Debating about the existence of God has been a popular philosophical pastime for centuries. One often overlooked part of the debate focuses on the possibility of even being able to address the question.
Pascal, in his famous Wager, presents a brief argument as to why God’s existence cannot be proven. The gist of it is that God, if He exists, is nothing like us. He has no parts and no limits and is hence infinitely incomprehensible. Because of this, Pascal proposes his alternative: although we cannot argue for God’s existence, we can approach the matter as a gambler would. He, not surprisingly, argues that God is the best bet.
In their writings on religion David Hume and Immanuel Kant both present skeptical arguments. Oversimplifying things a bit, there arguments center on the idea that God is, by hypothesis, beyond the realm of empirical human experience. In short, since God is beyond our experience we have no adequate evidence for His existence. Of course, as Hume and Kant make clear, we also have no adequate evidence for His non-existence.
While atheism is the popular intellectual view and theism is the popular view, a philosopher is obligated to go beyond the fads of the masses and the intellectuals. I find Pascal, Hume and Kant’s arguments persuasive and believe that they need to be very seriously considered. I incorporate this belief into my teaching. To be specific, when I teach the section in my Intro class on philosophy & religion I always begin by making it clear that the first question that needs to be addressed when talking about God is this: what does “God” mean? Atheists and theists toss the word around as if they know exactly of what they speak. However, no one seems to have a very clear account of God that is philosophically adequate. Using terms such as “the supreme being”, “that which nothing can be conceived” and so on helps a bit, but mostly it helps confuse things even more. So, when people ask me if I believe in God, I always ask them what they mean. While I am a smart ass, my question is an honest one. To answer their question fairly I need to know what they are asking. Also, I really do want to know what “God” truly means.
Some people say they can avoid all this by faith. They just know God exists because of their faith in Him. But, I must ask, what do they have faith in exactly? If they do not know what they believe in, then what do they believe? Again, this view might make me appear to be a smart ass atheist. But this is not the case-my goal, as always, is to find the truth. I am usually sadly disappointed when I ask people about what they believe. The God they think about is all too often a mysterious being who heartily endorses their hatreds, prejudices and biases. I don’t think God is all about hate and prejudice.
The best account I have heard of God is in St. Augustine: God is love. I find that very appealing and I like that much more than I like the idea that God is something to be feared. Or, worse yet, the view that God is full of hate and rage. But, “love” is also a tough word. Not as tough as “God”, but still very difficult. Ah, nothing like trying to clear up an obscurity with a mystery. 🙂