Seven Perspectives on Theism

Many laymen seem to believe that there are at most three perspectives one may adopt concerning the question of whether God exists. More sophisticated thinkers are in general consensus that there are four. I believe that there are as many as seven different perspectives which one can adopt with respect to the question of whether God exists, and I’d like to outline them here.

First, with respect to the proposition “God exists,” one may adopt the propositional attitude of theism; that is to say, one may regard the proposition as being straightforwardly true. There are of course varieties of theism; some theists, for example, seem to believe in God for natural-theological reasons. Others believe in God for no such reasons. Some theists are quite certain that God exists, whereas others are less certain and hold theism more tentatively as the best available explanation for metaphysical puzzles. Many theists are religious (e.g., Christians or Muslims), but some are not (e.g., Deists). Regardless, everyone who adopts the view that the proposition “God exists” is true is a theist.

Second, one may adopt the opposite propositional attitude; namely that the proposition “God exists” has the truth-value ‘false‘. This is the position of the atheist, and again (unsurprisingly) there are varieties here. There are (or have been) atheists who have claimed that they can prove with deductive closure (i.e., logical certainty) that God does not exist. Some of the so-called ‘logical problems of evil’ were attempts to do just that. Other atheists have been more modest and have adopted atheism as the best explanation available, often emphasizing that it is far more parsimonious than theism.

A third position is agnosticism, according to which the sentence “God exists” has propositional content, it has a truth-value assignment in reality, but the agnostic simply doesn’t venture to say what that truth-value is. There are interesting varieties here as well. For instance, some agnostics are also self-proclaimed ‘apatheists’, a popular monikre meant to signify a profound apathy and nonchalance toward the question of God’s existence. Other more serious agnostics acknowledge that the question of whether God exists is greatly significant, but for one reason or another simply aren’t able to affirm either that God does, or does not, exist. Some agnostics are epistemically modest, claiming that they simply haven’t come to a verdict yet (though they understand they have a moral duty to everyone they know and love, including themselves, to answer the question), while other agnostics are militant agnostics and say things like “I don’t know, and neither do any of you” pointing to the atheists and theists.

It is popular today to confuse atheism with agnosticism, mostly because these two views hold one thing in common: they signify a lack of belief in God. However, atheism and agnosticism cannot meaningfully be reduced down to the absence of a mental state (otherwise, atheists and agnostics will have to join company with rocks and termites, for they also lack any mental state of affirming that the proposition “God exists” is true, and surely it is absurd, if not insulting, to class atheists and agnostics with (in)animate unthinking things). Moreover, apart from the absurdity of defining either (or both) atheism or (/and) agnosticism as a lack of a certain kind of mental state, rather than a genuine philosophical perspective, we should note that atheism and agnosticism are two very different propositional attitudes; according to one the proposition “God exists” is given a truth-value assignment of ‘false’, whereas the other does not give the proposition a truth-value assignment at all. It is usually popular level atheists who continue to insist on this conflation between agnosticism and atheism, and their agenda is more about social reform than about philosophical precision.

As Douglas Adams, the author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy once said:

“If you describe yourself as “atheist,” some people will say, “Don’t you mean ‘agnostic’?” I have to reply that I really do mean atheist, I really do not believe that there is a god; in fact, I am convinced that there is not a god (a subtle difference). I see not a shred of evidence to suggest that there is one … etc., etc. It’s easier to say that I am a radical atheist, just to signal that I really mean it, have thought about it a great deal, and that it’s an opinion I hold seriously.”[1]

These three perspectives offered above seem to many people to exhaust the pool of possible options, but they do not. A fourth option, which was very popular in the first half of the twentieth century, was the position of the verificationists, or ‘logical positivists,’ who maintained that there were many sentence-constructions which, with proper conceptual analysis, could be shown to be empty of propositional content. They maintained that statements of this kind were strictly meaningless, even if they gave the appearance of having a meaning. In brief, their position was that a statement was meaningful if and only if it was (i) an analytic statement which could be shown a priori to be true or false by reason its the terms and/or connectives, or (ii) a synthetic statement (a posteriori) about a state of affairs for which conditions could in principle be stipulated for when the statement would be empirically verified/falsified. Rudolf Carnap, one of the pioneers of this school of thought, wrote the following in his famous essay On The Elimination of Metaphysics: Through Logical Analysis of Language:

“In its metaphysical use… the word “God” refers to something beyond experience. The word is deliberately divested of its reference to a physical being or to a spiritual being that is immanent in the physical. And as it is not given a new meaning, it becomes meaningless. To be sure, it often looks as though the word “God” had a meaning, even in metaphysics. But the definitions which are set up prove on closer inspection to be pseudo-definitions. They lead either to logically illegitimate combinations of words… or to other metaphysical words (e.g. “primordial basis,” “the absolute,” “the unconditioned,” “the autonomous,” “the self-dependent” and so forth), but in no case to the truth-conditions of its elementary sentences. In the case of this word not even the first requirement of logic is met, that is the requirement to specify its syntax, i.e. the form of its occurrence in elementary sentences.”[2]

Although logical positivism ultimately fell prey to many devastating philosophical objections (not the least of which was the self-referential problem that positivism itself is neither an analytic nor synthetic and empirically verifiable position, making it, by its own standards, meaningless), many today continue to maintain that it had the right flavour. Thus, while the wider world of analytic philosophy has moved on from this clumsy scientistic stupor, there remains a minority of thinkers who have attempted to re-articulate a view nearly indistinguishable from logical positivism, but whose formulation is engineered to avoid the various difficulties which laid positivism to rest. These thinkers often identify their position as ‘logical empiricism,’ a name more closely associated with Hempel than Carnap (though stating what, precisely, is supposed to be the difference between logical positivism and logical empiricism is no easy task). Regardless of what one calls it, there remain those who believe that the sentence “God exists” is entirely vacuous, a pseudo-sentence (or, more accurately, a pseudo-proposition), and this represents a genuine alternative to theism, atheism or agnosticism. According to the positivist the theist, the atheist, and the agnostic are all equally at fault for thinking that the sentence “God exists” could be true or false.

Aside from these four perspectives there remain three more, all very philosophically eclectic. The first is the position of those who outright deny the ‘absolute’ status of the law of non-contradiction, and who suggest that God both exists and does not exist (at the same time and in the same sense). One might imagine that candidate occupants of this position would include, for instance, those Christian Protestants who follow the thinking of the great German Protestant theologian Karl Barth, or theological mystics like Simone Weil. One of the characteristic features of Barth’s thinking was his absolute insistence on paradox; he believed that the only way in which we can speak appropriately about God was in the language of paradox. God is merciful and just, God is immanent and transcendent, Jesus is man and God, and so forth. Simone Weil, for her part, is also remembered for saying extremely paradoxical things about God, including the following:

“A case of contradictories which are true: God exists: God does not exist. Where is the problem? I am quite sure that there is a God in the sense that I am quite sure that my love is not illusory. I am quite sure that there is not a God in the sense that I am quite sure nothing real can be like what I am able to conceive when I pronounce this word. But that which I cannot conceive is not an illusion.”[3]

However, for several reasons I don’t think it is fair to dialectical theologians, or to Simone Weil, to characterize their views as fitting this fifth position on the question of whether God exists. Paradoxes, after all, are merely apparent contradictions, and not necessarily genuine logical or metaphysical contradictions. True, Barth did insist that it was impossible to argue for the existence of God, and it was impossible to fully capture the nature of God within the limits of language, so that even apophatic theology was, according to him, misconceived. Yet, Barth and Barthians do not (to my knowledge) generally argue with any philosophical precision that the law of non-contradiction admits of any exception. Moreover, Simone Weil disambiguated two respective senses in which she meant to affirm on the one hand that God exists, and on the other that He does not; the disambiguation itself is the way she dodges flat-out contradiction.

