Is the problem of God’s existence solvable?
June 22, 2004 — 6:06

Author: David Efird  Category: Existence of God  Comments: 11

Following Thomas Nagel, Colin McGinn maintains that the mind-body problem is not solvable. His widely read paper, ‘Can We Solve the Mind-Body Problem’, begins in the following way:
‘We have been trying for a long time to solve the mind-body problem. It has stubbornly resisted our best efforts. The mystery persists. I think the time has come to admit candidly that we cannot resolve the mystery. But I also think that this very insolubility — or the reason for it — removes the philosophical problem.’
Owen Flanagan has labelled McGinn a ‘mysterian’ about the mind-body problem. Mysterianism, to use such a horrible word, is not confined to the mind-body problem: there are mysterians about the origin of the universe, mysterians about the nature of thinking, and so on.
Taking my cue from the proliferation of such mysterian positions and also from the spectacular failure of the natural theological and atheological arguments to convince the other side, I wonder if we should be mysterians about the problem of rationally resolving whether God exists. One who is a mysterian about this problem maintains that there could (epistemic sense of ‘could’) not be a rationally compelling argument, one that should convince everyone concerned, for theism or for atheism. And perhaps, as McGinn maintains about the mind-body problem, the very insolubility of the problem of whether God exists removes the problem, that is, removes it as a distinctively philosophical problem.

In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James writes:

‘The truth is that in the metaphysical and religious sphere, articulate reasons are cogent for us only when our inarticulate feelings of reality have already been impressed in favor of the same conclusion. Then, indeed, our intuitions and our reason work together, and great world-ruling systems, like that of the Buddhist or of the Catholic philosophy, may grow up. Our impulsive belief is here always what sets up the original body of truth, and our articulately verbalized philosophy is but its showy translation into formulas. The unreasoned and immediate assurance is the deep thing in us, the reasoned argument is but a surface exhibition. Instinct leads, intelligence does but follow. If a person feels the presence of a living God after the fashion shown by my quotations, your critical arguments, be they never so superior, will vainly set themselves to change his faith.’ (pp. 85-86)

As a mere description of how things go in the adoption or abandonment of either theism or atheism, James seems undoubtedly right: psychology precedes philosophy. But I wonder if James is on to something deeper: is it more than just a mere regularity that people become psychologically disposed, however that comes about, to adopt a religious point of view, and then come to regard the natural theological arguments as cogent? (On the other side, is it a mere regularity that people become psychologically disposed to adopt an atheistic point of view and then come to regard the atheological arguments as cogent?) I wonder if this regularity is dictated by the nature of religious belief itself.
In his paper, ‘The Groundlessness of Belief’, Norman Malcolm observes that we rationally believe some claims fundamental to our form of life without any grounds whatsoever. He writes, �the lives of educated, sophisticated adults are also formed by groundless beliefs. I do not mean eccentric beliefs that are out on the fringes of their lives, but fundamental beliefs.’ These claims that we rationally believe groundlessly are framework principles, and these principles constitute a system. A system demarcates the boundaries of investigation and judgement. Framework principles cannot be investigated within the system they constitute. Thus, framework principles cannot be supported by evidence from within the system they constitute. As such, they are groundless.
If religious belief is as Malcolm claims it is, a system of belief containing framework principles, such as the claim that God exists, which are themselves not the sort of thing that are responsive to evidence, then it seems to me that the regularity James describes is intrinsic to religious belief. And if this is so, then one could never convince a theist by rational means to adopt atheism, and vice versa.
But this is not to say that we should cease developing natural theological and atheological arguments. For they do serve a useful purpose, which is to help articulate theism and atheism. When the theist responds to an atheological argument, she articulates some of her commitments and entitlements, and this articulation helps to spell out in detail her position. Similarly when atheists respond to natural theological arguments. Thus, the atheist, in attacking theism, helps the theist to make her position explicit. And the theist, when she tries to convert the atheist by means of argument, helps to make the atheist’s position explicit. This is the point of arguments for and against the existence of God. And if this is so, then, it seems, we should be mysterians about the problem of producing a rationally convincing argument for or against the eixstence of God which should command universal assent.
To conclude, I’ll end with some wisdom from James: ‘But even if religious philosophy had to have its first hint supplied by feeling, may it not have dealt in a superior way with the matter which feeling suggested? Feeling is private and dumb, and unable to give an account of itself. It allows that its results are mysteries and enigmas, declines to justify them rationally, and on occasion is willing that they should even pass for paradoxical and absurd. Philosophy takes just the opposite attitude. Her aspiration is to reclaim from mystery and paradox whatever territory she touches. To find an escape from obscure and wayward personal persuasion to truth objectively valid for all thinking men has ever been the intellect’s most cherished ideal. To redeem religion from unwholesome privacy, and to give public status and universal right of way to its deliverances, has been reason’s task.
I believe that philosophy will always have opportunity to labor at this task. We are thinking beings, and we cannot exclude the intellect from participating in any of our functions. Even in soliloquizing with ourselves, we construe our feelings intellectually. Both our personal ideals and our religious and mystical experiences must be interpreted congruously with the kind of scenery which our thinking mind inhabits. The philosophic climate of our time inevitably forces its own clothing on us. Moreover, we must exchange our feelings with one another, and in doing so we have to speak, and to use general and abstract verbal formulas. Conceptions and constructions are thus a necessary part of our religion; and as moderator amid the clash of hypotheses, and mediator among the criticisms of one man’s constructions by another, philosophy will always have much to do. It would be strange if I disputed this, when these very lectures which I am giving are (as you will see more clearly from now onwards) a laborious attempt to extract from the privacies of religious experience some general facts which can be defined in formulas upon which everybody may agree’ (Varieties, pp. 431-32)

