You are here

Series II

Lecture 10: Religious Belief and Empiricist Philosophy

In matters of religion the most common attitude nowadays is probably an agnostic one. An agnostic (literally a ‘don't know’ man) is a person who holds that there is a third alternative between Theism and Atheism. A theist asserts the existence of God; an atheist denies it. An agnostic does neither. He suspends judgement on the ground that we do not have sufficient evidence to decide the question, and so far as he can tell there is no likelihood that we ever shall have. At any rate, this is the classical version of Agnosticism, the one T. H. Huxley had in mind when he invented the term.

But in the past thirty or forty years a new and more radical version of Agnosticism has been propounded. Until then, all three parties in this controversy—theists, atheists and agnostics—had shared a common assumption. All three assumed that statements about God (or about other supernatural entities) were at any rate meaningful. It was agreed by all three that the statement ‘God exists’ is in fact either true or false, whatever difficulties there might be in discovering which it is, and even if these difficulties were insuperable.

This is the assumption which is now denied. Instead, it is suggested by contemporary Agnostics that statements about God are empty or devoid of meaning, indeed are not genuine statements at all. They do not tell us anything. They are not even false. (‘It is at least false’ is nowadays something of a compliment.) When someone says ‘God loves us’ one cannot even suspend judgement about this utterance, as the old Agnostics wished to do, because there is no intelligible proposition to suspend judgement about.

This modern doctrine does have one important point in common with the old Agnosticism. It is neutral as between Theism and Atheism, or believers and disbelievers. But instead of suspending judgement, it says that both sides are talking nonsense, on the ground that the very question they are disputing about is a meaningless question.

Yet if we consider the effects which this view has on the mind of the educated public, we see that they are very different from those which the classical Agnosticism had, and to a religious person much more disturbing. In the old days, men used to have ‘religious doubts’. But if they can be persuaded that there is nothing to doubt about—it is all just a muddle—they will lose interest in religion altogether, and will no longer even have doubts about it.

And this, of course, is what the Atheists always wanted. Their aim was to get rid of God out of the universe. What better way could there be of achieving this, than a demonstration that sentences about God are devoid of meaning? If this can be shown, the very thought of God will be dismissed from the minds of all sensible men, and they will not even ask the question whether it is reasonable to believe that he exists. Although it would be quite wrong to call this modern doctrine a form of Atheism, it is really doing the Atheist's job for him, and doing it more effectively than he did.

Statements or Recommendations?

Faced with this awkward situation, a theist might perhaps think it advisable to ‘agree with his adversary quickly’, according to the Gospel injunction, or at least to agree with him on one important point. Might a theist admit that his religious utterances are neither true nor false, but deny that they are meaningless?

For obviously it is a mistake to suppose every meaningful utterance must be either true or false. Commands, such as ‘Shut the door!’ are neither true nor false, but they are perfectly meaningful. We can understand this sentence perfectly well, but we cannot either assert it or deny it. What we can do is to obey it or disobey it.

Similarly, recommendations, such as the recommendation to take a cold bath every morning, or to say the Lord's Prayer twice a day, are perfectly meaningful, though they are neither true nor false and cannot be either asserted or denied. What we can do is to adopt the procedure recommended, or refrain from adopting it.

Now suppose we tried to conceive of Theism as a system of recommendations. Could we then evade the objections of the Agnostics, both old and new? For both sorts of Agnostic assume that the Theist is at any rate claiming to make assertions. And if that is not, after all, what he is claiming to do, both sorts of Agnostic criticism will lose their relevance. So let us try to conceive of Theism as a set of recommendations. The advantage of this way of looking at it is that, although recommendations are not true or false, there is a sense in which they are empirically testable. We can try out the procedure recommended to us, and discover whether it does or does not produce the effects it is designed to produce. If the doctor recommends us to do breathing exercises twice a day in order to avoid catching influenza in the winter, we can try it and see whether it works. This applies to intellectual procedures as well as practical ones. Geographers recommend us to conceive of the earth's surface as divided up by lines of latitude and longitude. They claim that this will enable us to grasp the relations between one place and another more easily. We try it, and find that it does have the desired result.

What then are the recommendations which a Theist makes? He makes a number of different ones, and claims that there are close connections between them. First he recommends a certain way of ‘seeing’ or ‘viewing’ the world, the adoption of a certain sort of ‘world-outlook’. This is his metaphysical recommendation. The function of a metaphysician, as has already been suggested,1 is to provide a synoptic world-outlook, or as we also say, a ‘standpoint’ or ‘point of view’, which will render the facts of experience comprehensible. A Theist recommends us to ‘see’ or ‘view’ the world as the creation of a Supreme Being who is infinite in power, wisdom and goodness and loves every single one of the persons he has created. Most Theists, though not all, have also recommended a special way of seeing or viewing what we may call the ‘human scene’. They recommend us to see it as a kind of preparatory school designed for the education of immortal personal beings, by means of which we can, if we choose, make ourselves fit for eternal bliss in another and better world after death.

The claim is that if we do ‘see’ or ‘view’ the facts of experience in the way recommended, they will become more comprehensible and also more endurable. For this way of seeing them or viewing them is also a way of ‘taking’ them, a way of adjusting ourselves to them emotionally as well as a way of comprehending them intellectually. Indeed, many if not all of the various world-outlooks or Weltanschvungen which metaphysicians have recommended have this double purpose, to offer us both a way of ‘seeing’ the facts and a way of ‘taking’ them or adjusting ourselves to them; and this is one of the reasons for suspecting that the works of the great metaphysicians will always be read, however much their critics insist that they are nonsensical.

Secondly, Theists recommend a particular way of life, what Professor R. B. Braithwaite calls an ‘agapistic’ way of life. They recommend each of us to try to love his neighbour as himself, and to love him, moreover, in the unconditional manner described above.2 This recommendation is at once moral and prudential. The Theist recommends this way of life to us because he himself approves of it, and approves of it more than any other type of conduct; and in expressing this approval of it, he claims that we shall approve of it too if we try to live in that way ourselves, or if we seriously consider how we feel about other people who try to live in that way. But he also recommends it on the ground that no other mode of life is in the long run satisfying to human beings, or to any beings who are persons; in that respect, his recommendation is a prudential one.

This twofold recommendation about conduct is closely connected with his metaphysical recommendation. For Theists claim that we shall not find it possible to love our neighbours in the recommended way, unless we also ‘see’ them or ‘view’ them (and ourselves too) as beings whom God himself loves in the same unconditional manner; if we do not view them in this way, we shall find some of them so repellent that the most we can manage is just to tolerate them, and perhaps even this will be beyond our power.

We shall see later that Theists make another recommendation too. But for the present let us consider those we have already mentioned. Let us begin with their recommendation about conduct. Is it empirically testable? In so far as it is an expression of moral approval, the only way of testing it is to consider whether we ourselves approve of the ‘agapistic’ way of life when we seriously consider other persons who live it or seriously try to live it ourselves. Do we ourselves share the Theist's moral attitude when we are confronted with particular instances of the type of conduct he approves of? It is essential that we should consider particular instances. The approval he has expressed is a general one, approval of a type of conduct, and it is only too easy to accept it—or reject it—in an ‘uncashed’ manner, without realizing what an actual instance of this type of conduct would be like, if we met with it in another person or if we performed it ourselves.3 Alternatively, the approval which the Theist has expressed can be regarded as approval of a type of person, a wholly charitable person. And here again we must consider particular instances-particular persons who are instances of that type or approximate to being so—if we are to be clear what this general approval really amounts to, and to agree with it (or disagree with it) understanding fully what we are doing. It would obviously be too much to say that this approval of a charitable way of life is universally accepted—accepted, that is, by all who have seriously considered it, in the light of particular instances. But it would not be too much to say that it is very widely accepted.

The prudential recommendation, moreover, is capable of a straightforward empirical test. It is either true or false that the way of life recommended satisfies us in the long run more than any other. And there is some empirical evidence, though not conclusive evidence, that this empirical claim is true, even if we take ‘the long run’ to be no longer than the duration of our present earthly life. It seems, then, that the Theist's recommendations about conduct, both his moral recommendation and his prudential one, receive a considerable amount of empirical support: the first from our moral experiences, the second from what we observe in ourselves and others about the effects of various types of conduct upon the agent's long term happiness.

Immanent and Transcendent World-Outlooks

So far the Theist has done fairly well in the examination to which we are subjecting him. We might even say that he has satisfied his empirically-minded examiners in this first part of his examination. But his prospects of even a Pass Degree become much less promising when they question him about his metaphysical recommendations.

Here, as we have seen, he is recommending a particular sort of world-outlook. Here again, his recommendation is not true or false (no recommendation could be). But still, it is open to a test. If we adopt it, will it in fact do what he claims it will? Will it render the facts of experience comprehensible? Unfortunately it has two suspicious features which may make us inclined to answer ‘No’.

The first is the nature of the outlook itself. Unlike some other world-outlooks, the Theistic world-outlook is not a purely immanent one, as some forms of Pantheism, for example, are. Like the exponents of other world-outlooks, the Theist is recommending a conceptual scheme, which is to be used for making the facts of experience comprehensible. But he is doing more, whether he likes it or not. He is making assertions. He does not merely propose that we make use of the concept of a creative and loving Supreme Being. He asserts that this concept has an instance, that there actually is a Supreme Being who created the world, that he actually is infinite in power, wisdom and goodness, and moreover that he actually does love every single person whom he has created. To put it in another way: in the Theistic world outlook, the idea of such a Supreme Being is not just a conceptual device, an ‘auxiliary concept’ to be used for facilitating certain intellectual operations.

Let us contrast it with the concept of a set of lines of latitude and longitude, which geographers invite us to use in order to render the spatial relations of various parts of the earth's surface more comprehensible. A geographer never dreams of claiming that these lines (or the grid-like structure which they form) are actually existing entities, or that they do actually embrace the earth's surface like a network of wire. They are merely conceptual devices, and when a geographer recommends us to conceive of them he is not asserting that there are any additional entities in the world, over and above those which we actually observe. But this is just what the Theist does assert. He asserts that there is an additional entity, over and above those which we learn about by means of sense-perception, memory, and scientific and historical investigation. He is not merely proposing that we use a certain concept or set of concepts for rendering the universally admitted facts comprehensible. He asserts that there is another fact over and above these universally admitted ones, namely the fact that there is a God—a loving God—who created the world. He claims, moreover, that this is the fact upon which all the universally admitted ones depend, and that it alone renders than comprehensible. This is the sense in which his world-outlook is not a purely immanent one.

Most Theists also assert that every human being is immortal, and that there is another world (or worlds) in which human beings continue to exist, as persons, after death. Here again they claim to be asserting facts. There might be philosophers who merely recommend us to think of ourselves and other human beings ‘as if’ we were immortal, and then add ‘of course it does not really make any difference whether you actually are immortal or not’. That is not what most Theists have said. Most of them have asserted that all of us are as a matter of fact immortal, whether we like it or not (as many of us, perhaps, do not) and that this fact does make a great deal of difference, since if it were not a fact the ‘human scene’, as we observe it in this present life, would not be comprehensible. Here again, they are asserting that the universally admitted facts are not the only facts there are; and at this point too the Theistic world-outlook breaks through the boundaries within which a purely immanent world-outlook is confined.


We naturally wish to ask whether there could conceivably be any empirical evidence for these ‘transcendent’ assertions which appear to be integral parts of the world-outlook which the Theist recommends. As we have seen, he makes two different sorts of transcendent assertions: first those concerning God and his attributes (including his relations to ourselves) and secondly those concerning human immortality. The examiners will obviously want to question him about both. But as the assertions about immortality have a more limited scope, because the persons referred to in them are finite beings, let us begin with these. Humane examiners begin with the easier questions, and go on to the more difficult ones later.

If ‘immortality’ means quite literally ‘endless personal existence’, it is difficult to see how there could be empirical evidence for the proposition that every human being is an immortal person, or indeed for the proposition that even one human being is. At most, there could only be empirical evidence that the personal existence of some human beings had not ended yet, although they had been dead for some thousands of years. If they had managed to exist as long as this, it might be difficult to find any conclusive reason for thinking that they would not go on existing ad indefinitum, though we could not have any conclusive evidence for thinking that they would.

But being an immortal person does at any rate entail continuing to exist, as a person, for some period of time after bodily death. Personal immortality entails what is called personal survival. Might there be empirical evidence that a person does survive in this sense? Let us consider the proposition ‘The person A has survived the death of his physical organism’. It is clear that if this proposition be true, there is one person, namely A himself, who has conclusive evidence of its truth. If he finds himself having experiences after he has died, and can remember experiences which he had before he died and recognize them to have been experiences of his own, he has conclusively verified the proposition ‘I have survived’. No amount of philosophical argument purporting to show that the conception of survival is nonsensical could have the slightest weight against this first-hand empirical evidence. If A had been familiar with any such argument and still remembered it, he would simply conclude that there must have been something wrong with it—either some false premiss, or some logical fallacy. He might of course find that he had rather a different sort of body from the one he had before. But this would not worry him, provided he found that his new body fulfilled the same functions as his previous body had, that of being the centre of his perceptual world and of being responsive, more or less, to his will. Similarly the prediction ‘I shall survive death’ is conclusively verifiable by me if it be true. All I have to do is to wait until I am dead; and then, if the prediction be true, I shall be able to know that it is true.

But as philosophers have pointed out, the proposition ‘I have survived death’ is not capable of being conclusively falsified, if it be in fact true. The same applies to the prediction ‘I shall survive death’. The reason for this curious asymmetry is fairly obvious. It might in fact be false that I shall survive. But if I do not, I shall not have any experience whatever after I am dead, and shall not then be able to have empirical evidence for or against anything; so I shall be in no position to learn by experience that the proposition ‘I shall survive death’ has turned out to be false, because I shall no longer be an experient at all. And it is difficult to see how any other person could have conclusive empirical evidence of its falsity either. It comes to this, then: if all of us now living as physically embodied human beings are in fact going to survive death (as most Theists say we are) each of us will be able to see for himself that he has survived it, when the time comes. But if none of us do in fact survive, none of us will ever be able to see for himself that this Theistic assertion was false, though it might in fact be false all the same.

