Philosophy of Religion and Apologetics
April 12, 2012 — 13:05

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: General  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 17

Philosophy of religion, as practiced by religious believers, is often confused with apologetics. (Perhaps it is even so confused, on occasion, by some of its practitioners.) Indeed, if we use the term ‘apologetics’ more broadly, to include not just the giving of an apologia (defense) of religion, but of just any belief system, then we could say that philosophy in general is often confused with apologetics. This is, I think, a serious mistake. The philosopher, qua philosopher, is up to something quite different than the apologist, qua apologist. The ‘qua’ clauses are necessary, because of course the same person may engage in both philosophy and apologetics and, as will emerge, it is even possible to do both at the same time, but as activities they have fundamentally different aims. I will try, in this post, to clarify this difference and explain why it matters.


My take on the subject is influenced by the discussion of the nature and aims of natural theology in the first chapter of Ross’s Philosophical Theology, where Ross distinguishes between the aim of establishing a conclusion and convincing people of a conclusion, but I will not follow Ross too closely, and I will especially not adopt his very odd (quasi-Aristotelian) usage of the words ‘science’ and ‘scientific’.
Let’s start with apologetics. What the apologist would really like to do is to give arguments which will actually convince a particular audience who does not already believe the conclusion that the conclusion is true. This, of course, is a tall order, especially when it comes to anything so contentious and practically and emotionally important as religion. The apologist might, therefore, be willing to settle for less. She may instead be happy if she can give arguments which will cause the members of the audience to increase their credences in the conclusion. Note that if the apologist has this second aim, then there is a point to her activity even if her audience consists only of people who already accept the conclusion, for she may aim only to make those who are, e.g., already Christians more confident that Christianity is rationally justifiable. The point, however, is that the aim of the apologist (qua apologist) is to give to a particular audience arguments which will have a particular effect on them.
This, I claim, is not the aim of the philosopher (qua philosopher). The philosopher aims instead to discover arguments which are such that people holding certain views (which real people do, or at least are likely to, hold) will, upon considering the arguments, be rationally obligated to endorse the conclusion. Thus the philosopher differs from the apologist in two ways: first, in that the philosopher aims to discover arguments, rather than just to give them to people, and, second, the philosopher is not concerned with what will actually convince people, but only about what people rationally ought to be convinced by. Two further notes are in order on this point. First, the philosopher need not be thought of as trying to discover arguments which no human being has ever thought of. My primary research is in early modern philosophy; I’m just as happy to find an argument in the library as to think it up on my own. Second, we need here a notion of rational obligation or the rational ought on which one is not rationally obligated to endorse the logical consequences of one’s view unless and until one considers an argument demonstrating those logical consequences. In other words, we need an account of the rational obligations of beings (like us) who are not logically omniscient. Giving such a theory is, of course, notoriously difficult.
Now, the philosopher’s ideal aim is, again, a tall order, for in nearly all (if not absolutely all) cases it is rationally permitted to reject a premise rather than accepting the conclusion. The philosopher may therefore retreat to the weaker aim of discovering arguments the consideration of which obligates people to revise their views in some way or other, even if it leaves open more than one option for the revision. Again, if we can’t achieve even this, we may feel we have still accomplished something if we discover arguments which obligate people to revise their credences in some way, even if they are not obligated to make any changes in what they outright believe.
In sum, the apologist is engaged in what could (depending on one’s attitude to the apologist in question) be classified either as a public education campaign, or a propaganda campaign. The philosopher, on the other hand, is engaged in a research program. This difference is the fundamental one; it is for this reason that the apologist is concerned with whether people actually accept his arguments, but the philosopher is concerned only with whether people are rationally obligated to accept hers. Of course, an apologist might be (and in my view ought to be) principled and so refrain from trying to get people to accept arguments which they rationally ought not to accept, but this would be a moral constraint on the apologist’s activity, and not part of the aim of that activity.
It’s worth asking, if this is the case, why do philosophers bother publishing, and why do they care whether other philosophers accept their arguments? The answer in both cases is that philosophy, like other research programs, is a cooperative activity. The philosophical community as a whole is engaged, together, in trying to discover these arguments. This necessitates sharing proposed arguments and engaging, together, in the evaluation of them, and attaching at least some weight to the evaluation given by others.
Finally, what does this mean for the relationship between philosophy and apologetics? Well, the obvious answer is that, if the apologist adopts the principle of only trying to get people to be convinced by arguments they rationally ought to be convinced by, then the apologist is really a popularizer of philosophy. (Of course, if the apologist is not principled in this way then he may also attempt to pass off arguments rejected by philosophers, or just make emotional appeals or use other means not having to do with reason.) This, furthermore, is why I said earlier that it is possible to engage in both activities at once, especially if philosophers are the target of the apologia. That is, one may publish one’s arguments both as part of the cooperative research program and in the hope of actually convincing one’s fellow researchers. (Or, in an increasingly popular trend, one may publish a book in which one tries to address both one’s fellow philosophers and the educated public at once.) The fact that a particular individual has both aims may effect her mode of presentation, but this need not interfere with doing good philosophy. However, it seems to me that in this kind of case the philosophy is going to constrain the apologetics a lot more than the other way around. The philosopher, for instance, must be engaged in the project of trying to figure out exactly who rationally ought to be convinced by the argument, and this may lead the philosopher to point out ways of escape from the argument which, qua apologist, she might wish could go unnoticed. But this again is something which, in my view, the principled apologist ought to do anyway (and, indeed, perhaps from a moral perspective, though not from the perspective of achieving one’s ends, it is even more important for the apologist to do this, since the apologist speaks to non-experts who are less likely to discover the way of escape for themselves).
Although philosophy and apologetics may go together, it is comforting to the philosopher that they need not. Being concerned only with the rational force of arguments, the philosopher may ignore the vagaries of human psychology, or of social pressures regarding belief, because, if these are the reasons the argument is not accepted, then the philosopher may nevertheless have succeeded at her aim of giving an argument which rationally ought to be accepted.
(cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net)

