The cosmic authority problem

Edward Feser in his book The Last Superstition (Location 321-332, Kindle edition) quotes Thomas Nagel (Professor of Philosophy and Law at NYU) who believes that a “fear of religion” is not merely subjectively felt by secularist intellectuals but that it often underlies their work, leading to “large and often pernicious consequences for modern intellectual life” (Nagel’s words). Nagel confesses:

I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that. My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition and that it is responsible for much of the scientism and reductionism of our time. One of the tendencies it supports is the ludicrous overuse of evolutionary biology to explain everything about human life, including everything about the human mind.[1]

Feser comments:

…as the philosophy C.F.J. Martin has pointed out, the element of divine punishment – traditionally understood in the monotheistic religions as a sentence of eternal damnation in Hell – shows that atheism is hardly less plausibly motivated by wishful thinking than theism is. For while it is hard to understand why someone would want to believe that he is in danger of everlasting hellfire, it is not at all hard to see why one would desperately want not to believe this. [2]

[1] Thomas Nagel, The Last Word (Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 130-131
[2] see C.F.J. Martin, Thomas Aquinas: God and Explanations (Edinburgh University Press, 1997), pp. 98-99.

Follow the evidence?

The following is a transcript from a fascinating informal debate between John Lennox and Peter Atkins, which can be viewed here. This particular section starts around the 1hr 4min mark. The following exchange betrays Atkins a priori presupposition of atheism in the face of conflicting evidence.

Lennox: Do you think it’s an illegitimate thing from a scientific perspective, Peter, to see whether scientifically one can establish whether intelligence needs to be involved … in the origin of life.
Atkins: I think the scientific method is Occam again, to see whether you can account for everything that is reliably known, without elaborating the hypothesis. So, let’s just take the laws of nature … and seeing that letting them run free in the environment that we can speculate existed – and we’ve got evidence of the type of environment existed billions of years ago, seeing whether that sort of process leads to life and if it does that seems to me to abnegate the need for the imposition of intelligence.
Lennox: And, if it doesn’t?
Atkins: Then if we go on trying – we may have to try for 100 years – but if we, in the end, come to the conclusion that an external intelligence must have done it, then we will have to accept that.
Lennox: Would you be prepared to accept that?
Atkins: No.

Fighting morally with rebellion

People try to persuade us that the objections against Christianity spring from doubt. The objections against Christianity spring from insubordination, the dislike of obedience, rebellion against all authority. As a result people have hitherto been beating the air in their struggle against objections because they have fought intellectually with doubt instead of fighting morally with rebellion.

Kierkegaard, Works of Love. Quoted in Bradley G. Green, The Gospel and the Mind (Crossway, 2010), 170.

Atheism’s Absolute Presupposition

We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.

Richard C. Lewontin, Billions and Billions of Demons, in The New York Review of Books, January 9, 1997.

Logical Positivism and A. J. Ayer are dead

Logical Positivism died a long time ago. I don’t think much of Language, Truth and Logic is true. I think it is full of mistakes. I think it was an important book in its time because it had a kind of cathartic effect. It swept away a lot of rubbish and excited people and to a certain extent it gave a new direction to philosophy. But when you get down to detail, I think it’s full of mistakes which I spent the last fifty years correcting or trying to correct.

A. J. Ayer, author of Language, Truth and Logic, in Roy Abraham Varghese (ed.), Great Thinkers on Great Questions, p49.

Clearly Ayer’s rejection of Logical Positivism occurred well before his experience of “death” for the first time in 1988 (he died properly in 1989). Regardless, his account of this strange episode confirms his view that “God does not exist” is indeed a meaningful statement:

My recent experiences have slightly weakened my conviction that my genuine death, which is due fairly soon, will be the end of me, though I continue to hope that it will be. They have not weakened my conviction that there is no god. I trust that my remaining an atheist will allay the anxieties of my fellow supporters of the Humanist Association, the Rationalist Press, and the South Place Ethical Society.

Our silly little moments

It’s just an accident that we happen to be on earth, enjoying our silly little moments, distracting ourselves as often as possible so we don’t have to really face up to the fact that, you know, we’re just temporary people with a very short time in a universe that will eventually be completely gone. And everything that you value, whether it’s Shakespeare, Beethoven, da Vinci, or whatever, will be gone. The earth will be gone. The sun will be gone. There’ll be nothing. The best you can do to get through life is distraction. Love works as a distraction. And work works as a distraction. You can distract yourself a billion different ways. But the key is to distract yourself.

Woody Allen, “What I’ve Learned” in the September 2013 edition of Esquire Magazine.