Posts Tagged ‘God’

Spinoza was one of the most original thinkers of ‘modern’ philosophy. Highly unorthodox, he lived a simple and basic life. He rejected academic fame as it would have constrained his intellectual progress and independence. This best reflects his stance on the practical object of philosophy and the emotional sense that we can not be happy with impermanent things such as fame, riches and pleasure.

This philosophical thought is closest to Buddhism. As he is very much opposed to institutionalised religion, he experienced great hostility from the church and his contemporaries did not understand him. However, Spinoza was a deep  religious thinker as his belief in God was profound in his philosophy. He tries to explain the sense that there is an eternal unity to the universe. This unity is illustrated in that the universe is made of the same substance and this substance is God itself. Everything is made from Him, He is infinite and unfolds Himself to the world.

Spinoza arrives at this view of the universe through rationalistic observation in the quest for certain knowledge. For him, knowledge regarded in the highest esteem is intuitive knowledge. Viewing how he lived his own life, we can see he practically tried to live according to his philosophy. He was a man who tried to rise above passions and individual perspective. In this was he is not exclusively rationalistic, opposing to start from individual perspective.

Spinoza takes Substance as his starting point and the idea which is to be “the source of all other ideas”. He defines Substance as “that which is in itself, is conceives through itself.” The Ethics makes tight arguments for substance monism. A substance is, in this view, what exists in itself. It does not involve the idea of any other thing: it is conceived through itself. The question what it is seems to be answered simply by the affirmation that it is.[1] There is only one substance: God. He exists simply as everything. Spinoza believed that God, Man, and the physical world were all part of one substance, and that everything, both physical and spiritual, was an extension of God. This is Pantheistic monism, the belief that all of reality is in some sense made of the same substance, and this substance is God. Spinoza’s conception of knowledge starts from the idea of the whole, and for which all other ideas have a meaning and reality only as they are determined by or seen in the light of the idea as a whole. Spinoza’s definitions in Book 1 of the Ethics provide strong arguments for substance monism. Attributes, argues Spinoza, is not just any property of a substance, but its very essence. A mode is what exists in another and is conceived through another.

“By mode I understand the affectations of a substance, or that which is in another through which it is also conceived.”[2] Spinoza goes on to argue through propositions that God is the one and only substance. “In nature there cannot be two or more substances of the same nature or attribute.”[3] If two or more substances were to exist, they would be different, either there would be a difference in modes or difference in attributes. Spinoza proposes that there can be no two substances with the same attributes nor one common attribute; all substances are different, have different sets of attributes, therefore these must derive from the same substance. “Except God, no substance can be or be conceived.”[4] Since God possesses every attribute, if any substance other than God were to exist, it would possess an attribute in common with God. But since there cannot be two or more substances with a common attribute, there can be no substance other than God. Everything is one and the same thing. This view is closest to Buddhism and eastern philosophies. This rejection of classical theism found Spinoza in conflict with institutionalised religion.

Spinoza supposed God to be a being such that if God exists at all, he exists by his very nature, not deriving his existence from anything external to itslef. Thus conceived, God cannot be thought of as ever coming into existence or ever ceasing to exist. In brief, it is all that exists, it simply is all. Reality itself, maintaining whatever exists, exists only in God and can have no existence apart from God.[5]

Human beings are finite, constantly aware of something greater than themselves. An emotion, for Spinoza, is a confused idea. In this way, emotions are unreliable and misleading. Individual perspectives are heavily influenced by emotions, therefore can not be reliable. We must therefore rise above our emotional states to tap into a higher knowledge. Spinoza defined three different types of knowledge. What he distinguishes as knowledge of the first kind is inadequate knowledge. This comprises knowledge of random experiences and knowledge from signs. These lack rational order and are associated with previous experiences or basic knowledge. It is characterised by bondage and suffering of those who are ruled by the emotions and trust their sense perception.

The second form of knowledge in the hierarchy of Spinoza’s three distinguished knowledge areas is that of reason. This is derived from the formation of adequate ideas of the common properties of things and the movement by way of deductive inference to the formation of adequate ideas of other common properties. This order of ideas is rational. The third kind of knowledge is the highest form of knowledge, called intuitive knowledge. It is through this that we can gain ‘the intellectual love of God.’ It involves the understanding of necessity of nature and the inevitability of human mortality. There is an indication that the connection between the individual essence and the essence of God is grasped in a single act of apprehension and is not arrives at by any kind of deductive process. How this is possible is never explained.[6]

[1] John Caird, LL.D. Spinoza. Pp.134

[2] Ethics. Def. 5.

[3] Ethics. Prop. 5.

[4] Ethics. Prop. 14.

