traditional square of opposites and Aristotelian syllogistics, and the conception of the existential import of categorical statements. A further consequence, already recognized in the period of G. Frege and B. Russell, was the interpretation of particular statements as existential statements and of universal statements as hypothetical ones. It was maintained that "all general propositions deny the existence of something or other,"(3) and for these reasons no valid inference of a statement with existential import from a statement without existential import was admitted.

The second problem comprises the "fanciful Russellian analyses of proper names in existential contexts,"(4) with its special theory of descriptions, directed against Meinong's conception that a grammatically correct denoting phrase stands for an object, even if it does not subsist, and a similar view of H. MacColl who assumed two sorts of individuals -- real and unreal.(5) Russell's theory of descriptions is evidently a philosophical reflection of his views concerning the nature of existence as the fundamental problem cf ontology, a technical term introduced for the first time by Chr. Wolff in his Philosophia prima sive Ontologia . . . (1730). For philosophical reasons, Russell attempts to refute the ontological argument of Anselm of Canterbury. In the course of his argument. he adopts both conclusions of Kant's refutation in his Critique of Pure Reason (B 620ff), namely that (1) "all existential propositions are synthetic" and that (2) "Being is obviously not a real predicate; that is, it is not a concept of something which could be added to the concept of a thing." His conviction that "existence is quite definitely not a predicate" is another reason for his introduction of the concept of the existential qualifier.

The third problem, introduced recently by W. V. Quine in his famous dictum, "To be is, purely and simply, to be the value of a variable,"(6) is connected with the contemporary discussion on universals and the attempts to reformulate the language of logic and mathematics in a nominalistic sense.(7)" pp. 157-158

(1) See esp. H. S. Leonard, "The Logic of Existence," Philosophical Studies, VII, 49-64 [1956].

(2) K. Lambert, "Free Logic and the Concept of Existence," Notre Dame Journal of Formal Logic, VIII, 138 [1967]. Comp. J. Hintikka, "Existential Presuppositions and Existential Commitments," Journal of Philosophy, LVI, 135 [1959].

(3) B. Russell, "The Philosophy of Logical Atomism," Monist, XXIX, 191 [1918].

(4) S. Candlish, "Existence and the Use of Proper Names," Analysis, XXVIII, 157 [1968].

(5) Comp. B. Russell, "On Denoting," Mind, N. S., XIV, 479-493 [1905]

(6) W. V. Quine, "On What There Is," Review of Metaphysics, II, 32 [1948].

(7) See, e.g., N. Goodman and W. V. Quine, "Steps Toward a Constructive Nominalism," Journal of Symbolic Logic, XII, 105-22 [1947]; I. M. Bochenski, A. Church, and N. Goodman, The Problem of Universals, (Notre Dame, 1956).

From: Karel Berka - Existence in modern logic. In Essays in metaphysics. Edited by Vaught Carl G. University Park: Pennsylvania University Press 1970. pp. 157-174


[ First distinction between essence and existence]

"The primary analysis of the nature of being, its application to numerous things, and an introduction to the exposition of substance.

Being is recognized by reason itself without the aid of definition or description. Since it has no definition it has neither genus nor differenzia because nothing is more general than it.(1) Being does not have a description since nothing is better known than it. It is possible that one can recognize its name in one language by means of another language. Thus, by some means, it is possible to acquaint someone with what is meant by a term like being. For example, if being appears in Arabic, it can be explained in Persian, and one can indicate that it is that from which other things are derived.

In its first division, being is prima facie of two kinds: the one is called substance and the other accident. Accident is that whose being subsists in something else, so hat that being which is complete without it is either active by itself or due to something else. An example of this condition is the whiteness of a cloth. We note that the cloth exists either by itself due to itself, or by means of those things which bring about its being. Whiteness subsists in a dependent manner in it. Whiteness and whatever is analogous to it are called accidents. In this context, the receptable of whiteness is called a subject, although in another context something else is meant by 'subject'. Thus, a substance is that which is not an accident, whose being, moreover, is not in a subject, but is a reality such that the being of that reality that essence are not receptive to another thing having the aforesaid characteristics. One may regard the substance as a receptable which lacks this character. But to be active, this substance needs to be accepted by this receptacle whose reality we t establish later when we clarify its nature. One may regard the substance neither as a receptable nor as being in a receptacle, as we shall also establish subsequently when we explain its being. This, then, is called a 'substance'." (pp. 15-16).

(1) "The term used by ibn Sina to designate 'being' is hasti, a Persian term for which no equivalent appears in his Arabic texts. To be sure, in Shifa' he points out the term wujud (existence) has several meanings: (1) haqiqa (the essence, reality of something, the fact that it exists), and (2) the particular existence of something, and by making these distinctions, he confirms his awareness of the various senses of 'existence', but even in view of these different senses of 'existence', there is still no term in his Arabic works which could render hasti adequately. Although one could attempt to find a Greek equivalent for this term translating it perhaps as tò òn hê òn by which 'being-qua-being' is commonly rendered, one should nevertheless be cautious not to equate this term with ousía for the reason that ousía is sometimes defined as 'substance'. Ibn Sina, however, holds 'being' in the sense of basti to be the most determinable concept. Hence, if we choose to accept the translation of ousía for being, then ibn Sina's views will definitely be at odds with those of many Neo-Platonists, such as Proclus, who states that the One and the Gods are to be regarded as 'supra being' (hyperoûsios) (Elements, p. 105), or Plotinus, who proclaims that the One generates gennetés (being) (Enneads V [1]). In view of the preceding discussion in this chapter, it is evident that ibn Sina's doctrine disagrees with that of these Greek philosophers, for he asserts that nothing is above being, and whatever exists is a determination of being. However, Aristotle's notion of being-qua-being as tò òn hé òn (Metaphysica, book. IV, ch. 1) corresponds to ibn Sina's notion of hasti. Aristotle's position becomes clear in subsequent sections of the Metaphysica when he indicates that mathematics 'cuts off ' a part of being, whereas metaphysics investigates being as being, ignoring those elements of being which are related to it in an accidental manner (i.e. are a determination of being). For a detailed account of this topic, see J. Owens, The Doctrine of Being in the Aristotelian Metaphysics, Toronto, 1953, esp. ch. 7 and 8. In order to achieve greater clarity on this issue and circumvent various ambiguous usages of the term ousía, Owens suggests the use of the term ' entity' as a better translation of it." [Note by Parviz Morewedge pp. 112-113]

From: Parviz Morewdge - The Metaphysica of Avicenna (ibn Sina). A critical translation-commentary and analysis of the fundamental arguments in Avicenna's Metaphysica in the Danish Nama-i-ala i (The Book of Scientific Knowledge) - London, Routledge & Kegan Paul 1973.


[ Essence and existence according to Suárez]

"To avoid an equivocation in terms and to make it unnecessary later to make distinctions about an essential being, an existential being or a subsistential being or a being of truth in a proposition, I suppose by being we understand the actual existence of things. For essential being, if it is truly distinguished from existence, adds nothing real to the essence itself, but only differs from it in the way it is conceived or signified. Hence, just as the essence of a creature as such, in virtue of its concept, does not say that it would be something actually real with being outside its causes, so the essential being as by standing precisely in this, does not express an actual being by which an essence outside it causes would be constituted in act. For if to be actual in this latter way is not of the essence of the creature, neither will it be able to pertain to its essential being. Hence, being of a creature as such will prescind of itself from actual being outside its causes by which a created thing comes to be beyond nothing, by which name we designate actual existential being. But subsistential being is also more contracted than existential being, for the latter is common to substance and accidents. The former is proper to substance. Besides, subsistential being (as I suppose from what is to be proved below) is something distinct from the existential being of a substantial created nature and separable from it, because it does not constitute a nature in the order of actual entity, which pertains to existence. Now the being of truth in a pro position of itself is not a real and intrinsic being, but it is an objective being in the intellect as it is composing; hence it belongs also to privations. For we say, accordingly: Blindness is or A man is blind, as Aristotle discusses at greater length in book 5 of Metaphysics, chapter seven. Hence, the discussion is about created existence concerning which, furthermore, we suppose that it is something real and intrinsic to an existing thing; this seems self-evident. For through existence a thing is understood to be something in the nature of things. Therefore, it is necessary that existence be both something real and intrinsic, that is, within the existing thing itself. For a thing cannot be existing by some extrinsic denomination or some being (ens) of reason. Other wise, how would existence constitute a real being (ens) in act and beyond nothing?" (p. 45).

