on October 19, 2013
I have only just completed my first reading of this book, but I already believe it to be worthy of multiple readings and, as well, the serious consideration of those working or interested in the field of religious philosophy. Why do I say this? I would like to discuss two primary qualities which impressed me about this book. First, it is a wonderfully written, philosophical text (I will discuss why I stress `philosophical' below). And second, Philipse provides in it an impressive logical framework within which the many religiously skeptical arguments are shown to coherently come together--allowing one to effectively pin down the often elusive theistic belief system and carve it up for critical scrutiny. (For immediate evidence of these qualities, I emphatically refer one to click on the image of the book above and read the Preface, which outlines the books argument.)
On the first point, many (of the faithfully religious) have complained about the rhetoric of the popular "New Atheist" authors. Such authors (viz. Harris, Hitchens, Dennett, and Dawkins), in aiming at reaching the broader literary public, have typically progressed their arguments through merely common language, without (1) ever utilizing a more rigorous formal logic to make their inferences and (2) formally addressing the "best" arguments of modern theism. Furthermore, the aims of such works are typically not just to demonstrate that religious beliefs are false, but also (which would follow as a corollary to such a conclusion) that they are delusional, harmful, or bad in some way. Thus, such works have opened themselves up to being labeled, whether justified or not, as intellectually simplistic and provocatively offensive, and so also as dismissible.
"God in the Age of Science", however, is not open to such criticisms. The central question the book aims at answering is "...whether there are good reasons for thinking that some specific subset of religious beliefs make sense and is true"(xii). It does not inquire further than this epistemological question, though, to make moral or aesthetic judgments about religious belief; and so it does not contain derogatory attacks on religious belief, nor rhetoric which might easily offend and turn away those of faith. Also, the book is rather rigorous; hence, it is full of philosophical-logical jargon which makes it an intellectually demanding read. However, with that said, I found Philipse to be very good at providing definitions when introducing terminology, and not merely assuming that the reader has a degree in philosophy. (Also, I am grateful that internal notes are provided at the bottom of the pages in which they occur, as footnotes, rather than on some arbitrary page in the back of the book as endnotes. The latter is a pain in the ass, and I don't know why authors do it. So cheers to that feature!)
On the second point, Philipse succinctly lays out the logical structure of his books argument both in the Preface and in the Conclusion chapters. In short, he, I think, correctly argues that "there are only four strategic options (b, d, e, f, see below) open to the believer and the religious apologist, which may be presented as the horns of three interlocked dilemmas..." (xiv).
In this case, first, one must settle whether religious statements either (a) amount to truth claims, or (b) do not entail truth values (because they are metaphorical or otherwise subjective expressions). The former leads to a second dilemma; so let us for the moment bracket (b) and assume (a). Hence, given (a), then either such statements must (c) be supported by evidence in order to be considered reasonably justified, or (d) no such justification is required. Option (c) produces the third mentioned dilemma, so let us also bracket (d) and now further assume that (c). Hence, given now (c) that religious belief may be rationally justified only if it is supported by positive reasons and evidence, then either (e) this rational justification is different from that of scientific theories, or (f) it is not. Thus, after bracketing (b) and (d), we are left with (e) and (f)--the four strategic options open to religious apologists. (See the Wikipedia page "God in the Age of Science" for a good outline of this.)
Philpse then demonstrates that (b) is not inconsistent with atheism, and that (d) produces dogmatic faith and cognitive vice if it is not bolstered by a successful Natural Theology; hence, ultimately, if the faithful believer wants to claim his beliefs to be reasonable and intellectually responsible, then he will be left with the final dilemma between (e) and (f), which Philipse terms "The Tension"; and this proves very problematic for the theist who wants theism to both be un-falsifiable by the progress of science (and, i.e., impervious to the "God-of-the-gaps" fallacy) and an intellectually respectable discipline with the credibility of a scientific theory.
This structure had the effect of greatly clarifying my intuitive conception of the modern debate over religion. And I believe it provides an invaluable perspective from which to navigate the field of religious philosophy. However, one must keep in mind that this only represents the first part of the book. The remaining two-thirds of the book consist of a succession of "subsidiary arguments" where Philipse, while focusing his critique on the work of the prominent natural theologian Richard Swinburne, explores the various qualities demanded of theism for it to be a successful (or at least meaningful) theory, and shows how it fails every step of the way.
