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General Introduction (2007)

Paul Draper

 

God is not dead, but the Supreme Being's academic health is far from perfect. This is not a comment about God, of course. It is a comment about the professoriate, especially at elite universities and especially in the arts and sciences. Metaphysical naturalism, which is a form of atheism that denies the existence of all supernatural entities, is now a respected, influential, and even popular view among university scientists and scholars[1]. What accounts for this? According to William Wainwright, disbelief rarely results from intellectual objections to belief. More often, it results from a "clash between religious beliefs and ... sensibilities ... shaped by an environment that leaves little room for God or the sacred."[2] If the issue is what directly causes disbelief, then Wainwright is plainly right. I suspect, however, that intellectual objections have played a significant role in creating the secular academic environment that shapes the sensibilities that clash with belief.

For example, while clear cases of supernatural intervention are nonexistent, the search for natural causes of natural phenomena has been extremely successful. Over time, this success has led scientists and others to become strict methodological naturalists--in other words, they no longer even entertain explanations appealing to the supernatural. And since methodological naturalism in turn has borne an abundance of fruit, especially in the natural sciences, the almost inevitable result is an intellectual environment in which traditional religious belief begins to seem outdated, superstitious, or "unscientific," possible only for those who are, as the philosopher John Searle puts it, "in the grip of faith."[3]

Now whether or not one believes that the process I have just described is a fully rational one, one must admit that there is a serious intellectual objection to traditional religious belief at the core of it. For a very simple explanation of the great success we have had in discovering natural causes of natural phenomena is that there are no nonnatural causes--that nature[4] is a closed system. Metaphysical naturalism, in other words, provides a rather elegant explanation of the success of methodological naturalism. Further, because of its simplicity, this explanation is much more plausible than the alternative explanation that there really are supernatural beings but for some unknown reason they so rarely exercise their powers that nature seems to be a closed system when in reality it is not[5]. Has this sort of objection to belief in the supernatural played an important role in creating disbelief in the academy? I believe it has, even if this role is not a direct one.

Still, to be fair, it is important to emphasize that this is just one objection and it does not by itself amount to disproof. It is also important to emphasize that there are serious intellectual objections to disbelief as well, and perhaps these objections (and not just "blind faith") help to explain why God is not dead, not even among scientists, and certainly not among philosophers. Indeed, the view, which is called "theism," that the natural world depends for its existence on the existence of a perfect supernatural person (God), remains a live option for a large number of philosophers. I include myself in that number. Though I am not a theist, I regard God's existence to be a real possibility, an object of both bittersweet hope and passionate inquiry[6]. This was more than enough to make me the "religious one" in my old department at Florida International University, where God's condition is very grave indeed. In my new department at Purdue University, however, and in the discipline of philosophy as a whole, a sizable minority of faculty members believe in God. And for many of those, theism is much more than a private belief; it is either explicitly defended or in some important way presupposed in their scholarly research and professional publications. So when it comes to the discipline of philosophy, the stereotype of an academy that uniformly regards religious belief with hostility or indifference is not accurate; and if we narrow our attention to philosophers whose primary area of specialization is the philosophy of religion, then it is the nontheists like me who are outnumbered, at least in the English-speaking world.

The goal of this book is to bring together a group of distinguished philosophers with diverse religious and metaphysical beliefs to participate in a series of four nonpartisan debates. Unlike most debates about God's existence, however, each of these debates will focus on different specific areas of evidence for and against naturalism and theism. Of course, this project makes sense only if it is possible to test metaphysical claims like naturalism and theism by evidence. Obviously I believe this is possible, but I encourage those who are still skeptical after reading this introduction to read the rest of this book before making up their minds. (The best way to prove something can be done is to do it.)

The first of the four debates will address evidence having to do with the mind and the will. Andrew Melnyk argues that minds are not immaterial souls and that this is evidence supporting naturalism over theism. His interlocutors are Charles Taliaferro and Stewart Goetz, who hold that consciousness and free will cannot be reduced to mere physical phenomena and thus cannot be explained adequately by naturalism. In the second debate, I construct an argument from evil against theism that is informed by evolutionary biology, while Alvin Plantinga uses evolutionary biology to argue that naturalism is "self-defeating" (in the sense that, if it were true, then it would be unreasonable for informed naturalists to believe that it is true). The third debate focuses on evidence from the physical sciences. Quentin Smith uses this evidence to construct a cosmological argument against theism, while Robin Collins uses it to construct three design arguments against naturalism. Neither of the two authors in the fourth and final debate are naturalists. John Schellenberg, who is not opposed to all religious faith but does reject theism, asks why, if God exists, he remains hidden from so many people, including some who are open to believing in him. Jeff Jordan agrees with Schellenberg that the available evidence fails to establish God's existence, but argues on practical grounds that theistic belief is nevertheless reasonable.

Anyone familiar with the postings on the Secular Web knows that these four debates are not comprehensive: many arguments for and against theism and naturalism are not discussed. For example, none of the authors develops an argument against naturalism based on biological complexity or on the objectivity of morality, and none develops an argument against theism based on the alleged incoherence of the theistic conception of God. Since any attempt to make this book comprehensive was doomed to failure, I exercised my editorial prerogative by choosing as topics those areas of evidence on both sides that I consider to be the most compelling. Reasonable people can, of course, and no doubt will, disagree with my choices. Indeed, in all likelihood, further inquiry will eventually lead me to question my selections.

One choice I will never second guess, however, is my decision to pursue this project. Opportunities to take philosophy outside the walls of the academy are rare, and I firmly believe that such engagement with the public benefits both the public and the discipline of philosophy. There is, however, an important reason why such engagement is rare. Like most academic disciplines at the dawn of the 21st Century, philosophy has become very specialized and often very technical. Thus, while every effort was made to make the chapters of this book accessible, the debates in this book are real, and philosophers engaged in real debate will almost inevitably produce material that is very difficult to grasp. To mitigate this problem, many of the chapters include helpful explanatory footnotes, and each of the four main sections of the book is preceded by a brief introduction.

I would like to close this introduction by thanking the anonymous donor whose generosity made this book possible. I would also like to thank Keith Augustine, Jeff Lowder, and all of the board members of Internet Infidels for their assistance with this book and for providing an excellent website on which to publish it.

Proceed to Section One

Table of Contents

Notes

[1] This view is often (incorrectly) called "atheism." The term "metaphysical naturalism" is used mainly by philosophers. It's not clear what percentage of professors are metaphysical naturalists. In the U.S., atheist and agnostic professors are not as common as many people think, at least according to one recent survey: <http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/soc/faculty/gross/religions.pdf>

[2] "Skepticism, Romanticism & Faith," in God and the Philosophers, ed. Thomas V. Morris (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 85.

[3] The Rediscovery of the Mind (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992), pp. 90-91.

[4] By "nature" I mean the collection of all physical entities and their effects. This definition is neutral on the issues of whether nature is a universe or a multiverse and whether or not mental events are all physical.

[5] I develop this argument more fully in "God, Science, and Naturalism," in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Religion, ed. William J. Wainwright, Oxford Reference Library of Philosophy, ed. Paul K. Moser (Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 272-303. Essentially the same argument can be found in work by Keith Augustine and others that is posted on the Secular Web. See <http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/nontheism/naturalism/> and </library/modern/keith_augustine/thesis.html#meta>.

[6] I will leave it to others to decide whether that inquiry is, in spite of its passion, an objective one.


Copyright ©2007 Paul Draper. The electronic version is copyright ©2007 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Paul Draper. All rights reserved.

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