Doubt: A Response to William Irwin


Philosopher William Irwin teaches at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, PA. He recently published a book entitled God Is a Question, Not An Answer.  In this volume Irwin contends one could find companionship with others who struggle with doubt about God. The title comes from a line in a novel, The Meursault Investigation, by Kamel Daoud. Apparently Irwin’s book responds to the statement uttered by an impious man in the novel, “God is a question, not an answer.” In an article in the New York Times in 2016, Irwin makes this statement, “It is impossible to be certain about God.” In this post, Prof. Roy Clouser gives his response to Irwin’s thought.

Some history of “Doubt”

There is a long history in the western intellectual tradition of opposing doubt to certainty.  Ancient skeptics argued that we have no genuinely certain knowledge because there is nothing that cannot be doubted. Further, the father of modern philosophy, Rene Descartes, thought he had to answer the skeptic’s claim in order to rescue the future of both philosophy and science.  His proposal for the one belief that cannot be doubted is each person’s own existence. No one, he said, can doubt his or her own existence so long as he or she is conscious of anything because existence is a precondition for consciousness.  The fact is – and no matter how far-fetched it may seem –  the Buddhist Pali Canon teaches the doctrine of Anatta which rejects the certainty of the self!  The result is that there are Buddhist monks who have cultivated doubt as to their own existence for centuries.

A Delusion?

So does that really mean we have no certainty?  Is it somehow a delusion innate to humans that causes billions of normal people to regard themselves as certain of countless beliefs all day every day?  David Hume, a sceptic, dismissed their certainty when he derisively referred to average folk as “the masses of the ignorant, unlearned, children, and savages”?

My Contention is…

I contend that the real illusion is that there is no good reply to skepticism along with its contention that there is no certainty. The illusion is the product of a category mistake.  The two categories confused are:  1) doubt as a subjective psychological condition, and 2) doubt incurred because of the actual grounds for a belief.  My point is that we can and often do have excellent grounds for a belief so that it deserves to be certain, while at the same time our subjective condition can prevent us from feeling fully confident about it.  What is more, we can be justifiably certain of a belief and doubt it at the same time because doubt is not the denial of certainty, disbelief is.  

We are entitled to be certain of whatever cannot be reasonably disbelieved, not of whatever cannot be doubted.  Thus, the proper reply to the claim that everything can be subjectively doubted is:  So what?

An illustration

Think of it like this. I start across the street and see a bus headed directly at me. I am fully justified in being certain I will be hit by it unless I move out of its way.  The certainty of that belief cannot be affected in the least by the fact that I happen to feel invincible that morning. My feeling gives me the idea, “I doubt the bus will hurt me.” By the same token, if I see a jeep drive over a rope bridge that spans a 1000- foot-deep gorge, I have every reason to believe it will hold me if I walk on it.  All the same, I may be terrified to walk that bridge. In fact, I may find myself in subjective doubt that it will support me with every step I take.


Doubt and Belief in God

The same is true with respect to belief in God.  The New Testament speaks of faith as certainty derived from experience, and never as belief without – or beyond – the evidence. In a number of places the New Testament uses language for this experienced certainty. It echoes what mathematicians and philosophers had long called “self-evident” truth. Thus, people experience seeing God’s reality to be a self-evident truth. That belief may very well be fully justified. They are entitled to regard it as certain.

Pascal likened the recognition of the truth of God’s existence to the intuitive recognition of “the first principles of number, time, space, and motion.” Then he added: “Therefore those to whom God has given religion by intuition are blessed and justly convinced.”

Similarly, John Calvin compared seeing the truth about God to normal sense perception. He wrote “scripture bears on the face of it such evidence of its truth as do black and white of their color, sweet and bitter of their taste.” Nevertheless, Calvin also thought the life of the believer in God to be “a constant struggle with doubt.”


Many non-Christian thinkers – Prof Irwin among them – claim that the only beliefs worth having are those we in fact doubt. They assert that doubt renders a belief less than certain. As a result they conclude (quite confidently!) that it is impossible to be certain about God.

But, in fact, they have never given us any good reason to believe either of those claims are true.

Roy A. Clouser                                          

Prof Emeritus   of Philosophy & Religion