(Namely, Philipse further explores the questions of "....to what extent theism possesses the theoretical virtues that we usually require of explanatory hypotheses"? E.g. is 'God' coherently defined in a meaningful way, rather than in an irreducibly analogical and non-referencing way? Or has theism really "...a broad explanatory scope and does it account for all the phenomena in its domain? Is theism empirically adequate [with valid methods of investigation] in that testable consequences derivable from it are in agreement with the results of experiments or observations [opposed to anthropomorphism]? Can theism be used to predict phenomena that are novel in the sense of not having been known or taken into account when the theory was formulated? Is theism falsifiable...[and if not, then how can it be inductively confirmed on evidence]? And so on" (140) And Philipse elucidates why the answers to such questions reflect very negatively on theism.)
And, therefore, the obvious product of Philipse's work, if his conclusion (that "we should become strong disjunctive universal atheists" (346)) is indeed correct, is that not only is theism a very poor global theoretical explanation of existence, the universe, humanity, etc.--as, e.g., Richard Swinburne claims it to be; but it also is a poor explanation for the worlds religions and, in particular, Christianity. In other words, there are far better and more probably true explanations for these things than the real existence of invisible spirits discussed in ancient texts--at least for those who value evidence, reason, and intellectual integrity.
Happy readings and Peace! (Buy the book)
on March 28, 2014
Generally speaking, one can divide religious critique into two categories. The first is to attack religion as a political institution, whereby the social effects of religion are examined and subject to scrutiny. The second is to go after the truth status of religious claims. While these two categories have some overlap, it's worth remembering that truth and utility aren't the same thing.
It is unfortunate that critiques of the utility of religion are taken as the reason for critiques on the truth of religion. It's not that God is a nonsense notion, it's that atheists have some psychological hatred of theism as it is practised that leads to the denial of God altogether. It's unfortunate because the critiques of belief itself are ignored as some outcome of one's impression on the utility of religion, they remain largely unaddressed. Explain the "reasons" for atheism and explain away the need to address atheism.
Herman Philipse's book completely focuses on the second category. This category is further narrowed by the distinction between natural theology and revealed theology, where the focus was almost exclusively on natural theology. The question the book explores is what to make of a concept like God in light of modern science, and is largely an exploration of the case made by the philosopher Richard Swinburne.
To understand the way Philipse laid out the critique, it's worth exploring the three dilemmas Philipse proposes the theist has to answer:
Claims about God's existence are (a) factual claims, or (b) non-factual claims.
If (a), religious belief (c) needs to be backed up by reasons and evidence, or (d) it does not.
If (c), this can be done by (e) methods completely unlike those used by scientists and scholars, or (f) like those methods.
Although there are a few exponents of (b), the claims themselves are prima facie (a) claims. "God exists", is for most people an attempt to say something true about the world, and not just an attitude they take to it. For (d), there are a couple of chapters devoted to exploring the merits of Plantinga's argument for reformed epistemology. But the real concern is the answer to the third dilemma, with Richard Swinburne's cumulative inductive case for the existence of God taken as the paradigmatic example of how one ought to approach God in the age of science.
The chapters addressing Plantinga are instructive to the tone of the rest of the book. While Plantinga has weaved an elaborate logical defence, of ad hoc claims, bare assertions, defeater-deflectors and defeater-defeaters, one might be curious as to what purpose Platinga's argument would achieve. At no point do we have any evidence that our brains possess a sensis divinitus, let alone that it's actually at work in religious experiences, that it's faulty for most people, but less faulty for monotheists, and reliable when it comes to Christian beliefs. Yet this idea gets two chapters of logical objections!
v But the vast majority of the book is taken up with a critical analysis of Swinburne's ideas. His argumentation style, much like the opening of the book, often involves particular dilemmas, followed by why each horn of the dilemma is problematic. For dilemma 3 above, the danger of choosing (e) is choosing methodology that has no respectability among intellectuals, while the danger of (f) is that it opens God up to empirical disconfirmation.
The exercise begins by seeing whether Swinburne is successful in casting God as a successful theory in the way scientific theories are. Swinburne's approach is correct, but unfortunately God is not up to the task of being a proper scientific theory. There are obstacles to this, such as God being an irreducible analogy, or using personal terms to describe something that doesn't fit our use of personal language.
To examine Swinburne's inductive argument, he sets aside his earlier criticisms before forcefully showing the problems with Swinburne's approach. Some of the errors are quite technical, such as whether some of Swinburne's arguments are successful C-inductive arguments, but there's a lot of food for thought at each stage. The end result (predictably) is that Swinburne's approach simply doesn't have the predictive power attributed to it.
