Saturday, May 24, 2014

About that Dawes Interview...

UPDATE: It looks as though Brian Leiter beat me to the punch on this point.

In the last post I noted the 3AM interview with Gregory Dawes. Here I want to highlight a portion of the interview that I'd like to discuss.  It's the point where Richard Marshall brings up the recent hot topic of bias in philosophy of religion, pointing to Chalmers' PhilSurveys results. Here is Marshall's question, followed by Dawes' response:  
3:AM: David Chalmers has done a survey that suggests that although most philosophers are atheists most philosophers of religion are not. Why do you think that philosophers generally don’t seem to be bothered that the sub group specializing in philosophizing about religion are disagreeing with them? It’s a strange situation isn’t it, that a sub group of experts are disregarded by the rest of the field. 
GD: Yes, but it’s an interesting fact, and it tells us something about the nature of religious faith and its relation to reason. 
Christian philosopher William Lane Craig writes somewhere about what he calls the “ministerial” and the “magisterial” use of reason. (It’s a traditional view — he’s merely citing Martin Luther — and one that Craig endorses.) On this view, the task of reason is to find arguments in support of the faith and to counter any arguments against it. Reason is not, however, the basis of the Christian’s faith. The basis of the Christian’s faith is (what she takes to be) the “internal testimony of the Holy Spirit” in her heart. Nor can rational reflection can be permitted to undermine that faith. The commitment of faith is irrevocable; to fall away from it is sinful, indeed the greatest of sins. 
It follows that while the arguments put forward by many Christian philosophers are serious arguments, there is something less than serious about the spirit in which they are being offered. There is a direction in which those arguments will not be permitted to go. Arguments that support the faith will be seriously entertained; those that apparently undermine the faith must be countered, at any cost. Philosophy, to use the traditional phrase, is merely a “handmaid” of theology. 
There is, to my mind, something frivolous about a philosophy of this sort. My feeling is that if we do philosophy, it ought to be because we take arguments seriously. This means following them wherever they lead. This may sound na├»ve. There are moral commitments, for instance, that few of us would be prepared to abandon, even if we lacked good arguments in their support. But if the followers of Hume are right, there is a close connection between our moral beliefs and our moral sentiments that would justify this attitude. In any case, even in matters of morality, we should not be maintaining positions that have lots of arguments against them and few in their favour, just because we have made a commitment to do so. 
So why does the philosophy of religion have such a marginal status within the philosophical community? It may be (as some Christians assert) because atheist philosophers “love darkness more than light,” but I suspect it’s because many atheist philosophers not only find the arguments unconvincing but also regard this style of philosophy as distasteful.
Now as a matter of fact, Dawes doesn't get Craig's official view about the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit quite right, but I do have serious worries that something troublingly similar to his diagnosis might be correct. I also suspect that Dawes here captures the essence of why many philosophers who don't have an AOS in philosophy of religion steer clear of it. Thoughts?


Dan Baras said...

I would think the simpler explanation is that atheists, non-engaged as they are with religion, just tend to be less interested in figuring religion out.

Dawes' explanation is weak. If philosophers of mathematics were biased etc., that would be a reason to go into the field and do better. It wouldn't be a reason to stay clear of philosophy of mathematics.

And anyhow, is Dawes' description of philosophy of religion really different from what happens in any other sub-field in philosophy? Don't most philosophers first have their gut feelings about which theory is correct and only then try to work out arguments to support their preferred theory? Isn't epistemology understood by many as the project of refuting skepticism, rather than figuring out whether skepticism is correct and following arguments wherever they may lead? Having a bias need not conflict with a willingness to consider arguments seriously and ultimately follow arguments wherever they may lead, even if initially it motivates the philosopher to push the arguments one way rather than the other.

Rick said...

It seems to me that if moral sentiments can make it reasonable/justifiable/rational to cleave to otherwise unjustified moral beliefs, religious sentiments can do the same for religious beliefs.

With that said, I think that many philosophers are not theists because it could potentially have such profound implications for their lives. Similarly, many Christian philosophers do not leave their faith because it would involve giving up core relationships and the like. The import here is much more profound than simply deciding "oh, actually, I'm going to be an internalist about reasons after all."

Additionally, I'd guess that the general disinterest re: phil religion has to do with the fact that many philosophers don't find religion interesting and feel no pull to explore further. I think that the distaste to which Dawes refers is less common than general indifference.

Chris King said...

My thoughts are that it doesn't seem very charitable to impute frivolity or a lack of "seriousness" to Christian philosophers and to them alone. What's the evidence for that kind of claim? Anecdotal?

It's not clear to me that Christian philosophers are the only philosophers who passionately defend their beliefs and who sometimes bite what other people consider bullets in order to maintain those beliefs. In fact, I think this is the norm in philosophy.

As Dawes begins to indicate, we (the general 'we') don't philosophize from nowhere; rather, we find ourselves holding certain moral, religious, and metaphysical beliefs. We don't dump our beliefs out, Descartes-style, once we realize we haven't come to them via rational reflection. Instead, we try to find ways of supporting and defending our already-held beliefs. Usually, when we no longer find reasons to hold our beliefs, and find positive reasons to hold a contrary belief, then we do so.

Dawes appears to suggest that Christianity has lots of arguments against it and few in its favor. Of course, it probably doesn't look this way to the Christian. Or if it does, it is likely that they think that the few arguments in its favor hold particular weight over the many against. So it's not like Christian philosophers are saying that they themselves don't have good arguments but they are Christians anyway. No, they actually think they have good arguments that non-Christians see in a different light. But this is what goes on in all sectors of philosophy, not just in philosophy of religion.

Side note: it's interesting that Dawes speaks of "the philosophical community" that the philosophy of religion has a marginal status in. Perhaps this is true in the small corner of philosophy called contemporary English language analytic philosophy. But of course it's not the case for continental philosophy, non-Western philosophy, historians of philosophy, or of course for the history of philosophy itself.

Aragorn said...

Nothing surprising with theists dominating the philosophy of religion - they would be more motivated to go into it. I don't think there's anything to it more than that.

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