Well, the person who demonstrates that there is a god demonstrates this either by means of something clear on its face or by means of something unclear. And there’s no way it can be by something clear on its face; for if what demonstrates that there is a god was clear on its face, then since what is demonstrated is conceived in relation to what does the demonstrating, and for that reason is grasped together with it, as we established, it will also be clear on its face that there is a god—that will be grasped together with what demonstrates it, which is clear on its face. [Note in reference to ‘as we have established’: this can be found in the discussion of demonstration in book II, which I have not included. But the very same point is made about signs at II.125; see n.5 in chapter 4. (The argument is just as fishy here.)]
Text by Pyrrhonist philosopher Sextus Empiricus (c. 160 – c. 210 AD) translated by Richard Bett, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Since most people have declared that god is a most active cause, let’s first examine god, with this preface—that following ordinary life without opinions, we say that there are gods and we worship gods and we say that they show providence; it’s against the rashness of the dogmatists that we say the following things.[Note: ordinary Greek religion recognized a huge number of different gods, often at odds with one another. But philosophers, even if they recognized numerous distinct divine beings, tended to conceive of the divine as united in a single character and a single purpose. Hence it makes sense that Sextus uses the plural “gods” in speaking of his adherence to ordinary religion, but the singular when discussing dogmatic views.]
When we conceive objects, we ought to conceive their being—for example, whether they are bodies or incorporeal. But also their forms; no one could conceive a horse without first having learned the form of a horse. Also, what is conceived ought to be conceived as somewhere.
Well, since some of the dogmatists say that god is a body, others that he is incorporeal; and some that he is human in form, others not; and some that he is in a place, others not; and of those who say he is in a place, some say this is within the universe, some outside it; how are we going to be able to gain a conception of god, if we don’t have any agreement on his being, or his form, or a place he occupies?
They should first agree on a common view, that god is such-and-such; only then, after giving us an outline of him, should they expect us to gain a conception of god. As long as they are in unresolved dispute, we don’t have from them any agreement on what we are to conceive.
But they say, once you have conceived something imperishable and blessed, consider that to be god. But this is silly. The person who doesn’t know Dion [note: often used as the name of an arbitrary person, like our Jane or John Doe] cannot conceive of his attributes, either, as those of Dion; in the same way, since we do not know the being of god, we also won’t be able to learn or conceive his attributes.
And aside from that, they should tell us what “blessed” is—is it what acts according to virtue and shows providence toward those things ranked below it, or is it what is inactive and neither has any trouble itself nor produces any for others? [Note: These are the Stoic and Epicurean conceptions of god respectively.] In fact, since they are in an unresolved dispute about this too, they have made us unable to conceive what’s blessed, and therefore also god.
But even allowing that god is conceived, it is necessary to suspend judgment on whether he exists or does not exist (as far as the dogmatists are concerned). That god exists is not clear on its face. If he came to our attention all by himself, the dogmatists would be of one voice on what he is, and of what kind, and where; but the unresolved dispute has made him seem to us to be unclear and in need of a demonstration.
But it is not clear on its face, as we mentioned; therefore it is not demonstrated by means of something clear on its face. But not by something unclear either. For the unclear thing that has the job of demonstrating that there is a god will be in need of demonstration. If it is said to be demonstrated by something clear on its face, it will no longer be unclear but clear on its face. The unclear thing that has the job of demonstrating it is therefore not demonstrated by something clear on its face.
But not by something unclear either; for the person who says this will fall into an infinite regress—we’ll always be asking for a demonstration of the unclear point brought up as a demonstration of the one offered the previous time.
Therefore it cannot be demonstrated that there is a god from something else. But if it’s neither clear on its face by itself, nor is it demonstrated by something else, we will not be in a position to grasp whether there is a god.
There is also this to be said. The person who says that there is a god says either that he has providence for the things in the universe, or that he does not; and if he does have providence, it’s either for everything or for just some things. But if he had providence for everything, there wouldn’t be anything bad or any flaw in the universe; yet they say that everything is full of flaws; therefore god won’t be said to have providence for everything.
But if he has providence for just some things, why does he have providence for these things and not those? For either he both wants and is able to have providence for everything; or he wants to but is not able to; or he is able to but doesn’t want to; or he neither wants nor is able to. But if he both wanted to and was able to, he would have providence for everything; but he doesn’t have providence for everything, given what was just said; therefore it’s not that he both wants and is able to have providence for everything.
If he wants to but is not able to, he is weaker than what causes him to be unable to have providence for the things he doesn’t have providence for; but it goes against the conception of god for him to be weaker than anything. If he can have providence for everything, but doesn’t want to, he must be considered to be malicious. And if he neither wants to nor can, he is both malicious and weak; but people who say that about god are impious. Therefore god does not have providence for the things in the universe.
But if he doesn’t show providence for anything, and he doesn’t do any work or accomplish anything, one will not be able to say how it is grasped that there is a god, seeing that he is neither apparent by himself nor is grasped by means of some accomplishments. For these reasons too, therefore, we are not in a position to grasp whether there is a god.
From these points we reckon that those who say with full commitment that there is a god are probably forced into impiety. If they say that he has providence for everything, they will be saying that god is a cause of bad things, while if they say that he has providence for just some things, or even for nothing, they will be forced to say that god is either malicious or weak—and people who say these things are quite clearly impious.
This extract from the book “How to Keep An Open Mind” (Princeton University Press, 2021) was published with the permission of the author.