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.
As you may recall, I'm a persistent reader of your blog - even when the 'topic of the day' goes right over my head.
On the minimalist version of Pascal's wager, you summarize: "So how can I lose? Even if they are illusions, believing in God and the soul incurs no costs and disbelieving brings no benefits."
I've mulled over this rational incentive to believe in God many and many a time. But belief doesn't come. If faith is a 'gift from God' or depends on the possession of a religious disposition, then for some unfathomable reason I've missed out. I guess there are many people like myself who are 'trying to believe' but don't and perhaps never will succeed. (And it's not from the want of pressure and sometimes disinterested tuition, when I was a lad, from my Jesuit teachers.)
I think the sorts of pragmatic considerations I adduced the other day in support of the rationality of religious belief will leave unmoved someone lacking the religious disposition. (I'll leave aside the question whether the religious disposition is a divine gift.) Without the disposition the issue cannot be a "live option" in William James' sense. You have to be antecedently inclined to take seriously the possibility that some form of religion is true. This has nothing to do with intelligence or knowledge or upbringing. Not intelligence: there are both intelligent and unintelligent theists and atheists. Not knowledge: there is no empirical knowledge that rules out theism or rules in atheism. Not upbringing: some are raised atheists and becomes theists, and vice versa. What you need is a certain sort of spiritual depth that is present in, say, Ludwig Wittgenstein, but absent in, say, Daniel Dennett. If you are 'surface all the way down' religion won't get a grip on you.
In the reader's case religious belief seems to be a live option in the way in which it is not for most atheists. (For most atheists, and for all of the militant atheists, the truth of some religion is no more a live existential option than numerology or Marxism is for me.) But for the reader, apparently, the disposition is not enough. I wish I could help him.
Let me just state what, in my own case, are the additional factors, factors beyond the religious disposition, that move me to accept religious belief.
1. The Manifold Failures of Naturalism. There are four questions that need answering.
The first is why there is anything (or at least anything concrete and contingent) at all. This is an intelligible question but there is no good naturalist answer to it. The physicist Lawrence Krauss recently made a fool of himself over this question as I demonstrated in earlier posts. The second question is how life arose from inanimate matter. Life has to have arisen before natural selection can go to work upon random mutations. The third is how consciousness arose in some living organisms, and the fourth is how self-consciousness, conscience, reason and all related phenomena arose. There are many, many questions here, but it is widely accepted that naturalism has failed to give adequate answers to them. Naturalists give answers all right, but they are no good. For the gory details, see my Naturalism category.
Now of course nothing I said will convince any naturalist, but that's not my purpose. My purpose is to explain how one can reasonably take religion seriously. I could not take it seriously if naturalism were true. The refutation of naturalism therefore removes an obstacle to religious belief. If, on the other hand, you are convinced that naturalism is true, then you cannot, consistently with that conviction, accept theism -- whether or not you have a religious disposition.
It is also important to realize that if naturalism as we currently know it is false, it doesn't follow that some form of theism is true. It doesn't even follow that no form of naturalism is true. It could be that there is a version of naturalism, over the horizon, which will adequately answer the questions I mentioned. If I have understood the thrust of Thomas Nagel's latest book, Mind and Cosmos (Oxford 2012), that is what he is aiming at. He is trying to find a way between naturalism in its current onfiguration and theism. He wants to be able to see mind as somehow essential to the fabric of nature and not, as it must appear on evolutionary naturalism, as an accidental byproduct of purely physical processes.
It is also worth noting that not all of the critics of contemporary evolutionary naturalism are theists. If they were, then one might suspect that their criticisms were ideologically motivated. Not so. Nagel is both an atheist and an opponent of contemporary naturalism. Given that Nagel's 'middle path' is merely a gesture in the direction of a possible distination, as opposed to a concrete alternative, I think it is resonable to accept theism given the hopelessness of naturalism.
2. Mystical, Religious, and Paranormal Experiences and Intuitions
Suppose that someone (i) has the religious disposition and (ii) agrees that theism is superior to naturalism. That still might not do it. Abstract reasoning, even to intellectual types who flourish in its element, is no substitute for experiences. In fact, I doubt that anyone could really take religion seriously (in a way that would make a concrete difference in how one lives one's life) who lacked the sensus divinitatis, or the feeling that the deliverances of conscience emanate from a sphere beyond the human, or who never had a mystical glimpse or a religious experience, or who never lived through anything paranormal such as an out-of-body experience or an experience of pre-cognition.
