«Most major religions espouse a supernatural realm beyond human perception and understanding, integral to the nature and cause of the universe, and ...»
God, Faith, and the Supernatural
the Objectivist Perspective
Most major religions espouse a supernatural realm beyond human
perception and understanding, integral to the nature and cause of the
universe, and which is the source of human values and purpose. This
lecture gives an introduction to the Objectivist perspective on the
central claims, arguments, and concerns of the religious outlook.
Opening with Objectivism’s essential orientation regarding religion,
the important topics of the domain are visited, going beyond typical secular analyses to show the distinctive insights that the philosophy brings to bear in issues of cosmology, knowledge, and spiritual and social values. This tour also highlights important patterns in religious belief and debate. Underscored throughout is Objectivism’s positive outlook as a philosophy for living on earth, one that is full of hope that we can ever improve our understanding of the world and our prospects for flourishing.
Preface for the Skeptics Forum This is a cleaned-up transcript of a lecture that was delivered on July 1, 2003 to an annual Objectivist conference.* I think it will be of interest to this forum because it shows how the ideas of religion are viewed from the perspective of a systematic, secular philosophy that stands apart from mainstream non-theistic thought in significant ways. For example, I’ve noticed that theists are often surprised to hear that there are non-theists (like me) who have no affection whatsoever for Skepticism in knowledge, or Relativism in morality, or Collectivism in politics (socialism, communism, Nazism), or any sort of Nihilism in one’s view of life and purpose, and on and on. Come to think of it, I’ve noticed that non-theists from other traditions are often surprised, too. So either way this talk is likely to offer you a brush with some new ideas and angles.
But there’s a catch: this lecture wasn’t built for you. Sorry. It was designed for a beginner-to-intermediate audience of people who have some acquaintance with Objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand. It is comprehensive and authoritative and systematically lays out The Objectivist Perspective… for an audience like that.
I thought of it as an engineering challenge: find a way to cover a staggering domain, in a mere hour, making it neither so superficial nor so
as to be useless, yet keeping it accessible to beginners. To do that I had to lean heavily on their existing knowledge and general orientation, so there are many notions taken for granted that the intended audience accepts but which you would likely want to see explained. And I had to find the barest, most essential path through a lot of material, so I did not talk about, say, the science behind Intelligent Design or the historical evidence for the Resurrection—there was only time to cover the issues that Objectivism has with all arguments-from-design and all arguments-frommiracles. Indeed, that’s the inside scoop I never told the audience: given the constraints, this talk was really designed to give them a basic orientation to keep in mind as they engage all those ideas. It is very short on fish, but they were delighted with the fishing lesson.
This orientation will likely reveal new wrinkles for you to consider, too—but it will require a little philosophic detection to look beyond those nuisances. So I invite you to roll up your sleeves and see how a significant and growing secular movement thinks about the ideas, claims, and concerns of the religious outlook.
Greg May 20, 2005 (updated September 2, 2005) God, Faith, and the Supernatural the Objectivist Perspective Greg Perkins Religion gives people a vision of the world and their place in it. They see it as the source of certainty and security and the cultural institutions that help us live our lives—and many see religion as the only thing standing between us and a Hobbesian existence (solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short), so of course it is important to them. What we believe affects what we do, especially in broad and deep abstractions like these, and that (among other things) can spell the difference between happiness and suffering, life and death.
Religion has been around as long as we have; it shapes the lives of men and the fate of nations. And so it is reasonable to ask: what does Objectivism have to say about it?
Objectivism: Pro-Reason, not Anti-Religion Okay, if you want the essential take on Objectivism and religion in a single line, then here is the one to remember. Rand wrote,
Let’s unpack that a little. Notice the clear statement of atheism and that it is not primary. This is important. As surprising as it may seem to many believers, Objectivism is not all about the rejection of God and the supernatural. No, that is only a sort of afterthought, an effect of something that is important: a focus on method rather than doctrine, on reason rather than particular truths. Sure, particular truths are really important, but a truth about how we find other truths is even more important. Think of it as a variant on the idea, “give a man a fish and feed him for a day; teach him how to fish and feed him for a lifetime”.
Objectivism worries about the method—reason—and the rest works itself out... in this case, atheism.
Letters of Ayn Rand
You can see this emphasis in many places. Rand explained:
I am not primarily an advocate of capitalism, but of egoism; I am not primarily an advocate of egoism, but of reason. If one recognizes the supremacy of reason and applies it consistently, all the rest follows. This— the supremacy of reason—was, is, and will be the primary concern of my work, and the essence of Objectivism.2 Now, we learn new things all the time, and if we really do intend to follow this method and let the truths fall where they may, then the system will have to be open. And reality is an integrated whole, so we should expect our understanding of it to be integrated, too. The system needs to be both open and integrated. When we discover an important fact about us and the world, it needs to be recognized, and in a coherent way (like Newton’s physics being refined and extended to take account of facts about the very small and very large, things he hadn’t been exposed to). For today’s topic, this means that anything objectively valuable that religion offers or discovers or upholds should be compatible with and even desired in Objectivism.
Objectivism in a Nutshell I want to set us up to flesh out that essential orientation, so let’s start out with a quick sketch of Objectivism’s essentials and a preview of contrasting ideas from religion.
Rand was once asked by a reporter to summarize her entire philosophy while standing on one foot, and she did it (but it really was only a summary and not a validation). She organized it around the traditional branches of philosophy. The three main branches address three very basic questions: what is there, how do I know, and what should I do—they focus on the study of the fundamental nature of reality (metaphysics), of knowledge (epistemology), and of morality (ethics). She said… “Metaphysics: Objective Reality” Objectivism holds that facts are facts, things are what they are independent of our knowledge and feelings and wishes—that reality is an objective absolute and that the job of consciousness is to grasp the facts of reality, not to create or shape them. It means that if a Mac truck hits you, “The Objectivist”, 9/71 you’re squashed whether or not you know it or believe it or care about it or wish it were otherwise.
“Epistemology: Reason” Objectivism holds that reason is our only means of knowing the facts of reality, our best guide to action, and our basic means of survival. It means that if we don’t want to get squashed by Mac trucks, we have to look at the world, see the truck, understand that it may squash us, and choose wisely. Closing our eyes to facts doesn’t help. Intuition or feelings or looking inward in other ways aren’t good for avoiding trucks. Grasping the facts of reality and acting accordingly is what’s required.
“Ethics: Rational Self-Interest” Objectivism holds that we are all ends-inourselves, not sacrificial animals who exist primarily to serve the ends of others— that the pursuit of your own life and happiness is your highest moral purpose—that the purpose of living is, well, to live, and to experience all the happiness you can in your work and hobbies, in building lasting friendships and a loving family. When you step out of the way of a Mac truck, it’s to maintain your life, leaving you to pursue your values and achieve your happiness.
Objectivism and Religion: Fundamentally Incompatible Now for the preview of contrasting ideas from religion. I don’t expect anyone to take this on faith. Even though these might not make a lot of sense or could seem rather bold right now, I want to list them up front so you’ll know what to look for as we go.
With a metaphysics of Objective Reality, the supernatural, gods, and miracles are rejected as unhelpful speculation or simply incoherent.
With an epistemology of Reason, revelation and faith are rejected as arbitrary and ineffective, if not outright dangerous.
With an ethics of Rational Self-Interest, self-sacrifice and existing primarily for others’ ends is rejected as harmful and essentially counter to genuine and sustained flourishing.
The point here is that while some aspects of religion may be wonderful and serve genuine human needs, the core philosophic ideas that are used to explain and justify them are incompatible and simply can’t be integrated with the core ideas of Objectivism.
To see where all these conclusions come from (and even what they really mean in some cases), we will tour the important arguments, claims, and concerns of the religious outlook.
Important Arguments, Claims, and Concerns
For convenience we will focus on notions common to Western religions, mainly Christianity, but the Objectivist approach translates well to addressing ideas from other traditions (Buddhism, Hinduism). So we are going to visit First Causes, Intelligent Design, Miracles, Defining God, Faith and Revelation, and Spiritual and Social Values.
In each case, I’ll give the essential idea and cover common points from the literature, and then we’ll turn to something distinctive that Objectivism has to say about the topic. So we will see plenty of debunking, but we will also be exploring and applying generally useful ideas from Objectivism.
As we go, our method will be that of reason: base claims and arguments on facts, be logical and objective, and so on. In particular, this means respecting the Burden of Proof Principle, the idea from logic and law that the burden is on the one making a claim to make a case for their idea, not on the one entertaining it to prove it isn’t so. The Burden of Proof is enshrined in our constitution and lived in our courtrooms every day under the heading of “innocent until proven guilty”. If we didn’t have this idea then every claim (whether true or not) would need to be believed until proven otherwise: every bit of speculation about fairies and UFO abductions and vast right-wing conspiracies and unicorns and the guilt of a defendant… What a mess! Even people who might want to ignore this principle for their favorite idea don’t drop it when the Weekly World News gives us another Alien President or Wolf Boy story, or when a competing idea surfaces, or when they find themselves in court. I am beating on this a bit because people often neglect to shoulder their rightful burden in the heat of discussion, and while that doesn’t guarantee their claim is false, it does mean that the reasonable response is to simply not accept it until that backing arrives.
Okay, enough preliminaries—let’s jump in!Cosmological Arguments
Ironically enough, it often starts with the argument from first-causes, called the cosmological argument. Way back when, a friend of mine who was in the seminary actually sat down and diagrammed this out for me: Here you are, and you had a cause (your parents). There’s the planet, and it had a cause (planetary formation). Same thing for our solar system, and the galaxy, and the physical universe, and on and on he went, reaching back further and further to larger and larger scales. Everything and every event has a cause. So how about the whole shooting match? What’s the cause of it all? Well, that’s God.
Now, it’s important to understand that while there may be a zillion variants on this and other arguments we will look at, that they are just that: variants. Each of them has its own particular angles and issues, but as variants they all have something in common: an essential shape or form—and when that has problems, all of the variants do, too.
Here, the essential form goes like this:
Everything has a cause, so the entire natural world must have been caused;
God is that cause.
What smart-alec little kid (maybe you?) hasn’t asked, “Yeah, so what caused God?” While this is cute, it points to the real issue of an infinite regress of causes, of causes, of causes, and so on. But since we are here, there can’t have been an infinite regress of causes—something had to get it all going. So, the argument goes, there must have been a First Cause or Prime Mover (God) that wasn’t caused.
But then God is not an explanation here, because what we hunger for in understanding how the world exists would apply just as well to how God exists.
And this is not simply a popularity contest over what is more satisfying to “just be”, with people deciding it is fine for God to not need an explanation while it is intolerable that the World simply be… No, the argument got off the ground in the first place by telling us that there was no such choice, that nothing “just is” and everything requires a cause. Notice what happened here? This is like a rhetorical bait-and-switch. The argument started with idea that nothing “just is”, which was used to introduce God as a cause, then that pesky infinite regress had to be dealt with, and it ended with something that “just is”.
Well, the argument can’t have it both ways and this contradiction is a serious problem. So the argument is flawed and the burden of proof hasn’t been met here.