FMER, Leuven, June 10-12, News from the Trenches

Formal Methods in the Epistemology of Religion took place in Leuven, June 10-12 2009. The conference was amazing, I really had a blast. I was transiting from Ghent every day, and the schedule was quite intense, so only now I have a few moments to write about it.

Jake Chandler (of the choice & inference fame) and Victoria Harrison, with the financial support of the Centre for Logic and Analytical Philosophy have pulled off an excellent event, gathering together many prominent scholars working on formal stuff and philosophy of religion.

Most of the talks were related to Bayesian epistemology and its applications. It’s not the framework I usually deal with, so I've learned a lot. Also, after Prof. Swinburne’s talk I had the opportunity to give a talk about his modal argument in his presence, criticize his views, and see how he responds. That was pretty cool.

Anyway, here are some general remarks about the conference. I’ll start with Day 1 (the conference started in the afternoon, so there were only three talks), and comment about the other two days in near future.


The day hit off with a lecture given by Richard Swinburne, Bayes, God, and multiverse. Swinburne, employing Bayes’s theorem, explicated a probabilistic argument for God’s existence, arguing that given the empirical evidence we have, the relative assessment of the posterior probability of God’s existence is higher than the probability of godless multiverse and than the probability of a unique (and godless) universe (he referred to fine-tuning etc. here).

The second talk was delivered by me (on behalf of Agnieszka Rostalska and myself, it’s a joint paper but Agnieszka couldn't make it). I presented a formalization of Swinburne’s modal argument for the existence of the soul, and suggested another variant that avoids the main objection directed against it (it can be viewed as a weakening of one of the premises - thanks to Lara Buchak for this observation). I also argued that even this weakened version is epistemically too strong to convince anyone who allows the mere possibility of material conscious beings.
Some time ago, an anonymous referee of this paper said that the new version of the argument is not “much of an addition to the literature, since the modification which the author offers to Swinburne is one which it would be most implausible to suppose that he would wish to make”. In response to that: Swinburne was there when I was giving the talk and agreed that the modification which we offer is the one he would like to make for the same reasons for which we say it’s better (our further discussion pertained to our assessment of the revised argument, and Prof. Swinburne eventually suggested that he has a different argument which he will send in my direction some time soon - I'm looking forward to seeing it). The bottom line, if you want to state a conditional without any possibility of falsification, make sure your antecedent cannot be made true.
Graham Oppy talked about the Epistemological foundations of Koons’ cosmological argument. Koons argued that any exception to the principle of general causation that is narrow enough to avoid a collapse into global scepticism about empirical knowledge is also narrow enough to permit the construction of a successful proof of God’s existence. Oppy analyzed Koons’ arguments. Specifically, he took issue with Koons’ claim that in order to be justified in believing that one’s belief that p and the grounds for one’s belief that p are caused, one needs to be justified in believing that it is highly likely that any of the situations in one’s knowledge net is caused. Oppy discussed related epistemogical issues involved in Koons argument for the claim that we are in position to accept a priori a (defeasible) principle of causality.