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Epistemology

E. J. Lowe on Progress in Metaphysics and Philosophy

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There is a widespread assumption amongst non-philosophers, which is shared by a good many practising philosophers too, that ‘progress’ is never really made in philosophy, and above all in metaphysics. In this respect, philosophy is often compared, for the most part unfavourably, with the empirical sciences, and especially the natural sciences, such as physics, chemistry and biology. Sometimes, philosophy is defended on the grounds that to deplore the lack of ‘progress’ in it is to misconceive its central aim, which is to challenge and criticise received ideas and assumptions rather than to advance positive theses. But this defence itself is liable to be attacked by the practitioners of other disciplines as unwarranted special pleading on the part of philosophers, whose comparative lack of expertise in other disciplines, it will be said, ill-equips them to play the role of all-purpose intellectual critic. It is sometimes even urged that philosophy is now ‘dead’, the relic of a pre-scientific age whose useful functions, such as they were, have been taken over at last by genuine sciences. What were once ‘philosophical’ questions have now been transmuted, allegedly, into questions for more specialised modes of scientific inquiry, with their own distinctive methodological principles and theoretical foundations.

James S. Spiegel on the Tension Between Conviction and Fallibility

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The pursuit of knowledge is a tricky thing. On the one hand, when we discover truth — whether concerning an issue in science, history, theology, or any other subject matter — we should maintain a conviction about it, holding on to our belief with a certain amount of firmness. After all, knowledge is valuable and precious—sometimes even life-saving. In fact, when it comes to moral insight or what Scripture calls wisdom, a biblical proverb says we should be prepared to sacrifice all we own in order to attain it (Pr. 4:7). ¶ On the other hand, the pursuit of knowledge requires a teachable spirit and a willingness to recognize one’s intellectual fallibility on all sorts of issues. We all make mistakes in the intellectual realm, so it is possible that we have erred even regarding beliefs about which we feel most confident. Where we have the strongest convictions we might in fact be entirely ignorant! ¶ So how does one deal with this tension between the need for conviction and the fact of human fallibility? How do we avoid the vicious extremes of closed-minded dogmatism and total skepticism? The answer, it seems to me, lies in open-mindedness, which is generally regarded as a key intellectual virtue.

Eric Reitan on Grasping God Through Cultural Filters

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I believe in a transcendent creator whose self-disclosure is difficult for humanity to grasp and understand properly given the cultural filters through which that revelation is received. As such, any historical report of revelation will be a distortion, and the task of historical religion is to attempt to work through the distortion by gradually evolving in the light of critical conversation about experience.

True Paradox

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How do we explain human consciousness? Where do we get our sense of beauty? Why do we recoil at suffering? Why do we have moral codes that none of us can meet? Why do we yearn for justice, yet seem incapable of establishing it? Any philosophy or worldview must make sense of the world as we actually experience it. We need to explain how we can discern qualities such as beauty and evil and account for our practices of morality and law. The complexity of the contemporary world is sometimes seen as an embarrassment for Christianity. But law professor David Skeel makes a fresh case for the plausibility and explanatory power of Christianity. The Christian faith offers plausible explanations for the central puzzles of our existence, such as our capacity for idea-making, our experience of beauty and suffering, and our inability to create a just social order. When compared with materialism or other sets of beliefs, Christianity provides a more comprehensive framework for understanding human life as we actually live it. We need not deny the complexities of life as we experience it. But the paradoxes of our existence can lead us to the possibility that the existence of God could make sense of it all.

Skeptical Theism: New Essays

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Given that we meet evils in every quarter of the world, could it be governed by an all-good and all-powerful deity? Whilst some philosophers argue that the problem of evil is strong evidence for atheism, others claim that all of the evils in our world can be explained as requirements for deeper goods. On the other hand, skeptical theists believe in God, but struggle with the task of explaining the role of evils in our world. Skeptical theism tackles the problem of evil by proposing a limited skepticism about the purposes of God, and our abilities to determine whether any given instance is truly an example of gratuitous evil. This collection of 22 original essays presents cutting-edge work on skeptical theistic responses to the problem of evil and the persistent objections that such responses invite. Divided into four sections, the volume discusses the epistemology of sceptical theism, conditions of reasonable epistemic access, the implications for theism, and the implications for morality.

Michael Ruse on Good and Bad Arguments

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I won’t say I accept the ontological argument for the existence of God — the argument that derives God’s existence from his essence — but I do like it (it is so clever) and I am prepared to stand up for it when Dawkins dismisses it with scorn rather than good reasons. In part this is a turf war. I am a professional philosopher. I admire immensely thinkers like Anselm and Descartes and am proud to be one of them, however minor and inadequate in comparison. I am standing up for my own. In part, this is political. Religion is a big thing in America, and often not a very good big thing. I don’t think you are going to counter the bad just by going over the top, like in the Battle of the Somme. I think you have to reach out over no-man’s land to the trenches on the other side and see where we can agree and hope to move forward. ¶ I should say that my Quaker childhood — as in everything I do and think — is tremendously important here. I grew up surrounded by gentle, loving (and very intelligent) Christians. I never forget that. Finally, I just don’t like bad arguments.

G.K. Chesterton on Unseemly Truths

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This, therefore, is, in conclusion, my reason for accepting the religion and not merely the scattered and secular truths out of the religion. I do it because the thing has not merely told this truth or that truth, but has revealed itself as a truth-telling thing. All other philosophies say the things that plainly seem to be true; only this philosophy has again and again said the thing that does not seem to be true, but is true. Alone of all creeds it is convincing where it is not attractive; it turns out to be right, like my father in the garden. Theosophists for instance will preach an obviously attractive idea like re-incarnation; but if we wait for its logical results, they are spiritual superciliousness and the cruelty of caste. For if a man is a beggar by his own pre-natal sins, people will tend to despise the beggar. But Christianity preaches an obviously unattractive idea, such as original sin; but when we wait for its results, they are pathos and brotherhood, and a thunder of laughter and pity; for only with original sin we can at once pity the beggar and distrust the king.

Dr. Trevor on Reason Supplanting Dogma

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We begin to perceive, too, what a powerful lever was afforded by the dualism of Faith and Reason for emancipating the human intellect from the thralldom of Ecclesiasticism; for, leaving out of consideration the legitimacy of the instrument, we cannot deny its unrivaled potency. Never was there a more conspicuous instance of the effectiveness of the ‘Divide et impera’ method. The dogmas of the Church, with their manifold accretions of ignorance and superstition, were found to have lost at least half of their authority and thereby half of the terrorism they had long exercised over humanity. We cannot, I think, feel surprised that the Church from her standpoint of exclusiveness and infallibility should have hurled her anathemas against the authors and propagators of these opinions. Keenness of insight far less prompt than that which has always characterized Romanism might have easily discerned the issue involved in Twofold Truth. It clearly undermined her own position as the divine and sole accredited source of all truth. The verities she chose to stamp with her own brand were to have no longer the exclusive monopoly hitherto assigned them. Philosophy as a rival trader and bidder for the patronage of humanity set up a store of her own, with her own special commodities, authenticated by her own mark, and trader-like did not scruple to boast the superiority of her goods in certain respects to those retailed by the Church. Whatever other effects might attend this rivalry, at least there was opposition — rudimentary free-trade in human dogmas and opinions. A new condition of human liberty was established, which if not destined to bear much fruit for the present was full of promise for the distant future.

Protagoras on Knowledge of God

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Eusebius tells us that it was the opening sentence of Protagoras’ treatise on the Gods, and it is attested by numerous citations. It runs as follows: “About the gods, I am not able to know whether they exist or do not exist, nor what they are like in form; for the factors preventing knowledge are many: the obscurity of the subject, and the shortness of human life.” The last words have sometimes been omitted, but they are important. They indicate the ground upon which Protagoras took up his position and the nature of his agnosticism. All that mattered to him was what could be known; and the Greek word (eidenai) that is used twice in this sentence means, precisely, knowledge: not belief, not faith.

Bill Maher on Religious Certitude

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I don’t use the word “atheist” about myself, because I think it mirrors the certitude I’m so opposed to in religion. What I say in the film is that I don’t know. I don’t know what happens when you die, and all the religious people who claim they do know are being ridiculous. I know that they don’t know any more than I do. They do not have special powers that I don’t possess. When they speak about the afterlife with such certainty and so many specifics, it just makes me laugh. People can tell you, “Oh yes, when you get to Paradise there are 72 virgins, not 70, not 75.” Or they say, “Jesus will be there sitting at the right hand of the Father, wearing a white robe with red piping. There will be three angels playing trumpets.” Well, how do you know this? It’s just so preposterous. So, yes, I would like to say to the atheists and agnostics, the people who I call rationalists, let’s stop ceding the moral high ground to the people who believe in the talking snake. Let’s have our voices heard and be in the debate.

Our Kind of Skepticism

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I come lastly to a third type of intellect, in which Twofold Truth presents itself in a moderate and altogether commendable shape; in which the disparity is not so much antagonistic as complementary, and the result of its functions is not disunion and hostility so much as a broad comprehensive solidarity. For our purpose we may call intellects of this class ‘dual-sighted’ or ‘two- eyed.’ … This ‘double-sighted man’ is by no means the synonym of the nickname common in Puritan history, ‘Mr. Facing-both-ways.’ It rather implies the possession of faculties which enable the observer to see every object in the solid, substantial manner, in the full relief, and with the true perspective that pertain essentially to all double vision. It is the instinctive power and tendency to discern a specific object or a given truth not merely as it is in itself or in one of its prima facie aspects, but in its completeness as a whole and relatively to all its surroundings. We see this quality in the artist who simultaneously with the perception of an object also sees all its different phases as well as its relations to surrounding objects; or again in the general who apprehends by a single glance of his mental vision all the characteristics, bad as well as good, of a given position or military movement. So the philosophers I speak of catch every truth or doctrine, not in its simple and uniform, but in its complex biform or multiform aspect. They are men to whom every affirmation suggests, if only as a possibility, a negative; who intuitively meet every dogmatic pronouncement with an objection, just as a painter infers shadow from light. These are the men who in my judgment have rendered the best service to the progress of knowledge by their comprehensive vision, their cautious Skeptical attitude, their fearless criticism. …

The Epistemology of Disagreement: New Essays

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The Epistemology of Disagreement brings together essays from a dozen philosophers on the epistemic significance of disagreement; all but one of the essays are new. Questions discussed include: When (if ever) does the disagreement of others require a rational agent to revise her beliefs? Do ‘conciliatory’ accounts, on which agents are required to revise significantly, suffer from fatal problems of self-defeat, given the disagreement about disagreement? What is the significance of disagreement about philosophical topics in particular? How does the epistemology of disagreement relate to broader epistemic theorizing? Does the increased significance of multiple disagreeing agents depend on their being independent of one another?

Janelle Aijian on Christian Doubt

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For Pascal the first rule of human thought or behavior is that we are not what we were meant to be. God did not create us to live lives shrouded by doubt, but sin has distorted even the faculties that give us knowledge. That means that understanding who I am according to the Christian story means understanding that I am, fundamentally, fallible. I know that my desires can distort the way I see the world. I know that my reason can become prideful and dogmatic, and lead me into error. So for Pascal, and here he echoes Augustine, doubting myself is sometimes just good common sense. It’s thinking rightly about my own limitations in light of the distorting effects of sin.

50 Simple Questions for Every Christian

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Written in a respectful and conversational style, this unique book is designed to promote constructive dialogue and foster mutual understanding between Christians and non-Christians. The author, a skeptic and journalist, asks basic questions about Christian belief. What is the born-again experience? Why would God want to sacrifice his only son for the world? Do miracles really happen? How reliable is the Bible? What is the rapture? Why isn’t everyone a Christian? Each question is followed by commentary and analysis that is skeptical and tough but never argumentative or condescending. Christians will find the book useful as a basis for developing their apologetics, while skeptics will welcome Harrison’s probing rational analysis of religious claims. ~ Publisher’s Description

The Inquiring Mind

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The Inquiring Mind is a new contribution to “responsibilist” or character-based virtue-epistemology — an approach to epistemology in which intellectual character traits like open-mindedness, fair-mindedness, inquisitiveness, and intellectual courage, rigor, and generosity are given a central and fundamental role. Jason Baehr provides an accessible introduction to virtue epistemology and intellectual virtues, and establishes two main goals. The first is to shed light on the nature and structure of intellectual virtues and their role in the cognitive economy. To this end, he examines the difference between intellectual virtues and intellectual faculties, talents, temperaments, and skills, develops a “personal worth” account of the nature of an intellectual virtue, contrasts this account with several others, and provides analyses of two individual virtues: namely, open-mindedness and intellectual courage. The second main goal is to account for the role that reflection on intellectual character virtues should play within epistemology at large. Here Baehr defends three main claims. The first is that the concept of intellectual virtue does not merit a central or fundamental role within traditional epistemology. The second is that it does, nonetheless, merit a secondary or background role in this context. The third is that intellectual character virtues and their role in intellectual life can form the basis of an approach to epistemology that is distinct from but complementary to traditional epistemology. Finally, Baehr examines the relation between intellectual and moral virtues

Probability in the Philosophy of Religion

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Probability theory promises to deliver an exact and unified foundation for inquiry in epistemology and philosophy of science. But philosophy of religion is also fertile ground for the application of probabilistic thinking. This volume presents original contributions from twelve contemporary researchers, both established and emerging, to offer a representative sample of the work currently being carried out in this potentially rich field of inquiry. Grouped into five parts, the chapters span a broad range of traditional issues in religious epistemology. The first three parts discuss the evidential impact of various considerations that have been brought to bear on the question of the existence of God. These include witness reports of the occurrence of miraculous events, the existence of complex biological adaptations, the apparent ‘fine-tuning’ for life of various physical constants and the existence of seemingly unnecessary evil. The fourth part addresses a number of issues raised by Pascal’s famous pragmatic argument for theistic belief. A final part offers probabilistic perspectives on the rationality of faith and the epistemic significance of religious disagreement.

Michael Shermer on Placeholders for Mysteries

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Science operates in the natural, not the supernatural. In fact, I go so far as to state that there is no such thing as the supernatural or the paranormal. There is just the natural, the normal, and mysteries we have yet to explain by natural causes. Invoking such words as “supernatural” and “paranormal” just provides a linguistic place-holder until we find natural and normal causes, or we do not find them and discontinue the search out of lack of interest. ¶ This is what normally happens in science. Mysteries once thought to be supernatural or paranormal happenings — such as astronomical or meteorological events — are incorporated into science once their causes are understood. For example, when cosmologists reference “dark energy” and “dark matter” in reference to the so-called “missing mass” needed to explain the structure and motion of galaxies and galaxy clusters along with the expansion of the universe, they do not intend these descriptors to be causal explanations. Dark energy and dark matter are merely cognitive conveniences until the actual sources of the energy and matter are discovered. When religious believers invoke miracles and acts of creation ex nihilo, that is the end of the search for them, whereas for scientists the identification of such mysteries is only the beginning. Science picks up where theology leaves off.

Twofold Truth

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This is a long but exceptionally eloquent and learned dialogue between a group of thoughtful friends in the late 19th century. Dr. Trevor poses the question “whether what is demonstrably true in one subject or from one point of view can be false in another or from a different standpoint?” Their dialogue bookends Trevor’s formal paper, where he argues that whatever may be the case in reality, at least within our own deliberations, “we cannot without the most gratuitous mental suicide allow the subjective co-existence of antagonistic convictions both claiming to be true at the same time”. Trevor begins by noting the severe limits of our knowledge. “The thinker rightly regards himself and his knowledge as a small islet in the immeasurable ocean of the unknown.” He unsparingly traces a history of the ecclesiastic autocracy of theological dogma until reason got its foot in the door and began an insurrection, asserting itself against the “Roman” church as the singular arbiter of truth. Nonetheless, he argues, the phenomenon of competing considerations is not just a byproduct of religious authority, but rather an inescapable aspect of being human, coming at us from many angles: “the Known and the Unknown, individual man and collective humanity, Intellect and Emotion”. Trevor therefore commends the thinker who has “double vision”, the ability to see and integrate various sources of evidence, who is always reticent and reflective, even in conviction. Though it requires treading through some rather dense prose, the discussion of these “Christian skeptics” is a feast of language and thought. At times it captures the spirit of Afterall.net better than I ever could have in my own words. ~ Nate

Excellence

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We are called to excellence in all activities of life, not least in our scholarship and ministry. Outlining virtues directly related to vocation and scholarship, Andreas Köstenberger tells us there is a way to be a better person and a better scholar — without needing to sacrifice our faith at the altar of academic respectability. Here is a call to a life of virtue lived out in excellence.

Evidentialism and its Discontents

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Few concepts have been considered as essential to the theory of knowledge and rational belief as that of evidence. The simplest theory which accounts for this is evidentialism, the view that epistemic justification for belief–the kind of justification typically taken to be required for knowledge — is determined solely by considerations pertaining to one’s evidence. In this ground-breaking book, leading epistemologists from across the spectrum challenge and refine evidentialism, sometimes suggesting that it needs to be expanded in quite surprising directions. Following this, the twin pillars of contemporary evidentialism — Earl Conee and Richard Feldman–respond to each essay. This engaging debate covers a vast number of issues, and will illuminate and inform.

Intelligent Virtue

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Intelligent Virtue presents a distinctive new account of virtue and happiness as central ethical ideas. Annas argues that exercising a virtue involves practical reasoning of a kind which can illuminatingly be compared to the kind of reasoning we find in someone exercising a practical skill. Rather than asking at the start how virtues relate to rules, principles, maximizing, or a final end, we should look at the way in which the acquisition and exercise of virtue can be seen to be in many ways like the acquisition and exercise of more mundane activities, such as farming, building or playing the piano. This helps us to see virtue as part of an agent’s happiness or flourishing, and as constituting (wholly, or in part) that happiness. We are offered a better understanding of the relation between virtue as an ideal and virtue in everyday life, and the relation between being virtuous and doing the right thing.

Disagreement

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Disagreement is common: even informed, intelligent, and generally reasonable people often come to different conclusions when confronted with what seems to be the same evidence. Can the competing conclusions be reasonable? If not, what can we reasonably think about the situation? This volume examines the epistemology of disagreement. Philosophical questions about disagreement arise in various areas, notably politics, ethics, aesthetics, and the philosophy of religion: but this will be the first book focusing on the general epistemic issues arising from informed disagreement. Ten leading philosophers offer specially written essays which together will offer a starting-point for future work on this topic.

Why Us?

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In ‘Why Us?’, James Le Fanu explores the major implications of the most recent findings of genetics and neuroscience, challenging the common assumption that they must ultimately explain all there is to know about life and man’s place in the world. On the contrary, he argues, they point to an unbridgeable explanatory gap between the genes strung out along the Double Helix and the near infinite beauty and diversity of the living world to which they give rise, and between the monotonous electro-chemistry of the brain and richness and creativity of the human mind. “There is,” he writes, “a powerful impression that science has been looking in the wrong place, seeking to resolve questions that somehow lie outside its domain. It is as if we – and indeed all living things – are in some way different, profounder and more complex than the physical world to which we belong.” A N Wilson in his review described it as ‘an extraordinary work of science … quite wonderfully refreshing’; for Christopher Booker in The Spectator it was “enthralling”: “one of the glories of Le Fanu’s erudite and beautifully written book is that a sense of wonder is evident on every page, even as he lucidly analyses the limitations of the narrow intellectual prism in which science has languished too long.” ~ Publisher’s Description