25 Aug Reflections on the Existence of God
Not how the world is, but that it is - this is the mystery.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose words these are, was perhaps the greatest, and certainly one of the most influential, of twentieth century philosophers. He wasn’t what you’d call a believer. And yet I want to develop the insight his words convey. I want to argue that the mystery Wittgenstein identified points ultimately to the mystery of God. The mystery of God arises for us inescapably once we confront the most basic of all phenomena: not how the world is, but that it is.
What Wittgenstein has in mind is something I shall call the sheer existence of things. It’s the single astonishing fact that the world is, rather than the countless more familiar facts which together make up how it is.
To see what this is about, let’s consider the difference between thought and reality. Suppose there’s someone you love. You can think of him endlessly, and the better you know him the richer your thought of him will be. And yet thinking about him can’t make him real. To be real he must exist: not just as an object of thought, but with a being exterior to thought, in excess of anything that thinking alone cannot produce. That’s what reality is: it’s sheer existence, existence beyond thought. It’s what you grasp when you no longer have to bring the person you love to mind, because, astonishingly, he is there, present, before you. What you grasp in that moment is what makes him real. In excess of anything thought alone can summon or encompass, you grasp the sheer existence of him.
You’re struck, in other words, not by how he is, but by that he is. How he is is what makes it possible to think of him. It’s everything that makes him who and what he is: let’s say it’s the idea of him. But how he is isn’t the same as that he is. That he is is something different, something other. Beyond the idea of him, we can experience his reality, his actuality, his sheer existence.
Now so far I’ve been talking about the sheer existence of an individual, of someone you love, just as an example. Wittgenstein of course is talking about the world. But the argument is the same. The distinction between how something is and that it is applies not just to individuals but to the world as a whole. The world itself is thinkable, can in principle be made an object of thought This gives us how the world is, the idea of the world. But beyond the idea, beyond everything thought can contain, there is the fact that the world is, that it is real, that it exists. And this, Wittgenstein says, is the mystery.
Now why does Wittgenstein call it a mystery? Well, one reason is that sheer existence is so fundamental and so encompassing that we tend to take it for granted. Our focus is the how of things. We’re immersed in discovering the world, absorbed in trying to understand it. And yet discovery and understanding presuppose that the world exists, that it is there in the first place to be discovered and understood. It’s this, which is so obvious, so basic, that we take for granted and tend to make invisible. Retrieving it induces a sense of strangeness, a kind of unsettledness, perhaps. It’s not unreasonable in this context to speak of a mystery.
But there’s more to it than that. We speak of mystery not simply in the context of what is strange or disconcerting. We speak of mystery, in the most fundamental sense, when explanation has been defeated. So when Wittgenstein says that the sheer existence of the world is mysterious, he means that in the sheer existence of things we encounter something before which explanation breaks down. And he’s right about that: sheer existence is in a very fundamental way inexplicable.
To see why, let’s think about how explanations work. Explanations depend on there being something to explain. A classical way of putting this would be to say that explanations depend on the natures or essences of things. On this classical understanding, explanations involve finding out what these natures or essences are and how they express themselves. But of course there isn’t just one kind of explanation. The immense complexity of things means that very many kinds of explanation are generated. We have the sciences, of course: physics, chemistry and biology and their numerous derivatives. But we also have the kinds of explanation proper to humanistic studies such as history, sociology and psychology. Some people, as it happens, think that sooner or later we will be able to do away with humanistic kinds of explanation. History, psychology and the rest will one day be absorbed into the supposedly more fundamental kinds of explanation offered by the physical sciences. Others deny this. Still others aren’t sure one way or the other.
But for my purposes such disagreements are of no importance. What is important is that all kinds of explanation have something in common. They all presuppose that something or other exists, and then proceed to try to explain why, on the basis of what exists, things happen as they do. None of them, however, explains why anything exists. None of them, we might say, explains why there is something to explain.
And this is no accident. Explanations tell you what kinds of things there are and why they function as they do. But what something is and why it functions as it does can never tell you why it exists. We need to be absolutely clear about this. Take yourself as an example. You are a human being: not a mere idea, a possibility, but something actually existing. It’s manifest that being human doesn’t explain why you actually exist. Existence isn’t part of what it means to be human, so your existence must originate in something else. And at this point it seems very natural to say that it originates in the particular event of your parents conceiving you; this surely explains why you are. But that’s a mistake. Your parents’ existence is as much in need of explanation as yours is. Of course their conceiving you explains something: it explains what you are, and doubtless to some degree who you are. But that’s all it explains. And so your sheer existence, even in the very moment of your coming to be, remains mysterious.
And of course it’s not just you or your parents of whom this is true. Take anything in the world you like. Take the world itself. However deeply you penetrate what it is and why it functions as it does, you’ll find nothing that tells you why it exists. And because of this, existence defeats explanation. It is as Wittgenstein said: the mystery is not how the world is, the mystery is that it is.
The defeat of explanation I’m speaking about is universal. The mystery of sheer existence is something which not even the most fundamental kinds of scientific explanation can dispel. How could they? If science were able to explain existence, it would first of all have to free itself from taking existence for granted. But in doing so it would become a science focussed upon, precisely, nothing - for nothing is what remains, if the assumption of existence is suspended. And of course the idea of a science with nothing to investigate is an absurdity. However basic the agents or processes which science invokes, their actuality, their sheer existence, necessarily remains unexplained. So not only is science incapable of dispelling the mystery of existence. Science, as an exploration of what’s real, depends radically upon that mystery for its very possibility.
