Virtual Colloquium: Joe Milburn, “Against Religious Indifference”
November 11, 2016 — 6:00

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Religion and Life Religious Belief  Tags: , , , , , ,   Comments: 7

Today’s Virtual Colloquium paper is “Against Religious Indifference” by Joe Milburn. Dr. Milburn recently received his PhD from the University of Pittsburgh and is now a Research Fellow at the Notre Dame Center for Philosophy of Religion. His papers have appeared in journals such as Metaphilosophy and Philosophia.

Against Religious Indifference

Joe Milburn

I want to thank Kenny Pearce for allowing me to present at the Prosblogion Online Colloquium. I want to thank in advance all who participate in the colloquium. I hope you enjoy reading my paper and that it stimulates your own thinking.

This paper is inspired by some of the remarks Pascal makes in F 427 of the Pensées. There, Pascal makes the following claim.

The immortality of the soul is something of such vital importance to us, affecting us so deeply, that one must have lost all feeling not to care about knowing the facts of the matter. All our actions and thoughts must follow such different paths, according to whether there is hope of eternal blessings or not, that the only possible way of acting with sense and judgement is decide our course in the light of this point, which out to be our ultimate object. Thus our chief interest and chief duty is to seek enlightenment on this subject, on which all our conduct depends. [Krailsheimer translation]

In this paper I attempt to unpack in my own way Pascal’s comments above. I make the following argument.

(P1) We should not be in a state of disengaged agnosticism regarding fundamentally significant questions.

(P2) But fundamental religious questions are fundamentally significant questions.

(C) Therefore, we should not be in a state of disengaged agnosticism regarding fundamental religious questions.

To be in a state of disengaged agnosticism regarding a question is to suspend judgment regarding this question and not look for a (good) answer to it. An individual S suspends judgment regarding a question, q, just in case S believes that there is an answer to q, and they judge that they don’t know the answer to q.

A question q is a fundamentally significant question for an individual S, just in case S recognizes (or can be expected to recognize) that she could give a wrong answer to q and that answering q is either a necessary means to, or constitutive of, her answering one of the following questions: What constitutes my flourishing? What are the central duties in my life? What is the purpose of my life?

I stipulate that there are two fundamental religious questions: the question of salvation “might I be saved and how?” and the question of the sacred “is there anything sacred, such that my flourishing consists in worshipping it; or such that one of my central duties is to worship it; or such that the purpose in my life is to worship it?”

I argue for P1 by taking it as given that we should not be in a state of disengaged agnosticism regarding the following questions: What constitutes my flourishing? What are the central duties in my life? What is the purpose of my life?

If we suspend judgment regarding a fundamentally significant question then we should suspend judgment regarding these questions concerning flourishing, central duties, and purpose. Thus, given my assumption, we should inquire into these questions. But in order to answer these questions about flourishing, central duties, and purpose, we must answer the fundamentally significant question for which we have suspended judgment. So inquiring into the fundamentally significant question is either a necessary means for, or constitutive of, inquiring into these questions about flourishing, central duties, and purpose. Thus, given that we should take the necessary means to our ends, if we suspend judgment into a fundamentally significant question, we should inquire into it.

I spend a little time trying to show that what I am calling the fundamental religious questions are fundamentally significant questions.

Finally, I spend a little time responding to what I call the waste of time objection. This objection goes as follows.

(P1*) We should not inquire into questions if we know on the outset that we cannot find good answers for them.

(P2*) But we know on the outset that it is impossible to find good answers to the fundamental religious questions.

(C*) Therefore, we should not inquire into fundamental religious questions.

In my response to the waste of time objection I put pressure on both of the first two premises. I point out that skeptics seem to call (P1) into question. (Here I have in mind Licentius’s view in Book I of Augustine’s Contra Academicos that human happiness consists in seeking for the truth, not in finding it.) I also point out that P2 is hard to establish in a way that does not undermine P2 itself.

I am thankful for any comments, but I would especially like feed-back on the following: 1.) Is it ok for me to assume that we shouldn’t be in a state of disengaged agnosticism regarding the questions, What constitutes my flourishing? What are my central duties? What is my purpose in life? 2.) Are there better ways of formulating the waste-of-time-objection than I have? 3.) Are there better ways of formulating my argument for P1?

Once again, thank you for this opportunity!

The full paper is available here. Comments welcome below!

  • Heath White

    Thanks, Joe, for an interesting paper.

    The disengaged agnostics I know are that way for one of two reasons. One is a version of the “waste of time” objection but with your “at the outset” deleted. Typically they have some acquaintance with attempts to answer fundamental religious questions—either they have tried themselves, as philosophers, or they have read some philosophy and religion—but as a matter of inductive empirical experience they have concluded that it is impossible to find answers to FRQs. This version of the argument escapes your objections, I think.

    The other (not exclusive) reason for disengaged agnosticism is a kind of disjunctive syllogism. “The question of salvation either has a positive answer or a negative one. If I can be saved, it is through typically moral actions. If I cannot be saved, nevertheless my flourishing requires typically moral actions. So I will just do typically moral actions without worrying about the question of salvation.” You could call this line of argument either a rejection of (P1) or a rejection of (P2).

    Any thoughts about either of these positions?

    November 11, 2016 — 11:44
    • Joe Milburn

      Dear Heath,
      Thanks for these comments.

      Here are a couple of thoughts.

      First, I think an experience of past failure at answering a question doesn’t give us reason to believe that it is *impossible* to answer the question. It might give us reason for believing that the methods we’ve used won’t allow us to get good answers. But we might have been going about the question the wrong way. (Perhaps we have been seeking out what Moser has called spectator evidence, but what we need to seek is pneumatic evidence). In general, any time we fail to answer a question we will have failed to employ a number of approaches to answering the question. That one approach has failed, I don’t think, gives us reason for believing other independent approaches will fail.

      Second, I am inclined to respond to the disjunctive syllogism by slightly redefining the question of salvation, so that it makes explicit reference to religious practice. In this case the question of salvation is something like the following: Is there any religious practice (acts of faith, worship, or meditation, etc.) that are necessary to engage in so as to be saved? Given this framing of the question the person who accepts the disjunctive premise has answered the question of salvation in the negative.

      I worry that this response is ad hoc. Here is one reason to think that it is not. It seems to be a constant theme in traditional religion that typical moral actions are not sufficient for salvation. Pascal, for instance, would choke at the idea that we could obtain salvation by merely being good people.

      Anyhow, thanks again for these comments, they are very helpful!



      November 11, 2016 — 16:11
  • Tim Perrine

    Hi Joe,

    Thank you for your interesting paper. I’ve thought some about the ethics of belief, but you are right that the ethics of inquiry also seems important as well. I have two questions more so on the clarificatory side.

    As is well-known, questions have presuppositions. Further, because they have presuppositions we can reject questions outright. If you ask why Sherlock Holmes voted for Donald Trump, I can reject your question by pointing out the falsity of a presupposition, namely, that Sherlock Holmes voted at all. When I reject a question, intuitively, I am not answering; I’m question the asking in the first place. With that in mind, consider a question like:

    Has Jones stop beating his wife?

    It seems to me that there might be two ways that I suspend judgment regarding this question. First, I might accept the presupposition of the question—that, in the past, Jones has beat his wife—and I’m just unsure if he still is or not. But I might also suspend judgment regarding this question because I do not know if the presuppose of this question is right.

    I mention this because your principle of suspending judgment (p. 4) requires for suspended judgment of a question that I think the question has an answer. That means it would exclude cases like the one where I’m unsure that a presupposition of the question is correct and those has any correct answer. I’m wondering if that was intentional on your part or not, and more generally about what you want to say about cases where someone is unsure of the truth of a presupposition of a question and thus whether it has an answer. (I think the application to some religious question–but not the two you mention–are relevant. Consider the question, ‘Did Jesus Christ die for my sins?’ A person might doubt that there are any such things as sins to begin with and so (intuitively) have a suspended judgment regarding the question but not given your principle.)

    Second, I’m wondering about how to understand the locution in Fundamentally Significant Question (p. 9), “answering q is either a necessary means to, or constitutive of, her answering one of the following questions,” (the questions being What constitutes my flourishing? What are the central duties in my life? What is the purpose of my life?). I’m not sure I understand the locution. What came to mind initially were two possible readings:

    Reading 1: Answering a question Q is a necessary means for S to answer a question R if and only if S wouldn’t regard R answered without an answer to Q.

    My worry about this reading is that it makes things too hostage to the psychology of an agent. For instance, a committed atheist might not think that to answer the question ‘What constitutes my flourishing?’ he must first answer the question, ‘might I be saved?’ Then, for him, answering that question is not a Fundamentally significant question.

    Reading 2: Answering a question Q is a necessary means for S to answer a question R if and only if S could not get a correct answer to R without answering Q.

    This reading might avoid the problem of the first reading. However, I worry—though I am not sure—that this might make your argument more difficult. For to argue that someone should not ignore a certain religious question (e.g. might I be saved?) one must first argue that to correctly answer the question ‘What constitutes my flourishing?’ (or what have you) one must first answer this other question (might I be saved). Did you have in mind one of these two readings (or a different reading altogether that I just failed to see)?

    Thanks for the interesting paper


    November 11, 2016 — 16:02
    • Joe Milburn

      Dear Tim,

      Thanks for these helpful comments. In response to your question regarding presupposition failure, I am inclined to restate what it is to suspend judgment regarding a question. The new formulation I would like to use is this:

      An individual S suspends judgment regarding a question, q, just in case S believes that there is a fully satisfying answer to q, and they judge that they don’t know this fully satisfying answer to q.

      I think that what Wiśniewski (2015) calls corrective answers, i.e., answers that deny the presupposition of the question are fully satisfying answers to a question. They are fully satisfying answers because they rightly stop inquiry. So for instance, if one were to answer the question, ‘Which of my sins did the death of Christ expiate?’ with ‘There is no such thing as a sin’ this would be a fully satisfying question to the question. Compare this to a partial answer like: ‘It at least expiated my venial sins.’

      In response to your question concerning how to understand FSQ, I intend a reading very similar to reading 1 you suggest, namely, ‘Answering a question Q is a necessary means for S to answer a question R if and only if S shouldn’t regard R answered without an answer to Q.’

      I am ok with certain kinds of Atheists not being moved to inquiry by my argument. But this is because I take them not to be disengaged agnostics about the Fundamental Religious questions.

      Thanks again for these helpful comments!


      Wiśniewski A. (2015). “Semantics of Questions” in The Handbook of Contemporary Semantic Theory Eds. Lappin and Fox (Wiley)

      November 12, 2016 — 11:46
  • Hi Joe,

    Very interesting paper! Thanks for sharing it with us.

    I have three main comments about your argument:

    1. I wasn’t completely clear on how you are understanding the notion of being “engaged” in a certain question. So maybe my point here is in line with what you had in mind after all. But it occurred to me that we can distinguish agnosticisms on a different continuum: interested vs. disinterested agnosticism. My impression is that we might be interested in an answer to q, but not particularly engaged in inquiring about it. I think this is a possibility, given your claim that “looking for something is an intentional action”, but I might be reading too much into it. At any rate, the attitude of interested agnosticism would be similar to the attitude of someone who is interested in old cars and who, instead of actively searching for old cars (instead of being engaged in a search for old cars), always has an eye open in case a old car comes around. So I might be agnostic about the existence of God, not engaged in that question, but interested in an answer nonetheless. If I hear something novel about it, if I see a new book title that seems promising, I might focus my attention on it for a bit; but I don’t go out of my way trying to read all the arguments on both sides, I don’t pursue conversations on the topic, I don’t have any kind of systematic engagement with the question. Again, I’m not sure exactly how you are understanding the notion of “engaged agnosticism”, so maybe you allow for a variety of attitudes including the one I describe here as “interested agnosticism”.

    2. My understanding is that your argument goes like this. You begin by stipulating that “we have decisive reason to inquire into” “What constitutes my flourishing? What are the central duties in my life? What is the purpose of my life?” Then you defend both premises 1 and 2 by appealing to the well known weight of instrumental reasons: once a certain end is fixed, then we have decisive reason to pursue its necessary means or to do what is constitutive of it. Fine, but I’m left a bit unsatisfied. I would very much like some reason for accepting the stipulation. (I realize that this is a bit of an unfair criticism: “you did what you said you would do, but I wanted you to do more!”) Why do I have a decisive reason to inquire into these questions in the first place? What if I really don’t care about them?

    3. I think there is a worry that is similar to, but different from, the Waste of Time objection that is worth considering. The number of questions that count as a necessary means to, or as constitutive of, answering your stipulated central questions is enormous. “Is panpsychism true? In that case, do trees have dignity as well?” “Am I missing out on important insights about my flourishing by not consulting traditions whose obscurity to my 21st century western eyes is but a socio-historical accident?” “What does the mythology of the forgotten native tribes of Brazil have to teach me about human purpose?” Not to mention such philosophical questions as “is classical logic the appropriate tool for understanding the ultimate nature of the universe?” “are these questions merely confusions from a misuse of language?” And so on. My point here is not that inquiry is a waste of time because of how large the set of questions is. Rather, my point is that your requirement seems implausible without a provision for an appropriate stopping point. In fact, unless you provide for an appropriate stopping point, you seem to make it impossible to move from engaged agnosticism to outright belief: there are always further questions one must ask! You open your paper by highlighting the need for an ethics of inquiry apart from an ethics of belief, which I thought was neat, so maybe you could say a bit more at the end of the paper about how you see these two projects interacting.

    I have four side-comments:

    4. After reading the paper, it wasn’t clear to me why you made this assumption on fn. 1: “I assuming that I might be truly be described as being in a state of asking a question that could be expressed by an utterance of ‘where is the cafeteria?’ without consciously having said to myself (even silently) ‘where is the cafeteria’.” I didn’t see anything in your paper that turned on it.

