Greg Dawes interviewed by Richard Marshall.

Greg Dawesis a philosopher who always thinks hard about religion, about the nature of religious faith and its relation to reason,about why philosophy as a handmaid of theology is frivolous, about naturalism, about the epistemological variety and the ontological variety and the methodological variety, on why Christians can't avoid the fact that Evolutionism contradicts the Bible, about what's wrong with intelligent design, on what theologians should do, about why belief isn't an issue and inference to the best explanation is, about claims about divine action, about the God of the gaps, about historicism and religion and about Maimonides and the limits to interpretation. Don't be fooled, this one's got razors...

3:AM:What made you become a philosopher?

Greg Dawes:Being a philosopher was not my first career choice. Indeed my way into philosophy quite closely resembles that of English philosopher Anthony Kenny. Like Kenny, I first studied philosophy in the seminary on my way towards ordination as a Roman Catholic priest. (The traditional pattern of training was two years of philosophy and four of theology.) The philosophy I studied then reflected the interests of my Jesuit teachers. It was an odd but interesting mixture. We were exposed to traditional Thomistic metaphysics and epistemology, but also to some authors within the so-called "Continental," phenomenological tradition. (I remember writing an essay on the distinction between problem and mystery in the work of Gabriel Marcel.) But I was also lucky enough to come from a family in which big questions were often discussed. My father was a convert to Catholicism, but an intellectually inclined one, for whom no questions were out of bounds. So the brand of Catholicism I was brought up with was a tolerant and thoughtful one, which is probably why I stayed with it for so long.

Later, after being ordained, I was sent to study Scriptureat the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, so my first PhD was in biblical studies. This gave me some useful skills in the close reading of texts, as well as some familiarity with Greek, Hebrew, and Latin (as well as German and Italian). Once again, I am grateful for this excellent education. Having returned to New Zealand, I then taught, firstly in the local seminary and then (after leaving the priesthood) in the Theology and Religious Studies program at Otago University.

But whatever I taught, it seemed to turn into something like a philosophy course. I published, for example, a book on "the historical Jesus question," but the question I was interested in had little to do with Jesus himself. It was how we came to study sacred texts in a historical manner. The decisive shift seemed to occur in the seventeenth century: I picked out Spinoza's Tractatusas one of the first examples of a critical approach to the study of Scripture. This attitude posed a challenge to traditional forms of belief, one that Christian theology has not yet fully embraced.

Since I seemed to be doing philosophy, whatever I was supposed to be doing, I thought I should do it properly. So I completed a second PhD, under the excellent supervision of Alan Musgrave, who has long been a friend and mentor (although we often disagree). This thesis became the basis of my book on Theism and Explanation.

3:AM:David Chalmers has done a survey that suggests that although most philosophers are atheists most philosophers of religion are not. Why do you think that philosophers generally don’t seem to be bothered that the sub group specializing in philosophizing about religion are disagreeing with them? It’s a strange situation isn’t it, that a sub group of experts are disregarded by the rest of the field.

GD:Yes, but it's an interesting fact, and it tells us something about the nature of religious faith and its relation to reason.

Christian philosopher William Lane Craig writes somewhere about what he calls the "ministerial" and the "magisterial" use of reason. (It's a traditional view -- he's merely citing Martin Luther -- and one that Craig endorses.) On this view, the task of reason is to find arguments in support of the faith and to counter any arguments against it. Reason is not, however, the basis of the Christian's faith. The basis of the Christian's faith is (what she takes to be) the "internal testimony of the Holy Spirit" in her heart. Nor can rational reflection can be permitted to undermine that faith. The commitment of faith is irrevocable; to fall away from it is sinful, indeed the greatest of sins.

It follows that while the arguments put forward by many Christian philosophers are serious arguments, there is something less than serious about the spirit in which they are being offered. There is a direction in which those arguments will not be permitted to go. Arguments that support the faith will be seriously entertained; those that apparently undermine the faith must be countered, at any cost. Philosophy, to use the traditional phrase, is merely a "handmaid" of theology.

