Introductory summary by Ted Honderich of Anthony Kenny’s Royal Institute of Philosophy Annual Lecture



            Sir Anthony Kenny was born in Liverpool, studied in and became a Catholic priest in Rome, got the D.Phil in philosophy in Oxford, questioned the Church's doctrine, married, and was excomunicated. Among the places in which he has taught philosophy is Balliol College in Oxford, of which he also became Master. His yet more relevant distinction on the present occasion is his very many books, samples being The Five Ways: St. Thomas Aquinas' Proofs of God's Existence; Wittgenstein; The Metaphysics of Mind; A Life in Oxford; Action, Emotion and Will, and nothing less than A New History of Western Philosophy.


            The lectures in the present volume demonstrate the fact that lecturers from the same lectern may have somewhat different ideas of their audiences, give somewhat different kinds of lecture. This is one such that the familiar words 'needs no introduction' are true of it. If no paragraph of it allows for confusion of it with popular philosophy, its attention to concepts and argument is accompanied by a determination to be understood. If it is philosophy that is indeed concentration on the logic of ordinary intelligence, and is learned and respectful of several philosophical pasts, it is also as pellucid as any in this volume.


            Here and elsewhere, then, the role of an introduction can be little more than a chairman's promise of the interest of a subject that is not part of the monthly round of everyone, in this case God -- and also a promise of the interest of a wider subject, that of the nature of the epistemic facts of knowledge, certainty, truth, belief, reason, scepticism, faith, and the relationships between them, not excluding that of their relative values. In particular, what is the good of faith? And what class of degree is to be awarded to the atheism of he who also informed us of the selfish gene, the distinguished ethologist and evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins?


            Some preliminary thought of some of these matters is followed by consideration of the traditional arguments for the existence of God. The ontological proof, essentially the proposition that God exists by definition of himself, is not saved by a latter-day scholasticism of logicians about possible worlds. Nor is God's existence established by religious experience.


            More attention is given to the argument from design, and in particular the matter of teleology, in its vulgar and maybe true form the idea that the occurrence of effects explains the occurrence of their causes. There is arresting reflection here on the anthropic principle, particular clarifications and developments of the idea that the nature of something requires the existence of a certain kind of cause of it. Who could deny the central idea here? And who can be untouched by the lecturer's attention to Dawkins' consideration of the principle? As much attention is given to religious belief taken as a scientific hypothesis initially on a par with other such hypotheses. Here a range of epistemic attitudes is considered, first credit for it being given to Aquinas.


            I summarize no more, except to remark, first, that faith, after close examination, is deemed not a virtue but a vice, and to report, second, that the lecture may indeed achieve for you its goal, which is the conclusion that belief in God, possibly false, is as reasonable as disbelief, and third, to note the judgement that at least religious narratives are properly regarded as metaphor and to be moved into the category of poetry rather than history.


            Like any good lecture, this one forms questions in your mind. Is the God in whom it is said to be reasonable to believe a lesser one than the one allowed by faith -- and by the hope and promise provided by traditional religion? Should we keep in mind that the history of science, mighty science, is itself importantly a history of literal theories taken as true -- and derived from or at least motivated by metaphor?