Philosophy Word of the Day — Aquinas’ Philosophical Theology

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“In addition to his moral philosophy, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) is well-known for his theological writings.   He is arguably the most eminent philosophical theologian ever to have lived.  To this day, it is difficult to find someone whose work rivals Aquinas’ in breadth and influence.  Although his work is not limited to illuminating Christian doctrine, virtually all of what he wrote is shaped by his theology.  Therefore it seems appropriate to consider some of the theological themes and ideas that figure prominently in his thought.

“The volume and depth of Aquinas’ work resists easy synopsis.  Nevertheless, an abridged description of his work may help us appreciate his  philosophical skill in exploring God’s nature and defending Christian teaching.  Although Aquinas does not think that philosophical reasoning can provide an exhaustive account of the divine nature, it is (he insists) both a source of divine truth and an aid in exonerating the intellectual credibility of those doctrines at the heart of the Christian faith.  From this perspective, philosophical reasoning can be (to use a common phrase) a tool in the service of theology.

“An adequate understanding of Aquinas’ philosophical theology requires that we first consider the twofold manner whereby we come to know God:  reason and sacred teaching.  Our discussion of what reason reveals about God will naturally include an account of philosophy’s putative success in demonstrating both God’s existence and certain facts about God’s nature.  Yet because Aquinas also thinks that sacred teaching contains the most comprehensive account of God’s nature, we must also consider his account of faith—the virtue whereby we believe well with respect to what sacred teaching reveals about God.  Finally, we will consider how Aquinas employs philosophical reasoning when explaining and defending two central Christian doctrines:  the Incarnation and the Trinity.” (continue article)

— Shawn Floyd at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

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Philosophy Word of the Day — Omnipotence

“Omnipotence is maximal power.  Some philosophers, notably Descartes, have thought that omnipotence requires the ability to do absolutely anything, including the logically impossible.  Most classical theists, however, understood omnipotence as involving vast powers, while nevertheless being subject to a range of limitations of ability, including the inability to do what is logically impossible, the inability to change the past or to do things incompatible with what has happened, and the inability to do things that cannot be done by a being who has other divine attributes, e.g., to sin or to lie.”

— Edward R. Wierenga, “Divine Attributes,” The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 2nd ed., 240.

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Jim Spiegel Answers Your Questions

The following are four questions posed by readers to Jim Spiegel in response to his interview here this week.  Jim kindly agreed to answer these follow-up questions, and his comments are below.

Thanks again for your thoughtful questions and opinions, both pro and con.

The winner of the free copy of The Making of an Atheist is J. W. Wartick!

* * * *

Ranger:

Jim,
It seems to me that in various beliefs, both simple and major, that often the head follows the heart.  Augustine, Edwards and various other Christian theologians have emphasized the role of desire in leading someone to hold certain beliefs.  I’ve wondered if this might be what Luther had in mind with his statements such as “reason is the devil’s whore.”  Would you mind discussing the role of desire in the life of the mind?  Thanks.

In my book I discuss this very issue, noting that, as William James once noted, a person’s will often prompts one to believe certain things, particularly where reason cannot decide an issue one way or another.  However, I would go a step further than James and note that a preference for a particular position or worldview may tempt a person to believe something against the evidence.  This is “motivated irrationality,” as some scholars have phrased it, and it constitutes a form of self-deception.  I think this is just the sort of thing that Luther had in mind with that phrase about reason being the “devil’s whore”—reason can be co-opted to serve just about any desire or predilection.  This is why it is so important that the Christian scholar actively submit her/his intellect to God and the authority of Scripture.

Rob:

(1) Why should an atheist accept your account when it presupposes the truth of precisely what the atheist denies the existence and authority of?

I grant that my specific account of atheism presupposes the truth and authority of Scripture, but my intent in the book is not to persuade the atheist of the truth of my account based just on premises that s/he presently accepts.  That would necessitate my first demonstrating the existence of God, and that’s not the purpose of my book.

Having said that, as I show in my book, there are many insights from diverse academic fields (e.g., history, psychology, and philosophy) that confirm the reality of many of the causal dynamics to which I appeal in my explanatory account of atheism.  So I do think that my account would still enjoy a certain amount of evidential warrant even when considered in isolation from the Scriptural considerations that inspired it.

