Separate spheres

In educated, liberal circles today, the conventional wisdom about science and religion is that they are compatible. Each belongs to a different sphere. In one popular formulation, natural science produces naturalistic explanations of natural phenomena, while the sphere of religion is knowledge about an entirely different realm, the supernatural. Or, possibly, science is about a narrow subset of reality that can be empirically probed by a “scientific method,” while other kinds of knowledge, such as morality, are in the domain of religion.

None of this is actually true. Science and religion are both ambitious enterprises with a habit of overstepping boundaries. But the notion of separate spheres is politically very convenient as a way of diffusing tensions between these ambitious enterprises. There is always a temptation to discover that what is politically convenient is inscribed into the nature of things. It would be easier to keep the peace if the very nature of science, properly done, prevented science from offending religious sensibilities. It would be best if the nature of religion, properly understood, prevented it from interfering with investigations of nature. If we believe this to be the case, our behavior would be channeled in politically safe directions. And yet, the notion of separate spheres is almost certainly mistaken.

Nonetheless, let me explore how a defense of separate spheres on political grounds might work. Perhaps publicly, scientists and others interested in the continued flourishing of the scientific enterprise should endorse the compatibility of science and religion. If they find themselves unable to speak in favor of such an intellectually weak position, they should then shut up and let others be the public face for science. We want Francis Collins rather than Richard Dawkins to represent science to the public, not in spite of but because of the fact that Collins has produced some seriously bad arguments for religious belief.

I will make two main assumptions. Both come down to expecting that current trends will continue.

In science, I expect that a broadly naturalistic approach will continue to be successful. Supernatural agents will continue to be out of place in our best explanations. If we ever obtain solid evidence for miracles, psychic powers, quantum healing, or intelligent design, the issue of compatibility will become moot. Science will not just be compatible with, but supportive of, the notion of supernatural agency. I very much doubt any of this will ever happen.

In religion, I expect the continued success of the more doctrinally conservative, strongly supernaturalistic, and populist forms of faith. This will translate into increased political power, putting more pressure on science to adapt to a political environment shaped by religion. If secularization turns out to apply to regions other than Western Europe with its unique history, or if fundamentalist and charismatic styles of religion suddenly go into retreat in the rest of the world, the pressure will come off and the issue will again become moot. I see no reason to think anything like this is going to happen, though I acknowledge that in observing social developments, it would be surprising not to run into surprises.

In that case, science will remain a thoroughly secular enterprise, where religion does not enjoy much influence outside of private convictions. Science and technology are examples of where Enlightenment hopes for human progress have been most unambiguously realized. Therefore secular liberals, including liberal religionists, will continue to have plenty of motivation to keep science healthy. Religious nonbelievers will have an extra motivation to favor a healthy scientific enterprise, since the results of science will probably continue to intellectually support nonbelief.

But a world where the modern forms of conservative religion add to their already impressive political successes is one where scientific institutions will have to tread more carefully. In that case, preserving the secular ambience and skeptical flavor of science will call for not attracting public attention to this skepticism. In conditions where secularism as a more general political position has been defeated, defenses of pockets of secularity will require not overly publicizing this secularity, let alone nonbelief. Presenting a quasi-official scientific view of separate spheres will be useful, particularly if this is, as is usually the case, a liberal theological position. The liberal bit might still arouse suspicion, but at least science will be more positively associated with faith.

The nature of this defeat is also important. Conservative religion has succeeded democratically, as a popular and populist force. Ordinary citizens, from all kinds of backgrounds and social classes, can be mobilized on the basis of piety. For most people, public morality is inseparable from religion. Some variety of acceptable faith is a requirement for political leaders and a legitimator of political regimes. Aside from some anomalous and minority cases such as Europeans, religion is the default mode for how humans do politics. And the most successful faiths are the more miracle-mongering, revelation-peddling, intensely supernatural sorts of religions.

Pious people—modern, politically active and technologically savvy people; not peasants—will naturally demand that publicly supported activities, such as science and education, support their religious convictions. At the least, they will not accept science and education undermining their faith. An impression of neutrality might be acceptable, especially since modern religious environment are pluralistic. And even an irredeemably elitist enterprise such as science can be tolerated in a popular democracy, as long as it has no great political or cultural power. Science will presumably continue to make itself useful for commercial and military endeavors, which gives it some more insulation from cultural politics. The persistent confusion of science with technology will also help, since people favor technology and this rubs off on science. But even so, science will be in a precarious position if it is perceived to harbor nonbelief. Conservatives, and especially religious conservatives, have already shown that they are quite willing to attack science if science appears to give political or religious offense. In a position of weakness, science will have to be much more careful about not giving offense, or at least not publicizing it.

