Posts tagged "religion"


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Is belief in God unjustified?

As a part of my recent philosophical wanderings, I'm reading Kai Nielsen's 1985 book Philosophy & Atheism. He wants to show that belief in God is unjustified.

This is the fifth and final post in the series. I encourage you to read Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV if you haven't yet.

Loose ends

The remaining chapters of Nielsen's book take a broad look at some of the common concerns and objections people have to atheism, including religious ethics versus humanistic ethics, and religion and rationality.

I'm not going to summarize these chapters in depth. Nielsen (and others) have written entire -- and more recent -- books on these topics, which at some point perhaps you'll see me read and discuss here.

Instead, I've collected up miscellaneous notes on some of Nielsen's smaller but still interesting points -- his thoughts on agnosticism, discussions of science and religion, anthropomorphic deities. Let's start with...

Against agnosticism

Nielsen spends one chapter discussing whether agnosticism is a reasonable alternative to either theism or atheism. He proposes, paraphrasing T. H. Huxley, that "we ought never to assert that we know a proposition to be true or indeed even to assent to that proposition unless we have adequate evidence to support it" (p. 56). Are we justified in asserting the truth of propositions about God's existence or non-existence? He argues that we are, and that to take an agnostic stance is to accept the possibility that 'God' has a coherently specifiable referent -- which he argues is not the case.

Science and religion

Also in the chapter on agnosticism is a discussion of how, even with a sophisticated analysis of religion and the assumption that religions are making truth-claims about the state of things, there exist numerous conflicts between science and religion. E.g., many Christians take "as central to their religion that Christ rose from the dead and that there is a life after the death of our earthly bodies" (p.64); these claims don't generally line up with our scientific understanding of the world.

Widely accepted now is the view of the Bible and Bible stories as mythical and poetical; the stories, such as those about demons and Jonah in the whale's belly, should not all be taken literally. But how far, asks Nielsen, should we extend this?

"Are we to extend it to such central Christian claims as 'Christ rose from the Dead,' 'Man shall survive the death of his earthly body,' 'God is in Christ'? If we do, it becomes completely unclear as to what it could mean to speak of either the truth or falsity of the Christian religion. If we do not, then it would see that some central Christian truth-claims do clash with scientific claims" (pp. 64-65).

Nielsen suggests that atheists and agnosticists generally answer this by saying either (a) these religious utterances do not function as truth-claims at all, or (b) science and religion clash. In the case of (b), scientific knowledge is to be preferred as a method of fixing belief because it is more reliable. If there is good scientific reason to suggest that people cannot be resurrected when they die, then we have a strong reason to reject the Christian claim that "Christ rose from the Dead." We could, alternatively, reject the scientific beliefs in favor of the religious ones, but more often is it the case, suggests Nielsen, that scientific understanding drives people toward atheism or agnosticism.

Nielsen discusses several counters to this argument, such as beliefs in miracles, which he defines as events of divine significance that are exceptions to at least one law of nature, noting that scientific laws are falsified only by classes of experimentally repeatable events.

The cool thing about anthropomorphic deities

Nielsen notes that the "anthropomorphic deities of the various cultures are tailor-made projectively to meet the anxieties and emotional needs of their members" (p. 116) Two of his examples: Eskimos see Sedena, a female god who lives in the sea and controls storms, weather, and sea mammals. Israelites see Yahweh, a ferocious male god of the desert who protects the Israelites from alien peoples. Cultural preoccupations are projected onto the universe, and stories are created about the deifications.

He spent a while early on dicussing why one ought not believe in anthropomorphic deities.

Philosophy's role in theology

Nielsen takes some time to question whether or not philosophy has any business at all criticizing, refuting, constructing, or justifying theological systems. The claim is that philosophy is a conceptual inquiry and can evaluate the logic of theological arguments but not their truth.

You're not going to be surprised at what Nielsen argues -- after all, he's a philosopher who has just written an entire philosophy book about theology. Philosophy does have a role to play, he says, and that role is not as a neutral bystander. Rather, philosophy is at the heart of theology. It is the basis on which fundamental religious concepts, claims, revelations, and so on are developed; philosophical criteria such as validity, intelligibility, and truth must be referenced in determining what portions of theology are genuine.

I agree with Nielsen here.

So my question for you is this: Which arguments and philosophies should I read next?


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Is belief in God unjustified?

As a part of my recent philosophical wanderings, I'm reading Kai Nielsen's 1985 book Philosophy & Atheism. He wants to show that belief in God is unjustified.

This is the fourth post in the series. I encourage you to read Part I, Part II, and Part III if you haven't yet.

The presumption of atheism

One question Nielsen takes care to address is With whom does the burden of proof lie?

That is, must the theist propose and defend the concept of God, providing sufficient reason for belief? Or must the atheist provide proof for disbelief?

