What do philosophers think about religious disagreement? This is a brief survey (takes about 5-10 minutes) to find this out. The survey is aimed at academic philosophers, by which I mean people who hold a PhD in philosophy or are graduate students in philosophy. If you fit these criteria, please consider participating. Participation is fully anonymous.
The format of the study is a multiple choice questionnaire. I will ask some personal questions, amongst others about your religious views, but your name will not be asked. To further take care that your anonymity is preserved, I will not report on individual responses but report statistical patterns. There are a few places where you can provide an open response (optional). I will publish at most one open response per participant, making sure that there is no identifying information within your response. The full dataset will remain confidential and will not be shared with anyone. I will report the preliminary results on NewApps and one or two other websites.
The study is designed and carried out by Helen De Cruz, postdoctoral fellow of the British Academy at the University of Oxford. If you have any questions or concerns, please contact helen.decruz- at - philosophy.ox.ac.uk. To participate, please click here or paste this link in your browser: https://surveys.qualtrics.com/SE/?SID=SV_9TFkp1QkxnZkdTL
In a forthcoming paper, John Schellenberg forwards the following argument: anatomically humans have been around 200,000 years. That's a very short span of time for any species, and only in the past few thousand years ago have we been reflecting on the world around us. If we our species survives even as long as Homo erectus did, we've only completed a very small part of a potentially long future of thinking about religion, metaphysics and other matters.
At present, philosophy of religion in the analytic tradition is quite narrowly focused:
"in the west – and I expect I am writing mainly for western readers – philosophy of religion has been largely preoccupied with one religious idea, that of theism, and it looks to be moving into a narrower and deeper version of this preoccupation, one focused on specifically Christian ideas, rather than broadening out and coming to grips with its full task."(p. 3).
Theism, in a generic, omni-property sort of way, is one position that philosophers of religion commonly defend. The other is scientific naturalism. These seem to be the only games in town:
"most naturalists too assume that theistic God-centered religion must succeed if any does. Naturalism or theism. These seem to be the only options that many see. The harshest critics of religion, including philosophers such as Daniel Dennett, seem to think their job is done when they have, to their own satisfaction, criticized personalistic, agential conceptions of a divine reality." (pp. 3-4).
At the end of 2013, I conducted a qualitative survey (summary here, but I am writing up the paper presently) among philosophers of religion. Next to a series of open questions, there was a question for open feedback. I was quite surprised to see so many philosophers of religion openly lament the lack of subject diversity in their discipline. Just a few choice examples written by anonymous respondents:
In writing about Brittany Maynard, the twenty-nine year old cancer patient who has scheduled herself for a physician-assisted suicide on November 1, Ross Douthat asks:
Why, in a society where individualism seems to be carrying the day, is the right that Maynard intends to exercise still confined to just a handful of states? Why has assisted suicide’s advance been slow, when on other social issues the landscape has shifted dramatically in a libertarian direction?
This question will predictably be answered by some variant of the usual Douthat analysis. To wit:
Because liberals misunderstand the American soul, if not the human condition, which is offered more soothing, palliative balm, more existential comfort, by the religiously infused conservative spirit, the true heart of America, and really, perhaps all of humanity. This Godless, cold, uncaring cosmos of the liberal imagination--where it ultimately fails is in being able to address La Condition Humaine.
Although over half the world' population are theists (according to Pew survey results), God's existence isn't an obvious fact, not even to those who sincerely believe he exists. To put it differently, as Keith DeRose recently put it, even if God exists, we don't know that he does. This presents a puzzle for theists: why doesn't God make his existence more unambiguously known? The problem of divine hiddenness has long been recognized by theists (for instance, Psalm 22), but only fairly recently has it become the focus of debate in philosophy of religion.
In several works, J.L. Schellenberg has argued that divine hiddenness constitutes evidence against God's existence. A simple version of this argument goes as follows (Schellenberg 1993, 83):
If there is a God, he is perfectly loving.
If a perfectly loving God exists, reasonable non-belief in the existence of God does not occur
Reasonable non-belief in the existence of God does occur.
