The Philosophy Shop’s Blog

A place to exchange ideas about philosophy

Religion, Arguments and Editing

Posted by Philosophy Foundation on August 16, 2011

Oliver Leech MPhil writes a philosophical argument about God, but also invites you in to a meta-level discussion about the problems of working with the press:


The New Statesman (July 25th, 2011) published an article called ‘Faith No More’ by Andrew Zak Williams. In its heading readers were reminded that earlier in the year the magazine had asked public figures why they believed in God. In ‘Faith No More’ another set of public figures, this time atheists, were invited to explain why they did not believe in God.

The atheist public figures included writers, scientists, philosophers and humanists; among them Philip Pulman, Richard Dawkins, Polly Toynbee and Stephen Hawking.

I read the article keen to learn the key reasons for contemporary atheism and noted that one recurring very frequently was ‘lack of evidence’. For example, Richard Dawkins wrote: ‘I don’t believe in leprechauns, pixies, werewolves, jujus, Thor, Poseidon, Yahweh, Allah or the Trinity. For the same reason in every case: there is not the tiniest shred of evidence for any of them and the burden of proof rests with those who wish to believe.’

From my very basic understanding of the philosophy of religion I realised that this approach to the question of the existence of God was wrongly directed. Why? It assumes that asking whether or not God exists is the same sort of enquiry as trying to find out whether a particular object (from a black hole to a red herring) exists among other objects. A comparable misunderstanding might be looking for a washing machine by opening a door and searching among socks, shirts and underwear. The error is to confuse an item with that which contains the item. What believers take God to be – and whether they are right or not is a completely different question – is that on which the whole universe depends not an item capable of being discovered within the universe.

In an attempt to contribute this point to the discussion I emailed the following letter to the New Statesman. Before reading it please note that it is not in any way meant to present a counter argument, to make a case for the existence of God. The aim was simply to point out that this particular ground for atheism, the lack of evidence argument, is based on a definition of God that serious students of religion do not actually hold.  Now, whether there exists or not such an entity, namely, that on which the universe depends is a very challenging question but not one about which my letter was concerned.

in response to Faith No More by Andrew Zak Williams (New Statesman 25th July, 2011)

‘I was fascinated to read the reasons given by ‘public figures’ for their atheism. Prominent among them was the lack of evidence argument. The practical difficulty of proving the non-existence of God was acknowledged but then came the telling point that in general we do not believe to exist whatever we cannot prove not to exist. Examples offered were leprechauns, werewolves, goblins, fairies, pixies and gnomes. There is no need to show that they do not exist to have no faith in them.

In relation to the question of the existence or non-existence of God, however, this approach can be challenged. Leprechauns etc. are possible items in the universe. Since there is no evidence that such items are to be found anywhere in the universe, we dismiss them. The Higgs-Boson is a possible item in the universe. Experiments in the Hadron Collider are intended to show whether or not there is evidence for its existence. So in the case of items in the universe evidence is rightly regarded as the basis for belief or disbelief.

The term God has many interpretations but it is not standard belief to the best of my knowledge to assert that God is a potential item in the universe whose existence might or not be brought to light by evidence. To think in such terms as many of the respondents in the article did is to make a category mistake. God as usually defined is not one thing among many things accessible to observation and experiment but rather that on which the universe depends for its existence.

The objection raised here is not in any way intended to serve as a contrasting proof of the existence of God but merely to point out what I take to be a mistaken approach to the question.’

The New Statesman (8th August, 2011) published my letter but in a much edited form, just one paragraph of it in fact, as you can see below:

‘The term God has many interpretations but it is not standard belief to the best of my knowledge to assert that God is a potential item in the universe whose existence might or not be brought to light by evidence. To think in such terms as many of the respondents in the article did is to make a category mistake. God is not one thing among many things accessible to observation and experiment but rather that on which the universe depends for its existence. ‘

Not only has all the philosophical argument been omitted but the crucial phrase in the penultimate paragraph after the word God ‘as usually defined’. I can quite understand that a reader would assume from the printed form of the letter that its author was responding to rational argument with a dollop of dogma. No wonder the following letter appeared in the New Statesman (15th August, 2011):

‘Oliver Leech (Letters, 8 August) grandly asserts that “God is … that on which the universe depends for its existence”. He also states that it is a “category mistake” to think that any evidence is require to demonstrate  God’s existence. So that’s all right, then. Would it be judged ironic to ask Mr Leech politely on what he therefore bases his remarkable assertion?’ Max Fishel, Bromley, Greater London

What does this all amount to? It has certainly been a learning experience for me. I now know if I did not before that almost any statement about religion is open to misunderstanding and especially if there is a Chinese whispers effect as clearly happened here when the New Statesman, carelessly or mischievously to provoke, put a spin on an attempt to join in a reasoned debate.




