Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Essay by Anthony Flew

"Tribute to Antony Flew from the archives"

[The news was announced yesterday that Antony Flew died on 8 April, aged 87. Today (April 14, 2010) we are re-publishing an essay on reason and religion he wrote for tpm in 2000.]

["tpm" is The Philosophers Magazine.]

‘Before accepting any belief one ought first to follow reason as a guide, for credulity without enquiring is a sure way to deceive oneself.’

Celsus, first century A.D. author of a still extant treatise On Medicine.

About this, if about little else, Aquinas would have agreed with Celsus. For in chapter six of Book I of his Summa contra Gentiles he dismissed as frivolous (levis) the suggestion that faith should simply plump for some one particular ideological system over all possible rivals, without the support of any good evidencing reasons for that preference. The contrast here is between evidencing reasons and motivat ing reasons for some belief. The former are intended to provide evidence that the belief actually is true. The latter are intended to provide people with powerful motives for persuading themselves that something is true irrespective of whether there are good or even any evidencing reasons for believing that it actually is. The classic example of an honest argument of that latter kind is what is known as Pascal’s Wager.

It has sometimes been claimed - as if this constituted a license to believe arbitrarily and without any evidencing reason - that everyone nowadays knows that it is equally impossible either to prove or to disprove the existence of God. Whether or not that is indeed the case, it is certainly false to say that this impossibility is an universally known truth. For in 1870 the third session of what we must now call the First Vatican Council proclaimed that: ‘If anyone shall say, that the one and true God, our creator and Lord, cannot be known for certain through the creation by the natural light of human reason: let them be cast out [anathema].’ The information supposedly provided by the natural light of human reason is thus implicitly contrasted with that contributed by alleged Divine revelation. The implication of the anath-ematization clause is that the doctrine here propounded is now an essential element in the Roman Catholic faith.

So how are we to understand the expression ‘our one and true God, our creator and Lord’? I accept the definition of the word ‘God’ introduced by Richard Swinburne at the beginning of his trilogy of natural theology:

A person without a body (i.e., a spirit), present everywhere, the creator and sustainer of the universe, able to do everything (i.e., omnipotent) knowing all things, perfectly good, a source of moral obligation, immutable, eternal, a necessary being, holy and worthy of worship. (The Coherence of Theism )

Certainly this definitely epitomises the characteristics traditionally attributed to God. But the more one thinks about these characteristics the more difficult it becomes to see how the existence of such a being could with any plausibility be inferred from observation of the universe around us. On the contrary, some such observations have been offered traditionally, and most compellingly, as falsifications of the contention that any hypothesised creator could be not only omniscient and omnipotent but also ‘perfectly good’.

Joseph Butler (1692-1752), who held the senior see of Durham in days when a Christian commitment was still a precondition for securing such appointments, was certainly one of the two finest philosophical minds ever to adorn the Church of England’s bench of bishops. Yet even he could argue:

There is no need of abstruse reasonings and distinctions, to convince an unprejudiced understanding, that there is a God who made and governs the world, and will judge it in righteousness … to an unprejudiced mind ten thousand instances of design cannot but prove a designer. (Works, Vol. 1)

To Butler it thus seemed utterly obvious that a proof of a designer and maker of the universe must at the same time be a proof that the designer and maker will also be a righteous judge, rewarding and punishing. Yet earlier Butler had himself maintained that:

Upon supposition that God exercises a moral government over the world, the analogy of this natural government suggests and makes it credible that this moral government must be a scheme quite beyond our comprehension; and this affords a general answer to all objections against the justice and goodness of it. (ibid)

To say this, however, is to make your claim about the goodness and justice of your God, at least in this life and in this universe, in principle unfalsifiable, and hence to make your theism, in that understanding, not only indefeasible but also insupportable. For, in so far as a scheme is ‘quite beyond our comprehension’, we cannot pick out and identify evidence that that scheme either is or is not in fact realised.

Butler’s apparently devastating response therefore has costs which nullify its benefits. The benefit is that his contention about God’s moral government becomes humanly irrefutable. The cost is that that contention is simultaneously and with an equal necessity emptied of any humanly intelligible substance.

