Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Philosophy of Religion 1 - Miscellanea 1: An Introduction to Philosophy of Religion

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Well, this is my first blog and my first blog post. I suppose it is only appropriate to introduce myself and this blog. I am Rayndeon and also known by the handle "Dante Alighieri" on various fora. I'm just a student who is deeply interested in philosophy, primarily analytic philosophy. I'm especially interested in philosophy of religion, metaphysics, language, and epistemology and other philosophical topics. My views are not entirely formulated in that I would honestly categorize myself as requiring much philosophical instruction, so I hope that both I and the readers (I particularly expect the readers to be more philosophically informed than I!) benefit from our interactions.

This post will be the first in a series concerning philosophy of religion. I will try to address three broad questions concerning philosophy of religion. First, what is philosophy of religion? Secondly, what sort of positions are taken in philosophy of religion? Lastly, what does philosophy of religion discuss, that is, what are the main issues of philosophy of religion?

Let's consider the first question: what is philosophy of religion? Plainly speaking, philosophy of religion is simply the field of philosophy that is concerned with religious issues. Now, perhaps you may ask what is religion? Religion, generally speaking, is comprised of a set of related beliefs concerning the existence of some divine entity or entities and the things that are the consequence of or are related to this entity or these entities. Religion especially tends to epouse divine entities worthy of veneration or worship. These entities are identified as "gods" or in the singular sense, identified by the proper name "God." Most of philosophy of religion (especially modern analytic philosophy of religion) is concerned with a specific, very popular religious position called classical theism. I'll discuss classical theism later.

Let's turn to the second question: what are the basic positions of philosophy of religion? There are three basic positions: two are metaphysical positions and one is an epistemological position. When I say that something is a metaphysical position, I mean that such a position is concerned with the existence of things and the nature of the world or the nature of reality. When I say that something is an epistemological position, I mean that such a position is concerned with the knowledge of things and the nature of such knowledge.

Technically, I suppose that the metaphysical, going by its denotation, really concerns everything since any position fundamentally concerns itself with the nature of reality. The epistemological therefore is technically a subset of the metaphysical. However, the term "metaphysical" as it has been used for centuries has certain connotations about it that restricts this technical usage and makes it a topic separate from epistemology. Consider for instance the apparent prima facie disparity between metaphysical questions and epistemological questions. For instance, some famous metaphysical questions would be the problem of universals, the problem of free will, the mind-body problem, and so on. Epistemological questions by contrast involve things such as the nature of justification (for instance, foundationalism), the role of skepticism, methods of justification (rationalism, empiricism) and so on. Clearly then, the epistemological is not part of the metaphysical, insofar as the term "metaphysical" has been traditionally used. This is not to say that metaphysics is somehow dispensable with regards to epistemology though. I agree with various philosophers who find metaphysics necessary to explain much of epistemology. Indeed, without things to know in the first place, epistemology would be a non-starter.

My usage of the common usage of the term "metaphysical" is made insofar as to draw the distinction between theism or atheism with respect to agnosticism. Theism and atheism are the two metaphysical positions in question. Agnosticism is the single epistemological position. Before I continue, I want to make something clear. Theism, atheism, and agnosticism are terms that are properly qualified, that is, they apply in relation to conceptions of the divine entities. By this, I mean, for instance, that one can be a theist in one sense and be an atheist in another sense. All Muslims are theists with respect to Allah but are atheists with respect to Christ the Lord. So then, when we say that someone is a "theist" or an "atheist" or an "agnostic," precisely speaking, that term applies with respect to a conception of God. I think this notion of these positions being technically relational is a notion well worth-making in ensuring the precision of philosophical discourse, and analytic philosophy is deeply concerned with precision.

Now, I wish to anticipate some misunderstandings. Some atheists make the rhetorical point along the lines of Stephen F. Roberts, who said that "I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours" or as Richard Dawkins said "We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further." I'm not making that point, indeed, such a point is at best a humorous play on words that is entirely dialectically ineffective to any sufficiently reflective theist, not to mention completely unadvancing of philosophical discourse. The point I'm trying to make is a legitimate technical one, one that is proferred for the sake of clarity and precision.

Now then, what is theism? Theism is the position that God exists or that gods exist. There are numerous varieties of theism, indeed, there are thousands of religions, but these can generally be summed up in three different categories, general insofar as to the present purposes for this paper. First, there is monotheism which holds that exactly one divine entity (God proper) exists. This is of course the dominant view in the world and has been subject to rigorous philosophical and theological analyses over the centuries. This monotheism typically manifests itself in the form of classical theism, which I will soon discuss. This is of course the primary subject of study among philosophers of religion, both ancient and modern. The second view is polytheism, which holds that there are numerous divine entities called "gods." This used to be the dominant view of humans, especially primitive man, who found it necessary to explain his mysterious world through myths and the divine, and polytheism still attracts people today, for instance, in various sects of Hinduism. Polytheism was the subject of rigorous analysis by ancient Greek and Indian philosophers, although such analysis has for the most part died out with the prevalence of classical theism in philosophical studies of religion. The gods associated with polytheism are of course greater than humans and so technically qualify as divine entities but they starkly differ from the "God" proper of classical theism in that there are typically strong elements of anthropomorphism present in most polytheistic beliefs and that most polytheistic religions posit gods that are more human-like, less transcendent, and so on. Polytheistic gods starkly differ from that found in classical theism. Finally, the last position is henotheism which is technically a species of polytheism but it has a strongly monotheistic slant. It posits that there are multiple gods but that one particular god is generally worthy of worship. This god may even be strongly similar to the one found in classical theism. These three theistic categories immediately divide themselves up even further. I'm going to be concerned with the divisions found in monotheism, if only that monotheism is the primary subject of study throughout most of the history of philosophy of religion, including today. These positions are classical theism, deism, pantheism, and panentheism.

What is classical theism? This is the extremely popular view of God that is the subject of study of virtually all of philosophy of religion. Classical theism posits that monotheism is true and that God is the nonphysical Creator of nature who is extremely powerful, highly knowledgeable, eternal, good, and concerned with human affairs. The version of classical theism that is affirmed the most often (and is the subject of study for most of philosophy of religion) is the view that posits not merely that God is extremely powerful, but maximally powerful, all-powerful, that is, God is omnipotent; God is not merely highly knowledgeable, but maximally knowledgeable, all-knowing, that is, omniscient; God is not merely good but maximally good, all-good, that is morally perfect or omnibenevolent. This view may be entitled greater classical theism. There is a particular version of greater classical theism that is extremely popular among theistic philosophers called Anselmian theism, named after the famed Saint Anselm of Canterbury, who is famous for his ontological argument. This view posits that God is logically necessary or metaphysically necessary. Understanding these notions requires a foray into the notion of subjunctive possibilities. It will also require a foray into possible world semantics. Suffice it to say however that Anselmian theism holds that God is logically necessary or that God is metaphysically necessary. Some views of classical theism do not affirm greater classical theism, for example, process theology. Of course, greater classical theism (and sometimes Anselmian theism) has been embraced by Christianity, Islam, and to some extent Judaism. Those who are not adherents of any of such monotheistic religions but nonetheless affirm either greater classical theism or Anselmian theism or simply classical theism are often known as philosophical theists since they derive their theism through philosophy alone, rather than also relying on a sacred text of some type.

Now, what is deism? Deism is a monotheistic viewpoint that affirms classical theism for the most part (and may even embrace greater classical theism or Anselmian theism) but denies some aspects of that God is concerned with human affairs. For instance, a deist may simply deny revealed theology, that is that the divine interacted with humanity in the sense that it provides religious experience, miracles, sacred texts, and so on such that humanity may know God. The deist might reject aspects of that or all of that. However, the deist could still consistently proclaim that God is concerned with human affairs to some extent (just not to the extent of classical theism) such as that God will judge humans, wants humans to be good, and so on. Some deists may simply deny any concern at all on the part of God. Deism places much emphasis on natural theology, a field of study we will soon examine.

Now then, what about pantheism? It posits that God is identical with either all that exists (this is generally called Existence or Being although Existence and Being are often distiguished from all that exists) or identical with nature. The former view might be called classical pantheism and the latter view naturalistic pantheism. Classical pantheism may or may not affirm classical theism. Many variants of classical pantheism affirms classical theism (they affirm for instance that God is personal) but there are some varieties (for instance, Parmenides) which deny the personality of God. Strongly rooted in classical pantheism is the notion that God is the ground of all being. Naturalistic pantheism holds to an impersonal God, Nature itself or the physical universe. An important part of pantheism is that all things are part of God or aspects of God.

Another view is panentheism which is a reconciliation of monotheism and pantheism. It is a rather popular view among various theologians and philosophers. It posits that God is immanent in Nature but transcendent of it. He is greater than Nature rather than identical with it. Like pantheism, all things are aspects of God or part of Him. That is, God is within all things. However, God is greater than nature or any particular thing and is ultimately transcendent. This view is highly attractive in combining a sort of radical Anselmian theism (in that God is the ground of reality) with the doctrine that God is yet still distinct and retains many of the properties found in classical theism. Now these four views consist of the most common monotheistic viewpoints but there are a few others, albeit far less common such as pandeism for instance.

