The Big Question: A Beginning

A reader has asked for my answer to The Big Question. This isn’t it; but it’s a start.

In his Mind, Language, and Society, John Searle tells of a dinner he attended at which Bertrand Russell spoke.

Periodically, every two years or so, the Voltaire Society, a society of intellectually inclined undergraduates at Oxford held a banquet with Bertrand Russell—the official patron of the society. One the occasion in question, we all went up to London and had dinner with Russell at a restaurant. He was thing in his mideighties [sic], and had a reputation as a famous atheist. To many of us, the question seemed pressing as to what sort of prospects for immortality Russell entertained, and we put it to him: Suppose you have been wrong about the existence of God. Suppose that the whole story were true, and that you arrived at the Pearly Gates to be admitted by Saint Peter. Having denied God’s existence all your life, what you say to…Him? Russell answered with a moment’s hesitation. “Well, I would go up to Him, and I would say, ‘You didn’t give us enough evidence!'”

Searle is, of course, one of the most well known living philosophers, and a man whose views closely parallel my own. The book is Searle’s attempt at answering the other big questions, the ones that come right after the biggest: is there a real world, do we have direct access to that world, is language a reasonable description of the world, are our statements true or false just in case they do or not correspond to how things are, and is cause and effect the way things work?

He defends what he calls the “default” position on these items (yes to all). But he offers nothing on the biggie, except to say that when writing books of this sort,

Nowadays, nobody bothers, and it is considered in slightly bad taste to even raise the questions of God’s existence. Matters of religion are like matters of sexual preference: they are not to be discussed in public, and even the abstract questions are discussed only by bores.

He then offers the Russell anecdote to explain his take on the Big Question. It is mine, too. But my interpretation of Russell’s “You didn’t give us enough evidence!” is quite different. I think that the lack of evidence is either necessarily true or that it is no bar to belief because there are plenty of things we know without evidence.

Understand, it is not that we do not have enough evidence, it is that we have no (external) evidence. This lack is replaced by faith, and necessarily so. All mathematical axioms fit this description: these are statements which we accept as true based on no evidence except that offered by our intuitions. All a priori knowledge fits this description, whether theological or no.

Of course, it doesn’t immediately follow that belief in God must be one of these a priori beliefs. And that is as far as I will take the Big Question today.

Except to say that because our, usually university-based, intellectuals find the question embarrassing, our education on this topic is all-too-often self directed; which is another way to say that it is stunted, limited, often wrong, and usually ill informed.

Our situation is not novel: John Henry Newman was complaining of this lack of theological education over 150 years ago in The Idea Of A University. He commented on the, even then, prevailing mindset of intellectuals:

Religious faith is a sentiment, a feeling, not an intellectual act, with truth for its object and with knowledge for its result. Religion is based, not on argument, but on taste and sentiment: nothing is objective, everything subjective in divine doctrine. It is as unreasonable then to demand a professional chair for religion as a chair for maternal affection…

Knowledge as regards the creature is regarded as illimitable; but impossible and hopeless as regards the being, attribute and marks of a Creator.

Faith is “not an act of the intellect, but a feeling, an emotion, an appetency; and, as this view of Faith obtained, so was the connexion of Faith with Truth and Knowledge more and more either forgotten or denied.”

The view of religion as solely a matter for sentiment is now pervasive, shared by atheists, agnostics, and theists alike. It explains the embarrassment of intellectuals is discussing the matter. It is why theists are either uncomfortable talking about their belief—“It’s a personal decision”—or why they are not uncomfortable enough: “It’s obvious, you blockhead!” And it is why atheists condemn or dismiss theism: “They’re letting their emotions substitute for reason!”

There is more to a reasoned discussion of the Big Question than yet another dry-as-dust rehashing of the ontological argument. The subject, as Cardinal Newman suggested, is like any other, and is amendable to cool, dispassionate intellect.


  1. I kinda agree with all of this, but I disagree on one point: I think it’s rather paternalistic to say that people only cling to one or the other option due to “sentiments”. Because the question is a question about the truth of a proposition, there is more to it than saying things like “I love my mother” and stuff. It’s about the truth of the matter, and that’s a bit more than a sentiment.

