(Sample Material) UPSC Mains Philosophy (Optional) Study Kit "Philosophy of Religion (Theology and Falsification)"

Sample Material of UPSC Mains Philosophy (Optional) Study Kit

Topic: Philosophy of Religion (Theology and Falsification)


Let us begin with a parable. It is a parable developed from a tale told by John Wisdom in his haunting and revelatory article ‘Gods’. Once upon a time two explorers came upon a clearing in the jungle. In the clearing were growing many flowers and many weeds. One explorer says, ‘Some gardener must tend this plot.’ The other disagrees, ‘There is no gardener.’ So they pitch their tents and set a watch. No gardener is ever seen. ‘But perhaps he is an invisible gardener.’ So they set up a barbed-wire fence. They electrify it. They patrol with bloodhounds. (For they remember how H. G. Wells’s ‘Invisible Man’ could be both smelt and touched though he could not be seen.) But no shrieks ever suggest that some intruder has received a shock.

No movements of the wire ever betray an invisible climber. The bloodhounds never give cry. Yet still the Believer is not convinced. ‘But there is a gardener, invisible, intangible, insensible to electric shocks, a gardener who has no scent and makes no sound, a gardener who comes secretly to look after the garden which he loves.’ At last the Sceptic despairs, ‘But what remains of your original assertion? Just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from an imaginary gardener or even from no gardener at all?’

In this parable we can see how what starts as an assertion, that something exists or that there is some analogy between certain complexes of phenomena, may be reduced step by step to an altogether different status, to an expression perhaps of a ‘picture preference’. The Sceptic says there is no gardener. The Believer says there is a gardener (but invisible, From New Essays in Philosophical Theology, ed. Antony Flew and Alasdair MacIntyre (London: S.C.M., 1955). One man talks about sexual behaviour. Another man prefers to talk of Aphrodite (but knows that there is not really a superhuman person additional to, and somehow responsible for, all sexual phenomena). The process of qualification may be checked at any point before the original assertion is completely withdrawn and something of that first assertion will remain (tautology). Mr. Wells’s invisible man could not, admittedly, be seen, but in all other respects he was a man like the rest of us. But though the process of qualification may be, and of course usually is, checked in time, it is not always judiciously so halted. Someone may dissipate his assertion completely without noticing that he has done so. A fine brash hypothesis may thus be killed by inches, the death by a thousand qualifications. And in this, it seems to me, lies the peculiar danger, the endemic evil of theological utterance. Take such utterances as ‘God has a plan’, ‘God created the world’, ‘God loves us as a father loves his children.’ They look at first sight very much like assertions, vast cosmological assertions. Of course, this is no sure sign that they either are, or are intended to be, assertions.

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But let us confine ourselves to the cases where those who utter such sentences intend them to express assertions. (Merely remarking parenthetically that those who intend or interpret such utterances as crypto-commands, expressions of wishes, disguised ejaculations, concealed ethics, or as anything else but assertions, are unlikely to succeed in making them either properly orthodox or practically effective.) Now to assert that such and such is the case is necessarily equivalent to denying that such and such is not the case.4 Suppose, then that we are in doubt as to what someone who gives vent to an utterance is asserting, or suppose that, more radically, we are sceptical as to whether he is really asserting anything at all, one way of trying to understand (or perhaps it will be to expose) his utterance is to attempt to find what he would regard as counting against, or as being incompatible with, its truth. For if the utterance is indeed an assertion, it will necessarily be equivalent to a denial of the negation of that assertion.

And anything which would count against the assertion, or which would induce the speaker to withdraw it and to admit that it had been mistaken, must be part of (or the whole of) the meaning of the negation of that assertion. And to know the meaning of the negation of an assertion, is as near as makes no matter, to know the meaning of that assertion.5 And if there is nothing which a putative assertion denies then there is nothing which it asserts either: and so it is not really an assertion. When the Sceptic in the parable asked the Believer, ‘Just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from an imaginary gardener at all?’ he was suggesting that the Believer’s earlier statement had been so eroded by qualification that it was no longer an assertion at all.

Now it often seems to people who are not religious as if there was no conceivable event or series of events the occurrence of which would be admitted by sophisticated religious people to be a sufficient reason for conceding ‘There wasn’t a God after all’ or ‘God does not really love us then.’ Someone tells us that God loves us as a father loves his children. We are reassured. But then we see a child dying of inoperable cancer of the throat. His earthly father is driven frantic in his efforts to help, but his Heavenly Father reveals no obvious sign of concern. Some qualification is made-God’s love is ‘not a merely human love’ or it is ‘an inscrutable love’, perhaps-and we realize that such sufferings are quite compatible with the truth of the assertion that ‘God loves us as a father (but, of course, ... ).’

We are reassured again. But then perhaps we ask: what is this assurance of God’s (appropriately qualified) love worth, what is this apparent guarantee really a guarantee against? Just what would have to happen not merely (morally and wrongly) to tempt but also (logically and rightly) to entitle us to say ‘God does not love us’ or even ‘God does not exist’? I therefore put to the succeeding symposiasts the simple central questions, ‘What would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a disproof of the love of, or of the existence of, God?’


I wish to make it clear that I shall not try to defend Christianity in particular, but religion in general-not because I do not believe in Christianity, but because you cannot understand what Christianity is, until you have understood what religion is. I must begin by confessing that, on the ground marked out by Flew, he seems to me to be completely victorious. I therefore shift my ground by relating another parable. A certain lunatic is convinced that all dons want to murder him. His friends introduce him to all the mildest and most respectable dons that they can find, and after each of them has retired, they say, ‘You see, he doesn’t really want to murder you; he spoke to you in a most cordial manner; surely you are convinced now?’ But the lunatic replies, ‘Yes, but that was only his diabolical cunning; he’s really plotting against me the whole time, like the rest of them; I know it I tell you.’ However many kindly dons are produced, the reaction is still the same. Now we say that such a person is deluded. But what is he deluded about? About the truth or falsity of an assertion? Let us apply Flew’s test to him. There is no behaviour of dons that can be enacted which he will accept as counting against his theory; and therefore his theory, on this test, asserts nothing. But it does not follow that there is no difference between what he thinks about dons and what most of us think about them-otherwise we should not call him a lunatic and ourselves sane, and dons would have no reason to feel uneasy about his presence in Oxford.

Let us call that in which we differ from this lunatic, our respective bliks. He has an insane blik about dons; we have a sane one. It is important to realize that we have a sane one, not no blik at all; for there must be two sides to any argument-if he has a wrong blik, then those who are right about dons must have a right one. Flew has shown that a blik does not consist in an assertion or system of them; but nevertheless it is very important to have the right blik. Let us try to imagine what it would be like to have different bliks about other things than dons. When I am driving my car, it sometimes occurs to me to wonder whether my movements of the steering-wheel will always continue to be followed by corresponding alterations in the direction of the car. I have never had a steering failure, though I have had skids, which must be similar. Moreover, I know enough about how the steering of my car is made, to know the sort of thing that would have to go wrong for the steering to fail-steel joints would have to part, or steel rods break, or something-but how do I know that this won’t happen? The truth is, I don’t know; I just have a blik about steel and its properties, so that normally I trust the steering of my car; but I find it not at all difficult to imagine what it would be like to lose this blik and acquire the opposite one. People would say I was silly about steel; but there would be no mistaking the reality of the difference between our respective bliks-for example, I should never go in a motor-car. Yet I should hesitate to say that the difference between us was the difference between contradictory assertions. No amount of safe arrivals or benchtests will remove my blik and restore the normal one; for my blik is compatible with any finite number of such tests. It was Hume who taught us that our whole commerce with the world depends upon our blik about the world; and that differences between bliks about the world cannot be settled by observation of what happens in the world. That was why, having performed the interesting experiment of doubting the ordinary man’s blik about the world, and showing that no proof could be given to make us adopt one blik rather than another, he turned to backgammon to take his mind off the problem. It seems, indeed, to be impossible even to formulate as an assertion the normal blik about the world which makes me put my confidence in the future reliability of steel joints, in the continued ability of the road to support my car, and not gape beneath it revealing nothing below; in the general non-homicidal tendencies of dons; in my own continued well-being (in some sense of that word that I may not now fully understand) if I continue to do what is right according to my lights; in the general likelihood of people like Hitler coming to a bad end. But perhaps a formulation less inadequate than most is to be found in the Psalms: ‘The earth is weak and all the inhabiters thereof: I bear up the pillars of it.’

The mistake of the position which Flew selects for attack is to regard this kind of talk as some sort of explanation, as scientists are accustomed to use the word. As such, it would obviously be ludicrous. We no longer believe in God as an Atlas-nous n’ avons pas besoin de cette hypothese. But it is nevertheless true to say that, as Hume saw, without a blik there can be no explanation; for it is by our bliks that we decide what is and what is not an explanation. Suppose we believed that everything that happened, happened by pure chance. This would not of course be an assertion; for it is compatible with anything happening or not happening, and so, incidentally, is its contradictory. But if we had this belief, we should not be able to explain or predict or plan anything. Thus, although we should not be asserting anything different from those of a more normal belief, there would be a great difference between us; and this is the sort of difference that there is between those who really believe in God and those who really disbelieve in him. The word ‘really’ is important, and may excite suspicion. I put it in, because when people have had a good Christian upbringing, as have most of those who now profess not to believe in any sort of religion, it is very hard to discover what they really believe. The reason why they find it so easy to think that they are not religious, is that they have never got into the frame of mind of one who suffers from the doubts to which religion is the answer. Not for them the terrors of the primitive jungle.

Having abandoned some of the more picturesque fringes of religion, they think that they have abandoned the whole thing-whereas in fact they still have got, and could not live without, a religion of a comfortably substantial, albeit highly sophisticated, kind, which differs from that of many ‘religious people’ in little more than this, that ‘religious people’ like to sing Psalms about theirs-a very natural and proper thing to do. But nevertheless there may be a big difference lying behind-the difference between two people who, though side by side, are walking in different directions. I do not know in what direction Flew is walking; perhaps he does not know either. But we have had some examples recently of various ways in which one can walk away from Christianity, and there are any number of possibilities. After all, man has not changed biologically since primitive times; it is his religion that has changed, and it can easily change again. And if you do not think that such changes make a difference, get acquainted with some Sikhs and some Mussulmans of the same Punjabi stock; you will find them quite different sorts of people.

There is an important difference between Flew’s parable and my own which we have not yet noticed. The explorers do not mind about their garden; they discuss it with interest, but not with concern. But my lunatic, poor fellow, minds about dons; and I mind about the steering of my car; it often has people in it that I care for. It is because I mind very much about what goes on in the garden in which I find myself, that I am unable to share the explorers’ detachment.

Flew’s article is searching and perceptive, but there is, I think, something odd about his conduct of the theologian’s case. The theologian surely would not deny that the fact of pain counts against the assertion that God loves men. This very incompatibility generates the most intractable of theological problems-the problem of evil. So the theologian does recognize the fact of pain as counting against Christian doctrine. But it is true that he will not allow it-or anything-to count decisively against it; for he is committed by his faith to trust in God. His attitude is not that of the detached observer, but of the believer. Perhaps this can be brought out by yet another parable. In time of war in an occupied country, a member of the resistance meets one night a stranger who deeply impresses him. They spend that night together in conversation. The Stranger tells the partisan that he himself is on the side of the resistance-indeed that he is in command of it, and urges the partisan to have faith in him no matter what happens. The partisan is utterly convinced at that meeting of the Stranger’s sincerity and constancy and undertakes to trust him. They never meet in conditions of intimacy again. But sometimes the Stranger is seen helping members of the resistance, and the partisan is grateful and says to his friends, ‘He is on our side.’