"I say thirdly: that being by which the essence of a creature is formally constituted in essential actuality is the true existential being. (...) Now this statement is proved in a variety of ways. First, because this being, understood precisely, is sufficient for the truth of this statement with a second adjacent: essence is. Hence, that being is true existence. The consequence is clear, for according to the common meaning and human conception, the is of a second adjacent, is not divorced from time. But it signifies being in act in the realm of things, which all of us understand by the name existence or by existential being. You will say that the "is" is always said truly of an actual essence, yet not formally because of the actuality of an essence, nor on account of that being by which it is formally constituted in such actuality, but because it never has this being without existence, although distinct from such an essential being or actuality. But against this retort the antecedent of the argument given is proved. For, by this actual essential being, taken formally and precisely, such an essence is a being ( ens) in act and distinguished from a being ( ens) in potency. Hence, by virtue of that being, such an essence is, for the inference is correct: it is a being ( ens) in act; therefore it is. For to be a being ( ens) in act does not reduce the character of being ( ens) which includes the verb "is". So, even if we grant that this actual essential being depends on a further limit or act, as on a necessary condition or something of this sort, still that very being will formally constitute a being ( ens) in act and will distinguish the latter from a being ( ens) in potency. Thus, by virtue of that being a thing is truly and absolutely said to be, just as an accident by virtue of its being is said to be a being ( ens) in act and to be absolutely, even though that being requires an inherence in a subject so that, without it, it could not exist naturally." (p. 74).

From: Francisco Suárez - De essentia entis finiti ut tale est et de illius esse eorumque distinctione. (Disputatio XXXI) - (Translated as: On the essence of finite being as such, on the existence of that essence and their distinction - by Norman J. Wells - Milwaukee, Marquette University Press 1983).

RENÉ DESCARTES (1596-1650)

"To know what existence is, all we have to do is to understand the meaning of the word, for it tells us at once what the thing is which the word stands, for, in so far as we can know it. There is no need here for a definition, which would confuse rather than clarify the issue" (AT X, 525; CSM II, 418).

From: René Descartes - Recherche de la Verité - in: Charles Adam, Paul Tannery (eds.) - œuvres de Descartes - (12 volumes) Paris, Vrin, 1964-1976 (referred as 'AT'); translated as: The search of truth - in: J. Cottingham, R. Stoothoff, D. Murdoch - The philosophical writings of Descartes - (2 volumes) - Cambridge, Cambridge University Press 1985 (referred as 'CSM').

[ According to Descartes, existence as a property]

"Here I do not see what sort of thing you want existence to be, nor why it cannot be said to be a property just like omnipotence - provided, of course, that we take the word 'property' to stand for any attribute, or for whatever can be predicated of a thing; and this is exactly how it should be taken in this context.

From: René Descartes - Replies to the Objections [by Gassendi] to the Fifth Meditation. (AT VII, 382; CSM II 262).

BARUCH SPINOZA (1632-1677)

"I call a thing impossible whose nature implies that it would be contradictory for it to exist; necessary whose nature implies that it would be contradictory for it not to exist; and possible whose existence be contradictory for it to exist; necessary whose nature implies that it would be contradictory for it not to exist; and possible whose existence, (*) by its very nature, does not imply a contradiction -- either for it to exist or for it not to exist -- but whose necessity or impossibility of existence depends on causes unknown to us, so long as we feign its existence. So if its necessity or impossibility, which depends on external causes, were known to us, we would have been able to feign nothing concerning it.

[54] From this it follows that, if there is a God, or something omniscient, he can feign nothing at all. For as far as We are concerned, after I know that I exist, (s) I cannot feign either that I exist or that I do not exist; nor can I feign an elephant which passes through the eye of a needle; nor, after I know the nature of God, can I feign either that he exists or that he does not exist. (t) The same must be understood of the Chimera, whose nature implies that it would be contradictory for it to exist. From this what I have said is evident: that the fiction of which we are speaking here does not occur concerning eternal truths. (u) I shall also show immediately that no fiction is concerned with eternal truths.

[55] But before proceeding further, I must note here in passing that the same difference that exists between the essence of one thing and the essence of another also exists between the actuality or existence of the one thing and the actuality or existence of the other. So if we wished to conceive the existence of Adam, for example, through existence in general, it would be the same as if, to conceive his essence, we attended to the nature of being, so that in the end we defined him by saying that Adam is a being. Therefore, the more generally existence is conceived, the more confusedly also it is conceived, and the more easily it can be ascribed fictitiously to anything. Conversely, the more particularly it is conceived, then the more clearly it is understood, and the more difficult it is for us, [even] when we do not attend to the order of Nature, to ascribe it fictitiously to anything other than the thing itself This is worth noting." (pp. 24-25) [56] Now we must consider those things that are commonly said to be feigned, although we understood clearly that the thing is not really as we feign it. E.g., although I know that the earth is round, nothing prevents me from saying to someone that the earth is a hemisphere and like half an orange on a plate, or that the sun moves around the earth, and the like. 1f we attend to these things, we shall see nothing that is not compatible with what we have already said, provided we note first that we have sometimes been able to err, and now are conscious of our errors; and then, we can feign, or at least allow, that other men are in the same error, or can fall into it, as we did previously.

We can feign this, I say, so long as we see no impossibility and no necessity. Therefore, when I say to someone that the earth is not round, etc., I am doing nothing but recalling the error which I, perhaps, made, or into which I could have fallen, and afterwards feigning, or allowing, that he to whom I say this is still in the same error, or can fall into it. As I have said, I feign this so long as I see no impossibility and no necessity.

(s) Because the thing makes itself evident, provided it is understood, we require only an example, without other proof. The same is true of its contradictory -- it need only be examined for its falsity to be clear. This will be plain immediately, when we speak of fictions concerning essence.

(t) Note. Although many say that they doubt whether God exists, nevertheless they have nothing but the name, or they feign something which they call God; this does not agree with the nature of God, as I shall show later in the proper place.

(u) By an eternal truth I mean one, which, if it is affirmative, will never be able to be negative. Thus it is a first and eternal truth that God is; but that Adam thinks is not an eternal truth. That there is no Chimera is an eternal truth; but not that Adam does not think.

Treatise on the Emendation of the intellect:(II, 20)

(*) Joachim ( Spinoza's Tractatus de Intellectus Emendatione - Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1940) suggests reading essentia, though the Opera Posthuma's 'existentia' is supported by the Nagelate Schriften. If it were not for the immediately following phrase ( ipsa sua natura), I would think this almost certainly correct. 1 have translated the Latin as it stands, but (with Eisenberg) I feel certain that what Spinoza means is that the essence of the thing by itself does not entail either that the thing cannot, or that it must, exist. [Note by Edward Curley]

From: The Collected Works of Spinoza - Edited and translated by Edwin Curley - Princeton, Princeton University Press 1985


[ According to Leibniz, existence is not a property]

"Existence. It can be doubted very much whether existence is a perfection or degree of reality; for it can be doubted whether existence is one of those things that can be conceived -- that is, one of the parts of essence; or whether it is only a certain imaginary concept, such as that of heat and cold, which is a denomination only of our perception, not of the nature of things. Yet if we consider more accurately, [we shall see] that we conceive something more when we think that a thing A exists, than when we think that it is possible. Therefore it seems to be true that existence is a certain degree of reality; or certainly that it is some relation to degrees of reality. Existence is not a degree of reality, however; for of every degree of reality it is possible to understand the existence as well as the possibility. Existence will therefore be the superiority of the degrees of reality of one thing over the degrees of reality of an opposed thing. That is, that which is more perfect than all things mutually incompatibles exists, and conversely what exists is more perfect than the non-existent, but it is not true that existence itself is a perfection, since it is only a certain comparative relation [comparatio] of perfections among themselves."

From: Robert Merrihew Adams - Leibniz. Determinist, Theist, Idealist - Oxford, Oxford University Press 1994 (undated memorandum by Leibniz). p. 165


"Christian Wolff was a rationalistic school philosopher in the German Enlightenment . During the period between the death of Leibniz (1714) and the publication of Kant's critical writings (1780s), Wolff was perhaps the most influential philosopher in Germany.

(...) Wolff thought of philosophy as that discipline which provides reasons to explain why things exist or occur and why they are even possible. Thus, he included within philosophy a much broader range of subjects than might now be recognized as 'philosophical'. Indeed for Wolff all human knowledge consists of only three disciplines: history, mathematics and philosophy.

(...) For Wolff, the immediate objective of philosophical method is to achieve certitude by establishing an order of truths within each discipline and a system within human knowledge as a whole. The ultimate goal is to establish a reliable foundation for the conduct of human affairs and the enlargement of knowledge."

