Friday, January 9, 2009

Should students expect proofs of God?

Alex Byrne has a very nice article in the Boston Review appraising the main philosophical arguments for God's existence. It's an evenhanded discussion on the whole, but I was struck (pedagogically, that is) by Byrne's conclusion that "the funny thing about arguments for the existence of God is that, if they succeed, they were never needed in the first place." I take Byrne to be suggesting that only those who already have faith in God are likely to be persuaded by such arguments, which amounts to saying that proofs of God are not rationally persuasive since they presuppose the prior acceptance of their conclusions.


This resonates with something in my own teaching experience: I'm sure most of us teach proofs of God's existence, in our introductory classes for instance. But one challenge I've had in teaching this material is that many students (many of them religiously inclined, but not all of them) already share Byrne's conclusion God's existence is unprovable (especiallyto skeptics). Religious belief, on this view, can only be a matter of pure faith. Obviously, if that is the student's view, then the fact that so many of the arguments for God's existence seem shaky comes as no surprise to them at all. As a result, students feel little interest in engaging the proofs, since for them, it can only be an idle intellectual exercise. Fideism is thus a barrier to serious rational engagement with these arguments.

I'm curious to know if others have had the same experience in trying to teach these arguments, and if so, the approaches you've tried. One thing that's worked for me is to draw upon students' awareness of religious pluralism. Even students with strong religious convictions know that others don't share those convictions. I've had some success persuading students that reason has a role to play in discussions of theism if for no other reason that the various religions make competing claims about God that cannot all be true. This seems to get them in the right frame of mind to think about the question of theism more generally.

Anyone have similiar thoughts or experiences?

7 comments:

  1. Michael, I teach philosophy of religion now and then and get these same kind of reactions. Here are some quick thoughts.

    First, while many people say that religion is "just a matter of faith" or "you just have to have faith" or whatever, at least some people deny that, e.g., various (Christian) apologists, who argue that God's existence can be known, there are truly excellent reasons to believe, that the evidence is just overwhelming, etc. Perhaps these kinds of positions would be seen as some kind of rival to "it's just all faith" attitude that can be evaluated throughout the semester or so.

    Second, and maybe this relates to the pluralism suggestion, if it really is all "just a matter of faith" then there's the question of what one should have faith in, why you should have faith in one religion / set of religious beliefs over another, etc. This can hopefully lead to wondering if you should have reason to have faith in something or not, and then maybe the "its all faith" position is a bit undercut.

    OK, those are some quick thoughts! Maybe more later when I have more time.

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  2. Michael, I encounter this attitude as well. Students, whether believers or not, often think that either one has faith, in which case arguments are hardly necessary, or one does not have faith, in which case they are ineffective. Some of them also think that, whether one believes or not, one should commend an argument for the existence of God for the positive effects it is likely to have reinforcing the faith of believers. "Since I believe in God, of course I think this argument is valid! Of course, it would never persuade a rational atheist."

    I suspect that many students come out of high school thinking that, when it comes to religious matters, the polite thing to do is to affirm other people in their beliefs.

    One way round this is to discuss the history of the concept of faith, and the origins of fideism. Since I also teach religious studies classes, I like the chance to take an inter-disciplinary approach.

    I also like to make the point that, although it is unusual, it is by no means unknown for people to change their mind about the existence of God based, partly at least, on philosophical arguments. The cases of C.S.Lewis, Anthony Kenny and, more recently, Anthony Flew come to mind. Of course, it is unlikely that any individual student's whole outlook on life is going to change as a result of what they study in my class, but it is not impossible: philosophy really does bite. I like to remind them of that fact.

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  3. Hi Michael,
    You said this:
    >>students feel little interest in engaging the proofs, since for them, it can only be an idle intellectual exercise.>>

    I take it that you think this is a bad attitude to take, and that these students are being unreasonable, inappropriately unresponsive to logic, etc.

    But consider how students would react to considering arguments for the existence of other minds, an external world, etc. Wouldn't students view these proofs as "an idle intellectual exercise"? And properly so, right? Belief in other minds and the external worlds is properly basic; it's perfectly appropriate to believe these things in the absence of argument or evidence. And perhaps its appropriate to take a dim view of attempts to rationally justify the existence of other minds, since belief in other minds is properly basic.

    If theistic belief is also properly basic, then your students are actually taking the appropriate response to your discussion of the rational justification of theism. So I suppose you're presupposing that theistic belief is not properly basic. But that's pretty contentious, and requires some serious argument on your part.

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  4. Anonymous: even if belief in God is properly basic, it is certainly not as widespread as belief in an external world or other minds. In most institutions, there will be many students who do not believe that God exists, but it is rare to encounter a student who does not believe in other minds or in the external world, or at least one who advocates such beliefs (if I did not believe in other minds, perhaps I wouldn't waste time trying to explain this, since there would be nobody else to explain this to).

    In that case, many human beings would be suffering from a cognitive defect: some people are blind, others deaf, others lack a properly basic belief. (This is no surprise to reformed epistemologists of course: it can be explained as a cognitive result of original sin). In that case, arguments for the existence of God would have interest as attempts to overcome this cognitive defect - like braille or hearing aids, an artificial human invention to supplant a natural process that sometimes fails.

    Of course, having said that, I'd agree that students would probably benefit from a discussion of reformed epistemology. Certainly, if religious students regard arguments for the existence of God as idle exercises, it is worth looking at why some religious philosophers would agree with them.

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  5. Hi Ben,

    You said:
    In most institutions, there will be many students who do not believe that God exists, but it is rare to encounter a student who does not believe in other minds or in the external world, or at least one who advocates such beliefs

    That seems right to me.


    In that case, many human beings would be suffering from a cognitive defect: some people are blind, others deaf, others lack a properly basic belief.

    In which case? Failing to believe on other minds, or God (if it is properly basic), or both? I imagine you meant both, right?


    In that case, arguments for the existence of God would have interest as attempts to overcome this cognitive defect - like braille or hearing aids, an artificial human invention to supplant a natural process that sometimes fails.

    Oh, I gotcha. That's a good point, and maybe it should be put this way to theistic students who view arguments for God as an idle intellectual exercise. Instructors could point out that, while they (the theistic students) may not stand to benefit much from discussing these arguments, in-class discussion of the arguments may occasion the formation of this properly basic theistic belief in other students, or bolster flagging belief in theists. So, instructors might urge theistic students to tolerate the exercise for the sake of other students. Like putting up with remedial math in the first week of a math class or something. Is that your point?

    As I said, that seems reasonable. I was just responding to what I took Michael's claim to be: that these theistic students are doing something wrong by viewing arguments for God's existence as superfluous and idle intellectual exercises. That these students are being improperly unresponsive to reason *just by* having a dim view of these arguments. I think we can agree that, if theistic belief is properly basic, that's not true.

    I didn't mean to argue that these students don't have an all-things-considered reason to tolerate (or even welcome) the discussion of the arguments. I take it that's what you were arguing for: that these students do have an all-things-considered reason to tolerate or welcome the discussion of these arguments. I'm inclined to agree with you, but again, I'm also inclined to think that Michael's claim (if I understand it correctly) is wrong.


    Of course, having said that, I'd agree that students would probably benefit from a discussion of reformed epistemology. Certainly, if religious students regard arguments for the existence of God as idle exercises, it is worth looking at why some religious philosophers would agree with them.

    Again, just to be clear, I really only meant to address the claim that it's necessarily wrong for a student to view arguments for God as idle intellectual exercises. If theism is properly basic, that's not true. It could be that this student is functioning properly and holds theistic belief to the degree that we hold belief in an external world. It's perfectly proper for such a student to be underwhelmed and unconcerned with arguments for theism. However, I don't mean to claim that arguments for God's existence serve no good purpose (and I think reformed epistemologists would agree). As you point out, arguments for theism can occasion the formation of theistic belief, or bolster flagging belief.

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  6. Ben,

    Just curious, when did Anthony Kenny change his mind about the existence of God, and what is his current position? I always thought he was an agnostic, at least based on my few readings about him.

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