Anthony Gottlieb,writing in the online journal More Intelligent Life takes a look back at philosopher John Wisdom’s parable and an examination of the meaningfulness of statements about God.
The parable went like this. “Two people return to their long neglected garden and find, among the weeds, that a few of the old plants are surprisingly vigorous. One says to the other, ‘It must be that a gardener has been coming and doing something about these weeds.’ The other disagrees…They pitch their tents and set a watch. No gardener is ever seen. The believer wonders if there is an invisible gardener, so they patrol with bloodhounds but the bloodhounds never give a cry. Yet the believer…insists that the gardener is invisible, has no scent and gives no sound. The sceptic doesn’t agree, and asks how a so-called invisible, intangible, elusive gardener differs from an imaginary gardener, or even no gardener at all.”
Gottleib does a smashing job surveying the battleground: we’ve got the “New Atheists”, e.g., Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, on one side and the “New Apologists” (my term, not his), e.g., Karen Armstrong, on the other. Where’s Wittgenstein’s philosopher of religion who relates what he sees but leaves things as they are? Or do we throw our hands up in the air and give up? Maybe Gottlieb takes up the latter as the last sentence below suggests to me anyway.
One trenchant critic of the New Atheists is Terry Eagleton, a leading literary critic (and Catholic), who defines God as “what sustains all things in being by his love, and…is the reason why there is something instead of nothing, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever.” Some find it comforting or inspiring to utter such statements. But unless they can explain what those ideas mean and how one might tell whether they are right (which Eagleton never does), this is a self-deluding comfort. A wiser response to the apparent inexpressibility of statements about God may be simply not to express them, and just get on with the gardening.