Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Contra Williams 1: on BOOs and the arbitrary nature of nature

Canto: Peter Williams is a Christian philosopher who has written an essay, 'Contra Grayling: A Christian Response to Against All Gods'. The Grayling book was published in 2007, so the essay is quite recent.
Jacinta: In his introductory remarks, Williams points out that Grayling's objection is to the irrationality of religous belief or beliefs, rather than their falsity. Williams feels that this overly minimizes the importance of the true/false distinction, but I don't think this is a vital issue. To me, Grayling's decision to focus on rationality is due to the well-known difficulty to prove the non-existence of a supernatural being, or effect, or state of affairs. Instead of getting bogged down in particular, peculiar details, better to look at the broad sweep of reality as we have come to understand it, especially as developed over the past few hundred years by a growing community of scientists, researchers, theorists and analysts, and to measure the rationality of belief systems against that growing consensus.
Canto: Maybe - I detect a problem there with rationality being almost defined as concurrence with consensus. In fact,Williams is right to say that truth should not take the hindmost, but that leaves us in the near-impossible position of testing the truth of every crackpot metaphysical notion that anybody could come with at any time. Overall rationality must have some place.
Jacinta: Well argued, mate. But now I want to consider this quote from Williams, which includes a quote from Grayling:
Grayling nevertheless recasts even so traditional a de facto objection to theism as the logical problem of evil as a de jure objection to its rational respectability: ‘To believe in the existence of (say) a benevolent and omnipotent deity in the face of childhood cancers and mass deaths in tsunamis and earthquakes [is an example of] serious irrationality.’[4] Grayling does nothing to elaborate an actual argument to this effect, and he appears to be ignorant of the fact that: ‘philosophers of religion have cast serious doubt on whether there even is any inconsistency involving the appropriate propositions regarding evil and God’s alleged properties.’
Canto: De facto and de jure? Please explain.
Jacinta: Hmmm, well the general sense, I think, is that there are objections to particular facts, and there are blanket objections which amount to a general law. The Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga makes much of this distinction, but I'm not so much interested in this right now as I'm interested in the so-called 'problem of evil'.
Canto: Yes, let me get stuck into that one. Williams takes the 'logical problem of evil' straight from Plantinga, but the fact is, no modern secular philosopher raises the 'problem of evil' when discussing religion - and neither does Grayling in the above quote. He is looking at the 'problem of needless suffering', it seems to me, or the problem of the unfairness of nature, or of fate. Grayling doesn't mention 'evil' in this quote, and I doubt if it features heavily in his book. The concept of 'evil' is outmoded in philosophy, and most certainly in psychology. It is a barrier to effective understanding. What Grayling is on about is exactly what Darwin was on about when he famously wrote:
I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created parasitic wasps with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars.
Nobody would wish to claim that these wasps are evil, nor that the situation itself is an evil one. For a start it would be of no use to our understanding of the situation.
Jacinta: Yes, Darwin and Grayling are bringing our attention to the amoral facts of earthly existence, in which there's a superabundance of pain and suffering and death and destruction, with the thin thread of life weaving itself forward through it all. And all Williams has to say is 'that isn't an argument, or even the beginning of an argument, against the existence of a BOO.'
Canto: A BOO?
Jacinta: A Benevelont Omnipotent One, of course.
Canto: Well done, Jass. And the point is, logic or no logic, rational or irrational, many people find the large-scale existence of unwarranted suffering a more than sufficient reason for rejecting the existence of a BOO.
Jacinta: Yes, and I think the onus is very much on the believer to provide rational grounds for believing in a BOO, given the amoral facts aforementioned. I think Grayling's statement, quoted above, would be given wide assent by secularists, though I'm not entirely comfortable with the term 'serious irrationality', given that I'm not overly impressed with the 'rational/irrational' distinction. The claim that what some philosophers of religion wrongly describe as 'the problem of evil' is logically consistent with a BOO seems to me overly technical and point-missing. But we might look at that further next time.
Canto: Boo to that, I say.

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