‘The most influential intolerant governments of 20th century were atheist’

TEHRAN, Jan. 30 (MNA) – Over centuries, existence of God has attracted attention of philosophers and has as well formed a diverse family of arguments extending from some feature of morality or the moral life to the existence of God, usually understood as a morally good creator of the universe. It has such a key role in human thought that opposing debates and arguments have been continuing until now.

One famous argument against “Theism” is “problem of evil” which tries to question main monotheistic religions as how God could allow humans to do evil and to suffer.

Critics of “Theism” claim that if God is omnipotent and omniscient, so he must be able to prevent catastrophes while the world is replete with recurring evils. They take these examples as proofs which reveal contradictions and infirmities of “Theism”.

However, some philosophers of religions such as Professor Richard Swinburne, try to provide answers to these questions by forming a cumulative argument for the existence of God emphasizing that existence of consciousness -regardless of its material or immaterial nature- shows a Purposeful design.

In this regard, Professor Richard Swinburne says to Mehr News that scientific and materialistic approaches are not able to discover nature of human consciousness in order to give reasonable and simple explanations. What follows is the full text of the interview with Richard Swinburne:

Which religions have impressed you in your researches and work particularly "The existence of God"? Or are your arguments just dependent on Christian theology? 

The Existence of God argues from the most general features of the world observable by anyone to the existence of God. I understand by God “a person without a body, who is necessarily eternal, perfectly free, omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good, and is the creator of all things” I call this doctrine “theism”; and I regard theism as the core belief of the creeds of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Only on three pages of a later chapter of this book do I allude to historical evidence favoring a specifically Christian doctrine. The two other books of the trilogy of which The Existence of God is the second volume, are also almost entirely concerned merely with theism. The first volume, The Coherence of Theism, spells out in detail the nature of the divine properties, for example it analyses what it is for God to be omnipotent or omniscient; and the third volume, Faith and Reason, considers the relevance of arguments for the existence of God to the practice of religious faith.

I have however argued in favor of particular Christian doctrines in other books. The observed phenomena which I regard as my evidence for the existence of God, are the very existence of a physical universe, its conformity to simple intelligible laws of nature (of the kind discoverable by scientists), those laws being such as to lead to the evolution of humans, and humans being conscious. A scientific theory is probably true in so far as it leads us to expect observed phenomena which would not otherwise be expected, and in so far as it is a simple theory. I claim that these same criteria show theism to be probably true – it is a theory, simple in postulating just one God, whose nature leads us to expect that he will bring about a physical universe governed by simple intelligible laws of nature and inhabited by conscious humans. Just as particular scientific theories explain certain kinds of phenomena, theism explains why those theories operate, and so explains the most general features of all kinds of phenomena.

What is the basis of your argument for using human consciousness as the reason for the existence of God? Why is science not able to explain human consciousness?

My arguments for the existence of God taken together form one cumulative argument. Thus, the existence of the physical universe gives some degree of probability to the existence of God, the operation of simple intelligible laws of nature increases that probability, those laws being such as to lead to the evolution of humans increases that probability further, and those humans being conscious increases that probability yet further. If science is to explain the occurrence of consciousness, there must be laws of nature connecting brain states with conscious states; for example there must be a law that if the brain of some human is in a certain particular state, that human will have a thought “today is Thursday”; and if the brain of that human is in a certain different state, that human will have a red after-image. And so on and so on. No laws of nature of the kind that physics currently postulates could possibly explain these phenomena, because today’s physics is not concerned with conscious phenomena – it is concerned only with publicly observable phenomena. It is just possible that physics could be expanded so as to deal with conscious phenomena. This would require physics to postulate an enormous number of extra laws, in view of the enormous number of different kinds of conscious states (not analysable in terms of common elements in the way in which material bodies can be analysed in terms of their constituent atoms) which humans can have.

If science could be so expanded, then (with a qualification which I will make in answer to question 4) science could explain consciousness. But then the question would arise why there is such an enormous number of laws of nature of a kind utterly different from the laws which govern physical objects, as there would need to be in order to explain consciousness. Unless someone has designed them for that purpose, there is not the slightest reason to expect that there would be such an enormous number of inter-connected complicated laws. But God has good reason to bring about human beings because humans have a unique kind of goodness, the goodness of being able to choose between good and evil (a choice which God who is perfectly good cannot make himself). So, since the great value of humans lies in their conscious life, including the conscious choices which they can make, God has a good reason to bring about those laws; and so it is probable that there will be those laws if there is a God who makes them operate. Hence the operation of laws connecting brain states and conscious states adds to the probability that there is a God. So if science can explain consciousness, God explains why science can explain consciousness; and if science cannot explain consciousness, we must suppose that God acts outside the laws of nature if we are to have an explanation of why humans are conscious. 

