Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Philosophers and God:

Why are so many philosophers atheists? Can philosophers believe in God? Can they even be Christians? Check out the comment thread, specifically DSH's comment:

Jonathan's comments are precisly on target. But a careful read of my ad hominem is not "Christian philosopher," but "Biola philosopher." Let me explain.

Jonathan situates philosophy rightly as a discipline that asks ultimate questions. But the necessary prerequisite to all philosophical is the doubting of all presumptions, even the presumptions of faith.

Further, there is a strong bifurcation in philosophy. The ancient Platonic tradition is extremely metaphysical (beyond the physical), often giving "armchair speculation" as answers. A Being qua Being is conceivable to the imagination, even if such a Being is unknowable (isn't it a tenet of Christian faith that God is inscrutable?). Even Anselm's God is "the Being beyond which all other being can be conceived"). In the ancient scheme, giving imaginable ideas as answers to fundamental questions was permissable.

The Empirical tradition, on the other hand, has falsifiability as its criterion (esp. Hume, Popper, and the Vienna Circle). But the falsification of religious propositions is literally impossible (how can one falsify something that has no materiality, and the last time I checked a necessary property of God is immateriality?). I think Jonathan explained himself extremely well on these two points.

But that does not mean that one cannot be a Christian philosopher. Rather, it means if one is to adopt a philosophical "attitude," one must be prepared to question everything, including articles of faith. Most Christian philosophers simply do philosophy and leave religious tenets to the side. Some Christian philosophers, notably Aquinas in the 12th C. and Maritain in the 20th C., tried to incorporate insights from both disciplines into whole cloth. For whatever reason, such hybrids simply do not work in the modern era. Maybe when the Metaphysical tradition held sway, the hybrid might be defensible. But when the Empirical tradition came to the fore, the hybrid had to be divided, once and for all. And, let's not forget that Descartes, the "first" modern philosopher, was a Catholic Christian, and gave God as an explanation for why he "knew" his sensory experience had not been deceived. So being a modern philosopher and being a believing Christian are not mutually exclusive, but they can no longer be "held" in the same way. Faith and Philosophy are just incommensurate.

But my ad hominem was not "Christian philosopher," it was "Biola philosopher." What's the difference? What was my "silly" point?

Fundamentalist Christian academies, and Biola, Liberty, and Oral Roberts' University are certainly instances of the kind, take their faith not only as a presumption toward "everything," but literally "informing" everything. Their who raison d'etre is to incorporate a fundamentalist Christian perspective into every academic discipline, even where that perspective might be a tad bit untenable. I grant that one might admit of Christian "veil" over political science, a Christian "veil" over Language and Literature, maybe even a Christian "veil" over anthropology. But a Christian "veil" over Biology, Chemistry, and Physics is just a bit challenging. And since modern philosophy adopts the scientific method as elementary, having a Christian "veil" over "Philosophy" is contrary to both its method and its purpose. Thus, to put a Christian "veil" over philosophy is not only untenable, because the two are incommensurate, but imposing an attitude is contrary to its very method. Even the "scientific method" is not universally accepted by philosophers (e.g., Feyerabend), but as philosophical methods, only the scientific method and logic are admitted tools (but not "unquestioned" tools). Thus, deliberately casting any kind of "veil" over philosophy so that a certain perspective is entailed is wholly contraindicated. But Biola's mission is to "Christianize" academia, and philosophy's mission is to "question everything," which are totally at cross-purposes. One deliberately imposes a definite perspective onto academic questions, the other calls all presumptions into question. The two approaches are opposite each other.

And that's why I made the ad hominem "Biola philosopher." Perhaps it's not a fallacy after all.


Matthew Anderson said...


For what it's worth, I've responded at Mere O:

Andrew Selby said...


I think Matthew put the rebuttal to the attack on Biola philosophy well. One word about the Vienna Circle and 20th century empiricism. As you noted, the main premise behind the project of the Vienna Circle was to advocate a robust materialism. Their epistemology is characterized by the "criterion of verifiability", which means that for any proposition to be true it had to be perceived by the senses.

The question then arises, what about propositions of things we haven't been able to perceive with our senses? A.J. Ayer says "No rocket has yet been invented [at the time he wrote the piece] which would enable me to go and look at the far side of the moon." (The Elimination of Metaphysics) He solves this problem thusly, "But I do know what observations would decide it for me, if, as is theoreticaly conceivable, I were once in a position to make them. And therfore I say that the proposition is verifiable in principle, if not in practice." So our knowledge could hypothetically expand as far as the physical universe because we can verify, with our senses, all hypotheses about it. Non-physical/metaphysical objects are not objects of knowledge (like God, for instance) because they simply can't undergo the Vienna Circle's criterion for what counts as knowledge.

So far, so good. But why doesn't the Vienna Circle exist today? One big question tripped them up: how do we verify the principle of verification by the senses? That is, the very idea that all items of knowledge must be justified by empirical observations doesn't appear to be a physical thing at all. They never admitted that it was a metaphysical object (they still held their dogma of materialism), but whatever it (the idea) was, it couldn't be seen, tasted, touched, etc. Ayer, Carnap, and the others didn't have an answer for this question and the Vienna Circle collapsed.

The point is, as Matthew put it in his post on Mere-O, we all must begin from fideism. Whether our faith is in a principle of empiricism or faith in Christianity, we have to begin somewhere. This doesn't mean we can't go back and apply tools of logic and empiricism to our principles of faith to find out which type of faith is the most reasonable. That might be a very productive project.

