"Gods" Revisited: A New Parable about Belief and Unbelief

By Steven M. Duncan

In 1946, John Wisdom published his most famous essay, “Gods,” in which he attempted to characterize the dispute between believers and unbelievers regarding the existence of God by means of a parable. According to the familiar story, two explorers stumble across what appears to be a garden in the middle of the forest.[1] One of the explorers concludes there must be a gardener who tends the spot; whereas the other maintains the appearance of a garden is merely an accident. Despite their best efforts to prove the existence of the gardener by empirical means, no evidence of the gardener ever turns up. The first explorer concludes that the gardener must be a special kind of being, an invisible, undetectable gardener who does his work when no one is looking, whereas the second explorer takes it that he was right to deny that any gardener exists. Wisdom regards this dispute as ongoing and irresolvable, because there is no neutral perspective from which we may decide the dispute.

It did not take others long to see that Wisdom’s parable put the believer in an epistemically inferior position to the unbeliever. In his “Theology and Falsification,” Antony Flew argued that the believer’s position dies “the death of a thousand qualifications.”[2] Both explorers start out with the same, empirically grounded conception of what the unknown gardener is like. In response to repeated failures to confirm the gardener’s existence, the believer modifies his conception of the gardener’s nature, insisting that we are simply discovering the gardener’s true nature, rather than disproving his existence. The result, says Flew, is a conception of the gardener protected from refutation only at the cost of making it incapable of falsification, and thus a claim to which no empirical evidence can be relevant, even in principle. As the result, the believer has ceased to make an empirically significant claim.

For my part, I want to agree with Wisdom that the dispute between believers and unbelievers he depicts is irresolvable by appeal to neutral evidence. However, I want to suggest that it does not follow from this that the believer is in an epistemically inferior position to the unbeliever, and that it is possible, even likely, that the believer is in an epistemically privileged position vis-à-vis the unbeliever. Thus, the believer’s inability to confirm or falsify claims about God in terms acceptable to the unbeliever is of no real significance. This, of course, will be the case only if the believer can claim some sort of direct evidence to which he or she has privileged access vis-à-vis the unbeliever, evidence that is dispositive and makes all the difference between them. That such a case is possible I now hope to illustrate, using a parable of my own.


 An ophthalmologist traveling on a medical mission in the South Seas crashed his plane on an uncharted isle. To his surprise, a previously unknown people inhabited the island, one that he soon discovered to quite unusual. They had no pictorial art, no forms of visual representation, no mirrors, and claimed never to have seen their own faces. In fact, they seemed altogether to lack the capacity for what some philosophers call aesthetic perception, i.e. the common human ability to see things in other things present there as their intentional contents. To these people, a mirror or a reflecting pond was simply a bright shiny surface, a painting a collection of dried, cracking paint blobs, and a black-and-white photograph simply a piece of paper with various shades of textured emulsion on one side. They altogether lacked the very idea of pictorial or representational content of the sort familiar to the rest of us.

After examination the villager’s eyes, the doctor discovered that the problem, though genetically inherited and universal in the isolated and inbred population of islanders, was caused by a minor deformity of the retina easily reparable by a simple operation. He assembled the villagers, explained his findings, and offered to perform the operation on anyone who desired it. It would, he explained, help them to see in a new way that they had never experienced before. At first, the villagers were skeptical; the doctor was telling them that their vision was defective, though they had no reason to believe this. He was a stranger who may well be malevolent, and he was seemingly quite vague about the great new visual ability that the operation was going to make possible. Indeed, the whole thing sounded ridiculous – who ever heard of anyone seeing something in something else or even understood what such a phrase could mean? Indeed, some of the villagers argued that the whole thing was unintelligible and therefore impossible. The doctor tried to explain it to them by looking at pictures and describing what he saw in them, showed them that he could see his own face in a reflecting pool by describing it, and so on. However, they only had his word for it and strongly suspected that his seemingly miraculous abilities were really only some sort of trick; others offered alternate explanations of the Doctor’s supposed abilities consistent with the falsity of his claims. Most refused to give him any credence, suspected his motives, declined the operation, and cautioned their neighbors not to listen to this strange interloper and his even stranger ideas.

