- Enduring Questions in Philosophy of Religion: A Response to Neville and Godlove
Throw away the lights, the definitions, And say of what you see in the dark, That it is this, or that it is that, But do not use the rotted names.—Wallace Stevens
One could not ask for two more rigorous readers than Robert Neville and Terry Godlove, both brilliant scholars in their own right. I am very honored by the attention they have given to my work, and challenged by their various proposals to relieve me of my errors. My reply to their searching questions will consider seven topics, which I will take up in the form of further questions. Each topic has proven to be fairly enduring in the modern philosophy of religion. In conclusion, I will briefly consider the topic of the future of philosophy of religion.
I. Why Is There Something, and Not Nothing?
Neville thinks contingency does not go all the way down like the tortoises in the fable about what holds the world up. (There’s another version that uses elephants rather than tortoises, but I am reluctant to invoke that slow-moving symbol of the Republican Party.) Unlike me, he is able to locate a rational floor, a ground-of-being, at the ontological level; he thinks I am merely scraping by at the cosmological level when I invoke the concept of contingency to express the changing, dependent, and could-have-been-otherwise quality of existence in its historical, biological, and cosmic dimensions. Not wanting to risk a dogmatic assertion of the necessity of contingency, I have tried to be careful to state contingency as a “working hypothesis” or “descriptive generalization.” And in order to avoid what Dartmouth’s Maurice Mandelbaum dubbed “the self-excepting fallacy,” I hope I have not stated “contingency goes all the way down” as an ontological claim. For those who might wonder what could be wrong with a universe of radical contingency and why this debate between Neville and Frankenberry matters, I can encapsulate it this way: Start with an ancient question: how are the one and the many together? Do the many add up to a One? Or is the one destined to be absorbed into the many, as just one [End Page 36] alongside many? Next, add to that heady brew the question posed by G. W. F. Leibniz, “Why is there something rather than nothing?”1 Neville’s genius is to have taken these questions seriously and to have devised his own original and systematically elaborated answer. He puts forth a hypothesis about determinateness itself according to which the analysis of anything determinate requires “acknowledging the ontological act of creation as the context of mutual relevance in which things can be together so as to be determinate in respect of one another while remaining plural and different.”2 In other words, give Neville a many—any many at all—and he will press for the ground of that determinate many and make the ground more ultimate than the many itself. His interlocutors are then obliged to acknowledge that the ground is itself indeterminate, else it would just be one more determinate thing in need of explanation. Neville’s own ultimate is radically indeterminate and so has no need of a ground, and therefore is secure as an ultimate. The philosopher George Allan, Neville’s oldest friend from Yale, is an incomparable prose stylist. In a recent paper, he has aptly called Neville’s ontological ultimate “a bridge too far.”3 I stand with George Allan on the penultimate side of that bridge. I stand, too, with Wittgenstein: “I wonder at the existence of the world. And then I am inclined to use such phrases as ‘how extraordinary that anything should exist.’”4 (Wittgenstein was quick to add, however, that even his own expressions on this point were nonsense.) And I stand with the atheist philosopher J. J. C. Smart who conceded: “My mind often seems to reel under the immense significance this question has for me. That anything exists at all seems to me a matter for the deepest awe.”5 Not everyone feels this way, however. The philosopher of...