Sunday, 22 May 2016

Philipse on Theism - Preface

In God in the Age of Science?: A Critique of Religious Reason, Herman Philipse examines what he considers to be the best arguments for God today.

In the preface he notes that the arguments produced in analytic philosophy of religion in the last fifty years are worthy of consideration. His reasons for addressing religion are:

  1. The world's population is growing, and the demographics are against the secularist. The non-theist minority is getting smaller and smaller, in global terms.
  2. Globalisation means that cultures are mixing more, and this brings incompatible beliefs together more. The cognitive dissonance this produces causes more religious conflicts than we have seen in the past.

He also sets out his approach; he will be considering beliefs, not rituals; he doesn't want to be accused by believers of not attacking the best cases for theistic belief, so he will consider some of the arguments of D. Z. Phillips and Alvin Plantinga. He will spend most time, however, looking at the arguments for 'bare theism' by Richard Swinburne. This is because:

  1. The monotheism that Swinburne defends is common to the three great Judaeo-Christian religions.
  2. Swinburne's strategy seems the most promising to Philipse, since Swinburne pursues a natural theological approach to the question (compared with, for example, the foundationalist approach of Plantinga). As Philipse puts it, 'If he exists, that god is a divine person with many kinds of causal powers, whose existence can best be argued for on the basis of his alleged empirically detectable doings' (p.xiii).

Swinburne eschews a proof of God, but considers his existence highly probable.

Philipse notes that many religious beliefs have been refuted by modern science, such as origin of Earth stories, which means the 'intellectually responsible believer' cannot rely solely on scripture. For the believer, three interlocking dilemmas, he says, arise:

  1. Between (a) cognitive and (b) non-cognitive interpretations of religious beliefs. For example, does 'God exists' amount to a proposition that can be assessed for truth or falsity, or not? For an interesting discussion of non-cognitive approaches (often called Wittgensteinian), see this post by Stephen Law.
  2. If (a) is chosen, then between (c) evidential/rational support for beliefs, and (d) a non-evidential/rational approach. Under (d), Philipse will consider what he thinks is the most promising approach, offered by Plantinga, of a basic warrant for religious belief.
  3. If (c) is chosen, then between (e) following a method of gathering evidence and reasons that is 'quite unlike the methods used by scientists and scholars when they investigate a factual hypothesis of existence' (p.xv) and (f) following a method like the scientific methodology.
Philipse thinks that Swinburne offers the most sophisticated solution to dilemma 3 above, and, given the title of his book, this seems to be the best place to consider religious belief 'in the age of science'.

Part 1
In Chapter 1 he argues that religious faith can only be grounded by natural theology (that is, on the basis of natural facts).

In Chapter 2  he summarises the history of natural theology.

In Chapters 3 and 4 he addresses Plantinga's 'reformed objection' to natural theology.

In Chapter 5 he investigates the type of rationality in which natural theology should engage.

In Chapter 6 he considers if religious faith can be refuted, or not.

Part 2
Chapter 7 explores the problems that analogical language introduces for the religious believer.

Chapter 8 examines the properties of the putative monotheistic god.

In Chapter 9 considers the predictive power of the god hypothesis.

In Chapter 10, he sees if theism has predictive power, can it avoid being refuted?

Part 3
Chapter 11 examines the problems that face a Bayesian like Swinburne.

Chapters 12 to 14 consider the accumulative probabilistic arguments for theism.

In Chapter 15 he assesses the argument from religious experience.

The Conclusion then attempts, based on what has been discussed, to answer the question 'which view concerning religious matters has the best credentials: theism, agnosticism, some version of atheism, or perhaps a polytheistic creed?' (p.xvi).

What I think is excellent about the book is that, like a bus driver late for his dinner, Philipse relentlessly drives the reader towards a particular destination. This destination is atheistic, of course, as might be expected (he makes no bones about arguing from this viewpoint). This is probably a weakness too, since I'm sure many a theist reader will insist on stopping the bus and heading off down another road. For example, Jim Slegle in his review of the book accuses Philipse of not just adopting an atheistic approach, but a scientistic one, and of 'taking the unreflective, knee-jerk reaction to religious claims, ‘informed’ by the biases and urban myths of contemporary culture'. This seems an uncharitable interpretation to me, especially considering that Philipse is quite open about the project of assessing god based on modern science, which approach surely Swinburne and many theists would concur, to a degree?

More reasonably, Father Andrew Pinsent suggests that in discrediting the methods of theology Philipse is in danger of discrediting the sciences of more complex phenomena, such as biology and zoology, and the humanities in general. Which would include philosophy and presumably Philipse's own book too! Well, perhaps, and I know of a few atheists who would agree that philosophy should be jettisoned too, but I still think that rational analysis of concepts allied with an acknowledgement of the power of science can yield results, even if it struggles to be falsifiable (not the defining criterion of science, in my opinion). 

Pinsent concludes that Philipse attempts too much, and that may be a valid criticism. I found his reasons for the tight focus mostly convincing, so the book should still give theists pause to consider carefully the route they have followed in the past, and the one they follow in the future.


Post a Comment