Today’s virtual colloquium is “Resolving Disagreements across Philosophical Traditions: an Aristotelian-Historicist Methodology” by Amod Lele. Dr. Lele received his PhD in religion from Harvard University in 2007. Currently, he is Senior Educational Technologist and Lecturer in Philosophy at Boston University, as well as a Visiting Researcher at BU’s Center for the Study of Asia. His papers, focused primarily on the Indian Buddhist philosopher Santideva, have appeared in journals including the Journal of Buddhist Ethics and the Journal of Integral Theory and Practice.
Resolving Disagreements across Philosophical Traditions
An Aristotelian-Historicist Methodology
Can comparative religious ethics do more than compare? Once we have found similarities and differences between different traditions – including similarities within differences and differences within similarities (Yearley 1990) – what then? Mencius was not content to compare Yang Zhu, Mozi and Xunzi; he wanted to form an account of human virtue more adequate than theirs. Likewise, Aquinas’s integration of Augustinian Christianity and Muslim Aristotelianism was no mere articulation of similarities and differences; he aimed to provide a true account of the world and human flourishing, drawing on the wisdom of his two very different teachers. Given our awareness today of the wide-ranging differences across traditions, can we now aim to complete a project like Aquinas’s and Mencius’s own, one that attempts to resolve differences across traditions?
This paper will argue that we can. It will articulate and develop an Aristotelian-historicist methodology for cross-cultural ethics: one rooted in Aristotelian dialectic, maintaining the deeper awareness of cultural difference stemming from the German historicist tradition. It will take particular inspiration from the Aristotelian and historicist works of Alasdair MacIntyre (as articulated in a wide variety of works and especially MacIntyre 1991), but will also articulate a critique of MacIntyre’s method in important respects.
From Aristotle the methodology accepts the idea of dialectic: starting from established beliefs and resolving apparent contradictions among them by showing that the contradictions were only apparent or showing why one side was wrong but appeared right. Drawing on historicist philosophy of science – Kuhn, Lakatos and the Duhem-Quine thesis – it acknowledges that claims can rarely be refuted piecemeal and need to be understood within the context of a wider theoretical system, thus aligning itself with a “holist” or “historian’s” approach to comparative ethics rather than a “formalist” or “ethicist’s” approach. (See Sizemore 1990, 87; Stalnaker 2006, 16.) Further, it accepts that traditions may be incommensurable – that is, having no neutral or common standard by which their claims may be judged.
Unlike some formulations of the holist approach, however, the proposed methodology does not take incommensurability as final. With MacIntyre, it argues that traditions can become commensurable (and thereby supersede or be superseded) by learning the history of each other’s characteristic anomalies in their own terms and becoming able to explain another tradition’s anomalies better than they could themselves.
The project diverges from MacIntyre in refusing the ideal of situating ourselves within one single tradition. It argues that membership in multiple traditions of inquiry is necessary, across disciplines at a minimum (a properly informed scientific inquirer should be both a Darwinian and Mendelian biologist, and an Einsteinian and quantum physicist). Moreover the general condition of being (sometimes incoherently) “betwixt and between” traditions is not merely a modern problem, as MacIntyre (e.g. 1988, 397–8) implies it is, but a feature shared by Muslims who pray to local gods and Buddhists in Thailand who make offerings to Ganesh. So the methodology suggests that a joint process of synthesis is likely to be more fruitful than one-sided supersession.
A key question for any such project is reflexivity: how does it apply to itself? Since the methodology claims to be situated in Aristotelian-historicist tradition rather than tradition-neutral, one can well ask whether the methodology should be of interest to anyone who is not already Aristotelian or historicist. I claim that the methodology is, in MacIntyre’s words, “the best theory so far” – for everyone, not merely for those who are already Aristotelians or historicists. It is not that I advocate this methodology because I am an Aristotelian; rather, I am an Aristotelian because I believe it to be the most helpful methodology. But the methodology also draws from historicism a humility that recognizes that those involved in other traditions will start from very different places; insofar as this method rests on Aristotelian or historicist presuppositions that they cannot accept, it invites them to develop an alternative from which the dialogue can begin. “We have to begin by disagreeing even on how to characterize that about which we disagree, if we are to make any movement, even a stumbling and halting one, in the direction of rational agreement.” (MacIntyre 1991, 122–3)
MacIntyre, Alasdair. 1988. Whose Justice? Which Rationality? Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.
MacIntyre, Alasdair. 1991. Incommensurability, Truth, and the Conversations Between Confucians and Aristotelians About the Virtues. In Culture and Modernity, edited by Eliot Deutsch. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press. 104–22.
Sizemore, Russell F. 1990. Comparative Religious Ethics as a Field: Faith, Culture and Reason in Ethics. In Ethics, Wealth and Salvation: A Study in Buddhist Social Ethics, edited by Russell F. Sizemore and Donald K. Swearer. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press.
Stalnaker, Aaron. 2006. Overcoming Our Evil: Human Nature and Spiritual Exercises in Xunzi and Augustine. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.
Yearley, Lee H. 1990. Mencius and Aquinas: Theories of Virtue and Conceptions of Courage. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
The complete paper is available here. Comments welcome below!
Welcome again to the Prosblogion Virtual Colloquium! This week’s paper is “Proportionality, Maximization, and the Highest Good” by Craig E. Bacon. Bacon is a PhD candidate at the University of South Carolina. His dissertation is entitled The Life of Virtue: Moral Progress and Kant’s Idea of the Highest Good, and is scheduled to be defended in May. While the dissertation itself answers a variety of problems in the scholarship on the highest good and works out a coherent account of the role played by the religious postulates, Bacon also maintains research interests in the relationship between happiness and morality in the Early Modern period, and in contemporary Kantian approaches to the intersection of ethics, philosophy of religion, and civil life.
Proportionality, Maximization, and the Highest Good
Craig E. Bacon
In this paper, I argue that the contemporary scholarship on Kant’s highest good has mistakenly framed the discussion in a way that confuses the true content of this idea and obscures the role of the religious postulates of God and immortality. I suggest an alternate framework that begins with Kant’s own thought experiment from the Critique of Practical Reason and the First Preface to Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason (and, more subtly, in the Critique of Pure Reason). In this thought experiment, the context for thinking about the highest good centers on a morally committed agent who takes on the viewpoint of an omnipotent world creator. This context establishes the content of the idea of the highest good, and the religious postulates arise in connection to this idea.
Beginning with Andrews Reath’s influential 1988 paper, much of the scholarship on Kant’s idea of the highest good has focused on the assertion that Kant has both a “secular” and a “theological” conception of the highest good, where the theological conception considers the postulates of God and immortality to be essential to the realization of the highest good, but the secular conception either sidesteps the postulates or at least finds Kant’s commitment to them waning. This distinction largely (but not without exception) maps onto another division in the literature between a “maximization” thesis and a “proportionality” thesis. The maximization thesis claims that the highest good consists in the concurrent maximization of happiness and virtue–whatever that maximum might be–whereas the proportionality thesis understands the highest good as a state of affairs in which happiness appropriately matches virtue, i.e., whatever one’s level of virtue, one’s enjoyment of happiness occurs proportionately. Both theses ‘hedge’ on the highest good as ideal, since less-than-complete happiness and/or less-than-complete virtue comprise the ideal. The common assumption is that the religious postulates (and most importantly for this paper, the postulation of God as an author of nature) arise from the proportionality thesis but not from the maximization thesis. The further common assumption is that God’s role is to actively ‘set’ the proportion between happiness and virtue, i.e., that divine agency supersedes human efforts to bring about the highest good.
I argue that (1) these common assumptions are mistaken and (2) that secular/theological and maximization/proportionality dichotomies exist because scholars have taken these mistaken assumptions about the religious postulates and ‘read them back’ into the content of the idea of the highest good. That is, the scholarship has assumed an interpretation of the religious postulates’ role as more or less obvious, and has interpreted the highest good accordingly. To correct this mistake, I argue that we should turn things around: the content of the idea of the highest good must be set first, then we can understand how the religious postulates support the realization of the highest good.
In the Second Critique and in the Religion, Kant introduces his discussions of the highest good with a question: what kind of world can I will? The thought experiment assumes an agent who is already committed to the moral law; as such, this agent would choose a world in which everyone is committed to the moral law and does what they should. But this fidelity to the moral law (‘virtue,’ for the purposes of this paper) is what constitutes worthiness to be happy, since happiness itself is only conditionally good while moral goodness fulfills this condition. Therefore, Kant’s idea of the highest good consists in truly universal happiness proportioned to truly universal virtue. Lesser degrees of happiness or virtue are inconsistent with this ideal.
My argument in this paper is a slice of a dissertation chapter that argues for an understanding of ‘proportionality’ as ‘conditionality’ rather than as a calculable, mathematical apparatus. This chapter also situates Kant’s use of proportionality against the background principle of ‘ought implies can,’ and sets up later chapters on the role of the postulates of God and immortality in relation to the highest good. Most interestingly for my future research, I think my argument here has important implications for Kant’s claim that morality expands into religion through the highest good. Any lesser ideal than what I argue for here does not generate the same (subjective) need for God that results in religion as a way of conceiving of/representing “all our duties” as divine commands.
The complete paper is available here. Comments welcome below.
Welcome again to the Prosblogion Virtual Colloquium! This will be our last paper of the fall term. The Virtual Colloquium will return beginning Friday, January 20. There are still plenty of slots open for the spring, so please send me (Kenny) nominations (including self-nominations)!
Today’s Virtual Colloquium paper is “Rationality, Reasonableness and Religion” by Samuel Lebens. Dr. Lebens received his PhD in philosophy from Birkbeck College, London in 2010. After completing his PhD, he attended Rabbinical Seminaries in Israel and received Rabbinical Ordination in 2013. Currently, he is Research Director of the project on analytical Jewish philosophical theology at the University of Haifa, and also chair of the Association for the Philosophy of Judaism. His papers have appeared in journals such as Philosophical Studies, Religious Studies, and International Journal for Philosophy of Religion. Additionally, Dr. Lebens in a contributing blogger for Haaretz.
Rationality, Reasonableness and Religion
This paper was born during a summer seminar on the nature and value of faith run by Baylor University and Western Washington University, hosted at the University of Missouri. Accordingly, it owes its existence to Trent Dougherty, Daniel Howard-Snyder, and Jon Kvanvig, who ran the seminar. I won’t name all of the participants, but it was conversations with them that really helped me to hone my ideas into their current form. So I’m grateful to them all.
The paper was, initially, going to be a work of Jewish philosophy. I was interested by a number of Rabbinic texts that made it seem as if feeling alienated from the community, and setting yourself aside from the community, was in and of itself an act of apostasy. That struck me as counter-intuitive because apostasy is supposed to be an intellectual crime. I was interested in bringing those texts into conversation with Midrashic portrayals of Ruth’s conversion to Judaism. The authors of the Midrash seem to go to great lengths to downplay Ruth’s theological commitments, and to present her conversion as stemming first and foremost from her personal relationship with Naomi. These somewhat surprising threads of the Jewish tradition jibe well with work I had already published that sought to downplay the role that belief plays in the religious life, and to emphasise the role of the imagination. These new sources were downplaying belief in order to emphasise, not imagination, but communal affinity. It was these reflections that lead me in the direction of the central tri-partite distinction in this paper between (1) the propositional content of a faith, (2) communal belonging, and (3) imaginative engagement.
Before long, I realized that the picture wasn’t peculiar to Judaism at all. For that reason, the paper has evolved and barely contains any reference to the Rabbinic texts that inspired it. The paper considers religious traditions as far apart from one another as Zen Bhuddism and Quakerism. My idea is simple: all religions require (1) propositional faith, (2) communal belonging, and (3) imaginative engagement. There are putative counter-examples to this claim, but I think that they can all be dealt with (I try to deal with many of them in the paper). What’s more, I think that failure to conceive of religion in these terms stems either from a failure to recognize that religion is a sociological phenomenon, or from the failure to appreciate that religiosity has a distinctive psychology. The paper then became about the philosophical merit of regarding religiosity in terms of these three elements. The basic conclusion is that philosophers conceiving of religiosity in this way opens up new ways for thinking about what could make religiosity rational and/or reasonable.
In its own small way, I hope that this paper contributes towards a move within philosophy of religion to concentrate upon religion as a lived human experience. I love philosophical theology. But philosophy of religion needs to have broader horizons than mere theology. Religions often come along with theological commitments, but religions are much richer than that, and the philosophy of religion would do well to relate to religions as sociological and psychological phenomena too. The paper is still a little rough around the edges, and I look forward to hearing people’s comments and suggestions.
The full paper is available here. Comments welcome below!
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
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!
My Labrador retriever, Blue (pictured), died recently. She was my constant companion for almost fifteen years. So my assigned question hits home just now. Will God include animals in Heaven? In The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis speculated that some animals become so deeply ingrained in our lives, so much a part of our identities, that we could not really be ourselves, or truly happy in the next life, without them. I am hopefully inclined to agree.
But if so, what should we think will become of the billions of other animals that will have existed on earth? Will they have served their created purpose as important instruments of evolution in this life? Or do they have a future after death in an afterlife? Put in canonical Jewish and Christian terms, will animals inhabit the messianic kingdom of God on a “new earth” together with human beings?
One reason to think they will do so simply is that God created them in the first place. Should we think that the value of non-human beings is merely instrumental, and that they will have exhausted their evolutionary purpose prior to death? In Genesis 1, the author depicts God declaring non-human beings “good” in their own right, as having very high intrinsic value as parts of the “very good” cosmic whole. Should we think, then, that this ontological status would ever end, and not obtain in the messianic cosmic whole promised to come?
Furthermore, billions of animals fail to flourish as individuals prior to death. The evolutionary carnage is unimaginable. Should we think that God accepts this mass failure as the inevitable cost of creating valuable life by naturalistic means? Somehow, this way of thinking does not seem either aesthetically or morally right. It seems reasonable to expect an omnicompetent and morally perfect God to bring the being of all creatures and things to fruition according to their created natures.
More straightforwardly, it also seems that many species of animals are sentient, so that they can suffer in a morally important sense. Presumably, the profusion of undeserved suffering of animals in the world is a morally bad thing, a wrong that a morally perfect God would wish to make right. In Keith Ward’s words: “If there is any sentient creature which suffers pain, that being—whatever it is and however it is manifested—must find the pain transfigured by a greater joy.” And it seems clear that such evil-rectifying (and God-justifying) joy could only happen post mortem, in Heaven.
Beyond these philosophical considerations, Jewish and Christian canonical texts explicitly encourage belief that animals will inhabit Heaven, as envisioned.
Besides Genesis 1, which underscores God’s assessment of animals as “good,” and as essential to a cosmic whole that is “very good,” other texts suggest the inclusion of animals in the messianic age to come. In Genesis 6-7, God commands Noah to include all “kinds” of animals on the ark. Notably, after the flood, in Genesis 8-9, God makes a covenant with Noah that promises divine protection and preservation to all human and non-human beings. God makes this promise and repeats it two more times:
I now establish my covenant with … every living creature that was with you—the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals, all those that came out of the ark with you—every living creature on earth” (Genesis 9: 9-10).
The speaker declares the covenant to be irrevocable—“everlasting” (Genesis 9: 16).
In the speeches of God from the windstorm in Job, God speaks at length about God’s intimate care even for animals living in wild realms that God seems to have abandoned—they, too, fall within the scope of the messianic vision. In Isaiah, that vision has the wolf at peace with the lamb, lions eating straw like the ox, and serpents venomous no more (Isaiah 65: 25).
In the New Testament, the apostle Paul writes that the whole creation “groans” in bondage to pain and futility, in the throes of decay and longing to be set free (Romans 8: 18-23). The emphasis on pain in nature suggests an allusion to the experience of animals, and that Paul’s expressed hope of the coming cosmic redemption includes them.
There is one last distinctly Christian reason for hoping that animals will inhabit Heaven. I suggest that the Christian doctrine of the Atonement provides unexpected grounds for that belief.
In Christian history, theologians have treated Atonement as a matter of reconciliation between God and human beings, who have allegedly wronged God. But animals have not done anything wrong, much less wrong to God. If anything, God has wronged animals by inscribing undeserved suffering into their existence. Can it be that the Atonement also had the aim of resolving that moral problem? Perhaps.
Christian writers have traditionally referred to Christ crucified as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1: 29). In Hebrews, the writer likened Jesus to the Scapegoat slain painfully on Yom Kippur (Hebrews 5-7). In all these typological metaphors, Christ is identified with blameless sacrificial animals. Is it far-fetched to think that this imagery conveys reconciliation between God and the animals?
Some modern writers (notably, Holmes Rolston II and Christopher Southgate) have referred to the evolutionary narrative of species as cruciform, as a “slaughter of innocents,” as a via dolorosa and a Darwinian kenōsis analogous to the “self-emptying” of Jesus on the cross (Philippians 2: 5-11). Meanwhile, the writer of Hebrews stressed that Christ’s death has brought an end to the need for animal sacrifice (Hebrews 10). Perhaps, then, the Atonement is not only a manifesto of liberation from sin and death for human beings, but also a symbolic declaration of an impending freedom from suffering in store for non-human beings in the messianic kingdom of Heaven that is promised to come.
