Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, said philosophy begins with wondering. Science begins with wondering. Theology (study of God) begins with wondering - wondering why there is a universe of physical things, why its parts behave regularly, why there exists one tiny speck of the universe on which humans can live and flourish and even wonder why there is a universe, and why throughout the centuries humans have had the apparent experience of being in touch with and guided by God (religious experience), and many other things.
A theist believes in the existence of Theos (Greek for God). An atheist denies there is God. Only one of these beliefs can be true. An agnostic does not know whether it is true that God exists. He may also hold that nobody knows. One thing is certain: Either 'God exists' is true or 'God exists' is false.
Can we know that God exists? Atheists often say that belief in God is just that - belief - whereas science is concerned with knowledge. But this is muddled thinking, for anyone who knows something believes it. Consider this sentence: 'I know the moon exists but I do not believe the moon exists.' As you can see, this is nonsense. In short, necessary to knowing is believing.
However, there is an important difference between believing and knowing. What marks knowing is having good reasons and arguments for a belief. We call them 'warrants'. Warranted belief is knowing. Good reasons 'nail down' a belief, establish that it is true.
It is important to have true belief about anything. If you disagree, then no argument or attempt to get to the truth can even begin. If you do not care what is true, two things happen: you never find out what is true and no one can convince you of the truth.
We have lots of claims on our time and energy and resources, of which there are limited quantities. We can search for truth in any matter but surely it is much more important to have true beliefs about important matters than unimportant. We could spend the day discovering how many commas there are in the morning newspaper or, alternatively, whether there is someone who brought us and everything else into existence and has plans for our long-lasting happiness.
So whilst it remains true that it is good to have true beliefs about any matter it is supremely good to have true belief about supremely important matters.
Richard Swinburne, who was the Nolleth Professor of the Philosophy of the Christian Religion from 1985-2002 at Oxford, a very distinguished Chair, spells out this point: 'It is even more important, then, to know whether God or unthinking chance made us and, if there is a God, whether he interacts with us and has plans for our future ... But if there is a God who is the source of our being, he deserves our worship for his ultimacy and goodness, and our gratitude for making us ... If we are ignorant of how to live, he may have told us, and we need to find out if he has.'
So it is very worthwhile trying to find out whether God exists.
But, first, what is it to believe in God? We need a description of God. The description I give is that derived from the Scriptures and expressed in the Nicene Creed - 'creator of heaven and earth'. He is a bodiless person (spirit) who is creator and sustainer of all things, omnipotent (there is no limit to his powers), knows all, is perfectly free (cannot be caused to do anything), cannot fail to exist, and is perfectly good.
Of course, a book's description of God does nothing to show that God exists because one can write a description without that description applying to anything real. Little Red Riding Hood is described in a story but no one thinks she exists.
What good reasons are there for believing in God? Perhaps God is the best available explanation for why we have a universe (collection of all physical objects), why in every part of the universe laws operate and are the same everywhere, why humans exist - humans with their astonishing capacities to envisage, to calculate, to reason, to investigate, to distinguish beauty and ugliness, to make of themselves good or bad people; and many other things.
The best explanation for something is a complete explanation - one which leaves nothing further to explain. God, I shall argue, is a complete explanation. We have satisfying explanations for lots of things, e.g., gravity explains why objects fall to Earth's surface. Science is driven by a passion for further explanation. But it does not - indeed, cannot - provide a complete explanation. Let us find out if there is one.
Now it may seem odd to believe in the existence of something which our senses (sight, hearing, touching) cannot detect. On second thoughts, we note that it is very common. You and I have minds but no one ever detects them by sensing. We explain the behaviour of humans by supposing there is a non-physical entity, a mind with its capacities, and this explanation is well confirmed by what we observe. The existence of minds is an explanation.
Now this is the very same procedure that scientists follow. Seeing that no one has observed the evolution of species, much less replicated it by experiment, how do scientists know it is true? I quote a notable scientist and advocate of evolution:
'What scientists observe are not the concepts or general conclusions of theories, but their consequences. Copernicus's heliocentric theory affirms that Earth revolves around the sun. Even if no one has observed this phenomenon, we accept it because of numerous confirmations of its predicted consequences. We accept that matter is made of atoms, even if no one has seen them, because of corroborating observations and experiments in physics and chemistry' (Francisco J. Ayala, Darwin's Gift, p. 140).
