Can We Just Change the Subject?
Rebecca Goldstein has published a novel, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God. The novel includes an appendix which details, briefly, 36 actual arguments for the existence of God, complete with Goldstein's critique and rebuttal of each one (and some of them quite novel, including a proof derived from William James' The Variety of Religious Experiences.
I have, somewhere at home, quite a long book detailing all the classical and modern arguments for the existence of God, and pointing out, through rigorous modal logic, their many flaws. The only proof not addressed fully in that book is Charles Hartshorne's modern variant on Anselm's "ontological proof," which Kant didn't dispel nearly as fully as Ms. Goldstein insists he did (it was dispelled, but Kant's analysis of it misses a few salient features. Anselm's proof is, in many ways, the subtlest and most difficult to deal with. And Hartshorne's version of it is so subtle in it's own right, that it requires a separate consideration from any analysis of Anselm's, which is why the book I refer to doesn't include one. Which isn't to say I subscribe to Anselm's or Hartshorne's arguments. It is to say that there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.). Ms. Goldstein's appendix is not meant to be as comprehensive as that book, but it still glosses over some very real issues which continue to make this entire discussion both moot, central only to those who think philosophy is ultimately about chasing epistemic shadows, and a complete waste of time. As Kierkegaard wisely said: if you don't begin by assuming God, no argument will overcome your assumption, and if you do, no argument is needed.
But still the conversation persists....
What's missing from Ms. Goldstein's appendix is not only the barest reference to Hartshorne, but also any reference at all to Kierkegaard (she even ascribes the infamous "leap of faith" to William James). Oddly enough, after 50 years of his Danish texts being widely available in English, he is still dismissed as a "religious thinker" who was neither a philosopher nor a theologian; or he is overlooked entirely. His prediction that his work would be overlooked because he wrote from Denmark continues to come true. Not fully embraced by the Continental school, and dismissed out of hand by the Anglo-American school (which Ms. Goldstein is trained in, if not representative of), he continues to wander in a netherland where his thought adds a great deal of clarity but only, it would seem, for those who choose to believe in him. Odd thing, this subject of belief: we don't subscribe to it at the very moment that we do, without admitting it. It is not, to put it in terms of Toulmin logic, our warrants that really matter, it is the backing for them. And that backing we never truly examine.
Of course, this entire discussion is on the fringes of the fringe. This book as been out since January, and I just now noticed it on a bookstore shelf. I've heard absolutely zero about it, which means it hasn't drawn as much attention as the even more mindless rantings of Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins ("mindless" in this subject, I mean). So perhaps I should just ignore it and go on. But this obsession with the "existence of God" is annoying precisely because it has regained some popularity, and some (atheists and believers alike) think it is valuable turf to fight over.
No one, as James pointed out (and Goldstein ignores in her gloss on James) devotes their life to the conclusion of a proof about the existence of "God." So it's equally stupid to say the defeat of all possible proofs destroys any possible belief in "God." (I'm putting "God" in quotes, because we haven't even defined what or who "God" is.) As I've pointed out before, the very question "Does God exists" commits a category error, and for the very reason that the way phenomenology (which is largely a Continental philosophy) and empiricism (and its children, largely the Anglo-American school) use the same word ("being") in very different ways. Or, as Johannes Climacus so succinctly puts it:
For example, I do not demonstrate that a stone exists but that something which exists is a stone. The court of law does not demonstrate that a criminal exists but that the accused, who indeed does exist, is a criminal. Whether one wants to call existence an accessorium or the eternal prius, it can never be demonstrated.These are, to put it simply, deeper waters than Dawkins or Hitchens ever imagine, but I don't expect them to fathom such depths. A Ph.D. in philosophy, however, as Goldstein is; well...it's no slight on her bravely didactic novel, but the appendix leaves much to be desired.
Then again, the whole subject has had all the water wrung out of it long, long ago. It's the pretense that it ever mattered, that I find so annoying.