Immortal, Invisible: Do Christians believe something crazy?

I was singing a hymn in church today, one of my favorites: “Immortal, Invisible”; also known as “Immortal, Invisible God Only Wise”

Looking through the lyrics I could see objections to Christianity arise:

“Immortal, invisible, God only wise… Unresting, unhasting, and silent as light… ‘Tis only the splendour of light that hides thee.”

I could see the objection that would be raised almost instantly: Why do Christians believe in something they cannot see? Are Christians crazy?

Simple answer: No, we all believe in invisible things, whether we know it or not.

Long answer: Think of all the things we cannot see that we believe in, and judge for yourself.

1) We believe in the reality of others’ thoughts. This cannot be observed. Although we can observe, in some sense, the brain functioning, we cannot literally see others’ thoughts.

2) Other minds. This one is very similar to the previous one; we believe other people have minds (not to beg the question against materialist–this could be reworded to say we believe other people have brains which trigger phenomena).

3) The ‘real world.’ It is impossible to prove that we are not brains-in-vats. We cannot prove that everything we know is not being projected into our minds by some outside source. Yet we are justified in believing in a world outside of ourselves.

4) Causation. We cannot “see” causation; we can only see its effects. While some philosophers (Hume, for example) deny causation;  we are justified in believing that events can cause each other.

5) Gravity. I can’t “see” gravity, I can only infer that it’s there based upon its effects and/or measurements from instruments which don’t show me pictures of gravity.

6) Dinosaurs lived. We have not observed living, breathing dinosaurs. Yet we feel are within our epistemic rights believing that, at one time, dinosaurs walked on the earth. But think about it: we’ve never seen a dinosaur–we’ve only seen its bones. What allows us to think that those bones were once covered with flesh and walking around?

To deny the above examples (which could be multiplied continually) rightly seem ludicrous, yet they are based on similar reasoning as those who object to God’s existence simply because we cannot see God. Think about it: the inference is “I cannot see God, therefore, God does not exist.” Yet the same types of argument would dispute belief for any of the above examples.

These things are known only by their effects. But the Christian believes God is known by His effects as well. God responds to prayer; He keeps the universe in existence; He causes miracles; He caused the universe. Not only that, but we have philosophical arguments which justify belief in God. The case for the existence of God does not rest on whether we can “see” Him or not.

Those who ridicule Christians for their belief in a God who cannot be seen but by His effects may want to reevaluate their arguments; as with most fallacious arguments, they either prove too much (all things we can’t see don’t exist) or nothing at all (the argument is false).



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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.


8 thoughts on “Immortal, Invisible: Do Christians believe something crazy?

  1. “These things are known only by their effects. But the Christian believes God is known by His effects as well. God responds to prayer; He keeps the universe in existence; He causes miracles; He caused the universe. Not only that, but we have philosophical arguments which justify belief in God. The case for the existence of God does not rest on whether we can “see” Him or not.”

    I heartily agree with the distinction between believing in something you cannot see with believing in something for which you have no evidence – i.e. things which cannot be seen can still be inferred and verified by their effects. I do dispute the claim that the effects you attribute to God indicate a god-like intelligence. We’ve already talked about miracles and the creation of the universe, so I’ll just touch on prayer. The efficacy of intercessory prayer would be phenomenally good evidence for God if it could actually be established. I’m not sure if you subscribe to the idea of intercessory prayer or a more meditative effect of prayer, so I’ll touch on both. In the case of the former, you’re talking about a phenomenon that should be quite tractable scientifically and demonstrate itself in ways that would convince any atheist. The claim that intercessory prayer is effective is equivalent to saying that, in theory, a thing which is prayed for should be more likely to occur than it would have been had it not been prayed for. This is a claim that should expose itself fully to some sort of statistical study (even if it can’t be established by controlled experiments, so called ‘natural experiments’ should abound). Yet in two thousand years no such effect has been shown in anything but anecdotes. In the case of the latter, you’re talking about something that occurs with any superstition – lucky rabbit feet for instance.

    “Those who ridicule Christians for their belief in a God who cannot be seen but by His effects may want to reevaluate their arguments; as with most fallacious arguments, they either prove too much (all things we can’t see don’t exist) or nothing at all (the argument is false).”

    I’ve seen you point out this phenomenon of proving nothing by proving everything several times, and I want to suggest that God Himself is the quintessential example of this fallacy. As far as I can tell, there is absolutely no discovery, hypothetical or actual, that could possibly count as evidence against God according to the theory of God you’re advancing. Regardless of how the universe actually looks, an invisible all powerful designer with hidden motives can be inserted in the background just beyond perception. God explains absolutely everything:
    Why is there a universe (God), why do we feel joy (because God loves us), why do we feel guilt (because God is punishing us), why did we evolve over billions of years (God chose that way to create us, and chose to provide us with a very different, metaphorical biblical account), why does science work (God gave us reason), why is the universe headed for heat death (God has some plan for it), why do we appear to be so mortally tied to our physical bodies (God wanted it to look that way), why do bad things happen to good people (God is testing us), etc.
    No matter what the universe throws at the believer, some property or motive can be ascribed to God to explain it, without limit. At the same time, the theory of God predicts essentially no specific events or phenomenon that were not observed prior to the formulation of the hypothesis. So I ask you, what event or discovery would be incongruent with the existence of God?

    Posted by JWW | June 13, 2011, 3:38 PM
    • I admit of some serious lack of clarity about the evidence for God in the argument. The main point of this post is that invisible =/= nonexistant. So I apologize for the lack of clarity there. Re-reading the post I see how vague it was on that area. Of course this isn’t really a post about evidence for God, but that one attribute (invisible) does not equal nonexistence.

      Okay, intercessory prayer. I do think that your reduction of intercessory prayer to the idea that praying for something increases its likelihood is extremely false. People pray for all kinds of things which are either harmful or they may not know the consequences. It seems utterly amazing that people would assume that if God exists then He would be some kind of cosmic vending machine, issuing out answers to prayer. That’s an issue I really take seriously. Atheists/agnostics (and many Christians’) idea of what prayer should be is so wrong on so many levels it is astonishing. There’s absolutely no reason to think that prayer could be reduced to something as easy as “If God exists, and we pray for x, x should be more likely.” Think of all the factors God plans for when considering a prayer request. Not just one person, or a family, or a nation, but the entire history of the unvierse could be effected by any prayer He grants. To assume then, that prayers should make something more likely if God exists, is just specious at best.

      There are many things that would be incongruent with the existence of God, but here again I must object to your methodology. It’s really rare for you to do this, but you’ve begged the question in favor of an empiricist approach. Why should I consider only empirical evidence here? I think that empirically, there may be very few discoveries (if any) which would falsify a theistic God’s existence. However, there is empirical evidence which would falsify Christianity specifically: namely the discovery of Jesus’ body. And as far as the theistic God, while the evidence isn’t available now: if the universe came to an end without God renewing it, that would empirically falsify God’s existence. But again, I deny your assumed premise of empiricism. Unless empiricism is true, then the “God hypothesis” would not prove everything/or nothing… because we would still have to deal with philosophical argumentation.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | June 15, 2011, 12:08 AM
  2. A couple concessions I failed to make:
    First, my comparison of meditative or contemplative prayer to rabbit-foot-superstition was a limited one and probably came off more pejoratively than I meant it. I have no doubt that the feelings invoked by prayer are far more profound and consuming than a confidence boost by a lucky charm. I’m just pointing to the fact that a belief or thought can have fairly broad and far reaching effects on subjectivity (like thinking about food makes you hungry), and in the case of the rabbit foot you get a sort of perpetual motion machine of belief, where the belief is self reinforcing.

    Second, I said that the theory of God has not made any real predictions that have been vindicated, and I want to concede one case of this. Belief in God was the main foundation for the prediction that the universe had a beginning, which seems to have been fairly well borne out with the big bang theory (with caveats of course). It’s not perfect – christianity was imagining a fairly different beginning than the explosion of the big bang, and whose to say the BB was the real “beginning,” but nonetheless common wisdom at the time apparently thought that the universe was in more or less perpetual/eternal equilibrium. Of all the arguments for God’s existence, this is definitely the one I find most persuasive, because it involves some actual empirical verification.

    Posted by jww | June 13, 2011, 4:40 PM
  3. Sorry if my post was too far off topic of the OP. But I don’t think there are many atheists who are actually using the invisibility of God as a standalone argument against his existence… to my knowledge the only ones in that category are token skeptics in cheesy comic book movies who don’t believe in love because they can’t physically touch ‘it.’ A lot of us find God’s invisibility conspicuously convenient, but that’s another story.

    On intercessory prayer:
    I don’t think I suggested that intercessory prayer is equivalent to treating God as a vending machine, but I have some sympathy with your frustration with the idea because its widely spread. However there should still be a detectable pattern. Think about it – when a believer says God has answered his/her prayer, the implication I hear is that something has happened which wouldn’t have happened (or been less likely) if it hadn’t been prayed for. Otherwise, the prayer would be tangential to the event. There’s a causal connection of some kind. If this connection is indistinguishable from pure chance in what sense is the believer detecting an effect of God (as your OP claims)? In the absence of a detectable pattern, belief in the efficacy of prayer is confirmation bias almost by definition. The only way around this problem I can see is to suppose that God is answering prayers in a way so as to appear that he’s not answering them.

    On empiricism:
    We might be using different definitions of empiricism here… to my mind, empiricism is basically a commitment to keep your worldview held in check by the world, which strikes me as irreducibly sensible to the point of tautology. It is the observation that we can be wrong about things even when we’ve thought diligently, and so we need to check up with the world to see. I never dismissed philosophical argumentation a priori, but in the absence of something empirical there’s plenty of room for various intuitions to swamp the investigation. Granting that philosophical argumentation is not at all vacuous, I think we all recognize that compared to empirical evidence other forms of suasion are something of a luxury. This is why we have such elaborate stages of trials for using new medical treatments on actual people.
    I appreciate you describing the things which would convince you, but I can’t help but feel like I’ve just been handed monopoly money (though I did invite hypotheticals). We both know that the discovery of Jesus’s body is vanishingly unlikely whether or not he was resurrected, and watching for God to stop the heat death of the universe is no better than waiting to see what happens after we die. This isn’t much of a problem for you, because if you’re right you’ll have an eternity of vindication. On my account, this is either answered this side of the grave or not at all. I’ll let you in on a little secret – I think this is what really eats up atheists and makes us more argumentative. ‘Cuz we like us some vindication.
    Let me give you an idea of the kind of thing I’m looking for. Suppose in the future humans develop super duper brain scanners, and we can track every atom in a person’s head. Suppose we notice some effect where the fundamental laws of physics seem to get ‘fudged’ (perhaps quantum events show a different probability distribution) when a person is making ethically salient decisions. That, in and of itself, would revolutionize my worldview. That single discovery would convince me of some sort of dualism, some sort of platonic ethics, and possibly more. Furthermore, I think this sort of scenario seems very likely (maybe even logically necessary) if materialism is false. You and I might not live to see such an experiment run, but this is me wracking my imagination to give you something that is conceivably discoverable within a century. Are you willing to say that if the above experiment turned up negative, you would embrace materialism? Are you willing to say that if we run a massive meta study of prayer over as many contexts as we can dream up, and find no statistical correlation between praying for something and its occurrence that you will drop belief in intercessory prayer?

    Posted by jww | June 15, 2011, 6:08 PM
    • As always, you’ve answered in a thoughtful and honest way. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your comments here, twin JWW!

      Intercessory prayer:

      Let me preface this: I have not studied this topic at all, so I am not equipped to adequately discuss the issue. If possible after this brief response I’d like to bracket this question to move on with the rest.

      Brief answer: I simply would answer that it is extremely contentious to suppose that we could possibly test empirically for God’s activity, given that God may 1) have reasons to hide it (see post on this here) and 2) knows everything, so would not necessarily act in the ways we expect (and would set up tests to measure).

      Empiricism: I am using in in the sense of the philosophical position that holds that knowledge only comes from observation.

      Why I say you’re begging the question: you wrote, “empiricism is basically a commitment to keep your worldview held in check by the world, which strikes me as irreducibly sensible to the point of tautology.” The problem with this definition is you’re offering a more narrow view of “the world” than I. For example, I hold that God is a necessary being, so I simply deny the possibility of worlds that feature things but no God. Of course, (I assume) you deny this, so our definition of “world” is mutually exclusive. Therefore, to assume, as you are, that we check our worldview by “the world” is to rule out my position a priori.

      Your experiment for brain scanners begs the question for materialism too. I know of no substance dualist who holds that we should be able to detect dualism empirically. It’s a position established via philosophical argument. Further, if we could physically detect the “spirit/soul” that would mean it is material or physical, thus meaning it would not be dualism. Therefore, whatever the results of such an experiment, the conclusion would be materialism. Thus it’s just a complicated way to beg the question against substance dualism.

      As far as the “massive meta study” of prayer, I think I answered this before and above. I simply do not think that an experiment could work, because we would make assumptions which may not be true.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | June 15, 2011, 11:15 PM
  4. Thanks for the appreciation, always nice to hash stuff out! I think one reward of these things is the opportunity for thinking more about how you think rather than just what you think.

    It seems like you’ve taken away with your left hand what was offered with your right – your OP said Christians were inferring God by witnessing effects which would not otherwise be there. And you gave me what at first looked like a really promising statement: “There are many things that would be incongruent with the existence of God.” So at this point I was thinking ‘Wonderful, we’re talking about observable effects, and with any luck we can think of some places where we’d expect things to look one way if God’s there, and another if He’s not.’

    But then this came out: “I simply deny the possibility of worlds that feature things but no God.” This makes me a very sad atheist. I also think it contradicts some of what you said before. More importantly, if this is your position then arguments about noticing the effects of God are mute – you’re getting your answer in a single step.

    The first measure of intelligence is how much you know you don’t know. I can imagine a world with a god, and I can imagine a world without one. With a few small assumptions I can get a rough intuitive picture of how I’d expect the two cases to look and work, and how one might expect them to differ. That’s just speculation of course, and being aware of my own ignorance I’d like some sort of check on my own speculative reasoning. Which is why empiricism is such a cleansing tonic for uncertainty. And yet, for what strike me as arbitrary and even self serving reasons, gods and souls and the like are always whisked out of the court of empirical analysis the moment after they’re mentioned. You seem comfortable enough assuming a rather robust and nearly intuitive understanding of what sorts of things cause universes, but view any assumptions that would allow a check on that understanding with great suspicion.

    Consider your claim (which I do believe) that no substance dualists expect that dualism should be empirically detectable. I think that’s a blank check designed to protect the dualist from ever having to answer to the facts. I confess to not being very well acquainted with the arguments for dualism, but this walling-off against any sort of testing always looks like a shell game to me. I see no reason why we shouldn’t be able to notice it if something other than matter is having an effect on a person’s behavior.

    Posted by JWW | June 17, 2011, 1:21 PM
    • JWW,

      I believe God is a necessary being, which in modal language would mean God exists in every possible world. Therefore, when you say “I can imagine a world without [a God],” I believe you are imagining a square circle.

      Now again you assume that observation is the only way to emprically detect it. Throughout your response you’ve taken a positivist/verificationist approach to knowledge. I deny such a position vehemently. It seems we must go back to the presuppositions here rather than continue, because you’re setting up a standard of proof from that perspective, yet I see no reason to accept positivism or verificationism, especially considering that those theories of knowledge have been philosophically overthrown. Not being able to detect something empirically is only a strike against its existence if we assume that empiricism is the arbiter of truth. Yet I see no reason to make that assumption. Why should I be swayed at all by not being able to notice something with things that can admittedly only detect physical processes?

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | June 17, 2011, 10:54 PM


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