Continuing discussion.

EPS Blog

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

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Mele Interview on His Work in Philosophy

We recently interviewed Dr. Alfred Mele about the John Templeton Foundation grant on free will.

Here is an informative interview with Mele at BigThink:

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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Templeton Foundation Grant on Free Will

We interviewed Dr. Alfred R. Mele, Director of the new John Templeton Foundation grant program, "Big Questions in Free Will." Mele is the William H. Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor at Florida State University. The purpose of the program is "to improve our understanding of free will in three spheres: science (especially neuroscience and social philosophy); philosophy; and theology."

You are a noteworthy contributor to discussions on free will, agency, rationality, consciousness, and philosophy of action. First, give us a summary about your own work and your perspective on free will. How did you get into this area? What do you find interesting about it?

I have some sense of the causal path that led to my deciding to tackle free will. My dissertation was entitled Aristotle’s Theory of Human Motivation. During my first few years as an assistant professor, I thought I would devote my career to ancient Greek philosophy. But I soon got caught up in the issues in the philosophy of action that concerned Plato and Aristotle. My first book (Irrationality, 1987) is on weakness of will (or akrasia in Classical Greek), self-control, and self-deception; my point of departure on the first two topics was classical work on them. My second book, (Springs of Action, 1992) is a step toward the development of a general causal theory about how intentional actions are to be explained. Not long after I completed it, I came to believe that a theory of this kind might help improve our understanding of free action.

In my opinion, the main competing theories about the concept of free will (or free action) have been developed much more thoroughly than was the case even fifteen years ago, and we have a much clearer view of the main problems for each position and interesting proposed resolutions of some of those problems. Perhaps the dispute between compatibilists and incompatibilists will persist as long as philosophy does, but progress on an issue doesn’t require universal agreement about it. My own tack – both in Autonomous Agents (1995) and in Free Will and Luck (2006) – has included developing two overlapping conceptions of free will: one for compatibilists and the other for incompatibilists. Given my incompatibilist conception, whether any human being ever acts freely is a challenging question. The answer depends on, among other things, whether human brains are suitably indeterministic. And who knows what future neuroscience may turn up? If my compatibilist conception of free will is correct, it is a good bet that there is a lot of free action.

What do you see as some prevailing trends (say, within the last 10 to 15 years) between scientific, philosophical, and theological discussions on free will?

One trend in scientific work on free will is skepticism about its existence. Each of the following claims has been defended in the scientific literature on free will and consciousness in the last few years (and earlier): your brain routinely decides what you will do before you become conscious of its decision; there is only a 100 millisecond window of opportunity for free will, and all it can do is veto conscious decisions, intentions, or urges; intentions never play a role in producing corresponding actions; and free will is an illusion. In Effective Intentions: The Power of Conscious Will (2009), I take up each of these claims and I argue that the evidence offered to support them is sorely deficient. I also argue that there is strong empirical support for the thesis that some conscious decisions and intentions have a genuine place in causal explanations of corresponding actions.

Another trend in scientific work on free will is a backlash against the skeptical claims. Psychologist Roy Baumeister has been a strong critic of those claims.

In philosophical work on free will, one trend that I see is persistence. Compatibilists persist in replying to incompatibilist arguments and in developing their own positive views. Incompatibilists persist in developing arguments against compatibilism, and some incompatibilists continue to develop and defend positive libertarian views. Another trend is to investigate folk conceptions of free will by means of survey studies of the sort conducted by experimental philosophers. I see both trends as contributing to progress in understanding how to conceive of free will.

In the sphere of the theology of free will, I am an amateur. I teach an undergraduate course in the philosophy of religion on a regular basis, and in it I devote a very enjoyable block of time to issues about human free will and divine foreknowledge. But I have not published in this area, and I am not qualified to venture an opinion about trends. In this sphere, I see myself as a student; and I’m happy to learn.

What are you hoping to accomplish with the grant program from the Templeton Foundation? Who all is involved (and how) in the decision-making for any of the proposals?

I’m hoping that the grant will enable us to make much more progress on free will than would be made without it. In science, we hope to encourage studies that target free will more directly than much existing work in the science of free will does. In philosophy, we’ll encourage, among other things, development of improved models of free will; and the same goes for theology.

In each of the three areas, we’ll solicit letters of intent and then invite some of the letter writers to submit full proposals. Decisions about letters of intent and proposals will be made by five-person panels – different panels for different fields. A representative of the John Templeton Foundation and I will be on each panel. On this see the Big Questions in Free Will website:

Can you give us a broad sweep of the four-year projects related to this program?

On this, see the “Timeline” section of the Big Questions in Free Will website: 

To what extent (if at all) should proposals be interdisciplinary or at least attentive to interdisciplinary issues?

We are especially encouraging interdisciplinary work in the science branch of the project.

For the grant program, are you intending to encourage a particular view of how science and religion (theology) or science and philosophy are to relate to each other?

We believe that work in each area should be informed by work in the other areas whenever that would be useful. We also believe that this will often be useful.

Are you more likely or less likely to seriously consider a proposal if the operating philosophical assumptions tend to support or reject a physicalistic view of free will? Are you more likely or less likely to seriously consider a proposal if the operating philosophical assumptions tend to support or reject a dualistic view of free will? Can you briefly elaborate?

“Assumptions” is a key word here. In this connection, it may be useful to quote something from FAQ portion on “conceptual underpinnings” grants on the Big Questions in Free Will website:

The Theoretical Underpinnings arm of the Big Questions in Free Will program does have a special interest in incompatibilist models of free will, including both developments and critiques of such models. Compatibilist critiques of incompatibilist models, views, and arguments will certainly be considered seriously. Proposals for projects that assume that compatibilism is true probably would not be competitive.

Such questions as “Is free will possible if substance dualism is true?” and “Is free will possible if physicalism is true?” are legitimate topics of investigation. A scholar might approach the first by assuming that dualism is true and the second by assuming that physicalism is true. But, of course, these assumptions apparently leave it open whether the answer is yes or no.

How do you think self-identified Christians or theists working in philosophy or philosophical theology can potentially contribute to work on free will for this program?

Some self-identified Christians are, of course, major figures in contemporary work on free will – for example, Tim O’Connor, Eleonore Stump, and Peter van Inwagen. Work of this caliber from members of the EPS would obviously be highly valued. For information on theology of free will projects, see the “theology of free will” grants section on the Big Questions in Free Will website.

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Thursday, February 4, 2010

Centre for Public Christianity: Interview with Alvin Plantinga

Australia's Centre for Public Christianity recently released some interviews with Alvin Plantinga. These provide a handy snapshot of Plantinga on warrant, the new atheism, problem of evil, and the goodness of God:

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Monday, February 1, 2010

Analytic Theology: Interview with Editors Crisp and Rea (part two)

We are happy to feature the second part of our interview with Oliver Crisp and Michael Rea concerning their important book, Analytic Theology: New Essays in the Philosophy of Theology (Oxford, 2009). In the first part of our interview, Crisp and Rea discussed the features and work of analytic theology and how the two parts of their book contribute to this maturing sub-field of philosophy of religion.

The chapters of part three examine the “data” for theology: scripture, reason, and experience. How do these chapters by Thomas McCall, Thomas Crisp, Michael Sudduth, and Michael Murray contribute to the discussion?

Rea: One of the main worries about analytic theology is that it is somehow wedded to a strong form of rationalism—an overly optimistic view about the power of pure reason to provide grounds (indeed, as some have it, absolute certainty) for our religious beliefs.  The essays by Crisp, Sudduth, and Murray all, in various ways, contribute to addressing this worry.  Sudduth, for example, argues that experience plays a vital role in natural theology, and Crisp argues that “authoritative testimony” plays a vital role in warranting our belief in the inspiration of scripture. Murray argues for a conception of theology as a discipline that works in cooperation with the empirical sciences to produce an overall unified explanatory theory.  Together, all of these essays challenge the view that (analytic) theology is committed to a conception of theology as a purely rationalistic enterprise.