I have been speaking here of conclusive empirical verification and falsification. There might however be empirical evidence, evidence less than conclusive, either for or against the assertion that all human personalities continue to exist after death. There is in fact empirical evidence against it, the evidence provided by the biological sciences for the causal dependence of consciousness upon physiological processes. There is also some empirical evidence for survival, or at any rate for the proposition that some human personalities continue to exist for some time after their physical organisms are dead. The evidence comes from psychical research, the empirical investigation of ‘paranormal’ phenomena, and it cannot be ignored, however difficult some of it is to interpret.4 Your lecturer's personal opinion is that this evidence is strong enough to justify the following piece of advice: ‘Do not be absolutely sure that you will not continue to exist, as a person, after the death of your physical organism; there is a chance that you may, and this chance (or risk if you prefer to regard it in that way)5 is not so negligibly small that a prudent person can afford to ignore it altogether.’

But however strong the adverse evidence was, it would have no strength at all against personal experience of one's own survival. And however strong the favourable evidence was, it would still receive confirmation from personal experience of one's own survival: and if it could still receive confirmation, this would be enough to show that it could not have been maximally strong already.

So much for the Theist's assertions about human immortality. We can say this for him, at any rate: the assertion that human personality continues to exist at least for some time after death is one to which empirical evidence is relevant, and if it be true, each of us will be able to verify it conclusively so far as his own survival is concerned, though none of us will be able to falsify it conclusively if it be false. For our present purposes, it is unnecessary to discuss the Theist's assertions about the ‘other world’ (or worlds). It would not be very difficult to make some empirical sense of them, if human personalities do continue to exist and to have experiences after death. It would be sufficient if these experiences were interrelated in some systematic manner. It would not matter much if the ‘other world’, or worlds, had the purely phenomenalistic character which some philosophers have attributed to this one. Again, it might be that one or another of the Idealistic philosophies was true of the other world, though false of this one. Nor need we assume that the entities of which the other world is composed, whatever entities they might be, would obey laws at all like the laws of physics; and their spatial and temporal properties might well be different from those with which we are now familiar. Religious people themselves sometimes say that the other world is ‘spiritual’ rather than material; this seems to be a way of saying that the causal laws which prevail there are quite different from those which prevail in the familiar physical world.6

It seems that the Theist has done fairly well in this part of his examination too. His assertions about human immortality are indeed disbelieved by many, and doubted by many more. Many find them too good to be true, and some too bad to be true. But at any rate we can make some sort of empirical sense of them, since personal immortality does entail personal survival, and the proposition that human personality continues to exist after death is one to which empirical evidence is relevant. In other words, it is believable or disbelievable, and does not just have to be dismissed as empty or meaningless.

Transcendent Assertions About God

But now at last he has to face the most difficult part of his ordeal. We must now question him about the most obviously transcendent of his transcendent assertions, the ones concerning God Himself. Perhaps it is necessary to insist again that a Theist does not merely recommend us to view the world ‘as if’ there were a God who created it and loves each of the persons whom He has created. This ‘as-iffish’ world outlook, which might be called a ParaTheistic one, has of course been recommended by Kant, for example. But it is not the outlook of a Theist. He asserts that God does actually exist, and even that he exists in a sense in which nothing else does. Qui est, ‘He who is’, is one of the descriptions which Theists have given of him. A Theist is quite unequivocally asserting a transcendent existential proposition, and the assertion of it is an essential part of the outlook which he recommends.

But how can any empirical evidence be relevant to such a proposition? And if it is not, how can we even understand the recommendation which is made to us, that we should try to ‘see’ or ‘view’ the world as the creation of such a Being? Surely we do not know what it is that we are recommended to do, since we cannot even conceive what it would be like for the Theist's existential assertion to be true?

This difficulty has been stated in a very striking way by Professor A. G. N. Flew, He argues that no conceivable empirical fact, nor combination of empirical facts, could falsify the Theist's assertions about God and his relations to the world (including his relations to ourselves). It is interesting to notice that Theists themselves have sometimes come near to admitting this. Deus noster est dens absconditus, it has been said. ‘Our God is a hidden god.’ There is even a hymn in which we read these two very remarkable lines: ‘He hides himself in wondrous wise, As if there were no God.’ This strange and fascinating phrase Deus absconditus appears to imply that however much empirical evidence there is to suggest that he does not exist, he does exist all the same; in other words, it seems to be claimed that no amount of adverse empirical evidence could conceivably falsify the basic Theistic propositions—just the point which Flew himself has made. But if no empirical evidence could conceivably falsify these propositions, surely they are completely empty? If it makes no difference to anything whether God exists or not, if everything in the world might be just what it is whether he exists or not, then surely we are saying nothing when we assert that he does exist? And with regard to the empirical facts which touch us most closely, the facts of human life, what meaning can there be in asserting that there is a God who created the world and loves every single one of us, if no amount of human misery, however great, would have the least tendency to falsify these assertions? It seems to make no diference at all whether they are false or true; and when someone asserts them, it seems that he has told us absolutely nothing.

The same criticism may be put in another way. The trouble with the Theist, it might be said, is that he has an answer to everything. Whatever difficulty you raise, he can always explain it away. These sufferings and disasters are chastisements for our sins, or trials of our faith; they are part of the educational process which is designed to fit us to be citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven hereafter. Again, if someone does not receive what he earnestly prayed for, it was for his good that he should not receive it. He may think that his prayer was not answered; but his failure to receive what he asked for is itself the answer. At the worst, the Theist can always say ‘Of course, God's purposes are inscrutable’. Up to a point, it is obviously an advantage to have an answer to objections. But one can have too much of a good thing. If you have an answer to every conceivable objection, if you can still maintain your thesis no matter what the facts may be, then surely there are only two possibilities open: either you were not asserting anything at all, or else you were asserting an analytical proposition such as ‘2 + 3 = 5’ or ‘from if p, then q, it follows that if not q, then not p’. (These proposition are true whatever the facts may be). But an existential proposition cannot be analytic. Surely we must conclude, then, that when you say ‘There is a God’ you are not asserting anything at all?

It would follow from this criticism that even the modest-seeming ‘Para-theistic’ recommendation to view the world as if it were the creation of a benevolent Supreme Being is equally empty, because the if-clause would itself be empty. For (it would be said) if the world were not the creation of a benevolent Supreme Being, everything would be as it is now; and everything would be as it is now, if the world were the creation of a benevolent Supreme Being. When a hypothesis is completely empty (as it is alleged this one is) a person is not making any recommendation to us when he says ‘I invite you to view the world as if this hypothesis were true’. There is nothing which he recommends us to do.

Theism Reducible to Recommendations About Conduct?

We may of course suspect that this criticism proves too much. If it were correct, all adherents of Theistic religion (and of a good many other religions too) must have been in a state of mental confusion which is almost incredible. Yet it is not easy to think of any answer which would satisfy our empirically-minded examiners. But first, before we consider whether any answer is possible, let us consider what the effect of this kind of criticism would be. Its effect would be to reduce Theism to a set of recommendations about conduct. As we have seen, the Theist does make such recommendations, and they are certainly not devoid of content.7 ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ is very far from being an empty recommendation. If we take it as a moral imperative, it is obvious that we can too easily disobey it. (The possibility of disobeying is here the analogue of the possibility of falsification.) ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ is not at all like the command of the schoolmaster who said ‘Stand up, or else do not stand up; I will be obeyed!’ Nor does it at all resemble the equally vacuous command ‘Do as you please’.

