Continuing discussion.

EPS Blog

This is the blog area for the Evangelical Philosophical Society and its journal, Philosophia Christi.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Interview with Owen Anderson (Part Two)

Here is the second part of our interview with Owen Anderson about his two recent books, The Clarity of God's Existence and Reason and Worldviews (University Press of America, 2008)

Both of your books elucidate the concept of “clarity” and the “ethics of belief.” Can you please unpack what you mean by these concepts, how and why they are related, and what is their significance not just for your books but to understanding God’s existence and the purpose of knowledge and arguments for God’s existence.

In general, the ethics of belief asks if I, as a human, am responsible to believe anything? The idea of clarity arises from considering this question from the opposite side: if I am responsible to believe something then it must be clear. Or it could be said that there must be clarity at the basic level if anything is clear at any other level. For instance, there is a clear distinction between a and non-a, and between being and non-being, and between eternal and non-eternal. What I am asking is whether it is clear what is eternal? Is it possible that all is eternal (without beginning)? Or is it clear that only God is eternal? If it is not clear what is eternal then humans cannot be held responsible for knowing what is eternal. Yet Christianity says that humans are held responsible for ignorance about God—specifically his eternal power and divine nature. The implication is that Christianity must show that it is clear that God exists so that there is no excuse for unbelief. This requires showing that any attempt to maintain belief that something besides God is eternal leads to a blurring of clear distinctions.

The traditional arguments for God’s existence, relying on Platonism and Aristotelianism, have set out to prove that there is a highest being, a first cause, or a designer/moral governor. It was thought that this was enough since the Bible supplies the rest. The problem is that the Bible begins by assuming that God the Creator exists (In the beginning God created . . . ). The Bible is redemptive revelation about the need for atonement because humans have not known God as they should have. That is where my research picks up: what should humans have known about God such that the failure to do so is culpable and results in eternal damnation or redemption through the atoning death of the Son of God? Such significant consequences require that there be no possible excuse for this culpable ignorance.

Can it be shown that it is clear that God exists in this way? It is standard to argue that this kind of clarity is an immediate intuition or religious experience. And so Paul in Romans 1:20 is interpreted as speaking of a “deep down” knowledge everyone has even if they deny it. I do not believe this is what Paul is speaking about. This is not what is meant by clarity precisely because it provides an excuse and does not account for alternative beliefs about what is eternal. One requirement for saying someone knows “God exists” is that they believe “God exists” is true. Obviously, many deny that they believe this. They deny that they belief this and exchange belief in God for an alternative claim about what is eternal. To say that it is clear that God exists is to say that these alternatives are inexcusable. This requires the work of inferences not simply an appeal to what is immediately apprehended. Both sides in a debate can claim that they immediately perceive their conclusion to be true based on some experience, intuition, or common sense claim. To show inexcusability one must go further than merely asserting an immediate experience and show that the alternative involves a contradiction about what is eternal. I believe this is how Paul proceeds in Romans 1, that humans exchanged belief in God for belief in something else, and these alternative beliefs are inexcusable because they claim that something is eternal which is not (for instance, some aspect of the material world).

What is so important about the inexcusability of unbelief is that it is presupposed by Christianity’s claims about the need for redemption through the death of the Son of God. If there is not a clear general revelation to all humans then ignorance cannot be culpable. To say this is satisfied by asserting that everyone has an intuition about God or the moral law is insufficient because i) it is not clear that this true, ii) it begs the question since any religion can make this same assertion about their own beliefs, iii) knowledge requires not just an intuition but being able respond to defeaters—defeaters which have continued to build over the ages.

My book is not about giving an argument to show that God exists, it is one step prior to that. It is about why it is necessary to show the clarity of God’s existence or abandon claims about the need for redemption from unbelief. I believe this is one of the most significant issues of the day and my hope is that this book will encourage others to further study what it means to say that it is clear that God exists.

For the last thirty-years or so, how would you characterize the “success” of philosophy of religion work concerning arguments for the existence of God?

I’m not sure how “success” is monitored. For instance, a well known atheist recently came to believe in something besides the material world. He characterized this as similar to Aristotle’s view of the unmoved mover. Many Christians heralded this as proof that there are successful arguments. But is Aristotelian dualism really closer to theism than is materialism? Doesn’t Christianity maintain that they are both equally inexcusable? Aristotle believed that the material universe has existed from eternity, and that the unmoved mover is not aware of humanity but is forever in perfect self-contemplation. Is this anything like the God of theism? I don’t see how this is a success for theistic arguments, although I do think it highlights my conclusions about why theistic proofs are failing. The historical proofs do not distinguish between the unmoved mover of Aristotle and God the Creator. Indeed, Aquinas said we cannot know from general revelation if the material world was created—translation: we cannot know from general revelation if God the Creator exists.

I would say that success should be measured in terms of what has been shown to be clear to reason. Because the theistic arguments are not aiming at this, but are satisfied with arguing for the plausibility of an unmoved mover, a first cause, a designer, a moral governor, or similar conclusions which fall short of God the Creator, they are not even aiming at showing what is clear about God. And yet we are told not that it is clear that there is a first cause, but that God’s eternal power and divine nature are clear so that there is not excuse for believing the alternative. Showing that would be success indeed!

In light of the thesis in your two books, how might arguments for the existence of God be strengthened?