In fact, the continued success of conservative religion will probably result in science having to retreat further than what we are accustomed to today. For example, I expect that creationism will eventually appear in secondary education. There is, indeed, no legitimate way to stop this—education is a political matter. What we might still be able to do is keep creationism out of mainstream natural science, though not applied science. It will not be a disaster; we will learn to live with it. After all, creationism is already a considerable popular success, which has very little effect on how the scientific community conducts its business. Science education is already something of a failure, especially in terms of public science literacy. Let’s be honest, students hate science, and the vast majority are in school to be warehoused or to be molded into future corporate drones anyway. We still have more than enough talent coming to us to keep science functioning very well.

The notion of separate spheres has already been doing good political work for a very long time in the United States, helping isolate science from religious pressure. It is already the conventional wisdom. So scientists will not have to learn anything new, never mind spending a lot of effort adapting to post-secular politics. In conditions where secularism has been more thoroughly defeated, it may well serve to limit the damage.

Critical Thinking is Bigotry
Interview with Prof. Axgrind
Evolution vs. The Argument from Providence
Swinburne’s Argument from Religious Experience – Part 2
About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • Sabio Lantz

    "Science education is already something of a failure.
    I think this is because people look at science as just facts. The human mind is default built to think superstitiously — it is our natural mind. To learn science takes discipline and time to build additional modules of understanding.

  • geoih

    Why is education political? I don't necessarily dispute this, at least as education is done today in the US, but wouldn't it be better is it wasn't political? Maybe we should be pursuing that, instead of accepting the present politically corrupted situation and trying to continue forcing "our politics", no matter what they might be, on to the education of others?

  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    Virtually all knowledgeable theists up and including, say, the official position of the Catholic church, not to mention quite a few knowledgeable atheists, all affirm that there need not be any contradiction between science and theism, indeed that there can’t possibly be such contradiction. After all according to theism science studies the physical world that God has created. If some old beliefs about the physical world which religious people used to believe in are proven by science to be wrong, then science is to be thanked for correcting such beliefs.

    Given the above, why is it that so many atheists can’t take yes for an answer but insist that there is an intrinsic or fundamental opposition between science and theism? Wishful thinking might be part of the reason. After all if science and theism did stand in opposition then given science’s intellectual rigor and pragmatical success atheism would have a good argument going for it. Part of the reason might be that fundamentalists’ loud proclamation about the inerrancy of the Bible and their opposition to Darwinism gives the impression that theism opposes science – but it’s an obvious error to equate theism with fundamentalism. Rather fundamentalism is a case of pseudo-theism (and not “true theism” or “core theism” as some new atheists need to insist before building their strawmen). Sure, such fundamentalist ideas are common even in rich societies like the U.S. So what? Pseudo-science is quite common too. An atheist might argue that not only the ignorant but also some well-known religious leaders claim the nonsense which I identify as pseudo-theism. But similarly some well-known scientists claim pseudo-science. For example biologist and Nobel price winner Jacques Monod has claimed the following bit of pseudo-science: “Chance alone is the source of every innovation, of all creation, in the biosphere. Pure chance, absolutely free but blind is at the very root of the stupendous edifice of evolution.” In fact none of this is implied by science.

    Perhaps the main reason, or perhaps the most reasonable reason, why so many atheists insist that science contradicts theism is that according to theism God takes an active interest in human affairs and indeed interacts with us all the time. So some atheists, e.g. Victor Stenger, argue that if God did thus interact science would be able to detect it. But, first of all, to interact with us does not imply interact with the physical world that science studies; for example God might interact with us in our subjective or qualitative experience of life, say in how it is to love or in how it is to experience beauty or in how it is to know moral truths. But even if one claims, as most theists do, that God also interacts with the objectively observable physical world, it’s not like science is keeping track of everything all the time and would therefore detect such interference. What’s more quantum mechanics makes clear that God might massively interfere with the history of the physical world without science being able of detecting it, even in principle. Here is how: Consider all the possible histories of the physical universe that are consistent with quantum mechanics, i.e. consider all potential physical universes compatible with QM. The vast majority of these potential universes would strike a modern scientist as entirely compatible with natural science, with no supernatural effects visible at all. Yet these universes would be vastly different; for example in some humans just like us would evolve and in some they wouldn’t. Of all these potential histories God could have actualized one in particular thus massively interfering with the physical world without science, even in principle, being able to detect it. Incidentally, by the same means God may open space for the application of our free will. (The above is explained in Keith Ward’s book “Why There Almost Certainly Is a God”.)

