Leonard Angel on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Leonard Angel is Instructor Emeritus at Douglas College, Department of Philosophy and Humanities. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Philosophy of religion should work when an account is satisfactory. When will that happen? When we have a satisfactory theory of how a person has feelings of spirituality and we have a satisfactory theory of how to live a religious life, and we have a satisfactory theory of how to help people, and how to turn the bad into good, and how to really feel alive, and so on.
Do the theoretical virtues of scientific thinking apply?

If so, religious philosophy would have virtues like explanatory power, predictive accuracy, empirical adequacy, coherence with current theory, fruitfulness for further inquiry, and simplicity.

Feelings of spirituality represent all. Then that which has spread to all places should be accepted.

But, one’s looking is dependent. If one looks to groups that never had much use for mathematical physics, then lots ¬– having little to do with living a spiritual life – would be lost. This has, mostly, to do with the mechanism of the 1600s, but in the next paragraph we’ll relate what only became clear at some point in the 1900s.

Suppose someone looks at how nothing overturns mathematical physics.

That is reasonable: it’s not only physical closure (look, you’ll see), but mathematical physics also has some explanatory power – that is, it can explain astronomical events; it also has some predictive accuracy – for, it is able to predict the details of, for example, impact, which has nothing to do with “living a spiritual life,” like the previous case; mathematical physics also has some empirical adequacy – for, it has the ability to welcome observation. We’ll look at coherence with current theory two paragraphs below and on. Mathematical physics is fruitful for further inquiry, and simple, too.

The typical scientific theoretical virtues seem to be satisfied, though without having anything to do with “living a spiritual life.”

The question is, “How does physical closure cohere with people having spiritual feelings? Doesn’t physical closure imply a kind of physicalism that goes against having feelings of spirituality?”

Having feelings of spirituality does not require a realm of pure spirit. This needs to be shown. Let’s make a supposition.

Suppose some particles, running about, produce what’s required for having feelings of spirituality. This supposition is what’s required, which is okay.

Only some people are interested in whether mathematical physics bases the empirical sciences. (“Empiricism” welcomes “observers.”)

Suppose, for the sake of discussion, you don’t want to know, one way or another, whether mathematical physics bases the empirical sciences. Then you don’t care if physical closure is accepted or not. It follows logically that … having feelings of spirituality does not require a realm of pure spirit.

That last sentence is, for some, a problem: Suppose one doesn’t care if physical closure is accepted or not. How does what’s after the sentence beginning “Then” in the last paragraph follow logically?

Suppose one really doesn’t care. What’s after the sentence beginning “Then,” two paragraphs ago, does logically follow: having feelings of spirituality does not require a realm of pure spirit. This can be put another way.

There is an exception to our rule: having feelings of spirituality does require a realm of pure spirit.

But what was said a few paragraphs ago could be repeated with a twist. In what’s coming “Let” replaces “Suppose.” Let some particles, running about, produce what’s required for having feelings of spirituality, and for living a religious life. If you really don’t care, then “Let” can replace “Suppose”. Why not? “Let” means “actually,” while “Suppose” refers to an assumption. The purposes of the assumption are irrelevant to us. But we want to include “Let”. What follows the second “Let”, in this paragraph, amounts to physical closure for living a religious life. Work it out; it comes true.

Does physical closure allow for living a spiritual life?

If physical closure, or whatever it’s called, in future years, is accepted, not only by academics, but also by people not associated with academies, then we’ll deal with problems – there will be some – that arise.

But lets return to our question. Would the scientific theoretical virtues apply to the spiritual life? If so, how?

The scientific theoretical virtues listed (in the third paragraph) apply, most obviously, in physics. But they also apply in all sciences. The human & social sciences – history, political science, psychology, sociology, anthropology, etc. – would work, too. That gives us what we’re interested in.

But leading a religious life is complex. The complexities are what we will look at.
It would be good if we could choose one, which stands for the complexities in them all. We come from different backgrounds, some Jewish, some Christian, some Buddhist, some Confucians, and some others. We’ll let Judaism stand for all of them.
Judaism is theistic, which is not necessary; theism’s only 50 % of the list just given. Confucianism is not. “Some others” are not. Buddhism is classed as non-theism because the Buddha’s central concept was “suffering.” There are many non- theistic religions. But Judaism is theistic.

What brings the theistic and non-theistic religions together is that both believed in a realm of pure spirit. But we already know that that can’t be right. The trouble is “pure;” if one really doesn’t care whether physical closure is true, then it can’t be that there’s a realm of pure spirit. Let … etc.

Then one can be a good Jew. One can discover a feeling of spirituality, which in this case means “be a good Jew.”

How do the theoretical virtues of the sciences apply?

Let’s apply this question to our example: a Jewish Rabbi would need to believe in God. The sciences together would require God not to be both a person and un-embodied. This can be shown, but won’t be, here.

Then a Jewish Rabbi has a path: deny one of God being some sort of person, or God being un-embodied, (or both).

This is promising. Let Judaism stand for all religions; then, if there’s no trouble, (and there won’t be) it will do what’s required.

Nicholas Rescher on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Nicholas Rescher is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.


Crucial for merit in the philosophy of religion—as in any other branch of philosophy—is an individually cogent and systemically coherent treatment of the issues of the domain. This desideratum has many ramifications.

A sensible philosophy of religion must avoid staking unreasonable demands. It must desist from making promises that cannot be met and foster unrealistic expectations. It should not make demands for doing something that cannot possibly be realized, and should confine its demands within the limits of the possible. Also, various obvious fallacies should be avoided, as, for example begging the question or placing reliance on problematic and unsupported premisses. And an-other key aspect of this is the normative proportionality of maintaining a proper alignment between the elaborativeness of treatment and the importance of the issues.

Like any other branch of philosophy, the philosophy of religion is defined as a particular field of investigation by a characteristic problem-agenda. This includes such questions as:

—What considerations must be weighed in contemplating a religious commitment?

—Does one size fit all? And for a given individual is there a single uniquely appropriate religious tradition?

—How does religiosity relate to theology? Can one be a member in good standing of one’s religions tradition without endorsing all, or most, or at least the most significant of its doctrinal teachings?

—Is it incoherent to adopt the practices of a religious tradition without endorsing its doctrines—or conversely?

—Is a sincere commitment to one’s religion compromised by a failure to disapprove of people who hold a different position?

Stepping back from such specifics, it deserves note that the problems of the domain fall into four groups.

I. Methodological. Reflective questions regarding the nature of the field, its problem agenda, the rationale of its constituents.

II. Ontological. The existence and nature of the transcendental discourse with which religion is concerned.

III. Epistemological. The means and method with which the problems of the field should be achieved.

IV. Practical. What is called for in the practical and procedural implementation of religious beliefs. In what ways can and should a mode of life attending to such commitment be conducted?

The ultimate standard of performance is that of adequacy in handling such questions in a way that reduces the manifold of open questions and unresolved issues. It pursues this goal in four ways

—Question removal: Showing that the questions are inappropriate, do not require any answers, and should be dismissed.

—Question-resolution: Providing rationally cogent answers to questions.

—Question-diminution: Resolving those agenda questions without raising new, additional, and possibly even more perplexing questions.

—Question-reinforcement: Substantiating and rendering more tenable the presuppositions on which the prevailing agenda questions are predicated.

But a pivotal issue yet remains untouched. Are there any merits and virtues that specifically apply to the philosophy of religion in contrast to other branches of philosophy?

It would seem that there indeed are. Salient among them is the factor of religious urbanity. For the philosophy of religion should come to terms at the very outset with the fact of plurality—that there are different religions, and that however deeply attached we ourselves are to one or another of them, it is neither realistic nor just to expect that others would align themselves to us in these regards. And this means that the philosophy of religion, unlike religion itself, must, qua philosophy, stand free of doctrinal commitments.

And here we come to another salient virtue in the field—religious objectivity. Philosophy of religion is not apologetics, and philosophy OF religion is not philosophy WITHIN religion or religious philosophizing. Philosophy of religion, that is to say, should not be predicated on substantive doctrinal commitments; it should not be a matter of preaching to the choir.

But how can one discuss matters of religion without substantive commitments? How can one proceed committed-neutrally here and avoid any doctrinal undertakings? The answer lies in yet another virtue that should characterize the philosophy of religion: doctrinal neutrality in regard to religious matters.

But how can this objective possibly be achieved? How can one possibly discuss religious beliefs without entering into them? The answer is as old as logic—it roots in an idea that has many names: supposition, hypothesis, assumption. And on this basis, it transpires that the philosophy of religion should talk in the language of IF rather than SINCE. Its approach to doctrinal matters should be suppositional with substantive commitment be left “as an exercise for the reader.” Clarification not advocacy should be the aim of the enterprise. Merit lies in doing well at the philosopher’s job of helping people to understand the implications of and interconnections between the matters of substance to which they have or contemplate commitment.

Accordingly, the philosophy of religion can and should deliberate about the ramifications and consequences of accepting a certain religious doctrine—what presuppositions and consequence one must be prepared to accept in the wake of one’s religious commitments? But what it cannot do is to undertake advocacy for the basic doctrinal commitments themselves. The case is not unlike that of the philosophy of friendship. It can tell you about what to look for in a friend, what you should expect of friend and they of you. But it cannot tell you whom to pick for your friends. That is a matter of opportunity, disposition, and personal affinity.

How effectively can the philosophy of religion contribute to religiosity? Quite likely not very. There is no reason to think that good philosophy of mathematics makes for better mathematicians, that good philosophy of science makes for better scientists, that acuity in moral philosophy makes for people with better morals. And much the same holds for the philosophy of religion. Better philosophizing in matters of religion need not make for better practice.

Interview with Halla Kim on The History of Korean Philosophy

Halla Kim is an associate professor of philosophy and a faculty member at the Schwalb Center for Israel and Jewish Studies at University of Nebraska at Omaha, USA. His recent publications include “Immanuel Kant” in Benjamin Crowe, ed., The Nineteenth Century Philosophy Reader (London: Routledge, 2015) and “Nothingness in Korean Buddhism: A Struggle against Nihilism” in JeeLoo Liu and Douglas Berger, eds., Nothingness in Asian Philosophy (London: Routledge, 2014). “Locke on Abstract General Ideas” will appear shortly in Philosophia Osaka. His articles also appeared in Locke Studies, Journal of Philosophical Research, and Recht und Frieden in der Philosophie Kants, among others. His own book Kant and the Foundations of Morality (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2015) has just been published as well as his anthology (with S. Hoeltzel), Kant, Fichte and the Legacy of Transcendental Philosophy (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2014). Presently he is editing two anthologies, Explorations in Jewish Religious and Philosophical Ethics, together with C. Hutt and B. D. Lerner (Routledge, expected) and Transcendental Inquiry: Its Origin, Method, and Critiques (with S. Hoeltzel) (Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming 2016). He held visiting professorships at University of Iowa Center for Asia and Pacific Studies (2001), Kyungpook National University, Korea (2011), University of San Francisco (2014), Katholike Universiteit Leuven, Belgium (2014), Shizuoka University, Japan (2015) and received grants from DAAD, Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership, and the Academy of Korean Studies. Specializing in Kant/German Idealism, modern Jewish thoughts and Korean philosophy, he teaches a number of courses including history of modern philosophy, Kant, German Idealism as well as history of Korean philosophy and Asian philosophy. In 2013, he founded North American Korean Philosophical Association (NAKPA) as an affiliate group of the American Philosophical Association. He is also a frequent lecturer at the Global Day of Jewish Learning organized by the Jewish Federation of Omaha. Presently he is a member of American Philosophical Association, International Kant Society, International Fichte Society, North American Kant Society, North American Fichte Society among others. He is also on the editorial board for Sogang Journal of Philosophy, Korean Journal of Philosophy, European Studies Journal, inter alia. He has served as referee for Journal of Korean Religions, Acta Koreana, Philosophy East and West, Journal of Chinese Philosophy, DAO: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy among others.

Interview by Tudor Petcu:

Tudor Petcu: At the beginning of our dialogue I wish to make reference to the meaning of Korean philosophy in the context of the universal philosophy. I mean I think it would be necessary to present in a relevant way the role that Korean philosophy has played in the evolution of the universal one, especially western philosophy. So, what could you say about this topic?

Halla Kim: The abstract thinking in Korea began with native religious thoughts but it received a critical impetus from various thoughts originated from outside of Korea. Buddhism was originally conceived in India and greatly developed in China, but it was enthusiastically received and promoted during the Three Kingdoms Period (57 BCE – 668 CE) in Korea as well as Unified Silla (668-918) and Koryŏ dynasty (918-1392). Indeed, it played a critical and decisive role in the development of mature philosophical theorizing in Korea. Among many of its brilliant contributions, an attempt to effect the achievement of wisdom and perfection in an individual life and in a society under this light was an integral part of this tradition. Later in the 14th century, Buddhism gave hegemony to Neo-Confucianism which originally arose in Sung China. In particular, Chosŏn dynasty (1392-1910) in Korea turned out to be a fertile ground for its further development. For example, the making of a sage in each individual and a virtuous government of a community by such a figure, which culminates in the ideal of sage king, has occupied a central place in this effort.

TP: Which are the main philosophical approaches assumed over the years in the different academic milieus in Korea? Can we talk about a strong Korean phenomenology, or about any analytical Korean philosophy, or so? Every country where philosophy was assumed as a field of research has had a specific and general philosophical tradition, as for example England, very well-known through its analytical philosophy, or Germany through its idealism or phenomenology expressed by Edmund Hussserl or Martin Heidegger. In this case, what about the philosophical tradition in Korea?

HK: To understand what is Korean about Korean Confucianism, we have to look at the issues that Korean Confucians debated and identify those issues that seem to have interested them more than other issues, and which issues seemed to attract more interest in Korea than in the rest of the Confucian world. In the process, we should try to identify distinctive ways Korean Confucianism evolved, what sort of new schools of Confucian thought and practice it produced.

Though I have been studying Korean Confucianism for years, there are many nooks and crannies in Korean Confucian thought and practice I have not had time to explore. Confucianism in Korea, like Confucianism in China and in Japan, is multi-layered and even contradictory, with different scholars arguing for significantly different interpretations of the Confucian Classics and providing significantly different suggestions for how to apply Confucian principles to the world around them. Nevertheless, in my necessarily incomplete survey of Confucian thinking over the five centuries of the Chosŏn dynasty, I have noticed one distinctive thread that stands out–a concern for moral psychology.

It is that concern, generated by the recognition of the contradiction between the assumption of human moral perfectibility and the reality of human moral frailty, that led to the disputes between T’oegye and Yulgok over what role the Four Fonts and the Seven Emotions should play in moral cultivation and between Han Wŏnjin and Yi Kan over how much of a sanctuary from evil our basic human nature provided. That same concern led to Tasan borrowing from Catholic writings to create a theistic Confucianism and inspired Ch’oe Cheu to create Korea’s first indigenous organized religion. Because their concern over human moral frailty led Korean Confucians to discuss issues that either were not as important or were not discussed the same way in neighboring countries and even led them to develop novel approaches to solving old Confucian issues, I argue that one thing, at least, that is Korean about Korean Confucianism is this emphasis placed on the search for an explanation of, and a solution to, the inevitability of human moral failure, of the inability of human beings, no matter how much they study the Confucian Classics and how well they understand them, to consistently act in a selfless manner, to act in the way their Confucian tradition tells them they should and could act.

TP: Western philosophy has always accorded a huge attention to the relation between philosophy and religion although it is difficult to find too many common denominators, first of all because of their comprehensive logics. Of course, from this point of view there would be a lot to say, especially if we should take into account the modal logics as a way to explain the Reality in comparison with religion, mostly based on a mystical worldview which has its own logics. But we shouldn’t forget about the different Christian efforts in the Middle Age to create a liaison, a strong connection between philosophy and religion, as Saint Anselm or Thomas Aquinas did. Anyway, what can you say about the way the relation between philosophy and religion was defined in Korea and who were the main Korean philosophers focused on the analyses of this topic?

HK: Philosophy and religion go hand in hand in Korean Philosophy.

In his Eleven Theses on Feuerbach, Karl Marx claims that “the philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it,” thus incisively criticizing the abstract, isolated way that philosophy in the West had been practiced, in separation from the true reality of the world. According to Marx’s conception, philosophy is to be fundamentally practical beyond ‘theories,’ both simple and complex (from the Greek verb, “theorein”). Marx’s criticism, however, would be completely pointless if directed against the Korean Neo-Confucianism/Buddhism. For the latter has always been preoccupied with a concrete praxis in the daily context. Neo-Confucianism and Buddhism is, by its very nature, fundamentally practical, regardless of any shortcomings it is occasionally perceived to have.

In the familiar division of philosophy influenced by Western approaches, we commonly conceive it as being composed of three parts: metaphysics, ethics and epistemology. For Korean philosophy, this would be completely inadequate. For it miserably fails to capture the most essential part of it; the art of self-cultivation (or as we can put it, “a way of life and thought”) is the most important part of philosophy proper. Just like metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics, the art of self-cultivation (which I propose to call “sugihak (“The study of self-cultivation”) surely has theoretical components but the most essential component of it is its practical part. One who studies it must not only understand it or theoretically know about it but must also internalize it and actively practice it in his or her concrete relation with others. This is why it is different from theoretical disciplines (including the typically theoretical ‘philosophical ethics’ as it is widely taught in academia). You don’t have to be ethical to teach philosophical ethics but you cannot teach sugihak without exemplifying it yourself. There should be a unity of thought and action in the art. The Neo-Confucian/Buddhist reflection can be on things in the world but it must be directed toward oneself, thus “self-reflection.”

TP: Would it be correct to say that Buddhism as worldview represents one of the most important foundations of Korean philosophy?
HK: As Charles Muller suggests, Korean Buddhism is distinctive within the broader field of East Asian Buddhism for the pronounced degree of its syncretic discourse. Korean Buddhist monks throughout history have demonstrated a marked tendency in their essays and commentaries to focus on the solution of disagreements between various sects within Buddhism, or on conflicts between Buddhism and other religions. While a strong ecumenical tendency is noticeable in the writings of dozens of Korean monks, among the most prominent in regard to their exposition of syncretic philosophy are Wŏnhyo (元曉 617–686), Pojo Chinul (普照知訥 1158–1210) and Hamhŏ Kihwa (涵虚己和 1376–1433).
The chief operative conceptual framework with which these scholar-monks carried out their syncretic writings can be shown to be derived from the metaphysics connected with the Hwaŏm (華嚴 Ch. Hua-yen) school, as well as the soteriological discourse of the closely related Awakening of Faith (大乘起信論) tradition, both of which have dual roots in Indian Buddhist and native East Asian philosophy.
Among all the earliest forms of Buddhism, the most outstanding is the synoptic philosophy of Wŏnhyo. According to him, the most fundamental Buddhist doctrines are to be understood from the logic of interfusion which enables him to embrace and harmonize different strands of Buddhism without forsaking the substance of them. His view then culminates in the metaphysics of One Mind with its soteriological implications. Then the holism of Ŭisang (625-702) and his Hwaŏm Buddhism is discussed with an account of his Ocean Seal Chart (華嚴一乘法界道) followed by a brief discussion of Pure Land Buddhism and Consciousness-Only School in unified Silla dynasty. No discussion of Korean Buddhism is complete without Chinul (1158-1210), the founder of Sŏn (c. Chan, j. Zen) Buddhism in Korea. Chinul’s Sŏn philosophy with a focus on the notion of “True Mind” is developed in the scheme of Sudden Enlightenment to our true nature under the guise of nothingness followed by a Gradual Cultivation via the practice of nothingness. This gave rise to the age-long controversy over Tonjŏm debate, i.e., Sudden Enlightenment vs. Gradual Development in Korea. Indeed, defying Chinul, T’aego Pou (1301-82), towards the end of Koryŏ, the final national master, emphasized Buddhism as a quintessentially practical discipline where both awakening and cultivation are fully realized in one fell swoop. This effort of Chinul and T’aego Pou were later continued by Chosŏn Buddhist monks, especially, Kihwa and Sŏsan (1520-1601). The Neo-Confucian attack on Buddhism, it will be shown, is in this respect unfounded, for Buddhism, in particular, the quintessential Buddhist concept of nothingness, simply does not entail nihilism conceived as expressing a fatalistic stance about the forces of nature (including human nature) with a strong implication for inaction and despair.

TP: We shouldn’t forget to highlight the contemporary philosophical theories in Korea, because in our days it’s very hard to find a philosophical task given the technological revolution and the development of pragmatism. I am saying that because the general question that is addressed even in the British and American schools of philosophy is the following one: what role can philosophy play in our days, in a society where science is evolving on and on? But in spite of this fact and according to the question I have mentioned above, there are numerous contemporary philosophical views related especially to politics, science and economics. So, which are the most important contemporary Korean philosophical theories and approaches?

HK: I hope to promote the value and meaning of Korean philosophy in the very context of the age of globalization without forsaking our deep-rooted tradition in Buddhism, Neo-Confucianism and Tonghak (Eastern Learning) among others. This is why the topic of Korean philosophy as such and its modernity is important. Our vision is that there is something very valuable in the traditional Korean thought but this merit cannot be fully appreciated until we consider it in light of the achievement and dynamics of western philosophy. Therein lies the importance of East-West comparative philosophy, in particular, East-West comparative moral theory. The latter is all the more important because Koreans traditionally prided themselves on epitomizing the value of morality “in the East.” The issues in traditional moral theories can best be elucidated and illuminated by the recent development and achievement in moral and cognitive psychology (e.g., moral modularity hypothesis). Finally, we plan to approach and analyze many of the major issues in traditional Korean philosophy in the context of this comparative scheme and provide new answers to those old questions. For example, we strongly hope to come up with a contemporary understanding of the essential notion of li and qi as well as the causal concepts such as “produce” (pal), “ride” (seung), “begets” (saeng). Thus we can see that all these topics – philosophy and modernity, East and West comparative philosophy, some major issues in the history of Korean philosophy, Korean Neo-Confucianism and its moral psychology as well as the East-West comparative moral philosophy are all closely intertwined in the context of the comparative approaches to the problems in Korean philosophy against the most recent development in Western philosophy.

Korean philosophy is in its unique, particularized situation in the Korean peninsula and it can be best illuminated when we historically revisit the socio-political-economic-intellectual development up to now since 1945. Korea was freed from the Japanese colonial rule (1910~1945) as soon as WW II ended. At that time, there were fierce ideological disputes between socialists and liberalists. Since then until now, North Korea has followed Marx-Leninism and Juche (self-reliance) Ideology of its communist founder Kim Il-sŏng, while South Korea has discussed various theories of philosophy under liberalism. Thus the South Korean philosophy in the 1950s and 60s leaned toward German Idealism and Existentialism. This inclination was natural for the South Korean philosophers who experienced Japan’s colonialism and the Korean War (1950~1953). The South Koreans had to gather powers in order not to lose the sovereignty of nation and recover the loss of human dignity from the war. At that time, the leading ideology was one-nation-ism (一民主義) that we are one ethnic race speaking one language. Such a strong nationalism in South Korea led to staunch anti-communism. This anti-communism was combined with the nation theory of Fichte and Hegel. The combination of nationalism and anti-communism remained unchanged until the pro-democratic resistance movement in June of 1987 occurred. In this situation, even liberalism was regarded as an impure thought. Korean traditional thoughts were deemed valuable only to the degree to which it supported nationalism. Therefore, South Koreans could not enjoy the freedom of thoughts much like North Koreas. However, the philosophers in South Korea made incessant efforts to achieve democratization. They actively discussed the social critical theory of Frankfurt Schools in the 1970s, Marx-Leninism and North Korean Juche-Ideology in the 1980s, and neo-rationalism, post-Marxism, and post-structuralism in the 1990s. Finally, the issue of environmental value and welfarism came to the fore in the 2000’s. They made continual efforts for the purpose of democratization as well. Of course, these efforts were chiefly made rather outside the academy rather than in it. The philosophers in the academy concentrated on German Idealism, Existentialism, Phenomenology, English and American Analytical Philosophy, East Asian Philosophy, and Korean traditional philosophy. Though there were conflicts between the philosophical activities within academia and those outside of it, various schools of philosophy emerged in South Korea in contrast to North Korea. South Korean philosophers have discussed philosophy in various ways in order to solve the conflicts between Korean traditional philosophy and the accepted Western philosophy, and then they tried to recover the identity of Korean philosophy which they lost during the 36 years of Japan’s colonial rules. They have also discussed the true modernization of their community. Furthermore, they have discussed how to unify South and North Korea. True, it must be acknowledged that there were conflicts between the traditional Korean philosophy and the Western philosophy in the process. But we hope to elevate and develop this into productive communication between the two. This is the area in which East and West comparative framework can be considered and employed most fruitfully.

The relevance of traditional Korean philosophy to the meaning and value of Korean philosophy for the sake of ecological value as well as communal value can be seen from the way that I pursue various topics in the efforts of individual efforts. We do our best, and do plan, to make contributions to the issue of environmental values in our research agenda (e.g., post-modern variations with a touch of Taoism). The communal value is addressed in our research too (Confucian communitarianism.) The Korean society has now reached a critical juncture where its tradition has come into conflict with modernity and postmodernity. Its modernization was achieved not by the revolution from below but by the order imposed from above. In a word, the Korean society was modernized in the pre-modern way. Strictly speaking, the Korean society was not modernized until the pro-democratic resistance movement in June of 1987 took place. However, on the one hand, strong collectivism still exists in the Korean society, and, on the other hand, strong egocentrism thrives. Furthermore, Koreans achieved a certain measure of success of modernization at the price of environmental disasters such as the pollution of the air as well as the rivers among others. I plan to shed new lights on how to solve these problems as Koreans are now faced with the task of harmonizing the Confucian communitarianism of our traditional society with the modern libertarianism of the Western society. Some of them say that we have to recreate the Western modernity on the basis of our tradition, and some of them say that we have to keep alive our tradition on the basis of the Western modernity. Others say that we have to follow either post-modernity respecting difference among one another from the viewpoint of Post-structuralism, or the ‘autonomous movement’ from the point of the Spinoza-Marxism. Now, some South Korean philosophers accept the theory of J. Habermas and J. Rawls, but others embrace the theory of A. MacIntyre, M. Sandel, and C. Taylor in order to synthesize the new tradition and modernity after 1987. Of course, there is also an attempt to solve the problem of modernization from the standpoint of Post-Marxism and Spinoza-Marxism, especially G. Deleuze, and A. Negri. In addition, many South Korean philosophers are seriously discussing this issue in regard to our Confucianism, too. The philosophers inclined toward communitarianism contend that we should not accept the liberalism of the West. They say that the liberalism is not suitable for us because our way of life is essentially based on Confucianism. According to their view, South Korean society is now more individualistic than any other society, and so we must develop the Confucian communitarianism in order to solve this problem. We must also recreate the Confucian value in the economic sphere as well as the political sphere in order to realize the truly East Asian value. Thus we can see that all these important areas of research have been incorporated in the Korean lab project.

Stewart Goetz on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Stewart Goetz is Professor of Philosophy at Ursinus College. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

One of my mentors once advised me that one cannot do good philosophy of religion without doing good philosophy of mind and action theory. It is in the light of his advice that I address the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion?” A consideration of kinds of norms informs a consideration of kinds of explanations.

For many, the philosophy of religion is first and foremost concerned with religious belief (as opposed to practice), how it is arrived at, and what norms or values governs this arrival. How belief is arrived at (how believing occurs) concerns its explanation. The philosophy of mind reveals that believing is causally determined, so that one is directly a patient with respect to what one believes. What is involved in this causal determinism? When one infers B by apprehending, say, “If A, then B” and “A,” and one also believes A, the apprehension and belief directly causally determine a belief in B. There is fundamental and irreducible mental-to-mental causation where, given the apprehension and belief, one reasonably (a norm or value) infers belief in the conclusion in the sense that one’s reasoning conforms to a logically valid rule (standard) of inference. Failure to apprehend the rule (e.g., through inattention) typically results in mental-to-mental causation that fails to track the rule. But given apprehension of the rule and belief, one cannot help (because one has no direct control over) believing the conclusion. This mental-to-mental causation in turn results in fundamental and irreducible mental-to-physical causation in the form of the production of events in one’s brain. Thus, when one makes inferences (reasons), one is aware of mental-to mental causation, and this produces mental-to-physical causation.

What do these general points about inferred belief have on the specific issue of religious belief? They raise questions about what is an acceptable explanation of religious belief. The contemporary philosophical naturalistic worldview requires an explanation of religious belief in terms of evolutionary advantage. An acceptable explanation of religious belief must ultimately be a physical-to-physical or physical-to-mental causal explanation. Most generally, naturalists claim that purposeless variations causally produced beliefs of a religious nature (e.g., beliefs in souls, spirits, gods, and/or God) that happened to be advantageous for survival and reproduction. The idea that people might have inferentially arrived at such beliefs is excluded from the outset. Not surprisingly, contemporary naturalists also maintain that religious beliefs are false. If what explains these beliefs is their adaptive character, which is blind to the truth-value (a norm) of the beliefs, their truth, while not impossible, would be nothing more than a fluke or accident.

But if one infers beliefs in non-religious domains, why think people cannot inferentially arrive at their religious beliefs? And what about a belief in naturalism. What explains it? Do its adherents reason their way to it? They believe that they do, because they put forth arguments in support of it. But if consistency (another norm or value) has any place in this discussion, why not think that a belief in naturalism is itself the result of random physical causes that proved to be adaptive in nature? And the truth-value of this belief? If it is true its being so is strictly a matter of luck.

What, now, about the philosophy of religion and action theory? What might the former learn from the latter? Once again, it can learn something about a norm and the nature of explanation. Action contrasts with passion. When one acts one does something. On some occasions, one makes undetermined choices, where making an undetermined choice is an intrinsically active mental event. What explains one’s choice? The reason or purpose for which it is made. One’s choice is fundamentally and irreducibly explained teleologically, not causally, and one chooses well or reasonably (in accordance with a norm) when one chooses for the better of two or more reasons. Though a teleological explanation of a choice is not a causal explanation of it, it is nevertheless mental-to-mental in nature. And like the mental-to-mental causation in making inferences, the mental-to-mental teleology in choosing leads to fundamental and irreducible mental-to-physical causation. For example, if one chooses for a reason to walk to the bus, one’s choice leads to events in one’s brain which ultimately produce movements of one’s legs.

We learn from action theory that there is mental-to-mental teleology, which leads to mental-to-physical causation. What bearing does this point have on religious belief? Religious people often believe that the gods or God chose to act for purposes and thereby produced mental-to-physical causation in what are traditionally termed miracles. Naturalism in principle dismisses miracles. The mental-to-mental and mental-to-physical forms of explanation involved in them are explanatorily ruled out from the beginning. Why? If naturalists occasionally choose to act purposefully and causally affect the course of events in the physical world, why is it in principle impossible for a divine being to choose to act purposefully and causally affect the course of events in the physical world? If the latter is in principle impossible, then consistency would seem to imply that naturalists themselves cannot choose to act purposefully and produce events in our world. Their choices to write and the writing of papers and books for the purpose of defending naturalism must ultimately be purposeless as the effects of blind physical causes.

We have, then, the following: choice/mental-to-mental teleological explanation/reasonable or unreasonable and belief/mental-to-mental causal explanation/reasonable or unreasonable. Given the presence of “reasonable” and “unreasonable” and their implied norms in both lists, one might think that because people can be directly responsible for their choices, they can also be directly responsible for their beliefs. But this would be a mistake, accounted for by the fact that teleologically explained, undetermined choice is an action, while causally explained, determined belief is a passion. Neither religious nor non-religious persons are directly responsible (a normative issue) for what they believe. Any responsibility is at best indirect in nature and a result of choices they make.

“What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion?” A satisfactory answer relies on thought about topics in the philosophy of mind and action theory, including causation and teleology, passion and action, determinism and indeterminism, and reasonableness and unreasonableness.

Rolf Ahlers on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Rolf Ahlers is the Reynolds Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Russell Sage College. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

The question is both modern and most ancient. Religion expresses finite subjects’ concern with the infinite, the Greek a-peiron, literally “the unbound”. It is since Anaximander the arche, the origin of all. Its normative, evaluative “truth”, a-letheia, literally “without forgetfulness”, necessarily remains veiled, occluded, hidden: disclosure renders it finite, thereby falsifying, hiding it. Infinity is archeologically self-sufficient, self-evident and self-justifying. It is at odds with justifying proof, a lower form of reason known in classical German philosophy as Verstand, understanding. Truth’s self-justifying infinite is therefore “known” only immediately through intuition or “faith” without the mediation of rational verification. But self-justifying infinity, the hen, the one of the hen kai pan, justifies the pan, all of determinate finitude. Christian theology knows it as “justification through grace”. Hegel said of Spinoza’s pantheist substance one must “bathe oneself” in it: Immediately known truth, also known since antiquity as “light”, is identified as higher Vernunft, reason, that enlightens both itself as also the false. It is therefore first and foremost evaluative or normative. Giordano Bruno sees it as the occhio della raggione, the eye of reason. Enlightening reason, the criterion of the true and the false, is therefore the objective and normative basis of “reality”, and yes, subjectivity can participate in it, although with difficulty. The American Spiritual knows this: “You can’t get to heaven on roller-skates”. You have to work hard to get to heaven. It is an endless, really impossible task. Grace is a gift. Normative truth is autonomous, simple and not composed, but its “world” is complex: Simple infinity and worldly complexity are coinciding opposites that imply necessary contradiction. No (infinite) soul, Leibniz said, is ever without (finite) embodiment on an endless scale of perception ranging from most to least perfection and harmony: theodiceic normativity coordinates most with least reasonableness: a coincidence of opposites – Nicholas of Cusa. The chorismos, chasm between infinity and finite outlined here far too briefly is an expression of both popular and theoretical skepsis regarding the reality of the external world that dominated all of western thought, despite Burnyeat. Skepsis, i.e. attempts to resolve conflicts between different explanations or theories, and their predictive power based on empirical evidence, is the “negative side” of normative philosophy (Hegel) and must therefore tolerate contradiction in reality which skepticism does not tolerate. Skepsis, part of true philosophy’s evaluative work, is not skepticism. Skepticism, both ancient and modern, dogmatically asserts the need for the absence of contradiction while simultaneously asserting no less dogmatically as empty dogma truth’s self-assertion, i.e. truth’s self-justification. True skepsis opposes any and all dogmatism. Skepsis, the justifying work of philosophy, tolerates contradiction in reality. Philosophy of religion expresses this provocatively in the words ho logos sarx egeneto. It states that all that is finite is fallible, not sui-sufficient and must perish but is not without hope. Hegel points to Spinoza’s self-justifying, evaluative thought and its relation to extension: finite entities are always dependent on other entities and require the concursus Dei, God’s assistance: For Spinoza all dependent objects are contained within the infinite. That is a metaphysical assumption that he has prodigiously argued. It means: contrary to finite entities, that all require other finite bodies to exist and “must perish”, they are viewed by Spinoza sub specie aeternitatis. But that has consequences for extending entities that we call “bodies”: There is a contradiction between looking at finite entities with or without that divine assistance. But this is an expression of that ancient skepsis (not skepticism!) about the reality of the external world at the threshold of modernity, a skepsis that produces the need to argue and justify these issues: They are not obvious. Sub specie aeternitatis finitude is rooted in metaphysical eternity which is, however precisely because of its pantheist infinity enclosing all and is never disembodied. That means finite entities are real only in a contradictory way. Skepticism hopes to eliminate all contradictions. such as, for example, asserting as valid both A=A which means that A=A cannot simultaneously be identical to A=B and A≠B. All finite human beings have infinite dignity, a metaphysical proposition – “John is a human being, A=A, i.e. he has infinite dignity, A=B”. But as finite human beings, the criminal – “John the criminal and has only finite, not infinite dignity, A≠B”. Predictive positive science that is empirically adequate, internally coherent, and broadly applicable does not tolerate the contradiction between asserting both A=B and A≠B. For such science does not tolerate metaphysical assumptions, seeking only secular norms. It should be added the need for consistence, coherence and predictability of judgment was asserted already by Plato who, however, also argued against that perspective coherence and the need to tolerate contradiction and incoherence. This is nothing new. But our culture, dedicated to anti-metaphysical secular science seeking seamless coherence faintly remembers the (metaphysical) grounds for asserting both A=B and A≠B. Our laws insist on inalienable human dignity in the refugee, patient, the criminal and the prisoner of war. But the quest for coherence no longer tolerates the fertile, normative grounds of an intellectual culture that has produced those cultural convictions. In sum, coherence, lack of inconsistencies and contradiction and predictability of the outcomes of theoretical assumptions based on empirical evidence can be affirmed by the major thinkers mentioned here only in the context of their assertion of the basic normativity of truth. Traditional metaphysical assumptions are not empty verbiage: Classical thinkers could spot the empty talker with unerring certainty. Socrates’ many conversation partners such as Callicles in the Gorgias often turned out to do little more than spout empty words. Callicles aims at practicality and applicability. “You must be practical” he tells Socrates. “If not, you will stand there like a fool with an open mouth not knowing how defend yourself. Not only will you look foolish with your incoherent stammering. You will endanger your life: If you lack the practical tools of logical arguments in a court of law where someone has unjustly accused you, you might well be condemned to death for a deed you did not commit.” Jesus, accused unjustly for crimes he did not commit, stands like a fool before Pilate who urges him to be practical and defend himself. Jesus, the light that enlightens not only God’s truth but also the world’s darkness, remains silent like a fool. He is most impractical.

Tim Mawson on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Tim Mawson is Edgar Jones Fellow and Tutor at St. Peter’s College, University of Oxford. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

My answer would be that the norms governing the Philosophy of X are that one should be reaching important truth (and avoiding important falsehood) via good argument(s) about X. When X takes the value of Religion, the focus is on the issue of whether or not there’s a God.

Robert C. Neville on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Robert C. Neville is Professor of Philosophy, Religion, and Theology at Boston University. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

The primary instances of excellent philosophy of religion come from thinkers who have philosophies that say something important about religion. Think of Hobbes, Locke, Leibniz, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Schleiermacher, Schelling, Peirce, James, Whitehead, and Dewey from the modern Western tradition. These are the people we teach in historically oriented courses in philosophy of religion (along with classical and medieval thinkers, and sometimes representatives of South and East Asian religions). Secondary instances of excellent philosophy of religion come from thinkers who study aspects of religion alone, or mostly alone. I hold that there are four main norms or values defining excellence in primary philosophy of religion.

The first norm is systematic comprehensiveness in relating the many aspects of religion to each other and to everything else. Religion is so complex that no consensus exists as to how to define it, and excellent philosophy of religion needs to show how this complexity relates to the many other things a philosophy should treat. It is fairly obvious that excellent philosophy of religion should treat the nature of ultimate reality or realities and show how various parts of religion engage this. Also, excellent philosophy of religion needs to relate to epistemology so as to interpret cognitive aspects of religion, to morality to interpret how obligation lies, or does not lie, within religion, to psychology and other aspects of selfhood so as to relate to the religious quest for wholeness or alleviation of suffering, to social organization to treat that aspect of religion, to politics, jurisprudence, economics, education, art, and all those other “philosophy of …” topics as they relate to religion. To do all this, excellent philosophy of religion needs to be philosophically systematic, and many models of system exist even if system is not popular in philosophy today.

The second norm is that excellent philosophy of religion needs is to operate out of a base of comparative erudition. Most (though not all) of the thinkers I mentioned above operated out of a Western, if not generally Christian or deist, religious agenda, which biases philosophical study of other religions. Enough scholarly work has been done on most of the world’s religions for them to be brought into comparative connections. The nature of religious and theological comparison itself is a major topic within philosophy of religion today. Comparative philosophical inquiry is also part of philosophy of religion. Some comparisons are detailed and precise. Others are vaguer though still important. For instance, we know now that West Asian religions often develop conceptions of ultimacy out of symbols of persons, emphasizing heightened intentionality, agency, rationality, and will. South Asian religions often develop conceptions of ultimacy out of symbols of persons, but by eliminating just those aspects of intentionality, agency, rationality and will preferred in West Asia and emphasizing purified consciousness. East Asian religions explicitly reject personal models of ultimacy and instead develop symbols of spontaneous emergence. To be sure, many cross-overs and internal variations exist, and excellent philosophy of religion needs to operate out of erudite consciousness of these differences, variations, and counter-influences.

The third norm is that excellent philosophy of religion should seek understanding of the various aspects of religion, how they hang together (or do not hang together), and how they relate to the rest of reality. I mean to contrast understanding as grasping things in relation with explanation as showing how some aspect of religion reduces to something else, for instance evolutionary adaptability, psychological structures, or social legitimation. To be sure, aspects of religion are related to one another and to non-religious things causally sometimes and, in these instances, explanation is to be subsumed into understanding by excellent philosophy of religion. Nevertheless, causal relations are better treated as relations than as reductions because the “effect” in the relation might very well be the effect of many other things with respect to which it is also related. Understanding of an aspect of religion involves comprehending how it stands in relation to all the things to which it is related, and seeing also how it harmonizes (or fails to harmonize) those many relations within itself. No aspect of religion, or religion as a whole if there is such a thing, can be understood only in terms of its relations to other things: understanding something involves knowing how it harmonizes its relations to have its own being.

Wesley Wildman has argued that philosophy of religion is comparative, multidisciplinary inquiry; see his Religious Philosophy as Multidisciplinary Comparative Inquiry: Envisioning a Future for the Philosophy of Religion (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2010). My second norm for comparative erudition and third norm for understanding the complexities of religion express my agreement. More than Wildman, however, I stress the need for integration and system as expressed in my first norm.

The fourth norm for excellent philosophy of religion is that it should provide philosophic guidance for how to live in the various aspects of religion. I group these aspects into three main kinds. The first are cognitive aspects of religion, and therefore philosophy of religion needs to include philosophical theology, broadly considered; philosophy of religion should not pretend to be a study of beliefs only, but also of their merit. The second are existential aspects whereby individuals’ and groups’ most basic identity is determined religiously, and therefore philosophy of religion needs to include understanding of how people are defined religiously, well-defined, not poorly defined. The third are the practical, institutional, organizational, artistic, and spiritual aspects of religion; philosophy of religion needs to understand how to live well in all these aspects of religion.

In sum, the four norms I think should constrain excellent philosophy of religion are comprehensiveness within a system of philosophy that treats religion, erudition in comparative matters of religion and philosophy/theology, understanding as a mode of knowledge rather than explanation of religion in terms of something else, and philosophic guidance in religious matters.

Evan Fales on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Evan Fales is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Iowa. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

There are two rather disparate matters that I’d like to draw attention to. One is a properly philosophical concern; it touches the business of explanation in theism, and the metaphysics of causation. So it falls fairly easily within the range of topics the blog is meant to address. The second matter does so a bit less naturally: it concerns what makes one a good philosopher of religion, rather than what makes for good philosophy of religion; in particular, it touches on the public role of philosophers of religion.

Now it doesn’t seem to me that there is very much that is distinctively good-making in work in philosophy of religion, apart from those virtues that make for good philosophy generally. But there is an issue that arises rather peculiarly in philosophy of religion, inasmuch as most religions posit the existence of disembodied persons – gods, spirits, souls, angels and demons, and a bouquet of other non-material denizens of the supernatural world. And these denizens are supposed to do things: there are ways in which the world is visibly different, in consequence of their actions. Their activities, in a word, are supposed to explain some things that happen – including, sometimes, things that couldn’t happen, but for their agency.

The question is: how do they manage it? The question becomes especially sharp when the agency in question is, ultimately at least, a single agent, whose performances explain, completely or in part, a great deal – perhaps even “everything.” My complaint is simply that, in the latter case especially, the answer too often is that the being in question is omnipotent.

But this is simply to put a label on what needs to be understood. (Indeed, it has proved to be devilishly hard even to provide a general specification or definition of what omnipotence amounts to.) My concern is with the nuts and bolts of this explanatory, or causal, relation. There has been, to be sure, a fair amount of literature of late about the possibility of an immaterial being causing matter to move, in the case of miracles. But it is all too common to find philosophers invoking “omnipotence,” as if that itself answers to the explanatory need. It does not; it merely attaches a label to what wants to be understood.

Perhaps the most plausible attempt (that I know of) to fill the gap is Robert John Russell’s suggestion that God is, in effect, the “hidden variable” that settles all indeterminacy when a quantum superposition state collapses into an eigenvalue – and God can co-ordinate eigenvalues so that something physically extraordinary happens, without violation of energy and momentum conservation. This might be promising – if we could understand how God effects such controlled wave-function collapses – and how such controlled collapses actually could effect, e.g., the near-instant turning of water into wine.

For the most part, we philosophers don’t concern ourselves too much about such arcane matters, but, for my part, it seems that that’s the first question that must be resolved if we are to entertain the explanatory power of supernatural agency. Of course, it is always open to one to just posit some kind of causal or quasi-causal relation between God and the quantum world that allows God to do the job. We invoke theoretical posits all the time; why not posit a new fundamental relation? Fair enough: but – certainly in this case – the relation would be unusual enough, significantly enough disanalogous to anything in ordinary experience, that we should be anxious to discover whether such a relation could be coherently posited, and whether it would be physically possible for an immaterial, and arguably atemporal, being to stand in such a relation to fundamental particles of matter. Lacking such control, the supernatural becomes, religiously speaking, pretty much a dead letter.

There is considerably more that might be said about this first matter, but let me turn to the second; and here I have in mind in particular the contemporary cultural terrain in the US, though my remarks will have quite general application. Philosophers of religion, perhaps as much as those in any of philosophy’s sub-disciplines, have things to say on matters of existential importance to a great many people. So it is no accident that we have been drawn into the tides of cultural debate and, indeed, political division. It is also no accident – and perhaps equally unfortunate – that the psychological forces that lure us into forming views with a strength of certainty that outstrips available evidence are equally pervasive in religion and in the political arena. Philosophers are not immune to these forces, nor, disconcertingly, are they always immune to the temptations of animus that animate so many political and religious disagreements.

We have, surely, a responsibility to wield such wisdom as we may have with grace – more grace than our public arena seems, for the most part, to support. Partly this involves, or should involve, a sense of intellectual humility. How sure do we deserve to be, really, that we’ve got things right? We may have a far more nuanced view of complex issues and difficult problems than many others; but how much distance in the journey to knowledge have we really travelled?

There is, however, a deeper issue that I want to engage. It is pertinent in three arenas in our philosophical lives: the classroom, if we inhabit the academy, the community of fellow-philosophers, and the broader community with which we publically engage. I have in mind something familiar and simple: friendship. Friendship, as I see it, is both a social virtue (as is obvious) and an intellectual one – if only because, at minimum, the capacity for friendship requires an ability to discern and navigate another’s inner world: how they are feeling, what they think and why, what their lived experience of the world is and has been. That kind of understanding goes well beyond – though it certainly demands – the effort to grasp another’s system of beliefs and the outlook they generate. The “something more” that I have particularly in mind is a genuine feeling of empathy, a desire, not only to grasp the views of another, but to grasp what it’s like to see and feel things from their perspective. Though this can be distinguished from sheer intellectual penetration, it is, in my view, one of the most powerful tools that human sensibility has for real insight into and appreciation of another’s point of view.

This is perhaps platitudinous. But it’s my perception that this kind of empathic insight is in rather short supply, even among academics who sit on opposite sides of the various aisles that criss-cross the theological terrain, to say nothing of the general public. And this at a time when real geniality is so badly needed. Too often I’ve seen, and am probably unthinkingly guilty myself, of a kind of obdurate inability or disinclination to allow that an opposing position might be worthy of serious entertainment or another’s heartfelt devotion. Sometimes intellectual progress emerges from heated debate. But often, the most significant illumination emerges, in quieter fashion, in open exchanges between good friends who differ but treasure one another. We can become better philosophers of religion by becoming better friends.

Steven M. Cahn on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Steven M. Cahn is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the City University of New York Graduate Center. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Relatively few philosophers specialize in the philosophy of religion, but many teach an introductory problems course in which one usual topic is the existence of God. The routine approach is to present and assess the three traditional arguments for the existence of God. Then the focus shifts to the problem of evil, after which the unit on God’s existence ends.

My new book RELIGION WITHIN REASON (Columbia University Press 2017) suggests that this approach often takes place within a set of misleading assumptions that may be shared by students and faculty members. One of these assumptions is that if God’s existence were disproved, then religious commitment would have been shown to be unreasonable. Various religions, however, reject the notion of a supernatural God. These include Jainism, Theravada Buddhism, Mimamsa and Samkhya Hinduism, as well as Reconstructionist Judaism and “death of God” versions of Christianity.

Here, for example, is how Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan, an opponent of supernaturalism, responds to a skeptic who asks why, if the Bible isn’t taken literally, Jews should nevertheless observe the Sabbath: “We observe the Sabbath not so much because of the account of its origin in Genesis, as because of the role it has come to play in the spiritual life of our People and of mankind…The Sabbath day sanctifies our life by what it contributes to making us truly human and helping us transcend those instincts and passions that are part of our heritage from the sub-human.”1

And here from one of the major figures in the Christian “Death of God” movement, the Anglican Bishop of Woolwich John A. T. Robinson, who denies the existence of a God “up there,” or “out there,” is an account of the Holy Communion: “ [T]oo often…it ceases to be the holy meal, and becomes a religious service in which we turn our backs on the common and the community and in individualistic devotion go to ‘make our communion with God out there.’ This is the essence of the religious perversion, when worship becomes a realm into which to withdraw from the world to ‘be with God’—even if it is only to receive strength to go back into it. In this case the entire realm of the non-religious (in other words ‘life’) is relegated to the profane.”2

Of course, a naturalistic religion can also be developed without deriving it from a supernatural religion. Consider, for example, the outlook of philosopher Charles Frankel, another opponent of supernaturalism, who nevertheless believes that religion, shorn of irrationality, can make a distinctive contribution to human life, providing deliverance from vanity, triumph over meanness, and endurance in the face of tragedy. As he puts it, “it seems to me not impossible that a religion could draw the genuine and passionate adherence of its members while it claimed nothing more than to be poetry in which [people] might participate and from which they might draw strength and light.”3

Such naturalistic options are philosophically respectable. Whether to choose any of them is for each person to decide.

Teachers and students should also recognize that theism does not imply religious commitment. After all, even if someone believes that one or more of the proofs for God’s existence is sound, the question remains whether to join a religion and, if so, which one. The proofs contain not a clue as to which religion, if any, is favored by God. Indeed, God may oppose all religious activity. Perhaps God does not wish to be prayed to, worshipped, or adored, and might even reward those who shun such activities.

Yet another misleading assumption is implicit in the definitions which are usually offered: a theist believes in God, an atheist disbelieves in God, and an agnostic neither believes or disbelieves in God. Notice that the only hypothesis being considered is the existence of God as traditionally conceived; no other supernatural alternatives are taken seriously. But why not?

Suppose, for example, the world is the scene of a struggle between God and the Demon. Both are powerful, but neither is omnipotent. When events go well, God’s benevolence is ascendant; when events go badly, the Demon’s malevolence is ascendant. Is this doctrine, historically associated width Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism, unnecessarily complex and therefore to be rejected? No, for even though in one sense it is more complex than monotheism, because it involves two supernatural beings rather than one, in another sense it is simpler, because it leaves no aspect of the world beyond human understanding. After all, theism faces the problem of evil, while dualistic hypotheses have no difficulty accounting for both good and evil.

In sum, I would suggest that both faculty members and students should remember the following four essential points: (1) belief in the existence of God is not a necessary condition for religious commitment; (2) belief in the existence of God is not a sufficient condition for religious commitment; (3) the existence of God is not the only supernatural hypothesis worth serious discussion; and (4) a successful defense of traditional theism requires not only that it be more plausible than atheism or agnosticism but that it be more plausible than all other supernatural alternatives.

I am not suggesting, of course, that the proofs for the existence of God or the problem of evil not be taught. I am urging, however, that all participants be alerted to the limited implications of that discussion.

1. Mordecai M. Kaplan, Judaism Without Supernaturalism (New York: Reconstructionist Press, 1958), 115-116.
2. John A.T. Robinson, Honest to God (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1963), 86-87.
3. Charles Frankel, The Love of Anxiety, and Other Essays (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), 1962.

Douglas Groothuis on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Douglas Groothuis is Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

By philosophy of religion I mean the intellectual discipline of critically evaluating religious truth claims, whether individual propositions or propositional systems (or worldviews). This discipline may be self-standing, as in a philosophy of religion course at a college or university, or it may involve bringing religious assertions to bear on other disciplines, such as political theory, aesthetics, or psychology. For example, a lecture, class, or academic paper might engage how Judaism has shaped Western liberal traditions concerning religious liberty and property.

Let me illustrate this from an undergraduate class I taught at a secular university. In addressing questions of meaning and morality, I offered a theistic perspective by way of arguments. I later found—after students complained to the head of the Philosophy department—that I was accused of pushing religion in class. I really was not; rather, I was doing philosophy of religion in response to some perennial philosophical questions. These students apparently did not know there was such a thing as philosophy of religion. For them, religion was only about belief and preaching, not arguments. Of course, they were wrong; and I was asked to teach another class the next term. I take from this that doing good philosophy of religion may involve justifying the discipline as an intellectually legitimate means for testing and applying religious truth claims.

But what constitutes a virtuous pursuit of knowledge in this discipline? Philosophy of religion, like all intellectual disciplines, should be, at minimum, characterized by these values.

1. Obscurity is not usually profundity, especially not in philosophy. Whatever issues are at hand should be addressed with conceptual clarity. This requires a clear use of key terms (providing definitions, if needed). While philosophy of religion need not aspire to the analytical precision of Alvin Plantinga or Keith Yandel, it should not leave the reader lost in the mists of ill-defined terms and puzzling sentences.

2. The golden rule belongs to philosophy of religion as to everything else. Just as we are troubled when our arguments are misrepresented and wish this were not the case, so should we go the second mile in making sure that we represent all views fairly and accurately. Some of my wife’s careful arguments on the philosophy of gender in relation to religion have been made into straw men by a number of men and women. It hurts and it is wrong.

3. Philosophy is about arguments, and arguments come in various general forms: induction, deduction, abduction (or best explanation), and for the stouthearted, Bayesian probabilities. Good writing in the philosophy of religion–or any kind of philosophy–will identify argument forms. In some cases, the same conclusion flows from two different formulations of an argument. Writers should not overburden the reader by making them wonder exactly what is being argued for and how.

4. Arguments should anticipate rebuttal. It is not enough to argue that P is true and leave it at that. The philosopher should consider the relevant arguments against P in order to weigh its merits. Thomas Aquinas left us with the developed form of this back-and-forth model for discourse. We need not copy his style, but we should not forget his method.

5. Clichés or taken-for-granted ideas in the philosophy of religion sometimes need to be challenged or refuted. Philosophy is not insulated from intellectual fashions or groupthink. For example, Descartes is usually credited as influential in philosophy (sometimes called “the father of modern philosophy”), but his arguments for God’s existence are often ignored or given short shrift. When a reviewer of one of my books found that I had carefully formulated and approved of one of his theistic arguments, he or she simply said, “Philosophers don’t accept this anymore.” So what? Let us give it a try. One needs either to show that one or more of the premises are wrong or that the argument form is faulty. Otherwise, there is no counter-argument.

Even Descartes’ stated method for philosophical argument has its merits for philosophy of religion, although I will not elaborate on them. In Discourse on Method, he presents four “precepts of logic” which he resolves never to violate: (1) to believe nothing except what is clear and distinct, (2) to divide up problems into appropriate parts, (3) to proceed from the simple to the complex, and (4) to make sure nothing is left out.

6. Philosophy of religion should not shy away from prudential concerns concerning religious doctrines. If nirvana is the highest state of being, what existential difference would this make? If the doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation are logically coherent, should this encourage one to consider Christianity more carefully? As philosopher Mortimer J. Adler said, “More consequences for life and action follow from the affirmation or denial of God than from any other basic question.” If the Confucian idea of propriety is a fitting way to comport oneself in family and society, how would this affect one’s manners, customs, and even voting? And so on.

7. Philosophers of religion should seek to be involved in settings in which proponents of different religions discuss the rationality of each other’s truth claims. This happens often with Christians and atheists, but there is no reason it should not extend to Muslims and Buddhists or Jews and Hindus, etc. These exchanges—which may be debates or dialogues, written or oral—help prevent misunderstanding and ignorance of each religion’s respective positions.

These seven values do not exhaust the treasury of epistemic virtue, but I take them to be vital for intellectual engagement in the philosophy of religion. I look forward to seeing what others deem worthy.