Sometimes he is seen in the uniform of the police handing over patriots to the occupying power. On these occasions his friends murmur against him; but the partisan stiIl says, ‘He is on our side.’ He still believes that, in spite of appearances, the Stranger did not deceive him. Sometimes he asks the Stranger for help and receives it. He is then thankful. Sometimes he asks and does not receive it. Then he says, The Stranger knows best.’ Sometimes his friends, in exasperation, say, ‘Well, what would he have to do for you to admit that you were wrong and that he is not on our side?’ But the partisan refuses to answer. He will not consent to put the Stranger to the test. And sometimes his friends complain, ‘Well, if that’s what you mean by his being on our side, the sooner he goes over to the other side the better.’ The partisan of the parable does not allow anything to count decisively against the proposition ‘The Stranger is on our side.’ This is because he has committed himself to trust the Stranger. But he of course recognizes that the Stranger’s ambiguous behaviour does count against what he believes about him. It is precisely this situation which constitutes the trial of his faith. When the partisan asks for help and doesn’t get it, what can he do? He can (a) conclude that the stranger is not on our side; or (b) maintain that he is on our side, but that he has reasons for withholding help. The first he will refuse to do. How long can he uphold the second position without its becoming just silIy? I don’t think one can say in advance. It wilI depend on the nature of the impression created by the Stranger in the first place. It wiII depend, too, on the manner in which he takes the Stranger’s behaviour. If he blandly dismisses it as of no consequence, as having no bearing upon his belief, it will be assumed that he is thoughtless or insane. And it quite obviously won’t do for him to say easily, ‘Oh, when used of the Stranger the phrase “is on our side” means ambiguous behaviour of this sort.’ In that case he would be like the religious man who says blandly of a terrible disaster, ‘It is God’s will.’ No, he will only be regarded as sane and reasonable in his belief, if he experiences in himself the full force of the conflict.

It is here that my parable differs from Hare’s. The partisan admits that many things may and do count against his belief: whereas Hare’s lunatic who has a blik about dons doesn’t admit that anything counts against his blik. Nothing can count against bliks. Also the partisan has a reason for having in the first instance committed himself, viz. the character of the Stranger; whereas the lunatic has no reason for his blik about dons-because, of course, you can’t have reasons for bliks. This means that I agree with Flew that theological utterances must be assertions. The partisan is making an assertion when he says, ‘The Stranger is on our side.’ Do I want to say that the partisan’s belief about the Stranger is, in any sense, an explanation? I think I do. It explains and makes sense of the Stranger’s behaviour: it helps to explain also the resistance movement in the context of which he appears. In each case it differs from the interpretation which the others put up on the same facts. ‘God loves men’ resembles ‘the Stranger is on our side’ (and many other significant statements, e.g. historical ones) in not being conclusively falsifiable. They can both be treated in at least three different ways:

(1) as provisional hypotheses to be discarded if experience tells against them; (2) as significant articles of faith; (3) as vacuous formulae (expressing, perhaps, a desire for reassurance) to which experience makes no difference and which make no difference to life. The Christian, once he has committed himself, is precluded by his faith from taking up the first attitude: ‘Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.’ He is in constant danger, as Flew has observed, of slipping into the third. But he need not; and, if he does, it is a failure in faith as well as in logic.

It has been a good discussion: and I am glad to have helped to provoke it. But now-at least in University-it must come to an end: and Since it is impossible to deal with all the issues raised or to comment separately upon each contribution, I will concentrate on Mitchell and Hare, as representative of two very different kinds of response to the challenge made in ‘Theology and Falsification’. The challenge, it will be remembered, ran like this. Some theological utterances seem to, and are intended to, provide explanations or express assertions. Now an assertion, to be an assertion at all, must claim that things stand thus and thus; and not otherwise. Similarly an explanation, to be an explanation at all, must explain why this particular thing occurs; and not something else. Those last clauses are crucial. And yet sophisticated religious people-or so it seemed to me-are apt to overlook this, and tend to refuse to allow, not merely that anything actually does occur, but that anything conceivably could occur, which would count against their theological assertions and explanations. But in so far as they do this their supposed explanations are actually bogus, and their seeming assertions are really vacuous.