McCall’s essay, on the other hand, addresses a different concern.  Some worry that, by assuming (as analytic theologians do) that we can theorize about God and come to clear understanding of various truths about God, we somehow put God ‘at our disposal’—as if, by making these truths generally accessible to us, it would no longer be exclusively up to God to whom he revealed himself or when; rather, it would be partly up to us.  According to McCall, this is a concern shared by Karl Barth; and, as McCall presents it, Barth’s doctrine of scripture provides a way of understanding the divine inspiration of scripture that allows truths about God to be fully accessible to human beings while at the same time avoiding the objectionable consequences that are supposed to follow from that claim. 

What further work needs to be done in analytic theology concerning theology’s “data”?

Crisp: Well, for a start, there is more work to be done on the relationship between biblical studies and theology. Much of the work that has been done on this has not really led to much engagement. A good example is the book Hermes and Athena, edited by Tom Flint and Eleonore Stump, which I think is a really important work, though it is often said to have ‘failed’ to generate constructive discussion between analytics and biblical studies scholars (a claim that is moot). But there are also examples that should be given more attention than they have, such as C. Stephen EvansThe Historical Christ and the Jesus of Faith.

It would also be interesting to see more work being done by analytics on the role of tradition in Christian theology. Again, there is a small literature on this, but there seems to be scope for more that engages with the recent theological interest in resourcement and ‘retrieval’.

A lot of recent theology is in part an attempt to return to a more ‘mysterious’, apophatic approach to theology, especially in some Radical Orthodoxy work. It would be interesting to see analytics engage with this, not least because many analytics presume a certain kind of univocal approach to religious language: that, say, human love and divine love are just different quantities of the same thing.

In the fourth and final part of the book, the chapters offer “correctives” to analytic theology? What concerns are Eleonore Stump, Merold Westphal and Sarah Coakley attempting to address in light of major objections against analytic theology?

Crisp: Each of these contributions ended up being rather less anti-analytic theology than we had first thought they might be. Stump’s piece is very interesting, I think, because it really seeks to deal seriously with narrative – a matter that has been important in recent post-liberal theology and in the work of Christian ethicists like Stanley Hauerwas. Her essay does show that analytics can make an important contribution to issues at the interstices between literature, narrative, theology and philosophy. Merold’s chapter is perhaps the most critical in some ways. But it was very important to us to have a thinker whose work is clearly within the ‘continental’ stream contributing to a volume such as AT. I admire Merold’s work and think this is a helpful, constructive piece of work. Sarah Coakley’s essay is a fine essay enjoining analytics to think much more seriously about apophatic (i.e. negative) theology, using William Alston’s Taylor Lectures as a foil to Teresa of Avila’s work.

How would you make a positive case to theology faculty or a dean of theology faculty (especially systematic theologians) for the relevance and usefulness of analytic theology to their work?

Rea: I would invite them to spend a year in the Center for Philosophy of Religion, or to attend an interdisciplinary workshop with a mix of talented and open-minded philosophers and theologians.  Right now philosophers and theologians are separated from one another as much by myths, misconceptions, and outright ignorance of what goes on in the other discipline as by substantive methodological differences.  For those who do have substantive methodological objections against analytic theology, the answer is to do more work on the sorts of issues raised by our volume.  For those who are more in the grips of myths, misconceptions, and ignorance, the remedy is for the person to come and see what’s really going on in the (analytic) philosophy room.  On the few occasions when I’ve organized workshops for smallish groups of talented, open-minded philosophers and theologians interested in common themes, the results have been amazing:  folks from both disciplines have come away very pleasantly surprised by how much they’ve learned from those in the other discipline and by how much their intellectual interests overlap.

Crisp: There are terrific resources in the analytic tradition for pursuing theology in a way that is sympathetic to the sorts of concerns held by many historic theologians in the (western) tradition. For instance, it seems to me that many medieval and post-Reformation theologians are engaged in a sort of analytic theology. If one compares, say, St Augustine, or St Anselm of Canterbury, or St Thomas Aquinas or Jonathan Edwards or Francis Turretin with some of the work in the AT volume, I think there are obvious parallels. One might even say there is little that separates them in terms of the sort of philosophical sensibilities displayed. So, for those interested in doing theology in a way that is seriously engaged with the tradition, seeking to take forward the sort of theological discussions that have been the substance of the vast majority of the Christian tradition, analytic theology is worth seriously considering. And, as I have already mentioned, there are theologians doing this, like Bruce Marshall in his book Trinity and Truth, or William Abraham’s Canonical Theism project in the USA, Alan Torrance and Sarah Coakley in the UK, the Utrecht School in the Netherlands, or thinkers like Ingolf Dalferth in the German-speaking countries. Even systematic theologians like Wolfhart Pannenberg or Robert Jenson, whilst not analytic theologians, show an awareness and appreciation of some analytic work. There are fruitful avenues of research to be had here, for theology qua theology.

How would you like to see this book used in a classroom setting?

Crisp: It would be useful as a supplement to courses on philosophical theology and on courses that deal with theological method, common in seminary settings in particular. It would be good to see it used as a discussion point in seminars, getting young theologians to think through how they approach substantive matters in theology. These are essays that should be discussed, not just read.

What are the possibilities for work to be done with analytic philosophy of religion and Christian spirituality, and especially, with spiritual theology?

Crisp: This is something that I think is a very exciting prospect. Sarah Coakley’s essay in AT is, in some ways, aiming in this direction. And there are other places where philosophical theology is beginning to meet with spiritual formation or the more ‘applied’ aspect of theology, such as Marilyn Adams’ recent treatment of Eucharistic theology in her book Christ and Horrors. And analytics could learn quite a lot from reading George Hunsinger’s recent book on the sacraments and ordination, Let us Keep the Feast. There is an existing literature in philosophy of religion on mysticism and petitionary prayer. It would be interesting to see this extended to include other areas like ecclesiology or sacramental theology. And, of course, I think this is where analytic theology could really make a difference, a contribution to the tradition.

Personally, is there something unique and fruitful to engaging in analytic theology as a Christian (a follower of Jesus Christ)?

Crisp: I wouldn’t want to claim that analytic theologians were necessarily any more virtuous in this respect than theologians of another stripe: an analytic approach to theology will not guarantee an orthodox, disciplined Christian life any more than another approach to theology can. But, for what it is worth, I think of analytic theology as a faith seeking understanding enterprise that is (or ought to be) aimed at truth. That is surely a mainstay in much (western) Christian theology. Such theology has historically been done in the service of the Church. And, to my mind, theology that is not in the service of the Church is in some important respect defective. Analytic theologians should be concerned with the question of truth. But they should also be serving the Church in the theology they produce. I’m not saying one couldn’t do analytic theology without this component. But I am saying that such analytic theology would be defective in an important respect, just as any theology that is not done in the service of the Church, to the glory of God, is defective.

Rea: I think that if one isn’t a religious believer, it makes little sense to view the Bible or religious experience or the traditions of the Church (or the Rabbis, or whatever) as sources of data for building complex and systematic theories about God.  It makes a lot more sense to view the Bible as literature, the traditions of the Church (or of the Rabbis, or whatever) as just reflections on the relevant literature, and religious experience as…well…something other than experience of God.  So for those who are not religious believers, analytic theology should seem a rather hollow and pointless enterprise.  So yes, I think it should be a lot more satisfying if one is a believer (and hence if one is a Christian).

What is distinctive about a Christian analytic theology?

Crisp: I have already said something about what analytic theology is, and I suppose that gives some indication of what makes an analytic approach to theology distinct from much contemporary theology which draws upon more ‘continental’ modes of philosophical thought. So the ‘analytic’ component to analytic theology will be distinctive to the extent that it is appropriating the modes and methods of an analytic approach to the subject matter of theology. It is certainly distinctive for the Christian theologian to be engaged in an analytic project qua theologian, that is, from within the bounds of the Christian tradition, pursued in a faith-seeking-understanding manner, rather than qua philosopher, as someone with an interest in these issues coming at them from the ‘outside-in’, as it were. Someone from another faith tradition might also be an analytic theologian. I do not doubt that one could do analytic theology in Judaism or as a Muslim – and there might be a good case for doing so. But that, it need hardly be said, is a rather different enterprise than Christian analytic theology. I am not responsible to the Jewish or Muslim community. But I am responsible to the Christian community. And, for obvious reasons, that shapes the sort of issues I want to deal with as an analytic theologian.

Part one of the interview with Crisp and Rea can be read here. Michael Rea is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame and Director of Notre Dame Center for Philosophy of Religion. Oliver Crisp is a Reader in Theology at Bristol University. Both Rea and Crisp have been contributors to Philosophia Christi. Philosophia Christi has also published philosophical theology theme issues, such as the Winter 2008 book symposium on Abraham's Crossing the Threshold of Divine Revelation or the Winter 2003 issue on the trinity.

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Friday, January 8, 2010

Analytic Theology: Interview with Editors Crisp and Rea (part one)

We are happy to feature an interview with Oliver Crisp and Michael Rea about their important co-edited volume, Analytic Theology: New Essays in the Philosophy of Theology (Oxford, 2009). Below is part one of two.

How did this book come about? Does the timing of the book’s release, compared to if it were released 10-15 years ago, indicate how philosophical theology work is maturing?

Crisp: Believe it or not, the book came about over a cup of coffee. In 2004-2005 I had a post-doc at the Center for Philosophy of Religion at Notre Dame where Mike and I got to know each other. One of the best things about that year was the time I was able to spend talking to philosophers. Mike and I became firm friends and often spent time discussing philosophical-theological issues. One afternoon over a coffee on campus we were talking about the state of contemporary theology and how strange it was that most theologians didn’t really access contemporary analytic philosophy in the same way that they accessed continental philosophy, especially given the renaissance in philosophy of religion since the 1960s and then the turn to Christian doctrine amongst analytics from around the early 1980s. We thought that we could put together a set of essays that showcased a properly analytic approach to theology – and that is where it all began.

Rea:  Part of what struck us, too, was the fact that philosophers were now talking quite a bit about topics like the trinity and the incarnation that fall squarely within the domain of theology, and it seemed odd to us that, by and large, philosophers and theologians working the same topics were nevertheless almost totally ignoring one another.  It was clear to us that part of the explanation had to do with a sort of disdain among theologians for analytic approaches to theology, and a similar sort of disdain among philosophers for the sort of continental/postmodern approaches that seemed to dominate theology.  We thought it would be good to explore this methodological divide.

As to the question of timing, I think that this kind of book has found a receptive audience because contemporary analytic philosophical theology has become a serious concern. So, yes, it seems to me that its publication is an indication of the maturing literature in the field. But it is also interesting that theologians are beginning to think about analytic philosophy too (e.g. the work of William Abraham – one of our contributors in the book – and Bruce Marshall). I hope that AT may be a contribution that stimulates more theological interest in this field.

What accounts for the turn toward “the explication of core doctrines in Christian theology” by philosophers of religion that self-identify with the so-called “analytic tradition”?

Rea: Part of the reason is surely just the fact that (a) quite a lot of the people working in contemporary philosophy of religion have Christian backgrounds, and (b) by the mid- 1980s, the stock issues in ‘generic’ philosophy of religion—questions about the rationality of religious belief, traditional arguments for the existence of God, and the like—had been pretty thoroughly explored.  I suspect, too, that part of what has happened in philosophy of religion is similar to what seems to have happened in other naturally interdisciplinary sub-fields like philosophy of science and the philosophy of mind:  for a while, philosophers work on certain paradigmatic philosophical issues that they think they can explore on their own; but as the conversations become increasingly sophisticated, they find themselves drawn more deeply into the literature and the problems of the related discipline (particular sciences in the case of philosophy of science, and empirical psychology in the case of the philosophy of mind).

Crisp: It might also be worth saying that around this time there was a renewed interest in historic questions raised by philosophical theologians of the past, particularly the medievals. And the sorts of issues they were interested in often involve matters with a direct bearing on central Christian claims such as the Trinity, Incarnation and Atonement. I suppose it is also true that the renewal of metaphysics in the 1970s meant that such concrete metaphysical issues in Christian theology became much more attractive as areas to be mined by analytics than had previously been the case. The success of analytic philosophy of religion opened up the field of philosophical theology, as it opened up Christian philosophy more generally.

Al Plantinga likes to joke that much of the most interesting theology of the past twenty years has been done by analytics, not by professional theologians. But I think there is more than a grain of truth to this. Analytics are often excoriated for being ‘ahistorical’. But in fact, I think that analytics involved in philosophical theology have shown increasing historical sensitivity borne out of a deep engagement with particular theologians, including the medievals, the magisterial reformers and some post-Reformation figures like Molina and Edwards. This engagement with the tradition and concern to draw upon historic Christian discussion of doctrine in order to argue for key dogmatic claims is, I think, a very welcome development, and one theologians may benefit from.

How should philosophy in general, and philosophy of religion in particular, integrate with theology?

Crisp: It seems to me that the boundaries between philosophical theology and systematic theology are rather porous. Systematic theology always involves appealing to some sort of metaphysical claim or other – a matter that the American Lutheran theologian, Robert Jenson, makes plain in his Systematic Theology. But I am not sure that ‘integration’ is the right word. Bridge-building might be more like it. How can bridges be built between analytics and theologians that might be mutually beneficial and that might mean there is more traffic between the two disciplines? That is an important question, I think. And it is not all one-way traffic, either. There is important theological work that analytics can benefit from, e.g. the recent re-evaluation of St Augustine of Hippo by people like Michel Barnes and Lewis Ayres.

The ‘how’ question is partly about more discussion between analytics and theologians and more time being given to move beyond facile characterizations of the ‘other’ discipline. This is beginning to happen too, e.g. the Logos conferences that Mike has been organizing through the Center for Philosophy of Religion at Notre Dame, this year in conjunction with Dean Zimmerman at Rutgers, on the model of the Metaphysical Mayhem conferences. Last year’s conference was a real success. I’ve been at venues where mutual animosity between philosophers and theologians has prevailed. This was a forum where there was (I felt) evidence of a real desire to engage across these two disciplines. There is an AAR session on AT planned for later this year. It will be interesting to see to what extent it gets a wider hearing in the ‘Religion’ academy.

Rea: Here too I think that the analogy with other interdisciplinary subfields is useful.  How did philosophy of mind integrate with psychology?  How did philosophy of physics integrate with physics?  To the extent that these subfields have integrated with their sister disciplines, the integration has largely come about by experts coming to realize that awareness of what is going on in the sister discipline is importantly relevant to their own research.  The main obstacle to this realization in the case of phil religion and theology is just the methodological divide:  by and large, philosophers of religion and theologians have tended to view their relevance to one another in about the same way that analytic metaphysicians and Heideggerians have tended to view their relevance to one another.  And the only way to overcome the methodological divide (I think) is to explore it, talk about it, and see how deep it really runs. 