(2) Your claim that cognition-distorting sinful behaviors and wickedness underline atheism is an empirical one for which, as far as I can tell, there is little evidence.  Presumably, more secular or irreligious communities and nations should have higher rates of wickedness and immorality.  What evidence are you relying on?

The evidence for my view is both empirical and non-empirical (philosophical and theological).  Specifically, the case for my thesis can be made by appealing to:

· Theology:  passages such as Romans 1:18-20, Eph. 4:17-19,  John 3:19-21, and  John 7:17, which confirm that beliefs are impacted by behavior, whether moral or immoral.

· Psychology:  specifically, “motivated bias” models of self-deception (such as those defended by James Peterman and Alfred Mele) and the “cognitive redefinition” belief-change theory of Edgar Schein.  Such models are built upon, and aim to explain, behavioral data from empirical studies.

· History:  studies of atheist scholars which reveal significant non-rational factors connected with the paradigms one chooses, including atheism (Paul Vitz’s Faith of the Fatherless, Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals, and E. Michael Jones’s Degenerate Moderns)

· Insights from philosophy and history of science:

o Thomas Kuhn—paradigms are typically selected because of non-rational factors

o Michael Polanyi—all theorizing, even in science, is ultimately personal, dependent on desires

This is just a sampling…

As for your claim that my thesis implies that unbelieving peoples should have higher immorality rates, I suppose that might be true.  But this would be hard thing to assess, since not all immorality is publicly observable, because various forms of conceit, hatred, hubris, lust, etc. would (on a Christian view of ethics) be immoral but not necessarily behaviorally evident, much less ascertainable via a formal study.

J. W. Wartick:

You suggest in the interview that you think current apologetics is lacking in ethical and psychological insights. How do you think we can go about filling in this hole within Christian apologetics? What role can sin play as a concept within philosophy of religion in explaining the desire to rebel against the moral concepts inherent in God?

In writing my book I have addressed his lacuna, at least vis-à-vis the phenomenon of atheism.  I tried to do something similar with my first book, which was on the subject of hypocrisy.  I think it’s just a matter of apologists being more willing to bring moral and psychological insights to bear on their defense of the faith and, perhaps to a lesser degree, Christian ethicists and psychologists speaking to apologetic issues.

As for your second question, that’s essentially the question that drove me to write The Making of an Atheist.  Obviously, my discussion pertains to the rebellion against God generally (in the form of disbelief), rather than merely rejecting God’s moral nature.  But it would be interesting to see whether, and to what degree, deists and heterodox theists might opt for their view—when it involves subtraction of the notion of divine moral perfection and moral demands on humans—precisely because of a distaste for all that entails (e.g., moral judgment, requirements for self-control, etc.).

* * * *

Jim’s blog tour continues for the next several weeks.  You can find the complete schedule here.

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Interview with Jim Spiegel – Part Two

Today we continue with the second half of our interview with Jim Spiegel on his new book, The Making of an Atheist.  We’re continuing to collect questions for a follow-up Q&A post, and everyone who submits a question is entered into the drawing for a free copy of the book.

* * * *

Chris Reese: Your approach to apologetics in the book seems to have a lot in common with a presuppositional stance. Do you find much that you agree with in that method of apologetics?

Jim Spiegel: I’m not a presuppositionalist, but I do appreciate the insight of this approach that sin has a warping effect on the mind, that there are, as Alvin Plantinga puts it, cognitive consequences of sin. And it is just this dynamic that I think explains both a person’s descent into atheism and the ongoing obstinacy of atheists when faced with clear pointers to God. Having said that, I believe the study of the evidences for the faith is profitable in many ways, as it can quell believers’ doubts and clear away obstacles to belief for those who are sincerely investigating the Christian faith.

CR: Mainstream apologetics has tended to pass over issues of psychology and morality in relation to belief in God or Christianity. Why do you think that’s been the case?

