Does God Exist?: A History of Answers to the Question by W. David Beck. IVP Academic, 2021, 328 pp.
There is no doubt that these are difficult times. The question of God’s existence is one of the most heavily debated topics of all time. The God question impacts every area of reality (i.e., morality, destiny, origins, human rights, human value, history, the list goes on). Dr. David Beck has taught on this topic for several decades at Liberty University. Now he has compiled this material all into one volume. This book is not another apologetics book. Instead, it is a careful study of arguments for God’s existence as they have developed in the history of philosophy.
What motivated Beck to write this book? In the Introduction, he says:
“ I can think of no topic that demands greater attention in this global culture than the existence and reality of God. Our world is divided and divisive. I am convinced that this is a result of the fact that our global culture has given up on finding any truth that would unite us—any truth at all. Many people even think that to be a virtue. But the relativistic skepticism that is in danger of engulfing us cannot provide a unifying factor.”
Before Beck discusses specific arguments, In the first chapter, he lays out the history of the starting points of the arguments. Beck clarifies his goal by covering the history of thought behind each argument. He says:
“ Using the word argument is also meant to avoid the idea that any one of these stands by itself as a once‑and‑for‑all clinching proof for a fully defined God. What we will see is that each argument has a very narrow focus, in terms of both the evidence used in the premises and the scope and the strength or probability of the conclusion. And so each of these arguments, along with others I will only mention in passing, functions best as part of a cumulative case.” – pg. 3.
Thus, as Beck notes, a cumulative case is similar to a court case as presented by the attorneys. As he notes, “There is not simply a single argument given for guilt or innocence. Rather, there is a whole story that is woven together from many pieces of evidence, eyewitnesses, character witnesses, elimination of alternatives, and so on. The same is true here. We need to look at multiple arguments of different types, based on different sorts of evidence, with each giving us a different part of a larger conclusion. Of course, each piece of the case needs to be a sound argument in order to give us, overall, the best explanation.” -pg. 3.
Chapter Two discusses the history of cosmological arguments. Beck righty includes the contingency argument, the kalam argument, and sufficient- reason arguments. When I say he covers the history of philosophical thought on this topic, he discusses Aristotle, Aquinas, Duns Scotus, and John Locke, as well as Hindu and Buddhist arguments. He does this with kalam as well. He never starts with a contemporary defender (i.e., William Lane Craig). He always starts at the beginning and then mentions contemporary philosophers, or scholars who have provided their own versions of the argument or criticisms of the argument (i.e., Craig, Andrew Loke, and Paul Draper). He does provide some responses to criticisms and then wraps up each chapter with a section called “Where We Are Now.”
Chapter Three speaks about the history of the teleological argument. Beck starts with Socrates, Zeno, Epictetus, Aristides, and others and then works his way through the Medieval period.
He discusses some of the objections by Hume to Paley’s work. The main design argument (there are others) he spends the most time on is the fine-tuning argument. Since this is a more contemporary argument, he mentions the work of Fred Hoyle, Chandra Wickramasinghe, Francis Collins, Richard Swinburne and Robin Collins. He then discusses the objections by Dawkins, Antony Flew (before he became a general theist), and Elliot Sober. One of Sober’s objections is that “ FTA (Fine Tuning Argument) fails as a claim about likelihoods. We have no way to calculate probabilities here—Hume, he thinks, was right— because we are embedded in the only universe context we know of. We can only estimate likelihoods but without any basis on which to distinguish chance and design.”-pg 176.
So for Sober, “We are embedded participants in the only universe there is. We therefore have no neutral way of observing multiple universes in such a way that we could form any kind of objective judgments as to the relative degree of design that is or was needed for our universe. We suffer from “observational selection effect,” or OSE.”- pgs. 173-174.
This seems to be one of the most common defeaters to the fine- tuning argument. But Beck mentions the work of Michael Rota (see his book, Taking Pascal’s Wager: Faith, Evidence and the Abundant Life (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2016). As Rota notes, “The short version . . . is that the anthropic objection asks us to focus on an irrelevant probability; the probability that the universe is life permitting given that the universe is the result of a blind physical process and we’re here to observe it. True, if we’re here to observe it, it must be life permitting. But we might very well have never been here to observe anything! Without a Fine‑Tuner in the picture, what is likely is that we would never have been here at all. Since we are here, we have evidence for a universe designer.”- pg 111.
Beck also mentions the multiverse objections and provides responses. Here he includes popularizers Lawrence Krauss and Victor Stenger and recent responses to them. In the concluding section on teleological arguments, Beck rightly notes the recent book by Thomas Nagel called Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo‑Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. As Beck notes, Nagel, an evolutionary atheist, “gives us teleology in a form that demands explanation but that defies mechanistic, physicalistic explanation. And that is all we need to argue for a creative intelligence that ultimately, without remainder, explains the universe in which we live. If nature is such as to give rise to minds that can comprehend it, and comprehend themselves in the act of comprehending it, then “the intelligibility of the world is no accident.”- pg 201.
Chapter Four focuses on the history of moral arguments. Beck starts with the moral design arguments of Zeno, Aurelius, Felix, and Aquinas’ Fourth Way. He then traces the Nineteenth Century arguments of Newman, Rashdall, Sorley, and Trueblood. He then discusses more contemporary versions by thinkers such as Lewis, Robert Adams, Sessions, Eleonore Stump, Rachels, Sam Harris, and Erik Wielenberg. Weilenberg says that “The foundation of morality is a set of axiomatic necessary eternal truths. No being, natural or supernatural, is responsible for the truth of, or has control over, these ethical truths.”– Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe, pg 66. Wielenberg goes on to say, “Why be moral? The answer now is quite obvious. “Grown‑ups recognize that the fact that a given action is morally obligatory is itself an overriding reason for performing that action. A morally obligatory action is an action that one has to do whether one wants to do it or not.”- Value and Virtue, pg. 80.
Beck notes that there have been responses to Weilenberg in the work of David Baggett and Jerry Walls, Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality as well as their book God and Cosmos. Bagget and Walls have formulated an abductive case for the moral argument.
Chapter Five hammers out the history of ontological arguments. I will not spend the time giving the overview of this argument. Once again, Beck does a thorough job in discussing the history of this argument.
The concluding chapter is called “The End of the Story- For Now.” In this chapter, Beck discusses the importance of cumulative case arguments, the recent work on miracles (see Craig Keener’s double volume set), the work on the resurrection of Jesus by Gary Habermas, religious experience (see William Alston in his Perceiving God and William Wainwright in Mysticism) and transcendental arguments.
As Beck says in this conclusion,
“If we then take all these arguments, together with the classic four, there is an exceedingly strong case for God’s existence. And I certainly grant that the ontological argument is not highly persuasive these days. Many of these component arguments are strong inductive and abductive arguments. They have exceptionally high probability, even if we sometimes cannot give them some precise numerical probability calculation. Furthermore, these are only the positive arguments. A total case would have to also include an array of arguments against physicalism, materialism, or, in general, naturalism.” – pg. 318-319.
I wholeheartedly agree with Beck on this. His book is a wonderful contribution to the topic of God’s existence. He has told me personally that there are not a ton of academic books out there on this specific topic. Hopefully, this book will be utilized in the years to come.