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4.0 out of 5 stars Subjective Materialism Re-Stated, 22 Jun. 2013
This review is from: The Miracle of Theism: Arguments For and Against the Existence of God (Paperback)
Arguments about the existence or otherwise of God are usually the dialogue of the deaf. Mackie states his atheist position at the outset but claims to 'have tried to gave a full and fair hearing to the opposing case'. In particular, he responds to Richard Swinburne's 'The Existence of God' and the arguments of Hans Kung in 'Does God Exist?'. In so doing he undermines his own case by assuming an integrity and unity to 'traditional theism' which disregards historical development and the fundamental texts rather than the philosophical arguments used in defence of institutionalised dogma and the practical deviations from those texts imposed for political reasons.

This is exemplified by Mackie's chapter on the alleged problem of evil. This problem was addressed by the Greek skeptic, Epicurus, who suggested that if God was willing to prevent evil but could not, he was not omnipotent. If he was able but unwilling to prevent evil he was malevolent. If he was able and willing why did evil exist and if he was neither able nor willing why call him God? For Epicurus evil was the material existence of pain and suffering. The contemplative life provided the avenue to happiness and death was a transition to non-existence. The weakness of Epicurus's argument (and that of Mackie) lies in the assumptions on which their argument is based. The proposition that God cannot exist with evil assumes unproven characteristics about God. It also assumes the theist argument that God could exist with evil and use it to achieve a greater good is a valid proposition.

Mackie argues a wholly good omnipotent Being would, by its very nature, eliminate rather than tolerate evil. He suggests it is a logical problem which 'sets the theist the task of clarifying and if possible reconciling the several beliefs which he holds'. He acknowledges that theists who do not adhere to the propositions he states about God or evil are not faced with this problem but those who do have a serious challenge. Mackie appears not to grasp the point that the attributes of God and the nature of evil are essentially subjective. This is not to support Feuerbach's argument that man creates God in his own image but accepts that interpretations of God and evil are, in essence, based on mankind's perceptions of God and evil. Judaism, for example, interpreted evil as arising from humans' disobedience of God's wishes and the existence of a primary God amongst many. That interpretation provides definitions of God and evil which are subjective rather than objective. Mackie's own interpretation is equally subjective rather than objective. The problem of evil is not one for the theist but one for the atheist to solve.

As a student of the Australian realist, John Anderson, Mackie is unable to separate his argument from the materialism which Anderson expounded. This broadened traditional empiricism by postulating that nothing existed which could not be expanded into fact by naturalism and science. It also led to the conclusion that ethics was concerned with establishing what was good and that this was a scientific project not a normative one. Mackie himself argued there were no objective values and that ethics had to be invented rather than discovered. However, if ethics has to be invented so too must evil and if both are invented then they arise from materialism not theism. By denying the existence of God based on his own pre-suppositions about the origins of evil Mackie demonstrates a level of bias which prevents him from providing a balanced argument. His second error is to take the theistic arguments for the compatibility of the existence of God and evil at face value and to confuse them with the argument for free will.

Underlying this confusion is Mackie's adherence, despite all the evidence to the contrary, to the idea of the inevitability of progress and human perfectibility. While acknowledging the boundary between natural and moral evils is neither simple nor clear-cut, he attributes evil actions to 'circumstances of injustice: situations in which people are led to the extremes of inhumanity by steps which seems reasonable or even unavoidable'. Yet his argument excuses the Nazi holocaust and other evils on the grounds that they are motivated by misplaced idealism. Hence while he accepts people must accept responsibility for their actions and acknowledges that contemporary moral evils are repetitions of the behavioural patterns of humans throughout the ages, he fails to acknowledge that such patterns may be manifestations of the moral nature of humanity itself. He does this because addressing the subject would require non-materialist considerations even if he did not accept the theology of the Fall.

Mackie does not attempt to absolve humanity of all responsibility for evil but errs in attempting to prove it is incompatible with a theistic tradition which is, in reality, separated from the unknowable character of God. The existence of God and evil is not the irrational proposition Mackie suggests but a statement of two subjective propositions. He denies the reality of the former by claiming an objective reality for the latter. Whether either are objective is moot. That both represent circular arguments is evident and that, ultimately, both rely on faith of some kind is clear to theists if not to atheists. Mackie covers the main contributors to the philosophy of religion, Hume, Descartes, Anselm, Kant, Berkeley, Pascal, James and Kierkegaard in addition to arguments from cosmology, morality, consciousness, experience and natural histories of religion.

Mackie's conclusion that the balance of probabilities supports the case against the existence of God is an example of confirmation bias rather than philosophical speculation. For him the existence of evil trumps all arguments whereas objectively it does not. Mackie's separation of material existence from the possibility of transcendent existence represents an opinion not the fact he postulates. A useful if flawed contribution to the continuing debate and useful for dipping into rather than reading cover to cover. Four stars.
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Showing 1-1 of 1 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 13 Mar 2015, 10:54:24 GMT
Tim says:
'transcendent existence' = literal nonsense.
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