Really nice conversation between Gary Gutting and John Caputo about religious belief at the Stone here.
Gutting's interventions are great, with the exception of: "After all the deconstructive talk, the law of noncontradiction still holds."
No. No. No. Deconstruction in part shows exactly where it fails (cf. Chapter 14 of Priest's Beyond the Limits of Thought). This is not just Priest's appropriation of Derrida (as making a version of Russell's paradox) though. In the interview itself, Caputo puts enough on the table to suggest an enclosure paradox with respect to religious belief and practice.
In Louise Antony’s thought-provoking interview, Gary Gutting asked her about the rationality of her atheism if she were confronted with a theist who is an epistemic peer, someone who is equally intelligent, who knows the arguments for and against theism, etc., this was her response:
"In the real world, there are no epistemic peers — no matter how similar our experiences and our psychological capacities, no two of us are exactly alike, and any difference in either of these respects can be rationally relevant to what we believe.” — She further clarifies “How could two epistemic peers — two equally rational, equally well-informed thinkers — fail to converge on the same opinions? But it is not a problem in the real world. In the real world, there are no epistemic peers — no matter how similar our experiences and our psychological capacities, no two of us are exactly alike, and any difference in either of these respects can be rationally relevant to what we believe…The whole notion of epistemic peers belongs only to the abstract study of knowledge, and has no role to play in real life”.
I disagree with Antony’s analysis, and think that the criteria for epistemic peerage can be very much loosened. I do agree with her that the notion, as it is outlined in epistemology, in terms of equal access to evidence, cognitive equality etc is quite stringent, and indeed is very rare in real life. For instance, perhaps two graduate students, trained at the same department with the same advisor and the same specialization, and who are equally smart, would count as epistemic peers with respect to that specialization. However, our philosophical concept of what an epistemic peer is should not be drawn up a priori, but should be informed by how the concept is used in everyday practices, like forensic research, two doctors or midwives discussing a patient’s circumstances, or two scholars who disagree about a key issue in their discipline. Indeed, the idea of epistemic peer is thoroughly entrenched in scientific research, for instance in peer review and open peer commentary. If the notion of “epistemic peer” does not reflect this practice, it is not a sound philosophical notion, and would need to be replaced.
A recent interview in the Stone by Gary Gutting of Alvin Plantinga gave rise to expected criticisms, for instance by Massimo Pigliucci. The wide media exposure of Plantinga puts him forward as somehow representative of what Christian philosophers believe, and if his reasoning is not sound then, as Pigliucci puts it “theology is in big trouble”.
For Plantinga, as is well known and again iterated in this interview, the properly functioning sensus divinitatis is sufficient for belief in God, and one need not have any explicit arguments at all for God’s existence. Nevertheless, Plantinga does say that the “whole bunch taken together” of such arguments are “as strong as philosophical arguments ordinarily get”. In a brief digression to the problem of evil, Plantinga does not even fully acknowledge it as a problem (calling it the “so-called problem of evil”), although he acknowledges there is some strength to it. The problem is then quickly solved with a Fall theodicy, where God mends the abuse of freedom of his creatures through the horrible and humiliating death of his Son, which Plantinga thinks is a “magnificent possible world”.
Overall, I found the tone of this interview somewhat placid. Eleonore Stump has termed this sort of approach toward evil "the Hobbit attitude to evil" (note and update: to clarify, she does not refer to Plantinga's work in the essay, the interpretation is mine). She writes: “Some people glance into the mirror of evil and quickly look away. They take note, shake their heads sadly, and go about their business. ... Tolkien's hobbits are people like this. There is health and strength in their ability to forget the evil they have seen. Their good cheer makes them robust.” — In fairness, Plantinga did write defenses to account for the problem of evil, but in my view, he does not take it seriously enough. Eleonore Stump does not share Plantinga’s reasons for being a religious believer, nor do other philosophers of religion who have spoken out in Morris' and Kelly Clark’s collections of spiritual autobiographies of philosophers who believe. So why do Christian philosophers of religion believe that something like Christian theism is true?
(X-posted on Prosblogion) My last blogpost for this year will be a preliminary report on the qualitative survey I launched last month. In this open survey, I asked professional philosophers of religion (including graduate students) about their motivations and personal belief attitudes, and how their work relates to these beliefs. I am very grateful to all who participated (an amazing 151 respondents!), and to the British Academy for funding this research.
