Thomas Nagel writes a review of Alvin Plantinga’s recent book, Where the Conflict Really Lies, which James Beebe has also nicely reviewed here at Prosblogion.
Nagel’s review is well-written and charitable. He covers much territory by summarizing large swathes of Plantinga-philosophy in succinct paragraphs, all without sacrificing accuracy. (He even appears to have carefully read footnotes from Plantinga’s other works.) His only objection seemed to be that Plantinga does not consider naturalist theories of mental content. Plantinga doesn’t cover them in this book, but he deals with a number of them in a recent PPR paper.
So, as one very familiar with Plantinga’s work, I was impressed with Nagel’s review.
A few months ago, I met a grad student who has a prominent philosopher of religion (X) in his department. The graduate student was a theist when he started grad school, but soon realized that this is a minority position in philosophy. Disparaging remarks about theists (and specifically Christians) fueled his insecurity. Although there are no longitudinal surveys on this, it seems that atheism increases as people climb the academic ladder. For example according to the PhilPapers survey, in philosophy, only 14.6% of philosophy faculty believe in God. When postdocs are included, this percentage rises to 16.3%. Graduate students have the highest percentage of theists, 20.8%. So it seems plausible to me that at least some graduate students lose their faith as a result of the majority opinion in academia.
As the graduate student and I discussed X and what a wonderful scholar she is, the graduate student said that one important reason he is still a theist is the fact that X is a theist. He said “X is one of the smartest academics I know. The fact that X is a theist, even though she considered counterevidence carefully (like the problem of evil), is for me strong evidence for theism, and for me it’s a good enough reason to remain a theist”. Is the graduate student rational?
[x-posted on Newapps] A few days ago, I had the privilege of attending a lecture by Paul Draper, probably one of the most prominent atheist philosophers of religion today. His lecture had a wealth of ideas (including a proposed solution to Hume’s problem!), but I’d like to focus on one tiny piece of the lecture, viz. his argument that the burden of proof is on the theist, and not on the atheist.
Here goes the argument, which Paul was kind enough to discuss with me, prior to posting it. I apologize if there are any remnant misrepresentations.
Let’s assume that there are a number of epistemically possible world views: some are naturalistic, some are supernaturalistic, let’s even grant there are others (non-supernatural, non-natural, but some third, unknown view). Then we can see that the following diagram exhausts all epistemic possibilities: N (naturalism), S (supernaturalism) and not-N and not-S.
An acquaintance of mine, paleoanthropologist, regularly handles ancient hominid fossils – part of the job requirement. One day, while holding one of these objects (a skull if I recall rightly, but perhaps my memory is infected by imagery of people holding skulls in paintings and plays), he got a profound “areligious experience”. Suddenly it hit him that he was going to die, and there would be nothing beyond his present life – his memories and self-awareness would simply disappear. In the future, the only thing that would be left of him (if he were buried, placed in congenial archaeological context, with an environment that isn’t too dry, too acid etc.) would be a skull similar to the one he was holding, and perhaps a few large bones like the femora. Prior to this, the paleoanthropologist was already an atheist, but the areligious experience intensified his conviction that the natural world is all there is. His areligious experience was strong, non-inferential, and elicited in him a powerful belief in the non-existence of God–an experience in some respects analogous to religious experience.
I’ve just finished a literature survey in preparation for my SEP entry on Skeptical Theism, and I’ve noticed a bit of a loose end. Consider two kinds of possible worlds including God and evil (from Russell and Wykstra’s 1988 dialogue). One kind of world is the “morally transparent” world where the reasons God allows suffering are “near the surface” and so fairly easily discernible by us. Another kind is a “morally inscrutable” world where the reasons why God allows evil are either buried “beneath the surface” or in the distant future.
Wykstra’s original 1984 debut of CORNEA (man there is a lot of philosophy in that paper!) advanced the thesis that it is more likely that God would create a morally inscrutable world. Russel and Rowe give reasons for the opposite claim. Below the fold I’ll briefly summarize their arguments and suggest why it seems to me the atheist has the upper hand in this argument, and issue a call for attention to the research project of defending the goodness of a morally inscrutable universe.
