Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Spiritual but not religious

A lot of people identify as spiritual but not religious. It would be interesting to have statistics on how common this is among professional philosophers. There are lots of naturalists and a significant minority of theists of definite religion, but I just haven’t run across many in between. But shouldn’t one expect that there be a lot of philosophers like that, convinced by argument or just intuition that there is much more to the world than science could possibly get at, but not convinced by the arguments for any particular religion? Maybe it’s because as a profession we prefer definite views? Or maybe there are many philosophers in this category but they just don’t talk about it that much?

I do think it’s important not to downplay the intellectual bona fides of the “spiritual but not religious”. The arguments that there is more to the world and to life than there is room for in naturalism, that there is something “spiritual”, are very strong indeed. (Josh Rasmussen’s and my forthcoming Necessary Existence is relevant here, as are considerations about the meaning of life, the narrow space for normativity and mind on naturalist views, the implausibility of holding that there be a whole category of human experience that is never veridical, etc.) I think there are strong arguments that this something “spiritual” includes God, and there are strong arguments that Catholic Christianity is correct. But it should be very easy to imagine being convinced by the arguments for a spiritual depth to the world but not being convinced by the further arguments (I am not taking a stance in this post on whether it would be rational full stop to be in this position—I do, after all, think the arguments going all the way to Catholicism are strong).


Michael Gonzalez said...

Could it be that philosophers are more likely than laypeople to think that "spiritual but not religious" is too wishy-washy? That, if you actually have legitimate reason to believe in a spiritual reality, then you should go further, investigating it to the bottom and arriving at something definite? Or, at the very least, that saying "there's something more" is so vague and non-committal, that it would be embarrassing (professionally and personally) to acknowledge such an inclination?

Alexander R Pruss said...

I suspect something like that, but I think it may be an intellectual vice. There are contexts when something vague, squishy and non-committal is exactly the epistemically responsible thing to say.

For instance, for years I've been feeling that "there is something more" to change than just having a property at one time and not having it at another. I can't tell you what that something more is. I feel there is a *dynamism* that's left out by the at-at theory. But I can't put my finger on it. At the same time, I think there are fatal flaws in the main theories of what that "something more" is (say, presentism or growing block). Given this, "there is something more" seems exactly the epistemically responsible thing to say.

While we should strive for as much precision as a subject matter allows (Aristotle's proviso), we should never not pretend to more precision than our evidence allows.

(Of course, in the case of religion, I do think that widely-available evidence allows for more precision than "something more". But I can respect those who evaluate the evidence otherwise.)

Michael Gonzalez said...

It doesn't help the situation that the zeitgeist in Western thought at the moment is "scientific worldview vs. complete hokum". This is a false dichotomy and really rather intellectually lazy, in my opinion. Indeed, even if one has a completely scientific approach to every scientific topic, they will still have an enormous multitude of considerations (conceptual, linguistic, moral, aesthetic, etc) for which another set of tools entirely will be needed. But any such talk is, in my limited experience at least, considered to be "anti-science" and prima facie irrational.

Philosophers, I think, ought to be above such blockheaded thinking (at least, they ought to STRIVE to be above it), but I find a very strong partitioning between those who worship at the altar of science and those who are openly religious. There are exceptions, of course, such as Colin McGinn and David Chalmers, but they face a great deal of ridicule.

(I too think that there are very strong arguments and evidences of a very specific set of "somethings more". I think the work of people like McGrew, Habermas, Licona, and Craig on evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is absolutely compelling. Less specifically than that, Stephen Meyer's most recent book on the Cambrian explosion ought to give ANY rational person pause. And I think Leftow and yourself have made a very very strong case for viewing modal questions in terms of causal powers and that that leads directly to a being very much like God....)

Heath White said...

I think philosophers have much stronger instincts for coherence in their worldviews than ordinary people. They look for views where important loose ends are tied up, or at least it is very clear and defined what the loose ends are.

I have run across a few philosophers who identify as "agnostic." I take this to mean that they are not totally convinced by arguments against God's existence, and maybe they think there is "something more", but they do not think any actually existing religion is intellectually compelling.

But what you will not find among philosophers is the layperson's version of SBNR, which includes beliefs like "everything happens for a reason" or "good actions are karmically rewarded"--roughly, the belief in providence but without any clear metaphysical underpinning for it.

Michael Gonzalez said...

I would be very interested to know what Pruss means by there being "something more" to the concept of "change"....

Alexander R Pruss said...


That's a good point that philosophers don't want to have such beliefs without a clear metaphysical underpinning. But I think that on a phenomenally conservative view, one might reasonably believe such things without believing in any metaphysical underpinnings. After all, it might just look to you like everything happens for a reason (not in the PSR sense of explanation, but in the meatier "for a purpose" sense of "reason") when you examine your life, but you might not have a firm view as to what explains why everything happens for a reason. It does seem that prima facie there are multiple stories:
1. Theism + divine sovereignty
2. Optimalism
3. Kantian noumenal influence on the phenomenal realm.
It seems pretty clear to me that (1) is the best of the stories, and (2) probably implies (1) anyway (since it's for the best that there be a perfect being), but I could see someone suspending judgment on what explains purposefulness of life's events, just as many suspend judgment on what explains why the initial state of the universe has very low entropy.

Richard Davis said...

I'm put in mind of a question about angels -- why it is that (seemingly) all the angels we hear about are either VERY definitely on God's side or very definitely against Him. Where are all the neutral angels? The undecided ones? The ones who live a more or less moral, but occasionally blemished, existence? I think there's something to the idea that the 'higher' you go, the less feasible it is to occupy a neutral position on the matter of alignment with God, and angels are very 'high' beings (if only in terms of power, intelligence, knowledge, and strength of will). Philosophers are not 'higher' simpliciter on average than non-philosophers, of course, but perhaps they are 'higher' on average in one or two particular respects which bear on the matter of achieving consistency and clarity about what they do or do not believe. This may make it hard for philosophers to be neutral with respect to aligning those aspects of their natures with God. Hence, systematic and consistent intellectual rejection of God, or else systematic and consistent intellectual acceptance of Him, each come more easily than an intermediate position. (This is not to say, of course, that philosophers tend to occupy MORAL extremes; just intellectual ones. Also, almost any natural category of people --- artists, businesspeople, otakus, whatever --- tends to be 'higher' than the average human in some particular respects related to their interests. Philosophers are not special in this regard.)