Tuesday, August 28, 2007

What Logic Requires Us To Believe About The Existence of God Part 2


The title of this series is What Logic Requires Us To Believe About The Existence of God. In our first post, we defined what we meant by “Logic.” Now we must look at what is meant by the word “Existence.”

In the first post, we were introduced to the philosophical differences between Parmenides (“Whatever is, is”) and Heraclitus (“Whatever is, is changing”). As I stated then, this can be seen as the difference between “actuality” and “potentiality” and is often characterized by the philosophical terms “being” and “becoming.”

The differences between the two positions of “being” and “becoming” are not to be understated. As R.C. Sproul notes:

The problem of being and becoming may be stated this way: “If all is being, then being is actually everything and potentially nothing.” Pure being has no becoming, no change, no potential.

On the other hand pure becoming would be potentially anything but actually nothing. This conundrum leads some philosophers to assert that if everything is changing, then nothing exists.

(Not A Chance. 1994. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books. p. 115)
Spoul argues that the word existence comes from the Latin meaning “to stand out from” and it is his contention that something exists when it “stands out from” being and becoming. That is, something exists when it has one foot in being and one foot in becoming (ibid, p. 115-116). This may very well fit with the Latin definition, but I maintain that it is difficult to grasp this definition conceptually.

In philosophy, the terms “existence”, “being”, “becoming”, “essence”, and “substance” have historically been argued over a great deal and it is difficult to find a consensus on the matter. The difficulties extend into language too. For instance, when we consider “Whatever is, is”—the very word “is” implies some form of existence. What does it mean to say “Something is” if you are not saying “Something exists”?

When used outside of formal philosophical discussions, the word “exists” is usually synonymous with the idea “is real.” If we say “Adam exists” we commonly mean by this that “Adam is real.” Interestingly, as pointed out in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, when used this way the idea of “existence” really gives us a negative definition. That is, when we say “Adam exists” in the “Adam is real” sense, we mean “Adam is not imaginary.” We are not attributing anything positive about Adam (since, after all, it is so difficult to give a positive definition of “existence” in the first place.) But, of course, part of what we are affirming when we include the “nots” that Adam is not is the idea: “Adam is not nonexistent” which would require us to know what existence is in order to know what nonexistence is. And because that idea is included, we are still left in our quandary.

So what is existence? Under the circumstances, it is tempting to respond with the old quip: “I know what it is until you ask me to define it, and then I don’t know what it is anymore.” In my opinion, this actually does move us toward an understanding of what is meant by existence. This can be seen if we simply ask: “Why is it so difficult to define what existence is?”

It is difficult because of the way existence is grasped or known. I know that I exist because I have direct, immediate knowledge of my existence (through the form of perception). I do not know that anyone else exists however, because I do not have direct knowledge of other people’s experiences. While I have experienced perception on my end, I have never seen “through another person’s eyes” (and despite the over use of this trite cliché, no one else has either).

Since I have access to my own perceptions, I know that I exist in some manner. Think of it this way: Let us take on the mantle of the radical skeptic for a moment and assume that everything we perceive is an illusion. The world does not actually exist—it is a mental projection. I am not even stipulating a brain-in-a-vat situation here; there is no brain and there is no vat.

Still, no matter what else I deny, it is impossible for me to deny that I do perceive something. For instance, right now I perceive the computer monitor that I am writing this post at. I see words appear in the shape of black letters on a white background. I see the desk my computer sits upon, the pile of books next to it, etc. None of these things must exist—they could all be delusions. Yet even if they are, something must exist to experience these delusions.

Because I personally have direct access to what I “see” (even if what I see is really an illusion), I know for a fact, due to direct acquaintance with my perception, that something exists. I do not know from this experience whether that something that exists is physical, or whether what I perceive corresponds in any way to reality, or if other people that I see are experiencing their own perceptions, just as I am. I do not know this of those people—but I do know it for me.

As a result, existence is (foundationally) something we have direct knowledge of (I use the editorially “we” here, and it should not be taken as an argument that I have “proven” anyone else exists). The knowledge is little more than the idea that there is something instead of nothing. There is a level of ignorance that immediate intrudes beyond that. We know that we personally exist, but we cannot know that others exist in the same manner. We can assume it, of course. It may be a very good assumption to make. But we cannot say that what we perceive exists in the same way that we can see that we, ourselves, exist. We have direct knowledge of the latter, and can only assume the former.

Now it is certainly possible to further flesh out the implications of existence at this point, and many philosophers have done so through the years. However, for the subject of my argument for the existence of God, we need not go into that detail. All that is essential for the argument to work is for us to grant the undeniable fact that because we perceive something, there must be some form of existence (i.e., there must exist a perceiving being, even if the perceiving being is perceiving an illusion). This is existence can be as simple as the concept that there exists something rather than nothing, and we do not need to dwell on the particular attributes of that "something" that is not nothing.

In the next post in this series, we will look at what we logically must accept due to any form of existence, including this very simplistic concept of it.


  1. Good series so far. Keep it up.

  2. A lot of spilled ink to reforumlate cogito ergo sum

  3. "A lot of spilled ink to reforumlate cogito ergo sum"

    Exactly. But since many (most?) people don't know what is meant by cogito ergo sum, even if it is translated, it's necessary to spill ink over it.