As we have seen, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ can also be taken as a prudential maxim. We are then being advised to live in this ‘agapistic’ manner, on the ground that no other way of life is in the long run satisfactory to a human being. Interpreted in this way, what we are being told is again very far from being empty, since we can only too easily fail to act in the way advised. Moreover, as we have seen, there can be empirical evidence for or against the assertion that no other kind of life is in the long run satisfying. So this assertion is by no means empty either. It is not a metaphysical assertion, but a psychological one. Moreover, such evidence as we have seems to support it quite strongly, though not conclusively. At any rate, it seems to be true that no person can in the long run be happy unless he loves at least some other persons in the unconditional manner recommended.8

These recommendations about conduct are certainly an essential part of the Theistic outlook. Indeed, all the higher religions, whether Theistic or not, do make recommendations about conduct. The recommendations are not quite the same in all the different religious outlooks (a Buddhist, for example, recommends compassion, whereas a Theist recommends unconditional love). But there is a very considerable resemblance between them. And if we are to judge them by their fruits, it would appear that all the higher religions, and most of the varieties (orthodox or heterodox) which we find within each of them, are capable of producing very admirable types of human character, if their respective recommendations about conduct are followed.

Nevertheless, there is no higher religion, with the possible exception of Confucianism, which is wholly reducible to a sort of recommendations about conduct. All the others make metaphysical assertions as well; and to say they make them ‘as well’ is to say too little, since the recommendations about conduct are intimately related to the metaphysical assertions. The Theist's recommendations that we should love our neighbours is not independent of his metaphysical assertion that there is a God who created all of us and loves each of us; and the Buddhist's recommendation of compassion is not independent of his metaphysical assertion that all beings who have desires are bound to suffer, and will continue to suffer in a series of incarnations which cannot end unless or until desires are wholly extinguished.

Professor J. H. Hick on Theology and Verification

Let us now consider whether a Theist can make any reply to the objection that his metaphysical assertions are empty, on the ground that no conceivable empirical evidence could falsify them. In an article on ‘Theology and Verification’9 Professor J. H. Hick has argued that though the Theistic assertions concerning God are neither verifiable nor falsifiable by anything which might happen in this world, they are capable of being verified or falsified by happenings in the next; consequently, they are after all either true or false, though in this present life we cannot find out which they are. If after death we found ourselves living in a community having the characteristics which God's Kingdom is described as having, we should have empirical evidence of God's existence and of his love towards us. The evidence would be stronger still, if we then had experiences describable as ‘having personal relations with’ such a Being. We must notice, however, that this empirical evidence would only be available to a limited class of persons, namely those traditionally described as ‘the Blessed in Heaven’, What would our position be if we were less fortunate, or less deserving, and found ourselves after death in a community very unlike God's Kingdom, and more like what is traditionally described as ‘the Kingdom of Darkness’? Might we then be tempted to change out previous opinion that the Theistic assertions about God were completely devoid of content, and to say instead that they were false?

If we were consistent, we should have to resist this temptation. Did we not maintain in our earthly lives that no conceivable state of affairs, however dreary or unpleasant, could have any tendency to falsify the Theist's assertions about God? In short, we should not become Atheists as a result of our after-death experiences—or at least we should not be logically entitled to, if we were consistent. We should be obliged to remain Agnostics as we were before; not Agnostics of the old-fashioned sort, who admit that the Theist's statements about God are either true or false, and then claim that we have no means of deciding between these two alternatives, but Agnostics of the Post-Positivist sort, who hold that the Theist's statements are empty, because not even in principle falsifiable. There would be nothing in our after-death experiences, however dismal or unpleasant or terrifying, to compel us to change our views: we had provided for the situation beforehand by saying that no conceivable experiences could falsify these statements or count as evidence against them. A fortiorithere would be nothing to compel us to change our views, if we found ourselves after death in a world containing roughly the same mixture of goods and evils as there is in our present life on earth.

There is only one point on which we should have to change our opinion in the situation supposed. We should have to admit that we had survived death, distressing as this admission might be. But though most Theists do assert that we survive death, and indeed that we are immortal, and though it might even be that the existence of a loving God entails the survival of the human personalities he has created (as some Theists have maintained) the converse entailment certainly does not hold. If it be a fact that human personality survives death, that fact would be compatible with all the metaphysical world-outlooks except epiphenomenalist materialism; and so far as I can see, if it were true that all persons, once they have come into existence, continue to exist for ever, this too would be compatible with all the metaphysical world-outlooks, with the same exception.

It seems that, on Hick's view, statements about God would resemble statements about survival in being verifiable but not falsifiable. It is true that there would still be an important difference between the two. The statement that I shall survive death will be conclusively verified by me if I do find myself surviving, and the statement that I shall not survive cannot be conclusively falsified by myself or by anyone else, though it might in fact be false. But on Hick's view, statements about God could not, I think, be conclusively verified by anyone, or at any rate by any human person, though if he were one of ‘the blessed in Heaven’, he could obtain evidence strongly supporting them. On the other hand, no one in the less favoured parts of the next world could conceivably have any evidence against these statements about God. He could only have evidence of the same general sort as we have now; and as we have seen, this evidence can always be explained away.10 If the existence of evils in this present world is not to be allowed to count as evidence against Theism, neither is the existence of evils in some other world, even though greater in degree. It seems, then, that if Professor Hick is right there could be strong though not conclusive empirical evidence for the existence of God, as also for his goodness, in the life after death, but neither then nor now could there be conclusive evidence against it.

But if this is a correct interpretation of Hick's argument, he is making an important assumption which needs to be explicitly stated. For brevity, let us use the traditional word ‘Heaven’ for the after-death state in which a person can have experiences which will provide him with empirical evidence for the existence of God. (We need not think of Heaven as a place, but rather as a state of consciousness in which experiences of certain sorts occur.) On the traditional view, which Hick, I think, accepts, no one can be in Heaven at all unless he has acquired a suitable sort of character. The latent assumption which needs to be made explicit is this: that a person's character, the conative and emotional dispositions he has acquired, affects his cognitive powers and enables him to be aware of facts he could not otherwise be aware of. On the view under discussion, they are empirical facts (though other-wordly ones) since they provide him with empirical evidence for an existential proposition. To put it in another way, the assumption is that a person who has acquired certain conative and emotional dispositions is able to have experiences disclosing facts to him which others are not able to discern. On the traditional view, these conative and emotional dispositions are in part moral ones. Moral goodness, and a pretty high degree of moral goodness, is supposed to be a necessary condition for the discernment of the facts in question. Whether it is supposed to be a sufficient one, is a question which we shall consider presently; but at any rate it is supposed to be a conditio sine qua non.

The assumption which has just been stated is a very disturbing one. The consequence of it is that there are facts about the world (and very important facts too) which are not accessible to all normal observers. You do not have to be a conscientious promise-keeper in order to observe that Saturn has rings; you have only to look through a telescope. You do not have to be kind to children in order to discover what happened in the reign of King Richard I; you have only to read the documents. But it would seem that you do have to be as charitable as the Good Samaritan was, in order to discern the facts which are empirical evidence for the existence of God; though even then, if Hick is right, you will not be able to discern them till after you are dead.

