Sunday, July 09, 2006

Does God Exist?

Inspired by a passage in Arthur Eddington’s Science and the Unseen World (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1930), here is a thought:

Consider the statement: “God exists.”

Some people think that that statement is true. Others think that it is false.

But could it be that both groups in fact really believe the same thing—but it is just that their use of language differs (i.e., they have different definitions of “God” and “exists”)?


  1. Yes!

    Exactly so, in my understanding.

    I say to myself, maybe this transforming, creative, liberatory power of Love is what all generations of humans have also known as God. Since getting to know this Love/Liberation, I am able to join a tradition, I can start to read scripture and comprehend something of the Holy in it.

  2. Yes, people can initially get so attached to particular definitions of important concepts, regarding other possible meanings as "wrong." But the most important concepts are layered richly with meanings (usually contested over time). Rather than taking one of these meanings as absolutely definitive (because any one meaning usually just represents one person's take on it at a given moment of time), I have found it more interesting to explore the diversity of meanings associated with the concept, so that I can be open to other people's usages of the term.

    I still do work out my own favorite understandings of these important concepts, in my never-ending quest to clarify my own beliefs. But as I do this, I adopt this principle: for concepts meant to be positive, I look for the positive interpretations I can accept. So, rather than writing off concepts that others find positive and meaningful, I try to find ways to accept these concepts positively into my own beliefs as well.

    This is why I'd rather say that I believe in God than not: the concept of God is positive for most (all?) sincere believers. Just because others attach negative connotations to the concept doesn't mean that I have to follow suit. Now when I hear people say they don't believe in God, I tend to think that they've inherited some negative notion of God (perhaps regarding God as highly judgmental, sending some people to hell for not believing the right things), and then I test my hypothesis by asking them questions about what they mean by "God." So far, I've found my hypothesis to be correct: those who don't believe in God have very negative views about what the concept of "God" is supposed to mean. These very same people usually do still take goodness and love seriously, and try to do the right thing and live their lives responsibly.

    It is good to move beyond particular words and phrases and explore more deeply the ways we each are trying to make sense of our lives and experiences. At this level, we find ways to make connections, despite the differences we may find in our use of language.

  3. I've always like Garrison Keillor's comment on young Lake Webegonioans who go away to college and come home athiests. "Of course, it's the Lutheran God they don't believe in."

  4. Paul -- hee hee hee! Good one! I am a fan of Garrison Keillor, but I haven't heard that one before! Thanks!

  5. CS,

    I was interested in the fact that you are a Quaker philosopher. I'd never met another one before. I teach philosophy at a large state university and all colleagues are born-again atheists.

    My take on concepts is that I am inclined to agree with Hilary Putnam that meaning ain't in the head--to be more precise meanings or the concepts we attach to words are not determined exclusively by anything in the speaker/thinker's head but also partly determined by the causal-historical links to the external world.

    I don't know if you are interested in a philosophical conversation about Quakerism, but I just thought I'd throw out this tidbit to see if you were.


  6. Richard,

    Thanks so much for writing! Yes, there are some Quaker philosophers around: I've met others through the Friends Association for Higher Education. You might find this organization, and its conferences, interesting!

    I am very interested in philosophical discussions about Quakerism! One of my newest research projects is to look into what early Friends had to say about knowledge.

    I too have been very influenced by Hilary Putnam's writings, and agree that meaning is not just in the head. My thoughts at the moment: the connection to the external world is through experience, which at least includes sense experience, but might include more? For example, if there really is "that of God within everyone" that is a source of insight, this would suggest that we each are also connected to a greater reality beyond that of just physical reality. This larger spiritual reality would also count as an "external world" in that it is a reality bigger than just our individual imaginings. And our access to it, our experience of it, is both limited (just as is our experience of the physical world: we only see what's in our view; touch what is within our reach; etc.) but also would count as a genuine encounter with a reality beyond just ourselves.

    All of this is, of course, a huge "if': the very question under investigation.

    But, back to my original posting: if God really is real, beyond just our thoughts about what God might be, and somewhat accessible to our experience, then those who believe in God have accepted a definition of "God" that connects with these kinds of experiences they have. And (since for the moment we are assuming that God does exist, and that there is that of God within everyone), even those who claim not to believe in God would have these experiences, but they conceptualize their experiences with different language. Their definitions of "God" are such that what is in their definitions does not connect with these kinds of experiences (the same kind of experiences, that is, that believers do connect with their own definitions of God).

    So none of this actually answers the metaphysical question of whether or not God exists. It is simply an analysis of the diversity of ways we use language to conceptualize experience.

