The Most Important Question in the History of Thinking
Years ago, Christian philosopher Terry Miethe (Ph.D., Ph.D., D.Phil. (Oxon. Cand.) debated his atheist friend Antony Flew on the question of “Does God exist?” What follows is Terry’s introduction to the debate, as recorded in the book Does God Exist: A Believer and an Atheist Debate, by Terry Miethe and Antony Flew. It was thanks to evidence such as what was presented in this debate that Flew eventually abandoned his atheism and wrote There Is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind (HarperOne, 2007).
Before I begin my formal reply to Antony Flew’s “The Presumption of Atheism,” some introductory comments are in order here about the importance of the question “Does God exist?”
Since the beginning of philosophical inquiry, whether one starts with the pre-Socratics, Socrates, or Plato and moves down through the ages to modern times via Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, Hume, Kant, Bergson, and Whitehead, questions of metaphysical thought have been of prime importance. “Metaphysics” [what exists “after the physical”] has sought to discern the existence of extraphysical reality by asking, for example, “What is the starting point of metaphysics?” and “Can we ground the so-called negative judgment of separation (that is, the judgment that to be is not the same as to be material)?” The question of God’s existence and what we can “know” of it has motivated philosophers for centuries. As my old philosophy professor, Leonard James Eslick, was fond of saying:
Metaphysics is almost essentially the philosophy of God. It is identical with it really. There are metaphysics perhaps which are atheistic or even agnostic which might claim, at least pretend in some way, to arrive at first principles; first principles inferior to God. But at least traditionally western metaphysics is the study of reality as such, being as such. It must be consummated by some kind of theory of God (Miethe 1976, p. 1).
Without God’s existence there is no possibility of “doing metaphysics” Thus a central question in this debate is whether there is evidence for a type of existence that is not irreducibly physical, that is, that cannot be reduced to the purely physical as such. A second important question that closely follows the first (but one that cannot really be treated here) is what we can know of such “existence.”
Godfrey Vesey, in Agency and Necessity, writes:
Some of the great debates in philosophy are on metaphysical issues that are far removed from everyday concerns. These issues are debated only by professional philosophers, not by psychologists, sociologists or social workers. Conclusions of these debates would have no bearing on how we should manage our lives, or deal with our fellow human beings. In short, such issues are academic, in the modern sense of “academic” (Flew and Vesey 1987, p. 3).
I am not sure which “great debates in philosophy . . . on metaphysical issues that are far removed from everyday concerns” Vesey had in mind. One could strongly argue Vesey underestimates (or misunderstands) the importance of metaphysical questions as foundational to all of life. But whatever “metaphysical issues” he had in mind, I know this question certainly cannot be one of them.
No question could have more vital importance to everyday life than the question of the existence of God!
As a university freshman, I realized that this is the most important question a person can ask. I also realized that—if a person has integrity—how this question is answered must affect, must have great “bearing on how we should manage our lives, or deal with our fellow human beings.”
Vesey is certainly correct that all too often this question is “not [debated] by psychologists, sociologists or social workers.” Yet, very often they simply make “pronouncements” (often negative) about the question or act as if they have answered it. They act, counsel, and work as if God does not exist, even if they have not availed themselves of the evidence, pro or con, from the great debates in the history of philosophy.
Such practitioners may ignore the question of God’s existence and, in fact, be so blind to its importance that they do not even realize that many of their most important pronouncements, analyses of behavior, and responsibilities to their clients depend on just how they have dealt wit this most important question. To make fun of or to ignore the question of God’s existence is to show great ignorance of the centrality of the question in all of history, not just the history of thought, and to be ignorant of the practical implications of the question for everyday living.
On the other hand, I know many who would say that what most of the psychologists, sociologists, and social workers are “debating” does not have much bearing on everyday life and our relationships either. To the extent that this is true, it may be precisely because they so often do not realize the importance of metaphysical questions like the existence of God.
It is my strong contention that this “metaphysical debate” has vital importance to psychologists, sociologists, and social workers, to the everyday lives of every one of us as individuals, to our interpersonal relationships, and to our society as a whole.
Flew and I agree that the question we are debating has practical importance. After he distinguishes between “positive atheists” and “negative atheists” (and then lumps the two kinds together again), Flew asserts: “Perhaps too we should include, as a third subclass of negative atheists, those who refuse ‘to allow the (nevertheless still asserted) existence of God to affect their everyday living’” (I, p. 10). How telling an insight! Perhaps we should call people who “assert” the existence of God, but “who refuse to allow the existence of God to affect their everyday living” atheists, for isn’t that what they really are?
The question of whether God exists or does not exist is the most important question in the history of philosophy, as almost everyone will admit.
In this, I know my friend and fellow philosopher Antony G.N. Flew agrees. This is the reason for this debate! Even Nietzsche prophetically envisages himself as a madman: to have lost God equals madness (Kaufmann 1966; the parable of the madman can be found on page 81). When humankind will discover that it has lost God, universal madness will break out. Much of Nietzsche’s philosophy is involved with a forceful denial of what philosophy had for thousands of years considered Truth (Miethe 1981, pp. 130-60). Within the past three decades or so there has been a gradual renewal of interest in metaphysics in general and in the theistic arguments in particular (see Miethe 1976).
The existence of God is one of those questions of eternal importance to every human being. It cannot, must not, be ignored either on a theoretical or practical level.
To ignore this question does indeed say more about the individual, the profession, or the society than it does about the importance of the question.
(This excerpt was taken from Terry Miethe and Antony Flew, Does God Exist: A Believer and an Atheist Debate [San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1991], 34-36. Used with permission.)