Skip to content

Atheists Will Have No Excuse

There is a class of the argument of God’s existence that depend entirely on your thoughts. The one that interests us is Joseph de Maistre’s “no excuse” argument. It is less well known than Saint Anselm’s “ontological argument”, which is worth a few moments puzzling over.

Anselm’s argument runs like this:

  1. You have some idea, even as an atheist, about who God is;
  2. God is “a being than which none greater can be imagined”; that is, it is impossible to think of a being greater than God;
  3. Beings that exist in reality are greater than those that exist only in the mind, because existing itself is a good;
  4. But we cannot think of a greater being than God;
  5. Therefore, God exist.

Everybody agrees with the first step in the argument. And there seems to be no real controversy in the second and third steps. It’s step four that makes us think some sleight-of-hand has been pulled.

It’s true existence is a good, and it seems to be true we can’t think of any being greater than God. So we can’t think of a being who actually exists greater than God. So it must be this being about whom none greater can exist must himself exist. Right?

Many think not. The argument seems to conjure God’s existence out of our thoughts, or even hopes. It’s hard to escape the notion that a circularity or flaw is buried somewhere, but it’s tough to finger.

But not impossible. Saint Thomas Aquinas said that since we cannot know the full nature of God, it is thus not possible for us to absolutely think of “a being than which none greater can be imagined”. This necessarily limited understanding of God is the reason Anselm’s argument fails to be completely convincing.

We can’t know all about the nature of God—we are, after all, limited creatures. But we can know some of God’s nature. What does that imply? De Maistre said it led to another argument of God’s existence.

Joseph de Maistre was a Catholic reactionary chased from France after Napoleon came to power. And not because he was a friend to the French Revolution. Nor was he keen on the then-fresh scientific materialism of Francis Bacon, which de Maistre perceived would lead to rampant atheism.

Bacon didn’t think much of Anslem. Bacon thought it “absurd” the claim that “men have found by reason the existence of a being of which they cannot form any idea.” (All quotes are from de Maistre’s An Examination of the Philosophy of Bacon in the chapter “Of God and Intelligence”.)

De Maistre countered “To maintain that we have no idea of God because we cannot have a perfect idea, and that it is absolutely the same thing not to know what he is, or if he is, is not only blasphemy against God himself, it is also a blasphemy against good sense.”

That’s step one of de Maistre’s proof. Step two is the truism “we can affirm nothing of what does not exist.” To affirm is greater than to state. Thus we can affirm facts about horses, but we can only make statements about unicorns. There is no way to affirm anything about unicorns, because they do not exist.

Now the man who says “I have no idea of God, contradicts himself without knowing it; for it is precisely as if he said that he has an idea of which he has no idea.” And “The very fool who says God is not affirms that he has an idea of him, for no mind can deny an unknown existence.” To deny God is to deny something.

De Maistre needs only one more step. “How could man receive a new truth if did not carry within him an interior truth, an innate rule by which he judges the other?” Any teaching, human or divine, is a revelation—a revealing. We must have inbuilt a (even if flawed) sense of which arguments work and which not. To deny that is to affirm it. This sense must be of divine origin. De Maistre of course does not say, but this sense could not be biological in origin and simultaneously trustworthy: you could never know if your genes were lying to you.

In a word, the goal of revelation is only to lead the human mind to read in itself what the divine hand has traced there; and revelation would be worthless if reason, after the divine teaching, was not rendered capable of demonstrating to itself the revealed truths, just as mathematical teaching, or any other human teaching, is only recognized as true and legitimate when reason, examining the theorems on the eternal rule hidden in the depths of its essence, says to the human revelation, YOU ARE RIGHT, that is to say, you are reason.

Finally:

God speaks to all men by the idea of himself that he has placed in us by this idea that would be impossible if it did not come from him, he says to us: IT IS I! Those who are called atheists reply: How could this be you, since you do not exist?

De Maistre concludes: This is why they will be inexcusable. This of course echoes St Paul: For the invisible things of him, from the creation of the world, are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made; his eternal power also, and divinity: so that they are inexcusable.

This bumps against St Thomas’s other rebuttal of Anselm: “No one can mentally admit the opposite of what is self-evident; as the Philosopher (Metaph. iv, lect. vi) states concerning the first principles of demonstration. But the opposite of the proposition ‘God is’ can be mentally admitted: ‘The fool said in his heart, There is no God’ (Psalm 53:2). Therefore, that God exists is not self-evident.”