    5. You list a growing literature on the ethics of inquiry, on fn. 2. I though I should mention a forthcoming paper by Alejandro Perez Carballo called “Good Questions”. You can find it on his webpage.

    6. On fn. 3, you say that “anyone who inquires, i.e., who seeks a good answer to a question and who understands themselves as responding to reasons in inquiry implicitly rejects normative realism.” I’m not sure I agree with this (and, again, I’m not sure anything you say in the paper requires you to take a stand on this). There is a widely accepted non-normative account of epistemic reasons that is familiar from formal epistemology: e is evidence for p just in case P(p/e) > P(p). If we reduce the activity of inquiry to the activity of seeking evidence and updating on our priors, then it is not clear that such activity is an implicit rejection of normative nihilism.

    7. Your reply to premise 1 of the Waste of Time objection seems a bit odd to me. The Academic Skeptics thought that human flourishing was tied to asking questions we could not ultimately answer, alright, but they did not mean that asking these questions ad infinitum was tied to human flourishing. Rather, they meant that asking these questions and coming to the realization that they are unanswerable would lead one to a state of peacefulness they called “ataraxia”. In fact, this sounds to me pretty close to disengaged agnosticism.

    Thanks again for the very interesting paper.

    All the best,

    November 12, 2016 — 10:14
  • Joe Milburn

    Dear Luis,

    Thank you for these helpful comments!

    In regards to your first comment, I think that on my understanding of things, what you are calling an interested agnostic is an engaged agnostic. On my understanding someone who keeps an eye open in case an old car comes around, so long as they believe that they will likely come across old cars from time to time, can count as intentionally looking for an old car during this whole time. Of course, they are doing a great many other things while they are looking for cars.

    In regards to your second comment, if I am pushed to defend the central assumption of my paper (that we have decisive reason to seek a good answer to the questions ‘what constitutes my flourishing, what are my central duties, etc.’) I am tempted to argue that we have decisive reason to deliberate effectively, and answering these questions is necessary for us to deliberate effectively. So using the means end principle again, we have decisive reason to answer these questions.

    Here is how I understand your third comment.

    As I have set things up in the paper, it seems that there will be more fundamentally significant questions than we can inquire into. This creates two problems. First, if ‘ought implies can’ and we cannot inquire into all fundamentally significant questions, then P1 of my argument is false. Second, setting this concern aside, P2 is threatened. Why should we inquire into fundamental religious questions instead of some other set of fundamentally significant questions?

    I don’t know exactly what to say to this. Here are two options. I am inclined to favor option 2.

    Option 1. Grant that there is no reason for inquiring into fundamental religious questions as opposed to some other fundamentally significant question, but insist that one still has decisive reason for inquiring into fundamental religious questions. If one is in a situation in which one cannot inquire into all the fundamentally significant questions that they have, they are in an ‘epistemically tragic situation’.

    Option 2. Restrict the class of fundamentally significant questions that one should inquire into, to those questions that are ‘motivated’. A fundamentally significant question q will be motivated for an individual S just in case S has some (inconclusive) reason for believing answers to q that will disrupt her current conceptions of what constitutes her flourishing or her central duties etc.. Fundamental religious questions will be motivated for most people who are agnostic regarding them due to the fact that so many good and intelligent people have answered these questions affirmatively. But this affirmative answer to the question will disrupt agnostics’ current conception of what constitutes their flourishing and central duties.

    Thanks again for all of your comments and for directing me to Alejandro Perez Carballo’s paper, I look forward to reading it.

    All the best,

    November 15, 2016 — 14:48
  • Hi Joe,

    Thanks for taking the time to answer my comments. Personally, I don’t really like the first option; I wouldn’t be happy if I had to say that we have a decisive reason to do something that we can’t do. (I’m still an OIC guy, what can I say?!) But I like the second option. I think it even fits well with what you had to say in reply to Tim, regarding the person-relativity of what makes an a question necessary means for a further answer (“Answering a question Q is a necessary means for S to answer a question R if and only if S wouldn’t/shouldn’t regard R answered without an answer to Q”). I think there is lots of room here to explore the nature of the appropriate stopping point, perhaps in parallel with discussions of stopping points in trying to answer skeptical questions. Maybe there are parallels in the ethics of inquiry to non-inferentially justified beliefs, or to Wittgensteinian “hinge propositions,” or to contextually salient relevant alternatives. The latter two, in fact, would fit well with your hint at a connection between the appropriate stopping point and people’s “current conception of what constitutes their flourishing and central duties.” At any rate, stimulating stuff!

    All the best,

    November 16, 2016 — 10:01
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