  • One problem with Malcolm’s claim is that there seem to be counterexamples. Ted Sider, for instance, claims that his argument about hell and vagueness convinced him through rational means alone that the God he was raised to believe in does not exist. There are theists who claim the same sort of thing, though they are less frequent in philosophy. William Lane Craig may be an example. I’m not quite sure if he’d describe himself that way. Some popular Christian apologists have described themselves in such a way.

    June 22, 2004 — 9:36
  • Ted Poston

    Peter Van Inwagen has a paper in which he addresses similar issues (�It is Wrong Everywhere, Always, and for Anyone to Believe Anything on Insufficient Evidence?�). You can find the paper at the following link:
    Van Inwagen discusses the nature of evidence, particularly in relation to religious belief, and whether evidence should include things like personal experiences and memories. He argues that if evidence includes personal experiences then religious belief may be rational. If, however, evidence does not include things like personal experiences, etc, it�s difficult to see how we can rationally continue to hold any significant theory, given that for any significant theory there�s entrenched debate about who�s right�i.e., there�s very intelligent people on both sides that know the publicly available evidence and come to opposite conclusions.
    About your post, suppose the following condition is given to be a mysterian about a subject matter S:
    (S-Mysterian) There could (epistemic sense of �could�) not be a rationally compelling argument, one that should convince everyone concerned, for S or not-S.
    I assume that in general a mysterian about S is someone who thinks that debates about the truth or falsity of S cannot be rationally resolved. This seems to imply that if a person concludes that S is either true or false that this is an irrational attitude. It seems to me, however, that a person can accept (S-Mysterian) and deny that if a person concludes that (say) theism is true then this is an irrational attitude. This can be done by accepting that some arguments make a position rational but fail to make the position rationally compelling. Perhaps the argument is long and requires the ability to appreciate the force of second or third order defeaters or perhaps the argument makes reference to personal experience.