Comments:
  • Dan Johnson

    Surely this isn’t the only thing that philosophers are looking for. A lot of philosophers are primarily interested in achieving understanding (in various realms) and perhaps even wisdom, neither of which is reducible to the discovery of arguments or of arguments which rationally compel a revision of beliefs.
    This might be a further distinction between the philosopher qua philosopher and the apologist qua apologist — which supports the aim of your post. It also suggests, however, that no apologist is ever merely an apologist — every human being desires understanding at some level or another. So talking of an apologist qua apologist might be a little misleading, by tempting people to reduce a complex, thinking person to one narrow role that they fill.

    April 12, 2012 — 13:31
  • Hi Kenny,
    I do think apologists aim at arguments that *ought* to convince people, not just ones that *will* convince people. I would have drawn the distinction more along these lines:
    The goal of (Christian) apologetics is to defend the Christian faith with arguments (and intellectual considerations more generally). One could be a Kantian apologist insofar as one’s goal is to defend Kantian views with arguments. As a first pass, one is an X apologist insofar as one’s goal is to defend X with arguments. We might want to put further restrictions on how deeply the goal is held, how it is related to other goals of the agent, etc. But I think this is the basic idea of what apologists are.
    I’m not sure what the goal of philosophy is, precisely, but it doesn’t defend any point of view as its aim. This is enough to distinguish apologetics and philosophy, and it leaves open that one could be doing both things at the same time.

    April 12, 2012 — 15:55
  • Brian

    Good post. Philosophers in general might disagree, to split hairs as is their calling, but the salient point is sound. Philosophers, in their distinctive philosophical activity, are looking to understand what proper judgement in the matter at hand ought to be, given the evidence.

    April 12, 2012 — 18:37
  • Kenny Pearce

    Dan – I think you are probably right that not everything philosophers are or have been interested in (qua philosopher) can be reduced to interest in rationally compelling arguments, but I do think that this is the central thing to which everything else must relate. For instance, there is some intrinsic interest in simply exploring ‘logical space,’ and seeing what sorts of views could be adopted. However, this activity usually comes in because either (a) there are arguments in favor of these views, or (b) adopting one of these views is a way of escaping some argument which is under consideration. As a historian, I spend a lot of my time just trying to understand what the views are, but the views are of philosophical (rather than merely historical) interest insofar as there are arguments for them, and insofar as they provide material for further arguments.
    Of course no human being is just an apologist or just a philosopher. People wear all sorts of hats, and engage in all sorts of activities. But as with all agency nouns, the question is, what is the activity the agent engages in, in virtue of which this noun correctly applies to him or her?
    Chris – I think apologists ought to aim at arguments that ought to convince people, rather than merely those that do convince people. However, I think the first ‘ought’ is a moral imperative, and not a technical imperative of the craft of apologetics. In other words, the restraint comes from the fact that it’s wrong to try to get people to believe (or behave) irrationally, and not because it is built into the apologists’ goals that people should believe rationally. My reason for saying this is just that a lot of apologists don’t keep to this constraint, and are willing to say just anything to get people to endorse their view. When they do this, I think they are violating a moral norm as a sort of ‘shortcut’ to accomplishing the goal of apologetics. I don’t think they are abandoning the goal of apologetics, I think they are instead pursuing it in a morally objectionable way. Note that there is a pejorative sense of the term ‘apologist’ (especially in the academy) where it means just this: an unprincipled person who will say anything to get some particular view accepted.
    Brian – Yes, this is only a first pass. Let the hair-splitting begin! We’re all about that here 🙂

