Friday, March 27, 2009

Atheist Gives Aquinas Lecture

The recent annual Aquinas Lecture at Marquette featured Dr. Daniel Garber who delivered his address “What Happens After Pascal’s Wager: Living Faith and Rational Belief.” Garber’s credentials as a philosopher are outstanding. He holds a Ph.D. from Harvard, is an expert on the metaphysics of the 17th Century (which necessitates his knowing five languages and being an authority on Descartes, Leibniz, and Pascal among others), is currently the Chair of Princeton’s Philosophy Department, and of course he is an atheist.

The reader here may expect some quick condemnation of Marquette’s Philosophy Department for daring to invite an avowed nonbeliever to speak at an event that has as its namesake the great St. Thomas. This is certainly not the case. Aquinas himself was influenced by Aristotle (who was obviously not a Christian), and held that truth could be discovered through man’s reason as well as through divine illumination. Garber’s non-belief certainly does not inhibit him from imparting truth to his listeners. And since much of modern philosophy can be traced to either an agreement with or a reaction against Aquinas, the Philosophy Department would be justified in presenting the voice of dissent as well as concurrence.

We can’t help noticing that orthodox Christians have been in rather short supply at Marquette recently, with the talk by Mary Gerhart and Allan Russell being just one example. There ought to be more representatives of an actual Catholic position on this campus.

However, after reading some of his more positional works (such as an article for Criterion), we have to conclude at Gerber seems to be, of all atheists, one of the most commendable. In a chapter of one book Philosophers Without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life (a real subtle title), Garber lays out the reasons for his atheism and the temptations he has had to become a believer.

He describes himself as being raised a “secular Jew” and having become a “closet libertine.” Upon studying Pascal, he found the arguments toward theism to be “attractive, almost persuasive.” The reason for the attraction was that Pascal’s writings showed him that as an atheist, his search for pleasure was a “sign of [his] deeper misery and fear of what will eventually become of [him]. Few atheists, if they experience such feelings, are often willing to admit them; likewise, few believers are willing to admit to their moments of doubt.

The difference between him and his fellow atheists has not gone unnoticed by Garber. He mentions that his colleagues do not understand how anyone can be a theist, let alone why anyone as enlightened as Garber might want to be one. This is crucial. Many atheists assume that since God’s existence cannot be proved (or, in some cases, that it can be disproved) it is irrational to order one’s life around the unfounded assumption. Not only is it irrational, but history has proved it to be fraught with terrible consequences. After all, look (the atheists say) what atrocities have been committed upon mankind in the name of baseless religions.

(The Twentieth Century, with massive slaughter conducted by regimes both explicitly secular [Mao’s, Stalin’s, Pol Pot’s] and de facto secular [Hitler’s] has pretty much taken the force out of this argument.)

Garber, on the other hand, takes an entirely different (and in my opinion, much more honest) tack. He begins with the notion that no argument can prove or disprove God’s existence, an assessment with which most theists would agree. He then introduces Pascal’s famous wager: considering what is in store for the believer if God does not actually exist as opposed to what may be in store for the non-believer if he does, it is in fact rational for the self-interested individual to believe regardless of evidence for or against God. Of course, believers (as well as Pascal) do not rely on man’s self-interest alone; there is of course the grace of God that causes the heart to believe.

Garber may not use the same verbiage as the believers, but his discussion of “mindset” in the Criterion article indicates that he argues his points on the same plane. A mindset to Garber is the way in which each individual’s mind cognitively orders the world around it. Certain individuals are predisposed to one mindset, while other individuals may have a second mindset that conflicts with the first. One person sees the facts surrounding the assassination of a politician and thinks, “hmm…mass conspiracy!” Another sees the exact same set of facts and instead believes it must have been the work of a deranged dissident. Of course, neither mindsets have any real bearing on what actually occurred. “Mind-sets are the glasses through which people look at the world.”

Christian apologists have spoken in these terms for quite some time, though they use words other than mindset: presuppositions, a priorism, and sometimes worldview. There are some issues on which all people must decide before any other decisions in life are made. Either God is, or he is not. We exist in some form after death, or we do not. The normal atheist might view such decisions as irrational; Garber correctly posits that these decisions are prerational. And though his decision is to reject the existence of God, he does note that “in a very real sense, the secular scientific view is as much a question of faith as is the theistic mind-set insofar as it cannot be established at the most fundamental level by rational argument alone.”

Explaining more fully his decision to not give in to theistic temptations, Garber seems to indicate that (unlike many arrogant believers and nonbelievers) his choice was not made to exhibit his rational intellectual superiority over his opposites. He explains that he chooses not to take Pascal up on his wager because by so doing, he is certain he would become a believer. But his belief would be founded upon self-deceit: he would be willingly subjecting his rationality to an entity he knows cannot be rationally proved to even exist. This last step he is unwilling to take. But in reducing the arguments of both theism and atheism to the great struggle of comprehending the interrelationship of reason and faith and truth, Garber certainly emphasizes the relevance of Aquinas and provides an excellent example of how atheists and theists should carry on their endless debate.

John Burke

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Blogger Jason said...

Dr. McAdams,

Your title is wonderfully ironic. I went to this lecture and walked out - not because Dr. Garber was overly controversial, but because he was a boring public speaker.

As someone who sang Aquinas's "Pange Lingua" at Maundy Thursday mass at Gesu, I too wish that Aquinas's name stood for orthodox Christianity on this campus.

12:02 PM  

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