Nielsen introduces a collection of essays by Anthony Flew called The Presumption of Atheism, in which Flew argues that it is on theists to produce evidence in support of their beliefs. Like in law, wherein a party to a trial is assumed innocent until proven guilty, Flew argues that one should presume that belief in God is unreasoanble until proven otherwise. This doesn't preclude believers from having deeply held convictions about God's existence or the nature of God (in the same way some people may be convinced of a party's guilt, despite a lack of evidence).

Nielsen doesn't think this is the way to approach the question. Instead, he points out that

"In speaking of God, we are speaking of what the believer takes to be an ultimate mystery. A reflective believer, if he is philosophically literate, knows very well the concept of God--the concept of such a mysterious reality--is only partially intelligible to him and is likely to be through and through unintelligible to the skeptic. Given this state of affairs, it is very unlikely that it will be the case that the believer can produce good enough reasons to convince the skeptic that this procedural presumption of atheism has been defeated and that it is not unreasonable to believe in God." (p. 132)

And similarly, it seems just as unlikely that the atheist will ever be able to produce sufficient proof against God's existence for the theist to accept it.

Flew assumes that reasonable people will proportion their belief to the evidence and will not take belief in God to be justified until evidence that could convince other informed, impartial, reasonable people can be produced. But this would trap the believer and throw the debate in favor of the skeptic. As Nielsen points out, even if it is rational to seek evidence to ground one's beliefs, isn't it also rational to have adequate grounds for disbelief?

According to Nielsen, Flew also assumes that:

"Beliefs must be shown to have grounds to be reasonably believed. So it is perfectly in order and nonprejudicial to demand that of the believer, particularly when the belieg is that this exhibiting of grounds is just what cannot be done for certain fundamental religious beliefs. So, Flew reasons, given that reasonable demand for grounds, the presumption of atheist is justified." (p. 137)

The main problem with this is that "[t]here are many things we reasonably believe which we do not believe for a reason" (p. 139). Not all the beliefs of the theist or of the atheist are intimately grounded in conscious reasoning and evidence. In fact, Nielsen argues that it is "wildly unrealistic and indeed actually an unreasonable demand" (p. 139) to requires that all beliefs must be grounded in reasons and evidence, and that all beliefs should be proportional to those reasons and evidence. I would have liked Nielsen to expand on a few examples of such reasonable beliefs here, but he points us instead to Wittgenstein's On Certainty to find further arguments on the matter.

Nielsen covers a few more of Flew's assumptions and how we ought not accept those assumptions as truth. Without reading Flew's essays myself it's hard to evaluate how justifed Nielsen is making these arguments, so perhaps I'll add them to my reading list.

Where next...

There are still a few chapters left in Nielsen's book, covering religion and ethics, religion and rationality, and whether philosophy has any business criticizing or justifying theological systems. Given how large each of these topics is, and given that Nielsen has written entire books on these subjects since the writing of this one, I may gloss over them and end with a final post tying up loose ends with miscellaneous notes and thoughts. Stay tuned.


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Is belief in God unjustified?

As a part of my recent philosophical wanderings, I'm reading Kai Nielsen's 1985 book Philosophy & Atheism. He wants to show that belief in God is unjustified.

This is the third post in the series -- I encourage you to read Part I and Part II if you haven't yet.

Religion and commitment

Nielsen claims that belief in God is no more necessary than beliefs in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny.

"We do not need such beliefs to give our lives meaning or to undergird the moral life, and such beliefs are not essential for an understanding of the nature and destiny of man. The great religions do indeed contain bits which can serve as aspirational ideals, but in this respect there is nothing there that is not perfectly available to the atheist" (p. 109)

The discussion that follows this claim splits into three threads:

  1. Morality cannot be grounded in belief in God because it is only by already having some understanding of what is good and what is not that we can ever come to believe there is a God.
  2. Statements about God are false, very probably false, or unintelligible. This is similar to the same claim he discussed at length earlier.
  3. Atheists are not "believers in disguise" nor is atheism itself a religion.

Let's look at these in turn.

A brief look at morality

For many people, morality is first introduced in the context of religion. But where one is introduced to what moral behavior is is independent of how one can justify moral beliefs or knowledge of good and evil. The basis of moral beliefs cannot be in a superior entity who is infinitely perfect and good. Even if one accepts that God exists, even if one claims to be aware of the reality of an entity called "God," one must choose to believe that God is infinitely perfect and good. As Nielsen asks, "[h]ow can we know or have reason to believe, except by making up our own minds that he or it is perfect and good?" (p. 114)

To make such a judgment, we must first have some idea of what it is to be perfect and good. Our concept of good must come before our concept of God. Nielsen notes that sure, God could tell us that He is perfect and good, and then we would know that being perfect and good is being like God is, but should one necessarily take such a being on his or its word? Simply saying that something is true does not prove it true. We cannot know except through our own experiences and our own insight (limited, finite, fallible as these are) what any being or entity is. We cannot know any X is infinitely perfect or good, except by making up our minds and relying on our own insight.

But what if one claims that the statement "God is not infinitely perfect" is a contradiction? God must be perfect; this requirement is built into the very logic of God-talk. Nielsen argues as follows: "God" is a referent. "God" stands for something that at least conceivably must exist.

