In honor of Easter and Passover, I'm going to revisit a topic I used to be very interested in, but haven't messed with much in years: demitheism. Demitheism is a word that I invented years ago to mean “middle positions between theism and atheism, between 'a God exists' and 'no God exists.'” (Between explicit hard theism and explicit hard atheism - for both terms there is considerable dispute on how best to define them, and we could be vastly more careful if we we're doing basically back of the napkin philosophical sketches.) Thus demitheism tends to be compromise positions that answer “does God exist?” with things like “well sorta, it's complicated.” You might think that there is little space for compomise here, and even less motive to try, after all people who believe in God tend to BELIEVE, and people who reject belief in God, tend to REJECT. But, in fact, you can build lots of interesting middle positions here, and historically philosophers have felt pushed towards demitheisms by a wide variety of concerns and pressures.
The most obvious and widely explored middle position here is agnosticism, the position that one does not personally know whether one or more Gods exist or not. OK, fair enough, I don't have much to say about agnosticism that hasn't been said before, but I think there are lots more possibilities. To quote myself 12 years ago:
“But agnosticism is only the beginning of the possible range of middle positions. Perhaps the claim “a God exists” is factually meaningless and therefore in neither true nor false, what A. J. Ayer called theological noncognativism. Perhaps the claim “a God exists” is meaningful, but still manages to be neither-true-nor-false, because Aristotle’s law of excluded middle is an error. Perhaps the claim “a God exists” is both-true-and-false. Perhaps existence is a fuzzy predicate over divinities, and the truth-value of the claim “at least one God exists” is .73. Perhaps God’s existence is underdetermined by the facts, but both God’s existence and non-existence are consistent extensions of the facts. Perhaps the existence of at least one God is a claim that rational agents should assert on some occasions, and retract on other occasions. Perhaps all rational agents should assert this claim at some point in their lives, but should also retract it eventually. Perhaps the appropriate reply to someone who asserts that “a God exists” is not the same on every occasion.”
And as we'll see we could go on. I came to demitheisms originally as a way of thinking about logical structure, what are the options for creating meaningful middle positions? What are the places in our practices of giving and critiquing accounts where there is space for middle positions like this? But, over time I've also become interested in the question of why someone might WANT to take a complicated middle position on a topic that has more usually been disputed between sharply divided camps.
We may simply not have reflected enough to reach a solid opinion, or perhaps we have reflected, but not found any grounds yet that seem particularly decisive to us. Some agnostics still hope that they will eventually come down on one side or the other, but are as it were, still undecided. Other agnostics feel like they have exhausted any strategy they might have for coming to know the answer (short of death or miracle), and no longer have much hope of deciding the issue. As a semi-joke we call a “militant agnostic” someone who takes the position “I don't know if God exists, and neither do you.” This starts looking more like an assertive position on the limits of human knowledge, than a mere admission of one's own lack of knowledge, but I've known folks that believed this way on basically epistemic grounds. It is perfectly possible to be a demitheist on epistemic grounds. If a God existed that wanted to hide its existence (perhaps to avoid being blamed for past decisions), it's hard to imagine how humans would go about trying to “catch” a hiding God.