That we cannot know God does not exist, given we can have some idea of God, is self-evident, says de Maistre. A fool can always reject a truth, out of mere stubbornness or petulence if nothing else.

Even so, it’s hard to escape the notion that de Maistre—besides his excellent point about partial knowledge—assumed what he sought to prove, here in the step where he asserted our reason must be God-given. This is surely true, but there might be a way to bring in CS Lewis’s famous argument against biological confirmations of reason to support de Maistre at his weak point.

11 thoughts on “Atheists Will Have No Excuse Leave a comment

  1. Im not following the argument. So if someone denies the existence of God, this would suggest they have some affirmative knowledge of what God is, in order to say he isn’t real. The fact that they have to possess an idea of him in the first place implies some kind existence.

    Very well,

    But if I deny the existence of unicorns, wouldn’t I also need an understanding of what unicorns are in order to claim they aren’t real?

    Im not following how this is a proof, couldn’t it be dismissed by
    Simply saying that the original idea (unicorns) doesn’t describe anything in reality? Why cant an atheist just say the original idea we are denying is just a fiction?

  2. This is filed under “book reviews”, but I missed any mention of a particular book. Is it Examination of the Philosophy of Bacon, perhaps?

    de Maistre’s remark that

    “The very fool who says God is not affirms that he has an idea of him, for no mind can deny an unknown existence.”

    is echoed a couple of centuries later by philosophers associated with the positivist movement, for example A.J. Ayer, very clearly in his Language, Truth, and Logic. There he points out that when people say “God” they may mean almost anything: sometimes they mean something like a synonym for reality or nature, which of course one tends to believe in already; sometimes something specific, like a giant turtle that laid an egg that hatched the universe, which we can deny without much fuss; but, most often, they are just making a ritual noise with their mouths, with no sensible meaning attached to it. Therefore, he concludes, it makes no sense to claim to be an atheist, because neither you nor anyone else can say what it is that you deny. Likewise, agnosticism is irrational, because you are unsure or undecided about what? Of course, it also makes no sense to affirm your belief, unless you can say what it is you believe in. At this point most believers will object that they know what God is, but they usually fail to give an account of Him that is coherent. This is one of the reasons that I, for one, don’t call myself an atheist or agnostic. I don’t even get that far.

  3. Starship drives do not exist either (as there are no starships around, not even ones without engines), but we have a number of designs for different kinds of starship drives. For instance, a Bussard Ramjet that uses interstellar hydrogen, or lasers which push on light sails.

    So, it is quite possible to think of things that clearly do not exist, the thinking going as fas as to make actual engineering blueprints.

    The problem with Anselmus’ argument BTW is that thinking of a being which is greater than all other possible beings is in fact impossible for humans. The problem is that you need to think about all possible attributes of that being. Now, the number of attributes is clearly infinite, being all the possible attributes one can think of. But you can only think of a finite number of attributes.

    Gathering all the attributes as saing that there is some maximal collection is not thinking about the attributes, but thinking about the collection of attributes, which is not the same.

  4. “CS Lewis’s famous argument against biological confirmations of reason to support de Maistre at his weak point.”

    Alvin Plantinga has done work in this recently.

  5. Legge writes : “if I deny the existence of unicorns, wouldn’t I also need an understanding of what unicorns are in order to claim they aren’t real?”

    That is exactly the point. I argue this with atheists fairly often, or as often as one can be drawn into this kind of no-win scenario!

    What is being argued is a definition, a claim. Needless to say there is no end to this game; I can invent unicorns or gods all day long and you can then say such does not exist and I will probably agree.

    Somewhere in the universe is a horse-like animal with one horn. Or not. But it seems likely.

    “Why cant an atheist just say the original idea we are denying is just a fiction?

    There is no reason and many atheists do exactly that, claim that (definitions of) god is just fiction. But that is not disproof.

    Suppose in my dreams I think of a wheel. Does the fact of my inventing in my mind alter the actual existence of wheels?

    Somewhere in the universe may well be a Flying Spaghetti Monster; that descriptions of it are human inventions neither creates nor destroys an actual instance of it somewhere in the universe.

