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God and the Philosophers

Paul Edwards (Prometheus: Sep 30, 2008), 330 pages.

This witty and learned exploration of the many views of the nature and existence of God, as expressed by the major philosophers of the Western world from the medieval period to the present day, is the last work of noted philosopher Paul Edwards. In his unique tradermark style, laced with erudition and acerbic humour, Edwards addresses how the concept of God has changed over the centuries, in large part due to the analyses of such sceptical thinkers as David Hume, Thomas Paine, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Bertrand Russell. A long-time critic of theistic arguments, Edwards demonstrates a masterful understanding of the ways in which the scientific revolution of the 17th century, the Enlightenment of the 18th century, the evolutionary materialism of the 19th century, and the rise of analytic and existentialist philosophies in the 20th century prepared the way for the growing role of atheism in the 21st century.This work is a tour-de-force – a master storyteller’s idiosyncratic evaluation of the views of dozens of Western thinkers on perennial topics in the philosophy of religion. Though not all of the philosophers discussed were non-believers or anti-religious, they can be considered to be – like Edwards himself – ‘freethinkers’. They pursued the cause of knowledge wherever their thinking led them, often to iconoclastic positions. Editor Timothy Madigan, who gave Edwards thoughtful feedback over the years on various drafts of this work and complied it for publication after Edwards’ death, has written an appreciative and informative introduction. ~ Product Description

Table of Contents

    • Introduction by Timothy J. Madigan  7
    • 1. The Medieval Philosophers  13
    • 2. Thomas Hobbes and John Locke  27
    • 3. Baruch Spinoza  35
    • 4. Pierre Bayle  47
    • 5. The English Deists  59
    • 6. Voltaire  71
    • 7. David Hume and Immanuel Kant  95
    • 8. The Eighteenth-Century French Materialists  111
    • 9. The American Deists  133
    • 10. The German Enlightenment  149
    • 11. Fideism  163
    • 12. Arthur Schopenhauer  169
    • 13. Nineteenth-Century German Materialism  183
    • 14. John Stuart Mill  195
    • 15. Agnosticism  209
    • 16. Friedrich Nietzsche  223
    • 17. William James  235
    • 18. Bertrand Russell  253
    • 19. The Existentialists  263
    • 20. The Semantic Challenge  275
    • 21. The Modus Operandi Problem-How Does God Do It?  291
    • Index  297


An Excerpt


Before tracing the development of unbelief, a few words are in order about the leading philosophers of the Middle Ages. The beliefs of most people in the West who have been brought up in the Christian or Jewish religions can be summarized in the following propositions: the natural universe has not always existed, it was created out of nothing by a purely spiritual being; this purely spiritual being, known as “God,” has always existed; this being not only created the universe but has continued to be its ruler ever since the creation, interfering in the course of events from time to time by working miracles; this being, furthermore, has the attributes of omnipotence, omniscience, and perfect goodness. All the leading Christian and Jewish philosophers-St. Augustine, St. Anselm of Canterbury, St. Thomas Aquinas, William of Ockham, and Maimonides-supported these propositions. Ockham did not think they could be proven, but the other great figures in the Judeo-Christian tradition maintained that they are backed by decisive evidence.

Plato and Aristotle believed in gods who played a far less central role in the universe than the God of the Christians and Jews. In the Timaeus, Plato introduces the Demiurge, a kind of cosmic architect or engineer who brings order into a chaotic universe. Aristotle’s God is a “prime mover”-we have to appeal to such a being to explain motion, but the material universe itself is eternal
and uncreated.

Much of the philosophy of the last three hundred years is the story of the attacks on the Judeo-Christian view and its replacement by a naturalistic outlook that completely dispenses with theological explanations. We now know that, in addition to Ockham, quite a few medieval philosophers were in varying degrees skeptical of the official theology. It should be remembered that both Christianity and Islam were protected by what Voltaire called “the logic of the sword” and that hence an open challenge of the basic traditional doctrines (belief in God, life after death and miracles) was difficult if not impossible. In covering the views about God of the medieval philosophers I have selected the following four figures: Averroes, a leading Islamic philosopher who is noted both for his intellectual independence and the clarity of his writing; Maimonides, the leading Jewish philosopher; Thomas Aquinas, the outstanding philosopher of the Catholic Church; and Siger of Brabant, a little known heretic who may be said to represent the by-no-means uncommon skeptical tendencies among thinkers of the period.