What I have in mind is more radical than neo-orthodoxy or paradoxical theology. Perhaps ironically, the groundwork has been laid for this radical position not by theologians, but by philosophical naturalists. The great naturalist philosopher W.V.O. Quine, arguably one of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century, gave a famous critique of analyticity in his essay Two Dogmas of Empiricism. He suggested that our beliefs are not divided into analytic propositions on the one hand, and empirical propositions on the other. Rather, all of our beliefs enjoy the very same empirical status. One consequence of this view, which Quine embraced, is that no belief is unrevisable; every single belief we have, including beliefs about mathematical and logical truths, are in principle subject to revision. The reason we have such a strong attachment to logical and mathematical beliefs, which makes it so hard to let them go, is just that these are more deeply entrenched in our belief systems. Quine imagines our beliefs fitting together as various parts of a web, and suggests that just as the shape of the web would change more radically if we were to change those strands nearest to the center of the web, so also our belief-set would change more radically if we gave up our more ‘central’ beliefs. Mathematical, logical and otherwise apparently analytic beliefs are clearly near the very center of our web of beliefs, whereas beliefs about sociology and politics are closer to the periphery of the web and would not be as difficult to abandon. The more peripheral the belief, the less it would cost to abandon it. However, no belief is analytic, and so every belief, at the end of the day, could be abandoned, and the web or network of beliefs could be adjusted accordingly.

Given this way of thinking about all of our beliefs, and rejecting the rationalist (and later empiricist) convention of dividing our beliefs up into analytic truths on the one hand, and synthetic truths on the other, Quine invited and embraced the claim that the law of non-contradiction, although very central to our way of thinking, could in principle be abandoned. Quine was also interesting for having come to believe, even as a naturalist, in the existence of certain immaterial entities (namely, sets, without which he thought it impossible to consistently conceive of science as a rational enterprise). Although Quine never came to belief in God, one can imagine Quine, or a follower of Quine’s philosophy, coming to believe in God for the same kinds of reasons Quine came to believe in the ontological reality of immaterial mathematical objects (namely that a commitment to science as a rational enterprise might give one reason to believe in God’s existence, either because science provides reasons to think such a being exists, as the Fine-Tuning argument tries to do, or else because God’s existence is, in some way, a presupposition without which the rationality of science could be called into question). In any case, it doesn’t matter whether or not there are any Quineans who would be willing to affirm both that God exists and that he does not exist. If we rounded up all of the people who held a certain philosophical view, and shot them all in the head, the view itself would not just disappear or cease to be a philosophical perspective. If this is right, then we needn’t find any theistic Quineans who are also atheists – we need only to see that Quine’s thinking has carved out a space for such people – he has, for better or for worse, made the position philosophically viable in some sense.

The sixth position is also inspired by Quine. Instead of rejecting the law of non-contradiction, a devout Quinean might reject the law of excluded middle (i.e., that every proposition is true, or false, or both, but not neither). In other words, the sixth perspective would be to claim that the proposition “God exists” is meaningful, but that it doesn’t have a truth-value assignment. It is, strictly speaking, meaningful and neither true nor false. Interestingly, although the revisability of the law of non-contradiction follows (logically) from his argument in the Two Dogmas, he doesn’t seem to have anticipated it as clearly as he anticipated revising the law of excluded middle. In the sixth section of his masterpiece essay he writes:

“… no statement is immune to revision. Revision even of the logical law of the excluded middle has been proposed as a means of simplifying quantum mechanics; and what difference is there in principle between such a shift and the shift whereby Kepler superseded Ptolemy, or Einstein Newton, or Darwin Aristotle?”[4]

Finally, the seventh position takes its inspiration from Ludwig (Josef Johann) Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein’s greatest contribution to philosophy was to the philosophy of language, and in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus he outlines his general approach to philosophical questions in general. Where Carnap thought that sentences like ‘God exists’ were pseudo-propositions, Wittgenstein thought that all the deepest and most puzzling (even paradoxical) questions of philosophy were actually pseudo-questions. That, in other words, a careful examination of language will lead not to a solution to philosophical questions, but to the dissolution of the questions themselves.

