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.

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