From: Charles A. Corr - Wolff, Christian - - in: Edward Craig (ed.) - The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy - New York, Routledge, 1998, pp. 776-777.

"Wolff's Ontology begins ( 27) with the assertion of the two laws of contradiction and sufficient reason, both fundamental to the assertion that something is, or that it is not. The former requires that what is must be free from inner conflict, the latter that, if it does not, like a necessary being, have a reason for being in its own nature, it must depend on such a reason in something other than itself. The law of causation, as we ordinarily understand it, is for Wolff only a special form of the law of sufficient reason, pertinent to temporal, changeable things and their states ( 71). From these principles Wolff proceeds to the consideration of the metaphysical modalities, of which the most fundamental is the possible, the negation of the self-contradictory, or logically impossible. Everything actual, he holds, is by the law of contradiction possible, but he here embraces some invalid theorems, for instance, that a possible consequence can only have possible premisses. Obviously, modal logic is still insecure, though Wolff's treatment of apagogic proof in 98 is of some interest. From Wolffian principles it follows that the notion of an entity not wholly determinate is "imaginary', and that the indeterminate is only what is for us determinable, and that it will have to be determined by a sufficient reason ( 111, 117). There is no room in Wolffianism, any more than in Leibnizianism, for radical alternativity: Kant, however, will diverge from this position under the influence of Crusius.

All this leads, however, to Wolff's treatment of what he calls an entity: an entity is defined as any thing which can exist, to which existence is not repugnant. Thus warmth in this stone is a something, an entity, since a stone certainly can be warm or a warm stone can exist. There does not need to be any actual stone-warmth for us to have an entity before us. An entity is, however, rightly called fictitious or imaginary, if it lacks existence, which does not, however, make it less of an entity. These near-Meinongian positions are of great contemporary interest, and form the spring-board for much of Kant's later criticisms of the ontological proof, which is Wolffian enough to treat 100 possible dollars as if they certainly were something. Wolff goes on to draw the distinctions of essential features and attributes, on the one hand, which always must belong to an entity, and its modes, on the other hand, which are merely the characters that it can have and also can not have. Obviously, however, something must be added to possibility to raise it to full existence, and this Wolff is simply content to call the possibility-complement ( 174)." (pp. 39-40).

From: John N. Findlay - Kant and the transcendental object. A hermeneutic study - Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1981

"Being is what can exist and, consequently, that with which existence is not incompatible" 134.

"Hinc existentiam definio per complementum possibilitatis" 174 (Existence is defined as the complement of possibility).

From: Christian Wolff - Philosophia prima sive Ontologia (1730) - (First philosophy, or Ontology).


"Crusius was a pivotal figure in the middle period of the German Enlightenment, linking Pufendorf and Thomasius with Kant. Though sometimes wrongly characterized (for example by Hegel) as a Wolffian, he was instead an important critic of that position. His system reflected a new alliance between Pietism and Lutheran orthodoxy, offering a comprehensive antirationalist, realist, and voluntarist alternative to the neoscholastic tradition as renovated by Leibniz. Crusius was important in Kant's development and helps us understand the latter's philosophical Protestantism."

From: Michael J. Seidler - Crusius Christian August - - in: Edward Craig (ed.) - The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy - New York, Routledge, 1998, p. 736

"Crusius' influence on Kant. Recent historical scholarship has stressed Crusius' importance in Kant's development, and the view that Kant's philosophy was rooted in Wolff's system has been more and more questioned. Recent research has shown that Kant, educated in the Pietistic, eclectic, and anti-Wolffian milieu of Königsberg University, was mainly trying in his precritical development (1745-1768) -- despite the nonorthodox Wolffian influence of his teacher, Martin Knutzen -- to counteract Wolffian philosophy in an increasingly original way. He therefore appealed both to recent anti-Wolffian trends -- to Maupertuis and his Berlin circle and through Maupertuis to Newton -- and to Crusius, the new leader of Pietist philosophy and only nine years his senior, whose reputation grew tremendously from 1744 on. Crusius' influence on Kant consists in six main points, some of which were also held by other Pietist philosophers or by Maupertuis. Crusius stressed the limits of human understanding, a theme that recurs in Kant's writings under different forms from 1755 on. He rejected the Ontological Argument, as did Kant after 1755, and he later rejected all theoretical proofs of God's existence. He assumed a multiplicity of independent first principles; Kant did so after 1755. He denied the importance of formal logic, and simplified it. He rejected the possibility of defining existence, and accepted a multiplicity of simple notions. He rejected the mathematical method as applied to philosophy. Kant adopted these last three positions in 1762.

Kant's Crusianism reached its climax in his Untersuchung über die Deutlichkeit der Grundsätze der naturlichen Theologie und der Moral ("Investigations Concerning the Distinctness of the Fundamental Principles of Natural Theology and Morals," Berlin, 1764), written in 1762. By 1763 Kant's enthusiasm for Crusius' philosophy was waning, but he did not reject the six tenets above and was still influenced by Crusius on individual points as late as the 1770s. Bohatec has claimed that Crusius' doctrines in revealed theology exerted some influence on Kant's late works in religion." (p. 270).

From: Paul Edwards (ed.) - Encyclopedia of Philosophy - New York. Macmillan 1967 - article Crusius, Christian August by Giorgio Tonelli.

[First definition of existence as a predicate]

Existence is "that predicate of a thing by virtue of which the thing is to be encountered somewhere and at some time outside thought."

From: Christian August Crusius - Entwurf der notwendingen Venunftwharheiten (Sketch of necessary truths of reason) (1745) - Section 46.

IMMANUEL KANT (1724-1804)


"Being is that which belongs to every conceivable term, to every possible object, of thought-in short to everything that can possibly occur in any proposition, true or false, and to all such propositions themselves. Being belongs to whatever can be counted. If A be any term that can be counted as one, it is plain that A is something, and therefore that A is. 'A is not' must always be either false or meaningless. For if A were nothing, it could not be said not to be ; 'A is not' implies that there is a term A whose being is denied, and hence that A is. Thus unless 'A is not' be an empty sound, it must be false. Whatever A may be, it certainly is. Numbers, the Homeric gods, relations, chimeras and four-dimensional spaces all have being, for if they were not entities of a kind, we could make no propositions about them. Thus being is a general attribute of everything, and to mention anything is to show that it is.

Existence, on the contrary, is the prerogative of some only amongst beings. To exist is to have a specific relation to existence-a relation, by the way, which existence itself does not have. This shows, incidentally, the weakness of the existential theory of judgment-the theory, that is, that every proposition is concerned with something that exist, For if this theory were true, it would still be true that existence itself is an entity, and it must be admitted that existence does not exist, Thus the consideration of existence itself leads to non-existential pro, positions, and so contradicts the theory. The theory seems, in fact, to have arisen from neglect of the distinction between existence and being Yet this distinction is essential, if we are ever to deny the existence of anything. For what does not exist must be something, or it would be meaningless to deny its existence ; and hence we need the concept of being, as that which belongs even to the non-existent." pp. 449-450.

From: Bertrand Russell - The Principles of Mathematics - New York, W. W. Norton Company, 1903, second edition 1937.



Nelson Michael, "Existence", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)




1. The Goals of Theistic Arguments

Before attempting to explain and assess moral arguments for the existence of God, it would be helpful to have some perspective on the goals of arguments for God's existence. (I shall generically term arguments for God's existence “theistic arguments.”) Of course views about this are diverse, but most contemporary proponents of such arguments do not see theistic arguments as attempted “proofs,” in the sense that they are supposed to provide valid arguments with premises that no reasonable person could deny. Such a standard of achievement would clearly be setting the bar for success very high, and proponents of theistic arguments rightly note that philosophical arguments for interesting conclusions in any field outside of formal logic hardly ever reach such a standard. More reasonable questions to ask about theistic arguments would seem to be the following: Are there valid arguments for the conclusion that God exists that have premises that are known or reasonably believed by some people? Are the premises of such arguments more reasonable than their denials, at least for some reasonable people? Arguments that met these standards could have value in making belief in God reasonable for some people, or even giving some people knowledge of God's existence, even if it turns out that some of the premises of the arguments can be reasonably denied by other people, and thus that the arguments fail as proofs.

It is of course possible that an argument for God's existence could provide some evidence for God's existence, in the sense that the argument increases the probability or plausibility of the claim that God exists, even if the argument does not provide enough support by itself for full-fledged belief that God exists. A proponent of the moral argument who viewed the argument in this way might in that case regard the argument as part of a cumulative case for theism, and hold that the moral argument must be supplemented by other possible arguments, such as the “fine-tuning” argument from the physical constants of the universe, or an argument from religious experience. A non-believer might even concede some version of a theistic argument has some evidential force, but claim that the overall balance of evidence does not support belief.