What is analytic theology?

Crisp: Analytic theology is the theological appropriation of the tools and methods of analytic philosophical theology for properly theological ends. It is really about bringing the work analytics have been doing into the theological fold. There is little that is new in this, apart from the fact that theologians are now engaged in work that is consciously appropriating the literature and methods of analytics for their own constructive theological work.

Rea: One criticism of our book (in Gordon Graham’s review in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews) is that we haven’t sufficiently differentiated analytic theology from (analytic) philosophical theology.  This strikes me as a rather odd objection, in light of what I say in the introduction.  (Here I repeat some remarks I made over at Prosblogion when the review came out.)  As I see it, analytic theology overlaps analytic philosophical theology--in fact, there's not a whole lot included in the latter that wouldn't also be included in the former. Graham notes that if that is true, then "analytic theology is nothing new, and has been carried on with vigor for the last four decades or more". Fair enough, but I never claimed that analytic theology is anything new. As I see it, the most important (intended) contribution of the volume is just to get people reflecting on this already-familiar enterprise as a legitimate way of doing "theology" rather than simply as a form of applied "philosophy". And even this idea (i.e., that what analytic philosophers of religion have been doing for decades is a perfectly legitimate form of theological theorizing) isn't really new either--as anyone can see by looking at systematic theologies from the early 20th Century and before.

The book is divided into four parts. The first part consists of chapters under the title, “In Defense of Analytic Theology.” How do the chapters by Oliver Crisp, William Abraham, and Randal Rauser contribute to this discussion?

Crisp: The first two chapters are articulations of AT. Mike’s Introduction is really a third attempt to get at AT too. In fact, it is the best piece of the three. My essay is really an attempt to argue that AT is not something theologians should shrug off as peripheral or unimportant. I also try to show that analytic theology is not necessarily about a narrow set of metaphysical commitments – that one could be an analytic theologian and take a rather different tack from the one I prefer. William Abraham’s piece is more about what analytic theology as a species of systematic theology might look like. It is a more ‘constructive’ piece of work than mine, in some respects. By contrast, Randal’s paper is a sort of ground-clearing exercise. Using the work of Harry Frankfurt, he asks whether certain contemporary theologies are locked into a perpetual bull-session aiming at effect rather than at truth.

What further work needs to be done concerning how and why analytic theology can be developed and strengthened in light of the alternatives?

Crisp: I think it would be interesting to engage other theological methods that are the subject of current interest in the literature. For instance, a useful discussion might be had with post-liberal theologians, or with representatives of Radical Orthodoxy. But for the present, I think we need more examples of analytic theology. It is all very well talking about theological method. What we need to see is what analytic theology looks like. I’ve published a monograph on the Incarnation that attempts to begin this [God Incarnate: Explorations in Christology]. Randal has just published a long essay on theological method that is a piece of analytic theology [Theology in Search of Foundations]. And Mike and Tom McCall have just published a collection of essays on the Trinity [Philosophical and Theological Essays on the Trinity] in which there is also evidence of analytic theology being done (especially in Tom’s essay in the volume). I have already mentioned William Abraham’s work, the most recent example of which is his Crossing The Threshold of Divine Revelation. Michael Sudduth has just published his book on Reformed Objections to Natural Theology, which should be of use to analytic theologians since it deals with whole question of natural theology. As the literature expands I hope we will see further discussion with those involved in other approaches to theology.

Rea: I also think that the objections against analytic theology need to be taken a lot more seriously by analytic theologians than they have been.  There are, I think, real worries to be raised about the limits of our abilities to theorize about God; illusions on the part of analytic philosophers about the degree to which they’ve managed to exchange evocative metaphors and other ‘fuzzy’ forms of speech for precision and clarity deserve to be questioned; and so on.  In the introductory essay I made an attempt to articulate some of these objections in a sympathetic and serious way, but I think that there is a lot more that could be done, and then, of course, the objections need to be dealt with.

The chapters of the second part address relevant “historical perspectives” about various issues and concerns relevant to analytic theology’s viability. How do these chapters by John Lamont, Andrew Chignell, Andrew Dole, and Nicholas Wolterstorff contribute to this discussion?

Crisp: The main concern that these essays address is the objection that analytic approaches to matters theological tend to be historically flimsy, or that they end up with a rather anemic, abstracted notion of what Christian theism really consists in. We were also concerned to ensure that key theologians were addressed, because the tradition matters in theology. John Lamont’s piece is a careful attempt to look at some of the Fathers. Andrew Chignell’s piece is concerned with Kant and the Kantian ‘legacy’ for philosophy and theology. Andrew Dole’s piece is on Schleiermacher’s anti-realism. (Tom McCall deals with Karl Barth in the context of his doctrine of Scripture in the third section of AT.) I think that each of these pieces is really terrific. Nick Wolterstorff’s essay is more about the development of analytic philosophical theology. And he makes the point I made earlier that the boundary between analytic philosophical theology and systematic theology is not the hard-and-fast one often presumed.

Are there other historical issues and concerns in this area that would merit further consideration and development?

Crisp: As I have already indicated, there is already a flourishing literature in medieval theology that has been done by analytics. I think it would be good to see more work done on Patristic theology and how this might be brought into the discussion. John Lamont’s essay is a good beginning, but there is much more that could be done in this area by analytics. It would be good to see what analytics could bring to this. It would also be interesting to see more work done on recent (i.e. late-twentieth century) theology. This would be more of a challenge, I think, because so much of this draws upon a continental approach to theology, e.g. the existentialism of Bultmann or John Macquarrie. But perhaps this is an opportunity, a bit like recent analytic work that has been done on Nietzsche – a thinker that does not strike one at first blush as an obvious candidate for an analytic assessment!

Michael Rea is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame and Director of Notre Dame Center for Philosophy of Religion. Oliver Crisp is a Reader in Theology at Bristol University. Both Rea and Crisp have been contributors to Philosophia Christi. Philosophia Christi has also published philosophical theology theme issues, such as the Winter 2008 book symposium on Abraham's Crossing the Threshold of Divine Revelation or the Winter 2003 issue on the trinity.

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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Interview with William Dembski: The End of Christianity

William Dembski, who was recently elected as the new Vice President of the EPS, released his latest book earlier this month from Broadman & Holman Academic, titled, The End of Christianity: Finding a Good God in an Evil World (2009). We interviewed Dembski about his book and its implications for Christian work on the "problem of evil."

What’s the main point that you are trying to communicate in this book? What is the “end of Christianity” that you speak of in your title?

My book attempts to resolve how the Fall of Adam could be responsible for all evil in the world, both moral and natural IF the earth is old and thus IF a fossil record that bespeaks violence among organisms predates the temporal occurrence of the Fall. My resolution is to argue that just as the salvation of Christ purchased at the Cross acts forward as well as backward in time (the Old Testament saints were saved in virtue of the Cross), so too the effects of the Fall can go backward in time. Showing how this could happen requires extensive argument and is the main subject of the book. As for my title, “End of Christianity” involves a play on words – “end” can refer to cessation or demise; but it can also refer to goal or purpose. I mean the latter, as the subtitle makes clear: Finding a Good God in an Evil World.

How did this book come about for you? How does the “problem of evil” intersect with your other professional and personal interests?

My main work has been in the field of intelligent design. The problem of evil looms large there because if the world and life are designed, the question arises what sort of designer would allow all the malevolent designs that we find in nature. In referring such evil designs to the Fall, however, one runs into a problem if they predate the Fall, as is required with an old earth: How can future events influence past events? So this question is at the heart of the debate between young and old earth creationists.

What do you think often lacking or neglected in “problem of evil” discussions among philosophers and theologians? How does your book contribute to filling-in-the-gaps in the contemporary literature on this topic?

Philosophers tend to approach the problem of evil generically, asking whether God, conceived without specific references to Christian revelation, could be good despite the existence of evil. Such an approach falls under philosophy of religion. It’s fine as far as it goes, but it does not address specifically Christian concerns. My book falls more properly under philosophical theology – I analyze philosophically the content of Christian theology on the question of evil and of the Fall. Moreover, I make a positive proposal for how the Fall is possible in light of advances in modern science, which suggest that natural evil must have predated humanity by millions of years.

In five parts, you lay out your twenty-four chapters. Can you briefly describe the flow of this book and help us understand the larger argument in light of the parts of your discussion?

Part I describes the essence of human evil, the Fall, and God’s solution to our predicament, namely, the Cross. Part II addresses how natural evil can be a consequence of the Fall. The chapters here contrast a young earth view, in which natural evil comes after humanity’s Fall, with an old earth view, in which natural evil comes before. Part III lays out a theological metaphysics that provides the theoretical underpinnings for the retroactive view of the Fall that is the heart of my book. Part IV lays out this retroactive view of the Fall in detail, showing how the Fall can come after the natural evils for which it is responsible. Part V ties together loose ends, notably what to make of evolution as well as the existential problem of evil (it’s one thing to discuss evil intellectually, it’s another thing to deal with it in experience).

In the introduction, you help the reader to pay attention to the reality that we live and think in a particular “mental environment.” What is that mental environment? Why does it matter for doing theodicy work?

Mental environments are more powerful than what typically are understood as worldviews. A worldview can be thought of as a collection of propositions to which we assent. But a mental environment adds conviction to a worldview. How strongly do we hold to certain principles and values in our worldview, and how does that make a practical difference in our lives? A mental environment controls, among other things, our plausibility structures – what we find reasonable or unreasonable.  In the current mental environment, given that it holds to an old earth, it becomes very hard for people to accept that the Fall affected the physical world (and, in particular, induced natural evil). My theodicy attempts to redress this obstacle posed to the Fall by the current mental environment.   

As you say in the introduction, “Christian theodicy” often does deal with the fact of (1) God’s wise creation of the world out of nothing and (2) God’s particular providence in the world. But what is often missing and yet considered preposterous for some is the claim (3): All evil in the world ultimately traces back to human sin. Why is that preposterous for some given our mental environment?

If the earth has been around for millions of years and if animals have been killing each other, getting sick, and going extinct all that time, how can all that suffering be a consequence of humanity’s Fall when humans have been around only a minuscule portion of that time? Without a retroactive view of the Fall, in which God by anticipation allows natural evil in consequence of the Fall, the Fall and its physical effects seem crazy.

Would you say that if there is a failure to account for or be acquainted with the knowledge that is involved in claim (3), then a Christian theodicy that results from claims (1) and (2) will be inadequate?

A denial of (3) does not entail a denial of (1) or (2). Still, as a practical matter, without a classical view of the Fall as given in (3), theologians and scholars seem to find (1) and (2) less plausible. The problem is that (1) and (2) suggest that God is very close to the creation, getting his hands dirty in it and therefore responsible for much that happens. Without passing the blame for evil to humanity, as in (3), that blame then naturally falls on God – unless, that is, God’s role in the world can be diminished, which is precisely what the denial of (1) and (2) involve and which is why process and open theism are now the rage.

The importance of claim (3) would seem to speak to the importance of divine revelation about the human condition and a theology of the heart that takes seriously that revelation as knowledge about reality. Would you agree? If so, how might greater Christian philosophy and theology work on the “problem of evil” result from taking seriously claim (3) in light of claims (1) and (2)?

My book arose out of an essay titled “Christian Theodicy in Light of Genesis and Modern Science.” I take seriously that the Scripture is God’s special revelation to humanity and that, as such, it is likely to contain layers of meaning that only become clear as our knowledge of the world increases. Far from scholarship undercutting the Scriptures, I see it as opening new vistas within the Scriptures. Thus I certainly see revelation as giving us knowledge about reality, knowledge that will agree with other sources of knowledge, such as science. As for the relation between claims (3) and claims (1) and (2), I see it as mutually reinforcing, where claim (3) renders the other two as more plausible and vice versa.

You are also working on a future project related to the topic, “being as communion,” which is also the title of chapter 13. Can you tell us about that project, including how is that project related to The End of Christianity? How is chapter 13 a microcosm of that larger project?

Actually, Part III, and not just chapter 13, which is within that part, is a microcosm of that larger project. “Being as Communion” attempts to provide a metaphysics of information that is conducive to Christian theism. It depends, however, on a prior science of information, which has been the subject of my research now for over a decade. My most current work here may be found on the Evolutionary Informatics Lab website ( There are still a few more mathematical results I need to publish before I’m ready finally to write a full-length treatment of the metaphysics of information.

What is your view about the reality of the Kingdom of God’s power and presence in our midst? How does that view figure into your treatment of suffering?

Evil, as I treat it, is never purposeless. Rather, God uses evil to bring us to our senses by making us face the consequences of our rebellion against God. The ultimate expression of evil and of God’s redemption from it is signified in the Cross. The Kingdom of God’s power is thus seen in God reversing the effects of evil through the Cross. God’s goodness, our hope and thanksgiving, and the full extremity of suffering are found in the Cross. For this reason, the first chapter in my book is devoted to the Cross – it is titled “The Reach of the Cross” and argues that the Cross is indeed enough to redeem the whole of a fallen world.

William Dembski is a Research Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Center for Cultural Engagement at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. More about his work can be found at and at his highly-trafficked group blog,

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Thursday, August 13, 2009

Interview with Gregg Ten Elsoff: I Told Me So (part two)

We continue with the final part of our interview with Gregg Ten Elshof, author of I Told Me So: Self-deception and the Christian life (Eerdmans, 2009).

Can self-deception ever be a tool used for our good?

Yes. In the book I argue that both (i) the mechanisms that make self-deception a possibility for us and (ii) self-deception itself have legitimate ends. God gave us the amazing capacity to deviate in inquiry from the general practice of pursuing belief in accordance with evidence. I think he did this for a reason. For the most part, believing what is true and what is in accordance with one’s evidence is a very good idea. But in special cases, believing can serve ends that outweigh truth and (epistemic) rationality. Think, for example, about the terminal cancer patient who believes (despite evidence easily available to her) that she will overcome her condition or the drug addict who believes (despite overwhelming inductive support to the contrary) that this time he will quit. The cancer patient actually has a slightly less radically improbable chance of overcoming her condition if she believes she will. The addict’s recovery is less improbable if he believes he’ll recover. Love, loyalty and friendship may sometimes require belief out of step with the evidence in the good of the beloved. And God has graciously allowed me to keep at the edges of consciousness (and beyond) several truths that would almost certainly undo me were they faced squarely (e.g., the gravity of my own sin and the overwhelming glory of his own being).

How do we often incorrectly deal with self-deception? How would you counsel Christian leaders about how to lead others in a life that is not burdened by self-deception?

We most often deal incorrectly with self-deception, I think, by ignoring it. We typically don’t ignore it altogether, of course, since we’re quick to recognize it in others. But we’re slow to take seriously the idea that we, ourselves, are significantly taken in. One is reminded of Bishop Butler’s haunting suggestion that “those who have never had any suspicion of, who have never made allowances for this weakness in themselves, who have never (if I may be allowed such a manner of speaking) caught themselves in it, may almost take it for granted that they have been very much misled by it.”