It is customary to distinguish between the Left and the Right Hegelians. The Left are generally, from the point of view of traditional religion, heretics-they are atheists, materialists, and determinists. The Right Hegelians tend to be very “spiritual” and at least supporters of Christianity, if not actual believers. I think we can make a similar distinction among the medieval followers of Aristotle. The Left Aristotelians did not believe in the creation of the universe out of nothing and they also rejected personal immortality. Averroes (1126-1198) was definitely a Left Aristotelian. Like Aristotle himself, he favored the theory of the eternity of matter and he supported a view usually referred to as “monopsychism.” On this view the minds or souls of human beings are not immortal but all of them share the same “intellect”; and this intellect is immortal. A very similar view was expressed in the nineteenth century by Arthur Schopenhauer. Whether supported by Averroes or by Schopenhauer it is a very obscure and implausible doctrine. If my body is dead and if there are no memories anywhere that could be called “mine,” I have in effect ceased to exist. Aquinas severely criticized this doctrine and I think he was wholly in
the right to do so.

In addition to being a philosopher and a jurist Averroes was a physician. He was employed in this role by the Calif Abu Jacub Jusuf who protected him from persecution. After Jusuf’s death his son and successor, Jacub Al Mansur, continued the patronage for eleven years; but eventually, terrified no doubt by the hostility of the orthodox, he exiled him first to a small place near Cordoba (where Averroes had been born) and then to Morocco. Averroes did meet a good deal of opposition among other Islamic writers. One of them, named Al Gazel (1058 or 1059-1111), is remembered for The Destruction of Philosophy, a book in which he argued that since all essential truth is contained in the Koran, there is no need for philosophical speculation. He defended the creation of the universe out of nothing and our knowledge of the divine attributes, thus rejecting any partial agnosticism, and also the resurrection of the body. Averroes replied with The Destruction of the Destruction, in which he defended all the unorthodox opinions mentioned earlier. Islamic philosophy in Spain virtually ended with Averroes. He had, however, a great influence on nominally Christian philosophers in Europe in later centuries, who became known as “Averroists.”


Moses Maimonides was born in Cordoba in 1135 and died in Cairo in 1204. At the age of thirteen Maimonides left Cordoba after it had been conquered by the army of an intolerant Muslim sect. He eventually settled in Egypt where he became a court physician and leader of the Jewish community.

His most important work, The Guide to the Perplexed, is regarded by Jewish scholars as a masterpiece, but in fact it is a very mixed bag and, although it contains genuine insights, anticipating twentieth-century secular philosophy, Maimonides is seriously confused on some topics. One of these is the problem of evil. This is discussed in chapters 10-12 where he argues, as many theologians before him had done, that evil is a “privation” and not anything positive. This is so obviously wrong that it needs no detailed refutation. Furthermore, the evils in the world are said to be the work of men and cannot be attributed to God:

The numerous evils to which individual persons are exposed are due to the defects existing in the persons themselves. We complain and seek relief from our own faults; we suffer from the evils which we, by our own free will, inflict on ourselves and ascribe them to God, who is far from being connected with them!

There is a confusion here between the following two statements:

  1. God is not the cause of the evil in the world; and
  2. God could have prevented the evil.

It is only (2) and not (1) that constitutes the problem of evil. The persecution of the Jews by the Nazis was not the work of God, but if He is all powerful he could have prevented it; and the same applies to all the examples of evil discussed by Maimonides.

Maimonides is at his best in his discussion of the purpose of the Universe (chapter 13). He points out that we do not ask for the purpose of God’s existence and similarly we should not “trouble ourselves with seeking a final cause for things that have none.” Maimonides thus seems to see that, whether we are believers or unbelievers, there comes a stage at which we have to say “this is simply the way things are.” The question “Why does God exist?” clearly has no meaning even if we ignore difficulties about the meaning of “God.” Believers in the ontological argument will say that God exists necessarily-that his existence is logically implied by his “essence” or, using more contemporary language, that the very definition of “God” includes His existence. However, this argument is known to be fallacious. It should be emphasized that if we reject the question “What is the purpose of God?” or “Why does God exist?” as improper the same will apply to similar questions about the universe or about “things.” It would be proper if God’s existence is already assumed but not otherwise. The upshot of this discussion is that at some stage one has to say “things are just this way.”

Many philosophers have been extreme prudes but Maimonides beats them all, even Kant. Most of chapter 7 of the Guide is devoted to what nowadays are called “the evils of the flesh.” We are told that some people consider “all wants of the body as shame, disgrace, and defects to which they are compelled to attend.” The culprit is our sense of touch, although his examples are not primarily related to this sense. In any event “intelligent persons must, as much as possible, reduce these wants, guard against them, feel grieved when satisfying them, abstain from speaking of them, discussing them, and attending to them in company with others.” The most disgraceful of our senses is the sense of touch. “The multitude of fools … only think about eating and love”:

Those who desire to be men in truth, and not brutes, having only the appearance and shape of men, must constantly endeavor to reduce the wants of the body, such as eating, love, drinking, anger, and all vices originating in lust and passion; they must feel ashamed of them and set limits to them for themselves. As for eating and drinking in so far as it is indispensable, they will eat and drink only as much as is useful and necessary as food, and not for the purpose of pleasure…. Wine may be treated as food, if taken as such, but to form parties for the purpose of drinking wine together must be considered more disgraceful than the unrestrained conduct of persons who in daylight meet in the same house undressed and naked. For the natural action of the digestive organ is indispensable to man, he cannot do without it; whilst drunkenness depends on the free will of an evil man.

