"Not enough evidence, God, not enough evidence!" (Bertrand Russell)
It may well be that our predicament is such as to disallow conclusive or even sufficient evidence of the truth about it. If Plato's Cave Allegory is apt, if it lays bare the truth of the human predicament, then it must be that the evidence that the cave is a cave and that there is an outer world, whether it be the evidence of someone's testimony or the evidence of one's own rare and fleeting experiences, is scant and flimsy and easily doubted and denied. What I merely glimpse on rare occasions I can easily doubt. One can also doubt what any church teaches for the simple reason that there are many churches and they contradict each other on many points of doctrine and practice. And the same goes for what I believe on the testimony of others.
We don't know that the human condition is a cave-like predicament along Platonic lines, but if it is then we have an explanation of the paucity of sufficient evidence of its being what it is. (By sufficient evidence for a proposition p I mean evidence that renders p more likely than its negation.)
It is vitally important to us whether God or some form of Transcendence exists, and whether a higher life is possible for us beyond the miserably short and indigent predicament in which we presently find ourselves. But it may be that the truth in this matter cannot be known here below, but only believed on evidence that does not make it more likely than not. It may be that our predicament is such as to make impossible sufficient evidence of the truth about it.
Do I violate an ethics of belief if I believe on insufficient evidence? But don't I also have a duty to myself to pursue what is best for myself? And seek my ultimate happiness? Why should the legitimate concern to not be wrong trump the concern to find what is salvifically right? Is it not foolish to allow fear of error to block my path to needed truth?
Lately I've heard bandied about the idea that to have faith is to pretend to know what one does not know. Now that takes the cake for dumbassery. One can of course pretend to know things one does not know, and pretend to know more about a subject than one does know. The pretence might be part of a strategy of deception in the case of a swindler or it might be a kind of acting as in the case of an actor playing a mathematician.
But in faith one does not pretend to know; one honestly faces the fact that one does not know and ventures beyond what one knows so as to gain access to a needed truth that by its very nature cannot satisfy the strictures that we moderns and post-moderns tend to build into 'know.'
Thesis for consideration: It can reasonably be maintained that some arguments from evil beg the question against theism.
Suppose we consider the following passage from J. J. C. Smart:
It looks as though the theistic hypothesis is an empirically refutable one, so that theism becomes a refuted scientific theory. The argument goes: (1) If God exists then there is no evil, (2) There is evil, therefore (3) It is not the case that God exists. Premiss (1) seems to follow from our characterization of God as an omnipotent, omnsicient and benevolent being. (2) is empirical. We can hardly reject (2). It seems therefore that the theist has to find something wrong with (1) and this is not easy. (J. J. C. Smart and J. J. Haldane, Atheism and Theism, Blackwell 2003, 2nd ed, p. 60)
Smart's argument from evil is plainly valid, being of the form modus tollens. But for an argument to be probative, other conditions must be met. One of these conditions is that the premises be true. Another is that the argument involve no 'informal fallacy' such as equivocation.
So let us ask: how would 'evil' in (1) have to be construed so that (1) comes out true? I suggest that 'evil' must be short for 'gratuitous evil.' But then, to avoid equivocation, we would have to replace 'evil' in (2) with 'gratuitous evil.' The result would be:
1*. If God exists, then there is no gratuitous evil. 2*. There is gratuitous evil. --- 3. It is not the case that God exists.
The resulting argument is valid, and (1*) is plainly true, unlike (1) which is not plainly true, but false. That (1) is false can be seen from the fact that an omniqualified God could easily permit the existence of an evil that was necessary for the attainment of a greater good. So it is just false to say, 'If God exists, then there is no evil.'
But (1*) is plainly true. Now it may be — it is epistemically possible that --(2*) is also true. The reformulated argument would then be sound. A sound argument, by definition, is a deductive argument that is both valid in point of logical form and whose premises are all of them true. And for the record, a proposition p is epistemically (doxastically) possible for a subject S if and only if p is logically consistent with what S knows (believes).
But note that a sound argument will be probatively worthless if it begs the question, if it is such that one cannot know a premise to be true without already knowing the conclusion to be true. So let us ask a very simple question: How does one know that (2*) is true? Smart tells us that (2) is empirical. 'Empirical' is a term of epistemology. It is applied to those propositions that are known from experience, by observation via the senses and their instrumental extensions (microscopes, telescopes, etc.) Now I am willing to grant that (2) — There is evil — is an empirical truth. (2), however, is not what Smart needs to make his argument work. He needs (2*). But is (2*) an empirical truth? Can one know from experience (whether inner or outer) that there is gratuitous evil? Is gratuitousness an empirical attribute of the evils one experiences?
Consider the evil of intense pain. I am acquainted with pain by 'inner sense.' And I am willing to grant arguendo, though it is not quite obvious, that I am acquainted empirically with the evil of intense pain. But I am surely not acquainted empirically with the gratuitousness of experienced evils. Gratuitousness is no more an empirical attribute than the createdness of the natural world. It is not evident to the senses that nature is a divine creation. Similarly, it is not evident to the senses that instances of evil are gratuitous. Is it not epistemically possible that they are all non-gratuitous?
To say that an evil is gratuitous is to say in effect that it is an evil inconsistent with the existence of the omniqualified God. It is to say that it is an evil that no such God could have a morally sufficient reason for permitting. Clearly, one cannot 'read off' such a complex relational attribute from any instance of evil.
The conclusion I am driving towards is that Smart's argument supra is question-begging. For in order to know that premise (2*) is true, I must know that the conclusion is true. That is, to know that there are gratuitous evils, I must know that God does not exist. For if God exists, then then there are no gratuitous evils.
Smart tells us above that the theistic hypothesis is empirically refutable. But I say Smart is mistaken: he needs (2*) for his argument to work, but this proposition -- There is gratuitous evil -- is not empirical. It may be true for all that, but it is not knowable by experience. You may be convinced that it is true, and I won't blame you if you find it much more plausible than the truth of 'God exists'; but it is not an empirical truth, if it is a truth. It is an interpretation imposed upon the data. It is as metaphysical as 'God exists.'
J. P. Moreland is against it. Me too. More generally, I oppose any amalgamation of classical theism and materialism about the mind. (See my "Could a Classical Theist be a Physicalist?" Faith and Philosophy, vol. 15, no. 2, April 1998, pp. 160-180.) Here are some excerpts from Moreland's piece:
Christianity is a dualist, interactionist religion in this sense: God, angels/demons, and the souls of men and beasts are immaterial substances that can causally interact with the world. Specifically, human persons are (or have) souls that are spiritual substances that ground personal identity in a disembodied intermediate state between death and final resurrection . . . .
[. . .]
In my view, Christian physicalism involves a politically correct revision of the biblical text that fails to be convincing . . . .
[. . .]
The irrelevance of neuroscience also becomes evident when we consider the recent best seller Proof of Heaven by Eben Alexander. Regardless of one’s view of the credibility of Near Death Experiences (NDEs) in general, or of Alexander’s in particular, one thing is clear. Before whatever it was that happened to him (and I believe his NDE was real but no not agree with his interpretation of some of what happened to him), Alexander believed the (allegedly) standard neuroscientific view that specific regions of the brain generate and possess specific states of conscious. But after his NDE, Alexander came to believe that it is the soul that possesses consciousness, not the brain, and the various mental states of the soul are in two-way causal interaction with specific regions of the brain. Here’s the point: His change in viewpoint was a change in metaphysics that did not require him to reject or alter a single neuroscientific fact. Dualism and physicalism are empirically equivalent views consistent with all and only the same scientific data. Thus, the authority of science cannot be appropriated to provide any grounds whatsoever for favoring one view over another.
I'm with J.P on the irrelevance of neuroscience to the philosophy of mind, and vice versa, but with three minor exceptions that I explain in the third article cited below.
Over at the The Philosopher's Stone, Robert Paul Wolff waxes enthusiastic over a quotation from Hobbes:
"Fear of power invisible, feigned by the mind, or imagined from tales publicly allowed, RELIGION; not allowed, SUPERSTITION."
Just think what Hobbes accomplishes in these eighteen words! The only distinction between religion and superstition is whether the tales that provoke our fear of things invisible are allowed or not allowed. It is the law, the will of the sovereign, that constitutes the difference betwixt the two. I think that single sentence may be the most powerful argument against religion faith ever written.
There, now I can face another evening of bloviating pundits.
I grant that the Hobbes quotation is a stylistically dazzling English sentence. But I find no non-question-begging argument in it, just a series of assertions:
1. The object of religious belief is an invisible power. 2. This object evokes fear. 3. The fear-evoking object of religion is imaginary, hence nonexistent. 4. Religious and superstitious belief have the same object. 5. There is no intrinsic difference between religion and supersition; the only difference is a relational one. Belief in an imaginary, fear-evoking invisible power is religion if the sovereign allows it. Otherwise it is superstition.
If this is the best the anti-religionists can do, they are in sad shape.
Meanwhile over at Oxford University, Vince Vitale maintains that God or rather God-belief is not dead. Watch the video. My old atheist friend Quentin Smith is quoted. (Note that 'old friend' does not imply that the friend is old; but Quentin is.)
Gary Gutting recently interviewed Alvin Plantinga in the pages of The New York Times and brought up the business about Bertrand Russell's celestial teapot. The following response of Gutting to Plantinga comes early on in the interview:
G.G.: You say atheism requires evidence to support it. Many atheists deny this, saying that all they need to do is point out the lack of any good evidence for theism. You compare atheism to the denial that there are an even number of stars, which obviously would need evidence. But atheists say (using an example from Bertrand Russell) that you should rather compare atheism to the denial that there’s a teapot in orbit around the sun. Why prefer your comparison to Russell’s?
Russell's comparison has long struck me as lame, and so I want to revisit and rethink this topic. What follows is an old post from August 2010 amended and substantially expanded:
Gutting, Dawkins, and Russell's Celestial Teapot
In his recent NYT Opinionator piece, On Dawkins's Atheism, Notre Dame's Gary Gutting writes, describing the "no arguments argument" of some atheists:
To say that the universe was created by a good and powerful being who cares about us is an extraordinary claim, so improbable to begin with that we surely should deny it unless there are decisive arguments for it (arguments showing that it is highly probable). Even if Dawkins’ arguments against theism are faulty, can’t he cite the inconclusiveness of even the most well-worked-out theistic arguments as grounds for denying God’s existence?
He can if he has good reason to think that, apart from specific theistic arguments, God’s existence is highly unlikely. Besides what we can prove from arguments, how probable is it that God exists? Here Dawkins refers to Bertrand Russell’s example of the orbiting teapot. We would require very strong evidence before agreeing that there was a teapot in orbit around the sun, and lacking such evidence would deny and not remain merely agnostic about such a claim. This is because there is nothing in our experience suggesting that the claim might be true; it has no significant intrinsic probability.
But suppose that several astronauts reported seeing something that looked very much like a teapot and, later, a number of reputable space scientists interpreted certain satellite data as showing the presence of a teapot-shaped object, even though other space scientists questioned this interpretation. Then it would be gratuitous to reject the hypothesis out of hand, even without decisive proof that it was true. We should just remain agnostic about it.
The claim that God exists is much closer to this second case. There are sensible people who report having had some kind of direct awareness of a divine being, and there are competent philosophers who endorse arguments for God’s existence. Therefore, an agnostic stance seems preferable to atheism.
I have a serious problem with Gutting's response to the Russell-Dawkins tag team. Gutting concedes far too much in his reply, namely, that it even makes sense to compare the claim that there is an orbiting teapot with the claim that God exists. Instead of attacking this comparison as wrongheaded from the outset, Gutting in effect concedes its aptness when he points out that, just as there could be (inconclusive) scientific evidence of a celestial teaspot, there could be (inconclusive) experiential and argumentative evidence for the existence of God. So let me try to explain why I think that the two existence claims ('God exists' and 'A celestial teapot exists') are radically different.
If someone asserts that there there is a celestial teapot orbiting the Sun, or an angry unicorn on the far side of the Moon, or that 9/11 was an 'inside job,' one will justifiably demand evidence. "It's possible, but what's your evidence for so outlandish a claim?" It is the same with God, say many atheists. The antecedent probability of God's existence, they think, is on a par with the extremely low antecedent probability of there being a celestial teapot or an irate lunar unicorn, a 'lunicorn,' if you will.
But this is to assume something that a sophisticated theist such as Thomas Aquinas would never grant, namely, that God, if he exists, is just another being among the totality of beings. For Aquinas, God is not an ens (a being) but esse ipsum subsistens (self-subsistent Being). God is not a being among beings, but Being itself. Admittedly, this is not an easy notion; but if the atheist is not willing to grapple with it, then his animadversions are just so many grapplings with a straw man.
Why can't God be just another being among beings in the way an orbiting teapot would be just another being among beings were it to exist? I hope it is clear that my point is not that while a teapot is a material object, God is not. That's true, of course, but my point cuts much deeper: if God exists, he exists in a way dfferent from the way contingent beings exist.
First of all, if God exists, then God is the metaphysical ground of the existence of every contingent being. Every such being on classical theism is continuously maintained in existence by the exercise of divine power. Thus every contingent being is radically dependent for its existence on divine activity. The same cannot be said about an orbiting teapot. If 'ontic' means pertaining to beings, and 'ontological' means pertaining to the Being of beings (the esse of entia), then 'God exists' is both ontic and ontolological. It says that there is a being possessing such-and-such divine attributes, but it also says something about the Being of what is other than God, namely, that its Being is createdness, a form of continuous ontological dependency. 'An orbiting teapot exists,' however is merely an ontic claim. It says or implies nothing about the Being of anything distinct from it. Now this difference between an ontic-ontological claim and a merely ontic one strikes me as very important. It is a difference that throws a spanner into the works of such facile comparisons as Russell's.
Second, on some accounts necessarily existent abstracta are also dependent on God. If (Fregean) propositions are divine thoughts then they are dependent on God despite their metaphysical necessity. The exist necessarily, but they have their necessity not from themselves but from another. Not so for the teapots and the unicorns.
Third, God is not only the ultimate ground of all beings, both contingent and necessary (except himself); he is also the ultimate ground of the intelligibility of all beings, of their aptness to be understood by us or anyone, their aptness to be subjects of true predications. Propositional or sentential truth is made possible by ontic truth, the intelligibility of that which is veridically represented by true propositions. But I don't think one would want to say that an angry unicon on the far side of the moon is the ultimate ground of intelligibility.
Fourth, God is the ultimate source of all value.
Fifth, God is the all-pervasive One, immanent in each thing yet transcendent of all things. This is not true of lunar unicorns and celestial teapots. If there is a lunar unicorn, then this is just one more isolated fact about the universe. But if God exists, then everything is unified by this fact: everything has the ground of its being and its intelligibility and its value snd its unity in the creative activity of this one paradigmatic purely spiritual being, a being who does not have existence like a teapot but is its existence
So, on a sophisticated conception, God cannot be just one more being among beings. The Source of being is not just another thing sourced. The ground of intelligibility is not just another intelligible item. The Thinker behind every thought is not just another thought. The locus and source of all value is not just another valuable thing. The One is not just another member of the Many.