This is not the place to try to explain the differences among mystical, religious, and paranormal experience and other senses, intuitions, intimations, visitations and vouchsafings that religious types speak of. But let me give a couple of examples of religious experiences, which I distinguish on the one hand from mystical experiences and on the other from paranormal experiences.
One day many years ago I was pacing around in an extremely agitated frame of mind over a matter that I won't go into. But suffice it to say that my mind and heart were filled with extremely negative thoughts and desires. Suddenly, without any forethought, I raised my arms to the ceiling and exclaimed, "Release me from this!" In an instant I was as calm as a Stoic sage, as quiescent as a Quietist. The roiling burden was lifted. I was at peace. I want to stress that that I had had no intention to pray. The whole episode transpired spontaneously. Now what happened? Phenomenologically, my unintended, spontaneous prayer was answered. Does that unforgettable experience prove that a Higher Power hears and grants some of our heart-felt requests? No, for the simple reason that no (outer) experience proves anything. My current visual experiences of this computer do not prove its existence. But the religious experience is evidence of something Transcendent and if you have had such experiences you may be inclined to think that they carry a lot more weight than abstract reasoning from questionable premises.
On another occasion, while deep in meditation, I had an experience of -- or an experience as of, to put the point with pedantic epistemological caution -- being the object of Someone's love. "I am being loved by some unknown person" was my thought during the experience. That's what it felt like. I was alone sitting in the dark on the black mat. It was an unmistakeable experience, but still only an experience. A brain fart you say? A random neuronal swerve? Could be, but then our ordinary mundane experience could be a brain fart too -- only more coherent and protracted.
There are those who simply dismiss experiences like these. That is a strange attitude, at once unempirical and dogmatically rationalistic. See Intimations of Elsewhere Ignored.
It's a bit of evidence that I add to the other bits of experiential evidence such as a deep sense of the superficiality of ordinary human relations, and of the relative unreality and unimportance of the impermanent world. Without experiences like these Plato, Augustine, Pascal, and Simone Weil could not have written what they wrote.
3. The Arguments for Theism
And then there are the dozens of arguments for theism which, taken together, make a strong cumulative case for theism's truth especially in tandem with the refutation of the atheistic arguments.
Now add it all together: the manifold inadequacies and outright absurdities of the naturalist/materialist/reductionist Weltanschauung, the wide variety of mystical glimpses, religious vouchsafings, paranormal experiences, the deliverances of conscience, the testimony of beauty and order and purposivesness, and the rest of the intuitions, intimations and senses, the refutations of atheism and the arguments for theism -- add this all together, take it as a big cumulative case, and its just might take someone who has the religious disposition over the line into a living belief.
And THEN, and only then, comes the capstone that clinches it for someone like me: "So how can I lose? Even if they are illusions, believing in God and the soul incurs no costs and disbelieving brings no benefits."
I go back and forth on this question. I should be ashamed of myself. Forty years a philosopher and no fixed view on such a fundamental question? What am I (not) being paid to do? To gain some clarity, I will sketch some possible views. I will also sketch the view to which I incline (despite my vacillation).
But first I define 'mortalist.' A mortalist is someone who holds that we human beings are mortal, i.e., subject to the natural necessity of dying, both in body and in mind. Accordingly, all human beings will eventually die, and when they do they will utterly cease to exist as individuals, even if they persist for a while after death as corpses or as smoke and ashes. (By the way, I consider transhumanist dreams of immortality here below to be the worst sort of self-deluding, ultra-hubristic sci-fi nonsense. Pox and anathema be upon this house of cards.) For the mortalist, then, as I define the term, there is no natural immortality, as in Platonism, nor any supernatural immortality via divine agency as in Christianity.
A. Views According to which Death is not an Evil
1. The first view, that of the pessimistic mortalist, we can label 'Silenian.' On this view, death is not an evil because it removes us from a condition which on balance is not good, a condition which on balance is worse than nonexistence. This is the wisdom, if wisdom it is, of Silenus, reported by Sophocles (Oedipus at Colonus, ll. 1244 ff.) and quoted by Nietzsche in The Birth ofTragedy, section 3:
There is an ancient story that King Midas hunted in the forest a long time for the wise Silenus, the companion of Dionysus, without capturing him. When Silenus at last fell into his hands, the king asked what was the best and most desirable of all things for man. Fixed and immovable, the demigod said not a word, till at last, urged by the king, he gave a shrill laugh and broke out into these words: "O wretched ephemeral race, children of chance and misery, why do you compel me to tell you what it would be most expedient for you not to hear? What is best of all is utterly beyond your reach: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best for you is -- to die soon."
Better never to have been born, but here we are. So second best is to die as soon as possible. Death is not an evil, but a good, since it releases us from an evil condition, that of being alive.
2. The second view is that of Epicurus. On the Epicurean view, death is not an evil for the one who dies because when death is, one is not, and when one is, death is not. My being dead is not an evil state of affairs for me (though it may be for others) because there is no such state of affairs (STOA) as my being dead. There is no such STOA because when I am dead there is no bearer of the property of being dead. And there being no such STOA entails that it it cannot be an evil STOA, or a good one for that matter.
I must point out that some find this reasoning sophistical. Well, if it is, is is not obviously sophistical. Some of the complexities of the reasoning are explored in a number of posts collected in the Death and Immortality and Epicureanism categories. I can't go into this now since this post is mainly just taxonomic.
The Epicurean line is consistent with life affirmation. The Epicurean is not saying that being dead is good and being alive evil; he is saying that being dead is not evil. It is not evil because it is axiologically neutral. The Epicurean is therefore also committed to saying that being dead is not a good.
The Silenian pessimist renders a negative value verdict on life as a whole: it's no good; better never to have been born, with second best being to die young. By contrast, the Epicurean's point is that the ontology of the situation makes it impossible for death to be an evil for the one who has died.
3. Platonism. For the Silenian, death is not evil because it releases one from life, which is evil. For the Epicurean death is not evil because the decedent is nonexistent, hence removed from all goods and evils. One cannot experience loss, or suffer in any way, if one does not exist. On the Platonic view death is also not an evil but for a different reason: death is release of the naturally immortal soul (the person in his essence) from embodiment. From a sub-standard 'cave-like' existence, the soul is freed to enjoy a true existence. On Platonism, the true self continues to exist post mortem in better conditions.
4. Illusionism. Whether or not actually held by anyone, there is the possible view according to which dying and being dead are illusions. If so, then how can they be evil? The enlightened sage sees through the veil of maya and recognizes his true identity as the deathless Atman (=Brahman). We don't exist as separate individuals and we don't die as separate individuals. I am the eternal Atman, and as such deathless. Moksha, enlightenment, liberation, is to realize my identity with the eternal Atman thereby seeing through the illusion of separateness. For some puzzles relating to moksha, see here.
5. The view to which I incline. Although the process of dying for most of us won't be easy, physically or mentally, the evil of dying is outweighed by the good of being dead, the good of being released from a predicament which is plainly unsatisfactory, whether or not we survive our bodily deaths as individuals. One aspect of the unsatisfactoriness of our present predicament -- and it is indeed a predicament -- is our deep ignorance, an ignorance that in some takes the form of delusion. (We are de-luded, played for fools, by a world which obtrudes itself upon us as the ne plus ultra of reality when calm reflection shows that it can be no such thing.)
If you deny that this life is plainly unsatisfactory, and can in the end offer us nothing that truly satisfies, then you live on a different planet and I can't help you except to refer you to Buddha, and the Preacher of Ecclesiastes, and Plato, and Augustine, and Thomas a Kempis, and Schopenhauer, and a thousand other philosophers and sages East and West.
Mine is not the position of the pessimistic mortalist, the Silenian, because I am neither an out-and-out pessimist nor a mortalist. Life is not thoroughly bad, but a mixture of good and bad, a chiaroscuro of axiological light and shade if you will. It's not all night and fog; there is daybreak and sunshine and thus intimations of Elsewhere. And if this life is a vale of soul-making, as I am inclined to think, then it is instrumentally good.
Mine is not the Epicurean position because I am not a mortalist.
