Theology has to Prove not The Existence of Any and Every God, But of Some Particular God.
The theologian, I think, ought to put in the same plea. A proof of the existence of God is all very well, but there are “Gods many” if by God you understand whatever this or that man happens to mean by the word.
Would a proof of the existence of God prove that Apollo and Hathor and Krishna and Mumbo Jumbo all existed ? and if so, what becomes of any religion, if every other is exactly as true ? Plainly, if the God of one religion exists, the God of a contradictory religion cannot exist; and the proof of one is the disproof of the other. Let us first determine what we mean by God, and then and only then we can profitably ask whether he exists.
This second demand is more reasonable than the first; but it still has one grave defect. The determination of what I believe (about God or about anything else) is not a different thing from the question whether that belief is true. To believe a thing is to regard it as true; and to attach a meaning to a word, to believe that this and no other is the right meaning, is to assert that the thing which you so name exists, and exists in this form and no other.
Nor can we escape this conclusion by quoting the time-honoured instance of the dragon, in which, it is supposed, we attach a meaning to a word without believing that the thing so named really exists; for dragons do exist in Fairyland, and it is only in Fairyland that the word has any meaning.
To attach a meaning to a word, then, is to claim that this meaning is the right one : that is, that the thing whose name it is really exists, and that this is its actual nature. To distinguish between the question, “What do I mean by God ?” and the question, “Does God exist, and if so what is he like ?” is impossible, for the two questions are one and the same. It is, of course, possible to distinguish the meaning I attach to the word, or my conception of God, from another person’s meaning or conception; and it may be possible, comparing these two, to discover which is the better and to adopt it. But in any case, the statement of what we mean by God (or anything else) is not the mere expression of a “subjective idea” or of the “meaning of a word” as distinct from the “nature of a thing.” It is already critical, so far as we have the power of making it so; it presupposes that we have reasons for believing that idea, that meaning, to be the right one.
Thus the proof of the existence of God is not something else without which theology is incomplete; it is theology itself. The reasoned statement of the attributes of God is at the same time the proof that the God who has those attributes is the God who exists. Similarly, physics does not require to be supplemented by a metaphysical proof that matter exists; it already supplies that proof in the form of an answer to the question, “What conception of matter is the right conception ?”
It may be objected to this way of putting it that the existence of matter in the one case and God in the other really has been dogmatically assumed : and that thus we are falling into the very error which we set out to avoid.
This is not the case. The assumption that some form of matter exists is only an assumption if a meaning is already attached to the word matter; and since to supply the meaning is the function of physics, the word cannot mean anything at the outset. Actually, of course, this vacuum of meaning never exists, because the science is never at its absolute starting-point; each new scientist begins with the meaning conferred on the word by his predecessors.
But does he therefore assume that matter exists in a form precisely corresponding to that meaning ? If so, it would indeed be a monstrous assumption. But he does not. If he did, he would not be a scientist. His whole function as a scientist is to ask whether the matter conceived by his predecessors exists at all. He may discover that their conception was radically false, in which case there is no limit to the degree of change which the meaning of the word “matter” will undergo in his hands.
The answer to the question what we mean by the word God, then, is identical with that to the question whether God exists. “What do we mean by the word God ?” resolves itself into the question, “What is the right meaning to attach to the word ?” and that again is indistinguishable from the question, “What sort of God exists ?” To suppose that this doctrine rules out atheism is merely to misunderstand it; for it might quite well be that the word God, like the word dragon, means something which exists only in the realm of the imagination.
It follows that we shall not begin by proving the existence of God, nor indeed offer any formal proof at all. But this is not because the existence of God cannot, in the nature of things, be proved. It is often maintained that ultimate truths are incapable of proof, and that the existence of God is such an ultimate truth. But I venture to suggest that the impossibility of proof attaches not to ultimate truths as such, but only to the truths of “metaphysics” in the depreciatory sense of the word; to truths, that is, which have no definite meaning.
We cannot prove that Reality exists, not because the question is too “ultimate” (that is, because too much depends on it), but because it is too empty. Tell us what you mean by Reality, and we can offer an alternative meaning and try to discover which is the right one. No one can prove that God exists, if no definite significance is attached to the words; not because—as is doubtless the case—the reality of God transcends human knowledge, but because the idea of God which we claim to have is as yet entirely indeterminate. In the same way, we cannot prove or disprove the existence of matter until we know what sort of matter is meant; but something can certainly be done to prove the existence or non-existence of the matter of Democritus or Gassendi or Clerk Maxwell.
I do not wish to imply that hesitation and diffidence are mistaken attitudes in which to approach these questions. There is a false mystery, which consists in the asking of unreasonable and unanswerable questions; but there is also a true mystery, which is to be found everywhere and supremely in that which is the centre and sum of all existence. In approaching these hardest of all problems, only the most short-sighted will expect to find their full solution, and only the least discriminating will think at the end that he has found it. Herein lies the real ground for humility; not that our faculties exhaust themselves in a vain struggle to compass the unknowable, but that however well we do we have never done all we might or all we could; and are, after all, unprofitable servants of the supreme wisdom.