Introduction – Full Text
- This book is divided into four parts. In the first ("Harrison (Jonathan) - God, Freedom and Immortality: Preliminary Epistemological Questions") I consider some questions in the theory of knowledge, answers to which the other three parts presuppose. It would be possible for the reader to omit this part without seriously impairing his understanding of the other three.
- The second part ("Harrison (Jonathan) - God, Freedom and Immortality: Arguments for the Existence of God") discusses and rejects some well-known arguments for the existence of God, but at the same time puts forward the view that the 'existence' of God is not a matter for proof, or even argument, not because we know without argument that he exists, a view which I reject, but because 'postulating' him is not a matter of putting forward a hypothesis. (I later suggest that it is possible to allow the idea of God to play some part in one's life, though a reduced one, without having any religious beliefs which have consequences about the world.) It is therefore possible to a limited extent to be an atheist concerning belief, but a theist concerning attitude and practice.
- The third part ("Harrison (Jonathan) - God, Freedom and Immortality: God's Attributes") discusses God's attributes, and concludes that we do have a coherent concept of an omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good disembodied1 person, though the fact of evil makes the unequivocal existence of such a being incredible, at least so long as his existence is considered as a hypothesis to explain the course of nature.
- The fourth part ("Harrison (Jonathan) - God, Freedom and Immortality: Faith and Morality") considers some ethical problems which the existence of God may raise, and whether what might perhaps be called faith may supply the deficiency of reason pointed out earlier. I conclude in this part that faith, considered as involving a disposition to believe without evidence, or more strongly than the evidence warrants, is a vice, but that there may nevertheless be some merit in inculcating in oneself a religious attitude or way of life. Whether one should inculcate such a way of life in others is more questionable, perhaps because one may take risks for oneself that one is unjustified in taking for one's friends.
- I feel I need to make some defence, which once upon a time would have been unnecessary, of the traditional concept of God as that of an omniscient, omnipotent perfectly good person. (To defend the concept from the charge of incoherence is not the same as to claim that there is a God.) If God is to be conceived of as personal - which is one good way of conceiving of him - he must have attributes such as wisdom and power, for even a human being without these attributes would be inadequate. But given that God has them at all, he must have them to a pre-eminent degree. A god who was very powerful without being able to do everything, or who was very knowledgeable without knowing everything, and very good without being morally perfect, or who was ephemeral, would be lacking in something, and it is impossible for God to lack any (appropriate) desirable attribute. (Existence is not one of these.) But given that God is personal and possesses the aforementioned qualities, it follows that he must have created the universe, and be responsible for everything that happens in it, including, as I shall argue, the free actions of men. (Hence determinism and freedom are compatible.) He has this responsibility because he must both know what is happening in the universe and have the power to prevent it. Hence the problem of evil. (Incidentally, I shall reject any form of attempt to reduce statements about the deity to statements about the world which God is alleged to have created. Such attempts confusingly reduce all that is interesting and important about theism to banality.)
- That God is transcendent follows from the fact that he is not to be found anywhere in the spatial universe. From this it follows that, if he is personal at all, he must be an immaterial person, though it is in a sense conceivable that he is embodied in the universe in some other way than by having a body. (In what follows I defend the conceivability, though not the wisdom, of regarding God as a disembodied2 person.)
- The absurdity of looking for God within the universe suggests, though it does not prove, that, if God exists, he is a transcendent being outside time, and so is eternal, or, perhaps, sempiternal. He must be a fit and proper object of worship, which may also mean his being eternal. A changing being is too fussy to be properly worshipped.
- One might avoid these conclusions if one were to hold that God was not personal. A nonpersonal god cannot be such things as omnipotent or good. But a god who was not personal would suffer from certain limitations. There would be no point in our going to him for help, for he would not be able to give us any. We could place trust only in a personal god. A nonpersonal god could not issue commands that ought to be obeyed. Only if the universe is governed by benevolent personal god can we have any reliance that all things - or even any thing - will work for good. And we could not have a relationship with a nonpersonal god that involved any reciprocation on his part, though his being eternal would also exclude reciprocation. Those who (wrongly) think that it is possible to worship only persons will think that it would be impossible to worship an impersonal god. We could receive help only from the act of contemplating a nonpersonal god; we could not deliberately be given help by one. Though I think we know what the world would have to be like to provide us with evidence for the actual existence of a personal God, even though the world does not provide such evidence, statements about a nonpersonal god are more likely to be unverifiable, and so, perhaps, meaningless. Some of these disadvantages of a nonpersonal god are shared, if I may put the point in an Irish way which I shall try to elucidate in the book, by a personal god who does not exist.
- One object of this book is to provide reasons for rejecting what I regard as a wrong view of the deity. This regards the existence of God as explaining the existence of the universe, its genesis and the course of its history, and as leading us to expect to discover or explain certain facts about it. It regards God as an omnipotent, omniscient and benevolent person, who issues commands to man, whom he wishes well, who rewards those who obey his commands and punishes those who do not, and who interferes from time to time for some benevolent purpose in the course of nature. Postulating such a god would be justified only if it explained facts about the world; but it does not.
- To avoid later confusion, may I say again that I do not think that rejecting the existence of an onmnipotent, omniscient benevolent person rules out having a favourable attitude to such a person that does not presuppose believing in his existence. Religious devotion, perhaps, does not begin and end with belief, though to disentangle religion from belief is a delicate task which may not be entirely possible, however desirable. One may perhaps feel love or awe of a being whose existence makes no difference to the universe, and contemplate him or meditate upon him whether one thinks he exists or not. One can feel awe of Mount Everest without expecting to benefit from its existence, or thinking that it might intervene on one's behalf. I suspect that it is difficult to accomplish this task successfully with Christianity, which seems excessively cluttered up with doctrine. Even if, as is sometimes said, Christianity is a way of life, rather than a belief, it seems obvious that it is a way of life that presupposes belief.
- What I try to put in the place of belief is a god whose 'existence' is not meant to explain anything, but whose sole function is to be an object of love or awe, and a focus of meditation, worship or contemplation. (I suggest in the text that it might be better to say that such a god neither existed nor did not exist than simply to say that he (or it) does not exist.) Since it is immaterial to anything that happens in the universe whether God exists or not, I think that to some extent, what kind of god one contemplates is a matter of personal choice. One may live one's life without worshipping or contemplating anything - many people, if not most, do - but other people find contemplation or meditation necessary or, if not absolutely necessary, something that they find it better to be with or hard to be without. Since contemplation is something some, though not all, find an enjoyable, beneficial and emotionally and aesthetically satisfying activity, perhaps I may be forgiven for trying to find a way of recommending it as suitable for some people, even when it is not accompanied by belief. If religion is not accompanied by belief, different religions may be compatible for, a fortiori, they cannot involve incompatible beliefs. They can be compared in other ways than by assessing which is true and which false; for example, by assessing which gives rise to the most emotionally and aesthetically satisfactory concept of a deity that does not involve belief. It may be possible to combine elements taken from different religions.
- It would be a great mistake, however, to suppose that such interest as this book has lies only in its conclusions. In philosophy it is not only conclusions that are important, but also the route one takes to acquiring them. Though it may not be entirely true that it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive, at least one should observe and if possible enjoy the scenery on the route to one's destination.
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