Some Key Findings from a Dictionary of Philosophy


Recently I had the urge to read up on some terms and concepts from the philosophy of religion, for clarification purposes. The work I chose (because I had online access to it) was “The Dictionary of Philosophy of Religion” written by Charles Taliaferro. Most of the terms I already knew by description or experience but I didn’t know them by their proper names. So, I figured that I would share some of the more interesting finds.

Abduction – Abductive reasoning aims to explain phenomena on grounds of prior probability and/or reasonability. Abductive reasoning is the process used in exploring arguments to the best explanation. The most common form of abductive reasoning within the philosophy of religion is exemplified by C. Stephen Layman in his book “Letters to Doubting Thomas.” In his book, Layman considers a variety of phenomena such as consciousness, moral truths and values, the presence of natural and moral evil, the creation/origin of the universe, and others on both theistic and naturalistic worldviews. He claims to put together a comprehensive case in which he argues that theism leads us to expect more of these phenomena, and therefore better explains them, than naturalism or materialism. Theism, he argues, has stronger explanations, provides more of them, and escapes some of the more serious philosophical problems that naturalism or materialism does not.

Accidie – Accidie (also known as acedia) is a state that prevents the experience of pleasure and causes a person to reject life. Though it has historically been considered one of the Seven Deadly Sins (sloth), this is an incorrect definition. Sloth refers more to laziness and inconsistency rather than this debilitating feeling.

Acts and Omissions Doctrine – This doctrine states that when a person is in any situation involving a moral dilemma (i.e. neither choice is palatable or without problem), then it is better not to do something than to do something. Put another way, it is better to be passively immoral than actively immoral since an action undertaken is more morally significant than a failure or indecision to act. Therefore, killing someone would be viewed as more morally reprehensible than simply allowing them to perish of their own accord (since the former action requires more deliberation and effort).

Adventitious – A thought or an idea can be defined as adventitious when it comes to us from an external source. This is similar to Descartes’ argument about the idea of God. He stated that this idea of God (i.e. a Being that is omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, etc.) had to have come from God Himself rather than being some made up fantasy or delusion on Descartes’ part.

Akrasia – This word is derived from Greek and roughly means “without power.” Akrasia specifically refers to a lack of will power. It is marked by a weakness of the will, an inability to overcome obstacles. There are two different types or kinds of akrasia: passive and active. Passive akrasia occurs when one knows that a specific action is morally required but he/she lacks the will power or resolve to carry it out. An example would be throwing away your trash in the proper bin. If you have materials which can be recycled, you ought to put them in the recycling bin rather than the regular trash. Yet, for whatever reason, you decide to just put all of your trash (recyclables included) into the normal trash.
Meanwhile, active akrasia occurs when one knows that a specific action is morally wrong but they engage in such an endeavor regardless. A broad example of active akrasia is an addict who is self-aware enough to know that he has a problem, but not strong enough volitionally to do anything about it. He’s nearly to that point, but not quite. So he continues to make these bad decisions knowing what he is doing and how it is affecting him.

Antichrist – Though this most commonly refers to a person who attempts to replace or take over the role of being Christ, the true meaning of this word applies to anyone who goes against Christ. It is not such a strong term as to require that one attempt to take over the position or role of Christ. And depending on how we define “going against Christ,” there could be literally billions of antichrists in the world at any given time. What makes someone an antichrist? Is it someone who merely disobeys Christ’s moral teachings? Is it someone who goes further and challenges Christ’s religious beliefs? Or is it someone who hopes for Christ to fail?

Casuistry – This is the systematic approach of applying general rules, laws, or principles to particular cases. Almost always, there are situations pertaining to daily life in which certain moral rules, laws or principles come into conflict with one another. For example, we want to use some of our money from our savings account to buy ourselves a nice new pair of shoes or a new car or whatever have you but we know that our best friend’s birthday is coming up soon and we promised ourselves that we would buy them a very special gift. So how do we decide? Casuistry; in this particular instance, we know that it is generally better to be altruistic rather than selfish and by applying this general principle, we arrive at a conclusion rather easily. The fun parts come later when you begin to consider moral dilemmas and other situations in which there is no clear-cut or objectively moral thing to do or say. 

Charity, Principle of – This principle maintains that in any situation, one should assume or believe that other humans are intelligent, benevolent beings unless there are strong reasons for questioning the principle. Let’s say that you walk into your favorite restaurant and order a nice steak dinner. You are very particular about your steaks though. You want them very lightly cooked, seasoned with special herbs, and served with a pint of Guinness. For some reason, the cook screws up on the order and burns it to a crisp, after which your waiter spills your beer all over your nice slacks. In reacting to these events, the Principle of Charity encourages us not to fly off the handle and berate both the cook and the waiter but rather to accept what has happened in a mature and responsible fashion and to seek to move beyond it. That holds true unless we know that the cook is an ex-boyfriend of our wife or that the waiter heard you say that he’ll never finish college in which case you may be within your rights to berate them either individually or together.

Cooperation with Evil – Cicero advanced two distinct forms of cooperating with evil or evil-doers. The first is known as formal cooperation in which a person consents or agrees with an evil action or person. The second is known as material cooperation in which a person does not agree with an evil action or person but for whatever reason, they loan them the necessary materials or supplies needed to carry out the action. An example of the former would be a politician giving great sums of money to the Nazi Party in Germany because he supports the idea of an Aryan Germany, free from any Jewish people. An example of the latter would be letting your friend borrow your chainsaw which you thought he was going to use to cut down some pesky trees in his backyard but which he actually uses to slaughter his family. One can cooperate materially without consent, but one cannot cooperate formally without consent.

Demythologize – Demythologizing is a practice developed by German theologian Rudolf Bultmann in which one aims to find the truth, the essence, or the core of Christianity by looking behind or beyond or through the various supernatural stories of miracles, Heaven/Hell, bodily resurrections, and so on. Charles Taliaferro gives a great example: “A demythologized view of Christ may deny that Christ was the incarnation of the incorporeal Creator God of the cosmos, but it may take the Christian teaching of Christ’s life as advancing a radical call for persons to live a courageous life of compassion in the pursuit of justice and mercy” (61). Such demythologizing was extremely popular during the Enlightenment period in Europe when scholars imposed rational principles on the study of religion. 

Henotheism – A term first coined by Max Muller, this concept describes the worship of a single God, while simultaneously acknowledging the potential, even probable, existence of other gods. Thus, it is a halfway point between agnosticism, polytheism, and monotheism. The idea implies that God or gods have specific domains, such as those found within Greek/Roman mythology. Under this view point, the God of the Abrahamic traditions could be seen as Zeus. The Abrahamic God is thus the king of all other deities but there are other gods who have more power or knowledge than God in very specific areas such as death or agriculture or whatever have you.

Incommensurability – Two values or objects or events or propositions are believed to be incommensurate if they cannot be properly compared in importance or composition on a single scale or framework or paradigm. For example, which is better: food or love? Some would say that both are essential to survival or even happiness, but in reality they are not comparable. Love is a feeling while food is an object. We can write fancy poems and works of literature trying to successfully compare the two, but it will ultimately be for naught.
     A more contemporary example would be Heath Ledger and Jack Nicholson in their respective roles as The Joker. Some, such as myself, would love to argue that Ledger captured the true essence of this psychotic villain and that Nicholson is merely a cheap rip off. But this would be false and unfair to say. Nicholson’s Joker was not meant to be as dark as Ledger’s and therefore, in my opinion, was not as appealing to the audience. Ledger’s Joker was more captivating and actually made some cheer for the bad guy. Nicholson’s, on the other hand, simply did not. But regardless of that, Nolan went a different path than Burton. They had different ideas, desires, and motivations. It’s not legitimate to compare the two. They are incommensurate.

Lex Talionis – This concept is more commonly known as “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” This concept prescribes equality between crime and the punishment that follows. Yet many people do not realize this because we are so familiar with and inclined towards the Golden Rule. Yet if we look at lex talionis, we ought to note that this law prevents excessive punishment. And until the concept of the Golden Rule had developed, this system prevented mass chaos and destruction of a moral nature. So while it may be obsolete now, this has not always been the case and we should think twice before knocking it as primitive or beneath us.

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