Good Even If Not True: Anderson on Religion

Bruce Anderson, for the Spectator, opines about his atheism and the factors that caused him to reject the Christianity of his youth. Religion is attractive, culturally indispensible, and may even be necessary. Unfortunately, it’s probably not true, says Anderson, and that creates his intellectual barrier.

So why do I still abstain? For two reasons: realism, and science. The urgency of need cannot of itself summon the necessary help into being, as bank managers have been telling their customers down the ages. Although science cannot prove that God does not exist, it does make the search vastly more complicated.

Thanks to Stan Dokupil for the link.

Full article:

Faith and Reason in Tension

“Faith has declined in contemporary western culture because contemporary westerners have become emotionally and imaginatively impoverished. We have ceased to care in the right way about the right things.” – C. Stephen Evans, “Kierkegaard: An Introduction”

Reason: If anyone is to have justified beliefs in what is true, then they must believe based on evidence and argument. Faith, you have little to offer when it comes to truth-gathering.

Faith: You’re not the boss of me!

Reason: If you mean by that odd remark to claim that faith is just as relevant to truth seeking, how do you know? What evidence do you have for such a claim?

Faith: You always ask for evidence but you can’t provide evidence for the claim that you require evidence. Stop looking around for what does not exist and live your life, Reason!

Reason: But what life should I live? How can I adjudicate between alternate possible lifestyles? Either one must live by reason or by faith. It is not the case that one should live by faith. Therefore one must live by reason.  Evidence for the second premise can be put in terms of the following modus tollens: If one should live by faith then any lifestyle will do. But it is not the case that any lifestyle will do. Therefore . . .

Faith: Stop right there. I can only live the life that’s been given to me and that’s what I choose to do. Embrace life instead of sitting around mulling over pseudo-intellectual problems that have an appearance of significance!

Reason: Faith, you appear to be making truth claims. What am I supposed to do with them? I’m happy to hear that you’re enjoying yourself but why tell me? If you want me to understand and, more importantly, believe, what you’re saying, I need to consider evidence provided through something that at least resembles an argument. If you disagree, why? (By the way, if you attempt to answer the ‘why question,’ you will need to use an argument to do so.)

Faith: And the fullfed beast shall kick the empty pail.
     For last year's words belong to last year's language
     And next year's words await another voice.
But, as the passage now presents no hindrance
     To the spirit unappeased and peregrine
     Between two worlds become much like each other,
So I find words I never thought to speak
     In streets I never thought I should revisit
     When I left my body on a distant shore.
Since our concern was speech, and speech impelled us
     To purify the dialect of the tribe
     And urge the mind to aftersight and foresight…

Reason: This is hopeless.

Faith: That’s the first thing you’ve said that I agree with.

Over time, well-worn intellectual debates pick up a number of elements that analysts will tend to use as a pre-analytic framework and unpack the issue in light of that framework. Many times, the framework includes the very positions being debated and analysis may proceed without questioning whether those positions are valid ways to frame the debate. In the United States, the “pro choice” versus “pro life” labels used to describe the two opposing positions on abortion may be an example. On even a cursory inspection, these labels are grossly misleading and designed to foster unfortunate caricatures that not only stagnate any forward movement politically but frame this important issue in terms that don’t allow for any analytic success (even anecdotally, it seems obviously true that most in the “pro choice” camp are not at the same time “pro death” and those on the pro life side of the question actually do not eschew significant reproductive liberties).

Are faith and reason opposed?

Characterizing the discussion about the intellectual viability of religion in terms of “faith” versus “reason” has a long history. It’s both effortless and obvious to adopt these two monikers as labels for a real conflict. But are faith and reason really opposed? Is this the right way to think about the debate? More fundamentally, is there a debate at all? As I’ve attempted to show in previous essays, I believe the answer to all these questions is yes. There is manifest evidence that there has been and presently is tension over the validity and role of religious belief in a modern worldview and there is strong historical evidence that the tension is centered around what broadly can be understood as a distinction between a rational—or in contemporary language, scientific—understanding of the nature of things and one that uses faith as the locus for understanding the essential aspects of the world.