In a series of experiments, the developmental psychologists Paul Harris, Kathleen Corriveau and Melissa Koenig have shown that young children are more confident about the existence of unobservable scientific entities than they are about the existence of unobservable (semi-)religious entities. 5-year-olds in the Boston area, for example, were more sure about the existence of germs and oxygen than they were about the existence of God and Santa Claus. The experimenters were surprised by this finding, and replicated in several settings, including children from religious households in Spain who were sent to religious (Catholic) schools, and children from a Mayan community in Mexico (Santa was replaced by local spirits that people widely express belief in). As I will show below the fold, a plausible explanation for why children are less confident about religious entities is that the testimony to religious entities differs from that of most scientific entities. It that’s true, we need to rethink how to spread and promote the acceptance of “controversial” scientific ideas like climate change, the safety of vaccines, and evolutionary theory. For, as I will argue, some well-meant efforts to promote such ideas may actually backfire and fuel skepticism.
In the end, that’s the real danger we are now facing. Not just the
shutdown, but the rise of the shutdown strategy. By unraveling the
threads of our joint commitment to shared governance, it raises the
chances those threads will be rewoven into something else: something
deeply, and tragically, undemocratic.--Michael Lynch, Opinionator, New York Times, 10/15/2013
Plato's most important observation in political philosophy is that no constitutional system lasts forever. As Michael Lynch discerns in the important piece that I quote above (it's the concluding paragraph), there are dynamics internal to the democratic process that may lead to its own unraveling. Lynch mentions three distinct ones: (i) if "legislative gridlock" becomes "a fixture of American
political life, it will be more tempting, more reasonable, to think that
someone should “step in” to make the decisions. The chorus
calling for action — for the president, for example, to go around the
Congress — will only increase." (ii) When politics stops being perceived to be about (Madisonian) give-and-take, then the sense of shared identity will unravel. (iii) A permanent albeit powerful minority systematically makes normal state functioning impossible--the so-called regular "shut-down strategy." [In (iii) I blend Lynch and Schliesser.]
In response to (i) the Cato's Institute's Roger Pilon, remarks: "Well, that’s already happening – witness the many lawless changes to the
Obamacare law that have been unilaterally imposed by the president,
without so much as a notice to Congress. But it’s not because of any
shutdown threat. It’s because (iv) respect for constitutional limits is today
so atrophied." [HT Jason Stanley on Facebook] From context, it is clear that Pilon is thinking of the growth of the welfare state ("special interest juggernaut poured through with one redistributive
program after another, leading to the unsustainable war of all against
all we see today.") Given his focus on limitations, it is surprising that Pilon does not express concern about the limitless growth of executive power that leads to permanent foreign wars and the surveillance state. Either way, we can recognize in (iv) Hayek's old road to serfdom thesis. But with this particular twist that, rather than edging our way toward totalitarianism, we have already returned to the state of nature ("war of all against
all.") Obviously, if we are in the state of nature then the need for a Hobbesian sovereign to get us out of it will be embraced by all minimally rational agents.
[note: this blogpost collects some scattered thoughts I hope to organize in article form sooner rather than later, for my British Academy project on religious social epistemology, see here]
There is an ongoing debate what we should do when we are confronted with disagreement with an epistemic peer; someone who is as knowledgeable and intellectually virtuous in the domain in question. Should we revise our beliefs (conciliationism), or not engage in any doxastic revision (steadfastness)? Epistemologists aim to settle this question in a principled way, hoping general principles like conciliationism and steadfastness can offer a solution not only for the toy examples that are being invoked, but also for real-world cases that we care passionately about, such as scientific, religious, political and philosophical disagreements. However, such cases have proven to be a hard nut to crack. A referee once commented on a paper I submitted on epistemic peer disagreement in science that the notion of epistemic peer in scientific practice was useless. S/he said "It works for simple cases like two spectators who disagree on which horse finished first, but when it comes to two scientists who disagree whether a fossil is a Homo floresiensis or Homo sapiens, the notion is just utterly useless."
