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Mind and Deity

1939 to 1940
University of Glasgow

In his 1940 Gifford Lectures, Laird further develops the metaphysical system which was initially discussed in his 1939 series 'Theism and Cosmology'. Together, these two series explore, by way of an appeal to rational argument, the notion of natural theology as understood apart from religious experience. Unlike previous Gifford Lectures, Laird's intent is to explore natural theology for philosophical rather than confessional purposes. Laird's project, unfettered from ecclesial responsibility, is free to overturn many vestigial historic and dogmatic elements endemic to the study of natural theology.

In Lecture 1, 'The Ontological Argument', Laird recounts the historical development of this proof for the existence of God by tracing the idea through Anselm to Descartes, with interest also in Leibniz. Citing the breakdown of the argument in Kant and subsequently in Hegel, Laird unequivocally concludes that the ontological argument is a 'sham' and should be replaced with the less weighty (but still philosophically useful) ontological 'assertion'. In the following lecture, 'The Nature of Mind', Laird discusses the historical problems which are related to the study of mind, and argues that neither pure ‘phenomenalism’ nor pure ‘reflexiveness’ is capable of providing an answer to the mind’s self-awareness. Rather, Laird suggests that mind (which he identifies with self-acquaintance) is both transcendent and reflective. In Lecture 3, 'The Implications of Idealism', Laird argues against both ontological and epistemological idealism, citing in particular the difficulties inherent within pan-idea-ism (the belief that nothing but ideas exists), pan-ideatism (the belief that all that is known to exist must be imagined) and pan-psychism (the doctrine that nothing exists apart from the mind).

From Lecture 4, 'Omniscience', Laird begins to discuss aspects of natural theology which specifically intersect with Christian theological doctrines, as opposed to more broadly understood issues relating to theism in general. This commences with a discussion of what constitutes omniscience, asking after the plausibility of an omniscient being. Laird explicitly doubts the credibility of this doctrine, asserting that omniscience — construed as either knowing everything that is known or knowing everything that could be known — is philosophically indefensible. In Lecture 5, 'Divine Personality', Laird confronts the orthodox Christian understanding of a personal God and speculates as to whether a denial of the personhood of God is necessarily concomitant with atheism. In Lecture 6, 'Providence', Laird explores what are described as God's common and special graces, with respect to human sin and morality. Laird explores providence in terms of the argument from design, looking at how divine action reflects the means and ends of creatures as oriented towards a purposive goal. Lecture 7, 'Value and Existence', argues that existence and value mutually presuppose each other — there is no existence apart from value or value apart from existence.

In Lecture 8, 'The Moral Proofs of Theism', Laird argues against moral proofs of God, asserting that morality does not presuppose a giver of moral command, and that practical reason, within an acting agent, does not require the transcendent. Second, Laird reflects on the relationship among theology, religion and philosophical ethics, arguing that theology is unable to abstract the essential meaning of the good or right apart from philosophy.

In his penultimate lecture (Lecture 9) entitled 'Pantheism', Laird rejects what he sees as the inconsistently dismissive treatment of pantheism by most theists and theologians. Laird argues that pantheism is perhaps a plausible foundation for a conceivable metaphysics, and is more logically consistent than other notions of theism. Finally, in Lecture 10, 'Concluding Reflections', Laird bridges his two courses of lectures by describing the correlating and divergent elements of each.