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Monday, January 5, 2009

Byrne on Theistic Philosophers

In his recent Boston Review article, Alex Byrne seriously misrepresents the lay of the land in current Anglo-American philosophy, especially when we take the long view of the last several decades. As Quentin Smith has documented, (Philo 4/2 [2001]: 3-4), there has transpired since the late 1960s a veritable revolution in Anglo-American analytic philosophy with respect to the philosophy of religion in general and natural theology in particular. It is atheism that is in retreat and theism that is on the rise. Tangible measures of the sea change that has occurred is evident in the number of new philosophy journals devoted exclusively to the philosophy of religion, in the burgeoning market in philosophy of religion textbooks, in the demand among university students for courses in philosophy of religion, and in the percentage of graduate students in philosophy who are Christian theists. The difference between the discipline as it appeared back in the 1930s or 40s and today is like the difference between night and day. Byrne’s tendentious spin on Dean Zimmerman’s words obscures the point that outspoken, highly respected Christian philosophers are numerous today, even though many of their colleagues (like Byrne?) are dismissive of their religious beliefs.

Equally misrepresentative is Byrne’s characterization of contemporary Christian philosophers as content with “pulling up the drawbridge and manning the barricades, rather than crusading against the infidel.” Never mind the ugly militaristic imagery. Insofar as they have engaged in defensive operations, Christian philosophers have done so in order to show that the shopworn anti-theistic arguments like the meaninglessness of religious language, the vaunted presumption of atheism, the incoherence of theism, and the problem of evil are, to borrow Byrne’s phrase, “underwhelming” and do not stand up to scrutiny. Moreover, Christian philosophers certainly have gone on the offensive as well, as all of the traditional theistic arguments—cosmological, teleological, axiological, ontological—find numerous articulate defenders today (I list some in my piece in Christianity Today, July 2008, pp. 22-27).

Byrne similarly misrepresents Plantinga’s work on religious epistemology, epitomized in Warranted Christian Belief. On one level, Plantinga’s work is defensive in showing that Christian belief can be wholly rational, justified, and warranted even in the absence of arguments and that atheistic objections to the contrary all fail. On another level, however, the work is a frontal assault on atheistic naturalism, as Plantinga argues that there is no acceptable account of warrant (and, hence, of knowledge) that does not appeal to the notion of the proper functioning of our cognitive faculties, a notion best cashed out in terms of their functioning as they were designed to, and, moreover, that naturalism is rationally unaffirmable, since on naturalism our cognitive faculties are selected not for their being truth-conducive but survival-conducive, so that we can have no confidence in the truth of their deliverances—including, ironically, the truth of naturalism.

The question raised in the final paragraph of Byrne’s article is squarely addressed by Plantinga’s religious epistemology. Plantinga agrees that, for the most part, Christian theists “do not believe that God exists on the basis of any argument.” Plantinga thinks that there are, in fact, good arguments for God’s existence and has defended over two dozen of them; but he thinks they’re not necessary in order for religious belief to be justified or warranted. In that sense Plantinga concurs with Byrne that “The funny thing about arguments for the existence of God is that, if they succeed, they were never needed in the first place.” That is to say, if theistic arguments are sound, then God exists and has likely furnished us with cognitive mechanisms that yield warranted theistic belief independent of argument. But when Byrne opines, “How they know that God exists, if they do, is itself unknown,” then he has simply failed to be attentive to Plantinga’s epistemological model, for that model does explain how it is that Christian belief is warranted apart from argument. To assert otherwise is just to ignore all that Plantinga has written on the subject.

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Blogger Ranger said:

I have a few points, and this comment may be long, so I apologize up front.

First, thanks for sharing again the Quentin Smith quote. It's a telling admission even if it is still a very defensive quote. There is no doubt that theism is still alive and well in plenty other areas of academia as well.

Second, I was saddened to see that the article Byrne acts as though Mackie's "Miracle of Theism" is a devastating critique of theism that has simply not caught on with the public for non-intellectual reasons. Despite being adequately critiqued in its day (not to mention in the 20+ years since), it has been trotted out recently by the new atheists as seemingly never been answered.

I would like to respond as well to Byrne's comments concerning the "seriously religious" that he sees as a small minority. I think his view is simply limited. Of course, one could ask what "serious" means in this context as you could limit your perspective to whatever you deem as "serious." Let me instead suggest a few points that seeminly lie outside of Byrne's view.

1. The whole death of God terminology comes from Nietzsche and continental philosophy. As we all know, continental philosophy has always been much more godless than analytic philosophy, or philosophy in general. But when Derrida took a "theological turn," and was promptly followed by many others, things began to change. Whereas in the mid-80s continental philosophy was obviously atheistic, there are now plenty of theistic continental philosophers (especially Catholics, such as Marion). The majority are no longer strict atheists (although still primarily agnostic). The post-atheistic turn is so complete that many like Zizek argue that, while it is no longer an appealing solution for the future (which he, an agnostic sees as Christianity), atheism should be "fought" for more as a cultural legacy of Europe than anything else.

2. Even in their post-metaphysical philosophy, the theological turn has moved continental philosophy back toward metaphysics. One recent review of Marion's work suggested that as he climbs the mountain of non-metaphysical theology he will arrive at the pinnacle only to find Aquinas already sitting there. When put in the larger picture, it is clear that metaphysics has made a major comeback in the last 50 years. That must be seen as a clear indication of a rebirth of theistic philosophy, or at least as a movement away from materialism.

3. Speaking of Aquinas, the often overlooked crowd in these discussions are the Thomists. Just as analytic Theism had a rebirth of sorts in the 20th century, so did Thomism. A similar rebirth appears to be happening in post-atheist Russia among the Orthodox philosophers and theologians. Catholic universities and seminaries still push out a large number of philosophers who are highly trained, yet do not enter into these debates for one simple reason...they are in the priesthood and not in university settings.

