Nontheistic Natural Theology

I conclude this chapter with a section on the virtues of inquiry, as I hope to encourage what I suggest is a golden rule in philosophy of religion. But before addressing the role of humility in philosophical inquiry, it is vital to note that the philosophical investigation into the divine without appeal to an authoritative scripture has historically included nontheistic accounts of a divine reality. I cited Spinoza earlier, who advanced a monistic view of God (or, as he put it, God or nature), according to which God is not an intentional, purposive agent. In the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, there are developed accounts of the divine employing the process philosophy inspired by Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) and Charles Hartshorne (1897-2000). Feminist philosophers have developed views of God that have distinctive pantheistic forms (Rosemary Ruether). I believe this to be a sign of the healthiness of natural theology today, an indication of a growing interest in natural theology, whatever its specific religious implications.

The development of nontheistic natural theology is also an emerging new chapter in the dialogue about the relationship of science and religion. Rather than supporting a warfare model of science versus religion, works such as the Macmillan Encyclopedia of Science and Religion under the editorship of J. W. V. Van Huyssteen (2003) is a sign of the rich interplay on theistic and nontheistic natural theology.

As the field widens, I believe that more philosophers are appreciating the role of cumulative arguments, the combining of independent reasons for embracing a conclusion. Thus, a case for pantheism might be supported by an appeal to religious experience as well as a principle of simplicity. A leading philosopher of religion, Graham Oppy, has recently sounded a warning about cumulative arguments. Consider Oppy's somewhat complex analysis in his fine book Arguing About Gods:

If we have two valid arguments, each of which entails the conclusion that a particular monotheistic god exists, then we can form a disjunctive argument that also entails the same conclusion. More generally, if we have a large collection of valid arguments, each of which entails the conclusion that a particular monotheistic god exists, then we can form a multiply disjunctive argument that also entails that same conclusion. However, it should not be supposed that a "cumulative" argument that is formed in this way is guaranteed to be a better argument than the individual arguments with which we began (even if we are properly entitled to the claim that the arguments with which we are working are all valid). For, on the one hand, if all of the arguments are effective on grounds other than those of validity - for example, because they have false premises, or because they are question-begging - then the cumulative argument will also be defective. But, on the other hand, if even one of the arguments with which we began is not defective on any other grounds, then it is a cogent argument for its conclusion, and the cumulative argument is plainly worse (since longer and more convoluted). So, at the very least, we have good reason to be suspicious of talk about a cumulative case for the claim that a given monotheistic god does - or does not - exist that is based upon a collection of (allegedly) valid arguments for the claim that the god in question does - or does not - exist. (Oppy 2006, pp. 5, 6)

It is certainly right that simply having a greater number of arguments for one position (theism) rather than another (pantheism) is not, ipso facto, an advantage. The larger number of arguments may raise a larger number of good objections. But what Oppy's analysis may lead us to miss is that independent lines of reasoning can increase the bona fide cogency of their mutual conclusion. So if religious experience gives one some reason to embrace pantheism and an argument from simplicity gives one reason to embrace pantheism, then pantheism is better supported than if one only had one such argument. This is not a matter of a mere disjunction but a case of one argument supporting the other. To offer one other example, the moral theistic argument and ontological arguments are conceptually distinguishable (one may embrace one without embracing the other), but if both have some evidential force, then the evidence for the conclusion has grown greater than if only one had evidential force.

Consider a concrete case in which pantheistic and theistic arguments might together offer a cumulative case against naturalism. Without spelling out the details, John Leslie has developed a sustained argument for pantheism on the grounds that the cosmos is best explained in terms of values. Leslie is in the Platonic tradition, according to which the cosmos exists because it is good that it exists (in the Republic, Book VI, Plato proposes that the Good is what gives existence to things). And Leslie goes on to argue that the world itself is identifiable with "divine thought-patterns" (Leslie 2007, p. 3). Imagine that Leslie's argument has some, but not decisive, weight. Now, imagine that a moral theistic argument has some, but not decisive, weight. What follows? It may be that we are at a point where the evidential basis for theism and pantheism is on a par, but we would also be in a position (ceterus paribus) where there is more reason to question the sufficiency of secular naturalism. Both the nontheistic and theistic arguments would function as providing independent reasons for seeking a nonnaturalist account of the cosmos.

While my suggestion in the section that follows about the conduct of philosophy takes its focus to be the biggest debate in modern natural theology (theism versus naturalism), its broader point bears on the growing rich variety of viewpoints that are being developed by philosophers in natural theology today.

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