What Good Are Good Arguments?
Do good arguments end up carrying the day? If not, what else is at play?
Today at The Immanent Frame, I interview Colin Jager, professor of English at Rutgers and an authority on natural theology in British romanticism. He’s the author of, literally, The Book of God. Our conversation touches on many things swirling through my mind in connection with the book I’m working on—design, debate, and the existence of God. Here’s a bit of the exchange with Jager:
NS: The design arguments for God’s existence that you address in The Book of God are typically treated by philosophers and the public as sheer abstractions, or even scientific hypotheses; why treat them instead as literary creations?
CJ: No one discipline owns the design argument and its critiques. Historically, the distinctions that people typically draw today among literature, philosophy, and theology just don’t hold up. Professional literary study, especially, has only been around for a hundred years or so. A thinker like David Hume, who is very important to the story I tell about design, did not think of himself as a philosopher but as man of letters: he wrote history, philosophy, and theology, and he served as a diplomatic secretary. This was a typical “literary” career. I try to restore some of that broad range to the topics I write about—though no diplomats have signed me up yet!
NS: What’s an example of how you, as a scholar of literature, can shed light on a philosophical debate?
CJ: In Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Philo, who is skeptical of design arguments, wins the battle, but Cleanthes, who supports them, wins the war. One thing Hume might be suggesting is that if you’re on Philo’s team, you’d best give up your belief that better arguments can win the day all on their own. Yes, the philosophical or conceptual idea of design seems rather abstract, but, at the same time, those arguments are lived and experienced by real people in real time. This is one thing Hume figured out—and it’s a literary point, if you want to put it that way: the rhetoric, the habits of mind, the practices of sociability that accompany what we could call the culture of design aren’t just window-dressing for some philosophical argument. Those things are the argument. That’s why the culture of design is easier to come at through literature rather than the history of philosophy—through practice rather than theory, if you will. We’ve misunderstood the way secularization works if we think that better arguments drive the discussion.
tags: books, conversation, criticism, design, existence of God, imagination, logic, proof, rational choice, secularism, skepticism