Saturday, July 31, 2010

Experience vs. Pseudo-Idea

When I am speaking of a particular person and say, ‘If that person had been there, such a thing would not have happened; if it happened, it must be because that person was not there’, my ground for so speaking is a precise knowledge, or my claim to a precise knowledge, of the person in question. Nurse would have stopped the child from playing with the matches; which means, that she is prudent and careful, she can be trusted completely; she could not have let the child play with matches. But two suppositions are implied in this: first, that the person—the nurse in this case—does really exist; and secondly, that we know her so well that we can say what sort of person she is and what she would do in any given circumstances. The atheist, however, relies not on an experience but on an idea, or pseudo-idea, of God: if God existed, He would have such and such characteristics; but if He had those characteristics He could not allow etc. His judgment of incompatibility, in fact, is based on a judgment of implications. Or rather, what he wants to say is that if the word ‘God’ has any meaning—of which, indeed, we cannot be certain—it can be applied only to a being who is both completely good and completely powerful. This part of the argument might well be granted; but not so with what follows. When I am speaking of the nurse, I am relying on situations or circumstances which actually occurred, and in which she effectively demonstrated her prudence; or at least on an inner certainty of what I should have done in her place. But does such an assertion retain any meaning when it is applied to the behaviour of God? Whether those last words have any meaning at all and whether the idea of divine behaviour is not self-contradictory, is a very serious question, but we can leave that on one side for the moment. If I proceed to draw conclusions from what the divine behaviour has been in any particular historical instance, then I am ipso facto debarred from agreeing with what the atheist maintains. But is the alternative any better? Can I so put myself in the place of God as to be able to say how I should have behaved in any particular circumstances, what I should have allowed and what I should have forbidden? We may note that when we are speaking of an important public figure who is called upon to make a crucial decision, we often find it impossible to imagine ourselves in his place; in fact the very idea of doing so seems ridiculous. If we pursue that line of thought, we are obliged to recognize the absurdity of trying to put ourselves in God's place.

Gabriel Marcel, The Mystery of Being, vol. 1, Chapter V

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