4. A similar argument could be made for evangelical (and even mainline) seminaries. Fifty years ago, philosophy had fallen out of favor even in theology, and would not have been a required course in seminary. Yet today, just about everywhere requires that future ministers are at least introduced to philosophy of religion (formal) through one or more courses. Of course, their general theology courses and history of theological thought are a philosophy of religion in themselves, but would not be considered so in Byrne's analysis. There are many well read, philosophically astute pastors (Ph.D. and all) who simply do not enter into the discussion because their primary calling in life is the pastorate and not the university.

5. Theologians proper get ignored in these surveys as well. Who would argue that someone like David Bentley Hart, who taught philosophy at the U. of Virginia and Duke should not be included as a theistic philosopher, yet I'm fairly confident that he wouldn't since his research and writing is primarily in the field of philosophical theology, and not in the philosophy of religion proper. There are many philosophical theologians who would be ignored in this discussion since they are primarily theologians. This doesn't even mention the many political theologians who have to be well versed in philosophy.

As such, Byrne can act like there is only a small minority of Christian philosophers who are "seriously religious," but the truth is that he is limiting his sight to a minority (although growing) within a particular field of philosophy (analytic) within a particular setting (academic debate within secular universities).

By Blogger Ranger, at January 6, 2009 at 11:07 PM  

Blogger Tankadin said:

As per Alex Byrne's musings: I intuit that he is shamefully ignorant of the contemporary literature which has sought to provide ontological naturalism with defeaters, and to show that Christian theism is not only "warranted" but also more plausible than its denial.[1] It's odd that he refers to Plantinga the way he did, as if Plantinga has not authored one of the most stimulating presentations of the arguments of natural theology ever.[2] Or as if Plantinga never authored the volume temporally prior to Warranted Christian Belief, wherein he supplied the ontological naturalist with not a few defeaters[3]; or as if Plantinga has never proffered defeaters for ontological naturalism based on an argument from replacement[4], or the inability of ontological naturalism to explanatorily account for the content of beliefs.[5] I’m amazed that he, like too many other Atheologians, repeats the mantra, arguments for the existence of God “began with Plato, flourished in the writings of Aquinas, Leibniz, and Samuel Clarke, and was laid to rest by Hume and Kant.”[6] His quick dismissal of the ontological argument “smacks” of ignorance (despite his appeals to Oppy's evaluations of such argumentation) of contemporary attempts to revive it. His utilization of the old Kantian "existence isn't a predicate" objection is selectively ignorant of the modal versions of the argument. Obviously, Christian Philosophers have admitted to and agreed with Kant’s evaluation.[7] It’s just that the versions to which we appeals are immune to that old to often too often repeated objection.[8] So I find Byrne’s musings to be quite rash and inconsiderate.

[1] See for example the following works: Paul Copan and Paul K. Moser (eds.), The Rationality of Theism (New York, NY: Routledge Press, 2003); Richard M. Gale and Alexander R. Pruss (eds.), The Existence of God (Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2003); Richard M. Gale and Alexander R. Pruss, “Cosmological and Design Arguments” in William J. Wainwright (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 116-137; William Lane Craig and Mark S. McLeod (eds.), The Logic of Rational Theism (Lewiston: Mellen Press, 1990); J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig (eds.), Naturalism: A Critical Analysis (London: Routledge, 2000); William Lane Craig and Quentin Smith, Theism, Atheism, and Big Bang Cosmology (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993); William Lane Craig, The Kalām Cosmological Argument (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publisher, 1979); Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God (Oxford: Clarendon, rev. 1991); Stephen T. Davis, Christian Philosophical Theology (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2006), 24-36; Victor Reppert, C. S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003); Charles Taliaferro, Contemporary Philosophy of Religion (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1998), 246-298; Neil Manson (ed.), God and Design (New York, NY: Routledge Press, 2003); John Leslie, Universes (New York, NY: Routledge, 1996); Joseph K. Campbell, “Hume’s Refutation of the Cosmological Argument” in International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 40 (1996): 159-173; Brian Leftow, “A Modal Cosmological Argument,” in International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 24 (1988): 159-188; Richard M. Gale, “Why Traditional Cosmological Arguments Don’t Work, and a Sketch of a New One that Does,” in Michael L. Peterson & Raymond J. VanArragon (eds.), Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Religion (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2004), 114-132; Alvin Plantinga, The Nature of Necessity (Oxford: Clarendon Press, repr. 1982), 196-221; Timothy McGrew, “Toward a Rational Reconstruction of Design Inferences,” in Philosophia Christi 7:2 (2005): 253-298.

[2] Alvin Plantinga, “Appendix: Two Dozen (or so) Theistic Arguments,” in Deane-Peter Baker (ed.), Alvin Plantinga (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 203-227.

[3] Alvin Plantinga, Warrant and Proper Function (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 194-237.

[4] Alvin Plantinga, “Against Materialism,” in Faith and Philosophy 23:1 (2006): 3-32.

[5] Alvin Plantinga, “Materialism and Christian Belief,” in Peter van Inwagen and Dean Zimmerman (eds.), Persons: Human and Divine (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 99-141.

[6] William Rowe, The Cosmological Argument repr. in Peter van Inwagen and Dean W. Zimmerman (eds.), Metaphysics: The Big Questions (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1998), 431.

[7] J.P. Moreland, Universals (Quebec: McGillQueen’s University Press, 2001), 137, noting that Kant is somewhat wrong however, since there is a real difference between existence and non-existence.

[8] See particularl Alex Pruss’ rejuvenation of Gödel’s ontological argument:

By Blogger Tankadin, at January 11, 2009 at 7:04 PM  

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