1st TOP Q: “How, If At All, Can People’s Claims To Simply Intuit That There Is A God Be Rationally Refuted Or Supported?”

Today’s inaugural open philosophical question is inspired by a good question raised this summer by long time friend of Camels With Hammers George W. of the blog Misplaced Grace. I am going to slightly modify his question since it involves addressing a particularly weak and willfully illogical form of an argument for the ability to “intuit” God’s existence.

What I want to ask, is on what grounds might we say that someone is justified or unjustified in intuiting that they have an immediate awareness that there is a God? There are other immediate intuitions we have that we think are justified. For example, we have logical intuitions like that the law of non-contradiction (which says that a cannot be not a) is necessarily and axiomatically true and inviolable. We also seem to have some basic intuitions about normativity. Even someone who believes that there are no genuinely binding norms, intuits what it would mean for there to be a binding norm and simply argues that none of our norms fit the requisite criteria to have normative force.

These and numerous other examples might be adduced to say that sometimes we do take some truths to be self-evidently true in an a priori way. Not all of our truths are empirically discovered, confirmed, or justified.

So, what if someone argues that God is immediately and intuitively known to exist. What if she argues, for example that a concept familiar to humans all over the world and throughout time despite no specific empirical manifestations must be more than a mere fiction of either faulty psychological wiring or, even less plausibly, some very clever socially influential people?

What if someone argues that the existence of God is graspable through a direct intuition inexplicable in further terms, the way we just grasp the qualitative sensible qualities of objects, or the law of non-contradiction, or what it would mean for a norm to have binding force, or the idea that every effect requires a cause, etc.?

How would you argue the existence of God must be settled with further empirical evidence?

Or if you would support this intuitionist thesis that posits that God’s reality is perceptible via direct intuition, how would you defend your insistence that you can wave away the need for other forms of evidence (or at least personally believe in a rationally justified way without them) on the grounds of direct intuition when, unlike the cases of the law of non-contradiction or mathematical truths or principles of normativity, you are dealing with a frequently denied proposition.

No one seriously doubts the law of non-contradiction but plenty of people seriously doubt the existence of God (including a vast majority of contemporary professional philosophers, who are those most trained in the question). Can a proposition be intuitively known even if does not have the universal agreement of the paradigmatic cases of knowledge by intuition?

So, these are all primer questions to help you formulate your answer to today’s open philosophical question, “How, if at all, can claims to simply intuit that there is a God be rationally refuted or supported?”

I have some ideas of my own on the topic but by directly addressing the main question or any of the primer questions I offered or by raising your own related questions or related insights, I’d like to get Your Thoughts.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com James Gray

    First, people who tend to “experience” God have similar experiences to people who “interpret” the experience to mean something else.

    Second, we might want more of a defense of the intuition. People can claim to have intuitions and lie or misunderstand their own intuitions and so forth. If we would believe anyone who says they have an intuition and just assume that it is providing reliable information, then it would be easy to dupe people. It is obviously not going to be taken to be good evidence by anyone who (a) does not share the intuition or (b) doesn’t take intuition alone as a reliable source of information.

  • http://outofthegdwaye.wordpress.com George W.

    Thanks for coming back to this question.
    Knowing that God exists because of intuition is a difficult argument to counter. The best practice I can think of is to dissect the intuition into first principles.
    I think this conversation ties into the very first conversation you and I had on your blog. At the time, I was struggling with the question of whether things “happen for a reason” and whether it was philosophically tenable to hold that belief. My intuition tells me that things do happen for a reason, to a degree I still believe that. Intuition is a heuristic that can be, as you have pointed out, both useful and misplaced. If I truly accept the concept that things happen for a reason, the end result of that belief is something akin to “The Secret”, where there is some cosmic cause and effect that we can harness to our own ends. I most certainly do not believe in that.

    So here I am faced, as we agreed at the end of this first discussion, with the question of whether I can rightly ascribe meaning to an event without necessarily ascribing supernatural causality. This is a case where my intuition is in some respects correct so long as I take the time to logically follow the conclusions of my intuition, thus clearly defining its boundaries.

    Intuition is a heuristic, one that can be useful or harmful under different conditions. I find it helpful to try to break intuition down to first principles and see if I can logically make the leap to a hard rule. This of course flies in the face of the common use of intuition, and is difficult to get someone to play along with. If I dissect my “thing happen for a reason” intuition down to first principles, I find myself seeing it for what it really is, an extension of my need to attribute causality to events that do not necessarily require a causal agency. This need is equally likely the cause of intuiting a higher power.
    This conversation also ties in neatly with your “theistic evolution” thread.