I do not think history is a science. But the same procedure is followed by historians. The evidence they have right now is documents, photos, drawings, artefacts, tombs, bones, verbal testimonies, etc. Of course, they cannot observe past events. They frame the hypothesis that, say, there used to be a city located at a certain point. They find that this is confirmed or disproved by the evidence they have.
Again, this is exactly the procedure followed by one who holds that natural selection explains the series of past events called evolution. The evidence provided by fossils and genes, and so on seems to confirm strongly the hypothesis of natural selection.
There are plenty of good explanations for things. God's existing is not needed to explain why I chose sandwiches for lunch or why some new-born babies are blind. But God is needed to answer those big questions which I (and billions of others) keep asking - questions I have already mentioned.
Theists posit a creator who both started the universe and also conserves it in existence at any one time. God is both creator and conserver. It is the scientific quest for explanation that leads to belief in God but science itself does not answer the question of God's existence.
Why posit any such thing as God? Because whilst we have fairly plausible explanations of how the present universe came about by reference to (1) earlier states of the universe and (2) laws, we lack any scientific explanation of why there were any states to begin with and why there were any laws in accordance with which the states would change.
Laws are observed regularities of behaviour but they do not do anything unless some agent operates them. Also laws describe behaviour but things have first to exist in order to behave, so laws cannot explain why things exist. A scientist can study the engine of a Ford car and how it operates. But if he wants to explain why the Ford cars began he will have no explanation without referring to the motives of Henry Ford which are not a matter of laws but of envisaging and choosing.
If we posit the existence of a being with unlimited power and knowledge and free to choose and having a reason to choose, then we have a satisfactory explanation of the coming into being of the universe. Having posited the existence of this being, we find that it is well confirmed by the evidence.
The question of why the universe obtains at any one moment is a different question from how it began. Why does not the universe just go away? Does something keep it in existence?
One answer is: There is no explanation - the universe is just here and needs no explanation. Really? We know that lots of it can cease to exist. For instance, if radiation and gravity laws and laws governing conservation of matter were to fail to operate.
But let us try this explanation: 'The hypothesis of theism is that the universe exists because there is a God who keeps it in being and that laws of nature operate because there is a God who brings it about that they do. He brings it about that the laws of nature operate by sustaining in every object in the universe its liability to behave in accord with those laws. He keeps the universe in being by making the laws such as to conserve the matter of the universe, that is, by making it the case at each moment that what there was before continues to exist' (Richard Swinburne).
Note that this explanation is a personal one. God decided there would be a universe governed by laws and through those laws he chooses that those laws will operate continuously. In deciding, God is like a human person. And just as my deciding, not laws, offers a complete explanation for things I do, so God's deciding is a complete explanation for why a universe came into being and why it continues to be. We would expect the universe to continue to exist if we suppose God keeps it in existence by his choosing. Otherwise we have no explanation.
I offer an additional reason or set of evidence for believing in God. Above I mentioned apparent direct experience of God, experience which is reported in every age and almost everywhere. Some have vivid experiences, others non-vivid, such as seeming to be in the presence of Someone who is marvellous, gently thrilling, loving and gracious to the experiencer.
Such experiences can be routine, something of which the experiencer is vaguely aware of much of the day. Some are rare, perhaps once in a lifetime and never forgotten. Like John Henry (Cardinal) Newman, some have the experience most commonly when acting on conscience. It is very difficult to explain this, unless God exists.
I do not think there is any simple knock-down argument for God's existence. But there is an accumulation of evidence, only a fraction of which I have cited, which renders belief in God 'beyond reasonable doubt'. If we add to this the evidence contained in God's revelation through Jesus Christ, then our belief in God is amply warranted.
This is the second of an on-going series of articles on Foundations of Faith.
Dr Frank Mobbs is a former university and seminary lecturer on philosophy and theology and has written several books and numerous articles on religious topics. For many years he taught student teachers at Aquinas College, Ballarat, involving discussions of such subjects as the present one.