Can philosophies become obsolete?

Are Questions About God Beginner Questions?

by Silvia Jonas (Munich)


Philosophy students interested in questions about God and theism don't have it easy. For example, anyone who asks about the rationality of religious beliefs often earns a pitying look at best. A beginner's question! Advanced philosophical knowledge will expose its irrelevance. At least this or similar seems to be the attitude of many philosophy teachers. But have questions about God, theism and religious belief really become as obsolete as one might imagine their shadowy existence in today's philosophy?

It is undisputed that theism is no longer a popular position in large parts of Europe, which identifies itself as enlightened. But it is also true that it continues to play a central role in people's lives and thoughts in other parts of the world. Is the fact that God, faith and religion are no longer among the core issues that every philosophy student has to deal with, is simply due to a historical development that leads to the attitude: We Europeans are no longer religious, so we have to Do not understand religion anymore?

Things are probably not that simple. In order to understand why the question of God is not a beginner's question, we must first clarify what exactly we are actually rejecting when we reject theism. The British religious philosopher Richard Swinburne, for example, understands theism as a hypothesis that explains why the world is the way it is (cf. Swinburne, R. 2008. What Jesus God? Oxford University Press, p. 16). But if theism really has to be understood simply as an 'explanatory hypothesis', then it is not difficult to see why it has so few adherents in the modern world.

Not only do the natural sciences provide significantly more convincing explanations for empirical phenomena; they can even make accurate predictions about these phenomena. In this context, the philosopher John Cottingham calls "Einstein's theory of relativity, quantum mechanics and the elegant mathematical theory known as" inflation "to explain the development of the universe over the last 13 billion years. Add to this the success of Darwin's evolutionary model of random mutations and natural selection, coupled with modern genetics, and we have an extraordinarily rich explanatory structure that has been worked out in the melting pot of rigorous methodology and carefully tested on the basis of an impressive body of empirical data. Much of this work is so great that even collecting and processing the relevant data is an achievement that deserves Nobel Prizes ”(Cottingham, J. 2018. 'Transcending Science: Humane Models of Religious Understanding.' In: F. Ellis, New Models of Religious Understanding. Oxford University Press, p. 24, author's translation). Compared to the natural sciences, theism has comparatively little to tell us about what holds the world together at its core.

The philosophical question about God is by no means obsolete. Not only do the natural sciences leave many fundamental questions unanswered - they cannot explain why something exists at all, for example, or what awaits us after death. But beyond that there are many other questions that do not fall within the sphere of competence of the natural sciences, which we can usefully ask about theism, for example: Is an interpretation of theism possible that does not present it as an explanatory hypothesis, but nevertheless more religious intuitions People? Is there a definition of the concept of God that fits this interpretation? What does it mean to take a realistic, i.e. ontologically committed, position with regard to such a concept of God? How can one understand religious belief in the context of such an alternative definition of theism? Some new publications on the philosophy of religion are already trying to shift the focus of their discipline in this direction (Paul Drapers and J.L. Schellenbergs (eds.) Renewing Philosophy of Religion (Oxford University Press, 2017) and Fiona Ellis ’(Eds.) New Models of Religious Understanding (Oxford University Press, 2018).

In addition, it is often overlooked that theism is only one of many domains whose statements go beyond the purely empirical and yet claim objective validity. For example, most people are convinced of the existence of objectively valid moral (“torturing babies for fun is reprehensible”), modal (“Hillary Clinton could have won the election”), or mathematical (“2 + 2 = 4”) truths. The questions that metaethicists, metaphysicists and philosophers of mathematics ask themselves about such statements are structurally identical to the traditional questions of the philosophy of religion: Is it possible to have ontological obligations with regard to non-spatiotemporal entities (numbers, values, possible worlds To justify God)? If so, does it undermine the resulting realistic position if the existence of such entities is not necessary to explain why subjects form beliefs about them? How is epistemic access to such entities possible? And: Do fundamental disagreements undermine a realistic view of the statements of such domains? The classic questions that have been discussed in relation to theism for centuries are anything but obsolete. They are simply discussed in a different guise, but with unchanged enthusiasm with regard to domains more compatible with the zeitgeist.

Philosophy students who are interested in questions about God and theism should not be put off by the current negative attitude. Rather, they should keep in mind that their questions are just as virulent today as they were three hundred years ago. Only our interpretation of the object to be examined has changed.


Silvia Jonas is a Minerva Fellow at the Munich Center for Mathematical Philosophy (MCMP). Her main interests are in the fields of metaphysics, philosophy of mathematics and epistemology, but she also works on a range of topics in the fields of metaethics, aesthetics and the philosophy of religion.