Thursday, March 15, 2007

Doubt and the Vain Quest for Certainty

This essay, by Alastair McGrath, is certainly very interesting.


The Uncredible Hallq said...

The essay is certainly interesting, but I hope, Victor, that you don't think it's interesting because it's good. For example, he says at one point, "All outlooks on life, all theories of the meaning of human existence, rest upon faith, in that they cannot be proved with absolute certainty. But this doesn’t mean that they’re all equally probable or plausible!" Yet from the rest of the essay, you'd have no idea that he realizes the second half of the quote is true.

He also says something which I assume you could never, in good conscience, tell your philosophy students (and I mean you specifically, I do have a rather higher opinion of you that McGrath):

"The most sophisticated atheist arguments [emphasis added] against God date from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and are found in the writings of Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud. Although they are slightly different, there is a common structure to each. Here it is, set out step by step.

"1. There is no God.

"2. But some people believe in God.

"3. Since there is no God, this must be the result of some kind of delusion or wishful thinking.

"4. People believe in God because they want to. Their faith is just a wish-fulfilment.

"5. So faith in God is just a human invention, corresponding to a human need."

For reasons that I hope I don't have to explain, McGrath is either an ignoramus or lying through his teeth.

But I agree that it is an interesting article, insofar as it is interesting that anyone could ever be so confused. I really do intend to buy and read the book when I have the time. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.

Anonymous said...

hallq, you say

"Yet from the rest of the essay, you'd have no idea that he realizes the second half of the quote is true"

From your post, I'd have no idea that you came to this conclusion as a result of reading the essay critically and reflectively. Am I supposed to take your word for it?

And exactly what is McGrath an ignoramus about? That there are better arguments against belief in God than those based on wishful thinking? He is well aware of this, as you would see if you read his other writings, such as the "Scientific Theology". Perhaps he could have chosen his words a bit better. But the fact remains that the 'wishful thinking' argument is one of the most popular and naively propagated atheistic arguments out there. Even so distinguished a philosopher of science as Nicholas Maxwell falls back on this old cliche in his "Comprehensibility of the Cosmos" in an attempt to dismiss God as a rational explanation of everything. As such it is fair ground for criticism.

Again, you have not adequately shown that McGrath is confused. About what, exactly? About his proposal that all belief systems contain certain unproveable propositions? That atheism contains such propositions just like theism does? Less blanket dismissal and more specific criticisms, please.

The Uncredible Hallq said...

Okay, here it goes.

In the first four paragraphs, there is a clear identification of "proof" with "absolute certainty" and mathematical certainty.

In the sixth paragraph, he says that no one can prove that Jesus is not the Son of God, and then begins hammering the idea that no one can disprove the existence of God. He admits arguments against the existence of God may be suggestive, but indicates this is no problem, becaue they are not "proofs," so it is therefore reasonable to believe in God, contrary to what he admited at the one point in the essay.

As to my second point, all you have to say here is that McGrath doesn't mean what he plainly said, though you make it look an awful lot like he's simply a liar... though I'd never actually draw such a conclusion about somebody from an incompetent defense of the person.

Anonymous said...


I think you'll find if you read more closely that what McGrath is really arguing is that proof is not a standard we should apply to anything beyond non-contradictions and deductive arguments. He says very clearly that the things you can prove aren't all that interesting with respect to questions about the meaning of life, so we shouldn't actually expect to be able to prove things one way or another when it comes to the existence of God, etc. I don't see how you missed that.

That doesn't mean McGrath thinks that one can't have reasonable certainty about matters of faith. Here his criteria are very largely what even atheists accept: "The big questions concern the reliability of its historical foundations, its internal consistency, its rationality, its power to convert, and its relevance to human existence". Christianity could have exceptional credentials in this regard without one being able to 'prove' that it is true-and that is precisely McGrath's point. He doesn't contradict himself anywhere. All he is doing is answering the common (but unreasonable) skeptical demand of 'proof' of God's existence. He rightly points out that "absolute certainty is actually reserved for a very small class of beliefs."

I'll admit that I wouldn't say that 19th century wishful thinking arguments are actually the most cogent challenges to religious belief, but it must be acknowledged that they are some of the most popular and influential. I would cut him some slack if I were you, especially seeing how uncharitable you yourself have been to him, not having taken the time to really understand the points he's making. It seems like you just skimmed quickly through the article, plucked out two sentences you thought didn't match, and then made it seem like he's a big flop. If he really was as bad as all that, he wouldn't be an Oxford professor.

Anonymous said...

Or perhaps your complaint is that he's come to the conclusion that even short of proof the truth of Christianity is more reasonable than certain other belief systems. Perhaps you think that the arguments against the existence of God should tip the balance the other way. That's too bad. Each person has to decide for themselves, with as much intellectual integrity as they can muster. Just the fact that McGrath has fallen on the side of belief is no challenge to his credibility. I hope that's not what you're implying.

The Uncredible Hallq said...

On my first criticism: the idea that he's merely refuting a common atheist argument is bogus. Even William Clifford didn't demand a mathematical demonstration. So maybe McGrath merely meant to attack a straw-man rather than contradicting himself, but that does little for his credibility.

On my second criticism: This can't be chalked up to sloppy language, he was quite insistant on the fact that he was presenting the best arguments available, he introduced the section I quoted by saying, "So let’s leave this sort of nonsense behind, and look at a more serious argument, often advanced by atheists." This isn't another way of saying it's popular, because he said that ridicule was popular, though he did not claim that that was the most sophisticated way of arguing against theism available. If he's actually aware of the more serious critiques of theism, then he clearly lied.

As for whether a "big flop" could get a job at Oxford, I think this is one of those cases where the evidence may outweight the prior probability of the hypothesis.

As for whether I read the article: yes, I read it in full, I just think that the inannity of the piece doesn't require much explaining.

Anonymous said...


You still haven't shown that McGrath is confused about anything, and if you really think this article is so inane as not to need explaining then maybe you should have just refrained from commenting on it at all. In any case it's a sign of intellectual laziness, an easy ticket out (please take back your comment about evidence and prior probabilities; without actually showing that this is the case it's just another instance assuming what you need to demonstrate).

Please tell me what exactly do you find objectionable or inconsistent about any of these statements:

1)The epistemic status of absolute certainty or 'proof' is held by a very small class of beliefs, such as non-contradictions, mathematical proofs or deductive arguments.

2)All belief systems contain assumptions or propositions which cannot be proved (but some are more plausible than others).

3)The scientific method cannot prove or disprove the existence of God.

4)Christianity should be judged by the reliability of its historical foundations, its internal consistency, its rationality, its power to convert, and its relevance to human existence.

5)Some of the common arguments against Christianity (such as the 'wishful thinking' argument of the 19th and early 20th centuries) are not as cogent as sometimes supposed.

6)In the end, however, in the absence of conclusive proof or disproof, one must make a decision of faith one way or another.

7)Doubt is something that attends all belief systems, not just theism.

That is the essence of McGrath's argument, so far as I can tell.