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Philosophy Questions: Can We Have Knowledge of God?

Photo of Daniel McCoyDaniel McCoy | Bio

Daniel McCoy

Daniel is happily married to Susanna, and they have 3 daughters and 2 sons. He is the editorial director for Renew.org as well as an online adjunct instructor for Ozark Christian College. He has a bachelor’s in theology (Ozark Christian College), master of arts in apologetics (Veritas International University), and PhD in theology (North-West University, South Africa). His books include the Popular Handbook of World Religions (general editor), Real Life Theology: Fuel for Effective and Faithful Disciple Making (co-general editor), Mirage: 5 Things People Want From God That Don't Exist, and The Atheist's Fatal Flaw (co-authored with Norman Geisler).

Can we have knowledge of God? Philosophers have long debated whether we can know what, if anything, exists beyond the physical world (the “metaphysical”). The influential philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that our categories of thought can’t apply beyond the physical world. Yet, if we have good reason to believe that God exists, then there’s no trouble believing that he can reveal knowledge about himself. 

Metaphysics means “beyond the physical.” Christians have always believed in an ultimate reality beyond the physical. Christians believe in souls and the afterlife and free will. Christians believe in God.

Is it still okay to believe in those sorts of things? And not be considered something of an intellectual Neanderthal?

In the article “What Is the Definition of Knowledge?”, we told the story of the European Rationalists and Empiricists, and how they tried to discover what we humans are able to know for sure. Yet the ending is a sad one for people who love knowledge, as Rene Descartes’ system of certainty collapsed, and we were left with David Hume’s atomized rubble: All that was left were apparently unrelated facts of experience about the physical world. This article introduces a pivotal figure in philosophy to come after Hume: Immanuel Kant. The backdrop to Descartes’ system was Montaigne’s skepticism; the backdrop to Kant’s system was Hume’s skepticism.


“Rene Descartes’ system of certainty collapsed, and we were left with David Hume’s atomized rubble: All that was left were apparently unrelated facts of experience about the physical world.” 


After reading Hume, Immanuel Kant realized that Hume had totally undermined metaphysical knowledge.[1] As Kant puts it,

I freely admit that it was the remembrance of David Hume which, many years ago, first interrupted my dogmatic slumber and gave my investigations in the field of speculative philosophy a completely different direction.[2]

In order to salvage what he could of knowledge, Kant began to construct a new philosophical system. Having been charmed by the breakthroughs of Newtonian physics, Kant decided to begin not with innate principles (as Descartes had done) but with that which is immediately evident through experience. While his system made it possible to believe truths about the physical world, his system wouldn’t allow for metaphysical knowledge. Even though Kant personally believed in the existence of God, his system didn’t allow for us to have knowledge of God.[3]

Two Types of Sentences

Kant took all statements and categorized them as either “analytic” or “synthetic.” Analytic statements were true by their very definition. Take “Bachelors are unmarried men,” for example. There is nothing added to the predicate of this sentence (unmarried men) that is not already included in the subject (bachelors). The truths of mathematics (e.g. 2+2=4) would also fall under the category of “analytic.” There is no mystery as to why statements like these are known to be true; they have to be true by definition.[4]

But there was a mystery when it came to synthetic statements. In synthetic statements, the predicate is not already included in the subject. You have to know something about the actual world, and not just about the meaning of words, to make synthetic statements. We know why that bachelor is unmarried by definition; but to know the bachelor’s line of work takes knowing something about the world.[5] How can we have certainty about synthetic statements? In other words, how can we have certainty that we know anything about the world?

Now, Hume had cast doubt on our ability to know the external world except as a succession of apparently unrelated fragments.[6] After Hume got through whittling down our knowledge, we couldn’t even know that the ocean wave caused our sensation of feeling wet. So, how would Kant bring certainty to Hume’s mindless matter?


“How would Kant bring certainty to Hume’s mindless matter?”


