Mortimer Adler on Proving God Exists

Mortimer J. Adler (1902-2001) was early in life an agnostic American philosopher of Jewish descent (he referred to himself as a pagan) who was received into the Catholic Church at the age of 96, two years before his death. Adler’s education was eclectic, having achieved a doctorate in psychology from Columbia University (where he taught for several years) and appointment to the philosophy department at the University of Chicago, where he also taught law courses. Throughout his life he declared Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas to be among his favorite philosophers, and acknowledged his indebtedness to another convert, Jacques Maritain, as the one who taught him how to read Aquinas. Author of more than fifty books on a variety of subjects, including How to Read a Book and Ten Philosophical Mistakes, Adler’s overriding interest throughout life was to improve the standards of liberal arts education by serving as editor for the publication of many classical works ancient, medieval, and modern. He also edited the monumental 54-volume set of Great Books of the Western World.

Adler most often wrote in a style clear and simple in order to reach maximum readership. He did this because he believed that “philosophy is everybody’s business.” Professional philosophers, perhaps driven by envy at his success, might complain of his catering to Everyman, but his many readers doubtless did not. (This is not to say that Adler never wrote highly technical articles; his “A New Approach to God’s Existence” for the layperson is virtually unreadable. Even professional philosophers would have to struggle to follow it.) The following quotes amply demonstrate the simple power of Adler’s pen that made his writings so popular. “Love without conversation is impossible.” “The telephone book is full of facts, but it doesn’t contain a single idea.” “Work is toil: what one does only to earn a living. If it gives pleasure, it is leisure.” “The philosopher ought never to try to avoid the duty of making up his mind.” “Love wishes to perpetuate itself. Love wishes for immortality.” “The purpose of learning is growth, and our minds, unlike our bodies, can continue growing as we continue to live.”

Faith versus Reason

Adler once remarked, “I suspect that most of the individuals who have religious faith are content with blind faith.” What many people do not seem to realize is that some of their religious beliefs might well have a foundation in logic as well as in blind faith. Consistent with his belief that philosophy is everybody’s business, a frequent theme of Adler’s writings involved proving the existence of God. As he said, “More consequences for thought and action follow the affirmation or denial of God than from answering any other basic question.”

In 2011 some of Adler’s views were posthumously gathered by Ed Dzugan, and along with articles by others were published in How to Prove There Is a God. In his article “How to Think about God’s Existence” Adler talks about his lifelong effort to find a foolproof argument for God, an effort that more often than not proved to be futile. He finally noted that, even if one could not find really convincing proof, there was at least one fact pointing to an avenue of proof that had yet to be fully explored: modern science. “… in our century, the advances in physics and cosmology help us in our thinking about God. If the human mind can infer the existence of such imperceptible and even undetectable things as black holes, perhaps [italics mine] it can reach a bit further to infer the existence of a being that lies beyond the whole of physical reality.” In another essay Adler says, “I take courage in thinking about God from the kind of thinking physicists do about black holes.”

However, that perhaps points only to the possibility of God, and lacks the persuasive power of irrefutable proof. Perhaps Adler meant to imply, as so many others have, that the Big Bang theory has provided substantive support for the idea of a created, as opposed to an eternal, universe. This would be consistent with God’s pronouncements of Creation in Genesis 1. After all, cosmologists have affirmed since the 1960s one immensely important notion: that with the Big Bang the universe as we know it only began to exist some billions of years ago, and that the early universe was filled with light. This clearly repudiated the dominant 19th century view of many scientists, including the young Albert Einstein, that the universe always existed and therefore was not created. Implicit in the Big Bang is a limited confirmation of Aquinas’s second proof for the existence of God, which deduces a First Cause “to which everyone gives the name of God.”

Now there is certainly a big difference between unmistakable proof as opposed to suggestive signs pointing us in a direction where we might infer conclusions that are reasonable and likely. I think this is what Adler means when, having applauded the brilliance of St. Augustine’s little essay “On the Merit of Believing” he says: “I wish to declare as explicitly as possible my firm belief in God’s existence and my equally firm conviction that God’s existence can be proved by reason without recourse to faith…. But above all, it seems to me, faith that a proof of God’s existence is attainable is needed to sustain all those who desire to know whatever can be known of God by natural reason in this life; it [faith] is needed to sustain them in this most arduous of all intellectual efforts, to help them to persist in pursuit of a proof, despite all the obstacles, despite all the controversies of men and the failures of the past, despite all the apparent insolubilia.”

