So what is wrong with proving God’s existence? Why should we think it is an entirely misguided project? The full answer to this question is rather complicated and would take a small book of its own to explain. So here’s a short version of it.

In Colossians 1, St Paul speaks about God’s having created everything “visible and invisible.” Now it’s a (self-evident!) certainty that everything is either visible or it’s not, so this language seems intended to convey that God has brought into existence and sustains everything other than Himself, without exception. If that is right, it would mean that God has not only created time and space and all the things that exist in the cosmos, but all the laws that govern creation as well. But in that case, the laws of math and logic – the laws of proof -  would apply creatures, but not to God. Since God is the creator of those laws, attempting to apply them to God actually demotes Him from being their Creator to the status of being merely one more creature subjected to them. For this reason, whatever can be proven would thereby not be God.

The usual reply to this is to say that if God isn’t subjected to the laws of logic, that means He can break those laws, and such a position yields a plethora of absurdities. The reply goes on this way: if God need not be logically consistent, then He can be perfectly good but also infinity wicked at the same time. Likewise, He can be all-knowing and totally ignorant, all-loving and unfailingly cruel, and all-powerful and totally helpless. In short, if God created the laws of logic, then our knowledge of God is completely destroyed. This reply, however, completely misses the point. It does not follow that if God created the laws of logic then He can break them. Rather, what follows is that they don’t apply to Him at all, and nothing can break a law to which the law doesn’t apply. So while creatures can’t break the law of non-contradiction because the law does apply to them, God can’t break that law because it doesn’t apply to His uncreated Being which is the Origin of all the laws found in creation.

One more thing. Saying that the law of non-contradiction doesn’t apply to God’s uncreated, originating Being, does not make God totally unknowable. What the New Testament says about Christ, as the Incarnation of God the Father, is that He laid aside His glory, took on the form of a human, and came to us as subjected to all the laws of creation. In short: there is that about God which we cannot know because it is not subjected to logical (or any other) laws, and there is that about God which we can know because He subjected Himself to laws He had created and did so just so we could know Him. Calvin puts the point this way:

                      the enumeration of his perfections, [God] is revealed

                                    not as he is in himself, but in relation to us...Every perfection

                                    [ascribed] to God may be contemplated in creation; and,

                                    hence such as we feel him to be when experience is our guide,

                                    such he declared himself to be in his word. (Inst, I, x, 2)

In other words, the logical (and other) laws do apply to the ways God relates to creation, i.e., to the ways He has accommodated himself to humans. That is because He creates His relations to the rest of creation, and since they are creaturely there is no difficulty with saying they have created properties that are subjected to created laws. But those laws do not apply to His uncreated, originating Self-Existence and that is exactly what the attempts to prove His reality do: they attempt to apply the logical laws so as to prove  His uncreated, Self-Existence.

These conclusions are controversial in many respects, and I can't reply here to all of the objections that could be raised against them. The final section of this essay will therefore deal with only two of them. The first objection concerns my inclusion of normal perceptual beliefs as self-evident and certain, and therefore counting as knowledge. A widespread view these days is that no perceptual beliefs have anything like certainty, and currently the most popular version of this view claims to be supported by science. It holds that only science can tell us which perceptions are reliable and to what extent.

The second objection is far broader in scope and is aimed at debunking self-evidence altogether. It is the pragmatist claim that we should believe something only on the ground that it works in practice, never because it is self-evident.


Skepticism about perception. The currently popular form of skepticism about perceptual knowledge stops short of denying that we can know there exists a world independent of us, but it does cast doubt on just how much of what we perceive can be taken to reflect that world. It does this by raising the question as to how much of what we perceive is actually contributed by our own minds. This question has been a big issue ever since it was raised by the philosopher, Immanuel Kant (d. 1804), and over the years a number of philosophical theories have been proposed to answer it. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, however, the question began to be approached from a scientific basis instead of depending on purely philosophi­cal arguments such as Kant's. In recent years versions of this scientific skepticism have again become influential, especially among some of the devotees of what is called "cognitive psychology."

One sort of evidence adduced for this skepticism lies in recent findings of psychology that show we often deceive ourselves by “seeing” what isn't there. Other evidence has to do with discoveries about how the brain processes stimuli. Yet another scientific source for this partial skepticism is the theory of evolution, and it is a skepticism that stems from Darwin himself. Darwin noticed that if the human brain is a product of random evolutionary processes, then we have no reason to believe that what we conceive by means of it corresponds to reality. He said:

With me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man's mind, which has been developed from the mind of lower  animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would anyone trust in the convictions of a monkey's mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?12

More recently philosopher Patricia Churchland has made the same point:

Boiled down to essentials, a nervous system enables the organism to succeed in the four F's: feeding, fleeing, fighting, and reproducing. The principle chore of nervous systems is to get the body parts where they should be in order that the organism may survive ....

