Kierkegaard: The Folly of Proving God’s Existence

Kierkegaard

Let us call the unknown God. It is only a name we give to it. Now it hardly occurs to the understanding to want to demonstrate that this unknown exists. If, namely, God does not exist, then of course it is impossible to demonstrate it. But if he does exist, then it is also foolishness to want to demonstrate it, for in the very moment the demonstration commences, you would presuppose his existence. Otherwise you would not be­ gin, easily perceiving that the whole thing would be impossible if he did not exist.

One never reasons in conclusion to existence, but reasons in conclusion from existence. For example, I do not demonstrate that a stone exists but that something, which exists, is a stone. The court of law does not demonstrate that a criminal exists but that the accused, who does indeed exist, is a criminal. Whether you want to call existence an addition or the eternal presupposition, it can never be demonstrated.

If, for example, I wanted to demonstrate Napoleon’s exist­ence from his works, would this not be most curious? Isn’t it Napoleon’s existence which explains his works, not his works his existence? To prove Napoleon’s existence from his works I would have in advance interpreted the word “his” in such a way as to have assumed that he exists. Moreover, because Napoleon is only a human being, it is possible that someone else could have done the same works. This is why I cannot reason from the works to his existence. If I call the works Napoleon’s works, then the demonstration is superfluous, for I have already mentioned his name. If I ignore this, I can never demonstrate from the works that they are Napoleon’s. At least I cannot guarantee that they are his. I can only demonstrate that such works are the works of, say, a great general. However, with God there is an ab­solute relation between him and his works. If God is not a name but a reality, his essence must involve his existence.

God’s works, therefore, only God can do. Quite correct. But, then, what are God’s works? The works from which I want to demonstrate his existence do not immediately and directly ex­ist. Are the wisdom in nature and the goodness or wisdom in governance right in front of our noses? Don’t we also encounter terrible tribulations here? How can I demonstrate God’s exist­ence from such an arrangement of things? Even if I began, I would never finish. Not only that, I would be obliged to con­tinually live in suspense lest something so terrible happen that my fragment of demonstration would be ruined.

The fool says in his heart that there is no God, but he who says in his heart or to others: Just wait a little and I will prove it to you – ah, what a rare wise man he is! If, at the moment he is supposed to begin the demonstration, it is not totally unde­cided whether God exists or not, then, of course, he cannot demonstrate it. And if that is the situation in the beginning, then he will never make a beginning – partly for fear that he will not succeed, because God may not exist, and partly because he has nothing with which to begin.

In short, to demonstrate the existence of someone who al­ready exists is the most shameless assault. It is an attempt to make him ludicrous. The trouble is that one does not even sus­pect this, that in dead seriousness one even regards it as a godly undertaking. How could it occur to anyone to demonstrate that God exists unless one has already allowed himself to ignore him?

A king’s existence is demonstrated by way of subjection and submissiveness. Do you want to try and demonstrate that the king exists? Will you do so by offering a string of proofs, a series of arguments? No. If you are serious, you will demonstrate the king’s existence by your submission, by the way you live. And so it is with demonstrating God’s existence. It is accomplished not by proofs but by worship. Any other way is but a thinker’s pious bungling.

Written by Søren Kierkegaard: Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard. Compiled and Edited by Charles E. Moore p. 74-76

Copyright 2011 by The Plough Publishing House. Used with permission. [Photography added]

Time To (Dis)agree with Kierkegaard: Unlike Kierkegaard, I think it is possible to try to demonstrate that God exist by offering a series of arguments and at the same time demonstrate that God exist by way of subjection and submissiveness, namely my life ought to reflect what I hold to be true. I will respond Kierkegaard case showing why I think it is both.

Question: What say you? Did Kierkegaard succeed in showing that it is folly to prove that God exist?

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14 thoughts on “Kierkegaard: The Folly of Proving God’s Existence

  1. Another “existentialist” worth reading from a non-theistic perspective is Albert Camus, who interacts with Kierkegaard directly in some of his writings (The Myth Sisyphus, for example).

    I no longer see that God’s existence nor his nonexistence can be proven in any reasonable or logical way. It seems to me that both the existence of God and the nonexistence of god are equally absurd and unreasonable, making no sense of any of our attempts at proving either. That there is a God who created all things and is uncreated himself, eternally existent outside of time and space, makes no sense to our human minds. Where did this God come from? Is He uncaused? How? How can anything exist being uncaused? Something uncaused is absolutely illogical. Every effect must have a cause, according to physics and logic.* Proof is only in reference to logic. Therefore, an uncaused god is illogical, and so is proving him.

    But, the nonexistence of god is equally absurd! An eternal state of existence of matter? An infinite chain of causes and effects stretching back to eternity past? The age old question holds weight: how can something come from nothing? It’s absurd. It makes no logical sense and cannot proven. That god does not exist is absurd, illogical, and breaks down according to reason.

    All that is left is faith. Faith in either the absurdity of God, or faith in the absurdity of no god.

    I’m trying to sort through these thoughts on my blog (www.rickharper.org). Feel free to help me out with your thoughts!

    *Physics itself would be absurd in light of the absurdity of existence. Likewise, the laws of logic would be accepted purely by faith.

  2. I was merely pointing out that actual proof is impossible with respect to something that lies outside of our physical universe. Man can only theorize about such things and the existing paradigm will undoubtedly change the moment that someone comes up with a new theory. I agree with Kierkegaard about the foolishness of trying to “prove” that God exists, just as I believe that it is foolishness to try to “prove” that he doesn’t exist.

    • Strictly speaking, “proof” is something that only applies to statements within formal languages — it is broken as soon as you attach the statement to real objects. When speaking of the actual world, we are forced to infer a relationship between real objects and the mathematical/logical statements that describe them. These inferred relationships are strengthened by experimental validation (or, at least, by non-contradiction).

      Although there are many ways to define “universe”, I would propose that we can’t have any reasonable beliefs about things that are not in the universe. As Wittgenstein wrote in the preface to his Tractatus, “What can be said at all can be said clearly [i.e. in logical formalism]. Whereof one cannot speak one must be silent.”

  3. Chicagoja- “Proof” is not merely a necessity for scientists. It is a necessity for anyone who wishes to have beliefs that are non-accidentally true. Maybe you don’t care if truth is, for you, a lucky accident. In that case you might as well roll some dice to decide what you believe. We all have reasons for the things we believe (or don’t). “Proof” is the process that separates good reasons from bad ones.

    From the scientific perspective (a.k.a. the carefully reasoned and disciplined approach), we demonstrate existence of things all the time. Not everything is as simple and stupid as a rock. Science was built on painstakingly proving the existence of invisible things — molecules, atoms, cells, germs, electrons, black holes, gravity itself. The great triumph of science is that each of its theories defeated astonishing skepticism through careful reasoning and painstaking experimental demonstration. Some experiments, such as those in early astronomy, had to be carefully prepared and handed down across generations, sometimes across centuries, in order to assemble all the pieces of a cosmic-scale riddle.

    When arguing the existence of something that cannot be directly observed, we call it an “inference” — another name for reasoning under uncertain conditions. This is one of the most demanding scientific tasks, but it has become ubiquitous and is now governed by precise methods that maximize the likelihood of correct judgements. And this isn’t limited to “ivory tower” scientific theories — inference methods are now embedded within computing systems at all levels. The same principles that govern scientific judgement also enable the functioning of high-speed data telecommunication, hard disk drives, and the rest of the modern information age. You cannot simply shrug and say “these methods are just for scientists.” These are the methods that WORK, unless you want to live in a delusion.

    • I dont know precisely what your aim in this comment is, whether it is to say that Kierkegaard is wrong, or that all theists are wrong since believing in the unseen, yet un-evidenced. If it is the former, then I’d agree, yet say that he is dabbling with interesting philosophical ideas that I think could be true, namely, that if God didn’t exist, we’d never know He did or didn’t (as CS Lewis said). If it is the latter, then I’d have to say that you are making a category mistake by placing God in the same category as physical particles (or whatever else), considering that the scientific method can develop models that prove (or virtually prove) the existence of such. This could never happen with a God.

      • My aim with that comment was to add clarity to the subject of “proof”, its relationship to disciplined thought, and its consequent relationship to arriving at trust-able beliefs. By implication, I am saying that Kierkegaard’s epistemology is naive. But I didn’t directly say anything about god, nor did I aim to prove or disprove any alleged facts of the universe. My point is that there are sound methods of thought that allow us to justifiably infer the existence of things that are not directly observable, and you shouldn’t put much trust in beliefs that are not established by those methods (unless you are content to hold beliefs that are not better than random).

  4. While I am not sure that Kierkegaard had definitively succeeded in his attempt, I will say that I applaud his obvious desire to step away from the modernistic attempts at “proving” a reality that is. I think he is, in a sense, foreshadowing the attempts by Barth, Lindbeck, and subsequent postliberals who have attempted to “work[] from no other foundation than the gospel of Jesus Christ, because… it ha[s] the power to destroy strongholds, not least the strongholds of post-Enlightenment rationalism and experientialism.” (Douglas Harink, Paul Among the Postliberals, pg. 19.). I think Hauerwas and others have followed along with what you mention, Prayson, namely the building up of a certain social ethic that lives differently as a “proof” of God’s existence. This, however, is much different than what I assume Kierkegaard would consider to be the sort of “proof” and rationalist laden exercise he is working against.

  5. Even though it is sort of weird, that’s a fascinating argument, Does the very fact we pose the question effectively prove God exists?

    Such a device ignores the special nature of God. God existed before His creation, and He still exists outside the context of His Creation. Moreover, He performs miracles. With the exception of Jesus, few men have ever seen God. We have direct reports that Napoleon existed and that he did what he did. Similarly, we have direct reports that Jesus existed, and that He did what He did what did. Because Napoleon did what people expect a man to do, few debate that he performed the works attributed to him. Because Jesus did what people surmise only God could do, many balk.

    Because God is God, we cannot make the usual assumptions about Him. Because we are stubborn, the Apostle Paul wrote Romans 1:18-20. Because we are stubborn, we have to point to the works of God to demonstrate His existence. Because we have no other explanation for Creation other than a Creator, God must exist. At least, that is the basic argument, but our pride denies the possibility that any such being could exist. The mere existence of God demands our humility.

  6. I think Kierkegaard would want us to ask what is the value of ‘proving’ God’s existence (or goodness in the case of a theodicy)? The Other is unlikely to be swayed by means of argument solely. That is not to say that some defensive measures are unworthy of consideration (how can I love my wife if I don’t have some rationale for believing she exists?) but to show what is most important — submission.

    It’s very different to tell something than it is to show it. Living for God ‘shows’. That isn’t to suggest you shouldn’t have any arguments (Jesus and his followers certainly had theirs and Kierke had plenty with the Lutheran body he knew), but should give us each serious pause as to what the value is. What is a win? and how can it be most effectively won?

  7. Did Kierkegaard succeed in showing that it is folly to prove that God exist? No. In the context of your post I take that his definition of “folly” is [a costly and foolish undertaking; unwise investment or expenditure]. So I ask, “Is it a “foolish undertaking” to try to prove God exists”? I think not, and the reason why is that if just one unbeliever is swayed by our argument and accepts the Gospel, our “folly” takes the form of evangelism and isn’t that what we are commanded to do…“Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.” Mark 16:15

    As well, he implies agnostics are wise men, which I believe is just the opposite.

    *******

    I know you love to read to learn different perspectives and gain more knowledge Prayson and I found two interesting articles unrelated to this post I think you will like.

    The Argument from Pascal’s Wager

    http://www.peterkreeft.com/topics/pascals-wager.htm

    If You Can Read This, I Can Prove God Exists
    Language, Information, and Naturalism vs. Intelligent Design

    http://www.cosmicfingerprints.com/wp-content/themes/cosmicfingerprints/pdf/ifyoucanreadthis.pdf

  8. Reblogged this on Christian Warrior and commented:
    This is deep.
    I think that it also slightly wrong.
    Yes you don’t need to prove that someone is real if they are there with you. However if they are not there or you have not seen or experienced them then you need to be sure that they are real and not made up.
    I explored the Christian faith/God to find out if God was real and if so what that meant for me.
    I read history to find out about particular people of old and that proves there existence. There are multiple ways to see them, records about them from various sources.
    If Jesus is not real then neither is Julius Caesar or Hannibal as there is less evidence for them

  9. Proof is a necessity only for scientists (and observing Nature is pointless in any attempt to prove, or disprove, something that lies outside of Nature). Therefore, while it may be entertaining to discuss the Absolute, it’s by definition fruitless.

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