Friday, February 04, 2005

In Which Georges Rey Makes a Pretense at Saying Something Constructive

I had originally intended to put up the second part of "The Lotus" today; I had to come to campus anyway to return some library books. However, I was feeling rather wilted (due to this cold) before I started out, so I left it at home, assuming I wouldn't be in any condition to type it up. However, once I was here I felt a great deal better. Whoops. So that will have to be put up this weekend. In any case, I don't know whether this is the actual recovery or an interlude before another wilting. We'll see what I manage to get done today.

I came across this (old) lecture by Rey via Richard's sideblog. It is a quasi-argument for saying that most people do not actually believe God exists but only make a pretense at doing so. I say 'quasi-argument' because it doesn't actually argue this (as Rey himself appears to recognize), but rather just lists a few 'peculiarities' of religious belief that seem to him to suggest it. I'll just list my responses to his numbered points (for the context, see the lecture).

1) But we do. Can anyone seriously think that Jews, Muslims, and Christians write zillions and zillions of books of theology and never at any time discuss details? Indeed, isn't the bigger problem not that there's 'detail resistance' but that there's a tendency to jump to conclusions about the details?--Actually, I know exactly what is going on here; and it isn't about 'detail resistance'. What Rey wants is a mechanism, in some undefined sense; and his complaint is that theism doesn't provide one. But the question at hand is whether theists really believe that God exists; and it isn't clear how this is supposed to bear on that issue, which brings us to the next point.

2) If (1) fails, so does this one. But even if (1) were right, it needs this one in order to be relevant to the subject; and this is merely vaguely suggestive, and nothing more. After all, it is as silly to demand details about many common things that do, in fact, happen; for example, it would be silly to demand details like (for instance) the precise steps I took in order to reach the campus today, when all one actually needs to know is that I walked here.

3) This presumes that all traditional arguments for the existence of God fail. I look forward to Rey's rigorous refutation of them all. More seriously, however, he has lost track of what he was trying to do. His argument is that theists (for the most part) only pretend to believe God exists. But the fact that they present anecdotal evidence (whether or not Rey considers it of a sort that is 'unreliable and subject to a multitude of alternative explanations') is itself prima facie reason to think they do really believe it. And, further, even if Rey considers it 'unreliable and subject to a multitude of alternative explanations', the question that is relevant for Rey's argument is whether the theists in question do.

4) 'Mystery' is not a synonym for 'ignorance' in a theological context. But again, the question is not whether Rey finds it a reason, but whether theists do.

5) Again, Rey is losing sight of his point; the question relevant to whether theists actually believe what they claim to believe is not whether people like Rey find things like vicarious atonement appropriate, but whether theists do.

6) If I have a very close friend that I know will be leaving me for a very long time to do something somewhere else, and believe that this something is what is best for her, does that mean I won't be sad? If I am sad, does that mean I really don't believe that it is what is best for her? -- This whole issue of reactions not clearly reflecting belief is a somewhat interesting one. Here in Toronto there is a tall structure called the CN Tower, which has a glass floor at 1,122 feet. The floor is constructed so that it can easily hold your weight. But, no matter how clearly you believe this, managing your physical reactions so that you can actually stroll across it without any difficulty is an entirely different matter. And in morals it has always been a commonplace that the relation between belief and action is very, very, very tricky. There is no reasonable argument whatsoever that, if we really believed that x, we would always act as if x is true, unless we are putting some sort of weird emphasis on the 'really' that needs to be explained. And even if there were, we would need to have a clearer notion of 'acting as if x is true', which is not as straightforward a notion as it sounds.

7) This is all a complete garbling, an even more serious one than the 'mystery' case, as any look at either Aquinas or Luther or any other such person on belief should show. But even if it weren't, this is a question of beliefs about the nature of belief, and doesn't necessarily bear on the issue of whether theists really believe or not.

8) Again, Rey seems to be losing sight of his point, since none of this shows that theists do not really believe that God exists. (What Rey intends here is very vague. He has not shown that people who project do not believe that the property they are projecting is objective. Indeed, his characterization of projection suggests the exact opposite.)

Rey's quasi-argument is something of a very odd one. The idea seems to be that no reasonable person can believe that God exists, but he seems to want to allow that some theists are reasonable people. However, his way of allowing this is to hold that all these reasonable people are marked out by what would have to be a very unreasonable set of beliefs (very unreasonable if some of Rey's characterizations were accurate) about what they actually believe. And his argument, or quasi-argument, doesn't even tend in that direction; since most of his points have to do with whether or not believing God exists is reasonable, not whether theists generally do actually believe that God exists.

On the issue of theistic belief, a much better work would be H. H. Price's Belief, which actually looks at real issues of belief in a serious way. Also good is Newman's An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent.

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