Mitchell’s response to this challenge is admirably direct, straightforward, and understanding. He agrees ‘that theological utterances must be assertions’. He agrees that if they are to be assertions, there must be something that would count against their truth. He agrees, too, that believers are in constant danger of transforming their would-be assertions into ‘vacuous formulae’. But he takes me to task for an oddity in my ‘conduct of the theologian’s case. The theologian surely would not deny that the fact of pain counts against the assertion that God loves men. This very incompatibility generates the most intractable of theological problems, the problem of evil.’ I think he is right. I should have made a distinction between two very different ways of dealing with what looks like evidence against the love of God: the way I stressed was the expedient of qualifying the original assertion; the way the theologian usually takes, at first, is to admit that it looks bad but to insist that there is-there must be-some explanation which will show that, in spite of appearances, there really is a God who loves us. His difficulty, it seems to me, is that he has given God attributes which rule out all possible saving explanations. In Mitchell’s parable of the Stranger it is easy for the believer to find plausible excuses for ambiguous behaviour: for the Stranger is a man. But suppose the Stranger is God. We cannot say that he would like to help but cannot: God is omnipotent. We cannot say that he would help if he only knew: God is omniscient. We cannot say that he ‘is not responsible for the wickedness of others: God creates those others. Indeed an omnipotent, omniscient God must be an accessory before (and during) the fact to every human misdeed! as well as being responsible for every non-moral defect in the universe. So, though I entirely concede that Mitchell was absolutely right to insist against me that the theologian’s first move is to look for an explanation, I still think that in the end, if relentlessly pursued, he will have to resort to the avoiding action of qualification. And there lies the danger of that death by a thousand qualifications, which would, I agree, constitute ‘a failure in faith as well as in logic’.

Hare’s approach is fresh and bold. He confesses that ‘on the ground marked out by Flew, he seems to me to be completely victorious’. He therefore introduces the concept of blik. But while I think that there is room for some such concept in philosophy, and that philosophers should be grateful to Hare for his invention, I nevertheless want to insist that any attempt to analyse Christian religious utterances as expressions or affirmations of a blik rather than as (at least would-be) assertions about the cosmos is fundamentally misguided. First, because thus interpreted, they would be entirely unorthodox. If Hare’s religion really is a blik, involving no cosmological assertions about the nature and activities of a supposed personal creator, then surely he is not a Christian at all? Second, because thus interpreted, they could scarcely do the job they do. If they were not even intended as assertions then many religious activities would become fraudulent, or merely silly. If ‘You ought because it is God’s will’ asserts no more than ‘You ought’, then the person who prefers the former phraseology is not really giving a reason, but a fraudulent substitution for one, a dialectical dud cheque. If ‘My soul must be immortal because God loves his children, etc.’ asserts no more than ‘My soul must be immortal’, then the man who reassures himself with theological arguments for immortalIty is being as silly as the man who tries to clear his overdraft by writing his bank a cheque on the same amount. (Of course neither of these utterances would be distinctively Christian: but this discussion never pretended to be so confined.) Religious utterances may indeed express false or even bogus assertions: but I simply do not believe that they are not both intended and interpreted to be or at any rate to presuppose assertions, at least in the context of religious practice; whatever shifts may be demanded, in another context, by the exigencies of theological apologetic. One final suggestion. The philosophers of religion might well draw upon George Orwell’s last appalling nightmare 1984 for the concept of doublethink. ‘Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs simultaneously, and accepting both of them. The party intellectual knows that he is playing tricks with reality, but by the exercise of doublethink he also satisfies himself that reality is not violated’ (1984, p. 220). Perhaps religious intellectuals too are sometimes driven to doublethink in order to retain their faith in a loving God in face of the reality of a heartless and indifferent world. But of this more another time, perhaps.

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