[this is X-posted at NewApps] In philosophy of religion, realist theism is the dominant outlook: belief in God is similar to belief in other real things (or supposedly real things) like quarks or oxygen. There is a rather triumphalist narrative about the resurgence of realist theism since the demise of logical positivism (see for instance, Plantinga’s advice to Christian philosophers) when logical positivism and its verifiability criterion held sway, philosophers were dissuaded from talking about God in realist terms: religious beliefs were not just false, but meaningless. With the demise of logical positivism, however, theists could again defend realist positions, using a variety of sophisticated arguments.
Nevertheless, the question is whether theists in philosophers of religion are not conceding too much to atheists by talking about theism mainly in terms of beliefs. To ignore practice is to ignore a large part of the religious experience, and what makes it meaningful to the theist. Such an exclusive focus can indeed be alienating, as it seems to suggest that theists believe a whole bunch of ideas that are wildly implausible, e.g., that a man resurrected from the dead, or was born of a virgin. This picture of religious life as believing in a set of strange propositions is, as Kvanvig memorably put it, a view that most theists will not recognize themselves in:
I hardly recognize this picture of religious faith and religious life, except in the sense that one can cease to be surprised or shocked by the neighbor who jumps naked on his trampoline after having seen it for years.
That is not to say that many theists do believe these things, even in a literal sense, but without looking at the larger picture of practices that help to maintain and instil these beliefs, our epistemology of religion remains woefully incomplete.
It is therefore refreshing to read philosopher Howard Wettstein’s recent interview in The Stone, who, coming from a Jewish background, emphasizes the practice-based aspects of a religious lifestyle. He argues that “existence” is the wrong idea for God, following Maimonides, and instead argues that “the real question is one’s relation to God, the role God plays in one’s life, the character of one’s spiritual life.”
Further on Wettstein says
The theism-atheism-agnosticism trio presumes that the real question is whether God exists. I’m suggesting that the real question is otherwise and that I don’t see my outlook in terms of that trio.
It is very interesting that this looking for alternatives is not unique to Wettstein, but was in fact a fairly common response in my recent qualitative survey on the beliefs and attitudes of philosophers of religion. Many of them, including those coming from a Christian tradition, hesitated to call themselves theists, atheists or agnostics. For example, one associate professor in my survey writes that her unbelief does not equate with atheism:
I could not call myself an atheist now, primarily because my thinking about the baggage connected to that word leads me to believe that it does not accurately describe my condition.
I’m not saying we should throw realist theism overboard. Rather, practice is an important element of religious life whose philosophical significance has not received as much attention as it ought. Practice, I believe, can help us make sense about how people sustain and accept beliefs that seem prima facie very hard to make sense of. Using insights from the extended mind thesis and other views of scaffolded and embodied cognition, our epistemology of religion should incorporate these practices into a more complete picture of credal and affective attitudes toward God.
Like many other critics, Gutting thinks there is a tension in Wettstein’s practice of prayer and his outlook of naturalism. I was similarly skeptical when I read Wettstein’s paper on awe and the religious life, and later his book. Now, however, I think we need to understand more about the range of attitudes that underpin religious practice and their relationship to religious doxastic attitudes to determine whether there is a tension. Can the practices stand independent from credal attitudes, as Wettstein suggests is the case for some mathematicians, who work with numbers without any ontological commitments to them? Do we need something like hope or another positive non-doxastic attitude at the very least to support religious practices like prayer?
Housed at Baylor University’s Philosophy Department, and supported by a grant from Templeton. The three-year project is co-directed by Jon Kvanvig, Dan Howard-Snyder, and Trent Dougherty.
These post-docs are 3-year positions, and the deadline for application is February 1.
Two Post-Doctoral Fellowship Positions
Department of Philosophy, Baylor University
On The Nature and Value of Faith
Funded by a grant from the Templeton Foundation
Applications are solicited for two three-year fellowships to work as part of a team of scholars, led by Jonathan L. Kvanvig, Daniel Howard-Snyder, and Trent Dougherty, on the nature and value of faith. The project will be housed in the Baylor University Department of Philosophy.
A collaborative effort, the project aims to address questions concerning the relationship between faith, hope, trust, belief, and acceptance. Fellows will have the opportunity to devote three years of research to issues that fall within the scope of the project, to participate in weekly discussions of these issues with the co-directors, and to participate in summer seminars with other scholars working on these issues.
