Two kinds of philosophical atheism
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TWO KINDS OF PHILOSOPHICAL ATHEISM. Ernest Nagel (1901-1985) says that atheistic philosophies fall into two main groups:

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TWO KINDS OF PHILOSOPHICAL ATHEISM

  • Ernest Nagel (1901-1985) says that atheistic philosophies fall into two main groups:

  • 1. Those which find the theistic hypothesis meaningful,but reject it because the evidence for it is insufficient,or reject it because the evidence against it is overwhelming.

  • 2. Those which state that theism is not meaningful because it asserts something which is not verifiable - even in theory.

  • The point of saying that theism is meaningless because it is unverifiable is that, if God is transcendent, then there is no way in which his or her existence can be confirmed in experience. And according to verificationism, if an assertion is not empirically verifiable, at least in theory, then it is meaningless.


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PROBLEMS WITH THEISM AS MEANINGLESS

  • However, as seen earlier, verificationism has problems since it rules out as meaningless certain assertions which are perfectly meaningful but cannot be verified, even in theory. For instance, asserting that the sun will become a red giant and incinerate the earth is meaningful even though, by the very nature of the case, no one would be here to verify it.

  • Nagel also says that the verifiability theory of meaning makes atomic theory meaningless, and so is unacceptable if only for this reason. Thus Nagel intends to look at atheism from the first standpoint which looks at theism as a doctrine which is either true or false and not meaningless.

  • Thus theism has to be assessed in light of arguments for or against it.



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KANT’S MORAL ARGUMENT I

  • 1. For Kant, man is not only subject to the physical laws of nature as an embodied being, but is subject to moral laws as a rational agent.

  • 2. These moral laws concern what it is the duty of man to accept as binding - such as to treat humans as ends and not merely as means.

  • 3. But the moral man is not always rewarded in life and sometimes suffers, and sometimes evil men are rewarded and enjoy the best things in life. Thus being a virtuous person does not always guarantee happiness.


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KANT’S MORAL ARGUMENT II

  • 4. It is the duty of man to be a good and moral creature, and the highest human good is happiness which comes form being moral.

  • 5. But what can guarantee that this highest good can be realized? Since men are not always moral, man cannot guarantee the highest goodness which comes from morality.

  • 6. Thus, in order to make the highest good something which can be achieved, it is necessary to postulate God as a “necessary condition for the possibility of a moral life.”


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NAGEL’S RESPONSE TO KANT’S MORAL ARGUMENT

  • Nagel says that we can’t be sure that, just because we have postulated something to exist to explain or guarantee something else, that what we have postulated does in fact exist. “No postulation carries with it any assurance that what is postulated is actually the case.”

  • In addition, assuming God to exist does not guarantee that happiness and virtue can be realized. “And though we may postulate God’s existence as a means to guaranteeing the possibility of realizing happiness together with virtue, the postulation establishes neither the actual realizability of this ideal nor the fact of its existence.”


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ARGUMENT FROM RELIGIOUS AND MYSTICAL EXPERIENCE

  • Some people on occasion have experiences in which they lose their sense of self-identity and have a sense of merging with a fundamental reality. Or they experience a feeling of dependency on some higher power. This they take to be experience of the divine and hence evidence of God’s existence.

  • Such experiences are taken to be evidence of something divine and holy because the experiences seem inexplicable apart from the supposition of the existence of the being which the experiences are supposed to concern.

  • Just as we take the perception of a tree to be evidence of the existence of the tree, so can we take religious experience to be evidence of the existence of God.


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NAGEL’S RESPONSE TO THE ARGUMENT FROM RELIGIOUS AND MYSTICAL EXPERIENCEI

  • We can accept as genuine that people have experiences which can be referred to as religious or mystical. However, one cannot infer the existence of God as the cause of those experiences from the experiences themselves.

  • It is possible that the experiences have some other cause altogether, such as a state of the brain, or something psychological, or a combination of these things. It is possible that religious experiences are like hallucinations - where we infer incorrectly that something exists based on what appears to exist.

  • Nagel does not deny that the feeling exists as a genuine feeling, anymore than one would deny that the hallucination exists as a hallucination. What he does deny is that such a feeling is evidence that a supreme being is the cause of the feeling.


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NAGEL’S RESPONSE TO THE ARGUMENT FROM RELIGIOUS AND MYSTICAL EXPERIENCEII

  • For Nagel, the claims of religious experience have to be tested objectively by independent examiners in order to establish their validity.

  • Given both what we do know and what we do not know about the complexity of the human environment and the human nervous system, it is more reasonable to postulate that the cause of religious experience lies within the world and the nervous system, or in the relation of the nervous system to something in the natural world, not to something beyond it.

  • Why look to an explanation beyond the world and the individual rather than to the world and the individual herself?


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THE PROBLEM OF EVIL I MYSTICAL EXPERIENCE

  • The problem of evil comes from noting that there is evil in the world at the same time that God is supposed to be all powerful, all good, all knowing, and to have every maximum perfection.

  • How can there be evil in a world which was created by a being who is supreme in power and knowledge and who is also completely good? These properties are logically incompatible with evil existing in God’s creation. Where does the evil come from? If God is creator of the universe, then isn’t God responsible for the evil which exists?


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THE PROBLEM OF EVIL II MYSTICAL EXPERIENCE

  • Theodicy=df. The attempt to justify God’s goodness given the fact of evil in the world which he is supposed to have created.

  • One proposed solution to the problem of evil is to say that evil is an illusion - or that evil is simply the absence of good. On this view, evil is not real, but is only the negative side of God’s existence. As such, we see something as evil because of our limited intelligence - if we were more wise we would understand God’s creation more fully and the evil would disappear.


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NAGEL’S RESPONSE TO MYSTICAL EXPERIENCEEVIL AS AN ILLUSION I

  • For Nagel, the fact of evil is not removed by reclassifying it as an illusion. And the fact of illusion is not eliminated by saying that evil is just the absence of good or the negative side of God.

  • Further, even if evil were only an appearance, like a hallucination or an illusion like a bent stick in the water, that does not remove the fact of the appearance and the sufferings, tragedies, and inequities that result from them.


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NAGEL’S RESPONSE TO MYSTICAL EXPERIENCEEVIL AS AN ILLUSION II

  • Nagel thinks that it makes a mockery of human suffering to call it merely an illusion. For instance, to tell a man that his daughter’s death is only an illusion and he ought not to grieve over it hardly seems like adequate consolation.

  • And Nagel says that both a tragedy and the suffering which follows from it are no less real to the sufferer even if we attempt to reclassify the tragedy as an appearance. Just as hallucinations and perceptual illusions are real as appearances - it is what is inferred from them that is false or unreal - so tragedies and sufferings are real as experienced.


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NAGEL’S RESPONSE TO MYSTICAL EXPERIENCEEVIL AS AN ILLUSION III

  • And even if you call it an appearance, it remains true that the tragedy happened and cannot be undone. For instance, the man’s daughter is just as dead and gone from his life and not coming back, whatever you call it.

  • Thus, for Nagel, it is an insult to mankind to say that the sufferings of life are only an illusion. This suggests that our tragedies are false and meaningless and we have no right to grieve.

  • One might ask too if any amount of recompense in heaven can make up for the tragedies of earth. This is the idea that the tragedies of life are not made any less tragic by saying that things will be made right in heaven.


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EVIL AS ISSUING FROM A LIMITED PERSPECTIVE I MYSTICAL EXPERIENCE

  • Another proposed solution to the problem of evil is to say that “the things called evil are evil only when viewed in isolation;they are not evil when viewed in proper perspective and in relation to the rest of creation.”

  • This might be called a limited perspective or an isolated view argument. The idea is that if we only could have God’s view of the universe what appears to be evil from our limited human perspective would disappear.


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EVIL AS ISSUING FROM A LIMITED PERSPECTIVE II MYSTICAL EXPERIENCE

  • A part of a painting may not be beautiful - and may even be ugly - when viewed merely as a part of the painting. However, it can cease to be ugly as it forms part of a larger exquisite whole. And just as this can be the case for a part of an artwork, so can something which is thought to be evil in itself cease to be seen as evil when it is seen, not in isolation, but as part of a larger whole.

  • For example, on the limited perspective view, the anguish we experience from the death of a loved one is only painful because we view the death from a limited point of view. If we could see the death as God sees it, then we would not see it as evil, and so our experience of pain would disappear.


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NAGEL’S RESPONSE TO THE LIMITED PERSPECTIVE ARGUMENT I MYSTICAL EXPERIENCE

  • The first thing that Nagel says in response to the limited perspective argument is that, being human, we can only view things from the limited perspective of human beings. What other perspective could we have?

  • Nagel admits that what appears to be evil from a human perspective may not be evil from another perspective. For example, when a man is eaten by a polar bear, the man’s being eaten is not evil from the bear’s perspective, but is good because it ends its hunger.

  • Since we can only view things from a human perspective, for Nagel it is irrelevant to note that we would or might view things differently from a non-human perspective.


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NAGEL’S RESPONSE TO THE LIMITED PERSPECTIVE ARGUMENT II MYSTICAL EXPERIENCE

  • Nagel says that a more important response to this position is that we can’t simply assume that whatever is viewed as evil from a human perspective is not evil viewed from another perspective, or disappears when we think of reality as a totality: “it is unsupported speculation to suppose that whatever is evil in a finite perspective is good from the purported perspective of the totality of things.”


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NAGEL’S RESPONSE TO THE LIMITED PERSPECTIVE ARGUMENT III MYSTICAL EXPERIENCE

  • The isolated view argument can also be turned around. That is, we can say thatwhatever seems to be good from our limited perspective - including love of our fellow man and God - turns out to be evil when viewed from another perspective,or from the perspective of the totality of things.

