We don’t know if God exists, but we should keep asking

There are many different conceptions of God, and endless questions. Waiting For The Word, CC BY-NC-SA

We don’t know if God exists, but we should keep asking

There are many different conceptions of God, and endless questions. Waiting For The Word, CC BY-NC-SA

Disputes about the existence of God — like most disputes about religion, politics, and sex — almost always generate heat but not light.

The question of the existence of God seems intractable. As with other philosophical questions, there is no method to follow in seeking to answer it. Moreover, there is no prospect of reaching an agreed answer to it.

And the absence of any prospect of reaching an agreed answer to this question goes right to the top: even the very best and most attentive philosophers disagree on the existence of God.

Big questions

There are related questions that might be thought to be more tractable.

  • Questions about arguments. Are there persuasive arguments about the existence of God? Are there persuasive arguments that God exists? Are there persuasive arguments that God does not exist? Are there persuasive arguments that we should suspend judgement about whether God exists?

  • Questions about reason and rationality. What is the range of reasonable or rational opinion on the question whether God exists? Can one reasonably or rationally believe that God exists? Can one reasonably or rationally believe that God does not exist? Can one reasonably or rationally believe that we may or should suspend judgement about whether God exists?

  • Questions about divine attributes. What properties would God have if God existed? What would God be like, if there were a God?

The most tractable questions concern the arguments about God’s existence. While we cannot assess arguments that have not yet been developed, we can certainly assess all of the arguments presented to date.

I have spent much of my academic career doing this. So far, I have found that we do not have any arguments on any side that ought to persuade.

That result is hardly surprising. If we had arguments that ought to persuade, philosophers would all be in agreement: philosophers would be brought to agreement by arguments that ought to persuade. How can it be that philosophers who care about this question, and who have studied the arguments carefully, fail to be persuaded by arguments that ought to persuade?

Reasoning with God

The questions about reason and rationality are also moderately tractable. Difficulties arise because there are so many different things that we might mean by “reason” and “rationality”.

But we can certainly identify different meanings for these terms, and try to answer our questions under these different meanings of the key terms. So far I’ve found that, if our interpretation sets low standards, we can reasonably adopt theism, atheism or agnosticism; and, if our interpretation sets high standards, we are unable to determine whether any of these positions can be reasonably adopted.

Again, this result is hardly surprising. If there were standards for reasonableness or rationality that favoured one side above others in the disagreement about the existence of God, how would we explain the fact that there is disagreement on the question whether God exists that goes right to the top?

What is God like?

The questions about divine attributes are not much more tractable than the central question about existence.

There are many different conceptions of God, and no clear methods to pursue in trying to determine which of those conceptions would be realised if there were a God.

While we can show that some conceptions of God are internally inconsistent, there are many conceptions of God that have not yet been shown to be internally inconsistent.

Similarly, while we can show that some conceptions of God are inconsistent with what all agree is evidence or plain fact, there are many that have not yet been shown to be inconsistent with what all agree is evidence or plain fact.

Yet again, these results are hardly surprising. In the face of the diversity of theistic religious belief — and the diversity of conceptions of God that figure in those diverse theistic beliefs — how else can we explain the fact that the diversity of theistic religious belief goes right to the top?

Of course, that we haven’t yet been able to resolve our disagreements about the nature and existence of God does not entail that we shall never be able to do so.

But if we are to resolve our disagreements, we need to continue to talk to one another about these questions: the best test of whether we have persuasive arguments is to try them out on the best and brightest of our opponents.

But a public discourse that is all heat and no light is not an environment that conduces to the kind of cooperation that is our sole hope for making progress on these matters.

So, over to you – what do you think?