William James: Six Key Points

Points to revise:

1. Know PINT and be able to explain how it contributes to his argument.
(It enables him to argue for a ‘common core’ to all religious experience, which is a universal feature of all religions. If it is universal, it must point to a greater reality behind the different beliefs)

2. Know and understand how his:

a)philosophical pragmatism
b) his psychologist training and
c) his empirical approach
contribute to his argument.
(a: it meant he could argue for the truth of religious experience based on the positive behavioural and moral effect it had on people’s lives.
b: it meant he was very aware of how our mental and emotional mind states affect our beliefs and experiences
c: it meant he was interested in gathering as much data as possible (ie testimonies), and also in looking for evidence which counted against religious experience.)

3. Know Swinburne’s principles of credulity and testimony and how they support James.

4. Know how conversion experiences are important to his argument. (They have a psychological basis but result in genuine ‘fruits’ on the moral life, eg. kindness, selflessness etc.)

5. Know Mackie’s criticisms.

6. Know general strengths/weaknesses. Eg. a key weakness is his protestant based assumption that only personal experiences are the real source of faith, and doctrines are a later addition. Too individualistic. Another key weakness: seems to be arguing for non-cognitive status of religious experience (psychological/emotional ) but also cognitive (noetic = intuitive knowledge of what?)

Feasting on Poetry: Lessons Learned on Reading, from C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle

This is excellent: “theological debates are like blinkers on a horse. Necessary for keeping us pointed in the right direction, they sometimes blind us to the big picture. I hope my students will learn to take off the blinkers, or at least peer around them every now and then”

Christ & University

71299-_1Today, readers, we are very pleased to bring you a special guest post by Megan Von Bergen. Professor Von Bergen brings up some very interesting issues about teaching students how to read poetically. Take and read!


I teach writing and literature at a small Bible college in the Midwest. Because my students all profess a faith in Christ, I usually select course readings based on what I feel will encourage and challenge them in that faith.

Every spring, I ask my students in Introduction to Literature to read C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce. Every spring, my students ask me whether they should take Lewis’s depiction of Heaven and Hell at face value. I want them to know what Lewis says about how we approach God in this life. All they want to know are the specifics of his eschatology.

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C S Lewis Doodles

On Sexual Morality by C S Lewis.

I was introduced to these excellent doodle videos recently by another RE teacher who uses them with her A Level classes. The one above would be great as an introduction to A Level Sexual Ethics.

There are other good ones for other topics in the Philosophy and Ethics modules – just find C S Lewis Doodles on Youtube.

Verification and Falsification

Here is the Sevenoaks Philosophy page’s summary of verification and falsification. I would like you to comment on the three parables of Flew, Hare and Mitchell – say what you think they are trying to do and whether they succeed.

Verification and Falsification

One way of establishing whether or not a statement is meaningful was proposed byA J Ayer. This criterion for meaning was called the Verification Principle and insisted that for a statement to be meaningful, it must be verifiable by sense experiences – or, in the weaker form of the principle, it should be possible to know what sense experience could make the statement probable. This form of realism implies a very strict view of language: words have meaning only in so far as they correspond to things in the world which can be known. Such a view is deeply influenced by scientific notions of truth, and evolved from the logical positivism of the Vienna Circle.

Such a theory of meaning has potentially dire consequences for religious statements. How is it possible to verify claims like ‘God is infinite’ or ‘The soul is constantly reborn’ or ‘There is life after death’? Do such statements really pick out things and properties in the world? Or are they as meaningless as claims in astrology or the paranormal?

The Verification Principle was intended as a tool to allow us to distinguish between the meaningful statements of science and the meaningless claims of pseudo-science and mysticism, and in that sense it has at times been valuable: as Ayer argued, sometimes people assume that because a word exists, there must be a corresponding real thing to which it refers. But the principle was quickly discredited as an adequate criterion of meaning, and much recent philosophy has examined less narrow ways in which language is used. But it is difficult to abandon completely the notion that for a statement to be meaningful, it must in some sense be shown to correspond to reality.


Various implications of this notion were put to the test in a famous exchange that played out in the philosophical journal University in the 1950s. The debate opened with a paper by Antony Flew which centred around an old parable of an invisible gardener.

Once upon a time two explorers came upon a clearing in the jungle. In the clearing were growing many flowers and many weeds. One explorer says, ‘Some gardener must tend this plot.’ The other disagrees, ‘There is no gardener.’ So they pitch their tents and set a watch. No gardener is ever seen. ‘But perhaps he is an invisible gardener.’ So they set up a barbed-wire fence. They electrify it. They patrol with bloodhounds… But no shrieks ever suggest that some intruder has received a shock. No movements of the wire ever betray an invisible climber. The bloodhounds never give cry. Yet still the Believer is not convinced. ‘But there is a gardener, invisible, intangible, insensitive to electric shocks, a gardener who has no scent and makes no sound, a gardener who comes secretly to look after the garden which he loves.’ At last the Sceptic despairs, ‘but what remains of your original assertion? Just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from an imaginary gardener or even from no gardener at all?’

Flew’s point is a subtle one. The believer’s initial claim that a gardener must exist is tested in several ways, and each piece of evidence is dismissed by a qualification – the gardener is invisible, then intangible, then free of scent, and so on. By the end, there seems no way of testing the existence of the gardener at all. The claim seems empty of content and therefore meaningless. Taking his cue from Karl Popper, Flew argues that for a statement to be meaningful it must at least be open to falsification– there must be some way of showing it to be false. A statement that fits any imaginable state of affairs doesn’t appear to say anything at all, and is therefore meaningless. Religious statements tend to suffer from ‘death by a thousand qualifications’: the claims they embody are so immune to falsification that they are, in fact, empty.

Consider a statement like ‘God moves in mysterious ways’. By invoking mystery as the defining characteristic of God’s plan, a believer can make the statement fit anysituation. Earthquakes, plagues, diseases, holocausts – all are compatible with ‘mysterious’ intentions and none can be considered evidence against the claim. Of course, a statement like ‘God always prevents suffering’ is easily falsified, which is the thrust of the problem of evil: but at least it says something specific, asserting one state of affairs and denying another. Flew’s argument is that such assertive and meaningful statements are absent in religious discourse. The only statements that remain are meaningless.

Three key responses to Flew’s paper refined the discussion in different ways. The first response came from R M Hare who offered another parable:

A certain lunatic is convinced that all dons want to murder him. His friends introduce him to all the mildest and most respectable dons that they can find, and after each of them has retired, they say, ‘You see, he doesn’t really want to murder you; he spoke to you in a most cordial manner; surely you are convinced now?’ But the lunatic replies, ‘Yes, but that was only his diabolical cunning; he’s really plotting against me the whole time, like the rest of them; I know it, I tell you.’ However many kindly dons are produced, the reaction is still the same.

At first sight Hare’s paranoid lunatic seems to confirm Flew’s argument, and Hare agreed that religious statements are meaningless by Flew’s standards of evidence. But what counts as evidence? For the lunatic, there is plenty of evidence to confirm his paranoia: from his perspective, every ‘diabolical’ don’s mild manner is just a pretence. It is this notion of perspective that is key: Hare calls this a ‘blik’, a frame of reference that determines what counts as evidence. A ‘blik’ is a way of seeing the world, a filter that affects our standards of evidence. The paranoid man’s blik leads him to see evidence of hostility in everything; the religious blik similarly allows the believer to see evidence where a sceptic may not.

Hare’s point is that religious statements are not assertions at all, and therefore are immune to verification and falsification. Instead they are expressions of a particular blik with particular standards of explanation and conduct. Religious people see the world a certain way, and from within that perspective all sorts of things count as evidence for God: a beautiful sunset, a flock of geese, the ‘miracle’ of birth, and so on.

Hare is certainly right about the way we choose to evaluate the world from within a framework. But it is difficult to resist the conclusion that some frameworks, some bliks, are better than others at representing the nature of things. Paranoia is not a flattering analogue to religious belief – and surely the scientific blik (if such a thing is admitted) trumps them both. Moreover, by claiming that religious statements are not assertions of fact, Hare seems to be weakening the important claims that believers make. As Flew replied:

If Hare’s religion really is a blik, involving no cosmological assertions about the nature and activities of a supposed personal creator, then surely he is not a Christian at all?

A second response came from Basil Mitchell who offered his own parable.

In time of war in an occupied country, a member of the resistance meets one night a Stranger who deeply impresses him… The partisan is utterly convinced at that meeting of the Stranger’s sincerity and constancy and undertakes to trust him. They never meet in conditions of intimacy again. But sometimes the Stranger is seen helping members of the resistance, and the partisan is grateful and says to his friends, ‘He is on our side.’ Sometimes he is seen in the uniform of the police handling over patriots to the occupying power. On these occasions his friends murmur against him: but the partisan still says, ‘He is on our side.’ He still believes that, in spite of appearances, the Stranger did not deceive him… Sometimes his friends, in exasperation, say, ‘Well, what would he have to do for you to admit that you were wrong and that he is not on our side?’ But the partisan refuses to answer.

Mitchell’s partisan is certainly more flattering to believers than a paranoid lunatic, and the parable illustrates that belief in the absence of conclusive evidence is not unreasonable. While Flew insists upon empirical tests to render a statement meaningful, Mitchell shows that belief is as much a matter of trust and commitment. Religious claims do not have to be intellectually convincing: a believer can trust in their relationship with God, as the partisan comes to trust the stranger. Moreover the partisan’s trust is falsifiable in principle (and thus meets Flew’s challenge) but the question remains: what would it take to change the partisan’s mind? How much evidence is required to show that the stranger has betrayed him? Mitchell admits that there is no simple answer to this question – but at least it is not unreasonable to give the stranger the benefit of the doubt.

Some time after the University debate, John Hick suggested another way in which verifiability can apply to religious statements in his parable of the travellers.

Two men are traveling together along a road. One of them believes that it leads to the Celestial City, the other that it leads nowhere. But since this is the only road there is, both must travel it. Neither has been this way before, therefore neither is able to say what they will find around each corner. During their journey they meet with moments of refreshment and delight, and with moments of hardship and danger. All the time one of them thinks of his journey as a pilgrimage to the Celestial City… The other, however, believes none of this, and sees their journey as an unavoidable and aimless ramble… Yet, when they turn the last corner, it will be apparent that one of them has been right all the time and the other wrong…

In other words, religious claims may, in the end, be verifiable if true (although not falsifiable if false). Hick’s point is that the two men experience the journey differently: the believer accepts the good and the bad calmly and pursues the path in hope of salvation. Belief makes a difference. It is important to note that Hick is not claiming that religious statements are true (or false), only that they aremeaningful and that belief in those statements is reasonable. This approach has become known as eschatological verification.

Perhaps Flew’s criteria for meaningfulness are indeed too strict. After all, religious claims do seem to be asserting something, and Hick may be right to suggest that they are verifiable in principle. But the other extreme is also unacceptable. A statement must be bound by some criteria for it to be useful and meaningful: if a claim is not open to any process of verification or falsification, then it seems likely to be meaningless after all.

Preparing to go back

good advice for all here


It’s August and, even though this month is one in which schools, colleges and universities are closed for the whole duration, there isn’t much time left before we go back. Sorry.

This being the case, it’s probably a good time to start preparing, is it not? Here is some advice:


Whether you’re at school or at university, you’ll probably have an idea of what topics you’ll be covering in the coming academic year. The older you are, the more you’ll know about it, not least because you start choosing what you study.

Therefore, you can do yourself a favour and buy some books in advance, take notes, even just look things up on the Internet if they will help to give you an overview of something. The more work you do now, the less stress you will have later.

With regard to reading texts for homework, it’s helpful to…

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Arguing With Internet Atheists Part 1


Recently I have had cause to have fairly public discussions on social media with atheists about the nature of atheism and its entailments. To be clear from the start, these discussions did not centre on whether God exists or not, but rather on the much less controversial topic of varieties of atheism, eg. so-called New Atheism (Dawkins, Dennett et al.) contrasted with other versions of atheism that reject the scientism and reliance on humanism of the new atheists (put forward by Patrick O’Connor here).

I was unable to convince any of these atheists that atheism could not simply be the straightforward lack of a superstitious overlay to a clear-eyed and rational approach to life that they thought it was. I suppose I am naive for being surprised, after all, it is very comforting and a great temptation to think that you are the one that sees clearly, or is unable to be fooled like the masses. I don’t know whether I myself have always managed to avoid this temptation, a kind of Gnosticism, and would only count myself a person of good faith if I was able to say that I had.

Now, I’m not going to go into the reasons for rejecting the simplistic myth outlined above in this post; I will return to that in part 2. What I want to do here is just unpack something a lot more facile and poorly-considered on the atheism spectrum.

Someone who I know personally, but haven’t seen for years, has been reading some of my posts on this blog and sharing them on his social media profile with his own criticisms of them. When I say criticisms, I don’t mean he is correcting my grammar, rather, he is putting forward his own views on religion (negative ones of course) as they relate to the post. However, he is not particularly well-read in theology or philosophy (this sounds uncharitable, but I have to assume that this is the case, or he wouldn’t have made such flawed and fallacious arguments), and so many of his comments actually are only attacking straw men, if that. What he probably has done is read a few of the New Atheists, watched a few Youtube videos, and then decided he is the main authority on theology.

So I would like to share here a few of his comments with the links to my posts, so that you can see how not to argue against theism. In my next post I will tackle some of the issues raised by the question of worldviews and theism/atheism.

Here is a post I wrote for A Level students on Kant’s moral argument. As you can see, it takes the form of three different quality answers to the question ‘Morality has nothing to do with the existence of God. Discuss’. This kind of question on Kant would involve evaluating the way in which Kant believes that morality when properly understood requires us to postulate from practical reason the existence of God. Anyone who has studied the argument knows that Kant does not think that morality proves God, rather that when we see the nature of morality we would understand that it requires God to work. The atheist comments thus:
“The idea that God has some monopoly of morality is ludicrous and arguably rascist [sic]. The major obtuse implication is that cultures that are without God (historically due to geographic reasons) would be devoid of morality. This disproven belief has been used as justification for some very immoral behaviour from those who would act in the name of God. Buddhism could be said to be a very moral teaching as it professes empathy and reduction of suffering and strives toward nirvana (summum bonum) but this teaching has no God pulling the strings or passing judgement. I would say that Kant’slack of wordly experiences and cultural tunnel vision coupled by undoubtedly rascist higher ground typical of most western philosophers and psychologists has contributed to any number misconstrued arguments that attempts to pass as well thought out descriptions of reality.
Morality stems from an instinctual desire to please those in our social atmosphere to encourage cooperation. This is an evolved tendency acted upon by processes of selection and is not at all unique to human beings. All moral behaviour leads to a healthier, happier, more cohesive population that is better able to survive and reproduce. Religion’s role has been as an enforcer of society’s biological moral compass as an indivual may occasionally place their own ego ahead of the empathy required be good.” 

The first sentence is rather a massive misunderstanding of Kant. Kant in fact said the opposite to this – that morality was the result of pure reason – the categorical imperative results from reflecting on one’s duties and universalising one’s actions. It very much does not depend on God at all in this sense. Kant even went so far as to say that Abraham was wrong to obey God when He asked him to sacrifice Isaac. Morality for Kant can never be a divine command, it has to be worked out freely and rationally by humans, or we are mere puppets.

But let’s give this guy the benefit of the doubt – surely that is what Christianity says? God has a monopoly on morality? I’ll be honest – I don’t really know exactly what he means here. Does he mean that Christians think that God gives us morals, and that without God telling us what they are we couldn’t be moral? That seems the general gist of his argument, for he then goes on to say that this would be “rascist” (racist I think) based on the fact that some cultures without God would be unable to be moral.

The first thing to say here is that it is an argument built on an incredibly crude understanding of what Christian ethics are. Not even the Old Testament says that the Israelites were unable to be moral before the 10 commandments (the revelation of God’s law) were given to them. Where would that have left Abraham, Noah and so on? These were recognised as good men, even before God spoke to them. Equally, in the New Testament we are given stories by Christ where he explicitly names cultures other than the Jews and shows members of that culture (which the Jews hated) acting in more ethical ways than priests from the Jewish religion (Parable of the Good Samaritan).

So clearly in no sense do Christians or Jews believe that God has a monopoly on morality, or that cultures without God would be devoid of morality. The Christian view is that as created beings we have all been given the ability to distinguish right from wrong by use of our reason. The ten commandments, and later the Beatitudes given by Christ function as moral guidelines, ways of perfecting our natural ethical reasoning. We can choose to obey them or not, and it is hardly fair to say now that there is any culture on earth that is not aware of them, or has not been affected by them – indeed, there is good evidence to show that Mahayana Buddhism has been influenced by Christianity at its origins as far back as the 5th century.

Equally, it would be very hard to show a culture without some kind of God or gods, and some kind of ethics, and this is really the same thing as saying that some kind of moral code tied to belief in the supernatural is as universal as you can get in the history of world cultures. No Christian has any problem with any of this. It follows from the belief that we are all creatures of God. It is only modern atheists who have had a difficult time explaining morality without reference to religion, as this website shows:

The issue turns fundamentally on whether it is plausible to believe that the Enlightenment humanist project of establishing a fully secular autonomous morality can be justified. According to defenders of the project of Enlightenment humanism, there are perfectly good nontheistic grounds for being moral; according to detractors, there are finally no such grounds, and the views of figures such as De Sade and Nietzsche are held to illustrate the failure of the Enlightenment project of an autonomous ethics”

Later, the atheist will follow something like Sam Harris’ lead in trying to outline a morality purely based in evolutionary psychology, so clearly he disagrees with atheists like Nietzsche on this. Anyway, this is enough to see simply from his first two sentences, that he has both massively oversimplified the theists position, and massively underestimated the capacity of theism itself to give answers to the questions he has posed.

So next he gets onto one of his favourite hobby-horses: that religious believers have acted immorally in the name of God, which proves precisely nothing about religion, but does show that human beings are so flawed and sinful that they will use anything as an excuse to be horrible to other human beings. I mean, yawn; ‘religion causes wars’ he whines, like one of my year 7 students. Yep, lots of things cause wars actually, and even if it could be shown that religion has caused more wars etc. than say greed, or desire for resources, that would be to ignore the tremendous force for good, order, and society that religion has been. If we take Christianity alone, it pretty much was the origin of hospitals, schools, benefits, and so much more that we take as the mark of a good enlightened society. I think this is a very weak argument that he puts there.

I like his linking of Buddhist nirvana with Kant’s summum bonum – he has that right at least, that they both function as a kind of ultimate to strive for, but although there is no God to provide judgement in Buddhism there is still karma to perform the same function, so why he has a problem with a personal judgement by a loving being over an impersonal judgement by a cosmic law I don’t really know.

He then has a couple of really funny lines where he says that Kant couldn’t do ethical philosophy well because he had lack of worldly experience and cultural tunnel vision/racist superiority! Hilarious ; makes him sound like Hitler! As one of the founders of Enlightenment humanism, Kant probably indirectly helped to bring about a more tolerant world, and ultimately the end of slavery, with his emphasis on the fact that reason is a universal human faculty, its surely the opposite of cultural tunnel vision? Then he dismisses most of the rest of western philosophers and psychologists with the same slur – erm…overgeneralisation? Ad hominem? Fallacies galore.

He then has a slightly incoherent final paragraph where he outlines a broadly evolutionary psychological approach to morality, favoured as I said, by Sam Harris, Dawkins etc. Such arguments usually manage to account for some of the general features of what we might call the lower forms of morality, simply looking out for those in your group etc. but tend to fall rather short as an account of why we should be moral. The commitment of ‘virtuous atheists’ such as Richard Dawkins to biological reductionism makes it difficult for them to say why humans should not follow their aggressive and xenophobic instincts rather than their cooperative and altruistic ones. They appear to be able to offer only an evolutionary explanation of the altruistic moral instincts, not a reason why they should be followed.

All in all, if you’re going to post my stuff with critical comments on it you’d better make damn sure you know what you’re talking about. This guy clearly doesn’t.