But perhaps this distinction is only linguistic. Perhaps it is the case that all clear-thinking humans that aren’t suffering from some dysfunction and are really aimed towards seeking the truth are rational but many mistakenly create a façade which they call faith even though this term does not really refer to any actual epistemological or psychological construct. Some have argued that the ethical construct “altruism” is like this. Many, in a sort of folk-ethical way, believe they can and do sometimes act entirely for the interest of another with no self-interest involved. But, say some theorists, this is not actually possible. Any personal action, if it is goal directed and not capricious or random, ultimately is performed to satisfy some personal desire on the part of the agent performing the action. A simple bit of evidence for this is that every ethical “why” question—why did you step out in front of that car to save the cat—appears to involve answer centered on personal desire: I didn’t want the cat to die. While it seems undeniable that the hero performed a brave act involving the potential loss of her own life, the action is motivated by a personal desire to see some state of affairs come about. The cat’s life functioned as an object for the desire, not for the action. The desire should be considered the primary driver of the action at least insofar as an ethical analysis is concerned. Perhaps faith is like this.

This does not seem to be the case. Thinkers on both sides of the question that have attempted to dig into the nature of the dichotomy have isolated fundamental epistemological and psychological differences between knowledge that comes by way of a rational analysis and knowledge that is grounded on what can broadly be called faith. Some key terms I’ve thus far used to capture this distinction are: essences and existence, first-person experience and third-person descriptions, and existentialism and rationalism. These terms appear to label real differences. As we saw in James, some view faith as a psychologically isolated approach to dealing with questions about aspects of reality that reason is incapable of unpacking. Reason may have its place, but it most certainly is limited in what it can do epistemically and psychologically.

In the next few essays, I want to explore this distinction further by looking at some themes in Kierkegaard—arguably the foremost religious existentialist. Whereas James sought a both/and approach to the faith-reason dichotomy, Kierkegaard argues for an either/or  solution concluding that religion is essentially non-rational.  For Kierkegaard, the religious mode of existence is the more authentic way to live and so his distinction becomes central to his entire philosophy. It is necessary to remind the reader at this point that my central claim in this series is that proponents of religion in the contemporary West are attempting to ground their religious beliefs existentially but sustain and publicize their beliefs as a rational epistemology (and psychology). In this way, modern religionists are not pure Kierkegaardians in the strict sense but the modern Christian worldview has absorbed the spirit of Kierkegaard and seem to agree with his fundamental philosophy. By examining Kierkegaard’s thought, we may be able to gain better insight into why Western religion finds itself in the position it does and better understand where the modern debate is headed.

Copyright © 2010 Philosophy News Service

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Christianity and Christmas

Ross Douthat, for the New York Times, uses the upcoming premier Christian holiday to reflect, briefly, on Christianity in America. His reflection focuses on Christianity primarily as a social and political force through two recent book-length treatments that attempt the same. His essay is notable not for what it includes but for what it leaves out. Douthat does not even introduce the idea of the truth-conditions of Christianity but discusses it purely as a social device for good and a political device for power and concludes that it is struggling in both areas. Notably, he comments that its marginalization was predictable when it shifted from a dominant cultural world view to a “persecuted” worldview at “war” with the general culture. He writes, “[the war footing'] has encouraged both conservative and liberal believers to frame their mission primarily in terms of conflict, and to express themselves almost exclusively in the “language of loss, disappointment, anger, antipathy, resentment and desire for conquest.”

Anecdotally this is certainly true. People who consider themselves of the “pure faith” certainly describe themselves and their beliefs in the way Douthat describes. Douthat reinforces other data that suggests that organized religion is become less and less attractive to many in the younger generation which leads to a more fluid, less rigid, and more egalitarian view of faith. But the more egalitarian and eclectic faith in some circles becomes, the more entrenched, isolated, and victimized those seeking to be “true Christians” find themselves (a topic I touch on here). Christmas is a time where some of these sentiments are ignored but also a time when the state of Christianity is most exposed.

Perhaps the broader point is that the face of religion in America is changing and fairly dramatically. There are important philosophical questions that need to be explored and answers as these changes occur and thankfully there are a few thinkers willing to take on the task.

