Page numbers given in this review refer to the 10th printing of the hardcover version of the book published by Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., copyright © 1980 by Mortimer J. Adler, ISBN 0–02–500540–5. This review, on the other hand, is copyright © 2000 by Jeremiah W. James. This review may be reproduced, as long as the copyright notice given in the preceding sentence accompanies it.

Book Summary

This book is addressed to those whom Adler terms pagans. It is his purpose to convince pagans that a belief in God is reasonable. So who or what might a pagan be? Adler restricts his definition to those who partake of the cultural legacy of the Christians, Jews, and Muslims, but do not worship the God of the Christians, Jews, and Muslims. This definition left me uncertain as to whether I am a pagan or not. I am not a pagan, since I am a Western religious person. That is, I am an adherent of a Christian religion. On the other hand, the God in which I believe differs in some deep ontic ways from the traditional Christian, Jewish, and Muslim conceptions of God. Since this point becomes important later, I actually read the book twice, the first time as myself (a Mormon), the second time from the viewpoint of one of the pagans addressed by Adler.

Adler begins in Part One by introducing himself and his purpose. He himself was a pagan at one time, having been raised in a Jewish household, but not believing in the Jewish faith. He recounts how reading the works of Thomas Aquinas excited him with the idea that a logical proof for the existence of God might be constructed. Many people have attempted such proofs. Adler studied them, but found flaws. He was also interested in trying to prove God's existence in a purely philosophical way, rather than basing the proof in the assumptions of some religious movement.

In Part Two, Adler recounts two of the flaws he found in earlier attempts at proving God's existence. They are:

  1. Assuming that the universe has a finite past (so that it began to be); and
  2. Assuming that there is a First Cause which preceded all other events (since this implies flaw 1).

Adler studiously avoids these errors in his own argument.

In Part Three, Adler sets the stage by inquiring into the nature of the object whose existence is to be proven. What do we mean by “God”? Adler answers this question with great care, deriving a list of attributes (a “definite description”) which identifies the God whose existence he will attempt to prove. Each element of the list is justified. The list includes: infinity, aseity, immutability, and atemporality.

In Part Four, Adler presents what he calls “the best traditional argument”, and shows why it is not good enough. This argument, often called “the argument from contingency”, runs as follows:

  1. The existence of an effect that requires the operation of a co-existent cause implies the co-existence of that cause.
  2. Whatever exists either does or does not need a cause of its existence at every moment of its existence; that is, during the time in which it endures, from the moment of its coming to be to the moment of its passing away.
  3. A contingent being is one that needs a cause of its continuing existence at every moment of its endurance in existence.
  4. No contingent being causes the continuing existence of any other contingent being.
  5. Contingent beings exist in this world and endure, or continue in existence, from the moment of their coming to be to the moment of their passing away.
  6. Contingent beings exist.

Therefore, a non-contingent (necessary) being exists. However, Adler then goes on to state that he thinks the third premise is faulty. This is his opinion because he sees no reason for supposing that any object in the cosmos is radically contingent; all might be superficially contingent.

In Part Five, Adler gives his own argument, which avoids the faulty third premise above. Instead of arguing from the existence of individual things, which may be superficially contingent, Adler argues from the existence of the cosmos as a whole, which, he argues, is radically contingent. Adler's argument runs as follows:

  1. The existence of an effect requiring the concurrent existence and action of an efficient cause implies the existence and action of that cause.
  2. The cosmos as a whole exists.
  3. The existence of the cosmos as a whole is radically contingent, which is to say that, while not needing an efficient cause of its coming to be, since it is everlasting, it nevertheless does need an efficient cause of its continuing existence, to preserve it in being and prevent it from being replaced by nothingness.
  4. If the cosmos needs an efficient cause of its continuing existence to prevent its annihilation, then that cause must be a supernatural being, supernatural in its action, and one the existence of which is uncaused; in other words, the supreme being, or God.