    The deeper question of whether our experiences ever do reach beyond sense perceptions of the physical world, to include some other kind of perception of a spiritual reality beyond the physical world alone, is of course a notoriously difficult question to answer definitively...

    Back when I was immersed in Putnam's works, however, I did note that even the problem of proving that the physical world is genuinely "external" is difficult enough, philosophically -- yet many atheists accept this much without too much difficulty. In my view, this first proof of "externality" is the hardest, and if one is willing to accept this much on faith, why not at least be open to the possibility that the physical world is not all that reality is?

  7. CS,

    A couple people have mentioned FAHE to me and spoken well of it. They didn't remember seeing any philosophers there however. Back in the first half of the 20th century there were prominent Quaker philosophers but today I know of none. Pity.

    I don't know how much you have read in philosophy of religion but my favorite is John Hick. Hick is a pluralist, which means that he thinks all the major faith traditions possess roughly the same truth. This fits in well with Quaker tradition as I understand it which is Christian but not exclusivist. Many people these days think that to be a Christian means that you must deny truth and value to other religious traditions. Many liberal Quakers who think this bite the bullet and say "OK, then, I'm not a Christian." I'd like to get them to read Hick or at least the more popular Huston Smith to make them familiar with people who affirm Christianity without denying the truth of the other traditions.

    What you wrote in your posts indicates that you might be sympathetic to such a line. Of course the major faith traditions are different from each other and some of the differences at least seem to involve overt contradiction. But the contradictions may be only at the surface. You note that language may be part of the problem. If one person talks about God and the other about Allah are they really talking about two different beings, or are these term coreferential? What is helpful about the causal-historical account of reference is that it leaves room for two terms to be coreferential even if individuals have different beliefs attached to the words. So even if the Muslim and the Christian might have conflicting beliefs about God/Allah respectively so long as both terms trace back to actual experiences of the same being they are both talking about the same God.

    Hick has tried to make similar points for years but his writings have engendered some confusion because he has tried to do it in the Kantian phenomenal/noumenal language. I think the Kantian terminology just muddied the waters but I do agree with the point I think Hick is trying to make.

    So to apply the causal-historical model of reference to religious language requires that there be authentic religious experience. As you note this is a thorny issue too. One main problem that has been alleged to afflict the authenticity of religious experience is its supposed lack of intersubjective validation. If God talks to me we don't expect anyone else to hear it so there is no way to confirm of disconfirm my report---so the objection goes. But Quaker tradition says otherwise. When I listen to that of God within me I have more to go on than just my subjective feeling of certainty. There is that to be sure but I can also find confirmation (or disconfirmation) when I go to a clearness committee and they use their own religious experience to confirm or disconfirm my own sense. Secondly, Quakers are directed to watch for "Way opening" that is to say mundane events that are observable in the ordinary sensory way that confirm the leading. These two considerations strike me as stronger than the usual defense of the objectivity of religious experience, viz. that it must be compatible with Scripture and tradition.

    Anyway I think the exploration of the commonalities and parallels among the major faith traditions would be an interesting project for philosophers to explore.

  8. Richard,

    Thanks for continuing the discussion!

    Some Quaker philosophers I have met at FAHE and who attend pretty regularly include Newton Garver (SUNY Buffalo), Earl Redding (American University), Steven Smith (Claremont McKenna College), T. Canby Jones (Wilmington College), and Gray Cox (College of the Atlantic).

    Yes, I read John Hick a while back, and what you say about his views reminds me of how influenced I was by his writings.

    In your comment above, you write: "One main problem that has been alleged to afflict the authenticity of religious experience is its supposed lack of intersubjective validation. If God talks to me we don't expect anyone else to hear it so there is no way to confirm of disconfirm my report---so the objection goes."

    I'm really appreciating this discussion we are having. I am having new insights about these issues, one of which I had partially expressed in my previous comment: even ordinary sensory knowledge is not as clearly intersubjectively verifiable as we tend to believe. Any one person's sensory experiences are fleeting and often cannot actually be replicated for the purpose of intersubjective verification. And the way we construct meaning out of our experiences can never be fully reduced back to just the bare experiences themselves. (Even scientific theories are underdetermined by empirical observations.)

    But that is a bit of an aside. I very much appreciate what you go on to say about how Quakers work with religious experience. I agree with you that the ways that leadings are tested constitute a kind of intersubjective verification.

  9. CS,

    I tried to answer this yersterday but the answer got lost in cyberspace apparantly. Here's another go.

    Yes, ordinary sensory observation is theory-laden and that makes confirmation even in such cases more problematic than the very naive would have it. We never just look and see. We are always interpreting what we see. Such a point could be made in favor of the legitimacy of religious experience by showing that the parallel with sensory experience is closer than it seems. Still, I find that in all honesty I must admit that religious experience is significantly different from sensory experience in a way that makes it less concrete and verifiable.