There is, to my mind, something frivolous about a philosophy of this sort. My feeling is that if we do philosophy, it ought to be because we take arguments seriously. This means following them wherever they lead. This may sound naïve. There are moral commitments, for instance, that few of us would be prepared to abandon, even if we lacked good arguments in their support. But if the followers of Hume are right, there is a close connection between our moral beliefs and our moral sentiments that would justify this attitude. In any case, even in matters of morality, we should not be maintaining positions that have lots of arguments against them and few in their favour, just because we have made a commitment to do so.

So why does the philosophy of religion have such a marginal status within the philosophical community? It may be (as some Christians assert) because atheist philosophers "love darkness more than light," but I suspect it's because many atheist philosophers not only find the arguments unconvincing but also regard this style of philosophy as distasteful.

3:AM:You’ve thought about the disappearance of divine agency in scientific endeavour and consider this a key feature of naturalism don’t you. Do you think naturalism is best understood in these terms and is science now best understood as a commitment to naturalism? What do you make of Tim Williamson's point that mathematics doesn't fit naturalism?

GD:The term "naturalism" is used in many different ways, but if we understand it as excluding reference to non-natural agents (such as gods or demons), then, yes, there is a sense in which the modern sciences are naturalistic. I myself have spoken of the "disappearance" of divine agency from science, but further reflection has made me question this idea. It's not so much that God has disappeared from science; it is more that he was never there.

It seems to me that natural philosophy (which is what science used to be called) has always had a broadly naturalistic attitude. One could argue that this attitude dates back to some of the ancient philosophers, such as Thales of Miletus (ca. 624–546 BC), who offered natural explanations for phenomena such as earthquakes, which had previously been attributed to divine activity. More importantly, medieval natural philosophy -- the science of Christian Europe -- was also naturalistic, in this sense. As Edward Grant has argued, late medieval natural philosophers thought that it was their job to study "the common course of nature." Most did not deny that God could, if he chose, work miracles, but miracles were not the subject matter of science. To use what became a popular distinction, God may be the "primary" cause of all that happens, but the natural philosopher's task was to study the created, "secondary" causes that he had instituted. As John Buridan wrote in the fourteenth century, “in natural philosophy, we ought to accept actions and dependencies as if they always proceed in a natural way.”

This clear division of labour between natural philosophy and theology becomes a little less clear in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but it never entirely disappeared. Newton, for instance, was keen to show that his natural philosophy lent support to religion, but even he did not openly invoke divine agency as part of his science. Perhaps the nearest we come to a confusion of the two is in the work of eighteenth-century natural philosophers, of whom the best known is William Paley.

So it's not clear to me that science, as science, ever invoked divine agents. Scientists like Newton might refer piously to the Creator as the one who established the natural order, and regard aspects of that natural order as lending support to belief in God, but it was the natural order that they studied. That order was understood as having a certain autonomy. It was ultimately dependent on God, but its workings could generally be described without direct reference to him.

3:AM:You recognize the distinction between epistemological and ontological naturalism. Can you just sketch what you mean by these terms and who are the names attached to the them? Is it a distinction related to the realist/anti-realist position regarding scientific claims?

GD:This is a tricky one, not least because of the different meanings of the term "naturalism." I think of epistemological naturalism as the attitude that is associated with Willard Van Orman Quine. (In my book I call it "Quinean naturalism.") This holds, in Susan Haack's words, that “the only means we have of figuring out what the world is like is our experience of the world and our explanatory theorizing about it.” But I don't think this commits us to particular kinds of answers. In particular, it does not, in principle, exclude what some people might think of as "non-natural" agents or causes. Quine certainly thought this. As he wrote, "if I saw indirect explanatory benefit in positing sensibilia, possibilia, spirits, a Creator, I would joyfully accord them scientific status too, on a par with such avowedly scientific posits as quarks and black holes."

To come back to an earlier question, it seems to be a naturalism of this kind that Tim Williamsonwas commenting on in his New York Times piece. Quine, of course, thinks that mathematical knowledge is justified by its role within science, but Williamson is not convinced by this. Much will depend here on how one thinks of mathematical objects. Do they exist independently of us, so that knowledge of them is a kind of objective knowledge? It's not clear that anyone has a very satisfactory answer to this question.

In any case, Quinean epistemological naturalism can be contrasted with an ontological naturalism that holds that only certain kinds of entities or forces exist and that explanations that posit any other kind of entity or force are to be rejected. If this is taken as a kind of a priori commitment, it seems to me to come perilously close to a kind of dogmatism.

