MandM header image 2

Contemporary Philosophy of Religion and NCEA Religious Studies: Part three

October 21st, 2017 by Matt

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


Tags:   · · · · · · No Comments

Leave a Comment

0 responses so far ↓

You get to leave the first comment.