CHAPTER 5. The Given and the Existence of God.
How does the given help us with doubts?
Let's take a common enough question. "If I cannot perceive God, how can I be sure that he exists?"
In order to answer that question, we first need to highlight an important feature of the given. What is it that makes people in all places and at all times share so many givens? What is it that makes the Iliad or a Dickens novel seem so normal in 2023?
The answer proposed here is that while givens can have in certain respects a random character, the number of universal givens is restrained by consistency. The reason we can still read the Iliad or a novel written in the 19th century is because, as a Plautus said, nothing that is human is alien to us. The number of givens which persist since Homer's time is huge. How does consistency play out?
Consistency means that while the pieces and rules of chess are in some sense truly arbitrary, the fact that chess has been so widely played with such enthusiasm for so long testifies to a consistency of results. Again, the fact that James and John have the same perceptual experiences in Peter's living room is another kind of consistency. The agreement of the layman's visual perception and scientific opinion about the number of stars is yet another kind of consistency.
So, consistency is the check on the given. If we think about how we reject beliefs as given, we will tend to find troubles with consistency. For instance, when someone tells us that the Egyptian (but not the Peruvian) pyramids were built by space aliens, we may involuntarily recall the reams of history we read about them and ask ourselves, "Could they all have been wrong?" That is our appeal to consistency. Such an appeal prevents us from falling for silliness.
(The danger of of trusting in consistency when we move beyond the givens into the realm of fact is that Everybody Knows, like Science Says, can be used to extinguish all knowledge and discourse. Consistency as we describe it limited practically to the belief of unprovable things. Once verifiable knowledge is in play, consistency must exit the stage and give way to more exacting standards.)
Now, when we turn to the question of the existence of God, we are bound to admit that discussing God's existence is a lot harder than discussing the existence of, say, one's living room. This is because God is by definition beyond being, whereas we are predisposed towards material things.
In reality, the question of God's existence hides an important adverb. When people say that you cannot prove God exists, it is because they imply "perceptibly." Because we are all oriented towards the material world, we implicitly understand and accept that invisible adverb. If, however, we candidly strip the question of its invisible adverb, the question becomes that of a given.
We may suppose that God exists or that he does not. We do not want to fall for the trap of proving a given, so we are limited to showing whether our given is consistent with what we know. Since we are dealing with the creator of the universe, our given must be consistent with the universe.
Let's say that we suppose that God exists. Is the universe consistent with the existence of God? The incredible amount of order in the universe seems very consistent with a creator. The purposefulness of life--of some--is consistent with the purposefulness of God. Our sense of personality is consistent with a personal God. The inconceivable magnitude of the universe, its equally inconceivable orderliness are consistent with an omniscient and omnipotent God. We may in fact suppose that when St. Paul says that "the invisible things of [God] from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead" (Ro. 1:20), he is appealing to consistency.
On the contrary, let's say that we suppose that God does not exist. Where does all the order come from? From nothing. Where does the purposefulness of life come from? From nothing. Where does personality come from? From nothing. Nothingness and our universe are about as inconsistent--or bizarre--as we can desire.
When atheists are off camera, they admit to some pretty heart-breaking emotions, which they themselves trace directly to this inconsistency. For the brave or sleepless, Albert Camus is a good example of how atheism plays out. "The world itself, whose single meaning I do not understand, is but a vast irrational. If one could only say just once: 'This is clear,' all would be saved."__1 Later, he adds that "man stands face to face with the irrational. He feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between human need and the unreasonable silence of the world."__2 There is no question that Camus is thinking as clearly as an atheist can think.
He has clearly cottoned on to the inconsistency of his reason and desire for happiness and the inability of the God-less world to respond to him. Indeed, his words are deeply wise, for they assure us that whatever we may think of the universe--its beauty, its majesty, its delightfulness--only God can speak to us, only God can respond to our "longing for happiness and for reason." Without God the Word, we are crushed by "the unreasonable silence of the world.
Therefore, we can reasonably accept the existence of God as a given. The consistency of this given with the universe is evident. By contrast, the atheist, in the person of Camus, is all too keenly aware of the inconsistency of his own reason with the God-less universe.
ENDNOTES FOR THE CIRCUMSPECT
1. Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus: And Other Essays (New York: Knopf, 1955); reprint ed., New York: Vintage Books, 1991), p. 27.
2. p. 28.