Colin McGinn (born 1950) is a British philosopher currently working at the University of Miami. McGinn has also held major teaching positions at Oxford University and Rutgers University. McGinn is best known for his work in the philosophy of mind, though he has written on topics across the breadth of modern philosophy. Chief among his works intended for general audience is the intellectual memoir The Making of a Philosopher: My Journey Through Twentieth-Century Philosophy (2002).
McGinn's "Atheism Tapes" were available for a time on Google Video, but were removed. Now the interviews are available again on You Tube, so for as long as they last, enjoy:
Jonathan Miller interviews American atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett.
Atheist Tapes - Daniel Dennett 1
Atheist Tapes - Daniel Dennett 2
Atheist Tapes - Daniel Dennett 3
Jonathan Miller interviews biologist Richard Dawkins.
Atheist Tapes - Richard Dawkins 1
Atheist Tapes - Richard Dawkins 2
Atheist Tapes - Richard Dawkins 3
Jonathan Miller talks to philospher Colin McGinn.
Atheist Tapes - Colin McGinn 1
Atheist Tapes - Colin McGinn2
Atheist Tapes - Colin McGinn 3
Jonathan Miller talks to Nobel prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg.
Atheist Tapes - Steven Weinberg 1
Atheist Tapes - Steven Weinberg 2
Atheist Tapes - Steven Weinberg 3
Jonathan Miller (JM): In the summer of 2003, I began filming the series "Atheism - A Rough History Of Disbelief". As part of the process, I talked to a number of writers, scientists, historians and philosophers. Having secured their cooperation, I was very embarrassed to find that a large proportion of what went on ended up on the cutting room floor, simply because the series would have lasted 24 hours otherwise.
But as it happens, the BBC agreed with me that the conversations were too interesting to be junked and with these six supplementary programmes, they've made the extremely unusual decision to go back to the original material and to broadcast, at length, some of the conversations I had - conservations with people such as English biologist Richard Dawkins, the American philosopher Daniel Dennet, the Cambridge theologian Denys Turner, the American playwright Arthur Miller, the English philosopher Colin McGinn, and the American Nobel Prize winning physicist, Steven Weinberg.
When I talked to the English philosopher Colin McGinn, at his apartment in New York, we discussed at some length the meaning of the word "belief" and much of that discussion is in the Atheism series, but to begin with I just wanted to get from Colin a sense of what it felt like to be a sceptical English philosopher in a country as seemingly religious as the United States.
Colin McGinn (CM): Sometimes Americans will say, "So you don't believe in God.", and I say, "That's right, I don't believe in God.". And they say, "So, you don't believe in anything?". And I say, "I believe in many things." and I don't make jokes, with them about "I believe in tables and chairs.", and I say to them, "You know, I believe in various ethical causes and political ideas and other aesthetic values, intellectual values... there are lots of things I believe in.". And they say, "That's all you believe in?", and I say, "That's all I believe in.".
"Don't you believe in something god-like? You don't believe in the traditional God. Don't you believe there's SOMETHING there?".
And I say, "No. There's nothing there.". And it's very difficult to get across to people who are religious, that when you are an atheist, that you mean you don't believe in anything like that whatsoever. It's not that you think nature is God, or it doesn't have personal qualities or something like that. You don't believe in anything of that type. Nothing supernatural. nothing miraculous, nothing superstitious. No ghosts, no telepathy... you know... nothing of that kind. That's what it's to do with.
It's not that I'm picking on God somehow - or picking on the Christian God and not believing in him. It's just nothing of that type.
JM: Don't you then get the answer, which I get from people who are not necessarily religious - I mean they don't belong to any of the three monotheistic religions... They will say, not just simply "There must be something." to which I would give the same reply as you, but, "Where do you get your spirituality?"
JM: It sounds as if... otherwise there's a shortage of some sort, but I've never been able to get from them whether it's like some vitamin deficiency.
