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TWO KINDS OF PHILOSOPHICAL ATHEISM

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Title: TWO KINDS OF PHILOSOPHICAL ATHEISM


1
TWO KINDS OF PHILOSOPHICAL ATHEISM
  • Ernest Nagel (1901-1985) says that atheistic
    philosophies fall into two main groups
  • 1. Those which find the theistic hypothesis
    meaningful, but reject it because the evidence
    for it is insufficient, or reject it because the
    evidence against it is overwhelming.
  • 2. Those which state that theism is not
    meaningful because it asserts something which is
    not verifiable - even in theory.
  • The point of saying that theism is meaningless
    because it is unverifiable is that, if God is
    transcendent, then there is no way in which his
    or her existence can be confirmed in experience.
    And according to verificationism, if an assertion
    is not empirically verifiable, at least in
    theory, then it is meaningless.

2
PROBLEMS WITH THEISM AS MEANINGLESS
  • However, as seen earlier, verificationism has
    problems since it rules out as meaningless
    certain assertions which are perfectly meaningful
    but cannot be verified, even in theory. For
    instance, asserting that the sun will become a
    red giant and incinerate the earth is meaningful
    even though, by the very nature of the case, no
    one would be here to verify it.
  • Nagel also says that the verifiability theory of
    meaning makes atomic theory meaningless, and so
    is unacceptable if only for this reason. Thus
    Nagel intends to look at atheism from the first
    standpoint which looks at theism as a doctrine
    which is either true or false and not
    meaningless.
  • Thus theism has to be assessed in light of
    arguments for or against it.

3
IMMANUEL KANT (1724-1804)
4
KANTS MORAL ARGUMENT I
  • 1. For Kant, man is not only subject to the
    physical laws of nature as an embodied being, but
    is subject to moral laws as a rational agent.
  • 2. These moral laws concern what it is the duty
    of man to accept as binding - such as to treat
    humans as ends and not merely as means.
  • 3. But the moral man is not always rewarded in
    life and sometimes suffers, and sometimes evil
    men are rewarded and enjoy the best things in
    life. Thus being a virtuous person does not
    always guarantee happiness.

5
KANTS MORAL ARGUMENT II
  • 4. It is the duty of man to be a good and moral
    creature, and the highest human good is happiness
    which comes form being moral.
  • 5. But what can guarantee that this highest good
    can be realized? Since men are not always moral,
    man cannot guarantee the highest goodness which
    comes from morality.
  • 6. Thus, in order to make the highest good
    something which can be achieved, it is necessary
    to postulate God as a necessary condition for
    the possibility of a moral life.

6
NAGELS RESPONSE TO KANTS MORAL ARGUMENT
  • Nagel says that we cant be sure that, just
    because we have postulated something to exist to
    explain or guarantee something else, that what we
    have postulated does in fact exist. No
    postulation carries with it any assurance that
    what is postulated is actually the case.
  • In addition, assuming God to exist does not
    guarantee that happiness and virtue can be
    realized. And though we may postulate Gods
    existence as a means to guaranteeing the
    possibility of realizing happiness together with
    virtue, the postulation establishes neither the
    actual realizability of this ideal nor the fact
    of its existence.

7
ARGUMENT FROM RELIGIOUS AND MYSTICAL EXPERIENCE
  • Some people on occasion have experiences in which
    they lose their sense of self-identity and have a
    sense of merging with a fundamental reality. Or
    they experience a feeling of dependency on some
    higher power. This they take to be experience of
    the divine and hence evidence of Gods existence.
  • Such experiences are taken to be evidence of
    something divine and holy because the experiences
    seem inexplicable apart from the supposition of
    the existence of the being which the experiences
    are supposed to concern.
  • Just as we take the perception of a tree to be
    evidence of the existence of the tree, so can we
    take religious experience to be evidence of the
    existence of God.

8
NAGELS RESPONSE TO THE ARGUMENT FROM RELIGIOUS
AND MYSTICAL EXPERIENCE I
  • We can accept as genuine that people have
    experiences which can be referred to as religious
    or mystical. However, one cannot infer the
    existence of God as the cause of those
    experiences from the experiences themselves.
  • It is possible that the experiences have some
    other cause altogether, such as a state of the
    brain, or something psychological, or a
    combination of these things. It is possible that
    religious experiences are like hallucinations -
    where we infer incorrectly that something exists
    based on what appears to exist.
  • Nagel does not deny that the feeling exists as a
    genuine feeling, anymore than one would deny that
    the hallucination exists as a hallucination.
    What he does deny is that such a feeling is
    evidence that a supreme being is the cause of the
    feeling.

9
NAGELS RESPONSE TO THE ARGUMENT FROM RELIGIOUS
AND MYSTICAL EXPERIENCE II
  • For Nagel, the claims of religious experience
    have to be tested objectively by independent
    examiners in order to establish their validity.
  • Given both what we do know and what we do not
    know about the complexity of the human
    environment and the human nervous system, it is
    more reasonable to postulate that the cause of
    religious experience lies within the world and
    the nervous system, or in the relation of the
    nervous system to something in the natural world,
    not to something beyond it.
  • Why look to an explanation beyond the world and
    the individual rather than to the world and the
    individual herself?

10
THE PROBLEM OF EVIL I
  • The problem of evil comes from noting that there
    is evil in the world at the same time that God is
    supposed to be all powerful, all good, all
    knowing, and to have every maximum perfection.
  • How can there be evil in a world which was
    created by a being who is supreme in power and
    knowledge and who is also completely good? These
    properties are logically incompatible with evil
    existing in Gods creation. Where does the evil
    come from? If God is creator of the universe,
    then isnt God responsible for the evil which
    exists?

11
THE PROBLEM OF EVIL II
  • Theodicydf. The attempt to justify Gods
    goodness given the fact of evil in the world
    which he is supposed to have created.
  • One proposed solution to the problem of evil is
    to say that evil is an illusion - or that evil is
    simply the absence of good. On this view, evil
    is not real, but is only the negative side of
    Gods existence. As such, we see something as
    evil because of our limited intelligence - if we
    were more wise we would understand Gods creation
    more fully and the evil would disappear.

12
NAGELS RESPONSE TO EVIL AS AN ILLUSION I
  • For Nagel, the fact of evil is not removed by
    reclassifying it as an illusion. And the fact of
    illusion is not eliminated by saying that evil is
    just the absence of good or the negative side of
    God.
  • Further, even if evil were only an appearance,
    like a hallucination or an illusion like a bent
    stick in the water, that does not remove the fact
    of the appearance and the sufferings, tragedies,
    and inequities that result from them.

13
NAGELS RESPONSE TO EVIL AS AN ILLUSION II
  • Nagel thinks that it makes a mockery of human
    suffering to call it merely an illusion. For
    instance, to tell a man that his daughters death
    is only an illusion and he ought not to grieve
    over it hardly seems like adequate consolation.
  • And Nagel says that both a tragedy and the
    suffering which follows from it are no less real
    to the sufferer even if we attempt to reclassify
    the tragedy as an appearance. Just as
    hallucinations and perceptual illusions are real
    as appearances - it is what is inferred from them
    that is false or unreal - so tragedies and
    sufferings are real as experienced.

14
NAGELS RESPONSE TO EVIL AS AN ILLUSION III
  • And even if you call it an appearance, it remains
    true that the tragedy happened and cannot be
    undone. For instance, the mans daughter is just
    as dead and gone from his life and not coming
    back, whatever you call it.
  • Thus, for Nagel, it is an insult to mankind to
    say that the sufferings of life are only an
    illusion. This suggests that our tragedies are
    false and meaningless and we have no right to
    grieve.
  • One might ask too if any amount of recompense in
    heaven can make up for the tragedies of earth.
    This is the idea that the tragedies of life are
    not made any less tragic by saying that things
    will be made right in heaven.