New Statesman Letters, 8th August, 2011 printed one paragraph of my letter in response to ‘Faith No More’ by Andrew Zak Williams (25th July, 2011).

I understand that letters need to be edited and reduced in length but why did you omit from that paragraph the crucial phrase (after the word ‘God’) ‘as usually defined’, a phrase that makes all the difference to the point I was trying to make, except deliberately to change a rational argument into what reads like a piece of religious dogmatism. It can only be a mischievous attempt to provoke a response based on a misunderstanding of what I wrote which is exactly what you got in the letter you published from Max Fishel (15th August, 2011). I thought that the New Statesman was a magazine devoted to serious subjects discussed in a grown-up way.

Oliver Leech

PS Please send a copy of my letter as you received it to Max Fishel. It is not his fault that he got the wrong end of the stick.



12 Responses to “Religion, Arguments and Editing”

  1. Thanks for sharing your experience Oliver. I think the main mistake you made was in assuming that a newspaper would ever print a whole letter of that length! As in philosophy, being concise is very important when making a comment to be published in the media.

    However, I suggest that ‘as usually defined’ was not included as it can easily be read as simply superfluous, ie most readers (and the editor) would assume that you were talking about god as usually defined. Whilst it may make all the difference in a nuanced philosophical debate, it’s not clear that it actually does.

    Which leads me on to the main problem with your argument. People – not the few students of the philosophy of religion – do indeed have a standard belief that god ‘as usually defined’ is something for which evidence can and cannot be found in the world (and that includes religious officials). Indeed, if it weren’t, how would anyone come to believe in it or argue about its existence – as they do every day? Non-believers assert there is no evidence, and believers that there is evidence everywhere (including a feeling that god exists), if you just look for it correctly. Just think about how the Pope might respond if you said, god is not the sort of thing evidence for which can be found in the world; or consider the words to the song, ‘All things bright and beautiful’.

    When ‘philosophers’ don’t take into account what people actually believe and focus instead on theoretical argumentation, they appear aloof and disengaged. The debates philosophers have amongst themselves often cannot be directly transplanted to the public domain because they do not make sense, or they turn on a linguistic point that appears petty. You simply can’t make the public debate about god go away by highlighting a category mistake – a phrase with which most will be unfamiliar.

    If we are to claw back some ground for philosophy in the public domain we are going to have to think deeply about how we do it. Just as the approach to teaching philosophy to children focuses on helping them to be good critical thinkers rather than employing words like ‘monad’ and ‘epistemology’ or telling them who Wittgenstein was, so must we focus on developing arguments for the public domain that take into account context, belief and the propensity of people to engage, or not, in critical thinking.

    That is, we have to engage on society’s terms if we are to be listened to.

  2. Michael Hand said

    I consider myself a ‘serious student of religion’ and it seems to me entirely clear that the question of the existence of God is one to which evidence is relevant. I think this has also seemed clear to most participants in theological debate throughout history. The idea that, because God is understood to be ‘that on which the universe depends for its existence’, it is somehow logically improper to ask for evidence that he exists, is just a piece of theological sophistry.

  3. I would like to thank you Oliver for most valuable advice in regard to publishing. It is a shame that New Statesman did not publish the whole letter but somehow I am not surprised. Now if you allow me to leave the issue of publisher’s aside and let me go into what I take to be the fun part – philosophy.

    I would have to disagree with you Dan on your criticism of argument on two accounts. First of all Oliver’s conceptual characterisation of God is, more or less, correct as far as dogma of most monotheistic religion go. If I would be allow to use your example of the Pope, he would be first to agree with Oliver that God is not another object of the world, one for which we can present empirical evidence. If we will take Roman Catholic Church as an example, it is part of the official dogma of the church since St. Thomas Aquinas at least. Secondly I would have to disagree with idea that this show that philosophy is disengaged with general understanding (that part may very well be sadly true) and so we, as philosophers, have to work with concepts as they are commonly understood. In general there seem to be nothing wrong with this approach but I would like to voice my scepticism. Where do we draw the line? We are not at all surprised when physicist in search of understanding deal with the most outlandish sounding concepts, when they claim that world is much weirder then any of us suspected. Why when philosophers in search of critical clarification of concepts present an intellectually cogent position we are attacked for being detached from the world?