No perfectly loving God exists.
There is no God.
The controversial premises are 2 and 3. Authors like Swinburne and Murray have argued against premise 2: God may have reasons to make his existence less obviously true. Their arguments state that if we knew God existed, we wouldn't be able to make morally significant choices. This is an empirical claim. Obviously, it cannot be experimentally tested directly. However, research in the cognitive science of religion (CSR) on the relationship between belief in God and morality may indicate whether or not this is a plausible claim.
There's a non-trivial chance that I'll be teaching an introductory philosophy of religion course for the first time this up and coming semester. When I took the class with Robert Koons when I was an undergraduate we mostly used Mackie's The Miracle of Theism. It was pretty good, but I'm sure that better books must have come out in the ensuing twenty or so years. If anyone has any suggestions, or knows of any discussions that might be helpful, that would be aces.
Justin Weinberg hosted a pretty interesting discussion about the state of the field over at the Daily Nous (here) about whether philosophy of religion should be taught in the first place. The consensus of the people against it seemed to be some combination of: (a) most philosophy of religion is Christian apologetics in disguise, and (b) Christianity is so antecedently stupid that it is malpractice to take it seriously (cf. philosophy of telepathy).
I don't think Christianity is antecedently stupid, and I think the first isn't a complaint about philosophy of religion per se, but rather a broader complaint about the lack of engagement with non-Western philosophy in Western departments. I am, however, concerned that books like Mackie focus so much on the question of whether or not God exists. As has been discussed by Helen De Cruz multiple times here, it's very weird to filter all philosophically interesting questions through this one lens and also possibly involves systematically misconstruing religious practice. It would be nice to be able to focus at least as much on broader epistemological and ethical/socio-political questions (as well as metaphysical and meta-metaphysical questions beyond the simple "does x exist?" kind) arising from philosophical reflection on religion. But that might be a bit much to ask for in an intro class. Anyhow, if anyone has any suggestions for syllabi or textbooks, that would be gravy.
There's been a good bit conversation recently about the merits and demerits of "public philosophy" and, as someone who considers herself committed to public philosophy (whatever that is). I'm always happy to stumble across a piece of remarkably insightful philosophical work in the public realm. Case in point: Robin James (Philosophy, UNC-Charlotte) posted a really fascinating and original short-essay on the Cyborgology blog a couple of days ago entitled "An attempt at a precise & substantive definition of 'neoliberalism,' plus some thoughts on algorithms." There, she primarily aims to distinguish the sense in which we use the term "neoliberalism" to indicate an ideology from its use as a historical indicator, and she does so by employing some extremely helpful insights about algorithms, data analysis, the mathematics of music, harmony, and how we understand consonance and dissonance. I'm deeply sympathetic with James' underlying motivation for this piece, namely, her concern that our use of the term "neoliberalism" (or its corresponding descriptor "neoliberal") has become so ubiquitous that it is in danger of being evacuated of "precise and substantive" meaning altogether. I'm sympathetic, first, as a philosopher, for whom precise and substantive definitions are as essential as hammers and nails are to a carpenter. But secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I'm sympathetic with James' effort because as Jacques Derrida once said "the more confused the concept, the more it lends itself to opportunistic appropriation." Especially in the last decade or so, "neoliberalism" is perhaps the sine qua non term that has been, by both the Left and the Right, opportunistically appropriated.
James' definition of neoliberalism's ideological position ("everything in the universe works like a deregulated, competitive, financialized, capitalist market") ends up relying heavily on her distinction of neoliberalism as a particular type of ideology, i.e., one "in which epistemology and ontology collapse into one another, an epistemontology." In sum, James conjectures that neoliberal epistemontology purports to know what it knows (objects, beings, states of affairs, persons, the world) vis-a-vis "the general field of reference of economic anaylsis."
