Saturday, May 26, 2012

Philosophy: the infancy of knowledge. Or worse!

What is philosophy's relation to theology, and to other fields?

A recent CBC ideas podcast series was named "After Atheism", but was, disappointingly, all more or less blithering theology. Yet it had one perspective that piqued my interest, which is that religion is a sort of questing/seeking of classically philosophical questions. It is indeed remarkable that people of all places and stations are so persistently interested in those perennial, even esoteric, philosophical questions of the nature of being and of reality. Indeed, we quake before the core existential conundrum, and are more or less desperate for an answer. As the grand inquisitor says, "I tell Thee that man is tormented by no greater anxiety than to find someone quickly to whom he can hand over that gift of freedom with which the ill-fated creature is born."

An easy solution is to nail all the doors and windows shut with boards named "God". Fundamentalism is proud in its certainty, though terribly insecure in its intellectual surrender, always seeking social, even political, validation for a solution that doesn't command sophisticated appreciation, inside or outside the citadels of theology, let alone philosophy. It knows the doors are there, and can't shake the sense that something a great deal more interesting, if less comforting, lies beyond.

The CBC show was devoted to slightly more sophisticated theo-babble, which acknowledges the existential questions with some philosophical appreciation, even acknowledging the logic of atheism given the moral and cosmic desert we find ourselves in, but all the same insists, tic-like, that one is "grappling with God".

It is a testament to the cultural entrainment performed by our forebears and institutions that so many people are convinced that naming the void in this way is "fulfilling", and even philosophically "reasonable". Some of the guests on the show were indeed Jesuit-trained! But it isn't. Additionally, many of the questions they are grappling with have expired some time ago. For instance, humans have no more purpose than we see in evolution. The way we are destroying the biosphere should be clear enough evidence of that. We are neither gifted with special goodness, nor with any cosmic role. What we make of our various biological, (even geological, meterological, hydrological), social, and cultural bequests is up to us, frighteningly enough. The trick is not to be frightened by this answer- by this radical freedom.

Is there life after death? No. Is there free will in any basic, physical sense? No. Do we have "souls"? No. Is morality objective? No. These are answered questions, insofar as we are willing to make simple inferences from a large body of scientific and psychological knowledge. Behaving otherwise marks the philospher as a theological tool, not a true seeker in the vineyard of serious questions, whether big or small.

Other philosophical questions do remain out of reach, whether the cosmic one of how everything began, or the metaphysical one of whether our conception of reality is all there is ... whether there might be some Matrix-like "outside" of which our reality, rich as it is, is a shadow(1). Here again, the human gifts of imagination have found their m├ętier, filling up these questions with theological wishes and dreams like some Egyptian tomb, before locking the door and saying that that is really the way it is .. out there.

Another oddity is the role of intuition in philosophy. On the one hand, nothing delights philosophers more than to "problematize" some intuitive or even sacred notion. Reality itself- may not be real! Consciousness- may be a property of electrons! Who knows? Science certainly agrees, holding intuition as one our weaker capacities and especially prone to go wrong on any non-social, non-human scale, such as the relation of the sun to the earth, to take a simple example.

On the other hand, intuition forms the bedrock of other kinds of philosophy. For Kant, it was part of his a priori- the logical and perceptual foundation allowing us to bootstrap our way into a working relationship with whatever it is that reality is for us- our inborn sense of space, time, etc. And then there is theology, which drives through brick walls of reason to reach its intuitive destination: god. In this case mysticism may be treated as "evidence", and subjectivity given absurd "veridicality" in ways that no philosopher would dream of doing for any other topic. Skeptical problematicization is replaced by ideology and gullibility. To top it all off, as theology wanes as an acceptable mode of philosophy, practitioners (notably those in the CBC series above) have taken up the mantle of "edgy", transgressive, and postmodern, as if they were not revanchists for the oldest and most regressive psycho-political tropes to which humans have ever been enthralled.

It is disappointing to see so much bad philosophy, however heartening it is that some of these questions can animate so much searching and thought. But what of the professionals? Do they do much better? I would say that it is a disappointing mixed bag. In the interests of professional relevance, philosophers need to keep their questions alive, sometimes well past their expiration date. For questions that remain current, they aren't getting any answers, so the best they can do is to make novel arguments about favored questions, and critique those of others. Calling this progress is rather generous, but is the bread and butter of professional philosophy. Doing this well necessitates knowing all the arguments and counterarguments that have crossed through the field previously, obviously a daunting prospect and the main barrier to the speculating guild, as it were.

But when a bad question remains a pet topic in the academy, something has gone disastrously wrong. Of course I am thinking of theology and its persistent place in academic philosophy. Memo: god is dead. Theology has become a problem of normal and abnormal psychology, anthropology, and allied fields. Just because people in all walks of life seek spiritual expression, and want existential answers, doesn't mean that their answers, (whether individual or from a larger tradition), or even all their questions, merit philosophical credence and discussion in a professional philosophical context.

Philosophy has lost many questions. Some, like physics and other natural philosophies, have become so productive and fertile that they have grown up, as it were, and taken a place far beyond the sort of loose speculation that is philosophy's stock in trade. Others, like many of the theological questions above, have dissolved in another way, by being so clearly empty and psychologically driven that good philosophers no longer care about them. Sometimes the answer is yes, sometimes the answer is no. It is critical for philosophers to recognize when this happens, even if it crimps their horizon. Success is not a bad thing.

