The Rationalist Theist


Interview by Richard Marshall.

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Tim Mawsonis a philosopher of religion and here he discusses whether philosophy of religion can be done effectively by non-believers, how he defines religion, monotheistic convergences and divergencies, the role of reasons in religion, religion's relationship to science, miracles, how God created morality, Mill, where God's body is and free-will and the existence of evil. This one is always waiting for you down the road...

3:AM:What made you become a philosopher?

Tim Mawson:I can throw a bit of intellectual autobiography at that question.

As a 16-to-17-or-so-year old, I had rather ‘fallen into’ doing Science A-levels and two Maths A-levels. One of my parents had read Physics at University; the other, Chemistry. I have two older sisters – one had read Maths; the other, Biology. And I’d just drifted unthinkingly into following down that path. But I found these subjects fundamentally rather frustrating: there were too many unquestioned presumptions underneath what I was being told and about which my teachers seemed reluctant to talk (sensibly enough, given their laudable aim to teach me enough about these subjects to pass the relevant exams and questions such as ‘But what are laws of nature? And how do we know they’ll continue to hold?’ weren’t likely to come up there). I discovered these things that I was more interested in talking about than my teachers were called ‘philosophical’ issues; I picked up a few intro. to Philosophy books; and I decided to apply for Philosophy courses at universities. My interest in Philosophy deepened and broadened. So, that’s at least part of the answer. There may be another part. Whilst I do think one can be a philosopher in the truest sense whatever one’s profession, if you’re asking what made me become what is sometimes called a ‘professional philosopher’, i.e. someone whose remunerative employment is as a Philosopher at a University, then to answer it I'd need to layer into the story of my developing interest and my realization that I wanted to spend my working life thinking and talking about these sorts of things mention of a fact of equal importance - I got lucky; I got a job that enables me to do that. Many very able philosophers end up not being so lucky.

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3:AM:You work in the field of the philosophy of religion. Are you a religious person and do you think philosophy of religioncan be done by people who aren’t? Is belief a matter of psychological make-up, something that might eventually be explained in totally naturalistic and evolutionary terms?

TM:Let me take your questions in order.
I am a Christian; I was brought up in a Christian family; and I’ve never really wavered from that worldview.

I definitely think that Philosophy of Religioncan be done (and done well) by people who aren’t religious; but I do think that there are several things that make for a good philosopher - getting the right answers; getting them to important questions; and getting to the answers in the right way. And if I'm right in my Theism (as of course I can't but help think that I am; otherwise, I'd swap horse), then atheistic philosophers of religion, say, won't be as good by some of these criteria as theistic ones, though of course they may be – sometimes are – very good by reference to the last, having very clever arguments.

You ask if beliefis ‘a matter of psychological make-up, something that might eventually be explained in totally naturalistic and evolutionary terms’. Well, I think that rather than tackle that question head on, I'd be keen to explore whether it’s plausible that religious belief may reasonably be supposed to be more prone to ‘explanation’, than, say, political belief, moral belief, scientific belief, mathematical belief; what ‘explanation’ in this context means; and what, if anything, would follow for the rational defensibility of a belief if it were to be so explained. So, by way of illustration of where I myself would think the answers to those questions would lead: suppose my belief that every right-angled triangle satisfies Pythagoras's theorem can be explained as being the result of my being told it by a teacher whose authority I had never thought to question. It wouldn't follow that that belief was false or that the proof I offered of it was any less valid. In general, I don’t think that so-called ‘debunking’ arguments live up to their hype. I did write something on this, if people are interested, here.

3:AM: You define religion as those systems of thought that regard physicalism as false but many naturalist philosophers might argue that physicalism is false and point to abstract objects, for example, as non-physical actualities of the universe. And Buddhists might argue that physicalism is true, but still want to say that they’re religious. So is it supernaturalism of some sort that really makes a thought system religious?

TM:You’re right that I do define religious viewsin that way - in my book, Belief in Godand elsewhere - and you’re right to pick me up on it: it’s at best a bit ‘rough and ready’. I think though that, with a bit of polishing up, it’s better than any alternative definition for the purposes of Philosophy of Religion (a different definition would probably serve better the purposes of Sociology of Religion; and a different one again, the Psychology of Religion; and so on). So, let’s define Physicalism the thesis that the only concrete objects are those of the sort described by the natural sciences. That just kicks the can down the road a bit of course, into demarcating the natural sciences from other methods of investigation, but let’s leave that can there for now. Religions then let’s define as those systems of thought that see Physicalism as false. Buddhists? I do speak about them in my book; and of course it depends on the Buddhismunder consideration, but some Buddhismsfor sure wouldn’t count as religions then given my definition: they’d be better classified as philosophies of life or some such. So, I stick to my line: you’re religious if and only if you believe in some supernatural realm of concreta. And I stick to it even though it spits out what I concede are some odd results ‘at the margins’, as it were: anyone who happens to believe in Substance Dualism (even if they don’t follow any specific religion) is religious; certain Buddhists don’t follow a religion.

