Can We Know Whether God Exists?


I don’t think the arguments for either theism or atheism lead to knowledge of their conclusions. But there are arguments on both sides from premises that someone might reasonably judge to be plausible. If you find it quite probable that God does not exist, I think it’s perfectly possible that you are reasonable to think as you do. But this doesn’t mean that someone who thinks it is likely that God does exist can’t likewise be reasonable in holding that position.

That’s Keith DeRose (Yale), interviewed by Gary Gutting (Notre Dame) in “The Stone” in the New York Times.  Alva Noë (Berkeley) responds to the interview in a piece at NPR, in which he says that “believing in God is more like believing that a story is true, or that a story is compelling or worthwhile or worth learning or caring about, than it is like believing some fact.”

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Um
Um
7 years ago

This post seems related to one from Friday: http://dailynous.com/2014/09/19/ebola-and-humanity/

So maybe there is a God who wants thousands and thousands of people to bleed to death? Guess we can’t say!
¯_(ツ)_/¯
Cool story, though.Report

Boursin
Boursin
Reply to  Um
7 years ago

Another possibility, of course, is that the God is a deist God.Report

David Killoren
7 years ago

Noe’s remark is confusing. You can’t believe that a story is true without believing some fact.Report

dmf
dmf
Reply to  David Killoren
7 years ago

unfortunately it’s like he thinks this is some middle-ground when it just ignores the actual claims/interests of both sides, not generous and not useful for those caught up in this political/cultural struggle.
Would have been more interesting if he would have done the kind of phenomenological inquiries he applies to other cases (like art) of interpretation/socialization and mixed it with the fieldwork of someone Tonya http://luhrmann.net/Report

Oscar
Oscar
7 years ago

“What’s at stake is not a simple proposition whose meaning is understood and whose truth is up for discussion.”?? Geez, tell that to Aquinas or Descartes. Religious belief is not like “believing some fact”? Tell that to a half-billion fundamentalists around the world. Noe can live out his own version of religious belief if he wants, but these sweeping claims about what religion is and is not stand in stark contrast to present and past reality.Report

C
C
7 years ago

1. God exists, but we don’t know it.
2. God doesn’t exist, but we don’t know it.

Both sound pretty bad.

3. Reasonable people believe 1.
4. Reasonable people believe 2.

Both of these suck, too. It’s hard to imagine people sufficiently unreasonable to actually believe 1 or believe 2. I’m not totally sold on Jonathan Adler’s claim that it’s impossible for people have attitudes like 1 or 2, but I can see why someone would think that.

What I can’t get my head around is why people think that this is such a tough issue to settle. Just spend a week reading about all the horrific events you can stomach. Keep adding, ‘An all-powerful person who loved the victim stood by and did nothing’ after you read about each horror. You’ve got to be one sick, twisted individual to remain a theist at the end of that. If you do this for a week and you still can’t figure out that there wasn’t an all powerful person who loved the victim standing by and doing nothing, you’re not very good at figuring things out.Report

Dustin Crummett
Dustin Crummett
Reply to  C
7 years ago

I know people who have suffered some of those horrific events themselves and remained theists. Are they sick and twisted, or just bad at figuring things out? Some of each?Report

Tasha Dixon
Tasha Dixon
Reply to  C
5 years ago

Some people believe that God exists without believing that he is in control of things that happen in the universe – that belief is called DeismReport

Anon
Anon
7 years ago

I’m an unapologetic atheist: I think we know that gods do not exist on any reasonable meaning of “to know.” I think both theists and agnostics are wrong. However, I think these replies are pretty uncharitable to both the linked articles and to theists and agnostics. DeRose admits the strength of the problem of evil, but says he recognizes that reasonable people can accept the cosmological argument for theism.

And while I find the problem of evil decisive, it’s completely misrepresenting the other side to say, e.g., that God must “want” people to die from ebola. Their view is that the best possible world necessitates some evils. To say this is obviously irrational would amount to saying ethical consequentialism is obviously irrational (“Why do you WANT the fat man to die!?”). Reasonable people accept the problem of evil out of excessive humility: “I can’t in my limited understanding know what greater good an omniscient being might see in this evil, so I can’t exclude the possibility.” That’s an error, but it’s not an absurdity.

In response to C: I think the claim is that people who are generally or otherwise reasonable (i.e., functioning, ordinary adults) believe those views, not that believing those views is entirely reasonable. (Although it’s implied the views are held on the basis of plausible reasons, so not entirely unreasonable either.)

I think Noe’s view is quite interesting, but confused, since he doesn’t seem to acknowledge the overlap between belief in facts and beliefs in stories, though he’s right to distinguish them. An obvious example of this is the traditional Enlightenment approach to Christianity: take it as true in spirit and true in its ethical content, but as false in its claims about the supernatural. In that sense, it’s a “true story” and to dismiss it entirely on the basis of its factual errors is misguided. Likewise, in that sense it’s misguided to dismiss its adherents as simply wrong or irrational, since they might hold the belief for good reasons rather than, or as well as, bad ones.

But I don’t think this point counts against the atheist’s claim that religious belief is false, only against easy wholesale dismissals of the value of theism.Report

C
C
Reply to  Anon
7 years ago

I agree with most of what you’re saying here. Just two small things.

I think it’s important to distinguish, as you do, things that reasonable people believe from reasonable beliefs. It’s annoying that people put themselves in front of their beliefs to shield them from criticism, but you see this a lot in the philosophy of religion circles (i.e., I’m a reasonable person and a decent guy, so it can’t be that my beliefs aren’t reasonable). I’m pretty sure that Keith wants believers and beliefs to come out as epistemically kosher, but I don’t think that the kind of commitment to the truth of p that’s required for belief is appropriate when you know you can’t know p.

On the cosmological argument & argument from evil. I’m taking God to be a morally perfect person and I’m taking aim at the people who think that God isn’t just a morally perfect person, but one who loves us. (I don’t think you can be in a loving relationship with a person you don’t know to exist, so let me add this to my list of complaints about the ‘reasonableness’ of theistic views defended by philosophers, but let’s set this aside for the moment.) I’ve never seen a good cosmological argument for God’s existence and I’ve taught philosophy of religion. At best, I’ve seen some strange arguments for the existence of odd entities that bear no resemblance to the God that’s supposed to be _morally_ perfect, much less one that loves us. So, I don’t buy this idea that the cosmological argument is a useful way of finding rational support for the hypothesis that God exists. It’s at best an argument that provides rational support for thinking that something weird exists and even then cosmological arguments invariably seem to rest on incredibly dodgy assumptions that I can’t believe anyone would seriously accept. I get annoyed when professional philosophers suggest that the cosmological argument could support the version of theism that they accept since you really are trying to derive a kind of ‘ought’ (i.e., there’s a person who is morally perfect and loves us that is also all-powerful, all-knowing, and is the creator of the material world) from some (dodgy) ‘is’s (i.e., every thing has a cause, no actual infinites, there must be a necessary thing if there is any contingent thing).

I predict some chest-beating theists will eventually show up and tell us that we don’t know what we’re talking about, but I recommend ignoring them until they speak specifically to this point about the clear gap in the reasoning that takes us from a necessary being to a morally perfect one.Report

Anonymous Until Tenured
Anonymous Until Tenured
Reply to  C
7 years ago

The need of necessity to explain contingency has always been the most confusing part of the ontological argument for me. A dilemma: either the necessarily existing thing is a sufficient cause of something else, or it is not. If the necessarily existing thing is a sufficient cause for anything else, then the caused thing must be necessary as well. So if a necessarily existing thing ends the universal causal regress, then nothing is contingent. But if nothing is contingent, then there’s no need for a first cause to be explaining the existence of contingent things. And on the other horn: if the necessarily existing thing is not a sufficient cause for anything contingent, then it can’t serve the role in the cosmological argument that it’s supposed to.

Also, why call the necessarily existing thing a “being”? Is a commitment to the coherence of agent-causation built into the cosmological argument? That’s not great. And if all causation is event-causation, that doesn’t mean that there’s a necessarily existing event? And if this is so, wouldn’t all of Aquinas’s subsequent arguments for the other divine attributes just be making category mistakes? Events can’t be all-powerful, all-good, etc.

Can anyone who’s more informed on phil religion help me out with these points? I’d like to come up with the best possible version of the cosmological argument before I dismiss it, since so many people seem to find the cosmological argument compelling. But I just don’t see it.Report

zac
zac
Reply to  C
7 years ago

Anonymous Until Tenured:
I think that it might help to look at the distinction between existence and essence with regard to contingency and necessity. I’ve found this explanation useful as an entry point into the subject: http://www.lifeissues.net/writers/mcm/ph/ph_01philosophyyouth20.html
I’m by no means an expert in this area, but the distinction between existence and essence appears to be an important part of this form of Ontological argument.Report

j/k
j/k
7 years ago

In response to C: there is *obviously* such a gap, as (competent) defenders of the Cosmological argument have always recognized. Aquinas has pages and pages of argumentation *after* his presentation of the CA that is supposed to show that the first cause has other divine attributes (like moral perfection). It would be a ridiculous slander to object to the cosmological argument because it doest show something that it isn’t intended to show. But I assume you already know that, since you teach philosophy of religion. As to whether these supplementary arguments *work*: well, that is another question. What do you think are the most important problems?Report

C
C
Reply to  j/k
7 years ago

But the arguments aren’t any good, are they? You know they aren’t, which is why you haven’t presented them. You must know that you better do better than Aquinas if you’re going to try to fool people into thinking that premises about first causes and necessary beings will deliver conclusions about moral perfection. It’s a fool’s errand trying to get the arguments of the Summa to work. You need all sorts of nutty metaphysics and even helping yourself to that the arguments are filled with glaring logical fallacies.

If you have an argument you like that gives us a good reason to identify a first cause or a necessary being with a single morally perfect being, let’s see it. Show us. Put it on the table. If you don’t, you’re free to keep talking shit.Report

j/k
j/k
Reply to  C
7 years ago

?? I am not sure in what sense I am talking sh*t. I have just pointed out that you have not given any criticism of the cosmological argument, nor the arguments that are supposed to take you from a first cause to a morally perfect being. You’ve indicated that you think those arguments are obviously crap–you say you’re “annoyed” by philosophers who cite them. That’s fine. But I though you were going to give reasons why other people should agree with you.

Above, you said that premises about first causes and necessary beings will not deliver conclusions about moral perfection. Again, *of course* those premises alone will not do that, and neither Aquinas nor anyone else thinks they will. There are, as I said, *additional* arguments–i.e., arguments with additional premises–that are supposed to establish that. It seems like you want me to defend those arguments. But as a matter of fact, I don’t teach philosophy of religion, and I don’t have an informed opinion about the quality of those arguments. So it would really be irresponsible for me to say much about them. I do know that such arguments exist, however, because when I was an undergraduate my teachers did not make straw men out of their opponents.Report

C
C
Reply to  C
7 years ago

Hi j/k,

It wasn’t me who introduced the cosmological argument into discussion. Keith mentioned them as something that could make it reasonable to accept theism. So far as I can tell, my point is one that you agree with: if you think of these arguments as arguments for unmoved movers, first causes, necessary beings, etc., they aren’t going to get you to theism.

You seem to agree that those arguments, at best, don’t get you to theism. They get you at least one unmoved mover, at least one thing that’s necessary and doesn’t derive its necessity from something else, something that changes without being in a process of change, a cause of my idea of God that has a sufficiently high degree of perfection as required to be its cause, a necessary being that provides a sufficient reason for the existence of all contingent things, or a cause of the universe’s existence. Additional arguments are needed. If you have one you like, one that takes us from the existence of something that changes without being in the process of change to a morally perfect thing, slap it down on the table. If you want me to survey every attempt to cross this unbridgeable divide, you must be joking.

Give me something to work with, something that you actually think would make it rationally permissible to move from a conclusion that has nothing to do with morality (which you seem to agree that the conclusion of the cosmological argument would be) to a conclusion that has moral content (which you seem to agree is one that must be established if any argument establishes that theism is true) and let us take a crack at it.Report

j/k
j/k
Reply to  C
7 years ago

Hi-C,

Thanks for your reply, but I guess I’m still not following the dialectic. Yes, Keith brought up the cosmological argument. But if you look at the instance of the CA that Keith cites, it very explicitly, right at the beginning, notes that there are two distinct bits of reasoning involved in what we can call the Full Cosmological Argument: an argument that there is a first cause, and another argument that the first cause is God.

http://www.pdcnet.org./collection/show?id=monist_1970_0054_0003_0441_0459&file_type=pdf

You keep asking for me to produce a version of the argument that the first cause is God that I think works. But I’m not claiming that some version of that argument works. I’m just pointing out that those arguments exist. We can use the phrase ‘cosmological argument’ “widely” to refer to the Full Cosmological Argument, or we can use it “narrowly” to refer to the sub-argument that aims merely to show that there is a first cause. Your criticism doesn’t work in either case. The criticism was: “At best, I’ve seen some strange arguments for the existence of odd entities that bear no resemblance to the God that’s supposed to be _morally_ perfect”

This criticism is just off the mark. If we use the phrase ‘cosmological argument’ widely, the arguments are, indeed, for such a morally perfect God. Maybe you haven’t seen a full version of the cosmological argument, but they are there if you care to look. (I’m sure you will find them unconvincing. But that’s not the point.) And if we use the phrase ‘cosmological argument’ narrowly, then yes, the argument does not (in and of itself) support the existence of a morally perfect being. But neither does it purport to.Report

