Paul P. Mealing

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Monday, 27 April 2009


It so happens that this topic arose indirectly on 2 blogs I follow: Stephen Law and Larry Niven’s Rust Belt Philosophy (see my blog roll).

Larry’s reference can be found in his 500th post, where he ‘deconstructs’ Dr. William Lane Craig’s argument that there is no hope without a belief in God. On Stephen’s site, a group was discussing the ethics of having or not having children, and hope came up in the context of what do we live for?

About 20 years ago, I started having conversations with a tobacconist in the underground section of Flinders Street Station in Melbourne, because my traveling companion used to buy cigarettes from him. How we got onto philosophical issues I have no idea – this was years before I actually studied philosophy – he was just a bloke who had one of those stalls with standing room only in the middle of a passing throng of busy commuters every morning. But we must have done, because he lent me a book called HOPE by Arnold Hutschnecker, which was a sizable tome and obviously one he valued.

Hutschnecker was an American physician turned psychologist and his book was effectively a collection of case studies carefully reworked for public consumption. I only remember 3 things from the book. Firstly, he starts the book by recounting how he faced a firing squad, in circumstances that I can’t remember except that it was early 20th Century somewhere in Eastern Europe (obviously, he wasn’t actually shot, and I can’t remember how he escaped). Secondly, he worked on a programme under Richard Nixon to tackle problem gambling (according to references on the Internet he was good friends with Nixon). Thirdly, he proposed that there were 2 types of hope: active hope and passive hope. Active hope is where one perceives a goal and goes after it. Passive hope is when one buys their weekly Tatts ticket, or whatever, and waits for their ship to come in. He saw this distinction as particularly psychologically significant, and I think he treated all his cases around this dichotomy.

The other point that needs to be mentioned is how important hope is just for living. Suicide invariably results when an individual loses all hope: they can no longer see a future, or the one that they do see is so bleak that they literally can’t face it.

Lastly, I can’t ignore Dr. William Lane Craig’s particular version of hope, since it’s probably closer to Hutschnecker’s passive type than active type, though I’m sure Dr. Craig would disagree.

I actually submitted a challenge to Dr. Craig on his own Q & A site regarding this, but so far he’s failed to respond. I’m not that surprised - he’s done that before. Dr. Craig prefers people to ask him questions on what God thinks, to which he seems to believe, as well as some of the people who submit the questions, to be some sort of expert. He may yet prove me wrong.

Back to topic, Dr. Craig’s particular take on this subject is that it can’t be disassociated from the hope for eternal life. He quotes Russell, as well as referring to Sartre and Camus, as examples of how atheists must axiomatically view the world as one without hope.

Below is the quote from Bertrand Russell that Dr. Craig presents as his prize exhibit (my term, not his) that seals his case: Atheism is a philosophy without hope.

That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; . . . that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins--all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.

For a start, it’s worth pointing out that Russell is talking about humanity in general, with only an introductory reference to the individual for rhetorical effect. But more importantly, Russell is talking about reality rather than fantasy. It is truly humbling to realise that all the endeavours of humanity in all their glory will one day be no more. Dr. Craig, on the other hand, believes that all this glory will continue on in God’s kingdom, which is a hope of fantasy not reality. The biggest problem I have with the afterlife is the way some people (like Dr. Craig) seem to think they know exactly what it is and how it will feel to participate. I don’t mind if someone believes in an existence beyond death, I only mind that they place more importance on it than the life they are currently living.

Below is the argument I submitted to Dr. Craig.

You say: ‘if there is no God, there is no hope of deliverance from aging, disease, and death’. You must surely realise that the Buddha addressed this very issue 500 years before Jesus was even born, and founded a religion no less influential than Christianity, with no reference to God at all. The 4 Noble Truths that Gautama envisaged, arising from this reality, results in a psychological philosophy of ‘no attachment’, and, in particular, I would suggest, no attachment to the ego (the concept of 'no-self'), which is what death entails. (No, I’m not a Buddhist; I just acknowledge that his philosophy and influence is no less worthy of contemplation than Jesus’.)

So a belief in a life after death, that you espouse, arises from a specific hope that is obvious yet never articulated: the continuation of one’s personal ego. I think it is the giving up of this hope that is the real revelation, indeed, one could argue salvation, even from Russell’s rhetorical despair, at least psychologically. What you are offering, through your biblical bound philosophy, is the hope of the continuation of ego. On the contrary, I would argue that it is the psychological ‘letting go’ of one’s ego that provides the ultimate revelation and even spiritual freedom.

Unlike you, I don’t speculate about something of which I have no knowledge: a life after death. So I live my life in the knowledge that this is the only life I know and can influence. To do otherwise is to live a lie. And, believe it or not, in this intentional attitude of reality, rather than fantasy, I can find: ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control’ (a biblical quote cited by Dr. Craig, Galations 5.22), as do many people of various persuasions.

The problem with your idea of ‘hope’, even though you don’t spell it out, is that it’s based on the mythical concept of ‘original sin’. Your biblical bound philosophy insists that original sin is the impenetrable obstacle to all hope, except of course through Jesus. So if you want a mythical solution to enduring hope, the Bible provides it. Original sin, of course, was created by the very God through whom you find salvation, so I find it all a bit circular. Now you will say that God didn’t create original sin. No, he just created an intelligent, curious species called humanity and left them with the temptation of the tree of knowledge. Now, this is all metaphorical, as mythology always is, but if you equate metaphor with reality then you get the particular version of hope that you are writing about. And getting back to your quote from Russell, what he is really referring to is the logical end to all humanity rather than the individual. But, unlike yourself, he doesn’t seek solace or consolation from mythology.

Hope is what everyone lives with: hope to improve their life and the lives of others, spiritually and otherwise. No argument about that, but hope for the continuation of one’s ego beyond death is not necessarily a psychologically healthy one. It can lead to the most perverse behaviour, like flying loaded aeroplanes into occupied buildings. It can also lead to inquisitions and wars, and the demonisation of people with different religious views. History is full of the iniquitous deeds done in an attempt to fulfill that particular hope.


Anonymous said...

Well said,Paul!

Paul P. Mealing said...

Thanks Alexander,

Appreciate your appreciation.

Regards, Paul.