Can God's Existence be Disproved?

J. N. Findlay
King's College, London

First published in Mind, April 1948. Reprinted in J. N. Findlay, Language, Truth and Value* (Humanities Press, 1963).

      The course of philosophical development has been full of attempted proofs of the existence of God. Some of these have sought a basis in the bare necessities of thought, while others have tried to found themselves on the facts of experience. And, of these latter, some have founded themselves on very general facts, as that something exists, or that something is in motion, while others have tried to build on highly special facts, as that living beings are put together in a purposive manner, or that human beings are subject to certain improbable urges and passions, such as the zeal for righteousness, the love for useless truths and unprofitable beauties, as well as the many specifically religious needs and feelings. The general philosophical verdict is that none of these 'proofs' is truly compelling. The proofs based on the necessities of thought are universally regarded as fallacious: it is not thought possible to build bridges between mere abstractions and concrete existence. The proofs based on the general facts of existence and motion are only felt to be valid by a minority of thinkers, who seem quite powerless to communicate this sense of validity to others. And while most thinkers would accord weight to arguments resting on the special facts we have mentioned, they wouldn't think such arguments successful in ruling out a vast range of counter-possibilities. Religious people have, in fact, come to acquiesce in the total absence of any cogent proofs of the Being they believe in: they even find it positively satisfying that something so far surpassing clear conception should also surpass the possibility of demonstration. And non-religious people willingly mitigate their rejection with a tinge of agnosticism: they don't so much deny the existence of a God, as the existence of good reasons for believing in him. We shall, however, maintain in this essay that there isn't room, in the case we are examining, for all these attitudes of tentative surmise and doubt. For we shall try to show that the Divine Existence can only be conceived, in a religiously satisfactory manner, if we also conceive it as something inescapable and necessary, whether for thought or reality. From which it follows that our modern denial of necessity or rational evidence for such an existence amounts to a demonstration that there cannot be a God.

      Before we develop this argument, we must, however, give greater precision to our use of the term 'God'. For it is possible to say that there are nearly as many 'Gods' as there are speakers and worshipers, and while existence may be confidently asserted or denied of some of them, we should feel more hesitant in the case of others. It is one thing, plainly, to pronounce on God's existence, if he be taken to be some ancient, shapeless stone, or if we identify him with the bearded Father of the Sistine ceiling, and quite another matter, if we make of him an 'all-pervasive, immaterial intelligence', or characterize him in some yet more negative and analogical manner. We shall, however, choose an indirect approach, and pin God down for our purposes as the 'adequate object of religious attitudes'. Plainly we find it possible to gather together, under the blanket term 'religious', a large range of cases of possible action; linked together by so many overlapping1 affinities that we are ready to treat them as the varying 'expressions' of a single 'attitude' or 'policy'. And plainly we find it possible to indicate the character of that attitude by a number of descriptive phrases which, though they may err individually by savouring too strongly of particular cases, nevertheless permit us, in their totality, to draw a rough boundary round the attitude in question. Thus we might say, for instance, that a religion attitude was one in which we tended to abase ourselves before some object, to defer to it wholly, to devote ourselves to it with unquestioning enthusiasm, to bend the knee before it, whether literally or metaphorically. These phrases, and a large number of similar ones, would make perfectly plain the sort of attitude we were speaking of, and would suffice to mark it off from cognate attitudes which are much less unconditional and extreme in their tone. And dearly similar phrases would suffice to fix the boundaries of religious feeling. We might describe religious frames of mind as ones in which we felt ready to abate object, to bend the knee before it, and so forth. Here, as elsewhere, we find ourselves indicating the felt character of our attitudes, by treating their inward character as, in some sense, a concentrated and condensed substitute for appropriate lines of action, a way of speaking that accords curiously with the functional significance of the inward.2 But not only do we incorporate, in the meanings of our various names for attitudes, a reference to this readiness for appropriate lines of action: we also incorporate in these meanings a reference to the sorts of things or situations to which these attitudes are the normal or appropriate responses. For, as a matter of fact, our attitudes are not indifferently evoked in any setting: there is a range of situations in which they normally and most readily occur. And though they may at times arise in circumstances which are not in this range, they are also readily dissipated by the consciousness that such circumstances are unsuitable or unusual. Thus fear is an attitude very readily evoked in situations with a character of menace or potential injury, and it is also an attitude very readily allayed by the clear perception that a given situation isn't really dangerous. And anger, likewise, is an attitude provoked very readily by perverse resistance and obstructive difficulty in some object, and is also very readily dissipated, even in animals, by the consciousness that a given object is innocent of offence. All attitudes, we may say, presume characters in their objects, and are, in consequence, strengthened by the discovery that their objects have these characters, as they are weakened by the discovery that they really haven't got them. And not only do we find this out empirically: we also incorporate it in the meanings of our names for attitudes. Thus attitudes are said to be 'normal', 'fully justified' and so forth, if we find them altered in a certain manner (called 'appropriate') by our knowledge of the actual state of things, whereas we speak of them as 'queer' or 'senseless' or 'neurotic', if they aren't at all modified by this knowledge of reality. We call it abnormal, from this point of view, to feel a deep-seated fear of mice, to rage maniacally at strangers, to greet disasters with a hebephrenic giggle, whereas we think it altogether normal to deplore deep losses deeply, or to fear grave dangers gravely. And so an implicit reference to some standard object -- which makes an attitude either normal or abnormal -- is part of what we ordinarily mean by all our names for attitudes, and can be rendered explicit by a simple study of usage. We can consider the circumstances in which ordinary speakers would call an attitude 'appropriate' or 'justified'. And all that philosophy achieves in this regard is merely to push further, and develop into more considered and consistent forms, the implications of such ordinary ways of speaking. It can inquire whether an attitude would still seem justified, and its object appropriate, after we had reflected long and carefully on a certain matter, and looked at it from every wonted and unwonted angle. And such consideration may lead philosophers to a different and more reasoned notion of the appropriate objects of a given attitude, than could be garnered from our unreflective ways of speaking. And these developments of ordinary usage will only seem unfeasible to victims of that strange modern confusion which thinks of attitudes exclusively as hidden processes 'in our bosoms ', with nothing but an adventitious relation to appropriate outward acts and objects.

      How then may we apply these notions to the case of our religious attitudes? Plainly we shall be following the natural trends of unreflective speech if we say that religious attitudes presume superiority in their objects, and such superiority, moreover, as reduces us, who feel the attitudes, to comparative nothingness. For having described a worshipful attitude as one in which we feel disposed to bend the knee before some object, to defer to it wholly, and the like, we find it natural to say that such an attitude can only be fitting where the object reverenced exceeds us very vastly, whether in power or wisdom or in other valued qualities. And while it is certainly possible to worship stocks and stones and articles of common use, one does so usually on the assumption that they aren't merely stocks and stones and ordinary articles, but the temporary seats of 'indwelling presences' or centres of extraordinary powers and virtues. And if one realizes clearly that such things are merely stocks and stones or articles of common use, one can't help suffering a total vanishing or grave abatement of religious ardour. To feel religiously is therefore to presume surpassing greatness in some object: so much characterizes the attitudes in which we bow and bend the knee, and enters into the ordinary meaning of the word 'religious'. But now we advance further -- in company with a large number of theologians and philosophers, who have added new touches to the portrait of deity, pleading various theoretical necessities, but really concerned to make their object worthier of our worship and ask whether it isn't wholly anomalous to worship anything limited in any thinkable manner. For all limited superiorities are tainted with an obvious relativity, and can be dwarfed in thought by still mightier superiorities, in which process of being dwarfed they lose their claim upon our worshipful attitudes. And hence we are led on irresistibly to demand that our religious object should have an unsurpassable supremacy along all avenues, that it should tower infinitely above all other objects. And not only are we led to demand for it such merely quantitative superiority: we also ask that it shouldn't stand surrounded by a world of alien objects, which owe it no allegiance, or set limits to its influence. The proper object of religious reverence must in some manner be all-comprehensive: there mustn't be anything capable of existing, or of displaying any virtue, without owing all of these absolutely to this single source. All these, certainly, are difficult requirements, involving not only the obscurities and doubtful significance of the infinite, but also all the well-worn antagonisms of the immanent and transcendent, of finite sinfulness and divine perfection and preordination, which centuries of theological brooding have failed to dissipate. But we are also led on irresistibly to a yet more stringent demand, which raises difficulties which make the difficulties we have mentioned seem wholly inconsiderable: we can't help feeling that the worthy object of our worship can never be a thing that merely happens to exist, nor one on which all other objects merely happen to depend. The true object of religious reverence must not be one, merely, to which no actual independent realities stand opposed: it must be one to which such opposition is totally inconceivable. God mustn't merely cover the territory of the actual, but also, with equal comprehensiveness, the territory of the possible. And not only must the existence of other things be unthinkable without him, but his own non-existence must be wholly unthinkable in any circumstances. There must, in short, be no conceivable alternative to an existence properly termed 'divine': God must be wholly inescapable, as we remarked previously, whether for thought or reality. And so we are led on insensibly to the barely intelligible notion of a Being in whom Essence and Existence lose their separateness. And all that the great medieval thinkers really did was to carry such a development to its logical limit.

      We may, however, approach the matter from a slightly different angle. Not only is it contrary to the demands and claims inherent in religious attitudes that their object should exist 'accidentally': it is also contrary to those demands that it should possess its various excellences in some merely adventitious or contingent manner. It would be quite unsatisfactory from the religious standpoint, if an object merely happened to be wise, good, powerful and so forth, even to a superlative degree, and if other beings had, as a mere matter of fact, derived their excellences from this single source. An object of this sort would doubtless deserve respect and admiration, and other quasi-religious attitudes, but it would not deserve the utter self-abandonment peculiar to the religious frame of mind. It would deserve the douleia canonically accorded to the saints, but not the latreia that we properly owe to God. We might respect this object as the crowning instance of most excellent qualities, but we should incline our head before the qualities and not before the person. And wherever such qualities were manifested, though perhaps less eminently, we should always be ready to perform an essentially similar obeisance. For though such qualities might be intimately characteristic of the Supreme Being, they still wouldn't be in any sense inalienably his own. And even if other beings had, in fact, derived such qualities from this sovereign source, they still would be their own qualities, possessed by them in their own right. And we should have no better reason to adore the author of such virtues, than sons have reason to adore superior parents, or pupils to adore superior teachers. For while these latter may deserve deep deference, the fact that we are coming to participate in their excellences renders them unworthy of our worship. Plainly a being that possesses and imparts desirable qualities -- which other things might nevertheless have manifested though this source were totally absent -- has all the utter inadequacy as a religious object which is expressed by saying that it would be idolatrous to worship it. Wisdom, kindness and other excellences deserve respect wherever they are manifested, but no being can appropriate them as its personal perquisites, even if it does possess them in a superlative degree. And so we are led on irresistibly, by the demands inherent in religious reverence, to hold that an adequate object of our worship must possess its various qualities in some necessary manner. These qualities must be intrinsically incapable of belonging to anything except in so far as they belong primarily to the object of our worship. Again we are led on to a queer and barely intelligible Scholastic doctrine, that God isn't merely good, but is in some manner indistinguishable from his own (and anything else's) goodness.

