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Having returned from the turn of the Fourth Century B.C. to the turn of the Twenty-First A.D., Socrates has eagerly signed on as a Philosophy Now columnist so that he may continue to carry out his divinely-inspired dialogic mission. Aptly, today he answers another letter from a very persistent A. Theist.
Occasionally you have taken a swipe at religious beliefs, both in your previous incarnation in ancient Athens and now again in the Twenty-First Century. You marvel that even in an advanced scientific culture such as ours, most people still give literal credence to what you take to be fables, however edifying. I find herein a touch of irony, however, coming from you, as your own death was the very paradigm of the martyr’s death, and could well have been a conscious model for the death of the Christian saviour; and yet in your resurrection you are skeptical of His! Well, I was wondering if since your return you have come across the writings of C.S. Lewis, whose manner of Christian apology is compelling and very much in your style of argumentation.
I have indeed been captivated by Lewis’ work. I see the appeal, without question. He was a stylist and a rhetorician par excellence– by which I mean his writing is extremely persuasive, no doubt even to himself. There is also much solid good sense underlying what he says… but also nonsense. Teasing these aspects apart became an intriguing task for me, but I think I have hit upon the difference.
The Eureka moment came when I was reading his book Mere Christianity. It is a wonderful book from start to finish, and part of the wonder for me was that I myself was being lulled into an acceptance of its message. But when I got to the short chapter entitled ‘Time and Beyond Time’ I suddenly realized what was going on. Lewis here takes upon himself the task of explaining how God could be attentive to all our prayers when there are likely millions of them going on at every moment. The very posing of the question made me think at once of your modern myth of Santa Claus, who visits every household on Earth on a single night of the year. Of course, the similarity between these conceptions is not a coincidence. In the case of Santa Claus, however, you all quickly outgrow any literal belief in this person who peruses your list of gift requests: but – and this never ceases to amaze me – most adults apparently do not outgrow the belief that Somebody is listening to their litany of petitions for succor.
Despite my skepticism, within the course of a few pages I was left agape with silent admiration. Lewis reviews the notion of a God who lives outside of Time, familiar enough in theology, but he now invokes the idea ingeniously to account for the possibility of God’s omni-attention. For the multitudinous simultaneity would be a major issue for a deity who lived within Time, since even if he lived forever there would still seem to be an eternal backlog, which would hardly do us finite creatures any good. It’s like this joke somebody sent me from the internet:
A poor man walking in the forest feels close enough to God to ask, “God, what is a million years to you?”
God replies, “My son, a million years to you is like a second to me.”
The man asks, “God, what is a million dollars to you?”
God replies, “My son, a million dollars to you is less than a penny to me. It means almost nothing to me.”
The man asks, “So God, can I have a million dollars?”
And God replies, “In a second.”
It appeared that Lewis had dispelled the prayer-processing difficulty by noting God’s atemporal situation, which would give Him virtually infinite time to consider and respond to each and every entreaty in timely fashion.
Then it struck me: This is an excellent story, as it were, but that does not make it true. Indeed, its excellence does not even lend it a shred of corroboration. And herein lies the difference between a scientific, and I dare say truly rational, approach, and one based on credulousness. For the former relies upon evidence to credit a hypothesis that is otherwise pleasing or acceptable, whereas the latter beguiles by the attractiveness of the hypothesis alone – either as wish-fulfilment or else intrinsically, or, one might say, aesthetically.
It is interesting that the distinction can be found even in science itself. For example, I gather that at least until very recently most physicists looked upon String Theory as merely attractive, perhaps for its mathematical elegance and/or comprehensive scope, encompassing all the known forces of nature. But what was wanting and even seemed forever elusive was some way to test it. Admittedly there does also seem to be a strong aesthetic component to what constitutes an acceptable physical theory, but I doubt if the beauty of a physical theory would ever be considered sufficient to deem it true or even probable (except in the question-begging sense of being beautiful or pleasing precisely because it best fits the facts). In other words, I don’t know that any scientist has ever made the meta-physical proposal that the most beautiful theory must be the true one.