On the philosophy of religion

by Daniel A. Kaufman

Megan Fritts of Utah State and I discuss the Philosophy of Religion and in particular, my allegation that in today’s day and age, the subject is a matter of purely historical interest and not a live concern.


  1. This mild mannered Presbyterian was sheltering from a winter storm at home while he listened to Daniel invoke a boring, garden variety Methodist walking down the street.

    I enjoyed this conversation — thanks for having and sharing it!

  2. I’m not sure why I listened to this. Philosophy of religion — such a boring topic. But then Megan turned the tables when she suggested that everything wrong with philosophy of religion is wrong with philosophy as a whole. That’s when this got really interesting.

  3. As almost always, an thought-provoking conversation.

    In a video (found in Youtube) on Nietzsche’s moral psychology, Brian Leiter, asked a tricky question, answers, I’ll bite the bullet on that and then adds, I’ve never met a bullet I didn’t like to bite. (not an exact quote)

    You, Dan, bite most of the bullets and that’s why I follow you more than because of your viewpoints. Biting the bullets is an uncommon and under-appreciated virtue.

  4. I found this conversation quite interesting because of its focus on the nature of philospohy in general and where philosophy could go. For interests sake, I recently viewed this podcast (https://open.spotify.com/episode/5Vqbi8Y1bJcXZDOfFNzHlI?si=6rieX0EeSSWACMhpPVNGHQ&fbclid=IwAR2vaY-8f26-ASyxMkTFAGKxRbnBhBJodG1lXF1idiKnANEKYTgpPcC-b2k) that was a little more specific about the decoupling of thesism and religion. I think it fits comfortably into the thread of your conversation here. It is between a philosopher and a person trying to make sense out of the implications of religion.

    I am neither an academic philosopher, nor a professional philosopher, and my “philosophic” views have developed slowly over the course of many years. I am now retired and my interest in philospohical questions has developed strongly in the last few years. I feel strongly that your suggestions about the nature of philosophy and some of your suggestions about the later positions of Wittenstein make sense and I would like to extend them a little.

    It seems to me that philosophy is deeply committed to the use of logic as a vehicle for expressing thoughts (hopefully general). My position is that I consider logic to be an abstraction from natural language, particularly verbal language and that it is insufficient to express all that needs communicating about the issues dealt with in philosophy. I go further, and I consider that natural language itself is inadequate in this respect and does not support the full level of communication that is needed to deal with the problems that philosophy has adopted.

    Underlying all of these points is the position that perception is the primary method by which we gain experience of the world. Various sciences have shown that this perception gets abstracted and modified by other perceptions when it arrives in our mind, and the perception that is stored in our memory is not identical to the raw perception garnered through out senses. In addition, our thinking processes modify and generalize from the stored perceptions and lead to the creation of beliefs about external things and events.

    The net result of all of this is that the relation between our perception and our beliefs is not exactly comparable to our raw perceptions. This means that the concepts of truth and falsehood lose the underpinnings that make these concepts a large part of traditional philosophy. If there can be no absolute certainity about our perceptions then the concepts of true and false become meaningless when applied to the external world. They can only hold in imaginary worlds where the rules can be completely and unambiguously stated.

    These positions have severe consequences for disciplines such as ontology and epistemology. They have to adapt to an environment where there is no certainty, only the consensus of many people about the nature of the external world. For individuals, the selection of a Bayesian related prior probability can strongly affect the assessment of the probability of a new event or of our recollection of an existing event. Such probabilities are formed by the transformation of a sequence of related perceptions into a belief and affect our calculation of the probabilities associated with new experiencial data.

    To get back to the podcast on the Philosophy of Religion, all these considerations factor into ones assessment of religion and how it should be perceived and apprehended.

  5. Interesting conversation, growing livelier as it goes on.

    For some reason I feel like recommending the work of John William Miller. A ‘minor’ philosopher who published little in his lifetime (although highly respected as a teacher), Miller writes as though the ‘great age’ of Modern philosophical innovation was well past, but needed remembering historically, and that the real function of philosophy was continuing a conversation clarifying ideas. I read some contemporary philosophers (I’m sure you know whom I mean) who write as if the next Kant, or even, at least, the next Quine were just around the corner (or, when arrogant, that they themselves are such, or at least are synthesizing the work of pretenders to the office). That isn’t what philosophy is about anymore (if it ever was). There is of course some pretense to this generally in the academy, largely due to demand for publication and ‘originality,’ buttress further by ‘flocking’ of lesser would-be stars around supposedly ‘bright lights’ (celebrities – this happens more frequently among Continentalists, but Analytics have their share of it), but that’s really a sociological phenomenon. I am quite fond of Miller because his interests are eclectic, he’s a good writer, and his text is companionable. The fact that he’s not widely known or remembered actually adds to his charm for me.

    Even ‘professional’ philosophy ought to be personal, perhaps even personable, or it rather loses interest for me.

  6. ‘He who spends his time speculating about what is above and what is below, it is better that he was never born.’ — The Babylonian Talmud

  7. 1) In Rabbinic Judaism (which with very few exceptions has been, and continues to be, the almost exclusive form of Judaism that has been practiced for approximately the last 1400 years) there most definitely is a notion of the afterlife. In the Amidah (aka the Shomoneh Esreh), which is the central part of the three daily prayers, we recite the following: ‘and He who resurrects the dead in His great mercy…Blessed are you God, Who resurrects the dead.’

    You are right, of course, that nowhere in the Five Books of Moses is there any such notion. But, again, with the exception of the Karaite communities (which, presently, exist in relatively small numbers, mostly in Israel) no Jewish communities practice Biblical Judaism. And even the Karaites don’t follow Biblical Judaism literally.

    Wrt a reward in the afterlife, the Jewish Rabbinical view is that it is predicated upon one’s actions and deeds in the present world, not upon one’s suffering. And in juxtaposition to xtianity, it has absolutely nothing to do with one’s beliefs. In fact, within the internal logic of Jewish law (halacha), one can be an exemplary Jew without even believing in God, since there is no specific commmandment to believe in God. This is one of the most honest,and praiseworthy aspects of Judaism: the valence of one’s morality depends upon what one does, not what one believes. Belief is completely irrelevant.

    2) As to metaphysical speculaltion:

    ‘He who spends his time wondering about what is above and what is below, it is better if he had never been born’ — The Talmud

    Of course,as usual when dealing with Jews: two Jews, three opinions. There is a Jewish metaphysical/mystical tradition: the Kabbalah. However, in Ashkenazi Jewish tradition — with the exception of the Hasidim — the Kabbalah never had much prominence, if any. And even in those communities — Hasidic, Sephardic, Oriental — that took the Kabbalah seriously, it was forbidden to study it before one was 40 years old. The reason: one should first have a solid background in Halacha (Jewish Law) (along, with emotional maturity), so as not run the temptation of forgetting about the law and its requirements, in favor of mystical speculations.

    3) It is not true that Jewish culture is divorced from the Jewish religion. Take the great Yiddish language authors — Chaim Grade, Der Nister, even Isaac Bashevis Singer. All of them had deep knowledge of Judaism, even if they were not, or had ceased to be, practicing Jews; their works are suffused with Jewish ritual and practice. Indeed, it’s impossible to really understand their works (not necessarily the more philosophical aspects (although that too), but the myriad references of everyday life if one knows nothing about the religion. One can say that Judaism was the sea in which Jewish culture resided.

    1. There are no authoritative doctrines regarding the afterlife as there are in the denominations of Christianity.

      Your last paragraph is incorrect with regard to large swathes of the Jewish population here as well as in Israel. If you polled the congregants at my Reform synagogue, you’d find that most are atheists.

      The distinctions I described between Judaism and Christianity were on a spectrum not categorical. And they are quite well known. It’s not some eccentric idea I came up with.

  8. Interesting, thought provoking., and obviously well timed in this religious season. Some thoughts provoked …

    If the premise of the problem stated at the outset is that philosophy is a strictly rational undertaking and that religion is irrational thus the philosophy of religion is incoherent, then perhaps the “problem” is not with religion but with rationality and in defining philosophy in strictly rational/analytic terms. Why limit philosophy so? Why let “math and science envy” constrain epistemology and wisdom?

    Throughout the piece one hears veiled references to something else, something beyond rationality: “Spontaneous Social Imaginary,” Hume’s skepticism leading to the “sentiments,” intuition, gestalt, axiology and “the good” associated with affects, hope, etc. Do not all these references allude to the spontaneous affective/intuitive/emotional sphere? Why exclude this sphere as a foundation for epistemology or philosophy? Would not accepting this sphere into philosophy be the kind of “paradigm shift” needed to free up and enliven philosophy?

    I think the “negotiation” alluded to in the end that frees up a discussion of philosophy (and religion) is not only an external cognitive negotiation between different belief holding individuals but an internal metacognitive negotiation between different aspects of our own minds, in particular between intellect and emotion. This internal negotiation between these tow radically different entities is in part what embodies the negotiations between the set of objective rational generalizations that define a common human experience and the set of subjective affective specifics that define the individual self. Adjudicating between these two has as much to do with the feel of things as it does the thought of things.

    Thus in terms of the philosophy of religion, God is as much a feel as a thought.

    Merry Christmas!

  9. Great episode. There’s a lot of nice philosophical work on metalinguistic negotiation and especially conceptual engineering/ethics. Philosophy of religion seems to be evolving in that direction.

  10. Wittgenstein was unremittingly exercised by the religious outlook. What is its “logical” status? What is its phenomenology? What is its place in a person’s life, when that person has it? What would it take for one with a non-religious outlook to come to have a religious outlook? etc. This interest runs throughout his life. It’s therefore palpable, even when not explicit, in his posthumously published work, in his correspondence, and in documented personal interactions with his interlocutors. So it’s clearly there in On Certainty, a work that you, Professor Kaufman, cite from time to time.

    Which makes it all the more surprising that you didn’t pick up on Wittgenstein’s suggestion that the religious outlook is no different from any outlook in necessarily being framed by attitudes, practices, animal instincts, etc. that are neither apt for rational doubt nor apt for rational support. Such a view seems right up your alley.

    1. Are you of the view that to be influenced by someone is to accept every aspect of their thought and work?

      And Megan and I addressed this issue, so I don’t get the claim that I “didn’t pick up on” Wittgenstein’s suggestion in On Certainty. Indeed, we discussed the matter at some length.

  11. “Are you of the view that to be influenced by someone is to accept every aspect of their thought and work?”

    No. I just thought you would have at least *encountered* the aspect I described, since you seem to be well-versed in On Certainty and, indeed, in much of Wittgenstein’s later work.

    “And Megan and I addressed this issue . . . .”

    Sorry, I was unclear. I meant I was surprised that you hadn’t seen the potential connection to your views *prior to* the conversation with Megan. Given the views you’ve articulated, especially over the course of your Prolegomena, I would’ve taken it as granted that you had seen and wrestled with the connection.

    In other words, my surprise was not: “I can’t believe this person who is otherwise reasonable doesn’t hold Wittgenstein’s view!” but rather: “I can’t believe this person who knows his Wittgenstein didn’t already see this potential connection!”

    From what I gathered in the video, your conversation with Megan led you to see something about your views that you hadn’t seen before. I thought that was really cool. It’s also illustrative of a widely undervalued benefit of discussion (but one that, as you know, Mill emphasizes), namely, that not all changes of mind brought about by discussion are truth-value reassignments but are deepened understandings of one’s own view.

    1. I am still of the view that Phil Religion has distinctive faults not shared by the rest of philosophy. And my view of philosophy’s faults, generally, has been getting more pessimistic over time. Indeed, my relationship with Wittgenstein has only really developed fully over the last 10 years or so, with more than half of my career involving a very different — even contrary — orientation.

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