The Elusive God, Chapter 4: Philosophy Revamped
August 14, 2009 — 14:54

Author: Trent Dougherty  Category: Books of Interest  Comments: 5

Deadlines have kept me away from the discussion since my last comment on, I think, one of the very first posts. So it’s good to have this deadline to make me get this post up. If Moser is playing John the Baptist here, am I doomed to play Judas? You’ll sense a lot of frustration with this chapter, but I tried to keep it light-hearted as usual. If you read me as outright angry, just imagine an emoticon smiley face at the end of every other paragraph. 🙂 I’m not angry or mean, just frustrated. Well I’m not angry anyway. The litany of questions pleading for clarification is below the fold.

This chapter is supposed to be about what God would require of us (should we answer the call? ) and empower us to do (via the resurrection life or its preparatory stages?).
The commands are what reshape philosophy.
Complaint: “Guided by authoritative evidence.” Any good philosopher already thought all evidence was authoritative, so what’s the difference?
It’s Gospel-centered. But wasn’t it already for Christian philosophers, even when pursued “for its own sake”? Is that’s what God commands us to do, not to ever do it for its own sake?
What’s challenged is what’s “at odds with God’s character.” How much philosophy is like this, how much Xn philosophy? Does he really think Aquinas’s philosophy wasn’t Gospel-centered? Plantinga’s? Swinburne’s? van Inwagen’s? Who’s the offending party here?
The theist has a duty, regarding his time–to use it responsibly–that the atheist will not have (if atheism is true). Well, OK, but how does this actually effect the daily use of time. The atheist who has a strong desire to know the truth about, say, the nature of mind will have a motive to use her time responsibly. The origin of this motive differs from that of the duty-based motive of the theist, but as long as there is a motive for the same behaviour, no revamping of philosophy looms.
I admit that I’ve worried at times if philosophizing isn’t distracting from my spiritual life or the life of service to others. Every hour I spend reading A Physcialist Manifesto could be spent reading the Bible or the Catachism or praying or giving care to lepers in Calcutta. But this is just to say that I’ve worried that all Xns are called to what we Catholics call “The Religious Life” i.e. life as a Father or Brother or Sister of a religious order with vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. But of course we’re not (a fact, even if, for me, a puzzling fact).
We are called to many stations in life, and I am called to be a philosopher. So in going for broke as a philosopher, I’m going for broke for Jesus. But this is just an application of “Do all you do as unto the Lord.” I already knew that. It’s nice to be reminded, but does the reminding need to be so perambulatory? News flash! Believing the Gospel to be true means you have to work harder and be more responsible! I need to work harder and be more responsible. So do all Christian authors, so that they don’t take unnecessary time from the people who read their books. “Christian charity commands clarity” is one of my mantras.
He says philosophy in its normal mode doesn’t engage what needs engaging: matters of love and hate, matters of the will. But many “normal” philosophers love the truth and hate lack of clarity, so I don’t see why he thinks this.
He also says that “Philosophy in its normal mode doesn’t yield authoritative evidence of, or volitional fellowship with, the needed Giver of love” (221). OK, well neither does washing the bathtub, but it’s still a worthwhile activity. And just how does “philosophy revamped” accomplish this? For if it doesn’t, then what’s the point of criticizing the “normal mode” for it. Am I supposed to say the Jesus Prayer in the background as I read The Physicalist Manifesto? Am I not supposed to read it at all? Am I supposed to play church music while I read it? Is yielding to God going to make me smarter? Able to read faster? Just what is the solution supposed to look like? Hopefully this will come in the last chapter, but I flag the tape here to note what it had better look like, if this chapter is going to be more than sound and fury.
A general complaint about this whole frustrating chapter of this frustrating book is the lack of particular citations to examples of the offending parties or to someone doing it better (is this book supposed to be an example of resurrected philosophy? Is this book what books are supposed to look like after yielding to the divine authoritative call? Yes, these are frustrated questions, but they are fair questions. The reader deserves to know what she is being asked to do in more particular terms. I hope this won’t offend anyone but this chapter reminds me of the evanglical self-help stuff I used to stock in the “Christian Living” section of the Christian bookstore where I once worked. Paul Moser is a great philosopher. His Knowledge and Evidence is the must under-read book in contemporary philosophy, and I’m always taking people back to it. I wanted that level of clarity in this book. He himself says in this chapter that post-resurrection life philosophy is still supposed to be rigorous. I’m not a bad reader, in fact I’m a docile reader and I don’t know what I’m being asked to do here.
Not a promising section start, since I take myself to have essentially been commanded to live in the discussion mode. “They” again are doing all kinds of bad things like shying away from the theme of faith and fearing that faith will be confused for good works, but I don’t know who they are. Who uses, invented, promotes this other mode? Is it what all our atheist colleagues do? Well that’s a pretty diverse group.
Finally the question I’ve been asking: What’s he want us to do instead? What’s “obedient philosophy” look like? Here is its madate:
a. Faithful obedience of the heart
b. To a perfectly loving God
c. And Jesus as divinely appointed Lord.
d. Attending to his divinely appointed mission
e. And participating eagerly in it.
OK, so what’s that all mean? These are a lot of glittering generalities I thought I’ve been doing for a long time. Does this mean my book on Bayesian rationality needs to have the Four Spiritual Laws in the appendix? Does it mean I can’t write that book after all?
Contemporary philosophy is in a splintered disarray. Oh my, that doesn’t sound good at all. But I suppose we can’t expect our atheist colleagues to be doing kerygma philosophy, so it would be weird if that was the problem. So is *Christian philosophy in disarray? Well, the Catholic Church has a pretty coherent tradition which doesn’t seem to care what’s going on in the secular academy, but there are many different ways that’s being practiced right now, so is that the target? Is there supposed to be a single neutral guiding principle among Catholic and Protestant philosophers? That would be a bit surprising if it were supposed to be more specific that something answering to Plantinga’s “Advice to Christian Philosophers.” Leo the XIII brought unity to Catholic philosophy in the late 19th century, but after Vatican II Aquinas dropped out of the picture in most Catholic schools. Is that the problem? What is the problem? Where does the problem exist? It really helps to know what we are supposed to do to know what failing to do so looks like. Can you hear the word “luster” in “illustration”? Illustrations shed light on what’s being said. I wanted some illustrations of what the bad looks like and what the good looks like (as anyone (Plantinga? Swinburne? Paul Moser?) doing philosophy the right way by the way?). At any rate, on to the solution.
Drumroll please: And the answer is…our minds are gifts from God and so we owe it to Him to use them for His purposes. OK, well John Locke said that. Isn’t the question what kinds of philosophizing is consistent with God’s purposes? Is Moser one of those “you have one wife out there God has picked for you” kind of guys or a “God wants you to make wise choices in picking a mate” kind of guy?
Here finally is something quasi-specific: “Philosophers should eagerly serve the church by letting their focus in philosophy, including its questions, be guided by what is needed philosophically to build up the church as a compassionate ministry of the Good News of God’s redemptive love in Jesus” (231).
OK great, I want to do that. Now tell me: does a book on Bayesian rationality fit this picture? I really don’t know. How about a book on the metaphysics of material beings? Hit or miss? I fully endorse the statement just quoted. The problem is that it doesn’t get us to square one in any real decision making with this philosophy revamping business.
Look at it this way. Suppose you want to revamp your living room real quick before revamping philosophy. You read a book called The Purpose Driven Living room because you really want to revamp your living room for Jesus. You open the pages and you find this directive: “God gave you that furniture, it didn’t just evolve there by chance, it’s a gift, so you need to let your furniture arranging be guided by what is needed in the fung shway (sp?) department to build up the church as a compassionate ministry of the Good News of God’s redemptive love in Jesus” (231). [Amazing coincidence about the pagination of those two books, eh? A sign?]
Now you can totally endorse that sentiment but still have no clue what to do with your living room. Should your couches face East toward Jerusalem? Should all your art be religious art? Should the TV be in the corner or should you even have a TV? All of these practical living room revamping questions are left wide open by what you’ve learned in The Purpose Driven Livingroom.
I am very encouraged to hear that the Moser-driven philosophical life will include more than Ethics. Verrrrrry happy about that. In fact, this new life is an abundant life indeed: “It will be open to consider any philosophical issue prompted by the actual needs of the church community in its Good News discipleship mission for the sake of divine redemptive love for all people [regardless of race, gender or class as represented in the loving God’s divinely authoritative call which yields conclusive authoritative evidence for the stuff at the beginning of this long sentence which seems to want to restate everything in each sentence]” (234, emphasis in the original).
OK, so I can do research on any philosophical issue as long as it’s needed by the church community. Aaannnd, what do they need again? Oh yeah, we don’t know. Do they need a Bayesian approach to rationality? I think they do. Do they need a metaphysics of material beings? How could it hurt? There are lots of us out here doing hard work in epistemology and metaphysics because of the light we think they shed on issues in the philosophy of religion, but we view it as similar to NASA efforts. NASA didn’t set out to revitalize the nutritional breakfast supplement drink industry. They just wanted to shoot a dude into space. Why? Because it was frickin cool, that’s why? Oh and we couldn’t let the commies beat us to it. But as part of the space program we got….Tang (Wiki it, whippersnappers). We also got GoreTex and lots of other great stuff we weren’t looking for. So when I start reading a book on plural quantification, I don’t ask myself if my parishioners are going to benefit form it. I do it because I think it will help me understand material beings which may shed light on the Trinity which is good for us all. Call this Trickle Down Kerygmatic Philosophy. Is this Moser-approved? Or is this precisely what he wants to destroy? I just don’t know.
All this time I thought I’d been being obedient to God’s call to the vocation of philosophy by trying to be the best philosopher I can be…I hope I’m not a bad Christian.
ADDENDUM: I really think there’s some valuable stuff in the book. In fact that’s part of the frustration, not just the lack of clarity, but that it obscures some good stuff (I should have mentioned that, that would have been more charitable).
Many readers will just either not finish the book or write it off because it’s so cluttered and “preachy”. And that would be a shame because there’s lots to learn there, stuff I’m passionate about even.
“The pursuit of wisdom, especially joins man to God in friendship.” ~~Saint Thomas Aquinas

  • oh no, now this blog summer reading group is soon over and I haven’t managed to catch up with reading – always lagging behind.
    May I ask a question in response to your comment “Many readers will just either not finish the book or write it off because it’s so cluttered (…)”
    Which texts by Moser would be recommendable if one wants to get some of the main messages without reading the whole book? And will there be a symposium or something in a journal on this book with some major figures responding to it?

    August 14, 2009 — 18:00
  • Adrian Woods

    I wondering if you can think of some books in Philosophy which actually hurt the Church? A book on Bayesian Rationality is perhaps not inherently bad, but then in what way does it assist in forming people into the image of Christ?
    You have to be aware of the problem: that so many young people, when they get to the Academy, lose faith in God. Now, a lot of that is the fault of the church, insulating people from critical thinking. So the question comes – what role can Trent play in bolstering this aspect of the Church, and we all know that the Church needs it. The flip-side is the fault of the Academy. We certainly all know professors who don’t exude epistemic virtues, who favor simplistic, reductionistic arguments which are flashy, provocative to young minds. I was listening to lecture from Oxford on iTunes where it was made seem as though Dawkins God Delusion actually had a good point, or any point. So a second question arises – what role can Trent play in helping the Academy cultivate wisdom in a way that the Academy and the Church complement each other.
    A book on Bayesian Rationality will be written to a select group of people. Again that is not inherently bad, but I think Moser is asking is there something more Trent can contribute. I’m not sure what is so confusing about that.

    August 15, 2009 — 9:02
  • Joshua Thurow

    Trent, I think you’ve done a good job of exhibiting the problems with this chapter. At the risk of piling on, here’s a couple more. 1) Moser says at one point (I’m paraphrasing) that one can serve the church even if people in the church don’t realize that what you’re doing really helps the church. Does this mean you can write your book even if people in the pew don’t see how it will trickle down to them? If so, this is going to open the door to quite a wide range of philosophical activity, and then it is even more unclear what about present Christian philosophical activity is so bad.
    2) Moser’s frowns upon historical research into whether Aristotle’s views changed over time about … He doesn’t think all history of philosophy is useless, but he does seem to think that at least some of it doesn’t serve the church’s needs. But, now, suppose we have a historian of philosophy who investigates something worthwhile from Moser’s perspective – say, early modern philosophical theology, or views on the relationship between faith and reason – but in the course of his study in these areas comes to views about more kerygmatically worthless historical matters about the figures he’s interested in. Would it be wrong to publish those views because it would be wasting time? But, we all need to publish to maintain or advance our positions in the profession, and our status in the profession can be quite useful from a kerygmatic perspective (if even to just give us more time to write kerygmatically relevant stuff, or to gain more readers). Such pragmatic considerations muddy the waters even further concerning what concrete advice follows from Moser’s general admonitions.

    August 16, 2009 — 17:34
  • Adrian:
    If governing our doxastic lives by Bayesian rationality is the right way to live, then Jesus governed his doxastic life by Bayesian rationality (this places constraints on what Bayesian rationality would have to be–it presumably cannot require constant mathematical calculations). And if there is another way we should govern our doxastic lives, then Jesus lived that other way. So, indeed, by figuring out what Bayesian rationality is, and whether it is correct or not, we figure out how to conform our minds to Christ’s.
    I worry that in (2) you implicitly slide between reasons and motives. The theist has a good reason for using time responsibly. The atheist has a motive for using time responsibly. But it is not clear that the atheist has a good reason for using time responsibly. Certainly, the mere fact that he has a desire whose satisfaction requires the responsible use of time does not entail that she has a good reason for using time responsibly. If Moser could defend the claim that the atheist does not have a good reason for using time responsibly, that would indeed be a significant practical difference.
    Of course, some people think desires give reasons. I think they do, but in a way that is undercut when one realizes that there is no independent reason for satisfying the desire (of course, the desire and motive can stay even though undercut–but they have no rational force any more, only an irrational force).

    August 17, 2009 — 9:22
  • I’ve been reading Moser’s book at a slightly slower pace than this discussion, but the post and comments reminded me of something I’ve wondered. It seem like Moser’s critique of wasting time in philosophy is either trivial or false. If it’s true, then it’s trivial, since there’s nothing special about wasting time philosophically. Car mechanics can waste their time too, as can athletes and bankers. No one is pro-wasting morally valuable time. And it’s a little silly if Moser’s contribution is to catalog for us, case by case, a long string of examples of wasting one’s time. What if a philosopher watches an episode of Lost? Or eats two cheeseburgers instead of one? I mean “trivial” not in the sense of being philosophically uninformative, but more in the game sense – e.g., let’s pick a profession and name whatever comes to mind when we think “waste of time.”
    After all, we already have Peter Singer to tell us why everything we do with our time is immoral, and Moser’s examples don’t seem especially more creative or insightful than Singer’s, and it’s easy to adjust Singer for Christian priorities.
    But if a collection of trivia is not what Moser intends, then I suspect he thinks there is something unique about philosophy in this context, and that seems false.

    August 17, 2009 — 11:59