Thanks to Bill Pardi for the pointer.

The full Douthat article is here.

Second Annual Notre Dame/Northwestern Graduate Epistemology Conference

Keynote Speaker: Ernest Sosa, Board of Governors Professor of Philosophy, Rutgers University. The philosophy departments at the University of Notre Dame and Northwestern University are proud to announce the second annual Graduate Epistemology Conference, including a Symposium on Disagreement.

Submission Guidelines: We welcome submissions in the field of analytic epistemology, broadly construed. The conference will include a small symposium on the epistemology of disagreement (whether religious, moral or theoretical), and papers in this area are especially solicited for inclusion in the symposium. Papers should be no more than 4000 words (approx. 13 pages), excluding notes. Papers should be prepared for blind review: include detachable cover page with paper’s title, abstract, author’s name, mailing address, email, phone number, school affiliation, and word count; please  omit any self-identifying remarks within the body of the paper.

Deadline: Papers must be received by January 10th, 2011. Papers should be emailed as an attachment to the conference organizers at preferably in PDF format.

Reposted from Certain Doubts

Montclair State University's Ed.D. in Pedagogy and Philosophy

imageMontclair State University's Ed.D. in Pedagogy and Philosophy is one of a very few programs in the country that bring the disciplines of pedagogy and philosophy into dynamic interaction. The program builds on the University's nationally recognized programs in teacher preparation and decades of leadership in critical thinking, precollege philosophy education, and inquiry into the public purposes of education. It provides a unique opportunity for those who wish to participate in the highest level of philosophical and empirical scholarship, to apply that scholarship to the work of teacher education, and/or to bring philosophical practices to the classroom.

Graduates from the Ed.D. in Pedagogy and Philosophy pursue careers in the following fields in higher education:

  • Philosophy of Education
  • Educational Foundations
  • Teacher Education

The program has also prepared students for, or advanced their positions in the following careers in precollege education:

  • Teaching philosophy in middle schools, high schools and community colleges
  • K-12 classroom teaching that employs philosophical methods, addresses philosophy of the school subjects, and/or engages children in philosophical practices

Applications for fall 2011 are being accepted until Feb. 1. We will be hosting an information session on December 1, 2010, from 6:00 - 7:00 p.m. at the University. To register for the session, visit More information about the program is available online at and from program administrators at

Please forward this email and the attached flyer to colleagues and students who might be interested.

Program Web Flyer:

PhilPapers Philosophy Survey Updated

PhilPapers recently updated the home page for their 2009 Philosophical survey (see details below). The survey asked questions on a variety of topics and surveyed over 1800 faculty and PhDs as well as over 800 graduate students. Here are some of the results:

Epistemic justification: internalism or externalism?

Accept or lean toward: externalism
398 / 931 (42.7%)

287 / 931 (30.8%)

Accept or lean toward: internalism
246 / 931 (26.4%)


Free will: compatibilism, libertarianism, or no free will?

Accept or lean toward: compatibilism
550 / 931 (59%)

139 / 931 (14.9%)

Accept or lean toward: libertarianism
128 / 931 (13.7%)

Accept or lean toward: no free will
114 / 931 (12.2%)


Mind: physicalism or non-physicalism?

Accept or lean toward: physicalism
526 / 931 (56.4%)

Accept or lean toward: non-physicalism
252 / 931 (27%)

153 / 931 (16.4%)


Truth: correspondence, deflationary, or epistemic?

Accept or lean toward: correspondence
473 / 931 (50.8%)

Accept or lean toward: deflationary
231 / 931 (24.8%)

163 / 931 (17.5%)

Accept or lean toward: epistemic
64 / 931 (6.8%)


From PhilPapers:

We have just released a wealth of additional information about last year's PhilPapers Philosophical Survey.

First, we have posted detailed results regarding correlations between answers.  This includes correlations between answers to the main philosophical questions, and also correlations between these questions and background questions such as nationality, gender, age, and other factors.

Second, we have posted an attempt at a factor analysis, isolating a number of key factors that tend to predict an individual's responses to the survey.