That referee comment has always stuck in my mind as bad news for epistemology: if we can't use our principled answers in epistemology to apply to real-world cases of epistemic peerage, the debate is of marginal value. There seems to be an easy escape: one common response, both by steadfasters and conciliationists has been that we need not revise our beliefs in complex messy cases if we have reason to believe that we have access to some sort of insight that our epistemic peer lacks. van Inwagen, for instance, muses about his disagreements about some philosophical matters with David Lewis, whom he greatly respects: they both know the arguments, and both have considered them equally carefully. But ultimately, van Inwagen thinks
I suppose my best guess is that I enjoy some sort of philosophical insight (I mean in relation to these three particular theses) that, for all his merits, is somehow denied to Lewis. And this would have to be an insight that is incommunicable- -at least I don't know how to communicate it--, for I have done all I can to communicate it to Lewis, and he has understood perfectly everything I have said, and he has not come to share my conclusions.
As one can see, the notion of epistemic peer simply dissolves here, since van Inwagen just asserted that he has insights in the domain in question that are denied to Lewis. To take another example, suppose you are a Christian faced with a seemingly equally intelligent atheist. According to Plantinga (WCB), this disagreement is not a defeater to your beliefs, as you can confidently assume your dissenting peer "has made a mistake, or has a blind spot, or hasn’t been wholly attentive, or hasn’t received some grace she has, or is blinded by ambition or pride or mother love or something else". But how do we know when we are right? Is the "feeling of knowledge", the conviction we are right, any indication that we actually are right? I will argue here that it is not, and therefore, that simply discounting the other as epistemic peer on account of this is not warranted.
True understanding of everything contained in the sacred writings is to be sought from them, and not elsewhere...we do not study the passages about nature as if Scripture were a philosophical textbook [of nature], but rather as books in which the Holy Spirit desired to teach us something necessary for our salvation...For who would deny that if God, the creator of nature, had desired to describe the nature of things for us by His Word, nothing in the whole world could have remained hidden to us, of which we now would not know exactly, the nature, causes, and powers?--G.J.Rheticus, translated by R. Hooykaas.
Rheticus is Copernicus sole student. I was reminded of his significance by examining a PhD dissertation, "Lutheran Astronomers after the Fall (1540-1590): A reappraisal of the Renaissance dynamic of religion and astronomy," by the Ghent historian of science, Dr. Nienke Roelants (recall here and here). The quoted passage was probably written around 1541 (so before Copernicus death and the publication of On the Revolutions) as part of a short treatise on biblical interpretation in light of the embrace of mobility of the earth. It was only published as an addition to Gorleaus Idea Physicae in Utrecht in 1651.
Cuiuscumque humanae mentis ideae aliae adaequatae
sunt, aliae autem mutilatae et confusae.--Spinoza, Ethica 3p1dem
Last week I had the good fortune to examine a PhD dissertation, "Lutheran Astronomers after the Fall (1540-1590): A reappraisal of the Renaissance dynamic of religion and astronomy," by the Ghent historian of science, Nienke Roelants (now: Dr. Nienke Roelants). One thing (among many) that I learned is that Luther and Melanchthon promoted an epistemology that includes a doctrine that has something like these five components: (i) in our Post-Lapsarian state, we need (ii) a mental emendation, that
(iii) makes exact/clear (iv) the (innate) confused idea [of God] we already posses; (v) this emendation is rarely complete in an ordinary life. Part of the process of such emendation is (a) by way of the rigorous (mathematical) study of nature, and (b) by copying the right sort of exemplars.
Descartes' version of the doctrine of innate ideas is that these are always clear and distinct in us. (Is that so? Descartes scholars should feel free to correct me.) So, that once one learns to recognize what is already in one's mind by way of the study of geometry, one has access to clear and distinct ideas. (He attributes a version of this to Plato's Meno in a letter, I think, to Voetius.)
This splendid review by Kelly Sorensen of Wolterstorff's recent volume of essays (edited by the distinguished philosopher, Terence Cuneo [this goes unremarked in the review]) calls attention to six "arguments against public reason liberalism." The first two are described as follows:
First, public reason liberalism actually is not realistic
enough. One's capable adult fellow citizens clearly do not universally
endorse the same reasons. So public reason liberalism has to idealize --
it has to imagine what reasons capable adult fellow citizens would endorse
if they met certain hypothetical conditions, with the presumption that a
consensus or convergence about these reasons would emerge. The
hypothetical conditions vary from one brand of public reason liberalism
to another...Why think
disagreement about these reasons will disappear under idealization? ... So public reason liberalism is not realistic
enough: we are stuck with pluralism, and we cannot idealize our way out
Second, public reason liberalism is paternalistic and patronizing,
despite its lip service to respect. Suppose Jones favors some policy on
religious reasons that do not qualify as public reasons. Smith, a fan of
public reason liberalism, is stuck with telling Jones, "You shouldn't
express your reasons in public discussion, and you shouldn't vote on
them. Here instead are the kinds of reasons that count -- reasons you
would endorse if you were not under-informed and rationally impaired."
Jones will of course find this condescending and patronizing.
Some might wish to explore the degree public reason Liberalism (Rawls, Larmore, etc.) can respond to these problems or needs to be amended by what Sorensen calls "aspirational public reason liberalism." That's not my concern here. Rather, it's fascinating (to me) to see the embrace of political pluralism by a central figure in Reformed philosophy and theology. (Now, one might claim that this just continues Dooyeweerd's embrace of pluralism in a religiously divided society, but Dooyeweerd's philosophy has its own problem(s) with paternalism. [Recall this on Dooyeweerd & Plantinga.]) Progressive and Conservative American protestant political thought is generally characterized by monistic conceptions of the good, which animate a variety of (often noble) moral 'crusades.'
A while ago I read the new theist, a particularly thorough CHE article on WL Craig's natural theology as apologetics. Together with Eric's recent blogpost on religion and changing epistemological fashions, it got me thinking about the role of natural theology in contemporary analytic philosophy of religion, and its wider role in apologetics. What I am wondering is whether analytic philosophy of religion (henceforth aPoR) really is as intellectually respectable as its proponents think it is, and how this connects to the role of natural theology within current aPoR as apologetics. I think these questions are related, somehow, although I would have to think more about how they relate. As someone who does aPOR and who has received Templeton funding, I am obviously not a neutral observer, but I hope to provide some balanced observations nonetheless.
Let me here observe too, continued CLEANTHES, that this religious argument, instead of being weakened by that scepticism so much affected by you, rather acquires force from it, and becomes more firm and undisputed. To exclude all argument or reasoning of every kind, is either affectation or madness. The declared profession of every reasonable sceptic is only to reject abstruse, remote, and refined arguments; to adhere to common sense and the plain instincts of nature; and to assent, wherever any reasons strike him with so full a force that he cannot, without the greatest violence, prevent it. Now the arguments for Natural Religion are plainly of this kind; and nothing but the most perverse, obstinate metaphysics can reject them. Consider, anatomise the eye; survey its structure and contrivance; and tell me, from your own feeling, if the idea of a contriver does not immediately flow in upon you with a force like that of sensation. The most obvious conclusion, surely, is in favour of design; and it requires time, reflection, and study, to summon up those frivolous, though abstruse objections, which can support Infidelity. Who can behold the male and female of each species, the correspondence of their parts and instincts, their passions, and whole course of life before and after generation, but must be sensible, that the propagation of the species is intended by Nature? Millions and millions of such instances present themselves through every part of the universe; and no language can convey a more intelligible irresistible meaning, than the curious adjustment of final causes. To what degree, therefore, of blind dogmatism must one have attained, to reject such natural and such convincing arguments?--Hume, Dialogues 3.
In her post yesterday, Helen de Cruz asserted that Cleanthes "makes an important empirical claim, namely that belief in a designer flows spontaneously, irresistibly and non-inferentially from our consideration of order in the natural world." Because Helen only quoted the sentence on with "anatomise the eye," she left me the straightforward rejoinder that according to Hume such anatomizing always presupposes expert judgment/taste/cultivation. In response, the up-and-coming Hume scholar, Liz Goodnick, pointed to more evidence for Helen's position. (I think it is a bit misleading to call that evidence "Later in Part III,"--it is the very same paragraph, and part of a single, non-trivial argument, but strictly speaking Goodnick is correct.) I am afraid that in larger context the claim by Helen and Liz cannot be sustained, or so I argue below the fold in some detail (apologies).