[5] M.W.F. Stone. The Philosophy of Religion. Pp.294

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One may wonder if religion can be justified intellectually. Jay Newman seemingly argues toward a theoretical grounding for the belief in God and D.Z. Phillips argues for re-approaching the philosophy of religion. One must learn how to understand it, not being for or against religious belief. Taliaferro (2007) remarks to Phillips in that he secures a balance to successfully secure a position somewhere in between extreme non-realism and realism.

“To ask whether God exists is not to ask a theoretical question. If it is to mean anything at all, it is to wonder about praising and praying it is to wonder whether there is anything in all that. This is why philosophy cannot answer the question “Does God exist” with either an affirmative or a negative reply…”There is a God”, though it appears to be in the indicative mood, is an expression of faith” (D Z Phillips, Religion without Explanation)

One would need to see the intelligibility of asking both theoretical questions such as “Is there a God?” as well as searching out the meaningful practices of faith, praise and prayer. Phillips would belong to the non-realists in the sense that he does not treat religious beliefs as straightforward metaphysical claims that can be adjudicated philosophically as either true or false concerning an objective reality. This brings him to argue for a new approach to the philosophy of religion. It is not philosophy’s place to refute or defend religious belief. Confusion or conceptual mistakes are not to be attributed to religion. Beardsmore claims that many philosophers hold religious belief in contempt and claim it holds no intellectual value (1996). He claims that atheists often regard religion as intellectually inadequate. As an atheist, Beardsmore wishes to distance atheism from such claims. In contrast, he notes that Malcolm directs toward the atheist, a type of condescension. He notes that it is often claimed that an increase in violence can be attributed to a decline in religion. This does not make logistic sense: a lack of violence being a direct correlation with people fearing judgment of a higher power. This is a separate issue which will not be discussed in this essay, but it is interesting to note the reciprocal debate that still exists between philosophy and what it essentially ‘belief’ in a higher or judging power. The focus of this essay is to make a coherent response to D.Z. Phillips claim made in the title. That is, “To ask whether God exists is not to ask a theoretical question….”. This essay will focus on three aspects: D.Z. Phillips and the Hermeneutics of Contemplation – in which he outlines what it is to say one holds religious beliefs; The concept of Prayer – in which I will discuss how one can come to know God; and finally touching on Newman’s Illative Sense, in particular focusing on belief in the un-provable.

Hermeneutics of Contemplation

The Hermeneutics of Contemplation indicates a new way of doing philosophy of religion. Here we see and extension of what Phillips develops in Religion without Explanation. In it, he argues that a concept-free existence is a logical impossibility. Statements that religious beliefs are the product of an illusion cannot be acceptable to anyone who wants to remain a believer. Religion is not a separate part of private human life; it is seen in the context of which it functions. The Hermeneutics of contemplation comes from the Phillipsian account of Wittgenstein wherein Phillips tries to find a new way of doing philosophy of religion. Not searching for an “all embracing theory of religion”, he is trying to find a way to ‘contemplate’ the different senses which different beliefs can have (Berendsen 2002). He gets back to what is experienced through human life, that is, to avoid contextual confusion. Reflective interpretations are dependent on concepts which are not further interpretations (Berendsen 2002). People use religious language to explain experiences in everyday life.

Phillips is refuting the claim of ‘Wittgensteinian fideism’ in which he wished to separate claims to explain religion away as confused, or to make it ‘true’ by definition as a language-game which is played (Oppenheimer, 1978, p 247). Phillips seeks to distance himself from the Hermeneutics of Suspicion and the Hermeneutics of recollection. He wants to establish ‘Contemplative’ prospects. He claims that God is known only through prayer, and this will be discussed in the next section.

Language and prayer

For religious believers, there exists something that we call God. God does not come to know anything, as he is all knowing. This is implied through prayer which can be described as a discourse with God. However it is unclear what the purposes of prayer are if God is all knowing: what we say to him “cannot be informative” (Phillips 1981 p. 53). Arguing against this implies that God’s knowledge is finite and partial. Prayer involves an ability to pray, which suggests a form of self-contemplation. One discovers something new through prayer. Phillips describes how one comes to discover something new through prayer. One is not informing god of something new, but one reveals something which allows the individual to reach a new sense of self. In this, it can be criticised that God is dispensable. The same cannot be achieved through mere contemplation. Prayer is the direct communication with ‘God’, one could confess or seek solace in other people, but that is hardly praying to them.   Phillips argues that philosophers have created a great deal of confusion approaching religious language in such a way rendering it too “literal and unimaginative” (Phillips 1981 p. 58). The act of prayer is argued to be a useful activity. He likens the act to a teacher-student relationship. The student repeats to the teacher what the teacher already knows. This shows that prayer is not a dispensable activity. He goes on to say that theologians and philosophers do not know more about God than other people. On the notion of prayer, it doesn’t really matter if God exists or not. Through prayer the act of telling God, having understood the telling yourself is the point. It is misleading to ask whether the person told is present or not. The type of knowledge of oneself reached through talking with God (prayer) and the type of knowledge reached through self-reflection or other forms of enquiry are completely and utterly different.

One comes to know God only through prayer. Yet God cannot be what we mean by the term ‘God’. The ‘God’ we conceive of is an entity or ‘force’, engaging with Him through prayer. We attribute human like qualities to something which cannot be human. Prayer must be understood in its context. Phillips considers what we mean through pleading for God’s mercy. One does so as he/she is concerned with what they are becoming. “To see oneself as the object of God’s anger is to see oneself cut off from the source of one’s hope for oneself as a person, namely, communication with God.” Newman’s Illative Sense extends what we mean by believing in something we cannot necessarily prove and further discusses the human situation.

The illative sense

Belief in God is not a kind of minimal belief underlying affective religious states (Clack 1995 p. 111). Newman’s Illative Sense rests on two assumptions: 1) You can believe what you cannot understand; 2) You can believe what you cannot absolutely prove. Newman accepted the empiricist distinction between proof and probability. Proof belongs to logic and mathematics. These are the realms in which certainty can be achieved; realms which exclude religious belief.  Newman is concerned with how one can be justified in believing what one cannot prove. Probability in God is not sufficient justification for believing in God. It may be argued that Newman’s use of the term ‘probability’ is to distinguish all non-declarative forms of reasoning from deductive reasoning. Phillips argues that the probabilities are not probabilities in the normal sense; we arrive at certitudes with these probabilities, in that we infer that there is a God in all probability and this may be sufficient. The illative sense can be described as the way we “respond to ponderable and imponderable evidences in the context of our concrete models of reasoning and the ways in which we reach conclusions there” (Phillips 2004, p. 3).  This is far removed from factual statements. The sum of the interior angles of a triangle equals 180 degrees. This is part of what we mean by a triangle (Phillips 2004). What we mean by God is different. We have a conception of the world which seems to be arrived at through facts and probabilities, we function through this concept.


Phillips has examined different religious practices such as prayer and the belief in an afterlife, concluding that both are intelligible because the motives behind each can be held intact without any of the metaphysical “baggage” traditionally linked with them. For example, prayer to God by parents for the recovery of a child’s health may be understood as an expression of their anguish and an effort to center their hope on the child’s getting better and not as an attempt to influence God’s to violate the laws of nature in miraculously healing their child (Klinefelter 1974). Philosophy cannot answer the question “Does God Exist”, but one can try to understand philosophy’s role in interpreting the answer to such a question. There are extremes to the argument, for sure. It is irremovable from personal experience, that is, life lived. Phillips argues that philosophers have created a great deal of confusion approaching religious language in such a way rendering it too literal and unimaginative (Phillips, 1981). The balance between personal judgment and concrete proof is seen in Newman’s Illative Sense in which it is necessary to discuss the consequences of believing in what one cannot possibly prove.

This post has discussed the theoretical arguments surrounding belief in what one cannot prove; D.Z. Phillips’ argument for prayer as well as the role of contemplation in philosophy seen in the Hermeneutics of Contemplation. The Philosophy of Religion does not have to seek a grand explanation to religion. The contemplative stance involves neither an endorsement nor a rejection of the sense to be seen in religion (Byrne 2002). Philosophy must neither endorse nor condemn religion.


Beardsmore, R. W. (1996). Atheism and Morality. In D. Z. Phillips, Religion and Morality (pp. 235-249). London: MacMillan Press LTD.

Berendsen, D. ‘Religion and the Hermeneutics of Contemplation’. Ars Disputandi. http://www.ArsDisputandi.org (2002), March 21. Retrieved online: 06/04/10

Byrne, P. (2002). Review of Religion and the Hermeneutics of Contemplation by D. Z. Phillips. Religious Studies, Vol. 38, No. 4 , 449-501.

Clack, B. (1995). D. Z. Phillips, Wittgenstein and Religion. Religious Studies, Vol. 31 , 111-120.

Klinefelter, D. S.  D. Z. Phillips as Philosopher of Religion.  Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 42, No. 2 (Jun., 1974), pp. 307-325

Oppenheimer, H. (1978). Review of Religion without Explanation by D. Z. Phillips. Philosophy, Vol. 53, No. 204 , 274-275.

Phillips, D. Z. (2004). Antecedent presumptions, Faith and Logic. In I. Ker, & M. T., Newman and Faith (pp. 1-25). Lueven: Peters Press.

Phillips, D. Z. (1981, orig pub 1965). The Concept of Prayer. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Taliaferro, C. (2007). http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/philosophy-religion/#MeaRelLan. Retrieved 4 8, 2010, from http://plato.stanford.edu/: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/philosophy-religion/#MeaRelLan

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