    Now we can say, like you say, that the basis for our choices are sentimental. I think that’s a degraded view. It’s a cop out, a sentimental answer itself. It’s like saying “I don’t like the question, so I’ll say I don’t think answering it is fruitful, therefore anyone who will is a bore”. I’m okay with that, but it’s also a sentiment itself, it’s not like you’ve answered the question, now is it? 🙂

    I do think that there is evidence to be put on a case here. Many cases have been put, and many different types of evidence too. I do think that the question is answerable in rational terms, but not in an absolute way, of course. Theology is interesting, specially in historical terms, to see how the rational thought evolved through the ages, what we thought as being “obvious” turning to doubtful, what was “evident” now seen as an “embarrassment”… these things are peculiar.

    Anyways, I don’t bother to live in a world where religious behavior is a personal sentiment, and any clear alleged rational assertion about it is embarrassing and avoided by the majority of people. Unfortunately, I don’t think we live in such a world….

  2. If the big, “Does God exist?” is amendable as you say then I suggest amending it to, “Does it make a difference if God exists?” I don’t think the answer is immediately obvious.

    I very much like the idea that all knowledge ultimately rests on faith since it all rests on a priori axioms. But nobody would describe their view on, say the Hilbert conjecture, as a “sentiment”. Why then their belief in God?

  3. We’ve been through this before but there is a vast difference between evidence and axioms. Axioms form the basis of deductive logic but the real world is not so accommodating. Math may be useful in describing some real world things but I don’t have to actually have a belief that math IS the real world. As such the truth of the axioms of Math are is largely irrelevant.

    As you said, there is no independent evidence for or against the existence of God. There is the possibility that the concept of a god is built-in just as hunger and the need for group acceptance is. Until some evidence (either way) comes along, the question will remain unanswerable. Because of that, it s a moot question no different than belief in ghosts, controlling extraterrestrials and monsters under the bed. It only affects you if you let it. I do agree that some are far better off holding the belief.

    When I say “doesn’t affect you” I am excluding how those who do Believe/Disbelieve interact with others on the basis of their beliefs — but that’s a different matter.

  4. ‘You didn’t give us enough evidence!’

    One could also say in such a situation,

    ‘You didn’t give us enough cerebral cortext!’

    To which the answer might be:

    ‘I’m working on it. Patience please. It’s something you grow into when you grow up.’

  5. You sound like my colleague that works in evolutionary biology but is a fundamentalist Christian: managing to live with a tremendous cognitive dissonance. Just accept that you believe because you want to believe and move on; trying to dress this up in an intellectual discussion is just a waste of time.

  6. Luis (and for everybody else, this is not our old pal Luis, but a different person),

    I take it that you have a sound and logically valid proof to offer us about why this is a waste of time? Think about what it means to dismiss this question.

  7. I ignore the topic as any other form of superstition. I am not troubled by the implications of ignoring the question and no, it does not stop me of trying to be a decent human being, etc.

  8. What interesting creatures we be. Regardless of our intentions we seem anxious for others to doubt the same things of which we disapprove, and believe what we believe. We seem to need some level of reassurance in all this that we might be on the right track. When that doesn’t occur we virtually “go to war”against the heretic. So much for our ideals of freedom and non-discrimination.

  9. Ahh, but we do have evidence. Just as we have evidence that George Washington was the first president of the US. [Note that George does not appear to us to affirm that fact, we have to rely on contemporary accounts.]

    There are accounts, allegedly from contemporaries of Christ, that give us evidence of his existence and his immortality. These accounts may not be considered sufficient by many people to inspire belief, but they ARE evidence.

  10. Fundamentalists have argued that the universe couldn’t come into being out of nothing, therefore there must have been a creator-leading to the question of what created God?

    A naturalist would argue that the universe comes about from natural laws. That leads to the question of where did those natural laws come from and why do they behave as they do?

    Martin Gardner once stated what he thought of as the most fundamental question in his
    “Mathematical Games” column in “Scientific American”: Why is there something rather than nothing?

    I’m too stupid to answer any of the above so I’m not going to give the matter any further serious thought.

  11. What evidence is there for the existence of Brahman? What evidence is there for the existence of Zeus? What evidence is there for the existence of …..

    There are plenty of religions, but them being all different from each other, it is logically imposible for all of them to be correct at the same time. Russell mentions this in his History of Western Philosophy.

  12. “Well, I would go up to Him, and I would say, ‘You didn’t give us enough evidence!’”

    Given the way God is usually presented, the lack of evidence cannot be a mistake. (An all-wise, all-powerful God could provide compelling evidence if he wanted to). Maybe Searle could follow up with, “So what did you expect?”

  13. Sander van der Wal,

    It is “logically impossible for all of them to be correct” is a mighty strong statement. It implies that you have demonstrable proof that this is so. Have you?

    Even if you haven’t (and I’m inclined to agree with the sentiment), it obviously does not follow that God does exist.