Many people believe that there is: 1) no greatest number, 2) no greatest possible world, and 3) a greatest being (person, agent). The reason many people believe 1 and 2 is that there seems to be procedures to take a number (or world) and return a larger (or better) one. For any number (cardinal), take the powerset to get a larger number. For any world, stick some happy people in a far off corner to get a better world. (Of course, there is far from universal agreement on this second point.) The question arises: Is there any way to take a being, and return a better one?
One way is to try and link beings with the worlds they create. The idea would be that a being who creates a surpassable world is a surpassable being. This line of thought gives rise to a whole body of literature, some quite recent. Going in a different direction, here is another way that any being might be surpassable. Let us imagine that some virtues, e.g. courage, are traits wherein one wants to be at the mean that lies between extremes. We might imagine that ‘courage-level’ runs along a continuum from 0 (totally cowardly) to 1 (totally rash). Then, speaking loosely, somewhere in the middle is best. But, is it clear that any specific point is best? That is, what if the function, F, from courage-level (which runs from 0 to 1) to the value or goodness of the being goes as follows: F(x) = x for x in [0, 0.5] and F(x) = 1.01 – x for x in (0.5, 1]. Then there is no greatest being, as for any being, there is a better one. There is no greatest being, as beings get better as they approach 0.5 from the right on courage-level.
If there is an optimal point on a trait, call that trait ‘closed’. If there is not an optimal point on a trait (for any level a being takes on the trait, there is a better level), as in the courage example above, call that trait ‘open’. The question is, are all traits are closed? Or, what is the best argument to the conclusion that all traits are closed? In the absence of an argument regarding open and closed traits, the principle of indifference might suggest that courage is open with 50% probability and closed with 50% probability.
(One way to respond is to argue along these lines: certain traits/properties are fundamental (e.g., power, knowledge, freedom, goodness), these traits take maximal levels (individually and together), all other traits follow logically from these, and thus all traits take optimal levels and so are closed. Is there a relatively simple and convincing argument along these lines? Also, are there other ways to argue that all traits are closed? In particular, and thinking of approaching the question from a non-theistic angle, am I missing some sort of simple argument or reason as to why all traits are closed?)
Sahotra Sarkar lives just down the road from me in Austin, a grand town I visit often, and is in some way affiliated with the philosophy department there–I don’t know if it’s a courtesy appointment or what because I couldn’t locate his CV–and I’m a BIG fan of the UT philosophy department (though, of course, not the football team :-)–so I don’t want to cause trouble. BUT Sarkar is mean, and he attacked my friend Bradley Monton in a screedish review for NDPR. I’m honestly surprised–and dissapointed–that NDPR saw fit to publish this review at all. It’s not Sarkar’s first such one-sided rant. His review of Steve Fuller’s book showed his inability to review fairly (I didn’t like the book either, but it’s just not the case–as it rarely is–that the book had not a single redeeming feature).
His suggestion that Brad’s book is “one philosopher’s attempt to cash in” is insulting and demeaning. Worse, it’s false. I have been talking with Brad about philosophy of religion for about eight years now, and he is completely honest in his investigations, sincere in his affirmations and denials. And I am at a loss to understand the force of the following statement.
“Monton’s self-portrayal as an atheist who thinks that some Intelligent Design (ID) arguments have enough force to make him less certain of his atheism, though not eschew it altogether.”
“Self-portrayal”? Does he think Brad is lying about being an atheist or lying about thinking some ID arguments have *some* force? Is it now some kind of “weakness” to admit that arguments which contradict one’s views have *some* force? I have been unable to come up with some non-weasily understanding of these claims.
Continuing the recent theme of skeptical theism. It only recently occurred to me to puzzle over the fact that skeptical theism–at least for leading proponent Mike Bergmann–has nothing to do with theism. Of course, there’s the axiom ST —> T, but that’s not what I’m talking about.
What I mean is that skeptical theism’s skeptical thesis are just about the nature of the good. That seems a *bit* odd to me: there’s nothing theological motivating skeptical theism as Bergmann expresses it. It has nothing obvious to do with “God’s ways being greater than ours.” It’s just that we don’t understand goodness well enough.
And here’s another thing I noticed recently that bothered me–then I’ll put the criticism below the fold: It’s almost all deontolgical stuff. But I’m a virtue and value guy. As such, I think I have some insight into the *nature* of the good, which tells me something about *all* goods. This gives one more purchase than may be compatible with Bergmann’s versions of the “S” in “ST.”
My previous entry, “Atheist Burnout and the Direction of Philosophy of Religion”, which was inspired by Keith Parsons’s public decision to quit the philosophy of religion, generated a very nice discussion about whether or not atheists think the case for theism is, as Keith Parsons, put it, “a fraud”, why some atheists might think smart philosophers work in philosophy of religion, and what direction we should expect to see philosophy of religion take in the future. In addition, at around the same time Brian Leiter independently found Parsons’s announcement and generated a discussion on his blog. A number of people weighed in on both discussions, and I thank everyone who did so.
There were some interesting results from the discussions. First, there were, broadly speaking, two reactions to Parsons’s announcement: those who agreed with him that the case for theism is so weak as to call for a special explanation for why smart philosophers make it, and those who disagreed. I shall call the members of the first camp
“Unfriendly Atheists”“psychologizers” (although this camp might include two theists, namely Howard Wettstein and Jon Cogburn; I can’t tell how to classify them) and members of the second camp “Theists/ Friendly Atheistsnon-psychologizers”. The members of the unfriendly atheistpsychologizers’ camp include:
- hiero5ant [anonymous]
- John W. Loftus [independent scholar]
- Anon (grad student who does not wish to anger anyone higher on the food chain) [anonymous graduate student]
- kurt [philosopher at a Roman Catholic school]
- Greg Janzen [University of Calgary–can’t tell if he is a graduate student or faculty]
- Blinn Combs [graduate student at UT, Austin(?)]
- Brian Leiter [University of Chicago]
- Allin Cottrell [economist, Wake Forest University]
Arguably, Craig Duncan (Ithaca College) and John Schellenberg (Mount Saint Vincent University) count as
unfriendly atheistspsychologizers, but their case is complicated by the fact that, on the one hand, both Duncan and Schellenberg seem to think that the quality of philosophical work in PoR is often very high, but on the other hand, both think that there are psychological factors going in PoR that shapes the work of its theistic practitioners, factors that exist to a lesser degree in other areas of philosophy.
The list of theists/
friendly atheistsnon-psychologizers is as follows:
- christian [anonymous]
- mohan matthen [University of Toronto]
- https://me.yahoo.com/a/VeVm7GkGjsJ7xwH.k903N27vMLCxRZq1#0ed60 [anonymous]
- ZT [anonymous]
- tedla [anonymous]
- John H. [anonymous]
- Ken Taylor [Stanford University]
- John Fischer [UC, Riverside]
- L.A. Paul [
University of ArizonaUNC, Chapel Hill]
- indignant idealist [anonymous]
What conclusions can we draw from these lists?
First, I don’t think we can draw any conclusions from them. The lists are too small to be indicative of anything about philosophy in general. Although the results of the debate were interesting (as I said above) I don’t think we’ve really learned too much from this debate.
Second, if you want to be irresponsible and take these lists to be indicative of larger truths about the field, then it seems that there a lot of non-believing philosophers who don’t accept philosophy of religion’s conclusions but who take it as seriously as they take any branch of philosophy, while there are about an equal number of non-believers who don’t take its conclusions seriously and also think the case for theism is so weak as to require a psychological explanation for why so many otherwise smart philosophers take it seriously.