Third, we have made available the answers of respondents who chose to make them publicly available. The list of these respondents is here. In addition, all respondents who have PhilPapers profiles can see who among public respondents have answers most similar to their own. If you have completed the survey, your answers will now be available through your profile and you can modify them if desired.  You can also modify settings to make your answers public or private as you choose.  If you have not answered the survey yet, you can now do so by following the 'My philosophical views' link from your profile.

The updated home page for the Survey is here.

Philosophy Conferences, November/December 2010

November 2010
15 Wellbeing: A Cure-all for the Social Sciences? Online Other
17 'Homo Ludens 2.0. Media, Identity & Play' Utrecht Netherlands
18 Comics Forum Leeds United Kingdom
20 Oxford Philosophy Graduate Conference Oxford United Kingdom
22 Development Philosophy of Osigwe Anyiam-Osigwe Ibadan, Nigeria
22 International Conference for Academic Disciplines Rome Italy
23 Chulalongkorn International Conference of Oriental Studies (CHICOS) Bangkok Thailand
25 Humanities and Social Sciences 2010 (HSS-2010) Lviv Ukraine
26 8th International Conference Cyberspace 2010 Brno Czech Republic
28 European Conference for Academic Disciplines Gottenheim near Freiburg Germany
29 International Conference on Islamic Education 2010 Shah Alam Malaysia

December 2010
01 Gendered Ways of Knowing? Gender, Natural Sciences and Humanities Interdisciplinary Congress Trento Italy
01 Metaphysics, Language, and Morality Zagreb Croatia (Hrvatska
02 40th Conference of the Philosophy of Education Society of Australasia Inc. Perth Australia
09 Contained Memory Conference 2010 Wellington New Zealand
10 Economics made fun in the face of the economic crisis Rotterdam Netherlands
10 ‘On or about December 1910 human character changed’:
Centenary reflections and contemporary debates: modernism and beyond
Glasgow United Kingdom
28 Meaning,Identity and Culture Kolkata India

Reposted from:

Workshop@CMU: Experience, heuristics, and choice: Prospects for bounded rationality

On December 1st there will be a workshop at CMU focusing on bounded rationality especially as applied to choice, featuring various central issues like the role of heuristics in choice and inference.  The program, and other details can be found here.  No registration is needed and attendance is welcomed.  For details about organization you can contact me at my CMU email address. The workshop celebrates the work of Herb Simon in this area and features Ralph Hertwig as one of the main invitees.  Ralph has made decisive contributions to bounded rationality in a series of recent papers.  He is a student and a frequent collaborator of Gerd Gigerenzer.

Reposted from:

Edinburgh: Epistemology and Extended Cognition Workshop

If you’re in the Edinburgh area on November 24th, then you might be interested in this workshop. As usual for our epistemology events, all are welcome (and attendance is free too).

Reposted from:

Is Faith Practical?

“Knowledge about life is one thing; effective occupation of a place in life, with its dynamic currents passing through your being, is another.” – William James

Napoleon Bonaparte is said to have remarked, “Nothing is more difficult, and therefore more precious, than to be able to decide.” Making a decision is difficult for many of us because most of the time we need to do so without having all the information necessary to make a choice that anticipates all outcomes and addresses all possible questions. I was reminded of this recently while giving my daughter a driving lesson. About to pull onto a busy road, she asked me whether it was safe to go. I evaluated the environment and, while a few vehicles were approaching some distance away in the right-hand lane, I anticipated that she had enough time to pull out safely and told her to go ahead. As she began to pull forward, I saw a altlarge pickup speeding past the other cars in the left-hand lane rapidly approach our entry point. But it was too late--she was committed. She cut off the driver in the truck and after I uttered a choice word or two, she scolded me for my obviously faulty advice. After we both calmed down, I explained to her that driving often involves making split-second decisions and often having to adjust to a rapidly-changing situation. I later realized that the near accident was my fault, not because I misjudged the situation, but because I attempted to make the judgment at all. As the driver, the decision should have been hers and she should have gone when she judged it was safe.