Like Plantinga's argument, there were times when the exercise bordered on the absurd. God being the simplest thing there is because infinites are simpler than non-infinites mathematically. Philipse deals with this argument early, but as a justification this keeps coming up in Swinburne's inductive argument. One could simply point out that since there is no way of measuring God, there is no way of knowing how simple God is, but the joke goes beyond the pale when Swinburne insists that infinite things are simpler than finite things of the same kind. It takes a lot of complexity to have finite persons with finite knowledge, but an infinite person with infinite knowledge is simple?!
Is this book worth reading? It's a tough question to answer. There are many ways of addressing the truth questions of religion, and whether one feels it's worth digging into this book depends on whether natural theology is seen as the best way to assess the truth. This is in contrast to revealed theology (the specific doctrines of theistic religions) and in contrast to the idea that theology is a pseudodiscipline.
Philipse does his best to argue for the relevance of natural theology as the approach one ought to take, and he aimed at the best natural theology has to offer in his arguments. The end result is something quite technical, but still full of interesting approaches to particular problem. The arguments themselves cover a wide range of philosophical topics, covering not only philosophy of religion, but questions of language, epistemology, mathematics, and meaning. In that light, the case for natural theology is not as esoteric as it seems prima facie.
One of the strengths of the book is that it pushes the issue of theology in the scientific age, and is full of dilemmas facing believers at each potential turn. In that respect, the book is incredibly useful for the current debate about whether science and religion are compatible. Anyone who has an interest on this question will find this book invaluable.
However, this is not a book about how religion is practised, nor is it a book about revealed theology, and the arguments sometimes get bogged down in logical problems when empirical arguments would have been more to the point. And for those who see believing in God as an act of faith, there will be nothing in this book to change their minds. But for those who find the question interesting, and for those who seek a modern understanding of how to address the question, this book is well worth reading.
on July 11, 2013
One day I logged on to Facebook to see a friend post that the final deathblow to religion has been struck, or at least a philosopher named Herman Philipse claims as much. The article he posted was a review of the book 'God in the Age of Science? A Critique of Religious Reason.' I had my doubts, but knew that it was a book I should read. Unfortunately, after finishing it, I cannot myself attest to whether it fulfills this claim. However, I can attest to the fact that this is an extraordinary book on the philosophy of religion that deserves to be read based on its scope, breadth, and analytical rigor.
Philipse's approach in this book is essentially is a sequence-by-sequence breakdown of religious reason starting in epistemology and ending in metaphysics. Think of it like Hume's 'Treatise,' he first lays down a descriptive epistemology and then shows what beliefs this approach leaves us with. In 'God in the Age of Science?', Philipse does the inverse. He first makes the theists' case for religious reason, and then tears it down. However, this is not a 300+ page book on religious epistemology, so what he does is after--what he considers to be--sufficient rejection of religious epistemology he essentially says, "But let's say I'm wrong, what's next?" He calls this approach `strategy of subsidiary arguments.' This approach comes alive in Parts II and III.
Part I, however, is almost entirely focused to epistemology, where he deals extensively with Plantinga's reformed epistemology. Had this book just been part one, he would have something to be proud of writing. However, in Parts II and III he gives an exposition and refutation of religious metaphysics, specifically the philosophical work of Richard Swinburne. The refutation is done by looking at what science has been able to explain to us and how valid the God theory or theism theory is as a scientific theory. He takes his subsidiary arguments and one by one takes down Swinburne, giving Swinburne the benefit of the doubt for each previous argument and proceeds to look at the subsequent argument. Though this isn't a book solely about Swinburne, Philipse takes time to knock out a few other philosophically astute apologists like William Lane Craig.
The most difficult obstacle of Philipse's book is the use of Bayes' Theorem. Not being entirely familiar with it myself, I struggled through the arguments that used the Theorem heavily--which is most of the book. Though it seems that many of Philipse's arguments could be made without having to examine how Bayesian probability comes into play for each case, by doing so, Philipse has given a serious and worthwhile consideration of Swinburne's arguments, which adds greatly to the quality and scope of the book.
If the constant use of Bayes' Theorem isn't enough of a clue, I shall warn that the book is highly technical. Given the rise of the new atheist movement, this book will probably catch the eye of many readers. However, this is simply not a book for the average Dawkins reader. This is no 'God Delusion.' This is a book of analytic philosophy, which is meant for philosophers and those with experience studying philosophy.
That being said, this is, without a doubt, a must read for those studying philosophy of religion. The breadth of arguments considered between epistemology and metaphysics, the scope of intellectual tools employed, and the quality of Philipse's analytical rigor all makes this book well worth the read. Whether or not it has struck the final deathblow to religion should probably however be left to someone who is actually religious at the outset of this book--and of course, willing to change his or her mind. To them, and to all readers, I'll see you on the other side.