Since it is apparently impossible to reconcile all the various characteristics definitionally attributed to God both with each other and with the admitted facts of a far from perfect world, something simply has to give. That was and remains the burden of the falsification challenge as first stated in a very short but much reprinted article entitled ‘Theology and Falsification’:

Someone tells us that God loves us as a father loves his children. We are reassured. But then something awful happens. Some qualification is made … We are reassured again. But then perhaps we ask: what is this reassurance of God’s (appropriately qualified) love worth, what is this apparent guarantee really a guarantee against? Just what would have to happen not merely (morally and wrongly) to tempt but also (logically and rightly) to entitle us to say ‘God does not love us’ or even ‘God does not exist’? (New Essays in Philosophical Theology, Antony Flew and Alasdair Macinytre eds.)

If and in so far as it is indeed the case, as it appears to be, that there is no actual characteristic of the universe the absence of which would be sufficient to prove that it is not God’s creation, then it surely follows that there is no feature the presence of which could serve to prove that it actually is God’s handiwork.

It remains to consider the possibility of there being evidence which, though less than decisively probative, might nevertheless be sufficient to justify bets of faith. As my Father, a Methodist preacher, often said in sermons: ‘Faith is not a leap in the dark but a leap towards the Light!’

In considering the search for evidence of the existence of God it is as difficult as it is necessary for those of us who have been raised in theist or post-theist societies to free ourselves from the prejudices of such upbringings. I confess that I myself really began to do this only in consequence of visiting the institute of Foreign Philosophy in Peking University, Beijing.

There I was able to enjoy much philosophical talk with my graduate student ‘minder’. He was of course acquainted with the concept of the theist God. But he had met it only as today any of us might happen to come upon the notions of Aphrodite or Poseidon. He had never had any occasion to confront it as what William James called a ‘live option’ - any more than, for any of our contemporaries anywhere, belief in the real existence of the Olympians constitutes such an option.

So he did not know whether to be more amused or more indignant when he first learnt from Descartes that our Maker has imprinted upon every human soul - as his trademark, as it were - the (authentic) idea of God, a concept that supposedly is too splendid to have been shaped by merely human agency, and from which it is allegedly possible immediately to infer the existence of the corresponding object God. For were not his compatriots also supposed to be God’s creatures; and, if so, how had God failed to imprint his trademark upon their souls?

If once we had freed ourselves from prejudices consequent upon our upbringing among what Islam calls ‘peoples of the Book’ just about the last sort of putative entity which we would be inclined to postulate as a possible cause of the Big Bang would be a putative something so definitionally non-physical as ‘A person without a body (i.e. a spirit), present everywhere’, and so on.

For we now know, or with a mass of supporting reason now reasonably believe, that people - members of our own particular kind of creatures of flesh and blood - are ultimately products of physical causes. So if physicists are unable to discover physical causes of the Big Bang we shall have to conclude that the ultimates of explanation just are the enti ties contained in the universe and the laws of their behaviour. For it is an often unrecognised logically necessary truth that every series or system of explanations cannot but end in something or some things which are held to explain but cannot themselves be explained. This is of course true of explanation in terms of the existence of God, whose existence cannot itself be explained, but is held to be the ultimate explaining but unexplainable reality.

Even if we did contrive to infer that the Universe was originally produced, and continues to be sustained by, ‘A person without a body (i.e., a spirit)’ who is ‘present everywhere … able to do everything (i.e., omnipotent)’ and ‘knowing all things’ it would be an enormous further step to conclude that this spirit is an actual or potential partisan within His creation. But it is of course only on that assumption that the existence of a creator becomes, in journalistic terms, of supreme human interest.

The assumption that all the various characteristics traditionally attributed to the theist God constitute a package deal is an unwarranted prejudice arising from upbringing among ‘peoples of the Book’. The conception of that God was not a result of philosophical speculation. It was the product of an unparalleled historical development of a finite, one-among-many, tribal god into the unique omnipotent, omniscient, creator God of ‘His people Israel.’