JS: There are probably several reasons for this. For one thing, it might seem like a distraction to explore the psychological determinants of false beliefs about God when there are so many positive evidences to discuss, not to mention skeptical objections to refute. Also, it might appear to be an ad hominem fallacy to theorize about the moral-psychological roots of disbelief. But, to be clear, my thesis commits no such blunder, because an explanatory account of atheism, such as I give in my book, is different than an argument against atheism. My book does not aim to prove theism or disprove atheism (though I do mention many noteworthy evidences along the way). Instead, I aim to explain how atheistic belief arises.

CR: What do you see that’s promising as well as lacking in apologetics or Christian philosophy of religion today?

JS: It’s hard not to get excited about all that is happening in the area of intelligent design, both at the cosmic and organismic levels. The data regarding the fine-tuning of the universe is becoming more astounding every day, as is the evidence for design in cellular biology. (That such data prompted the theistic conversion of Antony Flew should make even the most hardened atheist think twice.) As for what is lacking, we badly need to see more work connecting ethical and psychological insights (e.g., about self-deception, moral weakness, the role of the emotions in belief-formation, etc.) to skeptical attitudes toward God and religion. And I would like to see work connecting aesthetics to philosophy of religion (e.g., developing arguments for God and/or against naturalism based on the reality of beauty in the world).

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Philosophy Audio and Video on the Web – Updated

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Given that it’s a new year, I wanted to bring this list up to date by adding resources and streamlining what was already there.  As I find more, I’ll continue to add to the collection.

If you know of other good audio or video resources in philosophy, especially philosophy of religion, please leave a comment.

(Updated January 2010)


Courses

  • ConsciousnessMP3s here – Susan Stuart, University of Glasgow
  • DeathDownload Course – Shelly Kagan, Yale
  • Existentialism in Literature & FilmiTunesFeed – Hubert Dreyfus, UC Berkeley
  • HeideggeriTunesFeedMP3s – Hubert Dreyfus, UC Berkeley
  • Heidegger’s Being & TimeFeedMP3s – Hubert Dreyfus, UC Berkeley
  • Introduction to Practical Reasoning and Critical Analysis of Argument, iTunes – Daniel Coffeen, UC Berkeley
  • Kant’s EpistemologyiTunes – Dr Susan Stuarts, University of Glasgow.
  • Man, God and Society in Western LiteratureiTunesFeed – Hubert Dreyfus, UC Berkeley
  • The Examined LifeiTunes – Greg Reihman, Lehigh University
  • Ancient PhilosophyiTunesFeedStream – David Ebrey, UC Berkeley
  • Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?YouTube –  Michael Sandel, Harvard
  • Introduction to Political PhilosophyYouTubeiTunesDownload Course, Steven B. Smith, Yale
  • Philosophy for BeginnersiTunes – Marianne Talbot, Oxford
  • Proust & PhilosophyFeed – Johns Hopkins
  • The Examined LifeiTunes – Greg Reihman, Lehigh University

Podcasts

  • Philosophy Bites iTunes Feed Web Site
    • A British podcast featuring interviews of top philosophers that delves into some essential philosophical questions — what is the meaning of life? what is the nature of reality? what is evil?, etc.
  • Philosophers’ Cafe Feed Web Site
    • Comfortable surroundings for vibrant street level discussions on burning issues of the day. No formal philosophy training required; real life experience desired. Come early, stay late. Presented by Simon Fraser University.

(HT: Open Culture)

Philosophy of Religion and Christian Ethics

Courses

  • Paul Copan’s five-session course in philosophy of religion is available free from Reclaiming the Mind Ministries.
  • Ron Nash’s History of Philosophy and Christian Thought is available at biblicaltraining.org (which has nearly an entire seminary curriculum on mp3 available to download).
  • Ron Nash’s Christian Ethics Course is also available at biblicaltraining.org.

Interviews

  • Closer to the Truth has a great collection of video interviews with Christian and non-Christian philosophers on topics in philosophy of religion.  The interviews are streaming video and don’t appear to be available for download.

Podcasts

Talks/Lectures

  • William Lane Craig’s Reasonable Faith Podcasts (iTunes) contain Dr. Craig’s commentary on issues in philosophy and theology and his answers to questions posted on his Reasonable Faith website.
  • The Veritas Forum website contains dozens of talks and debates by Christian scholars and thinkers on topics that range across every academic discipline.  Among the notable speakers are Alvin Plantinga, Dallas Willard, William Lane Craig, and J. P. Moreland.

Apologetics

Podcasts

General Philosophy

Podcasts

  • Apologetics 315 Logical Fallacies Podcasts
  • Philosopher’s ZoneRadio interviews with philosophers covering all branches of philosophy.
  • In Our TimeThis BBC radio program focuses on the history of ideas and often includes discussion of important philosophers and topics in philosophy.
  • Oxford University Philosophy Podcasts – Links to the annual John Locke lectures, the “Interviews with Philosophers” series, and Marianne Talbot’s “Philosophy for Beginners” (also linked to above).

Talks/Lectures

  • Nietzsche on Mind and Nature – These 7 lectures were given at the international conference “Nietzsche on Mind and Nature” held at St. Peter’s College, Oxford, on 11-13 September, 2009, organized by the Faculty of Philosophy, University of Oxford. (iTunes)

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Philosophy Word of the Day – Divine Immutability

Divine immutability, the claim that God is immutable, is a central part of traditional Christianity, though it has come under sustained attack in the last two hundred years.  This article first catalogues the historical precedent for and against this claim, then discusses different answers to the question, “What is it to be immutable?”

Two definitions of divine immutability receive careful attention.  The first is that for God to be immutable is for God to have a constant character and to be faithful in divine promises; this is a definition of “weak immutability.”  The second, “strong immutability,” is that for God to be immutable is for God to be wholly unchanging.

After showing some implications of the definitions, the article focuses on strong immutability and provides some common arguments against the claim that God is immutable, understood in that way.  While most of the historical evidence discussed in this article is from Christian sources, the core discussion of what it is to be strongly immutable, and the arguments against it, are not particular to Christianity. (Continue)

(Via Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

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Philosophy Word of the Day – Religious Language

The term “religious language” refers to statements or claims made about God or gods. Here is a typical philosophical problem of religious language. If God is infinite, then words used to describe finite creatures might not adequately describe God. For example, is God good in the same sense that Kofi Annan is good? This difficulty challenges us to articulate the degree that attributes used for finite beings can be used for God and what these attributes mean when they describe God. The ambiguity in meaning with respect to the terms predicated of God is the “problem of religious language” or the “problem of naming God.” These predications could include divine attributes, properties, or actions. Since the doctrines of the divine in Eastern religious traditions differ radically from the doctrines of the Abrahamic traditions, the problem of religious language has not been accorded much attention in Eastern philosophy.

The problem of religious language also provides a challenge for philosophers of religion. If there is no adequate solution to the problem of religious language, large discussions in the domain of philosophy of religion will also be rendered unintelligible. For example, philosophers of religion debate the nature of divine foreknowledge and human freedom. These claims about God would be rendered unintelligible if human speech about God is impossible. Thus, the problem of religious language is a philosophical problem that must be solved in order to provide a framework for understanding claims about God in both the house of worship and the academy. (Continue)

(Via Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

One helpful way to address this problem is understanding our language about God analogically, as suggested by Thomas Aquinas.

“For Aquinas, God is known by analogy with the creation.  Claims to possess univocal knowledge (terms applying identically) of God are always false according to Aquinas, since our knowledge of God is always limited, finite, and mediated through the natural order.  God may only be seen in the reflection of the creation.  Humans may use words about themselves (e.g., good) and try to apply them to God, but they must not forget the radical differences between themselves and God.  The difference between the goodness of humans and the goodness of God is the difference between the finite and the infinite.  This does not render our knowledge of God null and void.  It merely reminds us that the creature and the Creator are vastly different even if they are also similar in some respects.”

“Thomas Aquinas” in 101 Key Terms in Philosophy and Their Importance for Theology, Kelly James Clark, Richard Lints, and James K. A. Smith (Westminster John Knox, 2004), 7.

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Alexander Pruss on the Argument from Beauty

In my view, this is a compelling argument. Richard Swinburne gives an argument from beauty in chapter 6 of his book The Existence of God.

Dr. Pruss distinguishes four varieties:

The argument from beauty, it seems to me, can come in four varieties, each asking a different “why” question, and each claiming that the best answer entails the existence of a being like God.

1. Why is there such a property as beauty?

This argument is the aesthetic parallel to the standard argument from morality. For it to work, a distinctively theistic answer to (1) must be offered. Parallel to a divine command metaethics, one could offer a divine appreciation meta-aesthetics. I think this gets the direction of explanation wrong—God appreciates beautiful things because they are beautiful. Moreover, if what God appreciates does not modally supervene on how non-divine things are, then divine simplicity will be violated. A better answer is that beautiful things are all things that reflect God in some particular respect, a respect that perhaps cannot be specified better than as that respect in which beautiful things reflect him (I think this is not a vicious circularity).

2. Why are there so many beautiful things?

The laws of physics, biology, etc. do not mention beauty. As far as these laws are concerned, beauty, if there is such a thing, is epiphenomenal. So, it does not seem that a scientific explanation of the existence of beautiful things can be given. But, perhaps, a philosophical account could be given of how, of metaphysical necessity, such-and-such physical states are always beautiful, and maybe then we can explain these entailing states physically. Or maybe one can show philosophically that, necessarily, most random configurations of matter include significant amounts of beauty, and then a statistical explanation can be given. But all that is pie in the sky, while a theistic explanation is right at hand. (Continue)

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The 2010 St. Thomas Summer Seminar in Philosophy of Religion and Philosophical Theology

Recent PhDs and current graduate students are invited to apply to participate in the 2010 St. Thomas Summer Seminar in Philosophy of Religion and Philosophical Theology, a three-week long seminar organized by Dean Zimmerman (Rutgers) and Michael Rota (University of St. Thomas). The seminar will be held at the University of St. Thomas, in St. Paul, Minnesota, from June 15th to July 2nd, 2010.

http://www.stthomas.edu/philosophy/templeton/project.html

Topics and speakers:

The epistemology of religious belief: Alvin Plantinga (Notre Dame) and Richard Feldman (Rochester)

Science and religion: Alvin Plantinga and Elliott Sober (UW-Madison)

The cosmological argument: Alexander Pruss (Baylor) and Peter van Inwagen (Notre Dame)

The problem of evil: Peter van Inwagen and Evan Fales (University of Iowa)

The epistemology of disagreement: Roger White (M.I.T.) and Thomas Kelly (Princeton)

Reductionism and the philosophy of biology: Alan Love (University of Minnesota)

Writing for audiences outside the academy: Peter Kreeft (Boston College)

Participants will receive a stipend of $2800, as well as room and board. The deadline for receipt of applications is December 1, 2009.

For more information, including information on how to apply, go to

http://www.stthomas.edu/philosophy/templeton/project.html

This seminar program is funded by a generous grant from the John Templeton Foundation.

(Via Society of Christian Philosophers)

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Remembering Philosopher William Alston

Jeremy Pierce at Parableman records some of William Alston’s significant accomplishments in philosophy and the impact Alston had on his own philosophical development.

I heard late last night about William P. Alston’s death earlier in the day, strangely not through any departmental channels but through a friend who never met him. He was one of the professors I’ve most respected in my entire academic career. He wrote his dissertation with Wilfred Sellars on the work of Alfred North Whitehead but spent most of his career on philosophy of language, philosophy of religion, and epistemology. Along with Alvin Goldman and Alvin Plantinga, he helped spearhead the externalist/reliabilist revolution in epistemology, a tradition that I think took things in the right direction. He also was one of the most important figures in the revival of philosophy of religion in the last four decades from a point where it had become looked upon as a joke except to reject traditional religious views to a point where some of the most important philosophers today are Christians or other theists. Alston himself was not a Christian when he began his philosophical career, a path shared with several other notable Christian philosophers (Norman Kretzmann and Peter van Inwagen come to mind).

It was always encouraging to me to think about how successful he was in philosophy given his personality and philosophical temperament, which I think are similar to mine in a number of ways that I’m not like most of my philosophical colleagues. He wasn’t a system-builder. He wrote about what he had something to say about but wasn’t trying to put together a comprehensive philosophical view on every issue he could have something to say about. (Continue)

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