The Anthropological Argument: Part 2

In my previous post I briefly summarised some anthropological arguments for God’s existence that have been used over the centuries. In this post I shall state and defend a specific anthropological argument, and examine if it is a good and convincing argument. Unlike other anthropological arguments which appear on the surface to be rhetoric, I shall express this one syllogistically.

1) Whatever man needs to exist, exists.

This premise is wholly plausible. For instance, man needs water to exist. Its a sure bet then that water exists. Air is needed to fill my lungs so I can continue to exist and therefore, since man does continue to exist, air exists.

Similarly, man needs relationship to exist. This existential need is no less real for its lack of physicality. Even hermits have pets. There is something about man that is relational. Recall the film Castaway, with Tom Hanks. Whilst alone on his island, he made a ball a friend and called it “Wilson” out of his need for relationship. That relationship was as real as the island about him, and just as essential as food and water for his continued existence, despite the ball being an inanimate object. When we are alone we turn on the TV or radio just for the sound of it to fill the house, for there is a need in us to have relationship, however impersonal it may be. Which leads us to our second premise.

2) Man needs God to exist.

To support this premise one could cite the religious impulse of man, or that for all human beings worship, in some form, is inescapable. Appeals to universal human existential questions, such as; “Is life meaningful or meaningless? Is there a purpose in existence? When gazing at the stars in the night sky the powerful vista evokes the question in all of us, are we are alone in the universe?

One might also appeal to the need of humans to have objective moral values and duties, and for a necessary first-cause to first create and then sustain human contingent existence. But these are utilised in other argument of Natural Theology, and as much as possible we want to let this argument stand on its own legs.

There does seem to be something about ourselves that requires something more than what the earth and all its treasure can provide. In similar fashion to Augustine, the songstress Stacie Orrico observes,

“There’s gotta be more to life,
than chasing down every temporary high to satisfy me
‘Cause the more that I’m
Tripping out thinking there must be more to life,
Well it’s life, but I’m sure, there’s gotta be more
than wanting more.”

We reach for the transcendental. We seek for the sublime. People strive all their lives to fill the hole in their chests, even if they never realise that is what they’re doing. Often the most successful men and woman are empty inside. Some of the deepest lows come after achieving the greatest heights and finding it was not as fulfilling as they hoped it would be.
God seems uniquely capable of fulfilling the existential needs of humans. Especially in regards to meaning and immortality, but also with respect to grace as a solution for guilt, purpose for living, hope for the future, fulfilment as a productive member of society in the present, etc. This leads us to the conclusion.

3) Therefore, God exists.

But is this a good argument?

Excursus: I hold that for an argument to be “good” it must be logically sound, having no formal or informal fallacy, with true premises. However, one need not know if certain premises are true, these premises must only be more plausible than their contradictory. If an argument has all these criteria then one is rationally obliged to accept the conclusion, no matter how painful or annoying it may be. That makes it a good argument. Obligation to be rational aside, one hopes that the simplicity of the argument and plausibility of its premises is convincing to at least some of those who would naturally be opposed to the conclusion. But I do not hold this hope to be a condition for a good argument.

As the conclusion does flow logically from its premises, commits no informal fallacy that I am aware of, the only question that remains is this; are the premises true or at least more plausible than their contradictory. There seems to be nothing wrong with the first premise, so attention diverts to the second premise. Does man need God to exist?

I think so. For all the reasons given above, and those I cannot express. Also, as a Christian theologian I believe it to be so on the basis of Biblical revelation. However, I can see that these reasons would not be convincing to an obstinate atheist, nor someone mired in a naturalistic worldview, where the idea of God merits no more consideration than the toll of a distant bell [1] does a teen who thinks he’s invincible. As long as God remains an unfelt existential requirement the detractor of the argument can simply deny the second premise and be done with it.

This pattern I find to be the weakness of all the anthropological arguments. Though it meets my criteria for being a good argument, it fails to be a convincing argument to anyone significantly detached from Christianised anthropological thought. This is not an indictment of the anthropological argument, it merely reveals a limit of its utility in evangelism and apologetics.

It does however seem to me that this specific anthropological argument (along with other reasons of course) lingers in the background of many people’s story of how they eventually came to accept Jesus Christ as King of their lives. C.S Lewis said “emptiness is at the center of my being.” This emptiness or need could well be the method God uses to draw people to himself, just as salt on the tongue draws a camel to water. So while it is not the argument itself, it is the deep intuition of the subject of this argument which convinces in the end. As Augustine said “We have a God-shaped vacuum in us that can only be filled by Him.” I would only add it might be the case that it is only until Christ enters into our lives that we recognise the vacuum was indeed God-shaped.

1) a knell: the sound of a bell, esp. when rung solemnly for a death or funeral. Figuratively used with reference to an announcement, event, or sound that is regarded as a solemn warning of the end of something.

4 replies
  1. Grays
    Grays says:

    I find cause to contest both premises, and by implication, the conclusion.

    The premise that “whatever man needs to exist, exists” is wholly unsubstantiated when the details come out, for two reasons.

    Response 1.A. There are things that man does need to exist that do not. Unless you bank on the idea that things exist for humans all the time, then to make this argument, you have to arbitrarily draw a line at the point where it is acceptable for a human to be without what he or she needs and still fulfill the terms of the premise.

    For example, if I am stranded in the desert, I need water. As it happens, I am a very bad survivalist and have no idea how to find water in the desert, so I die. I need water, and do not have it. At this point, the premise fails, and the only way to salvage it is to arbitrarily step back and say, “but that’s a specific case, that doesn’t count–water exists elsewhere in the world.” Now you’ve made the premise conditional, and it changes to “Whatever man needs, exists somewhere, but is not necessarily useful to man.”

    This then begs the question of what point do you draw the line, and how do you draw that justification? If man needs some strange mineral found only on Mars, then does it satisfy the terms of the premise to say that the mineral exists, even though it is wholly inaccessible? When the terms of the distinction are called into question, the premise is shown to be entirely arbitrary, “needs” being “met” only by convenience of observation, rather than being a falsifiable claim.

    Response 1.B. This assumes a top-down model rather than a bottom-up. The discussion of evolution itself is a long one, but suffice it to say that the author assumes that air exists for the human rather than the other way around; that the human adapted to the existence of air.

    A famous example of this idea is the E. coli long-term evolution experiment by Richard Lenski and his team, which has been taking place daily since 1988. Twelve separate strains adapted day-to-day in an environment populated by two nutrients: glucose, useful to e. coli as an energy source, and citrate, which is an energy source that was not useful and thus ignored by the e. coli for a long time. Around generation 33,127 one strain, by merit of a mutation in the genome, unlocked the ability to utilize citrate, and quickly vastly outnumbered the other 11 strains.

    Was the citrate there to “meet the needs” of the bacteria? No; the bacteria had no needs to be met by citrate. Instead, the bacteria evolved to utilize citrate as an energy source in an artificial environment. We as humans are no different; if the world had a lower concentration of oxygen in the atmosphere, our bodies would not be as reliant on oxygen, and if liquid water was scarcer, we would not be as reliant on water, et cetera. However, because the implications of this rebuttal rely on evolution (which I am almost certain the author of the article vehemently contests), I will simply need to point out that examples of adaptation arise volumously in nature by which organisms adapt to their environment rather than their environment being tailored to the organisms.

    I believe the argument sufficiently fails with that premise contested, and I have written quite a bit already, so I will let that suffice for now and will come back for the other two at another time.


  2. Stuart
    Stuart says:

    Hello Grays,

    It is wholly unexpected that you choose to try and rebut the first premise. Firstly because it is plainly obvious. Second, because there is no need. I have already admitted that the objector to the argument to avoid the theistic conclusion, can plausible deny the second premise given a naturalistic perspective.

    At the risk of dignifying an absurdity with a response, here goes;

    The man’s lack of ability to access water in the desert does nothing to show that water does not exist. In fact, the example is fatally flawed (forgive the pun), for the man is dying of thirst. In fact, for such a man the existence of water would be more keenly understood due its lack, than anyone else who lives with an abundance of water, simply because of his burning need. Likewise, an if an E. coli is or becomes dependant on citrate for its current or continued existence, and this E. coli currently or continues to exist, then it follow that citrate exists.

    Just think. The contrapositive of the first premise is this; if that which man needs to exist does not exist, then man does not exist. This is what you are arguing against.

  3. Grays42
    Grays42 says:


    I understand that you feel there is no need, but I felt that it was appropriate precisely because you believe it obvious. Your objection was that someone “mired in a naturalistic worldview” (within which I am certainly mired, I suppose) would not find the second premise convincing and could dismiss it, yet you found no qualm with the idea that things exist merely for our benefit. Does that not seem to you similar to the (infamous) banana argument? This banana seems convenient, so I label it “design”, yet somehow the coconut escapes my notice. Because you acknowledge that the second premise and the conclusion are only convincing to someone who believes them already (or is prone to believing things without further evidence), I am now content with dismissing them as well, and we can focus on this original idea that I maintain is both flawed and arbitrarily bounded.

    Tangentially, I do believe I was polite in my reply, as I have been in the emails I have sent to your and the others at TM. In those emails, I made it clear that I sought to politely engage in discourse with you, which I have done, solely due to the nature of this site as a bastion of apologetics–the point of the site seems to be to engage, and so I engage. I spoke of “challenging” and “contesting” your argument, and chose the words “wholly unsubstantiated”, and did not insult you in any way. I find it unfortunate that you chose to express your contention as “dignifying an absurdity”.

    The error I feel you are making is one of causality. I do acknowledge that if, in general, water did not exist, then man would not. Your premise, however, is founded on the assumption that the cause of air and the cause of water is man, and you believe this is so plainly obvious that you think even a naturalist would acknowledge it as obvious. This is clearly not the case…life thrives in even the harshest environment and adapts to it. I state again, that if plants did not produce as much oxygen as they do and the atmosphere possessed far less oxygen, then our bodies would not have adapted to utilize oxygen nearly so much. I understand that you do not accept this because you’re a creationist, and the time for debating evolution would probably be left to another day, but I’m trying to drive home the point that it’s certainly not obvious.

    My further point regarding the desert example was to demonstrate that you are arbitrarily drawing a line of convenience. Nothing you said in your first premise is falsifiable so long as you are moving the goalpost. Water is necessary for man to survive dehydration, air is necessary for man to survive asphyxiation, vaccines are necessary for man to survive smallpox, food is necessary for man to survive starvation, and social interaction is necessary for man to survive loneliness. You’ll note that I stuck one in there because it seems unusual, and the only reason it seems unusual to you is because you have moved the goalpost–without vaccines to control smallpox outbreaks, man was dying from it the same way man dies without food. The vaccines are necessary, but you do not acknowledge things like that because your argument is based on convenience of observation. If something exists in nature, and man requires it to not die, you find it obvious that exists for man, rather than man having evolved to utilize the plentiful resource.

    I will return to my E. coli example because I don’t think I made clear point I was making due to your fitting it in with the desert example. The E.coli were presented with an environment of glucose and citrate, just as, for example, developing organisms on earth were presented with an environment containing oxygen and water. The E. coli adapted to utilize the citrate; it had no need for the citrate until it adapted to utilize the resource. If, for example, the mixture contained one part glucose and ten thousand parts citrate, then once the measly strain of E. coli came to utilize citrate they would eventually stop needing the glucose over future generations because citrate is so abundant. The fact that they then become dependent on citrate does not mean the citrate exists for the E. coli; it was introduced precisely because it was an energy source useless to the E. coli and the experiment confirmed that the E. coli adapted to utilize the otherwise useless resource.

    The same point can be made with with humans; the oxygen does not exist for us, but we adapted to its permanent and ubiquitous presence. So ubiquitous is oxygen that our species can reliably reproduce despite being very easily killed by lacking oxygen for a mere ten minutes. Food and water, on the other hand, can be survived for much longer periods. Humans adapted to the constant presence of the resource oxygen and the reliable (but not constant) presence of the resources of food and water.

    In summary, the primary point I’m trying to relay is that your argument, while convincing to you, hinges on an assumption that you believe that everyone acknowledges. I am trying to explain that I find cause to contest it on the ground that “air exists for man’s benefit” is not nearly as convincing as “man evolved to utilize the abundant oxygen in the air”. The error in your first premise is one of causality.

  4. Stuart
    Stuart says:

    Hello Grays,

    You are mistaken by thinking that the first premise is one of causality. It is a conditional statement.

    This was explicitly shown when I detailed the contrapositive.

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