To answer, we need to turn to Kant’s view of the human mind. It might appear that the objects around us exist in time and space. But, according to Kant, it’s our minds that impose the categories of space and time onto the world.[7]

Two Ways Our Minds Work

According to Kant, our minds are composed of sensibility and understanding. Says Kant, “Summing up: The business of the senses is to intuit; that of the understanding, to think.”[8]

Sensibility means our immediate perception of objects in space and time. Understanding means the way our minds connect the various objects in the world. We connect objects through basic principles: we reason in terms of cause-effect; we see “substances” when we see particular things; we see similarities and infer unity; and so on. Like space and time, these “categories” (there are 12 of them) are not derived from the world around us, but rather are imposed upon the world by our minds.[9] Kant explains, “The understanding doesn’t draw its laws from nature, but prescribes them to nature.”[10]


“The understanding doesn’t draw its laws from nature, but prescribes them to nature.” -Kant


Since Kant is one of the more difficult philosophers to understand, it’s time for an illustration. Let’s say you have a coin-counting machine with 2 inputs for coins. Once in the machine, the coins are organized into 12 types of coins (we’re going to include extra coins like Buffalo nickels and those smashed pennies you can get with imprints of Silver Dollar City, because we need to arrive at 12). So, although the coins came in disorganized, by the time they come out of the machine, they are neatly organized in 12 categories.

The machine represents the human mind. The 2 inputs are space and time, and the 12 types of coins are the mind’s ability to organize information according to the mind’s innate 12 categories.[11]

Let’s try another illustration. Christian philosopher Ronald Nash explains it this way: In an old farmhouse, you might discover in the kitchen pantry all sorts of glass containers full of homemade fruit preserves. Now, the glass containers are of different shapes and sizes. These containers determine the form of the preserves. The preserves provide the content of the glass containers. According to Kant, without the world around us (the preserves), we wouldn’t have any content. However, without the categories of the mind (the glass containers), our knowledge would be a jumbled mess.[12]

How Kant Resolved the Rationalism-Empiricism Debate

As for the Rationalism-Empiricism debate, rationalists are happy that Kant recognizes the contribution that reason makes, for, even though Kant is not saying there are innate ideas, at least he recognizes innate structures of the mind. And empiricists are even happier because Kant recognizes what they have said all along: knowledge comes to us from the world around us.

So, if we can have knowledge about the world around us, then Hume was wrong about the uncertainty of cause-effect relationships. Though not an actual feature of the world, causality is an innate feature of the mind. And, thus, scientific knowledge, which assumes cause-effect, can be pursued with confidence.

But what about metaphysical knowledge? What about knowledge of God? Since metaphysics concerns reality beyond the world around us, metaphysics in Kant’s system had to be cut from what counts as knowledge.

How Kant Sneaked Knowledge of God Back In

Kant still wanted somehow to make room for moral knowledge, even though morality is not something we derive from our senses. Kant found in Rousseau’s passionate commitment to feeling and moral conscience a refreshing alternative to the cold reason of Hume. Though not derived from our senses, he reasoned that moral duty is an essential part of rational man. Our sense of “ought” is real. And if, as Kant maintained, one ought to do such and such, it follows that he can do such and such. Ought implies can.[13]


“As Kant maintained, one ought to do such and such, it follows that he can do such and such.”


Since ought implies can, then we must have free will, according to Kant. Now, preserving the distinctness between our sensibility (what we experience) and our understanding (what we think) meant that we should never allow sense motives (e.g., pleasure) to interfere with our doing of moral duty. Thus, the ethical system built on Kant’s philosophy (often called deontological ethics or Kantian ethics) makes it very clear that only one motive should ever be considered in ethics, and that is simply to do one’s duty, no more and no less. Consequences should never enter our calculations.

In keeping with the rationality of human nature, Kant insisted that morality always be logically consistent. Thus, you should never do an action that you wouldn’t want universalized (done by everybody). If you wouldn’t want everybody to lie, then, to be consistent, you should never lie. This hypothetical universalizing was called Kant’s “categorical imperative.”[14]

Now, if there is, as Kant concluded, a moral law, then two conclusions followed for Kant. First, if we have moral duty, there must be a moral standard, a perfect moral order. Since such an order is unattainable in this present life, then the soul must be made for immortality. In other words, there must be an afterlife. Second, the doing of perfect morality would result in inner peace and happiness. The perfect happiness that results from perfect morality could only have one transcendent source: What could be its source other than God?[15]


Knowledge of God: “The perfect happiness that results from perfect morality could only have one transcendent source: What could be its source other than God?”


So even though Kant had barred metaphysics at the door to his system, he was able to sneak in the immortal soul and God through the side entrance of moral duty. Yet many of Kant’s successors would proceed as if metaphysical knowledge had officially been discredited.

Kant’s Successors and Our Knowledge of God

Many of Kant’s successors were delighted at the prospect of getting past all things metaphysical once and for all. Would they hold to these add-on’s by which Kant was able to salvage metaphysical realities? Unsurprisingly, they would disregard metaphysics as having been pronounced dead.

