Saturday, June 20, 2009
Thoughts on Hall
Hall’s conclusion, at the end of thirty-six half-hour lectures, is a straightforward one: the Scottish Verdict—neither proved nor disproved. No argument for God’s existence is ever able to reach closure. All, in some way or other, fall short. Although some demonstrate that a god or gods might exist, the sort of God as claimed by most of the major religions of the world, namely the God of ethical monotheism, never quite manifests Himself.
Though Hall is also quick to point out that the atheist’s claim is just as unproved as the theist’s. Surely, then, according to Hall, the only reasonable stance for anyone to take is that of the agnostic. Maybe God is, maybe God isn’t. We just don’t know. This viewpoint is readily reflected in Hall’s own background and personal history: Born in a small town in Texas and raised in the rural Southeast and Midwest, Hall was the son of an evangelical Protestant minister who oftentimes preached fire and brimstone; at one time, Hall even seriously considered entering the ministry, earning a Master’s Degree in Theology before receiving his PhD. Currently, Hall describes himself as an “agnostic Protestant Episcopal.”
Got that? He goes to church, but is unsure whether the object of that church’s worship really exists. This is the same sort of thinking behind the claim of some post-modernists that although morality is subjective, it is still morally reprehensible to eat meat. It is a viewpoint that is inconsistent at best and contradictory and hypocritical at worst.
Still, I myself have often made the same claim, that as far as the question of God’s existence is concerned, the only truly honest assessment is to take the agnostic’s stance. After all, atheism and theism are simply opposite sides of the same coin. The atheist answers the question of God’s existence with a no, the theist with a yes. It is in this respect that atheism is just as much a religious contention as is theism, because either position incorporates a leap of faith. The rational thing to do is to decide not to decide.
What makes agnosticism rational is that there is simply no argument that anyone can possibly make to compel someone to believe that God is or that He isn’t. I have atheist friends (one was best man at my wedding), with whom I have argued long and hard about God. I have tried to convince them that God exists. They have tried to convince me that God does not exist. Despite our many discussions, none of us have budged an inch. Most likely, we never will. It is because of the weakness of the arguments we make? Or is it because neither side wants to concede to the other? In either case, it seems to me, the default position should be that we just don’t know. After all, the Is/Isn’t debate is hardly new. Philosophers have debated it for millennia, just as cogently as I and my atheist friends have debated it, even more so, and in far greater detail, without having ever reached closure (to use the term Hall prefers). Doesn’t that suggest that a definitive answer to the question is not forthcoming?
Yet, hearing that very same assessment from Professor Hall, I find myself suddenly doubting the doubter. Why?
For one, regardless how we look at the question or try to answer it, there is an underlying reality, over which we simply have no control: either God is, or He isn’t. If He is, then those of use who argue for His existence are right, and those who argue against His existence are wrong. Conversely, if He isn’t, then the theists are wrong and the atheists are right. Somebody’s the winner and somebody’s the loser, whether or not we can sort out which is which.
Secondly, even if it is true that despite our best efforts we find no definitive answer, there’s no reason for supposing that our best efforts are in any way good enough to solve the problem. Perhaps it is not philosophy’s shortcoming, but our own, limited by a human intellect that is woefully insufficient for sorting out a reliable answer. After all, it’s impossible for a gorilla to read Life on the Mississippi and understand it, but not so for a human being. Might there not be some brainier race on some far-off planet that has finally figured out the answer? If they’re from the Planet of Atheists, maybe they’re the goofballs piloting all those UFOs and sadistically probing the anuses of innocent humans. Or if they’re from the Planet of Theists, maybe they hang out with God and run errands for him from time to time—what we mere mortals call Angels. Surely there are other possibilities as well, ones that I’m either too stupid to think of or you’re too stupid to refute.
Thirdly, two things can be equally possible and yet remain unequally probable. Consider a coin toss. Most people would say there are two possibilities: the coin lands heads, or it lands tails. Actually, though, the two possibilities are: the coin lands on its side (either heads or tails) or it lands on its edge. The coin landing on its edge is just as possible as landing on either of its sides (that is, just as valid a possibility), but far less probable. If you don’t believe me, toss a coin a hundred times onto a flat tabletop and see what you get.
Likewise, when I look at the universe, I see two possibilities: it came about all on its own, or it didn’t. If it did, a creator is unnecessary. If it didn’t, it had help. The question then becomes: are these two possibilities equally probable, or is one more probable than the other, and if so, which?
I certainly can’t rely on direct experience to answer the question any more than I can rely on Dr. Hall’s philosophy course. I haven’t seen new universes popping into existence on their own, but, on the other hand, I haven’t noticed anyone constructing new universes, either. What I have seen, though, is that the universe is ordered. It has structure. And, if the Anthropic Principle is to be believed, it has a purpose—that we can be here to see it.
Taken together, then, these considerations (and others that I haven’t bothered to enumerate) lead me to feel that it is far more likely to suppose that the universe had help in its creation rather than being an example of self-creation. If so, what sort of help?
Why, a Right Good One, seems to me.
Labels: philosophy of religion