Keller on Life’s Big Questions, Telos, & Skepticism

Keller discussing skepticism and answering life’s big questions like “What is evil?” discusses W. H. Auden’s struggle with this very concept during World War II. Auden was raised in a Christian home, rejected Christianity, and then returned to his faith after realizing there was no other grounds to reject evil like the Nazis. Says Keller,
So if it’s natural for the strong to eat the weak, and if we just got here only through the natural, unguided process of evolution, why do we suddenly turn around when the strong nations start to eat the weak nations and say, that is wrong? On what basis can we do that? On what basis can we say that genocide in the Sudan, where a strong ethnic group “eats” the weak one, is wrong? If there is no God, then my views of justice are just my opinion—so how then can we denounce the Nazis? . . .

In Alasdair MacIntyre’s book After Virtue, the philosopher offers the kind of reasoning that brought the poet Auden to faith. MacIntyre argues that you can never determine whether something is good or bad unless you know its telos. So he asks, for example, how can you tell whether a watch is a good one or a bad one? You have to know what its purpose is. If I try to hammer a nail with my watch, and it breaks, should I complain that it is a “bad watch”? Of course not; it wasn’t made to hammer nails. That is not its purpose. Its purpose is to tell you the time at a glance. The same principle should apply to humanity. How can you say that someone is a good person or a bad person unless you know what they are designed for, what their purpose is?

Ah, but wait. What if you say, “I don’t know if there is a God or not, and I don’t think human beings were designed for anything.” Do you see your dilemma now? If you believe that, you should never speak about good or bad people again. If you believe we have no[…]”

Keller, Timothy. The Skeptical Student. NY, New York City: Penguin Group / Dutton, 2012. 16.