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This item is taken from PN Review 204, Volume 38 Number 4, March - April 2012.

Letters from Roger Caldwell, Elaine Feinstein
Facts and Values

For Robert Griffiths (PNR 202) Shelley is radically confused: the latter demands in his Atheism pamphlet that the existence of God be subject to the demands of reason and evidence as with any other matter of fact, whereas as a poet he should have known that there is another route to the discovery of truth via the poetic imagination. In short, since God is a product of the creative imagination there is no need for all the tedious paraphernalia of empirical method: the matter is already settled - by imaginative fiat. Is it Shelley who is radically confused here or is it, rather, Griffiths himself?

For on the Griffiths account there are two paths to the discovery of truth - or, as I should prefer to put it, truths: the empirical method with its laborious sifting of evidence, and that of the poetic imagination, although the truths of the latter may not 'stand in any clear-cut relationship to the evidence of the senses' or 'be open to rational demonstration'. But, in that case, why should we believe them? And if the two 'methods' are somehow on a par, why cannot we use the latter to establish, say, whether atoms exist or whether it will rain on Tuesday? The obvious answer - which Griffiths rejects - is that the two are not on a par, and that poets are not concerned with matters of fact to begin with, any more than novelists, composers or sculptors are. Simply put, that is not their business.

The Romantics, of course, were capable of making extravagant claims for the powers of the imagination - though it is notable that Shelley, in the quotations offered by Griffiths, doesn't claim that poetry can establish matters of fact: showing the 'beauty of true virtue' is another matter from determining, say, whether Caesar crossed the Rubicon. In the common sense of the word 'imagination' we cannot imagine what exists before our eyes; for we already know that it exists. I can imagine that there is a wad of banknotes in my bureau drawer, but unless they are also actually there, I cannot go out and spend them - except in my imagination.

A fictional character is likewise a product of the imagination: Conan Doyle would have had no need to invent Sherlock Holmes had Sherlock Holmes already existed. But it is no good going round to 221b Baker Street to ask him to solve your problems: he can solve no problems because he isn't there. So too with God. He either exists or he doesn't. If he is only a product of the imagination there is little point in praying to him or worshipping him, since he can't answer your prayers or acknowledge your devotions.

Of course, for most of us and in most societies the question of God's existence never arises in the first place. In a fully religious society God's existence is a presupposition of our own existence: to be an atheist, if it is possible, is at best mere folly. In a fully secular society the issue will never arise because the opposite presupposition applies: God's existence (or, rather, non-existence) will never be in question to begin with. It is only in a mixed society that the question arises, and even then it is doubtful whether anyone would be converted to a belief in God by a supposed proof of God's existence (which, with all respect to Saints Anselm and Aquinas, is a tall order) or converted to atheism by a supposed disproof (which, with all respect to Shelley, is an even taller one).

It is, I suppose, considerations of this sort that mislead Griffiths into thinking that the current New Atheism debate is irrelevant. In one sense it is, in that it is essentially a rehash of the Victorian debate over evolution, which is itself, intellectually speaking, a sideshow compared with the seventeenth-century attempts to give a coherent account of a world ruled by deterministic scientific laws which curtailed the powers of God to intervene in the world he had himself created. But in another sense the current debate is not irrelevant, in that, regardless of what people believe, it remains a matter of fact whether God exists or not. Either God created the universe, or he didn't. If the matter cannot be settled by the powers of reason, it certainly can't be settled by the powers of imagination. Griffiths' blithe disregard of the difference between facts and values, and his holding to an undifferentiated notion of 'truth' rather than considering different sorts of 'truths', lead him (it seems unwittingly) back into the postmodernist night in which all cows are black, where science and literature are both involved in telling stories, and where 'truths' are replaced by 'truth-effects'. I had hoped we had moved on from such follies, but this is the situation to which Griffiths is, it seems, content to return us.

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On Prospect

Ian Brinton's account of The English Intelligencer and The Wivenhoe Park Review in PNR 203 was fascinating, and I look forward to his Andrew Crozier Reader. However, his references to Prospect are misleading. Brinton says that 'Prospect closed after Prynne's issue number 6', which, together with Prynne's remark in a letter about 'restarting' Prospect, might suggest he was responsible for the whole enterprise. In fact, I started the magazine in 1959, and edited the first five issues.


This item is taken from PN Review 204, Volume 38 Number 4, March - April 2012.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
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