Repeating history

I’m trying to think of anything recent that is truly new in the landscape of arguments over religion. Depending on how coarse-grained you’re willing to allow comparisons to get, there isn’t a whole lot that is new under the sun.

Philosophy about religion tends to repeat itself this way. It’s hard to come up with a new version of the design argument that either Hume or Darwin doesn’t have something significant to say about. Dawkins’s “a designer that explains complexity would have to be even more complex” argument, for example, has many echoes of older arguments in it. And I remember too many instances where I thought I ran into something new, but was later embarrassed to find out I just didn’t know enough about the history of the debate. For example, I used to think “the good due to having regular laws of nature overrides the unfortunate evil consequences of laws” was an interesting new twist on theodicy. I was an idiot, naturally. It seems the argument was just out fashion, and not appearing as often in the newer literature I was sampling.

Science-flavored arguments also can repeat themselves. There’s a lot in today’s design arguments that could be deflated by some knowledge of the track record of very similar intuitions in the history of science. And a whole lot of what science-minded skeptics say today wouldn’t have been out of place in the nineteenth century.

It’s not like we always stumble over the same territory in our arguments. Today’s philosophers are less likely to attack a transcendent God while relying on a transcendent conception of Reason. And science does its new things as well. One example, I hope, is one of my hobbyhorses—the emphasis on the random element in how the world works, and how this undermines ideas of a purpose behind nature. (Talk of chance and necessity goes back to the Greeks, but our modern ideas of chance and necessity are significantly different.) But I don’t know how much I can push such novel elements. They certainly have not penetrated into any popular awareness.

So, if there is a lot of repeating history going on in our arguments over the gods, what does this mean? I’m not sure, but one possibility is that we’re not really making a lot of progress. The moves and countermoves in the debate are known too well: skeptics and true believers know how to respond before their opposition even finishes their next “new” argument. As a result, science-minded skeptics might tend to complacency, because we already occupy a skeptical subculture. We encounter things like “intelligent design” as a political nuisance rather than an intellectual challenge.

But I’m not sure what that means either.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13562135000111792590 RBH

    One example, I hope, is one of my hobbyhorses—the emphasis on the random element in how the world works, and how this undermines ideas of a purpose behind nature. (Talk of chance and necessity goes back to the Greeks, but our modern ideas of chance and necessity are significantly different.) But I don’t know how much I can push such novel elements. They certainly have not penetrated into any popular awareness.

    Have you seen John Wilkins’ take on the chance and randomness business, Darwin, God and chance? I’d be interested in your thoughts on it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Your comment on Philosophy of Religion is also often made about Philosophy in general, and the comment is certainly mistaken when Philosophy in general is the target.

    Setting aside the question of whether what has been published in the past few decades in Philosophy of Religion cuts into any new territory, it seems clear to me that there is still a great deal of room for truly new ideas in Philosophy of Religion.

    One area that seems wide-open to me, is skeptical analysis of theological reasoning. For example: “Suppose Jesus did rise from the dead, what is the significance of this event?” There is a great deal of theological thinking about this question that is quite naive and open to challenge.

    Christian believers and even Christian scholars tend to have no interest in skeptical thinking about such questions, and so they think loosely and freely with little rational constraint.

    Also, in the past, skeptical thinkers tended to avoid these questions too (Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, so who cares what the significance of such an imaginary event would be?). I think there are plenty of such questions and thinking that is ripe for skeptical analysis and critique.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04821726438226371495 Ted Drange

    Ted Drange said…
    One main new item in the philosophy of religion within the past 15 years is evidential arguments for God's nonexistence with an epistemological focus. The main one was my Argument from Nonbelief in 1993, with J. L. Schellenberg's Argument from Divine Hiddenness (same year) being similar. Those arguments did have some forerunners, as indicated in my book NONBELIEF & EVIL, pp. 38-42, but it was not before 1993 that they were expressed as explicit atheist (or atheological) arguments. In later years, there also came the Argument from Confusion and the Argument from Biblical Defects, which are also quite new atheistic evidential arguments with an epistemological focus. See the Martin/Monnier anthology THE IMPROBABILITY OF GOD (Prometheus, 2006) on this topic.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    The new territory for Philosophy of Religion is nicely illustrated by Theodore Drange's article "Why Resurrect Jesus?" in the collection of articles called The Empty Tomb (edited by Jeff Lowder & Robert Price).

    Drange critically examines nine alleged implications of the belief that "Christ rose from the dead" put forward by the Christian theologian Charles Hodge.

    There are some liberal and skeptical theologians that will sometimes critique traditional theological reasoning, but a skeptical non-believer (esp. a philosopher of the analytic sort) can generally do so more clearly and vigorously.

    Skeptics have a great deal to offer to Christian theology, because we look at this stuff from a very different point of view.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    rbh: “Have you seen John Wilkins’ take on the chance and randomness business, Darwin, God and chance?”

    Interesting enough. But I don’t think it signifies much. Liberal theology has an irritating tendency to spill much ink on possible compatibility without worrying about plausibility.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    Bradley Bowen: “One area that seems wide-open to me, is skeptical analysis of theological reasoning” and “Skeptics have a great deal to offer to Christian theology, because we look at this stuff from a very different point of view.”

    I’ll be more impressed with this possibility once astronomers start justifying their existence by the skeptical analysis they can offer to astrology.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Response to Taner Edis…

    Let me see if I understand the analogy. Astronomers don’t justify their existence (i.e. the value of the discipline of astronomy) in terms of how their discipline can shed light on astrological theories and thinking.

    Obviously, astronomical observations, concepts, and theories can shed light on astrological theories and thinking, but the point is that this is far less valuable than simply figuring out what is true or likely the case concerning more straightforward astronomical issues, such as “How old is the universe?” “How did the universe come to exist?” “How did stars and solars systems come to exist?” “What is the universe made out of?” “Will the universe end in heat death?” “Are there multiple universes?” etc.

    Furthermore, since astology is ancient superstitious mumbo-jumbo, we want to see intellectual work in this area cease in the near future, because such work is a waste of intellectual effort. If astronomers were to devote even 10% of their time to skeptical analysis of astrological theories/thinking, that would encourage intellectual work in astrology instead of helping to kill it off.

    Did I get the analogy right?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    One more comment from my own experience…

    I have been looking at the question, “Did Jesus rise from the dead?” for many years. My decade as an Evangelical Christian included reading defenses of the resurrection by various Christian apologists. And as a skeptical atheist, I have spent a number of years thinking about this question, and reading relevant scholarly information (on Jesus, the Gospels, crucifixion, etc.).

    I am convinced that the Swoon Theory has been unfairly cast aside. It may not be highly probable, but I think there is at least a significant chance that it is true. In any case, Christian apologists typically “refute” the Swoon Theory in just one or two paragraphs. This includes the leading defenders of the resurrection (Gary Habermas, William Craig, and Richard Swinburne). But a real, honest-to-goodness refutation of the Swoon Theory would require hundreds of pages, not just one or two paragraphs. Similarly, an honest-to-goodness defense of the Swoon Theory would require hundreds of pages.

    Yet in the more than 200 years of discussion of this theory, nobody has produced an in-depth defense or refutation of this theory. Nearly everything written on this issue is superficial and largely devoid of real historical data.

    I suspect that there are many other issues of a similar nature. It is just that this is an issue that I have studied enough to see that what has been written for the past 200 years on this topic is crap.


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