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My Time with Alvin Plantinga

Warrant: The Inaccessible

I first encountered Alvin Plantinga’s work back in the early 1990s when I was going through a particularly excruciating intellectual crisis. I had been raised in a very conservative Christian home and had been taught, as many kids are, that there was only one way to think about the world and all other ways were not only wrong but were based in a hatred of God and rooted in self-deception and irrationality. In college, I was exposed to ideas that challenged that framework and I took that challenge extremely seriously. Towards the end of my senior year, the “sure foundation” of my worldview was showing serious fractures.

In a desperate attempt to figure things out, I began reading everything and anything I could get my hands on. One day I was perusing the philosophy stacks at Borders Books in Tacoma Washington Plantingaand came across two volumes with odd titles: Warrant: The Current Debate and Warrant and Proper Function. I didn’t know what warrant was and knew nothing about the author but the themes of the books seemed to deal with some of the topics I was wrestling with.  An endorsement by Richard Foley on the back cover read, “This two-volume work is one of the major accomplishments of twentieth-century epistemology.” That sold me and I bought the books (looking back this strikes me now as rather strange since I had no idea who Richard Foley was, but such is the way with endorsements). I devoured them. They were difficult and largely inaccessible for me but these two volumes (along with select others) planted a seed that would grow into a insatiable passion for philosophy and particularly for epistemology.

I didn’t know it was possible to think so deeply about these topics that mattered so much to me. It wasn’t so much the content that impacted me since I had to labor so hard just to understand what I was reading. Rather, it was the methodology the authors employed and the framework they established that enticed me. Soon after, I encountered Faith and Rationality by Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff. To say I found the book challenging would be an understatement—I wasn’t entirely sure how to pronounce “Wolterstorff.” I did, however, come to realize that I needed a lot more help and left my job as a pastor and headed to graduate school. More...

Plantinga to Speak at Western Washington University

Editor’s note: I’ll be attending a faculty colloquium on Wednesday, May 11th with Dr. Plantinga and will try to tweet some of what happens there. Dr. Plantinga also agreed to sit down for an interview with me in which we’ll discuss his new book. I’ll be publishing that interview closer to the date of the book’s release (currently scheduled for October 2011). I’m also planning on doing a full review of the book for Philosophy News.

PFP


Noted Philosopher Alvin Plantinga to Speak at WWU May 10 and 12

Third of Bellingham Lectures in Philosophy and Religion

Contacts: Professor Dan Howard-Snyder, WWU Department of Philosophy, or Tracy Imbach, BLPR administrator, (360) 297-0640 or info@blpr.org

BELLINGHAM – Noted philosopher Alvin Plantinga will give keynote lectures on May 10 and May 12 on the Western Washington University campus as part of the Bellingham Lectures in Philosophy and Religion (BLPR).

Plantinga will provide free lectures at 7 p.m. both days in Arntzen Hall 100.

  • On Tuesday, May 10 his theme will be “Religion and Evolution: Where the Conflict Really Lies.”
  • On Thursday, May 12 the theme will be “Does Science Show that Miracles Can’t Happen?”

The public is invited and welcome to attend the lectures in person, or to view the lectures via streaming video at: www.blpr.org After each lecture there will be a question and answer time during which questions will be taken from both in-person and online audiences.

Plantinga, professor emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, was described by Time magazine in 1980 as “America’s leading orthodox Protestant philosopher of God.” He is the author of numerous articles and several books, including “God and Other Minds: the Rational Justification of Religious Belief” (Cornell 1967), “God, Freedom and Evil” (Eerdmans 1974),“Warranted Christian Belief” (Oxford 2000) and “Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism” (Oxford 2012). Among many honors, Plantinga is the past president of the American Philosophical Association, Central Division, and the Society of Christian Philosophers, and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

“The BLPR arose in response to two visions: first, the vision of President Bruce Shepard for Western more intentionally to be by the people and for the people of the region and, second, the vision of President Barack Obama for our country to practice a more civil discourse over contentious issues. These naturally combine in what the BLPR is about,” said Western Philosophy Professor Dan Howard-Snyder.

The Bellingham Lectures in Philosophy and Religion (BLPR) are designed to facilitate informed, articulate thinking and civil conversation regarding the “Big Questions” present in philosophy, religion and science, and to inspire further study in these areas.

Sponsored by Western Washington University and made possible by a generous grant by the John Templeton Foundation, the BLPR is bringing together academics, students, religious leaders and community members to create an open and inspiring atmosphere in which to discuss topics such as God, Character and Free Will. Lectures are currently scheduled through 2013. The BLPR also is supported by the Western Washington University Foundation through private donations to “Philosophy-BLPR.”

