17 April 2011

From Yahoo!Answers

Somebody using the screen name "discovery" recently asked the following in Yahoo!Answers.

Philosophers argue that God is a delusion. How should I structure my essay.

This raises the question: is his essay supposed to be about the contention that "God is a delusion," or about the philosophers who argue that? The former requires that he think about God himself, the latter only that he pass along the thinking of others.

Let's imagine that he is expected to think about God himself. The statement "God is a delusion" covers a lot of ground. There are various ways of being wrong, so it is logically possible for an atheist to deny that God is a delusion -- to maintain that God is some sort of category error.

Nonetheless, let's again make the field-limiting assumption that the claim that God is a delusion simply denies that God exists. However many distinct ideas there are of God, there are that many distinct meanings to a possible denial.

Let us make a further limitation of the field in the spirit of the Passover/Easter season. One common and historically important meaning of God is as a giver of laws for human conduct, a moral legislator. With all that in mind, I proposed on Yahoo! the following structure for a possible essay:

1. Define the idea at stake. We know that government officials tell us what to do and punish us when we fail to do it. We know also that throughout history people have appealed to a higher Authority and its Higher Laws. "Let my people go!" they say to this-worldly legislators.

2. So: Is the idea of God defined in that way a delusion? Consider three influential arguments:
2a. Hobbes, The earthly state, the Leviathan, is the only proper source of guidance so there is no appeal, no excuse for disobeying Pharoah or King Charles.
2b. Kant. Although Kant adhered to religious faith in his own manner, he held explicitly that the argument to God as a moral legislator fails because our human reason by itself explains to us how we ought to act. The law to which we appeal when we defy the authorities is within us, not above us.
2c. Contemporary atheists argue that 'God' as people conceive of Him is a pretty lousy legislator, who tells them to fly airplanes into skyscrapers for example. So we're better off without such a legislator. This is presumably related to 21b, and specifically to what Kant was saying here, but Kant's broader system allowed room for further distinctions in which contemporary atheists (Hitchens, Dawkins etc.) are uninterested.
From each of these points of view, then, we could maintain that God is a delusion.

3. There are counter-arguments to each of those three arguments. Depending on how long your essay is going to be, you can either provide them in full or merely hint at them.

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.