How to Think About God (Adler)

Adler, Mortimer J. How to Think About God: A Guide for the 20th Century Pagan. New York: MacMillan Publishing, 1980.

Have you ever read the arguments for the existence of God, and upon seeing said existence established, thought to yourself, “That seemed too convenient?”  If the person were not a Christian, would he or she have come to the same conclusion? Although Mortimer Adler, himself a Thomist, even if an unconverted one, is sympathetic to Thomas Aquinas’s arguments, he does not find them persuasive as they currently stand.  

The question before the house is this: since the cosmos is not part of a larger whole, and since the scientific evidence can be read either way regarding its eternity, does it need the presence of an efficient cause for its continuing existence (Adler 134)?

Adler begins his work by granting several “pagan” premises, namely that the universe could be eternal. To do otherwise, he says, is to beg the question.  As a result, he is not aiming to prove a creative cause in the universe, but a continuing cause.

Though I do not share his skepticism regarding some of the traditional arguments, I do appreciate his clarity.  One danger in seeing God as the First Cause is that it sometimes becomes God as the first temporal cause.  That places God within the created order.  To be sure, seeing First Cause in hierarchical language avoids that problem.

Is God an object among objects?  He is not.  That is the difficulty in giving a definition of God.   When we define objects, we refer them to a general class of objects.  God is in no such class.  What do we do?  Adler says we use the phrase “object of thought” instead of definition.  That is fine, although at this point most people would not have that kind of problem.


Even though Adler pointed out difficulties relating the Big Bang to the cosmological argument, it is not clear how such difficulties would harm the argument from hierarchical cause. His argument from what I can tell is that hierarchical causes do not need secondary instrumental causes (43). It is not clear to me why they do not.

Adler faults the traditional cosmological argument for relying on the principle of sufficient reason, to which he correctly rebuts with Occam’s razor. The problem, though, is that Thomas Aquinas did not need the principle of sufficient reason.  I refer the reader to Norman Geisler’s work on Aquinas.

Adler rightly points out that Aristotle’s view of causation is a faulty view of inertia. Aristotle believed that a body set in motion on a straight line continues indefinitely until counteracted.  This is obviously false.  Is this fatal to Thomas’s argument?  It is not.  Motion, for Thomas on this point, is a change from potency to actuality and does not require Aristotle’s view at this point.

Adler provides a brief autobiographical introduction in this book, to which readers of Adler such as myself will find most interesting.  He also gives an impressive, if somewhat dated bibliography. As the book stands, however, I cannot recommend it. It is not Adler’s best work.  Some concepts, such as his distinction between radical contingency and superficial contingency, were insufficiently argued.  Skeptics will not like his weakened affirmation of God’s existence at the end of the book.  Likewise, theists will not like his weakened affirmation of God’s existence at the end of the book.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s