Genuine Inquiry vs. Partisan Advocacy: Philosophy of Religion vs. Apologetics

Yesterday I blogged about a “recommended apologetics reading” list created by Western Michigan University philosopher Tim McGrew. After several cordial exchanges with Tim, I’ve decided that, despite my best attempts to be charitable, I failed. Contrary to what I had suggested, Tim stated, “I certainly would not recommend that anyone with a serious interest in the truth of Christianity restrict himself to reading only the works I have listed.” I take him at his word, and so I have decided to delete the entire blog post, rather than try to repair it, and replace it with this one.

I want to make a distinction between genuine inquiry, on the one hand, and partisan advocacy, on the other. Consider a central (but far from the only) topic in the philosophy of religion: the existence or nonexistence of God. Consider, for a moment, what it would mean to engage in genuine inquiry regarding God’s existence. If the word “inquiry” means anything at all, surely it means more than “read stuff which confirms the point of view you already hold.” It should include, at a minimum, reading opposing viewpoints, not with the goal of preparing pithy one-liners for debates, but with the goal of actually trying to learn something or consider new ways of looking at old topics. For professional philosophers, I would imagine that inquiry would also include trying to “steel man” your opposition, i.e., trying to strengthen the arguments for your opponent’s position. It might even include publishing arguments for a position you do not hold and even reject.

In contrast, partisan advocacy is, well, exactly what it sounds like it is. Much like an attorney hired to vigorously defend her client in court, a partisan advocate isn’t interested in genuine inquiry. To the extent a partisan advocate reads the “other side” at all, she does so in the same way presidential candidates try to find out the “truth” about their opponent under the guise of “opposition research.” So, for example, if a partisan advocate were to create a reading list about God’s existence, they would compile a list of recommended resources which either exclusively or overwhelmingly promoted a certain point of view and without even a hint that a balanced inquiry should be taken.

As suggested by the subtitle of this post, if we apply the genuine inquiry vs. partisan advocacy distinction to religion, I think we get the distinction between (an ideal) philosophy of religion vs. apologetics.

Now, this raises an interesting question.  At what point is a person, especially a professional philosopher, entitled to say this: “Genuine inquiry is nice and all, but viewpoint X is such obvious nonsense that the time for inquiry is over. After all, no geologist engages in ‘genuine inquiry’ about whether the earth is flat. So why should we treat theism (or atheism) any differently?”

I am not sure about the ‘full’ answer to that question, but I think at least part of the answer has to consider two points.

First, I think the current state of professional opinion is relevant. Surely part of the reason no one engages in genuine inquiry about the flat earth hypothesis is the fact that there are no competent geologists who endorse it. In contrast, among philosophers generally and philosophers of religion specifically, there are equally qualified authorities on both sides.

Second, I think the concept of intrinsic probabilities can play an important role here. I’m a naturalistic atheist, but I’m fully convinced by Paul Draper’s theory of intrinsic probability, which shows that naturalism and supernaturalism have equal intrinsic probabilities. While theism is a specific version of supernaturalism (and so is less intrinsically probable than naturalism), its intrinsic probability is not infinitesimal. Furthermore, not only does theism have a non-negligible intrinsic probability, there is evidence in its favor. It seems to me that if a theory (1) has a non-negligible intrinsic probability; (2) has evidence in its favor; and (3) is held by significant percentage of philosophers, not to mention the general population, then that theory is worthy of genuine inquiry. And notice that these same points apply to atheism or naturalism, which is why theists should also engage in genuine inquiry.

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