Phillip H. Wiebe is Professor of Philosophy at Trinity Western University, Canada. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.
If philosophy consists of critical reflection on logic, ontology, epistemology, axiology, and linguistic meaning – its core historical content – then philosophy of religion consists of these kinds of critical reflection on beliefs and behaviors “associated in some way with a supernatural realm, a sphere of divine or spiritual beings.” This rough definition of religion is from Daniel Pals, who thus distils (Seven Theories of Religion) the views of seven great theorists of the last century: Frazer, Freud, Durkheim, Eliade, Evans-Pritchard, Tylor, and Geertz. I consider the most insightful general approach to the ontological status of religious claims to be that of W. V. O. Quine, who observed that the gods are cultural posits whose epistemological footing is similar, although inferior, to that of physical objects (“Two Dogmas of Empiricism”).
Physical objects are now seldom in doubt, thankfully, so we might focus for most perspicacious examples of theoretical entities on physics, e.g., the charmed baryon particle featured in a collision between a proton and a neutrino (in Frank Close, et. al., The Particle Explosion). This collision produces three positive particles, two negative ones, and a neutral one, viz., charmed baryon. This particle has a life of about one-billionth of a second, and then decays in the form of a ‘V’ into a proton and a pi-minus. The baryon particle itself leaves no trace – a “gap” connects to the point where the ‘V’ begins, viz. ── ‘<'. The meaning of terms purporting to denote unobservables is provided by the nexus in which those objects are conjectured to exist, primarily in the complex causal accounts that the object (purportedly) denoted has to things whose existence is not in dispute. This is contextual (or functional) definition of a kind well appreciated by Bentham, Russell, Wittgenstein, Wilfrid Sellars, David Lewis, and others. Positivism’s strictures on meaning were extreme, and threatened many innovations in the last two centuries, including theories postulating the existence of germs, genes, tectonic plates, evolutionary mechanisms, and much more. The “entities” concerning the latter two are still unobserved, but we can hardly do science without these theories.
The tools of symbolic logic could theoretically be used to illuminate “theories about spirits,” which would include both their attributes and their relations to objects not in doubt. Following the model for understanding folk psychology proposed by David Lewis (“Psychophysical and Theoretical Identifications”), we would collect every truism about God, about good and evil spirits, about human spirits said to survive physical death, and about ghosts, fairies, elves, and other mischievous creatures. The sentences expressing these truisms would then be brought together into one very long conjunction, expressed using the notation of symbolic logic, and then transformed so that all quantifiers were extracted and placed at its beginning. We would immediately see from the existential quantifiers which entities were construed as real, and the matrix would spell out the attributes and relations asserted of these entities. As long as this matrix includes terms denoting things not in doubt, the terms denoting spirits are given meaning.
So we see that no simple definition of “spirit” is possible (or needed), although some general description following religious traditions might orient us. Lewis’s innovations override positivism’s efforts to explicate the status of theoretical terms by bridge principles, correspondence rules, etc., for he links them to other terms already comprehensible, not explicitly to terms for observables. Also, Lewis does not attempt to show how such other terms acquire their meaning, and so does not need the “idealized” historical account of meaning offered (concocted?) by classical empiricism.
Restructuring religion in this form (theoretically) would quickly reveal that it has a myriad of expressions, like the recent expressions of theoretical physics. Each little variation in the matrix creates a variant theory, and successive stages of what we call “one theory” could be tracked. We can see immediately that approximate answers are available to such questions as whether Muslims worship the same God that Christians do; this question is comparable to ones about various theories of electrons. The most pressing question about religion is not about meaning, then, but whether any of its variants has a realization, i.e., a set of objects of which the theory is true. Atheism asserts that no variation on the theory has a realization, just as no realization exists of any theory postulating the existence of phlogiston. Atheism’s presumption of omniscience is here in clear view.
Naturalists could vigorously employ eliminativism and identity theories in order to show that religion has no data for advancing its theory. This has already been done, e.g., by replacing demon possession with mental illness, and by bringing basic biology to those Islanders described by Bronislaw Malinowski a century ago who thought that (human) conception resulted from a visiting baloma (spirit). We might wonder whether any phenomena exist for which the theory of spirits still has value.
Emma Heathcote-James, formerly of the University of Birmingham, researched contemporary (alleged) encounters with angels for her doctoral degree. Of the 800 reports she collected, one reported that people in a church in England, including its rector, saw a being they consider to have been an angel during baptism (Seeing Angels). Carol Midgley, a reporter from The London Times also made contact with the rector, who said:
“Suddenly there was a man in white standing in front of the font about 18 inches away. He was a man but he was totally, utterly different from the rest of us. He was wearing something long, like a robe, but it was so white it was almost transparent. He was just looking at us. It was the most wonderful feeling. Not a word was spoken; various people began to touch their arms because it felt like having warm oil poured over you. The children came forward with their mouths wide open. Then all of a sudden, I suppose it was a few seconds, but time seemed to stop; the angel was gone. Everyone who was there was quite convinced that the angel came to encourage us” (The Vancouver Sun, December 12, 2000).
Shared visual experiences of events that penetrate the ordinary space-time-causal world imply that the being that appears is real, whatever its microstructure (if it has one). This experience, moreover, offers a tantalizing link between such events and mere subjective feelings – “having warm oil poured over you” – which is all, perhaps, the most religious persons ever experience.
This data item is experiential in character, not experimental, but religion might be implicated in an Order of reality that is primarily personal in character, not public, and unwilling to submit to the control that humans insist on exercising in their experimental studies? The data-base from Heathcote-James is impressive, but the data-base for apparitions is many times larger, as is that for near-death experience. We are not describing one-off phenomena here, but bodies of data for which theories involving spirits have been conjectured and still carry some weight. Some theorists see the focus of religion as best applied to ancient texts, as though texts can tell us everything important about religion. I suggest that substantial additional value can be found in the exact study of paranormal phenomena, which remain the life-blood of religion.