A major issue that cannot be settled here concerns the question of where the burden of proof lies with respect to theistic arguments. Many secular philosophers follow Antony Flew (1976) in holding that there is a “presumption of atheism.” Believing in God is like believing in the Loch Ness Monster or leprechauns, something that reasonable people do not do without sufficient evidence. If such evidence is lacking, the proper stance is atheism rather than agnosticism.

This “presumption of atheism” has been challenged in a number of ways. Alvin Plantinga (2000) has argued that reasonable belief in God does not have to be based on propositional evidence, but can be “properly basic.” On this view, reasonable belief in God can be the outcome of a basic faculty (called the sensus divinitatis by theologian John Calvin) and thus needs no support from arguments at all. In response some would argue that even if theistic belief is not grounded in propositional evidence, it still might require non-propositional evidence (such as experience), so it is not clear that Plantinga's view by itself removes the burden of proof challenge.

A second way to challenge the presumption of atheism is to question an implicit assumption made by those who defend such a presumption, which is that belief in God is epistemologically more risky than unbelief. The assumption might be defended in the following way: One might think that theists and atheists share a belief in many entities: atoms, middle-sized physical objects, animals, and stars, for example. Someone, however, who believes in leprechauns or sea monsters in addition to these commonly accepted objects thereby incurs a burden of proof. Such a person believes in “one additional thing” and thus seems to incur additional epistemological risk. One might think that belief in God is relevantly like belief in a leprechaun or sea monster, and thus that the theist also bears an additional burden of proof. Without good evidence in favor of belief in God the safe option is to refrain from belief.

However, the theist may hold that this account does not accurately represent the situation. Instead, the theist may argue that the debate between atheism and theism is not simply an argument about whether “one more thing” exists in the world. In fact, God is not to be understood as an entity in the world at all; any such entity would by definition not be God. The debate is rather a debate about the character of the universe. The theist believes that every object in the natural world exists because God creates and conserves that object; every finite thing has the character of being dependent on God. The atheist denies this and affirms that the basic entities in the natural world have the character of existing “on their own.” If this is the right way to think about the debate, then it is not obvious that atheism is safer than theism. The debate is not about the existence of one object, but the character of the universe as a whole. Both parties are making claims about the character of everything in the natural world, and both claims seem risky. This point is especially important in dealing with moral arguments for theism, since one of the questions raised by such arguments is the adequacy of a naturalistic worldview in explaining morality. Evidentialists may properly ask about the evidence for theism, but it also seems proper to ask about the evidence for atheism if the atheist is committed to a rival metaphysic such as naturalism.

2. History of Moral Arguments for God's Existence

Something that resembles a moral argument for God's existence, or at least an argument from value, can be found in the fourth of Thomas Aquinas's “Five Ways” (Aquinas 1265–1274, I, 1, 3). Aquinas there begins with the claim that among beings who possess such qualities as “good, true, and noble” there are gradations. Presumably he means that some things that are good are better than other good things; perhaps some noble people are nobler than others who are noble. In effect Aquinas is claiming that when we “grade” things in this way we are, at least implicitly, comparing them to some absolute standard. Aquinas believes this standard cannot be merely “ideal” or “hypothetical,” and thus this gradation is only possible if there is some being which has this quality to a “maximum” extent: “so that there is something which is truest, something best, something noblest and, consequently, something which is uttermost being; for those things that are greatest in truth are greatest in being, as it is written in Metaph. Ii.” Aquinas goes on to affirm that this being which provides the standard is also the cause or explanation of the existence of these qualities, and such a cause must be God. Obviously, this argument draws deeply on Platonic and Aristotelian assumptions that are no longer widely held by philosophers. For the argument to be plausible today, such assumptions would have to be defended, or else the argument reformulated in a way that frees it from its original metaphysical home.

Probably the most influential versions of the moral argument for belief in God can be traced to Kant (1788 [1956]), who famously argued that the theoretical arguments for God's existence were unsuccessful, but presented a rational argument for belief in God as a “postulate of practical reason.” Kant held that a rational, moral being must necessarily will “the highest good,” which consists of a world in which people are both morally good and happy, and in which moral virtue is the condition for happiness. The latter condition implies that this end must be sought solely by moral action. However, Kant held that a person cannot rationally will such an end without believing that moral actions can successfully achieve such an end, and this requires a belief that the causal structure of nature is conducive to the achievement of this end by moral means. This is equivalent to belief in God, a moral being who is ultimately responsible for the character of the natural world. Kant's arguments will be discussed later in this article.

Kant-inspired arguments were prominent in the nineteenth century, and continued to be important right up to the middle of the twentieth century. Such arguments can be found, for example, in W. R. Sorley (1918), Hastings Rashdall (1920), and A. E. Taylor (1945/1930). Although Henry Sidgwick was not himself a proponent of a moral argument for God's existence, some have argued that his thought presents the materials for such an argument (see Walls and Baggett 2011). In the nineteenth century John Henry Newman (1870) also made good use of a moral argument in his case for belief in God, developing what could be called an argument from conscience.

In recent philosophy there has been a revival of divine command metaethical theories, which has in turn led to new versions of the moral argument found in such thinkers as Robert Adams (1987), John Hare (1996), and C. Stephen Evans (2010). However, it is important to see that there are versions of the moral argument for God's existence that are completely independent of such a divine command theory, and this possibility can be seen in arguments developed by Angus Ritchie (2012) and Mark Linville (2009). It goes without saying that these renewed arguments have engendered new criticisms as well.

Theoretical moral arguments for God's existence can be understood as variations on the following template:

  1. There are objective moral facts.
  2. God provides the best explanation of the existence of objective moral facts.
  3. Therefore, (probably) God exists.

As we shall see, there are a variety of features of morality that can be appealed to in the first steps of the arguments, as well as a variety of ways in which God might be thought to provide an explanation of those features in the second steps. The use of the somewhat vague phrase “objective moral facts” is intended to allow for this variety. Both types of premises are obviously open to challenge. For example, the first premise of such an argument can be challenged by popular metaethical views that see morality as “subjective,” or “expressive,” rather than something that consists of objective facts, and also by moral sceptics. The second premise can be challenged on the basis of rival explanations of the features of morality, explanations that do not require God. Arguments about the second premise then may require comparison between theistic explanations of morality and these rival views.

It is easy to see then that the proponent of a moral argument has a complex task: She must defend the reality and objectivity of the feature of morality appealed to, but also defend the claim that this feature can be best explained by God. The second part of the task may require not only demonstrating the strengths of a theistic explanation, but pointing out weaknesses in rival secular explanations as well. Both parts of the task are essential, but it is worth noting that the two components cannot be accomplished simultaneously. The theist must defend the reality of morality against subjectivist and nihilistic critics. Assuming that this task has been carried out, the theist must then try to show that morality thus understood requires a theistic explanation.

It is interesting to observe, however, that with respect to both parts of the task, the theist may enlist non-theists as allies. The theist may well make common cause with ethical naturalists as well as ethical non-naturalists in defending moral realism against “projective” theories such as expressivism. However, the theist may also enlist the support of “error theorists” such as J. L. Mackie (1977), and “moral nihilists” such as Friedrich Nietzsche (1887) in arguing that God is necessary for objective morality. Nietzsche, for example, explicitly holds that God does not exist, but also claims that God's non-existence undermines the reality of traditional western morality. The fact that theists can enlist such unlikely allies does not mean the moral argument for God's existence is sound, but it does suggest that the argument is not obviously question-begging, since both premises are sometimes accepted by (different) non-believers.

3. Theoretical Moral Arguments for God's Existence and Divine Command Theories of Moral Obligation

One easily understandable version of a theistic moral argument relies on an analogy between human laws promulgated by nation-states and moral laws. Sovereign states enact laws that make certain acts forbidden or required. If I am a U. S. citizen, and I earn more than a small amount of money I am obligated to file an income tax return each year. I am also forbidden, because of the laws that hold in the United States, to discriminate in hiring on the basis of age or race. Many people believe that there are moral laws that bind individuals in the same way that political laws do. I am obligated by a moral principle not to lie to others, and I am similarly obligated to keep promises that I have made. (Both legal and moral laws may be understood as holding prima facie, so that in some situations a person must violate one law in order to obey a more important one.)

