What Is It Like To Be A Theist?

For those who like this kind of thing ─ I confess to a mild and occasional weakness for it myself ─ here is atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel (What Is It Like To Be A BatThe View From Nowhere) reviewing a book by theist Alvin Plantinga, not altogether unsympathetically.  Sample:

The interest of this book, especially for secular readers, is its presentation from the inside of the point of view of a philosophically subtle and scientifically informed theist — an outlook with which many of them will not be familiar. Plantinga writes clearly and accessibly, and sometimes acidly — in response to aggressive critics of religion like Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. His comprehensive stand is a valuable contribution to this debate.

I say this as someone who cannot imagine believing what he believes. But even those who cannot accept the theist alternative should admit that Plantinga’s criticisms of naturalism are directed at the deepest problem with that view — how it can account for the appearance, through the operation of the laws of physics and chemistry, of conscious beings like ourselves, capable of discovering those laws and understanding the universe that they govern. Defenders of naturalism have not ignored this problem, but I believe that so far, even with the aid of evolutionary theory, they have not proposed a credible solution. Perhaps theism and materialist naturalism are not the only alternatives.

Best sentence:

My instinctively atheistic perspective implies that if I ever found myself flooded with the conviction that what the Nicene Creed says is true, the most likely explanation would be that I was losing my mind, not that I was being granted the gift of faith.

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5 Responses to What Is It Like To Be A Theist?

  1. GOPagan says:

    Bear in mind that “theist” does not always equal “Christian”. Theistic ethics do not begin and end with the Nicene Creed!

    Many of us who call ourselves Pagans or Heathens adopt a moral and social ethic that derives from pre-Christian models. These are not necessarily codes and standards of conduct that were “handed down from the Gods” so much as were passed down from generation to generation having stood the test of time and were honed for centuries to provide a practical and workable means for people to interact with one another.

    In that sense, for many of us who are theists, our ethics are not seen as being divinely inspired (perhaps “divinely acknowledged” might be a better way of putting it). Just putting it out there to remind folks that the theist pond is larger than the Big Abrahamic Three might otherwise want…

  2. Acilius says:

    It has always seemed to me that Professor Plantinga’s argument suffers from the characteristic defect of all theological anthropology. That defect is to proceed as though human beings were the only living things in the universe. Perhaps the odds are billions to one against any given species produced by natural selection having the capacity to conduct a rational inquiry into the laws of nature. Yet natural selection has, on this planet, produced billions of species, and so far as we know only one of those species has the capacity to conduct such an inquiry. What is more, only a tiny minority of the members of that species spend any significant time using that capacity. Unless we someday discover that a sizable percentage of species on this planet are in fact capable of science, or we discover another planet where such a capacity is common to a great many species, there is simply no problem to solve.

    Professor Nagel devotes considerable space to Professor Plantinga’s arguments about the reliability of perception, etc. He asks how we can be sure, when we open our refrigerators and examine the contents, we can take it for granted that what we see is what is really there. I can see the line of descent from Descartes’ argument in his Meditations that the trust we place in our senses implies a faith that no malign demon is deceiving us, and I can see merit in Professor Plantinga’s claim that evolutionary biology gives a new urgency to Descartes’ argument.

    However, this faith, if “faith” is the right word for it, is a highly provisional one. Neurologists, cognitive psychologists, sociologists, statisticians, and other researchers continually demonstrate ways in which our perceptions and judgments do in fact deceive us, and occasionally provide us with tools we can use to resist those deceptions. Many of those deceptions are just the sort of thing we would expect to find in the brains of creatures whose distant ancestors leapt from branch to branch in the arboreal canopies of the early Cenozoic Age, or whose more recent ancestors roamed the savannahs of East Africa as hunter-gatherers. To that extent, we might say that Professor Plantinga is to social and cognitive science as Descartes would be to an exorcist who believed that he took demons too lightly.

    That isn’t to deny that consciousness and rationality are phenomena that raise weighty philosophic problems, but it hardly seems likely that these problems can be solved if and only if we postulate a divine structure to the universe. On the contrary, postulating an omnipotent God, especially the Calvinistic God in Whom Professor Plantinga believes, raises the possibility that such a God may Himself find it just to deceive us. After all, we are to believe that God has found it just, for reasons at present incomprehensible to us, to permit genocides, wars, pestilence, famine, etc. Furthermore, Professor Plantinga apparently does not reject the idea that God has predestined a substantial segment of the human race to eternal torment in the fires of Hell. Surely a God Who could be justified in doing those things could also be justified in occasionally warping our perception of the contents of our refrigerators.

  3. Steve Cardon says:

    Excellent post Bradlaugh, and a very nice analysis by Acilius. Let me offer an alternative perspective.

    One could argue that we simply exist inside a computer program in which a far superior being has arbitrarily programmed within us the illusion of self-awareness, creating a consistent yet false reality for us to scientifically explore. I must admit that I debate within myself whether “Volition” is an illusion evolved in order to resolve certain cognitive paradoxes. Just because we have yet to understand volition doesn’t mean this isn’t the case. Perhaps discovering the mechanism for that illusion will provide for the next quantum leap in our self-awareness. It hurts my head to consider it.

    I arbitrarily reject the “Divine Programmer” hypothesis however despite it being more logically defensible than the “magical god that has always existed story”. I reject it because like religion, it stops you right there. It too easily provides the “Who can understand the mind of God?” cop out.

    So let’s look at a more approachable idea; the idea that there is a lot more “stuff” around us that we, with all of our current instruments, have yet to explain or even detect. Astrophysicists have confirmed the existence of something (Dark Matter) that we as yet do not understand. They have also mathematically demonstrated the idea of a “Dark Energy”. Do they inter-relate as our energy and matter do? Who knows, Dark Matter at least interacts gravitationally. The answer is probably far more complex. Quantum Physics tells us that that scale is not a barrier for alternate “stuff”. There may be sophisticated objects autonomously functioning way below the sub-atomic scale. Don’t forget that it is only within the last 150 years that we have formalized the periodic table as we know it. There may well be many other tables that do not interact with ours, or do so in limited and specific ways. Perhaps consciousness does take the form of something extremely sophisticated that evolved outside of the terrestrial paradigm, and interfaces at will with our perceived universe.

    This or an infinite number of possibilities/permutations could be devised, and that’s my point. I can make up a story far more sophisticated and satisfying than those that have gone before. The idea that relatively backwards cultures can provide us with the ultimate answers to the universe is patently ridiculous. I would caution however, that Atheists could fall into the same trap of certainty as the religious, if we discount the possibility of (I refuse to say “spirit”) separate objects which selectively interface with our fellow creatures. I only use this as an example. It is the unscientific dismissals of this sort of speculation that could render some lines of Atheist thought as obsolete as that of the muslims. Thinking outside the box will allow future scientist to spot the next clue. The term “Agnostic” will come to represent all of us, and “Atheist” will be rendered obsolete once “god” beliefs fall by the wayside.

  4. Acilius says:

    @Steve Cardon: Thanks for the kind words, and for several very interesting ideas.

    I’m going off to think more about what you’ve written. All I know I want to say now is this:

    “I can make up a story far more sophisticated and satisfying than those that have gone before. The idea that relatively backwards cultures can provide us with the ultimate answers to the universe is patently ridiculous.”

    That may well be so, but the stories are only one part, usually a rather small part, of what religions offer their followers. Myths, doctrines, ritual, ceremonial, etc, all work together to help bind generation to generation and create a community with a sense of shared purpose.

    Likewise with “the ultimate answers to the universe.” Religions, including ancient religions, can give you some questions about the universe, an expectation that the universe is set up to answer those questions, and a sense that it is urgent to find those answers, but the particular answers people offer are never as important as they seem at the time. So in debates about science or sexuality or economic systems or environmental policy or what have you, believers proclaim opinions in the firm conviction that they are speaking with the voice of the ancients. There we see believers feeling that their generation is bound to generations before and that they represent a project that will continue into generations yet unborn, and in some cases repeating language that they inherited from old texts.

    Yet their ideas, however antique the language in which they are expressed, are about topics no one had ever heard of until recent decades. What would Moses have thought of the theory of evolution, or relativity, or the heliocentric model of the Solar System? Probably nothing- these ideas all answer questions he never asked and rely on concepts no one in the time of the Pharaohs had ever imagined. What would Paul have thought of the people in the contemporary West who want to marry members of the same sex? Again, probably nothing, certainly nothing useful. Family structure and sex roles in our time are so radically different from anything known in the Roman Empire that neither side of the debate would have been intelligible to him. Yet there are believers who find it necessary, and evidently find it gratifying, to try to square the findings of science with the earliest Hebrew scriptures and to analyze twenty-first century family formation in accord with formulas drawn from Paul’s writings. Their ideas are not ancient ideas, but their words may be ancient words. That alone seems to suffice to give them assurance of continuity.

  5. Steve Cardon says:

    Acillius – Thank you for your interest and taking time to respond. Religion certainly has historically provided context, or a “matrix” if you will (no not the movie…) for family’s and societies as a whole to congregate, and bond together. The beneficial effect of creating these social bonds, ties, sense of continuity and belonging are beyond question. The actions of a few extremely alienated individuals, who apparently could not find inclusion in such social matrices, are the exceptions who bear out the efficacy of the rule (what is up with Colorado?). You will get no argument from me on those points.

    The main thrust of what I am trying to put forward, is that theistic beliefs are going to become increasingly unsustainable in light of scientific advances. It is because I believe in providing a grounding context for society, that I feel we need to find a way of gleaning the positive aspects of existing social structures, and try to find ways of reassuring people that they are just as viable and sustainable outside of a theistic paradigm. I am very much convinced that they are.

    Who will help provide for the philosophical transition of the newly non-religious, if not socially engaged Atheists such as ourselves who have come before? There is much work to be done in easing the anxiety over a coming atheistic trans-humanist leap forward for mankind. There obviously exists a need for those who can provide effective communicate between Theists and Atheists (As there was between Greeks and Romans). I also feel there needs to be people who can communicate the possibilities of future science, to those who are being unnecessarily frightened by callous opportunists, and paranoid religious outliers. That is where I hope to find my niche.

    As to the second part of what you have written, that is a little bit spooky. Spooky because I was making almost the exact same point to a Christian Atheist-blog Troller this morning, at which time I had not yet seen “your” latest reply. This gentleman laid out his list of philosophical thinkers and scientists from down through the ages and said essentially “these guys were brilliant, and they believed in god”. I made precisely your point, which is that they were indeed brilliant, but lived prior to the scientific knowledge we now take for granted. We still don’t have final answers for many (or even most) of the questions that the ancient philosophers labored diligently to frame, we do however have the overwhelming evidence for evolution. We also have a much better concept of how massive the universe is, and fairly consistent (if incomplete) theories of how IT evolved. We know that it was not created seven thousand years ago. Thank you again for being willing to engage, and look forward to future exchanges;-) (yeah, the emoticons are a compulsion I can’t seem to get away from)… sigh

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