I would be willing to be called theist in the sense described in this previous post, and I would like to encourage others to try to understand what that means. I hope that this will help other people to find for themselves a better sense of their own role and possibilities. I also affirm the right of atheism to express itself in the world, with full rights of citizenship, and to earn all the respect it can by motivating good lives and work for peace, justice, science and all the arts.
This post is a continuation of a theme I addressed in a piece on fascism on August 23rd. You may ask, why did I include a piece on fascism in a blog about science and religion? It is because I think I can detect totalitarian thinking in some of the material published and positions advocated in this area. I already discussed one issue related to this, namely the attempt to suppress dissent by redefining the very words that other people have adopted:
[Changing the meaning of words]
In this post I will expand on another issue: assessing people not by how they behave but by how you label them.
We all know that asking questions is important. Asking the right questions is at the heart of most intellectual activity. Questions must be encouraged. We all know this. But are there any questions which may not be asked? Questions which should not be asked? Although many a young undergraduate might initially say “no: never! All questions must be encouraged!” I think most thoughtful people will realise there is a little more to it than that.
This is the second part of a presentation of a philosophy paper by Peter van Inwagen. You can find the first part here.
In the first part, I presented van Inwagen’s specific reaction to a certain specific argument. This argument presents the claim that the pain of the world gives a prima facie case for the hypothesis that the ultimate source of the world is indifferent to it. Van Inwagen replies simply by showing that the case fails because the premises do not entail the conclusion. However, this discussion is unsatisfactory as it stands because it is too dry. It doesn’t really grapple with the problem of pain. It grapples only with the structure of a certain logical (or illogical) argument.
Last week I posted a thought in which music in major and minor keys is used as an analogy for ways of thinking or of seeing. I did not develop the analogy; just hinted at it. Now I will develop it a little.
The sort of activity that tries to “turn minor chords into major chords” in this analogy is any activity where a naturalistic or scientistic world-view is imposed on the very framework of a discussion, so that a view which does not accept that world-view is prevented from even being expressed in its own terms. Here I am using the word ‘scientistic’ not for science, but for a philosophical position which puts analysis and dissection into low-level physical causes at the centre of all discourse, as if that were the most important thing, or only way of getting at truth.
Imagine someone whose experience of music has been limited: they have only ever heard tunes and harmonies that are in a major key. Now suppose they come across some music in a minor key. They might, perhaps, find it difficult to like at first. They might even feel that it is not proper music, or that it is out of tune, or discordant. What attitude might such a person adopt? They will notice that other people like this other music, so they might decide that the problem is with their own hearing. Or they might decide that their own hearing is fine and the minor key is simply unmusical. It would be a pity if they concluded that, but it makes some sort of sense. But what would be oppressive, what would be objectionable, would be the claim that the quality of music in a minor key can only be properly assessed by first making a ‘correction’ of each minor chord or interval into a major counterpart.
You can find much discussion of the concept of faith in the talks and books in the resources section of this blog. Here I will say some more about the roles of faith and reason.
Reason is about being receptive to persuasion, and honest enough to follow a sequence of steps where the connections can be shown and seen.
Faith is essentially a kind of willingness combined with a sense of value.
Added note. This is a note added for readers in the Oxford area.
I am giving a lecture at Headington Baptist Church on 12 September. Doors open at 7:30pm; talk from 8:00pm, with questions and discussion afterwards. The subject is basically the theme of this blog and my book of the same name. The venue is the church building at 78 Old High Street, Headington, Oxford OX3 9HW; click here for a map.
Reading New Scientist magazine this week I came across a statement I very much like:
“Mathematics is not as much about finding proofs as it is about finding concepts.”
[image: Frederick William Hayes The Rivals from Llanddwyn (c.1884)]
This week I was looking at a few websites and I found various repetitions of a statement that seems to be doing the round in atheist circles, namely that all of us disbelieve in most gods and the happy atheist simply goes one further. You can download a poster of all the gods that people have written about or made offerings to, and thus bolster your own atheism.
All I want to do this week is explain, briefly, why this sort of polemic (for that is all it is) won’t wash.
Here is a letter that was published in New Scientist magazine about two months ago.
“I was intrigued by your claim that science is not a belief system (4 April, p.5). Surely what it is not is a faith system. Science is belief based on evidence: faith, on the other hand, is belief irrespective of evidence.
“Science gives rise to beliefs that fit the existing evidence, allowing for them to change should new evidence make that sensible.
“Faith takes beliefs and puts them on an untouchable pedestal where they remain, no matter what contradictory evidence there is.
“Most of us frequently employ a fairly scientific belief system. Take the simple example of the day of the week. When I woke up this morning, I believed it to be Thursday, based on the evidence of my memory. Had I then looked at my computer, my phone and a newspaper and seen that day given as Friday, I would have changed my belief, trusting the evidence of the computer, phone and newspaper over my memory. However, if I applied a faith-based belief system, I would have refused to take note of the contrary evidence and insisted that the day was Thursday, no matter what.
“It is lack of faith, not lack of belief, that makes science so special and so wonderful.”
Kate Szell, London, UK
“The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”
― Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (1995)
This widely quoted paragraph is the subject of this essay. I am mostly concerned with the last sentence, but let me first briefly comment on the opening that builds up the dramatic power. When you read the comment on suffering, it seems at first like a valid observation, one that “sees through” the “illusion” of the goodness of the world to all the harshness of “the truth of things”. But think a little. If you had to write a couple of sentences in which you tried to capture a fair portrait of what happens in the natural world during the minute it takes to compose a sentence, would this be the portrait? Of course not. The suffering is not to be set aside, but it is less than half the story of most life, and it is less than half the story of life on Earth. Are all the careful, sympathetic and fulfilling studies presented by naturalists such as Sir David Attenborough just some sort of rose-tinted spectacles and wishful thinking? No. Go and look in your garden, or in the forest, or the jungle, or in the river, or the ocean, or on the African plain. Is it the case that starvation and misery is the “natural state” of affairs? Or are they part of a natural state of affairs which has here been grossly miss-represented?