Mine is not the Platonic position because I do not dogmatically affirm the immortality of the soul. (By 'Platonic' I do not mean the actual views of Plato, whatever they were, but something much broader and caricature-like.) I maintain merely that belief in it is rationally acceptable. The rationality of the belief supports the hope that we may come to learn in death what we cannot learn in life. On this view death is not an evil but an adventure into Shakespeare's "undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns." (Hamlet's soliloquy.) Death is an adventure, and one to be embraced and prepared for, given that one has perceived that this world has nothing much to offer us.
The poet and drunkard Dylan Thomas had it exactly wrong when he advised not going gently into that good night but raging, raging against the dying of the light. I liked his famous lines (which I did not just now quote but paraphrase) when I was an adolescent, but I have put aside childish things.
Peter Lupu once asked me why, if I believe that being dead is good insofar as it is a release from this unsatisfactory predicament, I take such good care of myself. My answer follows from what I have said. This vale of tears is also a vale of soul-making. So I need to 'do my time.' (Here, in nuce, is an argument against suicide.) I need more time here below to earn merit and make up for earlier transgressions. I need more time to complete my philosophical projects and prepare for death. No reasonable person embarks upon a long journey to a foreign land, there to take up permanent residence, without adequate preparations. How foolish, then, not to prepare for the journey to Shakespeare's "undisovered country"? You say there is no such "undiscovered country"? Well, then you need to inquire into the grounds of your belief. Or do you hold beliefs about matters of the utmost importance thoughtlessly?
B. Views According to Which Death is an Evil
6. Optimistic Mortalism. Death is an evil because life is unqualifiedly good and death deprives us of it. Does this need refutation?
7. Christian Mortalism. Death is an evil because we were intended to live in an embodied state forever in paradise with God. But now we are under sentence of death due to Adam's sin. Death was not intended by God but is a punishment for Adam's sin. Death, though an evil, is yet a portal to eternal life for those who accept Jesus as savior. So Chrisitan mortalism is not mortalism full-strength as I defined it at the outset, but a mitigated mortalism which pins its hopes on supernatural divine agency and the resurrection of the body.
I have been enjoying your blog for a couple of years now, and I have to say that I like how your mind works. There are a lot of issues I am thinking about currently regarding philosophy and that didn't change after reading Angus Menuge's book Agents Under Fire. If you haven't read that, I strongly recommend you to. He has some very interesting arguments regarding reason, intentionality, agency, reductionism, materialism etc. One issue is bugging me particularly these days, and it is the ever-lasting question of free will. I hope I am not asking too much, but would you be able to tell me what your position about free will is and briefly explain why you hold that position?
My position, bluntly stated, is that we are libertarianly free. As far as I'm concerned the following argument is decisive:
1. We are morally responsible for at least some of our actions and omissions. 2. Moral responsibility entails libertarian freedom of the will. Therefore 3. We are libertarianly free.
Is this a compelling argument? By no means. (But then no argument for any substantive philosophical thesis is compelling. Nothing substantive in philosophy has ever been proven to the satisfaction of all competent practioners.) One could, with no breach of logical propriety, deny the conclusion and then deny one or both of the premises. As we say in the trade, "One man's modus ponens is another's modus tollens." Any valid argument can be thrown into 'inferential reverse,' the result being a valid argument.
I of course acccept both premises. That I am morally (as opposed to causally, and as opposed to legally) responsible for at least some of what I do and leave undone I take to be more evident than its negation. And, like Kant, I see compatibilism as a shabby evasion, "the freedom of the turnspit."
Some will say that free will and moral responsibility are illusions. I find that incoherent for reasons supplied here. Other posts in the Free Will category touch upon some of the more technical aspects of the problem.
There is a lot of utter rubbish being scribbled by scientists these days about philosophical questions. Typically, these individuals, prominent in their fields, don't have a clue as to the nature, history, or proper exfoliation of these questions. Recently, biologist Jerry Coyne has written a lot of crap about free will that I expose in these posts:
This stuff is crap in the same sense in which most of Ayn Rand's philosophical writings are crap. The crappiness resides not so much in the theses themselves but in the way the theses are presented and argued, and the way objections are dealt with. But if I had to choose between the scientistic crapsters (Krauss, Coyne, Hawking & Mlodinow, et al.) and Rand, I would go with Rand. At least she understands that what she is doing is philosophy and that philosophy is important and indispensable. At least she avoids the monstrous self-deception of the scientistic crapsters who do philosophy while condemning it.