With regard to realism, this is another can of worms. I guess I am assuming a realist view of scientific theories here, although only in the sense of what is sometimes called "semantic realism." This is the idea that scientific theories make assertions about the world (including unobservable entities and forces) that can be true or false, whether or not we know them to be true or false.

3:AM:Some philosophers, like Michael Ruse, think it’s possible to be an epistemological naturalist whilst denying ontological naturalism. You disagree don’t you? What’s the problem?

GD:Ruse does endorse what he calls "methodological naturalism," arguing that it does not entail ontological (or "metaphysical") claims. As he writes, "the methodological naturalist is the person who assumes that the world runs according to unbroken law; that humans can understand the world in terms of this law; and that science involves just such understanding without any reference to extra or supernatural forces like God. Whether there are such forces or beings is another matter entirely...""

There are a couple of problems with this view. Firstly, methodological naturalism (as Ruse defines it) amounts to proceeding as if metaphysical naturalism were true. So I think it is always in danger of collapsing into a metaphysical naturalism. (Quinean naturalism seems to me a much more cautious and defensible view, whatever one makes of mathematics!) Secondly, there is the question of how you make the distinction between natural and non-natural entities. If "natural" entities are those that can be identified through broadly scientific methods of inquiry, then we cannot determine in advance what kinds of entities this inquiry will turn up. As Quine points out, it could, in principle, lead to theories involving a divine agent.

Bradley Monton, for example, offers a scenario in which a pulsar is found to be emitting signals in Morse Code, signals that when deciphered claim to be messages from God. (The message also tells us that the speaker is omnipotent, omniscient, morally perfect, and that he created the world.) Scientists are naturally sceptical, but when they formulate difficult questions in their minds (without even speaking them aloud), they find that the pulsar offers correct answers. And so on. While there are other possible explanations of this phenomenon, such as a super-intelligent alien civilization playing a trick on us, we might decide that the simplest explanation is to take the message of the pulsar at face value. This is, indeed, God communicating with us.

Would this be a "scientific" explanation? Bradley thinks it would, since it would be the best available explanation, arrived at using the same methods of inquiry as are used by the sciences. I agree, although only if the same hypothesis -- the God hypothesis -- turned out to be useful in explaining a whole range of phenomena. (We would like our scientific theories to be independently testable, and to have passed such tests.) Of course, such a divine agent would be rather different from that of traditional religion. He would have become "naturalized," in the sense of being simply another factor in the way the world normally works. Divine action would be part of what medievals called "the common course of nature."

Needless to say, we're a long way from having to worry about such a situation. The divine actions that believers talk about are generally of a very different kind. They have been either those divine actions that set up and sustain a quasi-automous, natural order (albeit one providentially guided) or divine actions that clearly interrupt that order, by way of miracles. So my argument is very much an "in principle" argument.

There may, of course, be other problems with explanations that appeal to a divine agent. Here's one. Explanations invoking God would be personal explanations, appealing to the beliefs and desires of a personal agent. (God, like any rational agent, would act because there is a goal he wants to achieve and this action is the best means of achieving it.) But an agent who was omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect would be so different from any other agent with which we are familiar that it is difficult to make predictions about how he would act.

My own view is that we can make predictions about how God would not act. He would not, for example, act in such a way as to create gratuitous suffering. This makes theistic explanations falsifiable. But of course there are philosophers who dispute the force of this reasoning. "Sceptical theists," for example, draw attention to the limits of our knowledge, arguing that we cannot reliably judge any instance of suffering to be actually gratuitous. They may have a point. But if our ability to make judgements about God is so limited, he doesn't look like a good candidate for a scientific explanation. After all, we want scientific explanations to be testable. Testing a hypothesis normally means asking what would follow if it were true and then seeing if it does. What the sceptics suggest is that we cannot judge what consequences would follow, if God exists.

This means that you cannot have it both ways. You cannot ward off the argument from evil by invoking the mysteriousness of God and then claim that the existence and action of God is the best explanation of some phenomenon. So a scepticism of this kind undermines at least some alleged proofs of God's existence.