Aquinas Weighs In

Adler cites Aquinas’s famous Five Ways to prove the existence of God. According to the third proof which concerns Possibility and Necessity (a proof that Adler rejected in its original form) every thing has a cause. But all these things are only possible things, according to Aquinas. That is to say, they might come to exist and they might cease to exist. Now for all these possible things to come and go there must be something that causes them to come and go. This cause cannot itself be possible, since then it would never have come to be (there being no other cause to cause it). Rather, it must be a necessary cause, and it must exist outside time and the universe, or else it would be only possible like everything else in the universe. This cause, we may conclude, is not only necessary, but also eternally uncaused. This cause is not only necessary and eternal, but also not physical, or else again it would be only possible, as all other physical causes are only possible. Another way of saying not physical is … spiritual. This Necessary Cause, Aquinas concludes, we may call God. Adler seems to suggest it is better not to call God a Necessary Cause, but rather a Creator, having created, among other things, all the causes that exist in the physical universe. The principle of physical causality, when thought of as created by God, removes the question asked by the agnostic philosopher Bertrand Russell: “Who caused God?” There is no cause of God because God created what we observe in this world to be the principle of causality.

Thus far we can logically infer the existence of a Creator who can be called God; that is to say, there exists a Necessary and Eternal Spirit. Adler asserts that if we try to reason further, we will be on a ground of shifting sands. To find a firm foundation, we will have to find other qualities existing in God that will be a matter of faith, revelation, or intuition rather than purely logical deduction. For example, is it possible to logically infer that God is Three Persons in One? Or again, is it possible to infer that God is Love? Yet again, is it possible to deduce that God is able to create the universe out of nothing? Only Scripture tells us these things, not pure reason or natural theology.

Aquinas and Intelligent Design

Returning to Adler’s theme that science could offer food for thought about the existence of God, we might look at Fred Hoyle, the atheist astronomer whose atheism was shaken when, after examining the complexity of all those equations in physics that go to explaining the origins of the Big Bang, he said: “A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a super-intellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature.” This, then, attributes what we might call Intellect (though surely something a great deal more majestic than human intellect) to the nature of God. As I pointed out in my article “Einstein’s God” (Catholic Insight, November 25, 2016) Einstein took much the same position as Hoyle regarding a superior Intellect governing Creation.

What Hoyle said about a super-intellect and “no blind forces worth speaking about in nature” does sound reminiscent of Aquinas’s fifth proof for the existence of God, sometimes called the teleological proof, which Aquinas phrased as follows in his Summa Theologica: “The Fifth Way is taken from the governance of the world. We see that things which lack intelligence, 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 not fortuitously, but designedly, do they achieve their end. Now whatever lacks intelligence cannot move toward an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence; as the arrow is shot to its mark by the archer. Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed toward their end; and this being we call God.”

We should keep in mind that in this proof Aquinas provided only the bare outline of the theory some contemporary scientists call Intelligent Design theory (not a theory generally accepted in the scientific community for obvious reasons). From both Aquinas and Intelligent Design theory it can be inferred that among God’s many attributes Intelligence (surely not mere human intelligence itself) can be inferred. But Adler rejects the fifth argument of Aquinas. He takes the position dominant in modern science, that Aristotle and Aquinas were wrong to allege there exist in nature the existence of final causes (final cause defined as the end toward which a thing is designed to be, such as a painting is designed to be by the artist). Therefore, breaking away from both Aristotle and Aquinas, Adler argues that the argument for design of the universe cannot be taken as an argument for God. The question to which Adler does not give an answer is this: What reason did God have for creating the universe if it was not finally designed to produce humankind?

