Faith and Reason Conference

I’m very excited right now because I am going to a philosophy of religion conference in just a couple of hours. I haven’t been to a professional academic conference like this for about 25 years, and I am expecting to really enjoy myself, even though most of the talks will probably go right over my head!

The conference is in honor of Richard Swinburne, a giant in the field of philosophy of religion who is celebrating his 80th birthday this year. Every paper is supposed to relate to something he’s worked on. Even though it’s in honor of him, participants are free (even expected) to disagree strongly with his views if they want to.

For my own entertainment, as well as to catch myself up on the philosophical basics everyone else there will already know, I looked at each of the descriptions for the papers that will be presented, and tried to figure out what they will be talking about.

I’m going to post what I discovered here, because I think some of you may be curious about what in the world they’ll be thinking about at a philosophy of religion conference.

The papers have been divided into two broad categories: Natural Theology and Philosophical Theology.

Natural theology is the stuff you can prove about God without appealing to things like the Bible or direct revelation or other stuff that only believers would accept. For example, if the natural world by itself is enough to prove the existence of God, then that proof would be a part of natural theology.

I am guessing that the Philosophical Theology category is for papers which do take certain theological doctrines for granted, and then grapple with philosophical questions they raise.

Anyway, here goes.

Natural Theology

The first two papers (Thursday) share a common theme. They discuss the nature of faith and how it is related to reason.

In one unit of the intro-level philosophy classes I teach, we discuss arguments for and against the existence of God. Sooner or later, one of my students will say, “But faith isn’t about reasons and arguments. It’s faith.” The question is whether faith requires reasons, and what kind of reasons count, and whether intellectually assenting to certain facts counts as faith or whether something more – some kind of commitment or trust or what-have-you – is needed.

The first paper on Thursday is explores the idea that faith is trust, which means it is more than merely a type of belief or knowledge. The author says he will compare his definition of faith to the “preference-based account” of another philosopher. Both accounts move beyond a merely doxastic conception of faith.

So then, here’s a new word for some of you!

  • doxastic = belief-related.

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Apparently, Swinburne argued that a life of faith involves belief in certain facts plus an ethical commitment to certain purposes, and said those commitments may be even more fundamental than the beliefs.

The author of the second paper agrees with this.

After developing the idea of these commitments as far as possible, he thinks we will see that they are so central to faith that someone who holds them could be considered to have faith even in the absence of all the doctrinal beliefs and religious attitudes we generally associate with it. (Hmmm … I’m skeptical.) Therefore, he concludes, when we analyze faith we should pay close attention to these ethical commitments, just as much as we do to the doctrines and philosophical beliefs associated with them.

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God created everything, but does the universe exist since then independently from him? And if not, how involved is he in its moment-to-moment activities? For example, is the existence of an object from moment to moment best seen as God recreating the object each moment that it exists?

A question with the same flavor is, what makes things happen? When A causes B, how does A cause B? Occasionalism is the view that God is the real cause behind everything. In one sense, when A causes B, it is really God who is the true cause of B.

The first paper on Friday morning (by a philosophical hero of mine 🙂 ) promises to relate occasionalism to the question of free will and determinism.

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The next paper relates Swinburne’s aesthetic argument to skeptical theism.

Swinburne’s aesthetic argument: Swinburne argues that the universe has order and that makes it likely that it was designed. To show that it has order, one thing he considers is the presence of beauty.

Skeptical theism: One of the arguments against the existence of God is the existence of evil. If an all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing God existed, so the argument goes, then there would be no evil. There is evil, and therefore such a God does not exist. One way to defend theism against this argument is to find a way to explain how God could allow evil. A different way is to just say that we have no reason to expect we would understand anything about God’s reasons for doing things. Therefore, if we can’t figure out a reason why he might allow evil, it doesn’t matter, because we wouldn’t expect to understand his reasons anyway. This view is known as skeptical theism.

The problem with skeptical theism is that although it undercuts the argument from evil against God, it also seems to undercut several other arguments for God’s existence. The author of this paper says he will explain a view about aesthetics that is similar to skeptical theism, and then show how it undercuts Swinburne’s aesthetic argument in somewhat the same way.

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There have been lots of natural theology arguments designed to show that it is likely that God exists, but for a while many philosophers have felt that none of them work. Swinburne agrees that none of them works by itself, but argues that we can consider their cumulative effect, and that, together, they make it likely that God does exist.

As a key part of his argument, he considers the question of how we choose between competing theories for something, and claims that one of the main criteria is that of simplicity. If one theory is much simpler than another, we should believe it over the other. He argues that based on simplicity, the existence of God is quite likely to be true.