In many respects, Hume was a cognitive scientist of religion avant la lettre: his Natural history of religion, Enquiry and Dialogues concerning Natural Religion contain bold hypotheses about the origins of religion in human nature (NHR), the reason why people believe in and transmit miracle stories (Enquiry, On Miracles), and the intuitiveness of intelligent design/creationism (NHR and Dialogues). Many of these hypotheses are still being explored by current cognitive scientists of religion (CSR for short) who share Hume’s taste in making bold conjectures about the cognitive, historical and cultural factors that underlie widespread religious beliefs and practices. Recent Hume scholarship asks whether Hume thought that belief in creationism/intelligent design is a natural belief. The answer is not at all obvious, since Hume voices several seemingly conflicting opinions. In this blogpost I want to argue that Hume’s ideas about the intuitiveness of creationism/IDC are very relevant to cognitive science today, and that belief in intelligent design is not a natural belief, but that some of its constituent beliefs are.
The view that being a committed theist must necessarily cloud one's
judgment, or at the very least undermine one's claim to rational
objectivity, has been influential and powerful since the Enlightenment.
To a remarkable extent, Christian thinkers went along with it, in the
hope of attaining a Cartesian-like virtuous epistemic freedom from all
presuppositions. That era is passing, since in both analytic and
phenomenological philosophical traditions, a change in epistemological
fashion has led to greater acceptance of religious experience and
greater awareness that atheist and secular humanist points of departure
involve just as much substantive theoretical commitment as theistic
ones.--James G. Murphy.
Christian thinkers didn't just "go along with," they helped promote the idea that commitment to theism and rational objectivity were seperable, in part, in order to secure the Christian mysteries from rational criticism and maybe, in part, to ensure that commitment to theism did not depend on highfullitin reason so that it would remain out of reach for ordinary people.
This is not to deny that "we have come a long way from the mid-20th century,
when much Anglophone philosophy doubted that talk about God, let alone
talk about religious experience, could even be meaningful." However, this is not wholly due to "change in epistemological fashion." The idea that there are 'epistemological fashions' implies, I think, that such changes just happen due to changes in taste and group social dynamics. Undoubtedly some of that plays a role. But the changes were, in part also due to a growing realization that trying to argue against positions in virtue of their purported lack of meaning was simply an instance of bad faith, not to mention a strategy often bordering on the self-contradictory. Substantive disagreements should be argued substantially.
But this does not exhaust the origins of the epistemological changes. I can think of a few at least two more sources:
[X-posted at Prosblogion] In the epistemology of religion, authors like Swinburne and Alston have argued influentially that mystical experience of God provides prima facie justification for some beliefs we hold about God on the basis of such experiences, e.g., that he loves us, is sovereign etc. Belief in God, so they argue, is analogous to sense perception. If I get a mystical experience that God loves me, prima facie, I am justified in believing that God loves me.
Alston relies critically on William James' Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). This seminal, but now dated psychological study draws on self-reports by mystics to characterize mystical experience. The mystical experiences James (and others) describe are unexpected, unbidden; they immediately present something (God) to one's experience, i.e., they provide a direct, unmediated awareness of God. More recent empirical work on the phenomenology of religious experience, such as that conducted by Tanya Luhrmann and other anthropologists, suggests that ordinary sense experience is a poor and misleading analogy for religious experience.
I provide no example of a ‘Hegelian’ ontological
argument because I know of no formulation of such an argument. Many
people assert that Hegel provided an ontological argument; but, when
pressed for a list of the premises of the argument, Hegel's friends
fail to deliver. Here, in my view, they follow Hegel's own precedent:
his lectures on ‘the ontological argument’ are full of
assertions that there is a successful ontological argument, but he
gives no argumentative support for those assertions, not any
indication of what the premises of the target argument might be.--Graham Oppy writing in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. [HT to Jon Shaheen.]
Would somebody be willing to offer an argument-sketch of Hegel's argument (with references to Hegel's text)? Of course, if you are drawing on other folk, do provide detailed references!
Brian Leiter comments
in typical acerbic style on an excerpt in the Guardian from Daniel Dennett’s latest book, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for
Thinking, titled “Daniel Dennett’s Seven Tools for Thinking:” “A curious list; not clear Dennett has always
honored all of them!”