Disturbing though it is, this assumption, or something like it, might nevertheless be true. Or, to put it the other way round, the postulate of unrestricted public verifiability might be false. It might be that in some spheres (though not in the sphere of ordinary sense-perception) the cognitive powers which a person has do depend in some way on the kind of person that he is. But is this a paradox? On the contrary, it is almost a platitude in one important sphere at least, the relation of a person with other persons.

If we are ourselves very selfish or unkind, there will be facts about the conduct and the emotional attitudes of other persons which we shall not be able to notice. Or if we do notice them at a purely behaviouristic level (observable bodily movements and utterances, observable emotional symptoms such as weeping or smiling) are we not extremely likely to misinterpret them? We do not conceive it possible that when a person helped someone else who was in trouble, he did it out of plain straightforward compassion, or just because he is kind and charitable and wishes for his neighbour's good. Human beings, we say to ourselves, just are not like that. He must have done it because he wanted gratitude or admiration, or because he thought that the man he helped would be a useful ally later, or just because he was brought up to behave like that, and has never grown up sufficiently to ask himself what point there could possibly be in such behaviour. And so we move in the world of personal relations like blind men, unable to grasp what is going on around us. Here our moral defects do restrict our cognitive powers. Indeed, they might do so in our historical studies too, you do not need kindness to learn what happened in the reign of King Richard I. But you may need some in order to understand it. You may also need to have some idea of what it feels like to be devotedly loyal to someone who is set in authority over you.

If we consider other sorts of emotional dispositions, not moral ones but somewhat allied to them, we might find that they played some part even in the natural sciences, and especially in the work of men of scientific genius. Were not some of these men moved by sheer admiration for the cosmic spectacle, and even by a kind of disinterested love for it? Without this emotional attitude, would they have made the discoveries which they did make?11

It now appears that when a Theist (or indeed an advocate of some other religious world outlook) recommends us to cultivate certain moral virtues, he does so for three reasons and not only for the two we have mentioned already—because he approves of these virtues for their own sake, and because he thinks we cannot in the long run be happy unless we acquire them. The third reason is that unless we acquire certain moral virtues, especially charity, he thinks we shall not be capable of having certain sorts of cognitive experiences—experiences which we must have if we are to test for ourselves the adequacy of the world-outlook he is recommending, or even if we are to understand clearly what that world-outlook is. ‘He that doeth the Will shall know of the doctrine’—if we take this to mean that one does not know of the doctrine unless one does the will.

Devotional Practices and Latent Spiritual Capacities

But though the acquisition of certain moral virtues is held to be a necessary condition for having these experiences, which will provide evidence for the existence of God, it is not usually thought to be a sufficient one. In all the religious outlooks certain other practices are recommended which have no direct connection with the acquisition of moral virtues. We may call then ‘devotional practices’ (prayer is the most obvious example), and they may be either public and outward, or private and inward. It seems to be thought that the private and inward ones are those which matter most, and that if they are lacking the public and outward ones will have but little efficacy. The practices recommended vary greatly from one religion to another, and even within the same religion between one sect or denomination and another. The practice of them is what makes the difference between merely accepting a religious creed and being a religious person. The habitual practice of them is what ‘piety’ consists in.

What is the point of these practices, and why are they recommended, in one form or another, by exponents of all the religious world-outlooks? And why is special importance attached to the private and inward ones? The assumption underlying these recommendations seems to be an assumption about human capacities. It is similar to the assumption mentioned already, in connection with recommendations about moral conduct, that what a person is capable of being aware of depends in some degree upon the kind of person he is. The assumption is that every human being has certain capacities—let us call them spiritual capacities for lack of a better name—which remain latent and unactualized in most of us, unless and until steps are taken to develop them. On this view, most of us nowadays are in a state of spiritual immaturity, however adult we may be in other respects. In spite of our scientific and technological achievements (or partly because of them?) it might be that the majority of civilized Western men in these days are more immature spiritually than their predecessors in the Middle Ages. They have the spiritual capacities which every human being has, but have taken little trouble to develop them.

What we call ‘a spiritual person’ (a repulsive phrase, but it is hard to find another) is not, of course, just a person who knows things which others do not. Nevertheless, according to the assumption we are discussing, he is a person who has experiences which unspiritual persons do not have; and though these experiences are not purely and simply cognitive, it is held that they provide him with evidence for certain important propositions, evidence which unspiritual persons are not able to obtain. On the Theistic view, it is evidence concerning the existence and attributes of God, and especially for the proposition that God loves us. Furthermore, it would be claimed that a spiritual person's experiences provide him with a better understanding of the Theistic world-outlook itself: he understands, better than the rest of us, what is meant by saying that there is a God who created the universe, and that he loves each one of us, including those of us who deny that he exists, or think it nonsensical to say He does.

One result of this (it would be said) is that a spiritual person feels himself to be ‘more at home’ in the universe than unspiritual persons do. He has a certain serenity and inward peace which others cannot help envying and even admiring. They cannot see that he is in the least entitled to have it, in a world so full of troubles as this world is. Yet it seems a little unplausible to suppose that this serene attitude is just the product of a state of mental confusion. Indeed, the existence of such persons is in practice the most persuasive argument in favour of a religious world-outlook, and probably always has been. When we meet such a person, we can hardly help wishing that we ourselves could be like him, and we cannot help wondering whether there may not be something to be said for the world-outlook which, he accepts, however strange or even absurd that outlook may seem to us to be. The inward peace mentioned just now is not exactly a moral characteristic. But no one has it unless he has a considerable degree of moral virtue too, and somehow or other the moral virtues themselves assume a different quality in a person of this kind. We not only approve of them, as we approve of them in anyone else, but also feel attracted by them. Hume distinguishes somewhere between the ‘awful’ and the ‘amiable’ virtues. A person of the kind we are describing may possess both. He may, for example, be capable of heroic self-sacrifice. But somehow, in him, the awful virtues are amiable too. Theistic moralists would say that this is because he has charity or love of his neighbours for their own sake, that all the other virtues he may display are consequences of this, and that charity cannot but be amiable in all its manifestations.

Two Kinds of ‘Latency’

It has been suggested already that the religious or devotional practices recommended by the Theist are intended to develop the latent spiritual capacities which he assumes to be present in all of us. There are, however, two different ways of conceiving of this ‘latency’. On one view, these capacities are latent in the sense that they are unactualized, as a child of two years old might have a latent capacity for Higher Mathematics. But a rather different view has been suggested by Professor John Baillie, in which ‘latent’ would be equivalent to ‘subconscious’.12 If I interpret him correctly, he holds that every normal human being has an actual (not merely potential) awareness of God, but that in very many of us this awareness exists only ‘at the bottom of our hearts’ and not ‘at the top of our minds’; indeed,’ at the top of our minds’ we may doubt or even deny what we are aware of all the time at the bottom of our hearts. It seems possible that in some human beings this awareness of God would be unconscious rather than just subconscious. It might be ‘repressed’—to use the terminology of the Depth-psychologists—so that it is inaccessible to the person's consciousness, unless and until steps are taken to remove the repressing forces.

On this view, the purpose of the devotional practices would be to raise our awareness of God into clear consciousness, to bring it out from the bottom of our hearts into the top of our minds: or perhaps, rather, to remove the inhibitions or barriers or blockages which have hitherto kept it out of consciousness. (According to Christian teachings, there is such a blockage in all of us; it is called ‘Original Sin’.)