Buddhist and Ignostic Demitheisms -
Gautama Buddha famously supposedly takes a middle position on the existence of a creator deity. Story goes, that Buddha is asked if there was a single creator Deity ultimately responsible for the mess we find ourselves in. And Buddha is supposedly omniscient at this point (or rather has all-embracing-knowledge, sarvajnajnana – the difference between Western and Buddhist conceptions of omniscience is an interesting topic in it's own right). Buddha replies that if a man was shot by a poison arrow, he might be anxious on the question of who shot him, but the more pressing concern is getting the poison arrow out, and inquiry into who is responsible can wait until later. Similarly, Buddha argues, we need to escape the bonds of suffering first, and the question of whether a single creator God exists or not is not helpful until, at best, after this process has been completed. Buddha leaves open the possibility that the answer might turn out to be yes, or no, or it's complicated. Perhaps the process of becoming enlightened and escaping suffering will dissolve the question completely. (The story is told in the Cula-Malunkyovada Sutta, as one of the 14 unanswerable question, and some of the others are explicitly stated to be destined to dissolve, if I recall right). Buddha's worry seems not to be about the limits of knowledge, but about what kind of metaphysical disputes are helpful or non-helpful. He refuses to answer about whether the universe is infinite or finite, eternal or not, and whether the self (jiva) is identical to the body or not. He characterizes answers to these as being like a net of theories that can entangle one, and refuses to be “drawn into” the net. This is clearly a different kind of theological non-assertion, from the agnostic and with a different motivation.
A traditional agnostic claims not to know whether God exists or not, but isn't necessarily actively cultivating this absence of knowledge. A Pyrrhonist skeptic takes a more programmatic approach, actively working to cultivate an absence of knowledge and even belief on weighty topics like whether or not God exists. Like Buddha, the Pyrrhonist is trying to avoid being tangled up in nets of theory. The Pyrrhonist skeptic seeks to balance arguments in favor of God's existence with arguments opposing God's existence and thereby come to an “epoche” – or suspension of belief, where balanced between competing considerations one finds one self in a lack of belief. If you find one side of the argument or the other to be overly tempting, you spend extra effort exploring the opposite side to restore balance. If you have insufficient arguments for one side, you employ one or more of the host of “modes” or generic arguments about the limits of human knowledge to help restore balance. The idea here is not at all like modern atheistic skepticism, but rather an active balancing of position in an attempt to “cancel out” both and remain at an extremely refined point of balance. The tradition has a lot of technical language about how to employ non-assertive “sounds” of skepticism “maybe” “perhaps it is so” “I suspend judgment” etc. The idea is that by attaining a very refined mental state of non-judgment, the skeptic will wind up in a fortunate mental state of having minimized their troubles as much as they can. For the Pyrrhonist skeptic taking a middle position between theism and atheism is part of a larger project of programmatically taking middle positions whenever one is able to, and this is though to be personally salutary.
Even if you in some sense believe in God, God looks like a tricky limit case for the problem of existence. You can start from very traditional theism, and find yourself pushed slowly into saying careful complex, tricksy things about the extent to which God exists. In traditional Christian theology, for example, God is Creator, and all other things are Creations. God is radically unlike all created beings in a wide variety of ways, God has no parts, for example, and doesn't experience change, or indeed “undergo” or “experience” any thing of any kind. God, as it were, happens to other things, things don't happen to God. Thomas Aquinas trying to do hard onto-theology in Book 1 of his Summa Theologica, has to say things like “God is not a substance” “God is not any sort of thing” and “God has no properties other than his own nature.” To the extent that God exists, God exists in a way radically dissimilar from the way all other things exist. Now there are lots of classic worries that things like words and intellectual categories break down when we are trying to apply them to God, and we'll see more of these in a bit, but words like “being” or “existence” are especially problematic cases. If God “exists,” then God “exists” in a way radically different from all other things that “exist” so why use the word “exist?” Indeed, sometimes basically theistic theologians will bite that bullet and say that God is “super-existent” rather than “existent” or is beyond-being, rather than being a being among beings.
Or we can phrase the problem in Heideggerese. We thought we knew what we meant by the term “being,” but now we are perplexed. If Wine's Ignosticism worries that we spend our whole lives exploring the question of the meaning of the term “God” and never progress to truly examining whether “God” exists - a later day Heideggerian can imagine us spending our whole lives exploring the question of the meaning of being, and never getting far enough in ontology to really understand being or existence well enough to truly progress to examining whether God “exists.” The theist finds that God's ontological situation is so different from the ontological situation of most beings that they start getting pushed to demitheism. The atheist ontologist finds that the nature and ground of being is so problematic, that even if they reject God, they wind up describing something vaguely similar playing similar roles.
Or perhaps the problem is not so much God's odd relationship with being, but God's odd relationship with words or conceptions. If we think that God is “ineffable” or “beyond all conceptualizations” then in particular “God exists” is going to fail to be true. Perhaps one thinks that all words fail to live up to the transcendent God, but some words nonetheless wind up being aimed at glorifying God.
One way that my favorite old theologian (Pseudo-Dionysius) puts it, is that each conception we have or try to frame to describe God, winds up describing something less than God, which we argue if they exist or not “We make assertions and denials of what is next to it, but never of it.” (The Mystical Theology, 1048B). When we say that God is Goodness, or Being-itself, or the Creator or All, or the big bearded Patriarch in the Sky, an omniscient-omnipotent-omnibenevolent person or whatever, these are conceptions which we can attempt to dispute as to whether they are existent or non-existent, but none of these are God. (At one point he calls them underhanging logoi.) We are really debating about the existence or non-existence of our own imperfect and limited conceptions of God. In a sense, we are back to Ignosticism, but rather than arguing, we should live our lives as a slow exploration of or journey towards (or wrestling match with) God, we are worrying that the mechanism of reference is failing us. For Pseudo-Dionysius, talking about God, much less disputing about God always winds up making a strawman argument. Indeed, in this picture, even if I try to assert that God exists, I fail and wind up only asserting something like this-conception-of-God-that-I-like-to-use exists.
We can get far more sophisticated in our accounts of the ineffability of God, and the many theological strategies that have been used over the ages to partially cope with this problem. Pseudo-Dionysius in particular has several other strategies, besides the one I just mentioned, but we are drifting towards my dissertation here, and I can talk too much about it. Short version, Pseudo-Dionysius has a methodology for trying to talking about God to the extent we can, while admitting it is impossible. This method involves making affirmations and denial in particular orders for particular reasons. This means that Pseudo-Dionysius asserts that God exists at one point, and denies that God exists at another point and says that God is beyond all assertions and denials at a third. We call it “apophasis” - “speaking-away” when someone says something, but also tries to “unsay” it, denying the things they themselves have asserted. In particular, Pseudo-Dionysius thinks that both the affirmation and denial that God exist, are useful things to teach people at different particular stages of their spiritual development. We encourage people to journey towards God by affirming conceptions a little bit more noble than what they already understand, and denying conceptions that they are already ready to outgrow. In a sense, the issue here is spiritual pedagogy, rather than epistemology, ontology, or philosophy of language. We assert “'Conception x of God' exists” and we deny “'Conception x-1 of God' exists.” But later on we will assert “'conception x+1 of God' exists” and deny “conception x of God' exists” for basically the same reasons. Eventually we will even deny of all conceptions of God that they exist, without affirming of any replacement conception, but only once we are confident that the student has understood the basic pattern leading to an apophatic demitheism. Another funny thing about this picture, in a sense theism and atheism are imagined as working together here in a joint project of improving our understanding of God.
Demitheism as a Translation problem
Another fun form and motive for Demitheism is when we try to make sense of disparate traditions using common vocabulary, or use one style of philosophy to try to understand another. So for example, Samkhya-darsana and Yoga-darsana are two of the six orthodox (we might say “astika”) schools of traditional Hindu philosophy – we might say the Rationalist school and the Yoga school. Both are probably developing in the late BCE centuries and reach their traditional form in the early CE centuries, and both are remarkably similar.
But if we ask if the Samkhya-darsana of ancient Indian “Rationalists” were atheists things get complicated. For one thing, they are traditionally categorized as an “astika” (literally “there exists”) school rather than a “nastika” (“there doesn't exist”) school. In modern Hindi, astika does mean "theist," and nastika "atheist," and the classical-medieval six astika schools and four nastika schools do roughly fit this typology. But is that what “astika” really meant in classical and medieval times? There is dispute among medieval and modern scholars about what makes one school astika while another is nastika … is it taking the Vedas as authoritative (Manusmirti's 5th cent? position) or perhaps belief in another world for transmigration (Haribhadra's 9th cent position) or perhaps belief in an atman (Ghurye's 21st cent position) that makes a school astika. Heck, Nagarjuna in the 2nd (ish) century, lists Samkhya as a nastika school, even though most authorities list it as astika, so there may have been dispute there.
But, the question of whether the Samkhya-darsana were “atheists” or not gets even thornier. The Samkhya believed in “prakriti” but not “ishvara.” Indeed, the Yoga school has different aims and focus, but mostly borrow the Samkhya metaphysics whole cloth, except to add “ishvara” as one additional element of the metaphysical picture. Roughly, prakriti is unified material being. It is a single thing which differentiates into smaller things. It is an uncaused cause. A prime mover and first cause, and the source of all material being. It is the ground of material being. You'll see it translated as “nature” sometimes, but it is “Nature” in the sense of an ontological prerequisite, not “nature” as the opposite of “culture” or “artificiality.” “Ishvara” in contrast, is a word for a personal God, or perhaps for a Supreme Being, it literally means the ruler of beauty, or maybe beloved lord. Ishvara often means God conceived as transcendent over other gods, or the God to which one is most personally devoted, or God conceived as an object of desire. Most Hindu philosophies have thought of brahman/atman, as combining both prakriti and ishvara, as being both the first cause of all things, and the final cause of all things, as being both the source of being and the most supreme of beings. And that's how Abrahamic conceptions of God, usually work too, God is both being and lord, both first and last, both ground and ultimate goal. But the Samkhya school of philosophy asserts and explores the existence of prakriti, while denying and arguing against ishvara. And it's not entirely clear how to talk about this in other languages. Is the Samkhya saying that God exists, but not as a personal God? Perhaps, it is trying to be what we might call “Deist” but not “Theist.” Although that way of talking is problematic since they accept both holy scriptures and religious rituals. Or maybe the point of this is to accept efficient causation while denying final causation (although again their causal theories are complicated and use pretty different terminology than Hellenistic ideas of causation). Or maybe the point is to deny any kind of moral force or rightness to the way the universe is unfolding. Or maybe it's frankly “atheist.” Certainly the Samkhya school gets accused of atheism a lot in modern India. Nor are there really living Samkhyaist to address the question to, and the most obvious descendants of the samkhya-darshana, the yoga-darsana and shaiva siddanta, both gave up the rejection of ishvara. Samkhya has no problem with Aristotle's God, a first cause of all things, but it rejects Plato's form of the good. So uhm, are they theists or atheists? Er … it's not just a problem with theology, or pedagogy, or philosophy of language, but rather the contexts and histories are just so different … They never interacted with the word “theos” one way of the other, but neither did they ignore it. Rather they talked in their own way, in their own tradition, and we trying to categorize them, need some middle position between theism and atheism to do justice to their belief in prakriti as well as their rejection of ishvara.
Dialethism is the position that there are true contradictions, that sometimes a statement and it's negation are both true. This directly violated Aristotle's understanding of the law of non-contradiction, but so be it, such philosophers disagree with Aristotle, it's not like that's never happened before. It is possible to motivate Dialetheism from several different cases, such as the liar's paradox or Russell's paradox. Graham Priest, the granddaddy of modern Dialethism, argues that dialethia arise at the boundaries of the expressable in a variety of contexts in formal semantics. Modern western Dialethists are usually motivated by issues in logic, rather than say ontology or theology – the sorites problem or the problem of reasoning from inconsistent case law. But there usually is an acknowledgement of the role of dialethic reasoning in Eastern philosophical contexts, the Buddhist logical system catuskoti, the Jain insistence on anekantavada, the role of nonduals in zen Buddhism, etc. If we are going to believe in true contradictions anyway, the question of God's existence seems like a classic case of a place we might want to assert a dialethia, for any or several of the reasons already mentioned. If God is importantly beyond existence, then perhaps we should say of “God exists” that it is both-true-and-false, or that “God exists” and “God does not exist” are both true, or however we like to phrase our asserted dialethia.
So my own position on philosophy of language and truth is an “error theory” in which all claims come out as being false if we are careful enough. Often I call my position summarizationism. Statements, properly understood, are trying to summarize complex situations for some particular purpose. Statements about the world always wind up being, in fact, false, but are often, helpful, appropriate summaries, or “close enough” for their intended purpose. This isn't really even a failing of language, statements are trying to draw our attention to some aspects of our complicated world, while eliding and drawing attention away from others. Rather truth is an overly strong goal, that misunderstands what we want out of semantics. Our world always transcends us. The situation is always more complicated than we can say. Words always fall short of worldly realities. Even these words. Obviously, like many of the other positions mentioned, I need to get cozy with self-refutation, but I'm OK with that.
One of the side effects of my general understanding of language and truth, is that I have to be a demitheist when it comes to God. “God exists” and “God doesn't exist” are both false. Both oversimplifications of a case which transcends us. And for me, God is not unique in this respect. “I exist” and “I don't exist” or even “The USA exists” and “The USA doesn't exist” are going to have roughly the same problem. The situation is too complicated. The USA is a political fiction, but a political fiction with real bite and a real history. I myself am more and less than my conceptions of myself. The world includes beings which need a ground of being, and also which stand-out from the background on their own (ex-ist, from ex-stare, “stand away from”). I'm like a Jain asserting anekantavada – the non-one-sideness of all things. The world just doesn't really fit into words, and neither do things like God which might be importantly beyond-the-world in some sense.
Logical Positivists used to argue that for an empirical claim to have factual meaningfulness it ought to have testable truth-conditions. Otherwise, we might waste time and mental energy trying to falsify claims (or better pseudo-claims) that are not even falsifiable in principle. Because of human limits, we must establish limits to the claims we are allowed to treat as factually meaningful, so that science can conduct its business effectively. Thus, a scientific materialist atheist, may find that their understanding of the philosophy of science forces them to back away from strong atheism, and assert instead that the claim “a God exists” is not factually meaningful, rather than being factually false. This view came to be known as theological non-cognativism, the idea that the claim “God exists” is meaningless because it lacks good testability conditions, rather than it being actually false, and it had quite a life in Anglo Philosophy from say the 1930s to 1980s. The theological non-cognativism of AJ Ayers looks like it's just atheism “phrased differently,” but the theological non-cognativism of someone like Dewi Phillips looks far more like someone searching for ways to talk about the weird grounds between theism and atheism.
Eventually, though many parts of the logical picture of the Logical Positivists have been beaten up badly over the course of the twentieth century. Quine argued that the empirical vs analytic distinction won’t hold up to close scrutiny, and that there is no strict distinction between observations and theoretical claims. Popper argued that falsifiability is a requirement for distinctively scientific claims, but not for all factual claims. Kuhn argued that claims which are factually meaningful in one paradigm are often factually incommensurate with claims from another paradigm. The Logical Positivist rules about meaningfulness seem to cut against themselves. Heck, Alston and Hick even used to argue that “eschatological verificationism” could supply adequate testability conditions to the hypothesis of God's existence dealing with the problem head on. Nonetheless, even if we can’t form rigorous criteria for when a claim is or is not factually meaningful, it might look like the claim “A God exists” is a particularly tempting candidate for being a non-factually meaningful claim.
Similarly Wittgenstein has a slightly different take on how roughly Positivist worries effect religion. According to him, the sense of the world must lie outside of the world, and thus outside of the possibility of expressing it via pictures of the world, and thus outside of the possibility of expressing it via language (6.4-7). Ethics, aesthetics, God, and the problems of life, all lie outside of the realm of possible speech, according to the Tractatus. Thus a Wittgensteinian might be suspicious of metaphysics of any kind, asserting OR denying the existence of God. Indeed, Wittgenstein goes one step further, he says “6.432 How things are in the world is a matter of complete indifference for what is higher. God does not reveal himself in the world.” And while this is more extreme than traditional theism, religious perspectives have often wanted to imagine God as transcending the world in some sense, so as to distinguish theism from pantheism. Indeed, if God pre-existed the world and created the world, it would be odd to think of God as one of the beings IN the world.
But we habitually use the word “exists” to refer to beings which are in the world, such as chairs, or people, or lizards. Indeed, sometimes we even think that when we assert something’s existence we are asserting that it is in-the-world. But if so, then the transcendentalist theist’s claim that “God exists, but not as a being in the world” could be rendered as “God has some form of being other than existence” or “No God exists, although some God has a form of being other than being-in-the-world.” The more we take existence to be a matter of falling under the scope of an existential quantifier, the more extra-worldly being starts looking like non-existence.
Consistent Extension Demitheism
Another motivation for demitheism that I always use to explore, is what I called “consistent extension” demitheism, although I'm not familiar with anyone who has actually advanced this one. The idea is to look by analogy at cases like the axiom of choice, or the parallel postulate, or the relations between normal modal logics. The Axiom of Choice is formally independent of Zermelo-Fraekel set theory, ZF, which means that ZFC and ZF~C are both consistent and non-equivalent extension of ZF. ZF is “neutral” with respect to the axiom of choice. The axiom of choice is not already contained within ZF set theory, but both it and it's denial can be added to ZF set theory yielding coherent accounts of sets. Similarly the “neutral” geometry can be consistently extended to Euclidean, hyperbolic, or elliptical geometries. Or the “smallest” Normal Modal Logic, K, can be consistently extended in a variety of importantly different and inter-related ways (T, D, S4, S5, etc.).
OK now imagine world W, where a complete enumeration of the truths of that world, such as they are, (or better yet the deductive closure of W, W*) contained nothing that implied or amounted to either the claim “God exists” or “God doesn't exist” but that W + “God exists” and W + “God doesn't exist” were each, non-equivalent consistent extensions of world W. Such a world would be “neutral” or “ambiguous” with respect to God's existence. God's existence would be unprovable in such a world (because it is independent), but so would the denial of God's existence. The facts of the world would be capable of being given multiple interpretations, including an interpretation in which God exists (or more likely several distinct such interpretations), and at least one interpretation in which God does not exist. God's existence would be underdetermined by the facts of the world. No worldly test in world W would disambiguate God's existence. In a sense, God “hides” from world W. Any intervention God makes in world W, requires a layer of plausible deniability, so that it is possible to interpret the facts of the event as something other than God's intervention, even if it also possible to interpret the event as God's intervention. W is, in a sense, a “fideist” world, a world where the facts are insufficient to falsify disparate faiths as to the interpretation of the facts.
I don't really want to assert that our world is a world like W. (In fact I think that truths and facts don't really work like that, so when you try to enumerate the truths of our world you get none, so the formalization just doesn't work). But I still think this is a sort of helpful analogy for imagining what a world where Fideism worked would be like. The facts always underdetermine the interpretation of the facts. A world that you can interpret with or without a God, doesn't really seem that alien to me.
OK – so obviously each of those could be a little paperlet or blog post on its own. And I haven't even tried to tackle say, Hegel, or Heraclitus, or Zhuangzi's understanding of the “maker of all,” or say Kant's understanding of the fourth antinomy of reason with respect to the existence of an absolutely necessary being, and also not. We could find more philosophical motivations to be pushed to complex middle positions between theism and atheism if we wanted. My goal here is really just to give a sketch of a bunch of them to show that many people, for many reasons, find the terrain between atheism and theism to be compelling.