To make the case in a concrete way, I will compile a list of evident theologians at publically supported institutions, (i.e. major state universities), who not only stand in the way of critical philosophy, but violate the separation of church and state. Most open theology programs are private, thankfully.
The study of religion is important, indeed wonderful. The promotion of religion in  academic guise is quite another matter. I'll note incidentally that these are Christian theologians almost exclusively- again calling into question just what is happening with public dollars in the higher education system, in constitutional terms. This may be updated periodically.

Footnote:
1. An example is "A beginner's guide to reality", by Jim Baggott, which ends up precisely where it began, in common sense mode, after an excursis through numerous philosophical thought experiments, movie references, and bizarre theories.




Publicly supported theologians, with sample work. I may add to this on an ongoing basis, to make it a comprehensive resource. The intent is to isolate evidently pro-religion advocates, though the zone between doing philosophy or study of religion and philosophy for religion (i.e. theological apologetics) is very broad.
  • University of North Carolina, Marilyn McCord Adams, "Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God"
  • University of North Carolina, Robert Merrihew Adams, "The Virtue of Faith and Other Essays in Philosophical Theology".
  • University of Texas, J. Budziszewski, "Written on the Heart: The Case for Natural Law"
  • University of Colorado Boulder, Wesley Morriston, "Omnipotence and Necessary Moral Perfection: Are they compatible?"
  • SUNY Stony Brook, Peter Manchester, "Kinds of Eternity: Temporal Problematic and Historical Horizons"
  • SUNY Stony Brook, Gary Mar, "The Modal Unity of Anselm's Proslogion"
  • UC Irvine, Bonnie Kent, "Happiness and the Willing Agent: The Ongoing Relevance of the Franciscan Tradition"
  • University of Kentucky, David Bradshaw, "The Concept of the Divine Energies", "A Christian Approach to the Philosophy of Time."
  • University of Virginia, Trenton Merricks, "The Resurrection of the Body", "'The Word Made Flesh: Dualism, Physicalism, and the Incarnation"
    • (Note that the University of Virginia has an enormous Department of Religious studies, teaming with theologians, missionaries, and apologists. Thomas Jefferson would turn over in his grave.) "The Department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia is the largest department of its kind among American public universities. Religious Studies stands among the humanities and social sciences at U.Va., a public, non-sectarian institution."
    • James Childress, "A new dictionary of Christian ethics"
    • Jennifer Geddes, "Evil Lost and Found"
    • Gregory Goering, "Sapiential Synesthesia: The Confluence of Light and Word in Ben Sira’s Wisdom Instruction"
    • Vigen Guroian, "The Fragrance of God"
    • Kevin Hart, "The Experience of God"
    • Paul Dafydd Jones, "The Atonement: God's Love in Action"
    • Charles R. Marsh, "Share Your Faith With a Muslim"
    • Charles Mathewes, "A Theology of Public Life During the World"
    • Margaret E. Mohrmann, "Medicine as Ministry: Reflections on Suffering, Ethics, and Hope"
    • Peter Ochs, "Another Reformation: Postliberal Christianity and the Jews"
    • Vanessa Ochs, "Words On Fire: One Woman's Journey Into The Sacred"
    • John Portman, "A History of Sin"
    • Karl Shuve, "Entering the Story: Origen’s Dramatic Approach to Scripture in the Homilies on Jeremiah"
    • Heather Warren, "The Discipline and Habit of Theological Reflection"
  • University of Oklahoma, Neal Judisch, "Sanctification, Satisfaction, and the Purpose of Purgatory"
  • University of Oklahoma, Linda Zagzebski, "Omniscience and the Arrow of Time", "Rational Faith: Catholic Responses to Reformed Epistemology"
  • University of Indiana Bloomington, Timothy O'Connor, "Theism and Ultimate Explanation"
  • University of Massachusetts, Lynne Rudder Baker, "Persons and the Metaphysics of Resurrection"
  • University of Illinois, Robert McKim, "Could God have more than one nature?"
  • University of Arkansas, Thomas Senor, "Drawing on Many Traditions: An Ecumenical Kenotic Christology"
  • University of Arkansas, Lynne Spellman, "Unbolting the Dark: A Memoir: On Turning Inward in Search of God"
  • University of Minnesota, Jasper Hopkins, "Hugh of Balma on Mystical Theology: A Translation and an Overview of His De Theologia Mystica"
  • University of Kansas, James Woelfel, "The Existentialist Legacy and Other Essays on Philosophy and Religion"
  • University of North Dakota, Gayle Baldwin, "From Sole Learning to Soul Learning"
  • University of North Dakota, Charles Miller, "The Experience of Teaching a Course to Train Teachers of Biblical Studies in a Theological College"
  • University of North Dakota, Troy Troftgruben, "Jesus: A Christological Perspective"
  • University of Idaho, Janice Capel Anderson, "Mark and Method: New Approaches in Biblical Studies"
  • University of California Riverside, John Martin Fischer, "God, Foreknowledge and Freedom", "Why Immortality is Not So Bad"
  • University of California Riverside, Howard Wettstein, "God's struggles"



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