Goodness, Heather, you do stir ‘em up, don’t you? Look at that comment thread!
Perhaps it all hinges on belief in the Afterlife. If you can swallow that, the rest of the God business goes down pretty easily.
Thinking about those two planes makes it clear that so far as the natural world is concerned — the one we live our lives in — even if there is a God, there might as well not be. Presumably believers in the plane that crashed were praying just as hard as believers in the other one. They might as well have done mental arithmetic.
All the responses from believers boil down to saying: “No, it didn’t do them much good in this world. But this world is not the whole of reality. There’s more; and in that more, your naturalistic standards don’t capture much of the truth.”
I’m not unsympathetic to that. The instinct to believe in another place is very strong and very human — I feel it in myself, sometimes with great force. Trouble is, there is no evidence for the other place but that instinct; and the instinct itself is susceptible to naturalistic explanations (see Atran, Boyer, & the rest of Mr. Hume’s reading list).
Once all that’s sunk in, the only reason to think there’s another place is biological humility: acknowledging the fact that all our concepts, all we know, is contained in a crinkly one-eighth-inch-thick rind wrapped over a 40-ounce lump of meat. As Prof. Joad said: “The human brain is a food-seeking mechanism, with no more access to Ultimate Reality than a pig’s snout.”
That is the Mysterian position. Epistemologically, though, it is an entirely negative stance. It agrees with the believer’s position that the natural world accessible to our senses is not likely the whole story; but unlike the believer’s position, it makes no claims to have revealed knowledge about the other place. We’ve looked at those claims — any educated person is familiar with them — and found them unconvincing, in fact usually preposterous, and rooted in human weaknesses we’re aware of in ourselves, mostly tendencies to wishful or magical thinking.
The Mysterian has a number of options. He could, for example, take up Pascal’s Wager without logical inconsistency. I think most of us, though, are temperamentally more inclined to just shrug and turn away. Naturalism has boundless pleasures for anyone with an inquiring mind and a sense of wonder (i.e. around five percent of the U.S. population). We’re content to marvel at the truths that science uncovers, hope to understand more this year than we did last year, and — those of us not actively involved in the uncovering — cheer on the uncoverers … perhaps even writing books about them, if we can find a publisher willing to take us on.
The natural world’s enough to keep my mind fully engaged; and I find I can live decently, honorably, and contentedly without any dependence on stories about improbable historical events — miraculous impregnations and the like. My actual individual personality, which issues from my brain, of course will not survive when that organ ceases functioning; and if there is some other state of being post mortem, a thing I wouldn’t rule out, I have seen no convincing description of it. I don’t even see how there could be a description. What is it you are apprehending, when ordinary cognition has ceased? And since “language is the dress of thought,” how could there be a description of a reality beyond thought?
Just putting down a marker.