Philosophy & Religion

Intelligent Design dressed in science
Reply to the science dressing
Creationism examined
Logical Impossibility of Divine Cause of the Universe--Prof. Smith


The existence of god


Monroe C. Beardsley, Swathmore College

Elizabeth Lane Beardsley, Temple University         (JK’s Ethics Professor, 1968)


From Philosophically Thinking:  An introduction

Harcourt, Brace & World, 1965


One of the basic religious questions distinguished in the preceding chapter was the question "What characteristics of nonhuman reality are of the greatest significance for human life?" Because of its special momentousness, this question gave us a very useful basis for classifying religious beliefs into those that are theist and those that are non-theist. But our purpose here is not merely to set up classifications and distinctions, essential as they are for any clear discussion of religion. We want to move on to active philosophical thinking about the basic religious questions. Consider theism, particularly the form of theism most familiar in our society, the belief in a personal and transcendent God. We want to ask: Is this belief true? Are we justified in adopting it?


The answer to these questions, of course, must be reached by each individual in the privacy of his own mind. But if he is educated and intelli­gent, he will want to reach his conclusions in the light of serious reflection. Now, it is true that there are devout religious people who feel that they do not need to think philosophically about religious questions, and some who even feel that it is best to acquire religious beliefs with as little philosoph­ical thinking as possible. This attitude presents a very fundamental chal­lenge to the whole philosophical enterprise, and we shall come back to it again, in Chapter 4. But let us begin with a point of view that should seem to most people both plain and sensible. To assert that God exists is to make a very important assertion about reality. And at first glance, anyway, it seems reasonable to ask whether that assertion can be justified.


In this chapter, we shall launch a philosophical examination of the belief in the existence of a personal, transcendent god. A philosophical examina­tion of a belief, as we have seen, proceeds by asking what reasons there are for holding it. To give a reason for any proposition is to construct an argument of some kind, and so we may speak of arguments for the exist­ence of God. We shall set forth the main types of argument for the existence of God, analyze briefly those arguments that seem most convincing and instructive, and suggest some further lines of thought for you to pursue. Some of these will reappear in later chapters of this book. Others, however, you will want to reflect on at greater length independently, perhaps with the aid of the books and articles suggested in the bibliog­raphies.




The simplest and most convincing way of knowing the existence of any­thing would presumably be to meet it in experience. How do you know that you are dizzy? Because you feel it. How do you know that the tree outside your window exists? Because you see it. How do you know there is such a thing as mumps? Because you have had it.


Well, perhaps the third example takes too much for granted. You can certainly have mumps without knowing you have it—before the doctor tells you. If the disease consists in being attacked by micro-organisms, then you can't strictly see the mumps—at least not without a microscope. But if the symptoms of the disease are part of it, then you can certainly feel them. The trouble with the first example—if there is any trouble with it—is that the knowledge of dizziness and the feeling seem difficult to distinguish: what you know by the experience of dizziness is simply that you are having the experience of dizziness. But the tree example is different: you have the experience of seeing the tree, and you know that there w a tree, out there standing firmly and solidly by the driveway. The sight of it is what shows you it exists. Seeing is believing.


Now if we pause to reflect on even this simple example, it turns out to be less simple than it looks; but its hidden philosophical problems will have to wait until Chapter 5. Let us for the present accept the account as given, and say that you know the existence of the tree by seeing (and maybe also by touching and smelling) it. And let us also agree, for the moment, that when you see the tree hi broad daylight, being sober and wide awake, with, well-tested vision, and in a cool and detached but attentive frame of mind, you are probably justified in believing that the tree does exist, and indeed in believing this with the highest degree of confidence.


§ 1. Mystic Experience


Is there, then, a way of knowing the existence of God that is like this I*' way of knowing the existence of the tree—equally immediate and indubit­able? Of course God is not a physical object, and therefore is not to be sensed. Yet there may be another kind of experience, different from sense experience in some ways but like it in others, in which God is confronted directly, the way the tree seems to be confronted in vision. In such an experience, his existence, and his nature to some extent, would appear to us as clearly, as convincingly, as compellingly as the tree appears in daylight to the eye. According to many people, there is immediate experi­ence of just this kind. And the first argument for the existence of God that we must consider is this: we know that God exists because human beings have had a direct experience of him.


Before considering the features that this experience is said to have by those who have enjoyed it, it is well for us to note certain points of terminology. The expression "religious experience" is often used synony­mously with the expression "direct experience of God." For those who adopt a definition of "religion" as broad as that set forth in the preceding chapter, this limitation of the scope of the term "religious experience" is unacceptable. The meaning of the term cannot be restricted to experience of the deity of one religious tradition.


But within a broad category of religious experience we must distinguish the very important form of experience that has been called "mystic." Mystic experience is experience manifesting a radical difference from the experiences of daily life. It purports to be an immediate acquaintance with some fundamental aspect of the nature of things lying beyond the natural world, an authoritative intuition or revelation; it usually carries with it great emotional force and the power to transform the life of the experiencer; and, though some verbal description of the experience can usually be given, its full nature cannot be put into words.


Most of the major religious traditions have within them a strain of mystic experience, though differing emphases and evaluations have been given to it. Westerners will think primarily of the celebrated Christian religious mystics, but we should not think exclusively of them. One distinc­tive feature of satori, the experience of enlightenment in Zen Buddhism, is that despite its unique qualities the most ordinary aspects of everyday life may serve to bring it about. Thus D. T. Suzuki writes:


The Zen masters . . . are always found trying to avail themselves of every apparently trivial incident of life in order to make the disciples' minds flow into a channel hitherto altogether unperceived. It is like picking a hidden lock, the flood of new experiences gushes forth from the opening. It is again like the clock's striking the hours; when the appointed time comes it clicks, and the whole percussion of sounds is released. The mind seems to have something of this mechanism; when a certain moment is reached, a hitherto closed screen is lifted, an entirely new vista opens up, and the tone of one's whole life thereafter changes. . . . When this wiser and deeper world opens, everyday life, even the most trivial thing of it, grows loaded with the truths of Zen.


The satori experience, Suzuki continues, is "not a conclusion to be reached by reasoning, and defies all intellectual determination." It nevertheless contains knowledge of an immediate and authoritative or final kind; but about the object of this knowledge there is nothing definite that can be said.


To call this the Beyond, the Absolute, or God, or a Person is to go further than the experience itself and to plunge into a theology or metaphysics. . . . Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the Zen experience is that it has no personal note in it as is observable in Christian mystic experiences.1


Mystic experience that has taken the form of an encounter with a personal deity—the form we shall be concerned with from now on—has occurred in various degrees of intensity and clarity. In its mildest or most diffuse form, it may be only the vague sense of some Presence in the world about us:  a feeling that there is a friendly power in nature, or an unseen spirit who is aware of us and concerned for us. In its most intense and compelling form, it is an overwhelming consciousness of communion with God, perhaps accompanied by visual imagery and by sounds of superhuman speech. Then the consciousness of God becomes a transport of ecstasy, a feeling of utter oneness with the divine, of blessedness and more than natural aliveness. It is an opening of a door into the beyond, a parting of the veil of sense-experience, a white light of radiant truth, a lifting of the spirit into another realm. In these and many other ways the great mystics have described their experiences while reminding us constantly that no words, however profoundly symbolic and metaphorical, can convey more than a pallid sense of what that experience is like. Those who have had mystic experiences in milder forms may often have been left with some doubt in their minds that it was really God they experienced, but the more intense mystics have testified to the utter conviction of God's existence that came to them in their experiences.


There does not seem to be any serious doubt that such experiences have actually occurred. Those who have had mystic experiences generally know, of course, that they have had them. Others can appeal to their testimony. Wordsworth, for example, tells us of a comparatively mild and common form of religious experience in "Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey":


And I have felt

A presence that disturbs me with the joy

Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime

Of something far more deeply interfused, Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, And the round ocean and the living air,

And the blue sky, and in the mind of man: A motion and a spirit, that impels

All thinking things, all objects of all thought,

And rolls through all things. 


Saint Gertrude of Helfta (thirteenth century) testifies with evident sincerity to an experience of the intense sort:


When then, as I have just said, Thou didst approach Thine adorable face ... I perceived a gentle light proceeding from Thy divine eyes and passing through mine, spreading itself in every secret part of me, and seeming to fill all my members with a wonderful power and strength. At first it was as though it had dried up the marrow of my bones, and then, destroying the flesh and bones themselves, as if my whole substance were nothing else but this divine splendor which shone within it with greater allurement and beauty than is possible to tell, filling my soul with joy and incredible calmness.2


Testimony is typically backed by deeds. For the deeper sort of religious experience has often left its mark upon the mystic. From the conversions of St. Paul and St. Augustine, for example—radical changes in their whole way of life—we can infer that something tremendous happened to them, something that shook them to the roots of their personalities. And this is strong and circumstantial evidence that mystic experiences really do occur. The philosophical question, however, is not whether there are mystic experiences with the felt characteristics described, but whether they are a source of knowledge, a justification of belief. Now this question may seem impertinent after what we have just said. And the mystic is likely to be impatient with it. If such a soul-shattering experience doesn't prove the existence of God, what else could possibly prove it? When one has been through that fire, passed beyond that border, what more could he ask by way of proof? As St. Teresa says,


One who has experienced this will understand something of it; it cannot be more clearly expressed, since all that comes to pass in this state is so obscure. I can only say that the soul feels close to God and that there abides within it such a certainty that it cannot possibly do other than believe.3


Who, then, is the querulous philosopher, to raise doubts about that precious certainty, so rarely attained and so highly valued?


It must be confessed that the philosopher's question is sometimes irritatingly ill-timed, even when he tries to be tactful. But surely in this case its legitimacy is apparent. Remember that the philosopher doesn't ask questions in a spirit of ridicule or contempt, but only because he thinks the problem needs looking into a little more deeply. It is plain to all of us, when we stop to think about it, that sometimes we experience things that aren't so—we see, right there before our very eyes, the lady being sawed in two, but she isn't. Is it possible that the mystic, too, experiences some­thing that isn't so? And if not, why not? That is what the philosopher would like to know.


But of course, as with most philosophical questions, this is asking a good deal. And some philosophers have come to a skeptical conclusion. Accord­ing to them, it is not only possible, but highly probable, that mystic experiences are illusory—that is, what seems in them to be true is really false. For this conclusion a number of reasons have been given, especially these three: (1) The number of mystics is small compared to the remainder of the population, and it is their word against the vast majority; therefore, they are like color-blind people who see gray where there is really green. (2) Though some weight might be attached to the reports of mystics if they corroborated each other completely, in fact they do not. Even the mystics within the same religious traditions have experienced God in so many different ways—as unity and as trinity, as omnipotent and as finitely powerful, as immanent hi nature and as beyond nature, as anthropomorphic and as non-anthropomorphic—that it seems unlikely that they have experi­enced the same God. Therefore they are like witnesses to an automobile accident who give such different reports of what they saw that we cannot credit any one of them. (3) Nearly all mystics have found that mystic experience seldom comes uninvited, and they have in fact worked out elaborate techniques of preparation. But some of these techniques, such as fasting, sleeping on a damp stone floor, wearing hair shirts, and various forms of self-torture, are designed to induce highly abnormal physiological and psychological conditions. And what we experience under those patho­logical conditions, like the hallucinations of the advanced alcoholic or the psychotic, are precisely what we ought most to mistrust—especially when the strongest wishful thinking may also be present.


We must now consider each of these objections in turn.


§ 2. The Testimony of the Mystics


To the first objection, that mystics are a minority, the mystic has a definite and plausible reply. Experiencing God happens to require certain spiritual faculties that most people lack, and many people who have them lack the proper training to use them. Most people are incapable of hearing the individual parts in a complex fugue, but that doesn't prove that the conductor doesn't hear them. The non-mystic has no positive data to contra­dict the mystic—he doesn't experience the nonexistence of God (how could that be?); he simply has no relevant experience at all. The analogy with color blindness is misapplied. It is not simply because the color-blind are in a minority that they are said to be mistaken. It is because we can show by tests of perception that those who have color vision can make discrimi­nations that the color-blind cannot make. In the case of mysticism, it is the mystic who sees things that others don't. Surely if one group is mistaken, it is more likely to be those who fail to see what others see.


Look at the matter in another way. Only a very small percentage of human beings have been to the South Pole, or climbed the Himalayas, or orbited the earth. Surely they know some things—because they have seen some things—that the rest of us don't. But we don't disbelieve what they say just because we haven't had the experiences ourselves. Or, better, imagine a world of people who have all of our senses but sight, except for a very few gifted ones who can see as we do. Those who cannot see—the vast majority—have no concrete conception of what the sighted ones experience, and there is no way the latter—call them the seers—can make them understand. The seers claim to know by sight things the others can never know—distant mountains, the blue sky, the constellations of stars. Suppose that among the sightless ones there are skeptics who use the same argument that is advanced against the mystic: they say the seers are seeing things that don't exist, and that the majority must be right. Aren't mystics bound to be doubted by the rest, precisely because they know uncommon truth?

Unfortunately this analogy works the other way as well. For in our imaginary world the seers can quite readily prove to the rest that they do have a source of knowledge that the others do not have. They can predict storms by seeing clouds before the rest hear thunder; they can predict that something is about to fall on someone's head before it hits him; from a distance they can distinguish between lions and giraffes even before the other hunters' keen sense of smell enables them to tell. So that even though the others are sightless, they can know in their own way that the seers have a source of knowledge not available to them. Can we not then expect the mystic to convince the rest of us, in an analogous way, that his claim is true?


But the mystic may well evade the objection even in this form. What is a "source of knowledge," after all? Seeing and hearing are different senses, but from the mystic's point of view they are basically similar—they yield sense-experience. It is not surprising if the same event—say, a distant storm—is discovered by a deaf man's eyes and by a blind man's ears. But the mystic experience is radically different from sense-experience of any sort, and it is absurd to expect the mystic to convince those of us who have only sense-experiences that he needs no sense-experience at all to know God. Of course, if the mystic knew the same sort of things that we know— if, for example, he could infallibly predict the results of basketball games and stock investments—then we would certainly acquire a respect for his knowledge, even if we didn't share or even understand it. But the mystic experience is not an experience of anything in this world; it purports to be a contact with another world, and there seems to be no way of checking up on it except by other mystic experience.


This last reflection brings us to the second objection against the mystic's claim that his experience is a source of knowledge. The mystic argues that the first objection is by no means fatal to him: the fact that mystics are few does not show that they don't have knowledge. But what about the fact that mystics disagree?  Doesn't this cast doubt upon their reliability?


In the nature of the case, the mystic will reply, it is extremely difficult to determine how much mystics disagree, or whether their disagreements are really fundamental. We must grant that, at its most intense, the mystic experience is so different from all other experiences that it is very difficult to describe. Some mystics have refused to talk about it at all. And the rest have usually apologized that they can at best give vaguely metaphorical descriptions, in words that only point toward the experience but do not really encompass it. Thus, it is not surprising that one mystic chooses words that emphasize the sublime unity of the Godhead, while another chooses words that seem to distinguish between the three persons of the Trinity. They are not necessarily contradicting each other, but only hinting at different aspects of the same essential Being. In some such way as this all the apparent divergences of report might be explained away.


Of course, if the language of the mystics is inevitably so loose and vague that they cannot contradict one another, it must also be so loose and vague that they cannot corroborate one another, either. And the skeptic might argue, on the other side, that even when mystics seem to agree, they are really disagreeing—because even when they use the same metaphorical words (since the cultural contexts are very different) they are probably using them in different senses. There doesn't seem to be any way of settling this dispute. So perhaps we cannot really think of all mystics together as knowing something the rest of us do not know: if they have different and incompatible beliefs, then some of them—perhaps all—must be mistaken.


Even if mystics do disagree, however, this does not show that there is no such thing as knowledge through mystic experience. Consider again the analogy of the several people who witness an auto accident and give con­flicting reports. If the reports contradict each other, not all of them can be true, but it by no means follows that none of them is true. Of course, it may be difficult to determine which of them is true, if they are all equally circumstantial. But we cannot prove that seeing is never a good reason for believing, just because seeings sometimes disagree. So perhaps this second objection against mystic knowledge does not decisively refute it.


What, then, of the third objection? Suppose for the moment something that is not true: that mystic experiences occur only under abnormal condi­tions. Would that show that they cannot be taken as experiences of objec­tively existing reality? Surely it does not show—at least not conclusively—any such thing. Imagine people in a primitive culture who take some weird drug (like peyote) on ritual occasions and claim that when they are under its influence, and only then, a new sense comes into play and they become aware of, and even silently and telepathically converse with, beings who inhabit another plane of reality and are utterly inaccessible to normal experience. Suppose you try the drug yourself and find that you too have such experiences. No doubt while the experience continues, you won't doubt the existence of these beings. Still, after it is over, you must wonder whether it was only a strange dream induced by the drug's effects upon the brain. An odd sort of dream, in one way, since it always recurs in a similar form whenever anyone takes the drug. But still a dream, you might say, because who can trust his experience when he is drugged? Or—we might add against many mystics—when sick and feverish, or tragically despairing, or tired and exhausted, or hysterical?


