Bryan Rennie is Professor of Religion at Westminster College. 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.
Many norms and values have potential to define excellent philosophy of religion. A great deal depends on the priorities of the particular scholar. For me, one of the foremost, and one of the most often overlooked, is simplicity. The description and analysis of as-yet ill-defined behaviors such as the religious all too easily becomes baroquely complex. More than just avoiding the unnecessary multiplication of theoretical entities good philosophizing should begin from simple and secure foundations. In this instance, the simple approach is first to establish the norms and values of good philosophy before complicating the issue by the application of that philosophy to a complex and contentious class like religion.
It is common knowledge that philosophy as we know it originated with the pre-Socratics in Ionian Greece and found exemplary form with Socrates in Periclean Athens. That form relies on sound argumentation. Socrates’ insight may be difficult for us to appreciate in hindsight. The Socratic elenchus leads to what must have been, in the fifth century B.C.E., dramatically counter-intuitive: knowledge of the truth does not come from people of wisdom and power. It does not come from the gods or from oracles. Instead, it comes from words, properly arranged in sound arguments. This must have seemed like sheerest magic, which accounts for the tragically fatal suspicion in which Socrates was held and the accusation of “making the weaker argument stronger” (Plato, Apology 19b). What he demonstrated was both that when even true premises are wrongly related, conclusions apparently drawn from them may be false, but also, alternatively, that when true premises are arranged in valid relations they entail a necessarily true conclusion. Thus, while words alone can lead to false claims, they can, in the right circumstances, yield genuine new knowledge. Surely, words alone—it must have seemed—can be relied upon to show nothing more than the creative skill of the speaker. Surely, while observation can reveal knowledge concerning empirical objects, knowledge of unobservables must come from some other source; from the sage, the oracle, the gods, or authoritative texts recording pre-existing gnosis. Not so, says Socrates. Knowledge of unobservables can be derived from properly arranged linguistic representations—no matter their source.
This is the defining feature of philosophy as a discipline. As Bertrand Russell said, “Philosophy, like all other studies, aims primarily at knowledge” (Problems of Philosophy, 154). It does not, however, do so by means of empirical observation, but seeks to uncover truths implicate in expressions of extant knowledge. Then, “as definite knowledge concerning any subject becomes possible, this subject ceases to be called philosophy, and becomes a separate science” (ibid.).
Socrates’ insight was formalized in Aristotelian logic, lost and found by the European academies, and led, infamously, to the various abuses of Mediaeval Theology. As the British historian of science, James Hannam says of the 14th century, “Students had logical constructions called syllogisms hammered into them until they could repeat them by heart” (The Genesis of Science, 151). So confident did European scholars become of syllogistic logic that they forgot its greatest stricture: in order to work, its premises must be true. Sensitivity to the form of valid argumentation cannot replace rigor in ascertaining the truth of all premises therein employed, truth ascertained by either empirical observation or by prior argumentation. The genealogies of almost all truths contain elements of both.
Where do these observations take us in philosophy of religion? First, we must recognize that any scholar attempting to reach conclusions based on anything other than direct observation and concerning anything other than observable data is doing philosophy. (That is one good reason is why most people who have a terminal degree in almost any discipline have a Philosophiae Doctoralis.) Anyone who makes claims about the origin or nature of religion is doing philosophy of religion since religion is not an observable entity but a taxonomic classification by which empirical observations can be organized. Since such scholars are doing philosophy of religion (whether they admit it or not) then it behooves them to do it right. This involves ensuring the truth of claims assumed as the premises.
Thereafter it is equally important that arguments constructed from corroborated truths are valid: Do our premises really entail our conclusions? Do we commit fallacies of reasoning such as irrelevant premises, perhaps invoking extensive knowledge of the evidence as itself support for the truth of conclusions? Charles Sanders Peirce in his 1877 essay “The Fixation of Belief” (Popular Science Monthly: 1-15, widely available online) with characteristic pragmatism uses the expression, “the fixation of belief,” to refer to the assertion of any claim. Such “fixation” may be permanent or it may be short-lived, but when we posit a conclusion with sincerity our doubts are satisfied and our belief fixed. Peirce describes four methods for the fixation of belief: tenacity, the a priori, authority, and the scientific method. Only the last is reliable, the first three being untrustworthy, leading to only temporary fixation of belief because they lack “any distinction of a right and a wrong way.” Peirce does not detail what “the scientific method” is, although he does say that “each chief step in science has been a lesson in logic.” Most importantly, he tells us what the “scientific” method is not. It does not propose conclusions based on resolve, on personal taste, or on the authority of their source. These are all fallacies of relevance, symptomatic of which is the strategy of beginning research with a single hypothesis and inspecting the data to see what can be used to corroborate that hypothesis. Instead the greatest possible spread of data must be admitted, and alternative hypotheses entertained so as to ascertain which of them is best corroborated by the greatest number of well-reasoned arguments.
Excellent philosophy of religion, then, requires the rigorous corroboration of assumed premises, that is, extensive and reliable knowledge of the history of religions. It requires a knowledge of logic, understood as the methods and principles distinguishing correct from incorrect argumentation. It requires scrupulous avoidance of fallacious reasoning, especially the retention of conclusions that have not been reached by sound argumentation but are held because of unwillingness to change or ignorance of viable alternatives, because of personal predilection, or because of deference to authority (one’s own or someone else’s). These fallacies have been prevalent in the philosophy of religion before now to the extent that the discipline became de facto theology (even “philosophical” theology). It is crucial, not only that we address that failure, but also that we avoid such fallacious reasoning in the general history of religion, which is in no wise immune from it because of its avowed secularity.