John H. Hick, Philosophy of Religion (3d edition), 1983.


The Problem of Verification


In implicit opposition to all noncognitive accounts of religious language, traditional Christian and Jewish faith has always presumed the factual character of its basic assertions. It is, of course, evident even to the most preliminary reflection that theological statements, having a unique subject matter, are not wholly like any other kind of statement. They constitute a special use of language, which it is the task of the philosophy of religion to examine. However, the way in which this language operates within historic Judaism and Christianity is much closer to ordinary factual asserting than to either the expressing of aesthetic intuitions or the declaring of ethical policies.

In view of this deeply ingrained tendency of traditional theism to use the language of fact, the development within contemporary philosophy of a criterion by which to distinguish the factual from the nonfactual is directly relevant to the study of religious language.

Prior to the philosophical movement that began in Vienna, Austria, after World War I and became known as Logical Positivism,1 it was generally assumed that in order to become accepted as true a proposition need only pass one test, a direct examination as to its truth or falsity. The positivists instituted another qualifying examination that a proposition must pass before it can even compete for the Diploma of Truth. This previous examination is concerned with whether or not a proposition is meaningful. "Meaningful" in this context is a logical term; it is not a psycho]ogical term, as when we speak of "a very meaningful experience" or say of something that "it means a lot to me." To say that a proposition has meaning or, more strictly (as became evident in the discussions of the 1930's and 1940's), that it has factual or cognitive meaning, is to say that is in principle verifiable, or at least "probabilifiable," by reference to human experience. This means, in effect, that its truth or falsity must make some possible experienceable difference. If its truth or falsity makes no difference that could possibly be observed, the proposition is cognitively meaningless: it does not embody a factual assertion.

Suppose, for example, the startling news is announced one morning that overnight the entire physical universe has instantaneously doubled in size and that the speed of light has doubled. At first, this news seems to point to a momentous scientific discovery. All the items composing the universe, including our own bodies, are now twice as big as they were yesterday. But inevitable questions concerning the evidence for this report must be raised. How can anyone know that the universe has doubled in size? What observable difference does it make whether this is so or not; what events or appearances are supposed to reveal it? On further reflection, it becomes clear that there could not be any evidence for this particular proposition, for if the entire universe has doubled and the speed of light has doubled with it, our measurements have also doubled and we can never know that any change has taken place. If our measuring rod has expanded with the objects to be measured, it cannot measure their expansion. In order adequately to acknowledge the systematic impossibility of testing such a proposition, it seems best to classify it as (cognitively).meaningless. It first seemed to be a genuinely factual assertion, but under scrutiny it proves to lack the basic characteristic of an assertion, namely, that it must make an experienceable difference whether the facts are as alleged or not.

For another example, consider the famous rabbit which at one time haunted philosophical discussions at Oxford. It is a very special rabbit -- invisible, intangible, inaudible, weightless, and odorless. When the rabbit has been defined by all these negations, does it still make sense to insist that such a creature exists? It is difficult to avoid a negative answer. It seems clear that when every experienceable feature has been removed, there is nothing left about which we can make assertions.

The basic principle -- representing a modified version of the original verifiability principle of the logical positivists -- that a factual assertion is one whose truth or falsity makes some experienceable difference ; has been applied to theological propositions. John Wisdom opened this chapter in the philosophy of religion with his now famous parable of the gardener, which deserves to be quoted here in full:

Two people return to their long-neglected garden and find among the weeds a few of the old plants surprisingly vigorous. One says to the other "It must be that a gardener has been coming and doing something about these plants." Upon inquiry they find that no neighbor has ever seen anyone at work in their garden. The first man says to the other "He must have worked while people slept." The other says, "No, someone would have heard him and besides, anybody who cared about the plants would have kept down these weeds." The first man says, "Look at the way these are arranged. There is purpose and a feeling for beauty here. I believe that someone comes, someone invisible to mortal eyes. I believe that the more carefully we look the more we shall find confirmation of this." They examine the garden ever so carefully and sometimes they come on new things suggesting that a gardener comes and sometimes they come on new things suggesting the contrary and even that a malicious person has been at work. Besides examining the garden carefully they also study what happens to gardens left without attention. Each learns all the other learns about this and about the garden. Consequently, when after all this, one says "I still believe a gardener comes" while the other says "I don't" their different words now reflect no difference as to what they have found in the garden, no difference as to what they would find in the garden if they looked further and no difference about how fast untended gardens fall into disorder. At this stage, in this context, the gardener hypothesis has ceased to be experimental, the difference between one who accepts and one who rejects it is not now a matter of the one expecting something the other does not expect. What is the difference between them? The one says, "A gardener comes unseen and unheard. He is manifested only in his works with which we are all familiar," the other says "There is no gardener" and with this difference in what they say about the gardener goes a difference in how they feel towards the garden, in spite of the fact that neither expects anything of it which the other does not expect.2

Wisdom is here suggesting that the theist and the atheist do not disagree about the empirical (experienceable) facts, or about any observations which they anticipate in the future; they are, instead, reacting in different ways to the same set of facts. They are not making mutually contradicting assertions but rather are expressing different feelings. Understanding them in this way, we can no longer say in any usual sense that one is right and the other wrong. They both really feel about the world in the ways that their words indicate. However, expressions of feelings do not constitute assertions about the world. We would have to speak, instead, of these different feelings being more or less satisfying or valuable: as Santayana said, religions are not true or false but better or worse. According to John Wisdom there is no disagreement about the experienceable facts, the settlement of which would determine whether the theist or the atheist is right. In other words, neither of the rival positions is, even in principle, verifiable.

The debate next shifted from the idea of verifiability to the complementary idea of falsifiability. The question was posed whether there is any conceivable event which, if it were to occur, would decisively refute theism? Are there any possible developments of our experience with which theism would be incompatible, or is it equally compatible with whatever may happen? Is anything ruled out by belief in God? Anthony Flew, who has presented the challenge in terms of the Judaic-Christian belief in a loving God, writes as follows: Now it often seems to people who are not religious as if there was no conceivable event or series of events the occurrence of which would be admitted by sophisticated religious people to be a sufficient reason for conceding "There wasn't a God after all" or "God does not really love us then." Someone tells us that God loves us as a father loves his children. We are reassured. But then we see a child dying of inoperable cancer of the throat. His earthly father is driven frantic in his efforts to help, but his heavenly Father reveals no obvious sign of concern. Some qualification is made -- God's love is "not a merely human love" or it is "an inscrutable love," perhaps -- and we realize that such sufferings are quite compatible with the truth of the assertion that "God loves us as a father (but, of course. . . )." We are reassured again. But then perhaps we ask: what is this assurance of God's (appropriately qualified) love worth, what is this apparent guarantee really a guarantee against? Just what would have to happen not merely (morally and wrongly) to tempt but also (logically and rightly) to entitle us to say "God does not love us" or even "God does not exist"? I therefore put . . . the simple central questions, "What would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a disproof of the love of, or of the a existence of, God?"3

1 For a classic statement of the tenets of Logical Positivism, see A. J. Ayer, Language, Truth, and Logic, 2nd ed (London Victor Gollancz Ltd , 1946, and New York Dover Publications, Inc., 1946).

2 "Gods," first published in Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society (London, 1944-1945); reprinted here by permission of the editor. Reprinted in Logic and Language, I, ed Antony Flew (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, and New York: Mott Ltd., 1951); in John Wisdom, Philosophy and Psychoanalysis (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, and New York: Mott Ltd., 1953), pp. 154-55; and in John Hick, ed., Classical and Contemporary Readings in the Philosophy of Religion. 2nd ed. (Englewood Chtts, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1970.

3 Flew in New Essays in Philosophical Theology (London: S. C. M. Press Ltd., 1955, and New York: The Macmillan Company, 1956), pp. 98-99. The New Essays discussion by Flew, Hare, Mitchell, and Crombie is reprinted in Hick, ed., Classical and Contemporary Readings in the Philosophy of Religion.


In response to the challenge thus formulated by Flew. R. M. Hare has introduced the notion of bliks. Hare concedes that it is the nature of religious beliefs to be held in such a way that nothing could ever count decisively against them, and that they cannot, therefore, be properly classified as assertions that might be true or false. What, then are they? Coining a word, he suggests that they express a distinctive blik, a blik being an unverifiable and unfalsifiable interpretation of one's experience. Suppose, for example, a lunatic is convinced that all the professors in a certain college are intent upon murdering him. It will be vain to try to allay his suspicions by introducing him to a series of kindly and inoffensive professors, for he will see only a particularly devious cunning in their apparently friendly manner. He does not hold his belief in a way that is open to confirmation or refutation by experience; he has a blik. He has an insane blik about the professors, and the rest of us have a sane blik about them. "It is [says Hare] important to realize that we have a sane one, not nno blik at all; for there must be two sides to any argument -- if he has a wrong blik, then those who are right about dons must have a right one. Flew has shown that a blik does not consist in an assertion or system of them; but nevertheless it is very important to have the right blik."4

Other instances that Hare offers of sane bliks are confidence in the rigidity of the steel in one's car; the assumption that the physical world has a stable character so that, for example, objects will not suddenly appear or disappear or be transformed into something else; and the belief that events occur within a causal system and not at random:

Suppose we believe that everything that happened, happened by pure chance. This would not of course be an assertion; for it is compatible with anything happening or not happening, and so, incidentally, is its contradictory. But if we had this belief, we should not be able to explain or predict or plan anything. Thus, although we should not be asserting anything different from those of a more normal belief, there would be a great difference between us; and this is the sort of difference that there is between those who really believe in God and those who really disbelieve in him.5

Hare's notion of the blik has been legitimately criticized as failing to separate cases that are too diverse to be properly lumped together.6 The basic difficulty, however, is that Hare's suggestion, considered as an answer to Flew, does not answer Flew and, indeed, does not profess to. Hare abandons as indefensible the traditional view of religious statements as being or entailing assertions that are true or false. Probably everyone would agree that, when sincerely held, religious beliefs make an important difference to the believer. They affect the ways he or she feels, talks, and acts -- as does the lunatic's blik about the professors. But a serious and rational concern with religion will inevitably make us want to know whether the way the believer feels and acts is appropriate to the actual character of the universe, and whether the things a believer says are true. We want to distinguish, in Hare's terminology, between right and wrong bliks. In the previously quoted passage, Hare assumes that one can make this distinction, for he identifies one blik as sane and the contrary blik as insane. However, there seems to be an inconsistency in his position here, for a discrimination between sane (= right) and insane (= wrong) bliks is ruled out by his insistence that bliks are unverifiable and unfalsifiable. If experience can never yield either confirmation or disconfirmation of bliks, there is no basis for speaking of them as being right or wrong, appropriate or inappropriate, sane or insane. These distinctions make sense only if it also makes sense to refer to tests, evidence, and verification. It is precisely this confirmation that Flew has demanded in relation to religious beliefs. It seems, then, that Hare has neither met Flew's challenge nor shown a way of avoiding it.

, Another Oxford philosopher, Basil Mitchell. in his response to Flew, took an opposite line from that of Hare and sought to show that religious beliefs are genuinely factual in character even though they are not straight-forwardly verifiable or falsifiable. Mitchell recounts his own parable. A member of the resistance movement in an occupied country meets a stranger who deeply impresses him as being truthful and trustworthy and who claims to be the resistance leader. He urges the partisan to have faith in him whatever may happen. Sometimes the stranger is seen apparently aiding the resistance and sometimes apparently collaborating with the enemy. Nevertheless the partisan continues in trust. He admits that on the face of it some of the stranger's actions strain this trust. However, he has faith, even though at times his faith is sorely tried, that there is a satisfactory explanation of the stranger's ambiguous behavior. "It is here [says Mitchell] that my parable differs from Hare's. The partisan admits that many things may and do count against his belief: whereas Hare's lunatic who has a blik about dons doesn't admit that anything counts against his blik. Nothing can count against bliks. Also the partisan has a reason for having in the first instance committed himsrlf, viz. the character of the Stranger; whereas the lunatic has no reason for his blik about dons -- because, of course, you can have reasons for bliks."7 .__|

Mitchell's parable is concerned with a straightforward matter of fact which can, in principle, be definitely ascertained. The stranger himself knows on which side he is, and after the war, when all the facts are brought to light, the ambiguity of his behavior will be resolved and his true character made clear. Thus, Mitchell is concerned with stressing the similarity rather than the dissimilarity between religious beliefs and ordinary, unproblematic factual beliefs.8 The idea of eschatological verification, to be introduced in the next section, can be seen as continuing the same line of thought.

4 Hare in New Essays in Philosophical Theology, p. 100.

5 Ibid., pp. 101-2.

6 H. J. N. Horsburgh, "Mr. Hare on Theology and Falsification," The Philosophical Quarterly, 6, No. 24 (July 1956).

7 Mitchell in New Essays in Philosophical Theology, p. 105.

8 Flew's reply to Mitchell's suggestion was to underline the difference between the stranger in the parable and the supposed case of God. If God is omnipotent, omniscient, and all good, why should there by any ambiguity and any room for doubt as to His goodness? This is the ancient problem of evil, which has been discussed in Chapter 4.


I should like now to offer for consideration a constructive suggestion based upon the fact that Christianity includes afterlife beliefs.9 Here are some preliminary points.

1. The verification of a factual assertion is not the same as a logical demonstration of it. The central core of the idea of verification is the removal of grounds for rational doubt. That a proposition, p, is verified means that something happens that makes it clear that p is true. A question is settled, so that there is no longer room for rational doubt concerning it. The way in which such grounds are excluded varies, of course, with the subject matter, but the common feature in all cases of verification is the ascertaining of truth by the removal of grounds for rational doubt. Whenever such grounds have been removed, we rightly speak of verification having taken place.

2. Sometimes it is necessary to put oneself in a certain position or to perform some particular operation as a prerequisite of verification. For example, one can only verify "There is a table in the next room" by going into the next room; however, it is to be noted that no one is compelled to do this.

3. Therefore, although "verifiable" normally means "publicly verifiable" (i.e., capable in principle of being verified by anyone), it does not follow that a given verifiable proposition has in fact been or will in fact ever be verified by everyone. The number of people who verify a particular true proposition depends upon all manner of contingent factors.

4. It is possible for a proposition to be in principle verifiable but not in principle falsifiable. Consider, for example, the proposition that "there are three successive sevens in the decimal determination of π." So far as the value of it has been worked out, it does not contain a series of three sevens; but since the operation can proceed ad infmitum it will always be true that a triple seven may occur at a point not yet reached in anyone's calculations. Accordingly, the proposition may one day be verified if it is true but can never be falsified if it is false.

5. The hypothesis of continued conscious existence after bodily death provides another instance of a proposition that is verifiable if true but not falsifiable if false. This hypothesis entails a prediction that one will, after the date of one's bodily death, have conscious experiences, including the experience of remembering their death. This is a prediction that will be verified in one's own experience if it is true but that cannot be falsified if it is false. That is to say, it can be false, but that it is faIse can never be a fact that anyone has experientially verified. This principle does not undermine the meaningfulness of the survival hypothesis, for if its prediction is true, it will be known, to be true. -

The idea of eschatological verification can now be indicated -- following the example of other writers on this problem -- in yet another parable.10

Two people are traveling together along a road. One of them believes that it leads to the Celestial City, the other that it leads nowhere, but since this is the only road there is, both must travel it. Neither has been this way before; therefore, neither is able to say what they will find around each corner. During their journey they meet with moments of refreshment and delight, and with moments of hardship and danger. All the time one of them thinks of the journey as a pilgrimage to the Celestial City. She interprets the pleasant parts as encouragements and the obstacles as trials of her purpose and lessons in endurance, prepared by the sovereign of that city and designed to make of her a worthy citizen of the place when at last she arrives. The other, however, believes none of this, and sees their journey as an unavoidable and aimless ramble. Since he has no choice in the matter, he enjoys the good and^endures the bad. For him there is no Celestial City to be reached, no all-encompasing purpose ordaining their journey; there is only the road itself and the luck of the road in good weather and in bad.

During the course of the journey, the issue between them is not an experimental one. That is to say, they do not entertain different expectations about the coming details of the road, but only about its ultimate destination. Yet, when they turn the last corner, it will be apparent that one of them has been right all the time and the other wrong Thus, although the issue between them has not been experimental, it has nevertheless been a real issue. They have not merely felt differently about the road, for one was feeling appropriately and the other inappropriately in relation to the actual state of affairs. Their opposed interpretations of the situation have constituted genuinely rival assertions, whose assertion-status has the peculiar characteristic of being guaranteed retrospectively by a future crux.

This parable, like all parables, has narrow limitations. It is designed to make only one point: that Judaic-Christian theism ultimate unambiguous existence in patria, as well as our present ambiguous existence in via. There is a state of having arrived as well as a state of journeying, an eternal heavenly life as well as an earthly pilgrimage. The alleged future experience cannot, of course, be appealed to as evidence for theism as a present interpretation of our experience, but it does apparently suffice to render the choice between theism and atheism a real and not merely an empty or verbal choice.

The universe as envisaged by the theist, then, differs as a totality from the universe as envisaged by the atheist. However, from our present standpoint within the universe, this difference does not involve a difference in the objective content of each or even any of its passing moments. The theist and the atheist do not (or need not) expect different events to occur in the successive details of the temporal process. They do not (or need not) entertain divergent expectations of the course of history viewed from within. However, the theist does and the atheist does not expect that when history is completed, it will be seen to have led to a particular end state and to have fulfilled a specific purpose, namely, that of creating "children of God."

9 This suggestion is presented more fully in John Hick, "Theology and Verification," Theology Today, XVII, No. 1 (April 1960), reprinted in The Existence of God, John Hick, ed. (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1964) and developed in Faith and Knowledge, 2nd ed. (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1966, and London: Macmillan & Company Ltd., 1967), Chap. 8. It is criticized by Paul F. Schmidt in Religious Knowledge (New York: The Free Press, 1961), pp. 58-60; by William Blackstone, The Problem of Religious Knowledge (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1963), pp. 112-16; by Kai Nielsen, "Eschatological Verification." Canadian Journal of Theology, IX. No. 4 (October 1963) and Contemporary Critiques of Religion (London: Macmillan & Company Ltd., and New York: Herder & Herder, Inc , 1971), Chap. 4; by Gregory Kavka, "Eschatological Falsification." and Michael Tooley, "John Hick and the Concept of Eschatological Verification," in Religious Studies, 12, No 2 (1976).

10 This "parable" is reprinted, by permission of the Cornell University Press, from the first edition of Hick, Faith and Knowledge, pp 150-52


Even if it were granted (as many philosophers would not be willing to grant) that it makes sense to speak of continued personal existence after death, this fact cannot by itself render belief in God verifiable. Nor would an actual experience of survival necessarily serve to verify theism. It might be taken as just a surprising natural fact. The deceased atheist able to remember life on earth might find that the universe has turned out to be more complex, and perhaps more to be approved of, then he or she had realized. However, the mere fact of survival, with a new body in a new environment, would not demonstrate to such a person the reality of God. The life to come might turn out to be as religiously ambiguous as this present life. It might still be quite unclear whether or not there is a God. Should appeal be made at this point to the traditional doctrine, which figures especially in Catholic and mystical theology, of the Beatific Vision of God? The difficulty is to attach any pjrecise meaning to this phrase.11 If it is to be more than a metaphor for one knows not what, it signifies that embodied beings see (visually, not metaphorically) the visible figure of the deity. But to speak in this way is apparently to think of God as a finite object in space. If we are to follow the implications of the deeper insights of the Western theological tradition, we shall have to think of an experienced situation that points unambiguously to the reality of God, rather than of a literal vision of the deity. The consciousness of God will still be, formally, a matter of faith in that it will continue to involve an activity of.interpretation. But the data to be interpreted, instead of being bafflingly ambiguous, will at all points confirm religious faith. We are thus postulating a situation that contrasts in an important respect with our present situation. Our present experience of this world in some ways seems to support and in other ways to contradict a religious faith. Some events suggest the reality of an unseen and benevolent intelligence, and others suggest that no such intelligence can be at work. Our environment is thus religiously ambiguous, but in order for us to be aware of this fact, we must already have some idea, however vague, of what it would be for a world to be not ambiguous but on the contrary wholly evidential of God. Is it possible to draw out this presupposed idea of a religiously unambiguous situation?

Although it is difficult to say what future experiences would verify theism in general, it is less difficult to say what would verify the more specific claims of such a religion as Christianity, with its own built-in eschatological beliefs. The system of ideas that surrounds the Christian concept of God, and in the light of which that concept has to be understood, includes expectations concerning the final fulfillment of God's purpose for mankind in the "Kingdom of God." The experience that would verify Christian belief in God is the experience of participating in that eventual fulfillment. According to the New Testament, the general nature of God's purpose for human life is the creation of "children of God" who shall participate in eternal life. One can say this much without professing advance knowledge of the concrete forms of such a fulfillment. The situation is analogous to that of a small child looking forward to adult life and then, having grown to adulthood, looking back upon childhood. The child possesses and can use correctly the concept of "being grown-up," although, as a child, one does not yet know exactly what it is like to be grown-up. When one reaches adulthood, one is, nevertheless, able to know that one has reached it, for one's understanding of adult maturity grows as one matures. Something analogous may be supposed to happen in the case of the fulfillment of the divine purpose for human life. That fulfillment may be as far removed from our present condition as is mature adulthood from the mind of a little child. Indeed, it may be much further removed; but we already possess some notion of it (given in the person of Christ), and as we move toward it our concept will thereby become more adequate. If and when we finally reach that fulfillment, the problem of recognizing it will have disappeared in the process.

A further feature is added by specifically Christian theism. The New Testament expresses this in visual symbols when it says that the Lamb will be in the midst of the throne of the Kingdom. That is to say, in the situation in which the divine purpose for humanity is fulfilled, the person of Christ will be manifestly exalted. This element completes the circle of verification, linking the future fulfillment situation directly with that which is to be verified, namely, the authority of the Christ who is the source and basis of Christian faith.

It is this aspect of Christian prediction that makes it possible to meet indirectly the more basic problem of recognition in the awareness of God. A number of philosophers have pointed out the logical difficulty involved in any claim to have encountered God.12 How could one know that it was God whom one had encountered? God is described in Christian theology in terms of various absolute qualities, such as omnipotence. omnipresence, perfect goodness, and infinite love. Such absolute qualities cannot be observed by us, as can their finite analogues, limited power, local presence, finite goodness, and human love. One can recognize that a being whom one encounters has a given finite degree of power, but how does one recognize that such a being has unlimited power? How does one perceive that this being's goodness and love, although appearing to exceed any human goodness and love, are actually infinite? Such qualities cannot be given in human experience. One might claim to have encountered a being whom one presumes, or trusts, or hopes to be God; but one cannot claim to have encountered a being whom one recognized to be the infinite, almighty, eternal Creator.

In Christianity, God is known as "the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ." He is defined as the Being about whom Jesus taught; the Being in relation to whom he lived, and into a relationship with whom he brought his disciples; the Being whose agape toward us was seen on earth in the life of Jesus. In short, God is the transcendent Creator who is held to have revealed himself in Christ. Jesus' teaching about the Father is accordingly accepted as a part of that self-disclosure, and it is from this teaching (together with that of the prophets who preceded him) that Christianity professes to derive its knowledge of God's transcendent Being. Only God himself can know God's own infinite nature; and our human belief about that nature is based, according to Christianity, upon God's self-revelation to mankind in Christ. Such beliefs about God's infinite being are not capable of observational verification, being beyond the scope of human experience, but they may be susceptible to indirect verification by the exclusion of rational doubt concerning the authority of Christ. An experience of the reign of the Son in the Kingdom of the Father would confirm that authority, and therewith, by extension, the validity of Jesus' teaching concerning God's infinite transcendent nature.

Even an experience of the realization of the promised Kingdom of God, with Christ reigning as Lord of the New Age, could not constitute a logical certification of his claims, nor of a belief in God founded upon those claims. However, it is a basic position of empiricist philosophy that matters of fact are not susceptible of logical proof. The most that can be desired is such weight of evidence as leaves no room for rational doubt: and it might well be claimed on behalf of Christianity that the eschatological verification implied in Christian theology would constitute such evidence.13

11 Aquinas attempts to make the idea intelligible in his Summa contra Gentiles, Book III, Chap 51

12 For example, Ronald Hepburn, Christianity and Paradox, pp 56f

13 It is also possible to develop the idea of eschatological verification in a more broadly theistic rather than an exclusively Christian way See John Hick "Eschatological Verification Reconsidered," Religious Studies. 13. No 9 rjnne 1977), 189-202


Can we, then, properly ask whether God "exists"? If we do so, what precisely are we asking? Does "exist" have a single meaning, so that one can ask, in the same sense, "Do flying fish exist; does the square root of minus one exist; does the Freudian superego exist; does God exist?" It seems clear that we are asking very different kinds of questions in these different cases. To ask whether flying fish exist is to ask whether a certain form of organic life is to be found in the oceans of the world. On the other hand, to ask whether the square root of minus one exists is not to ask whether there is a certain kind of material object somewhere, but is to pose a question about the conventions of mathematics. To ask whether the superego exists is to ask whether one accepts the Freudian picture of the structure of the psyche; and this is a decision to which a great variety of considerations may be relevant. To ask whether God exists is to ask -- what? Not, certainly, whether there is a particular physical object. Is it (as in the mathematical case) to inquire about linguistic conyentions? Or is it (as in the psychological case) to inquire about a great mass of varied considerations -- perhaps even the character of our experience as a whole? What, in short, does it mean to affirm that God exists?

It would be no answer to this question to refer to the idea of divine aseity14 and to say that the difference between the ways in which God and other realities exist is that God exists necessarily and everything else contingently. We still want to know what it is that God is doing or undergoing in existing necessarily rather than contingently. (We do not learn what electricity is by being told that some electrical circuits have an alternating and others a direct current; likewise, we do not learn what it is to exist by being told that some things exist necessarily and others contingently.)

For those who adopt one or another of the various noncognitive accounts of religious language, there is no problem concerning the sense in which God "exists." If they use the expression "God exists" at all, they understand it as referring obliquely to the speaker's own feelings or attitudes or moral commitments, or to the character of the empirical world. But what account of "God exists" can be given by the traditional theist, who holds that God exists as the Creator and the ultimate Ruler of the universe?

The same question can be posed in terms of the idea of "fact." The theist claims that the existence of God is a question of fact rather than merely of definition or of linguistic usage. The theist also uses the term "real." and claims that God is real or a reality. But what do these words mean in this context? The problem is essentially the same whether one employs "exist." "fact," or "real."

This is a question on the growing edge of the philosophy of religion, and one to which theistic thinkers will have to devote further attention if their position is to be philosophically intelligible^

Without attempting to solve the problem here, it may be suggested that the common core to the concepts of "existence," "fact." and "reality" is the idea of "making a difference." To say that x exists or is real, that it is a fact that there is an x, is to claim that the character of the universe differs in some specific way from the character that an x-less universe would have. The nature of this difference will naturally depend upon the character of the x in question, and the meaning of "God exists" will be indicated by spelling out the past, present, and future difference which God's existence is alleged to make

14 For an explanation of this term, see p. 81.