Keith DeRose

As happens in other areas, sometimes when engaged in philosophical argument, we easily slip into talking as if, and it very much feels as if, we know that our position is correct. But really we don’t. That’s how I feel generally about philosophy. Which is not to put philosophy down. Philosophy is wonderful–and in large part precisely because it deals with questions where we can’t yet know what is right.
So my skepticism about coming to know whether God exists by means of philosophical arguments is very much of a piece with my general thoughts about the limitations of such arguments. Nothing in particular against theists or atheists here.
Since atheists’ only real hope of knowing that God doesn’t exist would be through some kind of philosophical argument (perhaps some argument from evil), their knowing that God doesn’t exist doesn’t seem to me a very serious possibility.

2 thoughts on “Keith DeRose

  1. shinichi Post author

    God’s Existence and My Suspicion: Delusions of Knowledge

    by Keith DeRose

    (I thought some Prosblogion folks may find this essay interesting, because it touches on and connects with several interesting philosophical and metaphilosophical issues, and also some interesting issues about the role of faith in the religious life. I don’t mention faith in the essay: that’s one of the “connected” issues that isn’t actually touched on. But it’s interesting to me to see how some theists can be very disturbed at the suggestion that they don’t know that God exists, while others shrug it off with some thought along the lines of “Well, that’s what faith is for.”)

    I know many people who claim to know whether God exists. In each case (individually), I suspect they’re wrong about their having such knowledge. In fact, I suspect that they are all wrong. That is, I suspect that nobody that I know knows whether God exists. So I suspect that delusions of knowledge about this matter run rampant among folks I know. Not a particularly nice suspicion to harbor, I realize. But I thought I’d express and explain that suspicion here, describing my grounds for it.

    But first, a bit of background about this suspicion and why it might be of interest to some

    I’m Not Particularly Skeptical

    I imagine some readers might be thinking I’m just generally stingy about counting people as knowing things. That’s not so. And those who know about some of the work I’ve done for my day job might be wondering about my contextualism and what standards I’m using for knowledge here. In short: ordinarily low/moderate standards, that we very often meet concerning other matters. To quote the late philosopher (and my fellow contextualist) David Lewis, I too would say:


    We know a lot. I know what food penguins eat. I know that phones used to ring, but nowadays squeal, when someone calls up. I know that Essendon won the 1993 Grand Final. I know that here is a hand, and here is another

    We have all sorts of everyday knowledge, and we have it in abundance. To doubt that would be absurd. At any rate, to doubt it in any serious and lasting way would be absurd; and even philosophical and temporary doubt, under the influence of argument, is more than a little peculiar. It is a Moorean fact that we know a lot. It is one of those things that we know better than we know the premises of any philosophical argument to the contrary

    Besides knowing a lot that is everyday and trite, I myself think that we know a lot that is interesting and esoteric and controversial. We know a lot about things unseen: tiny particles and pervasive fields, not to mention one another’s underwear. Sometimes we even know what an author means by his writings. (Lewis, “Elusive Knowledge,” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 74 (1996): 549 – 567; p. 549)

    I’m down with all of that. Well, not the bit about Essendon winning the 1993 Grand Final: I don’t know that. (I don’t even take myself to know that after reading it in Lewis’s paper, not because I think we generally can’t come to know things just by reading them and trusting the source, but because I think of Lewis as having been just enough of a prankster–and the Australasian Journal of Philosophy at the time to be just enough inclined to go along with the joke–that he really might have intentionally put in a falsehood here as a joke. But wait: Wouldn’t I have heard of it by now if this were a joke? Maybe this is a close call. Maybe I do know.) But allow me to substitute: I know that the Chicago Bulls won the 1993 NBA Championship. That’s clear. And, well, I couldn’t go with “squeal” on the telephones nowadays. I mean, a few of them can still be said to “squeal,” but I couldn’t make the general statement now. But otherwise … Well, you get the idea.

    The point is, I’m not generally skeptical. (Not by the epistemic standards I am here using, and tend generally to use.) Despite thinking that I and others know a lot of facts, including some things that are “controversial” (as for instance, that the Earth is much more than 10,000 years old, which I suppose is in some good sense sadly controversial even today), I still suspect that when it comes to the matter of whether God exists, no one I know knows either way

    I Know Some (Relatively) Excellent Candidates

    One piece of background you should understand about my suspicion is that I know lots of people–and some of them I know very well–who would be excellent candidates for folks who would know whether God exists, if anybody does. For reasons that will become clear later, I think the best candidates for knowledge about this matter are all on the pro-God’s-existence side of this issue. And, as I said, I know lots of relatively excellent candidates. Not just churchy people, who seem extremely confident about the matter, but also missionary-types (well, including outright missionaries) who live their confidence to an impressive degree

    I’m Not Particularly Hostile Toward Those Who Think They Know

    And I like and admire many of these excellent candidates. My suspicion seems not to be born of hostility of animus. Being just a suspicion, I do take there to be a substantial chance that it is wrong. And I’m pretty sure I would prefer it if some of these folks I know turn out to really know that God exists. This is a case where I think–but you can never be too sure about these things!–I can be correctly described as sincerely hoping that I’m wrong

    Why My Suspicion Might Be of Interest

    So, if you’re one of those people who takes themselves to know that God exists, I guess this all suggests that if I were to get to know you, then even if I came to like and admire you, I would likely also suspect you to be under a delusion of knowledge about this matter. (And those whom I already know are here informed that I already suspect such of them. And while I’m at it, I’ll also express a suspicion that concerns a largish group of people, many of whom I barely know at all, and so is based on fairly general grounds: I suspect that none of my facebook friends knows whether God exists.) Of course, what I think or would think of you may well be of little interest to you in itself. But I think it quite likely that others around you harbor similar suspicions about you. My hope is that expressing that suspicion and my grounds for it may perhaps advance the cause of mutual understanding here. You know: I’ll say why I think (and why others may well think) that you don’t know. Perhaps then you can explain (or be positioned to better explain) why you think you do know. Maybe some others will listen in on the whole exchange. Maybe peace, love, and mutual understanding will break out. Or, well, maybe just a bit of that last item. Who knows? At any rate, there might be some interest here, for at least some people, in knowing that and why someone who knows and likes many excellent candidates and who is not particularly skeptical in general–and who is a fully credentialed epistemologist to boot!–might harbor such a suspicion about those who take themselves to know whether God exists

    The Arguments for and against God’s Existence

    While it’s not my main area, I do have a strong teaching interest–that occasionally becomes a writing interest–in the philosophy of religion. (And I suspect I’ll be working in that area more in the future, D.V.) So I know the philosophical arguments for and against God’s existence pretty well, and have taught the main ones quite a few times. And I’m not going to go into this all that much here, and will have nothing to say here about any particular arguments, but I feel quite confident that nobody knows whether God exists on the basis of any philosophical argument. They’re just not good enough to produce knowledge of their (theistic or atheistic) conclusions

    I do think some of these arguments (on both sides) are pretty good so far as philosophy goes. But generally, that doesn’t go very far, and doesn’t make it anywhere near to knowledge. Some of these arguments are relatively good at accomplishing what philosophical arguments generally do, and, in particular, some of them are successful at showing how someone might reasonably believe the conclusions of the arguments

    But as it generally goes with philosophical arguments, they don’t produce knowledge of their controversial conclusions about substantive philosophical matters

    As happens in other areas, sometimes when engaged in philosophical argument, we easily slip into talking as if, and it very much feels as if, we know that our position is correct. But really we don’t. That’s how I feel generally about philosophy. Which is not to put philosophy down. Philosophy is wonderful–and in large part precisely because it deals with questions where we can’t yet know what is right. (I think there’s something to the idea that once we get to the point that philosophy is producing actual knowledge about a topic, then the area of philosophy that deals with the area is likely to break off and no longer be thought of as philosophy.)

    So my skepticism about coming to know whether God exists by means of philosophical arguments is very much of a piece with my general thoughts about the limitations of such arguments. Nothing in particular against theists or atheists here

    Since atheists’ only real hope of knowing that God doesn’t exist would be through some kind of philosophical argument (perhaps some argument from evil), their knowing that God doesn’t exist doesn’t seem to me a very serious possibility. If anyone is going to know whether God exists, it will have to be theists, knowing that God does exist. And they will have to do it by some means other than through philosophical arguments. But how, then?

    When Mahalia Jackson (yes, many others have performed this song as well, but for me, this song totally belongs to Jackson) sings (you hear it here):


    There are some things I may not know

    There are some places, oh Lord, I cannot go

    But I am sure of this one thing

    That God is real

    For I can feel Him in my soul

    The song is much more effective than it would be if the last line above instead went:


    For I have found a version of the cosmological argument that is clearly enough sound

    (Why I think atheists don’t have a corresponding serious possibility of knowledge of God’s non-existence through (ir)religious experience turns out to be something that gets way too complicated way too quickly for me to address here.)

    Religious Experience

    So the more serious possibility for knowledge here has always seemed to me what “My God Is Real” actually seems to base its assurance on: religious experience. Perhaps some theists have religious experiences that provide them knowledge that God exists?

    What basis I have for believing in God’s existence comes from this source. But in my judgment, my own religious experience has been far too meager to give me knowledge of God’s existence. It’s far too serious a possibility from my vantage point that what may be an experience of God is actually not coming from God at all. Without going into the nature of my experience too much (something I hope to take up at another time), my relevant experience consists of what I take to be small, gentle nudges toward belief that don’t fit into a coherent body of experience to nearly the extent needed for knowledge (even if I were to outright believe in God’s existence on their basis and this belief turned out to be true). I take the nearest version of myself who does know that God exists to be one who has had the kind of religious experience that would be knowledge-producing. I take myself to have some ideas about kinds of religious experience that would produce knowledge of God’s existence–though I’m sure that God, if God indeed exists, has much better ideas about how such knowledge could be produced. But, for better or worse (though since this is God we’re talking about, I guess it would have to be for better), God, if God exists, doesn’t seem to be in the business of jumping through the hoops needed to make me a knower. Of course, God being God, there would be good reasons for leaving me in the dark here–and I think I have even have some inkling of what some of these reasons might be

    One big problem with supposing that people I’m familiar with know that God exists on the basis of their religious experiences is that when they describe the basis for their supposed knowledge, while their experiences often (but strangely, not always) sound more impressive than mine, they still don’t sound like the kind of things that would produce knowledge of God’s existence. It seems like it should be too serious a possibility from these believer’s vantage point that what they’re taking to be an experience of God is not coming from God at all

    Often (as with the testimony expressed in the lyrics of “My God Is Real”) those relating their experience of God will state that their experience produced great assurance or knowledge of God. This raises the possibility that their experience has a character that isn’t being well captured by the descriptions given by the experiencers, and that does make it knowledge-producing. I mean, they seem so sure. They say (often) that they then knew that God was real, or the like. Isn’t it reasonable to think that they are responding accurately to the nature of their experience in taking themselves to know, even though it may be hard for them to adequately convey in words what their experience was like? Why not accept their self-evaluation?

    Well, as I’ve said, I do take there to be a substantial possibility that some of these people really do know. To explain why my suspicion is that they do not, it will be helpful to start by saying a bit about my own personal experiences, and those of some of the fascinating folks I’ve been able to talk to

    My Own History

    I’ve said that I take the nearest version of myself who does know that God exists to be one who has had different and better religious experience than I’ve actually had. But the nearest version of myself who acts as if he knows just goes with the very meager experiences that I’ve actually had–which, as I’ve said, seem to me to fall far short of being knowledge-producing–but acts as if he knows, anyway

    This version of myself came very close to being actual. In fact, a version of myself that sometimes did act as if he knew was actual. Though I never got to the point that I consistently acted as if I knew that God exists, when I was younger, I would do so occasionally, in certain settings. Yes, it could sometimes feel a little phoney. But it was complicated. It wasn’t–or at least didn’t feel like–pure phoniness. People around me, whom I was encouraged to think of as my teammates, were acting as if they knew, and acting-as-if-I-knew-behavior was produced in ways that at least seemed fairly natural. And I could point myself to what religious experiences I did take myself to have had, and play those up to myself. Was it really all that meager? It was in fact fairly easy to find myself singing along, as it were (and sometimes literally singing along to the likes of): “But I am sure of this one thing: That God is real, for I can feel Him in my soul.” And it could feel in ways almost sincere. And when I acted as if I knew, and especially when I could make it seem sincere, there was strong positive feedback that did much to encourage further confident behavior. There seemed to be a future for me that was not only possible, but would be easy to fall into (and perhaps would in ways take active resistance to avoid) in which I put myself more and more into circumstances that would elicit such acting-as-if-I-knew behavior, stop trying to resist acting as if I knew, identify more with the inclinations to act certain, and I would eventually find myself acting fairly consistently as if I knew. Or at least it seems like that would have been the likely result. But it seems to me that that version wouldn’t really know, though he would act at least fairly consistently as if he knew, and might even start to seem to himself to know. I would have developed a delusion of knowledge about this matter; I was already in the early stages of developing it

    Those Who Have Given Up the Faith

    Of course, so far, that’s just me, and as I admitted, I never got to a point in which I was acting as if I knew that God exists on a consistent basis. (Well, I suppose that at a very young age–like maybe around age 5–I consistently talked as if I knew, and took myself to know, that God exists. At that time, that was one of the many things I had been taught by the adults around me, and I didn’t have any sense that it was something denied by many. For those brought up to believe, much seems to depend on how those who believe differently are introduced to one’s thought. But at any rate, it’s from my teenage years on that I never acted on a consistent basis as if I knew that God exists, though through much of my teenage years, I would so act on an occasional basis.)

    However, over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to talk with some people who did get to the point–often for years, during adulthood–of acting and talking as if they knew that God existed, but who later “gave up the faith,” as it’s often put (often by their disappointed relatives and/or former colleagues in the faith), becoming atheists or self-described agnostics. They of course didn’t take themselves to know that God existed at the post-crash time that I talked with them, but what I found most interesting was asking them what they now thought of their past selves. Did their past selves sincerely take themselves to know that God existed? This tends to get complicated quickly. Though there are important differences among people I’ve talked to, they usually thought that there was some element of insincerity, lack of genuineness, or even phoniness, in the certainty they had earlier projected to the world. But it generally doesn’t seem to have been cases of straightforward deceiving of others: they often think that they themselves had been deceived about what was going on. That their earlier selves had been under a delusion of knowledge about God’s existence fits in quite well with the picture that many of these people have of their earlier, confident-sounding selves. Often, their becoming atheists or agnostics was a process of becoming aware of the possibility (though some seem to think that deep down they always had this worry, in which cases the process seems to have begun by coming to face a possibility they had always been dimly aware of) that the certainty they seemed to feel was not an honest or genuine response to what experience of God they might have had, but was largely motivated by the desire for their experience of God to be genuine and/or was driven by social forces involving identifying with the believers (or at least folks they took to be believers) around them, and then that suspicion growing to the point that they felt the honest response was just to admit that they don’t, and never did, have any genuine knowledge of God’s existence

    Putting It Together

    So, what’s mainly behind my suspicion, as I said a few sections back, is that when people who seem to be confident of God’s existence on the basis of their experience of God describe the experiences that supposedly produced their confidence, these experiences don’t seem from the descriptions to be the kind of experiences that would give one knowledge of God’s existence. It sounds as if it is or at least should be, from these people’s point of view, too serious a possibility that their experience came from some other source for them to know that it was a genuine experience of God. But I realize that there are some worries or suspicions some might have about my suspicion. I’ll get to two fairly advanced worries some no doubt have a bit later

    But the previous two sections are needed to answer what is perhaps the most pressing worry many people will have about my suspicion, which can be expressed in this question: Since the people themselves seem so confident that their experiences are genuine experiences of God, and judge themselves to know that God exists on the basis of those experiences, shouldn’t I accept these people’s own evaluations, perhaps deciding that their experiences may well have features that do make them knowledge-producing, but that the descriptions given of the experiences fail to convey?

    Now I am able to better explain why I doubt the self-evaluations of these people who sound so confident. Basically, it’s because I’ve seen similar confidence (or at least what looks for all the world like similar confidence) go bust–and go bust in ways that cast doubt on whether there was ever knowledge there. Some of the people I’ve talked with who have “lost the faith” also would have struck me or anyone as excellent candidates for those who would know that God exists if anyone does. But their later, negative evaluations of their earlier, confident selves are very convincing. It seems fairly clear in their cases that they never really knew that God exists. Of course, there could be crucial differences in the experiences of God that were had and how they were processed that might result in some people I know having genuine knowledge of God even while others, who seem very much the same from the outside, don’t have knowledge at all. And perhaps there is a good explanation for why these crucial differences seem not to be well conveyed by people’s descriptions of their experiences. But in short, based on the evidence I have (which I imagine is quite similar to the evidence had by other observers–or at least others who have had the opportunity to talk with many who once seemed to know that God exists but have since ceased to believe), the best explanation for what all is going on here seems to me to be that those who take themselves to know and present themselves as knowing are under a delusion of knowledge much like the delusions that were had by some who later came to see themselves as having never known. My judgment that this is the best explanation is no doubt to a significant extent based on my awareness of the subtle forces that can yield knowledge-like behavior on the basis of experiences too meager to produce knowledge. Some of those who currently take themselves to know will likely also later come to judge that they never knew. Others likely never will. But my suspicion is that everyone I know who takes themselves to know whether God exists, whether or not they ever come to reverse that judgment, is wrong to think they know

    Acting Certain of (Way) Too Much

    While the above is what is mainly behind my suspicion, it is worth very briefly mentioning another ground for it: The case of many would-be knowers of God’s existence is not advanced by their habit of also seeming supremely confident about all manner of theological details that go well beyond the matter of God’s existence. (This of course does not apply to all who would claim to know that God exists. Apply this shoe only where it fits.) Of course, one of the problems here is that the details presented as known vary in conflicting ways from one supremely confident religious believer to the other, so they can’t all be right about what they’re so confident about. There’s at least a lot of apparent confidence that would present itself as knowledge that is not knowledge at all (since you can’t know what ain’t so). This makes it much easier to suspect that delusions of knowledge run rampant through the fields of religious beliefs. In fact, that delusion of knowledge run rampant there would seem fairly clear, and so would go beyond being just a suspicion. The questions that remain and that leave room for mere suspicions have to do with just how extensive is the range of such delusions

    Two (Relatively Advanced) Worries about my Suspicion

    (This section can be skipped by those who don’t have these relatively advanced worries.)

    Some might worry that, despite my claim to subjecting theistic belief to just moderate standards for knowledge that we very often meet in other areas of life, I am in fact holding it to impossibly demanding standards that even our simple perceptual beliefs do not meet. I have said that the possibility that my religious experience comes from a source other than God is just too substantial from my point of view to allow it to produce knowledge in me of God’s existence, and I’ve expressed my suspicion about others in terms of it seeming to me, as best I can tell from those others’ descriptions of their experiences, like it should be too substantial a possibility from their vantage points that their experiences are coming from some other source. This may lead some to think that my suspicion is based on the thought that for an experience to produce knowledge of its object, the experiencer must first be able to explicitly rule out all accounts of how that experience was produced that are rivals to its having been produced in a way that involves its (putative) object. And that may seem to some to be the employment of a standard that our simple perceptual beliefs cannot meet: If my current perceptual experience of my laptop can give me knowledge of the presence of my laptop only if I can first explicitly rule out accounts of that experience that appeal to deceiving demons, tinkering brain scientists, or the like, rather than my laptop itself, in explaining how my experience arose, then even such simple perceptual beliefs would be in deep epistemic trouble

    So, let me say that I don’t think one has to be able to explicitly rule out all rival accounts of how one’s experience arose in order for an experience to give one knowledge of its object. I do know that my laptop is present, despite my inability to first explicitly rule out various skeptical hypotheses about how my experience is being produced

    But that’s because my belief in the presence of my laptop has some very nice features that any belief I might have formed about God’s presence would have lacked, if it were produced by the kinds of religious experiences I’ve had. I don’t want to get too bogged down here in what those features are, but briefly, as it seems to me, the main thing is this: My beliefs about the presence of my laptop fit in remarkably well with (display a remarkable degree of positive coherence with, where “positive coherence” denotes not just a lack of conflict, but a positive hand-in-glove-like fitting in well together–a “dovetailing,” to use what seems to be the mandatory term here) other spontaneous beliefs I have been led to form by my perceptual experiences. It’s largely because of this coherence that my beliefs about my laptop have with the larger picture of the physical world and my place in it that I’m so highly justified in believing in my laptop, even without my being able to first explicitly rule out skeptical accounts of how my experiences of my laptop arose–justified in a sense that is crucial to these beliefs, if true, amounting to knowledge. And any beliefs I would have formed about God’s presence on the basis of the religious experiences I have had would not have displayed anywhere near that degree of positive coherence with one another and with other parts of my picture of the world and my place in it. In large part, that’s why my religious experiences, and so far as I can tell from their descriptions of them, the religious experiences of others, aren’t in the relevant sense sufficiently justified to amount to knowledge. (Though it’s aimed primarily at the question of justification rather than knowledge, I explain my thoughts here a bit in my paper, “Direct Warrant Realism” [available here], especially in its last section.)

    The second worry some might have is that many of the people’s experiences did produce in them certainty of God, and that might be, in itself, an important feature of their experience that could allow it to produce knowledge, even in the absence of the kind of positive coherence I write of above

    I am myself very open to the thought that if God directly “zapped” you with certainty of God’s existence (so you felt certain that God exists), such an experience might produce knowledge of God’s existence, even in the absence of the kind of positive coherence our perceptual beliefs display. (This seems close to the account of religious experience often used by Alvin Plantinga in his book Warranted Christian Belief, at least as I understood him. See section 5 of these remarks of mine on Plantinga, where I admit it’s plausible that one could know of God’s existence through such experience. But also see note 9, where I express some misgivings about my understanding of Plantinga’s account.) This is a tricky call for me, but as I said, I am open to the idea. But that would be in the case of God directly zapping one with a high degree of certainty. My suspicion, though, is based on the underlying suspicion that what subjective certainty is reported by these people is not produced by such direct divine zapping, but is generated in ways that run through such things as peoples’ desires for their experiences to be genuine, and certainty generated in such ways would not seem to generate the kind of justification needed for knowledge, whether or not certainty generated by a direct divine zapping would produce knowledge. That is of course a very tricky call to make, especially when I am relying on the people’s own description of their experiences. And indeed, that trickiness is largely why I’m so tentative in my suspicion. But in discussion, it starts to sound as if the roots of their felt certainty is very similar to that of the people’s who later came to recognize that certainty as arising from forces that rendered it suspect.

  2. shinichi Post author

    Why Take a Stance on God?

    by Gary Gutting

    This is the 10th in a series of interviews about religion that I am conducting for The Stone. The interviewee for this installment is Keith DeRose, a professor of philosophy at Yale University and the author of “The Case for Contextualism: Knowledge, Skepticism, and Context.”

    Keith DeRose: My suggestion is that neither theists nor atheists know whether God exists. And here I don’t just mean that they don’t know for certain, but that they don’t know at all.

    It was about God, wasn’t it, that Kant famously wrote “I had to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith”? Whatever it does or doesn’t do for faith, my denial of knowledge here makes room for reasonable views on both sides of the question of whether God exists.

    I don’t think the arguments for either theism or atheism lead to knowledge of their conclusions. But there are arguments on both sides from premises that someone might reasonably judge to be plausible. If you find it quite probable that God does not exist, I think it’s perfectly possible that you are reasonable to think as you do. But this doesn’t mean that someone who thinks it is likely that God does exist can’t likewise be reasonable in holding that position.

    To know that God does (or doesn’t) exist, you have to show that there are no arguments for atheism (or for theism) that a reasonable person could find plausible. But to support that claim you would have to have better critiques of all those arguments than I’ve ever seen. In my view, it’s more likely those who claim to know whether God exists — whether theists or atheists — are just blowing smoke.


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