Following Thomas Nagel, Colin McGinn maintains that the mind-body problem is not solvable. His widely read paper, ‘Can We Solve the Mind-Body Problem’, begins in the following way:
‘We have been trying for a long time to solve the mind-body problem. It has stubbornly resisted our best efforts. The mystery persists. I think the time has come to admit candidly that we cannot resolve the mystery. But I also think that this very insolubility — or the reason for it — removes the philosophical problem.’
Owen Flanagan has labelled McGinn a ‘mysterian’ about the mind-body problem. Mysterianism, to use such a horrible word, is not confined to the mind-body problem: there are mysterians about the origin of the universe, mysterians about the nature of thinking, and so on.
Taking my cue from the proliferation of such mysterian positions and also from the spectacular failure of the natural theological and atheological arguments to convince the other side, I wonder if we should be mysterians about the problem of rationally resolving whether God exists. One who is a mysterian about this problem maintains that there could (epistemic sense of ‘could’) not be a rationally compelling argument, one that should convince everyone concerned, for theism or for atheism. And perhaps, as McGinn maintains about the mind-body problem, the very insolubility of the problem of whether God exists removes the problem, that is, removes it as a distinctively philosophical problem.
In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James writes:
‘The truth is that in the metaphysical and religious sphere, articulate reasons are cogent for us only when our inarticulate feelings of reality have already been impressed in favor of the same conclusion. Then, indeed, our intuitions and our reason work together, and great world-ruling systems, like that of the Buddhist or of the Catholic philosophy, may grow up. Our impulsive belief is here always what sets up the original body of truth, and our articulately verbalized philosophy is but its showy translation into formulas. The unreasoned and immediate assurance is the deep thing in us, the reasoned argument is but a surface exhibition. Instinct leads, intelligence does but follow. If a person feels the presence of a living God after the fashion shown by my quotations, your critical arguments, be they never so superior, will vainly set themselves to change his faith.’ (pp. 85-86)
As a mere description of how things go in the adoption or abandonment of either theism or atheism, James seems undoubtedly right: psychology precedes philosophy. But I wonder if James is on to something deeper: is it more than just a mere regularity that people become psychologically disposed, however that comes about, to adopt a religious point of view, and then come to regard the natural theological arguments as cogent? (On the other side, is it a mere regularity that people become psychologically disposed to adopt an atheistic point of view and then come to regard the atheological arguments as cogent?) I wonder if this regularity is dictated by the nature of religious belief itself.
In his paper, ‘The Groundlessness of Belief’, Norman Malcolm observes that we rationally believe some claims fundamental to our form of life without any grounds whatsoever. He writes, ï¿½the lives of educated, sophisticated adults are also formed by groundless beliefs. I do not mean eccentric beliefs that are out on the fringes of their lives, but fundamental beliefs.’ These claims that we rationally believe groundlessly are framework principles, and these principles constitute a system. A system demarcates the boundaries of investigation and judgement. Framework principles cannot be investigated within the system they constitute. Thus, framework principles cannot be supported by evidence from within the system they constitute. As such, they are groundless.
If religious belief is as Malcolm claims it is, a system of belief containing framework principles, such as the claim that God exists, which are themselves not the sort of thing that are responsive to evidence, then it seems to me that the regularity James describes is intrinsic to religious belief. And if this is so, then one could never convince a theist by rational means to adopt atheism, and vice versa.
But this is not to say that we should cease developing natural theological and atheological arguments. For they do serve a useful purpose, which is to help articulate theism and atheism. When the theist responds to an atheological argument, she articulates some of her commitments and entitlements, and this articulation helps to spell out in detail her position. Similarly when atheists respond to natural theological arguments. Thus, the atheist, in attacking theism, helps the theist to make her position explicit. And the theist, when she tries to convert the atheist by means of argument, helps to make the atheist’s position explicit. This is the point of arguments for and against the existence of God. And if this is so, then, it seems, we should be mysterians about the problem of producing a rationally convincing argument for or against the eixstence of God which should command universal assent.
To conclude, I’ll end with some wisdom from James: ‘But even if religious philosophy had to have its first hint supplied by feeling, may it not have dealt in a superior way with the matter which feeling suggested? Feeling is private and dumb, and unable to give an account of itself. It allows that its results are mysteries and enigmas, declines to justify them rationally, and on occasion is willing that they should even pass for paradoxical and absurd. Philosophy takes just the opposite attitude. Her aspiration is to reclaim from mystery and paradox whatever territory she touches. To find an escape from obscure and wayward personal persuasion to truth objectively valid for all thinking men has ever been the intellect’s most cherished ideal. To redeem religion from unwholesome privacy, and to give public status and universal right of way to its deliverances, has been reason’s task.
I believe that philosophy will always have opportunity to labor at this task. We are thinking beings, and we cannot exclude the intellect from participating in any of our functions. Even in soliloquizing with ourselves, we construe our feelings intellectually. Both our personal ideals and our religious and mystical experiences must be interpreted congruously with the kind of scenery which our thinking mind inhabits. The philosophic climate of our time inevitably forces its own clothing on us. Moreover, we must exchange our feelings with one another, and in doing so we have to speak, and to use general and abstract verbal formulas. Conceptions and constructions are thus a necessary part of our religion; and as moderator amid the clash of hypotheses, and mediator among the criticisms of one man’s constructions by another, philosophy will always have much to do. It would be strange if I disputed this, when these very lectures which I am giving are (as you will see more clearly from now onwards) a laborious attempt to extract from the privacies of religious experience some general facts which can be defined in formulas upon which everybody may agree’ (Varieties, pp. 431-32)