"Now when we say something is good or bad, perfect or imperfect, we are not simply applying a certain descriptive redicate to it. We are not just characterizing it as having a certain property that could, directly or indirectly, be discovered by observation. What we are doing when we ascribe value to something is very difficult to say; sometimes we are expressing our approval of it, taking some interest in it, commending it and the like, but one thing is clear: 'Good' or 'perfect' are not peroperty words like 'red' or hard.' We could not discover some action or person to be good by simply observing it quite independently of any attitudes we might take toward it" (p. 113)

In considering the referent of "God", we must necessarily ground our concept of God is what we have experienced -- which, as noted above, is limited, finite, and fallible. If we observe our own finitude and dependency and conceive of a non-dependent, infinite being, how could we know, simply from being aware of the reality of this being, what its qualities are?

"When we decide to use the label 'God' for this alleged Power or, if you will, this ground of being, we imply that this reality is infinitely perfect, but we are able to do this only because we have a prior and logically independent moral understanding that could not have been derived simply from discovering that there is a reality transcendent to the world, a reality that created man and sustains him, or from discovering that there is some being as such, some ground of being, that is the dimension of depth in the natural. In this crucial way morality, even Christian morality, must be independent of religion" (p. 114)

Nielsen points out that sure, religion may seem to be necessary to some people for psychological stability, moral behavior, and finding significance in their lives. However, this is not true of all people. It merely shows that "some men with an understanding of good and evil need a prod and crutch to continue to act as moral agents" (p. 115).

Although Nielsen doesn't spend any time here talking about where one does get moral beliefs, he has written several more recent books on the subject.

Talking about God: Factual claims

The question of what statements about God actually refer to is one of Nielsen's primary themes. Religions make purportedly factual claims. Factual claims must have a certain logical character, and he argues that religious claims do not follow this logic.

"For any statement p to be a bona fide factual statement the assertion and denial of p must note be equally compatible with any conceivable observation that might be made. If p and not-p have exactly the same empirical consequences, if everything that is logically possible for us to experience is equally compatible with the truth and the falsity ... of p and not-p, then p and not-p are not factual statements" (p. 116).

The statements p and not-p may still have meaning and may still be intelligible. But they are devoid of factual significance.

Nielsen argues that if one talks about a non-anthropomorphic God -- i.e., a God is transcendent, non-spatio-temporal, an infinite individual, but not a reality that can be apprehended -- then statements such as "There is a God" and "God created the world" are not false, but entirely unfalsifiable. We cannot confirm or disconfirm them.

If one believes in, doubts, or denies this non-anthropomorphic God, then one cannot think of any conceivable turn of observable events that will change one's opinion of that God's reality or non-reality. (I invite you to try: What evidence would you need to say you are mistaken, whatever your current beliefs are? Do share in the comments.)

If there are no observable events that will change one's opinion of God, then statements like "There is a God" and "God created the world" have no factual significance.

"They are then equally compatible with anything and everything that the believer and non-believe alike can conceive as being experiential. This being the case, they are no more saying anything that is in reality incompatible, than the American is asserting anything that the Englishman is not when the American calls all those things and only those things elevators that an Englishman calls lifts. The man, in such a circumstance, who says "There is a God" is not asserting anything incompatible with or even different from the statement of a man who says "There is no God." But this show that neither statement has factual content; neither succeeds in asserting or denying the existence of the peculiar reality that they were meant to assert or deny. Belief, paradoxically enough, becomes indistinguishable from atheism. But this, in effect, shows that such a believer has not succeeded in showing how he can make a claim to reveal a reality or reveal some level of reality that the nonbeliever does not grasp. The realm of the supernatural remains unrecognizable" (pp. 117-118).

Nielsen recognizes an important objection to his arguments: What if one takes the proposition "There is a God" to be logically or necessarily true? I.e., what if "There is a God" is not taken to be a contingent fact, as is the case in most religious contexts? Then it makes no sense to ask for a contingent, empirical state of affairs to verify the statement's truth. It is true a priori.

The questions become why is God's existence necessary? and why must "There is a God" be necessarily true?

When one says "There is a God," what is commonly being asserted is that there is a being worthy of worship "whose nonexistence is wholly unthinkable in any circumstance" and "[t]here must be no conceivable alternative to such a reality"(p. 119). Nielsen describes a common argument for this position:

  1. God is that reality on which all other things depend for their existence.
  2. Take X to be God.
  3. Y is a conceivable state of affairs incompatible with the existence of X.
  4. Then Y would not depend on X.
  5. Then X by definition cannot be God.

Nielsen notes that there are many objections that can be made to this argument, but limits himself to one: In asserting that there is a being we can call "God" and that this being's existence is necessary and its nonexistence is wholly unthinkable, it is not the case that "necessary" must mean "logically necessary." Even if a being was appropriately designated "God" by the above argument, it does not follow that "There is a God" is logical truth and that "There is no God" is a contradiction. Nielsen mentions the following two cases:

We conceive of God as an eternal being -- i.e., God couldn't just happen to exist or come to exist or cease to exist. However, stating that "God is eternal" does not prove that this is so. It's a proposition of the form "If God exists, God is eternal." If we know that "God is eternal" is true, we know nothing about the truth or falsity of "God exists."

We define "God" such that all other beings are completely dependent on God. But the statements "'There is no completely independent being upon whom all things depend' or 'There is a reality whose existence is necessary for all other being' can be significantly denied" (p. 120).

Certainly, it may seem to believers that God's nonexistence is wholly unthinkable in any circumstance, but that doesn't make it self-contradictory to deny God's existence:

"[Believers] can be taken to be asserting that the presence of God is so evident to them that, given their conception of Him as an eternal being, they could not, as a matter of psychological fact, in any way find it thinkable that God should not exist. God's actuality is so vividly present to believers that they could no more, except in a purely logical sense, come to doubt for one moment the reality of God than I could doubt that the earth has existed for many years and that I have been on or near to the surface of that earth during my life. I recognize that I can significantly deny these propositions ... [but] I am quite certain of them, and I find it unthinkable that they might be false" (pp. 120-121)"

If key theological statements are not factual claims, then one ought to reject beliefs based on these statements as irrational and unnecessary.

Atheism != another religion

Nielsen's final thread addresses the claims of Kierdegaard, Tillich, and others that atheism is impossible, incoherent, and a contradiction.

He points out that there are two kinds of atheism. First, there are atheists who claim the statement "There is a God" is false. But if as argued above "There is a God" is factually meaningless, it is equally irrational to believe either that "There is a God" is true or false. So he turns to the second brand of atheism: atheists who reject belief in God, regardless, because one thinks that "There is a God" is either absurdly false, or devoid of factual content, unintelligible, and unworthy of belief.

It's not enough to show that religion is often intellectually absurd. Nielsen realizes this. Religion is not just intellectual content -- it's a whole way of life. If one wants to remove belief in God and the religious practices stemming from this belief from the realm of rational acts, one must provide an alternative. One must work to "transform society so that men will no longer need to turn to religious forms to give inspiration to their lives" (p. 123).

Philosophers who Nielsen names as champions of this view include Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche, David Strauss, and Freud. He says we can turn to them -- among others -- in our arguments that need no theistic belief to justify our moral convictions or to give significance to our lives. We can and must, he believes, "show that there are other ways of life, other ways of thinking and acting, that are more desirable, more admirable, more worthy of allegiance than our religious ways of life" (p. 124).

In conclusion: People have some knowledge of what's good and what's evil independent of a transcendent reality. Some people have figured out how to give meaning to their lives independent of theism. To believe that this is so, to hope that it could be so for others, and to work to bring about the social and psychological conditions necessary for it to be so is not to deify man or to turn atheism into its own sort of religion. It's just to live.

Nielsen's final point in this section: Atheism is a way of life.


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Is belief in God unjustified?

As a part of my recent philosophical wanderings, I'm reading Kai Nielsen's 1985 book Philosophy & Atheism. He wants to show that belief in God is unjustified.

This is the second post in the series -- I encourage you to read Part I if you haven't yet.

In defense of atheism

In Part I, I introduced Nielsen's primary argument for atheism, namely, that sentences used to talk about God are at their core incoherent. The word "God" fails to have an intelligible referent. We are not justified in believing in incoherent things.

In the chapter "In Defense of Atheism," he elaborates on this argument.

First, Nielsen notes that religious discourse tends to reflect particular human commitments and attitudes -- e.g., the feeling of gratitude for one's existence, regardless of the quality of that existence. Two example utterances he puts forth are "God is my Creator to whom everything is owed," and "God is the God of mercy of Whose forgiveness I stand in need."

Fact-stating utterances of this sort always presume some background knowledge. Every utterance exists in a larger context.

"Take the classic example 'The King of France is bald.' We need a context, an application of the Principles of Relevance and the Presumption of Knowledge, to know how to take it. If our context is the present, and the relevant questions are 'What is the King of France like?' or 'Is he bald?' then neither 'The King of France is bald' nor 'The King of France is not bald' would be a correct answer, for the above questions in the above context are not to be answered, but are to be replied to by being rejected. The proper reply--a reply which rejects such questions--is (De Gaulle notwithstanding) 'There is no King of France.' But if our topic is historical and, with some specific period in mind, we are asking 'What bald notables are there?'; 'The King of France is bald' is in such a changed context is an appropriate answer. And here it is a true or false statement." (p. 79)

In statements about the King of France or about God, "the King of France" and "God" are referring expressions -- i.e., there is the assumption that these expressions refer to something that exists. Additionally, there is the presumption that the speaker understands and believes in the reality of the thing being spoken about. In asserting the example utterances I mentioned above, "the religious man presupposes that there is a God and that this God has a certain character. The atheist, on the other hand, does not believe [the utterances] are true because he does not accept the presupposition on which they are made" (p. 79).

The point Nielsen is making here is that we cannot evaluate religious utterances in isolation from the complex activity we refer to as "religion."

Next, Nielsen wants us to recognize that when using expressions in language that refer to existents of some kind, one needs to know how the referring is to be done -- can one point at the entity? Can one identify it indirectly? His claim is that "the concept of God is so incoherent that there could not possibly be a referent for the word 'God'" (p.82). He refers specifically to the non-anthropomorphic Judeo-Christian-Islamic God. Because the concept is so incoherent, he argues, it cannot possibly be true -- the rational thing to do is to reject belief in that God.

So how does he support this claim?

Incoherent God-talk

First, he notes that even if incoherent, "God" is not utterly meaningless. There are pieces of what he terms 'God-talk' that are deviant and pieces that are non-deviant -- e.g., commonly accepted uses are such statements as "God so loved mankind that he gave to the world his only son" and "God protect me in my need," while deviant statements include such statements as "God lost weight last week" and "God brews good coffee."

Second, Nielsen clarifies what he means by incoherency.

"[I]n saying that the concept of God is incoherent, I am saying that where 'God' is used nonanthropomorphically, as it is in at least officially developed Jewish and Christian God-talk, there occur sentences such as [the utterances mentioned earlier] which purportedly have a statement-making function, yet no identifiable state of affairs can be characterized which would make such putative religious statements true and no intelligible directions have been given for identifying the supposed referent for the word 'God'" (p. 83).

God cannot be physically pointed to in the world the way we can point to chairs and instances of green things. If God can be identified, it must intra-linguistically. But as mentioned in Part I, what does it mean for a thing to transcend the world, be an ultimate reality, or be an infinite individual? "If in trying to identify God we speak of 'that being upon whom the world can be felt to be utterly dependent' nothing has been accomplished, for what does it mean to speak of 'the world (the universe) as being utterly dependent' or even dependent at all?" (p. 83). If we are puzzled by "God", says Nielsen, we will be equally puzzled by these kinds of descriptive phrases. We know what it means to say that children or nations or lakes are dependent on other things, but we have no sense of what it would mean for the universe to be dependent on something.

He continues to discuss the dependent universe example:

"What are the sufficient conditions for the universe being dependent? What would make it true or false or what would even count for the truth or falsity of the putative statement 'The universe is dependent' or 'The universe is not dependent?' To answer by speaking of 'God,' e.g., the universe is dependent because God is its final cause, is to pull oneself up by one's own bootstraps, for talk of the dependency of the universe was appealed to in the first place in order to enable us to identify the alleged reference of 'God'. And to speak of a logically necessary being upon whom the universe depends is to appeal to a self-contradictory conception, for only propositions or statements, not beings, can either be logically necessary or fail to be logically necessary. Yet to speak of a 'factually necessary being' upon whom the universe depends is again to pull oneself up by one's own bootstraps; for what would count toward establishing the truth or falsity of a statement asserting or denying the existence of such an alleged reality?" (pp. 83-84).

If God exists, he somehow exists necessarily. But if the concept of a logically necessary being is self-contradictory, then it cannot be true that any being must exist simply because its existence is logically necessary. Nor, argues Nielsen, is there sense in the claim that there is anything which categorically must exist.

The problem is in determining what the referent of "God" is. The problem is that the phrases used to describe God (e.g., "a self-existent being," "a self-caused being") have the same problem of purportedly being referring expressions, namely, that there is no way of discovering their referents.

Another point he makes is that perhaps believers feel that they are in the presence of an "ultimate reality" that is taken to be God. But if this is to be taken as a nonanthropomorphic God and transcendent to the world, "it should still be evident that 'a transcendent X' could not be 'an X whose presence was given in experience.' Something given in experience would eo ipso be nontranscendent, for it would automatically be part of the spatio-temporal world" (p. 84).

It's possible that some people will argue that Nielsen is assuming too much -- some experiences, particularly experiences of God, may not be materially grounded in the spatio-temporal world. Philosophers have certainly posited that thought may have immaterial aspects. Could some kind of immaterial thought account for experience of God? Perhaps so.

The crux of Nielsen's argument

Nielsen's argument rests on this fact: If there is religious truth, the statements expressing those religious beliefs must be true. If he can show that the statements are indeterminate and incoherent, then, he says, there is nothing in those statements that could constitute something true or false.

One example Nielsen focuses on is what it means for God to act. In the case of a statement such as "God is the God of mercy of Whose forgiveness I stand in need," further statements are entailed: that God does or can do things and that God acts or can act in certain ways. "[I]t is utterly senseless to speak of being merciful if one could not even in principle act, do or fail to do merciful acts" (p. 86). Nielsen says that anyone, not just reductionists and materialists, can recognize the truth of this. To say that a being acted mercifully implies that the being acted; to act implies that the being acting is an agent that can perform actions. This may seem trivial; however, Nielsen argues that even if one allows for bodiless action, e.g., as in cases of chemical agents or forces producing effects, "there is still a physically specifiable something which reacts in a determinate physically specifiable way" (p. 88). If God is indeed non-anthropomorphic, realized as Pure Spirit, not a reality with a body or a spatio-temporal location, how does God act? We have no idea, says Nielsen, "of what it would be like for something to be done, for something to do something, for an action to occur, without there being a body in motion" (p. 88).

In saying that God can act, God is conceived of as being able to do things. But we can only understand doing things when there is something identifiable doing the doing.

"X is only identifiable as an agent, and thus X an only be intelligibly said to be an agent if X has a body. For agency to be logically possible, we must have a discrete something specifiable in spatio-temporal terms. But the transcendent God of Judaism and Christianity is thought to be a wholly independent reality, wholly other than the world which is utterly dependent on this 'ultimate reality' and is said to be ultimately unintelligible without reference to this nonphysical mysterium tremendum et fascinans" (p.88).

But then it is senseless to speak of God as an agent who acts, and sentences about God are therefore incoherent.

One might argue, here, that utterances like "God loves all His creation" and "God is all merciful" are symbolic or metaphorical, but are not themselves literal true/false statements. Nielsen remarks that some theologians will then recourse to describing God as "Being-itself" or "the source and unity of all beings," but the problem remains the same -- what is the referent of "Being" or "Being-itself"? For a statement such as "God is not a being, but rather Being-itself within which all other beings have their being" to be be intelligible, then "being-itself" must be a genuine referring expression. But it is not, for much the same reasons why "God" in the utterances discussed above is not.

Nielsen notes that some people will now bring up ineffability -- that there are ineffable truths that cannot be put into words and religious truths are of this category. The first part he agrees with; there are certainly "some things which are literally unsayable or inexpressible but are nonetheless given in those experiences of depth where human beings must confront their own existence" (p. 91). The second part he claims is incoherent.

First, if one claims that religious truths are ineffable, then some people with the proper experience can in a sense understand the concept of God but cannot literally express what they know to be true. Statements about the concept of God are not true or false statements; they merely hint at what cannot be literally stated. No sentences about God can literally express facts or assert that certain things are true or false, though they could be sensical, given their metaphorical or symbolic use.

"But if an utterance P is metaphorical, this entails that it is logically possible for there to be some literal statement G which has the same conceptual content. 'Metaphorical,' for that matter 'symbolic' or 'analogical,' gets its meaning by being constrastable with 'literal.' There can be no intelligible metaphorical or symbolic or analogical God-talk if there can be no literal God-talk. Thus the ineffability thesis is internally incoherent." (pp. 91-92)

Furthermore, Nielsen argues that if knows something that is literally inexpressible, then trivially, one cannot communicate it. One cannot be justified in saying that it is, in fact, God you experience, know, or encounter because one cannot significantly say that if one does particular acts or has particular experiences, one will come to know God. If one says that God cannot be described, then the word "God" is meaningless -- "we cannot even say that something is if it is indescribable" (p. 93).

"'What is unsayable is unsayable,' is a significant tautology. Only if one could at least obliquely or metaphorically express one's experience of the Divine could one's God-talk have any significant, but on the present radical ineffability thesis even the possibility of obliquely expressing one's knowledge or belief is ruled out. So, given such a thesis, there could be no confessional community or circle of faith; in fine, the thesis is reduced to the absurd by making it impossible for those who accept such a thesis to acknowledge the manifest truth that the Judeo-Christian religion is a social reality. On this simple consideration alone, we should surely rule out the ineffability thesis." (p. 93)

We don't understand the concept of God

Here, Nielsen reminds us that what he wants is for the believer to show how God-talk is a coherent form of language. "Faith presupposes a minimal understanding of what you take on faith, and if my arguments are correct, we do not have that understanding of a nonathropomorphic concept of God" (p. 94).

He acknowledges that so far, his arguments have relied on verificationist principles, and that it clearly not the case that sentences are only meaningful if verifiable. Indeed, he goes so far as to claim that only sentences can be meaningful or not meaningful, and only statements can be true or false; many meaningful sentences fail to make statements ("Could you pass the butter?"). However, he also argues that some form of verifiability is correct in determining factual significance.

What makes a meaningful utterances fact-stating? Nielsen argues that "a statement has factual significance only if it is at least logically possible to indicate the conditions or set of conditions under which it could be to some degree confirmed or infirmed, i.e., that it is logically possible to state evidence for or against its truth," (p. 95). If you disagree, he says, try to think of a statement that everyone would agree has factual content that is not verifiable in principle.

In summary

In Judaism and Christianity, God is conceived of as a nonanthropomorphic, transcendent being upon whom the universe is dependent. Believers must accept certain that allegedly factual statements are true, such as "There is an infinite, eternal Creator of the world." Believers take these kinds of statements to be factual. Yet Nielsen argues that these pieces of God-talk are not directly confirmable or infirmable -- we have no idea how to establish their truth or falsity -- and thus they are, in reality, not factual statements at all. Because the utterances fail to be fact-stating, there is a fundamental incoherency at the heart of these religions. One has no reason to cling to incoherent beliefs.


sun beams through an array of puffy clouds over a grey-blue ocean

Is belief in God unjustified?

As a part of my recent philosophical wanderings, I'm reading Kai Nielsen's 1985 book Philosophy & Atheism. He wants to show that belief in God is unjustified.

Here's the route he takes in the first few chapters of the book.

Definitions of atheism and the problem of good empirical grounds

First, Nielsen defines a couple brands of atheism:

  1. If there is an anthropomorphic God proposed, the atheist rejects belief in God because it is false or probably false that there is such a God.

  2. If a non-anthropomorphic God is proposed, the atheist rejects belief in God because the concept of God is either meaningless, unintelligible, contradictory, or incoherent.

  3. The atheist rejects belief in God because the concept of God merely masks an atheistic substance, e.g., "God" as another name for love or as a symbolic term for moral ideals.

By "anthropomorphic," he references Zeus and Wotan -- gods for which we can know approximately what it would be like to encounter or observe them. By "non-anthropomorphic," he references the God of Luther and Calvin, Aquinas, and Maimonides, wherein God is transcendent to the world and cannot be pointed to; this God is mysterious and cannot be observed in any way, and certainly not through empirical means because anything that can be experienced and empirically observed is necessarily not an eternal transcendent reality (pg 16).

He then sets out the claims he intends to defend, namely, that

  1. There are good empirical grounds for believing there are no anthropomorphic spiritual beings, and

  2. There are good empirical grounds for believing that the non-anthropomorphic or even the slightly less radically anthropomorphic conceptions of God are incoherent or unintelligible.

In the first chapter, he relates some relevant autobiographical information: that he was raised with a vague Protestant background; he converted to Catholicism in late adolescence; he attended a Catholic university for two years and studied Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas; from these studies, he determined that one could not prove God's existence and went elsewhere to study anthropology and philosophy. He picked up influences from Spinoza, Peirce, Dewey, and Marx; also prominent were Hume and Kant's arguments that we have no grounds for belief in God (particularly an anthropomorphic God); from there he made his way to his current brand of atheism.

Here's a brief passage I wanted to share, primarily because I share Nielsen's concern about the jargon used by many philosophers. (Several friends of mine who've recently partaken in discussions of philosophy of religion with me can quickly attest that I regularly complain about the obscurity of the language used in the papers and books we read.)

"[S]ome of them [religious philosophers and theologians] also recognize that with Thomistic talk about Pure Actuality or Tillich's talk about Being-itself or anything of that order, it becomes utterly unclear what, if anything intelligible, is being affirmed that skeptics could not affirm as well. With such Thomistic or Tillichian talk, there is a complicated jargon but not intelligible additional claims of substance. Yet these Protestant thinkers still give us to understand that they themselves believe in something mysterious and profound and crucial to the human condition of which the nonbeliever has no understanding or no real understanding. They seem, however, to be quite incapable of explaining or even describing what this "more" is, though they are confident that they are not just saying the same thing as the skeptic in a more obscure and heightened vocabulary. Given such a state of affairs, I came to wonder, as did many others, if, after all, there really is a more than verbal difference and a difference in attitude between the sophisticated believer and the skeptic or whether such a believer actually succeeds in believing anything intelligible or coherent at all that is distinct from the purely secular beliefs of the skeptic" (p. 37).

In arguing that it should be impossible for someone with a tolerable scientific background and good philosophical training to think carefully about religious belief and then accept religious belief, Nielsen takes two approaches. First, he argues against proofs of God's existence, that revelation and religious experience are not in fact reliable and God cannot be known through these means, and that morality does not require religious belief. Second, building on the first set of arguments, he discusses whether and how we can establish the truth or probable truth of the claims of some religions, and whether we could reasonably accept those claims as articles of faith. He then turns to the question of whether religious beliefs can even count as valid truth-claims.

Essentially, Nielsen wants to show that belief in God is incoherent and thus unjustified.

A couple more detailed notes on Nielsen's arguments

I'm not going to spend a lot of time elaborating Nielsen's first argument, which is about how Hume and Kant concretely established that one cannot prove God's existence, and that "[r]eason and observation cannot show the unprejudiced mind, willing to follow the argument and evidence wherever it will go, that there is a God" (p. 43). Nielsen notes that many of us now take this fact as almost cultural dogma. He then addresses the question of religious experience:

"Since the destructive attacks of Hume and Kant, it has become rather common, particularly in certain Protestant circles, to claim that we do not need the proofs, even if we could have them, for we have a much surer way of knowing God, namely through direct religious experience" (p. 45).

There are two things wrong with this. First, the problem of introspection and attribution of causes to our thoughts, feelings, actions, etc. This is the problem Gazzaniga unearthed with his studies of split-brain patients; this is what Nisbett and Wilson talked about in their famous 1977 paper. There is no way to know that an experienced classified as "religious" actually is religious and actually has the supernatural as its cause.

Second, and this is the point Nielsen focuses on, the God of Judeo-Christian-Islamic religions cannot be encountered (perhaps Zeus could be, though). If God is a pure spirit, transcendent to the world, mysterious and infinite, how could we encounter such a being? We cannot literally meet with such a being via our normal senses; if we could, then God would not be the God just described. Nielsen reports that some people claim that experiencing God is about experiencing "one's finitude, to have feelings of dependency, awe, wonder, dread or to feel a oneness and a love and a sense of security, no matter what happens" (p. 46). The problem here is that these are human experiences that can be understand and experienced sans God. They can fit into a secular view. As Nielsen goes on to say,

"Why should we multiply conceptions beyond need and say these understandable human experiences are also experiences of God or that they are best explained as experiences of God or as attesting to the reality of God? We are not justified in postulating such odd entities unless there is reason to think that the phenomena cannot be adequately explained by reference to less recherche entities, which are plainly realities of our familiar spatio-temporal framework" (p. 46).

In summary, Nielsen argues that there is no religious experience that guarantees that our experience is of God.

Nielsen then discusses appeals to faith; he asks why, if we must accept religion solely on the religious authority, which authority should we accept? Why Jesus rather than Buddha or Mohammed?

"If there is no proof for the existence of God, no independent way of establishing or making credible his existence, isn't a claim that Christianity is the Truth and the Way both incredibly arrogant, ethnocentric, and arbitrary?" (p. 47)

He also points out that one need not believe in God to have purpose in one's life, which is often another point of contention:

"Without God there may be no purpose to life, but life can still be purposeful, be worth living, even if there is no overarching purpose to life. Even if there is no purpose of life or purpose to life there can be purposes in life, e.g., to cure the sick, to achieve racial equality and social justice, to achieve happiness and a fuller and more varied life for oneself and for those to whom one relates, to achieve love and close human bonds and solidarity. These are purposes we human beings can have and they remain intact in a Godless world" (p. 48).

The last of his main points is about the coherency of the concept of God. Specifically, he discusses what it means to talk about God and how the word "God" is grounded in our language. If, as he suggests all Judeo-Christian-Islamic religions do, we leave behind an anthropomorphic and idolatrous conception of God, then who or what does the believer pray and confess to? To what or to whom are we referring when we use the term "God"?

"..."God," unlike "Hans" or "Erika" or "Mexico," cannot be ostensibly defined or taught. As we have seen, it doesn't even make sense to speak of seeing or encountering God. We can't literally be aware of God or stand in the presence of God. The term "God" can only be introduced intra-linguistically through definite descriptions" (p. 49).

Descriptions he notes include statements like "God is the only infinite individual" and "God is the maker of universe" and "God is the only ultimate reality upon whom all other realities depend." The problem with these is that they raise more questions: what is it for something to transcend the world, be an ultimate reality, or be an infinite individual? The words clearly have some meaning grounded in the language we generally use them in, and perhaps some people claim to have a proper conception of what it means for something to be the maker of the universe, but Nielsen argues that it questionable that these kinds of characterizations of God have sufficiently unproblematic meaning for us to actually understand what it is we are referring to.

A question he poses is this: What support do we have for either, e.g., the claim that God is the maker of the universe, or the claim that God is not the maker of the universe? "What experinceable states of affairs count for one view and against the other such that on balance we are justified in claiming greater probability for one view over the other?" (p. 49). Nielsen claims that nothing does -- but if all possible experiences and observations are equally compatible with either claim, then, he asks, what is each actually asserting? How does either sentence succeed in asserting something different than the other? What is one sentence claiming that the other is denying? There appears to be no answer here; Nielsen argues that none of the assertions really assert anything, on either side. As he goes on to say,

"Moreover, it isn't the situation where we just have two theories equally compatible with the available evidence. What we have is one set of putative claims -- the religious ones -- claiming to assert something thoroughly different, through and through mysterious, and of a quite different order. Yet there are no differences of an experientially specifiable sort between the two accounts. Experientially the believer cannot show what more he is asserting, can't elucidate, except in equally perplexing terms, what he means to be saying that the non-believer is not, so that the suspicion is very difficult to resist that there is, after all, no nonverbal difference between them" (p. 50).

Nielsen's conclusion is that the sentences used to talk about God, and what the word "God" refers to, are such that we cannot ascertain their truth or falsity and cannot distinguish between assertions and denials except verbally. In which case, he suggests, the religions that speak of God thusly are tied to such heavily problematic conceptions that they are rendered incoherent. How are we justified in believing in something so incoherent?


As I briefly alluded to, this is just what Nielsen says in the first couple chapters. It'll be interesting to see where he takes his arguments over the course of the next couple hundred pages. I also have a more recent work of Nielsen's sitting in the stack of books waiting for my attention. Perhaps in a week or two I'll update you on my progress...