Tuesday, April 11, 2006

William Gairdner on Atheism

I used to be a cocky atheist... So now whenever I hear a committed atheist say triumphantly, “I don’t believe in God!” I immediately ask: “How did you come by your faith?” After a bit of a stunned silence, and often also with a bit of a self-confident smirk, the fellow then says “What do you mean ‘my faith’? I just said I don’t believe in God.”

To which I reply: “Well, I believe in God, but I can’t prove He exists. And you don’t believe in God, and you can’t prove He doesn’t exist. So my point is that we are both arguing from a faith position." That is usually followed by an even longer silence, and then I say that what I want to know is: "How did you come by your faith?”

“What do you mean how did I come by my faith?" (Now my opponent is a little upset).

Well, I go on, I think existence is pretty close to a miraculous thing, and I have no natural explanation for it or for the universe itself, other than that it must have been the work of some almighty power the direct knowledge of which I am denied by my inadequate nature. That is my faith position.

You, on the other hand – I have heard you say this before – believe that the universe created itself from nothing, even though you cannot explain how something can come from nothing, and that life also created itself by some kind of chemical or biological necessity which you cannot demonstrate either. It’s all faith. And furthermore, I think it is far more bizarre than mine. For to believe that all sorts of miraculous things we cannot explain or replicate, from the incredible complexity of the single cell to our vast cosmos, simply sprang into being by themselves one day for no reason whatsoever, is a much crazier idea than to believe they were caused by some almighty agent. I understand why you call my faith primitive, and so on. But yours seems to me even worse - it is a belief in magic. At least I propose some possible cause, whereas when I ask you about causes you give me mumbo-jumbo about mathematical “singularities” in physics, and “pre-biotic soup.”

After all, you cannot even explain the difference between your own brain and your mind. What? Yes, I go on: the very instrument you are using to think, your brain, is a solid thing. But all day long it produces non-things we call ideas and feelings (what contemporary “philosophers of mind” call qualia, or qualities). Now tell me, how can a thing produce a non-thing? If I say, lift your little finger, and you do so, I then ask you how that is possible, and you say “it’s a nerve impulse traveling from my brain to my finger at so and so miles per hour.” But does the “nerve” itself simply decide to get up and travel? Or was it told to travel? And if so, who or what told it to do so? Was it another impulse? If you say yes, I deny that this is possible on the ground that a material thing cannot motivate another material thing to do anything. So it must have got started by a non-thing. In this case, by your Will. It’s the same with all existence, something willed it.

And then we go drink some beer together.

Link to original

I wish you all a reflective time at the foot of the cross, followed by a Happy Easter. Back next week...


Anonymous said...

"I don't believe in Santa Claus!" "Oh, how did you come by your faith?"

The first comment...reasonable. The second comment...that of a desperate, ill informed, rhetoric entrenched person.

Person one has my respect. Person two has my pity.

Halfwise said...

Interesting comment.

What would a person do with these gifts from you, respect or pity?

Your respect seems to be based on your admiration for a position taken. Should you demand that others earn your respect, or should it be something that you offer without condition and can only be lost, then perhaps later regained?

Your pity actually seems more like scorn. A man with pity for others reaches to help them. Few people reading your comment would detect a helping hand.

Anonymous said...

That IS a helping hand! If I'm going to use an argument for something it had better be logical! Pointing out the flawed reasoning is like pointing out spinach in the teeth. I appreciate the help. I don't wish to embarrass myself by repeating this clinker!

Anonymous said...

Halfwise makes a good point. I am tired of scientists making speculative claims as if they were absolute truths. Many times these claims are blanketed with jargon that amounts to nothing more than false sophistication. Take an honest look around and you will see God's fingerprints everywhere.