Monday, December 14, 2009

Reasoning about God (Part 1): Philosophy and God

This is my series on The Non-Existence of God by Nicholas Everitt. Chapter 1 focuses on the role of reason in assessing the existence of the Big Guy. I will spread my summary over several posts.

In this first post, I will consider Everitt's claims concerning the centrality of God to religious belief; and his highlighting of the clash between Faith and Reason.

1. The God Hypothesis in Philosophy of Religion
Philosophy can garb itself in sophisticated verbiage, but it all boils down to asking three basic types of question:

  • Ontological Questions: These are questions about existence. What exists? How did it get that way? How does it work? What are things made of?
  • Ethical Questions: These are questions about appropriate behaviour. What should I do? How should I treat others?
  • Epistemological Questions: These are questions about knowledge. How do I know what exists or what I should do? What tools (logic, evidence, experiment etc.) can I use to gain knowledge about the world?

Religion tries to answer these basic philosophical questions. Examine any major religion, and you will find a set of ontological claims about the origins of the universe, the mechanics of the universe and the events in human history.

Examine any major religion and you will also find a set of moral prescriptions about how one should live one's life and how one should treat other people.

Everitt argues that for most religions the God hypothesis is at the root of its ontological and ethical claims: God is the ultimate ontological entity which explains all other aspects of reality, including moral values. Thus, although religions are not just about God, it is appropriate to dedicate significant attention to the God question.

2. Where do we Begin? Faith vs Reason
So we are dealing primarily with an ontological claim (although note: the moral argument). In order to establish the truth or falsity of this claim, we need to begin with an agreed-upon epistemology. In other words, with an acceptable method of inquiry.

Well, what is the most acceptable method of inquiry? Most people might think we should use the tried-and-tested methods of logic and experiment (call this "Reason"). This is the foundation of the scientific rationalism that has revolutionised the modern world. And Everitt would certainly like it if we could agree on this method in advance.

But there is a problem. Religious philosophers and intellectuals have often objected to the use of Reason when it comes to God. They would like it if Reason could be supplemented, or perhaps even replaced, by "Faith" (which can be defined in various ways). Faith would allow us to believe in God without needing to engage with Reason.

So we cannot even begin to approach the standard philosophical arguments for the existence of God until we have dismissed Faith.

Everitt does not shirk this task.

In Chapter 1, he looks at three traditional invocations of Faith and asks what we should expect Reason to tell us about God. In Chapter 2 he examines Plantinga's argument for a "reformed epistemology".

That's it for now. In the next post, I will cover the three traditional objections to Reason.

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