God in the Age of Science?: A Critique of Religious Reason Hardcover – 23 Feb 2012
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certainly an eclectic group of essays ... the collection covers some neglected and thoughtful ground (Jeremy Gregory, Wesley and Methodist Studies)
a rigorous but fair critique of the central problems of natural theology that forces readers to take atheism seriously. (CHOICE)
About the Author
Professor Herman Philipse is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Utrecht, The Netherlands. He has held positions at the University of Louvain and the University of Leyden, and studied philosophy at the University of Leyden, University of Oxford, University of Paris IV, and University of Cologne. He has written numerous articles on modern philosophy and epistemology, and his most recent books are Atheïstisch manifest (Prometheus, 1995, 1998; new edition Bert Bakker, 2004), Heidegger's Philosophy of Being: A Critical Interpretation (Princeton University Press, 1998), and Filosofische polemieken (Bert Bakker, 2009).
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It is unfortunate that critiques of the utility of religion are taken as the reason for critiques on the truth of religion. It's not that God is a nonsense notion, it's that atheists have some psychological hatred of theism as it is practised that leads to the denial of God altogether. It's unfortunate because the critiques of belief itself are ignored as some outcome of one's impression on the utility of religion, they remain largely unaddressed. Explain the "reasons" for atheism and explain away the need to address atheism.
Herman Philipse's book completely focuses on the second category. This category is further narrowed by the distinction between natural theology and revealed theology, where the focus was almost exclusively on natural theology. The question the book explores is what to make of a concept like God in light of modern science, and is largely an exploration of the case made by the philosopher Richard Swinburne.
To understand the way Philipse laid out the critique, it's worth exploring the three dilemmas Philipse proposes the theist has to answer:
Claims about God's existence are (a) factual claims, or (b) non-factual claims.
If (a), religious belief (c) needs to be backed up by reasons and evidence, or (d) it does not.
If (c), this can be done by (e) methods completely unlike those used by scientists and scholars, or (f) like those methods.
Although there are a few exponents of (b), the claims themselves are prima facie (a) claims. "God exists", is for most people an attempt to say something true about the world, and not just an attitude they take to it. For (d), there are a couple of chapters devoted to exploring the merits of Plantinga's argument for reformed epistemology. But the real concern is the answer to the third dilemma, with Richard Swinburne's cumulative inductive case for the existence of God taken as the paradigmatic example of how one ought to approach God in the age of science.
The chapters addressing Plantinga are instructive to the tone of the rest of the book. While Plantinga has weaved an elaborate logical defence, of ad hoc claims, bare assertions, defeater-deflectors and defeater-defeaters, one might be curious as to what purpose Platinga's argument would achieve. At no point do we have any evidence that our brains possess a sensis divinitus, let alone that it's actually at work in religious experiences, that it's faulty for most people, but less faulty for monotheists, and reliable when it comes to Christian beliefs. Yet this idea gets two chapters of logical objections!
v But the vast majority of the book is taken up with a critical analysis of Swinburne's ideas. His argumentation style, much like the opening of the book, often involves particular dilemmas, followed by why each horn of the dilemma is problematic. For dilemma 3 above, the danger of choosing (e) is choosing methodology that has no respectability among intellectuals, while the danger of (f) is that it opens God up to empirical disconfirmation.
The exercise begins by seeing whether Swinburne is successful in casting God as a successful theory in the way scientific theories are. Swinburne's approach is correct, but unfortunately God is not up to the task of being a proper scientific theory. There are obstacles to this, such as God being an irreducible analogy, or using personal terms to describe something that doesn't fit our use of personal language.
To examine Swinburne's inductive argument, he sets aside his earlier criticisms before forcefully showing the problems with Swinburne's approach. Some of the errors are quite technical, such as whether some of Swinburne's arguments are successful C-inductive arguments, but there's a lot of food for thought at each stage. The end result (predictably) is that Swinburne's approach simply doesn't have the predictive power attributed to it.
Like Plantinga's argument, there were times when the exercise bordered on the absurd. God being the simplest thing there is because infinites are simpler than non-infinites mathematically. Philipse deals with this argument early, but as a justification this keeps coming up in Swinburne's inductive argument. One could simply point out that since there is no way of measuring God, there is no way of knowing how simple God is, but the joke goes beyond the pale when Swinburne insists that infinite things are simpler than finite things of the same kind. It takes a lot of complexity to have finite persons with finite knowledge, but an infinite person with infinite knowledge is simple?!
Is this book worth reading? It's a tough question to answer. There are many ways of addressing the truth questions of religion, and whether one feels it's worth digging into this book depends on whether natural theology is seen as the best way to assess the truth. This is in contrast to revealed theology (the specific doctrines of theistic religions) and in contrast to the idea that theology is a pseudodiscipline.
Philipse does his best to argue for the relevance of natural theology as the approach one ought to take, and he aimed at the best natural theology has to offer in his arguments. The end result is something quite technical, but still full of interesting approaches to particular problem. The arguments themselves cover a wide range of philosophical topics, covering not only philosophy of religion, but questions of language, epistemology, mathematics, and meaning. In that light, the case for natural theology is not as esoteric as it seems prima facie.
One of the strengths of the book is that it pushes the issue of theology in the scientific age, and is full of dilemmas facing believers at each potential turn. In that respect, the book is incredibly useful for the current debate about whether science and religion are compatible. Anyone who has an interest on this question will find this book invaluable.
However, this is not a book about how religion is practised, nor is it a book about revealed theology, and the arguments sometimes get bogged down in logical problems when empirical arguments would have been more to the point. And for those who see believing in God as an act of faith, there will be nothing in this book to change their minds. But for those who find the question interesting, and for those who seek a modern understanding of how to address the question, this book is well worth reading.
Philipse's approach in this book is essentially is a sequence-by-sequence breakdown of religious reason starting in epistemology and ending in metaphysics. Think of it like Hume's 'Treatise,' he first lays down a descriptive epistemology and then shows what beliefs this approach leaves us with. In 'God in the Age of Science?', Philipse does the inverse. He first makes the theists' case for religious reason, and then tears it down. However, this is not a 300+ page book on religious epistemology, so what he does is after--what he considers to be--sufficient rejection of religious epistemology he essentially says, "But let's say I'm wrong, what's next?" He calls this approach `strategy of subsidiary arguments.' This approach comes alive in Parts II and III.
Part I, however, is almost entirely focused to epistemology, where he deals extensively with Plantinga's reformed epistemology. Had this book just been part one, he would have something to be proud of writing. However, in Parts II and III he gives an exposition and refutation of religious metaphysics, specifically the philosophical work of Richard Swinburne. The refutation is done by looking at what science has been able to explain to us and how valid the God theory or theism theory is as a scientific theory. He takes his subsidiary arguments and one by one takes down Swinburne, giving Swinburne the benefit of the doubt for each previous argument and proceeds to look at the subsequent argument. Though this isn't a book solely about Swinburne, Philipse takes time to knock out a few other philosophically astute apologists like William Lane Craig.
The most difficult obstacle of Philipse's book is the use of Bayes' Theorem. Not being entirely familiar with it myself, I struggled through the arguments that used the Theorem heavily--which is most of the book. Though it seems that many of Philipse's arguments could be made without having to examine how Bayesian probability comes into play for each case, by doing so, Philipse has given a serious and worthwhile consideration of Swinburne's arguments, which adds greatly to the quality and scope of the book.
If the constant use of Bayes' Theorem isn't enough of a clue, I shall warn that the book is highly technical. Given the rise of the new atheist movement, this book will probably catch the eye of many readers. However, this is simply not a book for the average Dawkins reader. This is no 'God Delusion.' This is a book of analytic philosophy, which is meant for philosophers and those with experience studying philosophy.
That being said, this is, without a doubt, a must read for those studying philosophy of religion. The breadth of arguments considered between epistemology and metaphysics, the scope of intellectual tools employed, and the quality of Philipse's analytical rigor all makes this book well worth the read. Whether or not it has struck the final deathblow to religion should probably however be left to someone who is actually religious at the outset of this book--and of course, willing to change his or her mind. To them, and to all readers, I'll see you on the other side.
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