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Annihilationism and the Infinity of Hell: Bawulski and the Experience Argument

October 25th, 2017 by Matt
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This is part of a talk I gave at the ReThinking Hell Conference in Auckland earlier this year.

The traditional conception of hell understands the punishment of the finally impenitent to be conscious eternal torment. The punishment of hell is eternal in the sense of it being of an unending duration, and it involves conscious torment.

Evangelical Annihilationist’s such as John Stott, Edward Fudge, John Wenham, and various others challenge the traditional view. They argue the traditional view is contrary to scripture. They contend that, in scripture, the punishment of hell is eternal destruction, which involves the total and irreversible destruction of the wicked. Hell is eternal in the sense that the ultimate punishment inflicted in hell, death, is permanent; one is dead forever and never to be resurrected or reincarnated to live another life.

Much of the debate over this in evangelical circles is exegetical. It focuses on the meanings of biblical phrases such as “eternal fire,” “eternal destruction,” “death,” “perish,” “everlasting contempt,” “eternal punishment,” “unquenchable fire,” “second death,” “killing the body, “soul,” “lake of fire,” “the smoke of their torment rises forever,” “blackest darkness [that] has been reserved forever,” “outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth”, and so on. Traditionalists take these passages to refer to eternal conscious torment.  Annihilationists argue that, in their contexts, they signify the permanent destruction of the wicked.

Sometimes, however, more philosophical considerations are raised. One example is Shawn Bawulski’s articleJCJ_8086  “Annihilationism, Traditionalism and the problem of Hell”  which argues that Annihilationism cannot answer particular moral and philosophical questions as well as the traditional view.

There is a lot in this article and space presents a detailed consideration of all the issues. Here I want to focus on one question. Central to Bawulski’s argument is the contention that if Annihilationism is true. Hell is not infinite in duration and hence finite. This implication Bawulski believes to be philosophically and theologically problematic.

I noted above that Annihilationists typically reject the claim that Hell involves finite punishment. They contend Hell involves the punishment of eternal destruction or eternal death. The ultimate punishment inflicted in hell, death, is permanent; one is dead forever and is never resurrected or reincarnated to live another life. Bawulski offers two arguments against this conclusion. This post will look at one of these arguments. This is what I will call the argument from conscious experience.


Punishment and Experience

A key argument Bawulski offers is that punishment must be experienced. For something to count as a punishment the person punished must experience it or be conscious of it. Bawulski illustrates this with the example Irreversible Coma:

 It is hard to see how we might punish an offender who is in a coma, especially if that coma were irreversible. We might be able to extract compensation from her estate, but we would normally consider this means of punishment to be a contingency-plan sentence in lieu of punishment that involved the offender’s knowledge and recognition of her wrongdoing.[1]

I tend to agree that it would be difficult to punish someone in already in an irreversible coma. However, I don’t think this fact shows that punishment must be experienced. To see this, imagine a different case.  John engages in a rape and murder spree and is shot by the police; he lies in the hospital in a temporary coma from which he will wake in three months.  While he is unconscious the court, on the basis of compelling evidence, sentences John to die and so before he wakes he is given a lethal injection. Has John been punished?

This is because John has in fact been deprived of something quite valuable:  the life he would have had he been left to wake in six months.  John has been executed, and his future life snuffed out.  Paradigmatically when someone is killed, they are harmed due to the fact they lose their life. But its obviously not their past life that is lost, nor is it the instantons present that is taken from them, what they lose is their future life. The life they would have lived and enjoyed had they not been killed.

It’s precisely the difficulty of envisaging any valuable or (even any conscious) future, from life in an irreversible coma that makes people reluctant to suggest it can be plausibly punished.  The situation envisaged by the Annihilationist, however,  is in stark contrasts.  Under an annihilationist conception of hell. The alternative to annihilation is eternal life. The alternatives are being destroyed or continued living forever in eternal bliss. Being killed therefore deprives one of a great good you otherwise would have had. A life of eternal bliss.

Hell must be experienced
Later  Bawulski suggests a more limited thesis: it’s not that punishment must be experienced, but rather,  that punishment, as it occurs in hell, needs to be experienced. “This, coupled with several biblical texts that describe the reprobate as aware of and experiencing their punishment, point to the conclusion that a criterion of the punishment of hell is that it be experienced.[2]

It’s difficult to understand however why the punishment envisaged by annihilationists wouldn’t be experienced. Annihilationists believe that the “wages of sin is death”, that God will destroy, i.e. kill, the body and soul in hell. Normally when we punish a person with death or kill him, they experience it. Suppose Tom is sentenced to die by electric chair, or by hanging or by firing squad. Is it plausible to suggest he doesn’t experience anything?
Its true once he is dead, he will experience nothing. But killing or executing someone usually involves a process, and that process can be experienced, it can be, and often is when carried out, been terrifying, and painful. So it beggars reality to suggest that sentencing someone to death means they don’t experience the punishment.

In fact, the existence of capital punishment, as a paradigmatic example of punishment seems to undermine both Bawulski’s arguments here. A person typically does experience the process of death involved in the execution, and the fact they die and lose consciousness when they are hanged or electrocuted doesn’t seem to lead us to conclude they not punished.

Bawulski’s response:
Bawulski seems loosely aware of this response and offers two responses to it. In a footnote, he states “the death sentence as retributive punishment is not a counterexample because the Christian doctrine of a final universal resurrection means that state implemented capital punishment is not personal annihilation, merely a penal ending of this life.”[3]

This, however, seems inadequate. True, the death penalty only involves the penal ending of this life. But it’s hard to see how this features of capital punishment make a difference in this context. Whether or not a person rises again at a resurrection after death makes no difference to whether a person who is executed experiences the punishment. Nor does it make a difference to whether or not we consider capital punishment to involve punishment.

The following example will illustrate this.  Suppose after being executed that God decided not to raise ted Bundy from the dead. Would it follow that Ted Bundy didn’t experience anything when he was executed, or that Gods refusal to resurrect meant Bundy hadn’t been punished? Obviously not. The facts remain, Bundy, was deprived of a future life; a life he would have lived, had he not been killed. And the act of killing Bundy involved a process which he experienced.

In the main body of the text, Bawulski offers a different response:

It must be noted that most annihilationist’s claim annihilation does not occur at physical death or even immediately after the final judgment, but posit a finite period of conscious punishment leading up to final annihilation. The problem then becomes this: the only penal aspect related to annihilation is the dreadful anticipation of the upcoming annihilation.  Yet if the antecedent period of punishment is finite and the anticipatory period of dread is finite, even if the annihilation is permanent and in that sense infinite in consequence, the punishment itself is finite. punishment.[4]

I find this line of argument, frankly, strange. Bawulski suggests that if in the process of being killed, the victim consciously experiences his punishment, then it follows that this is the only penal aspect involved.

But surely this is implausible, precisely for the reasons just mentioned,  Suppose someone is executed by lethal injection in their early 20’s, would we really suggest that, would anyone seriously suggest that only punishment this person received was a prick in the arm for a few seconds.  Or suppose a person is sentenced to death in the electric chair when this happens do we really think the only punishment administered is a few seconds of electric shocks.

Obviously, these are unpleasant aspects of the punishment, but the punishment is death. These aspects don’t stand alone from the punishment but are part of the process that death is brought about. If serial killers were just pricked in the arm and then got up and walked away, we wouldn’t consider the punishment of death to have been carried out. We would contend they had escaped their punishment.

This point was made by Augustine of Hippo. Augustine himself no friend of Annihilationism, stated:

Then as to the award of death for any great crime, do the laws reckon the punishment to consist in the brief moment in which death is inflicted, or in this, that the offender is eternally banished from the society of the living? And just as the punishment of the first death cuts men off from this present mortal city, so does the punishment of the second death cut men off from that future immortal city. For as the laws of this present city do not provide for the executed criminal’s return to it, so neither is he who is condemned to the second death recalled again to life everlasting[5]

The death penalty is a paradigmatic example of a case where someone is punished. When a death penalty is inflicted the criminal usually experiences it, he experiences the shame, anticipation and even the pain involved in the process of killing. However, this while part of the punishment is not the whole of it, the punishment involves much more it involves cutting him off from the life we would have had and enjoyed. And this is a significant part of,  if not the most significant part of his punishment.  The fact the criminal doesn’t consciously experience these years doesn’t mean his being deprived of them isn’t a punishment.

Annihilationists understand the punishment of hell to literally involve a death sentence, one that is permanent and irreversible. If one wouldn’t contend that a person executed today isn’t punished, or that his punishment consisted only in unpleasant experiences he had prior to death and didn’t involve the loss of life itself; then one shouldn’t contend that annihilation of the finally impenitent involves these things.

[1] Shawn Bawulski “Annihilationism, Traditionalism, and the Problem of Hell” Philosophia Christi 12.1(2010): 66

 [2]  Bawulski “Annihilationism, Traditionalism, and the Problem of Hell” 66

[3] Ibid 66

[4] Ibid

[5] Augustine City of God Bk 22 chapter 11

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Contemporary Philosophy of Religion and NCEA Religious Studies: Part Four

October 23rd, 2017 by Matt
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This is a talk I gave to the New Zealand Association of Philosophy Teachers annual conference at St Cutherberts College in September this year. Several people have asked me to make this talk available.

I have broken my talk up into four parts. Part One introduces what philosophy of religion. In part two I will outline two movements within analytic philosophy during the early to mid-century which I think resulted in religious beliefs not being taken very seriously within philosophy and philosophy of religion taking a fairly minor role. Part three will look at some responses to these movements offered in the late 20th century and how they changed the philosophical landscape. Part four will look at the question of “how to do philosophy of religion” comparing the methods used by two different atheist’s J L Mackie and Graham Oppy, and how this relates the National Certificate of Educational Achievement Standards. This post will contain part four.


How to do Philosophy of Religion: A tale of Two Religious Skeptics

I think the demise of verifications and the questioning of evidentialism then changed the landscape of philosophy of religion dramatically.  A good way of highlighting the change is to compare the work of two philosophers who probably have made the most rigorous cases for atheism in the last fifty years.

The first is J L Mackie’s work “The Miracle of Theism” published in 1982. Mackie’s work was for many years the definitive defence of atheism in Philosophy; I quoted Mackie above, let’s look again:

If it is agreed that the central assertions of theism are literally meaningful, it must also be admitted thatJohn_Leslie_Mackie they are not directly verified or directly verifiable. It follows that any rational consideration of whether they are true or not will involve arguments . . . [i]t [whether or not God exists] must be examined either by deductive or inductive reasoning or if that yields no decision, by arguments to the best explanation; for in such a context nothing else can have any coherent bearing on the issue. (Mackie, Miracle of Theism, 4-6;)

The second, atheist I want to look at is Graham Oppy; Oppy is a philosopher at Monash University, his book Arguing about God, is rightly hailed as the best contemporary attack on the theistic arguments and he is, in my view, the leading defender of philosophical atheism writing today.  Here is what Oppy says in an article “What Derivations can do” published in 2015.

Philosophy of religion should not be about the standard array of ‘arguments for and against the existence of God’. Indeed, philosophy of God should not be about the standard array of ‘arguments for and against the existence of God’. In so far as philosophy of religion – or philosophy of God – is concerned with the clash between theistic and atheistic world-views, the proper way to proceed is: (1) to develop best theistic Oppyand atheistic theories; (2) to assess the liability of these best theories to internal defeat; and (3) to make an assessment of the comparative theoretical virtues of these best theories, paying attention to simplicity, fit with data, explanatory scope, predictive accuracy, and the like (  Oppy “What Derivations Cannot Do” Religious Studies (2015) 51, 328

The contrast between these two writers is illustrative.

Mackie focuses on the fact that the claim that God exists isn’t verifiable. He acknowledges the collapse of verificationism: despite not being directly verifiable the central assertions of theism are meaningful. However, he does think this lack of verifiability places a burden of proof on the Theist. The Theist is required to produce arguments for Gods existence. Deductive, abductive, inductive, arguments presumably from premises which ultimately are verifiable in this way.  Oppy, by contrast, doesn’t focus on whether the claim “God exists” is verifiable. His focus is on this belief, embedded in broader philosophical theories, verification, when it occurs, is applied to theories.

An even clearer contrast is over evidentialism.  Mackie affirms evidentialism. He contends that “any rational consideration” of the question of God’s existence depends on the Theist providing “deductive, abductive, inductive arguments for Gods existence. “Nothing else can have any coherent bearing on the issue. Oppy however explicitly repudiates this he states Philosophy of religion should not be about the standard array of ‘arguments for and against the existence of God.”

Instead, Oppy suggests that the important question is what happens when people utilise theological assumptions in philosophy. Theists and atheists will reason from their prospective presuppositions and construct theories which attempt to answer important philosophical questions. Questions such as “why is there something rather than nothing?” “why are there and what are laws of nature”? “what are moral obligations” and so forth? Philosophy of religion is about how defensible these theories are. Can they be defended against objections, do they provide coherent answers to these questions, and how do the answers they give compare with each other.

Contemporary Philosophy of Religion and NCEA Achievement Standards.
You’ll probably guess my sympathies lie with Oppy, and it’s at this point that I think it’s interesting to look at the NCEA standards for Religious Studies

One barrier to doing Philosophy in secondary schools is the fact there are no nationally recognised qualifications for the subject. There is an absence of any standards for philosophy under NCEA. Many people in this organisation have been lobbying for the government to introduce philosophy as a NCEA subject and I support this cause.

However, I want to suggest that if one looks at the standards which already exist for NCEA religious studies. There is already in the curricula plenty of scope for doing contemporary Philosophy of religion. In fact, if you move away from an excessive focus on the arguments for and against Gods existence and ask about religious and secular theories, NCEA asks and requires students to engage in contemporary philosophy of religion. The most obvious is the final achievement standard for level 3 NCEA:

Analyse the key beliefs of a religious tradition and a secular worldview in relation to ultimate questions

This sounds very much like the method Oppy refers too. Here students are asked to look at secular and religious worldviews and the theories they offer in response to critical philosophical questions. They are told to analyse these views: to discern their key premises and assumptions. When one looks, however, at the Merit and Excellence criteria for this standard it asks students to do work out the implications of these different answers, and to evaluate them, that sounds very much like Contemporary Philosophy of Religion.

Similarly, in level Three, NCEA asks students to analyse a religious tradition(s) in Aotearoa New Zealand.  And analyse the response of a religious tradition to an ethical issue. Here, again, students are asked to analyse, to work out the assumptions and presumptions, assess the implications significance and evaluate the case for and against particular theories about right and wrong this is all contemporary philosophy of religion.

Of course, there are challenges to doing philosophy of religion under NCEA. NCEA classifies Religious Studies as a subset of the social sciences, and some moderators tend to interpret the words analyse or implications in more sociological senses. But, if we understand what it actually is to analysis a religious tradition or its response to an ethical issue or how it answers an ultimate question, then we are doing philosophy.

And I think this applies not just to level three religious studies where the standards require analysis. Consider the level two standard.  “Explain the key beliefs within two religious traditions in relation to a significant religious question.” This uses the word “explain” however the standard defines a significant religious question. As questions regarding ” life after death, the nature of God, the existence of suffering, good and evil, the nature of the human being.” To get an achieved they have to compare how traditions answer these questions. But For merit and excellence, they are asked to ask questions about the significance and what are the implications of these views. This is asking students to engage in philosophical reflection: its asking, if these answers were true what follows, what difference would it make why is it important and so on.

Even the more descriptive level 1 standards have this, level 1, for example, asks students to “Describe key beliefs of a religious tradition” this sounds purely descriptive however to gain a merit and excellence students are asked to think through the significance of these beliefs, to look at links between the beliefs and to ask questions about their implications. Done well, this has the potential to foster a lot of philosophical reflection on the beliefs in question.

Conclusion

So in conclusion, Philosophy of religion involves “the philosophical examination of the central themes and concepts involved in religious traditions”. This has been done by assuming a default position of religious scepticism and examining the arguments for and against religious beliefs or asking if religious beliefs are verifiable and meaningful and the temptation is for this to be the modus operandi in philosophy courses in secondary school.

I am suggesting a different approach. Today Philosophy of religion is much broader; it involves looking at the answers religions have offered to some of the most profound philosophical answers, developing these as charitably and defensibly as possible and seeing if they can stand against objections. Finally, it involves asking whether religious views of the world answer these questions in a better and more plausible way than secular views do. Interestingly, as worded, this is the sort of questions  NCEA  Religious Studies achievement standards ask of students.

This means there is plenty of scope for doing Philosophy of religion as part of Religious Studies programs. It is my hope that those of us who want to see philosophy taken seriously in the secondary sector can, where appropriate, use the current NCEA   standards to develop religious studies programs, which ask students to take these questions seriously. To get them to understand clearly various religious perspectives on various issues, to wrestle with them, significance and implications, to compare them to alternative religious or secular theories, and to critically consider the answers given.

I think this is an important part of a general education. Today’s students grow up in a philosophically pluralistic society, moreover, at a certain point in anyone’s life they will be confronted with different answers to very pressing existential questions, questions which are unavoidable, people will want to know who they are and how they should live. Avoiding these questions or allowing people to be uninformed and ignorant of how others answer them isn’t education. To allow people to be informed about different question’s and to think through carefully and honestly what these answers are, there significance and implications, and to critically evaluate them is in my view what Philosophy at the secondary level should be all about. So, I suggest that Philosophy programs at secondary school start to take seriously religious studies and religious studies take seriously philosophy of religion.

 

 

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Contemporary Philosophy of Religion and NCEA Religious Studies: Part three

October 21st, 2017 by Matt
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This is a talk I gave to the New Zealand Association of Philosophy Teachers annual conference at St Cutherberts College in September this year. Several people have asked me to make this talk available.

I have broken my talk up into four parts. Part One introduces what philosophy of religion. In part two I will outline two movements within analytic philosophy during the early to mid-century which I think resulted in religious beliefs not being taken very seriously within philosophy and philosophy of religion taking a fairly minor role. Part three will look at some responses to these movements offered in the late 20th century and how they changed the philosophical landscape. Part four will look at the question of “how to do philosophy of religion” comparing the methods used by two different atheist’s J L Mackie and Graham Oppy, and how this relates the National Certificate of Educational Achievement Standards. This post will contain part three.

The late 20th century

The late twentieth century however late 20th century saw fairly substantial intellectual shifts in analytic philosophy of religion. Here I will focus on two important developments:

The Demise of Verificationism

The first was the demise of verificationism. Around the 1960’s various problems began to emerge with the verificationist principle. Take the claim “a statement is only meaningful if it can in principle be either empiricallyphilosophy-of-religion verified or falsified or is analytic” This claim doesn’t seem to be one capable of empirical verification, so is it meaningful? The standard response was that it’s analytic, but the problem here is it seems to become close to a stipulative definition, of course, a person can choose to define the word “meaning” in a particular way. But it’s a lot harder to see verificationism as an account of the way people actually do use various terms or discussions. Some reason is needed as to why a believer should take this account of his own theological discourse seriously.

Second, various counterexamples and problems began to emerge with verificationism. One area it obviously had application to was ethics. Claims like it’s wrong to rape or kill arent in principle verifiable. So the implication was that ethical statements like this are meaningless. This seems prima facie implausible and attempts by people like Ayer and Hare to develop accounts of moral discourse where moral language didn’t assert anything had trouble explaining how moral argument and disagreement could exist.

But even in the sciences certain claims which verificationists wanted to consider meaningful became difficult not to rule out. If you defined the definition narrowly then, scientific claims were not meaningful. However, if you broaden what counts as verificationism, it ceases to rule out metaphysical claims or religious ones.

Take the claim: “there are electrons”. This claim, by itself, is neither verifiable or falsifiable. It’s only when it’s held in conjunction with other claims about what electrons are like, how they operate, and how they are expected to influence the world and our equipment and senses, that we can test them empirically.  But then scientific claims aren’t falsifiable in isolation; rather they are testable only when embedded in broader scientific theories. The same however is true of religious claims, the claim God exists is by itself unfalsifiable. But when part of a broader theory they often are. Consider, claims about God creating the world in six 24 days or a global flood, or that God created a world which contains no suffering and evil are all testable claims.

The point is the verificationism soon became seen to be problematic at worst, or highly controversial at best. It couldn’t be taken for granted as a kind of intellectual Desiderata for religious claims.

 2. The rejection of Evidentialism.

Following on from the demise of verificationism, a second important development was some serious works challenging evidentialism as the correct methodology for approaching religious claims. This most notable being those of Alvin Plantinga, though other philosophers such as William Alston, and Nicholas Wolterstorff also contributed.

Plantinga’s earlier work can be seen as raising a question; why accept evidentialism with regards to belief in God?

 It is important to note that not everything one believes needs to be proven to be rational for at least two reasons. First, the claim that everything must be proven to be rationally believed leads to a regress problem. Roy Clouser notes;

If everything needs to be proven, then the premises of every proof would need to be proven. But if you need a proof for every proof, you need a proof for your proof, and proof for your proof of a proof and so on-forever. Thus it makes no sense to demand that everything be proven because an infinite regress of proofs is impossible.[1]

Second, there are many things that we believe quite rationally which cannot be proved. Such things as there is a chair in front of me or that other people have thoughts and feelings. The history of philosophy has shown that when we try to prove the existence of other people or the existence of an external world, it’s notoriously difficult to do so.  Nevertheless, my belief in the existence of other people and the existence of various objects are obviously rational.

So if not everything needs to be proven, why does Theism need to be proven to be rational?

This question was put to a conference Alvin Plantinga; the answer he received from a leading sceptic Kai Neilsen is interesting;

All of us can agree, at least for a large range of cases, whether somebody is in pain, whether he’s thinking, feeling anxious or the like. We do in general agree about these things. Only a madman would claim that no one is ever in pain or that no one ever knows that another person is in pain. The same is true for thinking, feeling anxious or sad and the like… Now the situation is very different in religion[2].

The basic idea, then, is that religious belief are private beliefs that not all people (at least all sane people educated people) believe; whereas the belief that other people have thoughts and feelings are public beliefs that all people accept and no sane person would doubt. Once we see this, then, I think we can make sense of some of the assumptions at play in evidentialism. Evidentialism affirmed that:

[1] A belief is  philosophically acceptable if it is either:
(a) acknowledged to be true by all sane people; or,
(b) can be proven from premises that are acknowledged to be true by all sane people;

[2] Religious beliefs are not acknowledged by all sane people nor can they be proven to be true from beliefs acknowledged by all sane people.

Problems with Evidentialism

In Plantinga’s earlier work one can find two basic objections against evidentialism.

The first is to note that if it is true, then almost every philosophical position of any significance is irrational.  As Marilyn Adams points out”[D]efense of any well-formulated philosophical position will eventually involve premises that are fundamentally controversial and so unable to command the assent of all reasonable people.[3]Philip Quinn makes a similar point, “it would seem that the appeal to any comprehensive ethical theory, including all known secular ethical theories, should be disallowed on the grounds that every such theory can be reasonably rejected by some.”[4]. The point is no philosophical position starts from assumptions which are uncontroversial accepted by all controverted by no one. So there is something arbitrary about demanding religious beliefs do.

The second, more pertinent, response to this objection is to note that [1] is self-refuting. Take the claim explicitly articulated in [1] that if something is not acknowledged to be true by all sane people, then it needs to be proven to be true. Now the truth of this claim itself is not acknowledged by all sane, educated people. Many theologians, philosophers and lay people don’t accept [1] so by [1] we are irrational in believing it unless someone offers a proof for its truth. However, to the best of my knowledge no one has done this; therefore, if [1] is true then the rational response is to reject [1].

(Note also that any proof the proponent of this argument attempts to offer can only appeal to premises that are accepted by all sane people. If the proponent does not, we will be required to disbelieve the premises and hence the proof.)

This, then, is the problem with this kind of evidentialist dismissal of theism; the sceptic rejects God’s existence out of allegiance to certain assumptions about what constitutes a rational belief. The problem is that these assumptions are in the same boat as theism is alleged to be; a person who rejects theism because he or she believes these assumptions is acting inconsistently.

What Plantinga went on to suggest that there was no reason why people with religious beliefs couldn’t start with the assumptions and presuppositions of their own traditions when doing serious philosophical work. They weren’t under some burden of proof to prove them to all dissenters first. Any more than anyone else who advocated a controversial secular position was. They could start philosophical theorising from those presuppositions, work out implications and answers to philosophical problems that assumed those assumptions, construct models and theories which incorporated them. Of course, they would have to defend those views against objections and critics. And they would have to criticise rival alternative theories and models. But that’s not the same as proving their position from premises every party to the conversation accepts.[5]

[1] Roy Clouser Knowing With the Heart 69.

[2] Kai Nielsen “The Skeptics Reply” in Faith and the Philosophers, ed. John Hick (London: Macmillan, 1964) 274.

[3] Marilyn McCord Adams Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999) 180.

[4] Phillip Quinn, “Political Liberalism and their Exclusion of the Religious,” in Religion and Contemporary Liberalism, ed. Paul Weithman (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997), 144.

[5] See for example Alvin Plantinga “Advice to Christian Philosophers” Faith and Philosophy: Journal of the Society of Christian Philosophers vol. 1:3, 253-271 available online http://www.faithandphilosophy.com/article_advice.php

 

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Contemporary Philosophy of Religion and NCEA Religious Studies: Part two

October 19th, 2017 by Matt
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This is a talk I gave to the New Zealand Association of Philosophy Teachers annual conference at St Cutherberts College in September this year. Several people have asked me to make this talk available.

I have broken my talk up into four parts. Part One introduces what philosophy of religion. In part two I will outline two movements within analytic philosophy during the early to mid-century which I think resulted in religious beliefs not being taken very seriously within philosophy and philosophy of religion taking a fairly minor role. Part three will look at some responses to these movements offered in the late 20th century and how they changed the philosophical landscape. Part four will look at the question of “how to do philosophy of religion” comparing the methods used by two different atheist’s J L Mackie and Graham Oppy, and how this relates the National Certificate of Educational Achievement Standards. This post will contain part two.

The purpose of my talk this morning, however, isn’t to discuss the philosophy of religion in the early modern period. I have been asked to talk about contemporary philosophy of religion.  As I said in my introduction, I will focus on the analytic tradition because it is the tradition I was trained in and hence the one I am most familiar with.

Philosophy of Religion in the Earlier 20th century
The reason this is necessary is that in the early 20th-century  analytic philosophy of religion was not taken terribly seriously.  I will briefly mention a couple of reasons as to why I think this was the case:

1 Evidentialism

The first was that the early 20th century, within analytical Philosophy.  A particular methodological stance was adopted towards religious or theological beliefs which has been dubbed by religious epistemologists of today “Evidentialism”. The basic idea can be seen in an article written by William Clifford called the entitled The Ethics of Belief.[1] Clifford writes, “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything on insufficient evidence.”[2] The same thesis can be seen in the writings of prominent atheists such as Michael Scriven,[3] Bertrand Russell,[4] A  lucid example of the same approach is seen in the writings of Antony Flew:philosophy-of-religion

[T]he debate about the existence of God should properly begin from the presumption of atheism, that the onus of proof must lie upon the theist…What the protagonist of my presumption of atheism wants to show is that the debate about the existence of God ought to be conducted in a particular way, and that the issue should be seen in a certain perspective. His thesis about the onus of proof involves that it is up to the theist: first to introduce and to defend his proposed concept of God; and second, to provide sufficient reason for believing that this concept of his does, in fact, have an application.[5]

A similar position is seen John Mackie’s  work the Miracle of Theism:

If it is agreed that the central assertions of theism are literally meaningful, it must also be admitted that they are not directly verified or directly verifiable. It follows that any rational consideration of whether they are true or not will involve arguments . . .[I]t [whether or not God exists] must be examined either by deductive or inductive reasoning or if that yields no decision, by arguments to the best explanation; for in such a context nothing else can have any coherent bearing on the issue.[6]

Central to these writers is an important contention. Theism is philosophically acceptable only if there is good evidence for it. The word evidence can be used in all sorts of nuanced ways in epistemology. However, in this context,  the word evidence is being used synonymously with the idea of an argument or proof. Mackie states, “[whether or not God exists] must be examined either by deductive or inductive reasoning or, if that yields no decision, by arguments to the best explanation;” Flew talks of a “burden of proof” their contention is that if theism cannot be proven in the manner laid down, it is irrational.

Evidentialism then meant that atheism or disbelief was the default position in philosophy until a successful argument for Gods existence had been proposed. Until such arguments were forthcoming, discussions within philosophy would assume a secular stance and assume God did not exist until someone offered proof they did.  Religious beliefs or assumptions, therefore, were prima facie out of place in serious philosophical discourse and theory construction.

2. Verificationism:

A second reason Philosophy of religion wasn’t taken terribly seriously in the earlier 20th century was the influence of a movement known as verificationism this was a movement in philosophy of language that gained a lot of traction in the late 30’s up to the 1960s. According to verificationists, a sentence is only meaningful if it is either analytic, that is true in virtue of the meaning of terms or if it can be in principle be empirically verified or falsified.  Thinkers such as the Viena Circle, A J Ayer, Carnap and others proposed different formulations of this position. But the basic idea was that any statement which could not in principle be verified or falsified empirically was meaningless.

Note the thesis here: it’s not that the sentence it’s not scientific, or that its false or that it’s not rationally justified or warranted, it’s that the sentence is meaningless it doesn’t express any proposition at all.

The influence of verificationism on Philosophy of religion can be seen in the famous “University Discussion” that took place in the text  New Essays in Philosophical Theology in 1955. The focus of this discussion was whether religious language actually had any meaning. When a person claims God created the earth, the question was less whether this claim is true or false, warranted or unwarranted, but “was he making a meaningful claim at all?” Was religious language really what John Hare called a “blik” an expression of an attitude as opposed to an assertion about the world?  If this position is adopted then much of what occurs in the historic philosophy of religion is either meaningless or radically misguided, it treats expressions of attitude as assertions about the world and tries to analysis, the implications, relationships, between, truth and falsity of such assertions. The problem is they aren’t assertions.

So there were twin engines in the early to mid-twentieth century meant that philosophy of religion played a fairly marginal place in analytic philosophy. It was doubtful religious statements could even be taken seriously as meaningful statements, and if there was a presumption against their truth, they carried a burden of proof to be demonstrated or philosophically proven before anyone would take them seriously.

[1] William Kingdon Clifford “The Ethics of Belief” in Lecture and Essays ed. William Kingdon Clifford (London: Macmillan, 1879) 339-63.

[2]  Ibid, 186

[3] Michael Scriven Primary Philosophy (New York: McGraw Hill, 1966) 87.

[4] Bertrand Russell “Why I am not a Christian,” in Why I am not a Christian, ed. Bertrand Russell (London: Routledge Publishing, 2004) 3.

[5] Antony Flew The Presumption of Atheism (London: Pemberton Publishing, 1976). 14-15

[6] John Mackie The Miracle of Theism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983) 4-6

 

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Contemporary Philosophy of Religion and NCEA Religious Studies: Part one

October 17th, 2017 by Matt
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This is a talk I gave to the New Zealand Association of Philosophy Teachers annual conference at St Cutherberts College in September this year. Several people have asked me to make this talk available.

I have broken my talk up into four parts. Part One introduces what philosophy of religion. In part two I will outline two movements within analytic philosophy during the early to mid-century which I think resulted in religious beliefs not being taken very seriously within philosophy and philosophy of religion taking a fairly minor role. Part three will look at some responses to these movements offered in the late 20th century and how they changed the philosophical landscape. Part four will look at the question of “how to do philosophy of religion” comparing the methods used by two different atheist’s J L Mackie and Graham Oppy, and how this relates the National Certificate of Educational Achievement Standards. This post will contain part one.

First, I want to thank the association for asking me to speak, seeing I have been teaching in the secondary sector full time for only a  couple of years so I am not sure I have a lot to share with you and feel very much like I have more to learn from you.

I have been asked to talk about the contemporary philosophy of religion.  In my talk this morning I will focus on three things. First, I will talk about what philosophy of religion is. Second, I will talk a little bit about its history but focus on recent developments in contemporary analytic philosophy of religion. Finally, I will link some of these things with the current National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) Standards in Religious Studies. I hope what I say is helpful to you.

What is Philosophy of Religion
What is the philosophy of religion? Charles Taliaferro at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines it as “thephilosophy-of-religion philosophical examination of the central themes and concepts involved in religious traditions.” He adds “Philosophy of religion also includes an investigation into the religious significance of historical events (e.g., the Holocaust) and general features of the cosmos (e.g., laws of nature, the emergence of conscious life, widespread testimony of religious significance, and so on)”[1] Chad Meister at The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines it as “ the philosophical study of the meaning and nature of religion. It includes the analyses of religious concepts, beliefs, terms, arguments, and practices of religious adherents.”[2]

The History of Philosophy of Religion

Now, Philosophy of religion has a very long history, going back to the Pre-Socratics. And it was an integral part of medieval philosophy, Augustine, Aquinas, Anselm, Abelard, Scotus, Ockham and so forth worked in the tradition of “faith seeking understanding”. They used philosophy as a conceptual tool to reflect upon, analyse, refine, the religious faith that they held and develop philosophically informed models of core religious doctrines, they also used it to respond to objections and critique rival views and develop arguments for the own for theological models they supported. Some of these reflections proved very fruitful.  The Islamic-Christian dialogue over Aristotle’s understanding of causation and how it related to miracles, and Gods causal activity in the world, for example, is profoundly influential on latter accounts of causation by people like David Hume and the concepts of laws of nature used by early modern scientists.

Perhaps lesser appreciated is the role of philosophy of religion during the enlightenment.  There is an unfortunate tendency in the history of philosophy not to appreciate the religious context in which important key thinkers of the enlightenment operated. Descartes cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am), for example, comes from Augustine’s response to sceptics about religious knowledge in the city of God Book 11: 26. Descartes immediately follows this up of course with an appeal to his own version of the ontological argument, proposed famously by Anselm of Canterbury.

Or consider John Locke, according to Locke’s associate James Tyrell, the impetus for Locke’s “Essay on human understanding” was a conversation  he, Locke and four others had on the topic of “the principles of morality and revealed religion.” Locke’s attempt to develop a comprehensive empiricist understanding of knowledge was an attempt to answer the question of faith and reason, a topic he explicitly addresses in the last section of the book. (Incidentally, it’s a section often skipped in contemporary courses on Locke.)

Or consider what a widely used textbook refers to as the “revolution in ethics” which occurred in the 18-19th centuries. Which the author, James Rachels, contends is due to Hume, Bentham and Mill. Rachel’s refers to as “A new conception of ethics”… “Morality, he [Bentham] urged is not a matter of pleasing God,  nor is it about following abstract rules, Rather, morality is nothing more than the attempt to bring about as much happiness as possible into the world”.[3]

Rachel’s is, of course, talking about utilitarianism. However, his characterisation of the history is quite selective. In 1715, some 74 years before Bentham, George Berkley had defended a rule utilitarian conception of ethics[4]Berkeley was a divine command theorist hat moral rightness, and wrongness consists in agreement and disagreement, respectively, with the will of God.  Because  God’s purposes were benevolent a God’s aim was to maximize the happiness of his creatures, so one could assume that whatever rules maximized happiness were those enjoined by God. Berkley used this theoretical account of God and morality to attempt to reconcile his Irish Anglican commitment to passive obedience with loyalty to the Glorious revolution during Jacobite uprisings in Ireland. Berkley’s “theological utilitarianism” was adopted by people like John Gay, Abraham Tucker and compiled by William Paley. Paley’s textbook defending this way of looking at ethics was the standard text at Cambridge and widely influential several years before Bentham published his defence of utilitarianism.

I could go on; my point is that Philosophy of religion has a long and prestigious history, even during the enlightenment and an important part of educating students about our history and the history of concepts that undergird much of the modern world involves acknowledging these connections rather than ignoring them.

[1] Charles Taliaferro “Philosophy of Religion”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/philosophy-religion/

[2] Chad Meister, “Philosophy of Religion” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy http://www.iep.utm.edu/religion/

[3] James Rachels The Elements of Moral Philosophy, (Random House: New York, 1993) 80

[4] For explication see Stephen Darwall, “Berkeley’s Moral and Political Philosophy” Kenneth Winkler (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Berkeley. Cambridge University Press. (2005) see also C. D. Broad, “Berkeley’s Theory of Morals” Revue Internationale de Philosophie, vol. 23-24 (1953):  72-86.

 

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Divine Command Theory and The Masked Man Fallacy

October 8th, 2017 by Matt
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In almost every talk I give on divine command theory someone in the audience inevitably will interpret me as saying that atheists can’t believe in moral requirements and will cite the fact unbelievers can know what’s right and wrong as a reason to reject the theory. This happens even when I have spent some time pointing out that this isn’t the case. I am not alone in this experience. In the book “Is Goodness without God is good enough” this objection is raised by Paul Kurtz to Craig and is pressed by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, amongst others. I recently addressed a paper by Richard Carrier where he defends this kind of claim.

Outside of philosophy departments, probably the most well-known response to this objection is that given by Willaim Lane Craig. Craig responds to this objection in his debates by noting it confuses moral ontology with moral epistemology. This is correct I think, however many sceptics outside philosophy departments don’t really grasp these terms or distinctions and think it’s a kind of philosophical triviality.

Perhaps a more straightforward response is to point out that this argument seems to commit the “Masked Man” fallacy ( a fallacy you can find mentioned interestingly on some sceptic websites on critical thinking)zorro1

Consider the paradigmatic example of the fallacy:

1.I know who my father is

2. I don’t know who the masked man is

Therefore

3. The masked man is not my father.

Or another less used example:

1. Lois Lane knows that Superman can fly

2. Lois Lane doesn’t know Clark Kent can fly

Therefore:

3. Superman is not Clark Kent

The mistake in each case is assuming that because A and B are identical and I know something about A, it follows I also know it about B.

Now compare these fallacious inferences with the following one:

1 Atheists know that right and wrong exist

2. Atheists don’t know that Gods commands and prohibitions exist

Therefore

3. Moral rightness and wrongness are not Gods commands and prohibitions.

It seems to me this is an analogous inference, with the same form as the fallacious ones. If I am correct this provides a simpler way of providing a response to the objection that moral requirements can’t be divine commands because atheists have moral knowledge than attempting to explain the difference between ontology and epistemology. One doesn’t need to do this, one needs only to point out it commits a well-known fallacy.

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Richard Carrier on the Moral Scepticism Objection to Divine Command Theory 

October 7th, 2017 by Matt
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In my paper “Is Ethical Naturalism More Plausible than Supernaturalism: A Reply to Walter Sinnott-Armstrong”. I discussed the what I called the “Moral Scepticism objection’ to a Divine command theory (DCT) of ethics.  Walter Sinnott-Armstrong had argued as follows:

[1] If DCT is true then we cannot know whether an action is wrong unless we know that God has it.Carrier

[2] We have no sound way to determine what God commanded.

 From which it is concluded that:

[3] If DCT is correct, we cannot know whether an action is wrong. [1]

In response, I suggested [1] is false. A DCT contends that the property of being morally wrong is identical with the property of being contrary to Gods commands. However, [1] contends we cannot know whether an action is wrong unless we know that action is contrary to Gods commands.  Armstrong’s argument, therefore, presupposes the following inference:

I1:  If A is identical to B then one cannot know whether something is an unless one knows it’s a B.

But, I1 is false. Consider the following counterexample:  The property of being water is identical with the property of being H20. For thousands of year’s people have been able to perceive water, drink water, detect water, and use water, without knowing the first thing about atomic theory. Obviously, one two things A and B can be identical without it being the case that a person knowing something is an A unless they know it’s a B.[2]

In “On the Facts as we Know them, Ethical Naturalism is all there is: A Reply to Matthew Flannagan” Richard Carrier rejects this line of response. As far as I can tell he provides two lines of response.
His first response is to offer an argument for [1].

Flannagan claims we can discover that x is moral by some means other than ascertaining what God has commanded and that it can still be the case that x is moral because God commands it. But this is not true, or at least not true in any relevant sense. If we can verify that x is moral by virtue of some property p, then all we need in order to ground the morality of x is p. We then have no need of God commanding it. DCT is therefore false—even if God commands x. Thus, Flannagan’s rebuttal only ends up disconfirming DCT. We call that an “own goal.” [3] 

Here Carrier defends [1] by arguing that “If we can verify that x is moral by virtue of some property p, then all we need in order to ground the morality of x is p.” This, however, is simply false. As I noted in my article, the kind of “grounding relationship” relevant to the truth or falsity of DCT is the relationship of identity. DCT contends moral that the property of being morally wrong is identical with the property of being contrary to Gods commands. What carrier seems to be presupposing is the following:

[CP] If we can verify that x has the property of being q by virtue of some property p, then p is identical with the property of being q

I have labelled this CP for Carrier’s premise. Why should anyone assume that CP is true? In fact, it appears to me to be clearly false. Suppose I want to verify whether it was Tom who robbed a particular safe, I verify this by noting that it was Toms fingerprints that were on the safe. Does it follow that the action of Tom robbing the safe is identical with my discerning Toms fingerprints? Or suppose I determine whether my car has petrol in the tank by looking at the dial on the dashboard, does it follow that the property of “having petrol in the tank” is just identical with the dial on my car? Or, to take another example, I determine who the author of a particular online hit piece is because it has the words “written by Richard Carrier” under it. Does it follow that Richard Carrier is identical with the words “written by Richard Carrier”?  This is frankly silly.

Carrier’s second response is to take issue with my counterexample to I1.

Flannagan’s analogy of laymen identifying water without recourse to molecular instruments only verifies the point: God’s commandments are more like faeries than water. Water is consistently, reliably identifiable across all cultures and all historical time. The will of God has never been. Not even remotely. Flannagan’s rebuttal to Armstrong thus again makes Armstrong’s point for him. A rebuttal that proves your opponent’s point is, well, not really a rebuttal. .[4]

Carrier’s here takes me to be drawing an analogy between the way we know the water exists and the way we know God’s will. He then suggests that, because “Water is consistently, reliably identifiable across all cultures and all historical time” whereas “The will of God has never been.” So the two aren’t known the same way.

This, however, misfires on several fronts.

First, when, I  used the example of water being identical to H20 in response to I1 I wasn’t offering an “analogy”. I was offering a straightforward counterexample to I1. I1 contends that if:  If one thing A is identical with another thing B, then one cannot know whether something is an unless one knows it’s a B. The example of water and H20 shows this is false. Here we have a case where one thing, water, is identical to another thing, H20, yet it’s not true that we cannot know whether something is water unless we know its H20. The example, therefore, doesn’t “prove” Armstrong’s point it rebuts it. It also rebuts Carriers attempted response, the fact two things are identical does not mean that you know the existence of one in virtue of the other.

Of course, earlier in my paper, I did use the example of water and H20 as an analogy. There I said :

Craig’s contention is that if theism is true then we can plausibly explain the nature of moral obligation by identifying obligations with God’s commands, analogous to the way “we explain the nature of water by identifying it with H2O or explain the nature of heat by identifying it with molecular motion. [5]

Here I do draw an analogy, but it’s not an analogy between the way we know water exists and the way we know about Gods will. What I am saying is that the explanatory relationship between water and h20 is analogous to the explanatory relationship between moral requirements and divine commands. Both are explanations via informative identity.  Nothing commits me to saying our knowledge of water is analogous to our knowledge of Gods commands. So here Carrier is attacking a straw man.

A second problem is that Carrier seems to miss how this analogy works. In the analogy, the property of being water parallels the property of being morally required. In both cases, this is the explanandum, the phenomena being explained. God’s will or commands parallels, not the property of being water, but the property of being H20.  H20 and Gods commands are both explanans, the thing doing the explaining.

So, if even I was making an analogy about the way we know, the question is not whether Gods will is relevantly like water. It’s about whether it’s relevantly like H20. Here Carrier’s point has no traction at all. Neither H20 or Gods will is “reliably identifiable across all cultures and all historical time.” Belief in the existence of hydrogen and oxygen and molecular structures is something that arose in western culture at a particular point in time in history.  Most people in most cultures historically knew nothing about H20, did not believe in H20 and did not conceptualise the physical world in the atomic way it presupposes.

As far as I can tell then Carrier’s attempt to rebut my rejoinder carries no weight. Carrier gleefully describes my arguments as “an own, goal” and one that “makes Armstrong’s point for him”. However, as confident as he may be, he provides no reason for thinking that [1] of Armstrong’s argument is true. It simply does not follow from the claim that moral requirements are identical with divine commands, that one cannot know what is right and wrong unless they believe in the existence of divine commands.

[1] Walter Sinnott-Armstrong “Why Traditional Theism Cannot Provide an Adequate Foundation for Morality” in Is Goodness without God Good Enough: A Debate on Faith, Secularism and Ethics eds. Robert K Garcia and Nathan L King (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2008), 109

[2] Matthew Flannagan “Is Ethical Naturalism more Plausible than Supernaturalism? A Reply to Walter Sinnott-Armstrong” Philo 15, no. 1 (Spring-Summer 2012)

[3] Richard Carrier “On the Facts as we Know them, Ethical Naturalism is all there is: A Reply to Matthew Flannagan” Philo 15, no. 2 (Fall-Winter 2012) 206.

[4] Ibid. 207.

[5] Matthew Flannagan “Is Ethical Naturalism more Plausible than Supernaturalism? A Reply to Walter Sinnott-Armstrong” Philo 15, no. 1 (Spring-Summer 2012)

 

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