CM: Exactly. Exactly what do they mean by that? Spiritual... Can an atheist be spiritual? I guess it's a matter of definition really... I mean you certainly can't be if it denotes anything supernatural, but... you know aesthetic and ethical values can approximate to what people call the spiritual... you know, the most deeply held beliefs about human behaviour might be counted as spiritual, I don't know. Feelings about nature might be. I mean, I wouldn't use the word, it doesn't seem to me to be a good word to use. A risky word to use, But it doesn't mean you don't have any deep views about things, you know, or deep convictions about things, but often people feel that.
JM: Well that's where I always say the clergyman crouching in the laurel bushes leaps out and says, "Aha! Your deep feelings are, in fact, unacknowledged... acknowledgements of the God you deny."
CM: Yeah, well, one of my deep feelings is that there is no God, and it's a bad idea to believe in God and it's been very harmful, so if that reflects my belief in God, well that's a strange situation! That's one of my deepest convictions - there is no God.
JM [To the viewer]: Now I happen to share Colin's conviction that there is no God and, in my case I never believed it, so I wondered if there had ever been a time in Colin's earlier life when he did believe in God.
CM: With me it was quite precisely delineated. It was... I can't remember the exact dates now, or the exact times, but I think I was about 17 or 18 when the idea of believing in God, and it was Christianity that I was exposed to, became real to me, and it went on for about a year, I would say, not much more than that.
If you'd said to me when I was ten, "Do you believe in God?" I probably would have said yes, I don't know, but it didn't mean anything - it was just sort of "Yeah, everybody does, don't they?" Like the cows... everybody believes in them. But then I actually started studying the Bible because I was studying Divinity A-Level. So I started studying it, but we had a very charismatic teacher - an admirable man, Mr. Marsh, who I wrote about in my autobiography - who was very enthusiastic and he was teaching us the Bible... and I was having to learn the Bible... studying it closely... Old Testament... New Testament... so I know much more about the New Testament than most Christians now... and I... even now, 25 years later, I know more about it than most religious people.
So I actually know it pretty well - it's what got me interested in philosophy... because at the same time I was getting interested in philosophy it was through thinking about religion, studying the Bible, and I think there were two factors... a confluence of two factors here - one was the interest in metaphysical questions, basic questions about the universe... What's it all about? What does it all mean? That kind of question.
And on the other hand there was an ethical component to it, because you find in the New Testament, obviously, a very strong emphasis on ethical aspects of life. I was an idealistic teenager, you know, and it was the '60s so that had a profound impact on me, the ethical side, and I was not brought up in a house where ethical ideas were particularly discussed... and it still has a profound impact on me, the ethical side of it.
So those two things made me think there was more to life than the mundane realities that I'd been used to living up there in Blackpool, you know, with the amusement arcades and the pubs and the fish and chips, you know, and the freezing cold... and there was this idea of philosophical thought, metaphysical ideas, and then these high ethical ideals. Good combination. Good combination.
So I got interested in it and so for a period I was influenced by that and I went to university studying psychology... and... since I stopped studying the Bible, and I wasn't seeing Mr. Marsh any more for our divinity lessons, and I kept it up a bit and I would occasionally talk to people about religion and it just sort of disappeared.
I remember going out and remember sort of trying hard to keep up with it, going to some sort of religious meeting and I was just sort of sitting to it and I thought, "This a load of rubbish. I just don't think this is true any more.". And then I was reading Bertram Russell, Why I'm Not A Christian, and in a few... I don't remember the details, but in a pretty short time I just decided it was all wrong. And I also decided you could keep the ethical side and the philosophical side and jettison the rest.
So Russell represented to me an alternative to religious idealism. It was a more secular idealism... so I realised you could have some of the aspects of religion that appealed to me, but without religion, and the bits that didn't appeal to me, like the virgin birth, miracles, strange ideas about how the universe came around, the sort of bits it's very hard to believe, you could just cut those bits off and you could keep the good bits. So you get rid of the theological baggage of religion and then you keep the sides of it that you like. And that's what I have done ever since, basically the same thing.
JM: Was there any crisis in, as it were... unhitching the metaphysical and divine from the ethical to which you continued to subscribe?
