Philosophy of religion


Introduction & Aristotle's cosmological argument

The cosmological argument is a form of natural theology, which tries to find answers about God by observing the natural world. In contrast, revealed theology relates to scripture and religious experiences.

Crucially, the cosmological argument is an a posteriori argument, and it is inductive rather than deductive. An inductive argument indicates that something is true (e.g. every time I walked past this dog it didn't bite me, therefore the next time that I walk by the dog it won't bite me), whereas a deductive argument is definitely true (e.g. all triangles have three sides, this shape has three sides, this shape is a triangle)

Aristotle's cosmological argument comes from reducio ad absurdum which has a structure of premises and a conclusion

1) There is no cause of the chain of causes and effects

2) If there was no cause of the chain of causes and effects, then the chain itself would not exist (nothing comes from nothing)

3) therefore there must have been an uncaused cause of this chain/a primary mover.

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Aquinas' five ways

Aquinas devised five ways of proving God's existence, the first three of which constitute a cosmological argument when combined.

1) The argument from motion (every thing moves, which is neither self contained or regressive, indicating that there is a prime mover)

2) The argument from causation (everything has a cause, which isn't self contained or infinitely regressive, therefore there must be a First Cause)

3) The argument from contingency (everything is contingent, everything can not exist and in the past, has not existed, thus something must have brought this into existence)

One criticism is to claim that there can be infinite regress

Another criticism (which does not criticise Aristotle) is that Aquinas' five ways supports a deist interpretation of the universe, rather than his Christian standpoint.

Others interpret the chain of causation that God began the universe and continues to sustain it, but this does not appear to be clearly evidenced.

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Evaluating Aquinas' five ways

A less successful criticism is that Aquinas' argument contradicts itself (if everything needs a cause, doesn't God?) but then people argue that God is supposed to be a completely different type of being and should be evaluated differently, and God can be an "unmoved mover".

This can then be counter-criticised by arguing that something else (e.g. the Big Bang Theory) is a different type of cause and is the only exception. Alternatively, we could seek beyond God to find the cause of the universe as it: "must rest on some other (cause); and so on, without end".

J.L.Mackie criticises Aquinas' interpretation of an infinite chain, proposing instead that an infinite regress of ideas is still possible. His example is a chain of hooks which are always attached to the hook above and continues to regress. However, this is hard to comprehend or envision in our world.

Some philosophers criticise how Aquinas views "causes", Hume's denial of a chain of cause and effect threatens to undermine his premises (but perhaps could be resolved with science?) . However, Hume's second criticism is that it is unreasonable to expect one cause to be large enough to lead to everything, instead causes combine. This is expanded in Edward's story of the inuits, where every inuit has a different reason for being in New York and there is no overarching reason for the group as a whole there. Russell describes this as the fallacy of composition, whilst every human has a mother, the human race in its entirety does not.

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More criticisms of the cosmological argument.

Hume's final, and most convicing criticism of the Cosmological argument is that, as we have no experience of world making we cannot understand whether the universe has a cause. He says that this is an example of "the fruitless efforts of human vanity, which would penetrate into subjects utterly inaccessible to the understanding". 

The criticism that the cosmological argument only helps a deist can be shown through different versions of the cosmological argument. For example, the Kalam argument states that "the universe is a being which begins, therefore it must possess a cause for its beginning", which aims to prove the existence of Allah. Later it was ressurected by William Lane Craig who tried to use it to add weight to the Christain faith.

Swinburne responds to this by arguing that God could be the best explanation, because the Big Bang Theory and other arguments, like a universe collapsing, would not be satisfactory. God is a "personal" explanation which is supposed to add something to this argument. However, the Big Bang Theory alone cannot necessitate God's omnibenevolance, or many of Gods other qualities.

One way to respond to the argument that God might not be the only sufficient explanation would be to combine it with other arguments, as Aquinas did. For example, the teleological argument implies a designer rather than just a creator, and the ontological argument can add qualities.

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Swinburne & Otto

Religious experience can add testimony to the existence of God - but first we have to define religious experience.

Some people categorise almost anything as religious experience, Swinburne has over five types of religious experience, two of which are public and three of which are private. This includes experiences like religious dreams etc. He accepts both the explicable and the inexlicable. However, this means that almost everything can be a religious experience - including a beautiul sunset, which atheists find frustrating, and is unlikely to convert anybody.

Otto decides that instead of focusing on the experience, the effect of this experience is far more important. He does not accept that a sunset can be a religious experience as he feels they should be "numinous", which strikes terror and wonder into the person. This reverts back to our conventional definitions of "awe" as we experience a "terrifying and compelling mystery".

Otto focuses on the effect of the religious experiences on the individual who suddenly experiences the fierce power of God "a terrifying and compelling mystery" he describes this as "numinous" which strikes terror & wonder. The "numinous" aspect of religious experience is completely seperate from our experiences in the world, and the person falls silent in the light of God's power. This is a very old-testament God.

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Defining religious experience

William James requires four different aspects in an experience to make it qualify as a religious experience:

1) Ineffable - it cannot be explained or even fully describe it in our words, as it is so much greater than that. This appeals to some religious believers because it shows the power of God, who should be different to our normal experiences.

2) It should possess Neotic Quality, meaning that we learn something, and develop “states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect.”

3) Transiecy - the religious experience is fleeting and cannot be sustained, but you can remember and reconise similar states of mind.

4) Passivity - we cannot prepare for a religious experience and sometims the person feels: "grasped and held by a superior power.” 

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Further analysis of RE's

William James' definition targets mysticism through his qualification that we cannot prepare for religious experiences. Someone who fasts for days on end and then experiences God is not that reliable, which adds a crucial difference in our understanding of religious experiences.

Ramachandran used medical evidence to counteract the evidence of religious experiences, he found that epileptics often experienced heightened religious experiences in seizures. His research suggests that religious experiences could be brought on by the brain rather than God. This is supported by the Koren helmet, which was an experiment where the helmet includes electrodes that Persinger uses to alter the electromagnetic field at the temporal lobes. Persinger claims he can create a religious experience for anyone by disrupting the brain with regular electric pulses. switches parts of the brain which provokes "mystical experience and altered states". These appear to criticise the validity of religious experiences.

Alternatively the helmet could just be another way of seeing God, and just because it requires preparation does not mean that what we see is wrong. For example, binoculars are a form of preparation to see something far away, which doesn't mean that what you are seeing did not exist.

Swinburne defends both our religious experiences by arguing that "what one seems to percieve is probably so", so we should trust religious experiences as we normally trust our senses.

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The issue with unversality

People contradict the argument from religious experience by mentioning that lots of different religions have religious experiences, and that it must be a contradiction for a religion to prove the existence of Allah and the existence of God.

This is either contradicted or supported by the research of David Hay, who found that between 30-45% of Britain (irrespective of age/geography/beliefs) have experienced a force beyond themselves.

However, Caroline Franks David responds by saying that religious experiences are expressed in the language and culture of the person experiencing it. This does not mean that the religious experiences are meaningless or that they don't exist, but in the same way that I would describe something as "blue" and a french person would describe it as "bleu" the object that we are describing clearly exists.

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Ayer's objection to religious experiences

Ayer famously argues that "God-talk is essentially meaningless" because it cannot be verified through logical positivism. This argues that only sentences which are empirically verifiable "water boils at 100C" carry meaning because they can be proven to be true or false. However, saying "I saw God" cannot be proven to be true or false.

Of course there have been objections in response; logical positivism would significantly reduce all of our understanding of history, as we cannot empirically verify our own culture phenomenan. I cannot even verify whether I love my family, all of this is replaced with cold scientific knowledge. 

Another issue with logical positivism is that it suggests a statement which cannot be empirically verified. I cannot see anything which says that statements only carry meaning if they can be proven to be true, which means I have very little reason to believe in logical positivsm.

A final response to Ayer's argument is John Hick's eschatological verification. If we can verify whether religious experiences are true once we die, then they can be empirically verifiable even if this verification is not instantaneous.

However, there must be a distinction between religious experiences that we have experienced, and the second hand arguments

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The mystical nature of God

Donovon argues that "If you experience God you know that the RE is valid and "that is all there is to it." Religious experiences primary function is to reaffirm faith, rather than teach more knowledge of God. This is actually quite convincing, a sunset is not normally a religious experience but if you feel that there is a religious experience people do not normally object to this. Ayer's logical positivism does not account for feelings and emotions in our relationship with God.

This is furthered by Peter Varde, who says that as we have no experience of creating religious experiences, we have no right to object to religious experiences. We do not know whether "passivity" is an essential element of religious belief - and we can't enforce our ideas on God.

Martin Buber introduces the concept "I-thou" in which our relationship with God is essentially different to our relationship with anything else, and that we should not try to enforce our rules onto God. "when thou is spoken, there is no thing. Thou has no bounds" - which could relate to our religious experiences.

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Marx and Freud's criticism.

For Marx and Freud, religious experiences are simply an illusion which we use to comfort ourselves.

Freud defines religion as "universal obsessional neurosis" and religious experiences are an illusion that we use to escape the outside world. 

Marx defines religion as "Die Religion ... ist das Opium des Volkes" - the opium of the people - and religious experiences have the same experience as opium.

However, the definitions of religious experiences could overcome this - a "terrifying and compelling mystery" does not sound like the effects of opium. This could be combined with Swinburne's principle of credulity to argue that if we would trust our senses in everyday life we should not decide that they are suddenly trying to decieve us now.

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Definitions of miracles

There is a division between realists who believe in God as an ontological reality and miracles are preformed to increase faith, and anti-realists who view miracles as symbolic, objective and only comprehensible to the believer. Miracles help the believer understand God more

Otto differentiates between miracles and religious experiences by arguing that miracles are 1) supernatural and 2) public. This does not seem specific enough, a ghost appearing in a busy street does not appear to be an act of God. Of course Otto would respond with the claim that God moves in mysterious ways, but his definition would invalidate the birth of Jesus by Mary, as it was not supernatural

Swinburne defines miracles as "an event of an extraordinary kind, brought about by a God and of religious significance". The qualification of "religious significance" appears somewhat tautological, if it is brought about by a "God" then it already appears miraculous, and the qualification implies that God tends to bring about "extraordinary" events on a whim.

Lastly, Hume defines miracles as "a transgression of the laws of nature by the volition of the Deity or by the interposition of a particular deity". This adds a distinction between religious experiences and miracles, and the focus on "a transgression of the laws of nature" removes "miracles" like God putting Jesus' face on toast. This appears specific enough, whilst leaving a possibility for different sorts of miracles. 

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The incoherence of miracles

Unsuprisingly, the definition that Hume provides is specifically designed to undermine religious experiences. This is because once a natural law has been broken, then we assume that it would cease to be a law. For example, gravity is defined as a natural law, and if something defies gravity we would try to redefine gravity to take into account this new law. This would mean that miracles are impossible, as every time a law is broken then it ceases to be a law.

There are numerous responses to this, such as the claim that God is different and surpasses the law. Gravity is still a law for everything but God, because God is so different and transcendent.

However, a more convincing response is Swinburne's argument that a one off exception has occured. The natural law can still be a law, just once somehing different happened. In fairness, we redefine natural laws after we have seen them repeatedly broken, rather than because once it appeared different.

This links to the problem with God's omniscience - if God planned out the world and knew what was going to happen, why didn't God plan out the Jews escape from Egypt without needing to help them? One response is that God planned everything and wanted to intervene for a particular reason, and we cannot understand this because we don't know God (which is still frustrating!)

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Hume's other arguments.

Hume argues that we never have sufficient reason to believe that miracles have actually ever happened. This is because we should always believe the simplest explanation, and miracles are never the simplest explanation. It will always be more likely that someone has had too much to drink than that the sea rose into the air.

Hume's second argument against this is very racist, he argues that miracles are "more common in barbarous nations" because their science is undeveloped. This argument is outdated, especially today as countries with a high level of education like America still seem to experience a lot of miracles.

The first argument is fine if dealing with experiences of miracles but Hume argues that even if we watch someone's wounds heal and they stand and walk, we should still doubt that it is a miracle. This goes against our intuition and most people would trust their own explanation, and mass hallucinations can be less likely than miracles. Furthermore, as we have little experience of miracles, we do not know how probable they are.

This also leads onto Swinburne's principle of credulity that "the experiences of others are normally as they report them", and that if we trust our sense experiences in every day life, we should trust them when we see a miracle.

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Teleological objections to miracles

God's decision to break his miracle contradicts his omniscience, if God planned out everything that would happen then surely God could have planned a better escape from Egypt for the Jews. 

One response to this is that God is still playing an active part in the world, and could have planned out when he would interpose in the world. We cannot understand God.

Another criticism is the subjectivity of miracles; by definition a miracle can only be a miracle if it happens to a few people. If God decides to save one person in a car crash as a "miracle" then that means God decided to leave the others to die. People say that they would not want to worship a God who rescues one child from cancer, and leaves the other children whose cancer is terminal to die.

One response to this is that the purpose is to increase faith, or just that God moves in mysterious ways. The selective benefit of miracles is to do with the outcomes of each miracles - but this still seems to limit the omnipotence of God.

Other people object to the idea that God uses miracles to increase religious faith.

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Ockram's razor & Wiles.

Ockram's razor is another response to Hume's perspective on miracles, which claims that we should always believe the simplest explanation, which could just be a miracle.

However, this is quite arbitrary and subjective, for Hume the simplest explanation was that people were hallucinating.

A response to this is Wiles, who decides to interprets miracles symbolically as individual miracles would make God arbitrary and weak. This has some strengths as it seems to overcome all of the objections to miracles. However, it doesn't actually explain the extraordinary acts in our worlds, but that's quite minor.

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Making sense of religion.

Wisdom's Parable of the gardener explores how we relate to our faith, in which two men disagree about the existence of a gardener and despite the overwhelming evidence that there is no gardener, the other man continues to qualify his belief. This argues that we make sense of religion as it exists in a seperate state to our conventional views of the world

Flew responds to this by arguing that our ideas of "faith" can "die the death of a thousand qualifications". Take the example of the gardener, eventually the man will redefine his intangible, invisible gardener until he has no meaning at all.

One way of responding to this is Hare's definition of religion as a "blik", an idea which no matter how it is contradicted, the subject still holds. He explores this through the parable of the paranoid student, in which, no matter how much evidence there is against the "blik" he holds to his belief. Hare argues that religion still has meaning to the student who holds the "blik" but his definition of belief is undeniably derogatory to believers.

A kinder criticism to theists is Basil Mitchels parable of the resistance leader, where a man meets a resistence leader who converts him to the course but the leader then does contradictory things to what he told the man on the first night, yet the man holds to his beliefs. This takes into account the complexity of beliefs, and the rationality of believers in a way that other parables don't.

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Ayer and Carnap

Because Ayer is a logical postivist, he argues that "god-talk is essentially meaningless" and we cannot make sense of religion because it can never be verified. This is expanded upon by Carnap who claims that because God cannot be empirically understood in the way that we see normal things "God is a meaningless sound".

Criticisms of logical positivism itself are (briefly) that it places too harsh a criteria on what we can understand and that it cannot be verified by its own standards.

However, Hick comes up with a very convincing response to this in the parable of the celestial city. Two men are walking on a path, one man believes it will lead to a celestial city, the other does not believe this. They both have valuable opinions, and they can discuss it, but once they follow the path to its end, they will know who is right. In the same way, our understanding of God can be verified in the afterlife, which means that Ayer's criticism is unsuccessful, without even needing to object to logical positivism.

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Wittgenstein & Aquinas

Wittgenstein argues that all of our understanding of religion comes from within our language game of "religion". Just as some words have different meanings in different contexts, shown through the word "gay" accross time and social groups, the rules of the religious language games are different to the rules of the scientific language game.

However, his language games means that very little progress can be made, which could lead to complete solipsism. Furthermore, they overestimate the coherence of different groups, if every denomination in Christianity has different rules, why can't individual churches have there own rules - and even individual people. Also, we can clearly have meaningful discussions with people who play a different game.

Wittgenstein would respond to this by arguing that the maningful discussions are because they share rules, and that we are taught the rules and can learn to understand them.

Aquinas proposes that we should only speak about God using analogous language. This is because univocal language threatens to limit God - if God is "big" by Earth standards then God must be small and only understood in terms of our world, and that equivocal (equivilant language) means any discussions of God can never make progress. Instead, analogous language reaches the comprimise - but the process of elimination is not always convincing & could have the same consequences as both of these ways of discussing God.

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The objections of social science

Durkheim argues that religion still carries meaning because it serves as the social glue of our society. We worship a divinised version of society, and the events are so significant that it unifies and inspires people, shown in primitive societies where clans would unify under a toten, and shown as empires are often based on religions.

In contrast, Malinowski argues that religion provides us with a structure to deal with life. He studied one group of islanders for a year and found that their mystic behaviours significantly inreased when there were "uncontrollable elements" in their society. Today we use religion as an attempt to control the uncontrollable, and so religion gives us a sense of power (even if this is ultimately an illusion)

However, Pareto's definition is more convincing than definitions of animism (our relationship with spiritual beings) and naturism (our response to natural phenomena - like Zeus and lightning). He argues that religion is emotional, and should not be evaluated as anything else.

These arguments are not necessarily incompatable, and there is no reason that religion cannot be both a unifying aspect & an attempt to control the uncontrollable. Malinowski's arguments can be criticised as he did very little research into the islanders, even eating the food that he brought on the boat for the whole time that he was there.

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