Saturday, February 16, 2013

Book Review: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion by Brian Davies

Are there any reasons to believe that God exists? What is this being we call God? Is morality dependent on such a being? And is there life after death? While theology certainly touches upon these topics, philosophy of religion is the branch of philosophy that also deals with these questions among many others. In An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion, Brian Davies seeks to offer beginners in this field a survey that explores the most common elements found when studying the philosophy of religion. What I will try to do in this review is not so much go through every chapter—since it’s material similar to what you’d find in other philosophy of religion books—but to highlight some of the unique aspects of Davies’ book, while also briefly touching upon some of the classical material, i.e., cosmological, design, and ontological arguments.

Davies begins his book in a unique way by introducing a distinction between two different conceptions of God: one being what he calls “classic theism” and the other “theistic personalism” (2). This is unique because this particular distinction is not often made in many introductory philosophy texts, and it certainly draws attention to the implications that flow from adopting one over the other, and it sets the direction for the remainder of the book and how one ought to approach each issue.

Classical theism, Davies explains, is the view of the majority of the medieval philosophers like St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Anselm, Augustine, and Avicenna to name a few. God’s nature—according to the classical theists—is immutable (unchanging), impassible (cannot be affected by creation), and can only be spoken of in negative terms. God is not a person like you and I are, that is, like human beings, but God is simple and entirely above any of these classifications (10-11). However, theistic personalism, says Davies, views God through the lens of Descartes. Descartes viewed person as essentially immaterial beings. Each of us are essentially incorporeal beings according to Descartes. God then, being an immaterial being, is described as a person in this sense. In highlighting differences between the two conceptions, theistic personalists pit up God to be a sort of person like us. With respect to creation, God is simply a spectator “who is able to step in and modify how things are” (11). Davies goes into much more detail about the differences, however his point, as he states, is simply to show that there are differences within the theistic camp on how they conceive of God.

The remainder of the book follows the “standard” model of introductory texts on philosophy of religion—namely, its coverage of cosmological arguments, ontological arguments, etc. Davies follows a similar pattern in every one of his chapters: he introduces the main positions/arguments of various philosophers; he then offers a commentary and analysis on the successfulness of the arguments, showing readers where he thinks the arguments are weak and where they are strong. For instance, in chapter three where he discusses the cosmological arguments, Davies discusses three arguments: the kalam cosmological argument, the argument from contingency with use of the principle of sufficient reason, and the first cause argument.

When discussing whether the Kalam leads us to believe that a personal being caused the universe to exist, Davies is not shy to admit that we may still “wonder whether it counts as a good argument” for God since God is responsible for more than just the beginning of the universe, but for its continued existence (54). In the end, he seems to put the weight on concluding it is a good argument for concluding there is such a being, but he leaves it open enough for the readers to draw their own conclusions.

The second argument is the cosmological argument that’s based on the principle of sufficient reason. Davies sums up the argument by stating that the existence of anything that is contingent “must ultimately lie in something the existence of which is not contingent but necessary” (55). He further explains, “If there is no God, then the existence of the world lacks a reason. But the existence of the world must, they say, have a reason. So God exists” (55). The common retort to this is famously summed up by Bertrand Russell’s pronouncement that the universe simply exists and that it’s a brute fact that needs no explaining. But Davies points out that there is nothing in the concept or our understanding of “universe” that even mildly suggests that it is a brute fact. It cries out for explanation just like the existence of a black cat that walks by in the afternoon. There’s nothing about catness that suggests this cat must exist (56). However, Davies reveals that there may be equal problems with Leibniz’s principle of sufficient reason (PSR) that “every fact and every true statement has an explanation” (58). It gets a bit technical but he summarizes the objection as follows: Imagine the sum total of contingent facts, which we can call Q. According to the PSR, Q requires a sufficient reason R. R is either contingent or necessary. R cannot be contingent because then it would be Q, that is, it would be a part of the sum total of contingent facts. But R cannot also be necessary, and here is the heart of the objection, because a necessary sufficient reason of something necessarily entails the existence of something that the sufficient reason needs to be the reason of. It would follow that there are no contingent facts since those facts would be necessary. (59).

