Conservatism in philosophy

Here’s a quotation from a piece by Gary Gutting, a philosopher of religion, as a prelude to a defense of faith:

. . . when philosophers disagree it is only about specific aspects of the most subtle and sophisticated versions of arguments for and against God’s existence (for example, my colleague Alvin Plantinga’s modal-logic formulation of St. Anselm’s ontological argument or William Rowe’s complex version of a probabilistic argument from evil). There is no disagreement among philosophers about the more popular arguments to which theists and atheists typically appeal: as formulated, they do not prove (that is, logically derive from uncontroversial premises) what they claim to prove. They are clearly inadequate in the judgment of qualified professionals. Further, there are no more sophisticated formulations that theists or atheists can accept — the way we do scientific claims — on the authority of expert consensus.

In these popular debates about God’s existence, the winners are neither theists nor atheists, but agnostics — the neglected step-children of religious controversy, who rightly point out that neither side in the debate has made its case. This is the position supported by the consensus of expert philosophical opinion.

All this is perfectly correct, even uncontroversial, in a certain narrow sense. That is, if you think that philosophy of religion as traditionally practiced is the appropriate discipline to consult on questions concerning the reality of supernatural agents, you will find the situation is exactly as Gutting describes it. Philosophy of religion has lots of interesting critical debate, but it does not have substantial results. All arguments in the philosophy of religion are, at some level, plausibility arguments. They are always full of assumptions open to dispute, or outright loopholes that look respectable or not depending on prior positions on the claims under discussion. Is it plausible that all natural evil is due to Satan and his minions? It depends on whether you already believe in that sort of religion or not.

So, given that there are no proofs one way or the other that “logically derive from uncontroversial premises,” does this mean that the neglected middle, agnosticism, is the best option? Or, do we follow Gutting’s (and kindred philosophers’) theistic instincts, and uphold religious faith as a kind of commonsense belief that needs no defense?

No. There is more than one “middle” option Gutting is overlooking, by behaving in the conservative fashion typical of many philosophers of religion. One possibility—one that I favor—is that traditional philosophy of religion is not the right approach.

Indeed, the traditional philosophy of religion is structured in just such a way as to lead to the impasse Gutting describes. It is a heir to a rationalistic tradition that, going back to the Greeks, seeks certainty in demonstrations based on indubitable premises that are self-evident or somehow deliverances of pure reason themselves.

But there are no such things. When the mystical-rationalistic intellectual tradition supported things such as metaphysical necessities, and the religious doctrine in the background made the deliverances of philosophical theology seem correct, philosophers could hope for consensus on the basics while wrangling about details. Today, the critical aspects of the philosophical enterprise have the upper hand. If philosophers of religion remain conservative and keep working within their rationalistic tradition, many will continue to come up with variations on ***ological arguments for theism or an argument from evil for atheism. Today’s neoscholasticism, the analytic philosophy of religion, is perfectly suited to such obscurantism by means of clarification. But all of this will only be an invitation for the critics to start looking for loopholes. With enough ingenuity and resources, they will find them. The whole enterprise almost inevitably leads to stalemate.

Note that introducing inductive arguments about the gods does not change this picture. That is because the inductive arguments philosophers of religion typically use are, in fact, deductive arguments. The appeal to evidence comes in by installing some very broad “facts” in the premises, and then we get to crank through some deductive apparatus that produces an inductive result. The fashion of using Bayesian inference illustrates this nicely. This is a loophole generator par exellence, because bare Bayesian probabilistic reasoning can give you almost anything you want, by playing with the statistical model or the prior probabilities. In such a Bayesian approach, evidence is only eliminative, where what is needed is a way to use evidence as representative. Bayesian reasoning is not a cure for rationalist habits, it’s a variant form of the disease.

Are there ways out of the stalemate? Yes, but the conservatism that assumes that questions about the gods are the exclusive property of philosophy blocks such paths. Consider appeals to everyday experience or common sense, such as Gutting describes them:

. . . they have shown that everyday life is based on “basic” beliefs for which we have no good arguments. There are, for example, no more basic truths from which we can prove that the past is often a good guide to the future, that our memories are reliable, or that other people have a conscious inner life. Such beliefs simply — and quite properly — arise from our experience in the world. Plantinga in particular has argued that core religious beliefs can have a status similar to these basic but unproven beliefs. His argument has clear plausibility for some sorts of religious beliefs. Through experiences of, for example, natural beauty, moral obligation, or loving and being loved, we may develop an abiding sense of the reality of an extraordinarily good and powerful being who cares about us.

This may sound plausible within the conservative, insular intellectual environment of the traditional philosophy of religion. But experience with the psychology and biology relevant to everyday beliefs, not to mention those sciences like physics that come to treat everyday beliefs about the world as obstacles to overcome, should make such appeals considerably less attractive. Beliefs are not ethereal objects that wait in reserve to be plugged in rationalistic speculation; we know something about them.

There are good reasons to think it very implausible that supernatural agents of any kind exist, including the theistic God. The traditional philosophy of religion, though, is not where you can find them. The service philosophers of religion can perform for the overall argument is a critical one: by exposing loopholes, they can help against the temptation to settle the issue by means of rationalistic enterprises from the armchair. This is nontrivial, useful work. But the critical aspect of philosophy should not be an exercise that confirms the popular superstition that traditional philosophy of religion is the proper approach to discussions about the gods. In this context, the work of the philosopher is akin to that of the police. If those who act to prevent and deter crime achieved their aims perfectly, they would no longer be immediately necessary. The useful aspect of the philosophy of religion also tends to put itself out of business.

Religion has an enduring cultural significance. Human brains are almost inescapably drawn to interpreting the world in terms of the acts of supernatural agents. The rationalistic tradition in philosophy is itself ingrained. So armchair arguments concerning the gods are here to stay. This also means that we will need philosophers of religion indefinitely—as a defense against the philosophy of religion. We need the critical side of philosophy to help create space where philosophers and scientists outside the rationalistic tradition can hope for some more constructive accomplishments.

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