These differences between God classically conceived and outlandish specimens of space junk is connected with the fact that one can argue from general facts about the universe to the existence of God, but not from such facts to the existence of lunar unicorns and celestial teapots. Thus there are various sorts of cosmological argument that proceed a contingentia mundi to a ground of contingent beings. But there is no similar a posteriori argument to a celestial teapot. There are also arguments to God from truth, from consciousness, from apparent design, from desire, from morality, and others besides. But as far as I know there are no similar arguments to teapots or unicorns or flying spaghetti monsters.
The very existence of these arguments shows two things.
First, since they move from very general facts (the existence of contingent beings, the existence of truth) to the existence of a source of these general facts, they show that God is not a being among beings, not something merely in addition to what is ordinarily taken to exist. Affirming and denyng the existence of God is not simply a matter of adding to or subtracting from a pre-given ontological inventory. For God does not make a merely ontic difference, but an ontological one as well. The existence of God changes the ontology. For if God exists, then the Being of non-divine entities is createdness, hence different from what it would be were there no God. Socrates is a being whose existence/nonexistence makes no difference to the system of ontological categories, and no difference to the nature of existence, property-possession, etc. God, however, is a being whose existence/nonexistence does make such a difference.
Second, these arguments give positive reason for believing in the existence of God. Are they compelling? No, but then no argument for any substantive philosophical conclusion is compelling.
People like Russell, Dawkins, and Dennett who compare God to a celestial teapot betray by so doing a failure to understand, and engage, the very sense of the classical theist's assertions. To sum up. (i) God is not a gratuitous posit in that there are many detailed arguments for the existence of God; (ii) God is not a physical being; (iii) God is not a being who simply exists alongside other beings. In all three respects, God is quite unlike a celestial teapot, a lunar uncorn, an invisible hippopotamus, and suchlike concoctions.
God is a not a being among beings, but the very Being of beings. To deny God, then, is not like denying an orbiting teapot; it is more like denying Being itself, and with it, beings. Or it is more like denying truth itself as opposed to denying that a particular proposition is true.
One who appreciates this ought to find discussions about the antecedent probability of theism as compared to teapotism faintly absurd. The question of the antecedent probability of something like Russell's teapot makes sense and has an easy answer: very low! The question of the antecedent probability of there being truths has no clear sense. The probability of a proposition is the probability of its being true. Hence, that there is truth, or that there are truths, is a presupposition of any meaningful talk of probability. It is therefore senseless to ask about the antecedent probability of there being truths, and the following answer is clearly absurd: the antecedent probabilty of there being any true propositions is extremely low.
Now my point is that the God question is like the truth question, not like the teapot question.
Unfortunately, the line I have sketched here will be rejected both by all atheists, but also by many theists, those theists who think of God as a being among beings, uniquely qualified no doubt, but no different in his Being or in the way he has properties than any other being qua being. Or, in the quasi-Heideggerian jargon employed above, these theists will say that 'God exists' is an ontic, not an ontic-ontological claim, and as such no different than 'Socrates exists' or 'Russell's celestial teapot exists.'
And the widely-bruited 'death of God?' It is an 'event' of rather more significance than the discovery that there is no celestial teapot (or Santa Claus, or . . . ) after all. As Nietzsche observed, the death of God is the death of truth.
According to Bryan Magee ("What I Believe," Philosophy 77 (2002), 407- 419), nobody knows the answers to such questions as whether we survive our bodily deaths or whether God exists. Citing Xenophanes and Kant, Magee further suggests that the answers to these questions are not only unknown but impossible for us to know. Assuming that Magee is right on both counts, what follows?
One inference one might draw from our state of irremediable ignorance about ultimates is that it provides us with 'doxastic wiggle-room' (my expression): if one cannot know one way or the other, then one is permitted either to believe or not believe that we survive and that God exists. After all, if it cannot be proven that ~p, then it is epistemically possible that p, and this epistemic possibility might be taken to allow as reasonable our believing that p. Invoking the Kantian distinction between thinking and knowing (Critique of Pure Reason, B 146 et passim) one could maintain that although we have and can have no knowledge of God and the soul, we can think them without contradiction, and without contradicting anything we know. Does not the denial of knowledge make room for faith, as Kant himself famously remarks? CPR B xxx: Ich musste also das Wissen aufheben, um zum Glauben Platz zu bekommen... "I have therefore found it necessary to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith...." (And given that contact with reality is a great good, would it not be better to venture contact with the unknowable portion of it via faith rather than have no contact with it at all by insisting that only knowable truth is admissible truth?)
This inference, however, the inference from our irremediable ignorance to the rational allowability of belief in the epistemically possible, is one that Magee resolutely refuses to draw, seeing it as a shabby evasion and an "illegitimate slide."(408) Thus he holds it to be illegitimate to move from the epistemic possibility of post-mortem survival to belief in it. As he puts it, "What I find myself wantingto drive home is not merely that we do not know but that the only honest way to live and think is in the fullest possible acknowledgment of that fact and its consequences, without ducking out into a faith of some kind, and without evasion or self-indulgence of any other sort." (417) Near the beginning of his essay, Magee cites Freud to the effect that no right to believe anything can be derived from ignorance. (408)
The relevance of the Freudian point, however, is unclear. First of all, no one would maintain that ignorance about a matter such as post-mortem survival justifies, in the sense of provides evidence for, the belief that one survives. And a person who thinks it rationally allowable to believe where we cannot know will presumably not take a deontological approach to belief in terms of epistemic rights and duties. In any case, the issue is this: Is it ever rationally permissible to believe where knowledge is unavailable? Magee answers this question in the negative. But I cannot see that he makes anythingclose to a convincing case for this answer. I will simply run through some questions/objections the cumulative force of which will be to neutralize, though perhaps not refute, Magee's view. Thus I play for a draw, not a win. I doubt that one can expect more from philosophy. This post presents just one of my questions/objections.
One problem with Magee's argument is that it seems to prove too much. If we have no knowledge about such metaphysical/religious matters as God and the soul, and so must suspend belief in them lest we violate the putative epistemic duty to believe only on sufficient evidence, then we must also suspend belief on a host of other issues in respect of which we certainly cannot claim knowledge. Surely, the very same reasons that lead Magee to say that no one knows anything about God and the soul must also lead us to say that no one knows whether or not there are cases in which justice demands capital punishment, or whether or not a just society is one which provides for redistribution of wealth, or whether or not animals have rights, etc. Indeed, we must say that no one knows what justice is or what rights are. And of course it is not merely about normative issues that we are ignorant.
Do we know what motion, or causation, or time are? Do we know what properties are, or what is is for a thing to have a property, or to exist, or to change, or to be the same thing over time? Note that these questions, unlike the God and soul questions, do not pertain to what is transcendent of experience. I see the tomato; I see that it is red; I see or think I see that it is the same tomato that I bought from the grocer an hour ago; applying a knife to it, I see or think I see that slicing it causes it to split apart.
For that matter, Does Magee know that his preferred ethics of belief is correct? How does he know that? How could he know it? Does he have sufficient evidence? If he knows it, why do philosophers better than him take a different view? Does he merely believe it? Does he believe it because his fear of being wrong trumps his desire for the truth? Does he want truth, but only on his terms? Does he want only that truth that can satisfy the criteria that he imposes? Would it not be more self-consistent for Magee to suspend belief as to his preferred ethics of belief? Why is it better to have no contact with reality than such contact via faith? Isn't it better to have a true belief that I cannot justify about a life and death matter than no belief about that matter? Does the man of faith self-indulgently evade reality, or does the philosopher of Magee's stripe self-indulgently and pridefully refuse such reality as he cannot certify by his methods?
No one knows how economies really work; if we had knowledge in this area we would not have wildly divergent paradigms of economic explanation. But this pervasive ignorance does not prevent people from holding very firm beliefs about these non-religious issues, beliefsthat translate into action in a variety of ways, both peaceful and violent. It is furthermore clear that people feel quite justified in holding, and acting upon, these beliefs that go beyond what they can claim to know. What is more, I suspect Magee would agree that people are often justified in holding such beliefs.
So if Magee is right that we ought to suspend belief about religious matters, then he must also maintain that we ought to suspend belief about the social and political matters that scarcely anyone ever suspends belief about. That is, unless he can point to a relevant difference between the religious questions and the social-political ones. But it is difficult to discern any relevant difference. In both cases we are dealing with knowledge-transcendent beliefs for which elaborate rational defenses can be constructed, and elaborate rational refutations of competing positions.
In both cases we are dealing with very abstruse and 'metaphysical' issues such as the belief in equal rights, a belief which manifestly has no empirical justification. And in both cases we are dealing with issues of great importance to our welfare and happiness. On the other hand, if Magee thinks that we are justified in holding beliefs about social and political matters, something he does of course hold, then he should also maintain that we are justified in holding beliefs about religious matters. There is no justification for a double standard. In this connection, one should read Peter van Inwagen's Quam Dilecta, in God and the Philosophers, ed. T. V. Morris (Oxford University Press, 1994), 31-60. See especially 41-46 for a penetrating discussion of the double standard.
Yesterday I argued that atheism is not a religion. Well, theism is not a religion either, but for different reasons. Atheism is not a religion because it amounts to the rejection of the central commitment of anything that could legitimately be called a religion. (So if atheism were a religion, it would amount to a rejection of itself.) This core commitment is the affirmation of the existence of a transcendent reality, whether of a personal or impersonal nature, contact or community or identification with which is the summum bonum and the ultimate purpose of human existence.
Theism is not a religion for at least two reasons.
First, there is no religion in general, only particular religions, and theism is not a particular religion. Theism is merely a proposition common to many different (monotheistic and polytheistic) religions. It is the proposition that God or gods exist. As such, it is simply the negation of the characteristic atheist proposition. No extant religion consists of the theist's bare metaphysical asseveration, and no possible religion could consist of it alone.
Second, both doctrine and practice are essential to a religion, but a theist needn't engage in any specifically theistic practice to be a theist. He need only uphold the theoretical proposition that there is such a being or such beings as God or gods.
If theism is not a religion, then, as Tully Borland suggested to me, it is difficult to see how a reference to God in the Pledge of Allegiance could be construed as violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution. The clause reads as follows: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . ."
"One nation under God" from the Pledge is at most an affirmation of theism. But theism is not a religion. So the occurrence of the word 'God' in the pledge does nothing to establsh any religion as the state religion. Understandably, atheists don't like that word in the Pledge, but the Establishment Clause gives them no ground for removing it.
Similarly with "In God We Trust" on our currency. This is more than a bare affirmation (or presupposition) of the existence of God; it brings in the further notion of trusting God, a notion that is admittedly religious. But which religion is established by "In God We Trust"? Judaism? Christianity? Islam? All three Abrahamic religions have monotheism in common. Obviously, if Congress were to establish a state religion it would have to be some one particular religion. But no particular religion has proprietary rights in "In God We Trust." So why should we think that the phrase violates the Establishment Clause.
And the same goes for the Ten Commandments as I maintained years ago when I first took to the 'sphere. The Decalogue is common to the three Abrahamic religions. So if a judge posts them in his chambers, which religion is he establishing by so doing?
Once again we see what extremists contemporary iberals are. The plain sense of the Establishment Clause is that there shall be no state religion. One has to torture the Clause to extract from it justification to remove all references to God and every last vestige of religion from the public sphere, a sphere that ever expands under liberal fascism while the private sphere contracts.
Atheism is not a religion. But the following is not a good reason for thinking so:
Atheism (and here I mean the so-called “weak atheism” that does not claim proof that god does not exist), is just the lack of god-belief – nothing more and nothing less. And as someone once said, if atheism is a religion, not collecting stamps is a hobby. That really ought to end the discussion right there. Clearly, a mere lack of belief in something cannot be a religion.
Right, a mere lack of belief in something cannot be a religion. But atheism is not a mere lack of belief in something. If atheism is just the lack of god-belief, then tables and chairs are atheists. For they lack god-belief. Am I being uncharitable? Suppose someone defines atheism more carefully as lack of god-belief in beings capable of having beliefs. That is still unacceptable. Consider a child who lacks both god-belief and god-disbelief. If lacking god-belief makes him an atheist, then lacking god-disbelief makes him a theist. So he is both, which is absurd.
Obviously, atheism is is not a mere lack of belief, but a definite belief, namely, the belief that the world is godless. Atheism is a claim about the way things are: there is no such thing as the God of Judaism, or the God of Christianity, or the God of Islam, or the gods of the Greek pantheon, or . . . etc. The atheist has a definite belief about the ontological inventory: it does not include God or gods or any reasonable facsimile thereof such as the Plotinian One, etc. Note also that if you deny that any god exists, then you are denying that the universe is created by God: you are saying something quite positive about the ontological status of the universe, namely, that it does not depend for its existence on a being transcendent of it. And if it does not so depend, then that implies that it exists on its own as a brute fact or that it necessarily exists or that it causes itself to exist. Without getting into all the details here, the point is that if you deny that God exists, this is not just a denial of the existence of a certain being, but implies a positive claim about the ontological status of the universe. What's more, if there is no creator God, then the apparent order of the universe, its apparent designedness, is merely apparent. This is a positive thesis about the nature of the physical universe.
Atheism, then, is not a mere lack of god-belief. For it implies definite positive beliefs about reality as a whole and about the nature and mode of existence of the physical universe.
Why then is atheism not a religion? No good purpose is served by using 'religion' to refer to any set of action-guiding beliefs held with fervor and commitment. For if one talks in that hopelessly loose way, then extreme environmentalism and Communism are religions.
Although it is not easy to craft a really satisfactory definition of religion, I would say that all and only religions affirm the existence of a transcendent reality,
whether of a personal or impersonal nature, contact or community or
identification with which is the summum bonum and the ultimate purpose
of human existence. For the Abrahamic faiths, Yahweh, God, Allah is the
transcendent reality. For Taoism, the Tao. For Hinduism, Brahman. For
(Mahayana) Buddhism, the transcendent state of nirvana. Since atheists precisely deny any such transcendent reality contact with which is our highest good and ultimate purpose, atheism is not a religion.
"But aren't militant atheists very much like certain zealous religionists? Doesn't militant atheism function in their lives much as religion functions in the life of the religiously zealous?" No doubt, but if one thing is like another, that is not to say that the one thing is the
other or is a species of the other.
And another thing. If atheism is not a religion, then, while there can be atheist associations, there cannot be, in any serious sense of the word, an atheist church.
As the USA drifts daily farther in the direction of leftist totalitarianism, the words of Solzhenitsyn ought to be considered. Excerpt:
. . . the world had never before known a godlessness as organized, militarized, and tenaciously malevolent as that practiced by Marxism. Within the philosophical system of Marx and Lenin, and at the heart of their psychology, hatred of God is the principal driving force, more fundamental than all their political and economic pretensions. Militant atheism is not merely incidental or marginal to Communist policy; it is not a side effect, but the central pivot. The 1920’s in the USSR witnessed an uninterrupted procession of victims and martyrs amongst the Orthodox clergy. Two metropolitans were shot, one of whom, Veniamin of Petrograd, had been elected by the popular vote of his diocese. Patriarch Tikhon himself passed through the hands of the Cheka-GPU and then died under suspicious circumstances. Scores of archbishops and bishops perished. Tens of thousands of priests, monks, and nuns, pressured by the Chekists to renounce the Word of God, were tortured, shot in cellars, sent to camps, exiled to the desolate tundra of the far North, or turned out into the streets in their old age without food or shelter. All these Christian martyrs went unswervingly to their deaths for the faith; instances of apostasy were few and far between. For tens of millions of laymen access to the Church was blocked, and they were forbidden to bring up their children in the Faith: religious parents were wrenched from their children and thrown into prison, while the children were turned from the faith by threats and lies.
There is a problem that has occupied me on and off for years. Mikael Stenmark's Prague paper, "Competing Conceptions of God: The Personal God versus the God beyond Being" got me thinking about it again. What follows, however, is not intended as commentary on Stenmark's paper.
One way into the problem as I conceive it is via the following aporetic triad:
1. There are things other than God that exist, and they all depend on God for their existence.
2. For any x, y, if x depends for its existence on y, and x exists, then y exists. (This implies that nothing can depend on God for its existence unless God exists.)
3. God is not one of the many things that exist, and so God does not exist.
It is easy to see that the limbs of the triad cannot all be true. And yet each has some plausibility, at least 'in-house,' i.e., among theists.
(1) or something like it must be accepted by both ontic theists and alterity theists. Roughly, an ontic theist is a theist who maintains that God is a being among beings while an alterity theist is one who maintains that God is radically transcendent, radically other, to such an extent that he cannot be identified with any being.
(2) won't be accepted by the alterity theists, but it is to my mind exceedingly plausible!
(3) won't be accepted by the ontic theist, but many find it plausible.
But since the limbs cannot all be true, one of them must be rejected. (I am assuming, of course, that there cannot be true contradictions.) There are therefore three main ways of solving the problem.
A. The quickest solution, call it Blanket Atheism, is by rejecting (1). There is no God in any sense of the term. No being is God, and there is no God 'beyond being.' There is just the natural world (and perhaps abstracta) but nature is not God.
B. The alterity theist rejects (2) while accepting (3).
C. The ontic theist accepts (2) while rejecting (3).
But there are two other C-options, two other options involving the acceptance of (2) and the rejection of (3).
One could take a monistic tack, roughly along the lines of Spinoza. Accordingly, (i) there is a sense in which God exists -- God is not natura naturata, but natura naturans -- ; (ii) God exists in the primary sense of 'exists'; (iii) God alone exists, hence is not one of many existents, and so does not exist in the sense in which Spinozistic modes exist.
This is what I used to think, back in the '80s. See my "Two Faces of Theism," Idealistic Studies, vol. xx, no. 3 (September 1990), pp. 238-257. But I moved away from this position in the '90s and took an onto-theological turn that found expression in my existence book.
That is the other C-option. Accordingly, God is not an existent among existents as the ontic theist maintains. Nor is God somehow real but nonexistent as the alterity theist maintains. Nor is God the one and only existent as the monist maintains. Rather, God is self-existent Existence, yet transcendent, pace monism. This is roughly akin to the position of Aquinas. Deus est ipsum esse subsistens. So God is Being (esse) but God also is. God is Being but also the prime 'case' -- not instance! -- of Being. But God is in a mode of Being unlike the mode of Being of anything else. So God is not a being among beings, nor does he have properties in the way Socrates has properties.
But this too has its difficulties. So now I am contemplating the final step: Into the Mystic.
Roughly, the above triad is an aporia, an insolubilium. One has to blast through it, as through a koan, into the Transdiscursive. The philosopher, however, hovers at the boundary of the Unsayable, marking it without overstepping it, incapable qua philosopher of effing the Ineffable, but able -- and this is his office -- to point to it while refuting both denials of it and bad theories about it.
If God exists and you worship anything in his place, then that thing is a false god and you are an idolater. But if God does not exist, and you worship anything at all, then you are also an idolater. For idolatry entails worshipping something unworthy of worship, and if God does not exist, then nothing is worthy of worship.
Now atheists typically pride themselves on 'going one god further.' Thus they typically say to the Christian,"You reject all gods but the Christian god; we just go one god further." So, consistently with his atheism, an atheist cannot worship anything. If he makes a clean sweep with respect to all gods, then he cannot make a god of sex, power, money, science, the Enlightenment, the state, the withering away of the state, the worker's paradise, the atheist agenda, nature, himself, his mortal beloved, not to mention golf and Eric Clapton.
A consistent atheism may prove to be a difficult row to hoe. The atheist will be sorely tempted to fall into idolatry, making a god of nature, for example, as some environmentalists do, or of science, or of the enlightenment project, or of the 'crusade' against Christianity or religion generally. He must also avoid nihilism, the denial of value to everything. The atheist must find meaning in a world in which nothing is absolute, nothing holy, nothing worthy of total commitment. Nice work if you can get it.
Can one live a meaningful life without God and without idols? Without an Absolute and without illicitly absolutizing anything relative? I don't know. I suspect the atheist will fall into some sort of idolatry and end up worshipping nature or the state or something else obviously unworthy of worship.
Can an atheist live life to the full, keeping up the strenuous mood, falling neither into idolatry nor into nihilism? William James (1842-1910) would, I think, demur. In "The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life,' we read:
The capacity of the strenuous mood lies so deep down among our natural human possibilities that even if there were no metaphysical or traditional grounds for believing in a God, men would postulate one simply as a pretext for living hard, and getting out of the game of existence its keenest possibilities of zest.
The role of concupiscence in dimming our spiritual sight has long been recognized by many, among them, Plato, Augustine, and Pascal: "There are some who see clearly that man has no other enemy but concupiscence, which turns him away from God." (Pensées, Krailsheimer #269, p. 110) One wonders how much of the atheism of a Russell or a Sartre or an A. J. Ayer is the theoretical reflex of an inordinate love of this world and its flesh pots.
Frequent the flesh pots and it may turn out the best you can do by way of a conception of God is that of a celestial teapot.
In Australia, soon, details here. Topic: Why is there something rather than nothing? Poor Krauss is going to get slaughtered, and deservedly so. Debating Craig is like getting into a gun fight with Doc Holliday. I would never debate him on anything, even if I thought debate was philosophically worthwhile. He has been honing his skills since high school.
According to the linked site, Krauss' A Universe from Nothing is being translated into 20 languages. Well, that is the way of the world. A piece of garbage becomes a best seller and is translated into 20 languages while books worth reading fall still-born from the press.
The problem with Alvin Plantinga’s defense of theism is a simple but wholly vitiating one [Where the Conflict Really Lies, reviewed by Thomas Nagel in “A Philosopher Defends Religion,” NYR, September 27, 2012]. It is that it rests on the fallacy of informal logic known as petitio principii. Plantinga wishes to claim that we can know there is a deity because the deity has provided us with a cognitive modality, which Plantinga calls “a sensus divinitatis,” or sense of the divine, by which we detect its existence. So, we know there is a god because that god arranges matters so that we know there is a god. The circularity is perfect, and perfectly fallacious. I can claim with equal cogency that I know there are goblins in my garden because they provide me with a goblin-sensing faculty of mind…and so for anything else whatever that we would antecedently like to exist.
Plantinga assumes that everyone has a sensus divinitatis but in some of us it is faulty. The name of this fault is “rationality.”
Anthony Grayling’s charge of circularity would be right if Plantinga offered the sensus divinitatis as evidence for the existence of God, but he does not. He says merely that belief in God is knowledge if it is in fact caused by God in this way, much as perceptual belief in the external physical world is knowledge if it is in fact caused by the external world in the appropriate way. It would be just as circular to try to prove the existence of the external world by appealing to perception as it would be to try to prove the existence of God by appealing to the sensus divinitatis. But Plantinga holds that it is nevertheless reasonable to hold either type of belief in this basic way, without further proof. I assume he would deny that anyone has, or thinks he has, a basic, unmediated belief in goblins.
Clearly, Grayling is not at the level of Plantinga and Nagel. He is more of a New Atheist ideologue and polemicist than a genuine philosopher. This is shown by the sophomoric zeal with which he attempts to pin an elementary informal fallacy on Plantinga, one that "wholly vitiates" his defense of theism. It takes chutzpah and lack of respect for a formidable opponent to think one can blow him out of the water in this way. This is typical cyberpunk behavior. The punks hurl fallacy labels at each other: fallacy of composition! Hypostatization! Begging the question!
And then there is the polemical swipe Grayling takes at the end of his letter. Polemics has its place, but not in philosophy.
James N. Anderson and Greg Welty have published a paper entitled The Lord of Non-Contradiction: An Argument for God from Logic. Having worked out similar arguments in unpublished manuscripts, I am very sympathetic to the project of arguing from the existence of necessary truths to the necessary existence of divine mind.
Here is a quick sketch of the Anderson-Welty argument as I construe it:
1. There are laws of logic, e.g., the law of non-contradiction.
2. The laws of logic are truths.
3. The laws of logic are necessary truths.
4. A truth is a true proposition, where propositions are the primary truth-bearers or primary vehicles of the truth values.
5. Propositions exist. Argument: there are truths (from 1, 2); a truth is a true proposition (3); if an item has a property such as the property of being true, then it exists. Ergo, propositions exist.
6. Necessarily true propositions necessarily exist. For if a proposition has the property of being true in every possible world, then it exists in every possible world. Remark: in play here are 'Fregean' as opposed to 'Russellian' propositions. See here for an explanation of the distinction as I see it. If the proposition expressed by 'Socrates is Socrates' is Russellian, then it has Socrates himself, warts and all, as a constituent. But then, though the proposition is in some sense necessarily true, being a truth of logic, it is surely not necessarily existent.
7. Propositions are not physical entities. This is because no physical entity such as a string of marks on paper could be a primary truth-bearer. A string of marks, if true, is true only derivatively or secondarily, only insofar as as it expresses a proposition.
8. Propositions are intrinsically intentional. (This is explained in the post which is the warm-up to the present one.)
9. The laws of logic are necessarily existent, nonphysical, intrinsically intentional entities.
10. Thoughts are intrinsically intentional.
The argument now takes a very interesting turn. If propositions are intrinsically intentional, and thoughts are as well, might it be that propositions are thoughts?
The following invalid syllogism must be avoided: "Every proposition is intrinsically intentional; every thought is intrinsically intentional; ergo, every proposition is a thought." This argument is an instance of the fallacy of undistributed middle, and of course the authors argue in no such way. They instead raise the question whether it is parsimonious to admit into our ontology two distinct categories of intrinsically intentional item, one mental, the other non-mental. Their claim is that the principle of parsimony "demands" that propositions be constued as mental items, as thoughts. Therefore
11. Propositions are thoughts.
12. Some propositions (the law of logic among them) are necessarily existent thoughts. (From 8, 9, 10, 11)
13. Necessarily, thoughts are thoughts of a thinker.
14. The laws of logic are the thoughts of a necessarily existent thinker, and "this all men call God." (Aquinas)
A Stab at Critique
Line (11) is the crucial sub-conclusion. The whole argument hinges on it. Changing the metaphor, here is where I insert my critical blade, and take my stab. I count three views.
A. There are propositions and there are thoughts and both are intrinsically intentional.
B. Propositions reduce to thoughts.
C. Thoughts reduce to propositions.
Now do considerations of parsimony speak against (A)? We are enjoined not to multiply entities (or rather types of entity) praeter necessitatem. That is, we ought not posit more types of entity than we need for explanatory purposes. This is not the same as saying that we ought to prefer ontologies with fewer categories. Suppose we are comparing an n category ontology with an n + 1 category ontology. Parsimony does not instruct us to take the n category ontology. It instructs us to take the n category ontology only if it is explanatorily adequate, only if it explains all the relevant data but without the additional posit. Well, do we need propositions in addition to thoughts for explanatory purposes? It is plausible to say yes because there are (infinitely) many propositions that no one has ever thought of or about. Arithmetic alone supplies plenty of examples. Of course, if God exists, there are no unthought propositions. But the existence of God is precisely what is at issue. So we cannot assume it. But if we don't assume it, then we have a pretty good reason to distinguish propositions and thoughts as two different sorts of intrinsically intentional entity given that we already have reason to posit thoughts and propositions.
So my first critical point is that the principle of parsimony is too frail a reed with which to support the reduction of propositions to thoughts. Parsimony needs to be beefed-up with other considerations, e.g., an argument to show why an abstract object could not be intrinsically intentional.
My second critical point is this. Why not countenance (C), the reduction of thoughts to propositions? It could be like this. There are all the (Fregean) propostions there might have been, hanging out in Frege's Thrid Reich (Popper's world 3). The thought that 7 + 5 = 12 is not a state of an individul thinker; there are no individual thinkers, so selves, no egos. The thought is just the Fregean proposition's temporary and contingent exemplification of the monadic property, Pre-Personal Awareness or Bewusst-sein. Now I don't have time to develop this suggestion which has elements of Natorp and Butchvarov, and in any case it is not my view.
All I am saying is that (C) needs excluding. Otherwise we don't have a good reason to plump for (B).
My conclusion? The Anderson-Welty argument, though fascinating and competently articulated, is not rationally compelling. Rationally acceptable, but not rationally compelling. Acceptable, because the premises are plausible and the reasoning is correct. Not compelling, because one could resist it without quitting the precincts of reasonableness.
To theists, I say: go on being theists. You are better off being a theist than not being one. Your position is rationally defensible and the alternatives are rationally rejectable. But don't fancy that you can prove the existence of God or the opposite. In the end you must decide how you will live and what you will believe.
Dawkins has lost. Hitchens is dead. And the prognosis is not good for the rest of the strident crew. But an atheism chastened and temperate will remain with us. As I have said many times, atheism is intellectually respectable and rationally defensible. But so is theism.
In the end you must decide for yourself what to believe and how to live.
Dawkins has taken flak for characterizing religious indoctrination of children as “child abuse.” Well, look at this picture and deny it. [The picture depicts a young child holding a sign that reads: Behead all those who insult the Prophet.] True, it’s not the same as beating or sexually molesting one’s child, but the brain of this boy is being warped and twisted by vicious Muslim ideology. What hope does he have when he grows up?
This also shows how crazy it is to characterize Islam as “the religion of peace.”
Somehow—and this will never happen, of course—it should be illegal to indoctrinate children with religious belief.
This is pretty feeble stuff for someone who supposedly can think. First of all, Coyne speaks of religious indoctrination and belief as such and in general, without qualification, making no distinctions among different religions or different beliefs within a given religion. Suppose a child is made to memorize the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes. That surely counts as religious indoctrination. But is it child abuse? Obviously not.
A second point is that Coyne and his New Atheist ilk make no distinction between religious ideology and nonreligious ideology. Radical Islam, if not Islam itself, is a murderous religious ideology, and Coyne is quite right to protest its characterization as the "religion of peace." But Nazism and godless communism are also murderous ideologies whose doctrines justify mass murder. According to the Black Book of Communism, communists murdered approximately 100 million people in the 20th century.
