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Archive for the ‘Philosophy of Religion’ Category

That was the topic of a debate between philosophers William Lane Craig and Shelly Kagan (via Andrew Moon). It’s an important question that goes to the heart of both religion and morality. But, as R. Aharon Lichtenstein remarked in a related context, “this particular query is a studded minefield, every key term an ill-defined booby trap.” The Craig-Kagan debate, particularly Kagan’s closing argument, helped me put my finger on a key point I didn’t fully appreciate before.
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Last year, I wrote about the tension between divine providence and natural causation. How can we reconcile the idea that God exercises providence over our day-to-day lives with the idea that events in the world seem to be caused by other prior events? I suggested that God acts in the world from an entirely different perspective and compared God’s relationship with humanity to an author’s relationship with his fictional characters.

I offered the example of Oedipus. When he learned that he had killed his father and married his mother, he gouged his eyes out. Why? From the perspective of the story, Oedipus realized what he did and the humiliation was overwhelming. From the author’s perspective, Sophocles sought to make a profound observation about the complexity of familial relationships and he used this story to convey it. But there’s clearly no contradiction. If you confuse these two explanations or believe that one of them is sufficient, you miss the point. The audience is expected to understand both the plot and the moral. Similarly, I argued, the fact that God causes events to occur in the world does not render this-worldly causation redundant or somehow less real.
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Noted Atheist Sam Harris has a new book, The End of Faith. The New York Times review describes it as a “blistering take-no-prisoners attack on the irrationality of religions.” According to the review, the book “aims to meet head-on a claim he has often encountered when speaking out against religion: that the scientific worldview he favors has nothing to say on moral questions.” In doing so, Harris simply assumes a utilitarian morality and cloaks it in the legitimacy of science.
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Christopher Hitchens movingly describes his fight against metastatic esophageal cancer in his recent Vanity Fair column and in interviews with Anderson Cooper (transcript) and The Atlantic.

Anderson Cooper subtly asks Hitchens, a renowned atheist, whether he may have moments of doubt as he contemplates death. Hitchens’s response: “If that comes, it will be when I’m very ill, when I’m half demented, either by drugs or pain where, I wouldn’t have control over what I say.” As Damon Linker paraphrases:

Any such conversion, if it happened, would be the product of a brain consumed by cancer and a body wracked by pain. It should not be taken seriously, in other words, as a genuine expression of the beliefs and desires of the man known as Christopher Hitchens. It should instead be dismissed as the deluded ramblings of someone driven out of his right mind by suffering and disease. And the statements of a man in such a state tell us nothing worth knowing, either about him or about God.

Stories of deathbed conversions abound in religious tradition. The idea that one comes face-to-face with God in the shadow of death is moving and profound. Yet, Hitchens seems to have a point. Isn’t the lucid, dispassionate, analytical reasoning of a healthy person more representative of his sincere belief than his desperate cry in a moment of extreme pain and distress? The answer goes to the heart of what Linker calls “the epistemology of religious truth”:
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Professor David Novak, reviewing Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (subscription required for full access):

We could say that statements about God are not scientific hypotheses at all, since we are not speaking of God as a cause operating within the natural order, which is the sole order about which natural science can speak with any cogency. And, even when we do speak of God as the creator of the universe and all it contains, we are not speaking of a God whose existence has been inferred from human experience of orderly nature. Instead, we are speaking of a God who commands our community, through his historical revelation to our community, to acknowledge his creation of that natural order in which our historical relationship with him takes place. So, all that this asserts about the world is that the world is a creature, ever dependent on its creator, but in specific ways beyond our ken inasmuch as there is no evidence for creation from within what we normally or ordinarily experience in the world–a point best made when God finally reveals himself at the end of the book of Job.
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Anything we can cogently say about God can only be based on a revelation of God we have either experienced firsthand or heard from people whose accounts of what they did experience we have no reason to distrust. For Jews, that prime experience is the revelation of the Tora at Mount Sinai and the Exodus from Egypt that made it possible for the people of Israel to experience that revelation. Not being a hypothesis but, rather, testimony, all that Dawkins could argue about it is that such experience is improbable, but not impossible, the only impossibility being logical impossibility. But such experience is by definition improbable[.]

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Here is a transcript of the famous 1948 BBC radio debate on the existence of God between Father Frederick C. Copleston, a Jesuit priest, and philosopher Bertrand Russell. The debate has a level of sophistication rarely seen today, especially in popular discourse on religion. Read the whole thing; it’s excellent.

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Hashgacha pratit is the doctrine that God exercises providence over the day-to-day activities of a person’s life. There is, at first glance, a tension between hashgacha and “natural causation.” By “natural causation”, I mean the basic idea that events in the world are caused by other prior events. (This tension exists on both determinist and libertarian conceptions of causation.) How can events in the world be a product of both divine providence and natural causation? Doesn’t one have to be the actual cause and the other a facade? I think the answer lies in the unique way that God acts in the world. Natural causation describes the relationship of physical events to other physical events. But God, like the author of a story, arranges those events from an entirely different perspective.
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