Davies doesn’t take the time to respond to this objection. But he concedes that if it is sound, then the cosmological arguments that make use of the PSR would be flawed. And with this he moves to the first cause argument. In concluding this chapter, Davies remarks that we must take into consideration that these arguments do not take us the full ride to concluding the God of any specific religious conception. It only gets us to the train station and not the actual destination, so to speak.

Davies explores two main forms of the argument from design in his design argument chapter: the argument from purpose and the argument from regularity. The former refers to “something being designed because it has parts put together for some end or other,” whereas the latter refers to something like “the orderly arrangements of flowers in a garden, or the repeated and predictable operations of an artifact” (74). When applying this distinction to the universe, we get the following two forms of argument: that there is design in the universe in that it has a purpose, and there is design in that there is regularity (74). Davies explains that we can see purposes all over nature, one example being that we see acorns regularly grow into oak trees since it’s their nature to do so. He explains, “To refer to a tendency id to draw attention to what something is moving towards, or inclined to, and it brings to mind the notion of an end or a goal or a striving towards. And the notion of an end, a goal, or a striving naturally brings to mind the notion of purpose or intention” (76). The design argument from regularity simply starts from the basic idea that we see that reasonable scientific laws regularly govern the universe. “There are many objects making up the universe,” writes Davies, “and behaving in a uniform way” (91). The argument from regularity stipulates that an appeal to a designer would be more reasonable than not when trying to explain the uniform regularity and order of the universe. So far, Davies has just offered the preliminaries. Davies takes some time to deal with Hume’s objections to the design arguments, and Davies fleshes out the main thrust of the argument later on towards the end of the chapter.

Shifting gears away from some of the arguments for the existence of God, let us visit Davies’ take on what he calls “God-talk.” How do we go about talking about God? The primary concern that Davies raises regarding talking about God is that God is completely other-worldly and unique—or in the words of Davies, God is “very different from anything else” (139)—and we often predicate attributes to God of things from our experience—like when we call God a father. When we say God is wise, is God wise in the way David Rodriguez is wise? Or is God wise in a completely different sense and thus making it harder for us to know how God is wise? Or is God wise in a sense that is somewhat similar but also different than the wisdom of David Rodriguez? These questions all highlight the different views of talking about God with the technical names being univocal, equivocal, and analogical respectively. Davies makes use of the theistic personalist/classical theism distinction made earlier in the book. The theistic personalist would argue for a univocal conception of talking about God, that is, when we say God is wise, wisdom is used in the very same sense as when we say David Rodriguez is wise. A classical theist, on the other hand, would say that wisdom is—in line with Aquinas—“a quality when used of creatures, but not when applied to God” (142).

There are, however, three more ways of talking about God that Davies refers to: causation, metaphor, negation, and analogy. This reviewer will briefly summarize Davies’ thoughts on analogy since it receives the most attention in the book. Talking about God analogically is the midpoint between talking about God univocally or equivocally. Davies, following Aquinas, notes three levels in which Aquinas deals with talking about God. First, we accept that “God is infinite, incomprehensible, and entirely simple” (148). Anything we say of God simply falls short. God is so much higher and greater than us human beings. Secondly, we cannot always apply words or attributes to God equivocally. We cannot mean something entirely different when we say God is wise, otherwise we wouldn’t know anything about the type of “wisdom” God has. We wouldn’t be able to communicate effectively about God. So, the best bet to communicate about God would be to refer to Him analogically, since it cannot be univocally or equivocally. Davies writes, “[the] main point is that certain terms can be applied both to God and to creatures, neither univocally nor equivocally, but because of some relation between God and creatures. And the relation which Aquinas has in mind is causal. According to Aquinas, we can say, for example, both that God is good and some creature is good because creaturely goodness exists in God inasmuch as creatures and their properties derive from God as their first cause” (149). Since God is the creator and cause of all that exists, his creation must reflect the creator, and it’s that that allows the possibility of talking about God. Davies closes his chapter with a few observations about why we could really talk about God and describe Him even though He is incomprehensible and mysterious.

After the chapter “Talking About God,” it seems appropriate to address one aspect of God that is central to the classical theistic position as Davies defines it, and that attribute is of divine simplicity. Davies explains that while contemporary literature on divine simplicity paints the doctrine is “peculiar” in some fashion, the doctrine has been around for a long time and was central to the medieval conception of God. Moreover, he notes that divine simplicity is the dividing line between theistic personalists and classical theists since “many differences […] spring directly from their reactions to the notion that God is simple” (159). With that, Davies proceeds with the chapter. He neatly summarizes the doctrine of divine simplicity by three statements: “1) God is unchangeable. 2) There is no distinction between God and his attributes. 3) God’s nature and his existence amount to the same thing” (160). With divine simplicity defined and the rationality explained, Davies now devotes the remainder of the chapter defending the doctrine from multiple criticisms. Most of the objections come from a rejection of immutability, that is, the changelessness of God. Either immutability entails God is not free, or the Bible says that God changes, and thus immutability cannot be accepted—at least not the extreme kind. Another big criticism, leveled by Alvin Plantinga, is that “If God is simple, God is a property, not a person, and God’s distinct properties are really one property (which cannot be true)” (165). Davies lists seven separate objections and he responds to each one accordingly. For instance, Davies’ response to the immutability and freedom issue is that it’s a non sequitur to conclude that God is “bound to create” from the fact that he is immutable, but rather all that follows is that God “changelessly wills to create” (168). There’s nothing in the nature of being changeless that would force God to not have free will. Davies concludes that divine simplicity “can be reasonably defended,” but he leaves it up to the readers to decide the plausibility of the arguments and the responses to objections (176).

Davies’ book is great in that it focuses specifically on the classical conception of God and analyzes all the topics through that scope. However, this may be a drawback for those who are looking for a wider perspective, for instance, looking at eastern conceptions of the divine, or for someone wanting to see material on polytheism—this is simply absent from discussion because Davies takes it that most philosophers of religion take God to mean something of the classic conception. Also, some may not appreciate the theistic personalism/classical theism distinction that Davies makes since it creates a divide between some of our most cherished Christian philosophers—namely, Richard Swinburne or William Lane Craig since the views espoused by these two would seem to fall within the theistic personalism camp, which is a camp that Davies does offer a few criticisms of.1 But Davies does well in remaining charitable and as neutral as possible, while simultaneously laying his assumptions open for all to see when evaluating the arguments. These minor balks are not enough to detract anyone from purchasing the book and checking out the material. Davies’ book is certainly a must for any philosophy of religion buff since it contains material that many other books tend to gloss over. Moreover, the endnotes, suggested reading, and discussion questions at the end of every chapter is more than enough to satisfy anyone’s hunger for more.


Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer David Rodriguez is a student at San Diego State University and is majoring in philosophy with a minor in biology. His primary philosophical interests include ethics, philosophy of religion, epistemology and medieval philosophy. In addition to philosophy, David has a keen interest in theology and medieval history. He is currently concerned with pursuing a career in bioethics. His webpage is Ad Dei Gloriam.

1. Davies makes mention of Swinburne in the book as being a paradigm example of a theistic personalist, but Davies does not mention William Lane Craig as one. My comments apply insofar that if one were to take the criteria that Davies explains as being central to theistic personalism, one could conclude that William Lane Craig falls within that category as labeled by Davies. 

3 comments :

jeremy said...

Great review. I bought this book years ago and still always return to it. I figured everyone forgot about it.

RkBall said...

The problem I have with classical theism (advocated by e.g., Ed Feser who has an outstanding philosophy blog), is that according to Christian doctrine, God did change. In the incarnation he took on humanity (to paraphrase Athanasius) and the incarnation is enduring -- Jesus did not shed his humanity when he ascended to heaven. Moreover, when Scripture says that God feels, I think it is something more than mere anthropomorphisms. Jesus wept. Jesus groaned. And he said he who has seen me has seen the Father. So, I'm not a philosopher, but I think the personalist view has a lot going for it. How can God be loving and a Father if he is not in some real sense a person?!

Ex N1hilo said...

No doubt it would have come as a great surprise to "classical theists" such as Augustine, Aquinas, the Reformers, and yes, Athanasius, to learn that they were worshipping an impersonal god.

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