Therefore, God exists. Adler then argues for the truth of his third premise.

Finally, in Part Six, Adler admits that this argument, as well as other purely philosophical arguments, leaves one cold. He the n discusses going beyond the cold rationality of the argument to a living faith.

Discussion

In the view of this reviewer, the project to which Adler has set his hand is an admirable one. His aim is to give a reason to believe to those who feel that no such reason exists. He tries very hard to be careful and cover all the bases, also taking great care to answer potential objections as he goes. Overall, I found the book to be very well crafted and intellectually pleasing (but see Logical Arguments below for some flaws in the logic). But, like Adler, I felt that the argument did not move me. It did not leave me feeling excited about the existence of God. It left me feeling like we had just done a lot of mental work to prove the existence of some faraway object that would never impact my life.

Part Six was particularly interesting for exactly this reason. It was interesting to read Adler's discussion of the “leap of faith” (or, in his case, crossing the chasm of unbelief over a somewhat shaky bridge of intellect), since Adler described himself as one of the pagans to whom he addressed his book. That is, at the time he wrote the book, he himself had not really crossed that bridge. Combine that with Adler's obvious love of Thomas Aquinas' works, and it is not surprising to learn that Adler later became Catholic. Finding out about Adler's conversion made him more endearing, more human, to me, contradicting the image of him as a coldly logical man that I formed when reading the book.

Overall, I found the book to be a very enjoyable read. I often found myself arguing with the author, only to have him destroy my argument in the very next paragraph. I heartily recommend this book to all those Western pagans out there who stumbled across this review, and even to those who already believe in God.

Logical Arguments

Although Adler was extremely careful with his logic, there were a few places where I felt he was not quite careful enough. This includes a logical flaw that causes his argument to fail! I will list my thoughts as they occurred to me while I read the book. That is, the thoughts below are in page order, not in order of magnitude of any errors identified.

The Big Bang and time

In chapter 4, where Adler argues against assuming that the past is finite, he discusses scientific investigations into the beginning of the cosmos. Unfortunately, Adler does not completely understand the Big Bang theory, especially as it relates to time. On page 33, he states:

What is being said here is not that past time is limited (finite rather than infinite), but only that our knowledge of past time is limited—limited to a time beyond which our observations and measurements cannot go. Time may extend back infinitely beyond that initial explosion of matter, out of which the present shape of the cosmos has developed, but unless some radical alteration in our techniques and instruments of observation and measurement occurs, we will never be able to penetrate the veil that hides that infinite past from us.

Adler then goes on to discuss “the state of the cosmos in the time before” the Big Bang. Current science, however, tells us that the bubble of spacetime in which we find ourselves started with the Big Bang. In other words, speaking of either space or time prior to the Big Bang is nonsense. This point actually works in Adler's favor, since his argument would have been much easier had he been able to assume a finite past.

The (in)finitude of the past

In chapter 4, Adler considers two options:

He chooses the first option since, he says on page 38, choosing the second is “tantamount to affirming the existence of God, the world's exnihilator. We must, in short, avoid the error of begging the question—the error of assuming the truth of the proposition to be proved or argued for.” However, Adler has overlooked another option: the past is finite, and the cosmos came into being via natural processes. Once again, Adler has only made things harder for himself by not allowing himself to assume anything about the past, so this point also does not harm his argument.

The name “God”

Adler rightly points out that various people may have differing conceptions of the object designated by the word “God”. So that all will have a clear idea of the object whose existence is to be proved, he begins by constructing a “definite description” of God. The construction of this description brings up three points.

Singular or plural?

In chapter 6, page 56, Adler says of the word “God”:

It is clearly intended to be used as a proper name. As so used, it should designate a singular object.

