Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Blackburn on the Existence of God

Some of you may have already read this interview that Simon Blackburn gave to Philosophy Now in which he explains why he is an atheist or "infidel" (as he prefers to be called). Since on FB and elsewhere some people have been complaining about the soundness of his arguments and have been saying that they expected more from a top philosopher, I'd like to make a few very simple remarks because, among other things, I think he makes some good points -- I will only refer to a couple of them.

(1) The first thing to note is that this is a short interview, so one cannot expect the interviewee to fully explain his line of reasoning on such a complex question as whether God exists or whether there is a deity of some kind.

(2) When Blackburn says that the strongest argument against the existence of God is the existence of appalling human and animal suffering, he is thinking of God as conceived of by, e.g., Christians, as his enumeration of the attributes of such a being make clear. So if the argument from evil is sound, it seems it wouldn't disprove the existence of any kind of god, since there may be, e.g., a god that isn't omnibenevolent. But what is important in the present context, in which Blackburn is clearly debating with Christians, is that the argument from evil (presented in a very condensed form in this brief interview) doesn't seem to be a silly argument that is not worth considering. At least, I don't think that Christian philosophers have provided conclusive counter-arguments. As I said in a previous post, theodical explanations that attempt to explain the existence of evil strike me as a game one plays using very peculiar abstract concepts.

(3) I'm not making any assertion about the existence or non-existence of God, since I'm a religious agnostic. What I'm saying is that philosophical discussion of this topic shouldn't dismiss out of hand certain arguments and positions. I find a condescending and arrogant attitude in those (believers and non-believers) who have criticized Blackburn's answers, which is the same attitude I've found in many believers when they're confronted with arguments for atheism or for agnosticism. And this goes both ways. In May, at a conference in Brazil, I remembered asking a friend of mine, who is a smart and respected epistemologist, about how to resolve a fundamental disagreement between a champion of the natural selection view and a champion of the intelligent design view. His answer was just that the defender of the intelligent design view does not really believe what he says he believes. A surprising reply.

(4) Blackburn remarks that he doubts that he could be convinced through reasons and reasonings that there is a God, and that he's "sure that emotional traumas, loss, oppression and despair cause many people to seek some kind of refuge in supernatural hopes." What's the problem with this claim? I think it is descriptive. If I restrict myself to my own experience, I should say that when I tell someone that I do not believe in God, the soul, the afterlife, Reiki, tarot, or astrology, most of the time the reaction I get is: "But how can you live without believing in anything?" (They mean, of course, without having any of those "central" beliefs.) So the reason they give is not that it is evident that, e.g., God exists or that there are compelling arguments that prove that He exists. Rather, the reason is pragmatic: life would be pointless or meaningless if there were no god/God, or no soul, or no afterlife, etc.; and this is precisely what Blackburn is saying. I suspect that many philosophers who hold metaphysical (or even supertitious) beliefs do so for purely pragmatic reasons.

(5) As regards the existence of the universe, Blackburn remarks that, "as David Hume said, if there is some unknown, inconceivable quality of ‘necessarily existing’, then for all we know it might belong to the cosmos itself. No need, then, to add anything else." I attended a Catholic school, and in high school I remember telling one of my teachers that, if it didn't make sense for the universe to have existed forever, why did it make sense for God to have existed forever? A few years later, I was surprised to hear a similar point made in a terrible American B movie. Still, I don't think that such a point can be dismissed out of hand (even though even a teenager can think of it): why is it absurd to assign certain attributes, such as eternity, to the universe but not to some sort of supernatural being?

(6) Blackburn also makes some good points in refusing to accept the similarity between skepticism about the existence of God and external world skepticism. Personally, whenever someone tells me that that he/she knows that there is a god/God on the basis of his/her religious experience, I usually stop offering arguments becaue I feel I cannot confidently deny that the person is question is having such an experience. But Blackburn seems right in pointing out that religious experience cannot justify all the attributes that are usually assigned to God. Or at least believers should explain how personal religious experience can do that. The burden of proof lies with them.

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