Before moving onto these successors, it is time to analyze Kant, a philosopher who has become a practical intersection of the history of philosophy. On the one hand were those who had emphasized the mind and its ideas: Plato, Augustine, and Descartes and the Rationalists. On the other hand were those who had emphasized the world and its sense data: Aristotle, Aquinas, and Locke and the Empiricists. By suggesting that the mind imposes its categories on sense data, Kant synthesized the two sides, with the result that almost everyone who came after Kant would fit into some school that could ultimately trace itself back to Kant.


“Kant synthesized the two sides, with the result that almost everyone who came after Kant would fit into some school that could ultimately trace itself back to Kant.”


So, what is the verdict on Kant?

We should note first off that Kant made some very helpful advances in the path toward a reasonable epistemology (the branch of philosophy that deals with how we know things). The fact that he made some significant errors (which we will discuss below) should not prevent us from appreciating and utilizing some of Kant’s teachings. With the publication of Critique of Pure Reason, Kant was the first to systematize what Christian philosopher Stuart Hackett calls “rational empiricism.”[16] According to Hackett, Kant’s rational empiricism, in general, fits very well within the Christian worldview and good reason.[17]

Hackett is correct. Sense data without the categories of rationality to structure the data could not explain all our knowledge. Neither could the categories of rationality by themselves, empty of experiential content.[18] Kant was right to bring rationalism and empiricism together and recognize that both had accessed part of the truth.[19]

Why then is Kant often considered something of a foe rather than a friend to the Christian faith? A large part of the answer lies in a limitation Kant places on the categories. This limitation actually undermines Kant’s whole system so that it collapses into skepticism. The limitation is that the categories apply only to sense experience. In other words, only statements that come from sense experience count as knowledge. But think about the statement, “Only statements that come from sense experience count as knowledge.” Do you see anything wrong with such a statement?


“Think about the statement, ‘Only statements that come from sense experience count as knowledge.'”


Some high school research papers have what is called a “Pledge Page.” You copy it word-for-word straight out of the book. It usually says something like, “Any information I drew from a source I acknowledged in a footnote. Any information that was word-for-word from a source is in quotation marks.” And then you sign your name at the bottom, pledging that you’re not copying anything without footnotes and quotation marks. See any problem there? They are having you copy the Pledge Page word-for-word, and yet they don’t have you put any of their words in footnotes or quotation marks.

“Only statements that come from sense experience count as knowledge.”

Really? What about the statement, “Only statements that come from sense experience count as knowledge”? Did that come from sense experience? No, it may be a statement about sense experience, but it most certainly was not derived from sense experience. It is a statement underived from sense experience that tells you the only statements you can know are derived from sense experience.


Knowledge of God: “What about the statement, ‘Only statements that come from sense experience count as knowledge’? Did that come from sense experience?”


In the end, although Kant helped to reconcile reason and experience, he contradicted himself by excluding metaphysical knowledge. Wouldn’t it be possible to use one’s reason, draw on one’s experience, and do metaphysics? Indeed, it is.

Even the thinker credited with the monumental feat of burying metaphysics had to dig using the tool of self-refutation. In other words, Kant did not bury metaphysics, and it is thus not impossible to reason beyond the physical.

Philosophy Can’t Cancel Knowledge of God

If humanity is, in fact, a creature uniquely created by God (as even Kant concluded because of his moral reasoning), then a human becomes more than just a thinking substance (e.g., Descartes) or a mind chained to sense experience (e.g., Kant). A human can be seen, as Thomas Aquinas taught, as a hylomorphic individual, a combination of material and spiritual.[20] We humans are able to think about the world around us as well as the world beyond. We can know facts about the changing physical world as well as eternal truths about the unchanging realities of metaphysics. Skepticism follows when these categories of truth are confused. A pseudo-metaphysic, such as Descartes’ and Kant’s systems, follows when one or the other category is denied. The acceptance of both categories best explains our multifaceted human experience.[21]


Knowledge of God: “If humanity is, in fact, a creature uniquely created by God, then a human becomes more than just a thinking substance (e.g., Descartes) or a mind chained to sense experience (e.g., Kant).”


Nevertheless, news of metaphysics’ alleged death traveled quickly. Kant dominated the eighteenth century. In France, a nineteenth-century successor of Kant’s named Auguste Comte reasoned that, now that the era of metaphysics had passed, a new era was to be. Comte coined the term sociology and explained that, sociologically, every society passes through three inevitable stages.