CM: Not in my case, which is... I think it differs from other people's case. In Russell's own description of his fall from theism, he describes it as a deeply painful, traumatic, irrecoverable episode - he spent his whole life somehow dealing with it. Not with me... it was relatively easy... it just happened quite naturally. As I say in my autobiography, it was like shedding the skin, you know... the skin comes off and you have a new skin and it seems fine.
JM: Was there a sense of relief as you shed the skin?
CM: No, I wouldn't say there was relief... disappointment... I think there was disappointment.
CM: I would have liked religion to be true. I'd LIKE it to be true, because I'd like to be... I'd like there to be immortality, I'd like there to be rewards for those who have been virtuous and punishments for those who've not been virtuous - especially the punishments would be good. You know, there's not... there's no justice in this world and it would be good if there was some cosmic force that distributed justice in the proper way that it should be and it still is to me a constant source of irritation and pain that wicked people prosper and virtuous people don't!
So there was a bit of disappointment about those aspects of it, but there was some exhilaration too. I mean... Russell has a description that I think is kind of appropriate of a feeling of a Godless universe as a kind of exhilarating universe. There's something hygienic about it. There's something bracing about it. Whereas the idea that there's this sort of... suffocating presence gazing at your every movement and thought... you know... and gauging everything you do... it's a bit oppressive to think that way.
JM: Well, OK, now here you are, the philosopher that you thought you might become...
JM: ... you have now very fully become. Now, in your role as a philosopher, I'd love you to develop the arguments which were previously intuitional skin-shedding.
JM: Now be more systematic and surgical about it, and say why, in fact, the notion of a god is incredible.
CM: Well, the one set of arguments is the sort of no-evidence arguments. Russell puts it by saying there's no more reason to believe in the Christian God than the Greek gods. No more reason to believe - in other words there's no positive evidence for it. There's no theory that you need to postulate God in to explain some natural phenomenon, which can't be explained by some other theory.
People will sometimes say, "Well, miracles were performed.". There's never any good evidence that miracles WERE performed. The judgement that they were is usually based on some prior opinion that God exists rather than being an independent source for believing that God exists. So... so there's no evidence in terms of what anyone's ever observed. There's no facts about the world that can't be explained without postulating God, so there's no REASON to believe in God, any more than there's any reason to believe in Zeus or the Greek gods.
So that's on the side of whether there's any reason to believe it. There's the question now: are there any reasons to disbelieve it? Any positive arguments against it?
...There are also some arguments for, like the ontological argument. I don't know if you want me to talk about the ontological argument?
JM: Well, tell us what that argument is.
CM: The ontological argument. This is a very nice argument. Anselm of Canterbury thought of it, I think it must be in the 15th century. He argued that the definition of God entails that God exists. Now this would be a fantastic result... just the mere definition tells us that God exists. So what's the definition of God? The most perfect conceivable being. Or lets say the most powerful conceivable being, is an equally good way of putting it. And then Anselm argued as follows - well suppose this most powerful or most perfect being did not exist... right... then he would lack the attribute of existence, but the attribute of existence is one of the perfections or one of the things that makes a being powerful, but since he is by definition the most perfect being, he must have the attribute of existence, therefore God exists.
So lets go over the argument again. Get the definition of God. How is God to be defined? Let's compare this with the unicorn. How is the unicorn to be defined? A unicorn is a horse with a horn growing out of the middle of it's head. There's nothing in that definition to imply that unicorns exist, and unicorns don't exist. But let's define God. An all-powerful, all-good, all-knowing being... right... these are some of his characteristics... and everybody will agree that's the definition of God. So now one of the definitions is he's the most perfect being. One of his attributes is utmost perfection, un-improvable perfection, OK? That's the definition of God. Now Anselm argues, but if God didn't exist, wouldn't he be less perfect than a being just like him in all those attributes except that that being existed? 'cause to exist is to be more perfect than not to exist. It's better to exist than not to exist. God is as good as you can be, as superior as can be so he must exist. So we know by definition that God exists.
It's a brilliant argument, but it's wholly unconvincing to everybody who hears it, they think, "There's something going wrong with that. That's a very strange argument."
JM: Alright. Tell us what's wrong with it.
CM: Well that's... the difficulty is that no-body's ever been able to pinpoint exactly what's wrong with it. I'll tell you what I think is wrong with it, although the issue is by no means clear. I think that what's very funny in the argument... the bit that goes... that strikes you as sophistical is the bit that says, "God's the most perfect. Existence is one of the perfections.". It sounds superficially plausible, but what does it really mean? "Is one of the perfections." I like to compare this to somebody who said, "Let's take the most tasty meal conceivable... The most tasty meal conceivable...". Does that mean anything, to say that? There's the most tasty meal I've ever had. But it's not well defined, the most tasty meal conceivable, or... you know... the best football game conceivable... not that I've ever seen. What does it mean? It's not a very clearly meaningful idea.
So if we say we're defining God as the most perfect being, and we don't really lay down very clearly what we mean by perfect, then what does it really mean, the most perfect being? ...You know... he has the most perfect colours...? We know he doesn't have the most perfect colours because he's not coloured at all... you know... it's not clear what it means. So we can't always think that phrases like, "the most perfect conceivable F" are always meaningful. Sometimes they are meaningful. The most perfect conceivable triangle, it means one whose angles are precisely 180 degrees. But the most perfect conceivable moral being - what does that mean? It's not clear that it's so well defined.
So that's what I think is wrong with it, but it's like many a philosophical argument, just because you can't refute it, doesn't mean that you should take it all that seriously, especially... you know... form your common sense beliefs on the basis of it.
JM: All right, so much for the ontological proof...
CM: Yes, that's the ontological argument.
JM: Umm... how about the other ones?
CM: I... here's one I like. People think... I think that psychologically this is quite important to people. That's why this argument is more important psychologically... people think, "Without God, life is meaningless. Where is meaning? It's just an empty charade of... you know... pointless and purposeless, valueless going from one thing to the next.". Well, the first reply to make to that is, you don't necessarily need to seek the meaning of life outside of life.
Here's the premise, the assumption of that argument - without there being a being outside of human life, human life would have no meaning. So the meaning of human life must be conferred by another being. Here's my question - what gives the meaning to that being's life? How does his life, God's life derive meaning? Well here's a dilemma, right? Either God's life has meaning intrinsically just by his existence, or not, right? Well if it does, then it's possible to have a meaningful life intrinsically, so why can't our lives have intrinsic meaning? Their meaning doesn't have to be conferred by another being.
JM: But the religious might want to argue, without even reverting to the ontological argument for the existence of God, the fact... the observable fact that we do have values...
JM: ...and meanings is in fact evidence of the fact that something has
JM: ...given the meanings in the same way that the argument says something has given the thing design.
CM: Yeah. Well there's... I think there are two points there. One point is that the existence of values itself is an argument for the existence of God. Like an evidence argument. Another point though all together is the idea that morality can only have a foundation if it's based on God's commands or God's desires, God's wishes. The first one of course, the thing to say about that is there's just no reason to think that the existence of values in human society depends on the existence of God. I mean, why should it? There's just no clear logical argument for that, any more than the existence of ears is a reason. There are various aspects of human life - there's art, value, family, there's all sorts of things that we take to be valuable. Why do any of these require us to postulate God to explain their existence?
A more worrying question for many people is, they don't see that morality can have any foundation, can have any absoluteness, unless there's a god to certify it... legitimate it. That's a... you can see that point. It's a point that was discussed by Plato long ago in the Euthyphro argument. And he makes - well I think - Socrates makes a completely compelling refutation of that argument and it simply goes as follows.
The argument, you see, goes like this: Suppose you take as a moral principle, it's wrong to steal. People say, "Why is it wrong to steal?". Answer - because God says it's wrong to steal. God commanded that you should not steal. OK? The point that Socrates makes in that dialogue is to say, "How can God give this moral rule a foundation? Either the moral rule is intrinsically a sound moral rule, or it can't be given soundness and legitimacy from an external command.". Suppose we had the rule "It's right to murder.". Somebody said, "That's not right! Murder is wrong!". And somebody said in reply, "But God says it's right to murder.". That doesn't convince you that it's right to murder. If God says that something is right which isn't right, God's wrong. He can't make something right just by saying it's right. God can only... what God has to do is reflect what's right in his commandments so that's what he really does. It is wrong to steal. It's wrong to steal and wrong to murder. So God says that it's wrong and he's right to say that. Why? Because it IS wrong in the two cases! He doesn't make it wrong by saying it. He can't do that. If that were so, we'd have no reason to respect God's morality...
JM: So God as it were... appropriates our spontaneous and indigenous values...
JM: ...which then get reflected back on this hypothetical entity...
JM: ...which then seems to validate our beliefs.
CM: Exactly. So we don't need God to validate our moral beliefs - he couldn't validate them. He only... His validations only work insomuch as they correspond to what IS right and in wrong. He can't make something be morally right when it's not.
Another way to put it is, it can't be a matter of God's free decision or whim what's right and wrong. People can see that morality is what it is. They know what they ought to do. But human beings are weak. We have weakness of the will. We don't always do what we know very well we ought to do. And that is... in most people produces the phenomenon of guilt. Guilt is a powerful negative force in people's minds. People hate guilt, right, guilt is a bad feeling. So you need something to prevent guilt. To prevent guilt, you need something to make you do what you know is right, but since human beings are weak, they don't always do what they know is right, but God gives you an extra motive to do what's right, beyond morality itself. Morality gives you a motive, but it's a motive which is rather fragile. Rather... you know... momentary, intermittent and easily broken. But if you've got the idea of God there, it can sort of give it some more oomph, gives it more power, and then you can do what you know is right more easily, more regularly, and that's, you know, perfectly sensible. It's reasonable... it's not unreasonable anyway for an atheist to think that maybe we need God, or people need God, because without God they can't do what they know is right.
I don't believe that myself. I think people are not as morally depraved as religious tradition says. I think most people will do what's right in normal conditions. They won't always of course, but normally they will. They don't need God. And I think people who sometimes have lived with God as their moral support, their moral whatever it is they're getting from it, when they cease to believe in God, they feel that it was not as difficult to be moral afterwards as they suspected it might be. And in fact it was better, because there's a corrupting part to that conception of God, which is the idea that you're doing something good because God will reward you and think well of you. And that's a corrupting idea. It's much better to do something good because it's good, and only because it's good, and that's your only reason for doing it. But the idea you're going to get the warm fuzzy feeling, "Oh, God's really pleased with me today. I did this.", that's not what morality ought to be about.
JM [To the viewer]: Having discussed the various arguments that have been offered in favour of the existence of God, I asked Colin to summarise some of the best reasons for not JM believing.
CM: Well the classic argument against is the problem of evil. This is a... even religious people find this one very uncomfortable. So the argument is simply, God is meant to be a being who is all-knowing, all-powerful and all-good, so how come there is suffering and pain in the world? Why does God allow it? God, obviously if he is all-good, thinks that it's bad that this should occur, would rather it didn't occur, like any decent person would rather it didn't occur, and yet he lets it occur. Now that would be OK if he didn't have the power to change it, but he's meant to be all-powerful. I mean we're told by religious people he intervenes all the time in various ways, so why doesn't he intervene to prevent the death of a child, or the torture of a prisoner? He doesn't do it. So you don't want to conclude from that, "Well God is actually quite bad... quite a bad person.". That's a conceivable conclusion you might draw. But what you conclude from it is the combination of these two characteristics is inconsistent. He's all-good and he's all-powerful - you need all-knowing too of course because he has to know what's going on - but it's essentially the conflict between being all-good and all-powerful and the existence of evil.
The standard reply to that, the apologists of religion will give the reply, "God created human beings with free will.". Now there's the question, why did he do that, knowing the results were going to be horrific? That was a pretty wicked thing to do to start with. But let's put that one aside. The problem with that argument is that not all suffering in the world comes from the exercise of human will. Much of it comes from human... not human, natural catastrophes, or disease, accidents... All sorts of things can cause tremendous suffering in humans... You know, someones born with a genetic disease, no human being had any role in whatsoever in creating that. That comes from nature - God's creation of course, we're told.
So God created a world in which it was inevitable there'd be tremendous suffering on the part of completely innocent human beings.
JM: But there might be religious argument to the effect that he created this obstacle course...
JM: ...for his created creatures endowed with free will in order to bring out the best in them.
CM: Yes... and I always... this one to me brings out to me the sort of... hard-hearted, immoral side of this way of thinking about things. Because just think about what's being said when somebody says that. You've got the innocent child with some terrible disease, and God's up there saying, "I really need to test some people here. The obstacle course needs to be put there. Let me just pick on this two year old girl, put her through this terrible ordeal, and I'll test the other people.". I mean, if any human being had told you that's what they'd done - suppose I decided, in my wisdom, "I need to test some people here. I need to improve their moral characters, so I'm going to do this terrible thing to their child.", you know, you'd think I was the wickedest person it the world to do that. Well why isn't God? If that's what God does, I have no respect for him. I think it's a wicked thing to do. God shouldn't do that if God cares about human beings, he should not allow that to happen. to do.
JM [To the viewer]: Having discussed the argument both for and against religion, we turned to speculation as to the reason why so many people still had a need to believe.
CM: I don't think anybody has any very good ideas about why this is, especially why they believe in it to the extent that they do. What I would speculate about it is I think it's less to do with the idea of death and survival of death, and rewards in heaven and punishment in hell. I think it's a sort of cosmic loneliness. I think that's what's behind it. It's hard for people to accept that we are alone, and that nobody cares. Outside of us. I think there's a kind of constitutive reason for that, which is human consciousness is essentially sealed off from other consciousnesses. I'm sealed... mine has sealed off from you. We only know each other indirectly, through the symptoms of the body, and yet we yearn to be in contact with other people. Love is a lot to do with that. So we have this feeling that we are, as conscious, embodied beings, somehow lonely is out essence, cut off in out essence, and that's a feeling that we struggle against. You can see it in literature and so on, dealing with this theme. Frankenstein actually deals with it a lot.
So we feel this sort of metaphysical, existential alone-ness in the universe and God is a wonderful antidote to that, because in the case of God, God, we feel comes directly into our minds, and we're directly in contact with God. You see God doesn't know us through our bodies, God knows us intimately in our minds. And that satisfies a deep craving, I think, in the human soul, right, for communion with something outside the self.
JM: I'd just like to finish with one thing. Here you are, like myself, reluctant to use the word, "atheist" to describe what we are - because it's an accusation, rather than, as it were a conviction, in a country which, in fact, has become more intensely religious. Do you find it difficult to uphold such ideas in the America of the 21st century?
CM: Let me say something about the first point, the label... the label one has. Yeah, to be called an atheist it's a negative view, and it suggests that one is a sort of professional atheist... you spend your life arguing against God, the way Russell did. And I think that's a rather undignified and pointless procedure. Once you've decided there isn't a god, there's not much point in inveighing against it, unless you think that huge harm is done by the belief in God. But you don't... nobody spends their time trying to prove to others that the Greek gods don't exist. You know, you just decide that they don't, and that's the end of the story for you.
So I like to distinguish atheism from antitheism. Antitheism is opposition to theism. I am an antitheist, because I believe that religion is harmful in human life. So I am an antitheist. I'm not just an atheist who... suddenly, my only values are that I don't agree with it. I'm actively opposed to it. But then I distinguish that from what I call post-theism or post-atheism, which is the healthy state of mind where you've put all that behind you. Now we can't do that yet because there's lots of religion in the world, and lots of bad results of it.
But to me, the ideal society would be one where the question of religion didn't really arise for people, or if it did, it wasn't a heavy question for them. They would say to each other, "You know, those humans used to believe, back there in 2003, some of them believed there was this God and he did this... others didn't and they did TV programs about why they didn't. What a funny debate that was!". So it would be a post-theist society, where it just wasn't an issue.
Online Reading List
- An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish by Bertrand Russell (1943)
- Bible Teaching and Religious Practice by Mark Twain
- God is Imaginary
- Is there an Artificial God? by Douglas Adams (1998)
- Skeptics Annotated Bible
- The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine (1795)
- Which Way? by Robert Ingersoll (1884).
- Why I Am Not A Christian by Bertrand Russell (1927)