Milbank vs Law on God: Blood on the Carpet

January 18, 2016

You can see Theologian Professor John Milbank and I exchanging blows on God here:

We don't pull our punches.Parts 3 and 4 will be put up shortly, but if you cannot wait, here is part 3 (from me) now:


Thanks to John Milbank for responding to my opening piece on God and science. I initially suggested many God beliefs are empirically - and even scientifically - refutable in the sense that we might establish beyond reasonable doubt, on the basis of observation, that the belief is false. I gave three examples: belief there's a God that answers petitionary prayer; belief that there's a God who created the world 6,000 years ago; and belief there's a God that's omnipotent and omni-malevolent. I then suggested that, for similar reasons, we can reasonably rule out a god that's omnipotent and omni-benevolent.


John rejects that last suggestion and defends the view that his particular omnipotent, omni-benevolent God is indeed off-limits to any sort of empirical or scientific refutation. So what is his counter-argument?


First off, John suggests religious believers distinguish religion from mere magic. Belief in magic is belief in extraordinary forces or spiritual powers that can be manipulated to achieve some end. Religious belief, on the other hand, focuses on God: something 'beyond nature' that can be experienced but not manipulated. God's non-manipulability entails 'he cannot be subject to verification or falsification in a ‘scientific’ sense, which is finally concerned with empirically observable items.' This, in turn, is because God is not one more item within the world but is 'everything'. God is being itself, rather than just some an additional (as it were, really big) thing.


There are at least a couple of moves that John runs together here which I'll now tease apart.


Consider first the claim that God is not manipulatable. I'll just grant that for the sake of argument. Does it follow that God 'can't be subject to verification or falsification in a scientific sense'? No. For consider: distant galaxies aren't causally manipulatable by us either. Nor is the distant past of this planet. Yet both are clearly scientifically investigable.


Here's where John goes wrong: God's being scientifically investigable does not require we be able to affect him; it requires only that he be able to affect us. We can't causally affect the past. But, because it affects us, we can scientifically investigate it. If dinosaurs roamed the earth, there are things we should expect to observe now. If we don't observe those things, that's evidence against dinosaurs. Similarly, if there's a God, there are certain things we should expect to observe (e.g. no gratuitous evils). If we don't observe those things, that can similarly be good evidence against God.


The third paragraph also points out that God is not a 'thing'. Rather, God is, in a certain sense, 'everything'. Observant readers will have spotted that I anticipated this 'sophisticated' theological suggestion in my original piece. But how does this familiar theological point about God's lack of 'thingyness' help immunise belief in God against empirical refutation?


That's not clear. John's God is supposed to be both the omnipotent 'source of everything' and also unsurpassable good - indeed, a God of love. But then how can the problem of explaining hundreds of millions of years of unspeakable horror be dismissed with a wave of the hand and the pronouncement that God's not a 'thing'? After all, an omnipotent omni-malevolent God isn't a 'thing' either. Yet we can still rule out that God on the basis of observed goods. So why can't we rule out a good God on the basis of observed evils? It seems we can. 


We then move on to discuss empirical investigation of prayer. John claims mainstream religious believers don't believe prayer is the sort of thing an empirical investigation might establish does or doesn't work. I need to get my facts straight, he says.


However, the Roman Catholic Church claims that God does indeed answer petitionary prayers and has a Commission responsible for empirically, and even scientifically, authenticating (though the use of medical records, etc.) that certain prayers for healing have indeed been miraculously answered. So I rest my case that many mainstream believers do indeed believe the efficacy of prayer is open to empirical confirmation/disconfirmation. It seems it's John that has his facts wrong.


We then move on to the 'privation' view of evil on which the evils in the world are like the holes in a Swiss cheese. An evil isn't a 'positive' existence in its own right, but a mere absence. For example, on the 'privation' view of evil, the evil of blindness is merely an absence or 'privation' of sight.


John claims that on the (actually very contentious) privation view of evil there is no problem of evil. But that's just wrong. For if evil is just the 'holes' in this Swiss cheese God has made - and even if there had to be, for reasons John doesn't explain, at least some holes in this cheese - an omnipotent God could surely have made the 'holes' much smaller: so small, in fact, that they lie be beyond our ability to detect them. Yet we stagger through vast caverns of evil in the cosmic cheese. Unspeakable horror is built into the very fabric of the world we are forced to inhabit. Why? That's a good question for which we have yet been given no adequate answer.


Finally, John tries another standard Christian apologetic move: that of insisting that 'evil proves God'. 'It's all very simple', he says: if there's real, objective evil - and not just a 'fantasised projection of our inconvenience or discomfort' - then there must be real, objective good. But in the absence of God, there is no such thing as real good. So if real evil exists, so does God.


Well, that 's certainly simple, but it's also widely recognised to be pretty hopeless as a response to the problem of evil.


First off, the onus is on John to establish that there is no real, objective good without God. What is the argument for this claim? We get none. And it's a very contentious claim.