It is entirely natural to think of tribal gods as devoted to the best interests of the tribe, endorsing its established norms, and providing support in its wars. That, after all, is what such gods are for. But would it ever occur to anyone not prejudiced by influences from The Bible but for the first time and open-mindedly entertaining the idea of an omnipotent and omniscient creator, that that creator would intervene as a partisan in conflicts within His creation?

It would, surely, appear obvious to such a person that everything which occurs or does not occur within a created universe must, by the hypothesis, be precisely and only what its creator wants either to occur or not to occur. What scope is there for creatures to defy the will of their creator? What room even for a concept of such defiance? For a creator to punish creatures for what by the hypothesis he necessarily and as such (ultimately) causes them do would be the most monstrous, perverse, and sadistic of performances. Absent revelation to the contrary, the expectations of natural reason must surely be such a creator God would be as detached and uninvolved as the gods of Epicurus. Indeed some Indian religious thinkers not prejudiced by any present or previous Mosaic commitments are said to describe a creator as being, essentially and in the nature of the case, beyond good and evil.

Today the most popular response to the challenge to produce some evidencing reason for belief in the existence of God is to refer to the compelling personal experience of believers. The most formidable spokesperson here is John Hick, who argues:

The right question is whether it is rational for the religious man himself, given that his religious experience is coherent, persistent, and compelling, to affirm the reality of God. What is in question is not the rationality of an inference from certain psychological events to God as their cause; for the religious man no more infers the existence of God than we infer the existence of the visible world around us. What is in question is the rationality of the one who has the religious experiences. If we regard him as a rational person we must acknowledge that he is rational in believing what, given his experiences, he cannot help believing.(Theology Today)

Certainly we can and must concede at once that it is one thing to say that a belief is unfounded or well-founded, and quite another to say that to hold to or to reject that belief is irrational or rational for some particular people, in their particular experiences and lack of experiences. But this granted, gladly and im mediately, we have to insist upon the fundamental distinction which is in this case crucial. In the ordinary, everyday, lay-person’s sense of ‘experience’ to say that someone has experience of cows or computers is to say that they have had dealings with flesh and blood cows or chips and wires computers. In this sense such statements entail the actual, mind-independent existence of the objects supposedly experienced.

In the second sense - call it the philosophers’ sense - experience is essentially subjective or, as Berkeley would have said, ‘in the mind’. I could truly claim to have enjoyed the experience of cows or computers or whatever else, in this sense of ‘experience’, notwithstanding that that experience had consisted exclusively of dreams, nightmares, waking visions, and hallucinations, and even though I had had no dealings whatsoever with actual cows or computers or whatever else. I could even make a claim to such experiences of some kinds of objects of which there are in fact no actual specimens. Yet still that claim could be denied only at the cost of calling me liar.

The confidence of Hick’s religious man in the rationality of proceeding to ‘affirm the reality of God’ must be based upon the conviction that his ‘coherent, persistent and compelling’ experience is experience in the ordinary everyday sense of the word. For how else, if at all, could it warrant affirmations of ‘the reality of God’? But God as here defined surely could not be an object of perception as ordinarily conceived. For how could one perceive a being defined as both incorporeal and endowed with transcendent characteristics? So in the end it is a question of precisely the kind that Hicks maintains it is not. It is, that is to say, a question of the rationality of an inference: ‘from certain psychological events’ - religious believers having, in the second sense of ‘experience’, experiences of God - to God as the cause of those events. But about inferences of that kind the incorrigible Thomas Hobbes wrote what ought to have been the last word:

‘If any man pretend to me that God hath spoken to him … immediately, and I make doubt of it, I cannot easily perceive what argument he can produce to oblige me to believe it .. For to say that God … hath spoken to him in a dream is no more than to say he dreamed that God spoke to him.’ (Leviathan, Chapter 13)

I still think he acted in "bad faith"...but then, that's an existentialist's point of view.

Pascal's Wager? and Antony Flew

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