Tuesday, October 11, 2011

My "Philosophy of Religion" in Outline

As I was getting ready to reply to several comments on my earlier post, Monks, Miracles, and the God of the Gaps, it seemed to me that the comments I was starting to write were really aimed at fitting together the pieces of my overall "philosophy of religion." And that task seemed more suited to a blog post than to a set of comments. And so I decided that I really should offer a post which affords such an overview--one that doesn't systematically defend every piece, but instead seeks to show how the pieces fit together, to show how the ideas developed in various places on this blog and in Is God a Delusion? are related to each other.

Obviously, not every aspect of my thinking on religion is going to appear in such a sketch. What I want to highlight here are the "themes" that are most helpful (I hope) in giving a big picture summary of my philosophy. Things which I don't explicitly discuss here, but which are clearly significant to me (religious experience, the nature of consciousness, etc.), should not be considered less important to me just because I don't address them explicitly here. I'm pretty sure that readers can readily see how and where these other topic fit into the broad scheme I'm offering. At the end of this overview, I offer "further readings" suggestions, directing those interested to places where I develop these themes in greater detail.

Here, then, is my attempt to summarize and coordinate several key dimensions of my overall "philosophy of religion":

1. I take a religious worldview, insofar as it is religious, to offer a framework for a "way of seeing" the whole of experience. A way of seeing attaches a certain meaning and significance to what is experienced. It weaves the features of experience together in a certain way, and attaches a meaning to the elements of experience and to one's life as a whole. It also has implications for how one should respond to the world--both in terms of actions and in terms of attitudes. Insofar as a religious worldview is a way of seeing, it must "fit" with experience in some broad sense. Not every "ways of seeing" is coherent given the actual content it is trying to invest with meaning (we can coherently see the duck-rabbit as a duck, or as a rabbit, but not as ballerina dancing atop a monster truck).

2. Many ways of seeing involve positing things about reality that are not themselves part of the field of experience. Generally, religious ways of seeing--especially theistic ones--are like this. They make claims about a transcendent reality that make possible a distinctive way of seeing. To see reality theistically requires, in effect, that one affirm that the empirical world of our experience is the outpouring of a transcendent conscious agency. In Is God a Delusion?, I thus describe religious beliefs as "meaning-bestowing beliefs about the transcendent."

3. Sometimes a way of seeing is chosen out of a kind of moral hope. Of the possible ways of seeing experience, one in particular may strike us as the most optimistic, the most expressive of our moral sense of what is good. Put another way, we embrace one way of seeing among a field of alternatives because, given our understanding of what is good, we judge that it would be good if this were what it all means. In Is God a Delusion?, this is what I have in mind when I talk about "the ethico-religious hope," and I define faith in terms of this hope. To be precise, faith in this sense means choosing to live as if this hoped-for possibility is true.

Conceived thus, faith is not knowledge and does not imply knowledge or certainty or any such thing. To embrace a particular way of seeing "out of faith" is not to claim to have special grounds for belief that make one's way of seeing more likely to be true than the others that "fit" with the field of experience. To believe on faith, in this sense, is thus NOT the same as claiming that "it's lovely so it must be true." To claim that would be to claim that the loveliness of a worldview is proof of its truth--which is a clearly dubious epistemic assumption (although, as a postulate worth testing, it may be worth considering the more modest idea that the moral attractiveness of a worldview has evidentiary signficance--a point I get to in #6).

Nor is faith nothing but wishful thinking. Better to call it hopeful living--since it is about living as if a hoped-for possibility is true. But if so, it is hopeful living regulated by evidentiary constraints. Unlike mere wishing, it must meet the constraint of what "fits" with the field of experience. It must be a hopeful possibility.

4. The pursuit of knowledge, when it comes to that which transcends the empirical--when it comes to what Kant calls the "noumenal" reality (things as they are in themselves) behind the "phenomenal" realm (things as they are for us, or as they appear to us)--cannot proceed in the way that we pursue knoweldge of phenomena. Knowledge of phenomena cannot be pursued in advance of adopting a certain way of seeing. While some ways of seeing appear to be common to humanity, and form the basis for a common experience of the world and public claims of empirical knowledge, this common foundation can fit within a variety of broader, more holistic ways of seeing.