    Also, you appear to have missed the emphasis on the possibility that no physical, observational evidence can be forthcoming, but belief can still be rational.

  14. Nothing that is wasteful (since it has no bearing on the empirical reality – no physical, observational evidence and so on and so on) should be spent so much time with it. Now, freedom is as it is. It enjoys exuberance and silliness, and commends it. To call such luxuries of the mind as “rational” is something of an exaggeration, though.

    I don’t understand Luis’ point. Surely he is in a vague agreement with mr Briggs: both have the position that this belief stuff is in the emotional realm. I also do not understand how one ignores what one chooses to comment on. Perhaps someone might help me in my equivocations…

  15. “It is ‘logically impossible for all of them to be correct’ is a mighty strong statement. It implies that you have demonstrable proof that this is so. Have you?”

    I create a religion right now at this moment. The main tenet of this religion is that no other religion can be correct. Therefore, it is “logically impossible for all [religions] to be correct at the same time”.

    Did I just fail logic? I don’t think so…

  16. Adam H,

    I like it. But it’s still short of a proof that any one of them are incorrect.

    Also, given that each religion on the list makes the same claim you have, and it can be shown that the claims of the individual religions are truly incompatible, it could still be the case that just one is correct and all the others false. Thus, we’re right back to where we started.

    Incidentally, by “truly incompatible” I mean, suppose religion A says, “Our God is G and all other religions are false” but that religion B says, “Our God is H and all other religions are false.” These are only incompatible if G is not equivalent to H.

  17. stan,

    (I’m way behind on answering comments)

    Quite right; these historical accounts are evidence. But then so are historical accounts—testimony, that is—from other religious traditions. And then we bump up against Hume’s argument on the reliability of reports of miracles.

    Hume’s argument is not, of course, proof that miraculous events do not happen. Nor is there definite proof that contemporary accounts of Christ are incorrect. Without going on and on about this, I think it’s enough to say that we’re finally back at faith.

  18. Different religions make different statements about the way the world/universe/everything work. Some examples.

    Christianity has a concept called original sin, of which is is impossible to get rid of. Buddism has no original sin, bud karma, you can get rid of bad karma by acting in a certain way. Original sin is clearly different from karma.

    According to Christianity, people live once and after dead they go to either heaven or hell, where they are rewarded or punished. Hinduism says instead that people are reincarnated on earth, born again and again. Being borne once is clearly different from being born again and again.

    Christianity has a single god, which is apparently all-powerfull. The Greeks had lots of gods and they were subject to fate, in which they had no influence. One is clearly different from many, and all powerful is clearly different from being subject to fate.

    From this is does not follow that God does not exist. And the same can be said for all the other gods.

    Of all religions, at most one can be true. The a priori change that a given religion is true is 1/N, with N the number of religions. The number of religions has no upper bound (you can always add a new god to a religion with more than one god, and you can always add a new tabu to a religion with tabus, creating a new religion in the process), so the changes of any single religion being true is as close to zero as you can be bothered by inventing new gods or tabus.

    Is belief rational? Yes, but only in the sense that a rational man will say that he believes if believers are known to burn you live at the stake if you are an unbeliever.

    Is belief rational in the sense of Pascal’s reason to believe in God? No, it is not. Imagine two different religions which are each other opposite. Doing A gets you in heaven in religion 1 and in hell in religion 2. Doing not(A) gets you in heaven in religion 2 and in hell in religion 1. Both religions are equally harsh in punishing the unbeliever in the afterlife. Now, it is impossible to choose between religions 1 and 2 based on Pascals reasoning, as both choices will have give infinite punishment if you choose the wrong one.

    However, if one religion is less harsh than the other, rationally you must always choose the harshest religion, the religion that has the worst punishment for the unbeliever.

  19. Sander;

    Methinks your reason might just possibly be a tiny bit off in that you would have a third option…..believe in nothing at all.

    Now, just for the sake of argument, lets suppose that one of the two competing religions is in fact true.

    If you choose to ignore both of them you would doom yourself. 0% chance of the after life.

    If however, you choose to follow one of them you have just increased your chance to 50%,
    even if your choice is wrong….no?

  20. Dennis

    Not believing at all is effectively identical to believing in a religion that does not have an afterlife, or that has the same boring afterlife for both believers and unbelievers (like the Greek did). So you choose between 3 religions, not 2. This makes the change of choosing the right belief 1/3, instead of 1/2. It doesn’t change the rationale for choosing the religion with the worst punishment for the unbeliever.

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