A Reflection on Philosophy as Accounting for Beliefs
Philosophy tells you the price you have to pay. But I think it takes some personal integrity to pay that bill. And it’s hard.
I began to think about this when reading about the Cosmological argument. Richard Gale, along with Alexander Pruss, has developed an interesting modal version of the argument. He thinks the argument is sound and leads to the conclusion that there exists some being that fits, at least in a minimal way, the definition of a”Godlike” being. The argument depends upon a weakened version of the principle of sufficient reason, which states that for every true contingent proposition, it possible that there is an explanation for that proposition. Gale is not a theist… He alludes to lacking an experience of God, and he doesn’t think God would necessarily be morally perfect. I am perplexed by all of this, to say the least.
Gale says something very interesting towards the end of his argument. He writes:
My anti-theistic opponent might have initially been willing to grant me [the weak version of the principle of sufficient reason], but after it is seen what results from this acceptance it no longer will be granted. The opponent will now charge the PSRws with begging the question. It is clear that whatever theistic argument is given, once the antitheist relizes that it works, she will find some premise to reject as question-begging.
The best that theistic argument can accomplish is to make the antitheist pay a greater price for rejecting the argument, because she must reject some rather weak premise(s) and thereby run more risk of being wrong.1
Sadly, this happens time and again in philosophy generally, and in the philosophy of religion especially. There is a tendency to search out the conclusion first, decide whether or not you like it, and if you don’t, find which premise you’re most willing to “live without”. This is the antithesis of Socrates’ injunction to follow the argument wherever it may lead. I guess this is the minimum that philosophy can do–the mediocrity of philosophy is that it has become a flimsy receipt…
Still, is there no grand collector, no one who demands payment when we contradict ourselves in words, actions, or beliefs? The cheque bounces. The card is declined. Insufficient funds… but life goes on. The great empiricist, David Hume, practically recommends this con-game after undergoing a particularly brutal bought of skepticsm (see I.4 of his Treatise of Human Nature).
…since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of back-gammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hour’s amusement, I wou’d return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strain’d, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther (THN 18.104.22.168, 175).2
That’s the problem! Philosophy shows us the price we have to pay, and nature leads us to live our normal everyday lives as though those beliefs were irrelevant. You can say that you reject the PSRws, but do you really? Or, to paraphrase another great philosopher, Stinger, is it the case that your beliefs are writing cheques that your lived life can’t cash. I don’t want my world-view to be irrelevant to my actual life. I don’t want to continually live out performative contradiction after performative contradiction in order to preserve my world-view. I think this means that I should strive to follow the argument. And if I can’t do that, I should try my best to live according to my stated beliefs. I don’t think I could live consistently as one who denied the existence of the self, as one who denied the principle of sufficient reason, as a denier of real moral values, or the principle of causality.
But can I live consistently as a Christian? Perhaps there are trade-offs with any world-view. I find my metaphysics cozy, but the moral demands are impossible. Perhaps other world-views offer a more comfortable moral life, but a far more troubling metaphysical outlook. Who is the bigger hypocrite: the philosopher who doesn’t pay her metaphysical bills, or the Christian who continually falls short of the mark? I guess the first step is admitting that you are a hypocrite. This is where Christianity begins, and its where Christ finds us. So I guess I will try to be an honest hypocrite.
1R.M. Gale. 1999. “A New Argument for the Existence of God: One that Works, Well Sort of”. In The Rationality of Theism. Ed. G. Brüntrup & R.K. Tacelli. Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
2D. Hume. 2000. A Treatise of Human Nature. Ed. D.F. Norton & M.J. Norton. New York: Oxford University Press.