Think of all the 'red diaper babies.' I wonder if Coyne and his ilk would protest their indoctrination as child abuse. If not, why not? Why is indoctrination in radical Islam worse than indoctrination in Naziism or communism? Why the selective outrage? If the genus extremist ideology is the problem, why attack only one of its species?
I admit that there is something unseemly about criticizing a man like Coyne. It's uncomfortably like rolling a drunk or beating up a cripple. Nasty work, but somebody has to do it. Here is further evidence of what a fool this man is.
But even worse than Coyne and Dawkins on the topic of religion as child abuse is the noxious A. C. Grayling.
We can be happy that the New Atheism has lost its mojo and is on the way out if not already dead.
Beloved of cyberpunks and Internet infidels, the 'One God Further' meme invites generalization. Although it is not an argument but an assertion, the Dawkins attribution suggests an argument. The argument it suggests to me is the following:
1. All gods are on a par with respect to credibility.
2. All of us find most gods incredible.
3. Consistency demands of us that we make a clean sweep and reject all gods, including the Judeo-Christian god.
The implict claim is that believers in the Judeo-Christian god refuse to apply their principle of god-rejection across the board, but instead make an irrational exception in the case of their god.
Suppose we generalize the argument and see what happens:
1G. All Xs are on a par with respect to credibility.
2G. All of us find most Xs incredible.
3G. Consistency demands of us that we make a clean sweep and reject all Xs.
Now hear the speech of an anti-philosopher addressed to philosophers:
We reject all the philosophical theories you do, but we take it a step further by rejecting your pet theories as well. We reject all philosophical theories. So we do exactly what you do except that we do it consistently, applying the principle of philosopheme-rejection across the board. We make a clean sweep whereas you irrationally and inconsistently make an exception in favor of your pet theories.
And then there is the speech of the anti-idealist:
We reject all the ideals you do, but we take it a step further by rejecting your pet ideals as well. We reject all ideals. You distinguish between true and false ideals and reject those you take to be false such as the ideals of National Socialism. You are not consistent. You ought to make a clean sweep and reject all ideals.
Further examples of the argument schema can be provided, but you get the drift. The history of science is littered with hypotheses that didn't pan out. But of course it would be irrational to infer that one ought not propose hypotheses. Same with ideals. There are no doubt false ideals. But it doesn't follow that there are no true ideals. And the same goes for philosophical theories.
So if Dawkin's puerile meme is intended as a truncated argument, it is unsound. But if is a bare assertion, then it is true but uninteresting.
Apparently, there are some atheists who are adopting Lenten-type practices without abandoning their atheist beliefs. This ought to be cautiously applauded: we all can profit morally from a bit of voluntary abstinence. One cannot live well without (moderate) asceticism. (See William James on Self-Denial.) Better self-controlled atheists than atheists 'gone wild.'
But I would urge these atheists to go further and practice doxastic abstinence. Without rejecting your atheist beliefs, put them within brackets for the Lenten period. Practice epoché with respect to them, that is, withhold intellectual assent. That is not to doubt them or disbelieve them, but simply to make no use of them. Leave them alone for a time. In the strict sense epoché goes beyond even suspension of judgment. If I suspend judgment with respect to a propositional content, I neither affirm it, deny it, doubt it, nor even just entertain it. For if I do any of those things I admit that it has a coherent sense. In epoché, however, I leave it open whether the content has a coherent sense. Epoché is the ultimate in doxastic disengagement. Practicing total doxastic abstinence, I totally disengage from those propositions that ignite often acrimonious disagreement.
You can always go back to your atheist beliefs. Another excellent form of self-denial for atheists and religionists alike is to abstain from all theological controversies and polemics from time to time. One could call it a 'belief fast.' I hope we can all agree that being just is better than developing a theory of justice. And if discussing the Trinity only makes you angry and combative, then it might be best to drop theology and cultivate piety.
But while atheists can profit from voluntary self-denial, bringing such practices under the Lent umbrella makes little sense. Will the period of self-denial go from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday? Why tie it to these dates freighted as they are with Christian metaphysics? When a Christian reminds himself on Ash Wednesday that he is dust and shall return to dust, the whole point of that memento mori is situated within the context of the hope for and promise of eternal life. Christian mortalism is toto caelo different from atheist mortalism. And what the Christian celebrates on Easter Sunday is precisely the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ by the power of God and the hope that death will be conquered eventually for all. No atheist believes that.
In the final analysis, Lent secularized is no longer Lent. Atheists ought to exercise their imaginations and come up with a secular analog free of Chistian trappings.
Atheists ought also to worry that if they take up Christian practices, the beliefs may follow . . . .
The following is from an interview with A. C. Grayling who is speaking of the open mind and open inquiry:
It’s a mindset, he reveals, that “loves the open-endedness and the continuing character of the conversation that humankind has with itself about all these things that really matter.”
It’s also a way of thinking that marks a line in the sand between religion and science. The temptation to fall for the former—hook, line, and sinker—is plain to see: “People like narratives, they like to have an explanation, they like to know where they are going.” Weaving another string of thought into his tapestry of human psychology, Grayling laments that his fellow human beings “don’t want to have to think these things out for themselves. They like the nice, pre-packaged answer that’s just handed to them by somebody authoritative with a big beard.”
A. C. Grayling, like many if not most militant atheists, sees the difference between religion and science in the difference between pre-packaged dogmas thoughtlessly and uncritically accepted from some authority and open-ended free inquiry.
That is not the way I see it. For me, mature religion is more quest than conclusions. It too is open-ended and ongoing, subject to revision and correction. It benefits from abrasion with such competing sectors of culture as philosophy and science. By abrasion the pearl is formed.
All genuine religion involves a quest since God must remain largely unknown, and this by his very nature. He must remain latens Deitas in Aquinas' phrase:
Adoro te devote, latens Deitas, Quæ sub his figuris vere latitas; Tibi se cor meum totum subjicit, Quia te contemplans totum deficit.
Godhead here in hiding, whom I do adore, Masked by these bare shadows, shape and nothing more, See, Lord, at Thy service low lies here a heart Lost, all lost in wonder at the God thou art.
But as religion becomes established in the world in the form of churches, sects, and denominations with worldly interests, it becomes less of a quest and more of a worldly hustle. Dogmatics displaces inquiry, and fund-raising faith. The once alive becomes ossified. All human institutions are corruptible, and are eventually corrupted.
Mature religion must be more quest than conclusions. It is vastly more a seeking than a finding. More a cleansing of windows and a polishing of mirrors than a glimpsing. And certainly more a glimpsing than a comfortable resting upon dogmas. When philosophy and religion and mysticism and science are viewed as quests they complement one another. And this despite the tensions among Athens, Jerusalem, Benares, and Alexandria.
The critic of religion wants to pin it down, reducing it to dogmatic contents, so as to attack it where it is weakest. Paradoxically, the atheist 'knows' more about God than the sophisticated theist -- he knows so much that he knows no such thing could exist. He 'knows' the divine nature and knows that it is incompatible with the existence of evil -- to mention one line of attack. What he 'knows,' of course, is only the concept he himself has fabricated and projected. Aquinas, by contrast, held that the existence of God is far better known than God's nature -- which remains shrouded in a cloud of unknowing.
The (immature) religionist also wants religion pinned down and dogmatically spelled out for purposes of self-definition, doxastic security, other-exclusion, worldly promotion, and political leverage. This is a reason why reformers like Jesus are met with a cold shoulder -- or worse.
How is it that someone as intelligent as Grayling could have such a cartoonish understanding of religion? The answer is that he and his brethren utterly lack the religious sensibility. They lack it in the same way many scientists lack the philosophical sensibility, many prosaic folk the poetic sensibility, and so on.
This is why debates with militant atheists are a waste of time. To get a taste of the febrile militancy of Grayling's atheism, see here.
Can one reason from secular premises to a theistic conclusion? Or is any argument that concludes to God's existence non-secular by nature?
The reader liked yesterday's abortion post in which I used non-religious (and in that sense secular) premises to support a conclusion which, though not religious, would be accepted by most religionists and rejected by most secularists.
To answer the reader's question, yes, one can reason from secular premises to a theistic conclusion. Indeed, the traditional arguments do precisely that. For example, cosmological arguments proceed a contingentia mundi, from the contingency of the world, and they attempt to show that there must be a necessary being responsible for the world's existence. That the universe exists and that it exists contingently are secular starting points -- in one of its meanings saecula just means 'world' -- and not deliverances of revelation or churchly doctrines to be taken on faith.
Now the same goes for the rest of the theistic arguments, the ontological, the teleological, the moral, and indeed for all of the twenty or so arguments that Plantinga lists.
The reader has a second question. Can a person sincerely pray in a secular way? Suppose a person comes to believe by some combination of the arguments mentioned that there must be a being, external to the universe, on which it depends for its existence and nature. Suppose the person prays to this God. Is the person engaged in a secular act?
No. Prayer is a specifically religious act. The theistic arguments operate on the discursive plane to satisfy a theoretical need. Indeed they are often denigrated on the ground that the God they prove is a mere 'God of the philosophers' and not 'the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.' Even the great Pascal makes this mistake. See Pascal and Buber on the God of the Philosophers.
There can't be two or more gods, but there can be two or more ways of approaching one and the same God. I count four: philosophy (reason), religion (faith), mysticism (intellectual intuition), and morality (conscience).
To sum up. From secular starting points one can reason to something 'out of this world.' But to come into relation with this Something requires religious and mystical and moral practices that cannot be called secular.
This is the second in a series. My overview of Thomas Nagel's new book, Mind and Cosmos, is here.
I agree with Nagel that mind is not a cosmic accident. Mind in all of its ramifications (sentience, intentionality, self-awareness, cognition, rationality, normativity in general) could not have arisen from mindless matter. To put it very roughly, and in my own way, mind had to be there already and all along in one way or another. Not an "add-on" as Nagel writes, but "a basic aspect of nature." (16)
Two ways mind could have been there already and all along are Nagel's panpsychistic way and the theistic way. My task in this entry is to understand and then evaluate Nagel's reasons for rejecting theism.
But first let's back up a step and consider the connection between mind and intelligibility. That the world is intelligible is a presupposition of all inquiry. The quest for understanding rests on the assumption that the world is understandable, and indeed by us. The most successful form of this quest is natural science. The success of the scientific quest is evidence that the presupposition holds and is not merely a presupposition we make. The scientific enterprise reveals to us an underlying intelligible order of things not open to perception alone, although of course the confirmation of scientific theories requires perception and the various instruments that extend it.
Now what explains this underlying rational order? Two possibilities. One is that nothing does: it's a brute fact. It just happens to be the case that the world is understandable by us, but it might not have been. The rational order of things underpins every explanation but itself has no explanation. The other possibility is that the rational order has an explanation, in which case it has an explanation by something distinct from it, or else is self-explanatory. On theism, the world's rational order is grounded in the divine intellect and is therefore explained by God. On what I take to be Nagel's view, the rational order is self-explanatory, a necessary feature of anything that could count as a cosmos.
Nagel views the intelligibility of the world as "itself part of the deepest explanation why things are as they are." (17). Now part of the way things are is that they are understandable by us. Given that the way things are is intelligible, it follows that the intelligibility of the world is self-explanatory or self-grounding.
"The intelligibility of the world is no accident." (17) The same is true of mind. The two go together: an intelligible world is one that is intelligible to mind, and mind is mind only if it can 'glom onto' an antecedent order of things. (This is my way of putting it, not Nagel's!) Intelligibility is necessarily mind-involving, and mind (apart from mere qualia) is necessarily an understanding of something. One could say that there is an antecedent community of nature between mind and world which allows mind to have an object to understand and the world to be understandable by mind. What I am calling the antecedent community of nature between mind and world Nagel expresses by saying that "nature is such as to give rise to conscious beings with minds; and it is such as to be comprehensible to such beings." (17)
That neither mind nor intelligibility are cosmic accidents, and that they 'go together' as just explained could be accepted by both Nagelian panpsychists and theists. So why does Nagel reject theism?
His main reason seems to be couched in the following quotations:
. . . the disadvantage of theism as an answer to the desire for comprehensive understanding is not that it offers no explanations but that it does not do so in the form of a comprehensive account of the natural order. [. . .] But it would not be the kind of understanding that explains how beings like us fit into the world. The kind of intelligibility that would still be missing is intelligibility of the natural order itself -- intelligibility from within. (25-26)
Nagel does not do a very good job of presenting his argument clearly, but the following is what I take him to be driving at.
Materialism cannot explain the origin of life from inanimate matter, the origin of consciousness from pre-conscious life, or the origin of reason in conscious beings. Nondeistic theism can explain these crucial transitions by means of divine interventions into the workings of nature. (Deism would leave the crucial transitions as brute facts and is rejectable for this reason.) To subscribe to such interventionist hypotheses, however, is to deny that there is a comprehensive natural order. Nature would not be intelligible from within itself, in its own terms. So maybe Nagel's argument could be put like this:
1. Nature is immanently intelligible: it has the source of its intelligibility entirely within itself and not from a source outside itself.
2. On theism, nature is not immanently intelligible: God is the source of nature's intelligibility. (This is because divine intervention is needed to explain the crucial transitions to life, to consciousness, and to reason, transitions which otherwise would be unintelligible.)
3. Theism suffers from a serious defect that make it reasonable to pursue a third course, panpsychism, as a way to avoid both materialism and theism.
Now I've put the matter more clearly than Nagel does, but I'd be surprised if this is not what he is arguing, at least on pp 25-26.
As for evaluation, the argument as presented is reasonable but surely not compelling. A theist needn't be worried by it. He could argue that it begs the question at the first premise. How divine interventions into the course of nature are so much as possible is of course a problem for theists, but Plantinga has an answer for that. The theist can also go on the attack and mount a critique of panpsychism, a fit topic for future posts.
There is also the question of why the cosmos exists at all. It is plausible to maintain that the cosmos is necessarily intelligible, that it wouldn't be a cosmos if it weren't. But necessary intelligibility is consistent with contingent existence. Will Nagel say that the cosmos necessarily exists? How would he ground that? Panpsychism, if tenable, will relieve us of the dualisms of matter-life, life-consciousness, mind-body. But it doesn't have the resources to explain the very existence of the cosmos.
Yesterday I objected to calling leftism a religion. Curiously, some people call atheism a religion. I object to that too.
The question as to what religion is is not at all easy to answer. It is not even clear that the question makes sense. For when you ask 'What is religion?' you presuppose that it has an essence that can be captured in a definition that specifies necessary and sufficient conditions. But it might be that the concept religion is a family resemblance concept like the concept game (to invoke Wittgenstein's famous example). Think of all the different sorts of games there are. Is there any property or set of properties that all games have and that only games have? Presumably not. The concept game is a family resemblance concept to which no essence corresponds. Noted philosophers of religion such as John Hick maintain the same with respect to the concept religion.
If you take this tack, then you can perhaps argue that Marxism and secular humanism and militant atheism are religions.