But, as I’ve already said, my argument isn’t just about the mystery of existence; it’s about the mystery of existence pointing inescapably to the existence of God. It’s time for me to try to spell out why I think it does so.
And first of all I want to say that the idea of the existence of God is in danger of becoming too familiar. We think we know what the idea of God amounts to. We think we know what is involved in affirming or denying that God exists. I can’t avoid disrupting those assumptions. What we mean by God, what it means to consider whether or not God exists, are stranger, more mysterious adventures of thought than we might suppose.
Now let me be as explicit as possible. The world’s existence is a mystery. The world itself cannot explain its existence, cannot tell us why it exists. And yet despite this, the why question seems inescapable. The fact that the world cannot answer it does not mean that it’s a misguided or unintelligible question to ask. On the contrary. We naturally and spontaneously search for an opening, a direction perhaps, in which the why question can be posed, and in which an answer can be, however provisionally, indicated. And that opening or direction has a certain shape or orientation. We know that the world’s existence cannot come from the world itself. We know, then, that it must come from elsewhere. And we can know at least one thing about how this must be characterized. Using Wittgenstein’s language, the world’s existence can’t originate from something in which how it is and that it is once again come apart. Why is it that your parents can’t explain that you exist? Because they’re just like you: their existence is as unexplained as yours. That’s the situation which the why question moves us to transcend. And so the only possibility would seems to be this: The mystery of the world’s existence must originate in something that definitively transcends the duality of how and that. This is what’s inescapably indicated, if we allow our wonder at the world’s existence to unfold uninhibitedly. If we do, we find that it must originate in something in which how it is and that it is do not diverge. In other words, and in more classical language, we are drawn to affirm something in which essence and existence cannot be separated. And this is precisely what we call God.
Now there’s something about this conclusion I want immediately to emphasize. When we are drawn in this way to affirm the existence of God, we aren’t in any very recognizable way offering an explanation. Explanations typically use something we know, to shed light on something we don’t. Here that pattern is reversed. Something we know, the existence of the world, leads us to something we don’t, the existence of God. Now in saying that the existence of God isn’t something we know, I obviously don’t mean that we can’t affirm it. I mean that we can’t understand it. God, a being in which essence and existence cannot be separated, is entirely beyond our power to penetrate. Affirming God’s existence is unavoidable, but in doing so we are affirming the existence of something incomprehensible to us. In this moment, we think what we cannot understand. The existence of God proves to be a kind of demonstrated unknowability. If this is a kind of explanation, it’s not one which justifies any claim to mastery or closure. It’s a kind of necessary horizon of free thinking, an inescapable recognition of what lies mysteriously beyond us.
Inescapable? Obviously not, strictly speaking. The desire to stay securely within the boundaries of what can be mastered is after all very strong. So we might try saying that although the existence of the world is indeed mysterious, we have simply to accept it as a brute fact beyond which we cannot go. That would be a kind of escape. But if cannot go means will not go, then our escape is at the cost of being arbitrary, in fact closed, defensive - dare one say, repressed?
The existence of God, by contrast, is an explanation that leads into the unknown, an answer that shapes itself as a question. Or rather, several. Who is God? Why give the world existence? What does it mean to recognize that the world and we ourselves receive existence rather than possess it? Philosophy’s affirmation of the existence of God deepens not mastery but mystery: the focussed, irreversible persistence of wonder.
And such wonder is as far as we can go when, as tonight, our context is reason, not faith.
Some on my side of this debate would dispute that. They would claim that over and above affirming God as the mysterious origin of the world’s existence, philosophy can attain a richer conception of the divine in terms of ‘attributes’ such as omnipotence, omniscience, supreme goodness and so on. The arguments are interesting, but I have my doubts: both about how much philosophy can actually achieve in this area, and also about the usefulness of what it attempts. In my view, these questions are more religious than philosophical. What is meant by calling God allpowerful or all-knowing or all-good can in my opinion be properly elucidated only in the context of Faith.
What is Faith? Well, it draws on the questions we ask, but above all it’s about the answers we receive. And according to Faith, these answers are God’s answers. Such answers constitute determinate, systematic beliefs and practices which are said to come from God and also to lead to God. Above all, in ways which definitively surpass all philosophical speculation, Faith tells us who God is.
Atheism, the affirmation of God’s nonexistence, is philosophically unreasonable in light of the very being of the world. But when we consider not the existence of the world but what the world is like, atheism might not appear so unreasonable after all - at least as a practical stance. Given the world as we know it, the supposedly all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good God can certainly seem enigmatic, ambivalent or even hostile towards us. And if God appears to have abandoned us, why shouldn’t we abandon God? Atheism, at least sometimes, originates I think in this way, and I don’t find such a response unintelligible. But this is where what religion, rather than philosophy, tells us of God can make a decisive difference. I’d like to end by suggesting that the depth of Christianity, and the most important of the signs that it is true, lies in its capacity to make redemptive sense even of the experience of seeming to be abandoned by God. It seems appropriate to make this concluding point by recalling something Chesterton wrote:
When the world shook and the sun was wiped out of heaven, it was not at the crucifixion, but at the cry from the Cross: the cry which confessed that God was forsaken by God … [Let] the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God [Himself] seemed for an instant to be an atheist.
By Philip Cleevely, Cong. Orat.