Is belief in God naive? Steven Pinker, experimental psychologist (would that he were an actual philosopher) seems to think so, as seen in this image (posted by a friend on Facebook, but I have given up on Facebook as a place for the meaningful exchange of ideas between people when they disagree, so I’m blogging instead):
Unfortunately, the tools of a cognitive scientist and experimental psychologist such as Prof Pinker, however sophisticated, will never be able to prove or disprove the existence of God.I realise that in saying this I am automatically opening myself up to the ‘We cannot definitively disprove Godzilla’s existence, therefore he must be real,’ kind of argumentation. However, there is a distinct difference between Godzilla and the unmoved mover/designer/creator/divine person.
Godzilla, as far as the evidence from the Toho films suggests, is a physical being whose interaction with this world would leave behind positive evidence for his existence.
Unlike Godzilla, the divine being who pre-exists the Big Bang, made matter, and set everything in motion according to a plan, is a metaphysical person (hypostasis?). There will never, can never, be incontrovertible proof of the divinity’s existence. Perhaps one could find Godzilla eggs, or catch a video of Godzilla’s approach to Tokyo, or trap Godzilla somehow. But such things are impossible in the case of the divine person.
Metaphysical comes from Aristotle’s Metaphysics, so named because it comes next in his works after the Physics — meta being the Greek prefix for ‘after’. However, what the Metaphysics deals with is what we think of as metaphysics, anyway. Beyond the physical. The world of the unobservable. Unlike Aristotle’s studies of plants, animals, and astronomy, metaphysical things cannot be discussed through observation or experimentation.
Science proper, be it evolutionary biology or experimental psychology or bio-chemistry or nanotechnology is based upon observation and experimentation.
Metaphysical questions are those such as ‘Is there a God?’ or ‘What is the best way to live morally?’ or ‘Do dogs have souls?’ Some people think they can and make silly TLC documentaries about the cooling of the body after death being evidence for the human soul. Really? That isn’t evidence.
Metaphysical questions require the answers provided by philosophy and the framework of philosophy. And philosophy, being of the humanities, is not a hard science. This means, no matter how smug some Christians and atheists feel about their position, we must all have a slight agnosticism in our hearts, knowing that our belief or disbelief in God can never be fully proven, just as it can never be fully overturned.
To return to Pinker’s likening of belief in a designer to a geocentric vision of the cosmos, saying that both are ‘naive impressions’. This is nonsense. The geocentric model of the universe was proven wrong because Copernicus had better instrumentation. We have no better instrumentation to view the metaphysical than he did, or Plato, or Aristotle.
Furthermore, these are not simply ‘naive impressions’. People seem to think, for some reason, that the geocentric universe was the sort of thing believed only by the simple, that anyone with enough brains would wake up one day and realise that the earth revolves around the Sun. I realise the scholarship is now old, but if you want to read about the medieval model of the universe, I recommend C S Lewis’ The Discarded Image as well as Barbara Reynolds’ introduction to her and Dorothy L Sayers’ translation of Dante’s Paradise. Then you will see that not even things that science has overturned definitively are necessarily ‘naive’ but often beautiful and enchanting.
And the idea of God as unmoved mover is not naive; neither is the idea of God as designer; indeed, the idea of a God is not naive. Plato’s Timaeus, the Summa Theologiae of Aquinas and others demonstrate that very well. My Great Philosophers professor in first-year undergrad seems to have had trouble with this, poo-pooing the idea that Plato would actually have believed in Transmigration of Souls or that Descartes was actually a theist. But Plato did, and Descartes was.
Other sophisticated philosophers/philosophies whose metaphysical system included a divine being, beside Plato and all of Christianity (including Aquinas, Descartes, Kierkegaard), are Aristotle, Plato’s Middle and Neo-Platonic successors (e.g. Plotinus), the Stoics (Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, et al), all of Islam (including the Sufis), all of the Jewish religion, Anthony Flew. Even if untrue, the philosophy and theology of theism, of the existence of a creator god who has particular traits, is not naive.
If atheism and theism wish to have real conversations, foundational facts about each other — such as this — should be established first.