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God and the Philosophers

By Edwards, Paul | Free Inquiry, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

God and the Philosophers

Edwards, Paul, Free Inquiry


Discussion about the origin of the universe, whether it has a purpose, and whether it is controlled by a supernatural power have always engaged philosophers. Beginning in this issue of FREE INQUIRY, the evolution of Western thought on the subject, and how it has moved from a theistic to a naturalistic outlook, will be traced by noted philosopher Paul Edwards in a special three-part series.

Edwards has published extensively in his long academic career. He is the author of Reincarnation: A Critical Examination (Prometheus Books, 1996), The Logic of Moral Discourse, and Heidegger and Death, as well as numerous articles. He is the editor of The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Voltaire, and Immortality, and has contributed to The Encyclopedia of Unbelief, The Encyclopedia of Ethics, and The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. In 1979, he won the Nicholas Murray Butler Silver Medal, awarded by Columbia University for distinguished contributions to philosophy. Edwards currently teaches at the New School for Social Research.

In Part 1, Edwards summarizes the positions of the Greek and medieval philosophers and takes us into the eighteenth century. Part 2 will appear in the Fall issue.


The beliefs of most people in the West who have been brought up in the Christian or Jewish religions can be summarized in the following propositions: the natural universe has not always existed, it was created out of nothing by a purely spiritual being; this purely spiritual being known as God has always existed; this being not only created the universe but has continued to be its ruler ever since the creation, interfering in the course of events from time to time by working miracles; this being, furthermore, has the attributes of omnipotence, omniscience, and perfect goodness. The leading Christian and Jewish philosophers - St. Augustine, St. Anselm of Canterbury, St. Thomas Aquinas, William of Ockham, and Maimonides - supported all these propositions. Ockham did not think that they could be proven, but the other great figures in the Judeo-Christian tradition maintained that they are backed by decisive evidence.

Plato and Aristotle believed in gods who played a far less central role in the universe than the God of the Christians and Jews. In the Timaeus Plato introduces the Demiurge, a kind of cosmic architect or engineer who brings order into a chaotic universe. Aristotle's God is a "prime mover" - we have to appeal to such a being to explain motion, but the material universe itself is eternal and uncreated. It should be mentioned that, although Aquinas believed, on the basis of Scripture, that the universe was created by God out of nothing, he did not think that any of his "proofs" established this conclusion. They only established God as the sustaining cause of the universe, and this conclusion is entirely compatible with the eternity of the world.

We now know that, aside from Ockham, quite a few medieval philosophers were in varying degrees skeptical of the official theology. However, since it was protected by what Voltaire called the "logic of the sword," heresies were infrequent. In Muslim countries, where there was far greater freedom of thought, several of the leading philosophers, most notably Averroes, openly accepted Aristotle's teaching of God as the Prime Mover and of the eternity of the world.

Much of the philosophy of the last 300 years is the story of the attacks on the Judeo-Christian view and its replacement by a naturalistic outlook that completely dispenses with theological explanations. Some of the great philosophers of the modern period, notably Descartes and Leibniz, offered arguments for traditional theism, but several others were in varying degrees critical of the old scheme. Foremost among the critics were Spinoza, the deists, Hume, and Kant. Spinoza is usually classified as a pantheist who maintained that God and the universe are identical.

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