What is Philosophy of Religion?

by Luke Muehlhauser on April 23, 2009 in Philosophy of Religion 101

rodinThis blog is mostly concerned with philosophy of religion. So, I guess I should take a moment to give a bird’s eye-view view of what the heck philosophy of religion is. But first, what is philosophy?

What is philosophy?

Philosophy is the practice of trying to answer the Big Questions, the ones that can’t be answered by science. Questions like:

  • What is knowledge? How do we know things? Do we know anything at all? (this is epistemology)
  • What kinds of things actually exist? What is “existence”? (metaphysics)
  • What is science? How does it work? What is “good” science? (philosophy of science)
  • What should we do? What is the good life? (ethics)
  • How should we structure a society? (political philosophy)
  • What is beauty? What is art? What makes something good or bad art? (aesthetics)
  • What is the mind? What is consciousness? How do they work? (philosophy of mind)
  • How can we think clearly and correctly about these questions? (logic)
  • We think and ask questions with words. What are words, and how do they work? (philosophy of language)

Philosophy used to ask other questions, too, before we invented the tools needed to answer them even better with science. For example, the first philosophers speculated about what things are made of. But now we have the tools to do modern chemistry and physics, and we know that everything is made of atoms and subatomic particles and such. So those questions aren’t part of philosophy any more. They’ve been handed over to science.

Philosophy of mind is currently being handed over to neuroscience. But some branches of philosophy will always remain beyond the reach of science.

Religion and philosophy

In the past, it was religion that usually gave the answers to these questions. But we usually think of religion and philosophy as different things. What’s the difference?

Philosophy, in the narrower sense, is a particular method for answering the Big Questions. Whereas religion typically answers the Big Questions by reference to an authority – a “holy” book or a “holy” man – philosophy is very concerned with giving reasons and arguments in favor of certain answers to the Big Questions. This is especially true of  analytic philosophy, which demands that answers to the Big Questions be supported by valid logical arguments and, where relevant, critically examined evidence.

But wait a minute. If religion and philosophy are opposing methods for answering the Big Questions, what the heck is philosophy of religion?

Philosophy of religion

Philosophy of religion, then, applies the methods of philosophy to the subject matter of religion. Philosophy of religion asks questions like:

  • Does God exist?
  • If so, what is the nature of God?

…but it answers these questions not by appealing to holy books or holy men, but by giving valid logical arguments and critically examined evidence. It answers religious questions with the methods of philosophy.

Philosophy of Christianity

So you might think there is an academic war going on between philosophers who think there are hundreds of tiny gods in everything, philosophers who think there is a small pantheon of very powerful gods, philosophers who think there is one supreme and good God, philosophers who think there is one supreme and evil God, philosophers who think there is on supreme and morally indifferent God, etc.

Right?

Well, not today. As it turns out, only one religion has seriously taken up the modern challenge to justify its God with argument and evidence, and that religion is Christianity. Other religions – especially Buddhism, Islam, and Judaism – made important contributions to philosophy in the past, but it is hard to find a respected analytic philosopher in those camps today. As a result, living philosophers of religion mostly debate the existence and nature of some kind of Christian-esque God. (Non-Christian theists in analytic philosophy generally believe in some kind of vague, super-powerful creator god, though they don’t call him Yahweh and they don’t think Jesus had magical powers.)

We might divide philosophers of religion into three categories:

  • Those who think God exists, and he is the Christian God: eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good, transcendent, non-contingent, personal, intervening, and revealed in the resurrection of Jesus.
  • Those who think God exists, and he is like the Christian God except he doesn’t act much in our world, is not revealed in Jesus, and perhaps is not personal.
  • Those who think God probably doesn’t exist.

How philosophy of religion is done

Science is done by collecting data, doing experiments, and then publishing your findings in academic journals for other scientists to criticize. Philosophy is done in the same way, except that most philosophy “experiments”1 happen in the laboratory of the mind. For this reason, philosophy is a lot cheaper than science, for philosophy is done almost entirely by publishing books and papers.

Let me give an example in philosophy of religion.

In 1979, Christian philosopher William Lane Craig wrote The Kalam Cosmological Argument, a book defending his own version of the “first cause” argument for God’s existence published earlier in different forms by Aristotle (a pagan), Maimonides (a Jew), Averroes (a Muslim), and Thomas Aquinas (a Christian). Since then, many philosophers have published papers or book chapters assessing the merit of certain premises in the argument. For example:

Other philosophers published work that did not directly address Craig’s Kalam cosmological argument, but argued for or against certain assumptions of the Kalam cosmological argument, for example Creation in a Closed Universe (1991) by Robin Le Poidevin.

Craig and others, of course, have defended the argument in the wake of these considerations:

And so the debate continues.

Philosophy of religion in the public square

But debates in philosophy of religion are not chained in the towers of academia. They couldn’t be, given how important these religious questions are to the common people. Inevitably, philosophers (like Craig and Onfray) bring their arguments to the public. Others who are not professional philosophers but have a passion for bringing the philosophical debate to the public square (like Timothy Keller or myself), try to present philosophers’ arguments about God in plain talk.

The arguments are presented and assessed in academic journals, academic books, popular books, public lectures and debates, blogs, meetups, and for some, daily life.

Do you want to get involved?

Perhaps you’d like to get involved in the philosophy of religion debates. Perhaps you’d like to try to figure out for yourself what is and isn’t true, and engage with others who are trying to figure out the same things. How can you participate?

First, I’d start by getting familiar with philosophy, critical thinking, and logic. Try these:

Second, get familiar with the biggest issues and arguments in philosophy of religion:

Then, you might wants to start reading arguments from opposite ends of the spectrum:

Finally, to participate – short of getting a Ph.D. at a fine philosophy of religion school – start commenting on various philosophy of religion blogs, using what you know. You might start with:

If you’re a bit more qualified, you might want to start commenting on a more technical philosophy of religion blog like The Prosblogion or Alexander Pruss.

Or, start your own blog!

Welcome to the conversation.

  1. Of course, philosophy papers often reference scientific research when relevant, and there is also a small branch of philosophy known as experimental philosophy. []

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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Lorkas April 23, 2009 at 5:43 pm

“What is the mind? What is consciousness? How do they work? (philosophy of mind)”

Do you really think that science can’t answer questions about what the mind and consciousness are, and how they work?

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lukeprog April 23, 2009 at 6:07 pm

Did you read just below that? I said philosophy of mind is being handed off to neuroscience.

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Sabio April 24, 2009 at 2:20 am

Wow, another amazing blog.  Nice job !!  Thank you kindly.
Besides my blog (joking), I imagine you are also familiar with these two critical thinking blogs:
1) <a href=”http://www.overcomingbias.com”>Overcoming Bias</a>
2) <a href=”http://lesswrong.com”>Less Wrong</a>

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Sabio April 24, 2009 at 2:40 am

Sorry, I am so use to writing in the code. Let me try again:
1) Overcoming Bias
2) Less Wrong

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lukeprog April 24, 2009 at 3:28 am

Yes, I linked to them both in the opening sentence of my previous post. :)

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Stanley April 24, 2009 at 6:21 am

I am disappointed you have not included an acknowledgement of the philosophy of science. The question “What is science?” is in no way a resolved issue, even in this day and age. We may have moved on (or sideways?) from Popper, Khun and Feyerabend, but the academic debate continues, I think.

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lukeprog April 24, 2009 at 7:58 am

Stanley,

I updated my list to include philosophy of science.

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Lorkas April 24, 2009 at 8:22 am

lukeprog:
Did you read just below that? I said philosophy of mind is being handed off to neuroscience.

*slaps forehead*

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Matt April 28, 2009 at 4:21 pm

I wonder why continental philosophy is so infrequently included in these discussions–by folk on either side. It seems to me that these philosophers (the continental ones) are the ones really dealing with the existential questions at stake, or at least that they do so more explicitely and with greater attention to the entire philosophical tradition, than analytic philosophy usually does. I’d take William Desmond over William Lane Craig any day.

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lukeprog April 28, 2009 at 6:48 pm

Matt,

I think continental philosophy is not included very often because analytic philosophers ask the same questions and tackle the same problems but do so with logical rigor rather than meandering musings. :)

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Matt April 28, 2009 at 8:00 pm

Oh yeah, that’s right–if our philosophy is written with something approaching style [*gasp!*], it is clearly doing something wrong!  :)

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Lorkas April 29, 2009 at 5:01 am

Matt:
Oh yeah, that’s right–if our philosophy is written with something approaching style [*gasp!*], it is clearly doing something wrong!  :)

Sub “science” for “philosophy,” and you have the position of the Discovery Institute.

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Matt April 29, 2009 at 6:20 pm

Hardly. I’d have a hard time saying that anyone at the Discovery Institute writes with anything approaching style, and I haven’t read anything by them that would indicate that’s what they’re trying to do. Besides, the only people more opposed to the continental philosophical tradition than the Intelligent Design crowd are, apparently, atheists who took some undergrad classes in analytic philosophy. The discovery institute and this sort of atheist share much more with each other than the d.i. shares with continental philosophy.

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lukeprog April 29, 2009 at 6:44 pm

Matt, would you like to suggest any living continental philosophers of religion as additions to my list?

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Matt April 29, 2009 at 8:05 pm

I’d love to! I’ll comment on the appropriate post.

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rhys September 18, 2009 at 9:27 pm

lukeprog: Did you read just below that? I said philosophy of mind is being handed off to neuroscience.

I really think there is plenty of room for philosophy of mind and neuroscience to coexist. Just ask Dan Dennett.

By the way Luke, I have the PDF of the debate between Craig and Sinnott Armstrong (a kick ass debate as you mentioned), is there any way I can upload it without violating copyright laws, i.e. editing certain parts out, just uploading text, altering some of the words etc etc.

p.p.s. I think there is one more category of philosopher you omitted, the philosophers who think God not only probably does not exist, but cannot exist.

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lukeprog September 18, 2009 at 9:30 pm

Ah, yes, I have that as well.

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Tshepang Lekhonkhobe August 25, 2010 at 4:41 am

wonderful and clear intro to the field that is philosophy (of religion); thanks a lot Luke

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Himangsu Sekhar Pal January 7, 2011 at 3:21 am

Proof That There Is A God
Or
Proof that God has not kept Himself hidden

A, Properties of a Whole Thing

If at the beginning there was something at all, and if that something was the whole thing, then it can be shown that by logical necessity that something will have to be spaceless, timeless, changeless, deathless. This is by virtue of that something being the whole thing. Something is the whole thing means there cannot be anything at all outside of that something; neither space, nor time, nor matter, nor anything else. It is the alpha and omega of existence. But, if it is the whole thing, then it must have to be spaceless, timeless, changeless, deathless. Otherwise it will be merely a part of a bigger whole thing. Now let us denote this something by a big X. Now, can this X be in any space? No, it cannot be. If it is, then where is that space itself located? It must have to be in another world outside of X. But by definition there cannot be anything outside of X. Therefore X cannot be in any space. Again, can this X have any space? No, it cannot have. If we say that it can have, then we will again be in a logical contradiction. Because if X can have any space, then that space must have to be outside of it. Therefore when we consider X as a whole, then we will have to say that neither can it be in any space, nor can it have any space. In every respect it will be spaceless. For something to have space it must already have to be in some space. Even a prisoner has some space, although this space is confined within the four walls of his prison cell. But the whole thing, if it is really the whole thing, cannot have any space. If it can have, then it no longer remains the whole thing. It will be self-contradictory for a whole thing to have any space. Similarly it can be shown that this X can neither be in time, nor have any time. For a whole thing there cannot be any ‘before’, any ‘after’. For it there can be only an eternal ‘present’. It will be in a timeless state. If the whole thing is in time, then it is already placed in a world where there is a past, a present, and a future, and therefore it is no longer the whole thing. Now, if X as a whole is spaceless, timeless, then that X as a whole will also be changeless. There might always be some changes going on inside X, but when the question comes as to whether X itself is changing as a whole, then we are in a dilemma. How will we measure that change? In which time-scale shall we have to put that X in order for us to be able to measure that change? That time-scale must necessarily have to be outside of X. But there cannot be any such time-scale. So it is better not to say anything about its change as a whole. For the same reason X as a whole can never cease to be. It cannot die, because death is also a change. Therefore we see that if X is the first thing and the whole thing, then X will have the properties of spacelessness, timelessness, changelessness, deathlessness by virtue of its being the whole thing. It is a logical necessity. Now, this X may be anything; it may be light, it may be sound, or it may be any other thing. Whatever it may be, it will have the above four properties of X. Now, if we find that there is nothing in this universe that possesses the above four properties of X, then we can safely conclude that at the beginning there was nothing at all, and that therefore scientists are absolutely correct in asserting that the entire universe has simply originated out of nothing. But if we find that there is at least one thing in the universe that possesses these properties, then we will be forced to conclude that that thing was the first thing, and that therefore scientists are wrong in their assertion that at the beginning there was nothing. This is only because a thing can have the above four properties by virtue of its being the first thing and by virtue of this first thing being the whole thing, and not for any other reason. Scientists have shown that in this universe light, and light only, is having the above four properties. They have shown that for light time, as well as distance, become unreal. I have already shown elsewhere that a timeless world is a deathless, changeless world. For light even infinite distance becomes zero, and therefore volume of an infinite space also becomes zero. So the only conclusion that can be drawn from this is that at the beginning there was light, and that therefore scientists are wrong in asserting that at the beginning there was nothing.
Another very strong reason can be given in support of our belief that at the beginning there was light. The whole thing will have another very crucial and important property: immobility. Whole thing as a whole thing cannot move at all, because it has nowhere to go. Movement means going from one place to another place, movement means changing of position with respect to something else. But if the whole thing is really the whole thing, then there cannot be anything else other than the whole thing. Therefore if the whole thing moves at all, then with respect to which other thing is it changing its position? And therefore it cannot have any movement, it is immobile. Now, if light is the whole thing, then light will also have this property of immobility. Now let us suppose that the whole thing occupies an infinite space, and that light is the whole thing. As light is the whole thing, and as space is also infinite here, then within this infinite space light can have the property of immobility if, and only if, for light even the infinite distance is reduced to zero. Scientists have shown that this is just the case. From special theory of relativity we come to know that for light even infinite distance becomes zero, and that therefore it cannot have any movement, because it has nowhere to go. It simply becomes immobile. This gives us another reason to believe that at the beginning there was light, and that therefore scientists are wrong in asserting that at the beginning there was nothing.
I know very well that an objection will be raised here, and that it will be a very severe objection. I also know what will be the content of that objection: can a whole thing beget another whole thing? I have said that at the beginning there was light, and that light was the whole thing. Again I am saying that the created light is also the whole thing, that is why it has all the properties of the whole thing. So the whole matter comes to this: a whole thing has given birth to another whole thing, which is logically impossible. If the first thing is the whole thing, then there cannot be a second whole thing, but within the whole thing there can be many other created things, none of which will be a whole thing. So the created light can in no way be a whole thing, it is logically impossible. But is it logically impossible for the created light to have all the properties of the whole thing? So what I intend to say here is this: created light is not the original light, but created light has been given all the properties of the original light, so that through the created light we can have a glimpse of the original light. If the created light was not having all these properties, then who would have believed that in this universe it is quite possible to be spaceless, timeless, changeless, deathless? If nobody believes in Scriptures, and if no one has any faith in personal revelation or mystical experience, and if no one wants to depend on any kind of authority here, and if no one even tries to know Him through meditation, then how can the presence of God be made known to man, if not through a created thing only? So, not through Vedas, nor through Bible, nor through Koran, nor through any other religious books, but through light and light only, God has revealed himself to man. That is why we find in created light all the most essential properties of God: spacelessness, timelessness, changelessness, deathlessness.

Footnote: If the universe is treated as one whole unit, then it can be said to be spaceless, timeless. I first got this idea from an article by Dr. Lee Smolin read in the internet. Rest things I have developed. This is as an acknowledgement.

B. CLIMAX

I think we need no further proof for the existence of God. That light has all the five properties of the whole thing is sufficient. I will have to explain.
Scientists are trying to establish that our universe has started from nothing. We want to contradict it by saying that it has started from something. When we are saying that at the beginning there was something, we are saying that there was something. We are not saying that there was some other thing also other than that something. Therefore when we are saying that at the beginning there was something, we are saying that at the beginning there was a whole thing. Therefore we are contradicting the statement that our universe has started from nothing by the statement that our universe has started from a whole thing.
I have already shown that a whole thing will have the properties of spacelessness, timelessness, changelessness, deathlessness, immobility (STCDI). This is by logical necessity alone. It is logically contradictory to say that a whole thing can have space. Let us suppose that the whole thing is having space. Then the so-called whole thing along with the space that it is having will constitute the real whole thing. If my arguments that I have offered so far to show that the whole thing will always have the above five properties by virtue of its being the whole thing are sound, and if they cannot be faulted from any angle, then I can make the following statements:
1. In this universe only a whole thing can have the properties of STCDI by logical necessity alone.
2. If the universe has started from nothing, then nothing in this universe will have the properties of STCDI.
3. If the universe has started from a whole thing, then also nothing other than the initial whole thing will have the properties of STCDI. This is only because a whole thing cannot beget another whole thing.
4. But in this universe we find that light, in spite of its not being a whole thing, is still having the properties of STCDI.
5. This can only happen if, and only if, the initial whole thing itself has purposefully given its own properties to light, in order to make its presence known to us through light.
6. But for that the initial whole thing must have to have consciousness.
7. So, from above we can come to the following conclusion: the fact that light, in spite of its not being a whole thing, still possesses the properties of STCDI, is itself a sufficient proof for the fact that the universe has started from a conscious whole thing, and that this conscious whole thing is none other than God.

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Andrew Cuff June 8, 2011 at 10:26 pm

Also, if you like philosophy of religion humor, Open Theism takes on Norman Geisler here:

http://theguide42.blogspot.com/2011/06/open-theism-vs-dr-norman-geisler.html

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