But it strikes me as decidedly odd to characterize a militant anti-religionist as having a religion. Indeed, it smacks of a cheap debating trick: "How can you criticize religion when you yourself have a religion?" I prefer to think along the following lines.
Start with belief-system as your genus and then distinguish two species: belief-systems that are theoretical, though they may have practical applications, and belief-systems that are by their very nature oriented toward action. Call the latter ideologies. Accordingly, an ideology is a system of action-guiding beliefs. Then distinguish between religious and non-religious ideologies. Marxism and militant atheism are non-religious ideologies while the Abrahamic religions and some of the Eastern religions are religious ideologies.
But this leaves me with the problem of specifying what it is that distinguishes religious from non-religious ideologies. Perhaps this: all and only religions make reference to a transcendent reality, whether of a personal or impersonal nature, contact or community or identification with which is the summum bonum and the ultimate purpose of human existence. For the Abrahamic faiths, Yahweh, God, Allah is the transcendent reality. For Taoism, the Tao. For Hinduism, Brahman. For Buddhism, the transcendent state of nirvana. But I expect the Theravadins to object that nibbana is nothing positive and transcendent, being only the extinguishing or dissolution of the (ultimately illusory) self. I could of course simply deny that Theravada Buddhism is a religion, strictly speaking. I could lump it together with Stoicism as a sort of higher psychotherapy, a set of techniques for achieving equanimity.
There are a number of tricky and unresolved issues here, but I see little point in calling militant atheism a religion, though I concede it is like a religion in some ways.
But as I pointed out yesterday, if one thing is like another, that is not to say that the one thing is the other or is a species of the other.
Is it ever rational to believe something for which one has insufficient evidence? If it is never rational to believe something for which one has insufficient evidence, then presumably it is also never rational to act upon such a belief. For example, if it irrational to believe in God and post-mortem survival, then presumably it is also irrational to act upon those beliefs, by entering a monastery, say. Or is it?
W. K. Clifford is famous for his evidentialist thesis that "It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything on insufficient evidence." On this way of thinking, someone who fails to apportion belief to evidence violates the ethics of belief, and thereby does something morally wrong. This has been called ethical evidentialism since that claim is that it is morally impermissible to believe on insufficient evidence. Sufficient evidence is where there is preponderance of evidence. On ethical evidentialism, then, it is morally permissible for a person to believe that p if and only p is more likely than not on the evidence the person has.
A cognitive evidentialist, by contrast, maintains that one is merely unreasonable to believe beyond a preponderance of evidence. One then flouts a norm of rationality rather than a norm of morality.
Jeffrey Jordan, who has done good work on this topic, makes a further distinction between absolute and defeasible evidentialism. The absolute evidentialist holds that the evidentialist imperative applies to every proposition, while the defeasible evidentialist allows exceptions. Although Clifford had religious beliefs in his sights, his thesis, by its very wording, applies to every sort of belief, including political beliefs and the belief expressed in the Clifford sentence quoted above! I take this as a refutation of Clifford's evidentialist stringency. For if one makes no exceptions concerning the application of the evidentialist imperative, then it applies also to "It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything on insufficient evidence." And then the embarrassing question arises as to what evidence once could have for the draconian Cliffordian stricture which is not only a morally normative claim but is also crammed with universal quantifiers.
If I took Clifford seriously I would have to give up most of my beliefs about politics, health, nutrition, economics, history and plenty of other things. For example, I believe it is a wise course to restrict my eating of eggs to three per week due to their high cholesterol content. And that's what I do. Do I have sufficent evidence for this belief? Not at all. I certainly don't have evidence that entails the belief in question. What evidence I have makes it somewhat probable. But more probable than not? Not clear! But to be on the safe side I restrict my intake of high-cholesterol foods. What I give up, namely, the pleasures of bacon and eggs for breakfast every morning, etc. is paltry in comparison to the possible pay-off, namely living and blogging to a ripe old age. Surely there is nothing immoral or irrational in my behavior even though I am flouting Clifford's rule. And similarly in hundreds of cases.
The Desert Rat
Consider now the case of a man dying of thirst in a desert. He comes upon two water sources. He knows (never mind how) that one is potable while the other is poisonous. But he does not know which is which, and he has no way of finding out. Should the man suspend belief, even unto death, since he has insufficient evidence for deciding between the two water sources? Let us suppose that our man is a philosopher and thus committed to a life of the highest rationality.
Absolute evidentialism implies that the desert wanderer should suspend judgment and withhold assent: he may neither believe nor disbelieve of either source that it is potable or poisonous on pain of either irrationality or an offence against the ethics of belief.
On one way of looking at the matter, suspension of belief -- and doing nothing in consequence -- would clearly be the height of irrationality in a case like this. The desert wanderer must simply drink from one of the sources and hope for the best. Clearly, by drinking from one (but not both) of the sources, his chances of survival are one half, while his chances of survival from drinking from neither are precisely zero. By simply opting for one, he maximizes his chances of reality-contact, and thereby his chances of survival. Surely a man who wants to live is irrational if he fails to perform a simple action that will give him a 50-50 chance of living when the alternative is certain death.
He may be epistemically irrational, but he is prudentially rational. And in a case like this prudential rationality trumps the other kind.
Cases like this are clear counterexamples to evidentialist theories of rationality according to which rationality requires always apportioning belief to evidence and never believing on insufficient evidence. In the above case the evidence is the same for either belief and yet it would be irrational to suspend belief. Therefore, rationality for an embodied human agent (as opposed to rationality for a disembodied transcendental spectator) cannot require the apportioning of belief to evidence in all cases, as Clifford demands. There are situations in which one must decide what to believe on grounds other than the evidential. Will I believe that source A is potable? Or will I believe that source B is potable? In Jamesian terms the option is live, forced, and momentous. (It is not like the question whether the number of ultimate particles in the universe is odd or even, which is neither live, forced, nor momentous.) An adequate theory of rationality, it would seem, must allow for believing beyond the evidence. It must return the verdict that in some cases, to refuse to believe beyond the evidence is positively irrational.
But then absolute evidentialism is untenable and we must retreat to defeasible evidentialism.
The New Neighbors
Let us consider another such case. What evidence do I have that my new neighbors are decent people? Since they have just moved in, my evidence base is exiguous indeed and far from sufficient to establish that they are decent people. (Assume that some precisifying definition of 'decent' is on the table.) Should I suspend judgment and behave in a cold, skeptical, stand-offish way toward them? ("Prove that you are not a scumbag, and then I'll talk to you.") Should I demand of them 'credentials' and letters of recommendation before having anything to do with them? Either of these approaches would be irrational. A rational being wants good relations with those with whom he must live in close proximity. Wanting good relations, he must choose means that are conducive to that end. Knowing something about human nature, he knows that 'giving the benefit of the doubt' is the wise course when it comes to establishing relations with other people. If you begin by impugning the integrity of the other guy, he won't like you. One must assume the best about others at the outset and adjust downwards only later and on the basis of evidence to the contrary. But note that my initial belief that my neighbors are decent people -- a belief that I must have if I am to act neighborly toward them -- is not warranted by anything that could be called sufficient evidence. Holding that belief, I believe way beyond the evidence. And yet that is the rational course.
So again we see that in some cases, to refuse to believe beyond the evidence is positively irrational. A theory of rationality adequate for the kind of beings we are cannot require that belief be always and everywhere apportioned to evidence.
In the cases just mentioned, one is waranted in believing beyond the evidence, but there are also cases in which one is warranted in believing against the evidence. In most cases, if the available evidence supports that p, then one ought to believe that p. But consider Jeff Jordan's case of
The Alpine Hiker
An avalanche has him stranded on a mountainside facing a chasm. He cannot return the way he came, but if he stays where he is he dies of exposure. His only hope is to jump the chasm. The preponderance of evidence is that this is impossible: he has no epistemic reason to think that he can make the jump. But our hiker knows that what one can do is in part determined by what one believes one can do, that "exertion generally follows belief," as Jordan puts it. If the hiker can bring himself to believe that he can make the jump, then he increases his chances of making it. "The point of the Alpine hiker case is that pragmatic belief-formation is sometimes both morally and intellectually permissible."
We should therefore reject absolute evidentialism, both ethical and cognitive. We should admit that there are cases in which epistemic considerations are reasonably defeated by prudential considerations.
And now we come to the Big Questions. Should I believe that I am libertarianly free? That it matters how I live? That something is at stake in life? That I will in some way or other be held accountable after death for what I do and leave undone here below? That God exists? That I am more than a transient bag of chemical reactions? That a Higher Life is possible?
Not only do I not have evidence that entails answers to any of these questions, I probably do not have evidence that makes a given answer more probable than not. Let us assume that it is not more probable than not that God exists and that I (in consequence) have a higher destiny in communion with God.
But here's the thing. I have to believe that I have a higher destiny if I am to act so as to attain it. It is like the situation with the new neighbors. I have to believe that they are decent people if I am to act in such a way as to establish good relations with them. Believing the best of them, even on little or no evidence, is pragmatically useful and prudentially rational. I have to believe beyond the evidence. Similarly in the Alpine Hiker case. He has to believe that he can make the jump if he is to have any chance of making it. So even though it is epistemically irrational for him to believe he can make it on the basis of the available evidence, it is prudentially rational for him to bring himself to believe. You could say that the leap of faith raises the probability of the leap of chasm.
And what if he is wrong? Then he dies. But if he sits down in the snow in despair he also dies, and more slowly. By believing beyond the evidence he lives better his last moments than he would have by giving up.
Here we have a pragmatic argument that is not truth-sensitive: it doesn't matter whether he will fail or succeed in the jump. Either way, he lives better here and now if he believes he can cross the chasm to safety. And this, even though the belief is not supported by the evidence.
It is the same with God and the soul. The pragmatic argument in favor of them is truth-insensitive: whether or not it is a good argument is independent of whether or not God and the soul are real. For suppose I'm wrong. I live my life under the aegis of God, freedom, and immortality, but then one day I die and become nothing. I was just a bag of chemicals after all. It was all just a big joke. Electrochemistry played me for a fool. So what? What did I lose by being a believer? Nothing of any value. Indeed, I have gained value since studies show that believers tend to be happier people. But if I am right, then I have done what is necessary to enter into my higher destiny. Either way I am better off than without the belief in God and the soul. If I am not better off in this life and the next, then I am better off in this life alone.
I am either right or wrong about God and the soul. If I am right, and I live my beliefs, then then I have lived in a way that not only makes me happier here and now, but also fits me for my higher destiny. If I am wrong, then I am simply happier here and now.
So how can I lose? Even if they are illusions, believing in God and the soul incurs no costs and disbelieving brings no benefits.
Paul Brunton, Notebooks, Volume 12, Part I, p. 96, #14:
He alone can be an atheist who has never experienced a glimpse, or who has been caught and become embedded in a hard dry intellectualism, or in whom ethics and conscience have withered.
The point is quite defensible if put in less ringing terms. Most atheists have either (1) never had a religious or mystical or paranormal experience, or (2) have succumbed to the hypertrophy of the critical faculty, or (3) are bereft of conscience or moral sense, or all three or any two of the above.
Ad (1). A prosaic fellow, earth-bound, who believes only in the visible, the tangible, and the edible, who has never had an unusual experience of the the sort that intimates a reality beyond the sensible, or beyond the grossly sensible, will of course not be inclined to take seriously the claims of religion or the beliefs in God and the soul. He believes in what the outer senses reveal to him and will be inclined to dismiss as incredible the belief that there exist things external to his consciousness that are not certifiable by the five outer senses or by the instrumental extensions (telescopes, etc.) of the five external senses. If he had had a mystical experience or a religious experience or a paranormal experience such as an out-of-body experience then he might have been budged from his narrow empiricism. But lacking these sorts of experience, he sees no need to believe in anything but the objects of sense experience and such scientific posits as may be necessary to explain their behavior.
Our prosaic worldling's attitude is not irrational. He bases himself on what is given, but what is given to him are only the deliverances of the outer senses. He is aware of various a posteriori arguments for the existence of God but they find no purchase with him. For the sheer obtrusiveness of the sense world makes it impossible for him to believe in anything beyond it. And in a battle between the massive testimony, at every waking hour, of this gnarly world of time and change, and the output of abstract reasoning, the former is sure to win in the mind of our sense-bound worldling. And so he uses his intellect to resist the arguments, making of each modus ponens a modus tollens.
And of course there is that not unimportant matter of our worldling's enslavement to the pleasures of the flesh. As Plato observed, each pleasure and each pain does its bit to pin the soul to the body so securely and in such a manner that nothing can be real to such an enslaved soul except that which has a bodily nature. (Phaedo St. 83) Our man may even have had a mystical or religious or paranormal experience or two; but they will be no match for his ground-conviction of the ultimate reality of the material world, a conviction made impossible to break because of his attachment to sensuous pleasure.
Ad (2). A dessicated intellect honed on the whetstone of analysis and powered by the will not to believe will have no trouble finding reasons for disbelief. Anything can be argued, and any argument can be turned aside. Reason in us is a frail reed indeed, easily suborned by the passions and other irrational factors.
Ad (3). Can an atheist be moral? Well of course. There are plenty of atheists who are more moral that some theists, e.g., Muslim terrorists. A different and much more interesting question is whether atheists are justified in being moral. I pursue this question in Sam Harris on Whether Atheists are Evil. And then there is the matter of conscience. What exactly is it? Atheists are typically naturalists. Is there a decent naturalistic theory of conscience? Could there be? Or is the fact of conscience in us not an indicator of our higher origin? And so while it is not true, pace Brunton, that atheists lack a conscience, I would argue that (i) their atheism prevents them from fully plumbling the depths of its deliverances, and (ii) they are in no position to provide an adequate theory of conscience and its normativity.
Formerly atheist blogger Leah Libresco reports that she has converted to Catholicism.
That's quite a shift. Typically, the terminus a quo of Tiber swimmers is either generic theism or mere Christianity (in C. S. Lewis' sense) or some Protestant sect. Seismic is the shift from out-and-out God denial to acceptance of an extremely specific conception of God.
The God of Catholicism is of course a Trinity: one God in three divine persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. (It was 'Holy Ghost' still in the 'fifties; the arguably ruinous Vatican II reforms of the 'sixties replaced 'Ghost' with 'Spirit.') The Second Person of the Trinity, the Son, or Logos (Word), entered human history at a particular time in a particular place in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. This is the doctrine of the Incarnation. God, or rather God the Son, became man. "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us." To do so, Jesus had to be born of a woman in that humble manner common to all of us, inter faeces et urinam, and yet without an earthly father. Thus arises the doctrine of the Virgin Birth. But since the God-Man is perfectly sinless, he canot be born of a woman bearing the taint of Original Sin. Hence the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception: Mary, the mother of God, was born without Original Sin. So far, five dogmas that go beyond generic Western monotheism: Trinity, Incarnation, Virgin Birth, Original Sin, Immaculate Conception. See Trinity and Incarnation and Original Sin categories for some details.
I have gone only a about a third of the way into the specificity of the Catholic God-conception, but far enough for one to see how dogmatically rich it is.