    Saying all this, it is still interesting that Dan uncovered different problem in Oliver’s position, at list in my opinion. There seem to be a difference between empirical evidences for existence of an object in the world (something that one could argue is not to be expected from religious believer) and rational justification for holding a belief about God-involving ontology. Analogously if we take God to be define as giver of meaning, we would still have to present rational for believing that God- given meaning is present in the universe that surrounds us. Under this view, arguments given by religious believers about ‘feeling’ of God presence could be considered as justification of holding this kind of belief and not about belief in God that is another object in the universe. Quality of this argument is of course another matter.

    As a last point I would like to point that as far as the original article in New Statesman goes, it is most amusing that the most cogent and convincing argument among all public figures is this given by Denial Dennett. It could very well be true that arguments given by non-philosophers in support of existence of God are not perfect, but as far as I am concern those presented by non-philosophers against as also lacking.

  4. thephilosophyshop said

    Oliver’s position reminds me of the Avicenna argument that Prof Peter Adamson explained to us at the CPD. Didn’t he [Avi] say something like: God must be a distinct kind of thing from ‘the aggregate’ of existing things in the universe because the aggregate is comprised of things which are contingent but the aggregate itself has to have had a reason to be rather than not be, so the thing which makes the aggregate the case must not itself be contingent. This means that the thing (later to be posited as God using other arguments) on which the existence of contingent things depends must be necessary and therefore logically distinct from ‘the aggregate’. Correct me if I’m wrong but isn’t that kind of what Oliver was on about?
    Didn’t it fall foul to the fallacy of composition? …Because the argument depended on the aggregate itself being contingent, but this was argued for from the fact that the things making up the aggregate were themselves contingent.

    P.s. never seen so much discussion on this site. God always does that!

  5. Yes there is a similiarity between this argument and Avisena position with one major difference. Avisena present a positive logical argument for existance of God. Oliver’s and mine position is aimed at argument which claim that there is an empirical requirment on belief in God not disimiliar to requiment on empirical evidances required from scientific theory.

    1. One argument presented by the atheist ‘public figures’ (New Statesman July 25, 2011) rested on a comparison between the existence of leprechauns, goblins etc. and the existence of God.
    a. Leprechauns, goblins etc. are conceived of as objects of perception and are dismissed as non-existent on the grounds that there is no evidence that they have been perceived. God ‘as usually defined’ is not conceived of as an object of perception.
    b. Leprechauns, goblins etc. are conceived of as physical objects possessing extension and occupying space. God ‘as usually defined’ is not conceived of as a physical object that has dimensions or fills a particular piece of space.
    c. Leprechauns, goblins etc. are conceived of as contained within, as parts of the physical universe. God ‘as usually defined’ is not conceived of as contained within, as part of the physical universe but rather as the creator of the universe.
    It is for reasons such as these that the point is put that there is a category mistake in this particular argument.

    2. Suppose I believe that there exist physical objects in an external world independent of my consciousness. What grounds could be given for that belief? And could any such grounds be fittingly described as ‘evidence’ in the usual understanding of that term? My observations of apparent trees, houses, mountains, stars are compatible with a world view that is idealist, dualist or materialist. The question as to which of these world views is best adopted will not be determined by evidence. Evidence is that which can be collected, added to, which can accumulate and reach a tipping point at which a belief may be changed. Think of the ‘smoking gun’ item of evidence in a court case.
    As I look up now at a tree, I wonder what new evidence might show me which ontological theory best captures the nature of reality. Is there a tree independent of my mind or not? Does the tree exist independently of my mind but have primary properties only? I find it hard to grasp how the addition of a new piece of ‘evidence’ might help me out of this dilemma.
    I think we are in this sort of territory when we address the question of the existence of God. Our experience of the world is compatible with both the theist’s and the atheist’s position. The acquisition of more evidence does not shift us from one background belief to another.

    3. As I understand it, when he presented his iconoclastic theories of relativity, Einstein conducted no new experiments. The evidence about the world was in the public domain, the same evidence for all. Most physicists saw it in terms of classical physics; Einstein looked at it but found a different pattern. In short, his position was based on a different way of understanding the same evidence rather than the acquisition of new evidence.
    Again I suspect that the difference between the background beliefs of theists and atheists is not a question of evidence but of an interpretation of that evidence. The difference is in the way of viewing not in what is being viewed.

    4. In his Prelude Wordsworth describes climbing Snowdon with two companions. When the moon rises, all three, presumably, have the same visual perceptions of the illuminated heights around them but only he sees the scene as emblematic of cosmic meaning. All three have the same evidence, are surrounded by the same features of the same world:

    ‘When into air had partially dissolved
    That vision, given to spirits of the night
    And three chance human wanderers, in calm thought
    Reflected, it appeared to me the type
    Of a majestic intellect, its acts
    And its possessions, what it has and craves,
    What in itself it is, and would become.
    There I beheld the emblem of a mind
    That feeds upon infinity, that broods
    Over the dark abyss, intent to hear
    Its voices issuing forth to silent light
    In one continuous stream; a mind sustained
    By recognitions of transcendent power …’ (The Prelude, Book 14, 1850)

    The difference between Wordsworth and his companions is not in the evidence, i.e., the literal objects of perception but in the way of perceiving and understanding.

    (Clearly, to Wordsworth he has been blessed with a deeper insight, one that takes him closer to reality. It is not just a duck/rabbit or Necker tube situation in which there are two ways of seeing of which neither has priority over the other. But the claim I am attributing to Wordsworth would need to be argued for separately.)

  7. thephilosophyshop said

    Here’s an interesting thing:

    This poem was written after a session with a Year 3 class in which we had played a game called ‘Indescribable Words’ where a child is given a word by another child and they have to describe the word to the class with the aim of having the class guess what the word is. They only have two minutes to do it. The poem is based on the child’s description. Have a go yourself:

    A Disappearing Riddle

    When I’m there you can’t see me.
    When you kick me it won’t hurt.
    If you look I’m invisible.
    When I talk I’m not heard.

    I can be whatever you want
    Though I am I-don’t-know-what!
    I’m always around you
    In between every spot,

    I fill every gap,
    Every space,
    Every crack.
    What am I?

    ‘Are you ___?’ [The reader has to try to fill this in before continuing]

    [The poem should be read twice: once up to the open question with discussion and then again with the last two lines followed by more discussion.]

    I’ll tell you nothing.
    How ‘bout that?

    So, the word was ‘nothing’ but the class all thought that it was ‘God’. So, according to the children God shares all the same features as nothing. I won’t say anything about what this might mean but it is interesting…

  8. thephilosophyshop said

    I often think that the ‘does God exist?’ question falls into two areas: 1) ‘the God as described by religious texts’ and 2) ‘the God of why there is something rather than nothing’. These seem to me to be two very different Gods and two very different questions. One of which is open to evidence and the other is not. The first is surrounded by all sorts of claims that are evidence-based and they are therefore open to evidence-based analysis. ‘What is the evidence for the creation story?’ for instance. But the God invoked to answer the question ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’ can, as we have seen with Spinoza, be tantamount to atheism (‘as God is usually defined). There is no implication that God has any of the features that people would mean when they use the term ‘God… as usually defined’. So, I agree entirely with Oliver if we limit the discussion to the God of 2) above, but then we are left with this question: does this sense of ‘God’ share enough of the features that would allow other people to agree or would they just call you ‘an atheist’?

  9. thephilosophyshop said

    A short addendum:

    Isn’t ‘God’ in the sense of 2) above a place holder for ‘that which explains why there is something rather than nothing, whatever that may be?’ I’m not sure that most Christians would be happy with that. But maybe I’m wrong!

  10. Michael Hand said

    The point is not that God is a locatable physical object: he isn’t. It’s that God is an agent, and the world either exhibits evidence of divine agency or it doesn’t. That doesn’t render the comparison with leprechauns inappropriate: the plausibility of the leprechaun hypothesis may depend on the repeated discovery of pots of gold at the end of rainbows, not on direct encounters with leprechauns.

  11. Ruth Oswald said

    An interesting discussion so far. Is the notion that God is the washing machine in which the physical objects of the universe (socks, red herrings and so forth) the usual definition of the term? It seems to have more of a ring of pan-theism about it.

    I don’t have much to add to the ongoing discussion, however, I think I agree with Michael that evidence ought to be a requirement when it comes to God. Even though many believers assert that they have faith and don’t require evidence, they usually go on to provide evidence (of a sort) to support their beliefs. For example, they say that they have “a feeling” that they are being watched over, or that there have been instances where their prayers have been answered…

  12. Does anyone understand what Wittgenstein means towards the end of the Tractatus when he writes:
    ‘6.432 How things are in the world is a matter of complete indifference for what is higher. God does not reveal himself in the world.
    6.4321 The facts all contribute only to setting the problem, not to its solution
    6.44 It is not how things are in the world that it mystical, but that it exists.’
    (‘how’ and ‘that’ are in italics.)

    It might shed some light on this discussion.

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