Today’s Virtual Colloquium is “Global and Local Atheisms” by Jeanine Diller. Dr. Diller received her PhD from the University of Michigan and is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy and Program on Religious Studies of the University of Toledo in Ohio. Her research focuses on the concept of God and alternative pictures of ultimate reality. She is co-editor (with Asa Kasher) of Models of God and Alternative Ultimate Realities.
Global and Local Atheisms
This paper identifies an ambiguity in the terms ‘theism’ and ‘atheism’: are they about one or all notions of God? I stipulate that a ‘local’ theism or atheism is about one notion; they claim that a specific kind of God exists or not (respectively). A ‘global’ atheism is about all notions; it says that no God worth the name exists. The punch line of the paper is that all atheists should be local atheists right now, given the current state of the debate.
In Part I, I draw the distinction between local and global theisms and atheisms carefully. In Part II, I notice that theisms are going to have to go local if they are to stand a chance of being internally consistent: since some notions of God contradict each other, it’s no good trying to believe them all. In contrast, assuming the ontological argument isn’t sound, atheisms in principle can go local or global, since it’s consistent to say that a specific kind of God doesn’t exist (local atheism) and also consistent to say that over and over again, for every kind of God worth the name (global atheism).
Most uses of ‘atheism’ in the philosophical literature are ambiguous between the local and global senses. Atheists who do explicitly disambiguate almost always go local (to offer an example, Mackie explicitly limits his sights to an omnipotent and all-good God). In fact, explicit global atheism is so rare that my research assistant wondered while I was writing if anyone held it. Interestingly, I recently found clear evidence that there indeed are global atheists in a survey run on this very blog by Yujin Nagasawa and Andrei Buckareff, as discussed in their recent volume Alternative Concepts of God (Oxford 2016). The survey’s framing was fine-tuned enough to positively identify 12.2% of its 286 respondents as global atheists: in the background of several concepts of God which the survey provides, these respondents “hold that no account of the divine is tenable” – a precise statement of global atheism (p. 8).
Parts III and IV of the paper effectively address this 12.2% of respondents and others interested in global atheism (and I’d be grateful to hear responses from any of you reading this). I argue three main claims in Part III: (1) that global atheism is difficult to understand, since denying all notions of God involves knowing at least the main ones, and (2) that global atheism is even more difficult to defend, not only because of the number of notions at play but also because every atheistic argument is against a particular kind of God. Since it’s invalid to move from one kind of God’s not existing to no kind of God existing, global atheists will have to redeploy their arguments or develop new ones against at least the main alternative theisms. Our search in the literature shows that this work has not yet been done; most atheists don’t even mention alternative theisms (regarding (1)), much less argue against them (regarding (2)). I conclude (3) that global atheism is currently unjustified, so atheists should stay local.
Part IV entertains and replies to an objection to Part III: can’t global atheists attack a really general notion of God, and in so doing attack the many species of God it covers, and thereby provide evidence for their claim? This is smart strategy but I give a couple reasons to think it is too early to tell if it can work. Lately I’ve been wondering further whether the idea of God is so flexible that there is no property or notion G that is necessary de dicto to every legitimate notion of God. If so, then an argument denying Gx will always leave some Gods standing and thus fall short of defending global atheism.
How important is the finding that atheists should stay local? On the one hand, local atheisms can be significant: for example, arguments against a OOO God if successful license denying the God of the orthodox monotheistic tradition—no small thing. Still, if global atheism is not justified—if for all that has been said against various Gods there still could be a genuine God of another kind—then the existence of God is not philosophically settled. And that is a big claim: nobody is licensed to move on from theism, not yet—and that not because of a difference of opinion over the state of the arguments (old news), but because the right kind of argumentation is not even in place yet (new news). The required work is to look at the major alternative notions of God and argue either that no such things exist or that such things should not count as God. That adds to the field’s task list for the future.
The complete paper is available here. Comments welcome below!
The second essay in Idealism and Christian Theology is “Berkeley, Edwards, Idealism, and the Knowledge of God” by William J. Wainwright. The aim of this article is to explore and explain similarities between Berkeley and Edwards in terms of the religious and cultural context in which they wrote, particularly the threat of deism and freethinking to these (relatively) traditional religious thinkers. This is an extremely interesting project, and it is for the most part well-executed, though the brevity of a single paper necessitates glossing over certain details, leaving some points underdeveloped, and so forth.
Wainwright’s central contention, I take it, is that Berkeley and Edwards share a concern with the ways in which God is coming to seem distant in a world governed by mechanistic science. The world is, increasingly, viewed as a grand machine that keeps rolling along without any outside assistance. Berkeley and Edwards regard it as insufficient to reason (as, for instance, Leibniz and Paley do) that behind a great machine there must be a great Engineer, for this may secure the existence of God, but it will not secure the nearness of God to the believer, or God’s immanence in the world. I am not very familiar with Edwards, but Wainwright’s account of Berkeley’s motivations and concerns is certainly sound. For instance, in the conclusion of the Principles Berkeley writes, “to an unbiassed and attentive mind, nothing can be more plainly legible, than the intimate presence of an all-wise Spirit, who fashions, regulates, and sustains the whole system of being” (sect. 151, my boldface) and that God “is present and conscious to our innermost thoughts” (sect. 155). Further, Berkeley tells us that “the main drift and design of [his] labours” was (among other things) to “inspire [his] readers with a pious sense of the presence of God” (sect. 156). Thus, for Berkeley, the mere existence of God is not enough. Similarly, in Alciphron it is said that the divine language argument “proves, not a Creator merely, but a provident Governor, actually and intimately present, and attentive to all our interests and motions, who watches over our conduct, and takes care of our minutest actions and designs throughout the whole course of our lives, informing, admonishing, and directing incessantly, in a most evident and sensible manner” (sect. 4.14). So Wainwright seems to be on firm ground (at least with respect to Berkeley) when he identifies the nearness of God as a key object of concern, and it is easy to see how the Berkeley-Edwards brand of idealism might be thought to do that. This paper is, in my view, quite a welcome addition to the literature. Too often, Berkeley’s religious motivations are treated as an embarrassment, as though the ‘real’ philosophy has been encumbered with a lot of nonsense from which we must separate it if we are to get the value out. Perhaps that may, in the end, turn out to be the case with respect to present-day philosophical value, but if we don’t see Berkeley’s religious vision clearly we’ll never understand his philosophy in the first place and our ‘disentanglement’ will go awry.
Of course, there are also differences between Berkeley and Edwards. Wainwright makes an interesting and plausible suggestion about the source of these differences: Calvinism. (Of course, Calvinism is always at the forefront with Edwards!) Now, I think Wainwright is a little oversimplistic here when he says that “Because Anglicans, like Berkeley, were not [theological determinists], he may have assumed that humanity’s contra-causal freedom required the existence of relatively independent and autonomous choosing substances” (41). Berkeley says almost nothing about human freedom, and what he does say (e.g., in the later sections of Alciphron 7) is pretty ambiguous. The theological debate between Calvinists and Arminians does not exactly track the metaphysical debate between compatibilists and libertarians (though it does track fairly closely), and not all Anglicans were Arminians. Indeed, prior to the Laudian reforms of the 1630s Calvinism had been the dominant view, and Archbishop James Ussher, the primate of Ireland at the time, had vigorously opposed the attempt to impose Arminianism. What was actually going on (several decades later) in the post-Restoration Anglican Communion was more that folks were keeping pretty quiet about the issues in the hope of keeping it from blowing up again. (Civil wars are not fun.) In my previous post I claimed that Berkeley was a latitudinarian. If so, that would explain why he is so carefully ambiguous on these points: part of the latitudinarian strategy was to try to make room for Calvinists and Arminians within the same church.
Nevertheless, Berkeley, while denying the existence of inanimate secondary causes and attributing the causation of sensory ideas to God, tries to carve out some room for genuine, autonomous human agency. Wainwright provides documentation that Edwards (unsurprisingly, for a radical Calvinist) has no such concerns. Indeed, in emphasizing our dependence on God, Edwards (in the quotes provided by Wainwright) appears driven nearly to Spinozism. I expect this issue regarding Edwards will be addressed further in some of the later essays.
An additional interesting point from Wainwright’s essay has to do with the theory of the world as divine language found in both Berkeley and Edwards. I don’t think Wainwright gets Berkeley’s version of that theory quite exactly right, but this is one of my pet issues and I’ll refrain from nitpicking about it here. More importantly: Wainwright notes that Berkeley believes that the status of the world as a language can be established by empirical and philosophical reasoning, and the fact that the world is a language shows that it must have a speaker. Hence the divine language can be used to establish the existence of God. Edwards, on the other hand, seems to take as a starting point a “two books” theology and a principle of typological interpretation. Thus the world, like the Bible, is a communication from God in the form of types and figures in which the presence of Christ must be discerned. This is justified primarily theologically.
I will conclude with one nitpick: Wainwright says that “Recent scholars agree that Berkeley and Edwards arrived at their idealism separately” (48n2). This claim is meant, I suppose, to underline the importance of identifying common contextual factors in order to explain the similar views of Berkeley and Edwards. In support of this claim, Wainwright cites the introduction to the science and philosophy volume of Edwards’ Works. Now this edition of Edwards’ Works was published from 1957–2008 and Wainwright does not indicate when this particular volume was released, so it is not clear what’s meant by “recent.” In any event, Edwards was taught philosophy at Yale by Berkeley’s disciple Samuel Johnson. (Based on the extant correspondence between Berkeley and Johnson, I do not think ‘disciple’ is too strong a word.) I don’t know what the state of the evidence is regarding whether Edwards actually read Berkeley’s works, but there is certainly a vector for indirect influence, at least. In places I took Wainwright to be implying that if we couldn’t uncover some shared contextual factors explaining the similarity of Berkeley’s and Edwards’ views that similarity would have to be regarded as sheer coincidence, and this is much too strong. Nevertheless, this point does nothing to detract from Edwards’ status as an original thinker, or from the interest of Wainwright’s analysis of Edwards’ similarities and differences from Berkeley.
(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net.)
The first paper in Idealism and Christian Theology is James Spiegel’s “The Theological Orthodoxy of Berkeley’s Immaterialism.” This piece was originally published in Faith and Philosophy in 1996, though I must confess that I had not read it before today. I found the essay rather odd, partly because I have some confusion about the nature of its project. Contrary to my expectations, it does not really address any of the questions I outlined in my last post. On the whole, I think the essay makes problematic unexamined assumptions about Berkeley’s religion, and it relies on a controversial characterization of Berkeley’s analysis of body with which I disagree, but it emphasizes the role of divine language in a way I find helpful and also makes some interesting and original points about this topic. I will address each of these in turn.
Berkeley and Orthodoxy
Spiegel does not really address the question of what Berkeley might have meant by ‘orthodoxy’. At one point (endnote 26) Spiegel defines ‘theological orthodoxy’ as adherence to the Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed, but this clearly isn’t really what Spiegel means by ‘orthodoxy’ since these creeds play no further role in his examination of Berkeley’s ‘orthodoxy’. Rather, as is quite clear beginning at the first page of the article, what Spiegel means by ‘orthodoxy’ is consistency with the Bible. The creeds do not come into it at all. Having defended Berkeley’s orthodoxy (in this sense), Spiegel goes on to say that Berkeley’s ultimate conclusions “would undoubtedly please a theologically conservative Anglican so sensitive to heresy” (27). The trouble is, Spiegel’s characterization of Berkeley as a theologically conservative Anglican is (in the historical context) inconsistent with Spiegel’s assumptions about what ‘orthodoxy’ and ‘heresy’ mean for Berkeley. A defining feature of conservative (‘high church’) Anglicanism in Berkeley’s time was adherence to tradition, in both faith and practice. For a conservative Anglican, ‘heresy’ would be departure from the creeds and the tradition. A conservative Anglican would not just interpret Scripture however he or she pleased, in the ‘just the text’ fashion Spiegel employs. If Berkeley really was a theologically conservative Anglican, then he ought to be far more worried about how immaterialism can be rendered consistent with, for instance, the Chalcedonian Definition, but neither Berkeley nor Spiegel addresses this. This is an inauspicious start to a book purporting to deal with issues in Christian theology: Spiegel characterizes Berkeley as a conservative Anglican, but (implicitly) ascribes to him a Baptist conception of orthodoxy.
Having been a little hard on Spiegel in the preceding paragraph, let me make two more conciliatory points on this subject. First, Spiegel’s question of the consistency of Berkeley’s philosophy with Scripture is certainly an intrinsically interesting question and one that mattered a lot to Berkeley. Second, Spiegel primary mistake here is his characterization of Berkeley as a theological conservative, which occurs in a passing remark on the last page of the paper. In fact, the approach Spiegel employs in the article is not as far off the mark as it would be if Berkeley were a theological conservative. Let me expand on this last point.
It seems pretty clear to me that Berkeley is a latitudinarian Anglican and a religious populist. The term ‘latitudinarian’ is one that was in use in Berkeley’s lifetime and it is a description I believe Berkeley would be happy to accept (though I know of no text in which he applies the term to himself). Latitudinarians supported the status of the Anglican church as ‘established’ (i.e., state-supported), though most of them (including Berkeley) also supported toleration for dissenting Christians. They thought that the established church was important for social unity and the promotion of individual virtue, as well as (of course) for the spiritual salvation of their fellow citizens. Latitudinarians believed that the best way for the church to accomplish this was to keep doctrinal requirements to a minimum—that is, to allow broad latitude in individual belief. But not unlimited latitude. The established church was still to be a specifically Christian church, holding to the Bible and to Christian distinctives like the Trinity and the Incarnation. This perspective is in evidence, in particular, throughout Berkeley’s Alciphron.
Berkeley’s latitudinarianism is closely connected with his religious populism, that is, his view that “the Christian religion is … an institution fitted to ordinary minds, rather than to the nicer talents … of speculative men … [so that] our notions about faith … [must be] taken from the commerce of the world, and practice of mankind, rather than from the peculiar systems of refiners” (Alicphron, sect. 7.13). If the main justification for the established church is the moral and spiritual health of the nation, then the religion taught by the established church had better be a religion that benefits the ordinary people of the nation, and not only ‘speculative men’.
Now, to Spiegel’s credit, he quotes in full, on p. 13, Berkeley’s notebook entry 405: “All things in Scripture wch side with the Vulgar against the Learned side with me also. I side in all things with the Mob.” This entry makes clear what Berkeley is doing in the discussions of Scripture in the Three Dialogues Spiegel addresses later: he’s resisting the importation of metaphysical subtleties into the text of Scripture. Scripture, Philonous insists, never talks about material substrata (which Berkeley rejects). Instead, it talks about “the sun, moon, and stars, earth and sea, plants and animals” (Luce and Jessop, p. 250). Berkeley believes in all of these things. So Berkeley’s view is that if we set aside “the peculiar systems of refiners”—i.e., traditional systems of metaphysics and philosophical theology, such as that of Thomas Aquinas—and read Scripture as speaking in plain language to plain people, then we will see that it is not only consistent with but actually deeply harmonious with immaterialism. But actual conservative Anglicans in the 18th century, such as Peter Browne, would hardly call this ‘theological orthodoxy’.
So in the end my complaint here is that Spiegel has characterized Berkeley’s theological orientation in a way that is deeply flawed relative to Berkeley’s historical context. Berkeley would certainly count as theologically conservative relative to the Anglican churches of England, Ireland, and North America today, but in his own time he was not a conservative. If he had been a conservative, the entire approach Spiegel takes in his essay would be deeply flawed. However, because Spiegel is wrong about this particular point, much of the rest of what he says is actually correct. In general, though, the essay would have benefitted from a more careful characterization of Berkeley’s view of theology and Scripture. This would also have helped at the end of the essay, where I think Spiegel underplays the extent to which Berkeley takes his philosophy to be useful for the promotion of virtue, and not merely cold intellectual assent to Christian doctrine.
Bodies and Divine Ideas
I’ll be brief here. In his discussion of Berkeley’s treatment of creation, Spiegel interprets Berkeley as identifying bodies with divine ideas. Following Dancy, he takes these ideas to be of two kinds, private archetypes and public ectypes. The ectypal ideas are immediately perceived by us. While Spiegel is not the only one who interprets Berkeley this way, I am far from convinced that Berkeley holds that the ideas we perceive are numerically identical to ideas perceived by God. Further, I am not convinced that this reading of the divine archetypes avoids collapsing into a form of representative realism (how can I know that the idea I experience corresponds to the archetype?). I develop a very different interpretation of Berkeley on bodies in my book. Of course nothing one could have said on this point would have been uncontroversial, but this controversial interpretation plays a large role in this paper.
The strongest point of the article is its emphasis on divine language, and the extent to which Berkeley takes literally, or almost literally, the large number of Biblical passages that talk about God speaking things into existence. For on Berkeley’s view the perceived world just is God’s speech. I think Spiegel is correct that Berkeley sees this as a key point where his views are more consonant with Scripture than materialist views. Further, Spiegel suggests that Berkeley might regard our capacity for language as very important in the interpretation of the doctrine that humans are created in the image of God. This is an interesting and original point that’s well worth consideration.
(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net.)
I have been asked to review Joshua Farris and Mark Hamilton’s Idealism and Christian Theology for Faith and Philosophy. In accord with a previous practice I have found useful, I will be blogging through the book, one post per chapter, in preparation to write the review. This post will be not so much a discussion of the book’s introduction as my own way of framing and approaching the issues in the book.
The fundamental paradox of theological anthropology in the Abrahamic tradition is the understanding of the human being as the breath of God dwelling in the dust of the earth (see Genesis 2:7). The philosophical/theological task is to unpack or spell out this evocative metaphor. It is widely believed in the broader culture (and perhaps also to a large extent among Christian analytic philosophers) that the Christian view (or, often, more generally the ‘religious’ view) of the human person is substance dualism: the breath of God is to be understood as an immaterial soul, and the dust of the earth as a physical body. The human person is an embodied soul. Yet, historically, this has not (at least in its straightforward Platonic/Cartesian version) been the dominant view in Christian philosophy and theology, and has often been regarded with suspicion by Christian philosophers and theologians. The reason for this is that the substance dualist has difficulty explaining how the human being can be a genuine unity of body and soul (or, indeed, how body and soul could be in any sense united). The breath of God must be taken to dwell in the dust of the earth; we must hold, as Descartes said, “that I am not merely present in my body as a sailor is present in a ship” (Sixth Meditation). The human being, the tradition has held, is a unity of mind and body. The true self is not to be identified with the mind or soul rather than the body, but with the unity of both. The human being is formed from the dust of the earth. Contrary to Plato, I am not an immaterial soul trapped in a body. I am fundamental a corporeal being.*
This has broader theological consequences. For the Abrahamic tradition generally, it has been connected with the doctrine of bodily resurrection. The majority of this tradition holds that disembodied existence is possible but bad for human beings, and that we exist in a disembodied state after death only temporarily: in the end, we will again be embodied beings. There are also specifically Christian concerns following from our understanding of embodiment: the Incarnation of Christ and the doctrine of the Eucharist.**
Now, metaphysical idealism—particularly the Berkeleian sort—has often been thought of as a doctrine friendly to religion. After all, its chief proponent went on to become a bishop, and he himself sold the doctrine in large part as an aid to religion, since it supports the existence of God and the natural immortality of the human soul. All of this can be seen as an affirmation of the human person as the breath of God, an affirmation that was crucial for defenders of traditional religion at a time when Descartes’s ‘beast machine’ was gradually developing into La Mettrie’s ‘man machine’. Yet there is reason to fear that Berkeley, like many other modern Christians, in his zeal to defend the status of the human person as the breath of God has fallen into heresy by denying that the human person is also the dust of the earth.
This particular heresy, the denial of the fundamentally bodily nature of the human person, is usually considered a form of Gnosticism, and in fact Berkeley’s last (and strangest) major philosophical work, Siris (1744) explicitly connects his philosophy to the tradition of Christian Neoplatonism (and especially Ralph Cudworth). Though this tradition has some exponents whose orthodoxy is unquestionable (e.g., Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine),*** it has also often veered into Gnosticism.
So there is reason for suspicion about the theological orthodoxy of Berkeleian idealism. But Berkeley himself is of course not unaware of these issues, and he insists at length, especially in Three Dialogues, that his view preserves the reality of bodies and, indeed, does so better than materialist competitors. Just as the theological orthodoxy of Descartes’s dualism depends on the success of his (virtually non-existent) account of the union of mind and body, the theological orthodoxy of Berkeley’s idealism depends on the success of his defense of the reality of body. Further, the resulting view needs to be able to accommodate the specific religious doctrines mentioned above.
We now come, finally, to the present book. This is the first of two volumes in Bloomsbury’s Idealism and Christianity series edited by James Spiegel. The second volume, Idealism and Christian Philosophy, ed. Steven Cowan and James Spiegel, is already out. Volume 1 contains two previously published essays and nine new essays addressing theological questions arising from Berkeley’s idealism and the similar idealism of Jonathan Edwards. Judging from the introduction and table of contents, it appears that every one of the issues I have outlined above will be addressed. Over the next month or two, I will record my thoughts on each of the essays in the volume, so stay tuned!
* Since one of the main aims of Descartes’s Meditations is to make mechanical philosophy (science) acceptable to the Catholic Church, he repeatedly affirms this. I am not denying that a substance dualist can affirm this, but only observing that philosophers and theologians have sometimes been suspicious of the dualist’s ability to do so. In Descartes’s particular case, for reasons noted by Elisabeth of Bohemia, no account has been given (or, I think, can be give) of how the soul is united to the body.
** Even for traditions that reject the Real Presence (e.g., Zwinglian or Calvinist interpretations) there remains the question of why such a bodily act as eating should be an appropriate form of worship.
*** The orthodoxy of a creative and original philosopher or theologian is never unquestionable in his/her own lifetime; it becomes unquestionable only when later generations come to regard that thinker as to some extent definitive of orthodoxy, as is the case with both Gregory (one of the architects of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity) and Augustine.
(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net)
CFA: Third Annual Theistic Ethics Workshop
College of William and Mary
October 5-7, 2017
Laura Ekstrom (College of William and Mary)
Dan Moller (University of Maryland)
Mark Murphy (Georgetown University)
Mark Schroeder (University of Southern California)
Rebecca Stangl (University of Virginia)
Goal: Contemporary philosophy of religion has been richly informed by important work in metaphysics and epistemology. At the same time, there has not been nearly as much work done at the intersection of philosophy of religion and meta-ethics or normative theory. To help inspire more good work in this area, Christian Miller (Wake Forest), Mark Murphy (Georgetown), and Chris Tucker (William and Mary) organize a series of annual workshops on theistic ethics.
Logistics: The third workshop will be held at the campus of William and Mary. We will begin with dinner and the first paper on Thursday, October 5th and conclude at the end of the day on Saturday, October 7th, 2017. There will be five invited papers and four spots for submitted papers. All papers will have 40 minutes for presentation and at least 40 minutes for discussion.
Themes: “Theistic ethics” is to be understood broadly to include such topics as divine command and divine will theories; God and natural law; ethics and the problem of evil; moral arguments for a theistic being; infused and acquired virtues; the harms and benefits of theistic religions; what mainstream moral theories imply about divine action; specific ethical issues in Judaism, Christianity, or Islam; and many other topics as well.
Applying: Those interested in participating should submit an abstract of up to 750 words and a current C.V. to Chris Tucker (email@example.com) by May 1, 2017. Word or PDF file formats only. Please prepare abstracts for anonymous review. For although the organizers seek to have a balanced program both in terms of topics and presenters, the initial stage of review will be done anonymously. Questions about the workshop should be sent to the firstname.lastname@example.org.
Notification will be made by June 1, 2017 at the latest. If your abstract is selected, we will cover your accommodation, meals at the conference, and travel expenses of up to $1200 (and possibly more). Co-authors are welcome, but only one author’s expenses can be covered. You do not have to send your paper in advance of the workshop, and it certainly can be a work in progress.
Supported by generous funding from William and Mary’s philosophy department, Theresa Thompson ‘67, William and Mary Arts and Sciences, and the Carswell Fund of the Wake Forest University Philosophy Department
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.
This week’s Virtual Colloquium paper is “The Shattered Spiritual Self” by Michelle Panchuk. Dr. Panchuk received her PhD from the University of South Carolina in 2016, and is currently a research fellow at the Notre Dame Center for Philosophy of Religion. Her previous work, some of which has been published in International Philosophical Quarterly, has focused on the relationship between classical theism and the metaphysics of universals. Currently, she is working on a monograph on the topic of religious trauma.
The Shattered Spiritual Self
Philosophical Reflections on Religious Trauma, Worship, and Deconversion
In this paper I argue that we should understand religious trauma as a kind of transformative experience that diminishes the individual’s capacity to engage in religious life, and that this diminished capacity is sometimes so severe that it constitutes an all-things-considered reason for the individual to deconvert, whether or not she maintains the beliefs associated with her former religion. In the first section I provide an introduction to trauma in a general sense. In the second I suggest two criteria that trauma must meet to count as religious trauma and then sketch a working definition of it. In the third section I narrow the scope of discussion to the non- cognitive effects of religious trauma and analyze two case studies relative to those effects. In the final section I argue that the non-cognitive effects of religious trauma may place worship out of reach of some survivors of religious trauma, and that this can give them an all-things-considered reason to deconvert. Even if this last argument fails to persuade the reader, I believe that this paper will successfully demonstrate that religious trauma is a kind of experience that deserves serious philosophical and theological consideration.
In its most severe forms trauma has devastating effects on the individual’s ability to function and flourish. Trauma theorists divide the effects of trauma into two categories: the epistemic/cognitive effects and the non-cognitive—emotional and physiological—effects. Examples of the former are things like believing oneself to be fundamentally unsafe in the world, while examples of the latter include intrusive memories, hyperarousal, hypervigilance, and sleep disturbances. At least two conditions must be met for an experience to count as religiously traumatic. First, the trauma must be inflicted by some aspect of the religion, and second, its effects must have a religious object. The fact that only a portion of the individuals who experience trauma more generally develop a post-traumatic disorder suggests that only a portion of those who endure a religiously traumatic experience will develop religiously significant post- traumatic distress, but there simply isn’t enough research to say exactly how common it is. It is enough for our current purposes that religious trauma exists, and as I will show below, raises philosophical questions about religious faith in those cases. Thus, I will define religious trauma as: any traumatic experience of the divine being, religious community, religious dogma, or religious practice that transforms the individual, either epistemically or non-cognitively, in such a way that her ability to participate in religious life is significantly diminished.
According to our definition, trauma is a kind of lived experience. It does not result from theoretical reasoning when someone contemplates the ontological argument and infers that it is invalid. The experience itself transforms the individual, and that transformation involves both epistemic and non-cognitive changes. Epistemically, the subject gains knowledge of what the experience is like, which would have been impossible for them to gain otherwise. Though this is knowledge gained, we may include it as an aspect of the shattered self because it does not involve propositions inferred from the experience. Personally, they may experience a range of changes in their values, preferences, and non-cognitive responses to religious life. For the most part, these results are outside of the individuals’ conscious control.
In most religions, maintaining the relevant set of propositional attitudes is not a sufficient condition for counting oneself an adherent of the religion. What is required beyond the appropriate propositional attitudes, we may call worship in a broad sense (e.g., religious rituals, proper attitudes toward the sacred and the divine, etc). However, there is another sense of ‘worship’ that is much more narrow, referring only to the attitudinal aspects of worship, so we can distinguish between the practice of worship and the attitude of worship, for the sake of simplicity. In this narrow sense, worship involves loving, adoring, revering, and desiring the divine being. Survivors of religious trauma may find themselves unable to worship according to the demands of their religion in both the broad and the narrow senses. If a survivor experiences intrusive memories while engaging in religious rituals, it may become physically and psychologically impossible for her to fulfill them. This would be an obstacle to worship in the broad sense. If, however, she experiences deep revulsion and utter terror toward the divine being, then even worship in the narrow sense may be out of reach, because the proper emotions are partially constitutive of this sense of worship. I argue that not only is the survivor of religious trauma nonculpable for these non-cognitive effects of trauma, but that in cases where they are severe enough to preclude that attitudinal state constitutive of worship, they may constitute and all-things considered reason to deconvert.
The complete paper is available here.
Welcome to the first Virtual Colloquium of the spring term! Today’s paper is “Anselm, not Alston: The Reference of ‘God’ Revisited” by H.D.P. Burling. Hugh Burling is a PhD student at the University of Cambridge (UK) and a Visiting Graduate Fellow at the Center for Philosophy of Religion at the University of Notre Dame. He work has been published in Religious Studies. His research concerns religious disagreement, method in theology, and the concept of God.
Anselm, not Alston: The Reference of ‘God’ Revisited.
We instinctively characterise religious disagreement as disagreement either about what there is, or about what the same thing – God – is like. A common dialectical move made in modern theology, both academic and popular, sits between these two possibilities. Often, we read a theist of one stripe claiming that theists of another stripe don’t worship the same God. They are ‘idolaters’, or, more diplomatically, they just so badly misconceive God that they don’t ‘mean’ the same ‘thing’ by His names. It is not easy to explain what is mistaken about this move when it seems mistaken. My first publication concerned a particular version of it, in which natural theology is attacked as having to do with some other being than the God Christianity concerns. ‘Debunking’ local instances of the manoeuvre is worthwhile, but I wasn’t satisfied, and wanted a more general strategy which might show what is wrong with adopting partisan definitions of ‘God’ in order to avoid deeper engagement with others’ claims about God.
The strategy I adopt in the following article is to regard that manoeuvre as just one of the many features of theistic religious language which is curious – one of the explananda for a semantics for theism. So, we start by asking what we ‘mean’ by ‘God’, and answer that question by attempting to infer the rules of the ‘theology game’ by watching people play it. The conclusion I come to is that ‘God’ implicitly denotes, in Russell’s sense, whichever being is worthy of our worship. This secures co-reference between theists of extremely different stripes, whilst explaining the high-stakes nature of theological disagreement, and why parties to it o not just ‘walk away’ when apparent parity is reached, or one party attempts to squirrel his definition of “God” in favour of his claims about God. If both parties implicitly understand something Anselmian by ‘God’, then when the Christian insists that by ‘God’ he just means the Holy Trinity, the Muslim’s response to this makes sense. Rather than walking away (‘If they’re what you mean by ‘God’, I don’t care what you claim about them’), she will challenge him.
The article itself shows how my crypto-Anselmian understanding of God copes better with other desiderata for a semantics for theism than rival theories in the nascent literature. The view I defend makes it very easy for humans to successfully pick out God with ‘God’ because the basic ethics of worship are something we pick up fast, and, plausibly, most of us are introduced to God-talk in an appropriate context to get stuck in with worshipping the One we intentionally pick out with that Name. Kripkean views according to which ‘God’ is a proper name whose reference is passed down via a causal chain, however, threaten ease of access for speakers because the chain is so messy and fragile. Non-Anselmian descriptivist views struggle because their content is often harder for speakers to have in mind.
I hope the article is persuasive in defending a view about the semantics of ‘God’ which, I think, is the best candidate for being ‘the’ traditional view. (I think that Anselmian descriptivisms, and descriptivisms which appeal to lists of metaphysical divine names, only come apart in practice when our axiologies do not reflect those of the theologians responsible for the lists of divine names.) But I also hope it’s persuasive to theologians who lean towards identifying God in a confessional manner. Otherwise, I think identifying God the way I do can help explain a lot about the commonalities between different behaviours and literatures we call ‘religious’.
Within the scope of the article, I do not have space to go through alternative iterations of the ‘Specified Singleton’ view, other than my preferred option. So I’d be particularly curious to hear about alternatives which strike readers as preferable.
The complete paper is available here