Donald Blakeley on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Donald Blakeley is emeritus professor of philosophy at California State University, Fresno and adjunct lecturer in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. 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 that characterize excellent philosophy of religion are usually thought to be the norms that characterize philosophy as a discipline. Since philosophy may function in constructive system-building (speculative, worldview) ways as well as critical or analytical ways, two different but overlapping sets of norms are generally observed.

The constructive (system-building) work includes explanations about the nature of reality, knowledge, human nature, the good life, and the good society. The norms would include clarity, comprehensiveness, adequacy, precision, coherence, consistency and the capacity to defend what is being maintained.

Norms of analytic work include attention to logical principles and fallacies in reasoning (argument, justification), attention to semiotic (syntactic, semantic, pragmatic) functions in communication, and the investigation of the meaning of particular (or clusters) of concepts wherever these may occur, including the nature of their referential intention.

What today are identified as religions (or, more generally, spiritual options for living) have developed their own distinctive philosophical commitments involving assumptions, sources, methods, norms and goals. As components of a religion, these religious philosophies themselves have their own standards and provide the subject matter for independent (etic) philosophical investigation, i.e., philosophy of religion. Philosophy functions comparably in other fields as philosophy of science, history, et al.

If philosophy on its own strives for the wisdom to understand (intellectually) and achieve a well-functioning life (practically), religions want more. Assurance is desired that some ultimate reality will serve as the foundation for meaning and value and function as a resource to fulfill human needs and aspirations. The terminus has many names: God/Allah, Brahman, Dao, the One, Taiji, sunyata, Waheguru, supreme mystery, and numerous others. Common human issues such as death, justice, freedom, self, time, truth, and love have a place and meaning determined by the individual religious philosophy.

The conceptual structures (belief systems) vary greatly. Each involve the cultivation of subtle and complex sensibilities expressed in various practices. Their ideas and values operate within a specific linguistic and cultural history. A philosophical analyst should be attentive to and carefully track the distinctive “logic” and language employed by a religion, the way its concerns actually operate. Testing the viability of religions can benefit the distinctive efforts of both philosophy and religion.

This task, daunting as it may be, is especially so when attempting to engage in comparative analysis of religion(s). A wider perspective, however, decreases the hazards of parochial or sectarian analysis. In the West, philosophy of religion has focused mainly on monotheisms. As a matter of fair and informed analysis today, it must acknowledge and operate in the context of religious diversity, becoming familiar with the constructive and analytic resources of non-Western perspectives.

The role of authority assumed in religions, resting on materials (texts, etc.), special persons, or historical occurrences, is conferred because the sources provide access to what is considered to be experientially edifying. The beliefs advocated are assumed to be true and right because they confirm what is fundamentally real and of utmost value. Philosophy of religion challenges such claims not with anti-religious bias but as a matter defined by principles of responsible thinking.

The roles of reason, belief, and justification in each religion have an important and distinctive place. Reasoning is a part of any religion, even as its competence is assessed differently in religions. Beliefs of some kind are needed to guide thinking and action. Reasoning functions to make clear basic commitments and their implications—even as studies show that much decision-making is influenced by other forces. Being religious involves adopting ideas and values, encouraging the establishment of dispositions to think, feel, and act. Beliefs without rational or empirical warrant, based on faith or conviction, simply beg questions that need to be addressed. Such should not be considered meritorious.

Religion cannot be limited to arguments nor can the value of intuition, feelings, emotions, and hopes be dismissed. Since interpretation is unavoidable and because much is at stake, critical analysis should not be sidelined. Even when the very capacity to reason is taken to be limited and fallible, there needs nevertheless to be reasons against reasons, arguments against arguments. Believing to generate an experience that will confirm a belief itself requires further evidence, expertise in the dynamics of belief formation, confirmation bias, and so on.

When a religion says: “Engage in these practices and stop thinking,” etc., this injunction itself depends on beliefs about the importance of such advice. In this sense, there are no religions without beliefs. Claims like “Reason is the devil, a whore, an obstacle, a deceptive distraction,” etc., would depend on reasons and beliefs to make intelligible the position advocated. Judgments about the inadequacies of reason have led to the advocacy of trans-reasoning (faith, passion) or anti-reasoning (“because it is absurd”) or no-reasoning (“empty the mind”) positions, the consequences of which deserve careful consideration.

Religions depend on their own relatively autonomous identity which secures their character and immunizes them from outside (philosophical, scientific, and other) disturbances. This can lead to religious exclusivism where only one religion is true or religious inclusivism where one religion (or perspective on religions) weighs other religions as being of lesser value than the true religion, or to religious plurality (perhaps relativism) where all religions have their truth and value in their own way for those who need and benefit from them.

Because of unprecedented contact in media today, dealing with religious diversity is imperative. Any serious encounter with practitioners of religious worldviews cannot help but be impressed by the thoughtful and heartfelt devotion to the realization of common human aspirations. As important as this is, however, it is limited. The contact and sharing in respectful ways function in very different ideological contexts, with different rationales and destinations.

These comments indicate operational norms typical of philosophy of religion. The place of critical thinking, doubting, standards of evidence, verification, and justification varies in religions, but it has been an essential part of philosophy.

Current challenges for philosophy of religion today include ongoing considerations about the interface between epistemology and metaphysics (or ontology). Post-Kantian responses seen in existentialism, phenomenology, hermeneutics, semiotics, pragmatism, and ongoing debates between realists, anti-realists, new realists and others have important implications for religious philosophies which depend on realist assumptions.

Outside philosophy and religion, evolutionary neuroscience, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, linguistics, and other developments are challenging traditional understandings of the meanings and assumed mechanisms that support religious and philosophical ways of knowing and living. This new environment raises serious questions about how to interpret reality, human nature, self-identity, values, and social-political affairs. It challenges the assumptions made by religions that they can provide answers to the big questions and supply remedies for the needs of humanity that are not otherwise available.

Stanley Tweyman on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Stanley Tweyman is University Professor of Humanities and Graduate Philosophy at York University, Canada. 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.

Hume’s Excellence regarding the Cosmological – Ontological Proof of God’s Existence.

In this blog, I propose to examine one of David Hume’s criticisms of the Cosmological – Ontological proof of God’s existence, a criticism which I will show is decisive against this argument.

First, the argument. Any object that currently exists is related causally to a chain or succession of objects which extends back to infinity. Demea (the one who presents this argument) argues that, although particular members in the chain or succession can be accounted for by reference to earlier members in the chain, nevertheless, two questions remain unanswered: “Why is there something rather than nothing?”, and “Why does this particular succession of causes exist rather than some other, or no succession at all?” Demea contends that these are legitimate causal questions, which can only be answered by making a modal leap. Since no contingent being can account for the eternal (backward) chain of causes and effects (any such contingent being would be a member of the succession and, therefore, part of the problem), and since we cannot explain the chain through either Chance (chance for Hume means no cause, and Demea regards this as meaningless, and, therefore, unintelligible) or Nothing (ex nihilo nihil fuit), Demea concludes that we can explain the infinite or eternal succession only by having recourse to “a necessarily existent Being, who carries the REASON of his existence in himself; and who cannot be supposed not to exist without an express contradiction” (D. 149). According to Demea, therefore, the eternally contingent must be grounded in the eternally necessary.

I now turn to the criticism of this argument, which I regard as decisive:

“Add to this, that in tracing an eternal success of objects, it seems absurd to enquire for a general cause or first author. How can any thing, that exists from eternity, have a cause, since that relation implies a priority in time and a beginning of existence?” (D.150).

As everyone knows, Hume is adamant that we never understand the powers of objects through which they act as causes of certain effects. Hume is equally adamant that designating an object as a cause, and another as effect, requires seeing objects of those types constantly conjoined. In one respect, constant conjunction assists us by generating the habit or determination of the mind, so that we naturally associate the cause with the effect (this, in the language of the Treatise, is causality as a ‘natural relation’). In so far as causality is viewed as a ‘philosophical relation’ (once again, utilizing the language of the Treatise), the importance of constant conjunction is this: even though we lack any insight into causal power, the constant conjunction between objects convinces us of the causal relevancy of one object to another. The powers of the first object, although unknown, appear to be directed to the production of, or a change in, the second object.

Applying this analysis of the importance of constant conjunction to ascriptions of causality to our discussion, we can understand the full weight of Cleanthes’/ Hume’s criticism in the eighth paragraph of Part 9. The most useful way of developing what I have to say here is to revisit Demea’s argument, at the point at which he seeks to answer the questions: why is there something rather than nothing; and why does this particular succession of causes exist from all eternity rather than some other, or no succession at all? As we have seen in the second paragraph above, Demea offers four possible explanations. The elimination of the first three, he urges, leaves us with the fourth: the only reasonable explanation as to why there is something rather than nothing, and why there is what there is rather than something else, is that a necessarily existent being exists, who is the cause of the world, as we know it.

But this is where Demea errs, given Cleanthes’ criticism in paragraph 8 of Part 9. Given the Cleanthean/ Humean account of causality, establishing a necessarily existent being as the cause of the eternal chain of causes and effects would require the observation of constant conjunction between this being and the causal chain – this is required in order to establish the causal relevancy of the existence of the one to the production and existence of the other. Since this requirement cannot be satisfied, Cleanthes is arguing that we cannot establish that a necessarily existent being is the cause of the eternal chain of causes and effects, even if the chain and its members are contingent, and even if we have eliminated the other three putative causes.

We can develop Cleanthes’ criticism even further. Assume for the moment that we already know (i.e. independently of Demea’s argument) that a necessary being exists, and that the eternal chain of causes is contingent. Following Cleanthes’ criticism in paragraph 8, which focuses on the role of constant conjunction, it would still be impossible for us, using Demea’s premises, to show that one is causally relevant or responsible for the other. Each would exist in a manner which appears to be incompatible with its having been caused. What exists in what we call the world might someday cease to exist, and in this respect, we might be tempted to say that what exists exists contingently. But even if this is true, Cleanthes/ Hume has established that the eternity of the world, at least in terms of its not having had a beginning, prevents us from proving that it was caused to exist. Accordingly, it may be the case that the eternal causal chain of which Demea speaks is contingent and uncaused, or at least from an epistemological point of view, must be so regarded.

Hume holds that his first argument against the Cosmological – Ontological Argument (concerning the non – demonstrability of existential statements) is “entirely decisive”, and he is “willing to rest the entire controversy upon it” (D.149). My point in this blog is that Hume understates the force of subsequent criticisms of this argument, inasmuch as at least one of these additional criticisms is decisive.

Clayton Crockett on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Clayton Crockett is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Central Arkansas. 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.

For me, values are contextual and relative to practice, rather than universal or apodictic. Norms and values that work best for philosophy of religion are shared with more general academic practices and disciplines, including critical thinking, rigorous scholarship, contribution to knowledge, and openness to alternative perspectives. Most academics, including philosophers of religion, desire that their work benefit society as a whole, but also understand the need to bracket such commitments at least in part for the sake of the integrity of their work. Philosophy of religion is not restricted to the academy, but it functions mainly in institutions connected to higher education.

The more specific values of philosophy of religion then pertain to the two terms, philosophy and religion. Philosophy is a more established discipline in the contemporary academy, although there remain many arguments and disputes about the best methodology and practice of philosophy. The predominant major language of philosophy is Anglo-analytic, although analytic philosophy is not so much an object of commitment as a heuristic language and tool to analyze, evaluate and argue about philosophical concepts. I claim that philosophy functions best when it operates in an environment of plurality that understands and affirms diverse languages and methods of theoretical reflection.

In the modern world, religion generally functions in tension with rational explanation, so a philosophy of religion is charged with explaining the unexplainable, at least apparently. Furthermore, academic religious studies is not a discipline, but rather an inter- or multi-disciplinary field of study. Religion as an object of philosophical (or any other disciplinary methodological) focus can easily be reduced and re-described in terms that are foreign to it. The challenge is to acknowledge both the complexity of the theoretical-philosophical analysis, as well as the complexity of the phenomenon that is being studied. For traditional analytic philosophy of religion, the preposition ‘of’ may function to colonize religion for the sake of philosophical understanding in a way that distorts the integrity of religion as an object of investigation.

In more Continental or existential terms, philosophy may risk going native, because it attempts to do justice to religion as religion, and expresses it in conceptual categories without reducing it to philosophical analysis. Some forms of Continental philosophy of religion operate essentially as religion or religious discourse, and fail to clearly demarcate the lines between philosophy of religion and religion as such. Here the challenge is to adopt and apply a clear philosophical methodology and rigor for defining, interpreting and understanding religion.

What is religion? The most common etymologies involve recourse to the Latin word religio, which in turn is related to religare, to re-bind, or relegere, to re-read. I propose that we consider both of these potential origins as a specific kind of relation. Relation, however, is not a repetition of an original action or lation. Relation is how we relate, or the ways in which we are implicated, enfolded, or entangled in phenomena. If we think about religion as a certain form of relation, then we can reflect on what religion shows or tells us about relations in general. Relations are connections, but they can also serve to disconnect. Religions connect and disconnect, in myriad ways.

We might say that religion tries to diagnose a problem or a disease that makes it harder to live in harmony with the ultimate reality in ontological or ethical terms. If there is a diagnosis, there must also be a prescription, whether or not a complete cure is possible, so there must be some things that religion proposes that humans can do to restore a healthier or more harmonious relationship. Relations, relationships, and religions change, which is both an obstacle and an opportunity. Nothing stays the same, at least in this world. How do relationships change their terms, and are there any things that exist prior to relations? These questions and reflections hopefully contribute to how we conceive of a good relationship, and address the question of what it means to live together.

This is an abstract language of relations and relationships that I am deploying to think about religion. There is no natural, neutral philosophical language in which to write about religion, or anything else for that matter. Words are not safe. Sometimes philosophers and other scholars of religion are tempted to regionalize religion, while universalizing philosophy or whatever methodological academic discourse is considered most effective. But religion is as universal and ontological as anything else, which means that it does not simply fit neatly within the parameters of any conceptual categorization.

For these reasons, I contend that awareness of complexity, humility, open-mindedness, creativity, and appreciation of novelty are as vital to the practice of philosophy of religion as conceptual analysis, honesty, clarity, and rigor. Along with our commitment to critical reflection, we need to be open to learning new things, not just new information about religion, but new modes of philosophical activity, appreciation, and understanding regarding what we conceive as religious. Our values change in relation to others(’). If we are sensitive to these transformations, we can aspire to excellence in the philosophy of religion.