Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Philosophers Debating G-d from NY Times blog

This is a concluding reflection on my series of 12 interviews with philosophers on religion. I’m grateful to all of them for the intelligence, clarity and honesty with which they responded to my questions, and to the readers, who posted hundred of comments on each interview. It seemed natural to keep to the interview format, even though I (G.G.) had no one to interview except myself (g.g.). Taking some of the recurring views and concerns expressed by the readers into account (there were too many to cite individually), I’ve tried to submit myself to what I hope was the polite but challenging voice questioning my interviewees.

G.G.: What was the point of talking to a bunch of philosophers about religious belief?

g.g.: The immediate impetus came from the poll I cited at the beginning of the first interview: 73 percent of philosophers said they accepted or were inclined to atheism, while 15 percent accepted or inclined to theism. Only around 6 percent identified themselves as agnostics. I would have expected a good majority to identify as agnostics.

G.G.: Why did you expect that?

g.g.: The question of whether God exists is a controversial one: there have been, and still are, lots of smart, informed and sincere people on both sides. So it would seem that philosophers, committed to rational reflection on the big questions, wouldn’t be atheists (or theists) without good reasons. But it is also obvious that the standard arguments for and against God’s existence — first-cause arguments, the problem of evil, etc. — have stimulated an enormous amount of debate, leading to many complications but to no consensus. (To get a sense of contemporary discussions on theism see the Stanford Encyclopedia’s articles on the cosmological argument and on the problem of evil.) Given this, it seemed to me that at least a good proportion of philosophers would be agnostics, undecided about God’s existence.

G.G.: So you wanted to talk to philosophers to see why they accepted or denied the existence of God. What did you find out?

g.g.: Well, the theists were pretty much as I expected. None claimed to have a decisive argument for God’s existence; that is, an argument they thought should convince any reasonable person. Alvin Plantinga claimed that there are lots of “pretty good” arguments, but allowed that they aren’t conclusive, even though they may be “as good as philosophical arguments get”— which I take to mean that they can make it rational to assert God’s existence, but don’t make it irrational to deny it.

Sajjad Rizvi suggests something similar when he says that theistic proofs “allow believers to fit their faith in God into a rationally coherent framework,” even though atheists may not find them rationally compelling. But the two other theists, John Caputo (a Catholic) and Howard Wettstein (a Jew) think that arguing for God’s existence misunderstands what religion is all about.

In my experience, all this is typical of philosophers who believe in God. As Daniel Garber noted, once upon a time believing philosophers thought they had arguments showing that atheism was irrational. Nowadays, the most they do is argue that it can be rational to be a theist.[...]

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