“Theism, Philosophy and Me”

The Philosopher, Rembrandt Workshop (possibly Willem Drost), c. 1653

“The Philosopher” Rembrandt Workshop (possibly Willem Drost), c. 1653

“Theism, Philosophy and Me”

All weekend, recovering from a cold and feeling more dead than alive, I’ve been giving myself a crash course in philosophical theism. Theism is the belief in a personal God, who cares about you and me, responds to prayer, and is a player in our world.

For the last three centuries or so, Western philosophers have been interested in making sense of the laws of physical nature and our place in the natural scheme. By and large, the talent has not been on the side of the theists. Dazzled by the power of the physical sciences to conquer and control nature, philosophers have tended to start with our physical senses and to be preoccupied by the question of how we can know (whether we can know) anything beyond sense data.   God hasn’t intruded on their questions or their answers.

Here I don’t speak of the Continental philosophers, who have been more inclined to consider things like the meaning of life, often finding that meaning rather dark.

At least in the English-speaking world, until recently the more tough-minded philosophers – the ones you hesitate to cross swords with in argument — tend to stay within the confines of physicalism and its atheism, seeing our existence as, ultimately, an accident: “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

So it’s been a rather extraordinary development of recent decades that a group of philosophers has blasted its way into the philosophical arena – a group at least as sharp and argumentatively formidable as the atheists – who defend theism with all the glinting, bristling tools of the contemporary philosopher’s trade.

The philosophers I’ve been reading defend the claim that we can experience God’s presence. The sceptics are of course ready to pounce. Such an experience, they claim, assumes what it sets out to prove. It entertains certain feelings and states and then reads theistic beliefs into these feelings and states. So, it’s circular.

The philosophical theists reply: no knowledge begins with zero; all the kinds of knowing that we rely on start from their own assumptions. Thus, relying on sense perception assumes that sense perception is reliable. All the evidence that it gathers is itself sensory evidence. Does a prediction induced from sense perception come true? What tells us that, except the senses? Does it come true time after time? What tells us that, except more sense perception?

The deniers claim that theist belief doesn’t meet a well-known criterion of scientific belief: that the belief could be proven false under certain, specifiable conditions.

The theists respond that claims to experience God’s presence are falsifiable, since aberrant mental states (paranoia, delusional behavior, narcotized brain states, arrogant or tyrannical or selfish conduct) could discredit such claims. But, absent such disqualifying features, a claim to have experienced something should be treated as evidential, just as we treat similar claims to have seen some physical object.

Sceptics note that there is no chain of physical causes leading back to the God starting point, as there is with claims to encounter physical objects.

Theists reply that, since God is not a physical object, the absence of such a physical chain connecting Him with the person experiencing His presence cannot be a defeater for the claim.

Sceptics object that claims to perceive physical objects are open to wide public inspection whereas only a few people seriously claim to experience God’s presence.

Theists reply that few people have a sensitive ear for classical music or a discriminating palate for wines, and yet we don’t normally discount such gifts because of their “narrow distribution.”

Well, you get the idea. Whatever the strength of the theists’ arguments, they are certainly no weaker than the arguments for atheism that have dominated the field of epistemology (theory of knowledge) in recent centuries. So, they are game changers. Since philosophical developments influence the wider culture, sooner or later they will trickle down.

What’s the upshot, for the relation to God in my life? I want to be very authentically who I am – not a person got at second hand, visible only through other people’s rough-cut lenses. I don’t want to repress, or pretend to have got over, deep desires, just because I may have failed to realize them. That sort of “brisk healthy-mindedness” strikes me as insincere. God (I believe) is not flattered by the praise and devotion of an insincere person.

I feel that everyday life presents a challenge like that of clues to a Sherlock Holmes. Which signal should we heed? Which recoil that we feel is a sign of objective danger? Is this a quiver of envy? Of admiration? Of aesthetic enjoyment that makes no other claim on me? If I am unhappy, when and where did I begin to be? Tracing that to its start, did I take a wrong turn? Or is this just an unhappy scene that it would be false to pretty up or gloss over?

Could I (given the power) do a better job than God, faced with some spectacle that pains me utterly? Or do I agree with God that we human beings have to live with our bad choices, else we can’t learn from the intimate course of our lives and from the lives of others?

What would life look like if there were no God?


a low sky

a sense of cutting your losses 

and bluff.

The philosophical theists that are having an impact now are all Christians. What don’t I like about the Christian theists? I could be wrong, so don’t go by anything I say here and now, but …

They seem to have joined

a kind of country club of the mind,

where all is well.

A week or so back, I happened to see online, briefly, a photograph taken during the Armenian massacres that were committed by those who governed Turkey during a period roughly coinciding with the First World War. I have read several books about that mind-boggling atrocity, which took place before the word “genocide” was coined. It was unrelievedly horrible and a dark harbinger of things to come.

The photograph was of one atrocity out of many, but this one I had not read about. It showed a long row of crosses to which were nailed the naked bodies of Armenian girls. One saw them only from the side, so there was no effect of graphic nudity.

Only the most vast, silent and terrible pity of it;

the incurable vulnerability of the innocent

in the face of human evil.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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2 Responses to “Theism, Philosophy and Me”

  1. Nancy says:

    “Could I (given the power) do a better job than God, faced with some spectacle that pains me utterly?”

    No, I don’t think so. This hinges on the definition of “God” as I understand it.

    “Or do I agree with God that we human beings have to live with our bad choices, else we can’t learn from the intimate course of our lives and from the lives of others?”

    I consider this as problematic because one of my degrees is in child development. Young children may make bad choices, forget what they did, but still live with the consequences. This is one of the reasons that parent(s) and teacher(s) have the responsibility, as far as society is concerned, to help children learn and correct (or ameliorate) mistakes. At the university level I think the assumption is that the students have personal responsibility for choices.

    • Abigail says:

      Thanks Nancy for a Comment that, as usual, cuts to the chase. Can “bad choices” start in childhood (before the alleged age of reason) and yet propel the child toward a bad life? This is something you have seen and dealt with directly, and so must also know that not every such hinge moment in childhood is — or can be — caught and corrected, even by the most responsible and attentive adults. There are also cases where children are abandoned, abused, even born with drug addiction transmitted from an addicted mother. One wants to believe that choice is always, at some point, available to a person, but it’s hard to know that, from the outside looking in.

      Theologians and philosophers talk about something they call “the problem of evil.” The “evil” they mean has two distinguishable aspects: suffering in nature and wickedness in man. It’s a conceptual problem for believers: how can a God with the expected attributes (all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing) allow these two kinds of evil?

      As a philosopher, I was never that preoccupied with “the problem of evil” in the abstract. But I have spent time as an atheist when some occurrences in my life seemed more than I could deal with, and help or guidance seemed far away. What I learned, I guess, is that nobody stays an atheist. If you don’t worship God, you will worship “other gods,” and they are generally a lot worse than God.

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