Hill on Theism, Naturalism, and Liberalism

John Lawrence Hill (Indiana U., Robert H. McKinney School of Law) has posted Theism, Naturalism, and Liberalism: John Stuart Mill and the “Final Inexplicability” of the Self. The abstract follows.

The purpose of this essay is to explore what often is overlooked in political and constitutional discussions of the relationship between law and religion. Law and religion are not natural adversaries. They are thought to conflict today not simply because secular law must create a space for competing religious viewpoints. The source of the conflict runs much deeper. It is nothing if not metaphysical–a conflict of worldviews.

This essay explores the metaphysical conflicts between the religious and the secular-naturalist worldviews by examining the philosophy of John Stuart Mill. I chose Mill not only because he is arguably the most important liberal philosopher of all time, the thinker who transformed liberalism from the older, classical to the modern, progressive ideal, but because he also had a well-developed metaphysical conception of human nature which is so strikingly in tension with his political liberalism. Mill’s “harm principle,” developed in On Liberty, is the true philosophical source of the modern right of privacy. And his overarching justification for liberty as a means of self-individuation is the dominant idea of freedom today. Yet Mill was a deeply conflicted thinker–a utilitarian who was drawn to romanticism, a political libertarian and a metaphysical determinist, a naturalist who rejected God, soul, and self, who nevertheless made self-individuation the real animating justification for political liberty.

The contradictions within Mill’s thought are the contradictions of liberalism itself. They are ultimately our contradictions–and they derive from our own ambivalent attachments to theism and naturalism.

“Our knowledge is a torch of smoky pine”: A New Book on George Santayana

I am a casual and qualified fan of the thought of the urbane, naturalist philosopher and public intellectual George Santayana, whose work on aesthetics is pretty neat.  Here is his poem, “Faith”:

O WORLD, thou choosest not the better part!
It is not wisdom to be only wise,
And on the inward vision close the eyes,
But it is wisdom to believe the heart.
Columbus found a world, and had no chart,
Save one that faith deciphered in the skies;
To trust the soul’d invincible surmise
Was all his science and his only art.
Our knowledge is a torch of smoky pine
That lights the pathway but one step ahead
Across a void of mystery and dread.
Bid, then, the tender light of faith to shine
By which alone the mortal heart is lead
Unto the thinking of the thoughts divine.

I am not so familiar, though, with the connection of his work to distinctively Catholic ideas, so I am very interested in Edward Lovely’s (William Paterson University/Farleigh Dickinson University) recently published book: George Santayana’s Philosophy of Religion: His Roman Catholic Influences and Phenomenology (Lexington Books 2012).  I am having trouble locating the publisher’s description, but believe this may be it:

George Santayana (1862-1952) of Spanish descent, and generally claimed to be in the canon of American philosophers, was substantially influenced by his Roman Catholic origins in his philosophical disposition toward the value of tradition, religious symbols and dogma. His philosophical project sustained a respectful attitude toward the spiritual value of orthodox religion while the thrust of his philosophy was naturalistic and materialistic throughout. There is a perception by some scholars that Santayana’s philosophy evolved from a humanistic perspective to a more spiritual one in his later years. It is the position of this thesis that his philosophy, at the “core” depicting a harmonious striving toward individual happiness, remained essentially consistent from his earliest publication of Interpretations of Poetry and Religion and The Life of Reason through his later works of Scepticism and Animal Faith, Realms of Being, Dominations and Powers and The Idea of Christ in the Gospels.
Santayana’s philosophical approach is both phenomenological and social constructionist in its methodology, significantly preempting the methodology of social constructionist theology and a post-modern interpretation of religion. His idiosyncratic phenomenological approach is compared with a “benchmark” methodology of Edmund Husserl, the generally accepted founder of the phenomenological method. There are also important similarities between Santayana’s phenomenological approach and those of Charles Sanders Peirce and Alfred North Whitehead. The basis for the comparison of the phenomenological methodology of Santayana and Husserl is their mutually similar fundamental theory of intuited essence. Santayana’s contribution to religious studies is not only philosophical but also theological where he has utilized Christian theological language in transposing and interpolating his philosophy of religion to the Christian drama of the salvational Christ. Santayana’s essay “Ultimate Religion” reflects his perspective of a disillusioned but still spiritual vision incorporating the piety, discipline, and spirituality; of a life of reason. Within the framework of this “model” Santayana’s philosophy of religion is developed and explored. Finally, the relevance of Santayana’s philosophy of religion to contemporary religious studies and selected religious issues is addressed with a delineation and discussion of some important aspects of his philosophical vision.

Nagel on Plantinga

This is, it seemed to me, a very fair-minded and illuminating treatment of the philosopher Alvin Plantinga’s new book, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism, by the philosopher Thomas Nagel.  Nagel comes from an atheist and secular perspective, while Plantinga’s perspective is theistic.  Much of the evaluation (and likely the book itself) is far beyond my philosophical depth, treating issues of epistemology (though I did find the discussion of the issue of the derivation of “basic knowledge” interesting, and am not sure I understand the analogy that Nagel says Plantinga draws between the operation of faith and memory).  Here is a portion where Nagel is discussing Plantinga’s view of faith:

Faith, according to Plantinga, is another basic way of forming beliefs, distinct from but not in competition with reason, perception, memory, and the others. However, it is

a wholly different kettle of fish: according to the Christian tradition (including both Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin), faith is a special gift from God, not part of our ordinary epistemic equipment. Faith is a source of belief, a source that goes beyond the faculties included in reason.

God endows human beings with a sensus divinitatis that ordinarily leads them to believe in him. (In atheists the sensus divinitatis is either blocked or not functioning properly.) In addition, God acts in the world more selectively by “enabling Christians to see the truth of the central teachings of the Gospel.”

If all this is true, then by Plantinga’s standard of reliability and proper function, faith is a kind of cause that provides a warrant for theistic belief, even though it is a gift, and not a universal human faculty. (Plantinga recognizes that rational arguments have also been offered for the existence of God, but he thinks it is not necessary to rely on these, any more than it is necessary to rely on rational proofs of the existence of the external world to know just by looking that there is beer in the refrigerator.)

It is illuminating to have the starkness of the opposition between Plantinga’s theism and the secular outlook so clearly explained. My instinctively atheistic perspective implies that if I ever found myself flooded with the conviction that what the Nicene Creed says is true, the most likely explanation would be that I was losing my mind, not that I was being granted the gift of faith. From Plantinga’s point of view, by contrast, I suffer from a kind of spiritual blindness from which I am unwilling to be cured. This is a huge epistemological gulf, and it cannot be overcome by the cooperative employment of the cognitive faculties that we share, as is the hope with scientific disagreements.

Faith adds beliefs to the theist’s base of available evidence that are absent from the atheist’s, and unavailable to him without God’s special action. These differences make different beliefs reasonable given the same shared evidence. An atheist familiar with biology and medicine has no reason to believe the biblical story of the resurrection. But a Christian who believes it by faith should not, according to Plantinga, be dissuaded by general biological evidence. Plantinga compares the difference in justified beliefs to a case where you are accused of a crime on the basis of very convincing evidence, but you know that you didn’t do it. For you, the immediate evidence of your memory is not defeated by the public evidence against you, even though your memory is not available to others. Likewise, the Christian’s faith in the truth of the gospels, though unavailable to the atheist, is not defeated by the secular evidence against the possibility of resurrection.