Improvements in sensorimotor control confer an evolutionary ad­vantage: a fancier style of representing is advantageous so long as it is geared to the organism's way of lift and enhances the organism's chances of survival. Truth, whatever that is, definitely takes the hindmost.13

These comments throw doubt on all beliefs, perceptual beliefs included, and so have the ironic result that even though perceptual beliefs are necessary to survival, evolutionary theory seems to undercut their reliability. (Of course, this liability does not plague Theistic evolution, since what is random from the human point of view is still under God’s control, according to Prov. 26:33.) The question before us, then, is whether the mechanics of perception, the ways brains process stimuli, and taking them both to have developed evolutionarily, are good reasons to doubt that normal perception produces accurate beliefs about the world around us.

My rebuttal of this sort of skepticism is that it is self-assump­tively incoherent. I coined this term to describe a theory that tries to deny a belief that is in fact an assumption required in order for the theory to be true. Such an incoherency is a serious matter, for any theory that tries to show a belief to be false when that belief has to be true for the theory to be true, is in serious trouble.

Take Darwin's worries, for example. He's troubled by the thought that if our brains (and thus our belief-forming capacities) developed by random evolution, then there is no reason to trust any of our beliefs as true. The incoherency in this worry is this: being able to trust our belief-forming capacities is an assumption necessary to believing the theory of evolution. Unless we can trust our perceptions and belief-forming capacities to reveal reality, there are no reasons to believe the theory of evolution at all. In fact, if we can't trust our perceptual beliefs, there is no reason to believe that there are such things as brains to think or life forms to be explained.

The same sort of incoherency crops up in skepticism about perception based on discoveries about how our perceptual apparatus works. No matter what these findings may show about specific perceptions in specific circumstances, they can't possibly impugn wholesale the reliability of normal perception because normal perception is the source and (assumed reliable) ground of those very findings! It is incoherent to claim that a theory can show the unreliability of the very evidence on which it itself is based. If the theory undercuts its evidence, it undercuts itself; if it is itself undercut, it fails to undercut its evidence.

Nothing about this point is meant to deny that our powers of percep­tion are limited, weak and subject to error. We see only a small range of the spectrum of light, for example, and hear only a small segment of the total range of sounds. Our sense of smell is vastly inferior to that of many animals. And there is good  evidence that in certain circumstances our visual apparatus at times supplies connections between perceptions which we see but are not there.35 But admitting that perception is limited and fallible is not at all the same as thinking that it is (or even may be) seriously out of touch with reality. Nothing we discover about how we perceive could possibly supply good reasons to suppose our faculties are presenting a virtual reality show of their own making. And so, likewise, no discoveries about how perception works could override our experience that many perceptions yield self-evident beliefs.

If this argument from self-assumptive incoherency is correct, it will yield the same conclusion for our capacity to form non-perceptual beliefs that it did for perceptual beliefs. That is why I said that if Churchland is right in saying that the theory of evolution requires that (all) our capacities have evolved in such a way that "truth takes the hindmost," then she has no good reason to believe that very claim or the theory of evolution or anything else. Notice that I have not said that the self-assumptive incoherency of her position guarantees that her view of the relation between evolution and our capacity to acquire truth is outright false. That would be going too far. But what I do say is that her claim undercuts any possible justification for itself. And any theory that does that is a poor theory indeed.

For these reasons, it appears that science-based skepticism about the self-evidence we experience as attaching to many of the beliefs produced by normal perception does not succeed. Once we no longer insist that a belief needs to be infallible, or necessary, or seen true by everybody who understands it in order for it to be self-evident, there is no reason to deny the self-evidence that attaches to our best perceptions, includ- ing that the objects they reveal are real independently of our perceiving them..

The pragmatic objection. But what about the pragmatists' criticism that no belief is ever justified by self-evidence? The pragmatist position is that beliefs are to be accepted or not depending on their results, so that we never start off being certain of any belief. This means that it is not, strictly speaking, the truth of a belief we come to see by trying it out, but its usefulness. According to this theory, there is really no such property of a belief as truth in the sense of corresponding to reality, so there is surely no such experience as the experience of recognizing a belief to be self-evidently true. And this point holds even for the most basic truths of logic and mathematics. Even 1 + 1 = 2 can't be known to correspond to reality prior to trying it out, and trying it out shows it to be "adequate" for our purposes rather than true.

Since this may sound far-fetched, let me add that this brief description of pragmatism is not a caricature; it is not a set of accusations that I and other critics make against pragmatism, but is the way pragmatists describe their own position. Listen to the prominent twentieth century pragmatist Ernest Nagel:

"There is no way of ascertaining the adequacy of a logical method before we have exercised it to reveal its powers and limitations." 14 

And again,

"The general problem of truth .. . is thus the problem of perfecting methods of inquiry which ... exhibit themselves as competent to do the job for which they are invented." 15

Nagel then goes on to disparage the appeal to self-evidence by ridicul­ing the idea that "there must be transparently luminous universal truths which the intellect grasps as self-evident,"16 and sums up his position this way: "The supposition that the fundamental principles of a science can be established by appeal to self-evidency is thus not even plausible."17 Of course, if Nagel meant only to deny that self-evidence guarantees infalli­bility, I would have no quarrel with him. But he means to say much more; he means to say that we can dispense altogether with appealing to the experience of self-evidence.18

But it is utterly implausible that all beliefs and concepts are accepted because we find them useful in satisfying our needs and desires. They can't all be that, because we would already have to have beliefs about what our needs and desires are in order to invent still other beliefs to satisfy them. A great many perceptual and memory beliefs, for example, would have to be held by us on some other ground than testing their usefulness in order for testing their usefulness to get started. Nor are perceptual and memory beliefs the only prerequisites to thinking up pragmatic credit checks. Any test will have to use logical reasoning and involve number concepts. And surely pragmatists, as well as the rest of us, see the truth of mathematical truths such as 1 + 1 = 2 prior to "experimenting" with them to "find their powers and limitations."

