Philosophy: Metaphysics and Philosophy of Religion | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Philosophy: Metaphysics and Philosophy of Religion

Metaphysics chiefly addresses questions about what is ultimately real and important. Philosophy of religion explores and evaluates religious views of reality and seeks to understand religious practice.

Philosophy: Metaphysics and Philosophy of Religion

Metaphysics chiefly addresses questions about what is ultimately real and important. Philosophy of religion explores and evaluates religious views of reality and seeks to understand religious practice.

The Two Preoccupations
Philosophers of religion and metaphysicians have faced 2 principal challenges since 1950: acceptance of the scientific method as the basic model of knowledge, and the preoccupation of philosophers with the theory of meaning. The study of reality is not the domain of any one science, and it has frequently been suggested that propositions about "reality" are too vague to be capable of scientific verification and are therefore possibly meaningless. Metaphysicians have been accused of twisting language into unintelligible shapes, and the major religions have been accused of endorsing views which cannot be substantiated by, and which at times clash with, science.

The Status of Religious Belief

Since 1950 there have been vigorous attacks on religious belief (eg, by Kai Nielsen in Scepticism, 1973 and in God, Scepticism, and Modernity, 1989), and on issues related to the empirical claims of believers (eg, Michael Ruse, The Darwinian Paradigm, 1989). Nevertheless, many philosophers in Canada have held that there are ways in which the disputes can be resolved and through which such religious belief can be saved and made intelligible. The results may be divided into 9 groups.

Science and Religion
First, F.W. Waters in The Way In and the Way Out (1967) and Alastair McKinnon in Falsification and Belief (1970) suggest similarities between science and religion: both involve fallible and limited attempts to apply fundamental principles. But these principles are not themselves uncertain. Thus, McKinnon argues, the scientist, committed to the principle that the world has an order, and the Christian, committed to belief in God, must try to show that experience and life become intelligible through reasonable application of the principle concerned. Donald Wiebe's Religion and Truth (1981) is a plea for taking religious knowledge seriously - indeed for creating an appropriate science out of that knowledge. He concedes that religious truth is very complex, but he believes that truth and falsity should be the most central concern of scholars in the field. He strongly deplores the tendency of scholars in religion to describe beliefs without evaluating them.

Idealism or Finding the Natural Order

Secondly, there have been attempts to revivify parts of the idealist philosophy dominant in English Canada until WWII. "Idealism" has had many meanings, but the Canadian idealists' central tenet was that all reality formed a unified, rational whole. They suggested that science and religion were not antithetical but were part of a larger rational system and that there was a natural order to human affairs. These concerns were complicated by developments in science (such as quantum physics) which suggested chance elements in reality; by a growing gap between scientists' and religious believers' characterizations of the world; and by theories that suggested that meanings (interpretations) were arbitrary.

Human Presuppositions and Idealism

In response, Lionel Rubinoff, in Collingwood and the Reform of Metaphysics (1970), argued in support of British philosopher R.G. Collingwood that our world views, scientific and otherwise, must be seen in the context of the presuppositions with which humans approach the world. Metaphysical systems and religious world views can be seen as intelligible if they are taken to be accounts of the way the human mind is able to see the world at different times. Science also reflects this historical process. In the course of history, these changing views begin to reveal a pattern, which Rubinoff called the "transcendental structure of reality," ie, a structure that appears through but ultimately leads beyond the immediacies of human experience.

Part of the science-religion-metaphysics controversy has had to do with theories of logic, meaning and truth that were tailored to scientific knowledge. In The Rational and the Real (1962), The Concept of Truth (1969) and Logic and Reality (1972), Leslie ARMOUR argued that these notions of logic, truth and meaning are specialized subforms of more embracing notions. The more embracing notions make possible many traditional metaphysical and religious ideas. Interest in Idealist metaphysics is reflected in recent historical studies, such as Ethics, Metaphysics and Religion in the Thought of F.H. Bradley (1996), edited by P. MacEwan, Bradley's Moral Psychology (1987), by Don MacNiven, Being and Idea (1994), by Leslie Armour and Divine Subjectivity (1990) by Dale Schlitt.

Finding a Home Within the World of Science

A third group, including Thomas GOUDGE and Charles DE KONINCK, has sought to build within the structure of science. Goudge's The Ascent of Life (Governor General's Award, 1961) makes few explicit claims about metaphysics or religion, but meticulously examines parts of biological theory and exposes a number of points at which conceptual possibilities remain open. De Koninck, in The Hollow Universe (1960), insists that the scientific world view is an abstract and hollow shell that must be filled by concrete experience in order to make sense. A.H. Johnson, in a series of books including Whitehead's Theory of Reality (rev ed 1962), reflects British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead's attempt to move from the scientific world picture to a more embracing structure by showing where the scientific structure needed metaphysical support. Johnson's theories, expounded chiefly in Experiential Realism (1973), continue his attempt to achieve an ultimate theory of reality through an adequate understanding of experience.

Containing Science

A fourth group, drawing inspiration from St Thomas Aquinas, searches for demarcation lines between science and theology and for a way to understand religion as rational. Louis-Marie Régis describes in Epistemology (1959) his view of the forms and limitations of science. Joseph Owens, in An Interpretation of Existence (1968), defends Aquinas's notion that being is capable of a measure of general characterization and that it is both active and intelligible. In L'Éducation à la liberté (1978; tr Education for Freedom, 1982) Jean-Louis Allard offers an account, which follows the philosophy of Jacques Maritain, of the way fundamental principles become intelligible through the ordering of one's life. Reactions against details of this philosophy include André Dagenais's Vingt-quatre défauts thomistes (1964) and Le Dieu nouveau (1974). Gregory Baum's Man Becoming (1970) and Religion and Alienation (1975) represent another kind of critique of the Thomist tradition.

A distinct development of the Thomistic tradition was carried out by Bernard Lonergan (Insight, 1952; Philosophy of God and Theology, 1973) and his successors. This work includes not only discussions of metaphysics, religion and the theory of knowledge, but the application of the results in diverse fields of endeavour. In The Intelligible Universe, a Cosmological Argument (1982), Hugo Meynell makes use of ideas drawn from Lonergan and argues that the intelligibility of the world provides the basis for God's existence. In a more recent work, Is Christianity True? (1994), however, Meynell provides a more traditional defence of religious belief.

Questioning Metaphysics

A fifth group is that of the many English-speaking philosophers who have worked within "analytic" philosophy, a tradition much influenced by the Austrian Ludwig Wittgenstein and the British Bertrand Russell, G.E. Moore, Gilbert Ryle and J.L. Austin. Kai Nielsen uses this philosophy to question the foundations of religion and metaphysics. Alistair M. Macleod developed in Paul Tillich (1973) a strong negative critique of attempts to answer what Tillich called the question of being. Macleod urges that Tillich is confused in thinking there is one central "mystery of being," but stops short of arguing that no metaphysical or religious world views can ever be justified. Jay Newman uses a similar method in analysing the relation of assent and faith in The Mental and Moral Philosophy of John Henry Newman (1986).

Despite the frequent hostility of the analytic tradition to metaphysics and religion, many Canadian analytic philosophers have sought to find room for religious expression. In his Survival and Disembodied Existence (1970), Terence Penelhum questions the meaningfulness of some religious beliefs, but his The Problem of Religious Knowledge (1971) and Reason and Religious Faith (1995) leaves possibilities for religious discourse. Donald Evans, after close association with the new analytic philosophy during which he wrote The Logic of Self-Involvement (1963), developed his defence of religious experience in Struggle and Fulfillment (1979), Faith, Authenticity and Morality (1980) and in Spirituality and Human Nature (1995). There has been little work that reflects the analytic tradition of "fideistic" views that emphasize the autonomy of faith, although one finds tendencies in this direction in Wilfred Cantwell Smith (eg, Faith and Belief, 1979). Pierre Lucier, in Empirisme logique et langage religieux (1976), assesses the strengths and impact of the analytic movement.

Frequently, analytic philosophers have used language analysis to sustain essentially "humanistic" positions against claims of "determinists" in psychology and history who have believed that free human action is unintelligible or impossible (eg. William Anglin, Free Will and Christian Faith, 1990). Charles TAYLOR argues for the importance of understanding the social nature of the human person in his Sources of the Self (1989). A branch of philosophy known as "action theory" is concerned with analysis of the language with which human actions are described. Donald Brown, in Action (1968), carefully analyses such language and suggests that we cannot easily convert talk about human action into talk about events figuring naturally in the sciences. Similarly, William DRAY argues in Laws and Explanation in History (1957) that explanations of human history cannot be reduced to the form of scientific laws.

Phenomenology in Canada

Sixth, 20th-century European philosophy has had a substantial influence in Canada. Emil FACKENHEIM shows these influences of German phenomenology and French existentialism in Metaphysics and Historicity (1961) along with those of Hegel and of 19th-century German philosophy in general. The most extensive work in this genre in French Canada is Existant et acte d'être (1977-80) by Benoit Pruche, who also draws heavily on Aquinas and Aristotle. Since 1980, many philosophers, such as Gary Madison (The Hermeneutics of Postmodernity, 1988) and Jean Grondin have come under the influence of hermeneutics, critical theory and post-modern philosophy. These authors have been largely critical of the idea of metaphysical and religious systems, and Grondin, in Sources of Hermeneutics (1995), explicitly brings Kant, Heidegger and Gadamer to bear on questions in religion.

Strongly influenced by post-modern thought, particularly that of Richard Rorty, Hendrik Hart's Search for Community in a Withering Tradition (1990) reflects a fideistic turn from a Calvinistic perspective. Essays providing a critical response to some of these issues are found in La Philosophie de la religion á la fin du vingtième siècle (1993), edited by William Sweet.

Concern with the idea of the self and the attempt to build a philosophical anthropology (ie, a theory of the nature of man) are strong in works such as those of Jacques Croteau, whose L'Homme: sujet ou objet (1981) develops ideas from European phenomenology against a background influenced by Aquinas and Maritain. In La Genèse du concept du soi (1980) René l'Ecuyer ties experimental psychology to ideas from a diverse group of philosophers, raising many of the same issues that concerned the existentialists. In The Art of Art Works (1982) Cyril Welch applies other aspects of that tradition to our understanding of art and of the ways in which that understanding transforms reality. Existentialism and phenomenology have been criticized as well, eg, by F. Temple Kingston in French Existentialism (1961). Thomas de Koninck's De la dignitéhumaine (1995) makes human dignity the focus for an extended study of the fundamental questions of metaphysics and religion. It won the French Academy's 1996 prize for Philosophy, Morals, and Sociology (le prix La Bruyère).


Seventh, there has recently been a return to the rationalist metaphysics best represented by 17th- and 18th-century philosophers such as Leibniz and Spinoza. This movement, generally using modern logical and analytic techniques, has been led by John Leslie and Helier J. Robinson. The rationalists had urged that one must start with questions about what is logically possible rather than what seems to exist. They were guided by the principles that everything has an explanation and that whatever does not exist fails to do so because it is prevented from existing by something else.

Leslie's Value and Existence (1979) argues for the reintroduction of principles of value into these discussions. In Renascent Rationalism (1975), which is also an attempt to make experience intelligible, Helier J. Robinson admits that we cannot tell whether or not a god outside the world exists, but he believes that we can tell, for instance, that a god exists in some sense within the world. In somewhat the same vein, Leslie defends an anthropic principle and a form of neo-Platonism in Universes (1989). He reassesses much of his philosophical cosmology in The End of the World: The Science and Ethics of Human Extinction (1996), a work which looks at the probabilities for and philosophical underpinnings of theories which concern the long-range prospects for human life.

Understanding Religious Belief

There has also been a significant interest in the nature of religious practice and religious experience, where philosophy is used as a tool for understanding, but not challenging, religious belief. Examples of this approach include James Horne (who has been influenced by Tillich and Martin Buber), The Moral Mystic (1983), and Michel Despland, La Réligion en occident: Évolution des idées et du vécu (1979).

Cross-cultural Studies
Finally, philosophy of religion has taken on an increasingly cross-cultural character in response to religious pluralism. In The Philosophy of Religion and Advaita Vedanta: A Comparative Study in Religion and Reason (1995), Arvind Sharma argues for the importance of pluralistic philosophy of religion, holding that cross-cultural philosophy of religion can be normative. Peter Slater, The Dynamics of Religion: Meaning and Change in Religious Traditions (1978) and Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Religious Diversity (1976) and Towards a World Theology (1981), have pioneered work in the study of religious traditions from a social scientific perspective. Cantwell Smith's later work is interesting so far as it bears on the nature of religious belief, and shows movement towards a "unified world religion".

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