Now it could be the case that only under abnormal and pathological conditions is a certain kind of knowledge to be obtained. The mystic's claim is surely not impossible. In fact, some present-day experimenters with the so-called hallucinogenic drugs, such as psilocybin and LSD-25, believe that they may serve a genuinely religious purpose by acting upon the brain hi such a way that the mind becomes capable of penetrating into a world behind the ordinary world. (Experimenters hi California have obtained more startling results than those elsewhere.) When someone who has taken one of these drugs reports that he has had an experience of extraordinary insight into truth, has come face to face with the deity, it may be because the drug enables him' to do what the mystic can do without drugs—though perhaps not without his own physical or spiritual preparations.


Yet this claim, though not absurd, is not to be accepted without careful scrutiny. It runs counter to what seems to hold good for so many other areas of knowledge where we have learned to mistrust precisely those beliefs (our own or others') acquired hi a state of wild emotion, intoxica­tion, fever, etc. And so, at the least, a study of the conditions of mystic experience, while not refuting the mystic, may make us consider his claims in a different way. For now we think of the mystic experience, the ecstasy and the illumination, as something that has to be explained, and thus interpreted. One possible hypothesis is that the mystic has those experiences because he really does make contact with a supernatural person, but an alternative hypothesis is that he has them because of purely natural causes, physiological or psychological. If mystic experience can be explained in a natural way, there is no need to invoke God as an explanation. It now becomes a question which of these explanations is the more probable. Only when we make up our mind about that question can we decide how much stock to put in mystic experience as a justification for believing hi the actual existence of its purported object.


The effect of this line of argument is to undercut the claim to immediacy in the mystic experience. Now, there may be such a thing as immediate knowledge, knowledge with no tinge of inference at all—as when you know that you are dizzy. But what you know in this case, as we saw earlier, is precisely that you are having the experience of dizziness—it isn't that you know something else by way of the experience. Now, mystics often talk as though in their ecstatic state no distinction can be made between the experience and the object that it is an experience of. They speak of looking inward for the truth. Many have said, with Ruysbroeck, "The soul finds God in its own depths."4 But of course this is a figurative way of speaking. God is an infinite being supposed to exist eternally, and he is therefore not literally in the soul. God is one thing, and a particular experience of him, however intense, is another thing; and in the claim to mystical knowl­edge there is a leap from the experience to God.

Therefore, it can be argued that the claim to immediate religious certainty needs to be moderated. The experience cannot be self-authenticat­ing. Probabilities enter in. The mystic must be content to argue that the best way of accounting for his experience is by supposing that God exists and was revealed to him, just as the best way of accounting for your seeing a tree on a bright sunny day when you are cold sober is by supposing that there is actually a tree out there. But your belief in the existence of the tree, even after you have seen it, can be strengthened or weakened by other evidence that could be obtained—by testing your eyes, or taking your temperature, or touching the tree. And if a dispute arose about whether the tree really is there, this other evidence would have to be appealed to. Now, this is exactly the locus of the dispute about mysticism—whether or not the mystic really does "see" God. And so, it would appear, his experi­ence itself cannot be conclusive grounds for his belief—and, of course, much less for our belief if we are not ourselves mystics. He will need the support of other evidence of God's existence not derived from religious experience—if such evidence can be found.


At this point, then, we shift to a very different way of knowing about God. The difference is like that in court between the testimony of eyewit­nesses and the appeal to circumstantial evidence. If one does not settle the question, perhaps the other will.




1 D. T. Suzuki, Zen Buddhism,  (ed.) William Barrett (New York: Doubleday, Anchor Book, 1956), pp. 90-91, 103, 106.

2 From H. A. Reinhold (ed.), The Soul Afire: Revelations of the Mystics (New York: Pantheon, 1944), pp. 311-12.

3   W. T. Stace (ed.), The Teachings of the Mystics (New York: Mentor Books, I960), p. 180.