Existential Reasons for Belief in God: An Interview with Clifford Williams

September 25, 2012
Posted by Joe Gorra

In a recent EPS interview, philosopher Clifford Williams discusses his 2011 IVP Academic book, Existential Reasons for Belief in Godby detailing what he means by ‘existential needs’ and its importance for helping people gain confidence in God. The interview also discusses how his book contributes to other recent projects in epistemology (mostly) developed by Christian philosophers.

How did you come to write your 2011 book, Existential Reasons for Belief in God (IVP Academic)?

I was giving talks at Cornerstone Music Festival in 2004, and after one of them—on Nietzsche or Kierkegaard, I think—Rod Taylor, who was then a Ph.D. student in literature at Indiana University, asked me to have lunch with him. So I took my sandwich and apple to his camper and we talked about apologetics. The contemporary brand of apologetics, which seems to assume that faith is entirely evidence based, comes up short, he said. Logic can take us only so far. He thought there should be an apologetics that appealed to the heart as well as to the mind. And, he said, perhaps I could work on it. I asked, “Existential apologetics in addition to evidential apologetics?” He replied with an emphatic “Yes.” And that is what the book consists of.

What exactly do you mean by “existential apologetics”?

I mean the attempt to show that believing in God is justified because doing so satisfies certain needs. Evidential apologetics says, “I believe in God because there is good evidence for doing so,” but existential apologetics says, “I believe in God because I need to.”

What counts as an ‘existential need’?

It is not, of course, just any need that believing in God satisfies. There are a number of what I call “existential needs”—the need for cosmic security, the need for meaning, the need to feel loved and the need to love, plus others. On the basis of these needs, we can construct an argument, which I call the existential argument for believing in God. The first premise mentions all of our existential needs, but I am going to mention only a few.

  1. We need cosmic security. We need meaning, and we need to love and be loved.
  2. Faith in God satisfies these needs.
  3. Therefore, we are justified in believing in God.

This is not an argument purporting to explain why we have certain needs and desires. That would be an evidential argument. The existential argument for believing in God does not appeal to evidence; nor does it offer an explanation of why we have the existential needs. It gives a different kind of justification for believing in God than evidence-based justification—a need-based justification. The question the book deals with is, Is this different kind of justification legitimate?

So, would you characterize your approach as ‘non-evidential’?

Although I contrast existential apologetics with evidential apologetics, I don’t think of the developed version of existential apologetics as non-evidential. It uses reason in an evidential way. And that use involves a number of components, so that there is something like a cumulative case in a developed version of the existential argument for believing in God. Given the number of existential needs, given the connections among them, given the successful outcome of the application of the “need criteria,” the “value test,” and the “satisfaction test,” one is justified in believing in God. All of this is a fusion of need and reason in a cumulative way.

For the purposes of your overall argument, would you draw a distinction between affectivity, desires, and emotions? If so, how might this look?

Affectivity, I take it, is a general term referring to what has “feeling tone,” which includes desires and emotions. Emotions typically contain desires, but not all desires are contained in emotions. Although the existential argument for believing in God takes off from felt needs, it could also be put in terms of desires.

How does your book seek to contribute to other historical and contemporary work on ‘existential needs’ and ‘arguments from desire’?

One thing I do is to expand what counts as an “existential need” by giving a short description of thirteen such needs, including, in addition to the ones I mentioned above, the need for awe, the need to delight in goodness, the need to live beyond the grave without the anxieties that currently affect us, and the need to be forgiven.

Two features of these needs stand out. The first is that there are more of them than just the need for cosmic security that Freud focuses on. And what is relevant to believing in God is not simply the “need for God” that other writers sometimes mention. When I hear that phrase, I wonder what exactly our need for God amounts to. The thirteen existential needs unpack the idea. Our need for God is a complex matter, because we are complex creatures, and a great deal of who we are connects to faith in God.

The second feature of the existential needs, as I describe them, is that not all of them are self-directed. Some are other-directed. This fact undercuts the critique that faith in God is simply a result of a self-satisfying need. If it were, faith would seem to be nothing more than something I want. But some of the existential needs are not self-serving at all. The need for awe isn’t, nor is the need for justice and fairness or the need to love. We are, of course, satisfied when these needs are met, but not in a self-serving way, just as we are not satisfied in a self-serving way when we act compassionately even though we are indeed satisfied when we do so.