    I believe that at the height of my religiosity I was particularly swayed by the very argument that I now seem to have such trouble arguing against. Normally I would find that fact advantageous; previously holding to a belief that I have reasoned my way out of should give me a stronger counter-argument. Yet my eventual abandonment of this intuition was so gradual and painfully slow (and if taken as part and parcel with my belief of unreasonable causality, not entirely gone) that I face a hard road when trying to concisely reason with someone who holds fast to it.

    I agree with James on all his points but would add that I think that the argument from intuition is not necessarily meant to be persuasive but more likely is meant to be self-assuring. It in essence is meant to hinder a dialogue rather than foster it. Though the same could be said of faith in general….

  • Kiwi Dave

    Do people experience god or a particular form of god with specific characteristics and a particular identity?

    If the god they experience has no very specific characteristics or identity, on what basis can they claim it is a god or the one true God?

    If the claimed god experience has particular features then a subset of James’s point a applies, though I would state it separately as: c)conflicts with some other people’s intuitions.

    • http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com James Gray


      You said, “If the claimed god experience has particular features then a subset of James’s point a applies, though I would state it separately as: c)conflicts with some other people’s intuitions.”

      How could someone have an intuition that there is no God? Or what kind of intuition can God conflict with?

  • Laurance

    Hey, I just know the earth is flat. I intuit it, and I can see that my intuition is right – just look! If the earth were round, then all those Chinese people on the other side would fall off.

    I know that the earth is the center of the universe, and that the sun goes around it, together with the stars. I intuit it because I can see it. Just look! It’s morning, and here comes the sun. (Uh oh, actually it could be argued that the sun goes around the earth if we are willing to construct a far more complex and intricate model. The heliocentric model is more economical.)

    I just know god is there! I know because I feel it in my heart that I’m right about this. Just look around you and you’ll see all the evidence you need. There wouldn’t be other god-believers like me if I weren’t right. We wouldn’t all intuit it if it weren’t true. The fact that we all intuit this proves that god gave us the intuition to know him.

    I know I’m right because I couldn’t bear to live if there were no god! I couldn’t get up in the morning! (Someone actually said this to me. She saw this emotional need as proof.)

  • Kiwi Dave


    Since it is extremely unclear to me what it means to intuit (as distinct from, say, imagine) a particular alleged external reality, assuming god is conceived of as an external reality, you may well be right to query the notion of intuiting no god, but if Bill continues to intuit a god and Mary continues to fail to intuit a god, then presumably someone’s intuition is defective, and in the absence of other evidence, it is impossible to decide who’s mistaken.

    By conflicting intuitions I mean, for example, that your intuition tells you there is a god in the image of a man but my intuition tells me there is a god in the image of an eagle; so, at the very least there are two gods, or one shape-shifting god, or one of us is mistaken.

    Someone who intuits a god must identify enough features to know that it is a god, but the more features which are identified, the more possibility of conflict with someone else’s different intuition.

  • Brian

    ‘No one seriously doubts the law of non-contradiction’


  • okstop

    I might venture that one cannot have a (legitimate, meaning we must respect it) intuition of a substantive fact. Contrast this to intuitions about formal propositions. It might be reasonable to suppose that we can have intuitions about formal propositions, or – more precisely – intuitions about the application of formal systems, as when (most people) have the intuition that amounts to the law of noncontradiction. That is an intuition about what kinds of propositions are to be considered acceptable, or, in other words, an intuition about the formal aspect of reasoning. That seems to be a legitimate sort of thing to have an intuition about, because our judgments about whether a formal system works or not, employing our built-in modeling capabilities, is a good first-pass way of checking formal systems. That’s not to say that our intuitions shouldn’t be compared to empirical results (suppose embracing the law of non-contradiction left us with relatively little knowledge of the world), but it’s start.

    On the other hand, since we are capable of imagining just about anything, and since we can become attached to our imaginings quite easily, checking our intuitions is a terrible way of reasoning about what’s really out there – that is, about substantive claims. This might be put down to the fact that there are many logically possible ways to get the world we see before us. This is obvious at some level even to the most religious person. I would hazard that few religious people would accept “intuitions” about substantive claims not involving religion – what stocks to invest in, which road to take to reach one’s destination, etc. Intuitions about substantive claims are not generally considered legitimate, so requiring that they be considered legitimate for substantive theological claims is special pleading.

  • Azuma Hazuki

    This particular case of intuition may be argued against inductively, though not deductively. Dennet already went over it with the “hyperactive agency detector.”

    We can’t ever prove or disprove an intuitive feeling, but (and I would argue this is Calvinism’s Achilles Heel) relying on it is tantamount to self-worship. Why, after all, does nearly everyone intuit God differently? Why doesn’t He settle this? Why are there so many differing ideas? Etc etc etc.

    We have only the Calvinist’s word for it :)