Recently, I have been thinking quite a bit about what it takes to do philosophy of religion well. More specifically, I have been thinking a lot about teaching philosophy of religion, and about the conceptual tools that students need in order to be able to engage with the field at a high level.
I have just finished another term teaching the undergraduate philosophy of religion paper.1 Students are sometimes surprised by how difficult it is. To be able to engage with the best work in philosophy of religion at a suitably high level requires a solid grounding in contemporary philosophy in general as well as some pretty serious technical chops.
Nearly every conceivable area of philosophy intersects in a substantive way with questions in PoR. To get a sense of how rich just one topic in PoR can be, peruse the essays in T. V. Morris’ Anselmian Explorations (Notre Dame, 1987). Similarly, most responsible treatments of the cosmological argument will require detailed discussions of the nature of explanation (metaphysical, personal, and scientific), necessity and contingency, causation, the principle of sufficient reason, the nature of space (relationalist vs. substantivalist), time (tensed vs. tenseless), set theory, and infinity (regresses, actual vs. potential, Zeno’s paradoxes, supertasks, etc.), to say nothing of interdisciplinary competence in the physical sciences.
It’s safe to say that common arguments in PoR—indeed, the field as a whole—are victim to the most egregious and routine violations of the principle of charity. As proof of this one need only glance at standard introductions to arguments for theism, where one is sure to encounter, for example, the immortal straw man objection to “the” cosmological argument. Doing PoR well requires a fair amount of philosophical humility and charity.
Amen, brother. All of which got me to thinking: What are the tools that young philosophers need in order to start doing analytic philosophy of religion well? What specific areas of metaphysics, language, epistemology, ethics, etc. are especially crucial for contemporary philosophy of religion? I’m mainly concerned about advanced undergraduates and postgrads, not specialists hoping to make original contributions, though I’m interested in suggestions about any skill level.
Off the top of my head, to get us started, I would say that students need at least:
- a basic grasp of contemporary understandings of modality—the distinctions between necessity, aprioricity, and analyticity, along with the different forms of necessity and possibility (metaphysical, conceptual, epistemic, physical or nomological, etc.)
- related to that, a basic grasp of possible world semantics, or at least what philosophers are doing when they appeal to possible worlds
- basic skills in Bayesian reasoning, and some grasp of the distinctions between frequentist and epistemic probability
- a grasp of the internalism/externalism debates in epistemology, and related issues
What else, internet? Probably something in philosophy of language to do with contemporary understandings of meaning and the full consequences of the demise of verificationism, but I’m not sure how exactly to formulate what’s needed.
I’m sure there are many more things, some more basic and general, some more advanced and technical. Most of the blog’s regular posters have done the philosophy of religion paper, so you are well-positioned to chime in, but as always, I’m interested in hearing from anyone.
1Since I’m hoping that some non-Oxford people will read and comment on this post, I should say that in Oxford-speak a “paper” is like a course, or a module—a subject on which students will take a three-hour written exam at the end of their degree program.