A number of notables have died this week. I’m guessing that my readers will already be familiar with the recent announcement the deaths of Keith Floyd and Patrick Swayze. I know nothing about the former, although I did note that there was a documentary on him last night on C4, it seemed an odd coincidence. I thought the documentary more notable for being presented by Keith Allen, who I know as the actor for the Sheriff of Nottingham and Lily Allen’s dad.
I thought I would bring to light some lives who deserve to be remembered for both intellectual and humanitarian reasons. For the intellectual I note the death of William P. Alston, and for the humanitarian, Norman Borlaug.
The one thing that is said about this man is that he is called ‘the man who saved a billion lives’. Borlaug venerated by Penn Jillette, which for me is something worth noting (considering the latter’s deprecation of many others by means of calling it bullshit!). Borlaug’s career involved research that led to what is known as the ‘Green Revolution’, and his work on wheat has led to practical benefits of increase crop yields to meet the needs of sustaining an increasing population from the 1920s.
There is a lot of talk about sustainability in terms of how much natural resources in non-renewables sources are left. A distinct, but related issue is the consideration of population. This issue goes back to Malthus and arguably even earlier: can the physical size of the planet, as well as the resources, whether ecological, social and economic sustain such a high population? This will likely be an issue that will have to be faced in the future, if it isn’t seriously addressed now in the same way that climate change and the finitude of non-renewables are.
Borlaug offered a real and practical resolve to increasing population by investigating and getting results from establishing an increased crop yield. Borlaug is also a public figure on the issue of population and world hunger. Although I am not terribly familiar with his position, he took an approach of addressing the technological possibility of how food resources have.
Criticisms have been advacned towards a biotechnology approach to farming. The innovations of Borlaug have led to a monopoly upon farming biotechnologies, the likes of Monsanto, for instance, have a particular agenda pushing a certain kind of farming to the fore of dependence on biotechnologies seen as negative. Movements that try to encourage pre-19thC methods of production have flourished in recent times. The opinion is curried that ‘organic’ is better and that we should move towards permaculture in deference to the land. Despite these issues (which do not remain moot); the needs of a large population is of practical and contemporary significance.
William Alston is one of the people who should be credited with making Christianity philosophically respectable. Alston is part of a movement that includes the likes of Alvin Plantinga and perhaps Peter van Inwagen, whose focus on philosophical issues of theology put them into an intellectual fringe.
There has been a wide opinion that philosophy of religion is basically dead; all one needs to do is read Hume’s dialogues on the issue and find that Philo is essentially correct (of course, the dialogue mysteriously ends with Cleanthes as the victor…). The issues of philosophy of religion, as taught by the likes of John Hick and Peter Vardy are dull, boring, and by the admission of Vardy himself, aimless if one has already made up their mind. The old issues of the ‘five ways’, the bastardised Kantian considerations, or the arguments that attempt to validate religious experience (following William James). Addressing the primary texts, with the systematic considerations of each individual philosopher is always a good idea, which is often not considered in philosophy of religion teaching.
Another thing is that, while contemporary philosophy moves on with wonderful new theses, issues and debates (while old ones still live); philosophy of religion has been percieved to be stuck in this dry old patch of repetitive and hundred-year old debates presented in a way such that it has not advanced at all. In some respects they have not, this is due to some bad philosophy on some parts (e.g. Ayer’s ‘Language, Truth and Logic’), and the fact that theology and philosophy has very few ‘dual-practitioners’ who are particularly very good, especially since both subjects have specialised and have moved apart from each other (this in itself is good for other reasons).
New issues come into mind, get deeper into the metaphysics, such as Swinburne or notably van Inwagen, and some get deeper into the scientific arguments, leading to more refined and (excuse the pun) ‘evolved’ arguments from teleology (William Lane Craig). There are new epistemological concerns, or in the case of Craig’s advocation of the ‘middle knowledge’ thesis, a serious philosophical revival of old views. While it is likely that philosophy becomes increasingly atheistic, the fight for Christian doctrine has advanced to a greater level. It is unfortunate that these Christian philosophers are the exception and not the mainstream of apologetic arguers. These individuals are not as shallow and underqualified as the ‘New Atheists’ (excepting those NAs with actual PhDs); the arguments for faith and supernatural beliefs go to a higher and more technical level. The onus now is on how good those arguments are. A should be attributed to William Alston for establishing this movement. As a side note (unfortunately placed at the end of the article), Alston is a decent philosopher in his own right regarding debates in contemporary American epistemology, which, I feel, is sadly being undermined by new emerging movements like ‘formal philosophy’ (of course this is not to say at all that formal epistemology is a bad thing!)