Here is a passage which I will type verbatim from Alasdair MacIntyre’s new book God, Philosophy, Universities. A fantastic short study of the rise of Catholic philosophy and the university system as well as tracing the threads of (particularly) Roman Catholic philosophical thought. Since I tend to agree with almost every word that ever came out of MacIntyre’s mouth (and pen), I reproduce this passage for you and commend it to your thoughts. Enjoy!
“…the disagreement between atheists and theists is one of those fundamental disagreements that extends to how the disagreement is to be characterized. Atheists characteristically take theists to believe in one item too many. They envisage a catalog designed to include a description of every type of being that there is and suppose that theists and atheists have no problem in agreeing to include in that catalog a variety of inorganic and organic beings, stars, planets, dandelions, azaleas, bacteria, viruses, dolphins, wolves, and the like, but disagree about just one remaining item, God. And since none of the reasons that are sufficient to justify the inclusion of descriptions of all these other beings is sufficient to justify the inclusion of a description of God, they take it that theists have at this point affirmed a belief which, unlike those beliefs that theists and atheists share, lacks rational justification. The atheist has, on the atheist’s view, conformed to the canons of rationality. The theist has not.
This is not however how theists characteristically understand their disagreement with atheists. From the theistic point of view this is a disagreement about everything, about what it is to find anything whatsoever intelligible rather than unintelligible. To view something as intelligible is not yet to understand it. It is to recognize it as open to being understood, to recognize that, if one asks what it is, why it is as it is, and why indeed it is–why, that is, out of the indefinitely large set of possibilities that might have been actualized, this particular possibility has been realized–there is a true answer to be found. That answer will identify some agency sufficient to make it the case that things exist as they do and have the characteristics that they have.
It turns out however that no answer provided by the natural sciences is capable of identifying such an agency. For all scientific explanation is of the form “Because such and such antecedent conditions were satisfied, these particular possibilities were actualized” and this makes the outcome that we are trying to understand intelligible only if we are able to say why those particular antecedent conditions were satisfied. No matter how far scientific explanation is taken, the existence of whatever it is that exists and its having the characteristics that it has remain surd facts, yet to be made intelligible. And this is why scientific enquiry always involves trying to move beyond our present explanations, yet never can reach a point where the phenomena that it studies have been made fully intelligible. What kind of agency would have to be identified to make them finally intelligible? It would have to be such that it itself, its existence and nature, require no further explanation, that is, that there is no question of existence having been conferred on its essence, something rules out only if what it is and that it is are one and the same, that it is a being whose essence and existence are identical. But this is how theists conceive of God. So their disagreements with atheists concerning God are inseparable from their disagreements with atheists concerning intelligibility–and these disagreements have a further dimension.
What is distinctive about the theistic view of the nature of things is not only that theists assert the existence of God and that they take the world to be fully intelligible only if understood in its relationship to God, but that they conceive human beings as occupying a unique position in the order of things. Human beings are on the one hand bodies, having a physical, chemical, and animal nature, inhabiting an immediate environment, located at particular points in space and time. Yet on the other hand their understanding extends indefinitely beyond their immediate environment to what is remote in space and time and to the abstract and the universal as well as to the concrete and the particular. And their aspiration to complete and perfect their understanding of the order of things and of their place within it is matched by an aspiration to achieve a relationship with a fully and finally adequate object of desire, an end to which, if they understand themselves rightly (on the theistic view), they are directed by their nature. Yet human beings are not animal bodies plus something else. The human being is a unity, not a duality.” MacIntyre, pages 76-78.
A very nice summation I think of the general line of thought.
“And this all men call God.” Such were the words of St. Thomas Aquinas at the end of each of his Five Ways. While I greatly admire the five ways I do think that Aquinas was hasty in assuming that omnes dicunt Deum. Perhaps all in his time would have, but certainly not now. That is unfortunate but what can be done? I for my part think that many good arguments for the existence of God can be given.
Well, I am presently working my way slowly through Germain Grisez’s Beyond the New Theism: a philosophy of religion, and am enjoying it very much. He offers an argument for the existence of God that, while in the spirit of the Thomistic arguments, does not fall victim to many of the offhand criticisms directed towards cosmological arguments. I must say that I find it rather convincing, if not foolproof. It is compelling, but not necessarily knock-down. If one is looking for a knock-down argument then one will be looking a long time; there are always sophists willing to play the fool.
Here, in brief, is his argument in summary form (taken from pages 82-84). Be mindful that it is a modal argument of sorts, which is probably why I like it so much. It has its starting point, not in the nature of the whole universe itself or the apparent characteristic of design in nature, but rather from the mere fact that contingent states of affairs obtain, and that some particular state of affairs obtains, whatever it may be:
“1. Some contingent state of affairs obtains. Nothing in the argument depends upon the particular content of the state of affairs from which it begins. Thus the argument can be generalised; it proceeds from any contingent state of affairs which obtains. “Contingent” here does not mean dependent or transitory. A contingent state of affairs is one which might or might not obtain; its obtaining does not follow from its being the state of affairs which it is. The primary evidence that there are contingent states of affairs is that we can know what it would be like for many states of affairs to obtain without knowing whether they obtain.
2. It is reasonable to ask why any particular contingent state of affairs obtains and to expect an answer which would begin to provide an unconditional explanation. An unconditional explanation would explain why a contingent state of affairs obtains otherwise than by reference to other contingent states of affairs themselves assumed to obtain. Although it is not reasonable, according to the preceding argument, to expect an explanation of why contingent states of affairs are contingent, it is reasonable to expect an explanation of why they obtain, unless there are good reasons for not proceeding with the inquiry. Hume, Kant, and philosophers who more or less closely follow them argue that human knowledge is necessarily limited in certain ways which would rule out the question, the answer, or both. I argue… that such attempts to delimit knowledge fail.
3. The question why a contingent state of affairs obtains is not satisfactorily answered by positing a necessity which is identical with some or all contingent states of affairs. Hegel attempts to overcome the distinction between what contingent states of affairs are and their obtaining by his theory of Absolute Spirit. Post-hegelian relativism limits philosophic explanation to cases in which meaning originates in human action and thus coincides with a state of affairs which obtains. I argue… that such attempts to comprehend obtaining–that is, to explain it without an uncaused cause–fail.
4. The question why a contingent state of affairs obtains is not satisfactorily answered by saying that it obtains because it is the state of affairs which it is. A noncontingent state of affairs can be explained in this way. thus, if formal truths pick out state of affairs, it is reasonable to say that such states of affairs obtain–in the sense in which they do obtain–because they are what they are. It is also reasonable to say that an uncaused entity obtains simply because it is what it is. But since a contingent state of affairs is the state of affairs which it is whether it obtains or not, what a contingent state of affairs is cannot explain its obtaining.
5. The question why a contingent state of affairs obtains can and must be answered by saying that there is an uncaused entity, which necessarily obtains, and which causes contingent state of affairs to obtain. It must be admitted that in saying this one uses language in irregular ways. But an irregular use of language need not be arbitrary. If the way in which the irregular use is derived from ordinary uses can be clarified, extension and stretching of ordinary language and the bending of linguistic rules can be reasonable. I try to clarify the ways in which language is used in the conclusion of the argument and argue that the irregularity of these uses is reasonable.
6. To say that a contingent state of affairs is caused by an uncaused cause is only a partial answer to the question why it obtains. This answer is only partial for two reasons. No particular contingent state of affairs obtains in isolation. The relationship of contingent states of affairs to one another is part of the explanation of why they obtain. Philosophical and scientific explanations complement one another and in a sense bear upon the same subject matter, but they cannot substitute for one another. Moreover, the uncaused cause, Dc, and the uncaused entity which is its nucleus, D, emerge from the argument only as theoretical entities which are posited to satisfy the conditions of the problem. What is D in itself? How does Dc bring about contingent states of affairs? Such questions naturally arise, and it is false to suggest that one has a complete unconditional explanation of why contingent states of affairs obtain unless these questions are answered.”