But wait! Proper names do not necessarily designate singular objects. For example, to which singular object does the proper name “Oreo” refer? In fact, the question of whether there is an object or a collection of objects which can be called “God” is separate from the question of whether “God” is one object or a collection of objects. Adler has, in these two sentences, dodged the latter question entirely. We can, perhaps, forgive him for doing so, since the Western civilization that he assumes as background almost uniformly agrees that “God” refers to a singular object. But, during my reading of this book as a pagan, I could not help but object that Adler's argument reduces to this: “Since Westerners have decided to call the exnihilating force of the cosmos by a singular name, therefore that force is a singular object.” I find that argument unsatisfying.

The unclassifiability of God

Also on page 56, Adler says:

In the case of every other proper name, the singular object named, while unique and therefore deserving of a proper name, is also an object of a certain kind and belongs to one or more classes of objects that can be defined. … Like every other proper name, “God” designates a unique object, but one which does not belong to any class of objects. … When we use “God” as a proper name in this inquiry, we are using it to designate an object that is not only unique, as every other singular individual is, but one that is also unclassifiable.

The unclassifiability of God is stressed at several points throughout the book, so Adler obviously thought it important. But doesn't God belong to these classes?

One might object that these are not real classes, since the first and third are singular classes (containing God alone), and the second contains everything. But note that Adler himself, on pages 94 and 95, discusses classes that turn out to be empty. If an empty class is a real class, then why not a class containing one object, and why not a class containing every (real) object? Adler contributes further to the confusion by claiming, on page 63, that although God is an “object of thought”, that “objects of thought” is not a genuine class, since it contains everything. Then what is a class? We need a definition to make sense of this mess.

The physicality of God

In chapter 7, page 64, Adler discusses physical objects. He concludes that, since nobody has a “God detector”, we cannot assume that God is a physical object. Fine. But then, on page 66, Adler says:

However, there are two important differences between God, on the one hand, and the physical objects that we must employ theoretical constructs to think of. Physical objects, as we have noted, are either perceptible or empirically detectable. God, not being a physical object, is neither.

Adler then goes on to assume, for the rest of the book, that God is not physical. This raised my hackles during my reading of the book as a Mormon. Adler has equated “we cannot assume that God is physical” with “we can assume that God is not physical.” These two statements are not equivalent!

Science

In chapter 7, Adler distinguishes between “empirical concepts”, objects that can be detected by observation, and “theoretical constructs”, objects that cannot be so detected, such as strings. He then goes on to say, on page 67:

The reader should see at once that, if modern scientists can legitimately and validly deal with objects that lie wholly outside the range of ordinary or common experience because they cannot be directly perceived by us, and are able to do so by means of notions that are theoretical constructs rather than empirical concepts, then theologians cannot be dismissed as being engaged in illegitimate and invalid speculation when they also deal with objects that lie outside the range of ordinary or common experience, and also do so by means of notions that are theoretical constructs rather than empirical concepts.

During my pagan reading of the book, I noted that one can substitute the word “astrologers” for the word “theologians” in the paragraph above. In fact, Adler has mischaracterized science (at least, as I understand it). Science uses theoretical constructs as models of reality, not as tools of inquiry as Adler is using them. A model is only as good as its predictive power. If one model predicts the actual behavior of the universe better than another, then the first model is the better one. Science is the business of model building, not the business of truth finding. This is an important distinction.

Critique of Kant

One pages 67 and 68, Adler offers a critique of Kant's argument against establishing the existence of God by pure reason. Adler's critique is based on the misunderstanding of science described above. Science is ultimately based on empirical evidence. Theoretical constructs are merely tools for understanding and organizing that evidence.

The greatest being

In chapter 8, on page 70, Adler describes the work of Anselm. He modifies Anselm's description of God a bit to arrive at this description: “a being than which no greater can be thought of”. He then goes on to say:

A theoretical construct that is a complex notion will involve a number of distinct, though related, notes. The note expressed by the words “a being than which no greater can be thought of” can also be expressed by the words “supreme being”. Since there cannot be two supreme beings, we should not think of God as a supreme being, but rather as the supreme being—the one and only being than which no greater can be thought of.