What joys await animals—including Blue—in Heaven, we can only guess. But I suggest that canonical Jewish and Christian traditions together make it reasonable to believe that gloriously good things do await them, nonetheless.
Theology emeritus, Calvin College
Philosophy, Grand Valley State University
 Keith Ward. The Concept of God (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1974), 223. Cited by Southgate, 78.
This is the twenty-third installment of a series of interviews I am conducting with academic philosophers about their religious practices. In this series of interviews, I ask philosophers about their religious practices and the influence on their philosophical work. Follow these links for links for parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21 and 22.
This interview is with Jeremiah Carey, PhD candidate at the University of California, Berkeley.
Can you tell me something about your current academic position and work, and your religious affiliation/self-identification?
I’m a graduate student in philosophy at UC Berkeley. I’ll be going on the job market in the fall and graduating in the spring, so I’m eagerly (and anxiously) waiting to see what the future holds. My philosophical interests are broad and mostly ethical – I want to know how to live and whatever is relevant to knowing that – but my main research has centered on issues in moral psychology. I pitch my dissertation as a defense of a contemporary analogue of Plato’s tripartite theory of soul. Basically, I argue that in order to make sense of weakness of will, we have to think of ourselves as having multiple “sources” of motivation, which I identify as reason, desire, and the will. A big chunk (over half) is about how to understand desire and its relation to reasons for action. I’m also interested in normative issues in moral psychology and related topics in virtue ethics and free will/moral responsibility. I’ve found myself attracted more to ancient approaches to these questions than modern ones, which has led to secondary interests in ancient philosophy, and, more recently, Asian philosophy.
I’m an Eastern Orthodox Christian. I converted to Orthodoxy fairly recently, though I grew up in church, almost quite literally – when I was young my father was a pentecostal preacher and we lived for awhile in an apartment built above the sanctuary. The denomination I grew up in was un-orthodox (denying the doctrine of the Trinity), and at least at that time quite fundamentalist and anti-intellectual. In fact, my first exposure to philosophy came from my dad’s struggle against the anti-intellectualism of his own church. (I remember him trying once, without much success, to give us family lessons on common fallacies. A more lasting impression was made when he gave me to read, as a pre-teen, the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, and emphasized Douglass’ discovery of the link between slavery, on the one hand, and a failure to ask questions and to think deeply, on the other.) My family left that church while I was in middle school and remained non-denominationally affiliated for the rest of my childhood (my dad quit pastoring, went back to school and became a medical doctor). Since then I’ve always been, more or less half-heartedly, connected to one church or another, until I discovered the Orthodox church early in my graduate career.
I’ve always been somewhat ill at ease with my faith. I seem to be the only person in my immediate or extended family who is, I’m afraid, basically immune to religious experience. I think there are good arguments for theism in general and Christianity in particular, but I don’t find them rationally compelling. So while Truth is undoubtedly an important issue, my primary draw towards religion is based more on those other transcendentals, Goodness and Beauty. I want to be good, and I want to recognize and love the beautiful, as well as to believe the true. Orthodoxy holds out for me the hope of those things more than anything else I’ve encountered.
This is the twenty-second installment of a series of interviews I am conducting with academic philosophers about their religious practices. In this series of interviews, I ask philosophers about their religious practices and the influence on their philosophical work. Follow these links for links for parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20 and 21.
The contributors are in various stages of their career, tenured and untenured. Interviews were conducted through e-mail and responses are not edited.
This interview is with Owen Flanagan, James B Duke University Professor of Philosophy at Duke University
Can you tell me something about your academic position, and about your current religious affiliation/self-identification – please feel free to say something about your religious upbringing or history, or anything else that might be relevant to your current religious affiliation.
I am James B. Duke University Professor of Philosophy at Duke University in Durham NC, where I am Co-director of the Center for Comparative Philosophy. I was raised as a Roman Catholic and still have that Catholic boy inside me. I received a fantastic education from nuns, most of whom had never been to anything that we would call college. I get Catholicism. It is in my blood and bones. It is familiar. In Rome last year, my wife and I visited Saint Peter’s, many other churches, went to vespers at a convent, and I was consistently moved, engaged. But I haven’t practiced since I was a young teenager. I was bothered by hell, specifically the idea that a good God would have such a place, by the emphasis on sexual sins, and by a sincere worry that although Jesus might be understood as a prophet, as he is in the Koran, but was simply nowhere good enough to be God.
So, I am a certain kind of atheist, a philosophical one, who has never heard a substantive conception of God, the sort that is presented in creedal religions (I believe in god the Father almighty…) that I thought the weight of reasons supported belief in. The reasons always seem to weigh against actually believing in THAT God. This philosophical orientation goes well with a certain resistance to epistemic over-confidence that is needed to speak confidently about the existence or nature of one’s God or gods.
In part, I have been too impressed, in a good way I think, by my interest and study of other great world religions to be confident about the creedal parts of the Catholicism I was raised in, which I was told was the one true religion. Confucianism, which treads lightly on the divinity stuff, and Buddhism, Jainism, and Daoism, are beautiful without being theistic in the familiar senses. Some say Buddhism is atheistic, which is true as far as a creator God goes. But Buddhism, like almost every spiritual tradition seems committed to ideas, which are hard to take literally from the perspective of the scientific image such as rebirth and karma. These ideas can however easily be taken poetically and embodied in rituals without literal commitment.
That said, I get the religious impulse, embrace the feelings of mystery, awe, and existential anxiety about the meaning and significance of life that most every religion responds to. I love the part of most religious traditions that enact, express, and acknowledge the mystery of things. In fact I preferred the old pre-Vatican 2 masses in Latin with more dramatic music, incense, mystery, drama.
In The Really Hard Problem: Meaning in a Material World (2007), I make the distinction between assertive theism, where one asserts certain supernatural claims as true, and expressive theism, where one expresses various extra-mundane impulses, feelings, emotions, and expansive not-humanly-possible love. I prefer the latter to the former.
You might think this makes me a familiar type: spiritual but not religious. Maybe. But I am pretty allergic to New Age style religions because they seem self-indulgent, egoistic, and in addition often assert empirically irresponsible stuff such as one hears in homeopathy. So to make things maximally confusing and to conclude this part of our interview: When people ask about my religion, I sometimes say I am Catholic. I say it in the same spirit many of my Jewish friends say and mean they are Jewish. Catholicism is part of me. It is like when I go home to Westchester County, New York where I was raised. The dirt smells right, the way dirt is supposed to smell, the sky, the trees look right; it is familiar, comforting, and grounding. But in both cases, I don’t live there anymore.
This is the twenty-first installment of a series of interviews I am conducting with academic philosophers about their religious practices. In this series of interviews, I ask philosophers about their religious practices and the influence on their philosophical work. Follow the links for parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19 and 20. The contributors are in various stages of their career, tenured and untenured. Interviews were conducted through e-mail and responses are not edited.
This interview is with Kevin Timpe, who will be the Jellema Chair of Christian Philosophy starting this fall.
Can you tell me something about your current academic position and work, and your religious affiliation/self-identification?
I’m actually in transition this summer. We’re in the process of moving to Grand Rapids, MI where I’ll be the W. H. Jellema Chair in Christian Philosophy at Calvin College starting this coming fall. I just finished my seventh year at Northwest Nazarene University in Idaho, and before that I taught for six years at the University of San Diego in southern California. As you can tell from this, I’ve been at a number of fairly different Christian universities over the course of my career.
I’m joked a few times that I’ve gone from teaching in a Catholic school to a Wesleyan school and now to a Reformed school without substantively changing my philosophical or religious views, but I actually think there’s a fair bit of truth in that description. I have a strong affinity for what my friend and frequent co-author Tim Pawl calls ‘conciliar Christianity’. I lean toward the medievals (more so than toward modern or postmodern theologians) in a lot of my theological views, which helps explain why I have many Catholic sympathies. A few of my papers have drawn heavily on parts of Augustine’s and Aquinas’s thought. Some of my views are a little unusual for a Protestant, such as my thinking that purgatory fits very nicely with what I think about character formation and a recent paper of mine exploring a particular understanding of limbo. Last year for a paper on grace, I read a fair bit of Maximus the Confessor and would love to engage his thought more in the coming years.