That is the argument in rather brief form. I highly recommend the book, although it is very abstract and difficult analytic philosophy. It is one that is worth struggling through.
Some of the best conversations I have ever had have been shared over a pint in one of Grand Rapids’ many pubs. Recently I had the occasion to share one again and it was no exception. I was speaking with a German friend of mine who is also a philosopher and the topic turned away from graduate school plans and pleasantries to theology, a place I was not expecting to go. I must admit I was a bit reluctant to speak on the topic as this particular person is a highly accomplished philosopher, friend, mentor to myself for several years, and an atheist. I was reminded of several things during the conversation, one of them being a healthy reminder that one will not lose a friendship over one conversation even if both sides are diametrically opposed. The other was another healthy reminder that, in philosophy, we are not out to “get” the other person but rather are honing each others’ skills and beliefs by forcing thought-out positions. I must admit that I was given a good working over and that it is difficult to disagree with this person, but at the end of our Octoberfest drafts (straight from Germany mind you) there was increased understanding on both sides and, I hope, a good challenge to established thought on both sides.
One of his concerns was the relationship between faith and reason. Am I, in professing Theism, simply holding a faith in opposition to reason? Of course, with such a question there are inevitable distinctions (as there should be!). My response was to ask what is faith and what is reason, and why are they distinct. It seemed to me, and also afterward as I reflected on our conversation, that I do not want faith and reason to be as separate as many make it. I do not wish to attempt a discursus on that subject here. What was more interesting I think was the question of when should one rely on faith or reason, and when should one give up faith in response to reason (or, presumably, vice-versa). My explanation was something along the lines of the following. Even in matters strictly philosophical or scientific there is a place for faith that is every bit as prominent as that in matters religious. One must hold onto a belief, believed to be true or at least valid, until sufficient evidence (and there are various kinds of evidence, I do not mean simply and naively empirical evidence) gives reason to change ones’ mind. It seems to me that there is near universal agreement on this. Nevertheless, there seems to be a problem with some Atheists as to why the religious tend to hold onto religious beliefs as a matter of faith. Is it not obvious? At the risk of a tu quoque, they do as well. A religious belief held on the grounds of faith is a belief that one has good reason to hold yet not so overwhelmingly that it is a matter of apriori knowledge (or something along those lines). YET, it would be irrational to give up the belief, and hence also the faith, without sufficient reason to do so. I will not give up my belief that 2+2=4 without a great deal of evidence, both empirical and logical. Well, it is the same with faith and religion. Now, my friend seemed to assume that having doubts about one’s faith is a sufficient reason but I wonder about that. I doubt many things but I do not thereby give up my belief. And it is certainly a simple matter to entertain doubts yet nevertheless retain beliefs and hence a faith as well. I doubt that I will ever know all there is to know about the moon, but I don’t stop believing that the moon exists (although, granted, this is a slight dis-analogy since I can see the moon). Perhaps black-holes are a better example. The point, regardless, is this: it would be irrational for a religious person to give up their faith simply because they have doubts. A doubt in itself is not an answer; it is not proscriptive, it is simply and merely descriptive of one’s mental emotional state. So why do we judge our beliefs on the basis of our mental emotional states? Really, such a thing would seem absurd. Sure, it would be nice to find something of which I have little or no doubts, but try finding something of substance and import where such is the case and I will be highly surprised. So, faith and reason are not opposed but rather hang together. As Augustine (and others before him) said: I believe so that I might understand. The Atheist is no different and it is no knock against the theist if he holds beliefs and faith despite the fact that he/she does not know all the details and hence has the opportunity to doubt. If there is any rationality in the cosmos, and I am loath to say that there is not, then it is rational to act religiously.
What is the point of all this? Two-fold: first, to say that there are several spectacular beers at the Hopcat, and second that I cannot defend the Christian faith strictly on philosophical grounds. To do so would be to commit an injustice against both philosophy and faith. I have a tendency to try to see everything in terms of logical connections; but not all matters fall into neat logical connections (although, as I pointed out to my friend, much of theology in fact does). So, good brews and healthy reminders.