Virtues and Vices of Inquiry

In recent epistemology of religious beliefs, there has been great attention to the virtues of inquiry. Is there some overriding virtue that theists and naturalists can recognize as truly virtuous that will incline us to one or the other side? Anthony Kenny has recently developed an interesting case for humility, which he believes should incline us to agnosticism. This, in fact, is Kenny's current position: he thinks both atheism and theism are unwarranted:

For my part I find the arguments for God's existence unconvincing and the historical evidence uncertain on which the creedal statements are based. The appropriate response to the uncertainty of argument and evidence is not atheism - that is at least as rash as the theism to which it is opposed - but agnosticism: that is the admission that one does not know whether there is a God who has revealed himself to the world. (Kenny 2004, p. 109)

He then develops the following argument, based on his view of humility as a virtue.

If we look at [the debate over theism versus atheism] from the viewpoint of humility it seems that the agnostic is in the safer position. . . . The theist is claiming to possess a good which the agnostic does not claim to possess: he is claiming to be in possession of knowledge; the agnostic lays claim only to ignorance. The believer will say he does not claim knowledge, only true belief; but at least he claims to have laid hold, in whatever way, of information that the agnostic does not possess. It may be said that any claim to possess gifts which others do not have is in the same situation, and yet we have admitted that such a claim may be made with truth and without prejudice to humility. But in the case of a gift such as intelligence or athletic skill, those surpassed will agree that they are surpassed; whereas in this case, the theist can only rely on the support of other theists, and the agnostic does not think that the information which the theist claims is genuine information at all. Since Socrates philosophers have realized that a claim not to know is easier to support than a claim to know. (Kenny 2004, p. 109)

Does his argument succeed? I do not think so, but it opens up what I believe is a promising avenue for inquiry to note at the end of this first chapter.

Kenney structures his argument on the grounds that the theist claims to have a good (which he describes as a gift or information) that others lack, whereas the agnostic does not. Yet agnostics historically claim to have a good that theists and atheists lack: the good of intellectual integrity. If you like, they claim to have the information that we should withhold our consent both to theism and atheism. And, if it were successful, Kenny's argument would explicitly secure the idea that agnostics have a good that theists and atheists lack, namely, humility. There is a further problem about claiming that theists are only supported by theists. First, it is not just possible but commonplace for atheists to admire theists and theists to admire atheists. In this sense, there is mutual support and a massive amount of collaboration between the different parties. If by "support" Kenney means "belief," then (arguably) only agnostics support agnostics because if you support agnostics in the sense of believing they are right, you are yourself an agnostic.

I think humility in the context of the theism versus naturalism debate should be understood more along the lines of what may be described as the philosophical golden rule of treating other people's philosophies in the way you would like yours to be treated. I suggest that humility involves stepping back from one's own position and trying to evaluate and sympathetically consider the range of beliefs and evidence that can be arrayed in support for another position. If one employed such a rule in the debate between naturalism and theism, then I suggest that theistic philosophers should truly seek to see naturalism in its best, most comprehensive light, weighing the different ways in which consciousness and values and the very nature of the cosmos should be described and explained. Conversely, a naturalist philosopher needs to see theism in comprehensive terms. For example, rather than dismissing from the start the possibility that religious experience could provide evidence of a divine reality, one should consider such ostensible evidence in light of a comprehensive theistic account of the contingency of the cosmos, its apparent order, the emergence of cosmos and values. Claims to experience God look profoundly unreliable unless one takes seriously the whole pattern of such experiences across cultures and assesses their credibility in light of a comprehensive case for theism or some other religious philosophy.

The importance of what I am referring to as the philosophical golden rule may be seen as even more poignant when one appreciates that the field of natural theology involves not just theism and naturalism but a growing literature in nontheistic natural theology.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment