Thursday, August 25, 2011

W.D. Hudson and Religious Beliefs

Some musings after reading the philosopher W.D. Hudson.

Yet again I've read Hudson's article titled, "What makes Religious Beliefs Religious." I've done this a few times over the years. It's the opening article in a Philosophy of Religion anthology I use. Hudson was a reader in Philosophy at the University of Exeter, and had quite the run of Philosophy articles in the 60s and 70s. He put out plenty of books too, apparently specializing in the study of Wittgenstein's philosophy as it could be applied to Religion.

In the article noted, he argues that religious belief is constituted by the concept of 'god'.  This special "constitution" relationship applies to particular claims (one's that can't be logically doubted) when they are made within a larger universe of discourse.  What's that mean? Well, take an example--in the universe of discourse about physics, it would make no sense to doubt that there are physical objects.  A physical science system is constituted by physical objects; or, more accurately, the concept of the former is constituted by the concept of the latter.  One can't make sense of a physical science system without importing the concept of physical objects.  So, in his big move on religion, Hudson likewise thinks one can't make sense of religion without importing the concept of 'god'.

At first, I was going to write that I'm not so big on armchair philosophizing--namely, where one deeply contemplates one's navel for a bit, and then comes back from The Brink to report one's own psychological feelings about connotations of words and meanings of statements.  But that would have been a lie, since I do it farily regularly. 

Even so, I certainly don't trust that method as a way of discovering what's true of reality.  Nor do I think it's the most reliable way to "do" philosophy, whatever that special activity is supposed to be.  Instead, my position is this: armchair philosophizing is merely a starting point for creative thinking, a way to begin setting-up the more rigorous project of mathematical and/or scientific reasoning.   (People used to freebasing too much Wittgenstein would vigorously disagree with this, I'd bet.  That's why one should take Wittgenstein only as supplement, and not as sustenance.)

I'll develop no extended response to Hudson, but I will leverage some of his arm-chairing to show the limitations of this method of philosophy.  Consider this snippet, appearing as it does toward the very end of the article:
"There are, no doubt, some logical limits on what can be discussed within any particular universe of discourse; it is difficult to conceive, for instance, of what a treatise on the chemistry of moral judgements or the morality of chemical equations could be about."[1]
I'll grant him it's futile to think about the morality of chemical equations.  Of course there is the morality of consequences, such as whether one should reveal deadly chemical equations to unscrupulous parties.   "Here, my terrorist friend, is an equation to make a bioweapon from baking soda and algae--overnite!"  But how bonkers to think that there's a moral principle about the equations themselves, such as whether 'Na + Cl2 -> 2NaCl' is more righteous than 'Cu + S -> CuS' due to some inherent property of the symbols or their arrangements.

In contrast, it seems much easier, even preferable, to concede there is a chemistry of moral judgement.  Maybe one is taken by this kind of approach:
  1.  All types of brain states are electro-chemical, material states.
  2.  All moral beliefs are types of brain states.
  3.  So, all moral beliefs are electro-chemical, material states.
In this case, a treatise on the chemistry of moral judgements might look a whole lot like a treatise on genetics and neuro-pharmacology. Hudson's armchair philosophizing fails him. It may be hard to understand the chemistry of judgements, but it's no longer so hard to conceive what such a universe of discourse is about.  In fact, it's becoming frighteningly easy.



[1] W.D. Hudson "What Makes Religious Beliefs Religious" Religious Studies 13 (1977) pp. 221-42.

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