What is your opinion about love-based arguments for existence of God? In Islamic tradition, the believers of this argument try to deny and reject the rational arguments for existence of God.

I regret that I am not familiar with love-based arguments of the Islamic tradition for the existence of God. But I certainly think that only some people need arguments of the kind which I am giving in order to believe that there is a God. Some people have deep religious experiences of the presence of God; and it is always rational to believe that things are as they seem to be - in the absence of counter-evidence. For example, it is rational to believe that you are looking at a tree if it seems to you that you are looking at a tree – unless someone can show you that it is only an illusion that there is a tree there. Similarly, it is rational to believe that God is talking to you if it seems to you that God is talking to you – unless you have reason to suppose that you are subject to a hallucination. Also, it is rational to believe what you are told by someone unless you have counter-evidence, that is unless you have some reason to suppose that your informant has not had the experience or qualification to know what he is talking about, or unless you know on other grounds that what he says is false. So it is rational for someone in a mediaeval village in Iran or England to believe what the priest or imam tells them – for example, that there is a God – unless they have reason to believe that the priest or imam are in no position to know whether or not there is a  God, or unless they have any other evidence that there is no God. However in our modern international scientifically-orientated culture, most people are well aware of arguments against the existence of God, and so are aware of counter-evidence to the reliability of their religious experiences or so to what their priest or imam tell them. So in our modern culture, in order rationally to believe that there is a God, many people need positive arguments for the existence of God, as well as arguments which show that the counter-arguments provided by atheists are not cogent, 

In an interview published in May 2011 by The Guardian, Stephen Hawking compared the brain to a computer, noting it stops working once all the components fail. "There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark," he said. What is your answer to this claim?

Human beings are conscious beings; we have sensations, thoughts, and intentions of which we are conscious when we have them, and also beliefs and desires of which we can become conscious when we choose. We are conscious because our brains give rise to consciousness. Computers are machines designed by humans to do things when instructed by humans, including to produce answers to questions set by humans. But I see no reason at all to believe that any current computer is in any way conscious. Such computers are like humans on auto-pilot; they do things without in any way being conscious that they are doing them. It is just possible that some future highly sophisticated computer might be conscious, but we could never know whether or not it is conscious. We reasonably suppose that the higher animals, such as cats and dogs, are conscious (although their consciousness is of a much simpler kind than ours); but we suppose this because their brains are very similar to our brains, not merely in their architecture (that is, the ways in which the different parts of their brain are inter-connected), but in the organic material out of which they are made. But I see no good reason to suppose that the mere similarity of its architecture to that of our brains would be enough to make a computer constructed of silicon chips to be conscious. 

However, humans are not merely things with brains, which as well as having electrochemical properties have conscious properties such as thoughts and feelings. In my view, each human being consists of a body and soul, and it is the soul that makes that human the human he or she is. Here is one argument for this. Each human brain has (as well as cerebellum and brain stem) two cerebral hemispheres on which their consciousness depends, and recent neuroscience has shown that a human can continue to exist and have many of the same memories and beliefs even if one hemisphere is removed. (Sometimes one of someone’s hemispheres is removed to prevent the spread of epilepsy from that hemisphere to the rest of their brain by a procedure called an “anatomical hemispherectomy”.) Neuroscience is also well on the way to becoming able to join severed nerves, including even spinal nerves and neurons (that is, brain nerves). So one day it would be possible for one hemisphere to be removed from a certain person’s brain (I’ll call that person “P1”), and that hemisphere to be replaced by the hemisphere from the brain of some other person (whom I will call “P2”), and connected to the nerves of P1’s brain.

Then the resulting person would have one hemisphere on which the memories and beliefs of P1depended, and also one hemisphere on which the memories and beliefs of P2 depended. The resulting person would, therefore, be confused about who he was while being able to remember much of the previous lives of two different persons. Yet no person can be both P1 and P2. So it must be the case either that the resulting person is P1 who has survived the operation, or that the resulting person is P2, or that a resulting person is a new person (neither P1 nor P2). Yet no scientific observation or experiment could ever show which of these the resulting person is – since all that science could show would be how much of the brain of different previous persons a resulting person had and which memories and beliefs that person had.