To face it squarely, we must first recognize its place in the Christian life. It is not chief among the vices. It is a God-given capacity with a narrow range of legitimate application. We get into trouble with this capacity (like any other God-given capacity) when it is misappropriated. Three strategies for avoiding the misappropriation of self-deception are (i) to die to the sinful tendencies that give rise to the need for hypocrisy, (ii) to seek membership in communities and groups where it is safe to disagree and (iii) to seek the community of the Holy Spirit who knows us better than we can know ourselves and who knows when we can and cannot handle a particular truth.

Are there particular social environments where self-deception can live rather well? If so, how and why?

If the inside of a group is defined according to whether or not folks believe this or that and if the stakes are very high for being on the inside of the group, the conditions are prime for self-deception. This has obvious implications for Christian belief and for creedal Christianity in particular. This is not to say that such groups are inappropriate. I am a member of various groups of just this sort. But, as members of such groups, we should have our eyes open to the fact that we are subject to the kinds of pressures that make self-deception likely.

Are there relevant factors at the level of a person's "world view" that are more conducive to self-deception? If so, how and why?

Yes. Here’s just one example: Very often people simply don’t know what to do with disagreement. Often they implicitly assume that when equally well-informed, equally intelligent, and equally sincere inquirers disagree, it must be that the subject is not one about which knowledge is available. Now Christians are slow (or should be slow anyway) to give up on the idea that they know the great truths of the gospel. But they’re not so blind as to miss the fact that people disagree with them. So what are they apt to conclude? That those who disagree with them are either uninformed, stupid, or insincere. While few would put it quite so baldly, many Christians interact with those on the other side (or with other Christians who disagree with them on some matter of theology for that matter) with a disdain or condescension that suggests exactly that – my opposition is either unintelligent, uninformed, or unwilling to take an honest look at the evidence. But if we think of our opposition that way, we’ll blind ourselves to whatever genuine insight they might have to offer. What is needed and often lacking is a category in one’s world view which allows one to assess another person in the following way: I know that p. She thinks that not-p. We disagree. Nevertheless, she’s as smart as I am, is in possession of all of the evidence I possess and is equally committed to an honest inquiry toward the end of discovering the truth on this matter.

How can philosophers and theologians further contribute to this discussion?

We need to think together more carefully about the implications of disagreement between thoughtful parties to a discussion. It's easy to demonstrate that it doesn't follow from disagreement that there's no objective truth of the matter or that nobody can know the truth. But what exactly SHOULD we infer from the fact that thoughtful, intelligent and sincere people disagree about something? What does it say about the human condition that such disagreement is possible? What does it say about God that he sustains in existence the conditions that make such disagreements possible?

More about Gregg Ten Elshof's work can be found at his faculty web page.

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Thursday, August 6, 2009

Interview with Gregg Ten Elshof: I Told Me So (part one)

We are pleased to have interviewed Gregg Ten Elshof about his latest book, I Told Me So: Self-Deception and the Christian Life (Eerdmans, 2009). Gregg is a professor of philosophy and the department chairperson of the undergraduate philosophy program at Biola University. He has also been a contributor to Philosophia Christi. Below is part one of a two part interview with Gregg.

How did this book come about for you?

I first took up an interest in self-deception as a graduate student at USC in the 90’s. I was just beginning to modify my approach to the Way of Jesus in response to the reading I had been doing about spiritual formation (from Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, etc.). I began to suspect that I had fallen prey to self-deception in significant ways and that my Christian brothers and sisters had too. But I found precious little in the contemporary literature on the Christian life that focused on self-deception. I devoted my doctoral research to defending a model of self-knowledge which made sense of self-deception with an eye toward writing this book at some point. In the ten years or so since, I’ve been reading and teaching courses about self-knowledge and self-deception. Finally, last year, I felt like I had enough to say to warrant the writing of a book.

What is your model of self-knowledge that makes sense of self-deception?

I've defended a traditional account of self-knowledge according to which the most direct way of knowing about yourself parallels the most direct way of knowing about anything else -- observation. Put differently, I've defended an observational account of introspection. I think an observation model makes the most sense of our experience of ourselves. So it's defensible for its own sake. But it also makes clear sense of self-deception. Just as there are recognizable conditions that make for illusion in sense-perception (speed, lack of light, object too small, object too big, object under water, etc.), one can expect there to be recognizable conditions that make for illusion in introspection or inner-perception.

How does your book contribute to our knowledge of Christian experience?

Most Christians who are interested in spiritual formation suspect (as I did) that self-deception is alive and well in their own experience and in the experiences of those around them. Most pastors are aware that self-deception is occurring to one degree or another in their congregations. Psychologists who focus on this sort of thing have explored the various forms that self-deception can take and the conditions under which it reliably occurs. I Told Me So is the only contemporary book I know about, though, that explores the various manifestations of self-deception in Christian sub-cultures in particular and provides explicitly Christian wisdom about what to do with and about it.

Why do you think there has been a lack of responsible attention to the issue of self-deception?

The first chapter of the book is given over to this question. Part of the answer, I think, has to do with the fact that authenticity has been given a very large promotion in the ordering of the virtues over the past 100 years or so. Interestingly, for college-aged students, the most significant qualification for a leadership position is authenticity. Older generations, by comparison, rank competency much higher on the list of qualifications. In our culture, it has become all-important to be authentic. Interestingly, self-deception often occurs when there is some painful truth about yourself that you’re not willing to face squarely. Well, if authenticity is all-important, then self-deception is chief among the vices. The rise in significance of authenticity means that the admission of self-deception in oneself is more damning and painful. So the motivation to avoid that admission is stronger. I think we have collectively avoided the topic of self-deception because, as we heap increasing praise on authenticity, it is an increasingly painful thing to recognize in ourselves.

So what is self-deception? How does it come about?

As you might expect, philosophers argue about what exactly self-deception is. Its label practically screams paradox and invites philosophical reflection about how best to characterize what it is that that we’re talking about. I doubt that there is a single set of necessary and sufficient conditions that captures all of the phenomena we’re likely to label “self-deception.” I Told Me So interacts with cases of self-deception, though, that can be characterized this way: To be self-deceived is to intentionally manage one’s own beliefs for some purpose other than the pursuit of truth. It’s worth noting that, given this characterization, one can be self-deceived in believing what is true. One can even be self-deceived in believing something that is true and for which one has evidence. Self-deception occurs most often when there is an emotional attachment to believing in a particular direction. It often involves the management of attention away from evidence that would disrupt the desired belief. And it seems to be capable of achieving greater distances from truth and rationality in groups than in the individual. It was Nietzsche, I believe, who said that insanity is rare in the individual but the rule in groups.

How must the self be understood if self-deception is to be rightly understood?

Well, the kind of transparency that characterizes the Moderns (Descartes, Locke, etc.) is out. There’s a whole lot going on in my mind that is not available by means of direct and simple introspection. On the other hand, I don’t think a proper understanding of self-deception requires anything like the Freudian unconscious censor. In the book, I try to steer clear of both of these models. What we need, I think, is a view of the mind and of intention which accommodates the suggestion that things can be closer or further away from the center of attention and consciousness. At any given time in my experience my direct focus is on a very limited number of things. Beyond that, though, there is a horizon of conscious experience which fades gradually into objects which lie beyond the scope of my awareness. Self-deception most often occurs, I think, on the peripheral edges of consciousness – not in the center of my focused attention but also not in an unconscious self that is, in principle, off limits to examination.

Next week we continue with part two of our interview with Gregg Ten Elshof.

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Sunday, July 5, 2009

Interview with J.P. Moreland: The Recalcitrant Imago Dei (part two)

We continue our interview with J.P. Moreland about his book, The Recalcitrant Imago Dei. In this part, J.P. shares how our view of human persons forms culture, how philosophy of religion work is helping to challenge naturalism in various areas, and how J.P. teaches philosophy.

You seem to wear multiple hats in this book as a philosopher, theologian and cultural observer. For you, how are these areas interrelated when offering an analysis of “human persons and the failure of naturalism”?

The philosopher, especially the Christian philosopher, should take a realist understanding of the imago Dei seriously. That understanding presents the philosopher with a prima facie justified case that the six features of human persons mentioned above are real and irreducible. The theologian should take the philosophical arguments seriously as an example of how to clarify the key issues and options and make crucial distinctions relevant to their resolution. The cultural observer should be careful to observe the connection between broad cultural drifts in the arena of ideas and the way human persons are depicted by the advocates of those various drifts.

In your book, you use an important Pitrim Sorokin distinction between a “sensate culture” vs. an “ideational culture.” Can you expand upon what that distinction means and why it is significant?

A sensate culture is one that believes only in the physical world that can be seen and touched. An ideational culture accepts the physical world but also believes in an unseen realm that can be known in other ways. Sensate cultures don’t last very long because they do not have the intellectual resources to sustain a vibrant cultural form of human flourishing. Sensate cultures degenerate into greed, dishonesty and conflicts over power.

For example, it is not wide of the mark to locate the fundamental intellectual cause of our current economic crisis in the ubiquitous presence of a sensate culture in the contemporary West. By contrast, an ideational culture, especially a Judeo-Christian one, allows questions like these to be asked and provides a robust answer to them: Is there meaning to life and, if so, what it is? What is right and wrong? Is God real and is there life after death? What ought the state, public education, and other key institutions do and what role ought they play in a culture conducive to human flourishing? What role ought wealth play in such a culture? None of these questions can even be asked, much less answered, from within a scientific, sensate perspective.

How can a robust view of the image of God positively shape public policy discussions?

In a reductionist culture, human persons will be identified with things such as being an animal, sexual orientation, ethnicity, which are not the most important thing about us—that we are made in zthe image of God, or so I argue in my book. In a reductionist culture, free will and rationality disappear, and are replaced with biological and sociological determinism. Along the way, personal responsibility vanishes and social engineering at the hands of cultural elites achieves hegemony. My book stands against these trends.

It seems that the homogeneous character of naturalism is actually starting to crack and break for some in Western academic circles. If that is the case, what is going on?

For twenty years or so there has been an explosion of Christian philosophy in the academy, and the overwhelming majority of Christian philosophers are theistic realists in the sense that they take their Christian theism to have ontological and epistemological implications that do intellectual work in their field. In the next decade, the prominence of Christians in philosophy will expand even more, and a backlash is sure to precipitate. Scholars in other fields, especially theology and religious studies, would do well to take note of what is happening in philosophy and seek to learn from this phenomenon. The Recalcitrant Imago Dei would be a good place to go to see an example of theistic realism at work.

There is a constant theme in a lot of your writing: Christianity is a knowledge tradition. What is the significance of this claim for how Christianity is perceived in the culture?

If Christianity were regarded as an alleged source of knowledge of reality, then its ideas would be taken seriously, put to the test, and evaluated rationally just like other alleged sources of knowledge. Knowledge, not faith, is what gives people the right to act responsibly in culture. Religious knowledge gives theological claims authority. In The Recalcitrant Imago Dei, I seek to re-establish theological claims about human persons as a reliable source of knowledge about their actual nature.

What type of philosophy courses at a university or a seminary would most benefit from this book?

Courses in philosophy of mind, comparative religion, theological anthropology, ethics (especially metaethics or end-of-life ethics), worldview comparison, and the sociology of culture would benefit from the course. Psychologists would also find much of interest here.

How do you like to teach the areas of philosophy that your book covers?

I usually begin my course by presenting the class with facts and considerations that demonstrate the broad, cultural importance of issues at the core of philosophical and theological anthropology. Then, I seek to use texts that defend various positions on those core issues and work through them carefully with the students. My book would be a good one to use in a course in philosophy of mind/action or theological anthropology. It would also be good for a course in comparative religion, since it presents and defends a Judeo-Christian understanding of the self, and treatments of the self are central issues for any religious system.

More about J.P. Moreland can be found here.

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Friday, July 3, 2009

Interview with Steve Cowan and Jim Spiegel: Love of Wisdom (part two)

We continue our interview with Steve Cowan and Jim Spiegel concerning their latest book, The Love of Wisdom: A Christian Introduction to Philosophy (Broadman & Holman, 2009). In part one, Steve and Jim talked about the uniqueness of their textbook and its approach, including a brief overview of the book's scope. Below is the second and final part of our interview.

As professors, how has your extensive teaching experience shaped what you say and the manner in which you communicate your ideas in this book?

SPIEGEL: More than twenty years of college teaching in philosophy has confirmed to me the need for a text that is clearly written and engages students’ interest without sacrificing accuracy in discussing views and arguments. Also, students are bugged by imbalance and bias as much as we professors are. So the ideal of fairness and humility in presentation of views was also paramount for us as we wrote the book.

COWAN: I think students like to see the big picture first before they get to the nitty-gritty details of an issue. They need to know how the topic at hand fits in with other questions and concerns, and they need to see the relevance of the issue for real life. When one gets to the details, there need to be clear and concise explanations of the philosophical problems and their answers, and it doesn't hurt if there is some way to make the discussion interesting and fun. Also, I try to approach topics systematically so that we deal with questions in an order that makes sense, so that what is said later builds on what's gone before.

Regarding the need to make things interesting, I have found in my teaching and writing that using lots of illustrations, examples, case studies, and thought experiments are indispensible pedagogical tools. So, as in my teaching, I included in the book lots of illustrations from film, novels, comic books, and so on in order to help explain tough issues in a fun and relevant way. For example, in discussing the Gettier problem in chapter two, I chose to present the problem not by using Gettier's own rather plain counterexamples but by telling a story about an imposter Spider-Man showing up at a public event where Peter Parker, the real Spider-Man's alter ego, was present. Likewise, in the section on free will, I explained Frankfurt-type counterexamples by telling a story about Dr. Doom planting a computer chip in the brain of Reed Richards, leader of the Fantastic Four. The students love it!

At the beginning of each chapter you intentionally introduce your discussion with a literary, film or pop cultural illustration or allusion. What are you trying to communicate or show by introducing a chapter’s topic in this way?

SPIEGEL: In addition to making the text more readable and interesting, these illustrations underscore the fact that Philosophy is not a remote, esoteric discipline but rather a field of study that can be, and should be, applied to literally all aspects of human experience and interest. This includes film, music, sports, literature, television, and everything else in our lives. Also, as Christians, we are called to apply our worldview to all that we do, and providing these links to everyday experience, including arts and entertainment, should remind readers of this fact.

COWAN: As I see it, these illustrations communicate two things. First, they tell readers who have never engaged in any formal study of philosophy that they are already familiar with many philosophical issues whether they know it or not. In the films, TV shows, and books they have read, philosophical concepts and problems are already a part of the experience. In this way, we take the edge off the strangeness and apparent irrelevancy with which philosophy is often perceived by newcomers. Second, and this is closely related to the first point, we hope to show the reader that philosophical ideas can and do influence people even if they have never studied them academically. I tell my students often that even though philosophical ideas often originate in the ivory tower, they never stay there. They always find their way down to the street where people live. And they typically make this transition by means of art—film, literature, etc.

Based on your assessment of the progress of Christian philosophers engaged in philosophical work, what areas of philosophical study remain under-developed or weak? Please list these areas and briefly explain why you think they are under-developed or weak and how might they become more developed and strong.

COWAN: Since the resurgence of Christian philosophy in the last few decades, Christians have done extensive and profitable work in the philosophy of religion and epistemology. Some areas in metaphysics have also received significant attention such as the mind/body problem and free will and determinism. But I think we have only recently begun to have an impact on key issues in general metaphysics or ontology. And, as far as I can tell, we have seen very little work on political philosophy and aesthetics. We seem rightly to be working our way outward from issues of central apologetic concern to Christianity (God's existence, divine attributes, problem of evil, religious epistemology) to broader areas relevant to the larger Christian worldview.

SPIEGEL: I agree with Steve here and would add that Christian philosophical aesthetics is especially in need of some strong work. It is telling that our book is the first Christian introductory philosophy text to feature a chapter on aesthetics.

How do you like to teach a philosophy or apologetics class? How do you use a textbook or other readings in the class?

COWAN: In my philosophy classes I take what I call a mixed Socratic approach. I usually begin a topic with a lecture that explains, say, a particular philosophical problem and then sketches some of the major strategies for solving that problem. Then I ask the students questions that lead them to evaluate the problem themselves and draw out the strengths and weaknesses of the various proposed solutions. I also ask questions designed to help them draw implications and practical consequences from given ideas and views. I like my textbooks to facilitate this method by providing summaries of philosophical issues and discussions of the various positions that can be taken on them. In my apologetics classes, I take a similar approach, though I usually seek to lead the students more directly to particular answers given that apologetics (at least as I conceive it) is designed to train students to defend the faith once for all delivered to the saints. So here I prefer apologetics textbooks that state and defend traditional views which I supplement with additional lecture material and evaluative questions.

SPIEGEL: My teaching style is much like that described by Steve. As for my use of textbooks, I prefer to use an anthology of readings and supplement this with a secondary text which provides commentary, thoughtful discussion of key arguments and, if available, a Christian orientation. Our text provides all of these features I desire in a secondary text, thus making it ideally suited for a course in which it is coupled with an anthology of some kind. But, of course, The Love of Wisdom can be profitably studied on its own, in or out of the classroom.

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Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Interview with Chad Meister: Introducing Philosophy of Religion (part two)

We continue our interview with Chad Meister about his Introducing Philosophy of Religion. In this part, Chad shares with us about he teaches philosophy and how philosophy of religion has influenced other areas of philosophy.

What are some lessons that you’ve learned over the years about how to teach philosophy of religion?

My overall pedagogical methods in the classroom have changed significantly over the last ten years or so, and this is especially true in upper level undergraduate philosophy courses such as philosophy of religion. Here are what I consider to be some significant lessons for teaching philosophy of religion (or any undergraduate philosophy course). Some of these lessons I gleaned from pedagogy researcher Ken Bain:
  • Students are not typically familiar with many, if not most, of the central topics and ideas discussed in the field, nor are they familiar with how the topics are typically approached. So rather than focusing on one or two main issues, or reading one or two primary sources, I find it helpful to first introduce them to a number of relevant topics and then to hone in on several key ones. For their assigned papers, then, I give them the opportunity to choose one or two issues with which to spend a good deal of time over the course of the semester.
  • I usually begin class with an excellent question (a question that is meaningful to the student)—that is, with a BIG question. So I generally create at least one major question for each class period and write it on the board or in PowerPoint. For example, I might ask, “What is John Hick’s pluralistic hypothesis, and what are some reasons you have for agreeing or disagreeing with it?” The lecture/discussion will generally, then, focus on this question.
  • As Ken Bain notes, a recent Harvard study of the most successful students included two key elements in the classroom: tough classes and the opportunity to try, fail, get feedback, etc. separate from a grade. I believe creating assignments, such as short papers on a central theme, that allow students to work on a topic, turn in the assignment, receive comments, and re-work the assignment are effective means. These early papers receive no grade, but the final product (a longer paper including research and reflection from the earlier shorter ones) does.
  • Students need to have some control over their own education. For papers, I offer students multiple topics from which to choose, or I allow them to pick a subject related to their major or area of interest.
  • As many of the great ancient Greek philosophers understood, one of the most helpful ways of acquiring knowledge and being transformed by it is seeing it modeled by a respected mentor. So, for example, I invite students over to my home regularly to discuss issues in that environment and work to develop respect by the “younger” students for the more advanced ones. I even encourage their involvement in an official mentoring program at the college where students and faculty mentor others, and I mentor a number of the philosophy majors myself. There should be regular collaborative efforts between students, so I have them work together in small groups on projects both in and outside of class. When appropriate, I have the “advanced” students help/mentor the “newer” ones. Especially for the philosophy majors, I try to create an environment where we are growing together and encouraging one another as a community of learners.
  • Students must believe that their own work will really matter (though it may be quite basic at this stage), so I have individual meetings with them to discuss their paper topics. I encourage them to focus on a theme that is significant—both to them and to the field at large—and explain why what they are doing is philosophically significant. Furthermore, I offer them the opportunity as a class to craft a journal—one structured very much like a professional philosophy journal, but with other features that make it more fun and exciting for undergraduates (for example, including timelines, glossaries, even a comics section!). This has been a very productive, collaborative kind of project which, in one case, we published. I also encourage students to work toward writing publishable papers (and to try to publish them if they are of that quality) and to attend conferences where students and others are presenting papers. It is oftentimes in these kinds of contexts where the significance of their own work can be more fully appreciated.

How has philosophy of religion work influenced other fields in philosophy?

There is a long story to be told here, but I’ll try to keep this brief. There is a fascinating symbiotic relationship among those doing work in the various fields of philosophy you mention and work being done in philosophy of religion. Consider first a brief account (one probably quite familiar to many readers) of the resurgence of philosophy of religion over the past century with respect to work done in epistemology, metaphysics, and philosophy of language.

Philosophy, especially within the analytic tradition, emphasizes precision of terms and clarity of concepts. Religion, however, is often imprecise and veiled in mystery. This imprecision was challenged in the mid-twentieth century with the rise of logical positivism. Logical positivists used a principle of verifiability to reject as meaningless all non-empirical claims; only the tautologies of mathematics and logic, along with statements containing empirical observations or inferences, were considered meaningful. Many religious statements, however, such as claims about the transcendent, are neither tautological nor empirically verifiable. So certain fundamental religious claims and beliefs (such as “Yahweh is good” or “Atman is Brahman”) were taken by the positivists to be cognitively meaningless utterances. Positivism became a dominant philosophical approach and for a time, for this and related reasons, philosophy of religion as a discipline became suspect.

The philosophical tide began to turn, however, in the latter half of the twentieth century with respect to religious language. Many argued that the positivists’ empiricist criteria of meaning were unsatisfactory and problematic. Due to the philosophical insights on the nature and meaning of language provided by the later Ludwig Wittgenstein, the rise of a pragmatic version of naturalism offered by Willard Quine, and other factors, logical positivism quickly waned. For these reasons, along with the exemplary work of such analytic philosophers of religion as Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, John Hick, and others, by the 1970s discussions about religious (and metaphysical and ethical) concepts were revived and soon became accepted arenas of viable philosophical and religious discourse.

Since that time, philosophy of religion has become a burgeoning field. For example, two leading philosophy journals today—Philosophia Christi and Faith and Philosophy—are primarily focused on issues in philosophy of religion. In addition, two of the largest (if not the largest) subgroups within the American Philosophical Association are the Evangelical Philosophical Society and the Society of Christian Philosophers. Furthermore, one could cite countless examples of recent work that integrates other fields of philosophy with philosophy of religion, or philosophy of religion work which has influenced other fields. Consider just a few fine examples (with apologies for the many other fine examples which are not included):

The list goes on and on. Those doing work in philosophy of religion have indeed made great strides in influencing other fields in philosophy over the past fifty years, and there is no indication of its waning any time soon.

More about Chad Meister can be found at his website.

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