View Full Version : A thought experiment

February 22nd, 2010, 09:12 PM
(imported from Brendan's blog)

What kind of religion would arise in the mind of a man who was born yesterday?

Although this sounds like a facetious question, I have in mind something like this: I'm curious about the religious life or set of religious ideas which would arise in the mind of a person who knew nothing of the history of religion in our world, nothing of doctrines and teachings and scriptures of any theology, nothing of the art or architecture or music or poetry that people in religious cultures have produced, nothing of the lives of the founders of the great religions of the world, or the gurus, saints, lamas, seers, prophets, and the like, nor anything of the way these people played out the psychodramas of their minds in the world. He is wholly innocent of such things: therefore let us call him a ‘holy innocent’. If he knows none of those things, we might well ask what he does know. For the sake of this experiment, let us allow him to know only what he can see with his eyes, hear with his ears, and make with his hands. Let us also allow that he is not a child: he possesses a mature emotional disposition, and a fully developed capacity for reason and intelligence. What would his religion be? Would he have religion at all?

You might think that no such person could ever exist, and so this thought experiment is entirely impractical and silly. But it is a perfectly acceptable philosophical exercise. It bears some superficial resemblance to the "state of nature" thought-experiments used by political writers like Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau; it is also comparable to Rawls' "Original Position". The whole point of imagining such a person is that he symbolises the disposal any and all things which are not strictly relevant to examining the question at hand. Like a good philosopher, he has no presuppositions: nor does he have the weight of history and tradition and habit on his shoulders. Thus his thinking can be clear, honest, and fresh; he can arrive at conclusions about what he sees without inadvertently or unwittingly repeating the unconsciously learned, unexamined prejudices of his age.

Having established all of these counterfactual facts (!) about what our holy innocent does and does not know, let us finally suppose that he has a pair of seven league boots. He’s therefore able to travel to any landscape and climate that the Earth has to offer: he can spend a night beneath a tree in a mist-filled oak grove in Ireland, and the next night at the mouth of a cave in an Arabian desert, and the next night after that in an indigenous healer’s lodge in the Amazon.

This thought experiment is designed to put to the test a certain variation of the so-called ‘Argument by Design’. This argument was invented by the early Christian theologian Thomas Aquinas, and counted by him as the fifth of his five ‘Ways to God’. Contemporary American fundamentalist Christians use an argument very much like Aquinas’ argument to counter the claims of evolutionary biology.

Here’s Aquinas’ version of the argument.

1. Things that lack intelligence (i.e. ordinary nonliving things) consistently act the same way so as to obtain the best results.
2. These things act for an end.
3. Such action must be designed, not fortuitous.
4. Whatever lacks intelligence cannot act by design unless it is directed in its action by some being ‘endowed with knowledge and intelligence’. [For ‘design’ is a product of intelligence – that is to say, a ‘plan’ which has to be ‘thought up’.]
5. Therefore there must exist some intelligent being ‘by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God’.

Here’s a better known version of the argument. Suppose you happen to be from a society in which people have very little technology. Then you are walking along the beach and you happen to find a wristwatch lying there. You’ve never seen a wristwatch before. You don’t know where it comes from, what it’s for, and you don’t even know what it’s called. This is an entirely new object to you. But if you are an intelligent person, you would certainly conclude that it is completely unlike all the other rocks and stones lying on the same beach. Its face is regularly divided into 12 regions, it has internal inter-related parts like cogs and wheels and springs to make it run, and so on. You would conclude that someone deliberately designed and built it. The argument supposes that Man, on finding himself in the world, would conclude the same thing about the world. It is so complex, yet so inter-connected and efficiently functioning, that it too must have been designed deliberately that way. The designer, so the argument concludes, is God.

So the Argument by Design usually goes, anyway.

But, really, why would you conclude the Judeo-Christian God, instead of another One True God with another name from another religious tradition? Why would you not conclude that the watch was designed by multiple gods?

Bren's inside voice: Of course the truth about religion is polytheism, for clearly the world was designed by committee. Just look at the platypus!

Outside voice again: If you really did examine the world from the perspective of a ‘holy innocent’, what really would you conclude about the divine? Would your thoughts be led to a transcendental divinity at all?

February 22nd, 2010, 09:50 PM
What if this holy innocent was a woman?