Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Book Review: The Little Book of God, Mind, Cosmos and Truth By Kenneth Francis

The strength of this book is simultaneously its greatest drawback: it is too short – just 25,000 words. Its very brevity is, of course, central to its dynamism. It seeks to hook in the curious and the unconvinced, to hold them in its grip for a short time and send them way buzzing with thoughts and questions, perhaps with a mind to undertake further investigation, evaluation and reflection. In all of this is it so successful that, paradoxically, you finish it wishing it could be longer.

 The Little Book of God, Mind, Cosmos and Truth is, in its way, an introduction to the greatest topic in the world, a topic that might obviously have merited a 15 volume theophilosophical  encyclopaedia. This slim volume has a better chance of reaching those most in need of being reached, and that is no small thing.  By virtue of being 25,000 words rather than, for example, 2.5 million words, it leaves the topic unexhausted; but it will also leave, I suspect, the even slightly open-minded reader with enough new thoughts and previously unencountered propositions to leave him restless in a way that resonates with the underlying restlessness of being human.  And that resonance of ‘restlessnesses’ will not easily be unseated.

Kenneth Francis has a way of suggesting much in a few broad strokes. In the detail of his examples, analogies and references, we can sense the clear  sweep of his broader knowledge. His erudition allows him to achieve something that seems impossible:  the summoning up of a coherent opening speech in the much delayed hearing of the case against Mr Friedrich Nietzsche, suspected not merely of announcing the death of God, but also likely a collaborator in His murder. And yet, in the tight weave of Francis’s argument we begin to suspect something unexpected: that Mr Nietzsche may be innocent on at least the more serious charge, because God may not be dead after all, and Mr Nietzsche might not have been entirely displeased to discover it.

In truth, we find ourselves today in the throws of an age much worse than anything envisaged or provoked by the musing of that German philosopher, for he at least had the mitigating quality of wistfulness for the God he is so frequently accused of annihilating.
Francis cites from ‘The Magician’, Part 4 of Thus Spoke Zarathustra:

‘Oh, come back, My unknown god!
My pain! My last – happiness!’

Nietzsche’s inheritors, though nothing like as intellectually resourceful, have moved to an unearned certainty from the bare bones of nihilism he bequeathed them. In doing so, they make leaps where there is no ground and play tricks with words to camouflage the cracks in their edifices.  But Kenneth Francis is on their case, and no better man.

The instruments Francis uses to debunk and deconstruct the fallacies and follies of latter-day secular atheism are reason and a patent love for humankind, and he employs these to great effect in, as he promises at the outset, ‘laying out arguments for God’s existence and exposing the absurdity of atheism and bad theology’. Without God, he declares, ‘we would be nothing more than evolved slime fighting for survival amongst a multitude of advanced apes dressed in skirts and suits with delusions of intellectual grandeur.’

In his Introduction, Francis reveals that he became an agnostic in his teens as a result of exposure to Western philosophy, particularly the work of Arthur Schopenhauer. He admits (‘to my shame’) that he had neither studied nor read the Bible. This combination of commission and omission left him, he writes, ‘a philosophically, theologically, scientifically and intellectually flawed agnostic, unexposed to sophisticated arguments for the existence of God.’

He has left this state of vacuity far behind, employing his intimate familiarity with a dazzling pantheon of thinkers to impressive effect. Beginning with a quote about the impossibility of mechanistic perception from the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, he takes us through a range of brief but striking encounters in which we witness along the way the dismantling of some of the core fallacies of the modern era.  He deconstructs the possibility of artificial intelligence and despatches the idea of the absent self. He delves into the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness and refutes the mechanical version of human Mind. He looks at evolution and morality, God as ‘the uncaused cause’, free will and the ‘God-sized vacuum in the human heart’, and delves as sure-footedly into more purely theological issues like the verifiability of the Gospels, the indispensible coherence arising from objective morality, the influence of political correctness of some latter-day forms of Catholic thinking, the plausibility of Hell, the reliability of witness concerning near-death experience, the problem of evil, and the merits or otherwise of Eastern mysticism and the occult. These themes are by no means randomly chosen, but placed in an unfolding narrative in which the author makes visible the holistic alternative offered by genuine Christianity to the chaos of modern life and thinking.

He identifies, for example, a key contradiction of Darwinism-inspired secular-atheism: that if, as Darwin maintained, we are beings hardwired to achieve survival rather than pursue truth, it seems dubious whether atheism itself can lay claim to truth of any kind. Only theism offers the possibility of total coherence concerning mankind, and our secular-atheist culture succeeds in concealing this inversion by sleight-of-hand rather than reasonable argument. This book is the clearest, most wieldy antidote I have yet to encounter.

Francis has a feel for the right analogy and the succinct summary, factors that in part account for the impossibly comprehensive nature of this short book. In his brief demolition of one recent totemic work of scientism – Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow’s The Grand Design, in which it is put forward as an argument that the universe in effect ‘created itself’ – Francis dryly asks: ‘But surely for something to create itself it would have to be before it was?’

He quotes the Humanist philosopher Bertrand Russell: ‘The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people are so full of doubts.’ Francis’s tackle is hard but fair: ‘We can only assume Russell was “certain” of this self-refuting statement and had no doubts about it.’

He exposes how Humanism needed to borrow Christian ethics in order to mount its argument for a morality independent of God. An ‘unruly student’ at a Humanist ‘ethics’ course, he posits, might usefully ask: ‘Why should I agree to these Humanist aspirations if the universe just is? How can you derive an ought from an is if matter, energy and space-time is all there is?’

In the same way, he dispenses with the conventional atheistic tactic of taking strategic offence at the idea that not believing in God makes you amoral: ‘One does not have to believe in God to recognise morals or lead a good life. But without objective morality there is no foundation or justification why one ought to act morally good. By objective we mean values that are true whether or not anyone believes in them.’

‘Who should one trust,’ he asks: ‘A machine made of blind chemicals bent on survival and oblivious to higher truths, or a Mind created by an infinite Intelligence endowed with objective moral values, reasoning skills and the capacity for absolute truth? Which is the most rational?’  He quotes the American philosopher RC Sproul: ‘Only those who believe that man is made in God’s image have grounds for attributing any kind of worth to humanity.’

It is strange that, very often, those who dismiss the possibility of God do so on the basis of a moral argument against the kind of ‘god’ who permits suffering.  It seems to occur to them neither that the very basis of their argument – morality – is null and void if there is no God; nor secondly that it is nonsensical to express anger at a being whom you regard as a humanly generated phantasm. There are many such absurdities in the secular-atheist creed, and Francis is good at turning them up in simple sentences for us to contemplate.  In treating of the problem of evil in the world, for example, he writes that if Nietzsche is right about God being dead, ‘the logical conclusion of what happened during the Great Wars was neither right nor wrong and “evil” and “suffering” are nothing more than the behaviour of funny-looking creatures at the mercy of physics, chemistry, environment and time; a multitude of molecules in motion on a chunk of solar rock called planet Earth. Think about it. In a godless universe, the guards at the gulags and death camps would not have free will. And even if they did, they would be under no obligation to act in the interests of other fellow “primates”, as objective morality would be an illusion.’

Indeed, reading this passage, it struck me that the logic of atheism on this score is even more threadbare than I had hitherto focussed on, since the defence of many of the secondary agents of the Nazi death camps was that they were merely obeying the law of the land, in effect a claim that the very absence of a higher morality made their actions both unavoidable and, in an atheistic worldview, defensible.  This is an example of a feature that might be called the ecology of this book: the capacity to throw up in the mind of the reader extrapolations from the thread of argument that are shadowed-in rather than always spelt out.  It literally ‘puts you thinking’. It contains, cover to cover, an uncommon form of common sense, amounting over its 130-odd pages to a primer of a possible future popular apologetics. And since this is precisely the territory in which the pushback against secular-atheism needs to begin, The Little Book of God, Mind, Cosmos and Truth is a volume whose importance ought not be measured by its girth, but by the gift it contains of rendering accessible the arguments which, for all the pessimism of the present moment, still hold the power to divert western civilisation from its determined pelt towards self-destruction.  It is a book to give to your teenage children the first time they come over all ‘rational’.

*John Waters is the author of a number of books, including Lapsed Agnostic and Beyond Consolation: How we became too clever for God - and our own good.


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