The next paper is going to argue that simplicity is not really the point, but rather, “coherence” is the point, and that that makes Swinburne’s argument less convincing.

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Omnipotence is hard to define. For example, if it just means being able to do anything, then can God make a stone so heavy that he cannot lift it? Or, can he fail?

One way to define omnipotence is to claim that a being is omnipotent if it can do anything which does not contradict its essential nature. (To create a rock he cannot move would contradict God’s omnipotence, and so he cannot be expected to be able to do it.)

A famous counterexample involves a hypothetical being (a man named “McEar”) whose essential nature is that the only thing he can do is to scratch his ear. If he were to do anything else, it would violate his essential nature. Therefore, the only thing he has to do to be omnipotent is to scratch his ear, and he can do that, so he is omnipotent.

This counterexample means there is still something wrong with our definition.

I think (after googling a little) that Swinburne’s definition of omnipotence relies on the idea that an omnipotent being can bring about any state of affairs as long as the state of affairs does not lead logically to the conclusion that that being did not bring about the state of affairs. This eliminates the heavy stone example, but not the McEar example. Swinburne has since proposed a fix to his definition to deal with McEar. This last paper on Friday explores whether his fix works and whether there are alternatives available.

Philosophical Theology

The first paper on Saturday morning investigates the atonement. We often have the idea that God could not have forgiven us if Christ had not died. The speaker is going to present a particular view of the love of God and argue that it is incompatible with that idea.

My pastor always quotes the Scripture, “Without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness,” as though it were embedded into the nature of the universe that there cannot be forgiveness without bloodshed. Actually, though, the verse says:

According to the Law, one may almost say, all things are cleansed with blood,  and without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” (Hebrews 9:22.)

In other words, it isn’t saying that forgiveness requires bloodshed by its essential nature, but simply that God chose to set the law up that way — and even that is qualified with an “almost”.

So perhaps God could have set things up differently. Perhaps he could have worked things out so that forgiveness was granted through some other act. Or perhaps not.

I’m not sure,then, whether the verse contradicts the speaker’s views or not. I’ll have to wait and see what she says, since in her description of the paper she doesn’t say yet what her view of God’s love actually is. I think it’ll be interesting.

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The second paper on Saturday examines the fact that in liturgy and hymns, “the present tense is used when speaking of Christ’s birth or resurrection”. Why? How should we interpret it? One of the most common theories doesn’t seem to make philosophical sense, and he is going to ask what other options there may be.

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After that we get an exploration of “the Doomsday Argument”. I looked that up online and it appears to be basically this: if the human race were going to be around forever, it would be extremely unlikely that we would just happen to born so close to its beginning. Therefore, it is much more probable that the human race will only be around a short while. Therefore, it is extremely unlikely that it will last forever.

Apparently this argument, which seems clearly wrong at first glance, is actually hard to refute.

The speaker promises to identify the key premise and then examine whether it would provide an argument against individual people living forever.

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The final paper looks complicated. It examines the nature of the soul and relates it to dualism and hylomorphism.

Dualism addresses the relationship between the mind and the body (including the brain). For example, Descartes, who was a dualist, believed that we are the combination of two separate things, a mind and a body. The body is a physical object, obeying physical laws, existing in our physical universe. The mind/soul and its thoughts are non-physical, and not subject to physical laws, but exist nonetheless. Somehow our mind and body interact.

Most philosophers today are not dualists. Typically they say that the mind is the brain – a physical object – or else some aspect of the brain, such as its organization or its functionality or something.

Swinburne is a dualist. He argues that one’s soul must be more than merely one’s body and more than merely one’s psychological characteristics (memory, intentions, etc.)

Hylomorphism (matter-form-ism) is an idea of Aristotle’s that I only partially understand. He said that everything is composed of both matter and form together. When you cut down a tree and cut it into timber and use the timber to make a chair, the same matter keeps being re-molded into different forms. We never see just matter or just form. We always see both together. (Reading this back, it makes it sound like a form is merely a physical shape. That’s not what Aristotle meant, but I will go wrong if I attempt to say anything further, so I’ll leave it at that!) Anyway, it’s possible to argue that the soul is the form and the body is the matter of a person.

It looks like this paper is going to compare and contrast a hylomorphic explanation of the mind/body distinction with Swinburne’s explanation.

Of course, this is all especially significant because we believe that the soul is going to survive being separated from the body and later reunited with a resurrected version of the same body. That means the relationship between the soul and the body matters.

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OK, there you have it. Maybe I’ll discover that half of these talks aren’t about what I thought they were going to be about at all! Doesn’t matter – I’m planning on having a blast, regardless.

See y’all later!

P.S. If you were going, which would interest you most? Leave your opinions in the comments.

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