      What, however, are the consequences of these requirements upon the possibility of God's existence? Plainly, (for all who share a contemporary outlook), they entail not only that there isn't a God, but that the Divine Existence is either senseless3 or impossible. The modern mind feels not the faintest axiomatic force in principles which trace contingent things back to some necessarily existent source, nor does it find it hard to conceive that things should display various excellent qualities without deriving them from a source which manifests them supremely. Those who believe in necessary truths which aren't merely tautological, think that such truths merely connect the possible instances of various characteristics with each other: they don't expect such truths to tell them whether there will be instances of any characteristics. This is the outcome of the whole medieval and Kantian criticism of the Ontological Proof. And, on a yet more modern view of the matter, necessity in propositions merely reflects our use of words, the arbitrary conventions of our language. On such a view the Divine Existence could only be a necessary matter if we had made up our minds to speak theistically whatever the empirical circumstances might turn out to be. This, doubtless, would suffice for some, who speak theistically, much as Spinoza spoke monistically, merely to give expression to a particular way of looking at things, or of feeling about them. And it would also suffice for those who make use of the term 'God' to cover whatever tendencies towards righteousness and beauty are actually included in the make-up of our world. But it wouldn't suffice for the full-blooded worshipper, who can't help finding our actual world anything but edifying, and its half-formed tendencies towards righteousness and beauty very far from adorable. The religious frame of mind seems, in fact, to be in a quandary; it seems invincibly determined both to eat its cake and have it. It desires the Divine Existence both to have that inescapable character which can, on modern views, only be found where truth reflects an arbitrary convention, and also the character of 'making a real difference' which is only possible where truth doesn't have this merely linguistic basis. We may accordingly deny that modern approaches allow us to remain agnostically poised in regard to God: they force us to come down on the atheistic side. For if God is to satisfy religious claims and needs, he must be a being in every way inescapable, One whose existence and whose possession of certain excellences we cannot possibly conceive away. And modern views make it self-evidently absurd (if they don't make it ungrammatical) to speak of such a Being and attribute existence to him. It was indeed an ill day for Anselm when he hit upon his famous proof. For on that day he not only laid bare something that is of the essence of an adequate religious object, but also something that entails its necessary non-existence.4

      The force of our argument must not, however, be exaggerated. We haven't proved that there aren't beings of all degrees of excellence and greatness, who may deserve attitudes approximating indefinitely to religious reverence. But such beings will at best be instances of valued qualities which we too may come to exemplify, though in lesser degree. And not only would it be idolatrous for us to worship them, but it would also be monstrous for them to exact worship, or to care for it. The attitude of such beings to our reverence would necessarily be deprecating: they would prefer cooperative atheists to adoring zealots. And they would probably hide themselves like royal personages from the anthems of their worshippers, and perhaps the fact that there are so few positive signs of their presence is itself a feeble evidence of their real existence. But whether such beings exist or not, they are not divine, and can never satisfy the demands inherent in religious reverence. And the effect of our argument will further be to discredit generally such forms of religion as attach a uniquely sacred meaning to existent things, whether these things be men or acts or institutions or writings.

      But there are other frames of mind, to which we shouldn't deny the name 'religious', which acquiesce quite readily in the non-existence of their objects. (This non-existence might, in fact, be taken to be the 'real meaning' of saying that religious objects and realities are 'not of this world'.) In such frames of mind we give ourselves over unconditionally and gladly to the task of indefinite approach toward a certain imaginary focus5 where nothing actually is, and we find this task sufficiently inspiring and satisfying without demanding (absurdly) that there should be something actual at that limit. And the atheistic religious attitude we have mentioned has also undergone reflective elaboration by such philosophers as Fichte and Erigena and Alexander. There is, then, a religious atheism which takes full stock of our arguments, and we may be glad that this is so. For since the religious spirit is one of reverence before things greater than ourselves, we should be gravely impoverished and arrested if this spirit ceased to be operative in our personal and social life. And it would certainly be better that this spirit should survive, with all its fallacious existential trimmings, than that we should cast it forth merely in order to be rid of such irrelevances.

Replies to G. E. Hughes and A. C. A. Rainer in Mind (1949).

