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Oh God!

In response to:

A Philosopher Defends Religion from the September 27, 2012 issue

To the Editors:

The problem with Alvin Plantinga’s defense of theism is a simple but wholly vitiating one [Where the Conflict Really Lies, reviewed by Thomas Nagel in “A Philosopher Defends Religion,” NYR, September 27, 2012]. It is that it rests on the fallacy of informal logic known as petitio principii. Plantinga wishes to claim that we can know there is a deity because the deity has provided us with a cognitive modality, which Plantinga calls “a sensus divinitatis,” or sense of the divine, by which we detect its existence. So, we know there is a god because that god arranges matters so that we know there is a god. The circularity is perfect, and perfectly fallacious. I can claim with equal cogency that I know there are goblins in my garden because they provide me with a goblin-sensing faculty of mind…and so for anything else whatever that we would antecedently like to exist.

Plantinga assumes that everyone has a sensus divinitatis but in some of us it is faulty. The name of this fault is “rationality.”

Anthony Grayling
New College of the Humanities

To the Editors:

I was fascinated by the letters in response to “A Philosopher Defends Religion,” as well as Thomas Nagel’s response to one of those letters [NYR, November 8 and December 6, 2012]. As a minister, I want to make two comments.

George Rey compares belief in God to belief in ESP. Mr. Nagel rightly rejects this, but misses offering a more appropriate comparison. A person who is blind from birth can learn a great deal about the sighted world, including temperature (hot, cold), density (hard, soft), state of matter (liquid, solid, gas), shapes (square, triangle, circle), etc. But how would you explain “color”? How do you “explain” “red”? “Blue”? “Magenta”? You could not, because the language does not exist to do so. Thus, a person blind from birth could reject the “existence” of “color,” and no amount of explanation or evidence could “prove” otherwise. Similarly, no amount of explanation or evidence can “prove” that God exists, because the “language” does not exist for believers to explain it to nonbelievers.

Second, Galen Strawson says, “We can…know with certainty that the Christian God does not exist…a being who is omniscient, omnipotent, and wholly benevolent. The proof lies in the world, which is full of suffering.” Mr. Nagel adds, “Galen Strawson offers…the most powerful argument against the existence of God, the argument from evil. The theistic responses to that argument of which I am aware seem unpersuasive….”

Both men err similarly. First, the Judeo-Christian God was never “wholly benevolent”—certainly not in the Old Testament, and even in passages in the New Testament. But that does not mean He is not “all good.” Consider your parents. When they punished you—even corporally—did that make them “bad”? Of course not. It was “for your own good.” As it is with God. As for a “world…full of suffering,” does Mr. Strawson believe (in his atheism) that if there were a God, there would be no suffering in the world? That everything would just be perfect and wonderful? That no one would die from anything other than old age? That there would be no natural disasters, diseases, or “bad” people who do “bad” things? Or bad things that happen to good people? Is that his idea of what “God” is “supposed” to be like? If so, his concept is not of God or the world, but of what believers call “heaven”—a place that is “all good, all the time.”

But the temporal world is not heaven. And so we come to the third error: Mr. Nagel’s failure to understand “the argument from evil.” Logically, nothing can exist (or at least be “named”) without its opposite. Thus, if “good” exists, so must “evil” (or at least “bad”). God created both. But that does not mean that His nature need have any evil in it. Rather, he provided us with free will, to choose between good and evil. If we choose the latter over the former, the fault lies with us, not with God.

In both cases (the existence of God and the argument from evil), all three men miss the most important fact: God does not want automatons. He gave us free will—including the free will to accept or reject His very existence. In the “existence” case, if God were to suddenly reveal Himself openly to the entire world, then one would no longer need to “believe” in Him: “faith” would be irrelevant. In the “evil” case, if God were as Mr. Strawson seems to suggest He should be, we would not learn the many human lessons we learn from adversity, struggle, pain, and, yes, suffering.

(Rev.) Ian Alterman
New York City

Thomas Nagel replies:

Anthony Grayling’s charge of circularity would be right if Plantinga offered the sensus divinitatis as evidence for the existence of God, but he does not. He says merely that belief in God is knowledge if it is in fact caused by God in this way, much as perceptual belief in the external physical world is knowledge if it is in fact caused by the external world in the appropriate way. It would be just as circular to try to prove the existence of the external world by appealing to perception as it would be to try to prove the existence of God by appealing to the sensus divinitatis. But Plantinga holds that it is nevertheless reasonable to hold either type of belief in this basic way, without further proof. I assume he would deny that anyone has, or thinks he has, a basic, unmediated belief in goblins.

Ian Alterman makes the familiar claim that free will reconciles the goodness of God with the monstrous cruelties that pervade human history, but I can’t understand his belief that the acceptance of such consequences is both inseparable from and justified by the value of free will. In any case, this response does nothing to explain the even greater suffering of nonhuman creatures in the natural struggle (alluded to by Galen Strawson in his letter published in the December 6 issue). It seems to me, as an outsider, that incomprehension of God’s purposes is a less implausible stance for a Christian than Alterman’s Panglossian understanding.

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