, Research Paper
Describe how a sceptical problem arises in connection with one of the areas of thought we have studied. Then discuss one or more responses to the problem.
Religious belief and the sceptical responses
Although dismissed by many philosophers as nonsensical and irrelevant, religious beliefs are still held by over half of the world s population and therefore the subject must be valid as an area of intellectual discussion. This particular area of thought gives rise to much sceptical debate as the proofs offered by believers seem flawed when held to close scrutiny. It is particularly interesting in that the sceptical problems also go further than merely questioning the validity of the proofs but in fact can be taken so far as to actually question the validity of the original presupposition; that is, that we can even sensibly ask the question, does God exist , in the first place.
There are three primary proofs that have been offered by apologists wishing to defend their religious belief. The first of these was a metaphysical proof originally invented by St Anslem and was formally envisaged by Descartes in his fifth mediation. It is known as the ontological argument. The foundations of this argument lay in the supposition that anyone attempting to deny the existence of God would be contradicting themselves in the act of merely conceptualising the thought. To begin this argument it must first be determined that the idea of God is that of an omnipotent being whom by his very nature is a sum of all possible perfections. Then, the argument continues by claiming that for a sceptic to suggest that there is no God a person would need to envisage within their mind a God who lacks one vital perfection: existence. This, it is concluded, is a contradiction in terms as while this God is being envisaged, another, greater being who contains all those perfections while also containing the perfection of existence must also be possibly envisaged. Therefore the God that it is claimed does not exist can be superseded by another being whom does, which leads the apologist to claim that the sceptics first conception of a God cannot be a God at all but in fact an inferior conceptualisation.
This idea is explained metaphorically by Descarte when he claims that there is no less contradiction in conceiving a God, that is to say, who lacks some particular perfection, than in conceiving a mountain without a valley.
The fallacy of this argument, it would be argued by a sceptic, lies in the logic and the incorrect predicate that existence is necessarily a form of perfection. For example, it is possible to imagine a perfect rose that is immaculate in shape, colour and scent, and to claim to understand the essence of this rose in a theoretical sense. However, the question of whether this rose actually exists in the material world still remains which shows that existence is not a predicate of perfection. An apologists final remark on this subject would be to claim that the definition of existence is wrong and that God s existence would be a necessary existence , which can be thought of as eternity. The sceptic would point out that no object can exist out of necessity as any object that exists may or may not exist and to apply the necessity rule would mean this cannot be so. To argue that that eternity solves these problems is also wrong as it is possible of course that God could be eternal if he existed, but then we are by default considering the idea that he may not exist and therefore we have a conflict with the original supposition that he must exist out of necessity.
The second argument that a sceptic would find grievances with is that known as the cosmological argument. This argument maintains that everything in the universe has a cause. These causes in turn have causes and so on. It seems that we can always regress the question why for the creation of finite matter and yet there must be a point, maintain the apologists, where we arrive at an uncaused origin of these regressions, and this point it is argued is God.
The sceptical challenge to this argument focuses on the claim that every series must have an origin. This is simply untrue. For example, the series of proper fractions has no first term. It is also possible to criticise the way the argument assumes that to explain something fully a full regression of causation must take place, as this again is just not true. Take for example any form of plantlife. It is possible to explain the origin of a weed by explaining how the combination of a seed, the earth, the sun and the rain all combined to produce it. A perfectly adequate answer to explain the origin of the weed can be arrived at without need to explain also the origins of the components that created the weed. The argument also becomes illogical once the final uncaused origin is cited as God, for why can it not simply be called the universe ? There are no adequate grounds to assume that the origin must be God.
The third argument for God is that of the argument of design. When we survey the world and universe around us, the apologists say, we must surely not fail to be impressed by the harmonious functional co-existence that we witness. Their argument follows that this harmony reflects that which we see in intelligent constructions and therefore we must accept that there is a designer, and that this creator is God. We are in effect artefacts that have been sculpted by an ingenious artist.
The sceptical replies to this well cited religious argument are numerous. First, the ambiguities of the evidence must be accepted. The world contains not just immeasurable beauty and wonder but also natural disaster and disease. We witness famine, floods, earthquakes and droughts which must when considered as creations be accepted as gross incompetence on the part of the maker. The evidence that we are presented with can also be explained away by science and the Darwinian evolution theories of random genetic mutations. The argument seems less like a considered view of the facts and more like an easy explanation that has been derived by attributing human-like activity to the cosmos. The apologists see that physical ordered creations on earth are created by sentient intelligent humans and jump to the conclusion that other examples of natural order must also derive from a sentient creator.