15
EVIL AS ISSUING FROM A LIMITED PERSPECTIVE I
  • Another proposed solution to the problem of evil
    is to say that the things called evil are evil
    only when viewed in isolation they are not evil
    when viewed in proper perspective and in relation
    to the rest of creation.
  • This might be called a limited perspective or an
    isolated view argument. The idea is that if we
    only could have Gods view of the universe what
    appears to be evil from our limited human
    perspective would disappear.

16
EVIL AS ISSUING FROM A LIMITED PERSPECTIVE II
  • A part of a painting may not be beautiful - and
    may even be ugly - when viewed merely as a part
    of the painting. However, it can cease to be ugly
    as it forms part of a larger exquisite whole.
    And just as this can be the case for a part of an
    artwork, so can something which is thought to be
    evil in itself cease to be seen as evil when it
    is seen, not in isolation, but as part of a
    larger whole.
  • For example, on the limited perspective view, the
    anguish we experience from the death of a loved
    one is only painful because we view the death
    from a limited point of view. If we could see
    the death as God sees it, then we would not see
    it as evil, and so our experience of pain would
    disappear.

17
NAGELS RESPONSE TO THE LIMITED PERSPECTIVE
ARGUMENT I
  • The first thing that Nagel says in response to
    the limited perspective argument is that, being
    human, we can only view things from the limited
    perspective of human beings. What other
    perspective could we have?
  • Nagel admits that what appears to be evil from a
    human perspective may not be evil from another
    perspective. For example, when a man is eaten by
    a polar bear, the mans being eaten is not evil
    from the bears perspective, but is good because
    it ends its hunger.
  • Since we can only view things from a human
    perspective, for Nagel it is irrelevant to note
    that we would or might view things differently
    from a non-human perspective.

18
NAGELS RESPONSE TO THE LIMITED PERSPECTIVE
ARGUMENT II
  • Nagel says that a more important response to this
    position is that we cant simply assume that
    whatever is viewed as evil from a human
    perspective is not evil viewed from another
    perspective, or disappears when we think of
    reality as a totality it is unsupported
    speculation to suppose that whatever is evil in a
    finite perspective is good from the purported
    perspective of the totality of things.

19
NAGELS RESPONSE TO THE LIMITED PERSPECTIVE
ARGUMENT III
  • The isolated view argument can also be turned
    around. That is, we can say that whatever seems
    to be good from our limited perspective -
    including love of our fellow man and God - turns
    out to be evil when viewed from another
    perspective, or from the perspective of the
    totality of things.
  • For Nagel, this shows the absurdity of the
    argument that our sense of evil depends on our
    limited human perspective.

20
NAGELS CONCLUSIONS ABOUT THE PROBLEM OF EVIL
  • Nagel says that it is not possible to reconcile
    Gods goodness, power, and wisdom with the fact
    of the great and persistent degree of evil in the
    world.
  • Some theologians have agreed with this, and so
    have admitted that God cannot be omnipotent -
    there are limits to what God can do, just as
    there are limits to what we can do. Or some
    other attribute or attributes of God may be
    limited and so cease to be infinite, and such a
    limitation or combination of limitations would
    explain the persistence of evil in the world.
  • For instance, it may be the case that God hates
    evil, but is not all-wise and so, although
    powerful, does not know how to eliminate all
    evil. Or it may be that God is not all-good, and
    so allows evil to happen even though he/she could
    prevent it. Or it could be a combination of such
    things.

21
IS THEISM NECESSARY?
  • Nagel says that it is not.
  • For Nagel, even if you limit Gods power, it is
    still legitimate to ask whether or not the facts
    of human life and its history support the
    hypothesis of any kind of deity - limited or not.
  • And he says that there is nothing in human life
    or history that cannot be accounted for without
    assuming Gods existence.

