Atheism's Best Arguments - Simon Blackburn

Simon Blackburn - Philosophy

Simon Blackburn

Simon Blackburn is a British academic philosopher known for his work in quasi-realism and his efforts to popularize philosophy. He obtained his doctorate in 1970 from Churchill College, Cambridge.

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Simon
Blackburn

Philosopher, Trinity College, Univ. of Cambridge

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Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Simon, if I have to admit to you what my internal beliefs are I can tell you that even though I eschew organized religion, I have a sense that there is something like a god to explain all the stuff of the universe and mentality. So, if I came to you as a friend, and I consider you a friend who is an atheist who feels sorry for my condition, what are the best arguments that you would give me to help me recover?

Simon Blackburn:

Well, I think the best argument to help you recover Robert, would be a version or versions of the argument from evil. It's always been a theological puzzle for anybody with the Judaic, Christian Islamic monotheistic conception of God how he designed or permits all the evils of the world to continue. And we can rub out nose in how bad some of those evils are. The standard theological responses are, tend to be evasive I think. Of course, you could just bite the bullet and say well actually it's not a very good god. Perhaps he was incompetent. Perhaps he was an apprentice god, perhaps he's as Hume has put it, perhaps this world is a first rude effort of an infant deity. And the object of derision to his superiors. And so on. So perhaps, perhaps, he's just not all that good. So, you abandon some premise of the religious view. Failing that you can say ah but we don't know. You know, maybe the evils on this earth are some sort of part of a much better providential plan. Well if you don't know then you don't' know, but of course, it's almost impossible, in fact impossible I'd say, to see how you know the death of a child the terrible malnutrition in Africa, whatever it is, is part of a, a good plan. You would much prefer a deity to have a better plan, if he can't manage better than this. So, theodicy, that is the attempt to justify god's ways to man, I think always runs into difficulties. It runs into problems.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

The classic defense is of course, the free will defense.

Simon Blackburn:

Yes, but it doesn't work because it's not true that all the evils that we are surrounded by are our own, are the result of our own free choice. You know, people like pictures of the garden of Eden in which the lion is lying down with the lamb. Well, biology will tell you the lion will never lay down with the lamb. And we, we are not responsible for volcanoes and earthquakes and so on. And the big, the big shake up literally of faith in the 18th century was the famous Lisbon earthquake. And the reason that was such a problem for believers was that it happened at 11:00 on a Sunday morning, when the churches were full and the brothels which were far more in Lisbon, were empty. And it was felt that God really ought to manage things better than that.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Are there any other arguments that you would you would give me? I've been filled by some philosophers explaining the problem of evil so I've become dull to the argument from evil for atheism.

Simon Blackburn:

Well I think it's important to separate two, two forms of the argument from evil. One, one is for people who don't use the argument to design. But the other which is much more virulent, much more dangerous is for people who do use the argument to design because they are taking their knowledge of God from our knowledge of the world as we have it. And if the world is we have it is visibly not all that perfect, far from it, then you cannot get a perfect architect, you cannot get a perfect designer, as a consequence of a best explanation of an imperfect creation.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

So, it is an inconsistency for people who go to god using an argument for design and then having to deal with the problem of it.

Simon Blackburn:

Exactly, exactly. And when the great biologist J. B. S. Haldane was asked what, what nature taught us about the, the mind of the creator, he thought for a while and then he said, well he seems to have an inordinate fondness for beetles because there's about half a million species of beetles and there's only one of us.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Well, look I can make an argument that, that's not a joke, that's the truth. And that, that God is a god of diversity and there's enormous diversity and God built a, a system, maybe built it into the big bang that, that enabled from utter simplicity of the big bang to have this unbelievable diversity, that has emerged.

Simon Blackburn:

Right. He, it still follows that he lets it happen. He let's some pretty terrible things happen.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Yeah, and, and why should we at our stage of, of knowledge be able to, to make a claim on, on, on how God should have constituted reality?

Simon Blackburn:

Well, we've got to use our own judgement. If it looks pretty terrible to us, that for example, there are, what is it, you know, in African rivers there are worms which live by getting into people's eyes and making them blind. It's not a joke. And God lets it happen. Maybe he didn't design it but he did something and allegedly he could do something about it but chooses not to. And that's the, the sticking point, I think. Of course, if you've got a very much more abstract conception of God, then perhaps this argument doesn't apply like that. But if you're getting to God via design, I think you've got to bite the bullet. And you get a mixed and spotty world. You've got a mixed and spotty architect.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Any, any other categories of arguments in, in, in – as oppose to negating the arguments –

Simon Blackburn:

Right, yeah.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

For God, that are proactive.

Simon Blackburn:

Yes.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Obviously, you have religious people claiming miracles and revelations and personal experience.

Simon Blackburn:

Yeah, yeah, right, right, right.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

I mean, many people tell me that.

Simon Blackburn:

Yes. Well, I think personal experience, it might be very persuasive and compelling when you have it but you have to look at it with a certain distance. I, I once sat about this far apart from the great conjurer Ricky J, one of the greatest, prestidigitator in the world. And I, I watched him produce eggs out of thin air. I watched him do all kinds of impossible things, you know. And my, my jaw, I was just like that. But I, I had, I had no impulse to believe that he produced eggs out of thin air. You know, we have our own critical intelligence and as far as personal experience goes, well somebody brought up in a Christian tradition might see a vision of the Mary, of Mary or Jesus, nobody brought up in an Islamic tradition is going to have that vision and vice versa. So, basically, those visions are not going to be relidical [ph].

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

The incompatibility of different religions which is so obvious, how strong is that in a negation of all of them?

Simon Blackburn:

Well, I think if, if, if they come with an awful lot of theo – theological beliefs and personal beliefs in the package, like there's a, there's Jesus, there's Mary, there's Mohammed, there's – and so on, then you can't have all of them. They deny each other's claims. So, yes, there's an incompatibility there. If the believer withdraws to something much more abstract and just says, well I have some conception of providence. I like to believe I'm safe in the universe and so on, then of course, you might have that sort of sense of safety or providence from any tradition as far as I know, or from no tradition at all. I might have the sense of safety in the universe. It would be, would be purely an emotional state.