Philosopher Discredits Disproval of God

Philosopher Discredits Disproval of God

For the first time in two decades, Colgate hosted John Cardinal O’Hara Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame Peter Van Inwagen, a leading contemporary philosopher, to speak on campus on Thursday, March 25. The lecture, titled “Can Science Disprove the Existence of God?” was held in the filled-to-capacity Robert Ho Lecture Room in Lawrence Hall.

The topic of the lecture was not only controversial, due to its prominence in contemporary philosophical conversation, but was also cross-cutting, attracting Colgate students hailing from classes in the religion and philosophy departments and from CORE Modernity and Western Traditions classes.

Inwagen structured his talk into three segments. First, he argued that the existence of God was a philosophical, not scientific, question, thus answering the question posed in the title of his lecture. He went on to discuss the implications of that statement before allowing for a short question and answer period.

The brief period of interaction between Inwagen and the attendees of the lecture was a testament to the philosopher’s impressive command of his field and the specificity and soundness of his argument. Consequently, the dialogue between Inwagen and members of the audience who asked questions was fraught with disagreements over semantics and the significance of the questions to the subject at hand.

“I found him a little intimidating and perhaps defensive during the question and answer portion,” senior Courtney Ryan said. “He pushed students to develop their questions further, which was great, but seemed to dismiss most of them as irrelevant to his issue.”

One attendee posed a question to Inwagen inquiring how he could simultaneously be a Christian and a philosopher and how he personally came to his beliefs. Inwagen was evasive in his answer and likened the question to asking how someone who supported the Democratic Party came to his or her own beliefs.

Inwagen’s first order of business was to establish that science, as field, was insufficient in either providing sufficient evidence for or against the existence of God. Science can only detect beings that are locally present, Inwagen argued, and because of God’s omnipotence, “He is neither hidden nor on display,” and therefore cannot be measured or identified in any scientific manner.

“God is not a space-occupying being,” Inwagen said. “But everything in our world is a product of his creative power.”

Inwagen compared God’s influence on the physical world to Rembrandt’s influence on one of his paintings.

Painting is a creative activity and although physical pieces of Rembrandt are not present in the painting itself, Rembrandt’s will and his choices are evident in the final product, thus making the painting solely the painter’s creation but also entirely removed from the painter himself.

“The proof [for the existence of God] will have to come from somewhere else, although science can contribute to a possible conclusion,” Inwagen said, due to the impossibility of scientific detection of God.

While the question of whether God exists must be a philosophical one, Inwagen claimed that this does not mean that there are any compelling arguments for a substantive conclusion on the issue.

In fact, it is in the nature of the field of philosophy “for extremely able philosophers on both sides of the issue to use the same evidence and come to opposite conclusions. Sadly, there is no uniformity of opinion in philosophy,” Inwagen said.

The ambiguous conclusion to Inwagen’s lecture prompted one student to question whether or not the entire discussion of the existence of God was futile since no definitive answer could be reached by any means at all. To this, Inwagen noted that while philosophers may never agree on whether or not God exists, it is essential to understand by what means and through what evidence a conjecture on the issue, whether it be affirmative or negative, may be reached. The answer to this question thus reiterated the fact that he was not focused on discovering whether God existed or not, but rather uncovering the areas of study by which one could make a legitimate conclusion on this issue.