  • Jim Lippard

    "all affirm that there need not be any contradiction between science and theism, indeed that there can’t possibly be such contradiction"

    The only way there "can't possibly be such contradiction" is if theism has no falsifiable empirical consequences.

    There can perhaps be such versions of theism, but none of the major world religions, as believed by the majority of their adherents, fit that description.

  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    Jim Lippard said “The only way there ‘can’t possibly be such contradiction’ is if theism has no falsifiable empirical consequences

    I was talking about the relationship between science and theism. Now if by “empirical” you mean the objective observations on which scientific knowledge rests then I think what you say above is correct. Don’t you agree? Can you imagine the discovery of scientific facts or laws which can by themselves serve as evidence against the existence of God – the same God who has created the physical universe these facts and laws are about? Incidentally there are many other beliefs that are not falsifiable by scientific observations, say the belief that it is wrong to torture a child for fun, or that the number pi is irrational, or that other minds exist, or that democracy is better than fascism, etc.

    Having said that, it would appear that belief in God is falsifiable when using more than just scientific observations, such as when using value judgments. So, for example, the argument from evil uses the premise that gratuitous suffering exists. But if unscientific value judgments can be used in arguments against God then surely and by the same measure unscientific value judgments can be used in arguments for God.

    Finally it’s interesting to note that some theists believe that God exists necessarily (i.e. exists in all possible worlds). If they are right then belief in God is indeed not falsifiable and any appearance to the contrary rests on error.

    Jim Lippard said: “There can perhaps be such versions of theism, but none of the major world religions, as believed by the majority of their adherents, fit that description.

    Even though there are several theistic religions, each with several traditions and schools of thought in it – there is strictly speaking only one theism. Theism is the belief that reality is based on the presence and will of a perfect personal being. The different theistic religions and traditions strive to understand that being, each imperfectly, and each therefore disagreeing to some degree with the others. (Which shouldn’t be surprising. Metaphysics is hard. After all observe how deeply scientific naturalists disagree among themselves when they describe a naturalistic reality.)

    But the above may only be about semantics. If you prefer to speak about “versions of theism” that’s fine as long as you concentrate on the strongest version of theism you can conceive – for everything else is to waste your time thinking about strawmen. My claim is that the strongest version of theism one can conceive (indeed easily conceive) cannot possibly be opposed by science.

  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    I have received the following email:

    I tried posting the following as a comment on the blog, but I keep getting the error message "incorrect password." I give up.

    Dianelos Georgoudis formulates theism by means of the sentence "Reality is based on the presence and will of a perfect personal being." But that sentence is cognitively meaningless (not expressing any proposition that is objectively true or false) because the term "perfect" in it is subjective and relative. Also, it is unclear what it might mean for reality to be "based" on something. That obscure terminology is in need of clarification.

    Ted Drange

    (For those who don’t know this, Ted Drange is the author of “Nonbelief & Evil: Two Arguments for the Nonexistence of God”, a very detailed analysis of what are probably the strongest arguments for atheism. He is also the author of the remarkably clear essay “Atheism, Agnosticism, Noncognitivism” – see – which pertains to our discussion here.)

    Now at the level of metaphysics we are arguing I think the distinction between “objective” and “subjective” breaks down. After all, if God exists then God’s nominally subjective attributes, such as God’s moral character, form part of the very structure of objective reality. If God exists then God’s moral character is part of the fabric of reality (to use Mackie’s expression). Or, as I like to think of it, according to theism reality is God-structured.

    So rather than dwelling on the semantics of objective versus subjective I’d rather defend the premise that theism as formulated is intelligible, and, more importantly, that the truth or falsity of theism makes an empirical difference, and hence that the truth or falsity of theism is empirically decidable. To make an empirical difference is the gold standard for meaningfulness anyway. Some theists would here argue that if theism is true then we shall experience life after death, or perhaps that we shall experience that justice will be done in the afterlife, but my point is that the truth or falsity of theism has empirical implications in our life here and now.

    I claim that theism as formulated is intelligible because its terms are sufficiently clear. The term “personal being” (or “person” for short) describes our own condition, which we intimately know. (Compare to this how obscure the concept of “matter” is on which materialism rests.) Further, our sense of “personal perfection” is, pragmatically speaking, quite clear too. Indeed in my experience people agree easily on whether person A or person B is more perfect. So for example I claim that two freethinkers will easily agree that a God who will send most of humanity into never ending torture in hell is less perfect than one who won’t. Similarly, that a God who knows whatever S/He wants to know is more perfect than one who must know everything that can be known whether S/He wants or not (and who for this reason has not the power to forget). In any case, any trouble we may have in personally deciding or in agreeing among ourselves about questions of personal perfection only means that we must think more carefully – and not that the concept of theism as formulated is unintelligible. Surely the concept of personal value or personal perfection is quite meaningful. Finally, by “based” I mean that the ultimate causal principle at work in reality is God’s will, or, in other words, that the most powerful explanation for the whole of our experience of life is reached by finding out what the will of a person who is perfect in all respects would be.

    In the next post I shall explain which empirical implications of theism I have in mind.

  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    Theism implies that our experience of life is as one would expect if it were the result of the will of a perfect person. This claim is as testable as any, except one’s predictions must be based on one’s understanding of what a perfect person would will (and being perfect in all including in intelligence and power would be able to achieve). Indeed, given the argument from evil, one might have thought that this consequence of theism would be easily falsifiable, but this isn’t the case at all. I personally find that, surprisingly enough and hence especially convincingly, theism explains the high level structure of the whole of our experience of life (not to mention the very fact of our experience of life) extremely well, and of course far better than any mechanistic hypothesis about reality. I have derived the basic ideas about what a perfect person would will from the Irenaean theodicy as expounded by John Hick. Others may of course disagree with my judgment. As far as I am concerned if after careful consideration one decides that our experience of life is *not* as one would expect on theism then one has warrant to believe that God does not exist.

    Conversely, if theism is true one would expect competing ontologies not to be compatible with our experience of life. Indeed it turns out not only that nobody can explain how consciousness would evolve in a materialistic reality, but also that nobody can describe a mechanistic reality compatible with modern science. That natural science should create conceptual problems for scientific naturalism is the opposite of what one would expect if naturalism were true.

    Now the above two tests are not strictly speaking empirical but only conceptual, in the sense that one makes them in one’s mind as it were. As is the case with many meaningful propositions one can also test theism directly in one’s actual experience of life. First observe that a common property of believing in true propositions (perhaps their defining property) is that they are pragmatically useful. So, for example, to believe in the proposition “walls are hard” helps one avoid painful bumps on the head. Theism’s truth can similarly be tested by realizing how belief in it helps one live a better life, not only in that life becomes more enjoyable and less painful, but also in the moral and in the esthetic sense. The latter sense is rarely mentioned in philosophy and I think can be used to device a new argument which we may call “from growing beauty”. Here is how it goes: An often overlooked but very common and indeed I suspect universal experience is that when one understands something well (be it in the case of music, or math, or physics, or pottery, or one’s spouse for that matter) one experiences it as being more beautiful. The empirical fact that through belief in God the whole of one’s experience of life becomes remarkably more beautiful evidences that belief in God represents the correct understanding of life.

    Finally, as is the case with many existents (e.g. apples) if one were able to directly experience God then this would count as a definitive test for His/Her existence. As the well established mystical experiences demonstrate the latter is indeed the case. At this juncture some atheists argue that not all mystical experiences are of a personal transcendental reality, but they forget that God, being the foundation of reality, has both personal and impersonal attributes. Some atheists object suggesting that mystical experiences are creations of our brains, but by the same measure all of our experiences (e.g. of apples) are creations of our brains. Some object pointing out that the experience of existents such as apples are intersubjective, but there is no reason to suspect that the direct experience of God is not intersubjective too, albeit requires some effort to reach, an effort which non-theists are unlikely to invest.

    In conclusion I submit that theism is both intelligible and testable, and hence that its truth or falsity is independently decidable.

  • tmdrange

    I am replying to the long posts by Dianelos Georgoudis (DG) that defend the claim that it is cognitively meaningful (i.e., true or false) to say "Reality is based on the presence and will of a perfect personal being." I had objected that it is not cognitively meaningful because "perfect" is a subjective concept.
    According to DG, in metaphysics the "objective/subjective" distinction breaks down, because God's moral character could form part of the structure of reality.
    But that begs the question of whether it even makes sense to speak of "moral character forming part of the structure of reality." In my view, it doesn't. If a concept is subjective, then it is so in every field, including metaphysics, and it is my position that the concepts of "perfection" and "morality" are like that. [Of course, if "morality" were defined in a consequentialist way, then it would be objective, but that is certainly not how DG is taking it.]

    Despite his claim that the "objective/subjective" distinction breaks down, DG still tries to defend the objectivity of perfection. He says "Two freethinkers will easily agree that a God who will send most of humanity into never ending torture in hell is less perfect than one who won't."
    But just the fact that many people agree on something does not make it objective. Tastes are subjective, even though some tastes are widely agreed upon. What makes tastes subjective is the fact that there is no way to settle disagreements about them (even if those disagreements might be quite rare). In the case of God sending people to hell, some freethinkers might think that that would be a good result, since they have a generally negative view toward humanity, perhaps feeling that humanity is basically wicked and ought to be punished. So, a God who would do that would be "MORE perfect" than one who would not.
    DG also says [It is objectively true that] a God who knows whatever S/He wants to know is more perfect than one who must know everything that can be known, whether S/He wants to or not. But what about someone who says that it is better to know everything, even stuff you don't want to know? How is such a person to be refuted? DG has not supplied us with any way to settle such disputes, and so has not shown that "being perfect" is an objective concept.

    DG also tries to explain what it means for reality to be "based" on something. He says that it has to do with finding out "the most powerful explanation for the whole of our experience of life." But, here again, subjectivity creeps into it, for different people have different subjective experiences of life. Different experiences might have different explanations. So, it remains unclear just what DG has in mind with regard to his claim that reality is "based" on something. He needs to clarify what the criteria are for assessing competing explanations.

  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    I agree with Ted Drange that if a concept is subjective, then it is so in every field, including metaphysics. On the other hand a concept need not be subjective in every metaphysical worldview. Consider the proposition: “Theo finds that Beethoven’s 4th piano concerto to be more beautiful than his 5th”. This is Theo’s personal subjective opinion. On the other hand the above proposition itself is an objective one. Now suppose that reality is such that Theo is a very special kind of person in the sense that it is Theo who imbues music with beauty, or, more specifically, that Theo is the origin of all beauty and that a piece of music is beautiful to the degree that it reflects Theo’s beauty, or, in still other words, that a piece of music is beautiful to the degree it is similar to Theo’s state of perception. In such a reality the proposition “Beethoven’s 4th piano concerto is more beautiful than his 5th” is an objective one.

    TD thinks that the claim “God’s moral character forms part of the structure of reality” makes no sense. Famously Mackie too thought that any reality that would allow for objective moral values would be a queer one. But it seems to me that the reason for their judgment lies with their naturalistic presuppositions. Consider a theistic reality in which a moral proposition is true when it reflects God’s moral character. In such a reality moral propositions are objective (which comports well with our common intuitions in this matter). I suppose that as long as a naturalist fails to properly consider what is meant by a theistic reality they will find the latter noncognitivist, and will only consider primitive and ultimately misguiding theistic ontologies. Indeed some naturalists think that theism is about a basically naturalistic reality with the difference that some supernatural being is supposed to dwell in it, sometimes supernaturally interfering with the basically mechanistic order of things.

    TD correctly notes that what makes a proposition subjective is that there is no way to settle disagreements about it. But, again, whether there is or isn’t such a way depends on how reality actually is. If reality is as theism has it and the truth of moral or esthetic propositions depends on how God is then one can settle disagreements, naturally enough, by finding out how God is. Now in the case of science we all agree that there is an order in physical phenomena and that disagreements about scientific claims can be settled (mostly) with experiment. The same is not as simple the case in metaphysics, simply because metaphysics is a harder field. Consider for example how often naturalists disagree among themselves about basic properties of reality, with not even an idea about how to settle their differences.

    Finally TD objects to my definition of “based” which, by using the *whole* of our experience of life, allows for subjectivity to creep in. I would like to respond in two ways: If, given the whole of my experience of life, ontology A has more explanatory power than ontology B (in a way that is moreover empirically testable) then the only reasonable thing for me to do is to embrace ontology A – no matter how other people may think, or how other people may describe their own subjective experiences. Secondly, I see little evidence that peoples’ subjective experience of life is in fact so different that it matters for broadly deciding which ontology has more explanatory power; on the contrary I find that our experience of life is basically consistent as evidenced by the fact that we can communicate effectively when using nominally subjective concepts. In any case, not all theists agree that there is such a thing as the best explanation for our experience of life. John Hick (and more recently, say, Eric Reitan) think that our experience of life is religiously ambiguous in the sense that one can reasonably interpret it both religiously and non-religiously. For them religion is ultimately a case of an ethical (or perhaps esthetical) decision at the absence of sufficient evidence.

  • tmdrange

    According to Dianelos Georgoudis (DG), being beautiful would be an objective concept if it were understood be "whatever Theo calls 'beautiful'." I agree. But that is certainly NOT what any English speaker means by the term.

    DG also says that morality would be objective, and we could settle any disagreement about it, if it were understood to be whatever "reflects God's moral character." DG claims that those who don't see that are simply presupposing naturalism. No, it is not that we presuppose naturalism, but merely that we do not understand what the expression "God's moral character" is supposed to refer to. Is it like Theo, above, so that whatever God calls "moral" is automatically moral? If so, then, yes, that would make morality objective. The trouble is that that is NOT what any English speaker means by "being moral." Presupposing worldviews has nothing to do with it. If DG could provide us with some TEST for whether or not something "reflects God's moral character," then that would be most helpful here.

    DG also says that if ontology A explains his own experience of life better than ontology B, then it would be reasonable for him to embrace ontology A. All that may be so, but it is not relevant to the public arena in which philosophical discussion occurs. Our philosophical problem is whether or not there is any good public reason to prefer ontology A over ontology B. We can only appeal to public facts here, i.e., facts accessible to, and agreed to by, everyone. DG's subjective experience of life has no relevance in THAT arena.

  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    Originally Ted Drange objected to my definition of theism arguing that as formulated it is meaningless because it contains subjective concepts such as “personal perfection”. I responded by pointing out that on theism concepts such as “personal perfection”, “beauty”, “moral goodness” etc are in fact objective, and that there is a way to settle disagreements about them. The main idea is that these concepts ultimately refer to properties of God who is the very foundation of reality and who is directly knowable. In return Ted Drange asks if whatever God calls beautiful is beautiful, and if whatever God calls moral is moral. But I did not say that beauty and morality are rooted on what God *says*, but on how God *is*. Indeed Euthyphro’s dilemma is a false one for there are more than the two alternatives it discusses.

    Ted Drange also alleges that the way I use these terms does not reflect what any English speaker means by them. I am not sure I understand his point here. What I pointed out is how these concepts, as commonly understood, fit within a theistic understanding of reality. On the contrary I think it is metaphysical naturalism that has trouble finding a way to fit such concepts (and hence some atheist philosophers’ derisive arguments about peoples’ “folk-psychological” talk). Actually, Mackie in the first chapter of his “Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong” is quite clear that the objectivity of moral values “is part of what our ordinary moral statements mean: the traditional moral concepts of the ordinary man as well as of the main line of western philosophers are concepts of objective value.”. And since objective moral values do not fit within naturalism, the concept of morality must be redefined as a subjective concept. Similarly some naturalists find it useful to redefine the concept “consciousness” as a functional property, to redefine the concept of “freedom of will” as being compatible with determinism (and thus having nothing to do with an agent’s power to choose otherwise), and so on.

    Finally Ted Drange recognizes that given my own experience of life and that I find that theism explains it better then naturalism, it may be reasonable for me to embrace theism. But, he adds, this is not relevant to the public arena in which philosophical discussion occurs. Now I’d agree that subjective experience is not relevant to the scientific discourse (while noting that some naturalist philosophers, such as David Chalmers, beg to disagree), but I don’t see why subjective experience should not be relevant to philosophy. After all, data is data. My experience of life may be quite common and perhaps universal, and my comparison of naturalism with theism as far as explanatory power goes may be a good philosophical argument.

  • T. A. Lewis

    Interesting and well-argued debate.

    However, I don't see where Dianelos served to float "God" above the conceptual or projected psychological level.

    This is why, several years ago, I decided to refrain from debates on the existence or non-existence of a God or gods. They wallow in jargon and rhetoric and largely fail to resolve anything.

    They do, though, greatly serve as a meta-analysis on the issue. If I read Dianelos correctly, it was never once argued that God's existence can be claimed in empirical reality. "God" can interact on the quantum level and thereby escape empirical observation (and by extension falsification).

    I hope not to misrepresent, but I think this is just another "god of the gaps" that seeks refuge in the mysterious.

    The much more parsimonious explanation is one that is demonstrated by a meta-analysis of Dianelos’ argument: "God" is an idea that is used to perceive the world in human-like terms through the belief systems of theism.

    That “god” and gods are a common belief is not surprising – why shouldn’t it be? Humans trying to understand the world in human-like terms is to be expected.

    This observation doesn’t falsify “god,” but it does make for the better explanation in that it can avoid the circumlocutions and special pleading inherent in a defense of theism when viewed in the entire context of human religious belief.

  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    T. A. Lewis said: “If I read Dianelos correctly, it was never once argued that God's existence can be claimed in empirical reality.

    If the meaning of “empirical reality” is “physical universe” then this is certainly correct. Existents in empirical reality are physical things (or, more exactly, what is referred to by physical concepts), but God is not a physical thing. Theism (as all religion) is a claim about the existence of a transcendental reality, a reality which is deeper than physical reality, and actually sustains it and gives meaning to it. A non-religious person may reasonably argue that transcendental reality does not exist, but not that transcendental reality is not to be found within the physical universe.

    T. A. Lewis said: “"God" can interact on the quantum level and thereby escape empirical observation (and by extension falsification).

    Before quantum physics a naturalist might have reasonably argued that if God massively interacted with the history of the universe (as some theists believe) then this fact would be detectable by science. After the discovery of quantum mechanics we know that there are ways for God to massively interact with the universe’s history without science being able, even in principle, to detect it. Now if reality is fundamentally personal (as theism has it) and not mechanistic (as naturalism has it) one would expect the physical phenomena that science studies (and which are certainly one manifestation of reality and therefore not irrelevant) to be compatible with the former view, and (ideally) not compatible with the latter – and that’s what is in fact happening.

    As for the idea of “falsification” one should be careful. Beliefs such as “2+2=4” or “it is wrong to torture a child for fun” are not falsifiable but this does not render them any less true. As far as I can see purely scientific beliefs can also be true even though not falsifiable, for example “physical space exists”.

    T. A. Lewis said: “ I hope not to misrepresent, but I think this is just another "god of the gaps" that seeks refuge in the mysterious.

    Well, I suppose any talk about transcendental reality is apt to strike a naturalist as “mysterious”. On the other hand it’s not like embracing naturalism allows one to escape mysteries, quite the opposite in fact: On scientific naturalism basic stuff such as consciousness, intentionality (or “aboutness”), freedom of will, the remarkable success of mathematics in the natural sciences, ethics, esthetics, not to mention some cold observational facts such as quantum mechanical phenomena, all are mysterious.

    As for “god of the gaps”, every time a theist points out a gap in the naturalistic understanding of reality, some naturalist is apt to wave the “god of the gaps” idea as if it were a significant defense. Surely, if it is a fact that in the modern era and under the scrutiny of both philosophy and science naturalism’s gaps are growing both in number and in size then this is not what one would expect if naturalism is true, correct?

    T. A. Lewis said: “ Humans trying to understand the world in human-like terms is to be expected.

    Sure. And it is especially to be expected if God exists.

  • tmdrange

    Dianelos (DG) says that, on theism, there is a way to settle disagreements about the application of concepts such as "personal perfection," "beauty," and "moral goodness," but he does not tell us what that way is. I hope that he will tell us that. Also, if there is such a way, then how come there STILL occur disagreements among theists on such matters?

    DG also says that such concepts ultimately refer to properties of God who is the very foundation of reality and who is directly knowable. He needs to explain to us how we might directly know that there exists a PERFECT personal being. We need an argument to the conclusion that God, defined as (among other things) "a PERFECT personal being" exists. I hope that DG will supply that for us.

    Previously, I expressed the hope that DG would provide us with a TEST for whether or not something "reflects God's moral character," but, thus far, he has not done that.