22
GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS OF ATHEISM I
  • Nagel says that atheism is not simply a rejection
    of theism, but is a general intellectual temper.
  • For instance, atheists reject a belief in
    disembodied spirits such as angels and ghosts,
    and deny that any objects except physical ones
    can be causes of anything. (Note that this is a
    statement of materialism.)
  • Atheists for Nagel look to science for an
    understanding of the world, not religion. It is
    highly doubtful that religion can compete with
    science for an explanation of man and nature.

23
GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS OF ATHEISM II
  • The events of nature are to be explained
    according to the properties and structures of
    identifiable and spatio-temporally located
    objects.
  • Nagel says that, when we look at the world, we
    see that things change continuously, but this
    constant change has no all-encompassing unitary
    pattern of change.
  • Man and nature are both real, not illusory. And
    human reality and what is viewed from the human
    perspective is no less or more real than other
    parts of the universe. Thus man has his or her
    place within the scheme of things, and our pains
    and sufferings are no less real than our
    pleasures and satisfactions.

24
GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS OF ATHEISM III
  • Nagel says that an atheistic view of things is a
    form of materialism. And he maintains that
    atheists are usually empiricists. As such, Nagel
    asserts that the atheist thinks that controlled
    sensory observation is the court of final appeal
    in issues concerning matters of fact.
  • Indeed, for Nagel, it is this commitment to the
    use of an empirical method which is the final
    basis of the atheistic critique of theism.
    Theism is often introduced as a way of explaining
    the world, but an atheist who follows the methods
    of empirical science has no need of the theistic
    hypothesis - the world can be explained without
    recourse to a deity.
  • Asked by Napoleon where God fit into his analysis
    of celestial mechanics, Laplace replied Sir, I
    have no need for that hypothesis.

25
GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS OF ATHEISM IV
  • For an atheist like Nagel, whatever a deity is
    introduced to explain can be explained by
    science. Recall that, if God is introduced as an
    explanation of nature, then Gods existence in
    turn has to be explained, and Gods relation to
    the world has to be explained. This will include
    accounting for the problem of evil.
  • In considering morality, atheists, according to
    Nagel, think that the satisfaction of the
    complex needs of the human creature is the final
    standard for evaluating the validity of moral
    laws. Accordingly, the atheist looks at this
    world rather than to a transcendent world for the
    basis of morality.

26
GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS OF ATHEISM V
  • Atheism offers no hope of personal immortality,
    no plan for personal salvation, no sense that the
    wrongs of the world are redressed in heaven, no
    promise of divine reward, and no threat of divine
    punishment.
  • For the atheist, human dignity and excellence
    concern man and his place in nature. And so what
    man is able to attain must come within a finite
    life span, not in any supposed afterlife, since
    there is no afterlife.

27
ATHEISM IS A HUMANISM I
  • Nagel thinks that atheism is philosophically
    valuable by showing that the arguments for theism
    are invalid. And it is socially valuable in
    liberating mens minds from superstition, and
    such liberation, Nagel thinks, will make for a
    more fair and humane society.
  • Atheism then is a humanism in that it is a call
    for intelligent and moral activity for the sake
    of realizing human potentiality.
  • However, atheists do not pretend or try to
    obscure the realities of life - not everyone can
    achieve his or her dreams or even part of them.
    That is simply the way things are.

28
ATHEISM IS A HUMANISM II
  • Because atheism recognizes the facts of
    existence, it does not attempt to deny the tragic
    view of life that comes from looking at it
    honestly.
  • This does not mean that we ought to bemoan our
    condition, but it does mean that we ought to be
    realistic about it.
  • For the atheist, we ought to accept life for what
    it is at the same time that we do our best to
    improve our own life and the lives of others.
    And we should do this to the extent to which that
    is possible given the nature of the world and our
    individual abilities.
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