What would life be like if God did not exist? If we found that such a life would be quite unlike our own lives as actually lived, that would be a pretty strong indication that atheism is false; that it disagrees with reality as we actually encounter it. Since God, if he exists, is by far – infinitely far – the biggest most important thing there is, our decision about whether he exists is the most important and far-reaching decision we can make in life. Thus if God exists, and we approached the question of his existence in the wrong spirit, it would be the worst mistake of our lives; as if we had spat on the Good King, but far, far worse; for the King in question would be the King of Everything.
It behooves us to approach the question in the right frame of mind, so that we are less likely to err in our thinking.
Part of approaching the question in the right spirit is being honest with ourselves about how things would be if God did not exist. To begin with a closed mind, or to beg the question and insist that nothing could be different if God did not exist, would be to cheat the whole project. But it is crucial to recognize that, in cheating the project, we would be hurting only ourselves.
What are the aspects of life that we are going to find most indicative? What, that is, are the things that might be quite different for us if there were no God? Well, what are the basic features of our lives?
- We feel that we exist. It may seem silly to begin with this notion, because it seems evident that we do exist. But everything depends on it: if we don’t exist, there’s no point talking about anything. And there are quite a few people who hold that we don’t exist.
- We feel that certain things are true, whether anyone knows about them or not. For example, we believe that the truths of mathematics are true in themselves; they were true before anyone figured them out, and they would still be true even if no one ever did. Not only that, but there is something in them that makes us feel that they must be true: that there is no possible way they could fail to be true.
- We have an impression that we can know things about the world. Not perfectly, to be sure. But none of us get out of bed in the morning and think, “there is no bed, really, and there is no morning.” No; we get out of bed, and go downstairs to make some coffee, trusting that our impressions of things are more or less on target. One of the worst experiences in life is to feel as though we have lost touch with reality, as when we are very sick with delirium. It is the stuff of nightmare.
- We feel that the world is basically orderly and intelligible; that it is a rational, coherent enterprise, and hangs together lawfully. Science hangs on this supposition, of course. But so does all animal life. A cat who had no confidence in the continued efficacy of gravity or the laws of mechanics would hesitate to jump from the table to the floor. If nature were not regular and lawful, or if we felt that its laws and regularities could not be apparent to us, we would not be able to form our actions at all, let alone engage in such activities as planning a trip to the store.
- We feel we can speak meaningfully to each other, and act accordingly. That is, we act as if we believe that we can refer to certain phenomena, and that other people will understand what we mean – they will understand the reference the same way, or nearly the same way, that we do, allowing of course for differences in our perspectives. This assumption is tightly linked to the last: if the world were not intelligible and regular, it would hardly be possible to say anything intelligent about it.
- We feel that some things are good or pleasant or beautiful, and others bad and painful, or just ugly. People have different tastes – some people love tomatoes, others hate them – but everyone has tastes. Tastes as such presuppose that things are more or less beautiful in and of themselves, and in fact, regardless what we might think about them. Only thus could people evaluate them differently from their different perspectives. No one would suggest that his enjoyment – or, for that matter, hatred – of the taste of beer has nothing to do with the objective reality of beer. Likewise also with the music of Mozart or the austere beauty of a desert landscape. It would be silly to suggest that when we apprehend beauty (or ugliness) in these things, we are apprehending something that is not real. If that were the case, then our aesthetic evaluations of experience could be of no help in guiding us through life, for they could be nothing but noise.
- We have a strong sense that some acts are right, just and fair, and others wrong, unjust, unfair. What is more we think some acts are great, admirable and noble, and others are base, nasty and despicable. Finally, we all feel that there are certain things one ought to do, and other things one ought not to do, in living life properly. We may say, “to each his own way,” but we all feel that we ourselves know of a way that we, at least, ought to live. Or, to the extent that we do not, we feel lost, disoriented, and more or less paralyzed – and so, depressed. As with aesthetic evaluations, we cannot but think our moral evaluations more or less veridical, if they are to be to us anything more than noise that, in justice (sic) we ought not (sic) to take seriously.
- We feel that our lives are important. At least, we value our own lives, and preferences, quite highly. If we did not, then it would be hard to see how we could muster any motivation to help ourselves – not just by doing such prudent things as saving for a rainy day, but even by getting out of bed in the morning. If we did not feel our lives were somehow important – not just to ourselves, but in reality – then we could not reach the judgment that it was important to do anything to support them. This sense of our own importance could not suffice to motivate us unless we felt that we were important absolutely – that our lives and experiences were important, not just to ourselves, but to the world (whether or not the world seems to be aware of our importance). If we felt, deep down, that however important things seemed to us, we ourselves were in reality not the least bit important in the overall scheme of things, then there would be no reason to go on. If my importance is only a private illusion, and I know that it is, then the illusion cannot any longer have any power to influence me or sustain me, and I will act as if the illusion is false. That is, I will act as if I am totally unimportant. I will stop taking care of myself. Soon thereafter, I will be dead.
There may be other things that we should attend to, but this list will do for a start. Delete any one of these core presumptions of all human life and activity, and that activity is emptied of any reason or motivation, action stops – and then life stops. Whatever one might say to the contrary, the only way to live is to behave as if all these presuppositions were true.
Now notice that if there is no Truth, then all but the first item on the list are radically undermined – sapped so completely as to be thoroughly demolished. Except for the first, all the items on this list presuppose an objective Truth about reality, a Truth that holds whether or not any of us have yet discovered it, and to which our various opinions might then more or less correspond. Only if there is such a Truth might our opinions be either right or wrong.
Our opinions are notoriously prone to err. How not, since they are founded on limited knowledge and understanding? Practically the whole of human conversation is dedicated to driving out error in our opinions (so as to improve our coordination with the world and each other) by sharing information. It’s not a completable project. And this constraint holds also for any other perspective upon things that is anywise limited, or less than exhaustively comprehensive. Any finite understanding – anything less than omniscience – is by definition wrong, or at least ignorant, about something.
Notice now that if finite understanding were the only sort, then there could be nothing more authoritative than this finite erroneous creaturely opinion or that, and none of them finally dispositive of what is in fact real, or therefore True. There could in that case be no ultimate, absolute perspective that comprehends all things and knows all things as they are. If there is no such ultimate perspective, then there can be no Truth.
But if there is no Truth about x, then one of the statements that can’t be True is, “x exists.” But if “x exists” is not True, then x simply does not exist. And this would go for any x whatever. If there is no Truth, then, there is no being; no fact, that a statement or act might be about.
There being no Truth, verisimilitude would be a contradiction in terms – an impossibility. You can’t approximate what isn’t there in the first place. And where accuracy was impossible in principle, error too would be a vacuous term. Thus if our apprehensions and evaluations are to be even wrong, rather than all simply and completely illusory, they must be about something real that is True.
If there is no omniscient God, they can’t be; for only to omniscience can there be Truth, or therefore reality.
Looking back over the list above, it seems clear that if there is no God, and so no Truth, ergo no reality, or then any knowledge about it, then our impressions of importance, goodness, justice, beauty, order, honesty, knowledge, and even actuality – item one on the list – all go out the window. They disappear from reality, *absolutely.* But in that case, everything of human life is gone.
The nonexistence of God turns out to be incompatible with life as lived. Those who say they believe in it cannot act as if it is true and still live. Despite their avowals to the contrary, they must rather act as if God does after all exist, so that there is Truth, and so that in their mental operations and in their acts they can approximate to that Truth, and to the reality that can be founded only on that Truth. Thus their entire practical lives must consist of unprincipled exceptions. This means that they must constantly suffer a radical cognitive dissonance – or else, refrain from thinking insofar as they can. Cognitive dissonance is a sort of anxiety. Perhaps this is why unbelievers are generally somewhat less happy and healthy than believers.
Those who on the other hand have either a childlike or a sagacious trust that the deliverances of their apprehensions and evaluations have some real bearing and correspondence – howsoever defective – to things as they really are, and that their feelings, statements, acts and lives do actually mean something – are, i.e., both somehow fitly important in the overall scheme of things, and significant of supremely important realities in virtue of their participation therein – generally accept the belief in God that is implicit in this trust. They are not wrong to do so.
They are in fact right to do so. Not just because it will make them happier and healthier, along many dimensions, but because the fact that it will have these effects upon them indicates that their trust is true. It does not demonstrate that truth, of course, but only indicates it, by indicating the falsehood of its contrary; for, what cannot be carried into successful practice, what cannot meet the acid test of adequacy to quotidian life, cannot be true.
What I have here sketched is then no demonstration of God’s existence, but rather only an argument in support of it. Call it the argument from verisimilitude: if God did not exist, there could be no such thing as verisimilitude.
A convicted atheist might respond that God doesn’t exist, and carry on in the courage of his convictions to insist therefore also that there is indeed no such thing as verisimilitude. But if it be so, then we cannot be correct in so saying – or in any other saying, whatever. No verisimilitude, then nothing of our lives, at all.
It’s God’s Truth, or nothing.