In terms of research, most of my early work focused on issues relating to the metaphysics of free will and various issues in the philosophy of religion. At the University of San Diego, I taught a general-education ethics course entitled “Virtues and Vices” that got me thinking more about virtue ethics, particularly about the connections between our actions and our moral character. Though initially primarily a teaching interest, I came to write some on moral character and virtue, and eventually edited a collection (with Craig Boyd) entitled Virtues and Their Vices (OUP, 2014). A little over a year ago, I started a new research project on philosophy of disability, largely as the result of having a disabled child and having to do some significant advocating for him once he entered elementary school. Though my other interests remain, I think that disability (including how it intersects with agency) will be the primary focus of my research for the next few years.
This is the twentieth installment of a series of interviews I am conducting with academic philosophers about their religious practices. In this series of interviews, I ask philosophers about their religious practices and the influence on their philosophical work. Follow the links for parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18 and 19. The contributors are in various stages of their career, tenured and untenured. Interviews were conducted through e-mail and responses are not edited.
This interview is with Tyler Dalton McNabb, PhD student and tutor at the University of Glasgow.
Can you tell me something about your current academic position and work, and your religious affiliation/self-identification?
I am currently a tutor at the University of Glasgow. I also teach online as an Adjunct Instructor at Southeastern University. Given that I’ll be turning in my PhD thesis in a few weeks, I am currently looking for a full-time position. Speaking of my PhD thesis, now might be a good time to address my work. My thesis and recent publications pertain to defending both Plantinga’s proper functionalism and his Reformed epistemology.
I grew up in Texas and like all good Protestant Texans, I was raised a Southern Baptist. My family wasn’t the most devout family (though they were one of the most loving!) though. We would go to church off and on and there were times where we went a very long time without going. This being so, there was still a sense of needing to honour Christ in one’s actions.
This would change a bit in my senior year of high school where I began to struggle with doubt. I found myself convinced (and I am still convinced) of the following conditional: if atheism is true, then nihilism is true. I started really asking the ‘big’ questions about God’s existence and the resurrection of Jesus.
Though I always felt naturally inclined to just believe that God exists, I didn’t have a good argument (which I thought I had to have) for believing in theism or Christianity. One day, I told God that if He wouldn’t reveal Himself to me that I would become a nihilist. That night, through the internet, I came across what theologians call ‘Messianic prophecy’ and I found myself believing that passages like Isaiah 53 spoke of Jesus. I immediately believed that Jesus was the Messiah and that the Bible was God’s Word. The next day, being that I was already late to school, I figured that I would pull over and take out my Bible. I prayed to God and asked Him if Jesus was indeed the Second Person of the Trinity. I did that unpardonable sin and randomly flipped open the Bible. As Providence would have it, I read a verse that to me, clearly reflected Jesus’ deity. It was from this point on that I began to have a great love for God and I immediately felt convicted to share the Gospel with strangers. In total, from the time of getting right with God to starting my street evangelism career, there was about 2 months.
I ended up going to a theologically liberal Baptist college after high school and I was quickly forced to again confront scepticism. I began to study apologetics which would eventually lead me to philosophy. I ended up going to Israel to share the Gospel and there, I would be forced to put what I learned into action. At the end of the trip, I felt God asking or calling me to share and defend my faith on a larger scale. I told God that as long as I didn’t lose my faith in the process that I would accept His call. And while I didn’t lose my faith, I did struggle with great doubt for about a year soon after. This was partly due to having Cartesian epistemology. Though through this time I had a couple of occasions where I did feel God’s presence in incredible ways. I believe God let me experience His presence like this in order to preserve my faith during this time of doubt. It was eventually through the work of William Lane Craig and especially Alvin Plantinga (surprising to you, I’m sure) that the season of doubt ended and my desire to be a professional philosopher began.
While I now feel very confident in my Christian faith, I have struggled with which Christian tradition I should belong to. In fact, I have now had the pleasure of belonging to almost all of the main Christian traditions. I believe that, my warrant for my belief that Christianity is true is very high, while my belief in the so called ‘secondary doctrines’ carries significantly lower warrant (though still enough for knowledge, I think). Because of this, I feel most comfortable calling myself an Evangelical Christian before anything else. The struggle hasn’t prevented me from evangelism or pursuing a long philosophy career though. Fast forward to current times, I am not only teaching philosophy, but I am using philosophy to help share the Gospel through open air preaching and personal evangelism.