When deciding among these broader ways of seeing and the claims about the transcendent/noumenal that they presuppose, either no knowledge is possible (Kant's view) or we must rely on an approach very different from the one that guides the acquisition of empirical knowledge (such as, for example, the approach endorsed by Hegel). Each of these options warrants independent consideration.

5. If we go with Kant's view, then holistic ways of seeing--including, I should add, naturalistic ones--all fall into the same category: they are unknowable speculation, and if there are any reasons for us to choose among them, the reasons will be more practical/pragmatic/moral than "evidential." At least sometimes it is practically impossible to operate from a position of neutrality, to fail to take a stand with respect to one way of seeing or another. With respect to speculations about human agency, we either have to operate as if we are free, or not. With respect to the origins of the cosmos, we have to decide whether to adopt a stance of gratitude--the kind of stance that makes sense if reality is the product of loving agency. At least sometimes, elements of one's personal history make a position of indifference, of neutrality among ways of seeing, inconceivable.

The point is this: many of us confront an existential choice that we cannot ignore indefinitely--and so we have to decide on what basis to make that choice. If Kant is right, then deciding on the basis of moral hope--that is, a hope shaped by one's conception of the good--seems as good a basis as any, if not a better one. Kant himself invokes morality as providing the decision-making standard by which "postulates" about the noumenal are made. In other words, he thinks that given the inability to have "speculative knowledge," we nevertheless can and should embrace those beliefs about the transcendent that make our moral lives coherent--that offer, in my terms, a "way of seeing" the world in which moral norms are meaningful and moral life is possible. But as soon as this kind of hope is allowed in as a basis for decision-making, we need to consider another possibility, one which speaks to what might be called an epistemic hope: namely, the hope that Kant is wrong, that there is a way to move towards seeing the truth when it comes to ways of seeing.

6. And so we come to Hegel, who describes a mechanism whereby holistic worldviews can (and do) evolve against the testing ground of human life. On this Hegelian view, a worldview lived out as a matter of moral hope--while not thereby a matter of knowledge--might (like all other worldviews adopted for other reasons) evolve progressively in the light of "contradictions" or experienced deficiencies that emerge as that worldview is lived out (especially insofar as it is lived out communally). The idea--perhaps the hope?--is that noumenal reality, even if it transcends our understanding, nevertheless is the substance of both us and our world, and so impacts the tenability of certain lived-out worldviews. We just won't succeed forever in living as if the world in which we live is fundamentally unlike the way it really is. And so, whatever the origins of one's "way of seeing," lived experience becomes its testing ground, the venue in which decisions made in hope are refined, ideas embraced on the basis of faith are adjusted or even, potentially, overturned.

And the Hegelian evolution of faith-based worldviews offers the opportunity to test experimentally a notion that we cannot just dogmatically assume, but which we cannot simply dismiss out of hand either--namely, the notion that goodness and beauty are in some fundamental way related to truth.

In a way, this is what I take to be what distinguishes evolving religious traditions from other evolving (nonreligious) worldviews: They adopt, as part of the operative presuppositions which are being experimentally lived out, the presumption that beauty and goodness are not mere epiphenomena, not merely the subjective projections of a consciousness that is itself nothing more than the by-product of blind matter and energy, mechanism and chance; they are, rather, clues about the ultimate nature of reality. That something is in tune with our deepest, most stable, and pervasive value intuitions is thus treated as having evidentiary significance (albeit not overriding significance) in the formation of our beliefs.

The Hegelian religious project, then, becomes the long-term, evolving effort to critically live out, in Hermann Lotze's language, "the conviction that what is so fair and full of significance cannot be an accidental product of that which is without significance, but must be either the very Principle of the world or closely related to its creative principle." In short, the act of faith--the decision to live as if the fulfillment of one's moral hopes is real--establishes a framework from which the pursuit of transcendent knoweldge is sought through a plodding, historic process of pragmatic refinement. And it is a framework whose central postulate lends defeasible evidentiary significance to our moral (and aesthetic?) intutitions.