Now, let us consider what is atheism. Atheism consists of the antithesis of theism and there are two different types of atheism to distinguish: weak atheism and strong atheism. Weak atheism consists of not believing in God prompted from the belief that theism lacks sufficient epistemic support, hence one is within his or her epistemic rights of in not believing in theism. Strong atheism is the belief that God does not exist. It is worth noting that there is a difference between not believing in an entity and a belief in that entity's nonexistence. We may consider the issue even more generally. There is a difference between not believing in a proposition and believing that proposition to be false. For instance, suppose I tell you that I have one thousand dollars in my pocket. Suppose furthermore that I provide no sort of evidence for this at all. Plainly then, you are rational in not believing in my claim. It is not to claim that you actually believe that I do not have one thousand dollars (then, you would have to prove a negative, which may or may not be difficult--contrary to what most people say, strong atheists have the burden of proof just as much as theists) but that the proposition "Rayndeon has one thousand dollars in his pocket" lacks sufficient epistemic support and hence one can reject the notion that one is rational in holding it to be true and therefore, not believe in that proposition. This notion involves critically the notion of justification with regards to beliefs.

Now, what is agnosticism? We must distinguish two different types of agnosticism: weak agnosticism and strong agnosticism. Weak agnosticism posits that neither theism nor strong atheism have sufficient epistemic support. Strong agnosticism posits that weak agnosticism is true and also holds that there cannot be sufficient epistemic support for theism or strong atheism. What is worth noting is the modality invoked in regarding that it is impossible for their to be epistemic support for theism or strong atheism. Some strong agnostics claim that it is humanly impossible or physically impossible for their to be epistemic support for theism or strong atheism. Some may claim that it is metaphysically impossible. Now, some people hold that agnosticism is somehow a middle position between theism and atheism. I think this is mistaken in that theism and atheism are metaphysical beliefs whereas agnosticism is an epistemological belief. It is not on some spectrum of belief but entirely separate. Plainly, either one believes in God or does not believe in God. If one believes in God, then one is a theist. If one does not believe in God, then one is a weak atheist. There is no middle position. It is simply that it is possible to affirm weak atheism while rejecting strong atheism, as I explained above.

Now, consider the five positions as construed in terms of rational belief. Theism would be defined as the conjunction "There is sufficient epistemic support for the proposition 'God exists' and the proposition 'God exists' is true." Weak atheism would be defined as the proposition "There is not sufficient epistemic support for the proposition 'God exists.'" Strong atheism would be defined as the conjunction "There is not sufficient epistemic support for the proposition 'God exists' and there is sufficient epistemic support for that the proposition 'God exists' is false and the proposition 'God exists' is false." Weak agnosticism would be defined as "There is not sufficient epistemic support for the proposition 'God exists' and there is not sufficient epistemic support for that the proposition 'God exists' is false." Strong agnosticism would be defined as "There is not sufficient epistemic support for the proposition 'God exists' and there is not sufficient epistemic support for that the proposition 'God exists' is false and there cannot be sufficient epistemic support for the proposition 'God exists' and there cannot be sufficient epistemic support for that the proposition 'God exists' is false."

Given the above, the following seem to hold. If theism is true, then weak atheism is false, strong atheism is false, weak agnosticism is false, and strong agnosticism is false. Theism's first conjunct contradicts weak atheism's proposition. Theism's first conjunct contradicts strong atheism's first conjunct and theism's second conjunct contradicts strong atheism's third conjunct. Furthermore, theism's first conjunct entails the proposition "There is not sufficient epistemic support for that the proposition 'God exists' is false." This contradicts the second conjunct of strong atheism. Theism's first conjunct contradicts weak agnosticism's first conjunct. Theism's first conjunct contradicts strong agnosticism's first conjunct. If weak atheism is true, then theism is false. Weak atheism's proposition contradicts theism's first conjunct. If strong atheism is true, then theism is false, weak atheism is true, weak agnosticism is false, and strong agnosticism is false. Strong atheism contradicts theism as described earlier. Strong atheism's first conjunct is the proposition of weak atheism. Strong atheism's second conjunct contradicts weak agnosticism's second conjunct. Strong atheism's second conjunct contradicts strong agnosticism's second conjunct.

If weak agnosticism is true, then theism is false, weak atheism is true, and strong atheism is false. Weak agnosticism's first conjunct contradicts theism's first conjunct. Weak agnosticism's first conjunct is the proposition of weak atheism. Weak agnosticism's second conjunct contradicts strong atheism's second conjunct. If strong agnosticism is true, then theism is false, weak atheism is true, strong atheism is false, and weak agnosticism is true. Theism is false, weak atheism is true, and strong atheism is false by strong agnosticism in the precise manner as it is with weak agnosticism. Strong agnosticism's first and second conjuncts are weak agnosticism's first and second conjuncts. It's worth noting the following though. Weak atheism does not entail the truth of strong atheism, weak agnosticism, or strong agnosticism. Weak agnosticism does not entail the truth of strong agnosticism. Furthermore, one sees that when construed properly in terms of rational belief, weak atheism is really an epistemological belief in that one is within his or her epistemic rights in not believing in theism from the lack of sufficient epistemic support for theism.

Now, let us ask the final question: What are the main topics of philosophy of religion? Generally speaking, we consider five main categories that issues in philosophy of religion generally fall under: religious metaphysics, religious epistemology, religious axiology, natural theology, and natural atheology. Let's look at each one closely.

Religious metaphysics concerns the metaphysics present in religion, that is, what sorts of things exist if religion is true. It is basically the juxtaposition of the philosophical field of metaphysics placed in a religious context. Metaphysical questions now become considered in terms of religion. For instance, one may examine the mind-body problem, the problem of free will, the problem of univerals, and so on in relation to religious issues and God. A second major part of religious metaphysics has to do with what is called the coherence of theism. The coherence of theism (or lack thereof) concerns the analysis of the properties ascribed onto God. That is, what do such properties entail and are such properties coherent? For example, a question one may find under the coherence of theism is whether or not God, if He is omniscient, can know the future without depriving humans of their free will. The third major part concerns more miscellaneous topics of religious metaphysics, although they are of paramount importance such as the existence of Heaven and Hell, miracles, sin, and so on. Religious metaphysics comprises a large area of philosophical study.

Religious epistemology concerns itself with the role of knowledge placed in a religious context. Just as religious metaphysics juxtaposes religion and metaphysics, religious epistemology juxtaposes religion and epistemology. For example, one of the critical questions of religious epistemology is whether or not theism can enjoy sufficient epistemic support. Religious epistemology consists of a rich interaction between epistemology and religion, resulting in topics such as the role of religious experience as a mode of justification, how religion enjoys (or does not enjoy) sufficient epistemic support, the role of revealed theology, which posits that we can come to know the divine by the divine's attempts to contact and communicate with us. It critically analyzes the role of faith and reason and other such things.

Religious axiology, in a manner similar to the above two topics, juxtaposes axiology with religion. Axiology concerns itself with values, that is, things like ethics, aesthetics, the meaning of life, and so on. Religious axiology therefore considers these questions in a religious context. For instance, religious axiology critical examines metaethics, a question that culminates in the question of whether or not morality is grounded in God. It introduces the notion of the meaningfulness and purpose of life in relation to God and other such axiological questions.

Natural theology is comprised of an analysis of whether or not the proposition "God exists" enjoys sufficient epistemic support by way of deductive, inductive, and abductive arguments. This is probably one of the most popular fields of philosophy of religion and it has a rich and diverse history, resulting in famous arguments such as the kalam cosmological argument, the argument from contingency, the fine-tuning argument, the modal ontological argument, and so on. Philosophy of religion in this area critically analyzes the case for theism.

Natural atheology consists of an analysis of whether or not the proposition "the proposition 'God exists' is false" enjoys sufficient epistemic support by way of deductive, inductive, and abductive arguments. This parallels natural theology's efforts and has resulted in various arguments such as the logical problem of evil, the evidential problem of evil, the argument from divine hiddeness, and so on. Philosophy of religion in this area critically analyzes the case against theism.

So, in conclusion, philosophy of religion is a rich field of philosophical study, one that concerns itself with religious issues. It is comprised of five major categories: religious metaphysics, religious epistemology, religious axiology, natural theology, and natural atheology. The positions taken by philosophers of religion include theism, atheism, and agnosticism and each of these positions enjoy their own categories as well. Philosophy of religion both ancient and modern mainly concerns itself with classical theism, the most popular version of which holds to a God who is the nonphysical, personal Creator of the universe who is eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect, that is, the type of God found in Christianity or Islam. It is starkly apparent in philosophy of religion of the interconnected nature of philosophical questions and engaging in philosophy of religion often tends to engage metaphysics, epistemology, and other such fields just as well. It is clearly an extremely important part of philosophy and is worthy of the consideration of any intellectual person.

In my following posts, I shall discuss the philosophy of religion. The logical order of progression would seem to be a foray into religious metaphysics, followed by religous epistemology, after that religious axiology, followed by natural theology, and finally, natural atheology. Unfortunately, I lack the time for such a detailed foray, much less that most of my readers are far more interested in the final two categories of the philosophy of religion. Hence, I shall begin a eight-part series on natural theology and natural atheology, starting with the modal ontological argument.

2 comments:

Natural Starshine said...

What is Pandeism? I have heard of it, but don't know what it is.

Rayndeon said...

Hi Natural Sunshine,

Pandeism is a sort of weird mixture of pantheism and deism. As far as I know, most formulations, God created the universe and then became the universe itself.