We know how human laws come into existence. They are enacted by legislatures (or absolute monarchs in some countries) who have the authority to pass such laws. How then should the existence of moral laws be explained? It seems plausible to many to hold that they must be similarly grounded in some appropriate moral authority, and the only plausible candidate to fulfill this role is God. Some philosophers have dismissed an argument of this type as “crude,” presumably because its force is so obvious that no special philosophical training is necessary to understand it and see its appeal. The fact that one can understand the argument without much in the way of philosophical skill is not necessarily a defect, however. If one supposes that there is a God, and that God wants humans to know him and relate to him, one would expect God to make his reality known to humans in very obvious ways (See Evans 2010). After all, critics of theistic belief, such as J. L. Schellenberg (1993), have argued that the fact that God's reality is not obvious to those who would like to believe in God is a grave problem. If an awareness of moral obligations is in fact an awareness of God's commands or divine laws, then the ordinary person who is aware of moral obligations does have a kind of awareness of God. Of course such a person might be aware of God's laws without realizing that they are God's laws; she might be aware of God's commands without being aware of them under that description. The religious apologist might view such a person as already having a kind of de re awareness of God, because a moral obligation is simply an expression of God's will.

How can such an awareness be converted into full-fledged belief in God? One way of doing this would be to help the person gain the skills needed to recognize moral laws as what they are, as divine commands or divine laws. If moral laws are experienced, then moral experience could be viewed as a kind of religious experience or at least a proto-religious experience. Perhaps someone who has experience of God in this way does not need a moral argument (or any kind of argument) to have a reasonable belief in God. This may be one instance of the kind of case that Alvin Plantinga (2000) and the “Reformed epistemologists” have in mind when they claim that belief in God can be “properly basic.” It is worth noting then that there could be such a thing as knowledge of God that is rooted in moral experience without that knowledge being the result of a moral argument.

Even if that is the case, however, a moral argument could still play a valuable role. Such an argument might be one way of helping an individual understand that moral obligations are in fact divine commands or laws. Even if it were true that some ordinary people might know that God exists without argument, an argument could be helpful in defending the claim that this is the case. A person might conceivably need an argument for the second level claim that the person knows God without argument.

In any case a divine command metaethical theory provides the material for such an argument. The revival of divine command theories (DCT) of moral obligation is due mainly to the work of Philip Quinn (1979/1978) and Robert Adams (1999). Adams' version of a DCT has been particularly influential and is well-suited for the defense of the claim that moral knowledge can provide knowledge of God. Adams' version of a DCT is an account of moral obligations and it must be distinguished from more general “voluntarist” views of ethics that try to treat other moral properties (such as the good) as dependent on God's will. As explained below, by limiting the theory to obligations, Adams avoids the standard “Euthyphro” objection, which claims that divine command views reduce ethics to arbitrariness.

Adams' account of moral obligations as divine commands rests on a more general social theory of obligations. There are of course many types of obligations: legal obligations, financial obligations, obligations of etiquette, and obligations that hold in virtue of belonging to some club or association, to name just a few. Clearly these obligations are distinct from moral obligations, since in some cases moral obligations can conflict with these other kinds. What is distinctive about obligations in general? They are not reducible simply to normative claims about what a person has a good reason to do. J. S. Mill (1874, 164-165) argued that we can explain normative principles without making any reference to God. He contends that the “feeling of obligation” stems from “something that the internal conscience bears witness to in its own nature,” and thus the moral law, unlike human laws, “does not originate in the will of a legislator or legislature external to the mind.” Doubtless Mill had in mind here such normative logical principles as “it is wrong to believe both ‘p’ and ‘not-p’ at the same time.” Mill argues that such normative principles hold without any requirement for an “authority” to be their ground. Mill's view is plausible, though some theists have argued that metaphysical naturalists have difficulty in explaining any kind of normativity (see Devine 1989, 88–89). However, even if Mill is correct about normativity in general, it does not follow that his view is correct for obligations, which have a special character. An obligation has a special kind of force; we should care about complying with it, and violations of obligations appropriately incur blame (Adams 1999, 235). If I make a logical mistake, I may feel silly or stupid or embarrassed, but I have no reason to feel guilty, unless the mistake reflects some carelessness on my part that itself constitutes a violation of a moral obligation. Adams argues that “facts of obligation are constituted by broadly social requirements.” (ibid, 233) For example, the social role of parenting is partly constituted by the obligations one assumes by becoming a parent, and the social role of citizen is partly constituted by the obligations to obey the laws of the country in which one is a citizen.

All obligations are then constituted by social requirements, according to Adams. However, not all obligations constituted by social requirements are moral obligations. What social relation could be the basis of moral obligations? Adams argues that not just any human social relation will possess the requisite authority: “A morally valid obligation obviously will not be constituted by just any demand sponsored by a system of social relationships that one in fact values. Some such demands have no moral force, and some social systems are downright evil.” (ibid, 242) If a good and loving God exists and has created all humans, then the social relation humans have to God has the right features to explain moral obligations. For if moral obligations stem from God's requirements, they will be objective, but they will also be motivating, since a relation to God would clearly be a great good that humans would have reason to value. Since a proper relation to God is arguably more important than any other social relation, we can also understand why moral obligations trump other kinds of obligations. On this view we can also explain why moral obligations have a transcendent character, which is important because “a genuinely moral conception of obligation must have resources for moral criticism of social systems and their demands.” (ibid, 242–243)

Notice that the DCT Adams defends is ontological rather than semantic: it is a claim that moral obligations are in fact identical with divine commands, not a claim that “moral obligations” has the same meaning as “divine commands.” On his account, the meaning of “moral obligation” is fixed by the role this concept plays in our language. That role includes such facts as these: Moral obligations must be motivating and objective. They also must provide a basis for critical evaluation of other types of obligations, and they must be such that someone who violates a moral obligation is appropriately subject to blame. Adams argues that it is divine commands that best satisfy these desiderata. God's existence thus provides the best explanation of moral obligations. If moral obligations are identical with divine commands (or perhaps if they are grounded in or caused to exist by divine commands) an argument for God's existence from such obligations can easily be constructed:

  1. There are objective moral obligations.
  2. If there are objective moral obligations, there is a God who explains these obligations.
  3. There is a God.

This argument is stated in a deductive form, but it can easily be reworded as a probabilistic “argument to the best explanation,” as follows:

  1. There are objective moral obligations.
  2. God provides the best explanation of the existence of moral obligations.
  3. Probably, God exists.

Obviously, those who do not find a DCT convincing will not think this argument from moral obligation has force. However, Adams anticipates and gives a forceful answer to one common criticism of a DCT. It is often argued that a DCT must fail because of a dilemma parallel to one derived from Plato's Euthyphro. The dilemma for a DCT can be derived from the following question: Assuming that God commands what is right, does he command what is right because it is right? If the proponent of a DCT answers affirmatively, then it appears the quality of rightness must hold antecedently to and thus independently of God's commands. If, however, the proponent denies that God commands what is right because it is right, then God's commands appear arbitrary. Adams' version of a DCT evades this dilemma by holding that God is essentially good and that his commands are necessarily aimed at the good. This allows Adams to claim that God's commands make actions obligatory (or forbidden), while denying that the commands are arbitrary.

Although Adams' version of a DCT successfully meets this “Euthyphro” objection, there are other powerful criticisms that have been mounted against this metaethical theory in the literature. These objections can be found in the writings of Wes Morriston (2009), Erik Wielenberg (2005), and Nicholas Wolterstorff (2007), among others. However, responses to these objections and others have also been given (see Evans 2013, Baggett and Walls, 2011). Clearly this version of a moral argument for God's existence will only be judged powerful by those who find a DCT plausible, and that will certainly be a small minority of philosophers. (Although it is worth noting that no single metaethical theory seems to enjoy widespread support among philosophers, so a DCT is not alone in being a minority view.) Nevertheless, those who do find a DCT powerful will also see moral obligations as providing strong evidence for God's reality.

4. Arguments from Moral Knowledge or Awareness

A variety of arguments have been developed that God is necessary to explain human awareness of moral truth (or moral knowledge, if one believes that this moral awareness amounts to knowledge). Richard Swinburne (2004, 218), for example, argues that there is no “great probability that moral awareness will occur in a Godless universe.” On Swinburne's view, moral truths are either necessary truths or contingent truths that are grounded in necessary truths. For example, it is obviously contingent that “It is wrong to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima,” since it is contingent that there exists a city such as Hiroshima. But one might hold that this proposition is true (assuming it is) because of some other truth such as “It is wrong intentionally to kill innocent humans” which does hold universally and is necessarily true. Swinburne does not think that an argument from moral facts as such is powerful. However, the fact that we humans are aware of moral facts is itself surprising and calls for an explanation.