Any such evidence would be compatible with any of the three theories about who the resulting person was. So it cannot be brain matter or memories and beliefs which make a person who he or she is. So there must be some other non-physical part of a person, connected to their brain, which we call a person’s “soul” which determines who or she is. A person goes where their soul goes; normally their soul goes where their brain goes but in abnormal circumstances (such as those which I have just described) we don’t know and can’t discover where it goes. It is just the fact that we can never discover whether a person has survived an operation such as I have described, and yet there must be a truth about whether the resulting person is the earlier person or not, which has the consequence that a person’s identity must be carried by something non-physical. We do not know what happens to our soul in the abnormal circumstances of the death of our body. But clearly, there is no contradiction in supposing that our soul continues to exist and is joined to another body in an after-life. Straight philosophical argument cannot show that that happens, but it is the teaching of both Christianity and Islam that this will happen, and insofar as there is good evidence that the teaching of the Christian church or alternatively the teaching of the Koran is teaching revealed by God, then we have good reason to believe in an after-life

It is because a person’s identity depends on the soul that I need to qualify what I said in answer to question 2. Science might be able to explain why whichever person who has a certain body (and so brain) has a conscious life (thoughts, feelings, and so on) which they do. But science could never explain why one soul rather than a different soul is connected to that body; and so, since who we are depends on our soul, science could never explain why one particular person rather than another has that body and the associated conscious life.

For example, it could never explain why I have the body and the conscious life associated with it which I do, instead of someone else having that body and the conscious life associated with it. The reason why science could never explain this is because there would be no difference at all in the publicly observable phenomena (including what I or the person who occupies my body says) if someone else had my body and the associated conscious life instead of me having that body and the associated conscious life. And yet, of course, there would be a big difference, knowable only by me! Science may be able to explain consciousness, but it could never explain who it is that is conscious.

What is your comment on John Leslie Mackie's argument on the problem of evil which tries to question main monotheistic religions arguing that the idea of human free will is no defense for those who wish to believe in an omnicompetent being in the face of evil and suffering?

God is supposed to be omnipotent and perfectly good, and so inevitably the problem arises of how could God allow humans to do evil and to suffer. The “problem of evil” is the most important argument against the existence of God, and the theist needs a good answer to it. I believe that a good answer can be provided. Clearly, God could, if he so chose, remove all the suffering in the world and stop people doing evil acts. So the question is why does he not do so. To answer that is to provide a “theodicy”, and here is my theodicy. Human well-being does not consist solely or mainly in having an agreeable life without suffering. It consists also and even more importantly in having a deep responsibility for ourselves and others and exercising that responsibility in the right way.

That involves having free choices of whether to do good or evil actions. (If our choices were only between alternative good actions, we wouldn’t have a very deep responsibility for ourselves or others.) We can choose either to benefit each other or to harm each other. One of the greatest goods for humans is to have responsibility for their own children; parents can choose to make their children happy and keen to benefit others, or bitter, resentful, and determined to hurt others. And we can form our own characters because humans are so made that each time we do a good action it becomes easier to do a good action next time; and each time we do a bad action, it becomes easier to do a bad action next time. As well as much of the evil arising through human choices there is of course much suffering which arises through natural processes such as disease and accident and the infirmity of old age- which is called “natural evil”, and it is to that that J.L.Mackie draws our attention.

The point of natural evil is, I believe, to give us choices of kinds which we would not otherwise have. If I suffer from some disease, then I have a choice of whether to bear it patiently (and so begin to form a good character) or to be bitter (and so begin to form a bad character); and my friends have a choice of whether to care for me, or whether to ignore me. If the only suffering we had was suffering caused by the actions of other humans, the more fortunate of us would have little opportunity to cope with suffering.

And so generally all “natural evils” provide us with opportunities to react to them in the right way and so to develop our characters for good or ill. God wants us to choose to be good people who have a deep responsibility for each other, and not to have goodness forced upon us, and for that purpose, he allows us to do harm to each other and provides suffering of different kinds in the face of which we can develop our characters. This kind of choice and the suffering necessary for it is merely a feature of our earthly existence of up to 80 or 90 years. In that time we have the opportunity of making ourselves and of helping others to make themselves people who are fitted as a result of their own choices for the everlasting heaven in which both Christianity and Islam believe.

Don't you think that monotheistic religions have paved the way to totalitarian views and policies in our world, while polytheist religions and beliefs are compatible with social and political pluralism? 

Most governments in most centuries, whether inspired by a theistic religion or a polytheistic religion or militant atheism, have been intolerant of views other than their own. Western medieval Christian governments (with some exceptions) were very intolerant; while medieval Islamic governments (for example, the Ottoman Empire) were fairly tolerant of Christians and Jews, although intolerant of some other religious groups. Today there are very few explicitly Christian governments, but there are some (but not all) explicitly Islamic governments who are intolerant of Christian or other minorities.

Yet the most influential intolerant governments of the 20th century – the government of Nazi Germany and the government of Stalinist Soviet Union – were explicitly atheist governments. The polytheistic Roman Empire killed a large number of Christians in very cruel ways. Many Buddhists are in effect polytheists; and there are contemporary intolerant Buddhist governments, in particular, the government of Myanmar which persecutes Muslims.

So none of us have very good records in this respect. I think that all governments and all religious and nonreligious people should tolerate those with different religious, political or social views from their own, allowing them both to practice their own religion.

Interview by: Mohammad Mazhari


News Code 142046


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