My very dear colleagues and readers,
You've probably figured out by now that I wasn't around my usual haunts and usual computer access last week much. I just got home last night from Leuven, Belgium, from a wonderful conference on Formal Methods in the Epistemology of Religion.
I have to admit that I'm doing the Wizard of Oz thing. ("There's no place like home.") I'm no traveler, that's for sure. I hope not to hear for a long time anyone ask me in a dead voice, "Has your luggage been in your possession at all times?" No! No! My luggage has been sitting quietly on my living room floor, and I haven't even looked at it for several hours!!! (Goes off into maniacal laughter.)
But what I want to talk about is the conference, because that's something that was right with the world, and it's nice to talk about something good for a change.
The conference was straight-up, hardcore, analytic philosophy of religion. If you love that kind of thing, you would have loved the conference. Most, though not all, of the papers fell into one of the two categories of decision theory or Bayesian confirmation theory. Richard Swinburne discussed multiverse theories and the fine-tuning argument, focusing on the question of independent evidence for the existence of a multiverse. Dutch atheist Herman Philipse argued against probabilistic arguments from the Big Bang to the existence of God. Australian philosopher Alan Hajek gave a delightfully clear and interesting discussion of various versions of Pascal's wager. David Glass from Ireland gave a fascinating paper on the phenomenon of "explaining away" and arguments from design. And Tim and I presented a paper on Bayesian inference, witness reliability, and the proper modeling of testimony to a miracle. Tim did the Powerpoint presentation and talk, and I joined him for fielding the Q & A.
That's only to give a few examples.
The discussions were lively, the participants fully engaged, and the standard of philosophical argumentation very high. I was reminded, indeed, just how high the standards really are in professional philosophy--a point that is easy to forget in the world of the blogosphere. This is what analytic philosophy should be at its very best: professional, rigorous, and fun. It did, for me, what a philosophy conference should do, because I came home energized and full of ideas for future work on areas including the probabilistic problem of evil and the analysis of witnesses who tell multiple implausible stories.
Another notable thing was the importance of Richard Swinburne to the entire conference. Swinburne's arguments and positions, if they did not come up in the papers, often came up in the Q & A, and Swinburne himself was available for great discussions with anyone who was interested in talking at meals and between sessions. This aspect of the conference was a well-deserved testimony to the way in which Swinburne's life work has shaped the philosophy of religion.
I was particularly struck throughout by the way in which a conference of this kind rises completely above politics. My faith in analytic philosophy's apolitical nature has been restored. (Readers will understand, in the light of some recent events on the Internet, why that faith may have been in need of restoration.) In all the discussions, the question was the argument. Nobody was out to slam anybody else, to make power plays, or to use an opponent's unrelated political opinions against him. Moreover, the kind of egalitarianism that ought to characterize the academy was very much in evidence. The "big wigs" hob-nobbed with everyone. The graduate students, as well as someone like me without institutional affiliation but with work in philosophy, were never made to feel second-class in any way. What was important was the subject matter, not who you were and whether you were "someone."
It has always seemed to me that one of the things worth fighting for is the beauty of apolitical academic excellence. The advent of postmodernism in the academy over the past 20-30 years was in many ways a direct attack on this type of excellence. Analytic philosophy has been, for a long time, the antithesis of the "everything is political" school of thought, and it is incredibly important that it should remain so. It certainly should not fall to those of us on the right alone to defend this, but very sadly, it sometimes appears that in the current stage of the culture war and the odd, totalitarian effects this stage is having in higher education, including the emergence of bullying as a form of career-shaping in philosophy, we conservatives in the profession are going to be the only ones left to keep the flame alight. But that was not so at this conference.
Finally, and while I'm passing out kudos, here's one that the relevant people will never read, but that should be said for the record: The security screening people yesterday afternoon at checkpoint 6 in Chicago's O'Hare airport were actually nice--friendly, humorous, and smiling. They did their job efficiently, but without making one feel like a suspected criminal or a non-person. They brought a smile to my face in the middle of a long day of travel.