W. David Beck. Does God Exist? A History of Answers to the Question. IVP Academic, 2021. Go here to purchase the book.
W. David Beck has a doctorate from Boston University and is emeritus professor of philosophy at Liberty University.
This book is about the classical arguments for the existence of God: the cosmological, teleological, moral, and ontological arguments.
Gary Habermas’s endorsement of the book is essentially my impression as well: “Finally! A single volume that contains as a historical narrative a compendium of arguments pertaining to God’s existence—-pro-con, and from most religious perspectives—-all under one cover. Fantastic!”
Indeed, this book summarizes the various versions of each argument for God’s existence, as well as critiques of those versions. The chapter about the cosmological argument even includes a Hindu version from the Upanishads!
IVP’s web site places this book in the “intermediate” category, and that is probably where it belongs. There were places in which the book was over my head, yet, as someone who has read introductory philosophy, I often had a general idea about what the chapters were about. A fuller appreciation of this book may entail concentration on the part of the reader and, even then, a novice or even one at an intermediate level may get lost, at times.
Overall, Beck agrees with the classical arguments for the existence of God. What is noteworthy is that he still does so, after summarizing and critiquing the critiques of those arguments. Those who blithely dismiss the classical arguments as obsolete and antiquated would do well at least to give Beck’s book a reading.
To my recollection, some of Beck’s conclusions were not too profound. He defends the cosmological argument by differentiating between conceptual infinity (as exists in mathematics) and actual infinity, the latter of which is impossible for the cosmos, explaining why it needed a beginning and, thus, a creator. That makes sense. The chapter on the teleological argument dismisses the relevance of alternate universes by saying that there is no evidence for them but also that, even if they do exist, they fail to undermine the teleological argument. The chances of everything coming together for human existence even in one universe are small, explaining the need for a creator. There, I am not as convinced. I sympathize with a critic of the teleological argument whom Beck quotes, who essentially says that, the more universes there are, the greater the chance that at least one of those universes can have life and order, without needing a divine explanation.
But, of course, there may be nuances that I am missing here.
Some elliptical parts of the book that stand out to me:
—-Beck summarizes the debate between Jesuit philosopher Frederick Copleston, author of the legendary series of books A History of Philosophy, and Bertrand Russell, who wrote the bluntly titled Why I Am Not a Christian. Russell, in disputing the cosmological argument, expresses problems with such concepts as contingent and necessary being and sufficient reason. Beck seems to think that Russell is being evasive and pedantic, but, were I to understand what Russell is saying, would I see merit in his points?
—-Perhaps a gaping hole in my understanding concerns Beck’s treatment of the ontological argument. A common objection to the ontological argument is that concept does not mean reality: just because the greatest being one can conceive must exist to be the greatest being, that does not mean that this greatest being exists. Beck says, and shows, that this objection is attacking a strawperson, that Anselm never suggested that concept means reality. What, then, is the ontological argument?
The last chapter briefly summarizes and suggests resources about other arguments for the existence of God. Beck does not go into the “ins” and “outs” of these arguments, but he likely does not intend to do so, at least not here. Some of what he suggests piques my interest, as his reference to scholarly sources that address the question of what religious experiences are authoritative and which are not. Another question in my mind concerns the universal argument for God’s existence: surely philosophers and scholars who support this argument realize that there are religions in the world that lack a concept of a supreme deity. How do they account for that?
The book is excellent for reference precisely because it is comprehensive, which is why I will keep it rather than donating it to the Goodwill.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest.