Merold Westphal on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Merold Westphal is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Fordham 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.

I am using the term philosophy of religion in a broad, inclusive sense. It includes philosophizing about religion as a human mode of theory and practice and philosophizing about God. It includes those practices that are sometimes called natural theology, rational theology, philosophical theology, public theology, philosophy of God, and phenomenology of religion. What it does not include is just plain theology, as I am using the term; for I think it is important to distinguish philosophy, even the philosophy of religion, from theology.

Jean-Luc Marion has shown us one way to do this. Theological accounts are meant to tell us what is real or actual, while philosophical descriptions (phenomenological in Marion’s case) are meant to tell us about the possible, what might be actual. We might say that one makes truth claims while the other is concerned about meaning.

Oscar Cullmann makes a similar distinction. He says the lectures he gives as a theologian in Basel are the same as those he gives as an historian in Paris. In the one case they are meant to express the truth about God and the world; in the other case they are meant to give an accurate account of what some people believe or have believed.

I find this distinction helpful and see no reason why phenomenologists and historians might not accept it. But many, if not most, philosophers of religion (as specified above) would not be willing to bracket truth claims in this way. They claim to provide a supplemental or, in some cases, a superior mode of truth to that of the theologian. What we need is a distinction that leaves both sides free to make truth claims and focuses on the different criteria they employ. As I am using the term, the theologian takes the scriptures and traditions of a particular religion as normative for the discourse, while all those I have included above in the philosophy of religion do not.

Two caveats. First, just as philosophers in general can be deeply indebted to various thinkers or traditions without giving them de jure status as criteria, so philosophers of religion can be deeply influenced by various scriptures and traditions without making them into norms. Second, regardless of what theological account theologians may give about the relative status of scripture and tradition, the two can never be neatly separated in actual theological work. Accordingly, my account of theology does not require any particular theory of their relation.

So, by definition the philosopher of religion does not make of any scripture or tradition a norm that requires conformity. It is tempting to suggest that the alternative is Reason rather than Revelation. This is often accompanied by the claim that this is both epistemically and politically superior by virtue of being universal rather than particular, plural, and merely tribal. But it turns out that this is impossible, for there is no such thing as Reason. Anything concrete enough to function as a criterion turns out to be a particular version of reason claiming to be Universal Reason.

Consider Spinoza, Kant, and Hegel, the most powerful European philosophers of religion of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, respectively. Each claimed to be the voice of Reason, in whose name they flat out rejected some of the beliefs of Jewish and Christian monotheism, while reinterpreting others beyond recognition (Deus sive natura, for example). Each of the three is deeply incompatible with the other two, for each was appealing to a different version of reason. Their criteria were anything but universal, and their theologies relate to one another much the same as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, or Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant.

What this means, in terms of our question of criteria, is that the norms at work in any philosophy of religion are as particular and thus as controversial at the substantive theses they seek to legitimize. Often they are the more formal elements of some particular philosophical or theological tradition, but this does not make them self-evident and axiomatic (except to those already singing in that particular choir). For those who understand this to be the hermeneutical situation and who have taken the hermeneutical turn, this is not a misfortune to be resisted or escaped but rather than inevitable consequence of our inherent finitude.

This kind of analysis has two significant implications. First, philosophy of religion is no less parochial, “denominational”, or “confessional” than theology, just differently thus. Second, if we seek to justify our theorems with reference to our axioms (to use this geometrical language metaphorically), it now turns out that our axioms, the norms that function in an a priori manner, are also in need of justification. But that is a very difficult task. For it is hard to see how one can find “neutral”, “presuppositionless”, “objective” criteria in terms of which to validate our criteria. They appear to be matters of faith, not theological faith, but faith in the sense of belief that cannot justify itself in terms of Reason, but only in terms of some quite particular version of reason.

In “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” Quine wrote, “Ontological questions, under this view, are on a par with questions of natural science.” I’m suggesting the following version of the same basic insight. “Questions of criteria are on a par with questions about the nature of religion and the reality of God.”

Ronald Hall on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Ronald Hall is Professor of Philosophy at Stetson University and Editor-in-Chief of International Journal for the Philosophy of Religion. 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.

What is the primary task of the philosophy of religion? Perhaps this question is ill-conceived. After all, there are multiple tasks that have been proposed and pursued. So a better question might be: “What is the first order of business for the philosophy of religion?” I think there might be widespread agreement about this. Like all areas of inquiry, the philosophy of religion must begin with words about its words.

In saying this, I take my lead from a cryptic remark of Wittgenstein’s in Philosophical Investigations (373). Here we find Wittgenstein saying: “Grammar tells what kind of object anything is. (Theology as grammar.).” I think we can expand his suggestion and include the philosophy of religion as a grammatical investigation, at least, in part. In saying this, I do not suggest that grammatical investigation has been or should be the exclusive task of the philosophy of religion. However, I do think that it is obvious that work in the philosophy of religion must begin with discussions or assumptions about the meaning of its terms, that is, terms like ‘God’, ‘freedom’ and ‘immortality’, not to mention ‘evil’, ‘creation’, ‘suffering’, ‘existence’, ‘faith’ and so forth. In asking what God is, or evil is (say moral or natural) the “is” here is the “is” of identification, and not the ‘is” of existence. (Existence is not a predicate). Philosophy of religion may not have the last word regarding the “is” of identification, but it must take its first order of business as that of identifying its terms; as I might put this, the philosophy of religion’s first word should be words of conceptual clarification. Questions of existence may or may not come up, but if they do, they should only come up as after-words.

Often it is thought that addressing the question of meaning (the question of what something is) is simply preliminary to addressing the really important work of the philosophy of religion, namely, the work of establishing that something is. The difference between the two senses of “is” is subtle. Consider this difference: “This is evil” vs. “This is evil”. Clearly, the view that the primary business of the philosophy of religion is to argue for or against the existence of God (evil, faith, and all the rest) has, historically speaking, dominated the discipline. I might even say, it carries the current day in the field. We see this in approaches to the philosophy of religion that model it on scientific inquiry. When this approach is taken, the philosophy of religion becomes a kind of “science of God”. The existence of God is taken to be a hypothesis measurable by its explanatory power, coherence, simplicity, and other scientific virtues. Here the grammar of God is taken to parallel to the grammar of empirical theory. And I note that even here, the philosophy of religion begins with grammatical assumptions; grammar has the first word, a first word that sets the parameters of its subsequent existential task. As this approach reckons, what could be more important than the question of God’s existence? If God does not exist, religious language is not about anything anymore than mathematics is about anything. Religious language games need to be tied to reality if we are to take them seriously. For this approach therefore, the most important order of business for the philosophy of religion is the project of settling the questions of existence. Accordingly, its interests are in theistic belief, truth, and reality. As such, the relevant questions are whether or not there are justifying grounds for theistic belief or not, whether or not the claim that God does or does not exist is true, and whether or not God is the name of some independently existing reality.

As I conceive of it, the philosophy of religion as grammar does not make existential assumptions: There is no assumption that the “object” named by ‘God’ exists. Rather, the interest here is in exploring the meaning of different ways of understanding what ‘God’ means. This does not deny that the term God has existential import; rather the focus is on the term’s use in our lives; to take account of this use makes it clear what kind of object “God” is taken to betoken. Grammar tells us that God may not be a something; but it also may tell us that it is not a nothing either. More profoundly, the philosopher of religion’s task is to confess that even though we do not, indeed cannot, grasp fully what not being a nothing comes to, nor can we say exhaustively what not being a nothing is, we can acknowledge the wonder of our confrontation with its mystery and at least declare that how we use these terms (what they mean) is a function of their role in the life of the religious community.

For many, this is simply not satisfying, or not satisfying enough. It is not as though these philosophers of religion are in dispute about the importance of getting clear about the meaning religious language, it is rather that they would find the work the philosophy of religion disappointing if it did not or cannot go further. I do not deny that the drive to settle questions of existence is intense. But, for me, it is intensely personal, not philosophical. At the same time, I am driven by my intense philosophical interest in understanding what the terms of religious discourse mean. For me, getting clear about the grammar of religious terms is gratification enough to keep me passionately engaged in the findings of grammatical analysis. These findings, these clarifications, set the stage for whatever personal settlement on these matters of existence anyone can hope for.

William J. Wainwright on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

William J. Wainwright is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. 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 norms and values defining excellence in philosophy of religion include most of those characterizing excellence in the practice of philosophy in general—criteria for assessing world views (explanatory power, simplicity, and the like), logical acumen, a thorough familiarity with the history of discussions of the problems at issue, and so on. It also includes possession of relevant epistemic virtues—openness to criticism, for example, and a passion for truth (as distinguished from a primary interest in winning intellectual games).

Philosophical reflection on value laden subject matters requires additional norms, however. Aesthetics and ethics provide examples. Those who are blind to the excellence of Beethoven’s late string quartets, T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, G. B. Tiepolo’s ceiling paintings, or Henry James’s fiction, and so on are unlikely to do good work in the philosophy of art. Again, Aristotle and Plato believed that bad people were poor judges of moral or ethical truth. The former, for instance, thought that the major premises of practical syllogisms were “universal judgments of what is good for” people “in general, or as a rule,” or what is generally good for certain classes of people, or for people in certain circumstances. These judgments are (partial) articulations of the good life. Only a person in “a healthy emotional state” can grasp the truth of correct ethical principles. If that person’s desires, impulses, and feelings have been perverted or atrophied by neglect or by wrong training, then he or she will be unable to do so.

The resolution of technical and ordinary factual issues in the philosophy of religion (assessment of the validity of formal arguments, for instance, or [more controversially] of the historical accuracy of certain religious texts) require only logical skills and scholarly proficiency—skills and proficiencies which can be mastered by atheists and agnostics as well as by religious believers.

But religion too is a value laden subject matter. One is unlikely to do good work in the philosophy of religion, for example, if one is tone deaf to religion’s appeal and hence doesn’t really understand it. That is one reason why the work of Dennett, Dawkins, and other so-called “new atheists” can be largely disregarded while the work of atheists such as William Rowe or Graham Oppy cannot. Furthermore, if the object of religious inquiry is an alleged Goodness underlying, or at the heart of, reality (God, the Brahman, Nirvana, the Tao, etc., etc.), then it would hardly be surprising if those who neither love nor desire the Good fail to discover the truth about it.

Perhaps the most obvious instance of the role our affective attitudes and feelings play in the formation of our religious beliefs, though, is furnished by conflicts over comprehensive world views. Some of these world views are religious but many are not. It is arguable, however, that all comprehensive world views incorporate or reflect values.

Contemporary naturalism, for instance, is typically reductive, incorporating a taste for “desert landscapes.” It valorizes science as the only source of truth and dismisses any epistemic claims made by religion, poetry, or the arts. In some cases, a preference for naturalism may also reflect a desire that the world not contain “spooky” realities. Thomas Nagel, for instance, exclaims “it isn’t that I don’t believe in God…It is that I hope that there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the world to be like that.” Plato, on the other hand, argued that “no man’s soul can feel intense pleasure or pain in anything without also at the same time believing that the chief object of these his emotions is transparently clear and utterly real.” If this is correct, then what pains and pleases us will affect our judgments of what is and is not real. Bodily pleasures and pains, for example, “drive a rivet into the soul, pinning it down to the body and so assimilating it thereto that it believes everything to be real which the body declares to be so” and regards everything else as comparatively unreal.

If world views do incorporate values, and values can’t be grasped in the absence of the right feelings and attitudes, then appropriate dispositions of the heart will be needed to discern their truth and the falsity of their rivals. Wrong dispositions, on the other hand, will result in false judgments and intellectual blindness. Thus, if any religious world views are true, the right affective attitudes will be needed to discern their truth. The criteria for determining excellence in the practice of philosophy of religion must therefore include criteria for sorting out epistemically right from epistemically wrong affective attitudes and feelings.

Donald A. Crosby on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Donald A. Crosby is Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Colorado State 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.

Considerations and Concerns Guiding Philosophy of Religion

In this essay I shall convert norms and values into considerations and concerns, because I think these two terms more closely convey what I intend to say about philosophy of religion as I view it. The usual theoretical norms are important, of course, for philosophy of religion as they are for any other theoretical enterprise. These include consistency, coherence, adequacy to experience, clarity, simplicity, cogency, and fruitfulness for ongoing inquiry. The values or goals central to philosophy of religion are also encompassed in my two terms considerations and concerns. There are six of these, and I have space here only for brief explanation of each one of them. In what follows, I shall use the single term consideration but want it to be shorthand for considerations and concerns.

The first of them is avoidance of reductionism. Philosophy of religion should strive always to do justice to religion as a distinctive mode of thought, inquiry, and practice. It should draw generously on other modes such as science, morality, history, and art for its articulations and expressions, but it is not reducible to any of them. It is also not reducible to philosophy, although it can make good use of philosophy in developing its claims, arguments, and assumptions. The distinctive character of religion should be kept always in the foreground.

The second consideration is avoidance of provincialism. Religion is not identical with theism or with typically Western modes of spirituality and commitment. It has a much broader range, and the philosopher of religion must always have this in mind. The differences among religious outlooks and traditions are often as important as their similarities. This is especially the case in our era of globalization.

The third consideration is the endeavor to keep constantly in mind the complementary roles of logos and pathos in religion. Religion is a way of life, not just a way of thinking and believing. It has active, emotional, volitional, convictional elements, not just intellectual ones, and these elements are often tightly interwoven with the intellectual ones.

The fourth consideration is the endeavor continually to explore and articulate the contemporary relevance of religion to the whole of life and to the world as a whole. This endeavor takes fully into account the fact that relevant and meaningful religion faces to the future, and not to the past. It draws upon resources of the past, and philosophy of religion can help to bring these into view, but these resources are starting points, not stopping points, for the philosopher of religion. The philosopher of religion has an important interpretive task regarding the religious thought of the past, to be sure, but that task is subordinate to the constructive one of showing how religious ideas can relate to the present and future.

The fifth consideration is maintaining the sense of mystery that is so basic to religion, and showing how doctrines and beliefs, no matter how profoundly developed and formulated, can never do final justice to the mystery that surrounds and shrouds all religious ultimates. This consideration means, among other things, that paradoxes, symbols, myths, metaphors, symbols, parables, koans, stories, and rites have a crucial role to play in religion, and that these roles need to be kept constantly in view by the philosopher of religion as they relate to discursive doctrines, beliefs, and arguments.

My sixth consideration is that the philosopher of religion should always have a pluralistic mindset toward religious differences. The sense of mystery so integral to religion should guard against any tendency to absolutism or exclusivism. Religious ultimates, whatever else they may be, are girdled about with mystery. And this means that there is ample room for different facetings of this holy mystery in the form of different beliefs, practices, and systems of thought. The pluralistic mindset I advocate means that philosophy of religion must always be dialectical in its approaches to religious phenomena. It should avoid any suggestion of close-minded diatribe. This sixth consideration ties in closely with the second one of the avoidance of provincialism or narrow conceptions of religion that fail to give due recognition to its rich and complex history—both between and within particular religious traditions—and its multiple forms of manifestation.

Philosophy of religion has the potential to be of significant help to persons struggling with religious questions and quandaries in their lives. Philosophers of religion should do their work with this idea in mind and not allow the discipline as a whole to become so arcane and specialized that it is of interest only to philosophers or can be understood only by them. It can have an important public role to play, and the above considerations can be of great use in filling this role.

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.

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.