Thursday, March 6, 2014

Can One Know That God Doesn't Exist? (Pt. III)

In his interview with atheistic philosopher Louise Antony Notre Dame philosopher Gary Gutting suggests that Ms Antony sounds as though she doesn't think it much matters whether we believe in God or not. Here's her reply to Gutting's suggestion:
Well, I do wonder about that. Why do theists care so much about belief in God? Disagreement over that question is really no more than a difference in philosophical opinion. Specifically, it’s just a disagreement about ontology — about what kinds of things exist. Why should a disagreement like that bear any moral significance? Why shouldn’t theists just look for allies among us atheists in the battles that matter — the ones concerned with justice, civil rights, peace, etc. — and forget about our differences with respect to such arcane matters as the origins of the universe?
Professor Antony simply doesn't appear to understand the significance of the question. She seems to think that the question of God's existence is of the same sort as the question of life elsewhere in the universe - interesting as a sort of philosophical exercise or as a topic for sci-fi movies but not particularly important to real life. I think she couldn't be more wrong.

In my novel In the Absence of God (see link at top right of this page) I argue that how we answer the question of God's existence informs everything we believe about the possibility of meaning in life, the possibility of moral obligation, our view of humanity, our belief in ultimate justice, and much else besides. All of these are ontologically dependent upon the existence of God. If Antony thinks they're not then she should explain why she does not, but it's simply incorrect to allege that the question of God's existence doesn't have any practical importance.

Atheistic scientist Steven Weinberg outlines what life looks for those like himself who seek to substitute science for God:
[T]he worldview of science is rather chilling. Not only do we not find any point to life laid out for us in nature, no objective basis for our moral principles, no correspondence between what we think is the moral law and the laws of nature, of the sort imagined by philosophers from Anaximander and Plato to Emerson. We even learn that the emotions that we most treasure, our love for our wives and husbands and children, are made possible by chemical processes in our brains that are what they are as a result of natural selection acting on chance mutations over millions of years. And yet we must not sink into nihilism or stifle our emotions. At our best we live on a knife-edge, between wishful thinking on one hand and, on the other, despair.
And that's "at our best."

Dostoyevsky, writing over a hundred years earlier, responds to Weinberg in his novel The Possessed in which he has the atheist Kirillov, who is planning suicide, exclaim: "I can't understand how an atheist can know there is no God and not kill himself on the spot." What Kirillov grasps, and Professor Antony evidently does not, is that the question of God's existence is a matter of life and death for anyone who really thinks about it and that if God doesn't exist then, as Weinberg admits, there's nothing left but meaninglessness, nihilism, and despair.

Scroll down to read Parts I and II in this series.