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!
October 20-22, 2016
New Brunswick, NJ
Conference Theme: Acquiring Faith
Call for Papers
Submissions exploring any topic in the philosophy of religion, and more generally topics of interest to theistic philosophers, are welcome. Papers on the conference theme will be given special consideration. The theme should be interpreted broadly. It includes not only consideration of the viability, legitimacy, and rationality of Pascalian approaches to acquiring faith, but a variety of other issues including, for example, the importance of various putative elements of faith (e.g., affect, trust, belief) and how else these may or may not be acquired. Submissions are encouraged from all philosophers with interests in these topics — Christians and non-Christians, including members of other religious traditions. Submissions should be 3,000 words or less and prepared for blind review (please send a .doc, .docx, or .pdf file with no identifying ‘marks’). Include a cover letter with your name, institutional affiliation, email address, paper title, and an abstract of 150 words or less. Submissions are due by July 15, 2016. Please send your paper to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you do not receive an e-mail acknowledgement within one week of your submission, please re-submit.
The SCP offers a $500 prize for the best graduate student paper. For a paper to be eligible, it must be submitted by July 15, 2016. The $500 award will be presented publicly at the conference. If you are a graduate student and would like your paper to be considered for the prize, please indicate that you are a graduate student in your submission email.
The conference will culminate in a round-table panel discussion of Pascal’s Wager, with our Plenary Speakers as participants.
Plenary Speakers & Panel Participants:
Laurie Paul (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)
Daniel Garber (Princeton University)
Alan Hájek (Australian National University)
Lara Buchak (University of California, Berkeley)
This is the sixteenth 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. Follow the links for parts 1, 2, 3,4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 and 15. 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 Kristen Irwin, an assistant professor of philosophy at Loyola University Chicago.
Can you tell me something about your current academic work, and your religious affiliation/self-identification?
I specialize in the early modern period, particularly the seventeenth century. My 2010 dissertation was on the nature and function of reason and belief in the thought of Pierre Bayle, but I have broad interests in the treatment of rationality, religious beliefs, and moral beliefs by modern philosophers. I also dabble in contemporary philosophy of religion and metaethics.
My religious affiliation is… not entirely straightforward! My most obvious identification is as a follower of Jesus Christ in the sense indicated by traditional statements of Christian belief such as the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed, interpreted in the context of the Sermon on the Mount. Beyond that, however, things get… complicated. I’ve found that I’m a bit of an oddball, religiously speaking: With respect to religious practices, I have a deep appreciation for—maybe even a love of?—traditional liturgy, and I find a certain freedom and invitation in its privileging of embodiment in one’s interaction with God. At the same time, I value the spontaneity and sincerity of more contemporary forms of worship, and acknowledge the vitality and authenticity of those practices. I also tend to shy away from the hierarchical authority structures generally associated with groups that adopt traditional liturgical practices, especially in light of the ways that this authority has been misused and abused, to the detriment both of those within the church, and outside of the church.
I’ve recently been wondering whether atheism – the belief that God does not exist – could be properly basic. By that, I mean whether it could be a belief that is not based on arguments, but nonetheless formed by a reliable mechanism that is truth-oriented.
I doubt whether atheism could be properly basic. If I am right, then, in order for atheism to be warranted (or maybe even merely rational; see below), atheism has to be based on arguments—whereas, perhaps, such a thing is not required for theism.
Now, here’s my line of thought. It seems we need to consider two mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive scenarios: one in which God exists and one in which he does not.
We can be rather short about the first scenario. If God exists, then it seems impossible that humans have a truth-oriented reliable mechanism that produces the basic belief that God does not exist. Such a mechanism could never be both truth-oriented and reliable, for all of its deliverances – each instance of the basic belief that God does not exist – would be false.
I listed five false consequences of the standard view of personhood. Let me offer the continuant argument that I’m not a person. I mean, of course, that I am not essentially a person in the standard sense of personhood. I’d like to know where the argument goes wrong. I can’t see any place where it does. It’s actually a simple argument.
Let’s say someone is a person if and only if he possesses self-awareness, consciousness, rationality, the ability to communicate, and so on. Call that the standard view. The standard view is found in Singer, Glover, Tooley, Lowe, Williams, McMahan, and Parfit and goes at least as far back as Locke. According to the standard view, the property of being a person confers a special moral status on those who instantiate it. Only persons have the full profile of moral rights, so their lives have a moral protection that is not afforded to non-persons.
If I were a person, then all of the following would be true:
Peter van Inwagen and Jonathan Bennett developed a simple and influential argument that the principle of sufficient reason (PSR) entails that there is no contingency in the world. Everything that happens, necessarily happens. The problem is deeper than it first appears. If PSR is true and God explains everything else, as many theists believe, then the cost of preserving God’s perfect rationality is the loss of His freedom, His moral perfection, and His providence and sovereignty. We are left with a single necessary world. The costs also include the loss of contingency and moral agency among created beings in the world. On the other hand, the cost of abandoning His perfect rationality is the unintelligibility of the world (which has disastrous effects on our reasoning with one another) and the unintelligibility of God’s actions in it. We cannot easily give up PSR.
The argument can look gimmicky, and I’ve heard that criticism of it. But it’s no gimmick. Suppose we talk of the explanation of states of affairs derivatively, and the explanation of propositions directly. For every true contingent proposition p, PSR requires that there is some explanation q such that q explains p if and only if ☐(q ⊃ p). But the conjunction P of all true contingent propositions is a contingent proposition, so P too has an explanation. Let G be the explanation of P. G must be a necessarily true proposition, since otherwise G would be a conjunct in P. But then G would be a contingent proposition that explained, among other things, itself. No contingent propositions explain themselves. So, P has an explanation just in case for some Q, ☐(Q ⊃ P) & ☐Q. But it follows uncontroversially from this that ☐P, and we are left with all of the unwanted implications above. I think there’s a neat way out of this problem that does not require weakening PSR, or adopting a weaker notion of explanation or defending infinite chains of contingent explanation.
The forthcoming Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Religion is full of interesting stuff! So far, I specially recommend Bishop and Perszyk on alternative conceptions of God and Dougherty and Pruss on apparently unjustified evils as ‘anomalies’ (in the philosophy of science sense). I have not yet read the last four articles. Here, I want to comment on Hud Hudson’s “The Father of Lies?”
(This post got longer than I intended, so I’ve added sub-headings. If you get bored in the middle, please skip to the end. I’ve also bolded important parts to make for easier skimming.)
Hudson’s central contention is that anyone who endorses skeptical theism lacks the resources to rule out divine deception. The reason for this is simple: the skeptical theist ought to admit that we do not know that deception is unjustifiable in all circumstances (in fact, most people think we have good reason to suppose just the opposite). The skeptical theist ought also to admit that we don’t know that we are not in circumstances in which it would be permissible for God to deceive us. So, even if we know that something or other (a text, an experience, etc.) is a divine revelation, we do not thereby come to know that it is true.
Hudson is quite explicit that he is targeting knowledge-level propositional revelation: the thing the religious believer might well want to secure, and the skeptical theist cannot secure, is the notion that certain propositions can be known to be true by revelation alone. My view is that John Locke’s arguments (see section 1.1) and some other related considerations provide strong reason for denying that the sort of propositional revelation traditionally accepted by Christians could yield propositional knowledge, and that this is okay (for Christianity). Hudson’s argument shows that Locke makes a concession to his opponents which he perhaps ought not to make. But, even when combined with Hudson’s observations, these arguments against propositional knowledge by revelation alone do not in principle prevent us from reasonably believing, on the basis of revelation, things that would not be reasonable for us to believe in the absence of revelation. (The ‘in principle’ qualification is important; as will become clear, if the broadly Lockean view I am advocating is correct, then identifying a text as a revelation is a tricky business.)
In EHU 4.18, Locke begins by conceding the principle that if any proposition p is revealed by God, then p. He argues, however, that the claim that some proposition is revealed by God never goes beyond probable belief to become knowledge.
Locke distinguishes ‘traditional revelation’ from ‘original revelation’ (EHU 4.18.3). Original revelation is direct non-verbal communication by God. Traditional revelation is communication from God by means of words. Two things needs to be noted here: first, a vision, dream, etc. in which one hears or reads words which one takes to come directly from God on this view counts as traditional revelation, even if it wasn’t passed down from other humans. Second, the division is not exhaustive. Even within Christianity, there are claims to revelation that don’t fit in either category. An example is Eastern Christian iconography, which is ‘traditional’ in the sense of being passed down from one generation to the next, and is regarded as a form of revelation, but is not primarily verbal. (Most icons are inscribed at least with the names of the saints depicted, but an icon is not a text.)
This distinction is important to Locke because he thinks that God can miraculously give people new ideas, but words (or other conventional signs) can’t be meaningful unless we already have ideas, so ‘original revelation’, as defined, can give us new ideas, but ‘traditional revelation’, as defined, cannot. Locke also seems, in 4.18, to think that traditional revelation has problems about uncertainty of interpretation and original revelation does not. However, in 4.19, which was added in the 4th edition, Locke also raises interpretive problems about original revelation. So I think we are better off with a different distinction. We will distinguish between two ways Christians have traditionally held God to attest to his revelations: public miracles and private religious experience. (Question for readers: are there other forms of attestation in the Christian tradition besides these two?)
Attestation to Revelation by Public Miracles
Public miracles are perhaps the mode of attestation to which Christians have historically most often appealed. But there are two questions here: how can we know the miracle really occurred, and how can we know what lesson we were meant to draw from the miracle? Locke argues that, in general, historical beliefs fall short of knowledge, hence our claim that a miracle occurred will never have knowledge-level justification. However, this just shows that Locke’s standards for knowledge are too demanding. Surely I know that there was once a general named ‘Julius Caesar’. Even relaxing the standards for knowledge, though, do we know that miracles have occurred? I suspect not. After all, essentially all miracle reports are contested, and in nearly every instance there are alternative explanations available which are plausible enough to prevent knowledge-level justification.
I don’t want to go too far into historical details here, but since it is now the season of Easter, I’ll illustrate by talking about the resurrection of Jesus. I think the historical evidence is sufficient for us to claim to know that there was such a person as Jesus of Nazareth, and that the tomb in which he was buried was mysteriously found empty, and his body was never recovered. I also think that no prima facie plausible explanation of these facts has ever been proposed. (One must admit that resurrection – even the resurrection of a holy person and great teacher who is believed to have predicted his own resurrection before his death – is not a prima facie plausible hypothesis. It would take a lot to make us take such a hypothesis seriously if we found a mysteriously empty casket today.) Now, whether some one of the possible explanations turns out to be ultima facie plausible, or at least whether there is a clear winner for least implausible explanation, is going to depend on a lot of difficult questions. So I think it’s safe to say that no one has every genuinely known, on the basis of historical research, what happened to Jesus’ body. I do think that with the right sort of background beliefs one might come to reasonably believe in one or another of the hypotheses (including the resurrection hypothesis), but the intrinsic implausibility of each hypothesis, together with the existence of the alternative hypotheses, is sufficient to prevent knowledge. The case against knowledge is, I think, even stronger for other alleged miracles.
But suppose we did know that Jesus rose from the dead. It is plausible that this would constitute a divine endorsement of Jesus’ example and teachings. But would we then know that God attested to Jesus’ example and teachings as a revelation? I think not. After all (as skeptical theists are always pointing out) God might have all kinds of reasons for doing things that we can’t even begin to fathom. Plus, we can easily construct alternative hypotheses. Perhaps the resurrection was some kind of fluke of nature. Perhaps it was God’s way of registering his extremely strenuous objections to the unjust trial which condemned Jesus. Perhaps it was God’s way of registering his extremely strenuous objections to the very practice of crucifixion, or capital punishment in general. Perhaps God was endorsing the example and teachings of Jesus, but as a merely human exemplar to which we can aspire. So, even if we knew that Jesus rose from the dead, we wouldn’t thereby come to know that God endorsed his example and teachings as a revelation.
Now suppose we knew that God did endorse the life and teachings of Jesus as a divine revelation. We’d still have to figure out what propositional content God was endorsing. That would involve both figuring out what Jesus said and did and figuring out what it all meant. Now, I do think we can know, by historical research, that Jesus said and did certain things, provided we keep our claims sufficiently vague. For instance, it’s pretty clear that he taught about loving your enemies and that he challenged and offended the Jewish religious authorities and so forth. But, again, there are apparently conflicting records, there are disputes about the date, authorship, and accuracy of those records, and some of the alternative hypotheses about these matters have significant plausibility. And then, of course, although the significance of some of these teachings and actions is quite clear, there is no end of interpretive disputes about others.
Could God have used a miracle to attest to a revelation in such a way as to give knowledge, rather than merely reasonable belief? Contrary to Locke, I suspect the answer is ‘yes’. Perhaps those who saw Jesus after his death thereby gained propositional knowledge via revelation. They would only have to get over one of the hurdles I have mentioned: the interpretation of the miracle itself. But God could have been even clearer. For instance, there could have been a voice from heaven (perhaps saying something like “this is my beloved Son; hear him!”) heard by a large number of witnesses known to be reliable, who had a wide range of different prior background beliefs, who each independently recorded their testimony, and who investigated alternative explanations of the voice (hidden ventriloquist?) as thoroughly as possible. Perhaps that would be sufficient for knowledge, and the voice could say something sufficiently easy to interpret, and the further revelation it could attest to might also be clear. I’m not familiar with any claim that this sort of thing happened. (In the case of the voices from heaven occurring in the Bible, it is sometimes said that more than one person heard it, and that does count in favor of the reasonableness of believing the account, but we don’t have strong independent evidence of the reliability of the witnesses, nor was their testimony recorded independently.) So things would have to look quite different from how they in fact look in order to yield propositional knowledge by revelation.
Attestation to Revelation by Private Religious Experience
The Christian tradition has also often appealed to private religious experience as attestation to divine revelation. Locke added a section, ‘Of Enthusiasm’ (4.19), in the 4th edition to deal with these kinds of claims. Locke’s approach, in general, is just to challenge the proponents of these kinds of religious experiences to give a clear account of exactly what is attested and exactly how it is attested. If the proposition just ‘looks true’, then how is this revelation rather than rational intuition? If the proposition doesn’t just look true but is inexplicably firmly believed anyway, why should we think this is revelation and not just irrationality? Perhaps the proposition in question is of the form God has revealed that p, and I simply find myself believing that, and infer p from it. But it is implausible that I could simply rationally intuit that God has revealed something (unless we are talking about natural revelation – i.e., things God has revealed to me by giving me the capacity to reason!), and otherwise it just looks irrational.
Now there are serious problems here for the proponent of this kind of religious experience, but perhaps they can be met. What we want to say is that there is a certain sort of unique feeling that one gets when contemplating a certain proposition or reading a certain book or something like that. It’s not just that it ‘looks true’. It’s a feeling of a different sort from the feeling one gets when one ‘just sees’ that 2=2.
This approach is better, but it has at least two problems. First, given the actual facts about such experiences, it seems unlikely that we’ll be able to get what the proponents of this approach want out of them. Second, These feelings require interpretation too, and their interpretation is uncertain.
According to the Westminster Confession, “our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth, and divine authority [of Scripture], is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit, bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts” (1.5). I think I know (experientially) what this is talking about. I sometimes have a profound, difficult to describe, religious experience when reading certain texts, and these sorts of experiences seem to have a beneficial effect on moral motivation and character. The trouble is, I haven’t had this kind of experience with every, or nearly every, book of the Bible. Indeed, I can’t remember having an experience like this with any part of the Old Testament except the beginning of Jeremiah and a couple of Psalms. (I just don’t get ancient Hebrew literature.) Furthermore, I have had experiences of this sort with extra-canonical works (e.g., Plato’s Protagoras, Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, Leibniz’s Theodicy). So it’s just not clear how this kind of feeling is supposed to attest to the canon, especially in light of the fact that as the Westminster divines are explicitly aware the Confession is taking a controversial position on the boundaries of the canon. It is far from clear how this controversial position is meant to be justified. (The ‘Scripture proofs’ in the footnotes are totally foreign to the purpose. Incidentally, if Luke 24:44 was relevant, it would get the wrong results, since, among the ‘writings’ (Ketuvim) it validates only the Psalms. But if this is a synecdoche, it could just as easily include the Apocrypha. I guess Romans 3:2 is supposed to show that the Old Testament should include only those books accepted within Judaism, but there was not agreement about the bounds of the canon in Judaism in the first century.)
The moral of the story is: if the tradition is talking about the same kind of experience I have (or something similar), this isn’t going to get the results that same tradition wants. The Westminster Confession also says, “We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church to an high and reverent esteem of the holy Scripture” (1.5), and it seems to assume that this precedes the ‘inward testimony of the Holy Spirit’. That helps some: it’s on account of the Church that the typical believer is only asking the question whether the Bible is a revelation and not questioning each book separately. And perhaps this is justifiable, insofar as the tradition has refined the canon by consideration of religious experience and other relevant factors. This gives a bigger role to tradition than the Westminster divines likely intended, but it’s at least a step toward a more plausible view. But of course there are a lot of contingencies in the historical determination of the canon, and there are still disputes within Christianity. Can I really claim to know the proposition either all of these books are part of a divine revelation or none of them are? I doubt it. How about either all the books undisputed within traditional Christianity are revelatory or none of them are? Again, I doubt it. (Plus, it’s hard to figure out what counts as ‘undisputed’. Is James disputed simply because, during one period of his life, Luther was inclined to reject it?)
My point here isn’t that there are no arguments to support positions on the canon. Nor is my point that religious experience has nothing to contribute. Rather, my point is that any argument that’s going to establish the entire Bible (for some particular disambiguation of the name ‘Bible’) is going to be too messy and uncertain to generate knowledge.
The second issue is, why should I interpret the feeling I have as a divine endorsement of the book I’m reading? And if I interpret it that way in some cases, why not in others? Now, perhaps it does make sense to take more seriously the proposition that a certain book is a revelation if there are other people around who believe that. We shouldn’t be overly individualistic in our epistemic practices. Similarly, if a whole bunch of people have closely examined a certain rock and determined it not to be gold, and I look at it and it looks like gold to me, it might be appropriate for me to conclude either that I’m hallucinating or that I’m not good at recognizing gold. But if that’s the case, then I (I mean me personally) should also conclude that I’m not super-reliable at recognizing divine revelations. This is perfectly compatible with thinking that humans in general are reliable enough at recognizing revelations that I should take more seriously the possibility that a book or collection is a revelation when there is a community that believes that book or collection to be a revelation. This will massively decrease the number of candidate revelations, and then I can apply other considerations, including my own religious experience, to make a guess among them. But let’s face it: there’s a certain amount of guesswork going on here.
In addition to widespread disagreement, which provides strong evidence that this sort of experience is significantly less reliable than ordinary sense experience, there is, again, the issue of credible alternative hypotheses, including various cognitive malfunction theories. I think each of us should be quite resistant, on Reidian grounds, to the claim that our faculties are malfunctioning, but this resistance needs to be defeasible. Sometimes it is reasonable to believe that one is hallucinating. Furthermore, in a case like this, where one is dealing with a feeling that admits of alternative interpretations, it is possible to endorse a story that involves non-divine origin of the feeling without claiming hallucination: one can deny that the feeling presents itself as a divine endorsement of the text. (At least, upon reflection, it seems to me that I could do that.)
Now perhaps I’ve got this all wrong. Perhaps the experience I’m thinking of is not the same as the one the tradition has had in mind. If this is your view and you want to give me the level of confidence in Christianity you enjoy due to an experience you’ve had and I haven’t, you can’t argue with me, you can only pray for me. If you want to convince me that you, and others who have such experiences, have the internalistic component of knowledge-level justification (which may or may not be all there is to such justification), you’ve got to describe the experience to me in more detail than I’ve heard it described in the past, and you’ve also got to show me how it leads to justification.
I’d be remiss if I ended this section without mentioning that William Alston’s very sophisticated treatment of this subject (in Perceiving God) mitigates a lot of these concerns. If I was trying to defend the claim (which I do endorse) that such experiences can contribute to the reasonableness of one’s belief, I’d be drawing heavily on Alston. But I just don’t see that his response to the plurality problem and other related issues is strong enough to yield genuine knowledge. (Maybe I’m just not as Reidian as Alston.)
Who ever supposed that scientifical proofs were necessary to make a Christian?
– Crito, in Berkeley’s Alciphron, sect. 6.31
If I lived in the 18th century, I would have been accused of being a closet atheist by now, and it might be time to move to Amsterdam. I hope the 21st century is as much different from the 18th century as I think it is. Let me take a couple steps back now.
We’re considering an argument with the following form:
- Experience or fact x is a divine attestation of object or event o as a divine revelation.
- If God attests to something as a revelation, then that thing is indeed a revelation.
- o is a revelation.
- It is part of the content of o that p.
- If some proposition is part of the content of some revelation, then that proposition is true.
- p is true.
Locke’s arguments, my further elaborations on those arguments, and Hudson’s skeptical theist arguments together amount, I think, to a strong case for the claim that, if the blanks are filled in here in a way that would support Christianity, we don’t know any of the premises. As a result, such an argument will not (alone) generate knowledge of the conclusion.
So what? The blindingly obvious fact of widespread religious disagreement, including among very intelligent, well-studied individuals, ought to show us that these questions aren’t easy. Is it so surprising to find that the evidence, even when we include religious experience, doesn’t allow us to reach a firm conclusion and claim it as a genuine item of knowledge?
If we can motivate the premises, show that they are reasonable to believe, we will give rational support to the conclusion. (Of course, on a Bayesian model, the levels of uncertainty in each premise multiply to make a more uncertain conclusion, but if you think you can know something without having credence 1 then this is going to happen with known premises too.) I’ve hinted at ways we might do this for one particular assignment (x = the empty tomb; o = the life and example of Jesus; p = we ought to love our enemies). On the view of faith I have previously put forward (or, for that matter, on Lara Buchak’s much discussed account), if we can give a similar defense for some other relevant substitutions (rather stronger than my example), this ought to be a sufficient basis for rational faith.
In giving my examples, I was talking about my elaboration of Locke’s points, but it should, I hope, be clear that the same applies to Hudson’s point. We have excellent reason to believe that the conditions in which deliberate deception is morally permissible are quite restricted, and we have no reason (that I can think of) for supposing that God in such a case with respect to us. The skeptical theist thinks that since we have good reason to believe that God exists, and we have absolutely undeniable evidence that the Holocaust occurred, we have good reason to suppose that God has sufficient moral justification for choosing not to intervene to prevent the Holocaust. We can’t begin to imagine what such a justification might look like but, the skeptical theist argues, in light of some general facts about our cognitive condition, the fact that we can’t imagine the justification is not evidence against its existence. This is totally different than the case of divine deception because we do not have strong independent evidence that divine deception has occurred.
This approach does put limits on how extreme our skeptical theism can be, but if skeptical theism was going to be that extreme it was going to be in trouble anyway. Does the skeptical theist really want to say that it is unreasonable for us to deny that God has morally sufficient reason to damn the innocent?
To make an analogy: intuiting that something is impossible or finding oneself unable to conceive it (despite the fact that such a conception ought to involve only concepts of which one has a good grasp) is sufficient for reasonable belief in the impossibility of that thing. But our modal intuitions are sufficiently fragile and unreliable that if we gain evidence that the supposedly impossible thing is actual, or is permitted by the laws of physics, it doesn’t take much evidence to overwhelm the rational force of intuition. (Or so say I.)
What the skeptical theist needs is the claim that our view that there is no morally justifying reason should be easily defeasible in this way, not that we shouldn’t have such views at all. Actually, the skeptical theist has an easier route here because there are many apparently unjustified evils that might turn out to be justified if we were wrong about causal connections in the world, even if we were right about value all down the line. The skeptical theist just needs to claim that between the empirical causal claims and the a priori moral claims there is enough uncertainty to make defeat relatively (epistemically) painless. (An aside: I’ve never actually been very comfortable with skeptical theism, and I think the previously mentioned Dougherty-Pruss paper gives a more promising alternative approach.)
I want to conclude by asking a question: why do people even want to defend a genuine knowledge claim here? Some people have a fundamentalist desire to build a ‘fortress of certainty’ to protect themselves from having to rethink their views in light of new evidence. If one has absolute certainty, on the basis of divine testimony, that the earth is no more than 6,000 years old, one has no need to consider scientific evidence, and if one doesn’t have to consider evidence one doesn’t have to worry about being wrong. Although evolution and the age of the earth were, of course, not the issues of the day, these are the sorts of people Galileo, Locke, and Berkeley had to deal with. But surely this isn’t what’s going on with the professional philosophers who endorse this kind of view today. (At least I hope not.)
An alternative motivation, raised by Alex Pruss in a comment on Keith DeRose’s argument against religious knowledge, is that doctrinal statements accepted by some Christians, including the Heidelberg Confession and the First Vatican Council, affirm that faith is a kind of knowledge, and this seems to have a basis in, e.g., 1 John. In my comments on DeRose’s post, I suggested that these could be taken as referring to objectual knowledge of God rather than propositional knowledge about God. I hope to work this out in more detail in the future.
Hudson’s article ends in aporia, because he himself is attracted, he says, to the idea of propositional knowledge by revelation alone. I would like to know why Hudson, and others, are attracted to this idea. To me, it seems like an unnecessary liability.
(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net.)
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 email@example.com 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.
The University of California at Riverside, with the help of a very generous grant from The John Templeton Foundation and under the direction of John Martin Fischer, welcomes proposals to investigate, through philosophical and theological research, questions that concern personal immortality. Such questions are central existential concerns that know no geographical or cultural bounds.
We anticipate proposals that fall under one of the following six categories:
- Investigation into whether persons survive, or could survive, bodily death. Such investigation could take the form of philosophical or theological treatments of the relevant empirical evidence, philosophical challenges to post-mortem survival (e.g., challenges to the possibility of continuous pre-mortem and post-mortem personal identity) and responses to such challenges, and more besides.
- Exploration of some topic related to the issue of immortality, e.g., puzzles about the goodness of post-mortem survival, the rationality of desiring to survive, the implications of believing/not believing in post-mortem survival, “quantum immortality,” longevity and the postponement of bodily death, etc.
- . Exploration of the relationship between immortality and views about the meaningfulness of life, even finite life. (E.g., does reflection on the possibility of meaningfulness in an immortal life shed light on what makes even our finite lives meaningful?)
- Investigation into the nature of infinity, and our conceptual grasp of infinity, as these relate to immortality. (Sample questions here might include the following: Can we grasp the nature of infinity in a way that is adequate to envisaging an infinitely long life? Insofar as the mathematical nature of infinite magnitudes are different from finite magnitudes, does this make it difficult to grasp infinitely long life? How do the mathematical puzzles of infinity relate to the possibility of immortality?)
- Investigation of the relationship between the badness of death and the desirability of immortality. (E.g., if death is a bad thing for an individual, does it thereby follow that immortality is (or could be) desirable?)
- Investigation of one or more explicitly theological issues related to the topic of immortality, e.g., investigation into the nature of “the intermediate state” or purgatorial or post-resurrection existence carried out within a Christian theological framework, the nature of karma carried out within a Buddhist or Hindu framework, post-mortem survival and its place in theodicy, etc.
Full application information can be found on the project web site: http://www.sptimmortalityproject.com/rfps/