Inapprehensible whether there are gods (top)

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Since the majority have asserted that god is a most active cause, let us first consider god, remarking by way of preface that, following ordinary life without opinions, we say that there are gods and we are pious towards the gods and say that they are provident: it is against the rashness of the Dogmatists that we make the following points. 

We ought to form a conception of the substance of the things we conceive, e.g. whether they are bodies or incorporeal. Also of their form - no-one could conceive of a horse unIess he had previously learned the form of a horse. 
Further, what is conceived of ought to be conceived of somewhere. 

Now, since some of the Dogmatists say that god is a body, others that he is incorporeal, some that he is anthropomorphic, others not, some in space, others not - and of those who say that he is in space, some say that he is within the universe, others that he is outside it - how shall we be able to acquire a conception of god if we possess neither an agreed substance for him nor a form nor a place in which he is? 
Let them first agree and form a consensus that god is of such-and-such a kind; and only then, having given us an outline account, let them require us to form a concept of god. As long as they remain in undecidable dispute, we have no agreement from them as to what we should think. 
But, they say, conceive of something indestructible and blessed, and hold that to be god. This is silly: just as, if you do not know Dio, you cannot think of his attributes as attributes of Dio, so, since we do not know the substance of god, we shall not he able to learn and to conceive of his attributes.

Moreover, let them tell us what it is to be blessed - whether it is to act in accordance with virtue and to provide for the things subordinated to you, or rather to be inactive and take no trouble to yourself and cause none to others. They have had an undecidable dispute about this too, thus making blessedness - and therefore god - inconceivable by us. 

Even granting that god is indeed conceivable, it is necessary to suspend judgement about whether gods exist or not, so far as the Dogmatists are concerned. For it is not clear that gods exist: if the gods made an impression on us in themselves, the Dogmatists would be in agreement as to what they are and of what form and where; but the undecidable dispute has made it seem to us that the gods are unclear and in need of proof. 

Now anyone who tries to prove that there are gods, does so either by way of something clear or else by way of something unclear. 
Certainly not by way of something clear; for if what proves that there are gods were clear, then since what is proved is thought of in relation to what proves and is therefore also apprehended together with it, as we have established, it will also be clear that there are gods, this being apprehended together with what proves it, which itself is clear. 
But it is not clear, as we have suggested; therefore it is not proved by way of something clear.

Nor yet by way of something unclear. For the unclear item which is to prove that there are gods is in need of proof: if it is said to be proved by way of something clear, it will no longer be unclear but clear. Therefore the unclear item which is to prove that there are gods is not proved by way of something clear. Nor yet by way of something unclear: anyone who says this will fall into an infinite regress, since we shall always demand a proof of the unclear item brought forward to prove the point at issue. 
The existence of gods, therefore, cannot be proved from anything else. 

But if it is neither clear in itself nor proved by something else, then it will be inapprehensible whether or not there are gods. 

Again, there is this to be said. Anyone who says that there are gods says either that they provide for the things in the universe or that they do not - and that if they provide, then either for all things or for some.
But if they provided for all things, there would be nothing bad and evil in the universe; but they say that everything is full of evil. Therefore the gods will not be said to provide for everything.
But if they provide for some things, why do they provide for these and not for those? Either they both want to and can provide for all, or they want to but cannot, or they can but do not want to, or they neither want to nor can. 
If they both wanted to and could, then they would provide for all; but they do not provide for all, for the reason I have just given; therefore it is not the case that they both want to and can provide for all. 
If they want to but cannot, they are weaker than the cause in virtue of which they cannot provide for the things for which they do not provide; but it is contrary to the concept of god that a god should be weaker than anything. 
If they can provide for all but do not want to, they will be thought to be malign. 
If they neither want to nor can, they are both malign and weak - and only the impious would say this about the gods. 
The gods, therefore, do not provide for the things in the universe. 

But if they have providence for nothing and have no function and no effect, we will not be able to say how it is apprehended that there are gods, since it is neither apparent in itself nor apprehended by way of any effects. For this reason too, then, it is inapprehensible whether there are gods. 

From this we deduce that those who firmly state that there are gods are no doubt bound to be impious: if they say that the gods provide for everything, they will say that they are a cause of evil; and if they say that they provide for some things or even for none at all, they will be bound to say either that the gods are malign or that they are weak - and anyone who says this is clearly impious. 

Sextus Empiricus 143-146



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