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.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:
2. If the gods do not exist, it is not reasonable to honor them.
3. Therefore, the gods exist.
1a. It is reasonable to pray (i.e. to God).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.
2a. If God is not real, then it is not reasonable to pray.
3a. Therefore, God is real.
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?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.
B. Is it reasonable to believe in God?
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.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.
2b. If physical objects are not real, then the practice of physical science is not reasonable.
3b. Therefore, physical objects are real.
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.
Department of Philosophy