Adler has made another logical mistake here. He has equated “a being than which no greater can be thought of” with “a being than which no greater or equal can be thought of”. In other words, Adler has no warrant for saying that God is the supreme being!

On reality

On page 74, Adler argues that a really existing being is greater than one that does not really exist. Adler has opened up a can of worms here. Suppose that a being exists which matches Adler's definite description of God in every respect, except that it is not necessary, and that no greater being exists. That really existing being, then, is greater than the theoretical construct created by Adler. In other words, we do not know if Adler's theoretical construct really is a description of a supreme being!

God and the cosmos

In chapter 9, pages 79–84, Adler considers several possibilities (listed explicitly on page 83):

In considering and rejecting 1–3, Adler has missed a possibility: that God and the cosmos have overlapping parts, and disjoint parts. That is, neither is part of the other, but they have something in common. Now, most readers will probably consider this option too weird to consider. However, for completeness, Adler should have addressed it. In fact, my Mormon friends may be amazed to hear that I think that option is, in fact, quite possible. (Think “intelligences”.)

Radical and Superficial Contingency

In chapter 13, page 123, Adler defines the two kinds of contingency as follows:

[The individual's contingent existence] would be a radical contingency if it went to the very roots of the individual's being, with the consequence that, deprived of its existence, the individual would be reduced to nothingness or replaced by nothing. If, when it perishes, the individual is not reduced to nothingness, but is replaced by the same matter transformed into something else, then its contingency is superficial, not radical.

Adler then goes on to talk about the metaphysical analog of inertia. That is, just because a thing was caused to come into being does not imply that it needs an efficient cause of its continuing existence. Think of it as “coasting” through its existence. Thus, all objects in the cosmos can be thought of as superficially contingent.

What of the cosmos itself? In chapter 14, Adler argues that, if the cosmos is contingent, its contingency is radical. He explains as follows:

Another difference between the cosmos and its individual parts or components lies in the fact that the latter, with the possible exception of electrons and protons, come into existence, endure for a time, and pass away, not into nothing, but by transformation into something else. If the cosmos were to come into being and pass away, it would come into being out of nothing, and pass away by reduction to nothingness.

This is unsatisfactory for two reasons:

  1. I can just as well say that, were an individual thing to come into existence, not by transformation from something else, but out of nothing, endure for a time and pass away, not by transformation into something else but into utter nothingness, that its contingency would be radical. Adler rejected that notion on the grounds that nobody has ever observed any physical object coming into existence out of nothingness or passing away into nothingness. But nobody has observed the cosmos coming into being out of nothingness or passing away into nothingness, either. How are we to know that the cosmos does not have existential inertia, as well as its components? The fact that the cosmos exists now does not mean that it will ever cease to be.

    Adler addressed this question by arguing about possible worlds. This cosmos, he says, could have been other than it is. Therefore, it could not have been at all. But this is unsatisfactory as well. The chair on which I sit might have been other than it is, as well, if the manufacturer had chosen to do things somewhat differently. Therefore, it could not have been at all. Why is it that individual objects can have existential inertia, but not the cosmos?

  2. The ceasing to be of the cosmos would cause the ceasing to be of every physical thing in it, which Adler notes on page 134. Also, if the cosmos is radically contingent, then there is some preservative action keeping it in being. If that action were to fail, the cosmos would cease to be, which would make every physical thing in the cosmos cease to be. Therefore, the preservative action which keeps the cosmos in being is also a preservative action keeping every physical thing in the cosmos in being: not immediately, but mediately. Hence, every physical thing in the cosmos is also radically contingent. But Adler already rejected the radical contingency of the things in the cosmos. We have a contradiction!

This point is extremely important. Unless it is addressed adequately, I have to conclude that Adler has failed to provide the proof he pursued.