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Is God Providential? An Argument by Epicurus
Many people are comforted by the belief that there is a God whom is loving and caring. These believers feel God is watching over them, protecting them, and providing for them. However, even among those who believe in the existence of God, not everyone thinks that it is God’s nature to be providential. Ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus believed in the existence of gods (he, like most during his time was polytheistic); though, he did not believe they were concerned with human life. Thus, Epicurus did not think the gods were providential. Here, we will present the argument Epicurus gives for this position, and offer an analysis and criticism of this argument. But first, we will begin by investigating reasons for thinking that the gods are providential.
Many would argue that the gods are providential. One need only look at the fact that even though the world is immensely complex, it is at the same time, capable of satisfying the needs of everyone. That is, there is everything in this world we need in order to survive and flourish. For example, the air is made up of just the right combination of elements to allow us to breathe; the temperature is suitable to our bodies; and there are ample resources to provide food clothing and shelter for everyone (at least in principle, if not in practice). Thus, if it is true that a supreme being created humans on earth, it is reasonable to think that that same being is responsible for providing us with the means to survive.
In addition to natural resources and ideal environmental conditions, the gods have provided humankind with reason. Reason enables us to learn how to live in peace and harmony with one another, how to be happy, and how to live a good life. Surely if the gods provided us with reason so that we might learn how to live a good life and be happy, they must care for us a great deal. And if they do care for us a great deal, it must be true that they are concerned for our welfare. If they are concerned for our welfare, they are likely watching out for us, making sure we have what we need in order to survive and prosper. Therefore, this suggests the gods are providential.
Epicurus, however, rejects this position. Epicurus did believe that the gods existed; yet, he did not believe they had any concern for human beings. Epicurus’ argument for this position is roughly as follows: 1) the gods are immensely happy; 2) if the gods were concerned for human welfare, it would mean they would be worried or anxious; 3) but to be worried or anxious is to be unhappy; therefore; 4) the gods cannot be concerned for our welfare, because it is impossible to be immensely happy and concerned; thus, 5) the gods are not providential (p.52). In other words, it is contrary to the wisdom of the gods to be concerned for human welfare because any being that is concerned for others would necessarily be anxious, at least sometimes, and to be anxious is to be unhappy. Therefore, it cannot be true that the gods are both immensely happy and concerned. Since we know the gods are happy, it follows they must not be concerned for our welfare. Thus, the gods are not providential.
Epicurus’ argument is successful in that it highlights the contradictory nature of happiness and concern. It is correct that one cannot be happy and at the same time be concerned, because to be concerned is to worry, and when one worries, one is unhappy. Therefore, it is impossible to be happy and concerned simultaneously. However, Epicurus mistakenly concludes that because happiness and concern are contradictory, it must be true the gods are not concerned for human welfare. Why ought we accept this conclusion? The only reason Epicurus concludes that the gods are not providential is because he so rigidly holds on to his belief that the gods are immensely happy. But what reason does Epicurus have for believing the gods are immensely happy?
In order to understand why Epicurus believes the gods are immensely happy, it is important to understand his justification for claiming to know that the gods exist. Epicurus holds that the concept of the gods occurs as a sort of innate idea in everyone; one does not need to be taught that the gods exist; one simply realizes that it must be so. Also, Epicurus argues that because everyone is of the opinion that the gods exist, they must indeed, exist. And it is through this same notion of the existence of the gods that we come to know the nature of the gods (p. 50). Hence, the entire force of Epicurus’ argument relies on his claim of knowledge of the nature of the gods.
But I would argue that Epicurus has given little justification for us to believe he knows the nature of the gods. Epicurus likens our knowledge of the nature of the gods to some sort of notion or intuition (p. 50). And his justificatory remarks concerning the existence of the gods rest on the grounds of “established opinion” (p. 50). But knowledge amounts to more than just a notion, or consensus of opinion. For example, that everyone agrees the earth is flat does not mean they know that the earth is flat. For a person to know something, that thing must be an object of truth. In other words, in order for people to know that the earth is flat, it must be true that the earth is flat. Furthermore, a person must have justifiable grounds to believe something.
Epicurus does not have good justificatory grounds for believing the gods are happy. Though it might be true that the gods are immensely happy, Epicurus is not justified in saying he knows this to be the case. What would count as a justification for his belief of the nature of the gods would be an argument that has as its conclusion “the gods are happy.” However, Epicurus does not conclude that the gods are happy through the process of argumentation; rather, he uses this proposition as a premise in an argument. Therefore, he has not proven that he is justified in his belief of the nature of the gods.
Epicurus merely believes he knows the nature of the gods. Given that Epicurus cannot be certain that the gods are immensely happy, we should not be so persuaded by his argument. For, if we do not accept Epicurus’ first premise, this significantly reduces the force of his argument. In fact, without the firm knowledge that the gods are immensely happy, it seems quite difficult to demonstrate that the gods are not providential. Therefore, with this new seed of doubt in place about the truth of premise 1, we need some further argument to be convinced that the gods are not providential.
Hellenistic Philosophy: Introductory Readings. 2nd ed. Eds. Brad Inwood and L.P. Gerson, (Hackett, 1997).