Philipse on the Predictive Power of Theism

In Chapter 9 of “God in the Age of Science?”, Philipse points out that to count as a scientific theory, theism — or “bare theism” as he likes to insist he is sticking to — must have some kind of predictive power. To be fair here, this is an argument that natural theologians will have to address, so he’s off to a good start. The initial argument is that predictive power as per predicting future events is going to be problematic for theism, at least because it hasn’t really had a lot of that sort of predictive power in the past — a lot of religious assumptions were wrong in the past — and because the conception of God ends up being vague enough that without, at least, importing specific religious concepts it’s going to be hard to tie specific actions to that bare theistic conception of God. Note that this is more my overall summary of the underlying problems; I think that Philipse ultimately makes arguments of this sort, but am not certain if he makes them this explicitly and directly.

At any rate, Philipse eventually concludes that theists are likely going to want to retreat to a notion where, essentially, theism is seen as the best explanation for the evidence we have, even if we can’t use it to predict new discoveries. This becomes much more important and prominent later, but here Philipse wants to question whether we can have any background that we can use to determine the intentions and plans of the intentional being God, so that we can determine that if God existed the world and universe or that any phenomenon in particular is a confirmation or disconfirmation of the theory that God exists. And as usual Philipse attempts to show at least the problems with this — if not to provide reason to think that the theistic theory has no predictive power — by addressing a specific argument of Swinburne’s, that of moral access. The argument is essentially this: there is such a thing as objective morality, and we at least have some ability to determine what is moral and what isn’t. God is by conception ultimately moral, and so will always act in accordance with the highest standard of morality. Thus, the background we can use to assess what things God would or wouldn’t do is to appeal to objective morality as a starting point.

Philipse follows the two standard tactics here. The first is that he starts from assuming that if he can find any other alternative explanation then he’s created a serious problem for the theist, and the second is that he decides to go after and attack the idea of objective morality itself to deny it. Thus, he appeals to evolutionary biology and the assertions of some of them that morality is nothing more than evolved preferences built to promote social structure. The argument always boils down to the idea that if we have a different evolutionary path — if we were all hive creatures like bees, for example — we’d have a radically different sense of what is or isn’t moral. Thus, morality can’t be objective in the way Swinburne wants it to be to work as a background for God.

Well, first, just because some evolutionary biologists and others think this is plausible, it doesn’t mean it is. Philipse would need to do a lot more work to show that this is indeed an argument that Swinburne would have to take seriously. Second, it has serious flaws. The first is that a number of our moral decisions seem to follow more from our intellect than from our biology. For example, vegetarianism is not a moral conclusion that an evolved omnivore would just naturally adopt. Neither is the idea that sexual relations with someone who has entered puberty but is under 18 years old is immoral. As we develop new societies and new technologies, we adapt our idea of morality using our intellect, and it is reasonable to assume that intellect would apply across species. So if we put aside “ought implies can” arguments — where, for example, a carnivore cannot properly consider vegetarianism morally right — it’s certainly not clear that we can’t have a general, intellect-based objective morality. The second is that assigning morality to societal conventions doesn’t work either. Our moral intuitions make a sharp distinction between social conventions and moral claims, and this rather famously is something that psychopaths fail at. So taking that route to eliminate objective morality doesn’t seem all that plausible either.

The real issue is that trying to oppose Swinburne by opposing objective morality is taking a fairly controversial stance. It’s going to need a lot of argumentation to establish this as plausible to anyone who doesn’t already think that there is no such thing as an objective morality of the sort Swinburne holds. And Philipse, in general, seems to think that he can just drop in an alternative theory and say “You could be wrong!” and raise a serious challenge for his theistic opponents, but this isn’t the case. Taking that tack only leaves a debate where both sides — as I just demonstrated above — try to argue that their idea is more intuitively “plausible” than the other idea is. This is not likely to be productive, even if Philipse would bother giving stronger arguments for his claims than the points that he, himself, finds personally plausible.

The question of whether theism is the best explanation for the world we see will come up again and again, so this chapter lays a relatively important groundwork, even if its arguments really go nowhere and we never really have reason to think that theism has no predictive power. In the next chapter, Philipse will talk about attempts to immunize theism from scientific explanation.

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