Now the more dogmatically rich a religion, the more specific its claims, the harder it will be to accept. To be an intellectually honest Roman Catholic, for example, one must accept not only the above dogmas but a number of others besides. These extremely specific dogmas are stumbling blocks to many thinking people. (Of course, the same problem arises with other doctrinally rich belief systems such as Communism.)
For some of us who were raised in the Roman church, the dogmas and their presuppositions beg give rise to questions that we simply must get clear about. (We cannot merely go along to get along, or participate in rites and rituals the theological foundations of which are murky. Example: to take communion when Transubstantiation beggars understanding.) And so some of us become philosophers. But any movement towards Athens is a movement away from Jerusalem . . . .
But it's Saturday night, time to punch the clock, time for my once-a-week ration of tequila, and time for Saturday Night at the Oldies. Tomorrow's another day.
. . . a good theistic argument doesn’t have to be irrefutable, but surely we should expect the conclusions of our arguments to rise above the level of mere plausibility. If indeed the heavens declare the glory of God (Ps. 19:1), and God’s existence can be “clearly perceived” from the creation (Rom. 1:20), it would appear that God has given humans something stronger than “clues” about his existence.
I tend to differ with Professor Anderson on this point. I don't believe theistic arguments can deliver more than plausibility. Here below we are pretty much in the dark. Just as our wills are weak and our hearts divided by disordered and inordinate loves, our minds are clouded. The existence of God is not a plain fact, but the infirmity of reason is. The believer hopes that light will dawn, fitfully and partially in this life, and more fully if not completely in the next. But he doesn't know this, nor can he prove it. That there is Divine Light remains a matter of faith, hope, and yearning. There is light enough in this life to render rational our faith, hope, and yearning. But there is also darkness enough to render rational doubt and perhaps despair. The individual must decide what he will believe and how he will live. He remains free and at risk of being wrong. There are no compelling arguments one way or the other when it comes to God and the soul.
If a black cat jumps on my lap in a well-lit room, I have no doxastic 'wiggle room' as to whether a cat is on my lap. It's not the same with God. I don't believe God's existence can be "clearly perceived" from the existence or order of the natural world. What is "clearly perceived" leaves me quite a lot of doxastic wiggle room.
Alain de Botton's proposal to enshrine atheistic and this-worldly values has raised the hackles of Richard Dawkins on the ground that "the money was being misspent and that a temple of atheism was a contradiction in terms." If I were an an atheist, I would support, or at least not oppose, de Botton's idea. It is the negativism of the Dawkins Gang that turns many away from the New Atheism, a virulent example being A. C. Grayling's rant against religion as child abuse.
In the context of a reply to a "nasty attack on [Alvin] Plantinga by Jerry Coyne that cannot go unanswered," James Barham explains why he is an atheist:
The other reason I balk [at accepting a theism like that of Plantinga's] is that I can’t help suspecting there is a category mistake involved in talking about the “necessity” of the existence of any real thing, even a ground of being. When we speak of the ground of being’s existing “necessarily,” perhaps we are conflating the nomological sense of “necessity”—in the earth’s gravitational field an unsupported object necessarily accelerates at 32 feet per second squared—with the logical sense of the word—if all men are mortal and Socrates is a man, then necessarily Socrates is mortal.
Many experience intellectual discomfort at the thought of a being that is, as Barham says, real (as opposed, presumably, to ideal or abstract) but yet exists of broadly logical (metaphysical) necessity. To discuss this with clarity I suggest we drop 'real' and use 'concrete' instead. So our question is whether it is coherent to suppose that there exists a concrete being that necessarily exists, where the necessity in question is broadly logical. The question is not whether it is true, but whether it is thinkable without broadly logical contradiction, and without 'category mistake.' But what does 'concrete' mean? It does not mean 'material' or 'physical.' Obviously, no material being could be a necessary being. (Exercise for the reader: prove it!) Here are a couple of definitions:
D1. X is concrete =df X is causally active or passive. D2. X is abstract =df X is causally inert, i.e., not concrete.
The terms of the concrete-abstract distinction are mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive: everything is one or the other, and nothing is both. And the same goes for the physical-nonphysical distinction. The distinctions are not equivalent, however: they 'cut perpendicular' to each other. There are (or at least it is coherent to suppose that there could be) nonphysical concreta. Whether there are physical abstracta is a nice question I will set aside for now.
Plantinga's God, if he exists, is concrete, wholly immaterial, and necessarily existent. Obviously, one cannot imagine such a being. (A point of difference with Russell's celestial teapot, by the way.) But I find Plantinga's God to be conceivable without contradiction or confusion or conflation or category mistake. Barham thinks otherwise, suggesting that the notion of a necessarily existent concretum trades on a confusion of nomological necessity with logical necessity. I find no such confusion, but I do find a confusion in Barham's thinking.
First of all, there is a genuine distinction between nomological necessity and logical necessity. Barham's sentence about an unsupported object in Earth's gravitational field is nomologically necessary, but logically contingent. It is the latter because there is no logical contradiction in the supposition that a body in Earth's gravitational field accelerate at a rate other than 32 ft/sec2. The laws of nature could have been other than what they are. But what does this have to do with the possibility of the coherence of the notion of a concrete individual that exists in all broadly logically possible worlds if it exists in one such world? Nothing that I can see. Barham points, in effect, to a legitimate difference between:
1. Necessarily, an unsupported object in Earth's gravitation falls at the rate of 32ft/sec2 and 2. Necessarily, if all men are mortal, and Socrates is a man, then Socrates is mortal.
The difference is in type of modality. In (1) the modality is nomological while in (2) it is logical. Both cases are cases of de dicto modality: the modal operator operates upon a dictum or proposition. But when we speak of God as a necessary being, we are not speaking of the necessary truth of a proposition, whether the necessity be nomological or logical. We are speaking of the necessary existence of a 'thing,' a res. Accordingly, the modality is de re. So I am wondering whether Barham is succumbing to de dicto-de re confusion. Of course, there is the proposition
3. Necessarily, God exists
where the necessity in question is broadly logical. The truth-maker of this proposition, however, is God himself, a necessarily existent concrete individual.
My point, then , is that there is no logical mistake involved in the concept of God as necessary being, no confusion, no category mistake. Even if the concept fails of instantiation, the concept itself is epistemically in the clear.
Barham will no doubt continue to be an atheist. But he ought to drop the above accusation of category mistake. He can do better. He could argue that all modality is de dicto. Or that all necessity is linguistic/conventional in origin. Or he could give J. N. Findlay's 1948 ontological disproof, which I will feature in my next post.
The most moving – and most enjoyable – contribution of the evening came from the marvellous Dr Stephen Priest, simultaneously diffident and extremely powerful. I won’t try to summarise it because I’m sure I’d fail. I hope it will eventually make it on to the web. It reminded me of why I had once wanted to study philosophy, a desire which faded rapidly when I was exposed to English Linguistic Philosophy and various other strands of that discipline which made me wonder if I had wandered into a convention of crossword-compilers, when what I wanted was to seek the origins of the universe.
Many of you will know that in his failure to face William Lane Craig, Professor Dawkins was not alone. Several other members of Britain’s Atheist Premier League found themselves unable or unwilling (or both) to take him on.
The important thing about this is that what Craig does is simple. He uses philosophical logic, and a considerable knowledge of physics, to expose the shallowness of Dawkins’s arguments. I would imagine that an equally serious Atheist philosopher would be able to give him a run for his money, but Dawkins isn’t that. He would have been embarrassingly out of his depth.
It would be interesting to compile a list of those who were dissuaded, or almost dissuaded, from pursuing philosophy by their encounter with the Ordinary Language movement. Hector-Neri Castañeda once told me that the dominance of the latter in the '50s and '60s almost convinced him to drop philosophy as a profession abd go to law school. Not being a native English speaker, he could not hope to contribute to discussions in which the subtleties of ordinary English usage are put under the microsope. But then things changed in that wild decade of the '60s in which so many things changed, the epigoni of Wittgenstein went into eclipse, and systematic philosophy was back on track and attractive of the better heads.
Those atheists who mock religion mock the craving for ultimate meaning. So no matter how clever they are they are quite stupid when it comes to the human heart. Atheism in these mockers is rooted in spiritual vacancy.
To answer the title question, we must first answer the logically prior question as to who the greatest philosophers were. But this presupposes an answer to the equally vexing question of who counts as a philosopher. Heidegger published two fat volumes on Nietzsche, but dismissed Kierkegaard as a mere "religious writer." Others will go him one better, dismissing both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche -- and Heidegger as well. Was Aquinas a philosopher? Or was he merely a brilliant man who used philosophical tools to shore up beliefs of an extraphilosophical provenience, beliefs that he wouldn't have abandoned even if he hadn't able to find philosophical justifications for them?
Note also that the question as to who counts as a gen-u-ine philosopher presupposes an answer to the hairy and hoary question as to what philosophy is.
In any case, here is my ranking of the philosophers that made it onto a BBC shortlist from a few years ago. The ranking is mine; the list is from the BBC.
1. Plato (c. 429-347 BC) 2. Aristotle (384-322 BC) 3. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-1274) 4. René Descartes (1596-1650) 5. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) 6. Socrates (c. 470-399 BC) 7. Benedictus de Spinoza (1632-1677) 8. David Hume (1711-1776) 9. Epicurus (341-270 BC) 10. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) 11. John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) 12. Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) 13. Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (1813-1855) 14. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) 15. Karl Marx (1818-1883) 16. Bertrand Arthur William Russell (1872-1970) 17. Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) 18. Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) 19. Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) 20. Karl Raimund Popper (1902-1994)
Here are my criteria in order of importance:
1. Truth of the philosopher's conclusions 2. Belief in reason's power to discover some of the ultimate truth 3. Rigor of argumentation 4. Appreciation of the limits of reason 5. Depth and centrality of the problems addressed 6. Breadth and systematicity of vision 7. Originality 8. Long-term influence
The first seven philosophers on my list are great philosophers, the rest are important but not great. Kierkegaard, for example, though original and influential, and (too) appreciative of the limits of reason falls short on the other criteria.
It goes without saying that my ordering of the philosophers, my criteria, and their ordering are highly subjective. They reflect my interests, my biases, and my own philosophical conclusions. For example, my primary interest in a philosopher is not in his literary merit. If that is your primary interest, then you will probably rank Kierkegaard and Nietzsche ahead of Kant. Indeed, if you do not, then you have very poor taste!
You will notice that I am biased toward the rationalists. Thus all the philosophers I call great are either rationalists, or like Aristotle and Kant, have a strong rationalist side to their thinking. And when I list truth as my numero uno criterion, it is clear that that is truth as I take it to be.
On the score of truth, Nietzsche really falls short. For not only is there little if any philosophical truth in his writings, the poor soul denies the very existence of truth.
When one studies the first seven on the list, one actually learns something about the world. But when one reads Nietzsche and (later) Wittgenstein, one learns highly original and fascinating opinions that have little or no chance of being true. One learns from them, and from some others on the list, how NOT to do philosophy. But that too is something worth knowing! So they have their place and their use.
Now to our question whether the greatest philosophers were theists or atheists. The greatest philosophers on my list are Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Kant, Socrates, and Spinoza. All of these are theists of one sort or another. But even if Spinoza is excluded, that leaves six out of seven. And if you argue that Aristotle's Prime Mover is not God in any serious sense, then I've still got five out of seven.
If you say I rigged my list so that theists come out on top, I will deny the charge and argue that I used independent criteria (listed above). But if you disagree my assessment, I will consider it par for the course.
A defeasible presumption in favor of proposition p is not evidence for p. In a legal proceeding there is a defeasible presumption of innocence (POI): one is presumed innocent until proven guilty. For example, Jones, who has been charged with Smith's murder, is presumed to be not guilty until such time as the presumption is defeated. But this presumption is not evidence of Jones' innocence. It is a rule that governs the adducing and evaluating of evidence. The attorney for the accused does not attempt to prove or provide evidence for Jones' innocence; his task is merely to rebut the positive arguments of the prosecutor. Thus POI does not play an evidential role but a procedural role: it amounts to a placing of ther onus probandi on the prosecutor.
I am asking whether the skeptic is justified in calling into question the truth of 'God exists.' Why not put the burden on him? Why not insist that he is attempting to convict of irrationality generations of human beings, rational animals like himself, whole cultures for whom belief in the divine and worship are part of what it is to be a human being? Were all those millions, that silent majority, wrong? Surely to think something against the grain of the whole tradition of human experience is not to be done lightly. It is, need one say it, presumptuous to pit against that past one's own version of the modern mind. This suggests that the present generation is in agreement on things incompatible with belief in God. Or that all informed people now alive, etc. etc. Meaning, I suppose, that all present day skeptics are skeptics.
Is there thus a prima facie argument against atheism drawn from tradition, the common consent of mankind both in the past and in the present time? I think so.
In this passage McInerny appears to be confusing the question whether there is a presumption in favor of theism (so that the onus probandi rests on the atheist) because of common consent with the question whether common consent amounts to an argument for theism. That God exists is a substantive claim made within the dialectical situation in which theist and atheist confront each other; that the burden of proof rests on the one who denies it is a procedural claim that helps define the dialectical situation.
McInerny begins by speaking of shifting the burden of proof onto the skeptic but ends by speaking of an argument against atheism. It may be that common consent is a good reason for presuming theism to be true until shown to be false without being a good reason for the truth of theism.
The New Atheists are largely motivated by politics, not philosophy. So, what they try to zero in on is the most effective way to advance their cause, in the public and private sphere. And that means being on defense as little as possible, honesty or reasonableness be damned.
It's an anecdote, but it's been my experience that New Atheists (who seem to principally be behind all these weird re-definitions of atheism) hate being on defense. That's the fun of being a skeptic after all -- you risk nothing, and whoever you're talking with risks everything --- so long as you can frame the conversation as "You are making a claim, and I am not". You can criticize, mock, argue, whatever you wish, and so long as you avoid the right moves, you'll have no risk of having the same come back to you. But key to that is to avoid being thought of as making claims. Someone who says "There is no God", makes a claim. Therefore, that position is avoided, at least superficially. (In my opinion, often dishonestly.)
After all, who wants to be in the hot seat? And where would any person who wants to advance their political cause rather be - the questioned, or the questioner? Cynically, and spoken more out of personal experience than out of any hard data, but that's how I see the answer to your question. This is all about politics, and it has been from the start. (I'm differentiating here between actual agnostics or more intellectual atheists, and New Atheists.)
This is as good an explanation as I can think of. The point, I take it, is not that the New Atheism as such is solely politically motivated -- which is not the case -- but that the 'redefinitional gambit' is.
More recently, atheists have argued that atheism only denotes a lack of theistic belief, rather than the active denial or claims of certainty it is often associated with.
I'm having a hard time seeing what point there could be in arguing that "atheism only denotes a lack of theistic belief." Note first that atheism cannot be identified with the lack of theistic belief, i.e., the mere absence of the belief that God exists, for that would imply that cabbages and tire irons are atheists. Note second that it won't do to say that atheism is the lack of theistic belief in persons, for there are persons incapable of forming beliefs. Charitably interpreted, then, the idea must be that atheism is the lack of theistic belief in persons capable of forming and maintaining beliefs.