By the way, as an entailment from the arguments in my post, there truly is no class difference between a "Biola philosopher" and an atheist philosopher. It's far from clear that beliefs in metaphysical objects are laughable or superstitious. But I am open to more arguments...

K.E.B. said...

Two cents...

1. "How do we verify the principle of verification by the senses? Ayer, Carnap, and the others didn't have an answer for this question and the Vienna Circle collapsed." This is devestating. I have yet to hear (though I want to!) a response to such a critique of empiricism or (something perhaps similar) logical positivism. Anyone? Anyone? Buhler?*

2. "But the necessary prerequisite to all philosophical is the doubting of all presumptions, even the presumptions of faith." This cracks me up.

Soarin'Blonde said...

I may not be Ferris Bueller, but I will answer your challenge, sir!

I will give you an account, lest the proponents of such empiricism as has been ascribed to the Vienna Circle completely die out, leaving those of you who disagree, yet, who might nonetheless be trapped in the darkness of ignorance, to remain in your obscurity, helpless, without the help of their personalities and arguments.

First of all, Mr. Selby and Mr. Buhler, death, and the non-propagation of one’s theories, is no means of evaluation for the truth-status of those theories! While intellectual fecundity is a positive sign, it is by no means a sure sign of validity or truth.

That said, you wanted a defense for a criterion of knowledge that has been presented. The truth of the proposition (p1) that “The only propositions that have truth-value are those that can be verified accurately, repeatedly, and universally, by independent observers over a span of time and place," is under attack, and I hereby so defend!

We have p1. p2. is as follows: "The only such verification is sense experience, that is, seeing with the eyes, hearing with the ears, touching with the hands, and so on."

p3. "Therefore, the only propositions that have truth-value are those that can be verified by sense experience."

With p3. demonstrated, a variety of satisfying and conclusive truths can be deduced, including but not limited to the futility of a search for an “immaterial” “god,” the unlimited hopefulness of the Scientific Project in (eventually) discovering all knowable truths, and an end to frivolous armchair “philosophy” the likes of which inferior men may enjoy, but is not, thereby, fruitful or interesting, or, in the end, anything other than a pleasant diversion, like blowing bubbles or playing pool.

Antagonists of p3, men like Mr. Selby and Mr. Buhler, want to throw it in our face that p1 itself is not a statement the truth value of which is verifiable by sense experience. They think themselves clever, and they intend to thereby undercut p3.

“What about p2?,” I ask these clever men,. “What about p2?” That p1 is not directly verifiable by the senses, I grant, and kindly thank you for pointing it out. But that it does not have a truth-value does not mean it necessarily follows that it does not have a high probability.

There are many men in search of knowledge. She cries out from the street corners and many men go to answer her call. Those who persist soon find that she is not what she seemed to be, but that she is a cardboard cut-out of a pretty women, with a speaker and tape-player taped to her back and, like the labels on cheap American merchandise that say "Made in China," the labels on such cheap women all say, “Made in Universities.”

Aha! We have found therefore that fount of wisdom, and it is the men and women who propogate it, who sell it, who package and ship it to all 48 contiguous states, excluding Nevada, international orders are an extra 15%.

And what have they propogated? Simply what they have tasted, touched, seen, heard, and smelled. They have converted their sensory impressions, that currency for the high-minded, into a cheaper, meaner stuff for the unflinching consumption of the weaker-minded, those who prefer to follow, who prefer the "abstract," who prefer to "take someone's word for it."

Therefore, while it is remains true that what is called truth is no more than a phantom, a cardboard cut-out, a mirage, and, that what is verified by Sense Experience is verified indeed, there is, after all, a middle way, and that is Probability.

Probability is what we name those inductions from sense experience for which we can produce no sensory proof (and therefore no proof at all), but for which we have no reason to doubt, and which, if relied upon, further the Scientific Project.

There is an account, Mr. Buhler, which, though you asked for it from yourself in jest, it is I who give it you in earnest.

The truth of the doctrines of the Vienna Circle remains, and, through the untiring devotion of scientists and professors the world over, the fantasy, say, the nightmare! of religion and the darkness of ignorance will soon be abolished, and the the continual advancement of health, wealth and equality will prevail.

Andrew Selby said...

Thank you Soarin'Blonde for your energetic and well-written response. For what it is worth you can see my response at: I hope I did justice to your argument. Please correct me if I err.

If Mr. Rowe is still interested in this debate, it would be great if he posted this discussion again. If not, Mere-O is happy to host it.


Anonymous said...

Everyone has made excellent contributions. But before I address some of them, let me point out my own error of sloppiness. Since the fifteenth century, the Empirical Model has prevailed, but then I conflated two very distinct concepts into one: The Verifiability and Falsification Principles. Both are part of this Model, but they are not the same thing.

I don't know if Ayer is still alive, but if so he's the last of the Logical Positivists. Logical Positivism and the Vienna Circle pick out the same referent. I'll give Ayer tenacity, despite his untenable assumption. Logical Positivism takes as axiomatic that "only that which can be experienced through the sense and reason and subsequently verified can possibly be true." But obviously, this proposition cannot possibly be verified, so the whole notion hit the dust quickly. Someone wrote a song called, "Don't Box Me In." Logical Positivism did precisely that, and died a rather quick death.

Now, I will defend Popper's Falsification thesis to the hilt. Falsification and verification are two totally different species. Popper is entirely defensible; Logical Positivism and the Vienna Circle are not.

To decide wether or not to commit suicide. said...

Your criticisms of Biola and Christian philosophy are laughable.

Have fun living in irrelevancy.