      I am grateful to the able articles of Professor Hughes and Mr Rainer, which have forced me to restate and re-examine some of the points raised in my article on the non-existence of God. I anticipated the general line of their criticisms, and I entirely welcome them. For there can be nothing really 'clinching' in philosophy: 'proofs' and 'disproofs' hold only for those who adopt certain premisses, who are willing to follow certain rules of argument, and who use their terms in certain definite ways. And every proof or disproof can be readily evaded, if one questions the truth of its premisses, or the validity of its type of inference, or if one finds new senses in which its terms may be used. And it is quite proper, and one's logical duty, to evade an argument in this manner, if it leads to preposterous consequences. And Hughes and Rainer are within their rights in thinking my conclusions preposterous: only I don't agree with them. I may say further, that I only brought in references to a 'contemporary outlook', 'modern approaches' and so on, because I wanted to be frank and modest, and not because I thought such descriptions honorific. I merely wished to indicate for what classes of person I hoped that my argument would hold water, instead of claiming (absurdly) that it would hold for all persons, whatever they might assume, and however they might choose to use their terms.

      I think, however, that my article will be better understood if I mention the circumstances in which I first conceived it. Its central idea occurred to me as long ago as 1932, when I was not at all strongly influenced by 'verificationism' or 'logical empiricism'. The main point of my article can be simply stated as a development of the Kantian treatment of the Ontological Proof, which I was considering at the time: I am surprised, in fact, that it hasn't occurred to other persons. And it is strange that Kant, who found so many antinomies in our notion of the 'World ', found none at all in our notion of God. For Kant said that it couldn't be necessary that there should ever be anything of any description whatsoever, and that if we included 'existence' in the definition of something -- Kant, of course, didn't think we should so include it, as existence 'wasn't a predicate' -- we could only say, hypothetically, that if something of a certain sort existed, then it would exist necessarily, but not, categorically, that it actually existed. And he also said that if one were willing to deny the existence of God, one couldn't be compelled to assert any property of him, no matter how intimately such a property formed part of his 'nature'. Now, Kant, of course, didn't make existence (or necessary existence) part of God's nature,6 but I have argued that one ought to do so, if God is to be the adequate object of our religious attitudes. So that for all those who are willing to accept my account of an adequate religious object, and also Kant's doctrine of the hypothetical character of necessary predications, it must follow inevitably that there cannot be an adequate object for our religious attitudes.

      Now I admit to the full that my argument doesn't hold for those who have no desire to say that God exists in some necessary and inescapable manner. And hence Rainer is saying nothing to the point when he remarks that Broad and Russell (mentioned as typical modern thinkers) have not thought there was anything impossible in the existence of God. For neither Broad nor Russell thought of God as something whose non-existence should be inconceivable. And my argument also doesn't hold for those who regard the Ontological Proof (or some other a priori proof) as a valid argument. Nor will it hold for those who are willing to say, with Rainer, that one might come to perceive the necessity of God's existence in some higher mystical state, nor for those who say, with Hughes and St. Thomas, that God himself can perceive the 'necessity' of his own 'existence', though both this 'existence' and this 'necessity' are something totally different from anything that we understand by these terms. I should indeed be naive if I thought I could trap the analogical eel7 in my dialectical net. But my argument holds for all those thinkers -- who may properly be called 'modern' in no narrow or 'tendentious' sense -- who accept Kant's view that there aren't any necessary facts of existence and who also can be persuaded to hold that a God who is 'worth his salt' must either exist necessarily (in the same sense of 'necessary') or not at all. The force of my argument doesn't depend, moreover, on any recent analysis of necessity in terms of tautology: it holds on any account of the necessary that can be squared with the above conditions.