Logic and Methodology Workshop

May 14-15, 2011
Cordura Hall 100, CSLI
Stanford University

The goal of the Logic and Methodology Workshop is to bring together senior and up-and-coming researchers in logic, epistemology, and philosophy of science to explore the interactions between these disciplines. Topics from formal epistemology will include dynamic epistemic logic, learning theory, and probabilistic methods, plus the relation of these approaches to science and cognition.

In addition to invited talks, the workshop will include *introductory tutorials* on formal methods by Johan van Benthem, Ban van Fraassen, and Kevin Kelly.

For the schedule of tutorials and talks, please see the workshop webpage.
For directions to Cordura Hall, please see the CSLI webpage.

 

Reposted from Certain Doubts

The Journal Episteme is Changing

The journal will be published by Cambridge University Press (currently being published by Edinburgh University Press) and, more importantly, will cover all of epistemology (formerly it covered just social epistemology). This is a big announcement and the journal's growth and broadened emphasis is an important addition to the discipline. Best of luck!

Full announcement here.

The Influence of Religious Belief on Behavior

A new study looks at the relationship of one’s view of God to ethical behavior. The study found that the difference in one’s view of cheating does not differ along the theist/atheist lines. However, if one views God as more retributive, he or she would be less inclined to cheat than one who does not. From the abstract:

Fear of supernatural punishment may serve as a deterrent to counternormative behavior, even in anonymous situations free from human social monitoring. The authors conducted two studies to test this hypothesis, examining the relationship between cheating behavior in an anonymous setting and views of God as loving and compassionate, or as an angry and punishing agent. Overall levels of religious devotion or belief in God did not directly predict cheating. However, viewing God as a more punishing, less loving figure was reliably associated with lower levels of cheating. This relationship remained after controlling for relevant personality dimensions, ethnicity, religious affiliation, and gender.

This appears to be a paper and pen study. One wonders how the results would look in an experimental study.

LA Times write up here.

The intro to the paper is here and the actual research paper is here.

Varieties of Human Cortical Color Vision

Conference and workshop.

Philosophers, neurophysiologists, psychologists and researchers within the cognitive sciences are warmly invited to attend the conference and to submit posters.

The focus of this conference is “colour beyond the retina”, both the normal neurophysiology of human cortical colour mechanisms and a variety of cortical colour ‘anomalies’, in particular:

  • Cerebral Achromatopsia
  • Colour Synaesthesias
  • Colour Blindsight
  • Cortical Colour Development

Info here.

Protesting Protestantism

It’s not uncommon around holidays like Easter for religion to get a reprieve. Christians, rightly, recognize that at least Easter remains their holiday and while the Easter Bunny and chocolate eggs give greeting card companies and candy makers a much-needed springtime economic boost, Easter (much more so than Christmas) still seems to be primarily focused on its religious roots. Even among my most cynical acquaintances, the whole idea of bunny that delivers candy seems a bit too obvious and they generally don’t mind the focus turning more towards the sublime.

ice-cream-sundaeMy brother forwarded me a rather friendly article printed in USA Today. The article is friendly but also carries the requisite angle. Commentary of religion around Easter is tamer than normal but tame is not the same as traditional. The article caught my attention because it focuses on the changes to religious practice in the midst of an inherently traditional holy day. People are leaving their traditions, it claims, and defining their own “church experience” many times leaving the expensive productions, fashion shows, floral displays, and liturgical pomp and circumstance behind. According to the article, it is only by doing this that the true object of Easter, Christ, can once again become the focus.

In a sense, it is a new protest against what many see as the institutionalization of religion.

Almost a year ago, I wrote an essay outlining what I see as a fairly significant shift in the way many Americans think about their faith. As a philosopher, I’m intrigued by the epistemology (how knowledge is grounded) of this shift. I’ve become convinced that people of faith depend upon the social and practical constructs of something like the church in order to maintain a robust belief. Of course this is no different than anything else. A Seattle Seahawks fan who never attends or watches games, doesn’t own an oversized “twelfth man” jersey, or fly window flags from her car on game day soon will find they are no longer a fan. An environmentalist who drives a gas-guzzler because he enjoys the ride and refuses to recycle because it’s inconvenient may soon find his love for the environment fading. The mechanisms in our brain that sustain robust belief—particularly when that belief is in something transcendental like the future state of the planet or an unseen god—needs a constant and powerful bulwark against disbelief.

So this shift away from institutional religion is not trivial. The USA Today article focuses on the shift away from the institutional church proper and towards a more intimate, less liturgical model of experience and personal fellowship. One person interviewed for the article made the same prediction I did in my essay: the days of the institutional (protestant) church probably are numbered. She said, "We just weren't seeing any fruit, any new members, for all that huge expense of time and effort. I love Jesus and I love the church, but I think the way we do institutional church in America will be extinct before long. It will just crumble."

If this is true, how will the epistemology of faith change along with it? It’s almost impossible to predict but I think certain key elements will earmark the shift.

  • People will depend on other people to help keep faith strong. Most of us need the support and validation of others to maintain our beliefs. In one of the many insightful passages in his The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker observes,

    “Each person thinks that he has the formula for triumphing over life’s limitations and knows with authority what it means to be a man, and he usually tries to win a following for his particular patent. Today we know that people try so hard to win converts for their point of view because it is more than merely an outlook on life: it is an immortality formula. . . . in matters of immortality, everyone has the same self-righteous conviction.”

    The growth of the internet and electronic communication may enable individuals to leave institutions and yet still have meaningful connections with others. I’ll freely admit that this blog is an exercise in just that. As a semi-professional philosopher who works at a large corporation but who remains passionate about philosophy, this blog gives me an outlet and opportunity, however small, to connect with a larger audience and gives me a sense that my ideas mean something to others. I have friends on Facebook who regularly post nothing but passages of scripture or continually link to apologetic material. These, I believe, fulfill Becker’s axiom. Without loyal followers who share our beliefs, our beliefs wither. 
  • Believers will depend on an authority to ensure their faith has merit. Regardless of whether one is meeting in a mega-church or a home church, some authority that gives credence to belief always emerges. It may be an individual that everyone turns to for guidance or protection, or an escalation of the importance and authority of a religious text (or a version of that text – this year is the 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible, a translation which many almost deify), or a particular practice such as speaking in tongues or communal prayer. Many philosophers and scientists uphold reason as that authority. Regardless, epistemologically, belief needs a king and a soldier.
  • The inside-outside dichotomy will need to be maintained and may grow in importance. If institutional religion is “crumbling” I expect that a part of the justification for leaving those institutions must include the idea that one can do better as the quote above indicates. Becker used the unflattering term “self-righteous” to capture this idea (and many times the expression of this is unflattering) but it need not be as virtueless as that. Sports fans need rivals. Environmentalists need consumers. Philosophers need their cave-dwellers. Scientists need artists. Corporations need competitors. Any worldview that has any significance for a person needs something it contrasts against. I think this helps give it clear definition and helps our minds find the boundaries. Belief needs to back up against something or it stumbles and falls over.
  • There will be a greater focus on the transcendent and a rejection of human constructs.

I think the USA Today article is correct: certain facets of religion in Western subcultures are undergoing a change. I don’t believe this earmarks a substantial, permanent change in the nature of the human person however. That’s why I think the term “shift” is more accurate. In my view, protests like the one we’ll be witnessing in the next decade is all part of a regular cycle. Religious belief and praxis has gone through this cycle many times before. What has remained constant is the epistemology that sustains and supports those beliefs. The specifics may be very different but the underlying epistemological needs will remain constant.

Apologies in advance to the Easter Bunny.

God’s Bulldog: Francis Beckwith and the Synthese Affair

Its almost unheard of for an academic journal to publish a disclaimer in the preface of one of its issues. But that’s just what the journal Synthese did and it set off a firestorm that is still playing out.

picture-of-conflictIn January 2011 of this year, the journal Synthese published an issue titled, Evolution and Its Rivals edited by guest editors Glenn Branch and James H. Fetzer. The issue features articles critical of the Intelligent Design movement and of the intelligent design philosophy when applied to scientific research. The papers were published online prior to being published in paper which initiated a bit of a brouhaha with Francis Beckwith apparently leading the charge to get some of the papers revised before they went to print. The Editors-in-Chief ended up printing a disclaimer in the print version claiming that some of the articles “included in the special issue contained language that is unacceptable: neutral readers of the issue will find no difficulty in identifying such passages.”

Brian Leiter gave a detailed account of the events and appears to find, not surprisingly, the most egregious fault with the Editors-in-Chief of Synthese and calls on all philosophers to boycott the journal. Focusing more on the offense to the guest editors than on the content of what was published, Mark Lance and Eric Schliesser “invite discussion” on the issue by asking a series of questions about whether the response by Synthese actually addressed the issues at hand. Probably the most even-handed write up on the events was by John Turri on Certain Doubts. He says the ensuing criticism of the Editors-in-Chief seems overblown but that Synthese does appear to be in the wrong on some level and should issue an apology (he also links to the requisite poll on how the profession should respond).

Lightening Rod

The person that seems to be generating the most heat in this debate is Francis Beckwith. When it comes to the intelligent design movement it’s hard to find an issue where Beckwith is not making news. He has had a very interesting spiritual and intellectual journey and seems fearless in voicing his views and opinions with little regard for (and perhaps an eye towards) the attention it brings. Leiter, who apparently has had run-ins with Beckwith in the past, appears to have almost no tolerance for him and aimed a particularly large number of his sharp words towards the Baylor professor in his write up of the situation.

Indeed, it appears that Beckwith (along with Walter Bradley (mechanical engineering prof)) led the charge against Synthese. Beckwith wrote a lengthy response to one the papers in the Synthese issue written by Barbara Forrest and titled, “On the Non-Epistemology of Intelligent Design”. He claims that Forrest’s paper is not professional and is filled with ad hominem attacks and irrelevant and incorrect material. (Leiter reports that some of Beckwith’s supporters even called some of the claims in the Synthese papers libelous though I was not able to confirm that).

I read through Forrest’s paper and Beckwith’s response. Forrest’s paper is long and packed with references, partial quotes, and argument. She focuses a good portion of the paper on the epistemology of intelligent design and the implications that epistemology has on public policy and science education. She also has a lot to say about Beckwith’s views. Beckwith, in his response, attempts to show where Forrest gets things wrong with her philosophical analysis of the epistemology she addresses and also where she makes errors or misunderstands his views.

Playing With Fire

As Beckwith notes in his response, Forrest’s paper is a difficult read not because the content is challenging but because it’s poorly written (and edited). Of the 49 pages, 15 - 20 of them are probably unnecessary.The intrusion of constant references, partial quotes, and regular shifting of focus makes the paper a Volkswagen into which she has tried to stuff far too many claims. This is unfortunate because when she does stay focused on the epistemological problems, those portions of the paper are quite good. She calls out some rather serious challenges with the way the ID movement is being proffered as an alternate philosophy of science and the paper contains many ideas worth chewing on. If one has the patience to redact the noise, the reader will find ideas that have plenty of merit.

But it seems to me that she clearly had an agenda that went well beyond addressing epistemology and clouds the paper with seemingly irrelevant content about Beckwith and his motives. Reading the paper charitably, I believe Forrest was attempting to show how Beckwith’s personal views have important implications for  the political agenda of the ID movement and perhaps she’s right. But it muddies an otherwise interesting paper—commentary like that should be preserved for an accompanying article on a personal blog (for example, see here) or something and shouldn’t be a part of a paper for an academic journal. Certainly not for a journal of the caliber of Synthese.

If the Editors-in-Chief have any case it is on this point. A good editor would have cleaned the paper up considerably by removing a majority of the quotes and references (or at least footnoted some) and reducing the volume of the paper by half. They also would have completely cut section 6.2 (“Beckwith’s religious exclusionism”) as it adds nothing to her central argument as far as I can see. At the very least, with such a long and involved analysis of Beckwith’s views, it is academic courtesy to offer the person who is the object of those criticisms a chance to review and at least privately comment on the claims being made particularly if one’s goal is to get to the truth of the matter--something I hope philosophers are still interested in. If you want to get something right and you’re making a number of complex claims about a person’s views (not just about their published arguments), academic, and we might add common, courtesy would seem to demand a review of this sort. It doesn’t appear that Forrest ever reached out to Beckwith before publication. This is particularly unfortunate given the highly emotional—and many times toxic—nature of the conversation around intelligent design.

Which leads to another relevant point in my opinion. Regardless of whether the Editors-in-Chief were justified in finding fault with the quality of the articles published (I’ll set aside the important issue of whether or not they subverted the wishes of the guest editors in publishing a disclaimer), because the issue focused on the ID movement, any criticism would be suspect. It reminds me of the claim of some conservatives during the 2008 presidential campaign that an African American president would be made of rubber: any criticism, regardless of its merit, would automatically become a “black issue” and so nothing would stick.  Because of the toxicity of the topic, the Editors-in-Chief should have taken special care to ensure the publication was handled with the utmost editorial care.

Inevitability

Beckwith’s response was pretty much inevitable but I’m not sure why he published it or at least why he spent a number of pages addressing what he saw as personal attacks. Anyone who could decipher Forrest’s claims against Beckwith and who would take the time to research the myriad references seemingly would be fair enough to know that Forrest’s critique is not the entire story and so Beckwith’s paper isn’t necessary. Anyone who would take Forrest at her word about Beckwith probably wouldn’t listen to Beckwith’s response anyway so, again, his paper seems unnecessary. I found Beckwith’s paper too focused on his views on the matters at hand and less about the issues themselves. There is some good content in the paper to be sure and perhaps the sensationalistic nature of the events surrounding Sythese gave Beckwith the opportunity to introduce new readers to his material. But as a personal apologetic, I didn’t find his response all that effective.

Intramural infighting like this is mildly entertaining but, I think, a target of ridicule by those on the outside. Still, there is plenty of interesting content here and I hope the general reader will be able to separate the wheat from the chaff and avoid getting embroiled in the sideshow.

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