What Leiter doesn’t notice, though, is that Dennett violates one of his
principles in explaining another! Dennett's last tool is “beware of deepities.” He
explains a deepity as
“a proposition that seems both
important and true – and profound – but that achieves this effect by being
ambiguous. On one reading, it is manifestly false, but it would be
earth-shaking if it were true; on the other reading, it is true but trivial.
The unwary listener picks up the glimmer of truth from the second reading, and
the devastating importance from the first reading, and thinks, Wow! That’s a
Dennett then offers two
examples. The first is the claim that “love is just a word.” The second, he
says, is not “quite so easily analyzed:” “Richard Dawkins recently alerted me
to a fine deepity by Rowan Williams, the then archbishop of Canterbury, who
described his faith as ‘a silent waiting on the truth, pure sitting and
breathing in the presence of the question mark’.” Dennett concludes “I leave
the analysis of this as an exercise for you.”
As the third season of Game of Thrones has ended, this interesting reflection, written by Adam Brereton, contends that A Song of Fire and Ice by G.R.R. Martin and the TV series based on it simply don't work, because they do not obey what Chesterton has termed "elfin ethics":
according to elfin ethics all virtue is in an 'if'. The note of the fairy utterance always is, 'You may live in a palace of gold and sapphire, if you do not say the word "cow"'; or 'You may live happily with the King's daughter, if you do not show her an onion.' The vision always hangs upon a veto. All the dizzy and colossal things conceded depend upon one small thing withheld. All the wild and whirling things that are let loose depend upon one thing that is forbidden.
In GOT, however, this rule doesn't apply: people who do break oaths (like Robb Stark) get killed in a horrible way, but people who are honorable, try to do the right thing and don't break oaths (like Eddard Stark) also get killed in a horrible way. In this, Martin differs from other fantasy writers, like H.P. Lovecraft or J.R.R. Tolkien. We can expect something like the massacre of the Starks at the Red Wedding to occur on a biweekly basis. So, Brereton concludes
Westeros just doesn't work. Unlike Tolkien, Lovecraft and Peake, it is not a consistent creation. Where does the good exist?...In Martin's broken world, good only resides in individual acts, only as long they don't get you killed, which more often than not they do.
The intuition that fantasy works should have some moral compass, or indeed, that fantasy universes should ultimately be just worlds, is compelling. Indeed, as Mitch Hodge argues in this draft paper, we even have a strong intuition that the world, au fond, is a morally just place. People intuitively regard the world as a just place: the good prosper, the wicked suffer.
[this is cross-posted at Prosblogion] Richard Dawkins has argued several times (e.g., here) that bringing up your child religiously is a form of child abuse. I think his argument that religious upbringing in general is child abuse has little merit (after all, Dawkins himself is the product of a traditional Anglican upbringing and calls himself - rather proudly - a cultural Anglican, hardly the victim of child abuse). However, his claim in the linked article is that parents who attempt to instill things like Young Earth Creationism (henceforth YEC) in their children are doing something wrong, or are somehow overstepping their role as parents. This question, I believe, is worthy of further attention.
What was supposed to be a two-page introduction ballooned into the first twenty pages. For the final version we'll have to take most of that out, but it was worth working through, and I think worth reading for anyone interested in the hoopla surrounding speculative realism, object-oriented ontology, and the recent explosion of continental metaphysics generally.
The general upshot of the paper is also nice; building on work by me and Mark Silcox, Ohm and I further develop an account of what the actual truth of fictional texts amounts to. The key insight is that narrative texts are thought experiments in the same manner as natural science thought experiments. On our account the only difference between physics and fiction is that the discursive norms surrounding the texts treat the form-content distinction in characteristically different ways. Fun stuff.
I've been recently reading some work by theistic philosophers and theologians who accept evolutionary theory. They seek to interpret scripture in such a way that it is compatible with the evolution of humans and other animals. One promising recent strategy is to read Genesis 1-3 through the theology of Irenaeus rather than through Augustine, trading one patristic author for another. Here, I want to examine whether this is a reasonable strategy for the empirically-informed theist.
These reflections are inspired by my reading of Howard Wettstein's book "The significance of religious experience" (OUP), Gutting's piece in the Stone on agnosticism, and a recent BBC report on an atheist church in London.
