on 2 January 2015
I have read many books on both sides of theism debate in recent years and I can say that this is by far the best. However, this is not at all a light read and many of the arguments are subtle and esoteric. This book was completed in 1981 shortly before the author died. The writing style is certainly not populist but it’s not too academic either. Sections are certainly very dry and I had to re-read some paragraphs more than once. Other sections are very accessible and give readily understandable examples of quite difficult philosophical concepts. The book does assume a large amount of fore-knowledge and I certainly wouldn’t recommend this book as an introduction to the theism debate. For example the discussion of Plantinga’s ontological proof cannot avoid the terminology of modal logic and possible worlds that Plantinga used; and, Mackie assumes the reader already has a working knowledge of these concepts. However, if you already have sufficient fore-knowledge the scope of the philosophical debate is fantastic, if somewhat concise. Actually, the conciseness is not a criticism. The author compares and contrasts multiple philosophical interpretations within each chapter and the conciseness makes it easier to follow the development of those interpretations.
Mackie makes it clear at the start that he is an atheist. For the most part, the descriptions of theist interpretations are objective and do justice to their intellectual development. This is certainly not the shrill populism of more recent atheist contributors. Mackie is an expert in THIS field and it shows. Nevertheless, Mackie’s atheism is never far below the surface. Given, the millennia of debate on this issue, it would be a miracle in itself if Mackie had found a definitive answer. Hence, many of the chapters end with a balance of plausibility argument – the theist position has not been irrevocably proved wrong it is just, in Mackie’s view, the least plausible solution. So this book is unlikely to change anyone’s mind. The atheist position is certainly bolstered but there is no ‘knock-out blow’. But the theist can counter that even high implausibility does not mean impossibility. Mackie takes a rational/empirical stance through-out and the theist is not duty bound to accept the foundational premises used by Mackie.
The book is wide ranging and is structured very well in terms of starting with the general and leading to the particular. Some very brief chapter reviews follow – I apologise in advance that I will not be able to do justice to the subtlety of Mackie’s arguments and much of what I write will be caricature. I also focus of the arguments that resonated the most with me, so again large swathes of Mackie’s analysis are not mentioned. Throughout Mackie uses the phrase ‘intentional objects’ which I take to be the Humean sense of ‘perceptions of the human mind’ rather than the determination to act that we usually associate with the word ‘intention’.
Chapter 1: Miracles and Testimony. This chapter discusses Hume’s famous maxim: “No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish.” The discussion covers some probability although not the Bayesian interpretations of later scholars (I did find the fact Mackie talked of high improbability rather than low probability a little confusing and I ended up mentally negating his statements). Mackie basically agrees with Hume that the probability of a miracle is so low that the probability of the testimony would have to be so high as to be implausible – even if we observed it with our own eyes given many studies on the unreliability of witness testimony. Mackie also discusses that fact that what we call the laws of nature are our best current understanding and miracles may not, in fact, violate the laws of nature.
Chapter 2: Descartes and the Idea of God. This chapter centres on Descartes simple argument that our ability to conceive God is evidence, itself, of God’s existence. Since God, by Descartes’ definition, is an infinitely perfect being which our finite minds could not conceive without God’s assistance. This is related to Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” doctrine which relies on the assumption that God is not deceiving us; and, from which Descartes derives the truth of our sensory perceptions about the material world and ultimately his dualism of mind and body. Counters to Descartes’ view are that what we think as being a concept of an infinite God is not truly infinite, it is just the best our minds can accomplish, e.g. we may view perfection as just the negation of imperfection. Similarly, ‘infinite’ is nothing more than ‘not finite’.
Chapter 3: Ontological Arguments. Ontological arguments are proofs of God’s existence using only logical deduction and a set of initial premises that everyone accepts as being true. The arguments of Descartes, Anselm and Plantinga are discussed. Descartes’ and Anselm’s arguments rely of existence being a perfection and therefore become question begging. There is a good discussion of Kant’s objections to the ontological argument based on his assertion that ‘existence is not a predicate’. Some of the arguments appear linguistic, e.g. “God doesn’t exist” is not the same as “There is no God”. Mackie uses the example of Remartians – these are Martians to which the property of existence has been added. Hence the statement “Existing Martians don’t exist” is clearly a contraction. “There are no existing Martians” clearly isn’t. Ultimately, Ontological arguments fail because we cannot logically force something into existence by adding existence to its properties. Plantinga’s ontological argument is discussed at some length but I would suspect if you are not already aware of this you will find the possible worlds argument, with its reliance on the S5 accessibility condition, very hard to follow.
Chapter 4: Berkeley’s God and Immaterial Realism. This is the view that there is no material universe and that everything we perceive as sensory input from the material world is simply within our minds. Coherence between the worldviews in all the minds is maintained by God. I enjoyed this chapter, I was sort of aware of the immaterialist view beforehand, but Mackie’s exposition of it was very illuminating. Mackie highlights the knowledge that science has yielded about the way our sensory perceptions work as giving weight to the fact that we are sensing a real material world. This does touch on Descartes idea of a perfect God who would not go to such intricate lengths to deceive us. Mackie also argues that if all we experience flows from the mind of God then we either living in a completely deterministic immaterial world; or, by being able to perceive an ability to make our own decisions we are changing the mind of God. Since all our experiences of the material world are via sensory inputs, there is no proof positive against the immaterialist position. Again Mackie uses the balance of plausibility to argue against it. It would indeed be the mother of all practical jokes with God as the arch deceiver if we were to inhabit an immaterial universe.
Chapter 5: Cosmological Arguments. This argument is often better known as the argument for first cause or, sometimes, the unmoved mover argument. Essentially, if all the events in the universe are the result of cause and effect then we can form a regression of causes going back in time. The regression must go infinitely far back or else terminate in some uncaused event (Aquinas). That event is associated with God. Aristotle’s unmoved mover is a similar argument that the initial motion of the universe must have been set in train by an unmoved mover. Mackie covers Leibniz’s argument from the Principle of Sufficient Reason; Aquinas’ first cause; Craig’s kalam argument based on Arabic thinkers such as al Ghazali; and, Swinburne’s argument from induction and probabilistics. The work of Cantor on potential and actual infinities is also covered. The scientific position is also covered – just because science can’t or hasn’t yet explained the origin of the universe does not mean the theist position is automatically correct. Nor does the regression of cause have to end in a single cause or in the God of theism. Due to the way Mackie has structured the book, he does not contrast the causal universe with the, apparent, non-causal nature of human free-will. He does touch on this later in the book.
Chapter 6: Moral Arguments for the Existence of God. This is the argument that if there is an absolute moral code then there must be some absolute authority for judging the code. As an aside, C.S. Lewis’ “Surprised by Joy” is a perfect example of how a belief in an absolute moral code leads inexorably to a theist position. However, this chapter is not about posing a humanist view-point. It is whether we can argue from our sense of morality to a supra-natural authority for those morals. Obviously, our individual morality is developed by more mundane authorities such as parents, teachers and the community in which we live, whether that is a church based or secular based community. As ever, Mackie is seeking the rational explanation. Hence, he asks can we argue that the very operation of our sense of morality is just the operation of a causal material universe; or, the operation of an immanent God. Given the progress in neuro-biology then the causal materialist view is clearly the more plausible. Hence, there is no innate sense of morality that is the result of a divinely instilled absolute moral code. Hence, all this is left is God the giver of laws. The moral authority comes not from God, but from the, supposed, earthly incarnations of His will – the Old and New Testaments, the Koran etc. (these last points are mine not Mackie’s – only once does Mackie make a cheap-shot about the morality of the God of the Bible, so favoured by Dawkins et al, and that is in a later chapter and is with reference to the Book of Job).
Chapter 7: The Argument for Consciousness. The theist position is that consciousness cannot be explained by a purely materialistic view of the universe. It relies to some extent on a mind body dualism with physical laws and evolution only able to operate on the body. It also supposes a fundamental inability to map an intentional mental state onto a physical/chemical brain state. Mackie argues that our present inability to map states does not undermine the atheist position – it is the belief that such a mapping exists that is the atheist position. The counter is that certain mental states, e.g. belief and morals, have no natural counterpart or physical laws governing them and, hence, must be constantly maintained by a supra-natural being. In the end, Mackie appeals to the balance of plausibility. Certainly the advances in understanding, aided by supercomputers, of the operation of the brain since Mackie’s death add weight to his balance of plausibility.
Chapter 8: Arguments for Design. This the well-known argument that since things in the material universe are designed (watches in Paley’s famous analogy but now, through genetic engineering living things) then the universe itself has a designer. Mackie argues that the step from design to designer is a simple one, so, we must first establish design. The chapter recalls Hume’s objections to the design argument and touches on Kant’s analysis. One counter to design is that the analogy is flawed both at a philosophical level (it does not allow us to argue from an a posteriori appearance of design to an a priori design); and, a natural science level (evolution has shown highly complex organisms can arise without a designer). Another is the better known “What designed the designer?” argument. The theist position that God is self-explanatory is cast as another version of the Cosmological Argument that uses God to avoid an infinite regression of causes. Mackie also discusses Swinburne’s design argument based on the fact we have an ordered universe rather than a chaotic one (this touches on Polkinghorne’s finely tuned universe hypothesis, although this is my connection not Mackie’s). Again this is shown to be cosmological in nature.
Chapter 9: The Problem of Evil. This is the atheist charge of the apparent contradiction between an omnipotent (and omniscient) and wholly good God with the existence of evil in the world. The theist answer is essentially utilitarian – there is a greater good that is achieved (and, singularly, enabled by humankind’s free-will) through the existence of evil. Like the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics the balance can only be evaluated within a closed system, so individual catastrophes cannot be balanced with their charitable response. Hence, suffering in this life is immeasurably outweighed by eternal redemption – again not judged individually but for the human race as a whole. Mackie takes a very rationalist approach, discussing the definition of ‘good’ and that omnipotence does not mean that God can do the logically impossible – he could not, for example, reveal to me the means to ‘square a circle’. Through ‘orders of omnipotence’ Mackie accepts that it would not be a logical impossibility for an omnipotent creature to create individuals with free-will; and, therefore, for God to have no control over the choices they exercise. Hence, the moral evils that humankind commits (cruelty, crime, etc.) do not contaminate the wholly good nature of God. There is an interesting section on the difference between acting and choosing not to act. For humans, the former involves mental and physical exertion while the latter only mental. Mackie asserts that for an omnipotent being there is no epistemic difference between acting or not (all prayers are heard, God ‘chooses’ to answer some and not the others). The logical impossibility defence means God, by not acting, is still not complicit in the ‘evil that men do’. Mackie has an interesting section on whether free-will is actually causally determined and therefore deterministic. Mackie argues that if free-will is part of a greater good, then the operation of non-causal free-will cannot be due to the operation of chance or randomness. There is a short section on how free-will can be reconciled with an omniscient God. This all argues to Mackie’s thesis is that it is a logical possibility that free-will could operate in such a way that only good choices are made. Hence, this world is not the best possible world God could have created. More strongly, free-will is logically inconsistent with an omnipotent, omniscient and wholly good God. It is only by abandoning one of the characteristics of God that we can recover free-will as a solution to the problem of evil.
Chapter 10: Religious Experience and Natural Histories of Religion. The first half of this chapter derives much from William James’ “The Varieties of Religious Experience”. Mackie, obviously, supports the view that what is interpreted as religious experience is just the operation of the sub-conscious mind. However, Mackie is no jingoist for atheism and he gives a more detailed analysis. – drawing a distinction between individual experience and collective experience. His main premise is that religious experience cannot be divorced from the perceptual context, e.g. antecedent beliefs, both personal and societal. Hence, to argue that religious experience, of itself, is evidence of God is circular. The best that religious experience can show is the operation of some ‘higher power’. Mackie also poses the question of whether religious experience is self-serving – it is the religious doctrine that creates the sense of guilt and misery from which the religious experience provides relief. The second half of this chapter considers the natural history of religion or how religious belief can be explained as a natural phenomenon. This builds on Hume’s “The Natural History of Religion” and touches on Marx’s “Religion is the opiate of the people” and Freud’s “Man’s relation with God is a transferred Oedipus Complex”. Mackie does not take the easy way out – Marx and Engels are readily dismissed. Mackie posits that there is more to religion that the sheer amalgam of mankind’s subconscious delusions. He essentially posits that religion is an emergent property (although he does not use this terminology) of humankind’s interaction both with itself and the word around it. As such it has ‘a posteriori’ value and explains the anthropomorphic nature of all gods. However, it can provide no objective, a priori, proof of God.
Chapter 11: Belief without Reason. This chapter can be viewed as the ‘non-overlapping magisterial’ chapter – although Stephen Jay Gould’s dichotomy post-dates this book by almost two decades. It is also a well-known theist defence that rational, scientific enquiry is only a partial answer. As Polkinghorne has it, reason can only answer the “how?” Faith is needed to answer the “why?” Mackie begins with Pascal’s wager: this is a simply risk assessment, the consequence is either infinite happiness or infinite misery, so no matter how low the likelihood (unless it is provably zero) it is better to believe in God. Of course this is flawed and Mackie dissects it well. Not only can we question why God would reward such callous self-interest; the wager is not correctly formed – the downside is not infinite misery, it is a life of self-inflicted delusion. Secondly, Mackie discusses James view of an experimental faith. This draws parallels with scientific enquiry in that we form hypotheses and then seek to prove or disprove them. There is also the analogy that in everyday life we often have to trust someone in advance of knowing they are trustworthy. James develops this into the notion of a personal relationship with God – this is a common refrain from modern Christians. Mackie accepts this view with the rider that we should abandon hypotheses that are show to be false of highly implausible. Again, this is a plausibility argument than an evidential one. Sagan’s “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” comes to mind, although Sagan was talking of extra-terrestrial life. Finally, Mackie discusses Kierkegaard’s primacy of commitment. This is essentially that faith is voluntary and requires no intellectual support; and, thus insulates itself from rational enquiry. Mackie highlights the fact that this leaves open the question of whether Christianity is actually true.
Chapter 12: Religion without Belief? This chapter discusses whether it is necessary for devotees to to believe in the literal truth of religious doctrines. Mackie discusses the works of D.Z. Phillips and R.B. Braithwaite. The argument is not the simple atheist caricature that we don’t need God to be good. The argument is that it is possible to separate the pursuance of a life according to Christian morals from the stories of Christianity and, hence, belief in Judgement Day. Mackie argues that this attempt at separation robs religious belief of one of its fundamental characteristics. The central stories, including the miraculous, either become simple mythology and no better than superstition; or, subjecting them to the spotlight of rational inquiry leads inexorably to the atheist position.
Chapter 13: Replacements for God. This chapter largely discusses and then dismisses John Leslie’s “extreme axiarchism”. This is the view that “some set of ethical needs is creatively powerful”; or, the universe exists because it ought to. There is a heritage from Leibniz’s question “why is there a universe at all?” but does not have the teleological implications of a universe derived from first cause. Axiarchism is thus an attempt to resolve the “brute fact” argument that the universe just exists. There are some subtleties to the axiarchist view, one of which is that a god (or gods) was the sole instance of ethical creation and from the on god(s) did the rest. Mackie focuses much of his criticism on the problem of evil and, although the axiarchism doesn’t need the free-will compromise, why an ethically, value based, creative force would result in evil.
Chapter 14: Conclusions and Implications. This chapter starts with a longish section refuting the arguments of Hans Kung published in 1980. I found this a little misplaced and suspect that this was Mackie, the academic, responding to a contemporaneous piece of work. The second section is more recognisably a conclusions section. Here Mackie discusses the possibility that although the individual arguments for theism have been found individually wanting, they may, as a set, carry enough weight to favour the theist position. The short answer is no they don’t. The final section of this chapter again appears a little misplaced. This discusses the moral consequences of atheism. Mackie identifies four possible sources of moral authority: (i) morality is God’s command along with the promise of rewards and threats of penalties in this life or the next; (ii) there are autonomously objectively true morals that can be arrived at by reason; (iii) this is the same as (ii) except that morality is derived from God; and, (iv) morals are an essentially a human construct governed by evolutionary processes to ensure the flourishing of human society. Mackie argues that living life according to (ii) and/or (iv) is vastly different to living it assuming that (i) and (iii) do not apply. Both the theist and atheist positions are caricatured here. The theist view of atheism that conflates the removal of God with the removal of all moral standards; and, the atheist view that being moral for its own sake is better than being coerced by bribes and threats from a divine parent figure. Mackie does cherry pick some of the Christian teaching to highlight the focus on obedience and, what Mackie considers, a very narrow definition of morality. I was a little disappointed by this, the best analogy I can give is that for the rest of the book Mackie was the authoritative commentator describing a boxing match, for these last few pages it was as if he’d decided to get into the ring himself. Nevertheless, this cannot detract from what is an excellent book.