“Most propositions and questions, that have been written about philosophical matters, are not false, but senseless. We cannot, therefore, answer questions of this kind at all, but only state their senselessness. Most questions and propositions of the philosophers result from the fact that we do not understand the logic of our language… And so it is not to be wondered at that the deepest problems are really no problems.”[5] (Tr. 4.003)

The contours of language, on this view, are the contours of the world, so that, as Wittgenstein writes, “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world”[6] (Tr. 5.6). Nevertheless, Wittgenstein did believe that there was something beyond the world. He writes:

“There is indeed the inexpressible. This shows itself; it is the mystical.”[7] (Tr. 6.552)

How things are in the world is a matter of complete indifference for what is higher. God does not reveal himself in the world.”[8]  (Tr. 6.432)

“At the basis of the whole modern view of the world lies the illusion that the so-called laws of nature are the explanations of natural phenomena. So people stop short at natural laws as at something unassailable, as did the ancients at God and Fate. And they both are right and wrong. But the ancients were clearer, in so far as they recognized one clear conclusion, whereas in the modern system it should appear as though everything were explained.”[9] (Tr. 6.372 -373)

On the one hand, Wittgenstein clearly did believe that ‘the mystical’ is, and yet, on the other hand, the catch-22 is that the mystical falls outside of the world, and thus outside of the scope of language. As Wittgenstein famously put it: wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen (translation: whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent [Tr. 7]). It was in this realm of the ‘mystical’ that Wittgenstein situated ethics. As Bertrand Russell has written:

“The whole subject of ethics, for example, is placed by Mr Wittgenstein in the mystical, inexpressible region. Nevertheless he is capable of conveying his ethical opinions. His defence would be that what he calls the mystical can be shown, although it cannot be said.”[10]

Could Wittgenstein have ‘believed in’ God in the same way in which he ‘believed in’ various ethical positions? The trouble is that Wittgenstein, by his own rules, wouldn’t have been able to tell us if he did. However, if Wittgenstein were following his own rules to the letter then how could he have left us with those tantalizing and mysterious statements about the mystical? The answer seems to be that Wittgenstein broke his own rules, but that this is all in keeping with his didactic methodology in the Tractatus. He explains:

“My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.) He must surmount these propositions; then he sees the world rightly.”[11] (Tr. 6.54)

Many Wittgensteinians today, such as D.Z. Phillips, think Wittgenstein has done (or intended to do) to Theology what he did to Ethics. Although Wittgenstein may have acknowledged ‘God’ as a reality, he disallowed any metaphysical conception of God; as D.Z. Phillips writes: “[Wittgenstein maintains] that metaphysical conceptions of reality obscure actual realities, including what is meant by the reality of God.”[12]

On this seventh view, therefore, God exists, and yet is beyond the reach of language. God is transcendent; He transcends the world. God is in the realm of the mystical. God, therefore, cannot fit into language at all. There is no way for us to talk about God; not via positiva, not via negativa, not via analogia, not via paradoxia. God just isn’t part of the world, which is the only thing about which we can speak.

Thus ends our survey of the seven positions which one can adopt concerning the question of God’s reality. There may be other positions out there, but they can each by categorized as one of the aforementioned, or else so likened to one of them as to be undeserving of separate mention. I hope this short catalogue of views is as interesting to the reader(s) as it has been for me, and may serve as a helpful guide (a kind of intellectual road-map) to this issue in the philosophy of religion.



[1] (Douglas Adams, from an interview with American Atheists; quoted from Warren Allen Smith, editor, Celebrities in Hell (2002); excerpted by Positive Atheism (2007).

[2] Rudolf Carnap, “The Elimination of Metaphysics Through Logical Analysis of Language,” Trans. Arthur Pap, 66.

[3] Simone Weil, Gravity and grace, (U of Nebraska Press, 1952) 103.

[4] W.V.O. Quine, “Two Dogmas of Empiricism,” in The Philosophical Review, Vol. 60, No.1 (Jan., 1951), 40.

[5] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Trans. C.K. Ogden, Ed. Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., LTD. (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, INC., 1992).

[6] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Trans. C.K. Ogden, Ed. Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., LTD. (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, INC., 1992).

[7] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Trans. C.K. Ogden, Ed. Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., LTD. (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, INC., 1992).

[8] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Trans. C.K. Ogden, Ed. Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., LTD. (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, INC., 1992).

[9] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Trans. C.K. Ogden, Ed. Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., LTD. (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, INC., 1992).

[10] Bertrand Russell, Introduction to the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Ed. Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., LTD. (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, INC., 1992).

[11] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Trans. C.K. Ogden, Ed. Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., LTD. (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, INC., 1992).

[12] D.Z. Phillips, “Wittgensteinianism: Logic, Reality, and God,” in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Religion Ed. William J. Wainwright, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 450.


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