  • In the Theological State, all phenomena are explained by reference to the gods. Eventually, progress necessitates a new state.
  • In the Metaphysical State, God as explanation is replaced by abstract causes. Thus, “metaphysics is the ghost of dead theologies.”
  • Finally, in the Positive State, there is no more interest in gods or causes, but in scientific laws. The question is no longer why, but how.[22]

Comte’s ambition, however, did not limit itself to merely founding Positivism; he felt it necessary to turn it into his own religion, complete with a calendar of holidays for secular saints.[23]

Positivism in the twentieth century was less about historical developments and more about logic and language.[24] What emerged and dominated the academy for a time was called Logical Positivism. A.J. Ayer encapsulated the movement in the “verification principle”:

“A proposition is meaningful if and only if it is empirically verifiable in principle.”[25]

And another nail was driven into metaphysics’ coffin. Or was it?


“Another nail was driven into metaphysics’ coffin. Or was it?”


As an assumption, the notion that we can only know about the so-called “real world” walks proudly. Atheist Sam Harris smack-talks, “Every religion preaches the truth of propositions for which it has no evidence.” Really? No evidence? Well, Harris can say that because of his assumption which comes in his next sentence: “In fact, every religion preaches the truth of propositions for which no evidence is even conceivable.”[26]

Ah, now, that is where Harris is coming from! Religious statements are outside the realm of knowledge, and so it follows that evidence for those statements would be inconceivable.

But sometimes an assumption walks a little too proudly to where it becomes noticed, and then it becomes vulnerable to analysis. Or, should we say, vulnerable to verification? For the verification principle (“A proposition is meaningful if and only if it is empirically verifiable in principle”) seems fairly self-evident, until you begin asking, “Is the verification principle itself empirically verifiable?”

No? Well, then by their own admission, their cornerstone belief is meaningless. Since news of the movement’s intellectual suicide has made its rounds, it is now the case that “Logical Positivism and its Verification Principle have been almost totally abandoned by philosophers.”[27]


To the idea that knowledge of God is impossible, we need to ask, “Is the verification principle itself empirically verifiable?”


In other words, metaphysics continues to be possible, and it has never stopped being intellectually permissible to believe what’s beyond.


[1] Etienne Gilson, The Unity of Philosophical Experience (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999), 179.

[2] Immanuel Kant, in Graciela De Pierris and Michael Friedman, “Kant and Hume on Causality,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2013 Edition), ed. Edward N. Zalta http://plato.stanford.edu/cgi-bin/encyclopedia/archinfo.cgi?entry=kant-hume-causality (accessed 3 June 2015).

[3] Gilson, 182-183.

[4] Georges Rey, “The Analytic/Synthetic Distinction,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2013 Edition), ed. Edward N. Zalta http://plato.stanford.edu/cgi-bin/encyclopedia/archinfo.cgi?entry=analytic-synthetic (accessed 3 June 2015).

[5] Rey.

[6] Gilson, 173.

[7] Gilson, 184-185.

[8] Immanuel Kant, Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysic That Can Present Itself as a Science, trans. Jonathan Bennett http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/pdfs/kant1783.pdf, 30.

[9] Gilson, 184-185.

[10] Kant, 40.

[11] This illustration is based on Ronald Nash’s “sausage machine” illustration to explain Kant. See Ronald H. Nash, Life’s Ultimate Questions: An Introduction to Philosophy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 261-262. 

[12] Nash, 260-261.

[13] Gilson, 187-188.

[14] Steven B. Cowan and James S. Spiegel, The Love of Wisdom: A Christian Introduction to Philosophy (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2009), 347.

[15] Gilson, 188-189.

[16] Stuart C. Hackett, The Resurrection of Theism: Prolegomena to Christian Apology, 2nd Ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1982), 39.

[17] Hackett, 50.

[18] Hackett, 37.

[19] Hackett, 50.

[20] Louis-Marie Regis, St. Thomas and Epistemology (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1946), 51-52.

[21] Regis, 53-54.

[22] Gilson, 203-204.

[23] Michael Ruse, “Comte, Isidore Auguste Marie Francois Xavier,” in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, ed. Ted Honderich (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 153.

[24] Alan Lacey, “Positivism,” in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, ed. Ted Honderich (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 743.

[25] Cowan and Spiegel, 151.

[26] Sam Harris, The End of Faith (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004), 71.

[27] William Lane Craig, “Are There Objective Truths about God?” http://www.reasonablefaith.org/are-there-objective-truths-about-god (3 June 2015).