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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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Educating the Secular Education Network

October 6th, 2017 by Matt
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The Secular Education Network (SEN) has been in the news of late, complaining about religious education in schools. My view is that whether a religious education programme should exist at a given school is something individual schools should decide for themselves and parents should be free to choose whichever school they want to send their child. However, I won’t argue for that position here. Instead, I wanted to comment on something I noticed about SEN. When SEN began getting media attention, I went to look at SEN’s website to see what the organisation was about. Here is the introductory paragraph:

Religious Instruction has no place in New Zealand public schools.
Religious Instruction means teaching and endorsing a faith in its own right, for example, the practice cropped-SEN-bannerof Church volunteers ”leading children to a faith in Jesus”. There is a significant difference between religious instruction and religious studies. Religious Studies teaches a comparative overview of the major world religions, taken by qualified teachers in a neutral manner. New Zealand does not currently have this program.

Notice what SEN say here; First, they distinguish between religious instruction which involves church volunteers “leading people to faith in Jesus” and Religious studies which involve “a comparative overview of the major world religions, taken by qualified teachers in a neutral manner”. Concerning the latter, they say “New Zealand does not currently have this program.” The insinuation is that religious education in New Zealand consists only of the first type of practice.

To be honest, this is an astounding claim because it’s patently false. Those who know me personally will be aware I am a religious studies teacher at one of New Zealand’s largest public Catholic high-schools, our department teaches Philosophy, Theology, and religious studies at both Cambridge and NCEA level. Note what I just said here, New Zealand’s official qualification, The National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA),  has  a Religious Studies Programme

This can, in fact, be found out by visiting the New Zealand Qualifications Authority website which lists subjects which currently exist in New Zealand schools. You’ll see religious studies listed under R. Moreover, one can examine the standards which NZQA lays down for this subject:

Level 1: (year 11)

1. Describe the purpose of a sacred text within a religious tradition.

2.Describe a significant development within a religious tradition.

3.Describe the application of the key ethical principle(s) of a religious tradition to an issue.

4.Describe key beliefs of a religious tradition.

Level 2: (Year 12)

1.Explain a significant theme in a sacred text within a religious tradition.

2.Explain the changes in an expression(s) of a religious tradition

3.Explain how a contemporary social action derives from the ethical principles of a religious tradition

4. Explain the key beliefs within two religious traditions in relation to a significant religious question

Level 3: (Year 13)

1.Analyse the meanings in a sacred text within a religious tradition

2.Analyse a religious tradition(s) in Aotearoa New Zealand

3.Analyse the response of a religious tradition to a contemporary ethical issue.

4.Analyse the key beliefs of a religious tradition and a secular world view in relation to ultimate questions.

Note what these standards require, in level 1 students have to accurately describe significant developments within, doctrines of, how texts function within a religious tradition. In level 2 they have to explain these things. Notice what’s being required here, understanding. Students need to be able to accurately describe and understand religious doctrines, moral reasoning, and history. Finally, in level 3 they have to analyse them. The assessment criteria for NCEA spells this out in more detail often describing involves such things as understanding the origins, the significance, to get merit excellence students often have to do things like evaluate the claims explore their implications and reflect on the significance of these answers. Note also each of these tasks can be done with any religious tradition at all and in several standards, they are required to compare more than one. Level two, for example, requires one to explain the answers of two different religious beliefs and in level 3 they have to compare and analysis secular and religious worldviews.

This is the religious studies standards for NCEA, consequently,  New Zealand does have a programme for this. Moreover, I know that NCEA is used in lots of schools, most Catholic integrated schools in New Zealand I know of follow the NCEA programme as part of their religious education programme. I also know of state schools where it is used. I have taught at secular public schools for example where different religions are used in different standards as part of a course in philosophy. Even in Catholic schools, it’s not unusual for students to study Hinduism, or Islam, or Judaism under some of these standards so that students learn the diversity of religious views and how to compare them asses them and so forth. I was at a PD of Catholic schools a few months ago where several teachers mentioned they use Buddhism as an example in some of the standards. I know that there are PD’s on offer for religious education teachers on comparative religions because this is a growth area.

What’s significant is that nothing I say here is news to anyone remotely familiar with education in New Zealand’s secondary sector. Almost every religious education teacher I know of is aware of this, as will almost any child that attends one of the many integrated public schools that do NCEA religious studies and there is a reasonable number that does.

The reason I raise this issue is that it triggers in me a question. Why does the Secular Education Network not know this? You have to wonder about how much research the Secular Education Network has actually done on religious education in New Zealand when blurb on their website contains a pretty obvious falsehood. A falsehood almost anyone involved in religious education in New Zealand is aware of, and which almost any student in the many of NZ’s integrated Catholic schools knows is incorrect. To not know this they would have to have never looked at or examined most of the religious education that takes place every day in NZ schools. Moreover, this falsehood creates an obvious insinuation about religious education in New Zealand which is inaccurate and false. But of course politically expedient and useful to them.

Of course, none of this addresses the concerns SEN has about what it calls religious instruction when it occurs in the primary schools. But granting this, surely SEN have an obligation to not misrepresent the sector when they voice these concerns and to actually have researched and know what they are talking about rather than pandering to stereotypes.  As I am sure they will agree we can’t have uninformed bigots who don’t know what they are talking about involved in education now, can we?

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