For many Christians, the existence of God is self-evident, reconfirmed in a thousand ways, and so there’s a tendency not to spend too much time on the introductory course, the “why I know there’s a God 101” course. It’s good to do so, however.
Let’s consider now the purpose and design we instinctively impute to physical things, and do so taking into account some perspectives of classical philosophy, with an emphasis on Plato.
The classic “ontological proof” of God is attributed to Anselm (12th century), but has been articulated by many previously, such as by Boethius, in his Consolation of Philosophy (5th century). Basically it’s the idea that if we conceive of that for which there is nothing superior, we arrive at God.
Inside this framework, we can suppose that for every physical thing, every virtue, and every ideal, we can move up the ladder, so to speak, to find a thing, virtue, or ideal that is better and better, moving on toward perfection. When we get to perfection, we must attach a name to it, and that name we attach is “God.”
So the idea is not that we preconceive a God and then try to prove that He exists. Instead, we only conceive that there is a point of perfection in every stream of thought about what constitutes the totality of reality. God’s presence is the rational conclusion.
The idea of the telos or the existence of teleology, is from Aristotle, as developed by many others, but it is basically the idea that there is purpose even in merely physical things. For example, fire has a direction; it reaches up; its purpose is to heat and to consume. Stars purpose to move in a fixed pattern; animals purpose to procreate and provide for the next generation; the cells of the body have the purpose of working with like cells in the body to a common purpose. Gravity speaks to purposefulness in material things. And so on.
If there is any purpose whatsoever, the fact of purpose points inexorably back to a provider of that purpose. One who designs purpose into physical things. Purpose does not derive from purposelessness. Purposefulness cannot exist as a brute fact of existence. You might say that there has to be a purpose in creating purpose. It cannot exist floating free, so to speak. If there is purpose, there is God.
Plato’s philosophy differed from Aristotle’s. Here are some examples of his reasoning, as filtered through Plotinus and thence to Augustine. While Aristotle pointed to actual, real existence, and the purposefulness of that real physical reality, Plato postulated a higher level of abstraction to mere physical reality, which he called the “forms.” The idea is that all of physical reality is a specific instance of an ideal form. There is an ideal of a triangle, and of a horse, and every instance of a triangle or of a horse that we encounter is a specific and non-ideal instance of that perfect and ideal form.
If you draw a triangle with chalk on a chalkboard, so as to try to illustrate some geometric theorems with it, you are not drawing a perfect triangle, but rather an imperfect representation of a perfect triangle. If you then show two sides as being a squared and b squared, respectively, and then the hypotenuse as being c squared, you’re demonstrating that relationship for an ideal triangle, not your real one. A student isn’t going to come up and say “wait a minute, let’s measure your drawn triangle sides and see if a squared plus b squared really equals the c squared.” Of course it won’t. You didn’t draw it perfectly, no one seriously thinks you’re drawing anything but a representation of the ideal of a triangle. The theorem (the Pythagorean theorem) doesn’t apply to your chalk triangle; only to the ideal one.
The thing is, though, that the ideal triangle does not exist anywhere. It is not physical reality. The relationship of the sides of a right angle to a hypotenuse is a relationship that does not exist in physical reality, either. It applies only to the form of a triangle. So you have a real, physical world, and an ideal world of perfection.
The same thing applies for a horse. When we see a horse, we recognize it as such based on a conception of the ideal horse in our mind. The real horses we encounter are imperfect instances of the ideal horse.
Christian Platonic Reasoning
Now Plato was a pagan Greek philosopher, as was Aristotle. Augustine (who lived some 5 centuries after Plato and Aristotle) was a Christian, but he was heavily influenced by Plato’s idea of the forms, because it showed him this: that the ideal triangle and the ideal horse are part of reality just like real triangles and real horses. It is because of the reality of the ideal triangle that we can do geometry. It is because of the reality of the ideal horse that we can identify a real horse. If we know only of the family’s farm horse and then encounter the neighbor’s stallion, we still recognize both as horses. (It’s also the reason we recognize a profoundly retarded person as still being a human being made in the image of God, and not garbage to be disposed of). Because the ideal triangle is part of reality but not part of physical reality, that means reality is comprised not just of physical things, but also by something more.
Now you might say that both triangles and horses are physical things, and saying that there is an ideal of those physical things does not mean that there is anything other than physical things. But consider that this concept applies also to that which is unassailably real, but not manifested in physical form in any way. Like virtue. Honesty, bravery, justice, even truth, are all things that we can absolutely say exist, even though there is no physical counterpart to them at all. So it simply cannot be true that all of reality consists only of physical things.
A “new atheist” like Richard Dawkins might argue that honesty, bravery, and justice are things that evolved somehow, but he can’t say that they’re not real. And though they’re real, they’re obviously not physical. So there is reality that is not physical. All of reality cannot be reduced to the stuff of the cosmos that is reducible to atomic particles.
There is more to our experience of reality even than physical things and non-physical concepts, like virtues. How about beauty? Beauty is a non-physical but real thing. It is like a virtue, in that regard. Now you might say that beauty is just a subjective thing inside of human experience, something Dawkins would say is evolved in mankind for various reasons. Beauty in a woman, for example, advances the evolved procreative function. Fine. But there’s more in the concept of beauty than just that, and even if our perception of beauty resides in evolution somehow, it is still real.
Not only is it non-physical reality, but it is something we all recognize. Though there are variations in taste, there is not a completely separate conception of beauty in every single person. There’s a reason that we recognize superlatives. You might love to hear Alison Krause sing, for example, but it’s not just you. It’s beautiful independent of your particular receptivity. Music aficionados may get together and argue about who’s the best fiddle player, for example, because they recognize the concept that someone could be the best at approaching perfect fiddle-playing. Why? Plato would explain it with his concept of forms. There is an ideal of fiddle playing, and our favorite fiddle players are our favorites because they come closest to the pure form of fiddle-playing. When you see a beautiful painting, it evokes this conception of beauty that lies behind physical reality, not just your own evolved subconscious.
How do you feel when you appreciate the sublime in music? Very likely, when you hear a really good musician play, you experience a moment of what we describe as “transcendence.” If you have a religious bent at all, you might say that you feel close to God in that moment of pure musical perfection. It sounds “heavenly.” And you’d be right, it’s “heavenly” because heaven corresponds to that arena of perfection in which resides our concept of pure music. All real music is a reflection of that Platonic form. You feel close to God because what you are sensing is that you are getting nearer to that which is pure ideal rather than the physical reality of sound waves with different pitch and duration. You’re perceiving that form behind real music, which is non-physical reality.
So there is physical reality, of course. But there is non-physical reality, too. And what’s more, the non-physical reality encompasses or surrounds or embraces physical reality. Actual music, and honesty, and triangles are manifestations of the non-physical ideals of music and honesty and triangles. That’s why you may experience a moment of transcendence when you hear great music. You hear the pure and non-physical ideal coming through in the playing of actual, physical music. The ideal could not exist if physical reality were all there is. Nor could the physical reality exist, if the ideal did not.
If there is an ideal of music, and of beauty, and of honesty, and bravery, and justice, and even truth, then doesn’t logic take us to the conception of an Author of those ideals? There must be an explanation for the existence of these ideals; of Plato’s forms, and that actualizing explanation must be something that is an ideal to the ideal, so to speak. The ideals are perfect: perfect music, perfect beauty, perfect triangles, and so on. So perfection itself is an ideal which stands behind and gives meaning to the other ideals. You might say physical music is at one level; the musical ideal is at the next level; and perfection in the abstract is at yet another level. Perfection is the ideal from which the ideals of perfect music, triangles, and horses derive. Perfection is the Form of the forms, so to speak.
The Perfection which is the form behind the forms must have a name. Let’s give it the name “God.”