It may be true that creatures who belong to groups that behave altruistically will have some survival advantage over groups that lack such a trait. However, moral beliefs are not required in order to produce such behavior, since it is clear that “there are many species of animals that are naturally inclined to help others of their species, and yet do not have moral beliefs.” (Swinburne 2004, 217) If God exists, he has “significant reason to bring about conscious beings with moral awareness,” since his intended purpose for humans includes making it possible for them freely to choose good over evil, since this will make it possible for them to develop a relation to God. Swinburne does not think that this argument provides very strong evidence for God's existence by itself, but rather that it provides some inductive support for belief in God. It is one of several phenomena which seem more probable in a theistic universe than in a godless universe. As we consider more and more such phenomena, it will be increasingly improbable that “they will all occur.” (ibid, 218) All of these inductive arguments together may then provide substantial support for theistic belief, even if no one of them by itself would be sufficient for rational belief.

Swinburne's version of the argument is quite brief and undeveloped, but the materials for a more developed version of the argument can be found in a well-known and much cited article by Sharon Street (2006). Street's argument, as the title implies, is in no way intended to support a moral argument for theism. To the contrary, her purpose is to defend anti-realist metaethical theories against realist theories that view moral truth as “stance-independent” of human attitudes and emotions. Street presents the moral realist with a dilemma posed by the question as to how our human evaluative beliefs are related to human evolution. It is clear, she believes, that evolution has strongly shaped our evaluative attitudes. The question concerns how those attitudes are related to the objective evaluative truths accepted by the realist. If the realist holds that there is no relation between such truths and our evaluative attitudes, then this implies that “most of our evaluative judgments are off track due to the distorting influence of Darwinian processes.” The other alternative for the realist is to claim that there is a relationship, and thus that is not an accident or miracle that our evaluative beliefs track the objective truths. However, this view, Street claims, is scientifically implausible. Street argues therefore that an evolutionary story about how we came to make the moral judgments we make undermines confidence in the objective truth of those judgments. Street's argument is of course controversial and thinkers such as Erik Wielenberg (2014) have argued against evolutionary debunking arguments. Still, many regard such arguments as problematic for morality, particularly when developed as a “global” argument (Kahane, 2010).

Moral realists such as David Enoch (2011) have attempted to respond to Street's argument, though Enoch acknowledges its force and evidently has some worries about the strength of his reply. However, it is not hard to see that a good deal of the force of Street's argument stems from the assumption that naturalism is true, and therefore that the evolutionary process is one that is unguided. It does appear that in a naturalistic universe we would expect a process of Darwinian evolution to select for a propensity for moral judgments that track survival and not objective moral truths. Mark Linville (2009, 391–446) has developed a detailed argument for the claim that it is difficult for metaphysical naturalists to develop a plausible evolutionary story as to how our moral judgments could have epistemological warrant. However, if we suppose that the evolutionary process has been guided by a God who has as one of his goals the creation of morally significant human creatures capable of enjoying a relation with God, then it would not seem at all accidental or even unlikely that God would ensure that humans have value beliefs that are largely correct.

Some philosophers may believe that the randomness of Darwinian natural selection rules out the possibility of any kind of divine guidance being exercised through such a process. Atheists often seem to think that evolution and God are rival, mutually exclusive hypotheses about the origins of the natural world. What can be explained scientifically needs no religious explanation. However, this is far from obviously true; in fact, if theism is true it is clearly false. From a theistic perspective to think that God and science provide competing explanations fails to grasp the relationship between God and the natural world by conceiving of God as one more cause within that natural world. If God exists at all, God is not an entity within the natural world, but the creator of that natural world, with all of its causal processes. If God exists, God is the reason why there is a natural world and the reason for the existence of the causal processes of the natural world. In principle, therefore, a natural explanation can never preclude a theistic explanation.

But what about the randomness that is a crucial part of the Darwinian story? The atheist might claim that because evolutionary theory posits that the process by which plants and animals have evolved in one that involves random genetic mutations, it cannot be guided, and thus God cannot have used evolutionary means to achieve his ends. However, this argument fails. It depends on an equivocation in what is meant by “random.” When scientists claim that genetic mutations are random, they do not mean that they are uncaused, or even that they are unpredictable from the point of view of biochemistry, but only that the mutations do not happen in response to the adaptational needs of the organism. It is entirely possible for a natural process to include randomness in that sense, even if the whole natural order is itself created and sustained by God. The sense of “randomness” required for evolutionary theory does not imply that the evolutionary process must be unguided. A God who is responsible for the laws of nature and the initial conditions that shape the evolutionary process could certainly ensure that the process achieved certain ends.

Like the other moral arguments for God's existence, the argument from moral knowledge can easily be stated in a propositional form, and I believe Swinburne is right to hold that the argument is best construed as a probabilistic argument that appeals to God as providing a better explanation of moral knowledge than is possible in a naturalistic universe.

  1. Humans possess objective moral knowledge.
  2. Probably, if God does not exist, humans would not possess objective moral knowledge.
  3. Probably, God exists.

There is a kind of argument from moral knowledge also implicit in Angus Ritchie's recent book From Morality to Metaphysics: The Theistic Implications of our Ethical Commitments (2012). Ritchie presses a kind of dilemma on non-theistic accounts of morality. Subjectivist theories such as expressivism can certainly make sense of the fact that we make the ethical judgments we do, but they empty morality of its objective authority. Objectivist theories that take morality seriously, however, have difficulty explaining our capacity to make true moral judgments, unless the process by which humans came to hold these capacities is one that is controlled by a being such as God.

The moral argument from knowledge will not be convincing to anyone who is committed to any form of expressivism or other non-objective metaethical theory, and clearly many philosophers find such views attractive. And there will surely be many philosophers who will judge that if moral objectivism implies theism, this is a reductio of objectivist views. Furthermore, non-theistic moral philosophers, whether naturalists or non-naturalists, have stories to tell about how moral knowledge might be possible. Nevertheless, there are real questions about the plausibility of these stories, and thus, some of those convinced that moral realism is true may judge that moral knowledge provides some support for theistic belief.

5. Arguments from Human Dignity or Worth

Many philosophers find Immanuel Kant's moral philosophy still offers a fruitful approach to ethics. Of the various forms of the “categorical imperative” that Kant offers, the formula that regards human beings as “ends in themselves” is especially attractive: “Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end” (Kant 1785 [1964], 96). Many contemporary moral philosophers influenced by Kant, such as Christine Korsgaard (1996), see Kant as offering a “constructivist” metaethical position. Constructivism is supposed to offer a “third way” between moral realism and subjectivist views of morality. Like subjectivists, constructivists want to see morality as a human creation. However, like moral realists constructivists want to see moral questions as having objective answers. Constructivism is an attempt to develop an objective morality that is free of the metaphysical commitments of moral realism.

It is, however, controversial whether Kant himself was a constructivist in this sense. One reason to question whether this is the right way to read Kant follows from the fact that Kant himself did not see morality as free from metaphysical commitments. For example, Kant thought that it would be impossible for someone who believed that mechanistic determinism was the literal truth about himself to believe that he was a moral agent, since morality requires an autonomy that is incompatible with determinism. To see myself as a creature who has the kind of value Kant calls “dignity” I must not see myself merely as a machine-like product of the physical environment. Hence Kant thought that it was crucial for morality that his Critical Philosophy had shown that the deterministic perspective on humans is simply part of the “phenomenal world” that is the object of scientific knowledge, not the “noumenal reality” that it would be if some kind of scientific realism were the true metaphysical view. When we do science we see ourselves as determined, but science tells us only how the world appears, not how it really is. Recognizing this fact suggests that when Kant posits that humans have this intrinsic value he calls dignity, he is not “constructing” the value humans have, but recognizing the value beings of a certain kind must have. Humans can only have this kind of value if they are a particular kind of creature. Whether Kant himself was a moral realist or not, there are certainly elements in his philosophy that push in a realist direction.

If the claim that human persons have a kind of intrinsic dignity or worth is a true objective principle and if it provides a key foundational principle of morality, it is well worth asking what kinds of metaphysical implications the claim might have. This is the question that Mark Linville (2009, 417–446) pursues in the second moral argument he develops. Linville begins by noting that one could hardly hold that “human persons have intrinsic dignity” could be true if human persons do not exist. Clearly, some metaphysical positions do include a denial of the existence of human persons, such as forms of Absolute Monism which hold that only one Absolute Reality exists. However, it also seems to be the case that some forms of Scientific Naturalism are committed to the denial of “persons as substantive selves that essentially possess a first-person point of view” (See Dennett 2006, 107). Daniel Dennett, for example, holds that persons will not be part of the ultimately true scientific account of things. Dennett holds that to think of humans as persons is simply to adopt a certain “stance” toward them that he calls the “intentional stance,” but it is clear that the kind of picture of humans we get when we think of them in this way does not correspond with their intrinsic metaphysical properties. It is not clear how systems towards which we adopt an “intentional stance” could be truly autonomous and thus have the kind of value Kant believes human persons have.

The argument from human dignity could be put into propositional form as follows:

  1. Human persons have a special kind of intrinsic value that we call dignity.
  2. The only (or best) explanation of the fact that humans possess dignity is that they are created by a supremely good God in God's own image.
  3. Probably there is a supremely good God.

A naturalist may want to challenge premise (2) by finding some other strategy to explain human dignity. Michael Martin (2002), for example, has tried to suggest that moral judgments can be analyzed as the feelings of approval or disapproval of a perfectly impartial and informed observer. Linville (2009) objects that it is not clear how the feelings of such an observer could constitute the intrinsic worth of a person, since one would think that intrinsic properties would be non-relational and mind-independent. In any case, Linville notes that a “Euthyphro” problem lurks for such an ideal observer theory, since one would think that such an observer would judge a person to be intrinsically valuable because the person has intrinsic value.

Another strategy that is pursued by constructivists such as Korsgaard is to link the value ascribed to humans to the capacity for rational reflection. The idea is that insofar as I am committed to rational reflection, I must value myself as having this capacity, and consistently value others who have it as well. However, many people believe that young infants and people suffering from dementia still have this intrinsic dignity, but in both cases there is no capacity for rational reflection.

Some support for this criticism of the attempt to see reason as the basis of the value of humans can be found in Nicholas Wolterstorff's recent work on justice (2007, especially Ch. 8). Wolterstorff in this work defends the claim that there are natural human rights, and that violating such rights is one way of acting unjustly towards a person. Why do humans have such rights? Wolterstorff says these rights are grounded in the basic worth or dignity that humans possess. When I seek to torture or kill an innocent human I am failing to respect this worth. If one asks why we should think humans possess such worth, Wolterstorff argues that the belief that humans have this quality was not only historically produced by Jewish and Christian conceptions of the human person, but even now cannot be defended apart from such a conception. In particular, he argues that attempts to argue that our worth stems from some excellence we possess such as reason will not explain the worth of infants or those with severe brain injuries or dementia.

Does a theistic worldview fare better in explaining the special value of human dignity? In a theistic universe God is himself seen as the supreme good. Indeed, theistic Platonists usually identify God with the Good. If God is himself a person, then this seems to be a commitment to the idea that personhood itself is something that must be intrinsically good. If human persons are made in God's image, as both Judaism and Christianity affirm, then it would seem to follow that humans do have a kind of intrinsic value, just by way of being the kind of creatures they are.

This argument will of course be found unconvincing to many. Some will deny premise (1), either because they reject moral realism as a metaethical stance, or because they reject the normative claim that humans have any kind of special value or dignity. (Maybe they will even think that such a claim is a form of “speciesism.”). Others will find premise (2) suspect. They may be inclined to agree that human persons have a special dignity, but hold that the source of that dignity can be found in such human qualities as rationality. With respect to the status of infants and those suffering from dementia, the critic might bite the bullet and just accept the fact that human dignity does not extend to them, or else argue that the fact that infants and those suffering mental breakdown are part of a species whose members typically possess rationality merits them a special respect, even if they lack this quality as individuals. Others will find premise (2) doubtful because they find the theistic explanation of dignity unclear. Another alternative is to seek a Constructivist account of dignity, perhaps regarding the special status of humans as something we humans decide to extend to each other. Perhaps the strongest non-theistic alternative would be some form of ethical non-naturalism, in which one simply affirms that the claim that persons have a special dignity is an a priori truth requiring no explanation. In effect this is a decision for a non-theistic form of Platonism.

The proponent of the argument may well agree that claims about the special status of humans are true a priori, and thus also opt for some form of Platonism. However, the proponent of the argument will point out that some necessary truths can be explained by other necessary truths. The theist believes that these truths about the special status of humans tell us something about the kind of universe humans find themselves in. To say that humans are created by God is to say that personhood is not an ephemeral or accidental feature of the universe, because at bottom reality itself is personal (Mavrodes 1986).

6. Practical Moral Arguments for Belief in God

As already noted, the most famous and perhaps most influential version of a moral argument for belief in God is found in Immanuel Kant (1788). Kant himself insisted that his argument was not a theoretical argument, but an argument grounded in practical reason. The conclusion of the argument is not “God exists” or “God probably exists” but “I (as a rational, moral agent) ought to believe that God exists.” We shall, however, see that there are some reasons to doubt that practical arguments can be neatly separated from theoretical arguments.

Kant's version of the argument can be stated in different ways, but perhaps the following captures one plausible interpretation of the argument. Morality is grounded in pure practical reason, and the moral agent must act on the basis of maxims that can be rationally endorsed as universal principles. Moral actions are thus not determined by results or consequences but by the maxims on which they are based. However, all actions, including moral actions, necessarily aim at ends. Kant argues that the end that moral actions aim at is the “highest good,” which is a world in which both moral virtue and happiness are maximized, with happiness contingent on virtue. For Kant “ought implies can,” and so if I have an obligation to seek the highest good, then I must believe that it is possible to achieve such an end. However, I must seek the highest good only by acting in accordance with morality; no shortcuts to happiness are permissible. This seems to require that I believe that acting in accordance with morality will be causally efficacious in achieving the highest good. However, it is reasonable to believe that moral actions will be causally efficacious in this way only if the laws of causality are set up in such a way that these laws are conducive to the efficacy of moral action. Certainly both parts of the highest good seem difficult to achieve. We humans have weaknesses in our character that appear difficult if not impossible to overcome by our own efforts. Furthermore, as creatures we have subjective needs that must be satisfied if we are happy, but we have little empirical reason to think that these needs will be satisfied by moral actions even if we succeeded in becoming virtuous. If a person believes that the natural world is simply a non-moral machine with no moral purposiveness then that person would have no reason to believe that moral action could succeed because there is no a priori reason to think moral action will achieve the highest good and little empirical reason to believe this either. Kant thus concludes that a moral agent must “postulate” the existence of God as a rational presupposition of the moral life.

One problem with this argument is that many will deny that morality requires us to seek the highest good in Kant's sense. Even if the Kantian highest good seems reasonable as an ideal, some will object that we have no obligation to achieve such a state, but merely to work towards realizing the closest approximation to such a state that is possible (See Adams 1987, 152). Without divine assistance, perhaps perfect virtue is unachievable, but in that case we cannot be obliged to realize such a state if there is no God. Perhaps we cannot hope that happiness will be properly proportioned to virtue in the actual world if God does not exist, but then our obligation can only be to realize as much happiness as can be attained through moral means. Kant would doubtless reject this criticism, since on his view the ends of morality are given directly to pure practical reason a priori, and we are not at liberty to adjust those ends on the basis of empirical beliefs. However, few contemporary philosophers would share Kant's confident view of reason here, and thus to many the criticism has force. Even Kant admits at one point that full-fledged belief in God is not rationally necessary, since one could conceivably seek the highest good if one merely believes that God's existence is possible (Kant, 1781–1787, 651).

Another way of interpreting Kant's argument puts more stress on the connection between an individual's desire for happiness and the obligation to do what is morally right. Morality requires me to sacrifice my personal happiness if that is necessary to do what is right. Yet it is a psychological fact that humans necessarily desire their own happiness. In such a state it looks as if human moral agents will be torn by what Henry Sidgwick called the “dualism of the practical reason” (1884, 401). Reason both requires humans to seek their own happiness and to sacrifice it. Sidgwick himself noted that only if there is a God can we hope that this dualism will be resolved, so that those who seek to act morally will in the long run also be acting so as to advance their own happiness and well-being. (Interestingly, Sidgwick himself does not endorse this argument, but he clearly sees this problem as part of the appeal of theism.) A contemporary argument similar to this one has been developed by C. Stephen Layman (2002).

The critic of this form of the Kantian argument may reply that Kantian morality sees duty as something that must be done regardless of the consequences, and thus a truly moral person cannot make his or her commitment to morality contingent on the achievement of happiness. From a Kantian point of view, this reply seems right; Kant unequivocally affirms that moral actions must be done for the sake of duty and not from any desire for personal reward. Nevertheless, especially for any philosopher willing to endorse any form of eudaimonism, seeing myself as inevitably sacrificing what I cannot help but desire for the sake of duty does seem problematic. As John Hare affirms, “If we are to endorse wholeheartedly the long-term shape of our lives, we have to see this shape as consistent with our happiness” (1996, 88).