Second, an atheist like myself can in any case run the argument from evil even while being a moral nihilist who denies the reality of good and evil. Just so long as the theist believes in real good and evil, and believes that entirely pointless agony is an evil, then the argument from evil can be run. For the world appears to contain immense quantities of agony that are pointless from a divine perspective.


At the very end it's suggested we should accept there is real good - and thus a real God - because otherwise we're looking at the 'demise of western civilisation and culture'.


It's often claimed that unless we believe in God we'll suppose 'everything is permitted' and so end up sliding to moral catastrophe.  Yet, when we look across world’s developed democracies, we find that those that are most religious – including, of course, the United States (where 43% of citizens claim to attend church weekly) – have the highest rates of homicide, sexually transmitted disease (STD), teen pregnancy and abortion. The least religious countries, such as Canada, Japan and Sweden, have the lowest rates.

And as historian Francis Fukuyama points out, China also provides an important counter-example to the view that moral order depends on religion:

The dominant cultural force in traditional Chinese society was, of course, Confucianism, which is not a religion at all but rather a rational, secular ethical doctrine. The history of China is replete with instances of moral decline and moral renewal, but none of these is linked particularly to anything a Westerner would call religion. And it is hard to make the case that levels of ordinary morality are lower in Asia than in parts of the world dominated by transcendental religion.

Indeed, to other cultures widespread Western assumption that people won’t be good without belief in God is baffling. Here's Chinese writer Lin Yu Tang:

To the West, it seems hardly imaginable that the relationship between man and man (morality) could be maintained without reference to a Supreme Being, while to the Chinese it is equally amazing that men should not, or could not, behave toward one another as decent beings without thinking of their indirect relationship through a third party.

Our basic morality appears to be a pretty much universal feature of human societies, religious or not.
Indeed, some recent research suggests that children from religious families actually tend to be less kind and more punitive than those from non-religious households. It's possible religion may actually end up making us, not more moral, but less


However, all this is really rather beside the point, as whether or not religion is socially useful is not an issue here. The issue is whether or not religion is true. And, as I have pointed out, there's good empirical evidence against the existence of the Judeo-Christian God. Perhaps Christians don't usually infer God's goodness from observation of the world. Many suppose God's goodness is somehow directly and experientially revealed to them. But of course religious folk think they experience all sorts of things, don't they? And we know, because of the contradictory nature of what they supposedly experience - one God, two gods (Manicheaism), no God (on versions of Buddhism), etc.- that in most cases they're simply mistaken. Plus, as I say, there's powerful empirical evidence against the existence of both an all-powerful, all-evil god and also an all-powerful, all-good god. It is that empirical evidence that John has entirely failed to deal with.


To summarise: when put into plain English and analysed a bit, much of John's reasoning turns out to involve fairly basic logical errors. He also appears ignorant of some important - and in some cases fairly obvious - facts.


Appendix on pseudo-profundity


Perhaps, given the sometimes flowery style, you're left with lingering impression that there must be more to John's response than I suppose. What, for example, about some of those more profound-sounding bits in the middle?


I suspect you struggled to understand those bits. Why? I suggest the reason you likely struggled is not that those bits are really deep, but that they are opaque, muddled, and occasionally border on pseudo-profundity.


Let me finish by pointing up just one of the many warning flags for pseudo-profundity. The warning flag is: playing around with, and revering, contradiction.


Usually, when we find a contradiction in a passage, we suppose that establishes the presence of a falsehood. However, in some settings, contradiction may be taken to indicate profundity. Consequently, it's pretty easy to fake profundity just by contradicting yourself. Here are a few examples:

Sanity is a kind of madness
Life can be a form of death
The ordinary is extraordinary

Such sentences are interpretable in all sorts of ways and can easily appear profound. In George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, two of the three slogans of the Party have the very same character:

War is peace
Freedom is slavery
Ignorance is strength

The thought that contradiction is a mark of profundity often crops up in a religious context. Non-believers usually suppose a contradiction in a religious doctrine shows it contains a falsehood. But the faithful may well take the same contradiction to indicate real depth. If you are a religious leader, say things like 'God is, and yet he is not; God is good, and yet he is not; God is every-thing, and yet he is no-thing' and watch the faces of the faithful light up.


Contradictions have other advantages too. A series of simple, unambiguous claims is easy to refute. Not so a series of such baffling, cryptic remarks.


Now, an example of one of John's 'deeper' comments is:


God is paradoxically at once 'all' and yet beyond the 'all' considered as a mere sum.'


That does sound deep, doesn't it? Yet notice it too is a contradiction: God is all, and yet is not all.


I don't claim such seemingly contradictory remarks can never communicate a deep insight: no doubt sometimes they do. It may be that John has such insights to offer. I'm merely pointing how easy it is to fool other people, and even yourself, into thinking you have some deep insight by playing around with contradiction in this way.


When you come across such seemingly contradictory remarks, be on your guard. Don't be too easily impressed.


For other warning signs of pseudo-profundity, go here.