But this cannot be right either, and for a very simple reason. Atheism is something people discuss, debate, argue for, argue against, draw conclusions from, believe, disbelieve, entertain, and so on. Atheism, in other words, is a PROPOSITION: it is something that can be either true or false, that can be the object of such propositional attitudes as belief and disbelief, and can stand in such logical relations to other propositions as entailment, consistency, and inconsistency. But one cannot discuss, debate, argue for, . . . believe, etc. a lack of something. Atheism redefined as the lack of theistic belief is a PROPERTY of certain persons. Now a proposition is not a property. Atheism is a proposition and for this reason cannot be redefined as a property.
Someone who understands this might nevertheless maintain that 'negative atheism' is a proposition, namely, the proposition that there are people capable of forming and maintaining beliefs who simply lack the belief that God exists. Admittedly, one could use 'atheism' as the label for the proposition that there are such people. But then atheism so defined would be trivially true. After all, no one denies that there are people capable of beliefs who lack the belief that God exists. Furthermore, if 'atheism' is so defined, then theism would be the view that there are persons capable of belief who have the belief that God exists. But then theism, too, would be trivially true. And if both are true, then they cannot be logical contradictories of each other as they must be if the terms are to mean anything useful.
Now what is the point of the terminological mischief perpetrated by these 'negative atheists'? It is terminological mischief because we have just seen it ruin two perfectly good words, 'atheism' and 'theism.' If atheism and theism are worth discussing, then atheism is the view that God does not exist and theism is the view that God does exist. ((I am assuming that by 'God' we understand that being who is the main target of the venom of militant atheists, namely, the God of the Abrahamic religions. We are not talking about Spinoza's deus sive natura or anything of that order.)
Consider the parallel case of a nominalist who for whatever reason does not want to be taken to be asserting any positive thesis. So instead of adhering to the standard understanding of 'nominalism' according to which it is the view that there are no universals and that particulars alone exist, he proposes to redefine 'nominalism' as the absence of the belief that there are universals.
But now the same problems arise. One cannot argue for or against nominalism if it is merely a lack of belief. And if you say that nominalism is the proposition that some people lack the belief in universals then that is true, but not worth arguing for or against. One does not argue for or against a trivially true thesis that all accept.
I’m e-mailing you with this question because it’s bothered me for a while and I think you are more than capable of giving me a better understand of it. “Can atheists rationally ignore theology? Further, if they do need to study it, quite how much should they study, and which aspect(s) of it?” Many atheists think that studying theology would simply waste their time, whereas I now think that no rational person’s atheism is complete without engaging with the best theology on offer.
Well of course you are right: any atheist who does not engage with a sophisticated conception of God is simply attacking a straw man and may be ignored for that very reason. I see little point is discussions with atheists who liken God to a flying spaghetti monster or a celestial teapot. Let them first show that they have mastered the complexities of a sophisticated God conception, and that they have respect for, and some understanding of, the religious sensibility, and then we will talk with them. If they polemicize, or are disrespectful or dismissive, then they are best ignored.
My own position is that atheism is a kind of rival theology (atheology?), just as every disbelief is a kind of rival belief, and that no atheist can rationally afford to ignore theology.
Here you have to be careful. Suppose S disbelieves that p. (For example, Jones disbelieves that Osama is dead.) It does not follow that Jones believes that ~p. For it may be that S neither believes that p nor believes that ~p. If one neither accepts nor rejects the proposition that Osama is dead, then one could be said to disbelieve that Osama is dead without believing that he is alive. So there are two modes of disbelief with respect to a proposition p. Either one believes that ~p or one suspends judgment with respect to p. So I don't agree that every disbelief is a kind of rival belief.
In fact, every atheist is implicitly a theologian. For instance, Thomas Aquinas believes that God is simple, and Richard Dawkins believes that God is complex. Dawkins and Aquinas seem to compete in the same arena and talk on the same subject, so aren’t they both theologians, albeit rival ones? Further, every informed atheist must hold that the arguments that are meant to establish the existence of God fail. To think this is to engage positively with theology. Not to think this is to fail to rationally found one’s atheism. An atheist who is ignorant of theology, in my view, is rather like someone who disbelieves in the planets but is ignorant of astronomy. Atheists who do not take God and theology seriously do not take their own atheism seriously either.
Here again you have to be careful. It is not as if there exists an x such that x = God and that Aquinas and Dawkins have contradictory beliefs about this one entity, x. They are not disagreeing in the way two theologians might disagree over say, divine foreknowledge or the filioque, or divine simplicity. These theologians disagree, not about the existence of God, but about his exact nature. By contrast, Aquinas and Dawkins are not presupposing a common subject matter about whose attributes they disagree. So it is highly misleading if not outright wrong to say that Aquinas and Dawkins are rival theologians. For Aquinas, theology has a subject matter; for Dawkins it does not. So they do not "talk on the same subject."
It helps if you distinguish concepts of God from God. For Aquinas, there really is an entity which some of those concepts are concepts of, even though no concept could be adequate to the divine reality. For Dawkins, however, nothing that could reasonably count as a God concept is a concept of anything.
I think you have the right idea, but you are putting it in the wrong way. You are right that serious and intellectually responsible atheists must address themselves to the most sophisticated conceptions of theists. In this sense they must "engage positively with theology." But that is not to say that "every atheist is implicitly a theologian." Atheists deny the existence of God. So for them there cannot be any theology, any study of God, as a legitimate inquiry into a domain of reality. And please note that one can deny the existence of God without in any obvious way presupposing the existence of God. How? In the same way one denies the existence of Pegasus without presupposing the existence of Pegasus. One cannot predicate nonexistence of Pegasus without presupposing the existence of Pegasus. But one can predicate noninstantiation of the concept winged horse of such and such a description without presupposing the existence of Pegasus, And so it is with the denial of God. The atheist simply claims that no God concept is instantiated. So I deny that atheism is a species of theology. It is a rejection of all theology.
I also deny here and here that atheism is a religion, though I grant that it is like a religion in some ways.
I need to get clearer about the rationality of beliefs versus the rationality of actions. One question is whether it is ever rational to believe something for which one has insufficient evidence. And if it is never rational to believe something for which one has insufficient evidence, then presumably it is also never rational to act upon such a belief. For example, if it irrational to believe in God and post-mortem survival, then presumably it is also irrational to act upon those beliefs, by entering a monastery, say. Or is it?
W. K. Clifford is famous for his evidentialist thesis that "It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything on insufficient evidence." On this way of thinking, someone who fails to apportion belief to evidence violates the ethics of belief, and thereby does something morally wrong. Although Clifford had religious beliefs in his sights, his thesis, by its very wording, applies to every sort of belief, including political beliefs and the belief expressed in the Clifford sentence lately quoted! I take this as a refutation of Clifford's evidentialist stringency.
If I took Clifford seriously I would have to give up most of my beliefs about politics, health, nutrition, economics, history and a crapload of other things. For example, I believe it is a wise course to restrict my eating of eggs to three per week due to their high cholesterol content. And that's what I do. Do I have sufficent evidence for this belief? Not at all. I certainly don't have evidence that entails the belief in question. What evidence I have makes it somewhat probable. But more probable than not? Not clear! But to be on the safe side I restrict my intake of high-cholesterol foods. It's a bit like Pascal's Wager. What I give up, namely, the pleasures of bacon and eggs for breakfast every morning, etc. is paltry in comparison to the possible pay-off, namely living and blogging to a ripe old age.
And then there is a problem whether Clifford has sufficient evidence for his evidentialist thesis. It is obvious to me that he doesn't but I'll leave that for the reader to work out.
Consider now the case of a man dying of thirst in a desert. He comes upon two water sources. He knows (never mind how) that one is potable while the other is poisonous. But he does not know which is which, and he has no way of finding out. Should the man suspend belief, even unto death, since he has insufficient evidence for deciding between the two water sources?
On one way of looking at the matter, suspension of belief would clearly be the height of irrationality. The desert wanderer must simply drink from one of the sources and hope for the best. Clearly, by drinking from one (but not both) of the sources, his chances of survival are one half, while his chances of survival from drinking from neither are precisely zero. By simply opting for one, he maximizes his chances of reality-contact, and thereby his chances of survival. Surely a man who wants to live is irrational if he fails to perform a simple action that will give him a 50-50 chance of living when the alternative is certain death.
Cases like this are clear counterexamples to theories of rationality according to which rationality requires always apportioning belief to evidence. In the above case the evidence is the same for either belief and yet it would be irrational to suspend belief. Therefore, rationality for a human agent (as opposed to rationality for a disembodied transcendental spectator) cannot require the apportioning of belief to evidence in all cases, as Clifford demands. There are situations in which one must decide what to believe. Will I believe that source A is potable? Or will I believe that source B is potable? In Jamesian terms, the option is live, forced, and momentous. (It is not like the question whether the number of ultimate particles in the universe is odd or even.) An adequate theory of rationality, it would seem, must allow for believing beyond the evidence. It must return the verdict that in some cases, to refuse to believe beyond the evidence is positively irrational.
Let us consider another such case. What evidence do I have that my new neighbors are decent people? Since they have just moved in, my evidence base is exiguousindeed and far from sufficient to establish that they are decent people. (Assume that some precisifying definition of 'decent' is on the table.) Should I suspend judgment and behave in a cold, skeptical, stand-offish way toward them? ("Prove that you are not a scumbag, and then I'll talk to you.") Should I demand of them 'credentials' and letters of recommendation before having anything to do with them? Either of these approaches would be irrational. A rational being wants good relations with those with whom he must live in close proximity. Wanting good relations, he must choose means that are conducive to that end. Knowing something about human nature, he knows that 'giving the benefit of the doubt' is the wise course when it comes to establishing relations with other people. If you begin by impugning the integrity of the other guy, he won't like you. One must assume the best about others at the outset and adjust downwards only later and on the basis of evidence to the contrary. But note that my initial belief that my neighbors are decent people -- a belief that I must have if I am to act neighborly toward them -- is not warranted by anything that could be called sufficient evidence. Holding that belief, I believe way beyond the evidence. And yet that is the rational course.
So again we see that in some cases, to refuse to believe beyond the evidence is positively irrational. A theory of rationality adequate for the kind of beings we are cannot require that belief be always and everywhere apportioned to evidence.
And now we come to the Big Questions. Should I believe that I am libertarianly free? That it matters how I live? That something is at stake in life? That I will in some way or other be held accountable for what I do and leave undone? That God exists? That I am more than a transient bag of chemical reactions? That a Higher Life is possible?
Not only do I not have evidence that entails answers to any of these questions, I probably do not have evidence that makes a given answer more probable than not.
But here's the thing. I have to believe that I have a higher destiny if I am to act so as to attain it. It is like the situation with the new neighbors. I have to believe that they are decent people if I am to act in such a way as to establish good relations with them. I have to believe beyond the evidence.
Suppose I'm wrong. I live my life under the aegis of God, freedom, and immortality, but then one day I die and become nothing. I was just a bag of chemicals after all. It was all just a big joke. Electrochemistry played me for a fool. So what? What did I lose by being a believer? Nothing of any value. But if I am right, then I have done what is necessary to enter into my higher destiny.
A guest post by Peter Lupu with some comments in blue by Bill Vallicella.
[This essay is dedicated to the memory of Ann Freitag, my significant other, who passed away on April 17, 2010, 11:30am. She gave me two priceless gifts: Herself and a deep understanding that the love of life is not a mere gesture, but a way of loving every living being.]
The title of this essay expresses what it is like for me to experience an ever ascending spiral of theistic aspirations inhibited by atheist inclinations, and vice versa. My predicament is both intellectual as well as existential. It is a blending of the two that fuels a restless existence, one which propels me to journey on this ascending spiral of unfamiliar territory towards an unknown destination.
I. Why I am not an Atheist
Let me begin with atheism. Atheism is first and foremost a rejection of theism. However, the rejection of theism itself springs from several often misunderstood sources. A deep and personal disappointment with a particular religion frequently converts into a fervent rejection of theism and all that it means. A second source may begin with a genuine delight in the achievements of science which now and then, and quite unnoticeably, spills over into a materialistic metaphysics. The latter, in turn, bluntly opposes theism’s commitment to a transcendent reality. Thus, what starts as a delight in the potential of inquiry to unlock the mysteries of the physical universe migrates into an impatient and often mocking rejection of anything non-physical. Theism is a casualty of such a sentiment.
. . . most of what we conceive is possible. So if we say that
1) In 80% of the cases, if 'Conceivably, p' then 'Possibly, p' 2) Conceivably, God exists Ergo, 3) Pr(Possibly, God exists) = 80% 4) If 'Possibly, God exists' then 'necessarily, God exists' Ergo, 5) Pr(Necessarily, God exists) = 80%,
we seem to get by.
I had made the point that conceivability does not entail possibility. Hart agrees with that, but seems to think that conceivability is nondemonstrative evidence ofpossibility. Accordingly, our ability to conceive (without contradiction) that p gives us good reason to believe that p is possible.
What is puzzling to me is how a noncontingent proposition can be assigned a probability less than 1. A noncontingent proposition is one that is either necessary or impossible. Now all of the following are noncontingent:
God exists Necessarily, God exists Possibly, God exists God does not exist Necessarily, God does not exist Possibly, God does not exist.
I am making the Anselmian assumption that God (the ens perfectissimum, that than which no greater can be conceived, etc.) is a noncontingent being. I am also assuming that our modal logic is S5. The characteristic S5 axiom states that Poss p --> Nec Poss p. S5 includes S4, the characteristic axiom of which is Nec p --> Nec Nec p. What these axioms say, taken together, is that what's possible and necessary does not vary from possible world to possible world.
Now Possibly, God exists, if true, is necessarily true, and if false, necessarily false. (By the characteristic S5 axiom.) So what could it mean that the probability of Possibly, God exists is .8? I would have thought that the probability is either 1 or 0. the same goes for Necessarily, God exists. How can this proposition have a probability of .8? Must it not be either 1 or 0?
Now I am a fair and balanced guy, as everyone knows. So I will deploy the same reasoning against the atheist who cites the evils of our world as nondemonstrative evidence of the nonexistence of God. I don't know what it means to say that it is unlikely that God exists given the kinds and quantities of evil in our world. Either God exists necessarily or he is impossible (necessarily nonexistent). How can you raise the probability of a necessary truth? Suppose some hitherto unknown genocide comes to light, thereby adding to the catalog of known evils. Would that strengthen the case against the existence of God? How could it?
To see my point consider the noncontingent propositions of mathematics. They are all of them necessarily true if true. So *7 + 5 = 12* is necessarily true and *7 + 5 = 11* is necessarily false. Empirical evidence is irrelevant here. I cannot raise the probability of the first proposition by adding 7 knives and 5 forks to come up with 12 utensils. I do not come to know the truth of the first proposition by induction from empirical cases of adding. It would also be folly to attempt to disconfirm the second proposition by empirical means.
