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Theism and Cosmology

1938 to 1939
University of Glasgow

In his 1938–1939 Gifford Lectures, Laird discusses the possibility of a natural theology based solely on the demands of reason and metaphysical consistency, by addressing the fundamental issues common to the study of natural theology (theism, cosmology, creation, eternity, divine ubiquity, omnipotence, teleology and design). The present volume anticipates the work developed in the subsequent course of Gifford Lectures where Laird applies his metaphysics to the particular variety of theism found within Christianity. Together, these two lecture series explore, by way of an appeal to rational argument, a natural theology which is divorced from religious experience. Unlike previous Gifford Lecturers, Laird intends to explore natural theology for philosophical rather than confessional purposes. Unfettered from ecclesial responsibility, Laird’s project is free to overturn many of the vestigial historic and dogmatic elements endemic to the study of natural theology.

In Lecture 1, ‘Concerning Natural Theology’, Laird proposes to arrive at a natural theology which is on par with what the ancients referred to as a ‘philosophical theology’, that is, a theology which is able to appeal to rational arguments for the defence of its own propositions. Laird asserts that for such a system to remain open to independent metaphysical enquiry, neither revelation nor kerygma can be employed in defence of truth. In Lecture 2, ‘Concerning Theism’, Laird offers an inclusive understanding of theism which encompasses polytheism, pantheism and deism in its definition. Though these disparate ‘theisms’ all profess a belief in God or gods, a philosophical theism must additionally assert a theory which is both cosmic and unified. Lecture 3, ‘The Cosmological Argument’, explores the inadequacy of an appeal for the existence of God which is based on the appearance of a fundamental lack in the world. By asserting that a) the world exists and b) the world needs some kind of Divine assistance, the Cosmological Argument bases its logic upon a necessary contingency which Laird rejects as being fallacious. In Lecture 4, ‘Creation’, Laird engages with the three main arguments for the Divine creation of the world, traditionally appealed to by theists: a) that the world was made out of something; b) that the world was made out of nothing; c) that the world was made out of the divine being. As an alternative to these three positions, Laird makes an appeal to process thought and argues through Whitehead that creation and creativity are part of the cosmic system of being and becoming. In light of the speculative nature of such discourse, Laird concludes his lecture by arguing that although the topic of creation should not be evaded, overconfidence should be avoided.

Following from his discussion of Creation and creativity, Lecture 5, ‘Eternity’, reflects on the ongoing process of creation in terms of the eternal. The topic is explicated in three parts. First, Laird argues that mutability and succession are common characteristics which encompass all reality. Second, Laird attempts to dismiss many of the vagaries surrounding definitions of the term ‘eternity’ by judging the viability of three possible definitions: eternity as everlastingness; eternity as the everlasting now; and eternity as timeliness of truth. Finally, Laird touches on the implications of mutability and eternity upon theism. If questions pertaining to eternity boil down to discussions of temporality, questions arising from Lecture 6, ‘Ubiquity’, boil down to discussions of spatiality. Laird discusses what in contemporary parlance is described as the omnipresence of the Divine by dialoguing with six key elements of the phenomenology of space. Laird concludes by arguing that if God’s actions are ubiquitous, then God’s being must be ubiquitous as well.

In Lecture 7, ‘Omnipotence’, Laird couches his argument by asserting that the notion of unlimited potency is problematic in light of the fantastical speculations which it can give rise to. As an alternative, Laird recommends discussing divine power in terms of omnificence (God as all-creating) rather than omnipotence (God as all-powerful), a move which allows his argument to touch upon the problem of causality, which he discusses by way of the three principal views: the uniformitarian, the activist and the logical (or quasi-logical). Lecture 8, ‘Teleology’, discusses the role played by foresight (‘prospicience’) in determining the teleology of intentional (‘idead’) and unintentional (‘unidead’) actions in human, natural and technological agents. In human agents, intentional teleology is action performed with foresight and a concern for the Good. In contrast, unintentional teleology (which occurs in the natural world) is concerned with biological maintenance values rather than human values or the Good. Though nonhuman, technological agency (or ‘machine-like’ teleology) is equated with intentional teleology, as it reflects the intentional actions of human agents who have employed technology for the purpose of achieving a particular goal. Laird’s lengthy exposition on teleology provides a foundation for Lecture 9, ‘The Argument from Design’. Here, Laird argues that the appearance of order and teleology in nature fails to provide any necessary proof for the existence of a divine (intentional) cosmic teleology, in what he argues to be the unintentional maintenance drive of the cosmos. In his final lecture (10), ‘Examination of Cosmological Theism’, Laird concludes by asserting that theism cannot rely on cosmological proofs. Yet, he concludes his lecture by conceding that the inability for theism to be proven does not imply that it is irresponsible for one to believe in a God or gods.

  • Michael W. DeLashmutt, University of Glasgow