My dear friend Wylie commented on a recent post:

…and i do not know who daniel dennet is (although i guess i could google it right now!) are you saying that trying to form arguments that God exists is a waste of time because knowledge of God is innate? Why were the classical arguments forged? who were the other christians and why did they need to hear that their thinking was rational? Also are you’re saying that athisim was born out of non-christians encountering arguments for proof of GOd that were intended to encourage believers? if so i think that is quite funny.

Daniel Dennett is a handsome looking oldish kind of man. The type of fellow who keeps bees. He is a contemporary philosopher who has sold a lot of books by claiming to be one of the self-styled “four horsemen of the Apocolypse”, or nu-atheists. He is like a slightly more respectable version of Dawkins (but not nearly so good at writing). My dear wife is writing a thesis in philosophy doing business with one of Dennett’s books, Breaking The Spell, which argues that religion is a natural phenomenon.

Dennett. Without bees.

Neuro’s response can basically be summed up as: “Big swing of your mickey. So what?”. Monty Python and not-yet-dead John Cleese explains her argument in a fashion that “brights” (that is what Dennett wants atheists to call themselves) might call genetico-hilariousous because they are bad at latin and think every piece of human behaviour can be explained away mechanically:

The classic medieval arguments for God’s existence were not born out of a desire to convince people that denied God that He in fact exists. There weren’t really many people at all who thought that God didn’t exist. Instead, there were lots of thoughtful Christians who were working very hard to figure out the rationale of certain issues all around the edges of faith.

One group, a strong group even if they don’t have much influence on our evangelical corner of the Christian world today, argued that knowledge of God is innate in human beings. In a slightly softer form, this is the position that the Roman Catholic Church holds today. St. Paul seems to hold it too. Hate when he doesn’t side with us “Bible believers”.

Anyway, St. Thomas Aquinas came along full of knowledge from the recently rediscovered works of Aristotle (translated by Arabic scholars by the way) and argued against folk like John Damascene (who was as far from Aquinas as Calvin is from us) that we should give new converts to the faith some philosophical reasons for believing so that they can grow in their discipleship.

People then, as today, didn’t choose worldviews based on some abstract chin stroking that they did on a quiet Sunday afternoon. Instead, just like you, me and any monkey you care to mention, we come to the point where we believe what we believe based on a complex network of factors like experience, upbringing, education and even sometimes a little bit of thought. But Aquinas’ 5 proofs for God were not meant to move you from agnosticism into faith but to give the recent convert language and reason to understand the rationality of their faith for themselves.

This is why the classical arguments were forged.

After Descartes, philosophy was turned a little bit askew. Still is, according to some people. And the life of the mind became very important again, even at the expense of the more physical experiences of human life (Decartes was really worried about how our senses deceived us, you see). In this new environment, which was like the pregnancy period before the Enlightenment (which Daniel Dennett and co hopes to resurrect), it was all the rage to give “reasoned proof” for things.

So some Christians, most notably William Paley started crafting their own arguments to move sceptics into faith. His ill-fated argument is called the Watchmaker analogy.

In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for anything I knew to the contrary, it had lain there forever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer I had before given, that for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there. (…) There must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed [the watch] for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use. (…) Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater or more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation.

Therefore God. QED.

Surprisingly, some people called “Shenanigans!” and it actually drove them away from Christianity, finding such sophistry intellectually repugnant. In a very real sense, historically, atheism as we know it today was actually born out of the reaction to shoddy argumentation like this. It’s is almost like the Comedian God is urging us once again to actually follow through on that faith we keep battering on about and not just let it slide into abstract ideas….

Hope that answers all your questions.

Your Correspondent, Someday she’ll make a man out of him

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