3:AM:What or who do you think the three big Western religions agree they are worshipping? Is this God a rational construct in that it requires argument to arrive at a converging definition, and how do you rate the arguments?

TM:The Lord, God, Allah - whatever name He is given - is what the three big Western religions are worshipping, it seems to me. Whatever name He is given, He is then described by the philosophers within these traditions as an omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good, creator of everything other than Himself, transcendent of the physical world yet immanent in it. And there are various other things the main monotheistic religions agree on concerning this God too. I try to outline these in the first half of my book, Belief in God. As to your second question, I’d say that God Himself is not a rational construct – I’m not a fictionalistabout God. But of course our concept of God is a construct, just as our concept of anything else is and I’d suggest that it is (good) argument that drives us to that concept. Two-and-a-half thousand years or so of philosophical reflection in the tradition of Perfect Being Theology (not that it has been called that at all stages in this two-and-a-half thousand years, of course) has led to this concept of God – the classical theistic concept; and quite rightly so. So, yes, there’s converence in that sense.

Having said that, the classical theistic concept isn’t monolithic – some theists see God as eternal in the sense of everlasting within time and some see Him as eternal in the sense of outside time altogether, for example. And there are other differences, obviously all the more so when one gets down to the level of the different monotheistic religions – e.g. over whether or not God’s a Trinity. And then finally the borders between Theism and Panentheism and Pantheismaren’t clearly drawn.

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3:AM:Having said there’s a convergence, there seem to be disagreements between theists. Open Theism, for example, retreats from the claim that God is all knowing but you think this is a mistake. Why do they make this move – is it to avoid assigning God responsibility for the existence of evil – and why is it a mistake?

TM:Quite so, there is indeed diversity within the 'theistic community'. And yes, Open Theism seems to me to retreat from the claim that God is all knowing. In fairness to Open Theists though, they mightn’t see it that way, saying instead that to be omniscient one just needs to know everything that it’s logically possible to know now and God satisfies that description. Also, to be fair to them, I think they have a battery of reasons for their view, one of which is certainly most often to make the Problem of Evil easier to solve. But, all in all, yes: I think it’s a mistake. God’s omniscience; His omnipotence; and His necessary moral perfection are all lost on this model – it seems to me – and that’s just too high a price to pay.

3:AM:Is faith plugging the gap when reason doesn’t work, or has it a more self sufficient role?

TM:I think one can have reasonable faith – everyone does in something: faith that one’s food won’t have been poisoned in the fridge overnight; faith in general that the future will resemble the past (in the broad sense that we all suppose it will); and so on. I myself argue that having faith in something is a matter of having certain ‘beliefs that’ concerning that thing and then a certain ‘belief in’ that thing and that both the belief-that aspect and the belief-in aspect of faith can (and should) be assessed for how reasonable they are.

3:AM:Of course many of the contemporary discussions about religion have been in terms of its relation to science. One such discussion has been about the so-called fine-tuning of the universe. John Hawthornehas argued that although our existence is evidence of probable fine tuning, it’s of very very very feeble probability. You have looked at the argument from a different angle and seen fine-tuning as an alternative to the God hypothesis haven’t you, and contrasted it with the multiverse hypothesis. Have I got that right – and why is the God hypothesis stronger than the multiverse one?

TM:My views on this have changed since I wrote Belief in God(in which I argued that a certain multiverse hypothesis was a better explanation than the God one for so-called fine-tuning); I now think that what I call the fine-tuning of the universe to us and what I call the fine-tuning of us to the universe is good evidence that there’s a God (and in fact evidence that there’s not an unrestricted multiverse). The answer to your question is that Theism emerges as the best supported hypothesis as it can best explain the continuing tractability of the universe to our inductive habits. How I get there is a long story, but I do give it in this lecture.

3:AM:Miracles are another area you’ve discussed: Hume thought it was unreasonable to believe in miracles but you argue that even if we don’t hold prior belief in supernatural agents it is still possible to rationally believe one has seen a miracle. How does this work?

TM:I’ve always read Hume as arguing that it could never be reasonable to believe in miracles on the testimony of others and officially leaving it an open question whether or not it might be reasonable to believe if one had seen one oneself. But anyway, I do think that even if one doesn’t hold a prior belief that supernatural agents exist, it is possible to come rationally to believe that there has been a miracle through testimonial evidence alone. There’s a path to this conclusion that avoids Humean territory altogether, by defining miracles in such a way that they don’t need to violate laws of nature.

But I also believe one can get there via a path that agrees with Hume that to be a genuine miracle an event would have to violate what really was a law of nature. I do say something about this in the relevant chapter of my book, Belief in God, but the problems in Hume’s argument managing to block this path are primarily to do with his thinking that we can non-question-beggingly assign every miracle a low prior probability and his thinking that the only two probabilities one has to weigh are the prior probability of the miracle occurring and the probability that testimony of this general sort will be in error.

3:AM:You argue that God created morality. You begin by discussing the Euthyphro dilemma. Can you first sketch what this is and what others have said about it before you tackle it? You argue against the category of necessary moral truths – how does that help your argument about God creating morals and how do you avoid the well known challenge of the Euthyphro dilemma that God is arbitrary in his choice of values?

TM:Well, there’s 2500 years or so of philosophical reflection you’ve asked me to sum up! And then give the right answer to it. I give a more expansive answer to your first batch of questions here.

But in brief now: the Euthyphro dilemma is so-called as it’s supposed to present a problem for Theism – either the Theist says that God wills things because they’re good (in which case he or she is committed to there being something independent of and prior to God’s creation, a standard of goodness that could be thought to limit His sovereignty and perhaps constrain His actions) or things get to be good simply because of the fact that God wills them to be so (in which case the substance of morality might be thought to be arbitrary; God could have made torturing puppies morally obligatory). Amongst philosophers who have written on this topic, I am unusual – possibly to the point of uniqueness - in thinking that actually all the major ways of ‘solving’ this so-called dilemma work. It shouldn’t really be called ‘the Euthyphro dilemma’; it should be called ‘the Euthyphro Spoilt-for-Choice’. Of course each solution comes with costs, but the costs of none of the major ones seem to me that great. Nevertheless, despite this irenic approach, I do nevertheless come down on the side of one solution being preferable to the others. It’s similar to that offered by Richard Swinburne and in essence it says that some things are good independent of God’s will – the necessary moral truths (but they don’t limit Him in any way as they’re logically necessary) – and other things are good dependent on God’s willing them to be so (contingent moral truths; contingent but not arbitrary in any problematic way).

3:AM:A naturalist might agree with Mill when he says that 'the same causes which make... [a person] a Churchman in London, would have made him a Buddhist or a Confucian in Pekin'. The evidence for this seems overwhelming. Why is Millwrong?

TM:A naturalist might agree; so might a supernaturalist. I might agree that the same causes which make me believe in heliocentrism would have made me believe in geocentrism had I been brought up by Ptolemy. Or either might disagree – classifying these different circumstances as involving relevantly dissimilar causes. What I think is not easy – not as easy as most proponents of debunking argument suppose – is to draw from any of this an argument that shows that the beliefs to which one has actually come are ones for which one has less justification or ones which are less likely to be knowledge.

3:AM:The scientists will ask where God’s body is if it is ontologically distinct from the universe. How do you answer the scientistand why does it effect how we think about our own selves and bodies?

TM:On this issue I have some different ideas from the majority of theists; I believe that if Theism is true, then the universe is God’s body. So, if a scientist or anyone else were to ask where God’s body is, I’d say ‘All around.’ God is not to be identified with His body however. So, that’smy view.

I do think that taking this view can affect how we think about our own selves and bodies, but it seems to me more likely to affect how we think about environmental and green issues; seeing the natural world as God’s body rather than something He’s created and given over solely to us for our dominion, as it were, might make us respect it more than we tend to do at the moment.

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3:AM:Do the differences between human and divine free-willhelp resolve the problem of evil in a world ruled by an omniscient, omnipotent and perfectly good divine being?

TM:There are important differences, it seems to me, between human and divine free will, but I think the most important move to make in solving the problem of evil is to get clear about what God’s being perfectly good and loving would require of Him and what it wouldn’t. So, Rowe thinks that God, in order to be morally unsurpassable, would have to create a world such that there’s no possible world better; and Leibnizthought the same. That then seems to me to make it impossible (as Rowe draws out and as Leibniz‘Panglossianly’ denied) to solve the Problem of Evil. I think God’s being perfectly good and perfectly loving actually leaves Him with a lot more freedom over which worlds to create than that, so much more in fact that it’s very hard to find anything about the actual world that’s evidential of God’s non-existence. Hard, but not impossible. I think there is some evidence that God doesn’t exist, but just not that much.

3:AM:And for the readers here at 3:AM, are there five books other than your own that you could recommend that will take us further into your philosophical world?

TM:Well, it depends a bit on where they’re starting from. If they’re not yet even in the world of analytic philosophy, they should probably try a general introduction. Duncan Pritchard’s What is this thing called Philosophy? is one I happen to have read recently and seemed good.
It also has a companion website.
But assuming it’s Philosophy of Religion in particular that they want to get further into, then again, if they’re starting from scratch, a general introduction would be good. Richard Swinburne’s The Coherence of Theismand his The Existence of Godwould do the job admirably.
And then – to go with them, something on the other side: J. L Mackie’s The Miracle of Theismis the obvious choice.

I think that after that I’d suggest they go to The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophyand search for the entries for the topics that interest them most. Each of those entries will have bibliographies that would take them yet further.

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