    April 12, 2012 — 20:07
  • Kenny,
    I agree that many apologists fail to give arguments that ought to persuade. What this shows, I think, is that many apologists aren’t very good at what they do. Some, perhaps many, philosophers give bad arguments, but that doesn’t show that their aim isn’t to give good ones. So why does the failure of apologists to live up to a norm show that the norm is not constitutive of apologetics?
    I’m assuming you don’t think these apologists who give bad arguments go around thinking to themselves: “I’ll have done my job if I persuade. Good arguments will be nice, but I’ll settle for rhetorical tricks.” My guess is that they think they are giving good arguments and their goal is to give good arguments. If so, then that favours my interpretation.

    April 12, 2012 — 21:27
  • Kenny Pearce

    So, it’s probably true that very few apologists think their arguments are bad, but they do things like ignore objections which they know full well any philosophically sophisticated atheist would make, just because their audience is not that sophisticated and won’t think of the objection. They also work much harder than philosophers typically do at presenting their arguments in a rhetorically compelling manner, sometimes at the expense of a clear presentation of the logical point. Relatedly, apologists who rely on historical or scientific facts routinely leave out counter-evidence they are aware of. All of this is because they are more interested in presenting an argument that will actually persuade the audience they are actually addressing than in presenting the best argument. Even if they think the arguments they are presenting are good, they do not present them in a manner that invites careful rational analysis of the arguments.
    Here, of course, I’m talking about the bad apologists, and I certainly do think there are also good ones. I’m just not convinced that the people I’m calling ‘bad apologists’ are bad at apologetics, or that they have a different aim than the good apologists. They are just less scrupulous about making sure their audience has all the facts needed to evaluate the arguments properly; they’d rather shield everyone from the (allegedly) misleading counter-evidence and -arguments.
    Outside religion, think about the ‘apologists’ (PR firms) who were engaged to sow doubt about the harmfulness of tobacco, and are now engaged to sow doubt about climate change. These are very good apologists. I doubt they believe a word they say. That doesn’t make them bad at apologetics, it just makes them liars.

    April 13, 2012 — 0:29
  • “but they do things like ignore objections which they know full well any philosophically sophisticated atheist would make, just because their audience is not that sophisticated and won’t think of the objection.”
    I don’t think one generally needs to give objections when one has good answers to the objections, though.

    April 13, 2012 — 8:26
  • Helen De Cruz

    Kenny, I am wondering if much of scientific and philosophical research doesn’t have the apologetic character you point at. I regularly read papers in cognitive science. Unsurprisingly, the authors almost always reach conclusions that are in line with their underlying research program. For instance, authors friendly to nativism, such as Liz Spelke, design experiments that, under their interpretation, strongly support the notion of innate knowledge in infants. Unsurprisingly, they never reach a contradictory conclusion (e.g., this particular experiment indicates a strongly empiricist basis for our knowledge of X) I see science (and philosophy) not as a fundamentally cooperative practice (except perhaps in the broad sense of trying to acquire many true beliefs), but as a practice that involves discussion, dissent etc. In this argumentative situation, people exhibit confirmation bias with regard to evidence supporting their own views and disconfirmation bias with regard to evidence that supports conflicting claims. A similar thing happens in philosophy: this is why, even if we come up with counterarguments (and often we do, treating them sometimes in a special section on objections and replies, sometimes treating them in the course of a paper), we do not think these are particularly fatal to our arguments. So I am inclined to believe that most philosophy is apologetics at the same time. Most of us have a broad philosophical program and our exploration of various arguments, thought experiments etc will tend to get us to the arrive at conclusions that are in line with this. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing, as long as they do not engage in what you have termed bad apologetics, and also, crucially that there is a diversity of opinions so that one’s persons confirmation bias can be balanced by another’s disconfirmation bias. This is why, I have argued earlier, a greater diversity in philosophy of religion (more atheists, agnostics, non-Christians) would be a good thing.

    April 13, 2012 — 11:03
  • Kenny Pearce

    Alex – That’s certainly right in some cases, but it may not be in others. For instance, you may think that the argument is ultimately successful, because there is a successful reply to the objection, but you may also know that, given their commitments, one’s audience wouldn’t, and shouldn’t, accept that reply. In this case, you might think the argument is good in some objective sense, or you might accept the argument yourself, so that there is no real insincerity, but at the same time there is something objectionable going on, insofar as one’s audience, given their other commitments, really ought not to accept the argument that one is trying to get them to accept. This sort of thing, I think, goes on quite a lot in popular apologetics (on religion or other subjects).
    Helen – Perhaps you are right that most research papers are also engaging in apologetics of some sort. As I said, I agree that it’s not necessarily objectionable to be doing apologetics and philosophy at the same time (perhaps in the course of the same paper). It may even be that, for many people, philosophy as I have described it is subordinate to apologetics. This latter thing I do find objectionable; I think we ought to aim at the improvement of our own beliefs in the course of our research, rather than simply aiming to defend the beliefs we have. This, of course, is not inconsistent with having certain core beliefs one is quite confident of, in addition to the views one is investigating. (I personally am much more interested in metaphysical theology – metaphysical investigation of what God is like – than in work on the question whether God exists, and part of the reason for this is that I’m much more confident that I have the right answer to the second question than I am that I have the right answer to the first, and my aim is to improve my beliefs, and not just defend the beliefs I already have.) It is, of course, also consistent with writing papers that aim at convincing others (and so engaging in apologetics), rather than merely writing with an aim to give objectively good arguments. I strongly agree with you that greater diversity of opinion can help to counterbalance, and that we are suffering from a lack of this diversity in philosophy of religion.

    April 13, 2012 — 12:21
  • anon

    “Unsurprisingly, they never reach a contradictory conclusion (e.g., this particular experiment indicates a strongly empiricist basis for our knowledge of X) I see science (and philosophy) not as a fundamentally cooperative practice (except perhaps in the broad sense of trying to acquire many true beliefs), but as a practice that involves discussion, dissent etc. In this argumentative situation, people exhibit confirmation bias with regard to evidence supporting their own views and disconfirmation bias with regard to evidence that supports conflicting claims. A similar thing happens in philosophy…”
    I am good friends with a prominent philosopher of science (teaching at a top program) and the tendency – among most of his colleagues, who also do philosophy of science – is to do exactly as you are describing. I once asked him if anyone in the dept. cared about getting at what was true in their work rather than simply trying to make a name for themselves, pawn off their own favored views, assert themselves, etc. etc. He said he couldn’t think of anyone.*
    I think this is all very relevant to discussions of religion, as academia has typically been perceived as a bastion of knowledge, understanding, truth-seeking (which in certain significant ways it is), whereas religious institutions/groups are not so seen. One can probably find apologists (of the negative sort Kenny describes) anywhere, since it is a human tendency to use the ‘pursuit of truth’ for ulterior motives.
    *He has also mentioned, at different times, that many of the people he works with are often un-ethical in how they conduct themselves as professors. Superficially ironic, because some of these people are ethicists.

    April 13, 2012 — 14:30
  • Helen De Cruz

    Anon: I am indeed quite pessimistic about people’s ability to view arguments dispassionately (see my earlier survey on religious arguments on this blog – unsurprisingly, theists find arguments for the existence of God stronger; atheists find them weaker). Also I fear there is a kind of selection process. As a graduate student, I knew at least two fellow students (both women) who dropped out in part because they did not exhibit this confirmation bias w/r/t their own views. One of them got so compelled by counterarguments of an otherwise helpful referee who encouraged resubmission of a paper that she just did not want to resubmit it.

    April 13, 2012 — 15:07
  • anon

    Helen,
    I find your pessimism pretty plausible. Most especially in my own case. I consistently find myself with non-truth-seeking elements in my reasoning on most issues. Barely perceptible desires to show those I disagree with wrong, as well as desires for the sort of self-justification that is had by doing so. It’s a convoluted mess at times.
    I believe Quine mentioned something of the sort in his autobiography. Something to the effect that in philosophy he was continually seeking glory.

    April 13, 2012 — 16:51
  • “So, it’s probably true that very few apologists think their arguments are bad, but they do things like ignore objections which they know full well any philosophically sophisticated atheist would make, just because their audience is not that sophisticated and won’t think of the objection. They also work much harder than philosophers typically do at presenting their arguments in a rhetorically compelling manner, sometimes at the expense of a clear presentation of the logical point. Relatedly, apologists who rely on historical or scientific facts routinely leave out counter-evidence they are aware of. All of this is because they are more interested in presenting an argument that will actually persuade the audience they are actually addressing than in presenting the best argument. Even if they think the arguments they are presenting are good, they do not present them in a manner that invites careful rational analysis of the arguments.”
    I think this might be a little uncharitable,
    One difference between philosophy and apologetics often is the audience, professional philosophers tend to write for other professional philosophers who grasp the basics of the subject understand important distinctions, understand terms like “ontology” and “epistemology” “deontological” and so on. Similarly professional philosophers have a much greater grasp of conceptual issues.
    Apologetics is often directed at lay people, by which I mean non philosophers, often educated people with no philosophy training, or to people in a church or at a popular level and so on. This is because questions of the truth and falsity or defensibility of various religious claims can be of great interest to these people.
    This however requires a different mode of communication. Often one can only cover the basic ins an outs of a question, one has to skip over the arguments that would be proposed by more philosophically advanced atheist, simply because one can’t easily in that context put forward advanced philosophical issues at all as the audience simply want understand it. I have had this frustration often when asked to address an apologetics class or even a first year ethics class. The kind of careful argumentation of analytic philosophical scepticism often is foreign to the audience and you have to really break it down to not simply loose them. Similarly one has to rhetorically hone what one says for the same reason. One has to leave out important arguments that appeal to certain distinctions or philosophical doctrines the audience does not understand and so on.

    April 14, 2012 — 6:07
  • Helen:
    “I see science (and philosophy) not as a fundamentally cooperative practice (except perhaps in the broad sense of trying to acquire many true beliefs), but as a practice that involves discussion, dissent etc.”
    I am not sure the two are incompatible. Suppose I ask a friend to play tennis with me, because I don’t have anybody to play tennis with. Fundamentally, he is cooperating with me in playing tennis with me. But he is also doing his best to beat me, and that is essential to the success of the cooperative activity.
    Presumably, we should think of our adversarial court system like this: when we consider it as a joint practice, the advocates for the two sides are working together for the sake of truth, and they do so by doing their best to convince the judge/jury.
    We probably want to put it this way. The practice has a practice-external goal, and that goal is pursued by the participants’ striving for practice-internal goals. The participants are cooperating with respect to the practice-external goal, but not with respect to the practice-internal goals.
    It is possible, in sports, law and philosophy, to lose sight of the practice-external ends. And there are ways of achieving the practice-internal ends in such a way as does not promote the practice’s ends (unsportsmanlike behavior, withholding evidence, giving an argument one knows to be bad but where one expects the other person not to see the objection).
    It is, of course, a serious empirical question whether the same practice-external goals couldn’t be better achieved with a more internally cooperative practice.

    April 14, 2012 — 12:10
  • Helen:
    Re-reading your comment, I think we don’t disagree.

    April 14, 2012 — 12:12
  • Adam Omelianchuk

    I like what you have to say here, Kenny (the comments are good too). Here at Biola there are separate master’s programs for philosophy and apologetics. At first, I was under the impresssion that a place like this would just conflate the two, but what you describe here notes the difference even in a highly ministry-oriented approach to philosophy. And it has been fun to see how the difference you describe are exemplified in the same person (Moreland, Craig, and Geivett).

    April 14, 2012 — 12:51
  • Helen De Cruz

    Alex: I think we don’t disagree. I think it is absolutely unproblematic that authors are engaged in apologetics (in the sense that Kenny defines it) whenever they engage in scientific or philosophical practice. We try to present the best possible case for our views – in the best of cases this includes considering possible counterarguments and reacting to those preemptively (e.g., typically, in a cognitive psychological experiment, one does some control studies to rule out some alternative explanations). If there is a healthy heterogeneity within a field, this will on the whole lead to more truth-conducive views (or at least, that is my rosy image of how science and philosophy are practiced!) I am thinking of Mercier and Sperber’s views of reasoning as a form of argumentation.
    It gets problematic if one deliberately omits counterarguments one is aware, or if one nudges the experiment to get what one wants. I’m not just thinking of outright fraud (as in the recent Mark Hauser and other cases in psychology), but also the seemingly innocuous nudging that goes on, see e.g., this paper: http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2011/10/17/0956797611417632.abstract?rss=1
    So I think there is a real difference between good and bad apologetics.

    April 14, 2012 — 14:54