In his fine book, The Metaphysical Club , Louis Menand describes William James (d. 1910) as a man who viewed the ability to make decisions in the teeth of risk and uncertainty as a mark of true character. James came to realize very early in life that for many of the choices we face, we lack conclusive reasons (and don’t have prospects for gathering them) and that to be human is to take risks about the things we believe. But James himself found it difficult to live with his own philosophy. Earning an M.D. from Harvard, James (whose his sister referred to as a “blob of mercury”) changed disciplines not once but three times moving from medicine, to psychology, to philosophy. It is no wonder then that his Gifford Lectures, The Varieties of Religious Experience, is a project in which he attempts to develop a philosophy, Pragmatism, that attempts to find equal epistemic standing to both science and religion. Why settle for one when you can have both? By briefly examining Pragmatism, we can get a better handle on some of the essential concepts that drives existentialist thought and look at how that thought informs our understanding of religious belief.1

I claimed in previous essays that in many communities (confining my analysis to fairly traditional communities in the West) religious belief is grounded by way of an existential leap of faith. Fundamental to this move is the idea that a rationalist approach to belief—deciding to believe in God based on whether one determines there is enough evidence to do so—is itself a leap of faith but of the entirely wrong kind. Religious commitment is just that: a decision to commit oneself wholly to a person experientially not adhering to an idea intellectually. But what does one do with the apparent evidence that would seem to conflict with such a commitment?  Hasn’t science provided us with models of biological development and cosmology that undermine any rational belief in a divine being?  Hasn’t it demonstrated that miracles can’t occur, that belief in divine activity a delusion, that religious commitment is sociologically dangerous? Hasn’t science removed any explanatory role religion might play in a reasonable person’s worldview? If so, then the person that wishes to be rational (or at least believe that the scientific method is truth conducive) and still maintain religious beliefs is a bifurcated individual that lives in a world where reality has to live alongside fantasy.

James attempted to show that this decidedly is not the case. At the root of his argument was a rejection of the idea that the scope of the explanatory power of science and reason should take pride of place in our epistemology. In fact, James says, when it comes to understanding what it means to be human (or to use language I introduced in an earlier essay: to understand existence rather than essence), science is rather weak. He writes,

Nevertheless, if we look on man's whole mental life as it exists, on the life of men that lies in them apart from their learning and science, and that they inwardly and privately follow, we have to confess that the part of it of which rationalism can give an account is relatively superficial. It is the part that has the prestige undoubtedly, for it has the loquacity, it can challenge you for proofs, and chop logic, and put you down with words. But it will fail to convince or convert you all the same, if your dumb intuitions are opposed to its conclusions. If you have intuitions at all, they come from a deeper level of your nature than the loquacious level which rationalism inhabits. Your whole subconscious life, your impulses, your faiths, your needs, your divinations, have prepared the premises, of which your consciousness now feels the weight of the result; and something in you absolutely knows that that result must be truer than any logic-chopping rationalistic talk, however clever, that may contradict it.2

William Barrett, who we met in an earlier essay, confirms that Existentialism essentially agrees with James here. Existentialist thought is essentially at odds with any thoroughgoing scientism—the view that the methods of the hard sciences can fully explain our essence as well as tell us what it all means. American philosophy is dominated by analytic philosophy (Barrett says "Logical Positivism" is another term for this) which has at its core science--the defining feature of modern culture. However analytic philosophy then goes on and attempts to establish the unsupportable idea that "science is the ultimate ruler of human life, which it never has been and psychologically never can be. Positivist man is a curious creature who dwells in the tiny island of light composed of what he finds scientifically 'meaningful,' while the whole surrounding area in which ordinary men live from day to day and have their dealings with other men is consigned to the outer darkness of the 'meaninglessness' " 3

In order to understand this idea, we need to grasp a key concept in both Pragmatist and Existentialist thought. That is, that reason is epistemically limited. For James (and otheralt Pragmatists like C.S. Pierce and Blaise Pascal), there are certain beliefs about which reason is unable to help us decide. There are ideas for which, either due to their complexity or nature, reason can play little or no role.  In these cases, we are forced to start with our intuitions and experiences and make judgments solely based on their overall value in holding them or the overall value in the means by which the judgment is made. For example, if a lifelong friend is accused—ostensibly on the basis of solid but inconclusive physical evidence--of a crime, say murder. You know your friend to be gentle, kindhearted, a lover of humanity, and not prone to rash action, you may choose to believe in his innocence even if the authorities claim they have strong but inconclusive evidence of his guilt. You maintain your friend’s innocence because of the experiences you’ve had and because you deem it more valuable to be loyal than to make a judgment when you are unable to draw a conclusion based on the evidence.