However, eventually a few of the villagers were able to overcome their initial fear and skepticism and agreed to submit to the operation. At first, nothing happened as their brains rewired themselves to accommodate the changes that the operation had introduced into their eyes. After a while, however, the villagers who had submitted to the operation began to claim that they too were able to see things in other things, and began to describe the contents of pictures and mirrors, describe their own faces, and to testify that the operation had opened a whole new world to them. Some of them began to experiment with pictorial representation, creating pictures and commenting on each other’s works. The attainment of aesthetic perception impacted their lives in countless ways, and more villagers began to have the operation in the hope of sharing in the new life that the first hardy souls to undergo it claimed to enjoy.

Then something even more surprising happened. Some of the villagers who had gone through the operation reported seeing – occasionally and intermittently – what appeared to be another island at some distance from their own, an island that came and went but which those few who saw it claimed was large, beautiful, fertile, and apparently uninhabited. The doctor explained to them that the island that they saw was really the fata morgana, a mirage that occurs most often at sea, in which unusual atmospheric conditions cause the distorted image of an object below the horizon to be projected above it and made visible to people suitably situated there. Shortly after this, the doctor was rescued by ship. However, by this time he had become a member of the tribe and vowed to return to the island at his first future opportunity to continue to operate on those villagers who desired it. Around the same time, global warming permanently altered weather conditions around the island and prevented any further appearances of the fata morgana.

The news about the fata morgana electrified the villagers. If what the doctor had told them was true, there was a much better island available for their habitation just below the horizon. The more adventurous among them believed that it would be possible for them to make it to this island in their canoes, and the more scientific among them believed that they would be able to calculate its location on the basis of data derived from the apparitions of the island that had been reported by eyewitnesses. A segment of the villagers eagerly began to plan for this trip, which while arduous and certainly not guaranteed of success, promised the prospect of a much better life than that they enjoyed where they currently lived. The visions of the island reported by eyewitnesses were committed to memory, word for word, and repeated at assemblies of the villagers preparing for the trip.

As they ruminated over these reports, recognizing that they were merely indirect, partial, and distorted, various interpretations of the reports began to appear among the segment of villagers that were planning for the trip. These interpretations were based on speculation, conjecture, and inference. Their proponents differed about what the true shape of the island was, what the best basis for the economy would be, and whether or not the island might be a gateway to even more exciting lands and vistas. As they waited impatiently for all the preparations to be made, they often argued as to whose interpretation was better; ultimately, each person ended up with his or her own vision as to what the new island would look like.

The village and its inhabitants by now had begun to divide into factions. First, there were those few who had seen the fata morgana and provided the detailed reports that were fueling the desire to search for and the hope of actually reaching the new island. Second, there were those who had also had the operation but had not seen the fata morgana. Among these, a few remained skeptical of the island’s existence because they had not witnessed the phenomenon personally. However, most of the people who had undergone the operation were willing to believe that the island existed because of the testimony of those who claimed to have observed the fata morgana, noting that they were generally reliable, truthful, and disinterested witnesses. Among those who had not undergone the operation, one faction regretted their decision and waited in expectation for the return of the Doctor. They hoped to undergo the operation and acquire the perceptual ability they still lacked and now desired. They too believed in the island and were prepared to undertake the rigors of the trip.

However, a substantial group of islanders remained implacably opposed to both the operation and the proposed trip to the “new island,” whose existence they regarded as extremely doubtful and dismissed with contempt. These called themselves the unbelievers and preached incessantly against the doctor, the operation, and belief in the island. From their point of view, the scheme of migration was nothing but madness, absurd, and utterly irrational. They were eager and ready to argue with their fellow villagers, whom they called the believers, and to dissuade them from attempting the trip to the new island.

As far as the unbelievers were concerned, there was nothing wrong with their vision and never had been. More than this, they believed that there was nothing particularly wrong with their traditional island home. They especially resented the idea that the believers claimed to have received additional perceptual powers as a result of the operation and an accompanying new lease on life to which they, the unbelievers, were denied. They blamed the doctor and his operation for creating pride and dissatisfaction among the villagers and destroying the unity and stability of their society. The very enthusiasm with which the believers embraced the belief in the island, as well as the sacrifices and preparations they were prepared to make in order to journey to it, struck the unbelievers as positive proof of their irrationality and folly.

The unbelievers offered a wide range of considerations against the believers and their scheme of migration. First, they argued on general skeptical grounds that there was no reason to take the apparent new perceptual powers they had acquired at face value. For all you can prove, said the unbelievers, your vision has not been enhanced at all, but rather seriously damaged by the operation. What you think are the experiences of new realities, despite their subjective vividness, are merely hallucinations induced by the operation, and similar to other hallucinations that people have experienced in the past. The unbelievers judged the subjective certitude of the believers as simply a consequence of wishful thinking and overbelief.

Next, they renewed their a priori attacks on the notion of “seeing things” in pictures, mirrors, reflecting pools, challenging the ontological status of the supposed “contents” of these unusual perceptual fields. According to the believers, the contents of what they called pictures and mirrors were publically observable, yet these contents were not localizable in our common perceptual space, but instead inhabited a special “aesthetic space” associated with certain sorts of material things. Further, while the aesthetic spaces associated with pictures, mirrors, reflecting pools, and so on were said to be three-dimensional, possessing depth as well as length and breadth, the surfaces associated with those things and upon which those contents supervened were two-dimensional and quite different in composition from the contents whose existence they were thought to support. Not surprisingly, they concluded that no such phenomena could exist, since they could only be described in apparently contradictory, incoherent, and unintelligible ways. The inability of believers to couch their claims in “neutral” terms was taken as final confirmation of this.

More than this, they pointed to the fact that only some of the believers had experienced the reported fata morgana, which even they had to admit that no one had seen it lately and that there was no ready explanation for this fact. They also suggested that even at its best, eyewitness testimony is fallible and that no matter how reliable a witness may be, we can often discount even sincere eyewitness testimony from otherwise reliable witnesses when the content of their reports are highly unusual or intrinsically improbable, which is precisely how the unbelievers viewed the reports about the island.

Even waiving these points, however, the unbelievers had still further objections against the evidence derived from the fata morgana. Even at its best, the evidence provided by these sightings was indirect, a mere supposed apparition of a reality that no one had ever actually seen. Further, the alternate explanation in terms of hallucination was available here as well, and the explanation in terms of the so-called fata morgana quite possibly nothing more than a tale told by the Doctor to allay the fears of the poor villagers on whom he had practiced to deceive. Did we actually have any independent evidence at all that the apparition (if that is what it was) really represented an actual island existing somewhere else? Obviously not, said the unbelievers; anything that anyone could claim as evidence for the existence of the island was consistent with the falsity of that hypothesis. The unbelievers even challenged the ability of those who had undergone the operation to describe their own faces or agree in their descriptions of the pictorial contents of their art works. Perhaps the believers who did this were merely responding to unconscious cues on the part of those witnessing their performances or just sharing a joint delusion and participating in a “language game” constituted by rules that generated its own content.

Finally, the unbelievers argued that the evidence itself was ambiguous, pointing out that the believers themselves were divided in their interpretations of the data, adhering stubbornly to their contrary views, with no hope of resolving the issues among them, at least until they had finally reached the island. The unbelievers themselves entered the fray, studying each of the interpretations and arguing that each of them was underdetermined by the evidence and thus that none of them was rationally credible. More than this, they argued that belief in the island was simply a case of enthusiasm (among the credulous) or self-deception (among the reflective), buoyed by nothing more than a strong desire for an unattainable better life tempting them all to irrational risk and likely ruin. They suggested to the other believers that the leaders of their group could not sensibly believe their absurd doctrines, and had simply made them up, thus were either motivated by fanaticism (to the extent that they sincerely believed it) or self-interest (and thus were hypocritical). In this way, they even managed to persuade some of the people who had received the operation to reinterpret their experiences skeptically, abandon their claims, and the island project as well.

Right before they left, the believers made one last appeal to the unbelievers to consider their claims seriously. “What,” they asked, “would persuade you to believe that we have the power to see things in things and that seeing in this manner is a reliable source of knowledge about the world?” The unbelievers replied, “We will only believe if you can prove to us that the island exists without relying on any evidence derived from the Doctor or the perceptual powers supposedly derived from the operation, for we regard all of this evidence as tainted.” The believers could only reply that trust in the Doctor and submitting to the operation was a necessary condition for access to the evidence that the island exists, to which the unbelievers replied, “Then we will never believe.”

At last the day of reckoning came.  Even though the doctor had not yet returned, the believers, both those that had the operation and those that had not, got into their canoes to go off in search of the island, leaving the unbelievers of both types behind. As they were about to leave, the leader of the unbelievers told them “If you abandon us, if you leave this place, you can never return, for we will not accept you back.” The believers asked, “How about if we find the island?  Should we return and tell you?” “We don’t want to go to the island,” said the leader of the unbelievers. “No?” asked the believers, “Why not?” He replied, “Because you and people like you will be there, and therefore we can never be happy in such a place.” At this, the believers, realizing that their break with the unbelievers was irrevocable, paddled off in their canoes full of faithful expectation and buoyant hope even though they were they were still somewhat wistful about what they had left behind.

The leader of the unbelievers, who had not undergone the operation, watched the believers paddling away and said, “The fools.  That’s the last we’ll see of them.”  His main follower, who had received the operation and had learned a lot about the skepticism game by this point replied, “Probably.  But then, what does that prove?”  What does it prove, indeed?


In the parable I have developed above, the condition of the believers and the unbelievers is one incapable of resolution by appeal to neutral evidence. The believers claim that they have a source of direct knowledge or evidence not possessed by the unbelievers that epistemically justifies their belief that they can see the contents of intentional fields of representation. More than this, in the case of the fata morgana, they claim to possess indirect though sufficient evidence for the existence of the new island to justify their expedition to find it. The unbelievers reject the believers’ claims because they cannot provide sufficient evidence for them of the sort that they are prepared to accept. Both sides see themselves as rationally justified from their own point of view and consider that of their opponents to be irrational, distorted, and morally suspect. Of course, since we also possess the power of aesthetic perception, we know that the believers were right and the unbelievers wrong. More than this, we are fully aware that the largely skeptical arguments that look so powerful and conclusive from the unbelievers’ point of view are utterly irrelevant in the face of facts that are fully evident to us.[3]

Why couldn’t belief in God, based on a putative direct acquaintance with God as a personal being communicating with each of us individually, be in the same boat? In that case, believers would have access to evidence for God’s existence that would not be available to the unbeliever, evidence in itself dispositive for the believer and sufficient for the epistemic justification of the believer’s substantive claims. The believer could know all this about him- or herself and his or her claims, but it does not follow that he or she will be able to refute the unbeliever’s skeptical arguments or justify his or her claims by appeal to evidence acceptable to the skeptic, since it may be that there is no such evidence. In that case, the believer would know that the skeptical unbeliever was wrong, though there would be no way that the believer could demonstrate this to the unbeliever, especially if the unbeliever was fully committed to his skepticism about the believer’s claims.[4] The unbeliever would be trapped in his false views until such time as he was willing and able to receive the evidence the believer already possesses.

Such a view is not as far-fetched as it seems.[5] Suppose that God exists, and is the perfect and supremely loving God of theistic tradition. Suppose further (just for the sake of the argument) that the Christian God is that God. This God freely created the universe out of love for His creation, in order to glorify Himself through the perfection of his creatures within the overall economy of His divine plan for the universe. Where His rational creatures are concerned, the Christian God desires nothing more than that they should freely enter into a loving, personal relationship with Him, for their own sakes rather than God’s. Such a God would have no overwhelming interest in providing merely neutral, spectator evidence for His existence under some vague but exalted description. Rather, the living God of faith would seek a more direct, personal and individual confrontation with rational creatures, one that addresses not just the intellect but the whole person. Such a confrontation can take the form neither of an irrefutable proof nor an irresistible impulse to believe, since in neither case would a free choice to accept God's salvation be possible. There must be grounds for belief, and respectable grounds at that, in order that belief will not be completely irrational. At the same time, those grounds must be capable of being resisted by us, and thus, given human freedom, very likely to be resisted by at least some. In that case, if Christianity is true, that there should be skeptics and unbelievers is an unavoidable byproduct of the possible of a free response to God's love, and thus not only not surprising, but rather to be expected. Given this, the skeptic is within his or her rights to question the evidence for God, so far as it fails to compel belief on rational grounds alone. Given the foregoing, however, the skeptic ought to see significant grounds for skepticism regarding his or her own preconceived ideas about what sort of evidence is required to make religious belief credible. Reflection of this kind may lead skepticism to undermine itself. That, however, is a story for another time.