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Thinking about Intellectual Humility
Humility is the virtuous mean between something like arrogance, on the one hand, and self–deprecation or diffidence, on the other. The humble person, to put it roughly, doesn’t value herself too much (arrogance) nor does she value herself too little (diffidence or self–deprecation). Instead, she thinks of herself as she should–valuing herself, her status amongst her peers, her abilities as she ought.
Swinburne Conference at Purdue University
Recently I had the privilege of attending the conference “Faith and Reason: Themes from Swinburne,” which was held at Purdue University from September 25-27, 2014 to commemorate the 80th birthday of Richard Swinburne, one of the most prominent philosophers of religion of the last century.


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Swinburne Conference at Purdue University

Matthew Shea 06 Oct 2014

This post was made possible through the support of a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. The opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the John Templeton Foundation or Saint Louis University.

Recently I had the privilege of attending the conference “Faith and Reason: Themes from Swinburne,” which was held at Purdue University from September 25-27, 2014 to commemorate the 80th birthday of Richard Swinburne, one of the most prominent philosophers of religion of the last century. The presenters included Marilyn McCord Adams, Paul Draper, Hud Hudson, Jonathan Kvanvig, Alvin Plantinga, J.L. Schellenberg, Eleonore Stump, Peter van Inwagen, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and Dean Zimmerman. Throughout the conference, an impressive array of first-rate contemporary philosophers of religion contributed to the formal and informal discussion in ways that interacted with Swinburne’s work.

As this website notes, intellectual humility is related to open-mindedness, a sense of one’s own fallibility, and the recognition of one’s indebtedness to others. In these respects the Swinburne conference was a grand display of intellectual humility on the part of both the speakers and the attendees. All of the presenters were open to criticism by their respondents and the audience during the Q&A sessions. In response to objections or probing questions, many of them candidly admitted either that their views were not fully developed or would have to be adjusted in light of such criticisms. The willingness on the part of the speakers—all experts in their respective fields—to acknowledge the possibility of error and welcome friendly criticism and advice from others was an inspiring display of humility. Another notable constant throughout the conference was the debt of gratitude that each speaker paid to Richard Swinburne. Every presenter without exception acknowledged Swinburne’s philosophical achievements and thanked him for his influence, example, or assistance in their philosophical development or personal lives. Indeed, one of the major themes of the conference was the monumental influence that Swinburne has had on philosophers of religion over the last five decades and the sense of indebtedness that many of them rightly feel towards him.

While many of the papers connected to intellectual humility, several of them are worth highlighting in this respect. Jon Kvanvig defended a noncognitivist view of religious faith, which he calls ‘affective faith.’ His endorsement of a noncognitivist approach to understanding the nature of faith implies that faith is not primarily a matter of knowledge or belief (although it can include these). This means that the strength or quality of a person’s faith is not mainly a function of her intellectual abilities or the amount of knowledge she possesses; exemplary faith can be acquired by those who are not intellectually gifted and don’t have much propositional knowledge of religious doctrines. Construing faith in a volitional, affective, or active way seems to reduce the danger of intellectual pride on the part of the believer, who will be less inclined to see herself as superior to those who are not as intellectually gifted or don’t share her religious beliefs.

John Schellenberg concluded his paper with a ‘sermon’ cataloguing some common ‘sins’ that philosophers of religion are especially prone to commit. One of these is the sin of ‘over-intellectualization,’ which he described as the tendency to advocate a model of religious faith that applies to philosophers but does not capture the faith of most believers. As Schellenberg put it, this kind of faith is “full of cognitive states and truth-valued attitudes, whose rationality therefore, naturally enough, depends largely on whether these states and attitudes are appropriately formed.” Like Kvanvig, he defended a noncognitivist conception of faith that avoids the requirement that believers meet a demanding epistemic standard for rational faith and is more conducive to intellectual humility in the religious life. For Schellenberg, the most fundamental form of faith is ‘lived religiousness’ rather than belief. This understanding of faith can foster humility by replacing cognitive criteria with moral criteria as the marks of genuine faith.

A substantial portion of Hud Hudson’s presentation was devoted to a defense of skeptical theism and its cousin in the domain of aesthetics, which he calls ‘aesthetic skepticism.’ Following Michael Bergmann, Hudson argued that in responding to the argument from evil, theists can point to human cognitive limitations, especially in the realm of value. According to this brand of skeptical theism, when it comes to assessing the likelihood of God’s having a morally sufficient reason for allowing evil we should recognize that we are not in a good epistemic position to make such judgments due to our ignorance about the full range of goods and evils and the entailment relations between them. Likewise, Hudson advocated ‘aesthetic skepticism,’ which holds that we are in the dark about whether the possible beauties and uglinesses that we are aware of are representative of all the ones there are. Both types of skepticism involve an admission of our cognitive limitations and our inability to make confident judgments about important ‘big-picture’ questions, and thus recommend a great deal of intellectual humility.

A final example comes from Eleonore Stump’s paper. Stump criticized Swinburne’s model of the atonement and concluded that it was unsatisfactory as an explanation for how the work of Christ solves the problem of human sinfulness. After raising objections to Swinburne’s theory, she admitted that she did not yet have a complete, fully adequate model to put in its place, and she made the sobering claim that “we still lack a workable explanation of Christ’s role in solving the problem of human sinfulness.” Stump’s observation that even after two thousand years of Christian reflection on one of the most important Christian doctrines we still do not have a satisfactory theory of the atonement is certainly intellectually humbling.

Much more could be said about the conference, but on a personal note I suppose the most significant experience for me was being able to meet and interact with the other conference participants—both professors and students, world-famous and yet-to-be-discovered, Christian and non-Christian. If intellectual humility involves the recognition that there are many minds greater than one’s own, then merely attending the Swinburne conference was a profound lesson in humility. But this should come as no surprise: being in the presence of one’s intellectual heroes is bound to have that effect.

I am very grateful to Eleonore Stump, John Greco, and Jonathan Reibsamen, as well as the John Templeton Foundation and the Intellectual Humility team, for giving me the opportunity to attend this conference and assisting me throughout the process.

Matthew Shea is a Ph.D. student in philosophy at St. Louis University. His areas of interest are ethics and philosophy of religion.