Monday, March 5, 2012

J.C.A. Gaskin's "The Quest for Eternity": Book Review

Do we define God by faith or logic? Miracles or belief? Reason or inspiration? Open-minded yet skeptical, balanced while probing, this philosopher tackles the Big(gest) Question. In 180 pages, intricately argued, J.C.A. Gaskin examines the familiar, and scholarly, cases for and against God. It's an extremely slow book to read, in the best sense: it packs reason and reflection into every sentence.

Gaskin starts by defining the concept in a way agreeable to the major monotheistic faiths: "There exists one God who is creator and sustainer of all things; who is omnipotent, omniscient and eternal; who is an agent able to act everywhere without a body, and who is morally concerned with mankind." (24)

He continues as he begins chapter two--grappling with "initial obstructions," with sly wit as well as insight. "One of the ways which the devout believer may seek to insulate his belief from criticism is by adapting a fideistic attitude: 'The certainty of my faith comes by the grace of God alone, not from dubious evidence and uncertain chains of reasoning.' One of the ways in which the atheist may do most harm to religion is by agreeing with him." (25)

After fideism and Freudian attempts to analyze faith are examined, and causes are distinguished from beliefs, chapter three looks into four "public arguments" affirming belief in God. The cosmological and regress arguments are shown to be "a priori"; two versions of arguments by design from an intelligent orderer and an adaptation of means to ends by a designer are "a posteriori." Anselm's ontological proof's examined, and many more, in light of Aquinas, Darwin, Kant, Hume, and Leibniz. This is daunting territory, but Gaskin guides us.

Gaskin's at his sharpest when inquiring into divine omniscience and "timelessness" as attributes that defy logic or probability. While (I before reading this) always figured God by definition could write his own rules, Professor Gaskin insists that our human conceptions of God need to align with how God works within our world and limits, not by simply transcending or overruling our own laws. This segues later in chapter six into a deft look at claims for God's existence by way of supposed miracles, as "violation or coincidence concepts."

Chapter four peers into "private illuminations" that people have, claiming God speaks or manifests himself to one in an interior fashion, which by definition lacks "public" exhibition. The "numinous" gains thoughtful consideration, and the longing many have of awe or wonder or terror at the contemplation of the all-powerful or eternal elicits a moving corroboration that anyone might agree with, no matter their own predilections, in an eloquent passage from Gaskin.

He remains cautious, by profession. The next chapter moves into "external skepticism" as an argument against God. If God is beyond easy comprehension after thousands of years of human efforts, "that is exactly what one would expect if the world were in fact the creation of an intelligence which intended to leave us to our own judgements, and free of the crushing and distorting knowledge that he was in fact as we suppose him to be." (116-7)

Logical positivism earns Gaskin's scorn as a way to devalue statements of belief; the coherence of a totally powerful God outside space and time while dominating every aspect of it makes my head spin, as Gaskin patiently dismantles some of the claims that hold God to our rules while allowing him a free pass at the same time. How God can overrule the rules by which his universe works and by which he exacts fidelity and obedience from his human subjects, Gaskin suggests, wearies rational puzzlers. How can God have it both ways, as we conceive him? Gaskin alludes to Milton's Satan: "More succinctly, either Satan has a chance, or God is unjust, or the believer is 'in wandering mazes lost'. The agnostic may well feel tempted to let him stay lost." (136)

Atheism has its own limits, he concludes after another chapter. Not that this strengthens theism, but without some appeal as religion impels to look to "moral eternities" to hammer home the ethical imperatives, secular morality may lack the added punch that religion's gained to compel modern people to take problems of global destruction seriously, when every moral lapse and slight sometimes seems to be inflated to a human rights violation in an era where all appeal to human courts alone for redress of wrongs and for restitution. Also, a coldly existential or utilitarian outlook may leave us with less comfort than that enjoyed by a believer.

This guide appeared in 1984, so Marx gains a bit of attention, if briefly, for its attempt at a model of a "secular salvation." This aspect near the end of this compressed book merited more elaboration, as did the existentialist p-o-v. The sociological ramifications, for instance, of religion regarding its utility don't earn attention. However, for a short book, this packs considerable heft.

Overall, this is recommended, but with a reservation: this "outline of the philosophy of religion" looks far more closely at proofs for and arguments against God's existence, and not much at the wider issues concerning monotheistic religions. Islam's barely touched on, Judaism not much, and Christianity more in general fashion. (I found Donald A. Wells' 1962 study "God, Man, and the Thinker" more comprehensive, but less chatty: it's around 500 pages compared to Gaskin's compact, if challenging, primer.) 

For Gaskin, Marxism ignores "cosmic questions," as does a postmodern "godless" Christianity as invented by some theologians. Still, secular morality suffices, Gaskin argues if with a bit of regret. While it lacks the ability to address the longings embedded in us who wonder for more "potentialities" harnessing "ultimate creative good against destructive evil" in an almost mythic sense (he brings in Tolkien well here), it must be enough for skeptics and atheists, who by definition may never be metaphysically satisfied. (170)

He wraps it up with a summation of the coherence or incoherence of our definitions of what we understand to be God. He elaborates a metaphorical "Garden" for belief and "Desert" for atheists as alternative scenarios. Both are reasonable, both possible, both supported by "some evidence." (175) What's the "ultimate reality of the world" as it "actually is"? Which model do we prefer for "human purposes"?

Theism is "coherent," but in philosophical terms, a "weakly reasonable belief" with a "weak probability of truth" (178) given the lack of strong evidence. Yet, for "the generality of the world," Gaskin hesitantly concludes, "most of the surviving influences of theism are better than most of the consequences of atheism." (179; his italics) If "man does not live by bread alone," the central "insight" of religion, than maybe an Epicurean "acceptance" works best, "that the world is as it is, and is all there is; but the hope of other worlds somehow lingers."

The nuance of this study makes it a worthwhile companion. I was surprised by his closing argument, but in reflection, it fits the subtle and dogged nature of this thought-provoking examination of one of our most enduring questions. As a philosopher (and gardener and teller of ghost stories), he's a patient tutor. (Amazon US 1-6-12)

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