There is a further sceptical response to this argument that is in many ways even more scathing of the apologist s deductions. The essence of God for almost all religions that exist in this world is that he is both omnipotent and perfectly virtuous. Therefore anything that we encounter in this world is integral to God s wishes, as if it were not then surely no claim to omnipotence could be made. Yet there is undoubtedly much evil in the world that is perpetrated by humans against one another. Is it really being claimed that this is God s will? That he has chosen to allow evil? If this is so then he must stand condemned as a moral monster. How can it ever be argued that a child that suffers the agonies of famine and disease has done so in the pursuit of some deeper virtuous meaning? In our world the ends would never under any circumstances be justified by these means and God would always be denounced as morally vacuous.
The apologists first response to this is that we cannot judge God by human standards and that the word good has no real meaning in the context of an omnipotent, eternal being. But surely if we are to accept this then the word good has become incomprehensible and meaningless to our discussion. Also, if we accept that God resides in a place free of morality then we must see that he is unworthy of our consideration and must be seen as a horrific being to vile to be even judged by our normal standards of decency.
A popular religious response to the sceptics argument is that God chose to give man freedom and that by it s very essence freedom leads to sin and hopefully the inevitable conquering of human sin by the acceptance of virtue. The sceptic is quick to point out that God did not give us complete freedom, for example I could not choose to fly across an ocean or ignore the laws of physics whenever it suits me. This means that God must indeed have restricted the freedom he gave us, but then why did he not restrict the ability to inflict suffering on others? Surely I could prove my own virtue and overcome my personal sins without having to interfere with others. For example, if I inflict pain and famine on a young child who then dies as a result how has this furthered the child s pursuit of virtue? The child could not possibly have died in accordance with any divine plan that affects itself as it is not yet even conscious of a religious meaning in it s life. Yet it must be that this was an intentional and deliberate act by God. It could only be claimed that this event was in some way good for the soul of the child if we agree to live by some perverse logic that has no apparent benefits for the individuals it claims to help.
It could also be argued that if we are put here by God to prove our virtue then this can only be shown by a contrast with other acts that are not virtuous. This means that suffering and sin are essential, fully integrated parts of the system that God has created as without them there would be no reference point for those claiming virtue. How can anyone defend a system where God consciously maintains human suffering? To construct in affect a human obstacle course such as that which we have arrived at would in any other circumstance lead to popular moral condemnation.
Now, after considering the response to the arguments we must examine the sceptical response to the original concept itself of arguing over God s existence. To do this we have asked the question does God exist? We must be cautious however as an atheist sceptic may try to deny the legitimacy of this question. How can we argue over a concept when we cannot truly define what that concept is anyway? How can the answer yes, he does solve anything when the idea of God is not an explanatory term at all but instead a vague theoretical possibility? The answer is simple; we cannot. If were to ask whether a tree exists we can answer confidently by understanding what we mean by a tree in that it is a thing that we class as an object. But concept of God is not a thing as we know it and cannot be defined therefore we have no clear idea what we are talking about. So a sceptical atheist also cannot claim that he does not believe in God in this sense of material objects or concepts but must instead claim that he does not believe in the actual possibility of believing in God as it not an explanatory term of any meaning.
After examining the sceptical problems that arise when religion is properly considered they indeed seem very compelling. The three most widely accepted apologist metaphysical proofs contain inherent logical flaws and cannot be shown as empirical proof to any concrete knowledge of anything. In fact the argument of design leads away from the virtuous God it claims to authenticate by highlighting worrying concerns over the moral character of it s omnipotent being. The very nature of the idea of God is that it is not an explanatory term and one that can only be accepted by blind faith and never by logical argument. The very root of the sceptics argument is that for an intelligent, logical person to accept knowledge in this way is foolhardy and that the very possibility of belief in such a deity can only be accepted by those willing to discard their faculties of reason.
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2) Bertrand Russell History of Western Philosophy
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5) Lotze Outlines of the Philosophy of Religion
6) Nielsen Reason and Practice, a modern introduction to philosophy