Depth and Breadth in Philosophy

By R.N. Carmona

“A little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism; but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion.” — Francis Bacon

Even when philosophy was considered the handmaiden of theology, this statement was patently false. One need only consider the methods of philosophy to disabuse oneself of the notion that depth in philosophy convinces one that religious claims are true or more accurately, that Christian claims are true. Philosophy, first and foremost, is a pre-Christian enterprise. It may not appear that way because works that were not palatable to Christian sentiments were destroyed. Carlo Rovelli outlines this succinctly:

I often think that the loss of the works of Democritus in their entirety is the greatest intellectual tragedy to ensue from the collapse of the old classical civilization…We have been left with all of Aristotle, by way of which Western thought reconstructed itself, and nothing of Democritus. Perhaps if all the works of Democritus had survived, and nothing of Aristotle’s, the intellectual history of our civilization would have been better … But centuries dominated by monotheism have not permitted the survival of Democritus’s naturalism. The closure of the ancient schools such as those of Athens and Alexandria, and the destruction of all the texts not in accordance with Christian ideas was vast and systematic, at the time of the brutal antipagan repression following from the edicts of Emperor Theodisius, which in 390-391 declared that Christianity was to be the only and obligatory religion of the empire. Plato and Aristotle, pagans who believed in the immortality of the soul or in the existence of a Prime Mover, could be tolerated by a triumphant Christianity. Not Democritus.

Rovelli, Carlo.  Reality is Not What it Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity. New York: Riverhead, 2018. 32-33. Print.

The suppression of philosophical ideas that do not blend well with Christianity persists today, albeit in a different form. Since Christianity does not have the sociopolitical power it once had, these tendencies are confined to Christian publications, institutions, and of course, churches. What one encounters in all of these areas is the Christian propensity to overstate philosophical schools or theories that appear to support Christian claims coupled with a disingenuous presentation or outright censorship of competing thought. This is how one gets online Christians, with little to no college experience, professing an immoveable foundationalism, usually stemming from washed up philosophers turned theologians or apologists, like Paul Moser and Alvin Plantinga. Given the suppression of the competition, Christians like this often do not realize how thoroughly retrograde their assertions are. Moser’s opponents recognized, over three decades ago, that foundationalism was out of fashion and that Moser’s iteration was flawed (e.g., Laurence Bonjour, Kevin Possin, Mark Timmons). That is more true today than it was then. Then this sort of Christian will arrogantly claim that Moser’s arguments against the competition were ironclad all while ignoring that in order for foundationalism to remain out of fashion, his arguments must have been defeated by other philosophers.

Wesley Wildman, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Theology, and Ethics at Boston University, states:

The kind of epistemic foundationalism that has prevailed in most modern Western philosophy has now mostly collapsed. Its artless insistence on certainty in the foundations of knowledge proved unsuitable even for mathematics and natural sciences, and it was a particularly inapt standard for big-question philosophy.

Wildman, Wesley J. Religious Philosophy as Multidisciplinary Comparative Inquiry: Envisioning a Future For The Philosophy of Religion. State University of New York Press. Albany, NY. 2010. 11. Print.

He adds that since Peirce, Dewey, and later, Quine, a thorough rejection of foundationalism was followed by a fallibilist epistemological framework. This is how philosophy proceeds in the modern day. The history of philosophy should be enough to disabuse such Christians of their tendency to think philosophy was and still is beholden to theology. Unfortunately, it does not suffice. In that same vein, the history of philosophy ought to remind them of the origin of science, in the works of natural philosophers like Boyle, Galileo, Harvey, Kepler, and Newton. Perhaps that would make them more capable of taking C.S. Peirce’s timeless advice:

What I would recommend is that every person who wishes to form an opinion concerning fundamental problems, should first of all make a complete survey of human knowledge, should take note of all the valuable ideas in each branch of science, should observe in just what respect each has been successful and where it has failed, in order that in the light of the thorough acquaintance so attained of the available materials for a philosophical theory and of the nature and strength of each, he may proceed to the study of what the problem of philosophy consists in, and of the proper way of solving it.

Charles Sanders Peirce (1891. “The Architecture of Theories”, The Essential Peirce: Selected Philosophical Writings (1867-1893).  Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1992. 292. Print.

There is a sense in which philosophy underpins every other discipline and as such, breadth in philosophy is not only a knowledge of philosophy of language, mind, religion, science, and time, in addition to epistemology, ethics, metaphysics, ontology, and so on, but also a knowledge of areas of inquiry that make use of philosophical methodology, particularly logic, reasoning, and the clarification of important distinctions. Furthermore, if the aim of an enterprise is to locate the truth of a matter, then this should be of interest to anyone who purports to have a real enthusiasm for philosophy. To ignore the conclusions of other disciplines is to behave in a patently unphilosophical manner, but I digress.

Wildman is perhaps one of the more important thinkers in the philosophy of religion because he is at the forefront of defining how thinkers in his field will proceed. He recognizes already, unlike Christian theologians and philosophers, that philosophy of religion, as well as philosophy in general, have been divorced from Christianity and apologetics. Philosophers of religion are moving away from Christianized treatments of the issues they discuss, as well as the search for a personal, anthropomorphic deity. In defining the prominent theological traditions, Wildman makes it abundantly clear that the central arguments that got these traditions started, as Kant showed, do not prove the existence of God. This applies most especially to any variant of the Cosmological Argument.

He says, for instance, of the ontotheological tradition that if the entire tradition were based on the ontological argument, “most philosophers would probably consign it to the dustbin of history — and not without reason, despite the ballooning contemporary literature on the subject” (Ibid., 251). He goes on to say that the tradition is far broader and thrives separately from the ontological argument, specifically in that it does not rely on the argument’s anthropomorphic thinking. Similarly, of the cosmotheological tradition, Wildman expresses frustration resulting from the stubborn refusal to field nontheistic arguments. He adds: “Many religious philosophers nowadays recognize that the cosmotheological approach does not produce results that are immediately applicable to the religious beliefs of living theistic religions” (Ibid., 258). Therefore, this makes the tradition useful for nontheistic approaches as well. Wildman makes similar observations as it pertains to the physicotheological, pyschotheological, axiotheological, and other traditions he discusses.

Philosophers of religion are taking Nielsen’s advice, indeed their only recourse at this point after the obstinate insistence on the part of Christians to keep repeating these arguments as though they have yet to encounter any defeaters. This is precisely my gripe with Christians on social media. They have been so taken by Bacon’s statement that they think there is truth to it and that moreover, depth and breadth are equivalent. Further still, depth in a particular author that convinces you is not depth in philosophy. Even if a Christian can name ten philosophers that align with their views, they are doing nothing but indulging their confirmation bias and speaking to the fact that since roughly 30 percent of the world population is Christian, it is then no surprise that a good percentage of scholars harbor Christian sentiments or are sympathetic to Christianity. With respect to the arguments underlying the traditions Wildman discusses, Nielsen states:

It is a waste of time to rehearse arguments about the proofs or evidences for God or immortality. There are no grounds—or at least no such grounds—for belief in God or belief that God exists and/or that we are immortal. Hume and Kant (perhaps with a little rational reconstruction from philosophers like J.L. Mackie and Wallace Matson) pretty much settled that. Such matters have been thoroughly thrashed out and there is no point of raking over the dead coals. Philosophers who return to them are being thoroughly retrograde.

Nielsen, Kai. Naturalism and Religion. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus, 2001. 399. Print.

Depth and breadth in philosophy would incline a man’s mind to a wide range of possibilities. Atheism and theism are not the only options on the table. Depth and breadth would also disabuse any would-be philosopher of the tendency to think in binaries. When philosophers speak of distinctions, there are not always two choices on offer. Sometimes what muddles the pursuit of proper distinctions is the fact that there are several options to consider. This is often lost on Christians, especially the less initiated who spend their time engaging in sophistry on social media. If that were not the case, they would realize, without much in the way of effort, that the notion of a personal being is utterly at odds with a deity who sparks the universe to then supervise its evolution via physical laws and eventually, evolutionary drivers that finally and ultimately result in his desired creative end: humankind. The notion is incongruous with the virtually instantaneous creation described in Genesis. That is setting aside that the fine-tuning of the parameters just right for life is owed to the gradual freezing and entropy of the universe. There is no indication that the parameters were decided from the start and as such, the idea of a silent creator of this sort is indistinguishable from the conclusion that the universe simply does not require a creator.

Ultimately, breadth and depth in philosophy disabuses one’s mind of binaries. Belief in a personal god or the lack thereof are not the only options on offer. The fact that I identify as an atheist is a consequence of what the evidence seems to dictate. Moreover, the ad hoc inclusion of an agent, especially as it pertains to causation, always struck me as suspicious. That is, until I realized that causation and teleology have long diverged. Therefore, if a thing or an event or an entire universe can be explained without recourse to an agent of any kind, it is unnecessary to attach such an agent to a self-contained and consistent explanation. It is precisely because I realize that the inclusion of a god in any mode of explanation is simply inadvisable that I identify as an atheist. However, since my mind is free of binaries and confirmation bias and other cognitive shortcomings that will hinder anyone from finding the truth of a matter, I am, as I have always been, open to being wrong. Like Wildman though, I realize that if there is a hand behind the curtain, it is unlike anything that most modern religions describe and furthermore, it may be vastly inappropriate to tarnish this being with the monicker of god. Perhaps the concept is so invariably tied to the Abrahamic monotheisms, that there is no real way to isolate the concept. This would imply that philosophers of religion are in pursuit of a sufficiently advanced alien race that may be simulating a universe for purposes of understanding philosophical big-questions like volition in higher sentient beings, consciousness, universals, mathematics, and so on. Or perhaps they are perpetually in pursuit of themselves, the proverbial cat spinning after its own tail.

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