It might be suggested that there are also subconscious, or unconscious, emotional relations with God. If there is an awareness of God, at any rate ‘at the bottom of our hearts’, there might also be at the bottom of our hearts a need or wish to love Him. Such a need or wish, however little we are aware of it, however firmly we reject it when by any chance we are half-conscious of it, might conceivably be present all the time in every normal human being. It might indeed be claimed by religious people that no one can be wholly happy, unless this need or wish is satisfied in some degree.13

Whichever way we put it, whether we speak of unactualized capacities or of subconsciously-actual mental states, we are claiming that this ‘something in us’ which makes us spiritual beings has to be conceived as both cognitive and emotional at the same time. Or is it perhaps so close, as it were, to the centre of our personalities that it belongs to a level at which the distinction between cognition and emotion, awareness and love, no longer applies?

The two views I have been stating about the spiritual nature of human beings—the one which speaks in terms of unactualized capacities, and the other in terms of actual but subconscious (or unconscious) psychological states—are not, after all, so different as they look. On either view, a conscious awareness of God and a conscious love of him are actually present only in a minority of human beings. Yet on either view the potentiality for such conscious awareness and love is something which all of us possess, and the aim of the devotional practices is to actualize this potentiality. To put it in another way, the aim of them is so to change a person's inner life that he becomes consciously aware of God, consciously accepts God's love for him, and consciously loves God in return.

According to Theistic religion, the capacity for such a conscious relationship with God is the special prerogative of persons. For love of this conscious kind cannot be compelled. It has to be given freely. If we are ‘of more value than many sparrows’, the reason is, perhaps, that we are capable of loving God as conscious, responsible and autonomous beings. It is in our power to refuse to love Him, even though we have a subconscious need or wish to love Him: and even though we become conscious of this need or wish, we can still refuse to satisfy it. The choice is ours.


If these are the reasons a Theist might give for recommending the use of devotional practices, we have now to ask what kind of practices they are, and what state of mind we are supposed to be in when we practice them. One of the most important of them in the practice of meditating or ruminating on certain narratives which we have heard or read, or which have been conveyed to us in other ways, for example by means of pictures or statuary. In Christian Theism they are chiefly narratives in the Gospels, both those which are presented as records of historical fact, and those presented as parables. Or they may be narratives from the lives of saintly persons, or more or less imaginative representations of God's ways of dealing with men, such as we find in the Psalms and the Old Testament prophets. The important point is not that we should believe these narratives, or how firmly we believe them if we do. What is recommended is that we should think of them, assiduously and attentively, ‘think over’ them and ruminate upon them. It is the entertaining of these propositions, repeatedly and attentively, which matters at this stage, not the assent to them. If we are able to ‘cash’ them with mental imagery, so much the better. Here again Newman's distinction between notional and real assent is relevant. The distinction applies to entertaining too, as indeed he himself insists. (His term for entertaining is ‘the apprehension of propositions’.) The propositions, or, rather, sets of propositions, which we are asked to entertain must be entertained in a ‘real’ and not a merely ‘notional’ manner. We have to try to ‘realize’ or ‘bring home to ourselves’ what it would be like if these propositions were true, or if these paintings or statues represented an actual state of affairs.

We may also believe these propositions, or some of them, but the important thing is that we should be interested in them, interested enough to try to ‘realize fully’ what their content is and to let our thoughts dwell on them. If we believe them without being interested in them, and without any tendency at all to ruminate over them or meditate upon them, we cannot expect that this will have much effect in developing our spiritual capacities. What we think about, privately and inwardly, and think about often, is much more important from this point of view than what we believe, and much more likely to alter our personalities. Belief can come later. This is one reason why the fashionable phrase ‘total commitment’ is so misleading. It suggests that everyone must start his spiritual life by being totally convinced of something, presumably without much evidence (if any) and without any clear conception of what it is that he is convinced of. A man might believe every clause of the Athanasian Creed with total and unshakable conviction without being a spiritual person at all.

Professor R. B. Braithwaite on ‘Stories’

What has just been said may remind you of the important function assigned to ‘stories’ in Professor R. B. Braithwaite's Eddington Lecture An Empiricist's View of the Nature of Religious Belief.14 He too insists that the stories need not be believed, though of course they may be, and that what matters is that we should meditate upon them, no matter whether we believe them or not. But his conception of what these stories, or rather our meditations upon them, are to do for us is different from the one most Theists would accept. He thinks that their function is just to make us capable of following an ‘agapistic’ way of life. Most Theists would no doubt agree that this is part of their function. But Braithwaite does not seem to take into account the effect which such meditations might have in developing a person's latent spiritual capacities; or rather, he makes no distinction between spiritual capacities and moral ones. He does not consider the possibility that there might be latent capacities in all of us, which, when developed, might enable us to obtain evidence relevant to the truth or falsity of the basic Theist assertions concerning the existence of God and God's relations to ourselves. The Theistic world-outlook, as he conceives it, is a wholly immanent world-outlook, just a way of ‘seeing’ the facts of human life. According to his interpretation, we are to ‘see’ them as opportunities of serving our neighbours and of cultivating a loving attitude towards them; and the basic Theistic assertions concerning God are themselves ‘stories’, which if duly meditated upon will enable us to ‘see’ the facts of human life in this agapistic way, and to act and feel accordingly. On his view, it does not matter whether these stories are true or false, any more than it matters whether the events described in the parable of the Good Samaritan did actually happen. He does not discuss the Theistic assertions about human immortality, but presumably he would take the same view about these.

But surely no Theist would admit that his assertions about the being and attributes of God, are mere ‘stories’ in this sense; and certainly he would not admit it about the two assertions on which he lays most emphasis, namely, the assertion that there is a God who created the world, and the assertion that He loves every single one of the persons He has created. A Theist would say that it matters very much whether these assertions are true or false, indeed that nothing matters more; and he claims that they are in fact true.

His reply to the objection that there can be no evidence for them, since no possible conjunction of empirical facts could falsify them, is this: he claims that it is possible to obtain evidence for them, and that it is empirical evidence (though not of course perceptual evidence), because it comes from certain experiences. He says that there are experiences of ‘drawing near to God’, of entering into an ‘I-thou’ relation with Him and even (as Newman puts it) of ‘holding converse with Him’.15 But the Theist also says that this evidence is not accessible to every normal human being, as the evidence for the existence of Saturn's rings is. It is accessible only to those human beings whose spiritual capacities have been in some degree developed; and although he thinks that every human being does possess these capacities, he also thinks that in many they remain latent and unexercised. ‘Seek and ye shall find’ is the traditional way of putting this.

It seems to me that Theists are here making an empirical claim which can be empirically tested. It is something like the claim made by a man who recommends a system of physical exercises to us, or a system of memory training. The test is: try it, and see for yourself what effects it has. Perhaps you may have to try it for a long time, and a good deal of effort may be needed; the same might be true of a system of physical exercises, which is recommended to us on the ground that it will improve our health or strengthen our muscles. But the question is quite straightforwardly this: Does it work? And that question is an empirical one. According to some Christian thinkers, Professor Hick, for example, we shall have to wait till after we are dead to get the complete answer to the question ‘Does it work’? Even so, we might perhaps have some experiences even in this life which would encourage us to think that it does.

It might be, of course, that one sort of religious or devotional practice suits one person and a rather different sort suits another person. That might be one reason why there are different religions in the world; and even within Theistic religion, many different sorts of religious or devotional practices are recommended (for example, those recommended by Mohammedan Sufis differ from those recommended by Christians, and even within the Christian variety of Theism those recommended by Catholics differ considerably from those recommended by Presbyterians). Which sort of religious or devotional practices suits a particular person best might depend to a considerable extent on his personal idiosyncracies, or—to look at it in another way—on the particular sort of ‘hindrances’ or repressions or fixations which keep his spiritual faculties in a state of latency and prevent them from being exercised. As has been suggested already, we can quite well conceive of religious or devotional practices as methods designed to remove or weaken inhibiting factors, which might very well vary somewhat from one person to another.16 But the claim is that every person does have spiritual capacities; that every person has the power to arouse them from their state of latency, or free them from the inhibitions which prevent them from being exercised, by using religious or devotional practices of one sort or another; and that when these faculties are exercised, we can have experiences which will provide us with evidence for the basic Theistic assertions concerning God and His relations to ourselves.

Seeking and Believing

If someone decides to set about testing this empirically testable claim, he does not have to believe any theological propositions at all in the initial stage of his investigation; still less does he have to believe them with complete and unshakable conviction, for which he has at that stage no evidence. All he has to believe is, first, that the use of certain religious or devotional practices is in fact recommended by certain persons, and secondly, that those who recommend the use of these practices do themselves claim that they are effective methods of developing the latent spiritual capacities of human beings. These two propositions are not very difficult to believe.

Nor does he have to begin by trusting everyone or anything; certainly not by trusting God Himself, since at the beginning he is quite uncertain whether there is any such Being, or even perhaps whether it makes sense to say there is. He may of course trust the persons who recommend these methods to him, in the sense that he trusts them to be speaking sincerely, and is sure that they do genuinely believe in the methods they recommend. All the same, it is not at all necessary that he should begin by trusting the methods themselves. It is true that no one would think it worth while to try them out, if he was quite certain beforehand that they could not possibly work. But he does not have to be certain beforehand that they will. He only has to think that they are worth trying. It seems to be supposed by some that we cannot act resolutely unless we are absolutely convinced beforehand that we are going to succeed. But if any supposition is obviously false, surely this one is. And it is just as false when the actions in question are inward and private ones (directing our thoughts in a certain manner attentively and repeatedly) as it is when they are outward and public ones.

The Theistic Hypothesis

But though we do not have to begin by believing any Theological propositions at all, we do have to attend to and consider what may be called the basic propositions of Theistic religion: that there is a God who created the world, and that he loves each one of us. The second proposition is, of course, a very astonishing one indeed, and it would be asking too much of any reasonable man to demand that he should accept it without enquiry, and an insult to his intelligence to demand that he should begin by believing it with total and unshakable conviction. Still, it is required of us that we should consider both these Theistic propositions seriously, the second as well as the first, though it is not required that we should begin by believing either of them. We have to ‘take them seriously’, in the sense of being interested in them, interested enough to expend a certain amount of time and energy in trying out the procedures recommended to us. In short, we do have to begin by paying serious attention to what is called the Theistic hypothesis, though we do not have to begin by accepting it. The Theistic hypothesis, however, is a more complicated one than it used to be. We can no longer formulate it as the hypothesis that the basic propositions of Theistic religion are true, since some philosophers have doubted whether they are genuine propositions at all, that is, whether the sentences purporting to express them have any meaning; and if they have none, they are not even false. The Theistic hypothesis must therefore be reformulated in a two-stage manner. It is the hypothesis that the sentences ‘There is a God who created the world’ and ‘He loves each one of the persons whom he has created’ do express genuine propositions, i.e. that each of them is either true or false; and the further hypothesis that both these propositions are true.

There is another reason why we have to be interested in this two-stage hypothesis and pay serious attention to it. The two basic propositions of Theism play an essential part in the procedures whose efficacy we are trying to test, as indeed is implied by describing these procedures as religious or devotional practices. One of these practices is prayer. We obviously have to entertain the proposition that there is a God, and also the proposition that He is benevolently disposed towards us, in order to pray in the way Theists recommend, and moreover we have to take both these propositions seriously.

Perhaps it will be objected that we have to do more; that after all we have to believe them, and cannot possibly pray unless we do. Might it not be an empirical fact, however unfortunate and regrettable, that we have to begin by believing the basic Theistic propositions without any evidence, if we are to obtain any evidence for those propositions later? Some theologians seem to think that this is indeed an empirical fact, and not even a regrettable one. That is the source of what may be called the ‘taking the plunge’ conception of religion; and it seems to be thought that it is in our power to take this plunge just by an act of will. But if we do consider a proposition carefully (as these religious teachers admit we must) is it even possible to believe that proposition without having any evidence for it at all? Of course, if we do not consider a proposition p carefully, and do not even ask ourselves whether there is evidence for it or not, we may get into the state which Cook Wilson calls ‘being under an impression that p’.17 But this unreasonable or non-reasonable state of mind is just the one which could not be induced by an act of will. It comes about through not willing, though failing to exercise what we called the freedom of assent,18 which is also a freedom to suspend judgement.

What one can do, by conscious and wide-awake act of free choice, is to take a proposition as a hypothesis. This is the state of mind sometimes called ‘supposing’. We do, I think, have to take it as a hypothesis that there is a God, and that he is benevolently disposed towards us, if we are to pray in the way a Theist recommends. But taking a proposition or a set of propositions as a hypothesis is not believing, and still less is it believing with total and unshakable conviction.

The Agnostic's Prayer

We have all heard of the Agnostic's prayer ‘O God, if there be a God, save my soul, if I have a soul’, and much derision has no doubt been poured on it. But it is a perfectly sensible prayer for an Agnostic to offer, and unless he begins by praying in some such way, one cannot see how he is ever to begin praying at all, nor how he is ever to be converted from Agnosticism to Theism. One must start somewhere, and how else is an intellectually-honest man to start? He need not insert his if-clause into the prayer itself (nor mutatis mutandis into the praises or expressions of thankfulness which are also recommended religious practices). But before he starts to offer his prayer he does have to do some supposing. He says to himself ‘Let me suppose for the moment that there is a God and that he is benevolently disposed towards me’, and later he will find that he is able to get himself into this ‘supposing’ frame of mind whenever he wishes, without needing to formulate it in words. After all, he is making what might be called a devotional experiment, and how else is he to do it?

It is something like what an actor does when he throws himself into his part. For the time being, he tries to behave and speak, and feel too, as if he were the Prince of Denmark. But he does not have to believe that he is the Prince of Denmark, still less to be unshake ably convinced that he is. Similarly, our agnostic has to try to ‘take the role’ of a pious person addressing his Heavenly Father, though he does it privately, in his own heart, and not on the public stage as the actor does. It could be called an imaginative exercise, an attempt to ‘put himself in the shoes of a type’ of person whose habitual thoughts and feelings are very different from his own. What he has been told is that if he goes on doing this for a long time, he will himself become a different kind of person, and will begin to have experiences of a sort which he has never had before. This is the empirical proposition which he is trying to test.

It must, of course, be admitted that there is something belief-like in the attitude which he takes. As we have seen already,19 there can be attitudes which resemble belief in some respects but differ from it in others. The attitude of the person we are discussing does resemble that of religious believers in several ways. He takes certain propositions about God seriously, as they also do, though he only takes them seriously as hypotheses. Because he takes them so, he acts ‘in the light of these propositions, as religious believers also do. The actions in question, both in him and in religious believers, are primarily inward and private ones. His private thoughts are directed to the same topics as theirs are, and the words which he inwardly utters (e.g. the words of the Lord's Prayer) are often the same as those which they inwardly utter. The production of mental imagery is another important sort of inward activity; and like the production of inward words, it is to some degree under our voluntary control, though to a lesser degree. Here again, what goes on in his mind may resemble what goes on in the minds of religious believers. He may image or picture to himself some event described in the Gospels, the adoration of the Magi, for example, and they may do the same. He may try to imagine what it would have felt like to be an actual witness of this event, and so may they. But though these episodes in his inner life may quite closely resemble episodes in theirs, they come about in a different way. He is taking a hypothesis seriously as a subject for investigation, and is making experiments (psychological experiments on himself) in the hope that he may eventually obtain evidence relevant to the truth or falsity of that hypothesis. But this is not what they are doing. What he takes as a hypothesis, they believe; and some of them believe it with full conviction. His attitude, though belief-like, is not believing. We might call it assiduous supposing.

Seeking And Believing ‘In’

So far we have been asking how far his attitude resembles believing that. Does it also resemble believing in? We have seen earlier20 that belief-in may be directed to many different sorts of objects. One may for example believe in a method or a procedure (e.g. in taking a cold bath every morning, or in classical education). The man we are considering is using a method or procedure. He uses it very much as a man would who believed in it. Nevertheless he does not at present believe in it, nor of course does he disbelieve in it either. He is taking it seriously and trying it out, in order to see whether it works. What he does believe in is the empirical principle ‘Try it and see for yourself’.

But when we are discussing the philosophy of religion, the sort of belief-in which most concerns us is belief in God. In a religious person's belief in God, the most obvious feature is our attitude of trusting. But how can one trust someone unless one believes (or knows) that there is such a person and that he has certain characteristics, benevolence for example, or veracity? Our agnostic does not believe that there is a God, or that He is benevolently disposed to human beings, though he does not disbelieve these propositions either. He is just interested in them and takes them seriously as a hypothesis worthy of investigation. So when he tries out the religious or devotional practices which are recommended to him, he is not in a position to trust God, as religious people themselves do when they carry out these practices. What he can do is to try to imagine what it would be like to trust Him. Difficult though this may sound, it is not impossible that he should succeed. Let us again consider the actor who is playing the part of Hamlet. For the time being he tries, as we say, to ‘identify himself’ with Hamlet. In so doing, he has to try to imagine what it would feel like to trust his faithful friend Horatio. He need not believe that Horatio exists or ever did exist. The emotional pro-attitude which is an essential part of belief in a person does presuppose the belief (or knowledge) that the person exists and has certain characteristics, trustworthiness for example. Yet an attitude somewhat like it may be imaginatively assumed, if one takes it as a hypothesis that such a person exists and has these characteristics. Supposing that p, without believing it, may have some of the consequences which believing p would have.

It may be that religious thinkers of the ‘Taking the plunge’ persuasion have been misled by the belief-like features which we do find in the attitude of the empirically-minded enquirer we are discussing, and have concluded that because it is belief-like in certain ways it must actually be an attitude of belief, and even that it must be an attitude of complete conviction. But if our long and devious investigation of the epistemology of belief has shown anything, surely it has shown that belief is a complex attitude which manifests itself in many different ways. This is one of the lessons which the dispositional analysis of belief has to teach us. As has been remarked already, we should expect that there would be cases where some of these manifestations are present and others lacking, belief-like attitudes which are not quite attitudes of believing.


In this final lecture I have been trying to sketch an ‘Empiricist view of religion’ which differs considerably from Professor Braithwaite's, one which does not part company so decisively with traditional conceptions of Theism. I have suggested that the Theistic world-outlook lays itself open at one crucial point to an empirical test. This is because an assertion about human nature is an essential part of it. The assertion is that every human being has spiritual capacities, latent in most persons and partially developed in some; and moreover that when and if these capacities are developed, or freed from the inhibitions which keep them in a latent state, experiences will be forthcoming which will support the basic Theistic propositions themselves, the propositions concerning the being and attributes of God and God's relations to us upon which the Theistic way of ‘viewing the world’ depends. This assertion about human nature and its latent spiritual capacities can be empirically tested. Moreover, Theists themselves recommend a procedure for testing it. The procedure is difficult to carry out; but though difficult, it is not in principle impracticable. It is open to anyone to try it and see for himself whether it does produce the effects it is alleged to produce. ‘Try it and see for yourself’ is one way of formulating the empiricist principle.

  • 1.

    See Lecture 9 above (Belief ‘in’ and belief ‘that’), p. 431.

  • 2.

    See Series II, Lecture 7, Moral Beliefs, pp. 391–3.

  • 3.

    Cf. Lecture 7, Moral Beliefs, continued pp. 402–4.

  • 4.

    Cf. CD. Broad: Lectures on Psychical Research, Chs. 10–15 and Epilogue.

  • 5.

    We describe it as ‘a risk’ if we regard the continuance of personal existence after death as an evil rather than a good. It seems likely that quite a large number of persons have a wish, conscious or unconscious, not to survive bodily death. Some of those who disbelieve in survival may be ‘wishful thinkers’, just as some who believe in it are.

  • 6.

    If anyone is interested in speculations on this subject, he may be referred to an article by the author on ‘Survival and the Idea of “Another World”’, in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, Vol. 50, 1953.

  • 7.

    Pp. 458–9, above

  • 8.

    It may be objected that we cannot be recommended to love anyone (still less to love anyone in the unconditional manner which Theists have in mind) on the ground that it is not in our power to put ourselves into an emotional attitude by a mere act of will. Nevertheless, it is in our power to cultivate an emotional attitude, or to make efforts to acquire it by degrees. If we cannot be commanded to love our neighbours, we can at any rate be commanded to cultivate a loving attitude towards them.

  • 9.
    Theology To-day, Vol. XVII, No. 1, April 1960.
  • 10.

    See pp. 465–7 above.

  • 11.

    This attitude is excellently expressed by the scientific poet Lucretius, and is perhaps also the one which Spinoza described as amor intellectualis Dei. (Spinoza's God was Deus sive natura.)

  • 12.
    Our Knowledge of God, Ch 2 (Oxford University Press, 4th impression, 1946).
  • 13.

    Cf. St Augustine Cor nostrum inquietum est donec requiescat in Te.

  • 14.

    Cambridge University Press.

  • 15.
    Grammar of Assent (Longmans, 1947), p. 89.
  • 16.

    p. 476, above.

  • 17.

    See Series I, Lecture 9, pp. 208–16.

  • 18.

    See Series I, Lecture 10.

  • 19.

    Series II, Lecture 4, on Half-Belief.

  • 20.

    Series II, Lecture 9, above, pp. 420–30.

From the book: