Leonard Angel on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

Leonard AngelLeonard Angel is Instructor Emeritus at Douglas College, Department of Philosophy and Humanities. We invited him to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Physical Closure And Spirituality 

Everyone is interested in spirituality.

Ask a few questions and you’ll find that the majority of all philosophers accept physical closure or physical completeness (“or physical completeness” will be henceforth removed). The analytic philosophers are included in “all.” That means that physical closure must be consistent with, somehow conceived, spirituality. How would it be so conceived?

The non-breaking of physics’ formulas’ outcomes couldn’t be inconsistent with spirituality, supposedly, except for the view that physical closure implies physicalism, and physicalism is inconsistent with spirituality. Let’s look at that supposed exception.

Physicalism is a metaphysics, which seems to be inconsistent with spirituality. Spirituality seems to require a “realm of spirit.” Physicalism says that all is made out of physics’ particles. Physicalism seems to be inconsistent with a “realm of spirit,” which seems to require pure spirit.

In response, one could say that it is merely an impression that there is a requirement of pure spirit; suppose the spirit realm is compositional. Suppose the spirit realm is made up of material parts put together in a way that makes for a “realm of spirit.” “Compositionality” seems to be a technicality, undoing the supposed exception.

Physical closure means, the non-breaking of physics’ formulas’ outcomes. Therefore, physical closure should be consistent with spirituality. What follows says a lot: “somehow conceived” (in the second paragraph) is clear enough.

The consistency between physical closure, on the one side, and spirituality, on the other, is related to how people behave in the world. While recognizing that physical closure exists, people don’t go trumpeting the news to others. They’re quiet about it. They trust that physical closure obtains, and that others will accept it at their own pace. While recognizing that science is, shall we say, strong, they don’t go about trumpeting the news. They trust in the strength of science. They let others accept science’s strength, at their own pace.

Spirituality is not dependent on one particular religion’s doctrines. That’s why physical closure is important: it shows the religions to be in a group that has no use for science, which is okay. The main religions of the world are in a group in which one leads to another; and the other leads to still another, and so on. But, at some point, the first will be led back to. The main religions of the world are in a group in which each finds spirituality in its own way, and yet has doctrines that are suspicious.

Let’s go farther than that: each main religion of the world is heretical. This means each main religion of the world is, in its own terms, heretical. So it is that physical closure shows something significant: if the world is physically closed, so that mathematical physics is not broken by any event, natural (or supernatural), then spirituality, being compositional, is freely available, and can be found by anyone.

What philosophy of religion brings to universities is what the large majority of philosophical analysts already know, that physical closure, in the world, obtains. That leaves room for spirituality to be compositional and freely available. Anyone can find it. That allows members of the large majority of philosophical analysts to pursue spirituality. That’s something that everyone wants.

There was a lot about philosophers in the preceding material. But why focus on philosophy?

There are many reasons. Philosophy used to be the queen of the sciences. In the Middle Ages, there were public debates about religions, and philosophers played important roles. Once, until about 1960, there were world-famous philosophers. Now if one tries to think of one, one can do no better than Dan Dennett, a famous philosopher of mind, who happens to be a well-known secular humanist, too. In about twenty years, if the current pattern continues, there will be no world-famous philosophers, as Bertrand Russell or Jean-Paul Sartre were.

But philosophy can regain what it has lost.

Universal acceptance of physical closure would do it. Physical closure, as we’ve seen, implies physicalism. And physicalism makes the world’s basics physical particles. That’s how the current paradigm shifts: now, the world is philosophical, and (many don’t realize this) disputatious; but, in the future, the world will have become, in its basics, non-disputatious.

Sciences are important: scientists tend to be interviewed before philosophers. But sciences make the world, in its basics, less disputatious than it used to be. Physical closure or completeness relates the sciences to each other. The sciences have a hierarchy, and math-physics is at the bottom. No one knows what’s at the top.

Physics was mathematized some time in the 1600s, due to Galileo and Isaac Newton. Chemistry was physicalized by about 1930. Paul Dirac and Linus Pauling can be credited with this. Paul Dirac announced that nothing in chemistry broke what was a physical law, in 1929, and Linus Pauling, wrote a text about this in the early 1930s. Biology was physio-chemicalized by 1965, due to the discovery of the ordinary but complex chemistry underlying DNA, in 1953 by Francis Crick, and James Watson, and many other discoveries. And the human & social sciences – including history, political science, psychology, sociology, anthropology – were biologized.  But this is implicit, rather than explicit. It could be after Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859, but in the 1800s; it could be in the 1900s as Philip Lieberman thought, thinking about a seemingly different topic, human language acquisition; it could be in the 2000s, as Steven Pinker thought about human language acquisition; it could be in the future, having not happened yet. Whether it has happened or not depends on one’s views on human language acquisition, the apparently different topic.

Perhaps spirituality, too, will pick up something from the development of physical closure. This would be the close relationship of the sciences. Spirituality may become less disputatious than it has been. That, too, would be good.

Gregory Dawes on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

gregory dawesGregory Dawes is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at University of Otago in New Zealand. We invited him to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

What can philosophy of religion offer to the university? As it stands, I am sorry to say, not a great deal. But it could make an important contribution, if it were broadened and reshaped.

The problems facing the discipline have been highlighted by a number of recent scholars, including Wesley Wildman, Kevin Schilbrack, Timothy Knepper, and Nick Trakakis. Following in the footsteps of Schilbrack, I shall highlight two problems: its narrowness and its intellectualism.

1. Narrowness

The narrowness of the field is its most obvious characteristic. What is called philosophy of religion would more accurately be described as a philosophy of Christian theism. Both non-theistic conceptions of divinity and non-classical conceptions of God receive short shrift.

Take, for instance, the alternative conceptions of divinity found within the world’s religions. I know of only one textbook (Keith Yandell’s) that takes seriously what it calls “non-monotheistic conceptions of ultimate reality.” Even then, its discussion of alternatives is limited to the conceptions of Brahman found in the Advaita traditions of Hinduism and the conceptions of the self and the world found within Buddhism. It fails to take seriously the many polytheistic or animistic traditions of the world, as well as religious practices such as the veneration of ancestors.

It may be that, philosophically speaking, there is little to be said in favour of animism, polytheism, or ancestor worship. But this needs to be demonstrated rather than merely assumed. In any case, there are surely philosophical arguments in favour of modern alternatives to traditional theism, such as the “process theology” of Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne. One such alternative, entitled “ultimism,” has been developed recently by John Schellenberg. Once again, however, Schellenberg’s work is an outlier in the field; alternatives to Christian theism are rarely treated as worthy of equal consideration.

Practitioners of the discipline often argue that their focus is not merely Christian theism but what they call “classical theism.” This is, they argue, a rational reconstruction of the central beliefs of three religious traditions, namely Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In practice, however, few philosophers express any interest in religions other than Christianity. They may make the occasional reference to Maimonides or Avicenna, but the scope of their inquiry rarely strays beyond Christian thought.

2. Intellectualism

A second problem highlighted by Schilbrack’s work is that the philosophy of religion is “intellectualist,” unjustifiably concerned with the doctrinal dimension of religion. Religions, of course, have many dimensions. Ninian Smart famously identified six more: the mythic or narrative, the experiential or emotional, the ethical or legal, the ritual, the social, and the material. Each of these raises questions of interest to philosophers.

A focus on the doctrinal dimension of religion gives rise to a number of problems. The first has to do with whose doctrines are studied. In focusing on “classical theism,” philosophers limit themselves, in effect, to the professed beliefs of a certain educated (Christian) élite. So not only is the philosophy of religion narrowly focused on classical theism, but it neglects many of the beliefs that devotees have actually held. Philosophers assume, for instance, that God is thought to be “without a body.” But Mormons, for example, disagree. They are by no means alone in the history of religions. Epicureans held a similar view.

By focusing on professed beliefs, philosophers also neglect those doctrines that are embedded in narratives, enacted in laws, and performed in ritual and song. Many forms of religion, as R. R. Marett remarked, are “not so much thought out as danced out.” But one would never know this from reading philosophy of religion texts. The Eastern Orthodox liturgy, for instance, is richly expressive of beliefs about human beings and their relation to the divine, expressed not just in words but in ritual and architecture. Which philosophers are studying those doctrines?

The philosophy of religion is intellectualist in another sense, in that its focus has been on the arguments that can be produced for or against classical theism. But in making this its focus, it tacitly assumes what many religious thinkers deny. It assumes that philosophical reason is an appropriate way to attain knowledge of the divine. Even philosophically minded believers recognize other sources of religious knowledge, such as divine revelation and mystical “knowledge by acquaintance.” But many religious thinkers simply deny that philosophical reason has any role in this domain. Martin Luther described philosophy as “the devil’s greatest whore.” Al-Ghazālī held that the truths vital for the religious life can be known only by revelation. Both Śaṅkara and Rāmānuja insisted that only the scriptures are a public, authoritative source of vidyā (saving knowledge). If the philosophy of religion is to be the philosophy of religion, it must take such views seriously.

3. A Solution

Given the narrowness and intellectualism of the field, it is far from clear that it should be called “the philosophy of religion” at all. Since it is focused almost exclusively on theistic arguments, and since these are produced largely by Christian apologists, it would be more accurately described as “the philosophy of Christian apologetics.”

It could, however, be broadened, to cover the beliefs of a variety of religious traditions and to embrace the other dimensions of religion. If it were broadened in this way, it could be a vibrant field of study, with real contributions to make to other university disciplines. Philosophers could join hands with those engaged in the exploration of Chinese, Hindu, and Buddhist philosophical texts, within religious studies or area studies programs. They could also contribute to the work of those trying to understand religion as a cultural phenomenon: anthropologists, cognitive scientists, and historians.

A declaration of interest. I have a short book in press entitled Religion, Philosophy, and Knowledge, which sets out a different way of practising the philosophy of religion. It is only one such alternative and there are surely many others. But I hope it demonstrates what our discipline could contribute, if it were suitably reformed.

Timothy Knepper on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

Timothy KnepperTimothy Knepper is professor of philosophy and chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Drake University. We invited him to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Specifying what philosophy of religion has to offer to the modern university requires understanding what philosophy of religion is. For the purposes of this short essay, I take philosophy of religion to be the understanding and evaluation of religious reason-giving. The first part of this formula—understanding and evaluation—is shorthand for my fourfold method and goals for doing philosophy of religion: (1) thick description, yielding empathetic and contextual understanding; (2) formal comparison, producing important and interesting similarities and differences; (3) multi-disciplinary explanation, giving reasons for the similarities and differences produced by the comparison; (4) crucial evaluation, raising traditional philosophical questions about the meaning, value, and truth of the form of religious reason-giving in comparative perspective. The second part of my formula—religious reason-giving—embeds two chief assumptions: first, that philosophy of religion investigates actual instances of religious reason-giving, not ahistorical generalities; second, the philosophy of religion investigates religious reason-giving in all religious traditions and communities, or at least in a cultural and religious diversity of religious traditions and communities.

Not only does specifying what philosophy of religion has to offer to the modern university presuppose an understanding of philosophy of religion; it also presupposes an understanding of the modern university. For better or worse, I have taught at only one university, Drake University, a mid-sized, private university in the Midwest. My department is a joint philosophy and religion department, offering undergraduate degrees only in philosophy and religion. My understanding of the modern university is formed by my experiences at Drake, especially Drake’s mission, which is “to provide an exceptional learning environment that prepares students for meaningful personal lives, professional accomplishments, and responsible global citizenship.”

For me, philosophy of religion’s contribution to the third of these aspirations—responsible global citizenship—is most obvious. Philosophy of religion offers empathetic and contextual understanding of the reasons and ideas that a cultural-religious diversity of religious traditions and communities give and use to understand who they are and how to live their lives. Philosophy of religion, at least as I practice it, helps students come to see these reasons and ideas as constituting living worldviews that make claims about what is real, true, and good. Moreover, such a philosophy of religion wrestles with issues regarding how people of different religious realities, truths, and values coexist peacefully and respectfully in a “global world.” For all these reasons, philosophy of religion plays a unique and indispensable role in the modern university’s goal of educating responsible global citizens.

For many philosophers of religion, philosophy of religion’s most unique and indispensable contribution to the modern university, at least in terms of Drake’s mission, involves meaningful personal lives. Philosophy of religion’s contribution to this goal is indeed important; for it is in philosophy of religion classes that students reflect in rigorous and disciplined ways about questions regarding their own religious beliefs and practices, or lack thereof. Unfortunately, though, traditional philosophy of religion often remains aloof to the reasons that religious practitioners actually employ in their religious lives, preferring instead the reasons of the western philosophical canon. If philosophy of religion were to take these everyday, ordinary reasons more seriously, it could potentially have an even greater impact in cultivating meaningful personal lives in its students in the modern university.

Finally, there is professional accomplishments. Of course, philosophy of religion contributes to the professional accomplishments of students pursuing philosophy of religion. Less obviously, philosophy of religion contributes to the professional accomplishments in religious studies and philosophy, although there are scholars of religion and philosophers who would no doubt argue differently. In the former case, philosophy of religion contributes an awareness of the nature and function of reason giving in religion, which is not nearly as attenuated as some scholars of religion want to believe. Moreover, philosophy of religion, at least as I understand it, takes up critical questions of method and theory in religious studies. In the latter case of philosophy, a philosophy of religion that pays attention to the historical forms of religious reason-giving could have the same kind of ripple effect as Thomas Kuhn had outside the philosophy of science and Ludwig Wittgenstein had outside the philosophy of language. Regardless, given that religion is something humans do, much like science and art, philosophy of religion can contribute to the philosopher’s quest to understand reason-giving and rationality more generally. But philosophy of religion is of use in the professional accomplishments of far more than just scholars of religion and philosophers. In many cases these contributions are no different than those of religious studies and philosophy more generally—critical thinking and analysis for lawyers and natural scientists, global and multicultural understanding for educators and social scientists. But philosophy of religion has a distinct contribution to professions that are somehow involved in religious reason-giving—fields related to anthropology, sociology, political science, international relations, psychology, and so forth.

If I have one concern about these contributions, it is not that philosophy of religion is unable in principle to make them, but that philosophy of religion is unwilling in practice to do so—that philosophy of religion is understood and practiced in such a way that it only considers the rationality of ahistorical theism or postmodern philosophy. It is time that philosophy of religion be understood and practiced much more globally and historically than this.

Keith Parsons on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

Keith ParsonsKeith Parsons is professor of philosophy at University of Houston, Clear Lake. We invited him to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

What does the philosophy of religion offer to the modern university? The answer is “not much” or “a great deal,” depending upon what kinds of intellectual activities and inquiries are covered by the “philosophy of religion” rubric. For quite some time, academic philosophy of religion has largely comprised a program of theistic apologetic and anti-theistic critique. Theistic philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, William Lane Craig, Robin Collins, and Edward Feser have offered defenses of the truth and/or rationality of theism. Non-theist philosophers such as Paul Draper, J.L. Schellenberg, Graham Oppy, Jordan Howard Sobel, and Michael Martin have criticized those theistic arguments and proposed various atheological arguments, i.e. arguments against the truth and/or rationality of theism. These debates have been carried out at a highly sophisticated level, often employing such tools as modal logic and Bayesian confirmation theory, while being deeply informed by such fields as physical cosmology and theoretical physics.

And what has been the result of these learned discussions? I agree with John Hick’s assessment in An Interpretation of Religion. The result is stalemate. Hick argues, cogently in my view, that neither side has established its case with finality, and that the upshot appears to be that the universe admits of either a naturalistic or a religious interpretation. That is, neither side can show that the other is committed to claims that are absurd, irrational, or in any sense epistemically censurable. This does not imply a wishy-washy relativism or a feckless neutralism. On the contrary, one may still be a committed theist or atheist, convinced by the arguments for your side. However, one must admit that those arguments, however persuasive they seem to you, are neither apodictic nor irrefragable, and that the opposing view may be articulated in ways that are consistent, coherent, and compatible with the empirical evidence. In Hick’s terms, the universe is “religiously ambiguous;” it may reasonably be regarded as a causally-closed and explanatorily self-sufficient physical whole, or it may, equally reasonably, be taken as pointing to a transcendent aspect, a “Real” beyond or beneath the physical.

The upshot, as I see it, is that the ancient debate between theists and non-theists has pretty much played out, and is no longer deserving of the massive amount of intellectual effort, time, and energy that has been devoted to it for several centuries. The project of natural theology, or natural atheology, has now reached a point of exhaustion. Both sides have had a full and fair say, using arguments that are as sophisticated and articulate as we are likely to get. Enough. No doubt the question of the existence of the theistic God will continue to be hashed and re-hashed ad nauseam for the foreseeable future in one venue or another (largely online, I would think). However, it is now time for the philosophy of religion, as an academic discipline, to move on to other, perhaps more fruitful, lines of inquiry if it wishes to retain relevance and make a genuine intellectual contribution.

What, then, would a rejuvenated and progressive program in the philosophy of religion look like? First, it will have to be genuinely pluralistic. I am not here offering a sort of knee-jerk paean to multi-culturalism of the kind we often hear in academic contexts. It is simply the case that there are many deep issues in such traditions as Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and other non-Judeo-Christian contexts that could lend themselves to rigorous investigations using the potent tools and techniques of analytic philosophy. Such concepts as dharma, karma, and moksha would richly repay study and attempted elucidation by Western philosophers. Issues now regarded as largely internal to religions could be made topics of broader study. For instance, how, really, should we understand the relations between sharia law and the secular, liberal, and pluralistic aspirations of democratic societies? Philosophy could offer responsible analysis beyond the vacuous polemic and censure that now dominate such discussions. Is religious pluralism of the sort that Hick advocated a viable and reasonable program? Is any form of religious exclusivism or particularism still plausible, or are these merely expressions of religious imperialism or chauvinism?

What about the concept of secularism? Under the influence of Enlightenment values, liberals have long argued for secular societies, but are they really possible? Might not secularism itself be rife with myths, contradictions, and absurdities, as philosophers such as Charles Taylor have argued? Also, issues in the relationship between science and religion continue to arise. While historians of science have long since rejected the old “warfare” view that the relation between science and religion is a zero-sum game, it is not clear that there are no points of conflict. For instance, discoveries of neuroscience appear to flatly conflict with religious interpretations of human nature, meaning, and significance. Does neuroscience imply the radically deflationary view of humanity proposed, e.g., by Alex Rosenberg, or is Owen Flanagan right that much of traditional teaching can be retained, if only in modified form?

One issue of particular interest to me is whether it is now possible to have a rational paganism and what it would look like. Recent decades have seen a remarkable resurgence of pagan traditions and practice. Some of this is rather silly, an excrescence of shallow “New Age” pseudo-spirituality. On the other hand, in Reykjavik, Iceland, there is now a temple to the Norse gods, who are being worshipped again for the first time in a thousand years. Now, while I take it for granted that few now literally believe in hammer-wielding Thor smiting the giants or in one-eyed Odin riding his six-legged horse, pagan traditions encompassed profound concepts, often in nascent form. For instance, pagan traditions are at least implicitly pantheistic, and the prospects for genuinely pantheistic religiosity should be explored.

In short, when we conceive of getting past the hackneyed theist/atheist stalemate, many possibilities for new and exciting inquiry open up. If philosophy of religion can move into these much more spacious realms, it will have much in the way of intellectually exciting discussion to enrich the modern university.