Monday, April 18, 2016

A perhaps not entirely silly argument for the existence of God

I’m fascinated with an ancient argument for the existence of God which, on the surface, seems downright silly. And perhaps it is silly- but it brings up some interesting issues. The argument is attributed to Zeno of Citium, a Stoic philosopher. Here is Zeno’s argument:
1. It is reasonable to honor the gods.
2. If the gods do not exist, it is not reasonable to honor them.
3. Therefore, the gods exist.
Let’s tinker with the argument a bit, adjusting premise (1) to explicitly refer to a particular theistic religious practice- in this case, prayer. From this let us try to infer, not the existence of the gods, but of God:
1a. It is reasonable to pray (i.e. to God).
2a. If God is not real, then it is not reasonable to pray.
3a. Therefore, God is real.
An objection is possible here, which is that if an argument of this form works as well to establish the existence of the Greek gods as it does to establish the existence of the God of Abraham, it hardly makes a compelling case for western monotheism. I concede the objection. But let’s press on and see what else we can discover about this argument.

A critic will be likely to attack premise (1a) of the revised Stoic argument. It is not reasonable to pray. But why? Prayer, she may say, is not reasonable because God does not exist. When one prays, one is talking to a nonexistent being, and it is not reasonable to talk to nonexistent beings.

I used to work in downtown San Francisco. Every evening, a man would walk by who was shouting angrily at some invisible person. I assumed that he was not shouting at a real person, and so I took him to be a lunatic— that is, unreasonable. Many would say that prayer is like that.

But this initial objection begs the question. The critic cannot rebut an argument for the existence of God by assuming that God does not exist. And here is an interesting question: Are there any grounds for assessing the reasonableness of a theistic religious practice, such as prayer, without making any assumptions regarding the existence of the being to whom these practices are directed?

Our critic may say that there are not. She may press her case, saying “I will not accept the claim that it is reasonable to pray until I have some reason to believe that God exists.” She may insist that the rationality of religious practice depends on first establishing the existence of God; it is really the Stoic argument that begs the question, because the truth of premise (1a) assumes that God is real. But if that is true, then establishing the truth of (1a) essentially established the truth of the conclusion of this argument. So what is silly about the argument is that it is trivial.

These two issues appear to be inseparable from one another:
A. Is theistic religious practice reasonable?
B. Is it reasonable to believe in God?
This becomes particularly apparent if it turns out that belief in God is a religious practice- or that, generally speaking, belief in God is to be identified with religious practice generally. But I lack the space here to do justice to these suggestions.

There are two reasons why we should not try to establish the reasonableness of religious practice by first showing that God exists.

First, we would have to adopt some method in demonstrating the existence of God. Whatever method we choose will itself be part of some practice. If our method is taken from theistic religious practice- shall we look to scripture to see whether God exists?- we beg the question, since that practice assumes the reality of God. But if our method comes from some other practice, it is not likely to support belief in God. It is futile, for example, to attempt to appeal to the scientific method to demonstrate the existence of God, since the scientific method trades in physical objects, and God is not a physical object.

Second: The case of the physical sciences makes clear just how deeply practice and ontology are related, for, I would argue, a practice brings with it its own ontology- its own scheme regarding what exists. And that ontology is at home only within that particular practice. I think the relation of (A) and (B) above is analogous to the relation of (C) and (D):

C. Is the practice of physical science reasonable?
D. Is it reasonable to believe in physical objects?

If I am right about this, then the following argument is analogous to the Stoic one:

1b. The practice of physical science is reasonable.
2b. If physical objects are not real, then the practice of physical science is not reasonable.
3b. Therefore, physical objects are real.
Few philosophers would insist that the reality of physical objects be established before supposing that physical science is a rational enterprise. (Is there a double standard at work here?) This is a good thing, since, as any survivor of Introduction to Philosophy can attest, it is far from clear how we can meet this challenge.

Unless, of course, I have just done it. I think this argument for the reality of physical objects is a good one. And while I will stop short of endorsing the Stoic argument, I confess that it strikes me as obvious that one who prays is not at all like the shouting lunatic who roamed the streets of San Francisco. Perhaps the Stoic argument is not completely silly after all.

I think this discussion gestures in the direction of an important insight. We often suppose that assertions of the form, “x exists,” are univocal. But the reality of a thing is inseparable from what we have been calling a practice. What is it for God to be real, anyway? Perhaps the reality of God is just whatever is required for God to be a proper object of religious practice.

David Corner
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State


  1. Good grief, there are more issues here than I have fingers and toes. Thanks, David, for stirring up a hornet's nest.

    Let's start with a simple point: how do you know that the lunatic in SF wasn't praying, angrily, like this?

    "Why haven't you given me a girlfriend yet?!"
    "Why didn't you help me pass McCormick's phil religion class?!"
    "How come there isn't more evidence for you?!"
    "Why haven't you given me a girlfriend yet?!"
    "Why didn't you help me pass McCormick's phil religion class?!"
    And so on.

    More generally, it's at least worth observing that, while it may be true that not all praying persons are lunatics, some are.

    But now to my more subtle point. I once debated a man. About God. And one of my suggestions, if I remember it right, was that he try out the so-called "atheist's prayer":

    "Dear God, if there is a God, save my soul, if I have a soul."

    Now, you may find that prayer funny. I do. But its humor is part of its charm, I think. But on your account, there is something philosophically fishy about the prayer. Because your account seems to push a tight connection between the reasonableness of prayer, and the reasonableness of belief in God.

    But couldn't a person pray who was, quite reflectively, utterly unsure of the reasonableness of belief in God? (And maybe that's why he's praying to begin with?)

    Or, more boldly perhaps, couldn't a person be reasonable in prayer even though he is convinced that it is utterly unreasonable (for him, anyway) to believe in God? "Dear God, could you show me something that makes it more reasonable for me to believe in you?"

    1. Hi Russell. Thanks for your comment.

      I guess I don't know for sure that my urban lunatic was not praying. To be honest, I could never understand what he was saying. But perhaps we can substitute as an example a hypothetical lunatic who is shouting at nobody, and who is *not* praying.

      The first thing I might say about your atheist's prayer is that what makes his prayer rational is not so much *his* belief about the existence of God, but the truth of the matter. It may be the case that he does not believe in God, but that God in fact exists, and so it is reasonable for him to pray. So the answer to your final (bold) question is, "yes."

      Here is an analogous case. Suppose Sally is persuaded that 30-weight motor oil is nutritious. She plans to drink some. I tell her that this is going to be harmful to her. She does not believe me. However, she humors me, and refrains from drinking the oil.

      Her action was reasonable despite the fact that it was not accompanied by the appropriate true belief.

      The prayer of an atheist, just like the prayer of a theist, is perfectly rational so long as God is real.

      There are, by the way, non-theistic prayers, though you might prefer to call these mantras. I was thinking of this when I considered Stan's response. But I'm thinking in this case of theistic prayer in particular, e.g. prayers of supplication or of thanks.

      I think what I have just said is consistent with what I said below, regarding the irrationality of certain motivations, e.g. gremlin avoidance.


    2. We are (I am) in danger of equivocating here. I think there are two distinct senses in which an activity or practice might be reasonable or unreasonable.

      There is something that we might refer to as "reasonable-under-an-intention." This is the sense in which my climbing the tree to avoid gremlins is unreasonable.

      There is something else that we might call "reasonable simpliciter," which is what a reasonable person would do who was in command of all of the facts.

      I don't mean to suggest that these categories are mutually exclusive.

      Climbing a tree to avoid gremlins is unreasonable-under-an-intention.

      Refraining from drinking motor oil is reasonable simpliciter, and reasonable-under-an-intention if Sally's intention is to do as I suggest. Doing what I suggest is always reasonable.

      Stan points out that prayer may be reasonable simpliciter, even though it may not be reasonable under-an-intention.

      Russell seems to take prayer as reasonable or unreasonable under-an-intention.

      I think the Stoic's premise must be that prayer is reasonable simpliciter. What is both necessary and sufficient for the reasonableness of prayer simpliciter is the existence of God, not the intentions of the praying individual.

      Tell me if I'm wrong.

      I know you will.


    3. This is fun.


  2. Hi David

    I think there several issues with this argument, but I'll focus on premise 2a - and maybe some consequences for premise 1a.

    Premise 2a says "2a. If God is not real, then it is not reasonable to pray."

    But why should one believe so?
    Is it because it's not reasonable to talk to a nonexistent being?

    If that's the case, then prayer to Zeus or any of the other Greek gods was not reasonable. In fact, through most of history, at the very least the vast majority of prayer was not reasonable.
    But then, why should one think that prayer to God in particular is reasonable?
    It seems to me that under that assumption, prayer is a generally unreasonable human endeavor, so I would need some very good reasons to believe that prayer to God is an exception and happens to be reasonable.

    Even granting that one who prays is not at all like the shouting lunatic who roamed the streets of San Francisco (which I think is true in most cases, but then again, I think there is a very wide range of different degrees of unreasonableness), I would say that that applies to prayer to Zeus as well - those weren't lunatics roaming the streets of San Francisco, either (or Athens, for that matter) -, or to Odin, etc...and yet, those behavior were all unreasonable (I'm guessing we agree that Zeus, Odin and the like don't exist, in the relevant sense of the words - more on that later), if that is the rationale in support of premise 2a, and is correct.

    Perhaps, the Stoic might argue in support of 2a on grounds other than the alleged unreasonableness of talking to a nonexistent being. But then, I've not seen any arguments supporting it, so I would ask why one should believe it.

    Regarding the potential non-univocal usage of "exists", I'm not sure I understand that one, but I'll say this: if the Stoic says that in the sense she uses "exists", the Greek gods, etc., exist, then I'm inclined to think that the argument wouldn't do the sort of work theist philosophers of religion usually would want arguments for the existence of God to do.

    1. Hello Angra.

      I take it that prayer has a certain directedness. Consider petitionary prayer as an example. In petitionary prayer, one directs a request to God. And if God does not exist, then it is not reasonable to request anything of him. Similarly for thanking him, etc. Another way to put it is this: Prayer is an important practice in theistic religion because it has a role to play in the practitioner's relationship with God. But if there is no God, then one cannot have a relationship with God.

      A modern western monotheist would say that prayer to Zeus was unreasonable, because Zeus did not exist, but since the God of western monotheism does, then prayer to that God is rational.

      This argument definitely will not, even at its best, do the kind of work that theistic apologists normally want an argument for the existence of God to do.


    2. David,

      Granting that prayer to a person who does not exist is unreasonable, and granting that for that reason, prayer to (for example) Zeus was unreasonable, I reach the conclusion (from that and some facts about human history, broadly speaking and including prehistory) that for most of human history, at least most prayer was unreasonable.
      But in that context, I don't see any good reason to accept premise that prayer to God is reasonable, at least not without specific arguments supporting the reasonableness of prayer to God that wouldn't also support the reasonableness of prayer to other beings.
      The reason you offered, it seems to me, is that it strikes you as obvious that one who prays is not at all like the shouting lunatic who roamed the streets of San Francisco. While that looks like that to me as well (at least, in many cases of prayer to God), it also strikes me as obvious that the people who prayed to Zeus, Athena, Hathor, Coatlicue, Baal, Onuava, etc., in their respective cultures, where not at all like the shouting lunatic in question - yet they were all being unreasonable, even if to a lesser degree than the lunatic.

    3. First an aside: A pluralist about religion, like John Hick, might say that a prayer to Zeus is really a prayer to God. As attractive as that line is, with my own religious affinities crossing cultural lines in the way they do, I am resisting that approach.

      So under that provision, I agree- yes, those who prayed to Hathor were unreasonable, and their practice probably looks to an atheist pretty much like the practice of Christian prayer does. (It might depend on your feelings about Hathor. I think she is pretty cool. Or at least, that she would be, if she existed.)

      It seems to me that you are (not unreasonably) evaluating my Stoic argument for its potential as a piece of apologetic. An atheist might ask, as you have, why a skeptic should accept the premise that prayer to God is reasonable, particularly when it looks pretty much the same as prayer to Hathor, which we have stipulated is not reasonable. (Alas.) I have no response to this challenge. This is one of the reasons I stopped short of endorsing the argument, at least in terms of any sort of apologetic power, having conceded that it works as well (or as poorly) to establish the existence of the Greek gods as it does to establish the existence of the God of Abraham.

      I do think the argument is sound, by the way, even while admitting that it has little power to persuade a skeptic. I have a similar assessment of the Ontological Argument.

      What really interests me about the argument is that premise 1a seems to stand or fall depending on our assumptions regarding the existence of God, and so I imagined discussion of this premise focusing on this issue. I'm very interested in a general question here: What exactly is the relation between ontology and practice? In this case, that cashes out to the relation between the existence of God and the practice of prayer- and other theistic religious practices generally.

      You may have observed that my argument has something of a Neo-Wittgensteinian bent. To lay all of my cards on the table, I've actually been thinking about this argument strategy for a long time. I suggested it to DZ Phillips many years ago, and while we didn't discuss it at any length, he seemed generally approving.

      Wittgensteinians- I'm thinking now of Peter Winch- tend to be very suspicious in general of ontology, as though the whole enterprise is somehow ill-conceived. But I think this suspicion may be misplaced. It may be useful to think about What There Is. But it is important to bear in mind that this sort of inquiry cannot proceed in a vacuum, outside of any practice or any set of methodological presuppositions. And this is as true of science as it is for theistic religion. If I am right, an examination of the Stoic argument is valuable because it brings this point into sharp relief.

  3. Professor Corner,

    I remember first hearing this argument in your Phil 126 section last semester, and I admit that at the time I did not fully grasp it. I think now, however, that I realize just how interesting it is. Thank you for enlightening me!

    As for the argument itself, I would like to posit (as has been argued above by Professor Mainyu) that premise two could be approached for a deep analysis.

    I think it could very well be the case that it is reasonable to pray to a nonexistent being because the act of prayer could be an instrumental act not necessitating divine presence (or existence). Perhaps prayer can serve a purpose in fulfilling emotional and spiritual needs in a subject, regardless of if the subject even believes themselves that they are in contact with the divine (as in the atheist's prayer mentioned by Professor DiSilvestro).

    Thank you for your time and all that you have given to us in your courses :).

    1. Stan- thanks for your comment. And, you are welcome!

      An action can be unreasonable even if it has some benefit. Suppose that I wake in the middle of the night, suddenly convinced that goblins have invaded my home. I run out and, in my pajamas, climb the nearest tree.

      At that moment, a meteor crashes down on my house. Had I not climbed the tree, I would have been incinerated.

      My action- climbing the tree- was beneficial, but I would say, not rational. Why not? At the risk of complicating the story with a theory of rational agency, I'm tempted to say this. Actions are often motivated by beliefs, and an action that is motivated by an irrational belief (there are gremlins in my house) is not a rational one.

    2. Yet if one prays, whether one believes in a God, or doesn't, or doesn't know, because they're convinced by evidence (or anecdotes) that prayer has positive psychological benefits, why would that not be rational? It's not quite like the example of someone accidentally benefiting from climbing a tree, is it? In the latter, the benefit was due entirely to accident and changing circumstances, but in the former case, the prayer was deliberately undertaken because of the demonstrated benefits of prayer specifically. Wouldn't that make it a rational decision? That's presuming the tree-climber didn't choose that specific action because they read a study that climbing trees in your pajamas is good for your health whether or not goblins exist

    3. Hi Amy.

      My example about the tree-climbing was designed to show that it does not follow from the fact that an action is beneficial to its agent that it is rational.

      In the case of my shouting lunatic, it's quite possible that his shouting had some therapeutic value for him. But I don't think that made his behavior rational. We might imagine a commitment hearing for the man, in which someone suggested, in his defense, that his shouting was beneficial to him. I doubt that would keep him out of the asylum.

      Similarly, consider one who prays. I've observed in another reply that (theistic) prayer is directed to God; think in particular of petitionary prayers or prayers of thanks. My claim is that it is not reasonable to ask someone for something, or to thank someone for something, when the person you are asking or thanking does not exist. And I think this is true regardless of whatever therapeutic benefit the process of asking or thanking might offer him.


    4. A brief postscript, Amy...

      I haven't yet explicitly treated your point about the atheist who prays with the intention of receiving a health benefit. It's an interesting example, since most atheists would probably find some atheistic practice that gave them the same benefit. But what to say about this possible case?

      One response is that someone who consistently and sincerely petitioned God isn't really an atheist after all. But another is to observe that if the petitioner really doesn't believe in God, then she can hardly be said to intend to petition (or thank) God, and in this case, what she is engaged in is not theistic prayer.

  4. I think that the argument for physical objects is importantly disanalogous from the argument for God's existence. We seem to enjoy lots of support for premise 1b (although I don't really understand what "reasonable" means in this context): we use the physical sciences to make predictions about future events at a very successful rate, we have developed many successful technologies that do a wide range of things, etc. The reasonableness of science seems to be well supported.

    But what support do we have for thinking that prayer is reasonable (1A)? You note that prayer is 'obviously' not like the guy in the streets of San Francisco, but this intuition hardly seems to be enough to justify claiming that prayer is reasonable. I suspect that any argument on behalf of this premise is going to rely heavily on God's existence. Then the argument begins to look very silly again.

    1. I agree with you, by the way, that I have a questionable basis for asserting the difference between the ravings of the lunatic and the prayer of the theist. I'm just expressing an intuition for which I have offered no defense. I think there might be much of interest to say what the differences are, but you could well be right that it would all ultimately be question-begging. But then, this is what I consider to be the primary thesis of my post: That questions about the existence of God, and questions about the rationality of religious practice, are more closely linked than might first appear. I suspect it is impossible to assert either without assuming the other.

      And I'm very interested in exploring the analogy to other practices, such as physical science.


  5. There are a number of wonderful comments here that I do not have time to respond to at the moment, but I will get to them at the earliest opportunity.

    Just a quick response to Matt regarding our support for 1b. You seem to suggest that science is reasonable because of the various sorts of successes that it has enjoyed. But it seems to me that you can only assert these successes by assuming the reasonableness of the presuppositions of science. If there are no physical objects, then have we in fact developed many successful technologies? Also, I we may wish to assert that the success of science can be expected to continue. But without assuming the uniformity of nature- a crucial presupposition of science- we are not warranted in doing so.

    I don't see how one can assert the reasonableness of science by pointing to its successes, without making some question-begging assumptions regarding the reasonableness of science.

    I'm actually fine with much of what you say, however- if you are willing to allow theistic religion to be the arbiter of its own success. Might not a theist assert, just as reasonably (?), that theistic religion has been tremendously successful by bringing about the salvation of countless souls? Question-begging, to be sure. But, unless I am mistaken, no less so than your appeal to the success of science.


    1. Thanks for the reply, David. My first inclination is to say that I am not so sure that we need to assume the reasonableness of the presuppositions of science in order to see its effectiveness. If you found out you were part of a computer simulation a la Bostrom or something approximating Berkleyan idealism were true, would that make the invention of the combustible engine any less useful, or would that make you regret getting vaccinated? We'd be shocked that we managed to be so great at manipulating the environment around us despite grossly misunderstanding the basic nature of the world (and in turn likely find scientific investigation unreasonable), but I think we could still appreciate the benefits we got from it.

      But if I were convinced that we need to assert the presuppositions of science in order to provide prima facie reason for accepting premise 1b, then I'm tempted to dismiss it as being question begging as well.

    2. Thanks, Matt.

      You are right to say that asserting the progress of science does not require the existence of any Cartesian material substance. I think science is entirely compatible with Berkeleyan idealism.

      I'm tempted to say that the physical is just whatever the physical sciences study, i.e. observable things of a certain kind. So while Berkeley denied the existence of Cartesian matter, he did not deny the existence of what we now refer to as the physical.

      The somewhat spookier possibility is represented by a dream argument. You might wake up and discover that you live in a very primitive world in which there is no combustion engine and no vaccinations. Scientific efforts to create such things might be constantly frustrated by shifts in the structure of natural regularities.