McGinn, James, and Empiricism

“In my belief that a large acquaintance with particulars often makes us wiser than the possession of abstract formulas […]”

from William James, preface, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902).

Colin McGinn is asked what some of the best reasons are for not believing in God, and responds with (transcribed from here, at approx. 20:00):

“Well, the classic argument against [God] is the problem of evil. Even religious people find this one very uncomfortable. So the argument is simply, God is meant to be a being who is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good. So, how come there is suffering and pain in the world? Why does God allow it? God, if he’s all-good, thinks it’s bad that this should occur, would rather it didn’t occur, like any decent person, and yet he lets it occur. Now, that would be okay if he didn’t have the power to change it, but he’s all-powerful, we’re told by religious people he intervenes all the time in various ways. So, why doesn’t he intervene to prevent the death of a child or the torture of a prisoner? He doesn’t do it. So, you don’t want to conclude from that that God is actually quite a bad person – that’s a conceivable conclusion you might draw. But what you conclude from it is that the combination of these two characteristics is inconsistent. He’s all-good and he’s all-powerful – you need all-knowing too, because he has to know what’s going on – but it’s essentially the conflict between all-good and all-powerful and the existence of evil.”

Philosophers like easy ways of showing that something is absolutely a yes or a no based on conceptual arguments, instead of developing probabilistic arguments that rely on various strands of empirical evidence of varying degrees of strength.

For example, most contemporary theists’ conceptions of God probably aren’t centrally that of an omniscient-omnipotent-omnibenevolent being – rather, their concepts of God are centralized around various experiences, anecdotes, and so on, which fit in with daily practices (and so on) that seem to work, which they then might fit with theories they’ve heard or thought up based thereupon.

Arguments, then, against the existence of “God” that attack a particular theological conception must reckon with the fact that, if successful, all they’ve done is knock a somewhat artificial theological add-on off of an empirical body. It is as if I were to show that a contemporary theory of gravity is incoherent, and then declare “Gravity doesn’t exist!” The problem is that objects still fall when I release them, and so on, and these phenomena are what’s important and what give rise to various theories of gravity.

Central idea: what sustains and motivates theism is people’s experiences, not theological constructs like the above which to a large extent supervene on the experiences, et. al.

6 thoughts on “McGinn, James, and Empiricism

  1. bgc

    This is a topic of perennial interest!

    I think that the major real life argument against the existance of God is that people can, apparently, on the face of it, get through life alright without a belief in God. The ‘proof’ being that you can subtract God from the human belief system, and the whole things does not immediately come crashing down.

    I would say that this is only superfically true and in the short term, buffered by overlapping generations, and ingrained habits – but that as atheism spreads and becomes dominant then very obvious problems arise both for individuals and for societies – but the argument is not conclusive.

    Arguments like the one you quote seem to reveal nothing except that the author has no idea of what it is actually like to believe in the Christian God.

    There is a remarkable arrogance in ignoring the centuries of faith, and assuming that all the people in (say) Byzantium were merely deluded.

    The ‘problem’ which McGinn alludes to was not a problem for people like Boethius, who expreinced the fall of the Roman Empire and barbarian takeover, fear, pain, the prospect of torture (indeed he was eventually tortured to death most horribly) – yet was a devout Christian and espoused an inspiring and hopeful philosophy.

    There is something bogus about us pampered moderns complaining of the ‘problem’ of suffering, and that it makes a bleief in God impossible, when our idea of suffering is something we have watched on the TV news…

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