      My argument is, however, exposed to much more serious difficulties than those raised by Rainer and Hughes. For the 'really modern philosopher' might doubt whether there was any genuine difference between my sort of atheism and the analogical theism of my opponents. And my argument has certainly suggested that there was some important difference between the two positions. For my opponents would admit, as I do, that one can never hope to have the Divine 'fully before one', so as to be able to say 'Lo here!' of it, in the same way that one says this of one's friend Jones or the Eiffel Tower. They would say with me, that one can't ever hope to meet with more than 'expressions', 'approximations' or 'analogies' of the Divine, that it is in the nature of the Divine to outsoar and elude one. And I, for my part, should be willing to accord to my focus imaginarius that same attitude of unquestioning reverence, that my critics accord to their existent God: it is, in fact, because I think so highly of certain ideals, that I also think it unworthy to identify them with anything existent. And there is nothing absurd in having any number of emotional or other attitudes to objects that one thinks of as imaginary. The 'god' of the atheist will indeed be slightly different from the God of the theist -- Rainer has taught me this -- but he will only be so by an addition of 'brackets'. And the atheist might also admit the existence of something that I should describe (with great trepidation) as a 'god-ward trend ' in things: certainly there are some facts in our experience which are (one might say) as if there were a God. And when theists say that their God exists in some sense quite different from created objects, there seems but a hairsbreadth between them and such atheists as place their ideal, with Plato and Plotinus, epekeina thV ousiaV

      In reply to such criticisms (if anyone were to raise them) I could give no better reason for preferring my atheistic formulations, than that they suited me from a moral and religious standpoint. For I am by temperament a Protestant, and I tend towards atheism as the purest form of Protestantism. By 'Protestantism' I mean the conviction--resting, as it seems to me, on elementary truisms--that it isn't essential in order to be a sound or 'saved' person, that one should pay deference to institutions, persons, books, ceremonies and f so forth, or do anything more than develop those qualities in which being a sound or 'saved' person consists. (Not that I think meanly of ceremonies, books, persons and so forth, if not regarded as essential.) Now I don't doubt that theism can be so held as not to involve any idolatrous implications, but I think it hard to be a theist without falling into idolatry, with all its attendant evils of intolerance and persecution. And this is particularly the case in a religion like Christianity where the Divine is identified with a particular historical person, who existed in no analogical manner, but precisely as you and I do. I am not, however, a religious genius, nor do I know how to replace the existential formulations of our present religion, with non-existential formulations that would prove equally effective, whether in stimulating endeavour or in damming up the tide of cruelty and injustice. For these reasons I am not at all keen to shake faiths or overturn altars (if indeed I were able to do so).

[In the Introduction to Language, Mind and Value, in which the essay was reprinted, Findlay makes the following comments:]

. . . I still think that it makes a valid point: that if it is possible, in some logical and not merely epistemological sense, that there is no God, then God's existence is not merely doubtful but impossible, since nothing capable of non-existence could be a God at all. Kant, who at times suggested that the existence of anything was a synthetic and a posteriori matter (though perhaps establishable only by a non-sensuous intuition) should have seen that his views constituted a disproof of the existence of God, not left Him a flawless ideal to which some noumenal reality might correspond. Professor Hartshorne has, however, convinced me that my argument permits a ready inversion, and that one can very well argue that if God's existence is in any way possible, then it is also certain and necessary that God exists, a position which should give some comfort to the shade of Anselm. The notion of God, like the notion of the class of all classes not members of themselves, has plainly unique logical properties, and I do not now think that my article finally decides how we should cope with such uniqueness.


* First published in Mind, April 1948. I have added a few words at one or two places to indicate that I think my argument holds for all who accept all that Kant says in criticism of the Ontological Proof, and not only for linguistic philosophers.

1 This word is added to avoid the suggestion that there must be one pervasive affinity linking together all the actions commonly called 'religious'.

2 Whatever the philosophical 'ground' for it may be, this plainly is the way in which we do describe the 'inner quality' of our felt attitudes.

3 I have included this alternative, of which I am not fond, merely became so many modern thinkers make use of it in this sort of connection.

4 Or 'non-significance', if this alternative is preferred.

5 To use a Kantian comparison.

6 Perhaps he does, however. See Kritik der reinen Vernunft, p. 676.

7 This term isn't used disrespectfully: I approve of eels.

Transcribed into hypertext by Andrew Chrucky, Oct. 19, 1999.