    Ordinary sensory experience, especially if we focus on the visual paradigm, is information dense. When I glance around the room I take in countless trivial facts about my environment. Even if the other person in the room isn't seeing things from precisely the same angle that I am they will still agree with me on many, many specific points. (For example, that there are four books on top of my computer and that the one on the bottom has a brown cover, etc.) religious experience by contrast is information sparse. If the experience is mystical the only information may be something like "we are all one" or "God is love." The informational content is of great significance to the subject but the content is very simple. Likewise for more mundane experiences of a religious nature. I might experience a call from God to ask forgiveness of a friend, to deliver a message during meeting for worship or to call my mother. The content is not rich like the content of visual experience. The simplicity of such content is epistemologically relevant since it offers fewer points at which intersubjective confirmation could take place.

    As I said I think it is just honest to acknowledge that religious experience is harder to verify than sensory experience. But that doesn't make it purely subjective. As Paul wrote we see as in a glass darkly--we don't see perfectly clearly but we do see.

    Maybe someday I will get around to attending FAHE. Now that I know other philosophers are involved that's a plus.

  10. Richard,

    Yes, you raise very good points. And a philosophy of religion professor I had in grad school even argued that he didn't think religious experience had any epistemic content at all. I tried again and again to argue with him on this point, but he never was convinced.

    I do also agree with you that religious experience is still harder to verify than sensory experience.

    Your comments are sparking other new thoughts as well, but I need to work these out a bit more before writing about them.

  11. CS,

    By all means take your time in responding. A slow thoughtful response is much more valuable than the sort of glib one-liners that our culture encourages. Quakers are used to taking their time and getting it right.

    There are good reasons to take it slow in philosophy too. Philosophy by its very nature is highly interconnected. What you want to say about mind will affect what you can say about language and so on. Unfortunately the discipline is turning ever more strongly in the direction of narrowly specialized articles that try to address problems in isolation. In these articles you often read something like "in this article I cannot address the problems raised by...and will concentrate solely on ..." The hard sciences can progress in this fashion but I think it is a mistake for philosophy to imitate them in this way.

    So, taking your time to try to things things out is really the most responsible thing to do.

    Also I imagine that you, like me, are beginning to think about the upcoming semester and trying to get ready for a new batch of students.

  12. The upcoming new semester...yes, there is that as well! Tomorrow my sabbatical officially ends (sigh)!

    But part of me is very much looking forward to a new school year. In this rapidly changing world, I am anxious to see how my students are coping with it all. And I am eager to work more directly again with how education can be a force for positive change.

  13. CS,

    I hope your sabbatical was productive. I've taught for many years now and the positive effects of my teaching efforts are very small and personal. I can think of particular students I've helped or encouraged in one way or another, but I can't honestly say that the world is much affected by my efforts. But I'm pretty content to have a positive influence on a few individuals every semester and leave it at that. Since I have tenure I no longer have to worry about publishing regularly. I have the freedom to explore issues at my leisure and satisfy only myself.


  14. Richard,

    Yes, I've had a very good sabbatical. And I appreciate what you say about the modest effect we actually have through our teaching. But I keep wondering if education could have a more significant effect. It seems it should have that potential, but I worry that the reality of how it is structured in our society inhibits this potential.

    I see you have now started a blog! Wonderful! I look forward to having a closer look in the very near future!

  15. CS,

    Our profession draws people with big egos. Philosophy asks big questions so only people with big egos think they have the answers. I have been passionately interested in philosophy since I was 15 years old and it is now 40 years later. The depth and difficulty of philosophical questions and the indifference that the world shows to my attempts to answer them has had the effect of reducing that ego down to more normal dimensions. It's been a long strange journey in many ways but the point as I understand it at present is that I should learn the value of humble service to others.

    I do think that education could do much more than it does. Our profession could do much more as well. To make big things happen in this world--of which I do not despair, mind you--would take a unification of the efforts of many good people. As I see the world now, these good people are scattered and hence their personal efforts come to little. But perhaps the day is coming when these scattered bits of light will start connecting with each other and some big changes will result.

    How strange it is to try to balance humility and hope!

  16. It is so excellent to find you saying this: "As I see the world now, these good people are scattered and hence their personal efforts come to little. But perhaps the day is coming when these scattered bits of light will start connecting with each other and some big changes will result."

    I am hopeful about this as well, and this kind of idea is what I and others in the Friends Association for Higher Education are starting to work on, in our "Scholars for Peace, Justice, and Sustainability" theme for next year's conference. But we are still in the very early planning stages. As we make progress on this, I'll probably be posting more about it in this blog.