From a Hegelian standpoint, when it comes to such postulates "the proof is in the pudding." Unfortunately for all of us, this is a pudding we're cooking intergenerationally, and none of us will be alive to see the finished product. In the microcosm of our own lives, Kant may be right about the inaccessibility of the noumena. Moral hope may be all we have to go on. But that shouldn't keep us from taking part in the evolving social project that promises to discipline our speculative hopes with the pragmatic implications of living them out.   
For more on #1, see especially here and here

For more on #2, see especially Is God a Delusion? (IGAD) Ch 5

For more on #3, see especially IGAD Ch's 8 & 9

For more on #'s 4 & 5, see especially my series of posts on characterizing naturalism.

For more on #6, see my recent posts on Hegel.


  1. This seminarian says, Amen to that!

    In some ways saying yes to religious faith reminds me of saying yes to lifelong marriage, another faith-based proposition grounded in hope.

    Wish I had time to write more, but I just wanted to say I thought this was an excellent post.

  2. Several thoughts come to mind.

    1. Why should anyone ever ascribe to #2 or even take it seriously as an intellectual position? Crap, now I have to go read your book. I've been meaning to for a while. Is it on audible?

    2. Why can't someone have this sense of gratitude without belief in a loving agency?

    3. You say that your hope is based in non-empirical questions, but it seems to me that all of this rests on assumptions that are at the very least undermined by empirical evidence. The concept of free will and its relationship to what we call morality comes to mind.

    4. Maybe I'm missing something. I see no reason to believe there is a noumenal reality in principle. In practice, there are a number of aspects of what we call reality we cannot know about. The number of birds in the sky over the Atlantic is something we can't know and it just changed. It doesn't mean, in principle, it is part of some reality we can't get at empirically. I'm not sure I can see why there is any limitations in principle. Maybe I need to read more Kant.

    5. If a noumenal reality did exist, how could it possibly have any causal relationship with anything phenomenal? If it can't, wouldn't that be a defeater for the faith you describe?

    6. What is the relationship between the concept of noumena and Plato's concept of the forms?

    7. I'm not sure it makes sense to even talk about noumena without a thinking mind. In fact, I might be willing to grant noumena exists with regard to conscious minds. I'm just not sure I see any reason to believe it exists in any other context. Then again, I sympathize with naive realism and don't put much stock in any of this.

  3. Thank you very much for laying out these ideas.

    I can certainly see assigning meaning to things being a non-empirical process. Like valuing humans.. this requires a feeling function or possibly a doctrine that is not bound by empirical considerations. Psychopaths may have perfectly fine knowledge of how everything works, but care nothing for other people, and thus lack such valuation. Perhaps such people can be saved by doctrinal/social conformity in a well-established system that binds them to standards of behavior in the absence of inner feeling. Perhaps.

    Anyhow, this practice of assigning meaning sort of hits a brick wall when one decides to hoist into one's system, not plain valuations as above, or stories recognized as such, but an ontological apparatus of "reality" that flies in the face of what is otherwise well-established or posits aspects of reality that are well-established to be unknown and unknowable. Of course, I am speaking about god, supernaturalism, "the transcendent", and the rest of it.

    What is "the transcendent"? It is, as you say, baldly asserted/posited, and lies outside of experience. It is unsupported, yet you seem to find utility in it, by its sponsoring an enormous emotional resonance with all the fantasies that are poured into it- love, god, omniscience, creation-of-all, consciousness, agency... the list is endless and of course characteristically shamanic.

    As you say, this is not knowledge, but rather is creative.. the filling in of blanks with congenial and (hopefully) psychologically constructive stories, fantasies, .. you name it. Faith. Why choose this way of filling our psychological needs, rather than some other, like satanism, naturalism, the arts? As you say, there is no knowledge on which to judge it- all are equally "creative" constructs.

