Saturday, 4 September 2010

The debate about God - continued

At The Emperor has no clothes, Paulinus comments on coverage by the BBC of Stephen Hawkings denial of God. This makes a useful read. I offered my own first comments here.

Prompted by the following paragraph from the Times leader yesterday, I have since reflected on the place that reason has - or should have - in this debate.
The ground for religious faith in the modern age cannot be a misguided insistence that science is the path to God: that way lies intellectual chaos. It is more likely to lie in the pull of emotion and - in the title of a famous essay by William James - the will to believe. Because proof of God's existence is ultimately lacking only a decision of the heart will suffice.
The first sentence suggests a disjunction between the use of reason (intellect) that belongs with science, and knowledge of the existence of God; the one is reasoned while the other is "intellectual chaos". It should really be clear that reason, intellect, has a part to play both in the study of the physical sciences and in the study of the question of God's existence. Reason might be deployed differently in the two spheres, but it is to be deployed in both. Science can rightly contribute to the way in which someone comes to religious belief, while for another person it might not so contribute. The difference is made by the particular play of reason in the circumstances of the life of the individual. It is "intellectual chaos" to limit the legitimacy of the range of human reason to the physical sciences only - that form of irratinality known as scientism.

The last two sentences of the leader also indicate a denial of the part played by reason, though this is hidden behind a rightful recognition of other factors at play alongside that of the intellect. A decision for religious faith is certainly an act of the will; but it is also an act of the intellect. There might be an attraction that might be characterised by the term emotion; but that is not to say that there is not at the same time an exercise of reason. It is one of the contributions to our thought of John Henry Newman to present the profoundly rational character of the way in which people come to knowledge, a way that embraces other aspects of human being along with the intellect. It would be most unfortunate if the reference to a "decision of the heart" in the last sentence quoted - resonant as it is with Cardinal Newman's motto and the theme of the forthcoming Papal visit, "Heart speaks to heart" - were to be seen as attributing irrationality to any knowledge outside of the area of the physical sciences. There is nothing irrational about the way in which Newman would understand a "decision of the heart", quite the contrary.

Stephen Hawking seems to me to be denying the possibility of reason outside of the realm of the physical sciences. A little ironically, he has in the last two or three days displaced from the media headlines the militant secularists, who deny the possibility that a kind of collective reason might be expressed in a religious tradition.

Both of these styles of the denial of reason are not very skilled. They are rather like gentle full tosses being bowled down the wicket towards Pope Benedict XVI, ready to be struck over the bowlers' heads into the stands for six runs in two weeks time. And that John Henry Newman might well provide the thought that Pope Benedict uses as he swings his bat on both aspects of this denial of reason is quite exquisite!

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