My concern about proofs for the existence of God is threefold. First, they are viewed as nice but not necessary; second, plausibility is thought to be sufficient; third, they do not identify the real challenge. By way of contrast, I believe that it is necessary for the central claims of Christianity that there be no excuse for unbelief. This means that all alternative views of the metaphysical absolute—what is eternal, claims about the material world existing from eternity, about God and the world being co-eternal, about the world as an illusion in the mind of eternal consciousness, must be addressed. Currently, the theistic proofs limit themselves by overextending from premise to conclusion (premises that don’t actually arrive at the theistic concept of God) or by simply showing that the material world had a beginning and then not addressing the many other worldviews that agree with this but are not theistic.

The focus on plausibility is indicative of the focus on trying to convince others. We want others to believe and so we work on persuading them. This turns philosophy into a branch of marketing. What I find plausible says a great deal about me but nothing about what is true. In other words, what persuades tells us more about the person being persuaded then it does the quality of the claim. By way of contrast, what if the focus was shifted to knowing rather than convincing? Rather than starting by saying “God exists and I’m going to prove it,” what if we start by asking “what can be known, is anything clear at the basic level?”

Since convincing the other is the goal, and this can be achieved apart from rational argumentation and knowledge, the challenge to reason is not seen and is allowed to pass. It is even conceded that there is no certainty but only plausibility. But this challenge has massive implications for humanity: if reason cannot be used to show what is clear about the metaphysical absolute, then any other claim which presupposes knowledge about the metaphysical absolute is also lost. If we cannot know what is real, then we cannot know what is good; if we cannot know what is good then we cannot claim that humans should obey or should be redeemed—needless to say this has significant implications on our lives.

Instead, what if the focus is on what is clear such that there is no excuse for not knowing it? Whether or not a person is convinced is another matter that involves issues about the extent to which they are seeking to know. If nothing is clear at the most basic level, then nothing is clear at any other level that assumes the basic level. Humans cannot be responsible for what is not clear. Therefore, if Christians maintain that humans are responsible then they must show that there is something clear at the basic level, at the level of the metaphysical absolute, or God. This would bring into focus why the challenge to reason is so important: if humans cannot know from reason that God exists, then less basic issues are not clear either and so there can be no responsibility for unbelief—the entire Christian message of the need for redemption through the death of the Son of God hinges on this.

What do you envision to be the future prospects for philosophy of religion work in the North America academy. Please offer your sense of where the field is going, might go, or could go in light of your knowledge and experience.

I have recently read that there is a renaissance in Christian philosophy, and that what is going on can be numbered among the Great Awakenings that frequently occur in American history. I suspect these claims are true. There is new interest in the Philosophy of Religion. However, I’m not sure that these claims are made with the whole picture in mind. I have heard these claims cited with excitement because they are thought to indicate a revival in thoughtful Christianity. Certain schools are mentioned where this is occurring, such as Talbot, Notre Dame, and Yale. I think there certainly is a growth in numbers and an interest in young Christians to move through those schools to their PH.D and to teach.

However, I also see a different picture. I teach at a school where there is also an increase of interest in the Philosophy of Religion and in Religious Studies. And yet this is not limited to young Christians. Instead, this is an interest from students who are asking questions about the world. Events are happening that necessarily raise questions about the role of religion and the ability to work through religious strife. These students see that the answers that have been given, answers that rely on fideism or appeals to tradition or one’s own culture, are insufficient. There is a desire for more—both personally and in order to solve problems facing the world. I think this can be understood as a desire for what is foundational—in contrast to the shifting sands of relativism that noticeably produce global disunity, there is a desire to find that which is not going to change and which can serve as a lasting foundation on which to build for the future. This is the “whole picture” I mentioned a moment ago—we are at a point in world history where conflicts are global and require attention. Differences have been allowed to persist because secondary disagreements have been the focus while basic differences are not noticed or even known.

This could foretell negative implications. In the past, when there have been “Great Awakenings” or revivals, that have failed to adequately solve basic problems facing humanity, they have left “burned over districts” in their path that in turn lead to greater turning away. When hope for certainty is stirred up but certainty is not provided this dashes hope and results in a counter-reaction. Therefore, the popularity of Christian philosophy now could turn into an anger and turning away from it later if it fails to provide a lasting foundation on which to build and on which to solve the problems facing the world.

Nevertheless, I do think there is hope. The challenges that have been raised both culturally and globally are challenges that must be dealt with in the field of philosophy. They are challenges about how we can know (fideism and assertion are not enough—that one is warranted does not settle anything since this is taken away through defeaters and it is our responsibility as rational beings to seek out possible defeaters in leading the examined life); they are challenges about what is real (maintaining that everyone believes in God deep down is asserting what must be proven since any worldview can say this same thing about their metaphysical absolute); and they are challenges about what is good (an emphasis on being saved to go to heaven where the good is achieved does not address alternative views of soteriology and does not explain how the good is accessible in this life). These are philosophical problems that engage the world we live in today. Different views of the good life that rest on different views of the metaphysical absolute are behind global conflicts. I am hopeful that these questions can be answered. I am hopeful because I believe that these questions must be answered if life is to have meaning, and that as my students wrestle with them and find that there are answers this makes a difference in their lives.

I believe there are philosophers out there who are doing this kind of work. A recent book that has had impact on me is Surrendra Gangadean’s Philosophical Foundation: A Critical Analysis of Basic Beliefs. I have known Surrendra for a number of years and I have seen how he has worked on these problems in the field of philosophy.

So I have hope, but am also wary about repeating patterns that have been seen in American history. We must do more than offer an otherworldly vision of the good that is achieved through what is essentially fideism. We must show that these core questions can be answered, that there are clear answers, and that humans are responsible to live the examined life and know the answers to these kinds of questions.

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