Scott Smith on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Scott Smith is Professor of Ethics and Christian Apologetics at Biola 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.

One of the most fundamental, operating assumptions in academic religious studies is that religion basically is a construct, whether by individuals or social groups. While philosophers from different conceptual paradigms differ about this assumption, nonetheless it still seems that the majority of philosophers, being naturalists, embrace what is known as the fact-value split. On that view, religion does not give us knowledge; rather, it gives us personal opinions, values, preferences, and our constructs.

Yet, a virtue of good philosophy is a willingness to subject our assumptions to rigorous debate. I suggest this same mindset should be applied to this widely held assumption about religious knowledge.

Now, in this short essay, it is not feasible to make a full evaluation of the fact-value split. (I have addressed it more thoroughly, however, in two books, Naturalism and Our Knowledge of Reality: Testing Religious Truth-claims (Routledge, 2012), and In Search of Moral Knowledge: Overcoming the Fact-Value Dichotomy (IVP, 2014).) Nevertheless, here I want to suggest that science, if based on naturalism, cannot give us knowledge at all. That undermines the “fact” side of the split.

But, clearly, we do have knowledge of many things, including in science. I will suggest that happens, however, due to the existence of nonnatural entities, which naturalism cannot countenance. What, then, is needed to exist in order for us to have knowledge? Here, I suggest that the best explanation for these nonnatural, universal qualities is that they are grounded in God. If so, I suggest that this would provide knowledge in the area of religion. (I also think we can have moral knowledge, too, though that is an argument to be made in another place).

Consider the ontological resources naturalism has to give us knowledge. In his book, The Intentional Stance, Daniel Dennett has developed this tactic which he advocates to interpret the behavior of “intentional systems” (humans, frogs, computers, etc.). Dennett treats mental content functionally; thoughts, beliefs, desires, purposes, and other mental states, along with their intentionality, are just attributions from the intentional stance to predict behavior. There are only brain states, physical patterns, and behavior that we take, or interpret, to be about something.

Furthermore, for Dennett, there are no “deeper facts” beyond behavior as to what someone “really had in mind” when behaving in some way, precisely because there are no essences. Yet, he admits that if there were essences, there could be deeper facts as to what someone meant. There also could be a fact of the matter, beyond interpretation, what that person’s (alleged) mental state really was of or about.

This makes sense on naturalism, and not merely Dennett’s particular views. For on naturalism, there are no intrinsically mental entities. Nor is there anything intrinsically intentional. Still, we may conceive of, or treat, something as intentional, much like Dennett does.

But, we should notice that Dennett’s own views seem to presuppose the reality of intentionality. For when he and others engage in observations of behaviors of some system, it seems those observations need intentionality themselves, and not merely an attribution thereof. Moreover, his attributions, which are interpretations of behavior, also seem to require real intentionality; otherwise, how could these be about the behavior?

Even more importantly, without any essences (or “deeper facts”) to thoughts, beliefs, or even Dennett’s interpretations, it always will be an open question what some behavior “means.” Without any intrinsic qualities, there will not be any intrinsic qualities to a behavior, or an intrinsic meaning of a text. Moreover, thoughts are brain-writings, and thus they are just as subject to interpretation as any other text.

So, as Dennett hints, but apparently does not fully realize, his views are subject to the same indefiniteness of interpretation as the views of Jacques Derrida. It seems that for Dennett, like Derrida, that everything is interpretation. Yet, if that is the case, we face the prospects of an infinite regress of interpretations, making us unable even to get started.

To stress, Dennett admits why this happens – if there were essences, such as the intrinsic intentionality of some thought, interpretation, or observation, there would be a deeper fact of what it really is about. But, on naturalism, there are no essences.

However, if we pay attention to what is before us in conscious awareness, I think we can become aware that (for example) our thoughts really do have intentionality, and they have it intrinsically. For it seems we cannot have a thought that is not about something, whether or not that thing obtains in reality. I can think of Pegasus, even though Pegasus does not obtain. Also, consider a thought of a Starbuck’s Mocha Frappuccino®. It does not seem that thought could be about something else (say, a soccer match) and still be the same thought. Instead, the thought of the soccer match would be a different thought. Thoughts seem to have their intentional contents intrinsically.

The same seems to apply to interpretations and beliefs. But, without real intentionality, and real essences, it seems there will not be any real interpretations or beliefs. Moreover, propositional knowledge also seems to require intentionality, but without it, there will not be such knowledge.

I suggest that naturalism lacks the ontology needed for us to have knowledge of reality. But, since the “fact” side of the split seems to trade upon a naturalistic ontology, this finding should undermine the split. However, I have suggested that knowledge requires the reality of essences. What might be their best explanation? While they might be brute facts, I suggest that would be rather odd, given how they seem to enable us to know reality. Essences, however, would fit within the ontological and design implications of theism.

Now, clearly, I have been able to make only suggestions. Much more work needs to be done in this area. But, I think that a criterion for good philosophy of religion should be a willingness to question some of our deepest assumptions, and I have sought to motivate that study regarding the deeply entrenched fact-value split.

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