3:AM:Phillip Johnson argues that ontological naturalism is an unjustified a priori commitment doesn’t he? He uses this argument to contest Darwinism. But doesn’t the success of the theory justify ontological naturalism?

GD:Loathe though I am to agree with Johnson, I think that certain kinds of ontological naturalism do border on dogmatism. (Williamson thinks that even some kinds of methodological naturalism do so.) But (contra Johnson) you don't need to be a metaphysical naturalist to think that Darwinism is superior to the alternatives.

Darwin himself argued for his theory by contrasting it with the idea of special creation and showing that there were phenomena (such as vestigial organs) that were entirely explicable, given natural selection, but utterly puzzling, given special creation. He did not dismiss special creation by claiming that science could only posit natural entities. Similarly, it seems to me, we should not dismiss something like intelligent design theory (ID) merely because it posits what might be seen as a non-natural agent. ID should be assessed on its merits. As it happens, it has few merits, so we can still dismiss it.

3:AM:You think Christians can’t avoid the fact that evolutionism contradicts the Bible don’t you? Would they be justified in reinterpreting the passages that are in conflict with the science?

GD:Well, I did so myself, for many years. It's often possible to reinterpret the Bible so as to avoid conflicts with science. There is, however, a tradition dating back to St Augustine (AD 354–430), and invoked by the opponents of Galileo, that specifies when we may do so. It holds that we may abandon the literal sense of Scripture only when the apparently conflicting scientific conclusion is established beyond doubt. The problem here is that few, if any, scientific theories are held with this degree of certainty. So followers of St Augustine's principle can always claim that since the science is not certain the literal meaning of Scripture should take priority.

Christians do not, of course, have to follow St Augustine in this respect. But what alternatives are there? One could try to limit the scope of biblical authority, so that it does not overlap science (or, for that matter, history). This is Stephen Jay Gould's "non-overlapping magisteria" (NOMA) principle. But this is problematic. The doctrine of original sin, for instance, implies that human beings have a common origin. As it happens, this is the current scientific consensus, but science could come to disagree. So this is one of many cases in which religious and scientific claims do overlap. One could also abandon the idea that religious faith offers certain knowledge, but traditional theists seem loathe to do that. (After all, faith means taking something to be divinely revealed and God cannot be in error!)

The reinterpretation of Scripture can also have serious theological implications. If, for instance, the suffering in the world is not the result of the sin of Adam and Eve, but existed (in the case of non-human animals) long before the first humans, this merely exacerbates the problem of evil. And what are we to make of the traditional doctrine of original sin? If it does not mean that the first humans existed in a paradise, from which they were banished as a result of rebellion, what does it mean? That we all have a tendency to evil? But that's the fact to be explained, not an explanation of it. In any case, there are more plausible natural explanations.

3:AM:What’s wrong with intelligent design?

GD:Many of its arguments are either based on sleight of hand (William Dembski, for instance, equivocates on the meaning of the word "chance") or simple errors about how evolution works (as in the case of Michael Behe's mousetrap example). But it's also so vague as to lack empirical content. It says only that some intelligent agent did something, at some time, somewhere, and somehow, to bring out the specified complexity of living organisms. How can you test that?

Actually, I think it's yet another example of religious thinkers producing arguments in support of positions that are based on acts of faith, rather than the arguments to which they are appealing. But I admit that this is an ad hominemargument and doesn't show that they are wrong.

3:AM:Should theologians seek to overturn ontological naturalism by showing that their supernaturalist explanations are better than the sciences? How might they go about this?

GD:Ah! Excellent question. Actually, they should do so in the way theistic philosophers traditionally have, from St Anselm in the eleventh century to Richard Swinburne in our own day. They should try to show that there is some fact about the world that requires the existence and action of God for its explanation. Their proposed explanations should also be consistent with what we already know, be independently testable (and have survived such tests), and be informative. Good luck to them!

Of course, there are theistic explanations that do not involve any conflict with natural explanations, but we might come to those in a moment.

3:AM:Why isn’t belief the issue, and inference to the best explanation is?