Third, I can’t help but to be cheered by the fact that Mohan Matthen, Ken Taylor, John Martin Fischer, and L.A. Paul, all of whom are philosophers with impressive accomplishments, take philosophy of religion seriously. By contrast, the only philosopher I noticed with an equally impressive reputation who thinks the philosophy of religion requires some psychological diagnosis is Brian Leiter, but as Leiter indicated, he seems to think the same is true of large portions of moral philosophy–that is, he doesn’t think that philosophy of religion suffers from a unique badness of argumentation.
That said, a lot of the participants in the debate are anonymous, so many of them could have been philosophers with equally impressive reputations. Moreover, I’m not well-versed regarding everything that happens in philosophy; it could certainly be that some of the critics of PoR have immensely impressive credentials and accomplishments, and that I just haven’t heard of them. And finally, the critics of PoR with less impressive credentials and accomplishments may be excellent philosophers–credentials and accomplishments aren’t everything. (Finally, lest anyone think I haven’t noticed this, I know very well that my accomplishments are nothing to write home about!)
You may have already seen this, but in case you haven’t, philosopher Keith Parsons, author of the 1990 God and the Burden of Proof, among many other articles, has quit philosophy of religion.
I have to confess that I now regard “the case for theism” as a fraud and I can no longer take it seriously enough to present it to a class as a respectable philosophical position–no more than I could present intelligent design as a legitimate biological theory. BTW, in saying that I now consider the case for theism to be a fraud, I do not mean to charge that the people making that case are frauds who aim to fool us with claims they know to be empty. No, theistic philosophers and apologists are almost painfully earnest and honest; I don’t think there is a Bernie Madoff in the bunch. I just cannot take their arguments seriously any more, and if you cannot take something seriously, you should not try to devote serious academic attention to it. I’ve turned the philosophy of religion courses over to a colleague.
In the comments, Theodore Drange, author of Nonbelief and Evil, adds, “I, too, have little interest in religion, which I regard to be a kind of insanity (loss of touch with reality) that advanced species perhaps go through in the course of their evolution.” (I should note that Drange did not exactly support Parsons’s decision, but instead pointed out that there are other things to talk about in the philosophy of religion besides the ontological status of theistic religious beliefs).
Finally, John Beversluis, author of C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion, as well as professor of philosophy (emeritus) at Butler University, tells John Loftus that he independently arrived at the same conclusion as Parsons.
I have a trio of wonderings about this:
First, it makes me wonder how often this phenomenon occurs. Are there a substantial number of atheists who dabble in philosophy of religion and find the best theistic arguments and defenses so wanting that they decide, “no, not for me. These people [e.g., van Fraassen, Plantinga, van Inwagen, Adams, etc.] are smart, but they leave their brains at the door when they do philosophy of religion”? Personally, I doubt this; or at least, I doubt that it happens after they read the aforementioned authors, as most of the atheists I know have never read any of van Inwagen’s, Plantinga’s, etc.’s, philosophy of religion.
Second, what do these philosophers think is happening to those philosophers who do top-notch work in other fields but who are also orthodox Christians? Do they have a theory? If their theory is indeed “compartmentalized insanity”, have they looked into the psychological research on this? And what do they make of some of their smart atheist colleagues, like Quentin Smith, David Lewis, and William Rowe, who don’t share their disdain for their theistic counterparts?
Third and finally, if I am wrong in my first speculation, and it is indeed the case that many atheists who read the best and brightest of theistic philosophy of religion come away thinking that the case for theism is as weak as, say, the case for intelligent design (assuming, of course, that the case for intelligent design is indeed weak; if you don’t like that example, replace it with one you think is more apt), then should we expect philosophy of religion to become more and more dominated by religious theists? And if so, what will that mean for the direction of philosophy of religion? I expect that it would encourage more and more philosophers of religion to engage in philosophical theology and other such endeavors rather than defending the propriety of religious belief.
I’d love to hear what other people make of this, but I’d be especially curious to hear from atheists about this.