Visiting Professor of Philosophy Ian Church is receiving a nearly quarter-of-a-million-dollar grant for research that could topple the strongest argument against a belief in God.
Church learned early this month that John Templeton Foundation selected his project from 2,000 proposals across disciplines and 150 in philosophy and theology. It is providing $220,421 to Church’s project, which seeks to apply a new and controversial type of philosophy to an area that researchers have not done so before. The research will explore the cultural differences of how people understand the nature of evil.
“This project is trying to bring these trends together,” Church said. “The problem of evil seemed like a good place to start, because people take that as the strongest argument against theism in the contemporary literature.”
The project, which spans the summer of 2018 and 2019 and will have Church travel to the University of St Andrews in Scotland to do research, looks to apply experimental philosophy to analytic theology. This new experimental philosophy uses empirical psychology to test if people have certain intuitions on subjects such as free will or the nature of knowledge. Doing so then could explain how people evaluate philosophical assumptions internationally.
“Some of these key intuitions are not shared widely,” Church said. “When that happens, that could potentially undermine the import of those intuitions — maybe they’re not as theory-guiding as we might have thought.”
The project is looking at key intuitions concerning the probabilistic problem of evil — the challenge to reconcile the existence of evil with an all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfect God — to determine if these intuitions are similar across the world and within the Western world.
Justin Barrett, one of Church’s research partners and a professor of psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary in California, noted that academic literature has described the problem of evil as an obstacle for the affluent, though many people in impoverished countries experience spiritual revival in the face of war, famine, and other hardship.
“Maybe it’s time to do some research and move past what seems, because we don’t know,” he said. “Humility demands us to examine the evidence.”
Church said he hopes the partnership with Templeton also will benefit Hillsdale College. Church will hire a Hillsdale student as an assistant researcher for his project. He added that Templeton’s mission is similar to that of Hillsdale.
Church is working with Barrett and Oliver Crisp, professor of systematic theology at Fuller. Barrett is Church’s former adviser at Fuller’s psychology graduate school on the science of intellectual humility and is a prominent scientist of religion in the world. At Fuller, Church also worked with Crisp, a leading evangelical systematic theologian.
“It’s been an incredibly fruitful relationships,” Church said. “We can all have our specializations and bring our conversations together to have a much better insight into how these discipline fit together.”
The John Templeton Foundation selected Church’s project because it fit within the foundation’s donor intent. Alex Arnold, Templeton’s program officer for philosophy and theology, said the organization looks to fund projects that advance the understanding of fundamental spiritual realities.
“Dr. Church’s project involves taking a novel, interesting, controversial methodology that had some success in other areas of philosophical inquiry and applying it where it had never been applied before,” Arnold told The Collegian. “It’s an opportunity to get insight and progress on the problem of evil.”
Arnold added that the partnership between the established scholarship of Barrett and Crisp and the emerging scholarship of Church was attractive.
“Ian Church is a very hard working, very creative philosopher, who is very capable and has a pretty strong publication record in philosophy,” Arnold said. “We were confident they would do good work.”
The research will take place in three phases. Church first will work with Crisp, reading through literature on experimental philosophy and the problem of evil to determine the best approach for academic evaluation. Then, researchers around the world will collect data, and the professors will then evaluate that information.
Church said he hopes the grant will lead to more funding in the future from Templeton.
“If we are able to make the case that the intuitions that are driving the probabilistic problem of evil for a lot of anti-theists are not shared very broadly at all, then that might significantly undermine the import of these intuitions,” Church said, “which might ultimately mean we have the materials for significantly undermining the strongest argument against theism.”