GD:In everyday life and in the sciences, we often use a form of reasoning that philosophers call "inference to the best explanation" (IBE). I hear scratching noises at nights, my cat becomes excited and paws at the wall, and bags of food left out in the kitchen develop small holes from which their contents spill. There are a range of possible explanations for each of these phenomena, but the best explanation of them all seems to be that I have mice in the house. Darwin's reasoning in the Origin of Speciesseems to have been of a similar kind: he argued that natural selection explained the phenomena in question better than any alternative. It explained a wide range of puzzling facts, was supported by the analogy of artificial selection (animal and plant breeding), and was economical and informative.

It is true that this is not the only way of thinking about scientific theories. There are those who believe that we can regard scientific hypotheses as more or less probable, using Bayesian reasoning to make this precise. Perhaps we can, but it is not the way a lot of scientific and everyday reasoning works.

So if we do use IBE, what kind of conclusion does it warrant? The problem here is that the fact that something is the best available explanation of some range of phenomena does not entail that it is true. After all, the true explanation may be one of which we are unaware. Nor does it entail that it is even probably true, for we don't know how many other possible explanations there are. But while the fact that something is the best explanation of a range of phenomena does not warrant belief (i.e. holding it to be true), it does warrant acceptance. To accept a theory means, in effect, acting as if it were true. For a scientist, it would mean making that explanation the basis of her ongoing research, using it to draw further conclusions, assessing other theories for their consistency with it, and so on.

What effect does this view have on scientific realism? Well, it doesn't affect what I've called "semantic realism": the view that scientific theories make assertions about the world (including unobservable entities and forces) that can be true or false. But it might make us less confident about epistemic realism: the view that we have reason to hold that our best supported theories are true.

My view might seem to lead to unnecessarily sceptical conclusions, of the "are we justified in believing anything?" variety. But it would do so only if all our beliefs were based on IBE. Fortunately, they are not. Perceptual beliefs, for example, are based on a kind of direct acquaintance with what is perceived. They are not based on any kind of argument. (This, too, is a controversial claim, but I'm a direct realist about perception.) So we certainly have reason to believe what we see or hear. If I see the mouse, I'm justified in believing it exists. This is a defeasible reason, certainly, since perception is far from infallible. But it is a reason for belief, not merely for acceptance.

3:AM:Some theologians deny that religious claims are competing with the metaphysical claims made by science. Have you sympathy with this position? To some, it seems like a bit of fancy footwork that allows them to use theological language without any of the metaphysical commitments that seem to follow. I’ve got to admit that to me someone who says they pray to a God they don’t think exists is on a par with Moore’s guy who says ‘I went to the cinema on Friday but I know I didn’t.’ There’s a paradox lurking about isn’t there?

GD:Claims about divine action are sometimes, but not always, in competition with scientific claims. Firstly, they might purport to explain facts that could have, but at the moment do not have, scientific explanations. (This was roughly the role played by references to "special creation" before Darwin.) Secondly, they could purport to explain facts that could never have a scientific explanation. (If "why is there anything rather than nothing" is a meaningful question, it doesn't look like the kind of question science can answer.) Thirdly, they can offer a higher-level explanations, positing the existence of a primary divine cause, without questioning the existence of the secondary, created causes spoken of by the sciences. (A theistic explanation of this kind runs the risk of being redundant, but that's another question.) Finally, claims about divine action can be in competition with scientific claims, as in the case of modern creationism.

An interesting example of the third type of theistic explanation is what is called "process theology." This is based on the metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947) and Charles Hartshorne (1897–2000). Process theology speaks about God, but quite explicitly avoids any appeal to faith or divine revelation. It regards itself as entirely consistent with science, indeed more consistent than any alternative. It argues, simply, that the most plausible large-scale picture we have of the way the world works is one that includes a divine aspect. Its God, of course, is not identical to that of classical theism, which may be why philosophers of religion have neglected it.

What you are speaking about may be a different view, namely a theological non-realism, of the Don Cupitt variety. This reinterprets religious language in a non-realist way, as expressing an attitude rather than stating facts about spiritual beings. But as you say, if this is true, what are you doing when you pray? But while I don't find this very satisfactory, it's not strictly paradoxical, if you are quite upfront about your intentions. So I guess it's a religious option, although it doesn't show any sign of being a popular one.

3:AM:Physicist Sean Carroll says that there are no metaphysical gaps for supernatural entities to fill anymore – physics has it all sown up. Isn’t that game over for religions?