St. Anselm Weighs In

Adler also examines St. Anselm’s famous ontological proof for the existence of God, which Adler (as did Aquinas) found lacking in persuasive power. The argument, in a nutshell, goes something like this: Let us define our conception of God as a Being of which no being greater can be conceived. Now, God must exist in reality as well as in my conception. The reason is that if God does not exist in reality, God could not be a being of whom no being greater could be conceived. Indeed, anything that exists would be greater than God. The poverty of this argument was evident to Aquinas when he observed that not everyone would agree to define God as the being of which no being greater can be conceived. Moreover, it does not follow that God so defined, as a being of which no being greater can be conceived, actually exists, just because of that definition. A definition does not prove the existence of the thing defined. As Adler notes, Anselm’s argument is inferior to Aquinas’s proofs. Aquinas reasons from the nature of the world to an assertion that something must have created the world. Anselm does the opposite: he reasons from the nature of God (a Being of whom no being greater can be conceived) to the existence of God. Adler agrees with Aquinas; Anselm’s argument is hopelessly circular. But this is not to say that, having recognized the worth of Aquinas’s proof, we cannot go from God’s existence to his nature by adopting Anselm’s definition of God as the Being of whom no being greater can be conceived. What Being greater can be conceived than one who is Necessary, Eternal, Intelligent, and by yet another logical inference … Infinite? Also, if Anselm’s way of describing God is accepted (the Being of whom no greater being can be conceived) that too removes the question asked by Russell: Who caused God? There is no being greater than the Being of whom no being greater can be conceived.

Pascal Weighs In

Adler found, at the end of his searching, that the most gratifying position he would be likely to take respecting the existence of God would be the position taken by Blaise Pascal. Adler argues for the proof that is not a proof because its premises are found in the heart, not in the head. And yet they are found in the heart by way of the head. Adler recognizes that proofs of God such as the atheist demands are impossible. Rather, we must look first of all not at what proofs prove, but rather at what it is more reasonable to believe. Pascal asks us to consider the choice that every human must make: whether to believe in God or to deny that God exists. All who are reasonable, who are not mentally impaired, are obliged to make that choice. The choice can’t be simply “I don’t know.” That choice is a dead end, because it signifies mental paralysis. (Jesus put in more directly why we must choose: “Whoever is not with me is against me.” Matthew 12:30) When we die, there is eternity before us. Eternity can be blessed if we choose it to be. Or it can be horrible without God, if we resign ourselves to that. If we die unrepentant, the atheist is gambling there is no God on the other side, and therefore no alienation from God. But he does not know this for a certainty. What is wisdom? To gamble there is no God and no hell? If we gamble on that, we have everything to lose. If we gamble on heaven, we have everything to gain. The choice is unavoidable. Anyone who chooses wisely, will have to choose hope, not resignation and despair.

So Pascal’s argument does not rely on proving the existence of God, but rather on demonstrating why we should and must choose to live forever in the presence of God. We do want to live forever with God. For this reason, what Pascal called the “reasons of the heart,” we are persuaded to believe. Adler agreed: “How each person weighs the alternatives is not determined in the last analysis by reasoning alone, but by tendencies that rise from the deepest wellsprings of the human spirit.” For Adler, the God of the philosophers is not one to worship; but the God of Abraham, Moses, and Jesus is. This God alone is said to have immense love for all of us, and so this God alone is the one we ought to know and love.

The Hound of Heaven

Adler is right. So are Aquinas and Pascal. In an oblique way, so is St. Anselm when he speaks of God as a Being of whom no greater being can be conceived. The main reason why the question of God’s existence is so important to everyone (even the atheist has to deal with it) is that God is forever drawing all creation toward him. When we resist him, as did the speaker in Francis Thompson’s much admired poem “The Hound of Heaven,” God hounds us … even to our deathbed. Thompson, a medical student who later turned to opium addiction and writing poetry, was an existentialist long before it was fashionable to be one. In the following selected excerpts he narrated, much as St. Augustine might have, his own desperate struggle to dodge the Hound of Heaven:

I fled Him down the nights and down the days
I fled Him down the arches of the years
I fled Him down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind, and in the midst of tears….

I hid from him …

From those strong feet that followed, followed after

But with unhurrying chase and unperturbed pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy, they beat,

and a voice beat, more instant than the feet:
“All things betray thee who betrayest me.”

One does not have to choose between faith and philosophy. Why not take them together? Adler concludes: “Philosophy at its best produces a shell into which faith can be poured; but it’s a shell, and that shell is nothing to depend upon for the direction of one’s life. But without that shell, faith is without foundation in anything that belongs to reason in the world of our experience.”

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Carl Sundell is Emeritus Professor of English and Humanities at Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester, Massachusetts. The author of several books including The Intellectual and the Gunman, Four Presidents, and Shaw versus Chesterton, he has published various articles in New Oxford Review and Catholic Insight. He currently resides in Lubbock, Texas where he is developing a book of short essays for students of Catholic apologetics