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

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

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


Against Religious Indifference

Joe Milburn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Once again, thank you for this opportunity!


The full paper is available here. Comments welcome below!