As for arguments from desire, they come in two forms: existential and evidential. The existential ones are essentially equivalent to the existential argument for believing in God, as desires and needs are the same for purposes of the argument. Evidential arguments from desire take various forms. C. S. Lewis’s well-known argument from desire in Mere Christianity seeks to explain a certain fact: “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” This is an evidential argument because Lewis is giving evidence for the claim that we were made for another world, namely, the fact that we possess desires that no experience in this world can satisfy. The claim that we were made for another world is the most probable explanation of the fact, according to Lewis. The ways in which my existential argument for believing in God can be supplemented with reason can also be used to support Lewis-type evidential arguments from desire.

The existential argument for believing in God is a special form of a pragmatic argument. What I say in its defense, when it is supplemented with reason, is in the tradition of William James’s pragmatism. James’s pragmatism, I might add, is not so non-evidential as seems commonly to be thought. My contribution to that tradition is to systematize both the existential argument for believing in God and the objections to it.

In addition, I draw on accounts of emotion in the work of Robert C. Roberts (Emotions: An Essay in Aid of Moral Psychology and Spiritual Emotions: A Psychology of Christian Virtues), Robert Solomon (True to Our Feelings: What Our Emotions Are Really Telling Us), and Martha Nussbaum (Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions). Their robust conception of emotions is what I have in mind when I say that the satisfaction of the existential needs consists of emotions and that believing in God consists in part of emotions.

When I think of your project, I also think of several recent projects mostly in epistemology from Paul Moser, Stephen Evans, Jamie Smith, Eleonore Stump, and Esther Meek, that would seem to contribute to your overall thesis and objectives for existential apologetics. So, I am wondering whether you have some comments here as it relates to the positioning of your project in light of the work of others.

I like their focus on affectivity, as it corrects the focus on reason that is sometimes prominent in philosophical and theological writing. It fits well with the existential argument for believing in God and with my conception of faith as consisting, in part, of an emotion, but so far as I know, none of these authors espouse either of these.

Can you say a little more about faith consisting of an emotion?

If faith is a result of the satisfaction of existential needs, and if the satisfaction of these needs is an emotion, as it is for most of the needs, then faith consists of emotion, at least in part. I say, “in part,” because if faith is a result of reason and evidence in addition to the satisfaction of needs, then it would consist of assent as well. Because most people come to faith through some combination of reason and the satisfaction of needs, for most people faith is a fusion of assent and emotion.

By “reason” I mean not just having evidence, but more broadly “making sense.” It is also important to have the robust conception of emotions I referred to earlier. Emotions have had a bad reputation among many Christians, but with the right conception of emotions one can say that they are part of faith.

Now, as far as objections go, what about the Freudian charge—that satisfaction of need does not justify belief? What is the difference between the existential argument for believing in God and the assertion that someone is justified in believing that a friend of theirs is innocent of a crime because they have a need to believe in their friend’s innocence?

I have two replies. The first is that humans are both reason and need creatures, especially when it comes to believing in God. We need to have both our reason and needs satisfied. My assumption here is that the way in which we come to have a belief affects that belief in some way. So if someone comes to believe in God solely through reason, that is, solely because of evidence, then that belief will reflect that process. It will be largely “intellectual.” This, I think, is the point Rod Taylor was making. Believing in God should not be just intellectual, because God is a person to whom we can connect in emotional ways. God is someone who satisfies our existential needs. So if my assumption is correct, the way in which we come to believe in God should involve needs and emotions as well as evidence. This means that the way apologetics has often been practiced is deficient because it appeals to only one aspect of human nature. 

My second reply is to admit that the existential argument for believing in God is just as one-sided as evidential arguments. It needs to be supplemented with reason. And that is the main burden of the book, showing how this can be done. The twist I offer is that reason can be applied to the needs themselves. It is not just evidence used independently of the satisfaction of needs that is required to buttress the existential argument for believing in God, but reason operating on the needs mentioned in the argument.

I need to make it perfectly clear that I side with evidential apologists’ claim that evidence is needed in order to be justified in believing something. A purely existential apologetics is deficient, as the Freudian charge claims. But so also is a purely evidential apologetics. I offer a way to fuse them.

You can read the full-text of the interview by clicking here.

Readers might also be interested in Cliff’s recent contribution to the EPS web project on “Christ-Shaped Philosophy,” where he attempts to show the relevant role of the emotions in this approach to philosophy.