Suspecting that a disappointing Court decision is coming doesn’t make it any better when it arrives, as did the Hobby Lobby opinion this morning, in which a 5-4 majority (led by Justice Alito) said that it violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1992 to require a “closely held corporation” (“family-owned,” but expect lots of litigation; apparently some 90% of American corporations may qualify!) to purchase a health insurance policy that provided free contraception to which the owners of that corporation object on religious grounds (nice summary here). There is a substantial silver lining, which is that the Court seems to endorse an opt-out like the one provided for non-profits: certify that you object to providing contraception coverage, and you don’t pay for that part of the plan. Either the insurer or the government does. Accordingly, today’s ruling would also appear to pre-emptively resolve (see also here) the next round of religious objections to the ACA, where some of those non-profits contend that even signing the paperwork saying they object to providing contraception somehow violates their religious beliefs, because signing the paperwork means they start a process the end of which is contraception (so would employing women at all, but never mind that, apparently).
Must an infinitely continued life inevitably become boring? Bernard William famously answers yes; John Fischer no. Fischer's case is perhaps even more easily made than he suggests -- but its very ease opens up new issues.
Consider Neil Gaiman's story "The Goldfish Pool and Other Stories" (yes, that's the name of one story):
He nodded and grinned. "Ornamental carp. Brought here all the way from China."
We watched them swim around the little pool."I wonder if they get bored."
He shook his head. "My grandson, he's an ichthyologist, you know what that is?"
"Uh-huh. He says they only got a memory that's like thirty seconds long. So they swim around the pool, it's always a surprise to them, going 'I've never been here before.' They meet another fish they known for a hundred years, they say, 'Who are you, stranger?'"
Helen De Cruz has some excellent suggestions for how to talk to creationists given that neither debate nor denouncement are likely to be productive. She describes the way in which a religious person who is not a creationist can speak to another religious person who is a creationist, e.g., by pointing out that Biblical literalism is a recently emerged approach, one that may be impossible to apply consistently, and for that reason among others it may not be thoroughly used by anyone.
This article by Dan Kahan suggests that disbelief in human-caused climate change is like belief in creationism in this respect: What people "believe" about each doesn't reflect what they know, but rather expresses who they are. This supports the thesis that providing evidence for creationism isn't likely to change minds and that providing evidence for climate change isn't likely to change minds, either.
But what is the climate change equivalent, where we speak to people from their own perspective as Helen proposes that we do for religious people who are creationists?
A friend of mine is doing her DPhil in Oxford. She's American, and out of term she goes back to her home in middle America. She recently went to see the newly refurbished museum in her home town. When she was looking at the displays on human evolution, a museum guard, who had been observing her, suddenly said "So, what side are you on: the Bible or evolution?" Whereupon my friend replied "What do you mean what side am I on? This is not a football game, you know".
I am deeply troubled by the incipient creationism, which treats biblical literalism as a serious intellectual contender to scientific inquiry. I want my children to grow up with normal biology textbooks, not with Of Pandas and People. If creationists win their lobbying efforts to make creationism mainstream in schools and the public sphere, that is a loss for everyone (including the creationists). Debates don't seem to do any instrumental good. If we are not going to fight creationism through debates, how can we - as public intellectuals - ensure that creationism doesn't encroach even further upon our schools and public life?
Last week, Jerry Coyne gave a talk at my university, UC Davis. Coyne is one of the "new atheists," people who believe that "religion should not simply be tolerated but should be countered, criticized, and exposed by rational argument wherever its influence arises" (Simon Hooper). In his talk, he argued that science and religion were incompatible, focusing on evolution and religion in particular. When pressed afterward, however, he seemed to grant that not all forms of supernatural-believing religions are incompatible with science; deism, for example, is not incompatible with science. However, he then wanted to know why those of us who were pressing him – people who think that the theory of evolution is well-supported and are not ourselves religious – were giving religion a "pass." We would not, he suggested, give a similar pass to beliefs in UFOs or fairies or tarot cards. And that is probably true. So is there a difference?
Now, admittedly, part of my reasons are pragmatic. I happen to think that religious believers who accept the theory of evolution are our best allies in the fight to keep good science education in public schools. That's because they show people that they don't have to give up their deeply held beliefs in order to accept views about common descent and evolutionary processes like natural selection and random drift. They don't force a choice, a choice that religion would most likely win most of the time.
In philosophy of religion, realist theism is the dominant outlook: belief in God is similar to belief in other real things (or supposedly real things) like quarks or oxygen. There is a rather triumphalist narrative about the resurgence of realist theism since the demise of logical positivism (see for instance, Plantinga's advice to Christian philosophers) when logical positivism and its verifiability criterion held sway, philosophers were dissuaded from talking about God in realist terms: religious beliefs were not just false, but meaningless. With the demise of logical positivism, however, theists could again defend realist positions, using a variety of sophisticated arguments.
Nevertheless, the question is whether theists in philosophers of religion are not conceding too much to atheists by talking about theism mainly in terms of beliefs. To ignore practice is to ignore a large part of the religious experience, and what makes it meaningful to the theist. Such an exclusive focus can indeed be alienating, as it seems to suggest that theists believe a whole bunch of ideas that are wildly implausible, e.g., that a man resurrected from the dead, or was born of a virgin. This picture of religious life as believing in a set of strange propositions is, as Kvanvig memorably put it, a view that most theists will not recognize themselves in:
I hardly recognize this picture of religious faith and religious life, except in the sense that one can cease to be surprised or shocked by the neighbor who jumps naked on his trampoline after having seen it for years.
That is not to say that many theists do believe these things, even in a literal sense, but without looking at the larger picture of practices that help to maintain and instil these beliefs, our epistemology of religion remains woefully incomplete.
It is therefore refreshing to read philosopher Howard Wettstein's recent interview in The Stone, who, coming from a Jewish background, emphasizes the practice-based aspects of a religious lifestyle. He argues that "existence" is the wrong idea for God, following Maimonides, and instead argues that "the real question is one's relation to God, the role God plays in one’s life, the character of one’s spiritual life."
In the recent Mind & Language workshop on cognitive science of religion, Frank Keil presented an intriguing paper entitled "Order, Order Everywhere and Not an Agent to Think: The Cognitive Compulsion to Make the Argument from Design." Keil does not believe the argument from design is inevitable - I've argued elsewhere that while teleological reasoning and creationism is common, arguing for the existence of God on the basis of perceived design is rare; it typically only happens when there are plausible non-theistic worldviews available.
Rather, Keil argues that from a very early age on, humans can recognize order, and that they prefer agents as causes for order. Taken together, this forms the cognitive basis for making the argument from design (AFD). (For similar proposals, see here and here). He proposes two very intriguing puzzles, and I'm wondering what NewApps readers think:
Some forms of orderliness give us a sense of design, others do not. What kinds of order give rise to an inference to design, or a designer?
Babies already seem to recognize ordered states from disordered states. How do they do it? What is it they recognize?
The news has just been released that Rev. Fred Phelps, founder and lifelong shepherd of the Westboro Baptist Church (in Topeka, Kansas) has died at the age of 84. I find it difficult, I confess, to summon the normal human compassion that usually accompanies news of another's death in this case, largely because Phelps dedicated his life to broadcasting his rejection of-- not to mention enlisting others, including children, to stage carnival-like circuses around his rejection of-- what most people would consider even the most minimally-decent exhibitions of human compassion. Fred Phelps was one of the most infamous, outrageous, dishonorable and genuinely despicable hatemongers of my generation. And, what is more, Fred Phelps' hate was as ferocious and vicious as it was blind. Through the prism of his delusional and evangelical abhorrence, the Westboro congregants en masse considered themselves justified in casting an unjustifiably wide net of Judgment. Caught in that net were many: ranging from bona fide innocents against whom no reasonable person could or ought cast aspersions, like Matthew Shepard, to a whole host of other "collateral-damage" victims of Phelps' quasi-political positions who found themselves the inadvertent and inauspicious targets of his his flock's detestation.
I say again: I find it very, very difficult to summon the normal human compassion that ought to accompany the news of Fred Phelps' passing.
Nevertheless, these are the moments when our inclination toward Schadenfreude, however deeply affirming and deeply satisfactory indulging that sentiment may feel, ought to be on principle squelched.
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: