Philosophy: The Basics
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Philosophy: The Basics

Nigel Warburton

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eBook - ePub

Philosophy: The Basics

Nigel Warburton

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'Philosophy: The Basics deservedly remains the most recommended introduction to philosophy on the market. Warburton is patient, accurate and, above all, clear. There is no better short introduction to philosophy.' - Stephen Law, author of The Philosophy Gym

Philosophy: The Basics gently eases the reader into the world of philosophy. Each chapter considers a key area of philosophy, explaining and exploring the basic ideas and themes including:

  • Can you prove God exists?
  • How do we know right from wrong?
  • What are the limits of free speech?
  • Do you know how science works?
  • Is your mind different from your body?
  • Can you define art?
  • How should we treat non-human animals?

For the fifth edition of this best-selling book, Nigel Warburton has added an entirely new chapter on animals, revised others and brought the further reading sections up to date. If you've ever asked 'what is philosophy?', or wondered whether the world is really the way you think it is, this is the book for you.

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Does God exist? This is a fundamental question, one which most of us ask ourselves at some time in our lives. The answer which each of us gives affects not only the way we behave, but also how we understand and interpret the world, and what we expect for the future. If God exists, then human existence may have a purpose, and we may even hope for eternal life. If not, then we must create any meaning in our lives for ourselves: no meaning will be given to them from outside, and death is probably final.
When philosophers turn their attention to religion they typically examine the various arguments that have been given for and against God’s existence. They weigh up the evidence and look closely at the structure and implications of the arguments. They also examine concepts such as faith and religious belief to see if they can make sense of the way people talk about God.
The starting point for most philosophy of religion is a very general doctrine about the nature of God, known as Theism. This is the view that one God exists, that he or she is omnipotent (capable of doing anything), omniscient (knows everything), and supremely benevolent (all-good). Such a view is held by most Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike. Here I will focus on the Christian view of God, though most of the arguments will apply equally to the other Theistic religions, and some will be relevant to any religion.
But does this God described by Theists actually exist? Can we prove that he or she does? Should a reasonable person believe that no such God exists, a position known as atheism? Or is agnosticism, the suspension of belief (or sitting on the fence, as some people would describe it), the appropriate reaction? There are many different arguments intended to prove God’s existence. I shall consider the most important of these in this chapter.

The Design Argument

One of the most frequently used arguments for God’s existence is the Design Argument, sometimes also known as the Teleological Argument (from the Greek word telos, which means ‘purpose’). This states that if we look around us at the natural world we can’t help noticing how everything in it is suited to the function it performs: everything bears evidence of having been designed. This is supposed to demonstrate the existence of a Creator. If, for example, we examine the human eye, we see how its minute parts all fit together, each part cleverly suited to what it was apparently made for: seeing.
Supporters of the Design Argument, such as William Paley (1743–1805), claim that the complexity and efficiency of natural objects such as the eye are evidence that they must have been designed by God. How else could they have come to be as they are? Just as by looking at a watch we can tell that it was designed by a watchmaker, so, they argue, we can tell by looking at the eye that it was designed by some sort of Divine Watchmaker. It is as if God has deliberately left evidence of his or her existence all around us in the world.
This is an argument from an effect to its cause: we look at the effect (the watch or the eye), and from examination of it we try to tell what caused it (a watchmaker or a Divine Watchmaker). It relies on the idea that a designed object like a watch is in some ways very similar to a natural object such as the eye. This sort of argument, based on a similarity between two things, is known as an argument from analogy. Arguments from analogy rely on the principle that if two things are similar in some respects they will very likely be similar in others.
Those who accept the Design Argument tell us that everywhere we look, particularly in the natural world – whether at trees, cliffs, animals, the stars, or whatever – we can find further confirmation of God’s existence. Because these things are far more ingeniously constructed than a watch, the Divine Watchmaker must have been correspondingly more intelligent than the human watchmaker. Indeed, the Divine Watchmaker must have been so powerful, and so clever, that it makes sense to assume that it was God as traditionally understood by Theists.
However, there are strong arguments against the Design Argument, several of which were raised by the philosopher David Hume (1711–76) in his posthumously published Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, and in section XI of his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.

Criticisms of the Design Argument

Weakness of Analogy

One objection to the argument just set forth is that it relies on a weak analogy: it takes for granted that there is a significant resemblance between natural objects and objects which we know to have been designed. But it is not obvious that, to use the same example again, the human eye really is like a watch in any important respect. Arguments from analogy rely on there being a strong similarity between the two things being compared. If the similarity is weak, then the conclusions that can be drawn on the basis of the comparison are correspondingly weak. So, for example, a wrist watch and a pocket watch are sufficiently similar for us to be able to assume that they were both designed by watchmakers. But although there is some similarity between a watch and an eye – they are both intricate and fulfil their particular functions – it is only a vague similarity, and any conclusions based on the analogy will as a result be correspondingly vague.
Against this criticism a Theist might still maintain that it is more likely that the eye was designed by a supreme being than that it came about merely by chance.


The existence of a Divine Watchmaker is not, however, the only possible explanation of how it is that animals and plants are so well adapted to their functions. In particular, Charles Darwin’s (1809–82) theory of evolution by natural selection, explained in his book The Origin of Species (1859), gives a widely accepted alternative explanation of this phenomenon. Darwin showed how, by a process of the survival of the fittest, those animals and plants best suited to their environments lived to pass on their characteristics to their offspring. Later scientists have been able to account for the mechanism of evolution in terms of inherited genes. This process explains how such marvellous adaptations to environment as are found in the animal and plant kingdoms could have occurred, without needing to introduce the notion of God.
Of course Darwin’s theory of evolution in no way disproves God’s existence – indeed, many Christians accept it as the best explanation of how plants, animals, and human beings came to be as they are: they believe that God created the mechanism of evolution itself. However, Darwin’s theory does weaken the power of the Design Argument since it explains the same effects without any mention of God as their cause. The existence of such a theory about the mechanism of biological adaptation prevents the Design Argument from being a conclusive proof of God’s existence.

Limitations on Conclusion

Even if, despite the objections mentioned so far, you still find the Design Argument convincing, you should notice that it doesn’t prove the existence of a unique, all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good God. Close examination of the argument shows it to be limited in a number of ways.
First, the argument completely fails to support monotheism – the view that there is just one God. Even if you accept that the world and everything in it clearly shows evidence of having been designed, there is no reason to believe that it was all designed by one God. Why couldn’t it have been designed by a team of lesser gods working together? After all, most large-scale, complex human constructions such as skyscrapers, pyramids, space rockets, and so on, were made by teams of individuals, so surely if we carry the analogy to its logical conclusion it will lead us to believe that the world was designed by a group of gods working together.
Second, the argument doesn’t necessarily support the view that the Designer (or designers) was all-powerful. It could plausibly be argued that the universe has a number of ‘design faults’: for instance, the human eye has a tendency to short-sightedness, and to cataracts in old age – hardly the work of an all-powerful Creator wanting to create the best world possible. Such observations might lead some people to think that the Designer of the universe, far from being all-powerful, was a comparatively weak god or gods, or possibly a young god experimenting with his or her powers. Maybe the Designer died soon after creating the universe, allowing it to run down of its own accord. The Design Argument provides at least as much evidence for these conclusions as it does for the existence of the God described by the Theists. So the Design Argument alone cannot prove that the Theists’ God rather than some other type of God or gods exists.
Finally, on the question of whether the Designer is all-knowing and all-good, many people find the amount of evil in the world counts against this conclusion. This evil ranges from human cruelty, murder, and torture, to the suffering caused by natural disasters and disease. If, as the Design Argument suggests, we are to look around us to see the evidence of God’s work, many people will find it hard to accept that what they see is the result of a benevolent Creator. An all-knowing God would know that evil exists; an all-powerful God would be able to prevent it occurring; and an all-good God would not want it to exist. But evil continues to occur. This serious challenge to belief in the Theists’ God has been much discussed by philosophers. It is known as the Problem of Evil. In a later section we will examine it in some detail, together with several attempted solutions to it. Here it should at least make us wary about claims that the Design Argument provides conclusive evidence for the existence of a supremely good God.
As can be seen from this discussion, the Design Argument can only give us, at best, the very limited conclusion that the world and everything in it was designed by something or someone. To go beyond this would be to overstep what can logically be concluded from the argument.

The Fine Tuning Argument

Despite the powerful arguments against the Design Argument, some recent thinkers have tried to defend a variant of it known as the Anthropic Principle. This is the view that the chance of the world turning out to be conducive to human survival and development was so tiny that we can conclude that the world is the work of a divine architect. On this view, the fact that human beings have evolved and survived provides us with a proof of God’s existence. God must have controlled the physical conditions in our universe, and fine-tuned them to allow just this kind of life form to evolve. This view is bolstered by scientific research indicating the limited range of suitable starting conditions for a universe in which life could develop at all.

Criticism of the Fine Tuning Argument

The Lottery Objection

There is a major objection to the argument from Fine Tuning. Imagine that you have bought a ticket for a national lottery. There are, perhaps, many millions of tickets, but only one will win. It is statistically highly unlikely that you will win. But you might. If you do, however, this doesn’t demonstrate more than your good luck: it doesn’t follow from the fact that, from amongst all those millions of losing tickets, your winning ticket was chosen that this must have been the result of something more than a random selection. You might, if you are superstitious, read all kinds of significance into the fact that you won the lottery. But anything which is statistically unlikely still can happen. The mistake that defenders of the Fine Tuning argument make is to assume that when something happens which is unlikely, there must be a more plausible explanation of it than that it arose naturally. Our presence in this part of the universe can be adequately explained without recourse to supernatural causes. It is not surprising that we are in a universe where the conditions were just right for beings of our kind to emerge, since there would be no chance whatsoever of us emerging elsewhere. So the fact that we are here cannot be taken as proof of God’s design. Furthermore, the Fine Tuning argument is also vulnerable to the range of criticisms of traditional versions of the Design Argument outlined above.

The First Cause Argument

The Design Argument and its variant the Fine Tuning Argument are based on direct observation of the world. As such they are what philosophers call empirical arguments. In contrast, the First Cause Argument, sometimes known as the Cosmological Argument, relies only on the empirical fact that the universe exists, not on any particular facts about what it is like.
The First Cause Argument states that absolutely everything has been caused by something else prior to it: nothing has just sprung into existence without a cause. Because we know that the universe exists, we can safely assume that a whole series of causes and effects led to its being as it is. If we follow this series back we will find an original cause, the very first cause. This first cause, so the First Cause Argument tells us, is God.
However, as with the Design Argument, there are a number of criticisms of this argument.

Criticisms of the First Cause Argument


The First Cause Argument begins with the assumption that every single thing was caused by something else, but it then proceeds to contradict this by saying that God was the very first cause. It argues both that there can be no uncaused cause, and that there is one uncaused cause: God. It invites the question ‘And what caused God?’ Someone convinced by the First Cause Argument might object that they did not mean that everything had a cause, only that everything except God had a cause. But this is no better. If the series of effects and causes is going to stop somewhere, why must it stop at God? Why couldn’t it stop earlier in the regression, with the appearance of the universe itself?

Not a Proof

The First Cause Argument assumes that effects and causes could not possibly go back for ever in what is termed an infinite regress: a never-ending series going back in time. It assumes that there was a first cause that gave rise to all other things. But must this really have been so?
If we used a similar argument about the future, then we would suppose that there would be some final effect, one which would not be the cause of anything after it. But, although it is indeed difficult to imagine, it does seem plausible to think of causes and effects going on into the future to infinity, just as there is no highest number because we can always add one to any number which is supposed to be the highest one. If it is possible to have an infinite series at all, why then shouldn’t the effects and causes extend backwards into the past to infinity?

Limitations on Conclusion

Even if these two criticisms of the argument can be met, it does not prove that the first cause is the God described by the Theists. As with the Design Argument, there...