    June 22, 2004 — 10:19
  • Interesting idea. Let me point out two prima facie problems with extending Mcginn’s mysterianism to the issue of the existence of God.
    First, let’s distinguish between how-mysteries and whether-mysteries. It could be mysterious (i) *how* the butler did it or (ii) *whether* the butler did it. Now, McGinn’s is a how-mysterianism: he thinks it is mysterious how there can be consciousness in a purely natural world. He is not a whether-mysterianist: we know that there is such a thing as consciousness. The parallel view would be that it’s mysterious how there can be a God (in a purely natural world?). But the mysterianism here proposed is a whether-mysterianism: the mystery being whether God exists or not. My worry is that whether-mysterianisms may have less going for them than how-mysterianisms.
    Second, McGinn has a principled argument for his mysterianism. The argument is sometimes misconstrued as “no theory of consciousness has worked to-date, so maybe no theory *can* work.” But it’s much more sophisticated than that. The question is whether a similar argument can be proposed for divine mysterianism. I suspect that all we have here is a “no solution to the problem of God has worked to-date, so maybe none can work.” (For more on McGinn’s actual argument, see section 2 of my “Philosophical Theories of Consciousness.”)

    June 22, 2004 — 11:23
  • Oops, the link to my paper got attached to the second quotation mark instead of the whole name. Not sure why. Anyway, here it is, old-school-style:

    June 22, 2004 — 11:32
  • Christian

    I like Uriah’s post, it seems right to me. I also think that the fact the some subject matter has been irresolvable does not indicate that it is irresolvable. It might turn out that no set of arguments is compelling to all evaluators, but a better explanation for this is that evaluators have different standards for when an argument is compelling. The problem is then identifying the conditions under which an argument is compelling for any evaluator.
    I am inclined to think that iresolvability about the correct analysis of a concept is good evidence that there are multiple oncepts being analyzed. For example: There hasn’t been a satisfying analysis of causation in the past. I think this is good evidence that there are multiple concepts of causation (as opposed to say primitivism). Perhaps the same is true for compellingness. There are multiple concepts of it and what we need to do is identify the concept that we care about.

    June 22, 2004 — 16:08
  • David Efird

    Many thanks for all of the excellent comments posted so far. I’ll respond to them in turn.
    Thanks for bringing my attention to these purported counter-examples. I think that they’ll have to be explained away somehow, if my account is to hold water, but I don’t find the propect of delving into others’ psychology too appealing, so I may just have to say that it’s unlikely that these philosophers have cottoned on to something (rational) that we all have consistently missed. Weak, I know, but that’s all that I can think about doing now.
    Thanks so much for the van Inwagen reference. I forgot about the relevance of his paper to this topic. The bit about whether personal experience and memory can count as evidence that may convert the other side has relevance to my post about whether warrant for mystical claims is transmissible via testimony. In that post I tried to find a way to defend James’s claim that warrant can’t be transmitted for such beliefs via testimony, and the defence is really related to the current post. I’m actually trying to tie the two together in a short paper now, so your comment was echoing my thinking entirely. Also, your distinction between rational and rationally compelling is, I think, bang on target. It has some relation to a distinction that appears in work in general epistemology, namely, the distinction between accepting for oneself and accepting on behalf of others. It’s in Harman, and Kalderon has made a lot of it in his book on moral non-cognitivism. I’ll have to incorporate some discussion of that. Thanks for highlighting it for me.
    Thanks so much for your comments. I will certainly bow to your expertise on McGinn–I’m not at all a philosopher of mind, as you can tell–and I look forward to reading your paper. There is a significant difference between McGinn’s mysterianism and the sort that I propose, which may be related to the other differences you bring to the fore. McGinn, as I understand him, wants to say that there’s a limitation in our particular cognitive capacities for solving the mind-body problem; it may be that those with more advanced cognitive capacities will be able to solve it. What I maintain, tentatively, is that there’s no difficulty with our particular cognitive capacities in solving the problem of God’s existence (we could be ideal enquirers, for instance)–the problem lies in the problem itself. A little less Heideggerish, the mystery arises not out of our (in)capacities, but in the nature of the subject, the nature of religious belief. Religious belief is such that there could (epistemic) not be a rationally compelling argument that should command universal assent for religious or anti-religious belief, even for ideally rational agents.
    Now I’m not sure if I really do want to defend this mysterianism about religious belief. I’m just trying it on for size. I’m not sure if it fits.
    Thanks again for your comments. They are most welcome and appreciated.

    June 23, 2004 — 10:00
  • Ah, interesting. In my paper (and in another place), I make a distinction between *epistemic* and *ontological* mysterianism: the latter claims that a problem is inherently unsolvable, the former that it is so only relative (and due) to our cognitive (in)capacities. McGinn’s is an epistemic mysterianism, but the one you float seems to be an ontological one. So indeed the two are different, along several important dimensions. I’m not sure how an argument for any sort of ontological mysterianism would go. Perhaps we shouldn’t look down on the pessimistic induction type of argument, as Christian and I did above. It’s an argument, after all. But I wonder how one might argue for an ontological mysterianism.

    June 23, 2004 — 10:18
  • So you don’t think the existence of God could be rationally compelling for any being, even perhaps angels? What about for God? Would God’s existence even fail to be rationally compelling for God? I hope that’s not a consequence of your view.

    June 23, 2004 — 20:52
  • David Efird

    The principle underlying both:
    (1) The problem of God’s existence is not rationally resolvable.
    (2) Warrant for theistic belief does not transmit via testimony alone from one who has engaged with God to one who has not.
    is that:
    (3) In order to count as believing in God one must have engaged with God.
    (Similar to: in order count as having an aesthetic belief about an object one must have engaged with that object.)
    (1) can be seen as really nothing more than a special case of (2).
    So God, who surely engages with himself, and angels, who presumably engage with God, present no difficulties for the principle at issue.

    June 24, 2004 — 5:54
  • John

    It seems to me though that there is a connection between the how and the whether question. My intuition is that one of the motives for accepting a mysterion approach to the how questions is that it releases us from a lot of the pressure placed on resisting the whether question. So for example, by accepting as rational the intractability of the how of the interaction between matter and consciousness, it makes it more rationallt acceptable to take seriously the existence of consciousness on the basis of prima facie subjective evidence or such.
    It seems to me that something like that is going on here, even though the issue targeted is an issue of “whether”. By accepting a mysterion approach about whether in the case of God, it seems that one may be free to accept God’s existence on prima facie subjective grounds. The worry may have to do with the fact that one’s subjective “appeared to-ness” concerns the same whether question as the one we are applying the mysterion approach to.
    Maybe the trick is to say that the question that might “benefit” from a mysterion account is not the question of whether ot not God exists but the more remote question of what ought to count as critierion in evaluating metaphysical explanations since the reason many arguments for and against God fail to convince is that the turn on other premises that seem to be equally controversal to the opponent. I am not sure if this helps, but there you are.

    June 24, 2004 — 9:23
  • Ted Poston

    If I understand your position correctly (1) is equivalent to
    (1′) No one is rationally compelled to believe that God exists.
    But if you accept the distinction between (a) an argument making a position rational and (b) an argument making a position rationally compelling then (1) and (1′) are not equivalent. For God�s existence is rationally resolvable for Theresa, since Theresa had a vision of God. Perhaps you�ll want to say that a problem is rationally resolvable only if there�s a rationally compelling argument for it. But that seems too strong.
    About (2) in my earlier post (on James� Varieties) I tried to explain that some warrant for theistic belief does transmit via testimony but the warrant is not sufficient to make it rationally compelling for a person to believe in God.
    A comment on (3): I assume you�re talking about belief that God exists. So (3) is �to believe that God exists one must have engaged with God�. This, however, doesn�t seem quite right. Can�t a person believe that God exists on the basis of an angelic vision or a vision of a saint? Or, more to the point, a person can have an irrational belief that God exists without engaging with God. Also, if belief that God exists is a live possibility for someone and that person thinks that on balance the evidence supports theism (but doesn�t compel assent) and yet that person has not experienced God, it seems to me that that person rationally believes that God exists.

    June 24, 2004 — 10:58