Saturday, September 26, 2009

Book Review: The Existence of God edited by John Hick

The Existence of God is part of Collier Books’ Problems of Philosophy series. It is a collection of readings on the subject of the existence of God, selected and edited by John Hick, who is also a contributor. Although first published in 1964, this small 300-page book contains many of the principal arguments on the existence of God from some very notable thinkers. As this is a compilation of the works of many thinkers, this review will provide only a summary of the selected content.

The book is arranged in three parts. Part one deals with the theistic arguments, part two with discussions and questions, and part three with contemporary problems. The theistic arguments are arranged topically, with chapters dealing with the classical arguments: ontological, cosmological, teleological, moral, and religious experience. Within each chapter the writings of the most notable proponents are selected, followed by the responses of their most notable critics. Hick’s introduction itself is worthy of note, as his examination of the word “prove” is enlightening. He explores three senses in which the word can be defined. His third definition is the one he proposes is to be used when dealing with arguments for the existence of God:
It is surely the third sense, in which to prove something means to prove it to someone, that is really in question when we ask whether the existence of God can be proved. […] Here it is required not only that the conclusion follows from the premises, and not only that the premises from which it follows are true, but also that they are acknowledged to be true by those to whom we are seeking to prove the conclusion.1
He distinguishes between strict proofs and probabilistic proofs: “Formulated as arguments directed to the nonbeliever such inferences accordingly center upon the notion of probability. Their general form is: in view of this or that characteristic of the world it is more probable that there is a God than that there is not.”2

It should be noted from the outset that the value of this reader is that it provides an initial historical framework and selected primary source readings. However, these arguments are by no means treated fully. Chapter one, dealing with the ontological argument, offers Anselm’s initial treatment, with criticisms from Aquinas. Descartes and Leibniz restate and contribute to the argument, with some more criticisms by Kant. Norman Malcolm furthers the discussion.

The cosmological argument includes Plato, Aquinas’s five ways (with commentary by Frederick Copleston), followed by critiques by David Hume. The chapter on the teleological argument includes excerpts from William Paley and criticisms from David Hume. Here the objection from evil arises from John Stewart Mill. F. R. Tennant provides an argument for cosmic teleology in the form of a cumulative argument: theism is more probable than any other attempted explanation of the universe. Tennant notes that Darwinism doesn’t address the question of origins: “The survival of the fittest presupposes the arrival of the fit, and throws no light thereupon. Darwin did not account for the origin of variations; their forthcomingness was simply a datum for him.”3

Immanuel Kant and Hastings Rashdall present the moral argument. Rashdall’s argument develops the idea that the moral law can only exist in a transcendent mind: “An absolute Moral Law or moral ideal cannot exist in material things. And it does not (we have seen) exist in the mind of this or that individual.”4 The section on theistic arguments concludes with A. E. Taylor’s essay on religious experience.

Part two’s discussion includes the full transcript of the famous debate between Bertrand Russell and Fredrick Copleston. This classic debate seems to get better with every reading. Part two has other contributions, including: Feuerbach on God as a projection of the human mind, and Kierkegaard’s religious objection to theistic proofs.

Part three concludes with various contemporary problems such as A. J. Ayer on theological meaning and Antony Flew on falsification of religious claims. Along with Flew’s famous falsification parable (the invisible gardener), this section also includes Hick’s essay “Religious Statements as factually significant” in which he puts forth the concept of Christianity’s “eschatological verification.”

In sum, The Existence of God edited by John Hick is a good selection of classic excerpts for and against God’s existence. Although somewhat dated, this book is useful reading for the student wishing to get a brief survey of some of the most influential thinkers for and against theism.

1 John Hick, The Existence of God (London: Collier Macmillan Publishers, 1964), p. 5.
2 Ibid., p. 7.
3 Ibid., p. 126.
4 Ibid., p. 149.


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