In their application, applicants should explain how their intended research addresses the questions involved in the project. These questions include: whether faith is a cognitive state, an active state, or something else; how faith relates to belief, and to hope, and to various positive character traits the relationship between faith and rationality; whether faith is assessable in purely epistemic terms or in terms of practical rationality, or in other terms the relationship between faith and central epistemic goods such as knowledge and understanding; whether faith is necessary for either wisdom or understanding; whether faith is a virtue, and, if so, how faith compares with other virtues; whether there is a distinction between mundane faith and religious faith, and, if so, how the distinction is to be understood.
This list of questions and issues is not meant to exhaustive, but merely indicative of some of the types of issues that can fruitfully be pursued within the scope of the project.
The application consists of the following:
(i) a research proposal of no more than 10 pages, detailing a proposed research agenda for the year and relevant prior work related to it,
(ii) a curriculum vita,
(iii) three letters of recommendation
(iv) a cover letter.
The application deadline is February 1, 2014. The evaluation committee will consist of the co-directors of the project. The criteria for selection are (1) demonstrated expertise in philosophy of religion or theology and (2) evidence of the ability to undertake significant research that will contribute to the aims of the project. As a direct consequence of their involvement with the project, it is expected that the successful candidates will author several publications. Preferred candidates will have PhD in hand at the time of appointment.
Electronic applications are preferred, and may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org with “Fellowship Application” in the subject line. Salary level is competitive, and includes standard fringe benefits; moving expenses provided as well. Start date is August 15, 2014, and successful candidates will have expenses paid to participate for all summer seminars associated with the project, beginning June 15, 2014. In addition, funding will be provided for participation in the annual conferences associated with the project.
Baylor is a Baptist University affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas. As an Affirmative Action/Equal Employment Opportunity employer, Baylor encourages minorities, women, veterans, and persons with disabilities to apply.
One of our graduate students, Matt Wilson, suggested an analogy between Pascal’s Wager and the question about whether to promote or fight theistic beliefs in a social context (and he let me cite this here).
This made me think. (I don’t know what of the following would be endorsed by Wilson.) The main objections to Pascal’s Wager are:
- Difficulties in dealing with infinite utilities. That’s merely technical (I say).
- Many gods.
- Practical difficulties in convincing oneself to sincerely believe what one has no evidence for.
- The lack of epistemic integrity in believing without evidence.
- Would God reward someone who believes on such mercenary grounds?
- The argument just seems too mercenary!
Do these hold in the social context, where I am trying to decide whether to promote theism among others? If theistic belief non-infinitesimally increases the chance of other people getting infinite benefits, without any corresponding increase in the probability of infinite harms, then that should yield very good moral reason to promote theistic belief. Indeed, given utilitarianism, it seems to yield a duty to promote theism.
But suppose that instead of asking what I should do to get myself to believe the question is what I should try to get others to believe. Then there are straightforward answers to the analogue of (3): I can offer arguments for and refute arguments against theism, and help promote a culture in which theistic belief is normative. How far I can do this is, of course, dependent on my particular skills and social position, but most of us can do at least a little, either to help others to come to believe or at least to maintain their belief.
Moreover, objection (4) works differently. For the Wager now isn’t an argument for believing theism, but an argument for increasing the number of people who believe. Still, there is force to an analogue to (4). It seems that there is a lack of integrity in promoting a belief that one does not hold. One is withholding evidence from others and presenting what one takes to be a slanted position (for if one thought that the balance of the evidence favored theism, then one wouldn’t need any such Wager). So (4) has significant force, maybe even more force than in the individual case. Though of course if utilitarianism is true, that force disappears.
Objections (5) and (6) disappear completely, though. For there need be nothing mercenary about the believers any more, and the promoter of theistic beliefs is being unselfish rather than mercenary. The social Pascal’s Wager is very much a morally-based argument.
Objections (1) and (2) may not be changed very much. Though note that in the social context there is a hedging-of-the-bets strategy available for (2). Instead of promoting a particular brand of theism, one might instead fight atheism, leaving it to others to figure out which kind of theist they want to be. Hopefully at least some theists get right the brand of theism—while surely no atheist does.
I think the integrity objection is the most serious one. But that one largely disappears when instead of considering the argument for promoting theism, one considers the argument against promoting atheism. For while it could well be a lack of moral integrity to promote one-sided arguments, there is no lack of integrity in refraining from promoting one’s beliefs when one thinks the promotion of these beliefs is too risky. For instance, suppose I am 99.99% sure that my new nuclear reactor design is safe. But 99.9999% is just not good enough for a nuclear reactor design! I therefore might choose not promote my belief about the safety of the design, even with the 99.9999% qualifier, because politicians and reporters who aren’t good in reasoning about expected utilities might erroneously conclude not just that it’s probably safe (which it probably is), but that it should be implemented. And the harms of that would be too great. Prudence might well require me to be silent about evidence in cases where the risks are asymmetrical, as in the nuclear reactor case where the harm of people coming to believe that it’s safe when it’s unsafe so greatly outweighs the harm of people coming to believe that it’s unsafe when it’s safe. But the case of theism exhibits a similar asymmetry.
Thus, consistent utilitarian atheists will promote theism. (Yes, I think that’s a reductio of utilitarianism!) But even apart from utilitarianism, no atheist should promote atheism.
If you are a professional philosopher of religion (including graduate students), I would be very grateful if you could fill out the following survey: https://surveys.qualtrics.com/SE/?SID=SV_4UvmgvHInmoRgkR
This study is a qualitative investigation focused on professional philosophers who have philosophy of religion as an area of specialization. It is designed and carried out by Dr. Helen De Cruz (postdoctoral fellow of the British Academy at the University of Oxford, Somerville College and Philosophy Faculty). The purpose is to get a qualitative picture of the motivations of philosophers of religion for taking up this subject, and the relationship of their philosophical work to their personal belief attitudes (including lack of religious belief).
If you are a professional philosopher of religion (this includes graduate students, non-tenure track faculty, as well as faculty members), please consider participating. Participation is fully anonymous. The format of the study is an open survey, where you will be asked to respond to a series of open questions. As the questions are open, it is entirely up to you to decide how long or detailed your responses are.
The more people participate, the better and more nuanced the results will be. Ideally, I would like to recruit people of various levels of seniority (e.g., graduate students, faculty members, non- tenureline faculty), male as well as female participants, working in various countries, and with various religious outlooks (including lack of religious belief).
This is a qualitative survey. Excerpts of the responses will appear in the published research. To take care that your anonymity is preserved, I will publish only one response per participant maximum, making sure that there is no identifying information within your response. The full dataset will remain confidential and will not be shared with anyone. You can find a preliminary write up of the results on http://prosblogion.ektopos.com/ probably in March 2014.
The study is designed and carried out by Helen De Cruz, postdoctoral fellow of the British Academy at the University of Oxford. If you have any questions or concerns, please contact helen.decruz[at]philosophy.ox.ac.uk
Res Philosophica invites papers on the topic of transformative experiences for a special issue of the journal.
Deadline for Submission
October 1, 2014
Some potential experiences are transformative experiences: they will change us in broadly cognitive—and perhaps significant—ways, and yet the full nature of the phenomenal characters of these cognitive changes are epistemically inaccessible to us before we have the experiences.
Philosophers are familiar with some of these types of experiences from the literature on consciousness—for example, the “what it’s like” properties involved in the knowledge problem. When Mary sees color for the first time, her experience is transformed in a way that she could not have predicted: she could not know what it would be like for her to see red for the first time. Such experiences are transformative for an agent in the sense that they are radically unlike the agent’s previous experiences with regard to their phenomenal character, intensity, and overall cognitive significance.
These sorts of transformative experiences include seeing color for the first time, but may also involve other sorts of experiences that involve significant changes in the agent’s phenomenal point of view, such as converting to belief in God, becoming sighted for the first time or becoming a hearer for the first time, becoming paraplegic, becoming female (or male), going to the front in wartime, or having one’s first child. Contemporary psychological and sociological research suggests that one’s actual experiences are often very different from how we expect they will be.
The special issue, in broad outline, invites papers exploring the implications of the possibility that certain major life experiences are phenomenologically transformative: that is, they are relevantly just like Mary’s when she leaves her black and white room. The transformative nature of such experiences raises many questions. For example, if choosing to believe in God, choosing to have a cochlear implant, or choosing to have a child is a choice to undergo a phenomenologically transformative experience, how should agents evaluate the values of the outcomes of acts that bring about such experiences? Are there decision-theoretic implications? Since such choices, especially when they are irreversible, may also change the values and belief structure of the agent, how should agents assess the choice before having the experience, and how are they to reflect on whether having such an experience improves well-being? Papers that address these and related issues are welcome.
Selected papers will be included in a special issue of Res Philosophica along with invited papers from Elizabeth Barnes, Rachael Briggs, Ruth Chang, Elizabeth Harman, Rae Langton, and L. A. Paul.
Submissions will be triple anonymously reviewed. (First, authors do not know the identity of the referees, second, referees do not know the identity of the authors, and third, editors do not know the identity of the authors.) Please format your submission so that it is suitable for anonymous review. (Instructions are available here.)
Papers may be up to 12,000 words long (including footnotes).
We accept pdf and Microsoft Word documents. Papers may be submitted in any standard style, but authors of accepted papers will be required to edit their papers according to the journal’s style, which follows The Chicago Manual of Style (16th edition). Style instructions are available here.
Please use the online submission form for submitting your essay, available here.
Over at Philosophy, et cetera, Richard Yetter-Chappell claims that religious belief is not reasonable. Here is Yetter-Chappell’s rationale behind his reasoning:
1. At most, the cosmological and fine-tuning arguments support minimal deism. (I’m not sure what minimal deism is; is it simply the claim that something outside of the universe is causally responsible for either the universe’s existence or for its order? Or is it the stronger claim that some kind of powerful, intelligent agent is causally responsible for either the universe’s existence or its order?)
2. The ontological argument is sophistic, and the modal ontological argument is question-begging.
3. The fact that lots of philosophers of religion think that religious belief is reasonable provides no evidence for thinking that it’s reasonable, because the best explanation for why they’re philosophers of religion in the first place is that they’re antecedently convinced of the claims of theism. Consequently, the best explanation of the fact that they find those arguments compelling is that they already believed them for non-evidential reasons.
4. There are very good reasons to disbelieve in theism, namely the arguments from evil and divine hiddenness. (I take it that Yetter-Chappell thinks that the responses to these arguments don’t discredit these arguments.)
5. The additional claims of historical religions are either not “the kind of thing someone could end up believing as the result of a careful and unbiased assessment of the evidence” (presumably, things like the doctrines of the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Atonement, among others) or are “patently immoral” (like the doctrine of original sin, and the view that honest non-believers deserve eternal damnation).
(Yetter-Chappell doesn’t mention other arguments in the theistic arsenal, like Kant’s moral argument or the argument from miracles. I’m guessing he either doesn’t think they’re worthy of discussion or thinks they convince too few people to mention, or both.)
What is one to make of Yetter-Chappell’s post? A few things, I think:
First, I think that claims that philosophers of religion have made religious belief intellectually respectable are either overstated or false. Just based on anecdotal evidence, I get the impression that a lot of very intelligent philosophers, even ones who are personal acquaintances of Robert Adams, Marilyn Adams, Richard Swinburne, Eleonore Stump, Alvin Plantinga, Peter van Inwagen, or Dean Zimmerman feel the same way as Yetter-Chappell. It would be good to get some empirical information on whether this is the case.
Second, I must confess that his post unnerves me greatly. This is mainly because I get the impression that Yetter-Chappell is a very good philosopher who is intimately acquainted with much of contemporary philosophy of religion — as well-acquainted with it as many of the people who post on this blog, I’m assuming (is that fair?) — and I don’t think he has the slightest doubt about his views. By contrast, I have nagging, deep doubts about my own religious beliefs. I think this is partly because you can publish lots of secular philosophy in generalist journals while explicitly assuming the truth of naturalism, whereas you can’t publish philosophy that makes explicitly theistic assumptions in generalist journals (or can you? And if you can, under what circumstances can you do so? As a hypothetical? I don’t count those). Perhaps I’m simply neuro-atypical, but I think that would consistently add to the confidence in my convictions. (And this says nothing of the naturalistic assumptions you can make in most conversations with most philosophers.)
Third, I could be wrong, but I think you can run many of his arguments against moral realism. Let me go through them:
1*. What direct arguments are there in favor of moral realism? Michael Smith tries in The Moral Problem; how convincing is this? I gather that David Enoch, Russ Shafer-Landau, and Anita Superson try as well. How many are convinced?
2*. Kant’s deduction of the categorical imperative/Mill’s “proof” is sophistic. (There’s a “gap” in Kant’s deduction and Mill’s proof trades on an equivocation within “x is desirable” between “x is something that one can desire” and “x is something that one ought to desire”.)
3*. The fact that most normative ethicists and meta-ethicists (56.4%) are moral realists doesn’t give any evidence in favor of moral realism, because those scholars became ethicists because they were antecedently convinced of the truth of moral realism.
4*. There are very good reasons to disbelieve moral realism, such as Mackie’s argument from queerness and Harman’s point that you don’t need to invoke moral facts to explain anything about our behavior, attitudes, moral knowledge, etc. Indeed, this world is just the kind of world you would expect to see if our moral beliefs were the product of acculturation and evolutionary pressures.
5.* Most of the particular ethical beliefs that philosophers, and the public at large, have are not so much the result of careful study of evidence (few people look deeply into the evidence (sociological, psychological, economic, political scientific, etc.; nor are they the result of the application of a particular normative theory to cases), but rather because those beliefs are the ones their colleagues share, etc.
Even if one accepts the above parallels, though, I’m not sure what they show. I’m guessing you can easily accept all of 1-5 while denying 1*-5*, but I find it difficult to do so, personally. If you agree with me that there are at least some parallels between moral realism and theism, why do you think moral realism is so much more respectable than theism? (Assuming it is.)
The Abraham Kuyper Center for Science and Religion under the direction of RenÃ© van Woudenberg welcomes proposals to investigate scientism and its manifestations in research into free will, moral belief formation and moral character, rational decision-making, and religious belief. The research project Science beyond Scientism is embedded in the research of the Theoretical Philosophy section of the Department of Philosophy at VU University Amsterdam. VU University Amsterdam is an accredited research university with excellent library and other research facilities.
Scientism is the view that science, and science alone, can give us knowledge, tell us what exists, and answer our moral, existential, and religious questions. Scientism is rampant in contemporary intellectual culture: it is assumed and endorsed in- and outside academia by influential scientists and philosophers writing about evolutionary theory, genetics, brain science, psychology, and philosophy. From there, scientism also wields influence on various social and professional practices, such as medicine, law, education, religion, and child rearing. We think scientism is not only false, but also harmful. False, because there are other sources of knowledge besides science. Harmful, because it undermines notions that are central to human self-understanding and flourishing, and to various social and professional practices; notions such as free will, rational decision-making, moral character, and religious belief.
[note: this blogpost collects some scattered thoughts I hope to organize in article form sooner rather than later, for my British Academy project on religious social epistemology, see here]
There is an ongoing debate what we should do when we are confronted with disagreement with an epistemic peer; someone who is as knowledgeable and intellectually virtuous in the domain in question. Should we revise our beliefs (conciliationism), or not engage in any doxastic revision (steadfastness)? Epistemologists aim to settle this question in a principled way, hoping general principles like conciliationism and steadfastness can offer a solution not only for the toy examples that are being invoked, but also for real-world cases that we care passionately about, such as scientific, religious, political and philosophical disagreements. However, such cases have proven to be a hard nut to crack. A referee once commented on a paper I submitted on epistemic peer disagreement in science that the notion of epistemic peer in scientific practice was useless. S/he said “It works for simple cases like two spectators who disagree on which horse finished first, but when it comes to two scientists who disagree whether a fossil is a Homo floresiensis or Homo sapiens, the notion is just utterly useless.”
Analytic Theology Summer School & Conference in Innsbruck (Austria)
Summer School: July 24 – August 2, 2014
Conference: August 4, 2014 – August 6, 2014
In recent decades, an increasing number of philosophers in the analytic tradition have begun to produce exciting philosophical work on topics relating directly to systematic theology. The Analytic Theology Project is a multinational four-year endeavor that contributes to this development in a creative way. The project funds systematic research promoting a long overdue interdisciplinary cooperation between analytic philosophers and theologians. It thus explores the intersection of both fields and seeks to establish links between the traditions of classical European theology and analytic thinking. Against this background the project is organizing a summer school (with a call for papers) and an international conference on Divine Action in the World. The language of both events is English.
A basic claim of theistic belief systems is that God engages in relationship with his creation. One way to understand this relationship is provided by talk about God’s actions. This includes not only his creating, sustaining, and bringing to perfection of the world, but also his intervention in the course of its history. Talk of God’s action in the world, however, is open to many interpretations, since it raises numerous questions about the causal structure of reality, laws of nature, and human free will. Coming to grips with these and similar questions is crucial for properly engaging with any theistic belief system. In our conference, internationally renowned philosophers and theologians will discuss these questions and give new and innovative answers.
In the epistemology of religion, authors like Swinburne and Alston have argued influentially that mystical experience of God provides prima facie justification for some beliefs we hold about God on the basis of such experiences, e.g., that he loves us, is sovereign etc. Belief in God, so they argue, is analogous to sense perception. If I get a mystical experience that God loves me, prima facie, I am justified in believing that God loves me.
Alston relies critically on William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). This seminal, but now dated psychological study draws on self-reports by mystics to characterize mystical experience. The mystical experiences James (and others) describe are unexpected, unbidden; they immediately present something (God) to one’s experience, i.e., they provide a direct, unmediated awareness of God. More recent empirical work on the phenomenology of religious experience, such as that conducted by Tanya Luhrmann and other anthropologists, suggests that ordinary sense perception is a poor and misleading analogy for mystical perception.