Religious Studies



CAN THEOLOGICAL REALISM BE REFUTED?


MICHAEL SCOTT a1 and ANDREW MOORE a2
a1 Department of the Philosophy of Religion, University of Utrecht, Postbus 80.105, 3508 TC Utrecht
a2 Jesus College, Oxford OX1 3DW

Abstract

In a number of recent articles D. Z. Phillips has presented an exposition and defence of his views on theological realism, views which are based on his reading of Wittgenstein. Eschewing the label ‘anti-realist’ so often applied to his philosophy, Phillips claims that realists and anti-realists alike have ‘failed to appreciate how radical a challenge Wittgenstein makes to our philosophical assumptions’ (SL 22). Far from supporting non-realism above realism, Phillips – following Wittgenstein – wishes to upset the realist/non-realist debate by showing that the two theories offer equally confused accounts of belief and language, and specifically religious belief and language. If this claim could be substantiated it would, of course, be an extremely significant conclusion, and it is unfortunate that Phillips vacillates in his expression of it. Realism and non-realism are variously described as ‘empty’, ‘idle talk’ or like opposing ‘battle cries’ (RB 35), but despite being vacuous they are ‘not intelligible alternatives’ (RB 34) and ‘equally confused’ (RB 34). Furthermore, realism is ‘not coherently expressible’ (RB 45) and involves an ‘incoherent supposition’ (SL 23) and at least some forms of it can be ‘refuted’ (RR 194). In addition to their vacuity, unintelligibility and incoherence, both theories are also said to be guilty of a misguided reductionism (RB 47), and realists are charged with being ‘foundationalists’ who espouse a theory that ‘cannot take seriously the central religious conviction that God is at work in people's lives’ (RB 47).

In this paper we will evaluate the arguments Phillips advances for rejecting realism and non-realism, and consider the sort of problems they might pose for realists. Phillips opposes the positions the realist and non-realist take on two crucial issues: first, whether religious practices and life are grounded in the belief that God is real, second, whether God may be considered to be an object. These are the two principal questions that occupy Phillips in his work on realism; it is in connection with the former that he puts forward his ‘refutation’ of realism. We aim to assess his arguments for their philosophical cogency and value.