I am deeply intrigued by atheist religious practice. An atheist church in North London has opened last month. It proves to be very popular; as a matter of fact, vastly outstripping the neighboring Anglican evangelical church in congregation size. The ca. 300 members of this church congregate to sing secular songs, celebrate life and the natural world, have readings from secular texts, like Alice in Wonderland, and have secular sermons, on topics like "life is all too brief and nothing comes after it." The atheist church fits in a broader tendency of atheists to incorporate aspects of religious practice, including Alain de Botton's temples for atheists. Is there any point for an atheist who is attracted to religious practice to attend atheist ceremonies, structured in ways similar to traditional religions?
Evolutionary naturalism provides an account of our capacities that undermines their reliability, and in doing so undermines itself...I agree with Alvin Plantinga that...the application of evolutionary theory to the understanding of our own cognitive capacities should undermine, though it need not completely destroy, our confidence in them. Mechanisms of belief formation that have selective advantage in the everyday struggle for existence do not warrant our confidence in the construction of theoretical accounts of the world as a whole. I think the evolutionary hypothesis would imply that though our cognitive capacities could be reliable, we do not have the kind of reason to rely on them that we ordinarily take ourselves to have using in them directly--as we do in science. Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos, 27-28 (emphasis in original)
A non-trivial (albeit not the most fundamental) feature of Nagel's book (recall my here, here, here; see Feser's response to me and also Mohan's posts: here, here, here and here) is his reliance on Plantinga's so-called evolutionary argument against naturalism (hereafter EAAN; see also pp. 74-78). Let's leave aside the fact that Nagel pretends in his book that this (evolving) EAAN argument has not been subject to significant criticism. (It must be convenient to think that one is obliged to engage only with one's referee [Sober, although even his criticism of EAAN is ignored], one's colleague [Street], one's cheerleader [Plantinga], and one's deus ex machina [Hawthorne & Nolan].) Here I explore a response to this style of argument that is overlooked by Nagel and, I think, not explored in the literature (but would love to learn otherwise--it's not my field). So, let's grant -- for the sake of argument -- the claim that "Mechanisms of belief formation that have selective advantage in the
everyday struggle for existence do not warrant our confidence in the
construction of theoretical accounts of the world as a whole." What follows from this?
My quick and dirty answer is: nothing. For the crucial parts of science really do not rely on such mechanisms of belief formation. Much of scientific reason is or can be performed by machines; as I have argued before, ordinary cognition, perception, and locution does not really matter epistemically in the sciences.
There is a recent interesting Prosblogion blogpost on the question of whether theodicy can ever be successful, and if so what success conditions a theodicy must meet. I want consider a related, yet distinct question: can theodicies be convincing in the light of specific instances of evil, and the immediate sense this provokes: "God, if he exists, would not have allowed this"? In the wake of the tragic shooting incident at Newtown, I have been thinking a lot about the problem of evil and classical theodicies and defenses, such as John Hick's soul building theodicy and various forms of free will theodicies/defenses (e.g., Plantinga's; Augustine's).
One way to approach the problem of evil is to look at it as an abstract puzzle to be solved. Wielding modal logic and other tools that analytic philosophy offers, we can argue that evil is unavoidable even for a loving, powerful and omniscient God, if he wishes specific goods like free will to obtain. A different option is to focus on concrete, vivid examples. William Rowe presented the case of a fawn, trapped in a forest fire that was caused by lightning, the fawn suffers horrible burns, and lies in dreadful agony for days until its death. A pointless instance of suffering that, Rowe argues, God could have prevented.
Now for cases like Newtown we could invoke the free will defense, since - unlike the forest fire in Rowe's example - the incident was caused by a human agent, exercising his free will, and it was made possible by other instances of free will, such as American policies on gun ownership. But it still seems to me quite a different thing to argue in the face of particular, vivid instances like this that suffering is outweighed by the greater good of the unbridled exercise of free will by moral agents. When confronted with concrete evil like this, theodicy, or indeed any theistic response to the problem of evil, becomes a formidable task indeed.
For the Aristotelian-Scholastic philosopher, then, modern metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of religion, etc. are in the same shape that Alasdair MacIntyre famously argued modern ethics is in. In the former cases no less than the latter, crucial philosophical notions have been ripped from the intellectual contexts that gave them their intelligibility and have become distorted as a result, and the range of theoretical options visible to the modern philosopher has shrunk drastically. Nagel’s proposals are bound to seem odd and ill-motivated, not only because they are inchoate, but because fully to work out their implications would require a far more extensive rethinking of current orthodoxy than Nagel himself probably realizes. (That is no doubt one reason why his ideas are inchoate.) Questions about PSR, teleology, etc. cannot properly be understood if they are treated as mere add-ons to a basically naturalistic-cum-scientistic picture of knowledge and reality, which leave that picture essentially intact. The picture as a whole needs to be rethought if any part of it is seriously to be rethought...
At his blog Edward Feser has been responding to Thomas Nagel's
critics (no, not me (yet)!). In response to Sober's review he concludes
with the following sociological remark:
think, is precisely what is going on -- the “presuppositions that Nagel
trying to transcend” run so deep in contemporary academic philosophical
that it is difficult for most philosophers to get any critical distance
on them. They lack, as Nietzsche might have said, the courage
for an attack on their own convictions. And
yet the evidence that there is something deeply wrong with the
consensus is all around them even in “mainstream” academic philosophy --
work of renegade naturalists like Nagel, Searle, Fodor, McGinn, et al.;
like Chalmers, Brie Gertler, Howard Robinson, John Foster, et al.; and
like the “new essentialist” metaphysicians and philosophers of science
Ellis, Martin, Heil, Mumford, et al.) and the analytical Thomists
Haldane, et al.). It’s psychologically
easy (even if philosophically sleazy) to dismiss one or two of these
as outliers who needn’t be taken seriously.
But as their ranks slowly grow, it will be, and ought to be, harder both
psychologically and philosophically to dismiss them.
Which is no
doubt why the more ideological naturalists would very dearly like to strangle
this growing challenge to the consensus while it is still in its crib -- hence
the un-philosophical nastiness with which Nagel’s views have been greeted in
some quarters. But Sober, to his credit,
is not an ideologue, and is sober enough to acknowledge at least the possibility that Nagel is on to something.--Edward Feser.
Analytical philosophy has made great
progress over the last century. But its original, necessary biases did some
harm, too. In particular, detailed working knowledge of the history of
philosophy and metaphysics was banished for several generations. While
metaphysics is thriving again, we still lack (despite the brilliance of David
Lewis' modular approach) complete systems of thought that can rival in depth
and interlocking breadth the past masters (say, Suarez, Leibniz, etc.). The
damage has also been more narrow. For example, one of the most obvious
so-called ‘Kuhn Losses’ is our
relative ignorance of the nature and implications of the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR). This is no
surprise because analytical philosophy was founded in the act of rejecting PSR.
Our forefathers’ attempt to balance between common sense and the truths of
science meant -- as science and the PSR parted ways -- the willing submission to brute, ultimate facts (recall this post).
In Mind & Cosmos, Thomas
Nagel happily embraces “a form of the principle of sufficient reason” (17) in
support of his "common sense" (5, 7, etc.) and against the recent
“orthodox scientific consensus.” (10; 5) Rather than accepting this
"ideological consensus," (128) Nagel insists -- regularly using
language reminiscent of the great Feyerabend -- that "almost
everyone in our secular culture has been browbeaten into regarding the
reductive research program as sacrosanct." (7) While Nagel insists that
the champions of scientific enlightenment are bullies, he treats the
"defenders of intelligent design" with "gratitude" (Plantinga returns the gratitude),
even though Nagel clearly recognizes that once one embraces one's inner sensus
divinitatis one is also compelled in one's judgments. (12)
A classic statement of the PSR is Spinoza's
"For each thing there must be assigned a cause, or reason, both for
its existence and for its nonexistence." (Ethics 1p11d2) That is to
say, any PSR worth having imposes significant explanatory demands (especially
of non-arbitrariness) on any philosophical system in which it is deployed.
Below the fold I critically discuss Nagel's way of combining the PSR and his
attempted revisionary science, but here I just register the marvelousness
of Nagel's deployment of the PSR as an instrument in the service of common
sense! (cf. 91-2) This is certainly an original move in the history of
metaphysics--one that, in a single, magical stroke overturns Lovejoy's long narrative.