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God and the Philosophers. The Reconciliation of Faith and Reason. Edited by Thomas Morris. Oxford University Press, 1994.

I’m not really sure how to write a review for a book like this. It contains 20 chapters, each written by a different scholar/academic from the field of philosophy. Since the modern secular academy tends to view faith and reason as opposites or contradictory, each author shares their personal story of reconciling faith and reason. All the contributors are theistic – mostly Christian – but there are two practicing Jews. The Christians are variable – some are evangelical, but there are also mainline Protestants (such as Episcopalian), a Protestant turned Roman Catholic, and a Jew turned Christian. So they are a variable group! Each author has their own approach – some sharing more personal things, while others getting more into philosophical defense. Most of the essays were worthwhile. A couple were duds, but they were made up for by a couple of exceptional essays. Peter van Inwagen’s chapter was the best in my opinion. I highly recommend this book for anyone struggling with doubts, and how to reconcile faith and reason.

In two posts, I will share some thoughts from the book that I particularly appreciated. The first thing I’ll share expands on something I recently blogged about myself (The amusing spectacle of seeking absolute proof for Christian faith.) Peter van Inwagen has a several page defense on this issue. He refers to a famous essay called “The Ethics of Belief” by WK Clifford. Clifford claims that religious belief violates the ethico-epistemic principle that: It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence. Van Inwagen calls this “Clifford’s Principle” and he says that the principle is never mentioned except in hostile examination of religious belief. How come it is never applied to other areas such as history, archeology, politics, secular philosophy, and the like? If we applied “Clifford’s Principle” to these others areas, we’d all have to become agnostics about these things too! Religion seems to be the only area in human life in which people are willing to be agnostic  about the answers to many questions. He sums up this section of his essay stating:

All I have said so far in this section amounts to a polemic against what I perceive as a widespread double standard in writings about the relation of religious belief to evidence and argument. The double standard consists in setting religious belief to a standard that it could not possibly pass, and in studiously ignoring the fact that almost none of our beliefs on many subjects could possibly pass this test. I ask the reader to abandon the double standard. I ask the reader not to demand that my arguments meet standards modeled on courtroom rules of evidence or the editorial requirements of the Journal of Molecular Biology.

One of the other contributors (C. Stephen Layman) touches on this issue as well. He mentions how people think it is significant to emphasize that “God’s existence can’t be proved.”  With “proof” being something that will convince anyone who is intelligent enough to understand it. However many major philosophical issues can’t be proved…metaphysics, morality, political philosophy, and aesthetics. All or nearly all of the positions on these issues are controversial, and there are brilliant  people on both sides of the fences. So, if we demand proof,  we will end up as skeptics on many important issues. Surely this is not the way of wisdom! He then states:

 I often ask my students to imagine themselves giving an antislavery speech to a group of slave owners. What are the chances of convincing the audience? Slim to none. Surely, then, it is possible to have good arguments for a view even though these arguments are not recognized as such by groups of people who do not hold our convictions.

Related to this, he emphasizes how equally intelligent and fair-minded people can assess the same evidence differently and reach widely divergent conclusions. I also appreciate how he explains that he does not see theism as having the special burden of proof. He thinks the question “Is there enough evidence for God?” is misleading. It is better to think in comparative terms. Does theism explain the range of relevant phenomena better than (as well as, or worse than) its rivals do? In his view, the serious philosophical rivals to theism are few, with materialism being the most impressive. Yet, he sees materialism as a highly problematic view. His essay then launches into what he sees as a major difficulty with a materialistic view. (By materialism, he is referring to the the view that there is no God/gods, nor immaterial souls, and only matter exists in accord with the laws of nature.)

Well, at almost 800 words, I need to wrap this up. Those were some thoughts that I particularly appreciated, and I’ll share more in another post.