In Memoriam: William L. Rowe (1931-2015)
August 22, 2015 — 10:23

Author: Michael Bergmann  Category: Uncategorized  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 23

Paul Draper shares the following:

It is with great sadness that I inform you that my friend, William Rowe, died this morning (August 22nd, 2015). As most of you know, he was a philosopher of religion and metaphysician, best known for his work on the cosmological argument, the problem of evil, and Thomas Reid’s theory of agent causation. What follows is a brief summary of some of his accomplishments.

Rowe earned his Ph.D. in 1962 at the University of Michigan under William P. Alston and wrote a dissertation—the basis for his first book (1968)—on Paul Tillich’s philosophical theology. He taught at Purdue University from 1962 to 2005 and, in 1986-7, was President of the American Philosophical Association’s Central Division.

Rowe wrote a second book (1975) focusing mainly on Samuel Clarke’s version of the cosmological argument for the existence of a necessary being. Hume had attacked this sort of argument by claiming that if each member of an infinite series of dependent beings is explained by another member of that series, then the entire series is explained. Rowe rejects Hume’s claim on the grounds that explaining each dependent being in terms of another leaves unexplained why the collection of all dependent beings has any members at all. He nevertheless finds Clarke’s argument unpersuasive because it depends on a dubious principle of sufficient reason.

Beginning in 1979 with his famous paper “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism,” Rowe published numerous papers defending an argument from evil against theism. Rowe denies that a logical incompatibility between God’s existence and known facts about evil can be established. He maintains instead that theists face an evidential problem of evil. In Rowe’s distinctive argument, however, the crucial evidence is not that our world contains horrendous evils, but that we cannot even conceive of any goods that justify God’s allowing those evils.

Rowe’s most recent book (2004) challenges the view that God is both free and perfectly good. For either there is a best of all possible worlds or there isn’t. If there is, then a perfectly good God must create it and so is not free. If there is not, then no matter which world God freely chooses to create, it is possible to create a better one, which, Rowe argues, implies that God is not perfectly good.

Bill Rowe was much more than a great thinker. He was a warm and extraordinarily gracious man, a mature and beautiful soul who had a gift for making others feel welcome and at ease. He will be sorely missed both by those who had the great fortune of knowing him personally and by those who know him only through his brilliant philosophical work.

Paul Draper
Purdue University

  • Paul —

    Thank you for sharing. My condolences to everyone at Purdue. I know that Rowe was an important member of the community there, and that he will surely be missed.

    August 22, 2015 — 11:36
  • John J. Tilley

    My deepest sympathies to Professor Rowe’s family and friends, and to the Purdue philosophy department. He will be missed by many.

    August 22, 2015 — 13:38
  • Eddie Tabash

    William Rowe helped make the world safer for atheism, at a time when it took, as it still does, great courage to do so. He was a great and fearless philosopher. It is fitting that this obituary is written by another great and fearless philosopher, Paul Draper.

    August 22, 2015 — 14:54
  • Jim Madden

    Bill Rowe was very generous to me while I was a student at Purdue, and I count myself lucky for having a chance to know him. He will be missed.

    August 22, 2015 — 15:07
  • Wow. Rest in peace.

    August 22, 2015 — 15:57
  • Bertha Alvarez Manninen

    Dr. Rowe was an amazing teacher. I am a better scholar, teacher, and human being for knowing him. The world has lost a brilliant mind and a kind soul. I’ll think of you everyday Professor. Much love to his family.

    August 22, 2015 — 16:48
  • Joseph W. Long

    Bill was a great mentor to me. I not only learned a great deal about philosophy from him, but he, more than anyone else, shaped my conception of what a professional philosopher should be.

    His Philosophy of Religion lecture notes still form the core of my class on that subject and I will think of him often this semester as I teach it. Perhaps I’ll even revive one of his Spiro Agnew jokes!

    My deepest sympathies go out to his family. Bill will be missed.

    August 22, 2015 — 17:56
  • Louis Mancha

    I am a better scholar and person for having studied with Bill Rowe. Rest in peace.