C
C
Reply to  C
7 years ago

Hi J/k,

Right, so we both agree that there needs to be a gap filler. I’ll just say that I’ve never seen a remotely plausible gap filler that takes us from a conclusion about unmoved movers, uncaused causes, etc. to a morally perfect being that has all the other attributes. So, as I said and you seem to agree, the cosmological argument (in a narrow sense) won’t make theism reasonable. You’re never going to find a gap filler that works because there’s no sound argument for God’s existence, but I’d be happy if you pointed to one argument that could even make it _reasonable_ for someone who considered the argument to conclude that there’s a first cause, unmoved mover, necessary being that is, inter alia, morally perfect, all-knowing, etc. Still waiting. Someone below posted Pruss’ piece and if you skim that you can see why I think there aren’t people who reasonably conclude on the basis of cosmological arguments and some gap fillers that there’s a morally perfect being that’s responsible for the creation of the world. Pruss acknowledges that the gap problem is real and in spite of his optimism and his willingness to follow all sorts of arguments where they lead offers nothing that even hints at a remotely plausible gap filler. Maybe you know something Pruss doesn’t or maybe he was just too lazy to even cite a plausible gap filling argument, but I reckon that you won’t offer a single argument that you think could provide a reasonable basis for belief because you can’t think of one. So, until you present a gap filling argument that could make it reasonable to identify a first cause, necessary being, unmoved mover, etc. with a morally perfect agent, I think this exchange has run its course.Report

Anon
Anon
7 years ago

Yeah, I think we’re largely in agreement, but I may be interpreting deRose’s claim as weaker than you take it. I don’t think he wants to make any claims about the reasonableness of the belief itself, only about believers and their reasons for believing. I’m not even sure he’s even committed to the view that the *arguments* for theism are reasonable or good. I think his view allows me to say, for example, that the cosmological argument is “bad”, but that people can be convinced of such arguments in a reasonable way: they can thoughtfully, sincerely consider those arguments and find them convincing. Or: they can thoughtfully, sincerely consider the kinds of objections you raise and not be swayed by them.

So, although I completely agree with your assessment of the cosmological argument, I don’t think this necessitates rejecting deRose’s claim. A person can believe a bad argument in a reasonable way.

On the specifics of your criticism, which again I agree with: I don’t think most theists think the cosmological argument proves the existence of a personal, loving God, but the possibility of one, which in they in turn take as justification for the belief. When I find myself feeling unsympathetic with theists, I remind myself of an analogous faith I have: I believe that a very high degree of lasting social justice is possible.

In my view, the facts do not exclude this possibility, but they offer plenty of evidence that it is unlikely: that even if greater social justice is achievable, it may have an unhappily low limit and that, where it is maximized, there is no reason to believe it will last. But the possibility permits me to hope, and the hope motivates me to act, and so for practical and moral reasons I lower the epistemic bar. I think religious faith is often held in a similar way: theists seek enough reason to hope, and see hope as a justification of faith because what’s really at issue is not knowledge but practice.

That, too, is part of what’s important about Noe’s “story” distinction. It’s not that religions don’t include claims about factual matters, but that these are less central to why they believe than the practical values of those beliefs.

It’s also important for the critique of theism: if theists believe for pragmatic reasons, there might be much better ways to change their minds than critiquing them on the doctrinal facts.Report

Adam Omelianchuk
7 years ago

Anonymous Until Tenured,

You might check out Alex Pruss’s article in the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology: https://bearspace.baylor.edu/Alexander_Pruss/www/papers/LCA.htmlReport

Anonymous Until Tenured
Anonymous Until Tenured
Reply to  Adam Omelianchuk
7 years ago

Cool, that’s really useful. I disagree with a lot of Pruss’s defense of the Leibnizian argument, but it’s nice to have a better idea of what the state of the art on the cosmological argument is. Thanks!Report

PeterJ
7 years ago

Yes. We can know whether God exists. If this is not the case then the knowledge claims of Buddhism, Taoism and ‘mysticism’ in general must be false. When Nagarjuna disproves God he uses a logical argument but there is no suggestion that he is relying on logic for his knowledge, and such a reliance could never bring certain knowledge. After all, we might have miscalculated, or perhaps the universe does not obey the rules. The practices of traditions like Buddhism are designed specifically to help us learn whether God exists.

In order to prove that we cannot know whether God exists, as it is so easy to lazily assume, it would be necessary to falsify the claim made by the perennial philosophy that it would be possible for us to learn the truth about these things. Yet this claim cannot be falsified. So if we are sceptical about such knowledge the best we can do is conjecture that we cannot know whether we cannot know that God exists. No coherent argument for this position would be possible.

According to those who meditate not only would it be possible to know that God does not really exist, but it would possible to know that nothing really exists. The eastern kind of philosophy is so much more optimistic than the western kind, and it does not go in for claims to perpetual ignorance.Report

PeterJ
Reply to  PeterJ
7 years ago

PS. I am using ‘God’ to mean what it usually means in this context of these discussions, rather than anything subtle enough to complicate the issues.Report