These 36 intellectually challenging yet remarkably clear lectures take you on an intellectual journey to explore the questions of divine existence, not from the standpoint of theology, but as an issue of epistemology, the classic branch of philosophy that concerns itself with knowledge theory: how we can know things and how we can know we know them.
If you enjoy wrapping your mind around questions for which every potential answer triggers a new set of questions and issues, you will find this course particularly enjoyable, regardless of whether you define yourself as a believer, an atheist, or an agnostic. Professor Hall lays out many of the fundamental questions and issues related to the philosophy of religion: What do we mean by "God"? Consider the many characteristics of a monotheistic deity - including omnipotence, omniscience, omniperfection, and asceity.
Can we know if there is a God? Examine the ontological, cosmological, and teleological arguments for the existence of God and the problem of evil. Weigh the arguments and counterarguments for whether the existence of evil - sometimes natural and sometimes human - is compatible with the existence of a god.
You won't be surprised to discover that the issue of divine existence remains undecided after the arguments for and against have been put on the table and analyzed. This provocative course will hold the attention of believers, skeptics, and agnostics alike. While your mind may not be changed, it will definitely be put to work.
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I have always loved the Learning Company's courses, but this one did not work for me. The focus of the course is a philosophical evaluation of monotheist perspectives, especially but not exclusively arguments for and against a monotheistic God. While there is some good information here, I found the entire course deeply, deeply flawed. The course has three major problems.
First, the lecturer is extremely slow in regards to both his speech and the amount of information he covers per lecture. The professor's delivery is plodding, at best. There are excessively long gaps of silence in the middle and at the end of sentences, and an unusually long spacing between words. I finally increased the reading speed to 1.5x normal, which brought the speaker's meter to something close to a normal range, but even then, there are gaps of 1 or 2 seconds that are overly long given their context in the sentence. Don't believe me? Download the sample and see for yourself. This might not be such a big deal if it wasn't for the extremely slow pace at which information is given. The author is prone to giving multiple (generally 3) detailed examples to illustrate even minor points. These examples are often overly detailed relative to what the author is trying to illustrate, especially given that the author generally illustrated the point after the first example. The remaining examples are completely unnecessary. For example, in Chapter 32 we get an 8 minute discussion of marriage ceremonies in Virginia and how he offered to marry a pair of friends as an example of how the use of language in sealing a marriage differs from the descriptive language scientists use. I got the point that the use of language to say something like, "I now pronounce you man and wife" is different than other uses of language such as, "Close the door" or "The Earth revolves around the Sun" after the first 30 seconds of the discussion. The remaining 7.5 minutes or so was completely unnecessary and didn't add to the discussion in any way. Going to another example, all of the information in Chapter 31 could have been reduced to two pages of text, which would correspond to only three or four minutes of reading. Instead I listened to 20 minutes (because I was listening to the 30 minute lecture at 1.5x reading speed) of how various examples of personal and societal change (e.g., civil rights, women's rights, views towards war and the US, changing views of college students) demonstrate that people's perspectives can change. I again understood the author's point after about 1.5 minutes. The rest of the extremely long discussion was just a waste of time. Nearly every chapter of the book suffers from this problem at some level. All of the relevant information could have been presented in a course about half as long. Heck, it even took the Professor Hall about four minutes to say that he grew up in a deeply religious family but was now a big city, liberal agnostic. My criticism here isn't with what he was saying, but is with the excruciatingly slow pace at which he presented it.
The second flaw is that much of the information is irrelevant. Again, the use of three examples to make what were often tangential points often got in the way. Using my example from above, all of the additional examples were unnecessary after Professor Hall established that people's perspectives can change in Chapter 34. We did not need the overly long discussion of the civil rights movement or popular views of war in the US to understand his point. Another example of this is that the first *8* chapters were basically an introduction to philosophy course that didn't deal specifically with religion at all. I fully accept that it might be worthwhile to introduce relevant philosophical issues before tackling the main focus of the course, but 8 chapters was extreme, especially given Professor Hall's slow approach. There were few chapters (4 of the 36 total) where I felt that Professor Hall did not get side tracked on irrelevant issues for at least some of the time, but several chapters have large sections that were ultimately irrelevant. For another example, the discussion of Thomas Kuhn could have been completed in about half of a chapter, instead of being stretched out over 2.5 chapters. The reason why it took 2.5 chapters is because of the inclusion of a lot of irrelevant discussion (relative to the topic of the philosophy of religion) and excessive illustrative examples.
The third flaw is that the author often glossed over important and truly relevant issues. For example, in his discussion of the nature of God's relationship to humans, he simply says that he is uncomfortable with a position that holds that the natural state of humans is hell without divine intervention. Now his discomfort could serve as the basis for an interesting philosophical discussion about humans' relationship to the divine and its implication for the problem of evil. The world looks very different if one considers humans as creatures that are born innocent and then corrupted, or if one considers humans to be inherently corrupted individuals who can gain salvation through the acceptance of the Divine. It fundamentally changes one's perspective on the problem of evil depending on whether one thinks of humans as "saved" beings who must be kept from sin or as "lost" beings who must be brought to God. Instead of exploring this issue, Professor Hall simply rejects one of the perspectives out of hand, because he is "uncomfortable" with it, despite his own acknowledgement that it is a perspective common to Christian denominations.
Another example is his discussion in Chapter 27 of the issue of the human inability to relate to God, because He is wholly transcendent. Professor Hall asserts that is this is the case, then it must also be true God cannot relate to use, because we would be just as transcendent to him. This is a false equivalency, as is illustrated by the fact that Professor Hall has to use Plato to justify it. (No matter what else, Plato didn't write an insightful commentary on monotheism.) There is no reason why the creator cannot understand his creation better than the creation understands the creator. I understand a pot I make on the potter's wheel even though I myself am not a pot, right? There is not logical reason why God couldn't understand (and empathize with) humans better than humans understand (and empathize with) God. Further, one of the central precepts of Christianity is that God has a perfect understand of humans given that Christ himself is a wholly human/wholly divine entity. C. S. Lewis dealt with this very issue when he observed that Shakespeare could have easily written himself into Hamlet and held a discussion with the main character. While Hamlet may not understand the writer, Shakespeare certainly understood Hamlet and could have interacted with him seamlessly in the context of the play. Christ likewise provides the three-in-one Christian God with a perfect understanding of humans. I understand that the course wasn't about Christian theology, but this is a very big issue if one is trying to make a point about the philosophical requirements of a monotheistic God. This is especially true given that the author's argument about the reciprocal transcendence of God and humans is his final point in the chapter and in some ways the chapter's central point given that its acceptance is central to his argument for the difficulty using a transcendent God as a solution to the problem of evil.
The failure to consider the asymmetry in transcendence between humans and God is a big error, in my opinion, but is only one example of such issues. Another is the author's odd failure to even attempt to define certain central terms/concepts. For example, he spends a lot of time talking about the problem of evil but he never defines the term. Evil is instead defined in context as anything that causes pain, I think. Thus, a parasite eating a deer's brain is evil, a fire killing a family in their sleep is evil, and the killing fields of Cambodia are evil. He does distinguish between natural evil and evil caused by humans, but nowhere did he clearly define evil. Is the parasite eating the deer's brain really, truly evil? If so, in what way/why? Likewise, is giving my son a vaccine, which causes pain, evil? Perhaps not, because it has (hopefully) a positive effect, but what if it doesn't (e.g., the vaccine was improperly stored so is no longer effective, the vaccine is in fact a placebo). Along the same line, Professor Hall says we are "simply awash" with evil in the world. Really? I can imagine a lot worse worlds with a great deal more evil. As bad as the killing fields of Cambodia are, we are shocked by them because they are extreme as opposed to common place. A meaningful philosophical discuss of what constitutes evil and its prevalence in the natural and human worlds might be interesting, but we don't get it (despite the fact that such discussion are available). We instead get some general assertions and then the author's evaluation of what makes sense to him.
Bottom line: In my opinion, this lecture series was overly long and not worth the effort, especially if you are really interested in the subject.
- T. VanPool
A Study on the Philosophy of Religion
- Deep Reader "Learn, understand, then decide whether you accept or reject."