Likewise, for the logical axioms. Are we to accept as solemn fact that pragmatists really try out the axioms of logic before employing them so they can know whether they are "competent to do the job for which they are invented?" How can anyone try out logical laws without employing them? How could anyone actually test the pragmatic value of a belief without presupposing that any concept, belief, or test that turns out to be logically inconsistent is therefore false? And can we take seriously the suggestion that the orderliness expressed by logical axioms and rules is really our own invention rather than a kind of order we discover in our experience? How, without assuming logical consistency as a criterion, could we have invented anything, let alone the idea of logical consistency?

Moreover, the force or "irresistibility" of self-evident beliefs counts against the pragmatist's position in yet another way. The pragmatist keeps telling us that every concept and belief is our own invention, created by us to satisfy our needs and desires. For that reason, none can be known to correspond to reality, nor need they correspond to anything in order to "do the job for which they were invented." But if that is so, why are they so intractable? Why are they so outside our control?

I have made this point before, so now I am going to put it in a different way. Try this experiment: look at any object close at hand, such as the book in which you now see these words, and try to believe that it is not real.

Can you do it? Why not? If your belief that you are seeing these words is, as the pragmatist says, your own invention, then why can't you dismiss your own invention? The same holds for 1 + 1 = 2 and the axiom of equals. Can you get yourself to believe they are false? If they were really our own theories - hypotheses we invented for our own convenience - we should be able to revoke or replace them at our convenience as well. But we can't. And that is powerful reason to think they're discoveries rather than inventions in the first place.

Another problem for pragmatism is that its highest value (useful­ness) can be compatible with falsity. It is well-known that in science a theory may be shown false in the very sense the pragmatist wishes to ignore: it can be tested and its predictions shown not to correspond to reality. Yet it can still be useful within certain limits.19 Its usefulness will not, however, remove the fact that it is still a false explanation. But if truth meant nothing more than usefulness, it should not be possible to discover that a useful theory is false! By abandoning truth as correspondence to reality, the pragmatist cannot explain how such a discovery is possible.

This latter point has another side, which is that the pragmatist can never avoid using an appeal to truth in the very sense he rejects in order to defend his position. For example, the more recent pragmatist philosopher, Richard Rorty, has a version of pragmatism that focuses on language as the chief tool by which we create the rest of our reality. In the course of arguing for that view he says,

The ... notion of language as a tool rather than a picture is right as far as it goes. But we must be careful not to phrase this analogy so as to suggest that one can separate the tool, language, from its users and inquire as to its "adequacy" to achieve our purposes .... The attempt to say "how language refers to the world" by saying what makes certain sentences true ... is, on this view, impossible.20

But how can Rorty claim to know that it is impossible for us to understand how language relates to the world? Isn't that a claim that purports to know something that corresponds to reality and is therefore more than just an invention of our own? This is but one example of what I find typical of the pragmatist position generally; its arguments are self-assumptively incoherent. At every turn, it must assume the truth of what it is denying in order to make its arguments. And for that reason, pragmatism gives us no good ground to reject our experience of self-evidence.


The upshot of all this is that in our experience self-evidence attaches to more kinds of beliefs and are thus the ground of more of what we take to be knowledge than has been recognized by traditional theories of knowledge. It does not attach only to beliefs in math and logic, or only to beliefs agreed on by everyone, or only to beliefs that are necessary truths. It also attaches to contingent beliefs, person-relative beliefs and beliefs about subject matters of all sorts. There is, therefore, no good reason to deny that it also attaches to most of our perceptual beliefs and memory beliefs. The average person's belief that she knows she's standing in her own doorway, and knows her name, address, and telephone number, turns out to be right after all!21

This conclusion still leaves many objections and questions unanswered, of course, as this is only a short essay. There are questions about how to sort out further the positive and negative confirmations of self-evidence, for example, and of just how and when self-evident beliefs work in tandem with other elements of experience to provide justification for beliefs that are not self-evident. There are also questions surrounding the extent to which self-evidence is the ground - or part of the ground - for specific beliefs that have turned out to be so difficult to account for in other ways, such as the universal belief that other people have minds.

But delving into these issues would require either setting our findings in the context of an entire theory of knowledge or using them as a key element for constructing such a theory, either of which is beyond the scope of this essay. For now, it is enough to have shown good reasons for thinking that no theory of knowledge can be adequate that cannot accommodate what we have found here: self-evident truth is indispensable for knowledge and is experienced across the entire spectrum of human experience.22 

Остання зміна: вівторок 28 січня 2020 07:02 AM