If I can't know that 7 + 5 = 12 by induction from empirical cases, how can I know that possibly, God exists by induction from empirical cases of conceiving? The problem concerns not only induction, but how one can know by induction a necessary proposition. Similarly, how can I know that God does not exist by induction from empirical cases of evil?
Of course, *God exists* is not a mathematical proposition. But it is a noncontingent proposition, which is all I need for my argument.
Finally, consider this. I can conceive the existence of God but I can also conceive the nonexistence of God. So plug 'God does not exist' into Matt's argument above. The result is that probability of the necessary nonexistence of God is .8!
My conclusion: (a) Conceivability does not entail possibility; (b) in the case of noncontingent propositions, conceivability does not count as nondemonstrative evidence of possibility.
What is it for an argument to beg the question? I suggest that an argument begs the question if it is impossible to know one of the premises to be true without knowing that the conclusion is true. The simplest question-begging arguments are of the form
p --- p.
Clearly, every argument of this form is valid, and some arguments of this form are sound. It follows that an argument can be sound and yet probatively worthless. In plain English, no argument of the above form proves its conclusion in the sense of giving a 'consumer' of the argument any reason to accept the conclusion; it rather presupposes its conclusion. One cannot know the premise to be true without knowing that the conclusion is true.
Now consider a richer example: (P1) We are creatures; (P2) There is no creature without a creator; therefore, (C) A creator exists. This argument begs the question in that it is impossible to know that (P1) is true without knowing that (C) is true. For only if I know that a creator exists can I know that I am a creature. The argument is not probative because it presupposes in (P1) what it needs to prove. (Of course, I am assuming that one is not equivocating on 'creature' and that one is using it in the sense in which it must be used for (P2) to be true; if one is equivocating, then naturally the argument is worthless for this reason.)
Now it might occur to someone to wonder whether logical arguments from evil for the nonexistence of God also beg the question. Is there anything to this notion?
Logical arguments from evil start with a fact, the fact of evil. No doubt evils exist. But for evils to prove the nonexistence of the omni-qualified God of traditional Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, these evils must be gratuitous. A gratuitous evil is one that cannot be reconciled with the existence of the omni-qualified God, for example, an evil that God has no morally sufficient reason to permit, or an evil that God cannot prevent because it is the deed of a free agent. A gratuitous evil, then, is one the existence of which is logically inconsistent with the existence of God conceived in the traditional way.
Granted, evils exist. But only gratuitous evils are inconsistent with the existence of God. Only they pose a problem for the existence of an all-good God. Consider the pain of a just punishment, the pain of imprisonment, say, that convinces a miscreant, an armed robber for example, to reform his life. (Few penal punishments are truly rehabilitating, but certainly some are.) The pain of punishment is evil. But in my example, it is necessary for the achievement of a greater good. Thus the evil in question is not gratuitous.
How do we know that there are gratuitous evils? To know this, we would have to know that God does not exist. Thus we would have to know the conclusion of the LAFE to be true in order to know that its key premise -- Gratuitous evils exist -- is true. But this is the very definition of begging the question.
Therefore, it seems that LAFE begs the question. To appreciate my point, compare:
1. If there are gratuitous evils, then God does not exist.
2. If creatures exist, then a creator exists.
Both of these propositions are analytically true. So if one knows that there are gratuitous evils, then one knows that God does not exist. Likewise, if one knows that creatures exist, or that the physical universe is a creation, then one one knows that a creator exists. But how does one know either of these things? Suppose I witness a brutal and unprovoked physical assault on a human being by another human being. Witnessing this, I witness an evil. But by what mark do I recognize the gratuitousness of the evil? By no empirical mark since what I observe is consistent both with the assault's being gratuitously evil and with its being nongratuitously evil.
Something similar holds for (2). How do I know that what I see, mountains and valleys, cacti and sky is creation or created nature as opposed to uncreated nature? By what mark do I know that nature has the status of having been created? By no mark.
Return to the brutal assault. Imagine it to be perpetrated against a loved one. Atheists will naturally take such crimes as 'proof' that there is no God. But it is no more 'proof' than the existence and order of nature is 'proof' of an intelligent creator. Both athetist and theist interpret the data in the light of a worldview that precedes the data and is imposed upon them. Each can fit the data into his scheme. But fitting data into a scheme is not the same as data proving a scheme. Thus the brutal assault fits the atheist's scheme but does not prove it, and the existence and order of nature fits the theist's scheme but does not prove it.
So here is my challenge to Peter and others: explain how LAFE does not beg the question against the theist.
I am of the understanding that one of your post-graduate degrees focussed on Kant. With your knowledge of said philosopher I wonder if I might trouble you to answer a few questions for me?
These questions pertain to Kant's criticism's of the cosmological argument for God's existence. I know that this argument comes in three basic forms: Leibnizian, Thomistic, and Kalam. Did Kant direct criticism to all three versions? Brian Magee has stated, "The fact simply is that Kant has demolished the traditional 'proofs' of God." (Confessions of A Philosopher, p.198) Many other credentialed philosophers make similar claims. In your view, is Magee's strident assertion justified? Do any of Kant's criticism's of the cosmological argument still have force today, or are you of the opinion that the work of recent philosophers has blunted the arguments of the Prussian?
Of course, I don't expect you to provide any counter-arguments to Kant. I am merely curious as to your take on the questions I have asked and I am quite happy for your answer to be brief. Thank you for your time.
Dear Mr. Lewin,
Thank you for writing and for reminding me of that delightful book by Bryan Magee. Unfortunately, the sentence you quote I do not find on p. 198. But on p. 156, we read that Kant's philosophy ". . . demolishes many of the most important religious and theological claims . . . ." On the same page Magee bestows upon Kant the highest praise. He is "the supreme understander of the problem of human experience," "the supreme clarifier," and "the supreme liberator." For Magee, Manny is the man!
A little farther down on the same page we find your quotation: "The fact simply is that Kant has demolished the traditional 'proofs' of God."
You ask whether Magee's confident claim is justified. No, but first a comment on 'demolishes' as it occurs in the above quotations. Magee uses it in connection both with claims and with arguments. But to demolish a claim is not the same as to demolish an argument. Presumably, to demolish a claim such as the claim that God exists would be to show that it is obviously false because ruled out on broadly logical grounds, or else ruled out on the ground that it is inconsistent with some well-known empirical fact or set of empirical facts. Clearly, Kant does not demolish the claim that God exists in this sense of 'demolish.' Ditto for the claim that the soul is a simple substance. Nor is it his intention to demolish these claims. At most he shows them to be unknowable or unprovable. And he thinks that is a salutary thing to have shown. "I have found it necessary to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith," Kant famously remarks in the preface to the 2nd edition of the Critique of Pure Reason (Bxxx). I suggest that Magee is being sloppy when he speaks of demolishing theological claims. He may be confusing 'show to be false' with 'show to be unknowable or unprovable.' I receommend a careful reading of the 1787 preface as a counterbalance to Magee's Kant interpretation as der Alles-Zermalmer, the all-pulverizer.
Now what would it be to demolish an argument? To demolish an argument is to expose a clear mistake in it such as a formal fallacy or a plainly false premise. I believe that Kant demolished the ontological argument "from mere concepts" which is essentially Descartes' Meditation V ontological argument. Kant did this by isolating a presupposition of the argument which is plainly false, namely, the proposition that some concepts are such that, by sheer analysis of their content, one can show that they are instantiated. Surely Kant is right that no concept, not even the concept of God, includes existence. Interestingly, Aquinas would agree with this.
But there are modal versions of the ontological argument that are immune to the Kantian critique. See my "Has the Ontological Argument Been Refuted?" Religious Studies 29 (1993), pp. 97-110. As for the cosmological argument, Kant thinks that it depends on the ontological argument and collapses with it. This is an intricate matter that I cannot go into now. If you are interested, see my article, "Does the Cosmological Argument Depend on the Ontological?" Faith and Philosophy, vol. 17, no. 4 (October 2000), pp. 441-458.
Another idea of Kant's is that there cannot be a First Cause because the category of causality has no cognitive employment beyond the realm of phenomena. Schopenhauer borrows this notion and pushes it for all its worth. Relevant here is my post, On the Very Idea of a Cause of Existence: Schopenhauer on the Cosmological Argument. But it cannot be said that either Kant or Schopenhauer demolished the cosmological argument because their critiques rest on their own questionable metaphysical systems.
And as you suggest above, there are Kalam and Thomist versions of the CA that Kant doesn't even consider. Kant's knowledge of the history of philosophy was meager and the metaphysics he criticized was that of the Wolffian school which derives from Leibniz.
Finally, I refer you to my article, "From Facts to God: An Onto-Cosmological Argument," International Journal for the Philosophy of Religion 48 (2000), pp. 157-181.
In the preface to his magnum opus, F. H. Bradley observes that "Metaphysics is the finding of bad reasons for what we believe upon instinct, but to find these reasons is no less an instinct." (Appearance and Reality, Oxford 1893, p. x) The qualifier 'bad' is out of place and curiously off-putting at the outset of a 570 page metaphysical tome, so if, per impossibile, I had had the philosopher's ear I would have suggested 'good but not rationally compelling.' Be that as it may, the point is that our basic sense of things comes first, and only later, if at all, do we take up the task of the orderly discursive articulation of that basic sense.
Thus atheism is bred in the bone before it is born in the brain. The atheist feels it in his bones and guts that the universe is godless and that theistic conceptions are so many fairy tales dreamt up for false consolation. This world is just too horrifying to be a divine creation: meaningless unredeemed suffering; ignorance and delusion; the way nature, its claws dripping with blood, feasts on itself; moral evil and injustice -- all bespeak godlessness. There can't be a God of love behind all this horror! For most atheists, theism is not a Jamesian live option. What point, then, in debating them?
This deep intuition of the godlessness of the world is prior to and the force behind arguments from evil. The arguments merely articulate and rationalize the intuition. The counterarguments of theists don't stand a chance in the face of the fundamental, gut-grounded, atheist attitude. No one who strongly FEELS that things are a certain way is likely to be moved by what he will dismiss as so much verbiage, hairsplitting, and intellectualizing.
But for the theist it is precisely the horror of this world that motivates the quest for a solution, or rather, the horror of this world together with the conviction that we cannot provide the solution for ourselves whether individually or collectively. Evil is taken by the theist, not as a 'proof' of the nonexistence of God, but as a reason, a motive, to seek God. 'Without God, life is horror.'
Addendum 12/21: I should add that it would be pointless to seek God if any of the atheist arguments were compelling. But none are.
It is a simple point of logic that if propositions p and q are both true, then they are logically consistent, though not conversely. So if God exists and Evil exists are both true, then they are logically consistent, whence it follows that it is possible that they be consistent. This is so whether or not anyone is in a position to explain how it is possible that they be consistent. If something is the case, then, by the time-honored principle ab esse ad posse valet illatio, it is possible that it be the case, and one's inability to explain how it is possible that it be the case cannot count as a good reason for thinking that it is not the case.
Example. No one has successfully answered Zeno's Paradoxes of motion. (No, kiddies, Wesley Salmon did not successfully rebut them; the 'calculus solution' is a joke.) But from the fact, if it is a fact, that no one has ever shown HOW motion is possible, it does not follow that motion is not possible.
So if it is the case that God exists and Evil exists are logically consistent, then this is possibly the case, and a theist's inability to explain how God and evil can coexist is not a good reason for him to abandon his theism -- or his belief in the existence of objective evil.
The theist is rationally entitled to stand pat in the face of the 'problem of evil' and point to his array of arguments for the existence of God whose cumulative force renders rational his belief that God exists. Of course, he should try to answer the atheist who urges the inconsistency of God exists and Evil exists; but his failure to provide a satisfactory answer is not a reason for him to abandon his theism. A defensible attitude would be: "This is something we theists need to work on."
Atheists and naturalists ought not object to this standing pat since they do the same. What materialist about the mind abandons his materialism in the face of the various arguments (from intentionality, from qualia, from the unity of consciousness, from the psychological relevance of logical laws, etc.) that we anti-materialists marshall?
Does the materialist give in? Hell no, he stands pat, pointing to his array of arguments and considerations in favor of materialism, and when you try to budge him with the irreconcilability of intentionality and materialism, or qualia and materialism, or reason and materialism, or whatever, he replies, "This is something we materialists need to work on." He is liable to start talking, pompously, of his 'research program.' He may even wax quasi-religious with talk of "pinning his hopes on future science" as if -- quite absurdly -- knowing more and more about the meat within our skulls will finally resolve the outstanding questions. And what does science have to do with hope? There is also something exceedingly curious about hoping that one turns out to be just a material system, a bit of dust in the wind.
"I was so hoping to be proved to be nothing more than a clever land mammal slated for destruction, but, dammit all, there are reasons to think that we are more than animals and have a higher destiny. That sucks!"
This from an astute reader commenting on the Hell post:
'No angry unicorn on the dark side of the moon'
Does this not refer to doxastic uncertainty rather than a fatuous equation of God with something material? This is how I interpreted it when I read it. More in the vein of: why venerate something tenuous in lieu of a Lucretian reality? Not a profound solution by any means, but an almost noble one if lived humbly-- not sensually. Although , I suppose this is an agnostic take on the phrase. ( I've been reading too much of Montaigne!)
Thanks for exposing me to Henryk Gorecki . Do you know of Arvo Part?
I love Arvo Part, and Montaigne too. But onto the issue you raise. To quote Cactus Ed himself, "Is there a God? Who knows? Is there an angry unicorn on the dark side of the moon?"
Now it would be foolish to try to discern in the scribblings of Ed Abbey anything very clear or precise or carefully thought-through. But it seems clear to me that Abbey is likening God to an intramundane object much as Bertrand Russell likened him to a celestial teapot. In so doing, both demonstrate a profound ignorance of what sophisticated theists mean by 'God.' They are not talking about a being among beings, let alone a material being among beings. (Deus est ipsum esse subsistens, et cetera.) But you focus on the epistemic side, with justification, as the quotation shows.
Accordingly, Abbey is suggesting that, regardless of the nature of God, the evidence of his existence is no better than the evidence of the existence of an irate lunar unicorn, a lunicorn if you will.
But please note that questions about the evidence for something are connected to questions about the nature of that something. The existence of a lunicorn would be strongly disconfirmed were a a bunch of lunar modules to fail to detect the presence of any such critter. But no number of space probes could disconfirm the existence of God. Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was surely talking nonsense when he reported that he saw no God during his famous suborbital flight. The empirical undetectability of God no more tells against his existence than the empirical undetectability of the square root of pi tells against its existence.
So while Abbey's remarks do have an epistemological flavor, they cannot be divorced from their metaphysical import.
But there is also an axiological side to it, which may be even more important. Abbey is implying that it doesn't much matter whether God exists or not. He could have added 'Who cares?' after 'Who knows?' to his list of questions. After all, it is of no great moment whether there are any lunicorns or celestial teapots out there. My happiness cannot hang on that. The meaning of life does not stand or fall with the existence or nonexistence of such things.
Abbey's aphorism sums up the atheist attitude quite well. Does God exist? Who cares? Who cares whether there is some weird extra object in the ontological inventory? And how would you know anyway? "Bartender, another round!"