Attempts at legitimizing belief in God through reasoned philosophical argumentation abound in the fields of natural theology and apologetics. This is particularly evident in formal debates and discussions between theists and atheists, where the pursuit of rational justification takes center stage. Noteworthy instances include:

Considering that these debates often result in philosophical and epistemological deadlocks, where neither side manages to sway the other, and the intellectually honest audience may find themselves in a state of agnosticism (as illustrated in the video "Why Am I Agnostic?" by the Majesty of Reason YouTube Channel), instead of perpetuating an endless philosophical battle that has been waged for millennia, wouldn't it be more promising, from an epistemological standpoint, for belief in God to be rooted in direct experiences of God?

Notice that this notion assumes that the problem of divine hiddenness is merely apparent, not actual, and postulates that there must exist ways for individuals to transcend this apparent concealment and access direct experiences of God. On this view, God may choose to step out of hiddenness and "reveal himself" to the individual, provided certain hypothetical conditions are met. Both reformed epistemology and mysticism entertain ideas along these lines.

Is it conceivable that the most convincing way to ground belief in God is through direct experiences of God, rather than engaging in an endless, stalemate-prone philosophical debate on the question of God's existence?

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    How is this different from philosophy.stackexchange.com/q/111268/73554? Since I do empathize with having unanswered questions in your head though, allow me to say that any answers to your question will result in the same kind of stalemate you complain about. Can you truly, absolutely, certainly justify anything? Perhaps not. But this includes your belief that God can be grounded by (which is just another way of saying justified by) personal experience Commented Apr 6 at 19:07
  • @Mikhail this question is not about intersubjective consensus.
    – Mark
    Commented Apr 6 at 19:10
  • What about this one? philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/110745/… Commented Apr 6 at 19:14
  • @Mikhail The scope in that one is broader, and this question also includes a contrast between experience and philosophical argumentation the other question lacks.
    – Mark
    Commented Apr 6 at 19:15
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    This is an interesting question which maybe should be reformulated. Clearly it is conceivable for one way to get closer from god to be preferable over the other. The interesting part, which has not been addressed yet, is the dialectic of those two points of view as it took place in the history of christianism (and likely many other religions). See for example Fides et ratio or the controversy between Przywara and Karl Barth. Maybe I'll write an answer, but I fear the scope of the question is a bit wide as is.
    – Johan
    Commented Apr 6 at 22:46

4 Answers 4


What is philosophical argumentation? What is philosophy?

I'd define philosophy and philosophical argumentation roughly as the formalisation of how we figure out anything about anything.

Let's say you've figured out that every man seems to be mortal, and you meet a man named Socrates. You would just naturally conclude that Socrates is mortal. This is something we do already, but philosophy just formalises that into a syllogism, and this formalisation also helps us identify flaws in our intuition that could lead us to incorrect or unjustified conclusions. Although we use a lot of abductive or inductive reasoning in day-to-day life, and that isn't quite as concrete as deductive syllogisms, although we can use deduction to extend or test abductive or inductive conclusions. Taking the example above, we may not deductively know that every man is mortal, nor that Socrates is a man - these are merely the "best" conclusions we came to, based on the evidence. But we can still use those as premises in a deductive argument, to conclude something else.

Similarly, I'd define science roughly as the formalisation of how we figure out anything about reality. If you poke a bear with a stick and it bites you, and you poke another bear with a stick and it bites you, you may conclude that poking bears with sticks leads to them biting you (disclaimer: don't poke bears with sticks). Science is that exact same line of thinking, of trying to figure out cause and effect, but it's just putting it into a formal framework.

So these are very useful tools that allow us to understand why we believe what we believe and to refine and increase your knowledge.

Where I feel philosophers often go wrong, is to head off into Speculationville and Wordsaladtropolis, i.e. ending up with some conclusion by just stacking a bunch of premises on top of one another, or using a bunch of big words, even though the substance of what they're saying disappears when you break it down into plain English, or what they're saying is just so far removed from reality that you'd be forgiven for putting that in the Fiction section in the library.

So what about God and grounding with personal experience?

I'd ask a somewhat analogous question: Can belief in the existence of your spouse be grounded in (and justified by) personal experience rather than philosophical argumentation?

I'd trivially answer "yes". It's usually the theists who offer philosophical arguments, e.g. cosmological arguments, teleological arguments, ontological argument, moral arguments, transcendental arguments, presuppositional arguments, whereas atheists point out problems with these arguments (and a theist might see all these arguments and say "wow, there are so many ways to conclude that God exists", whereas an atheist would say "theists are just grasping at anything they can to try to justify their unjustified belief" and "a dozen bad arguments doesn't make for a good argument"). Although atheists do also have their own arguments against specific theist claims, e.g. the problem of evil.

However, for personal experiences, many people disagree about the "correct" conclusion to draw from so-called spiritual experiences. Some theists and atheists certainly draw different conclusions from similar experiences, but theists from different religions or different denominations of the same religion may also draw different conclusions about which deity or deities exist. So that's a massive issue with just trusting one's experiences without seriously questioning the correct conclusion to draw from them.

Imagine if you believed some specific human exists, but other people disagree. To resolve that, I wouldn't dig into philosophical arguments, but rather we should discuss what believed experiences you've had with them and what the reasonable conclusion is to draw from that.

This is something that people do discuss, and should probably discuss more than philosophical arguments.* Although discussions about how to interpret personal experiences also clearly haven't convinced everyone one way or the other either.

My answer to one of your earlier questions may be relevant: What exactly would count as a "positively meaningful and reciprocal conscious relationship" between a person and a God?

* I'll always be reminded of William Lane Craig pointing out that he's convinced by "the witness of the holy spirit", not by the philosophical arguments he promotes (and he thinks we should specifically lower our epistemic standards when it comes to Christianity). I'm not necessarily saying promoting an argument you aren't convinced by is a problem (a cynic might suppose he doesn't debate that because he knows it's a bad justification, or he doesn't actually want to risk concluding that God doesn't exist, while a more generous assumption would be that he merely recognises the subjective and personal nature of his true justification, so he tries to offer other justifications for what he believes to be true). But this renders it somewhat pointless for an atheist to debate him on those philosophical arguments, because for Craig, debating whether such an argument is sound would be independent of the important question of "does God exist"... although there may still be some utility in such a debate for the audience. I expect the same could be said for many apologists, but there may not be that many who would admit to it.


Can belief in God be grounded in (and justified by) personal experience rather than philosophical argumentation?

Is it conceivable that the most convincing way to ground belief in God is through direct experiences of God, rather than engaging in an endless, stalemate-prone philosophical debate on the question of God's existence?

In mathematics/logic/computing science, one may show existence of some object 'indirectly', by use of non-constructive reasoning, say, but in real life that's simply not available: existence must be established by exhibiting a/the thing as directly as possible, or something to the effect of interactions with the thing (think elementary particle physics)

In other words: things in real life cannot be "brought into existence" by argument alone, by mere use of language, conjured out of thin air because... that's just not how it works

In particular, yes, it's clear that direct experiences of/with God would be at least as effective/convincing as arguments of existence, even if only because arguments of existence unsuported by evidence are not, cannot be, convincing at all

[Note that this requires/implies neither that such experiences exist nor that they don't, it works either way]


Yes of course, direct personal experience can provide very powerful grounds for the believer. However, you should not expect your direct personal experience to make a jot of difference to everybody else.

You are right to allude to the fact that philosophical arguments for and against the existence of God have got nowhere in more than two millennia. That is because God is defined in such a way that makes any kind of conclusive argument impossible. If the atheist suggests any normal tests that might rule out a particular idea as utterly implausible, the theist can simply declare that God transcends such considerations.

My personal experience of becoming an agnostic in my early teens was promoted by the observation that there were mutually inconsistent religions, so they couldn't all be right, and that a person's religious beliefs seemed to be determined by what was drummed into them as they grew up, so my young mind wrote it all off as a kind of socially constructed superstition. I haven't changed my views since.

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    But a religion is different from a belief in god. All religions could be somehow false and a god could still be.
    – Johan
    Commented Apr 6 at 22:48
  • @johan, true, but you are missing my point, which is that millions of people fervently believe in their religion and argue for it as the 'truth'. When n groups of millions of people insist on n mutually contradictory truths, it shows, to me at least, that religious belief is not based on logic but blind faith. Commented Apr 7 at 5:37
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    "you should not expect your direct personal experience to make a jot of difference to everybody else." "My personal experience of becoming an agnostic in my early teens..." Did you invalidate the basis of your answer with this? Commented Apr 7 at 18:18

Your final question asks

“Is it conceivable that the most convincing way to ground belief in God is through direct experiences of God,[…]”?

  1. IMO history shows that belief in God is generally grounded in a religious education. And sometimes also in a personal experience, which the believer interprets according to the religious framework in which he/she has been socialized.

  2. In any case, a belief in God is not the proof for the truth of the belief. If the believer makes a truth claim with his belief and wants to justify his belief, the claim needs to be checked in an independent and objective way.

    History shows that no objective check has been presented for the theist’s truth claim. But symmetrically, no objective check has been presented for the falseness of his truth claim.

Rebus sic stantibus (“as things stand”) one has to look for other criteria to decide between theism and atheism.

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