Philipse on the Grand Strategy of Natural Theology.

Moving on from what we can or can’t say about the beliefs of the every day theist, Philipse in Chapter 6 describes what a natural theology is going to have to have to be credible … and implies that most of them, except perhaps Swinburne, don’t have that. He talks about three levels of generality: a) domain-specific, b) not domain-specific but not universal (eg statistics) and c) universal, meaning that it applies to all domains or all attempts to gain knowledge. He then moves on to talking about what he considers the main dilemma for natural theology: they need to have a a), a domain-specific set of methods that are justified in some way. But they don’t want to stick too close to science and other forms of scholarly work, because applying those methods to theology hasn’t worked out well for theology. However, if they don’t use those sorts of intellectually respectable methods, how will they be able to demonstrate that their methods are intellectually respectable?

The big problem is that Philipse seems to place philosophy squarely in c) and doesn’t really allow for their methods to produce a) level methods … and, in doing so, ends up limiting the intellectually respectable methods to empirical and broadly scientific ones. For the most part, he asks that the natural theologians use methods similar to those found in the sciences or in history, but not ones found in epistemology or ethics or even philosophy of mind, where empirical data is important but generally doesn’t settle anything. As such, his demand ends up being that natural theologians have to justify things scientifically or else they have to invent methods that aren’t respectable, which is a false dichotomy. It also doesn’t reflect the views of many theologians, and also the state of the field as is.

Classical theists, for example, have a full theology that cannot be evaluated empirically, or with the methods of history. But it can be evaluated with the methods of philosophy of religion, and philosophy in general. And, in fact, it has been so evaluated, for many, many, many, many years. For the most part, every religion that is strongly focused on theology has a method for looking at things, and those methods can be evaluated and justified or challenged by the philosophical field of philosophy of religion, just as philosophy of science can do that for science. Thus, how a theology validates its a) methodology if it isn’t just one of those that are commonly used is through philosophy of religion, which has been more than willing to do that for quite some time. So you have to get down to the specifics of the theology, and not just hope for something that applies to all of them.

Thus, here, Philipse ends up selecting his preferred methodologies and demanding that natural theology follow them, or else be considered not intellectually respectable. But that methodology is broadly and strongly empirical and probabilistic … and most theologies don’t accept that methodology. For good reason. Classical theists have their conceptual argument, and demonstrate the consequences of that conceptual argument, and see no need and no ability to do empirical examinations of the matter. And it does seem hard to demonstrate that an all-knowing, all-powerful, creator being exists by looking really, really hard for one. But this isn’t unique to theology, as these sorts of debates over what the right methodology is are common in ethics, epistemology, and philosophy of mind. Even given the rise of neurology, there is still much debate over whether neurology actually gets at mind or instead just studies the brain, and there are many good arguments that say that we need more than that to really get at mind. Ultimately, part of doing the philosophical work in a field is determining what your a) ought to be, and justifying that. Philipse gives a number of examples of how to validate your a) methodology, but there are more ways than that, and than the empirical.

I cannot escape the conclusion here that Philipse find Swinburne’s approach the most promising because it already uses methodologies that he considers respectable. But someone who, like me, distrusts Bayesian analyses and probabilistic justifications of beliefs is not going to feel the same way, and so his attempt to establish that something like that is needed and that Swinburne’s approach is the best one falls a bit flat.

Thus ends the first part. It’s a pretty meaty part, wading in to views and comments that are heavy and often somewhat obscure. There are definitely points in there, even points that I have criticized, that I would need to read again and gather more information on to properly understand, express, and criticize. That being said, there are fundamental disconnects between my epistemological views and Philipse’s that cannot be resolved by more understanding of what we mean, and because of that I find Philipse’s demands and little, well, overly demanding. I don’t see why I need to have the justifications and the sorts of justifications that he demands in order to have a rational belief, and even to rationally believe that my belief is rational. Philipse, it seems to me, falls into the common trap of insisting that in order for me to be rational in believing that X, I have to be able to present it that it is also rational for him to believe that X, which is an argument that I strongly deny. Indeed, his rational5 seems to encapsulate that very idea, and that was what he wanted to establish. I don’t think he did. But, at any rate, we’ll move on to the second part where he talks about theism as a theory.


2 Responses to “Philipse on the Grand Strategy of Natural Theology.”

  1. Crude Says:

    Philipse, it seems to me, falls into the common trap of insisting that in order for me to be rational in believing that X, I have to be able to present it that it is also rational for him to believe that X, which is an argument that I strongly deny.

    Is this accurate, or is it more like, ‘Not only is it rational for you to believe X, but you are able to present it in such a way that he is forced to admit that X is true’?

    I ask because I get the sense here you mean that common view of saying, ‘Your view can’t be rational, because if it was why are there millions of people who disagree?’

    • verbosestoic Says:

      Philipse definitely seems to be as I described him: if you can’t demonstrate that it’d be rational for him to believe, then it can’t be rational for you to believe. Whether you’re forced to admit that it’s true or not is another, but related, matter; if it is rational for you to believe that X, some would insist that you have to think, then, that X is true. I deny that, but Philipse probably wouldn’t. But I don’t think he’s QUITE making the “why are there millions of people who disagree” argument, because he definitely is trying to insist on a specific methodology, and if he can establish that methodology then he doesn’t need it, and would run into the same issues against him, since millions of people would disagree with him about atheism, for example. The big issue, I think, is that he thinks his methodological requirements obviously true, and they aren’t obviously such.

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