  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    Ted Drange (tmdrange) said: “ Dianelos (DG) says that, on theism, there is a way to settle disagreements about the application of concepts such as 'personal perfection,' 'beauty,' and 'moral goodness,' but he does not tell us what that way is.

    As I did say before, the way to find out about these as well as to settle disagreements, is by finding out how God is. I have also suggested conceptual and empirical tests which describe in more detail some ways for knowing God (see the seventh comment in this thread). The second empirical way I described there is via the mystical experience of God, an experience which mystics describe as feeling more real than our everyday experience of the physical universe. But mystical experience is a difficult way which only few of use will realize, in this life at least. The first empirical way I described is indirect, but is also much more achievable. The idea is to find out which metaphysical beliefs empower one, as a practical matter, to have a good life and be a good person, or in other words to live as one wishes to live. I specifically mentioned the case of how metaphysical beliefs transform one’s esthetic experience of life. (The implicit but reasonable premise behind this test is that truth cannot be such that those who know more of it are thereby disempowered.)

    Ted Drange said: “Also, if there is such a way, then how come there STILL occur disagreements among theists on such matters?

    Because most theists do not seriously enough or consistently enough follow these ways. Also many disagreements between theists are really a direct consequence of dogmatic differences which in turn are often the result of the messy history of religious institutions, and are thus irrelevant to the question at hand. In any case I note that non-religious philosophers when writing books on ethics often state some ethical propositions as obvious facts which do not require any further justification. Further it is quite clear that humanity’s moral zeitgeist is slowly but consistently *improving*, which only makes sense if there is an objective moral background against which to improve. On the other hand, clearly, it’s not easy to find out how that moral background is.

    Ted Drange said: “ We need an argument to the conclusion that God, defined as (among other things) "a PERFECT personal being" exists.

    That is of course the main issue. The conceptual and empirical tests I have described, if successful, represent that argument.

    Now to evaluate a metaphysical worldview by itself is hard for the reasons that Descartes and Kant have elucidated. But I find that a philosophical project of comparing one to one and under the same criteria two competing metaphysical worldviews (in our case theism based on the presence of a perfect personal being versus scientific naturalism) is quite doable and offers sufficient grounds for deciding which of these two metaphysical systems is more reasonable, and hence more probably true.

    Ted Drange said: “ Previously, I expressed the hope that DG would provide us with a TEST for whether or not something "reflects God's moral character," but, thus far, he has not done that.

    I thought I had already explained how on theism one can find out about God’s moral character. The way to know God’s moral character is the same way by which one knows any person’s moral character: either directly by building a personal relationship with that person, or indirectly by evaluating that person’s actions (which in the case of God refer to how we are and how our experience of life is).

  • tmdrange

    DG's concept of God as "a perfect personal being" is as nonsensical to me as that of Bishop John Shelby Spong, who says: "God is no longer a person, a being or an entity to me. God is rather a presence in whom, to use words attributed to St. Paul, 'I live and move and have my being.' The 'old man in the sky' was the first image to go, then the heavenly judge who kept record books and finally the father figure who desired praise and whose mercy I implored. The invasive, external heavenly deity faded and new images began to intrude themselves into my consciousness. … God to me is now more of an experience of transcendence, or perhaps the source of life, the source of love and the ground of all being."

    DG's God-talk is slightly different but is equally unilluminating. He says that theists can settle their ethical disagreements by "finding out how God is," but what that comes to, apparently, is Spong's mystical experience (which DG wrongly calls "an empirical method").

    DG also says that theists can come to know God by "finding out which metaphysical beliefs empower one to have a good life." Huh? What has THAT to do with "finding out how God is"?

    DG also says "The way to know God's moral character is … by building a personal relationship with [God] or by evaluating [God's] actions." What does all that come to? It ultimately makes no more sense than Spong's mysticism. DG needs to consider specific examples to clarify his "way of knowing God." Suppose two theists disagree on whether or not God would approve of an abortion performed in the 12th week of pregnancy or a couple getting divorced after having promised to stay together or cruelty to animals performed during animal experiments or during food production, etc. There are hundreds of such kinds of disputes. How, EXACTLY, are they to be resolved? If DG cannot supply us with some objective method here, then he needs to concede that his notion of God as "a perfect personal being" is hopelessly subjective.

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