October 1, 2014

Theisms, Metaphysical and Religious

Both in the classical tradition and in recent analytic philosophy, much of philosophical theology is concerned with what we might call metaphysical theism, that is, with the notion of God as a metaphysical theory which explains certain facts about the world. This is most visible in the cosmological argument for contingency, where the ability of the theistic hypothesis to explain something that (allegedly) cannot be explained (or explained equally well) without God is given as a reason for belief in God. A lot of our theorizing about God (in this metaphysical mode) then has to do with the question of what is the simplest and most intellectually satisfying variant of the theistic hypothesis for our metaphysical purposes.

If this kind of theorizing succeeds - that is, if the theistic hypothesis really produces a better theory than its competitors - then this is of course extremely important to metaphysicians, but its religious significance is in dispute. Certainly intellectual assent to a metaphysical theory is not what the Christian means by 'faith'. (Well, maybe, depending on who 'the Christian' is, that's not quite certain. What's certain is that it's not what Christians should mean by 'faith'.) Furthermore, various difficulties and contradictions have been alleged between prominent versions of metaphysical theism and the needs of religion. Thus many recent philosophers and theologians have alleged that some of the classical divine attributes (e.g., atemporality, impassibility, foreknowledge) interfere with God's ability to enter into the kind of personal relationship essential to Christianity. Others (e.g., Geach) have held that omnipotence implies that God is able to break promises and that this belief tends to undermine religious faith. So metaphysical theism is not the kind of theistic belief relevant to religion, and may even be in some tension with religion.

Religious theism, that is, the sort of doxastic state regarding God that is appropriate for Abrahamic religion, must then be a different sort of thing. Indeed, Plantinga has famously argued (1986, 132-133; 1996, 249) that religious theism is generally not anything like an explanatory theory, and we should not expect it to be justified in anything like the same way. This is precisely correct. Whatever exactly religious theism turns out to be, natural inclination to believe (Plantinga's sensus divinitatis), religious experience, experience of miracles, and testimony about such things will all be relevant to its formation, but explicit theorizing will not.

Does this make metaphysical theism irrelevant to religious theism? I think not. Plantinga and Alston both argue that theistic belief (and they seem to mean religious theism here) is basic in something like the way beliefs arising directly from sense experience are basic. (Alston, of course, emphasizes the sensory analogue a lot more than Plantinga.) But consider how we actually respond to the deliverances of our senses. We do (and should) distrust our senses if what we seem to sense cannot be made to fit into a coherent picture of the world. Further, although we do not have non-circular justification for our general attitude of trust in the senses, we do have scientific theories about the functioning of our senses and these inform the degree of trust we place in our senses in specific circumstances. Trust in the senses notwithstanding, if I seem to see a pink elephant in my living room, I will conclude that I am hallucinating because I know of no intellectually satisfying background theory on which the presence of a pink elephant in my living room is more likely than my being the victim of a hallucination.

The background theories whereby we determine when and how far to trust our senses become all the more important in cases of contradictory testimony. It is by consideration of the circumstances in which the senses tend to be reliable, and the likelihood of the events in question, that we decide which witnesses to trust, and sometimes even end up giving preference to the testimony of others over our own senses. (For instance, if someone else was in a better position to observe the action.)

Rarely, if ever, are witnesses to events that can be detected in ordinary sense perception as conflicted in their testimony as human beings are about religion. As a result, we stand in dire need of a theory that will tell us both (a) how generally reliable are the processes by which religious theism comes about, and (b) how likely to be true are the particular claims which purport to be justified by this process. Metaphysical theism has an important role to play as such a background theory. An intellectually satisfying theory of the world which allows for the truth of religious theism will render religious theism better justified, just as an intellectually satisfying background theory according to which vision is more reliable in my circumstances than in yours increases my justification for trusting my visual experience over your testimony. If the atheist's background theory is far more compelling than mine, and can explain the origin of my religious theism as a cognitive malfunction, I may eventually have to concede that I am the victim of such a malfunction, just as there are circumstances in which I may be brought to concede that I am hallucinating.

The undermining of the justification here depends on two factors: conflicting religious testimony, and the relative merits of different explanatory theories. It thus will not tend to undermine the (internalistic) justification of relatively uninformed or unsophisticated religious theists who are either unaware of the conflicting testimony or are not in a position to evaluate the relative merits of the theories in question. However, if the religious theist wants to retain her justification after becoming a sophisticated philosopher, she is going to need metaphysical theism or something very much like it.

(Cross-posted at The Prosblogion)

Posted by Kenny at October 1, 2014 12:01 PM
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I wonder what you would make of the following, from Emil Brunner's Truth as Encounter (bolding is mine):

    a. The thinking of reason in the traditional sense is ahistorical. It deals with substantives and not with verbs. In philosophy the substantive dominates, but in the Bible the verb, the word expressing activity. The word of God is always word and deed, history. Conversely, in philosophy, history is an alien and an embarrassment. Neither the Hindu philosophy of the Vedanta nor that of the Greeks knows the theme of history. […] The historical element in the Neo-Hegelianism of a Croce has only the negative significance of the transience, the relativity, of all truth. The same is true of the existentialism of Heidegger; history is "being unto death," while, according to Heidegger, the truth is the timeless being of ontology.

    b. This brings us to the second antithesis to Christian truth, the abstractness of the impersonal. Like history, personalism is an alien and an embarrassment in philosophy, for one cannot think a person.[18] The thinking of the solitary self regards the person, like the individual, as something that impairs truth as idea, holding to the proposition omnis determinatio set negatio.[19] It must consequently regard the Christian personal concept as anthropomorphism. The Bible, on the other hand, regards precisely man's personal quality as his existence in the image of God. God is he who reveals himself in word and deed, the unconditionally personal One. "I, and none other, am Jahweh." "I am the way, the truth, and the life." This Self is the truth of which the Bible, alone among the sacred scriptures of the peoples, speaks. The Self is its theme, "the name of God." The decisive thing in the Bible is not the monotheism, but the personalism. This reaches its culmination in the fact that the revelation which transcends every prophetic word is the Incarnation of the Word. The core of the gospel is not a Christ idea, but the message, the Word concerning him, the Kyrios Christos, concerning his life, passion, and death, which proves itself God's word and deed in the resurrection. This is the absolute antithesis of all abstraction. To speak in the abstract of Christ is not to speak of Jesus, the real Christ. The touchstone of faith and unbelief is the issue whether one is ashamed of this name, or speaks of it as the truth. (25–26)

Posted by: Luke Breuer at October 16, 2014 10:49 PM

Two remarks: first, there is a really serious question whether metaphysical theism will, in the end, even turn out to be compatible with religious theism, given the very different fundamental approaches. In classical philosophical theology (e.g., Aquinas) there are a lot of backflips performed to try to make the view consistent with revelation. My approach as a philosopher is summed up by St. Basil's remark: "Hunting truth is no easy task; we must look everywhere for its tracks" (from On the Holy Spirit, tr. David Anderson). Revelation is a source of evidence, but we are trying to think systematically about God and the world, using every source of evidence available. On my approach, that sometimes means a back-and-forth between philosophy (or science, for that matter) and revelation. I think Brunner has a very specific sort of philosophy (probably Hegelianism) in mind, so not all of what he says is applicable to other approaches, but this general concern will always be legitimate.

Second, some of the remarks about the relationship between philosophy and revealed theology actually remind me of Eleonore Stump's recent article on Aquinas's approach to the subject in the (open access!) Journal of Analytic Theology. Stump draws a much more positive moral, though, thinking that from an intellectual perspective personal and impersonal approaches to God both have a positive role to play.

Posted by: Kenny Pearce at October 17, 2014 5:32 AM

That was quite helpful; thanks!

Have you done anything with the idea of the growing block universe? I have recently started Michael Tooley's Time, Tense, and Causation, in which he defends the idea of a (i) tensed (ii) dynamic reality. A 2010 science article, Back From the Future, threatens to support his view:

It bothered Aharonov as well. “I asked, what does God gain by playing dice?” he says. Aharonov accepted that a particle’s past does not contain enough information to fully predict its fate, but he wondered, if the information is not in its past, where could it be? After all, something must regulate the particle’s behavior. His answer—which seems inspired and insane in equal measure—was that we cannot perceive the information that controls the particle’s present behavior because it does not yet exist. (2)

Now, Aharonov chose to accept the possibility of retrocausality; Tooley wishes to fix the past, which pushes him in a different direction. But this science hints at the idea that bits of information are appearing in time, which strongly supports the idea of a dynamic reality. That being said, Tooley still wants to admit tenseless facts as well as tensed facts; perhaps he offers a way to bridge the two realms under discussion, here?

One way to get at this whole thing is to pit Qoheleth's "there is nothing new under the sun" against Isaiah's "Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?". Have you thought much about this dichotomy? Sometimes I wonder if God's abandoning people to a "strong delusion" puts them in eternal recurrence-mode, but that God always returns to break the cycle, to bring salvation.

Posted by: Luke Breuer at October 18, 2014 11:19 AM

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