Overview of the course -- discuss handout and syllabus.
Two big questions: what can we know about God, using only our natural faculties and information commonly available? and what is the relationship between this knowledge and religious faith (in the Western, Judeo-Christian tradition)?
We will look at three arguments: the cosmological argument (arguments for the existence of God as the First Cause), the design or teleological argument (arguments for the existence of a cosmic designer and creator), and the argument from evil (arguments against the existence of a good and all-powerful God, based on the existence of evil and suffering). These are not the only arguments in the philosophical tradition, but they are the oldest and most perennial. They have been popular with believers and non-believers from the time of Plato until the present.
Some arguments we won't be examining:
"Love of wisdom" Philosophy is a conversation, aiming at truth and disciplined by reason. The conditions of the philosophical conversation are: (1) clarity, (2) logicality, and (3) relevance. If one fails in any one of these three areas, one excludes oneself from the philosophical conversation.
Since philosophy aims at the truth, philosophy is primarily about propositions -- claims, theses, possible assertions, things capable of being true or false. A proposition includes concepts -- general ideas, corresponding to terms and predicates, such as goodness, existence, humanity, knowledge and redness. The clarity of a proposition, and its relevance or logical relationship to the progress of a dialogue, depends on its constituent concepts. Consequently, philosophy is also concerned with the nature and composition of concepts.
Philosophy presupposes a situation of controversy, doubt or ignorance. We don't philosophize over questions that are undisputed, such as whether 2+2 really equals four, or over whether the sun rose this morning. In addition, philosophy arises only when the controversy, doubt or state of ignorance is one that cannot be resolved conclusively by simply doing something: observing, exploring, experimenting, voting, appealing to the Supreme Court, etc. Philosophy can arise within any science or discipline, whenever the agreed-upon methods and standards of that discipline are insufficient to settle some question.
Does philosophy make progress? Philosophy is infamous for being unprogressive. The same schools of philosophical thought, platonists, Aristotelians, empiricists, skeptics, materialists, and so on, persist from era to era, and the same philosophical questions and debates recur endlessly. This lack of evident progress is not surprising, since philosophy does not define a specific subject matter, but instead consists by definition of those questions on which progress is most difficult. If a question can be resolved by some empirical, mathematical, legal or political method, then we assign that question to the appropriate special science or discipline, such as geology, algebra, or law. It is only the questions that resist such resolution that we assign to the domain of philosophy.
Nonetheless, despite the intrinsic difficulty of philosophical questions, philosophy does in fact make progress. The progress is not perhaps as fast as we might expect, given the fact that philosophy has been practiced for some 2500 years at least. However, we must take into account that over those 2500 there were long hiatuses in which little or no philosophy was done, and that there were several episodes in which vast bodies of philosophical work were lost, either temporarily or permanently. It is only over the last 200 years or so that we find a continuous history of philosophical research at a professional level.
What we find in surveying the recent history of philosophy is real progress on secondary and tertiary questions -- on matters of logic and mathematics relevant to enduring philosophical questions, on the logical and semantical form of important philosophical propositions. In addition, there are a number of significant negative results: cases of highly developed philosophical theories which have been decisively falsified. There are theories, like that of logical positivism, which are universally acknowledged tohave failed, and where there is a nearly universal consensus on the diagnosis of their failure.
What we do not see in the history of philosophy is a decisive resolution of any of the Big Questions. One such Big Question, of course, is that of the existence and nature of God. Consequently, we should not expect to find a definite answer to the question, but we can find a great deal of very helpful philosophical analysis that is available and that can help us to identify the crucial sub-issues and the relationship between the question of God's existence and the other Big Questions in philosophy, questions about the nature of cause and effect, of existence and substantiality, of space and time, of mind and intentionality, of goodness and justice, of knowledge and reasonableness.
As I have mentioned, we must narrow our focus in order to define a manageable set of topics for a semester. First, we will presuppose a Western (Jewish/Christian/Moslem) conception of God. Thus, the question we will be examining is this: does a God, fitting such a conception, really exist? Second, we will be working in the field of natural, as opposed to dogmatic or biblical theology.
What is natural theology? Concerns what can be known of God on the basis of science and philosophy -- throught the use of our natural cognitive faculties (of observation, awareness, inference), and on the basis of information that is universally available. Natural theology excludes what can be known of God through inspired messages, prophets, sacred scriptures, verbal Word of God or divine tradition. This isn't to say that natural theology denies the existence of such knowledge, but in doing natural theology, we are concerned with what can be known prior to the reception of verbal or historical revelation. Of course, many believers have been raised in the faith, so the knowledge of God through dogmatic theology has always been present. However, since prophetic messages have from time to time been preached to people without any prior contact with such prophecy, we can ask whether there is in such cases a knowledge of God that is prior to the reception of the prophecy. And, even if at all times, prophetic revelation and the natural knowledge of God have co-existed simultaneously, we can still ask whether there is any cognitive or conceptual priority to the natural knowledge of God, such that the possibility of receiving the word of God as divine revelation presupposes the existence (at the same time) of a natural knowledge of God. That is, we can attempt to find a form of knowledge of God that is logically or conceptually prior to the knowledge of dogmatic theology, even if we cannot find any knowledge that it is earlier in time.
Is natural theology possible? Is there such pre-prophetic knowledge of God? Theologians in the Western tradition (Jewish, Christian, Moslem) have been divided on this question. Most accept that natural theology in some fashion is possible. There is some warrant for this position in the Bibe. The Psalms repeatedly claim that the glory of God is manifest in the heavens, and the apostle Paul, in the first chapter of the book of Romans, claims that God's invisible attributes, his eternal power and divinity, can be clearly seen in and understood through what God has created. (Rom 1:19) Paul argues that all who deny the existence of the one Creator God are without excuse, repressing their natural knowledge of His existence.
At the same time, there are a number of prominent theologians in all three traditions who deny the possibility of natural theology. Many cite Isaiah the prophet, who described God as one who "hides himself", and as one whose thoughts are higher than our thoughts, as the sky is higher than the earth. Tertullian, an early church father asked, What has Jerusalem to do with Athens? (Jerusalem representing the revealed truth ofthe Bible, and Athens the philosophical pursuit of natural theology). Luther argued that reliance on the philosophical theology of Aristotle had corrupted the church. And more recently, the Swiss theologian Karl Barth argued that natural theology is fundamentally flawed -- that God's prophetic word reaches us in a state of total ignorance about God, the Wholly Other. God is revealed to us only in our total inability to make sense of the world in rational terms. There is no common ground between belief and non-belief, a radical discontinuity between what we can know apart from God's word and what that word reveals to us.
A position as extreme as Barth's raises certain difficulties. First, how can we understand God's Word as the word of God, if we have absolutely no prior knowledge of God? We can know God as the one who speaks to us in the book, or through the preaching of the church, but how can we identify this Speaker with the creator of the world, if we have no knowledge that there is such a creator? How can we know that the author of this revelation is truthful, if we have no prior knowledge of the nature of God? All verbal communication presupposes some sort of context, and Barth's absolute denial of natural theology seems to deprive us of this context.
Second, how can the person who comes to believe be the very same person who previously did not believe, if there is absolutely no continuity between belief and unbelief? There must be some continuity, and even some continuity on the religious or spiritual plane, or else it would be inaccurate to speak of the salvation of the unbeliever, instead of the annihilation of the unbeliever.
Third, how can there be sin, or alienation between God and the unbeliever, if the unbeliever has no capacity for knowledge of God? The apostle Paul condemns idolators because they are "without excuse", since they know better than to worship mere creatures. Barth's denial of any knowledge of God to the unbeliever seems to provide an airtight excuse.
Nonetheless, Tertullian, Luther, Barth and other critics of natural theology are right to warn us of the dangers that are often associated with it. First there is the danger of arrogance, or at least, of excessive confidence. If we draw erroneous conclusions in natural theology with groundless confidence, we may find ourselves rejecting a true revelation on spurious grounds, or misinterpreting theological propositions. For example, if we wrongly conclude on the basis of natural theology that God would never intervene in the natural course of events, we might reject genuine miracles.
Second, it may be a mistake to hold revealed theology to the same standard of clarity and logical certainty that we expect of natural theology. Some of the propositions of revealed theology, involving the inner nature of God, may be beyond our rational comprehension, and may be incapable of a clear and systematic exposition. Some propositions of revealed theology, such as the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ, or the election of Israel as the one and only chosen people of God, may require a "leap of faith" beyond the reach of evidence (as the Danish thinker Soren Kierkegaard has argued).
There may be a three-way distinction to be respected: natural theology (rational knowledge of God based on general features of creation), rational revealed or historical theology (rational knowledge of God based on specific historical events and authenticated prophetic messages), and the theology of faith (knowledge of God that is based on a non-rational leap, based on a subjective need for a Savior). So long as natural theology does not try to overstep its bounds, either by endorsing propositions about God that are beyond its competency and that thereby threaten to contradict or supplant the other branches of theology, and so long as natural theology does not claim to be the exhaustive source of knowledge of God, it would seem that philosophy can play a role here poses no threat to faith.
Is natural theology superfluous? If there is the possibility of knowledge of God through faith in a revelation, is there any role for natural theology to play? One thing to bear in mind is that natural theology is important for many areas of life outside of religion, for example, ethics, politics and aesthetics. It can also play a role in providing a rational foundation for scientific inquiry.
Finally, natural theology can provide a context within which revealed theology is possible. Natural theology provides an objective reference point, an objective correlate, to the motions of faith. Natural theology can assist in interpreting religious experience, and in understanding our religious needs and inclinations.