Simon Blackburn at the Hay Festival 2009

SimonBlackburn By Sue Falder

Simon Blackburn, a vice-president of the BHA and professor of Philosophy at Cambridge and North Carolina universities, spoke at the Hay Festival on 26th May under the heading “Arguing about Religion: Hume 10, the rest of the world 0” .

He has written a commentary on Hume’s “Dialogues” which were published in 1779 and which he feels can be seen to deal with the current debates on creationism vs. militant atheism in a very elegant way. He explained how Hume created three figures: Cleanthes, Demea and Philo. The first two argued the case for the existence of a god and Philo (representing Hume’s own sceptical position) refuted both their arguments.

Cleanthes’ position was that the world as we see it is so intricate and so inter-connected that there must have been a great `mind’ behind its design. But Philo’s response was to question the assumption of a `marvellous human-being’ model of a deity and then look at it objectively. Why, out of all the existing cosmos, should a deity be modelled on a human being? And when it comes to design, humans are motivated – often by need – to make new things….what would be a god’s motivation, for instance for designing so many species of beetle? And, anyway, isn’t it true that new things can occur in nature without a designer having been involved?

Demea argues from the principle of `sufficient reason’. Everything depends upon what went before, and if you take that back in time to the `Big Bang’ you need to postulate a god as the prime mover. However, according to Philo, in this case you would need to say about this deity that `it must necessarily be as impossible for him never to exist as to make 2 x 2 not = 4’. But we can’t imagine that, because our world only provides evidence of one thing being dependent on a pre-existing thing or situation. Therefore it is impossible for us to recognise the existence of this version of god.

We are left between two equally unworkable positions: God as a `transcendental human being’, or as an entity quite beyond the human brain to be able to grasp.

Simon Blackburn recognised that many intelligent and educated people have faith in one sort of god or another, and feels that the explanation lies not within the sphere of rationality but in the sphere of emotion and feeling. He described people as demonstrably having a `religious yearning’ and feels that the continuation of religious practices is down to what might be called `evolutionary sociology’.

There were many interesting questions from the 4/500-strong audience and the talk and discussion were very well-received.

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