You’re my pride and joy, et cetera… Review of Nagasawa’s ‘The Existence of God: A Philosophical Introduction’

With a background in the philosophy of religion and a general eagerness to do more writing, Routledge very kindly sent me a copy of Yujin Nagasawa’s new book, The Existence of God: A Philosophical Introduction to review.

There’s a fundamental problem with the philosophy of religion: the people who should be interested in it aren’t.  Some of them proudly so.

On New Matilda, I argued that religious education should

‘teach[] children how to discuss their beliefs with others [to] encourage[] tolerance and understanding. Further, it nurtures their abilities to question their views rationally and to engage the criticism of people with different beliefs.’ [Source: Fletcher, ‘Teach the Godless About God’, on New Matilda]

Unfortunately, changing the education system won’t reach adults who haven’t been exposed to the philosophy of religion as part of an education in religion.  The result is a public narrative of religion divorced from the academic philosophy of religion which impoverishes both debates.

The Existence of God: A Philosophical Introduction tries to bridge the divide.  The title is misleading: it’s not a philosophical introduction to the existence of God; it’s an introduction to the philosophy of the existence of God.

And it does rather a fine job of it.

Instead of concentrating on the very dry, esoteric aspects of philosophy, Nagasawa draws in the social climate of philosophical contributions with anecdotes and details about the people behind the contributions.  The approach has worked well for other subjects, particularly in David Bodanis’ E=mc2: A Biography of the World’s Most Famous Equation.   The approach humanises the debate in the way that most books on the philosophy of religion do not.

Humanising the esoteric also reflects a recurring theme of the book, summed up by Pascal’s quote:

‘If we submit everything to reason, our religion will have no mysterious and supernatural element.  If we offend the principles of reason, our religion will be absurd and ridiculous.’

Nagasawa’s approach works particularly well when discussing the ontological argument.  Instead of characterising it — as many have — as a sequence of vaguely related arguments (‘Anselm said this, Descartes said that…’), Nagasawa frames it as a series of arguments shaped by powerful cultural influences and extreme personalities.  He reveals a refreshing richness into the discussion.

The approach works because the richness is there to be revealed.  The second part of the book, intelligent design versus evolution, focuses on a more public — rather than academic — debate.  Instead of being inspiring and thoughtful, like the part on the ontological argument was, Nagasawa’s approach effectively makes nearly everybody look like childish jerks.  Where the intelligent design advocates are presented as a ‘pokies machine’ of assertions (‘Behe claims this as a fact, Dembski claims that as a fact…’), the advocates of evolution seem incapable of mounting anything better than an argument by sarcasm.  At one point, devoid of substance in the public debate to discuss critically, Nagasawa analyses the philosophical assumptions in a judge’s statement on whether intelligent design belongs in science classrooms.

The problem is that there is no philosophical framework to the conversation to analyse: Behe and Dembski are aping science with a list of dubious facts and the evolution advocates seem unwilling to engage in serious philosophy of science to defend their case.

It’s not all bleak.  Nagasawa’s discussion of Paley and Darwin is interesting and mature.  Still, it’s hard to link their philosophically interesting ideas with the modern (overtly political) debate.  I felt it was a shame that Paley’s argument was put in the context of intelligent design, rather than in the context of a discussion about the more philosophically interesting fine-tuning debate (which gets a brief mention in the conclusion of the book).

There are a few other, very minor, quibbles with the book.  Despite the incredible popularity of the Argument from Evil, it only gets a paragraph or two in the concluding section of the book.  The Argument from Evil is, without a doubt, the most overused and overestimated argument in the public debate.  The approach Nagasawa takes in his book would have been extremely productive and fruitful.

It is entirely forgiveable and understandable that,  in order to make the book accessible to broader audiences, issues had to be simplified.  One of the books many strengths is that it encourages further study of the issues.  On the other hand, there were a few times when the simplification was too extreme.  Plantinga’s modal ontological argument relies upon nefariously complex reasoning in order to work.  Very few people (including Graham Oppy in the link above) can make it accessible to casual readers.  First, the argument relies on formal modal logic about which most people are happily ignorant (and, frankly, they’re much better people for it).  Second, the argument relies on assuming a particular model of formal modal logic (S5) which has the curious property of entailing that things which are possibly necessary are actual.  Third, it slips and slides between different meanings of the words ‘necessary’ and ‘possibly’.  Because the argument relies on such complex machinery, I don’t know anybody who can explain the modal ontological argument in simple terms.  Nagasawa’s attempt at it (which introduces part of the argument early with some pictures to help, then introducing the rest of the argument a few pages later) doesn’t work well.  Similar problems erupt when Cantor’s infinities are discussed.

Despite these problems, the book is highly recommended for people who want to learn skills to question and evaluate their beliefs.  The discussion is balanced and thorough; I had difficulty picking whether Nagasawa was a theist or atheist.  Nagasawa has a clear interest in the neuroscience of the philosophy of religion.  Though I remain an avowed sceptic of neuroscience’s relevance to philosophy of religion, Nagasawa’s writing is so inclusive and engaging that it’s difficult not to find yourself enthused by the subject.

The concluding section of the book shows Nagasawa’s interest in other areas of the philosophy of religion.  I hope this might be a sign of future books on the subject from Nagasawa.

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Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based blogger and policy wonk who writes about conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

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