Philosophical arguments for the (non-)existence of God, and intuition

In The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), in Lecture XVIII on Philosophy, William James says:

“If you have a God already whom you believe in, these [philosophical arguments for God’s existence] confirm you. If you are atheistic, they fail to set you right. The proofs are various. The “cosmological” one, so-called, reasons from the contingence of the world to a First Cause which must contain whatever perfections the world itself contains. […]

The fact is that these arguments do but follow the combined suggestions of fact and feeling. They prove nothing rigorously. They only corroborate our preĆ«xistent partialities.” (p. 476)

I think much the same can be said of atheism – often the intuition (a conglomeration of various facts and feelings) that there is no “God” (or, a lack of an intuition that there is a God) comes first, the scientific or philosophical reasons or arguments are consequent – that is, they corroborate preĆ«xisting partialities.

This topic moves into coherence theory and the nature of evidence.

(Also see here.)

One thought on “Philosophical arguments for the (non-)existence of God, and intuition

  1. bgc

    William James is correct that this is how proofs of God operate in practice, but surely he was wrong to say they ‘prove nothing’.

    As an atheist, I managed not to bother thinking about the proofs of God for several decades, because I ‘knew’ they must be worthless.

    By the time I eventually engaged with Aquinas’s Five Ways (in Edwarde Feser’s book on Aquinas) I was already a Christian; but I was amazed by how powerful were the arguments – esepcially the first mover argument (from Aristotle) which seems inescapable.

    I had simply previously misunderstood the argument on a swift reading – I assumed causality in a temporal sense – before and after, rather than instananeous; so that that I thought the first mover was supposed to be something right back at the beginning of time that set things moving/ changing, rather than something necessary to all movement/ change.

    I also misunderstood the scope of the argument – that it was not an argument for the Christian God, but was in fact a Greek metaphysical argument, and they did not think of the prime mover as a creator God.

    In fact, I did not really understand the nature of metaphysical arguments, or even what metaphysics was .

    Until I read Feser, I didn’t ‘get’ what the ancient Greeks were trying to do with their assertions about everything changing or everything staying the same – it seemed arbitrary and silly – but of course it wasn’t.

    So my personal experience confirms James, except that I would explain it at a psychological level – careless lack of attention, reluctance to examine assumptions which were historical and contingent – and nothing to do with the philosophical validity of the arguments.

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