The critic may reply to this by simply accepting the lamentable fact that there is something tragic or even absurd about the human condition. The world may not be the world we wish it was, but that does not give us any reason to believe it is different than it is. If there is a tension between the demands of morality and self-interest, then this may simply be a brute fact that must be faced.

This reply raises an issue that must be faced by all forms of practical or pragmatic arguments for belief. Many philosophers insist that rational belief must be grounded solely in theoretical evidence. The fact that it would be better for me to believe p does not in itself give me any reason to believe p. This criticism is aimed not merely at Kant, but at other practical moral arguments. For example, Robert Adams argues that if humans believe there is no moral order to the universe, then they will become demoralized in their pursuit of morality, which is morally undesirable (1987, 151). The atheist might concede that atheism is (somewhat) demoralizing, but deny that this provides any reason to believe there is a moral order to the universe. Similarly, Linda Zagzebski (1987) argues that morality will not be a rational enterprise unless good actions increase the amount of good in the world. However, given that moral actions often involve the sacrifice of happiness, there is no reason to believe moral action will increase the good unless there is a power transcendent of human activity working on the side of the good. Here the atheist may claim that moral action does increase the good because such actions always increase good character. However, even if that reply fails the atheist may again simply admit that there may be something tragic or absurd about the human condition, and the fact that we may wish things were different is not a reason to believe that they are. So the problem must be faced: Are practical arguments merely rationalized wish-fulfillment?

The theist might respond to this kind of worry in several ways. The first thing to be said is that the fact that a naturalistic view of the universe implies that the universe must be tragic or absurd, if correct, would itself be an important and interesting conclusion. However, apart from this, it makes a great deal of difference how one construes what we might call the background epistemic situation. If one believes that our theoretical evidence favors atheism, then it seems plausible to hold that one ought to maintain a naturalistic view, even if it is practically undesirable that the world have such a character. In that case a practical argument for religious belief could be judged a form of wish-fulfillment. However, this does not seem to be the way those who support such a practical argument see the situation. Kant affirms that the limits of reason established in The Critique of Pure Reason would silence all objections to morality and religion “in Socratic fashion, namely, by the clearest proof of the ignorance of the objectors” (1781, 1787, 30. See also 530–531.) In fact, the situation actually favors theism, since Kant holds that theoretical reason sees value in the concept of God as a regulative ideal, even though God's existence cannot be theoretically affirmed as knowledge. If we appeal to God's will to explain what happens in the natural order, we undermine both science and religion, since in that case we would no longer seek empirical evidence for causality and we would make God into a finite object in the natural world (1781, 1787, 562–563). However, as a regulative ideal, the concept of God is one that theoretical reason finds useful: “The assumption of a supreme intelligence, as the one and only cause of the universe, though in the idea alone, can therefore always benefit reason and can never injure it” (1781, 1787, 560). There is a sense in which theoretical reason itself inclines towards affirmation of God, because it must assume that reality is rationally knowable: “If one wishes to achieve systematic knowledge of the world, he ought to regard it as if it were created by a supreme reason.” (Kant 1786, 298) Although theoretical reason cannot affirm the existence of God, it finds it useful to think of the natural world as having the kinds of characteristics it would have if God did exist. Thus, if rational grounds for belief in God come from practical reason, theoretical reason will raise no objections.

For Kant the argument from practical reason for belief in God is not a form of wish-fulfillment because its ground is not an arbitrary desire or wish but “a real need associated with reason” (Kant, 1786, 296). Human beings are not purely theoretical spectators of the universe, but agents. It is not always rational or even possible to refrain from action, and yet action presupposes beliefs about the way things are (For a good interpretation and defense of this view of Kant on the relation between action and belief, see Wood 1970, 17–25). Thus, in some cases suspension of judgment is not possible. The critic may object that a person may act as if p were true without believing p. However, it is not clear that this advice to distinguish action on the basis of p and belief that p can always be followed. For one thing, it seems empirically the case that one way of acquiring belief that p is simply to begin to act as if p were true. Hence, to begin to act as if p were true is at least to embark upon a course of action that makes belief in p more likely. Second, there may well be a sense of “belief” in which “acting as if p were true” is sufficient to constitute belief. This is obviously the case on pragmatist accounts of belief. But even those who reject a general pragmatic account of belief may well find something like this appealing with respect to religious belief. Many religious believers hold that the best way to measure a person's religious faith is in terms of the person's actions. Thus, a person who is willing to act on the basis of a religious conception, especially if those actions are risky or costly, is truly a religious believer, even if that person is filled with doubt and anxiety. Such a person might well be construed as more truly a believer than a person who smugly “assents” to religious doctrines but is unwilling to act on them.

Perhaps the right way to think of practical moral arguments is not to see them as justifying belief without evidence, but as shifting the amount of evidence seen as necessary. This is the lesson some would draw from the phenomenon of “pragmatic encroachment” that has been much discussed in recent epistemology. Here is an example of pragmatic encroachment:

You: I am about to replace the ceiling fan in the kitchen.
Spouse: Did you turn off the main electrical power to the house?
You: Yes.
Spouse: If you forgot you could electrocute yourself.
You: I better go back and check.
(See McBrayer 2014, Rizzieri 2013).

A plausible interpretation of this scenario is that ordinarily claims such as the one I made, based on memory, are justified, and count as knowledge. However, in this situation, the stakes are raised because my life is at risk, and my knowledge is lost because the pragmatic situation has “encroached” on the normal truth-oriented conditions for knowledge. Pragmatic encroachment is controversial and the idea of such encroachment is rejected by some epistemologists. However, defenders hold that it is reasonable to consider the pragmatic stakes in considering evidence for a belief that underlies significant action (See Fantl and McGrath 2007). If this is correct, then it seems reasonable to consider the pragmatic situation in determining how much evidence is sufficient to justify religious beliefs. In theory the adjustment could go in either direction, depending on what costs are associated with a mistake and on which side those costs lie.

In any case it is not clear that practical moral arguments can always be clearly distinguished from theoretical moral arguments. The reason this is so is that in many cases the practical situation described seems itself to be or involve a kind of evidence for the truth of the belief being justified. Take, for example, Kant's classic argument. One thing Kant's argument does is call to our attention that it would be enormously odd to believe that human beings are moral creatures subject to an objective moral law, but also to believe that the universe that humans inhabit is indifferent to morality. In other words, the existence of human persons understood as moral beings can itself be understood as a piece of evidence about the character of the universe humans find themselves in. Peter Byrne (2013, 1998) has criticized practical arguments on the grounds that they presuppose something like the following proposition: “The world is likely to be organized so as to meet our deepest human needs.” Byrne objects that this premise is likely to be false if there is no God and thus arguments that assume it appear circular. However, it is not clear that only those who already believe in God will find this premise attractive. The reason for this is that humans are themselves part of the natural universe, and it seems a desirable feature of a metaphysical view that it explain (rather than explain away) features of human existence that seem real and important.

It seems likely therefore that any appeal to a practical argument will include some theoretical component as well, even if that component is not always made explicit. Nevertheless, this does not mean that practical arguments do not have some important and distinctive features. For Kant it was important that religious beliefs stem from practical reason. For if religious belief were grounded solely in theoretical reason, then such belief would have to conform to “extrinsic and arbitrary legislation” (Kant 1790, 131). Kant thinks such a religion would be one grounded in “fear and submission,” and thus it is good that religious belief is motivated mainly by a free moral act by which the “final end of our being” is presented to us (1790, 159). For any practical argument makes religious belief existential; the issue is not merely what I believe to be true about the universe but how I shall live my life in that universe.

7. Conclusion

It seems clear that no version of the moral argument constitutes a “proof” of God's existence. Each version contains premises that many reasonable thinkers reject. However, this does not mean the arguments have no force. One might think of each version of the argument as attempting to spell out the “cost” of rejecting the conclusion. Some philosophers will certainly be willing to pay the cost, and indeed have independent reasons for doing so. However, it would certainly be interesting and important if one became convinced that atheism required one to reject moral realism altogether, or to embrace an implausible account of how moral knowledge is acquired. For those who think that some version or versions of the arguments have force, the cumulative case for theistic belief may be raised by such arguments.


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The author wishes to thank Trent Dougherty, Mark Linville, and David Baggett for reading a draft of this essay and making many useful suggestions. Matthew Wilson also deserves thanks for tracking many bibliographical references and page numbers.

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