The key here is that adjudicating between the guilt or innocence of your friend is impossible solely based on the evidence. This is not a trivial point which we’ll return to momentarily. In this case, you draw a conclusion (make a decision) on other grounds—practical grounds—that have little to do with where you think the evidence leads. James argues that reason is just as inadequate a guide when it comes to religious matters. So to accept the pragmatist position, one first has to believe two key propositions. First, that adjudicating between the truth claims of religion and the truth claims of atheism is not possible. Second, that given the truth of the first proposition, believing religious truth claims is still valuable.

The first proposition is essential to understanding the Pragmatist solution and without fully embracing it, Pragmatism appears to be grossly ad hoc. The Pragmatist does not need to deny the value of reason entirely. However for certain questions, reason is limited if not altogether irrelevant. Religion should be accepted because of it’s overall practical usefulness (consider Pascal’s famous “wager” argument). “If we pass from disbeliefs to positive beliefs, it seems to me that there is not even a formal inconsistency to be laid against our method.” says James. “The gods we stand by are the gods we need and can use, the gods whose demands on us are reinforcements of our demands on ourselves and on one another….Religions have approved themselves; they have ministered to sundry vital needs which they found reigning. When they violated other needs too strongly, or when other faiths came which served the same needs better, the first religions were supplanted.”4 In one step James not only provides a ground for religious belief but also for adjudicating between religious truth claims. If you want to decide which religion to believe in, you must first decide which beliefs are pragmatically live options for you.

Notice here that James isn’t considering the truth of the belief because such consideration is not possible. That is, we not only cannot determine the truth value of the claim “God exists” but we have no prospects for determining its truth. I don’t think James’ position is that knowing that God exists (or does not exist) is logically impossible. Only that given our current epistemic situation, it’s practically not viable. Philosopher Peter van Inwagen explores this possibility at the end of his excellent Metaphysics. He suggests that certain questions in metaphysics and theology may be beyond the intellectual capacity of humans. “If we cannot know why there is anything at all, or why there should be rational beings, or how thought and feeling are possible, or how our conviction that we have free will could possibly be true, why should that astonish us? What reason have we, what reason could we possibly have, for thinking that our intellectual abilities are equal to the task of answering these questions?”5 Perhaps questions about specific religious beliefs fall into this category and if so, religious belief, if it is to be held at all, won’t be grounded on reason.

When faced with the option of believing in religious truth claims, then, you have to decide what you will do with them. If your experience leads you to believe in a higher power or an ethical system that only makes sense on religion, then turning to reason to help you decide may be a fool’s errand. But decision-making in the Jamesian model appear to be intensely personal. And this leads to a consequence I’ve been flirting with in this series and one we’ll have to examine more closely later: if deciding to believe is a personal matter and not publicly falsifiable, either the believer should refrain from making public claims about the implication of those beliefs or the beliefs themselves have no public relevance.

A driver who chooses to believe that her vehicle may be able to fly (who can know, really?) either should leave the car in the garage or drive as if it can’t.

Copyright © 2010 Philosophy News Service

1. Purists will undoubtedly (and rightly) object to placing pragmatism under the broad rubric of existentialism. I will attempt to call out the distinctions in these views both in this essay and in future essays. I’m categorizing pragmatism as a form of existentialism—at least when it comes to religion--mainly because I think their similarities far outweigh their differences and for ease of exposition.

2. James, W. (1997). The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: Touchstone. (74)

3. Barrett, W. (1963). Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy. Garden City, New York: Anchor Books. (21)

4. James, 1997. (264-265)

5. Inwagen, P. v. (1993). Metaphysics. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press. (201)

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