    But some are better in their fruits, by generating societies that function with less strife, more happiness, etc. That is a worthy criterion and goal, but it hardly justifies the philosopher in saying that his chosen fantasy apparatus of "the transcendent" is true or even has any merit whatsoever as a hypothetical description of reality. One may just as well judge Alice in Wonderland true-er than Harry Potter. Their philosophical merit lies not in their description of reality, but in their resonance with the human condition and our emotions & fantasies. The better resonance doesn't validate the ontological proposition.

    .. cont ..

  4. .. cont ..

    Your other refuge is that we "have to make a choice". Having presented a fantasy of "the transcendent" that you admit has no knowledge or (empirical) experience behind it, you force a false choice that has to be made between this culturally dominant fantasy and.. what else? Perhaps the humble acceptance of reality as it stands before us is too much to bear?

    Specifically, "... we have to decide whether to adopt a stance of gratitude--the kind of stance that makes sense if reality is the product of loving agency."

    The fact is that we can feel gratitude in any case.. it is all about us, not about the cosmos. We are here, and have feelings, so we can feel gratitude, and do so. The idea that we need a conjured "father" or other totem on the other end, whose existence is, as above, hypothetical at best and utilitiarian in origin ... that is simply absurd. It is like positing that everyone must have an imaginary playmate before engaging in solitary activities -practicing one's instrument, building model airplanes, painting, etc..

    Perhaps some people would find such a doctrine/practice highly beneficial, but if so, it neither applies universally, nor validates the "reality" of such a playmate.

    Is a moral life "possible" without some highly wrought and constructed "transcendent"? You have often stated that it is- that atheists can be good people and do not seem to have irremediable moral defects. This essay seems to imply otherwise. My take, naturally, is that free projection of our moral and philosophical fantasies into complex "transcendent" apparatuses can be beneficial in a psychological and social way, but can also be extremely dangerous, since, firstly, these projections are all false (fictive) as a matter of course, and whatever socially consolidating effect they have can & has been turned to extremely dark ends, there being no "knowledge" serving as the criterion of truth & efficacy, but only, at base, our human good will.

    So it seems wisest to cultivate that human good will, love of truth, and humility in the directest possible way, rather than through the ornate, and I would say devious, or at least delusional, strategem of positing religious ontologies.

    .. cont ..

  5. .. cont ..

    Lastly, we get to the Hegel, and our intellectual evolution based on the "testing ground of human life". It escapes me what this testing has to do with the noumenal, which is a rather hypothetical construct. In our physical interactions, we certainly gain a certain relationship with "reality", lest we fall off cliffs and the like- we do conform ourseves to that reality. But psychologically, particularly communally, the landscape is far more complex. What we are conforming ourseves to is each other, in the "frenemy" matrix of social relations- ultimately to our inborn instincts and desires. The idea that social congeniality and peace reflects some theoretical correctness about cosmic order is.. breathtakingly unbelievable. It totally misrepresents the categories at stake. It is like positing that the success of capitalism validates quantum physics.

    "Success" on the social level, whether one constructs it in baldly evolutionary terms as an endless contest, or in more fanciful and even millenial terms, is no way to do cosmology. The two just don't relate. To put out the theory that "... the conviction that what is so fair and full of significance cannot be an accidental product ..." is all very well, but testing it by its ability to convert children to belief in Jesus Christ seems a bit unscientific. And to keep putting this hypothesis out, and keep putting it out, century after century, millenium after millenium, blog post after blog post, with no proper evidence, bespeaks- not a Hegelian search for new and higher truths, but a somewhat solipsistic involvement with one's intuition at the expense of one's reason, and an unfortunately immovable investment in one's chosen (or given) story.

    Again, thanks for allowing me to interact with your thoughts- it is highly stimulating.

  6. Hi Eric

    So much that is interesting here. A question regarding Kant. When we suppose a world beyond the senses, something outside of time and space which an evidentiary approach just can't get at, what makes us assume we are talking about a sensible notion at all? Might not existence be as much a part of our native framework of cognition as time, space and causation are, such that the noumenal would refer to that which is beyond existence? What it means to believe in something that is beyond existence, I'm not sure, but then when we say we believe in something beyond space and time, although the phrase slips readily from the tongue, I can't make much sense of that either.

    The leap into Hegel is where you lose me (we part ways on the need for a story of the transcendent to generate hope, gratitude, values etc, but that's a difference of personal need, I think. I, like Burk, feel hugely grateful for my own existence without having any conception of that beyond the physical, and readily accept it doesn't work this way for you). I don't get why we should expect Hegel to take us beyond the phenomenal, as all the contradictions we encounter and resolve appear phenomenal in their nature, or at least without a phenomenal aspect, the contradiction can't be confirmed (as per your environmental example). I'm also puzzled as to why Hegel's method wouldn't lead to every practitioner heading off on their own unique path, as a contradiction can always be resolved by an act of imaginative story telling, and there's no reason why any two people would choose the same story.

    This puzzlement aside, there's something about the Hegelian intergenerational quest for truth that unnerves me. Such a belief seems to me to be custom built for ethnocentric colonialism. Take for example the meeting of Aboriginal Australians and the first Europeans to arrive there, possibly the greatest cultural gulf in the history of humanity (Aboriginals had been on site for something like 40 thousand years). Are we to believe that one of these two intellectual traditions had edged closer to a true understanding of the noumenal? Isn't there something inherently terrifying about that thought?


  7. Since this is mainly intended to be an outline that pieces together what may appear to be disparate elements of my philosophy (a view of the forest, if you will, as opposed to the individual trees), the comments section of this post probably isn't the place to defend discrete elements of my thought against specific objections.

    However, to the extent that putting the elements of my thought together into a single picture can spark questions and concerns that might not occur to us when attention is focused more narrowly, I think it may be particularly helpful--for both me and my readers--to identify and articulate questions/concerns of this sort here, with the aim of thereby identifying possible topics for future posts.

    Based on comments so far, the following topics for future posts come to mind for me as being especially significant (in no particular order): (a) the coherence of the phenomenal/noumenal distinction and the possibility of transcending it; (b) the question of how communally living out worldviews in a Hegelian spirit impacts the goal of encouraging multicultural cooperation, dialogue, and understanding; (c) the extent to which religious "ways of seeing" are related to feelings, psychological needs, pragmatic and moral goals, and the demands of inquiry itself; (d) the issue of gratitude for existence, and the conditions under which such gratitude makes sense (whether one needs to believe in a transcendent agency in order to be grateful for one's life); (e) the distinction between the view that you need religious beliefs in order to live a moral life and the view that you need religious beliefs to provide a fully adequate account of morality as we experience it (and why embracing the latter does not imply allegiance to the former); and (e) the question of how living out a religious worldview is different from (if at all) making up a story that is nothing but creative invention (a work of fiction) and then living as if it were true.

    What other topics come to mind in connection with this overview of my "philosophy of religion"? What have I missed? Keep in mind that I can't make any specific promises about getting to all of the topics that interest everyone in a timely way--especially in the near future, since rehearsals for the play I'm in are ramping up and eating more and more of my free time. But having a list like this will help in planning future posts.

  8. Hi Eric,

    Lot of food for thought here. Time is little short for me right now but I intend to come back over the week-end with what, I hope, will be sensible points.

    For now, just a quick word, in the context of your last comment where you write [...] different from (if at all) making up a story that is nothing but creative invention (a work of fiction) and then living as if it were true.

    I think you underplay the powerful role these “fictions” may have. For example, it happens all the time that we project powerful meaning on things: a place (a tree perhaps) that has special significance because of an event that happened there, an object that belonged and was important to a loved one who has passed away, an old toy full of childhood memories. For some, their country has essentially religious significance and gives meaning to their lives. A parent could say and believe that his children are the most important beings in the whole universe (but, at the same time, would know it isn't “true”). And so on. Others could come up with better examples (a novelist perhaps?) but, hopefully, you get my meaning.

    The point is that, although “fiction”, all these are in an important sense totally real as well as deeply meaningful. It would be strange indeed to claim that they have value only to the extent that they participate in some transcendent reality. These powerful ideas exist only in the subjective depths of our minds but they nevertheless define in large part who we are. It doesn't matter that they have no cosmic significance whatsoever.

  9. Today's Religion dispatches article inspires me to ask a relevant (b) Hegelian question: Was the process of establishing orthodoxy in the early Christian church an example of a Hegelian process?

  10. JP,

    Eric of course can speak for himself, but I read his comments differently than you. I don’t think for a second that Eric was downplaying what you correctly point out, that is, that we all derive significant meaning from places, events, memories, relationships, certain objects, and so on. However, I would add that most people do not equate these two thoughts together (as you seem to suggest) at the same time: “On the one hand, my thoughts about this (such as the many examples you gave), is that I am deeply moved and impacted by it; but, on the other hand, it is completely a projection and has no significant cosmic meaning and in no way touches upon the transcendent.” I would suggest rather that most people when speaking of the examples you gave believe them to be more than “fictions” –that they represent deeper realities or truths about the world and their connection to that world and it is exactly that sense that makes them meaningful and significant to begin with.

    One could imagine the horror of telling a family who had just lost their child that children die every day, every second, and as we are all the product of chance plus time with there being no meaning or purpose to the world, their child’s passing has “no cosmic significance whatsoever.” Of course, we would never do that. And perhaps this is what Eric means about actually living out our beliefs. We can say we believe events like these have no such significance, but we can’t “live” that way and such is why we would never say such things to a family in that situation.

    I read Eric, when speaking of fictions, to make the distinction we have been making in the many other threads and posts. That point is that when speaking of “narratives” or “ways of seeing” and I might add “interpreting” our lives and the world we experience, we are not speaking of “fictions” or things we just make up and live as if they were true. Rather, for each of us, these narratives are our deepest held beliefs about what the world (the facts and the evidence) truly mean in significant and cosmic ways.

    Even if we believe that the world we experience and our lives have no truly significant or cosmic purpose or meaning, such is still a deeply held belief and one formed out of a story or narrative (that we believe is TRUE) of how we should “see” or interpret the world. Thus, the atheist is also an interpreter and when articulating his world-view he is telling a story exactly as is the theist. Neither believes he is making up a fictional tale.

  11. Hi Darrell

    We are getting into tricky territory when we talk about how others do or do not construct meaning. Personally, I do live as if events, feelings and values have no cosmic significance (I don't believe they have no such significance by the way, I'm entirely agnostic in this respect, but I've found no way of discovering or interpreting such significance). When loved ones have died it has still been a profoundly sad and moving experience, but I interpret this sadness in terms of my personal, subjective loss, and the instinctive process of grieving that is part of the human experience.

    There are myriad ways of making meaning, and many of them do not require a referencing of the transcendent. One can be moved by great literature, for example, purely at the level of revelation, for the way it speaks to us of our own fear, confusions, hopes and contradictions. A truly fine piece of writing allows us to view our shambolic, biological nature (my perspective) from a new vantage point, and if that is not the making of meaning, then what is?


  12. Darrell-

    Let me follow with Bernard... This is a good example.

    "We can say we believe events like these have no such significance, but we can’t “live” that way and such is why we would never say such things to a family in that situation."

    What is going on here? The mourners may believe their grief is cosmic, but obviously it is not. As you say, considered from any rational perspective, for all its personal significance, there is no cosmic significance known about it.

    What is going on is your (our) polite consideration of the mourner's solipsism and projection. Their world may have revolved around the lost one, but ours does not, nor does any more objectively understood aspect of reality. We recognize the intense subjective investiture of meaning into people and other things, ideas, etc., and respect that subjective perspective. While we are empathically participatory, we don't fully partake or believe in this cosmic significance, otherwise we would be shattered by every death in every place and every time- a view both philosophically baseless and beyond our human capacity.

    So we freely admit and recognize the subjective meaning function as common, natural, and essential. We find meaning in all sorts of things, high and low, and develop them through narratives, stories, interpretations.

    That is (or should be) completely distinct and orthogonal from devising a narative of reality. What meaning nuclear fusion has for us is a separate matter from its existence and mechanisms. Ditto for the existence or lack thereof of supernatural anything. Mixing up these types of narrative is perhaps the fundamental error in philosophy, betraying our pursuit of truth for our loves of ... ourselves, others, the world, and on and on.