Friday, July 22, 2011

Samuel Fleischacker's "Divine Teaching and the Way of the World"

Samuel Fleischacker is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Illinois-Chicago. His previous work has focused on Enlightenment moral and political thought, especially that of Kant and Adam Smith, and on conceptions of culture, liberalism and distributive justice. He is the author of A Third Concept of Liberty and A Short History of Distributive Justice and editor of Heidegger's Jewish Followers. In 2009 his book, On Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, was given the 2009 Joseph B. Gittler Award by the American Philosophical Association, for an outstanding book in the philosophy of social science.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Divine Teaching and the Way of the World: A Defense of Revealed Religion, and reported the following:
The contemporary British playwright, David Hare, begins his recent play Gethsemane with a character wondering why some people believe in a book - why they attach themselves to some book or other, and then say that "all wisdom resides" in that book. This is an old complaint. Immanuel Kant already contemptuously dismissed religious believers who use "It is written" to justify what they do or believe.

Divine Teaching and the Way of the World is an attempt to show why reasonable people might believe in a book. More precisely, it tries to show how one can bring together a traditional religious faith - a faith that one or more of the books long held to be sacred really does express a "divine teaching" - with a secular, modern understanding of science and morality. Central to the argument of the book is the claim that religious teachings bear most strongly on the question of what, if anything, makes life worthwhile, and that that question can be suspended in the ordinary course of science and morality. Religious texts give us "telic views," views about our telos (Greek for "purpose"), about what, overall, our lives might aim at - this, I maintain, is something that is most appropriately expressed in the poetic way characteristic of religious revelations, and in a text understood to be authored by a God or super-naturally wise human being. Only in this way can the mystery that I see as essential to a vision of our purpose be preserved.

Page 99 of the book represents a delicate point in this argument: a point at which I need to consider how we can possibly have adequate moral systems without determining what makes life worthwhile (or, indeed, answering questions about the existence of God). I suggest that in practice we generally bracket that question, and the telic views that might answer it:
Because we have reason to try to share modes of moral argument with our neighbors, because we can minimize the differences among our moral systems by bracketing our telic beliefs, and because most of us are quite tentative about the latter in any case, and realize how difficult it is to persuade others of them, we abstract from our telic views as much as possible when making everyday moral decisions. Sometimes that is very difficult, as when we have to consider whether it is worth trying to extend the life of a gravely ill person. Here the question, “is her life still worth living?” may seem forced on us, and it is hard to give that an answer without saying something about the question, “what makes any human being’s life worth living?” (At which point our moral differences come vividly to the fore.) And the fact that this can happen tempts some moral theorists to suppose that a telic view must settle all moral disputes. I think that that is not true, but that telic views do hover in the background of all moral reasoning. Our moral views depend on intuitions that we also consider when asking about our ultimate good, and sometimes they impel us to ask after that good. But they also give us reason, most of the time, to abstract from any answer we might have to that most difficult question. This leads to a separation, if not a sharply delineated separation, between our moral and our telic beliefs.
This is of course not an answer that will satisfy everyone. Nor do I expect the book as a whole to convince many nonbelievers to embrace a religion, or many believers to interpret their faith in a more enlightened way. But it may at least help readers begin to clarify and work through more carefully questions that are today often discussed in a shrill and dogmatic way. I wrote it as an attempt to think through my own religious commitments (an ongoing process ...); I'd be delighted if it is useful to other people worried about similar issues, whether or not they share my conclusions.
Learn more about Divine Teaching and the Way of the World at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue