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Publication in Focus: Is there a God?

18 October 2021 - This month, the Trinity Long Room Hub’s ‘Publication in Focus’ features a new book from Kenneth Pearce of Trinity’s Department of Philosophy, which sees him debating one of philosophy’s most dogged questions: Is there a god?

‘Little Debates About Big Questions’ is a new series of books from Routledge which features two professors on opposite sides of philosophy’s big questions. Describing the authors as “preeminent scholars or rising-stars in their fields”, the publisher outlines why these debates can be “cooperative” rather than “combative”: “while our authors disagree strongly, they work together to help each other and the reader get clearer on the ideas, arguments, and objections. This is intellectual progress, and a much-needed model for civil and constructive disagreement.”

Published on the 13th of October, Is there a God? A Debate puts Dr Kenneth Pearce, Head of Trinity’s Department of Philosophy, in dialogue with Professor Graham Oppy, Professor of Philosophy at Monash University, Australia, whose works include The Best Argument Against God (2013) and Atheism: The Basics (2019).

While theism in general can be defined as belief in God, Dr Pearce outlines the specific position he takes in the book: “I’m defending a broadly classical view—I use the label ‘classical theism’. That label is used by different people in different ways but what I mean by it is a tradition of approaching this by trying to use ideas and arguments from classical Greek philosophy and the broader history of philosophy to try to make sense of ideas in Abrahamic religious traditions.”

Many of the questions at the heart of this book are what initially led Dr Pearce to pursue a scholarly path in philosophy. “As a young person, I had a lot of questions about religion and nobody could answer them. Eventually I figured out that it wasn’t just that nobody in my church could answer them, but nobody could answer them. So since then, I’ve been investigating further.”

As a young person, I had a lot of questions about religion and nobody could answer them. Eventually I figured out that it wasn’t just that nobody in my church could answer them, but nobody could answer them.
Dr Kenneth Pearce

Trinity’s Ussher Assistant Professor in Berkeley Studies, the first appointment of its kind in the University, Dr Pearce has published extensively on the philosophy of religion and the history of early modern philosophy, and was the winner of the 2016 Sanders Prize in Philosophy of Religion. He sees the tension between science and religion “as really key to understanding the early modern material, and also to why that early modern material is still so relevant today.”

Dr Pearce explains that both he and Professor Oppy had published on this area in the scholarly journals before and that he had engaged previously with some of Professor Oppy’s arguments. The debate format in the book will give readers an insight into how these issues would be taught in the classroom, Professor Pearce says.

As part of Dr Pearce’s opening statement for the book, one of the key questions he asks is: ‘why is there something, rather than nothing?’

The troublesome idea that there is no purpose to the universe is also something that Dr Pearce is teaching in his classes currently, and a key issue for early modern thinkers, he notes. “The early modern people are very focused on purposes and whether things happen for reasons and for them that is actually a key component of what it means to believe in God.” Referencing Plato, he adds “if you’re going to think that the universe came from a mind…it’s to say that someone acted for reasons. The idea that things happen for reasons is key to why theism might matter.”

However, these reasons or purposes are not necessarily solely human-focused, as Dr Pearce acknowledges: “there’s a tendency to think that as soon as we see purposes, they must be anthropocentric purposes, that everything has to be about us.” He argues that within philosophical theology there is actually a tradition of pushing against that idea and asking what our role might be: “if there’s a mass extinction that includes extinction of humans, that makes way for something else and perhaps that was God’s plan—perhaps there will be something better coming after us.”

Something he also touches on in this debate is the focus of philosophy of religion primarily on theism rather than on issues that engage more deeply with the practice of religion. He argues that “the focus has been very much on questioning the rationality of a small number of religious beliefs like the existence of God and debating whether it could be rational to think those things are true. But that is only a tiny part of everything that religion is.”

As head of Trinity’s Department of Philosophy, a primarily analytical department with particular strength in the history of western philosophy, Dr Pearce still sees an “uphill battle” against the wider perception of “irrelevance” in relation to the discipline of philosophy. While some areas of philosophy, like feminist philosophy and philosophy of race, have obvious relevance in the public sphere, Dr Pearce sees the philosophy of religion as having potential to also contribute to contemporary society by looking at the difference that religion makes to people’s lives and to society more broadly. “Philosophy of religion should be more about religion than it has been so far”.

Is There a God? A Debate by Graham Oppy, Kenneth L. Pearce is published by Routledge. Find out more about this publication here.

On November 8th at 1pm Dr Kenneth Pearce will be speaking about his new book and his research career to date with Professor Paul O’Grady (Department of Philosophy). Click here to register.

Read Dr Kenneth Pearce’s research profile here.

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