Blogosphere Skirmish on Whether Phil. of Religion Should Be Taught in Colleges

Here. I thought this was a joke when I first read about it (and of course it is among philosophers). In any case, the comments from Draper, Schellenberg, and Almeida are spot on, and the post itself says pretty much all else that needs to be said. Here I'll just say a few more things.

First, it's perhaps worth pointing to a more comprehensive list of readings on the topic of bias in philosophy of religion than the one in the post linked to above. Here you go.

Second, the fact that several in the field of philosophy of religion use the discipline as a means of engaging in partisan apologetics is irrelevant to whether the questions pursued in the field are worthy of research or teaching. It's only a reason not to follow their example, and to focus on the work of non-apologetically oriented philosophers of religion. There are of course very many who fall in this camp. Important examples include Paul Draper, J.L. Schellenberg, and Wes Morriston.

Third, as alluded to in the Daily Nous post, there is already a movement afoot in philosophy of religion to not only address the issue of bias and partisanship in philosophy of religion, but to pursue the discipline in a way that is overtly unmoored from the influence of theistic traditions in philosophy of religion. On this, see (e.g.) Schellenberg's recent trilogy and his Evolutionary Religion, and be on the lookout for books new and forthcoming from Oppy and Draper.

Finally, many of the criticisms floating around on this issue seem to conflate the philosophy of religion with the philosophy of theism, or even the philosophy of Christian theism.  The tacit claim of equivalence is of course false. There is thus much work to do in the field even for those who find the arguments against theism persuasive. 

On the current skirmish, one can do no better than quote J.L. Schellenberg's comment at the original post:
Having done philosophy of religion as an atheist for more than twenty years, I find the idea that atheistic belief should lead one to view philosophy of religion as useless or pernicious a bit out of touch with reality. Theistic work in philosophy of religion is, for cultural reasons, getting the lion’s share of attention. But this should not prevent us from noticing that the field is in fact rather well populated by non-theists. Rather, it gives us a reason to try to bring them – people like Paul Draper, Evan Fales, Steve Maitzen, Graham Oppy, Robin LePoidevin, William Rowe, and plenty of others — a lot more visibility. Those who call for an end to philosophy of religion might get some insight into just what they’re talking about (and then productively fall silent) if they consulted the work of people like these to discover why even an atheist might spend a lifetime doing philosophy of religion.

The answer is not that an atheist might spend a lifetime crawling through the minutiae of non-Christian or non-theistic religious belief systems. Here it is helpful to have formed some general conception of what philosophy of religion is about. Philosophy of religion, as I see it, involves bringing to bear on both actual and possible religious ideas and practices the resources of the rest of philosophy (ethics, epistemology, etc.) and, reciprocally, bringing to bear on the rest of philosophy the best results from philosophy of religion. If anyone thinks that the work of Christian philosophers exhausts either of these dimensions of the field, or that the most important such work has been completed if/when we recognize that there is no personal deity, they are sadly mistaken. Even if theism is false, other religious ideas – including the most fundamental (which should therefore be of greater interest to philosophers) – remain to be explored. Many of these ideas and explorations will not bring us into the embrace of some living religious tradition, but rather call for us to stretch our imaginations beyond the results of a few millenia of activity on the part of religious people.

Atheism, as I see it, therefore marks not the end of philosophy of religion but is something more like its beginning. Of course, if one is suffering from such common afflictions as the assumption that there are no real intellectual options in this realm other than traditional theism and metaphysical naturalism, or the virus that subtly turns one’s mind from a love of truth to an activist orientation, then one cannot be expected to make much sense of this. But philosophy is supposed to deliver us from such afflictions.

Puryear's New Critique of the Kalam Cosmological Argument

Puryear, Stephen. "Finitism and the Beginning of the Universe", Australasian Journal of Philosophy (forthcoming). Here's the abstract:
Many philosophers have argued that the past must be finite in duration because otherwise reaching the present moment would have involved something impossible, namely, the sequential occurrence of an actual infinity of events. In reply, some philosophers have objected that there can be nothing amiss in such an occurrence, since actually infinite sequences are ‘traversed’ all the time in nature, for example, whenever an object moves from one location in space to another. This essay focuses on one of the two available replies to this objection, namely, the claim that actual infinities are not traversed in nature because space, time and other continuous wholes divide into parts only in so far as we divide them in thought, and thus divide into only a finite number of parts. I grant that this reply succeeds in blunting the anti-finitist objection, but argue that it also subverts the very argument against an eternal past it was intended to save.

On Ch. 1 of Smith's Naturalism and Our Knowledge of Reality

In chapter 1, Smith begins his case against naturalism's ability to account for our capacity for knowledge of the external world. Toward that end, he offers a brief explication and critique of D.M. Armstrong's naturalistic account of direct realism with respect to perception. Below is a quick sketch of some particulars of Armstrong's account, and some of his motivations for it, that are relevant to Smith's evaluation.

Armstrong is an empiricist. However, unlike traditional empiricists (e.g., Hume, Locke, et al.), Armstrong rejects indirect realist accounts of perception, according to which perceptual awareness of external objects is mediated through sense-data. Armstrong worries that sense-data theories fall prey to radical skepticism with respect to knowledge of the external world. For if sense-data stand as intermediaries between ourselves and the outside world, then there is no way to know if they are caused by or accurately represent it. 

In the place of sense-data theories, Armstrong offers a direct realist account of perception, according to which the immediate and direct object of perception is the external world itself. In its barest essentials, Armstrong's account is that perceptual knowledge is just reliably caused belief about the world by means of the senses.[1] Armstrong is thus a reliabilist and externalist about perceptual knowledge. 

Smith raises three main criticisms against Armstrong's account. First, he argues that it suffers from the so-called "causal chain" problem. For if our beliefs are the result of a long causal chain, and we can only be aware of the last member of that chain, then we can never know if our belief is caused by, and accurately represents, an object in the external world.

Smith acknowledges that Armstrong has a reply to the above criticism, viz., that this objection rests on a mistake, conflating the causal conditions for perception (which involve intermediaries between perceiver and object) with the epistemic state of perception itself (which is immediate). However, Smith is not persuaded:
. . .the central issue posed by the argument . . .is not identifying perception with the causal conditions themselves. Rather, it is our inability to traverse, or transcend, the causal chain. . .and have epistemic access to the originating object itself. . .without that ability, Armstrong seems left with no way for us to know that we match up with the real, physical objects in the world.  (p. 17)
I'm not sure what to make of this criticism, however. For while Smith is aware that Armstrong's theory is a version of epistemic externalism, Smith seems not to appreciate that externalist theories of knowledge (including Armstrong's) lack such stringent epistemic requirements. For according to externalist theories, it's enough for the process of perception to be reliable in order for it to produce knowledge; one need not also be privy to internally accessible evidence that the process of perception is reliable in order to have knowledge via perception.[2] Perhaps Smith wants to argue that externalist theories of knowledge are inadequate, but no such argument is made here.

Smith's second criticism is that Armstrong's theory of perceptual knowledge can't account for the possibility of forming accurate concepts of objects in the external world. For (argues Smith) accurate concept formation of an object requires the ability to distinguish between accurate and inaccurate conceptions of thing, which in turn requires direct awareness of it.

I find the second criticism puzzling: why think such an ability requires direct awareness of the referent? Smith thinks it's because "otherwise, we will be forming concepts of something else [besides the external referent]". But why think that? It seems to me that even indirect realist/sense-data theories of perceptual knowledge seem capable of accounting for accurately forming concepts of objects, so long as the relevant sense-data are caused by, and accurately represent, their referents. Smith might reply that one could never "see beyond" the veil of sense-data to the external world to verify that they are veridical, but we've already seen that such a worry seems answered by an externalist account of perceptual knowledge. For as long as the sense data reliably represent external objects, the basic conditions seem to be in place for accurate concept formation.

Perhaps there is a further worry about distinguishing between veridical and illusory perceptual states. Smith seems to have such a further concern when he raises the familiar example of the straight stick that appears bent when submerged in water (p. 18). But surely even an epistemic internalist and indirect realist has the resources to handle cases of accurate concept formation in such cases. For they could give an explanatory justification (in terms of, say, an account of light refraction) for thinking that the straight-stick experiences are veridical, while bent-stick experiences are not. Such accounts have of course been around since at least Descartes.

Finally, Smith argues that Armstrong's theory of perceptual knowledge can't account for the intentionality or "aboutness" of perceptual beliefs. For beliefs are about things -- in the cases at issue here, they are about objects in the external, mind-independent world. But this "aboutness" is not one of the basic properties described in physics and chemistry textbooks, and it is hard to see how intentionality could be built up from such properties. There should thus be an initial presumption against the ability of Armstrong's theory of perception to account for intentionality.

One worry I have with Smith's third criticism is the one I mentioned in the inagural post in this series, viz., that Smith equates naturalism with physicalism.  But as I mentioned last time,  there are other versions of naturalism that accept non-physical entities into their ontology (e.g., abstract objects). But if so, then even if we assume arguendo that intentionality can't be reduced to the physical, there are other versions of naturalism that are perfectly compatible with that.

That's it for now. My next post will take a look at ch. 2.
[1] Notice the implication that on Armstrong's account, perceptual experiences -- i.e., sensations -- that seem to be of the world, are not essential to perceptual knowledge (cf. blindsight cases, etc.).
[2] Alternatively, an externalist could appeal to Sosa's distinction between animal knowledge and reflective knowledge, and then say that basic externalist perceptual knowledge is of the former sort, but not the latter sort.

Blogging Through Smith's Naturalism and our Knowledge of Reality

I'll be blogging through R. Scott Smith's Naturalism and Our Knowledge of Reality for a bit. The aim is not to thoroughly exposit the ins and outs of each chapter, but to briefly summarize a chapter per post, and to take up a key point or argument in each one. To start off, though, I should offer a bird's eye view of the book. 

In this ambitious book, R. Scott Smith aims to show that philosophical naturalists can’t account for our knowledge of the world. In particular, philosophical naturalism lacks the ontological resources to account for direct access to the external world, accurate concept formation of entities within the external world, and genuine intentionality, which in turn (argues Smith) are necessary conditions for the possibility of knowledge. 

We can summarize Smith’s core argument as follows:

1. If naturalism is true and we can have knowledge of the external world, then such knowledge can be adequately accounted for in terms of the naturalist’s ontology.
2. We can have knowledge of the external world.
3. Knowledge of the external world can’t be adequately accounted for in terms of the naturalist’s ontology.
4. Therefore, naturalism is false.

(1) looks to be something on the order of an analytic truth, and (2) will only be rejected by radical skeptics. The bulk of Smith’s book is therefore devoted to supporting (3). His strategy is to explicate and critique a sufficiently representative sampling of naturalistic accounts of some necessary prerequisites for knowledge (esp. those listed above), and to argue that each such account is deeply inadequate. The book ends with a brief defense of Christian theism and some supposed implications for public policy.

Here are two initial comments. First, very little time is given to characterizing and clarifying the notion of naturalism at issue. In fact, the first and perhaps most detailed characterization of naturalism is found in a footnote in the Introduction. There is also no index entry for the term. This is surprising and puzzling, given that the book is 
a sustained critique of naturalism.

Second, the brief characterization of naturalism Smith does offer suggests that the primary aim of his critique is not naturalism proper, but rather physicalism. Here is the characterization he offers in footnote 1 of the Introduction:
Though we will see nuances and variations in the naturalists' works that follow, very roughly I take philosophical naturalism to be a thesis that reality consists solely of the physical, spatiotemporal world; thus there are no supernatural or nonnatural entities or beings. From that stance surface epistemological, moral, and other positions.
One might raise worries about obscurity and circularity in this definition, but I will leave these concerns aside for now. Here I just want to point out that there are many versions of naturalism, including many that are incompatible with the characterization offered by Smith. And because of this, the claim that
(i) The physicalist's ontology lacks adequate ontological resources for the possibility of knowledge.
is compatible with
(ii) The naturalist's ontology has adequate ontological resources for the possibility of knowledge.
To put it another way, my second worry is that Smith's case commits (what I have elsewhere called) the Common Apologetic Fallacy.

Mizrahi on Fine-Tuning and the Simulation Hypothesis

Mizrahi, Moti. "The Fine-Tuning Argument and the Simulation Hypothesis", Think (forthcoming).

The paper looks to be part of his larger project on the explanatory power of the simulation hypothesis.

Davis's New Paper on Preferring God's Existence (or Not)


Review of God, Reason, and Reality

Mike Almeida reviews the book for NDPR.

Chalmers' New TedTalk on Explaining Consciousness

If he's right, then Russellian monism looks to be the closest match to perhaps the leading theory in the science of consciousness. Also, if he's right, then naturalists should take the base-expanding approach to accounting for consciousness, and not the shoehorning approach. Finally, if the leading theory is also the correct theory, then the argument from substance dualism has not only an undercutting defeater, but also a rebutting defeater in Russellian monism. Liberal naturalism FTW!

Oppy's Forthcoming Book on the Divine Attributes

Oppy, Graham. Describing Gods (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming). It's due to come out in December. Here's the blurb:
How do religious believers describe God, and what sort of attributes to they attribute to him? These are central topics in the philosophy of religion. In this book Graham Oppy undertakes a careful study of attributes which are commonly ascribed to God, including infinity, perfection, simplicity, eternity, necessity, fundamentality, omnipotence, omniscience, freedom, incorporeality, perfect goodness and perfect beauty. In a series of substantial chapters, he examines divine attributes one by one, and relates them to a larger taxonomy of those attributes. He also examines the difficulties involved in establishing the claim that understandings of divine attributes are inconsistent or incoherent. Intended as a companion to his 2006 book Arguing about Gods, his study engages with a range of the best contemporary work on divine attributes. It will appeal to readers in philosophy of religion.
  • Discusses a wide range of divine attributes including infinity, fundamentality and incorporeality
  • Provides extensive foundations for improved discussion of ontological and cosmological arguments about the existence of God
  • A companion volume to Arguing about Gods
And here's the table of contents:

Preface1. Preliminaries 2. Infinity 3. Perfection 4. Simplicity 5. Eternity 6. Necessity 7. Fundamentality 8. Omni-attributes 9. Freedom 10. Incorporeality 11. Value 12. Concluding remarks Bibliography Index 
Further details here.  H/T: John Danaher

The Argument from Revulsion

Here's a sketch of another argument I'm toying with: (1) I'm rightly repulsed by some aspects of the natural world, but (2) I wouldn't be rightly repulsed by some aspects of the natural world if theism is true; therefore, (3) theism is false.  Call it the argument from revulsion.

The kind of revulsion in play is not primarily moral, but aesthetic. The argument therefore seems distinct from arguments from evil. Examples of repulsive things are easy to find -- think, for example, of most insects and parasites. Here is a randomly chosen example: 
The crustacean Cymothoa exigua has the dubious and unsettling honor of being the only parasite known to replace an organ. It enters through the gills of the spotted rose snapper, attaching to the base of the fish’s tongue, where it drinks its blood. The bloodsucking causes the tongue to eventually wither away, at which point the crustacean attaches itself to the tongue stub, acting as the fish's tongue from then on. (link)

The key premise is (2). Why should we accept it? The basic line of reasoning in support of the premise is that if theism is true, then our cognitive and affective faculties are reliable, and so they track the truth about aesthetic properties of the world. Now if theism is true, then God made the world, and it is good. But given epistemic reliability, my aesthetic judgements about the repulsiveness of parts of the natural world are prima facie justified, in which case parts of the creation are prima facie repulsive. But this conflicts with the hypothesis that it is good (at least aesthetically). 

So that's the argument in a nutshell. What can be said in reply? Perhaps a "greater good" response could be constructed. But how would it go? Is a world full of aesthetically revolting things necessary for a greater good? If so, what is it? 

P.S., I am seeking a list of creatures and other aspects of nature that readers find particularly repulsive. Please comment liberally with your examples!

Announcement: CFP: Divine Hiddenness

The British Society for the Philosophy of Religion 2015 Conference

Submission deadline: 
Tuesday, March 31 2015

Conference date(s):
Thursday, September 10 2015 - Sunday, September 13 2015

Conference Venue:
Oriel College, Oxford University 
Oxford, United Kingdom

The British Society for the Philosophy of Religion 2015 Conference: Divine Hiddenness 

Oriel College, Oxford, Thursday 10th – Sunday 13th September 2015.
Saturday 12th will focus on the legacy of Richard Swinburne in honour of his 80th birthday 

Keynote Speakers: Professor Richard Swinburne (Oxford), Professor Stephen R. L. Clark (Liverpool), Professor Sarah Coakley (Cambridge), and Professor Paul Moser (tbc) (Loyola University, Chicago) 

Call for Papers 
The problem of the "Hiddenness of God" has been explored in analytic philosophy of religion in recent decades mainly as an issue of theodicy and providence: if God wishes to make Godself transformatively available to humans, why does God not do so more obviously and openly? Many, such as Russell and, more recently, Schellenberg, have taken this to be an argument against theism. 

There is however also a deeper ontological issue at stake, that of the apparently intrinsic divine transcendence of God as creator. What philosophical sense can be made of a God who is (it is said) utterly unknowable in 'essence' but equally utterly available ‘in energies’, grace and revelation? Is there anything to be gained by a comparison with modern cosmological speculation here? We know what ‘dark matter’ does (namely, pull visible baryonic matter into stars and galaxies) but not what it is. 

There is also an epistemological problem, with echoes in other (non-religious) spheres. We may hope one day - though perhaps without much reason - to know the nature of 'dark matter', whereas - we are told - God is forever incomprehensible. How - as Hume enquired - does an incomprehensible divinity differ from an equally incomprehensible, non-divine, origin? How does "God does it" differ from "we can never know what does it"? Papers are invited which probe these philosophical issues from different directions, in connection with Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu or classical pagan traditions, both ancient and modern, and from the perspective of abstract metaphysics and epistemology. The theodicy question in the earlier discussion need not be neglected, but should be considered in the light of the metaphysical and epistemological issues already named. 

Please send abstracts either in the body of an email or as a .doc file (no pdfs) of a maximum of 250 words to me ( by the end of March 2015. Unfortunately, it will not be possible to consider abstracts that exceed the word limit or that are submitted after the closing date (allowance being made to colleagues in other time zones). 

Final versions of accepted papers will be due one month before the conference begins. Preference will be shown towards papers that are on the theme of the conference. Time and space at the conference will be limited, so we shall have to be selective, even allowing for the fact that we plan to run parallel sessions and request people presenting papers to keep to half-hour slots. 

In order to keep to the tight timetabling required to permit participants to hear (the whole of) as many papers as possible, papers should take ideally fifteen minutes and an absolute maximum twenty minutes to deliver, leaving ten minutes or so for discussion.

Announcement: CFP: Logos 2015: Religious Experience

Submission deadline: Wednesday, October 15 2014

Date: Thursday, May 7 2015 - Saturday, May 9 2015

Conference Venue:
University of Notre Dame 
Notre Dame, United States


Religious experience is central to religious faith and practice. It often serves as evidence for belief; it contributes to the development of doctrine; and it, or the desire for it, is often a major motivator for church attendance, meditation, commitment to spiritual disciplines, and other religious practices. Religious experience has received a great deal of attention within both philosophy and theology; but important questions remain unanswered. What is the nature of religious experience? What, exactly is (or should be) its relationship to religious belief and religious practice? If God exists and loves human beings, why aren’t vivid, unambiguous religious experiences more widely available? What can religious experiences tell us about the nature of God? Might religious experiences be the result, in part, of particular skills or virtues of the people who have them? The 2015 Logos Workshop will be devoted to addressing these and other philosophical and theological aspects of religious experience.

To have your paper considered for presentation at Logos 2015, please submit an abstract of the paper or the paper itself no later than October 15, 2014. Other things being equal, preference will be given to those who submit full papers by the deadline. We will let you know by December 1, 2014 whether your paper has been provisionally accepted. Full acceptance will be conditional on submission of the full reading version of the paper by April 1, 2015. It is expected that papers presented at the Logos workshop will be works in progress that can benefit from the group discussion. Consequently, we ask that authors not submit papers that will be published before the conference has ended.

Please send Abstracts or Full Papers to:

Michael Ruse on Whether Evolution Explains Religious Beliefs... the New York Times.

Special Issue of Theologica In Honor of Dean Zimmerman

  Here . His replies to participants should be available by the end of the year.