    So it is that I have often used this argumentation; to ask an atheist to describe this god he believes does not exist, the very act of describing this god which does not exist gives form to the idea, brings it into existence, more or less. It is a pointless exercise to define the thing you believe does not exist, for there is no limit to the number of things you can imagine whose existence is not immediately demonstrable (and yet, may actually exist somewhere).

    As for me, I often use the word “god” symbolically; meaning whoever or whatever is “greatest” in all the universe, by any definition of “great”, is god. As such, god cannot fail to exist, for somewhere in the universe is a supreme being. If you change the definition or your sense of what is great, well then the supreme being suddenly is somewhere else, something else; but there cannot fail to be one.

    I also use the word specifically, one specific God, approximately as Christians describe (depending of course on the flavor of Christian). I have a doubt about poly-omni-everything. Supreme does not mean capable of the impossible.

    “God does not exist” is like Schroedinger’s Cat, both true and false simultaneously until one defines what the words mean.

  6. Sander van der Wal writes: “The problem with Anselmus’ argument BTW is that thinking of a being which is greater than all other possible beings is in fact impossible for humans.”

    I disagree. In my mind I’m not yet sure whether griffin is greater than dragon, but it is easy to decide that one of these is greater than all other possible beings. In this example it depends somewhat on one’s immediately perception of the attributes of greatness. Dragon is portrayed as stronger, but griffin is portrayed as more intelligent and magical. Thus it is likely that griffin is superior to dragon in most ways until and unless you simply need brute strength and nothing else will suffice.

    So what are the typical attributes of a god? Hardly infinite; the list tends to be just three: Immortal, omniscient, omnipotent. Occasionally someone adds “benevolent” but that is not quite assured. In any case, these attributes need only to be super-human, not infinite, for there is a problem with infinite knowledge, it becomes infinitely recursive. Knowing what is a sphere suddenly includes knowing that I know about a sphere, which now includes knowing that I know that I know about a sphere, and so on, ad infinitum.

    “The problem is that you need to think about all possible attributes of that being.”

    Why? One need only consider a SINGLE attribute, in fact, that’s the usual approach. Whatever attribute you find most important, then find the being with the most of it, DONE!

    “Now, the number of attributes is clearly infinite”

    That seems unlikely, but is also irrelevant to deciding whether there is, or is not, a supreme being.

  7. So much circular reasoning…but let’s play along:

    Briggs’ argument fails before it starts: “Everybody agrees with the first step in the argument.”

    The first step in the argument is:

    “You have some idea, even as an atheist, about who God is”
    and let’s toss in the 2nd as well: “God is “a being than which none greater can be imagined”; that is, it is impossible to think of a being greater than God;”

    Briggs further relays: “We can’t know all about the nature of God—we are, after all, limited creatures. But we can know some of God’s nature.”

    For most readers here, “God” is the “God” described in the Bible. What clues does that give us?

    The Bible provides ample, duplicative, clues about who God ARE. You read that right. Let’s take a handful of examples from both ends of that reference:

    Genesis 1:26 — “Then God said, “Let US make mankind in OUR image, in OUR likeness,…”

    Genesis 10:6-7 “The LORD said, “… Come, let US go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

    Mark 3:28-29 “…whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”

    Matt 12:32 “Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.”

    Luke 12:10 “And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.”

    CONCLUSIONS:

    “God” is not a single entity. The Bible says so and says so often. Early on, as civilization was in its infancy, “God” was described as describing themselves — in PLURAL terms. Fast forward to our most recent updates and we see the same thing — a purported entity described as three concurrent beings, but one of those beings, the Holy Spirit, has particular pride of place and blaspheming that particular entity within the Trinity is unpardonable. But blaspheming another entity, e.g the Son, is forgivable.

    There is no way to reconcile this as co-equals but to conclude this monotheistic deity is really a pantheon of some sort.

    THUS, to Briggs first point — we Do NOT have some idea “about who God is” — we cannot even be sure if “God” is a “him” or a “they.”

    THUS, the assertion, “it is impossible to think of a being greater than God” is false given even the Bible itself expresses unambiguously that within God is a God greater than the other parts, or the whole. Thus, we CAN proceed to think of a deity even greater than “God” (the assembled Trinity) because we’ve been enlightened to the existence of the Holy Spirit and its supremer greaterness.

    We can infer that that Son is also subordinate to the Father — that these (“Son” and “Father”) are not mere titles — given the Son’s assertion that he (“it”?) was to be seated at the Father’s Right Hand. A significant position no doubt, and perhaps metaphorical, but undoubtedly subordinate as his (“its”?) audience would necessarily perceive. The Son could’ve reported the arrangement differently, such as seated together, or seated at a round table like King Arthur’s knights, etc. consistent with co-equals, but, again, the pattern is clear — the Jewish & Christian god is a pantheon of some sort.

    Seeing how Justin Martyr noted the Christian faith was basically a remapping of the pagan myths, but this time actually real, its hardly surprising this monotheistic trinity blundered into the same basic plot — a cult leader (or any marketeer for that matter) cannot dream up anything too new or it won’t “sell” and a trinity was the natural result of mapping the new faith to the historical Capitoline Triad (which itself was an update to the Arcahic Triad). Jesus, or more likely his successors with the early cult, had to incorporate a triad concept to lure in the pagans conditioned to a triad. The early Christians, to distinguish themselves from the Jews, could not get away with a pure monotheistic concept as the Jews had (no room for a triad/trinity in Judaism) because that would have to lead the new faith back to being purely Jewish — which the Romans knew pre-dated their culture.

    There is a fundamentally blatant contradiction most see and yet fail to appreciate — Jesus’ “mission” was to be the “savior” of the Jews, He asserted He was fulfilling the Jewish prophesies and preserving Jewish law (see Matt 5:17), turns out to have not fulfilled those prophesies and his religion overtly dismisses much of Jewish law. The beneficiaries are Gentiles. Does an alleged Jewish divine savior with that mission who accomplishes basically the opposite really look like the savior he claimed to be?

    Setting all that aside, we can study–and learn (!)–from history: Marcion concluded from the nature of the behavior of the Old Testament God and the New Testament updates that the NT god and the OT god could not be the same deity — the OT god was the demiurge. So Marcion concluded two major deities at work with one supremer than the other. That’s a very incompatible interpretation that almost dominated.

    Not to mention other views that led to the creation of the Nicene Creed — all that by folks steeped in and tasked with keeping the new religion’s plot themes straight. Obviously “Everybody agrees with the first step in the argument” was NOT even close to being true, and given that, each generation is susceptible to similar heresies.

    About all one can conclude is that IF there’s a God, the information provided in the Bible is at best suspect, and most likely contrived to suit the needs of human cult and other leaders. There may be a single god, but the Bible, especially the NT, isn’t the place to be looking for credible clues.

    As an atheist, its not that we have some idea about who or what god is (or whatever), its that we can understand what some believer believes about what god(s) is. That’s a very different thing. But it’s a perspective that let’s us observe just how rigid believers can be: Believers can believe a thing so precisely and imperviously to alternative viewpoints that believers cannot comprehend that someone else can both understand their belief and also reject that belief. This suppression of intellectual rigor for emotion-based faith allows a believer to say the following and truly believe it makes sense:

    You have some idea, even as an atheist, about who God is;
    God is “a being than which none greater can be imagined”; that is, it is impossible to think of a being greater than God;
    Beings that exist in reality are greater than those that exist only in the mind, because existing itself is a good;
    But we cannot think of a greater being than God;
    Therefore, God exist.

  8. “3. Beings that exist in reality are greater than those that exist only in the mind, because existing itself is a good;”

    IMHO, this is the main flaw in Anselm’s argument: Existence isn’t a quality of something.

    “How could man receive a new truth if did not carry within him an interior truth, an innate rule by which he judges the other?”

    By comparing it to reality.

    “We must have inbuilt a (even if flawed) sense of which arguments work and which not. To deny that is to affirm it.”

    Ironic in the sense you’ve already admitted that most people sense something wrong with Anselm’s argument.

    “This sense must be of divine origin.”

    Why?

    “De Maistre of course does not say, but this sense could not be biological in origin and simultaneously trustworthy: you could never know if your genes were lying to you.”

    Compare to reality. Simples.

  9. An interesting article Mr. Briggs. Nonetheless, I would look into Proslogion 3, and not just Proslogion 2. The real center of Anselm’s argument is actually in Proslogian 3.