All comment here is superfluous. Poor Maimonides; he lived at the wrong time and in the wrong place.

Returning to the metaphysical issues with which Maimonides was most concerned, he agreed with Averroes in accepting the Aristotelian doctrine of the eternity of matter. His problem was how to make it
consistent with the biblical view that God created the universe out of nothing. His solution, if it can be called that, is to insist that the evidence for the eternity of matter is inconclusive and that hence we
can continue to accept the biblical account without having to regard it as a merely allegorical or metaphorical interpretation. If the eternity of matter could be conclusively proved, we could still retain the biblical account but we would have to stop regarding it as literally true. Maimonides also taught a via negativa about the divine attributes. God’s nature is ineffable: we can say what He is not but not what He is.

The teachings of Maimonides seem tame enough, but apparently they were offensive to some orthodox zealots who called in the Inquisition to take action against him and his supporters. In this instance the
Inquisition was more tolerant than the complaining Jews and took no


Thomas Aquinas (1226-1274) is widely regarded as the greatest of the medieval philosophers. In his
review of Anthony Gottlieb’s The Dream of Reason, Sir Anthony Kenny chastises the author for his inadequate attention to Aquinas. “As a moralist, a metaphysician, a philosophical psychologist and a natural theologian,” he writes, “Aquinas is among the dozen greatest philosophers of all time.” Even many philosophers and historians who do not share this estimate would agree that Aquinas’s discussions possess great merits. J. B. Bury, author of the fiercely anti-Christian A History of Freedom of Thought,
praises Aquinas for the fairness with which he reports some of the objections to Christian philosophy. The works of Aquinas, Bury wrote, are “perhaps more calculated to unsettle a believing mind by the doubts
which it powerfully states than to quiet the scruples of a doubter by its solutions.”

Aquinas was of noble descent. When quite young he joined the Dominican order, which he selflessly served for the rest of his life. He was asked to fill numerous important posts in the Church, including that of Archbishop of Naples, but declined all such offers. In 1323 he was canonized by Pope John XXII. In 1879 Pope Leo XIII, in an Encyclical, directed the Catholic clergy to make the teachings of Aquinas the basis of their theological outlook. In the late nineteenth and much of the twentieth centuries Catholic
philosophers were almost uniformly “Thomists” but in recent years they have moved away from a rigid adherence to the ideas of Aquinas. Some of them have been particularly attracted to the work of Martin Heidegger who himself had studied for the Catholic priesthood. The freethinking on the part of Catholic philosophers is surely something to be welcomed, but their attachment to Heidegger can only be regarded as a disaster for reasons which readers of the present book will discover before long.

Aquinas is most important for our story because of the five “proofs” he offers for the existence of God in both of his main works. The following is a brief (and admittedly not quite adequate) summary that will suffice for our purposes. The first three proofs employ an idea found in Aristotle’s Metaphysics.

But if there is nothing eternal, then there can be no becoming: for there must be something which undergoes the process of becoming, that is, that from which things come to be; and the last member of this series must be ungenerated, for the series must start with something, since nothing can come from nothing.

The first of Aquinas’s proofs states that any moving object is moved by something else, and since an endless regress is impossible, we must arrive at a “First Mover” which moves other things but is itself not moved. The second proof, by rejecting an infinite series of causes, leads to a First or Uncaused Cause. The third, known as the argument from contingency, maintains that all contingent beings must have an ultimate source which is not contingent. Perhaps the most important objection to all three of these arguments is Aquinas’s mistaken assumption that an infinite series of objects is impossible. Since Cantor and Russell, it is generally agreed that there is nothing impossible in an infinite series, whether of numbers or of objects or of events. The first of Aquinas’s “proofs” also conflicts with Newton’s First Law of Motion, which teaches that an object is at rest or in uniform motion unless acted on by an external force. This means that a universe of moving objects without an external cause is entirely conceivable. The Fourth Way maintains that the various perfections in the world must have their source in something completely perfect. In his admirable Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy Simon Blackburn offers the following counterexamples:

One number may be greater than another, but there is no greatest number; similarly one automobile may be better than another without there being a perfect automobile.

The Fifth Way is a form of the design argument and since it does not employ any technical language I will give it in Aquinas’s own words:

We see that things which lack knowledge, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result. Hence it is plain that they achieve their end, not fortuitously, but designedly. Now whatever lacks knowledge cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence; as the arrow is directed by the archer. Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God.