  • For Nagel, this shows the absurdity of the argument that our sense of evil depends on our limited human perspective.


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NAGEL’S CONCLUSIONS ABOUT THE PROBLEM OF EVIL MYSTICAL EXPERIENCE

  • Nagel says that it is not possible to reconcile God’s goodness, power, and wisdom with the fact of the great and persistent degree of evil in the world.

  • Some theologians have agreed with this, and so have admitted that God cannot be omnipotent - there are limits to what God can do, just as there are limits to what we can do. Or some other attribute or attributes of God may be limited and so cease to be infinite, and such a limitation or combination of limitations would explain the persistence of evil in the world.

  • For instance, it may be the case that God hates evil, but is not all-wise and so, although powerful, does not know how to eliminate all evil. Or it may be that God is not all-good, and so allows evil to happen even though he/she could prevent it. Or it could be a combination of such things.


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IS THEISM NECESSARY? MYSTICAL EXPERIENCE

  • Nagel says that it is not.

  • For Nagel, even if you limit God’s power, it is still legitimate to ask whether or not the facts of human life and its history support the hypothesis of any kind of deity - limited or not.

  • And he says that there is nothing in human life or history that cannot be accounted for without assuming God’s existence.


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GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS OF ATHEISM I MYSTICAL EXPERIENCE

  • Nagel says that atheism is not simply a rejection of theism, but is a general intellectual temper.

  • For instance, atheists reject a belief in disembodied spirits such as angels and ghosts, and deny that any objects except physical ones can be causes of anything. (Note that this is a statement of materialism.)

  • Atheists for Nagel look to science for an understanding of the world, not religion. It is highly doubtful that religion can compete with science for an explanation of man and nature.


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GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS OF ATHEISM II MYSTICAL EXPERIENCE

  • The events of nature are to be explained according to “the properties and structures of identifiable and spatio-temporally located objects.”

  • Nagel says that, when we look at the world, we see that things change continuously, but thisconstant change has no “all-encompassing unitary pattern of change.”

  • Man and nature are both real, not illusory. And human reality and what is viewed from the human perspective is no less or more real than other parts of the universe. Thus man has his or her place within the scheme of things, and our pains and sufferings are no less real than our pleasures and satisfactions.


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GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS OF ATHEISM III MYSTICAL EXPERIENCE

  • Nagel says that “an atheistic view of things is a form of materialism.” And he maintains that atheists are usually empiricists. As such, Nagel asserts that the atheist thinks that “controlled sensory observation is the court of final appeal in issues concerning matters of fact.”

  • Indeed, for Nagel, it is “this commitment to the use of an empirical method which is the final basis of the atheistic critique of theism.” Theism is often introduced as a way of explaining the world, but an atheist who follows the methods of empirical science has no need of the theistic hypothesis - the world can be explained without recourse to a deity.

  • Asked by Napoleon where God fit into his analysis of celestial mechanics, Laplace replied: “Sir, I have no need for that hypothesis.”


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GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS OF ATHEISM IV MYSTICAL EXPERIENCE

  • For an atheist like Nagel, whatever a deity is introduced to explain can be explained by science. Recall that, if God is introduced as an explanation of nature, then God’s existence in turn has to be explained, and God’s relation to the world has to be explained. This will include accounting for the problem of evil.

  • In considering morality, atheists, according to Nagel, think that “the satisfaction of the complex needs of the human creature is the final standard for evaluating the validity of moral laws.” Accordingly, the atheist looks at this world rather than to a transcendent world for the basis of morality.


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GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS OF ATHEISM V MYSTICAL EXPERIENCE

  • Atheism offers no hope of personal immortality, no plan for personal salvation, no sense that the wrongs of the world are redressed in heaven, no promise of divine reward, and no threat of divine punishment.

  • For the atheist, human dignity and excellence concern man and his place in nature. And so what man is able to attain must come within a finite life span, not in any supposed afterlife, since there is no afterlife.


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ATHEISM IS A HUMANISM I MYSTICAL EXPERIENCE

  • Nagel thinks that atheism is philosophically valuable by showing that the arguments for theism are invalid. And it is socially valuable in “liberating men’s minds from superstition,” and such liberation, Nagel thinks, will make for a more fair and humane society.

  • Atheism then is a humanism in that it is a call for intelligent and moral activity for the sake of realizing human potentiality.

  • However, atheists do not pretend or try to obscure the realities of life - not everyone can achieve his or her dreams or even part of them. That is simply the way things are.


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ATHEISM IS A HUMANISM II MYSTICAL EXPERIENCE

  • Because atheism recognizes the facts of existence, it does not attempt to deny the tragic view of life that comes from looking at it honestly.

  • This does not mean that we ought to bemoan our condition, but it does mean that we ought to be realistic about it.

  • For the atheist, we ought to accept life for what it is at the same time that we do our best to improve our own life and the lives of others. And we should do this to the extent to which that is possible given the nature of the world and our individual abilities.


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