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Putting the case for agnosticism

07 February 2014

A work of clear and considered thought, says Keith Ward

The God Confusion: Why nobody knows the answer to the ultimate question
Gary Cox
Bloomsbury £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70 (Use code CT869 )

GARY COX is an honorary research fellow in Philosophy at Birmingham, and has written a readable little book on philosophical arguments for and against God. The tone is much more temperate than that of some recent atheistic writers.

It sets out a clear definition of God, and examines most of the main arguments for and against God. It is by a good philosopher, and sets out very clearly the sorts of arguments you will hear in the analytical philosophical tradition of most British universities. If you want to know and think about those arguments, this is a good book to help you to do so. The conclusion is that God can be neither proved nor disproved; so the "most astute philosophers" will be agnostic.

As a possibly not very astute philosophical theist, what I find most questionable in the book is its assumption of the myth of philosophical neutrality. Some form of the verification principle is assumed, and classical metaphysics is characterised as "confused, empty, and futile speculation".

All reasonable philosophers are supposed to agree with this - despite the fact that Cox is a sympathetic writer on Sartre, who did not agree with it at all! (Sartre did what many of us call metaphysics under another name.)

I would want to look very carefully at the assumption of evidentialism (that you must have good publicly available evidence for all justifiable beliefs), and at the question whether philosophy might have chosen a misleading direction in focusing on "proofs and disproofs" of God in philosophy of religion. Such proofs are rarely of great interest to real believers in God, and they suggest that intelligent people can come to agreement on these topics by agreed standards of reasoning.

But is evidentialism, roughly based on a Humean version of common sense (as opposed to a Thomas Reid version, for instance), really so obvious? Should you, for example, be agnostic about free will just because you cannot prove its existence? Were Plato and Aristotle confused, futile speculators, whose views are just obsolete in our more enlightened age? Or might the thought that there is just one form of commonly accepted rationality be an illusion, as philosophers such as Alasdair MacIntyre have argued?

In my view, there are deep philosophical questions that remain; but readers will find here a very good example of clear, considered thought in one (but only one) main tradition of analytical philosophy.

Canon Ward is Emeritus Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford.

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