GD:Another excellent question. Modern theologians often talk about the "God of the gaps," as though this was a bad thing. But if you are trying to base your belief in God on reason, rather than divine revelation, then you surely need some gaps. You need some facts about the world that require God for their explanation. Aquinas was quite clear about this, in the thirteenth century. Before offering his famous five ways, his proofs of God's existence, he offers two arguments for atheism. The first is an argument from evil. The second is an argument from explanatory redundancy, based on the idea that we do not need talk of God to understand the observable world. So Aquinas certainly sees the problem.

Whether physics "has it all sown up" is another issue. For myself, I rather doubt it. There are too many questions that physicists, as physicists, cannot answer. (I'm sympathetic to Tim Williamson's view here!)

Once again, however, religions of the kind that appeal to revelation do not base themselves on such arguments, even though they may appeal to them in support. They base their view on an act of faith, a decision to take certain propositions as revealed by God. As Aquinas points out, this involves an act of the will that takes us beyond what the intellect, left to itself, would consent to. So even if the arguments are lacking, it does not mean that people will abandon their faith.

3:AM:Can historicism help sustain religions, or is it just another manifestation of the naturalist approach where explanation undermines ‘insider’ understanding of a religion or can a book like yours about Jesus in history work for religious as well as secular historians?

GD:That's a really interesting question. If by "historicism" you mean the intellectual attitude that regards all features of human culture as having a history, one that can be understood in natural terms, then it does seem antithetical to claims about a miraculous divine revelation. Traditionally-minded Muslims, for example, have tended to react rather badly to the suggestion that the Qur'an had a human author, even if that author was thought of as inspired by God.

Some early twentieth-century Christian thinkers, such as Ernst Troeltsch (1865–1923), tried to create a theology that was thoroughly historical. But this tended to undermine the claims to certainty that religions such as Christianity have traditionally made. So this was followed by something of a reaction, which was led by the Swiss theologian Karl Barth (1886–1968). This regards divine revelation as something that is distinct from history. It also regards its authority as unquestionable. So while a theological accommodation with historicism is certainly possible, there's not much sign of it.

3:AM:Maimonides is an example of a religious thinker who seems to make metaphor and meaning sustain his view that religion and naturalism are not in conflict. Should we become more sophisticated hermeneutically then do you think we might all be able to adopt something like Maimonides’s stance?

GD:Medieval thinkers, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim, were great at reconciling natural philosophy with their reading of Scripture. But Spinoza (who, of course, was also Jewish) criticises Maimonides for simply continuing to reinterpret Scripture until it agrees with what he already believes. Spinoza argues that a biblical interpreter ought simply to expound what the biblical text is saying, even if we must (in the end) judge that to be false. Spinoza, I should note, was also excommunicated, expelled from the synagogue.

It is because Maimonides could not concede that Scripture was teaching a falsehood that he felt compelled to reinterpret it. I'm not sure if we want to return to that attitude. In any case, as Umberto Eco says somewhere, while there are an indefinite number of ways in which any complex text can be interpreted, there are some things that it cannot plausibly be taken to mean. So there are limits to interpretation.

3:AM:And for the readers here at 3:AM are there five books other than your own that we might read to go further into these deep waters?

GD:On creationism, historicism, and related topics, I would recommend Arthur McCalla's The Creationist Debate: The Encounter between the Bible and the Historical Mind(2006), which has just been re-issued in a second, expanded edition.

On Darwin and religion, I would recommend an older, but still excellent book, namely Neal C. Gillespie's Charles Darwin and the Problem of Creation, published in 1979.

For an introduction to the science and religion question, I would recommend Mikael Stenmark's How to Relate Science and Religion: A Multidimensional Model(2004), although Stenmark is much more sanguine about the possibilities for reconciliation than I am.

For a historically-informed discussion of reinterpreting Scripture to avoid conflict with science, I would suggest Richard J. Blackwell's Galileo, Bellarmine, and the Bible(1991).

Another older book worth reading is Mary Midgley's Evolution as a Religion(1985, reprinted in 2002). While Midgley's work is controversial, particularly for her early and perhaps intemperate attacks on Richard Dawkins, her ideas are strikingly original and thought-provoking.

Richard Marshallis still biding his time.