    August 22, 2015 — 21:13
  • Kevin Corcoran

    Bill Rowe was the most kind, most generous, most gracious atheist a theist (like me) could know. I was a student of Bill’s in the mid 90’s. It was a paper I wrote in Bill’s phil of religion grad seminar that was also my first publication. In it, I defended the possibility of phenomenologically theistic experience. It was Bill’s characteristically incisive, pointed and careful comments on that paper, and all my graduate work, that helped to shape me. But it was his gracious and kind comments on that particular paper that gave me the confidence I needed to begin submitting work for publication. I am profoundly grateful for him. He was, indeed, a beautiful soul.

    August 23, 2015 — 21:07
  • Eleonore Stump

    He was such a good philosopher! He significantly influenced the course of the discussion of the problem of evil, and other philosophical issues as well, for years. But he was also so kind and gentle a man, and I myself am more grateful to him for his generous care than I can say. I am sad that he is no longer with us.

    August 23, 2015 — 22:31
  • Michael Bergmann

    I have long admired and learned from Bill’s work on the cosmological argument, the problem of evil, and on issues connected with agent causation, free will, and responsibility. His perceptiveness, clarity, and generosity of spirit in his published work were and are an inspiration to me. I love teaching using material he has written, which is unfailingly accessible and instructive to grad students and undergrads alike. But what I appreciate most about Bill is his cheerful kindness. He was a sweet and gentle soul. His infectious smile and thoughtful words of encouragement meant a great deal to me as his junior colleague. Bill made me feel very welcomed at Purdue, from my campus visit at interview time until he retired. He was a trusted advisor and friend, who time and again provided wise counsel and encouragement that helped me learn the ropes and navigate the various difficulties of professional life. He was also a challenging and generous philosophical sparring partner. Several of my early papers on the problem of evil and on responsibility began as email discussions or conversations over coffee with Bill. I owe Bill an immense debt of gratitude though I know he would humbly and generously say it was nothing. I don’t think I’ve befriended a friendlier atheist. He will be sorely missed.

    August 24, 2015 — 11:03
  • L. Manning Garrett III

    Though I did not have the honor of being his student, his written works guided the direction of my dissertation. His clear thinking, expressed both verbally and in writing, has benefited many. For those who had the opportunity to know him on a personal level, i am sure his friendship and kindness will be missed. Philosophy of Religion is better off because of the thoughtful contributions that Professor Rowe has made over the years. Though I disagree with his atheistic persuasion, I am challenged to be as thoughtful and kind in expressing my worldview as was Bill Rowe. It is an honor to provide this brief tribute to his life. He will be missed.

    August 24, 2015 — 12:36
  • John Schellenberg

    I’ve learned much from Bill’s work, as others will in times to come. And my life is the richer for conversation with him, which others, to their misfortune, will miss. There was a simplicity and purity about Bill — and a subtlety and perceptiveness (Mike’s word, a good one). I am grateful to him for his unfailing encouragement, and for his example of faithfulness to a calling. He made a dogged and courageous pursuit of intellectual clarity seem like the most natural thing in the world.

    August 24, 2015 — 20:53
  • C. Stephen Evans

    I will miss Bill very much. One of my fondest memories is of a run I took with Bill (and Jay Wood) in Louisville at an APA. He was a great running partner and a wonderful philosophical conversation partner. One of the clearest writers and most fair-minded philosophers I have ever known. We need more people like him. May he rest in peace and rediscover the God he could not believe in for the latter part of his life.

    August 25, 2015 — 16:03
  • Mark McLeod-Harrison

    I remember struggling through Bill’s book on Tillich while an undergraduate in a course on contemporary theology. Reading Bill’s work was, shall we say, a little easier than reading Tillich; Bill actually explained things! I met Bill years later while on a bus from the airport to a meeting of philosophy of religion meeting. I was reading one of my early papers and Bill was, to my youthful surprise, so encouraging! He was a tremendously kind and genuinely thoughtful person. I remember thinking that I would like to be as kind a Christian philosopher as Bill was an atheist. I use his writings often in my philosophy of religion courses. His loss to the philosophy of religion community is great. Thank you Bill, for patting me on the back and telling me I could do it. RIP

    August 26, 2015 — 9:27
  • Jan Cover

    I have long — a good 27 or more years — called Bill Rowe ‘Boss’ or ‘the Boss’ and shan’t apologize for persisting in that affectionate way now. He (and Peggy, I need to say) hired me, and then took me under their wing, rather, in my bumbling ignorance of things professional and philosophical. And domestic, even: the couch now in my living room was his, as were two preceding it (“Jan: this is rather a Wittgensteinian existence, isn’t it?” he said of my mattress on the floor and single chair and card-table: I think he genuinely worried about me. That’s how the Boss was, and Peggy too. You aren’t so blessed with as kind a boss — Department Head / Chair — as some of us were here at Purdue.) On matters professional he was like a wise father; on matters philosophical he was like a patient and sometimes stern one. My own old man wasn’t within a country mile of liking a very good brandy: I wish I could find my way again with the Boss to that quiet corner at an APA, or to his living room next to the good dog (Angus, Taggart, …my memory is fleeting, like those good times). The Boss had kind eyes; he had a fine sense of humor (the image of him laughing is one I prize and shan’t, I think, ever lose); he had a patient care about his thinking and writing which I’ve always admired and even envied; he didn’t mind thinking old thoughts anew, afresh (so McTaggart and G. E. Moore and Thomas Reid and Samuel Clarke and even Isaac Watts were like colleagues at the seminar table or whilst warming one’s Glenfiddich over a dispute in warm light); he didn’t like the absence of argument; he didn’t mind theists even a little bit because he knew very well, as some do not, what it meant to be a believer. He couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, but loved to sing: some endured his singing, but for me it was like the good scent of fresh hay or of Rattray’s Old Gowrie wafting from one’s pipe — pure pleasure and best when shared alongside someone else. Joplin’s (well, alright: Kristofferson’s — but Joplin’s, really) “Me and Bobby McGee” was up in the top six, and that’s another thing I’ll never forget, the Boss singing — just for the sake of singing, in this case something he didn’t quite believe: “Freedom’s just another word for nuthin’ left to lose….” Gosh it was terrible, and lovely, because it came from some place deep in his memory and heart as his eyes sparkled and his smile shone like a great sunny day in the Scottish Highlands. In the top five were other, different songs… So the Boss wasn’t a theist, he said, and I suppose one should believe him. But in the top five to sing (and simply never mind those who endured it) were the old hymns — sung loud with the sort of…, I dunno, …confidence, I want to say, as one has in an ancient stone bridge one has crossed a thousand times, familiar, a kind of ageless friend. You should know that his favorite of these (he always went to it first) was “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” (on which the Prince of Glory died….), but there were four others. Probably belief is a complicated affair, with representational and dispositional components and maybe more. So the Boss didn’t quite believe these old hymns, in some sense. But they were dear to him. He might have forgotten a face, and then another, down the stretch, but I never knew him to forget a single word or shrink from the occasion to sing them all, and (here is different point) if I were a betting man, I’d bet every penny I own that the Boss was singing aloud the day he passed…across some ancient stone bridge — “To sunny days and starry nights,” as he would always say toward the end of the evening. Maybe so. Let it be so. So long, Boss.

    August 26, 2015 — 10:12
    • Bertha Alvarez Manninen

      Prof. Cover, I read these words with tears. He will be so missed.

      August 26, 2015 — 13:01
      • Bertha Alvarez Manninen

        Sorry, I hit “post” too quickly! One thing that Bill opened my mind and heart to was that atheism wasn’t this big bad ugly word, or thing to be. He was a good person and a kind soul, atheist and all. That lesson is one that needs to be taught to all philosophers of religion – to everyone in the world, actually.

        August 26, 2015 — 13:16
  • Michael Rea

    I wish I had known Bill Rowe better–I only interacted with him in person once or twice, and that in purely professional contexts. Reading these tributes here makes me wish all the more that I had had more opportunities to get to know him. But what I can say is that I really appreciate and admire his philosophical work, and the spirit in which he pursued it. He was a great philosopher and a model interlocutor for people like me (and many of those writing here) who maintain strong religious commitments but need and want to be challenged to think about those commitments more carefully and rigorously. I have profited enormously from his work and influence, and I deeply appreciate his philosophical contributions, particularly in the philosophy of religion.

    August 26, 2015 — 12:33
  • In the Fall of 1964 I entered Purdue as the philosophy department’s first (and sole) graduate student. I will never forget sitting across a seminar table for three hours each week taking in Bill Rowe’s meticulously prepared and detailed lectures on G. E. Moore, directed at me, his sole auditor, but as polished as if they were delivered to hundreds. Bill Rowe taught me what philosophy is. I’m sorry to hear of his passing.

    August 29, 2015 — 11:09
  • William Wainwright

    Bill Rowe and I entered graduate school at the University of Michigan in the Fall of 1957. Our class also included George Mavrodes. All three of us went on to complete doctoral theses in the philosophy of religion under the direction of Bill Alston. (Occasioning Charles Stevenson to exclaim “The place is becoming a damned seminary!”—though I hasten to add that Stevenson was a very nice man, an excellent teacher, and very supportive of me and others).

    Our close friendship didn’t begin, however, until the late sixties when we co-edited Philosophy of Religion: Selected Readings, began to see each other more frequently and talked not only about philosophy but also about cabbages and kings. From that point on Bill and I exchanged ideas and commented in great detail on each other’s work. Two examples will suffice. Over drinks at an APA meeting in the early seventies Bill and I came up with what we believed to be a novel and intuitively plausible way to formulate the ontological argument. And (in a sign of things to come) which Bill then proceeded to accuse of circularity and I defended. (Both Bill’s attack and my defense appeared shortly thereafter in the International Journal for Philosophy of Religion.) Bill and I also had discussions over a long period of time of the ideas which eventuated in his Can God be Free? I like to think that our exchanges were of great value to both of us and believe that our published works were much better as a consequence.

    Our exchanges also had an immense and unanticipated influence on me personally. Bill and I were trained by the same philosophers, practiced philosophy in the same way, and were thoroughly familiar with each other’s work. We also almost always agreed on questions of validity and other “technical” issues. Nevertheless we almost always ended up disagreeing about the overall force of the arguments that concerned us. What could explain this? Not, I daresay, differences in intelligence, information, fair mindedness, or moral sensitivity. Much of my work since the mid-1980s has revolved around an attempt to understand and explain our basic disagreement. While this sort of problem is not new my ongoing interaction with someone whose work I admire and who I deeply respect as both a philosopher and human being has brought it home to me with peculiar intensity.

    But Bill was much more to me than a good colleague. He was also my best friend. We had similar senses of humor, memories, attitudes, and values, and over half a century shared both our troubles and successes. He was one of the most decent and likeable persons I have known, and I will sorely miss him.

    William J. Wainwright

    August 29, 2015 — 17:41
  • Cody Dolinsek

    I never got the chance to meet this amazing man. His Philosophy of Religion: An Introduction, was one of the texts that I was required to read in order to study for my entrance exams for the PhD at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary . His sympathetic treatment of religious matters attracted me immediately. Reading this post and the following comments alert me to the fact that I have missed out on an opportunity to know someone with an excellent character, a priceless opportunity indeed. The fact that theists and non-theists alike can praise him sincerely is testimony to his greatness.

    March 15, 2016 — 21:13
  • davood gharejalo

    Hello from Iran
    Unfortunately now I heard this news.
    My deepest sympathies to Professor Rowe’s family and friends, and to the Purdue philosophy department. He will be missed by many.

    June 20, 2016 — 2:42
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