Can you deny that there are supernatural beings and not be an atheist?
The New York Times ran the transcript of an interview conducted for “The Stone” by Gary Gutting, a professor of philosophy at Notre Dame, with Howard Wettstein, his counterpart at the University of California. Wettstein is a practicing Jew who prays regularly, and he is proof, I suppose, that one can have a rich religious life without necessarily believing in God – or, in his words, taking “a theoretical stance on God’s existence.” As Wettstein sees it (I think), belief is irrelevant to faith, and even irrelevant altogether. To paraphrase another philosopher with a similar name (Wittgenstein), what we can’t put into words we must pass over in silence.
Wettstein takes an unhelpful detour at the beginning, comparing theorizing about God to theorizing about numbers. “Even an advanced and creative mathematician,” he says, “need not have views about, say, the metaphysical status of numbers.” He cites the physicist Richard Feynman, who was supposed to have said about himself that he “lived among the numbers,” but who was unconcerned with whether they “actually” existed. But when we think about numbers we are able to describe how they work, in the form of proofs. No such thinking can be done about God to yield results that are anything but highly subjective and abstract.
Wettstein talks about a rabbi friend of his who held that “God’s reality went without saying,” but that “God’s reality as a supernatural being was quite another thing.” (Wettstein’s words.) To watch his friend praying was to be overwhelmed, he says, by the intimacy of the pray-er and the pray-ee: “God was almost tangible.”
Gutting asks, quite reasonably, how one can pray to something that doesn’t exist. Wettstein says that “’existence’ is, pro or con, the wrong idea for God.”
“My relation to God has come to be a pillar of my life, in prayer, in experience of the wonders and the awfulness of our world,” Wettstein says. “And concepts like the supernatural and transcendence have application here. But (speaking in a theoretical mode) I understand such terms as directing attention to the sublime rather than referring to some nonphysical domain. To see God as existing in such a domain is to speak as if he had substance, just not a natural or physical substance. As if he were composed of the stuff of spirit, as are, perhaps, human souls. Such talk is unintelligible to me. I don’t get it.”
In other words, we can’t talk about whether God exists, we can only talk about what His existence means to us. An argument like this gives sophistry a good name.
“So what is the real question?” Gutting asks, a little wearily it seems.
“The real question is one’s relation to God, the role God plays in one’s life, the character of one’s spiritual life,” Wettstein answers. These aren’t questions, they are sidestepping the question.