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Science, Philosophy, and Religion PhD Qualifying Examination Question Archive

Contents

Philosophy and History of Religion and Science

Sample Exam Instructions
Sample Questions for History of Science
Sample Questions for Philosophy of Science
Sample Questions for Science-and-Religion Core Literature

Philosophy of Religion

Sample Exam Instructions
Sample Questions for Philosophy of Religion

NOTE: In all cases, the members of the SPR Core Faculty reserve the right to examine students in whatever way they see fit, including using instructions, questions, and organizational approaches other than those suggested in this archive.

Philosophy and History of Religion and Science

Sample Exam Instructions

Instructions: This is a six-hour, closed-book examination, in which you are to write on six questions. Answer all parts of the questions you choose, paying close attention both to accurate exposition and to constructing persuasive arguments for your point of view. Do not to write on the same figure or theme at depth in more than one question. You will have a one hour for lunch. Do not consult any source of information during this hour.

Afterwards: You will have the opportunity at the end of your last examination to take a copy of your answers away and type them up. You may make only the following kinds of changes in this process: improve grammar, correct spelling, and expand abbreviations. Please state that “This is an accurate and truthful copy of my examination” and sign the statement on the front page of your typed exam.

Philosophy and History of Religion and Science

Sample Questions for History of Science

“It makes little sense to discuss the history of ‘science’ in the West in the period prior to 1500. Not only were discussions of the natural world almost entirely dependent on philosophical speculations rather than observation, but those discussions were not ‘theory-driven’ in any meaningful sense of the word. Just as importantly, the role of discussions of the natural world played a negligible role in the description of reality as a whole.” Feel free to agree, disagree, or qualify the statement, but be sure to defend your point of view with specific evidence drawn from relevant sources.

“Nothing characterizes modern science more than its rejection of appeals to God in explaining the workings of nature.” Feel free to agree, disagree, or qualify the statement, but be sure to defend your point of view with specific evidence drawn from relevant sources.

“What kept religion and science together for as long as they were together is that both scientists and religionists were committed to belief in the harmony of nature. It was ultimately different ways of accounting for that harmony that drove them apart.” Feel free to agree, disagree, or qualify the statement, but be sure to defend your point of view with specific evidence drawn from relevant sources.

“Although it may not have been clear at the time, the pivotal event in the history of the relationship between science and religion was the rise of the historical sciences. Once science began discussing change over time--whether that was manifested in the nebular hypothesis, the history of the earth’s surface, or the history of life--science shifted from being an ally of Christianity to challenging many aspects of its theology. The reason for this is that, in discussing historical events, science entered a realm that was central to the Christian world view.” Feel free to agree, disagree, or qualify the statement, but be sure to defend your point of view with specific evidence drawn from relevant sources.

“Isaac Newton is often regarded as a founding father of the European Enlightenment, and a strong case can be made for that position. But it is of crucial importance to acknowledge that the roots of Newtonian thought sprang not only from Newton’s commitment to reason but also from his commitment to Christian theology. In fact, in examining Newtonian thought, it is difficult to make sharp distinctions between Newton’s commitment to reason and his commitment to religion.” Discuss. Feel free to agree, to disagree, or to qualify this statement, but be sure to defend your position with evidence drawn from relevant sources, including a brief description of at least one of Newton’s important scientific theories.

Why has Darwinism proved to be such a difficult issue for religious thinkers to deal with? Or has it? In dealing with this issue, you should both include a brief description of Darwin’s theory and address the history of responses to Darwinism from 1859 to the present.

“In truth, the surprising thing about quantum mechanics, the theory of relativity, and modern developments in cosmology is not how great their impact has been on religious thought in Europe and America but how negligible.” Discuss. Feel free to agree, to disagree, or to qualify this statement, but be sure to defend your position with evidence drawn from relevant sources, including a brief description of the scientific theories pertinent to your argument. If you agree, please provide an explanation of why you think that the theological impact of these theories has been negligible. If you disagree, please provide concrete examples of the relevance of those scientific theories on the work of religious thinkers.

“It makes little sense to discuss the history of ‘science’ in the West in the period prior to 1500. Not only were discussions of the natural world almost entirely dependent on philosophical speculations rather than observation, but those discussions were not ‘theory-driven’ in any meaningful sense of the word. Just as importantly, the role of discussions of the natural world played a negligible role in the way in which thinkers described the nature of reality.” Discuss. Feel free to agree, disagree, or qualify the statement, but be sure to defend your point of view with specific evidence drawn from relevant sources.

“Although natural philosophers in the seventeenth century cannot be charged with atheism, they did play the role of destroying meaningful views of divine providence.” Discuss. Feel free to agree, disagree, or qualify the statement, but be sure to defend your point of view with specific evidence drawn from relevant sources.

Galileo’s defense of heliocentrism and his subsequent trial and condemnation is a celebrated case of the encounter between science and religion in Western civilization. What were the central issues in the controversy? What historical lessons can be drawn from the encounter? Good answers will employ analysis rather than simply recount the course of events.

“For much of modern history, proponents of the Christian world view regarded the scientific enterprise as an ally in defending their faith. To suggest, however, that this implies that tension between science and theology was nonexistent is to substitute one fiction for another. The increasing success of science in describing the phenomena disclosed in nature has been attended by a growing inclination to ignore the categories of Christian theology in discussing these phenomena. This suggests that science has been of fundamental importance in fostering the secularization of thought concerning natural phenomena.” Discuss the merits of this statement. Feel free to agree, to disagree, or to qualify this statement, but be sure to defend your position with evidence from relevant sources.

After providing a brief description of Charles Darwin’s theory of organic evolution, please present a brief narrative history outling the major positions that religious thinkers have taken in response to Darwinism from 1859 to the present. Be sure to include in your discussion an assessment of what theological issues have proved to be most central in the dialogue between evolutionists and religious thinkers.

“One of the aims of the physical sciences has been to arrive at an exact picture of the material world. One achievement of physics in the twentieth century has been to prove that this aim is unattainable. This development has proved to be of enormous benefit to Christian theology.” Discuss the merits of this statement. Feel free to agree, to disagree, or to qualify this statement, but be sure to defend your position with evidence from relevant sources.

“In truth, the only scientific theories that have created a sustained furor among Christian thinkers since 1800 are those that relate to human beings.” Discuss the merits of this statement. Feel free to agree, to disagree, or to qualify this statement, but be sure to defend your position with evidence from relevant sources.

“In spite of the fact that historians have tended to focus on the impact of modern science on belief in the existence and the providence of God, the role of science in undermining biblical authority actually proved more decisive in shaping the contours of Christian belief during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.” Discuss the merits of this statement. Feel free to agree, to disagree, or to qualify this statement, but be sure to defend your position with evidence from relevant sources.

“Lying at the heart of Greek thought concerning the natural world were two beliefs: (1) that the universe was an orderly cosmos (in fact, the Greek word cosmos means order); and (2) that regularities in this cosmos could be discerned through the use of the intellectual faculty that most sharply distinguished human beings from other animals, namely human reason. European thinkers in the Middle Ages ‘Christianized’ those beliefs, but they did not significantly modify them.” Discuss.

“During the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, Christianity had more impact on natural philosophy and natural history than those areas of inquiry had on Christianity.” Discuss.

“During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries Anglo-American and Continental thinkers differed sharply in the approaches that they took in dealing with the relationship between science and religion. Whereas Anglo-American thinkers embraced empiricism and the tradition of natural theology, Continental thinkers embraced a Kantian separation of science and religion.” Discuss.

“During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the historical sciences of geology and biology proved to be far more controversial among religious thinkers in the West than did the physical sciences.” Explicate this statement and account for why this has been the case.

“In dealing with the relationship between science and religion, clergy and theologians have tended to be more respectful towards science than scientists have been respectful toward Christian theology.” Discuss.

“Whenever scientists are forced to modify their fundamental ideas, this is typically interpreted as a triumph for science. By contrast, when theologians find themselves under the same necessity, this is commonly regarded as a defeat for religion. The reason for this is that, from virtually the outset of the interaction between science and religion in Western civilization, theologians have habitually argued for the existence of God from what science has discovered, and His governance from what it has not. Inevitably therefore, any new territory embraced by science has appeared to be withdrawn from the domain of theology.” Discuss.

Philosophy and History of Religion and Science

Sample Questions for Philosophy of Science

What is Popper’s view on the question of whether the scientific method is inductive and why does he hold this view (i.e., what sorts of arguments does he give for or against induction)? What is the demarcation problem and what is Popper’s solution? How does Popper’s solution to the demarcation problem become modified in the hands of Imre Lakatos? What sort of objections to Popper’s view led Lakatos to make these modifications to Popper’s demarcation criterion? In your mind does Lakatos offer a satisfactory demarcation criterion?

Explain what Oppenheim and Putnam mean by “unity of science” and what they mean when they say that it is a “working hypothesis.” What challenges have been raised against their view and claims for the unity of science in general? Be sure to discuss a concrete example.

Ever since Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum an ideal of experimental science has been to design “crucial experiments.” In The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory Pierre Duhem presents a well-known critique of crucial experiments. Explain what a crucial experiment is and give Duhem’s critique. Support your answer with a discussion of concrete example of a purported crucial experiment in the history of science.

Briefly describe Kuhn’s model of theory change and his central concept of a paradigm. In the 1969 Postscript to the Structure of Scientific Revolutions (SSR) Kuhn responds to critics who argue that his model of scientific change leads to relativism and portrays science as an irrational enterprise. What is Kuhn’s response? According to Ernan McMullin, Kuhn’s portrayal of the history of science does not undermine the rationality of science but rather, what? Do you agree with McMullin’s assessment? What in your view are the challenges that SSR presents to science?

What is Arthur Fine's "Natural Ontological Attitude" (NOA)? Locate Fine's view in relation to the traditional positions of realism and antirealism, making sure to define these latter positions. Do you find NOA to be a satisfactory view, why or why not?

What does it mean to say that scientific knowledge or the scientific method is objective? What is the traditional way in which objectivity in science is understood (e.g., the logical positivist view). How does Helen Longino redefine the notion of objectivity in science? Do you think science can be "objective" and "value-laden" at the same time? If so, what sort of values are compatible with scientific objectivity?

What does it mean to offer a scientific explanation of a phenomenon? Discuss two different models of scientific explanation and their relative strengths and weaknesses. Be sure to provide a concrete example of each type of scientific explanation in your discussion.

How is the claim that the mental states supervene on brain states different from the claim that the two are identical? Is the former sufficient to establish materialism? What objections is the shift from identity to supervenience intended to overcome? Are they overcome?

Define the thesis of determinism. (Be sure to defend your definition against alternate construals.) What sort of evidence do we have for or against the thesis of determinism? What are some of the challenges that face attempts to determine whether or not the universe is deterministic?

In what ways can Lakatos's view of scientific method be seen as a synthesis of the views of Popper and Kuhn? What does he take from each of these authors and what does he leave behind?

Explain why Ian Hacking takes most of the literature over the realism-antirealism debate to be misguided. What approach to realism does Hacking offer instead? Does Hacking succeed in truly providing a new argument for realism?

What are Thomas Nickles's two concepts of intertheoretic reduction? Be sure to explain the sources of these concepts. For each of these models of reduction discuss one problem or challenge.

Philosophy and History of Religion and Science

Sample Questions for Science-and-Religion Core Literature

Barbour, Drees, Gregersen, Peters, and other scholars have proposed typological schemes for the possible or actual interactions of religion and science. Outline three such schemes, explain what it is that each aims to describe, and compare how well they clarify important issues within the area of religion and science. Do such schemes enhance discussion in the field or distract from meaningful conversation? When seeking deep insight into the actual or possible interactions between religion and science, what alternatives to typological descriptions exist? State and defend your view of the function and value of such typological schemes.

With specific reference to two historians and two philosophers who work at the junction of religion and science, reflect on the methodological similarities and differences between historical and philosophical approaches to religion-and-science themes. Using specific topics in religion and science as examples, show how historical and philosophical approaches can enhance and correct one another.

Consider the themes of “objectivity” and “value” as they relate to the writings of Thomas Kuhn and either Helen Longino or Evelyn Fox Keller. Can differences between their views on these topics be attributed in any part to gender perspectives? What, if anything, do these authors say about the role of gender perspectives in their arguments? Making concrete reference to one or two examples in the science-religion literature, explain and justify your own view of the extent to which gender perspectives of authors contribute to, and detract from, their arguments.

Much has been made in the science-and-religion literature of the methodological similarities and differences that exist between scientific and religious inquiry. With specific reference to three different thinkers, reflect on the nature of these similarities and differences. How is the discussion of this issue in the epistemological literature complicated or troubled by John Hedley Brooke’s assertion of the so-called “complexity thesis,” namely, that “there is no such thing as the relationship between science and religion,” only “what different individuals and communities have made of it in a plethora of different contexts” (Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives, 1991)?

Barbour, Haught, Peters, Richardson and others have proposed various typological schemes for the possible or actual interactions of religion and science. Outline three such schemes. Explain what it is that each aims to describe and compare how well they clarify important issues. Do typologies enhance or detract from meaningful discussion in the field? State and defend your view of the function and value of typologies, noting at least one alternative to typological description.

Consider the themes of “objectivity” and “value” as they relate to cultural studies of science (e.g., feminist perspectives, sociology of knowledge, political analysis of science). What do these various perspectives add to the study of the relation between science and religion? Making concrete reference to one or two examples from the science-and-religion literature, explain and justify your view of the extent to which social or cultural perspectives have shaped the field.

While some scholars within the science-and-religion field have focused their writings on particular methodological questions, scientific issues, or religious topics, others have produced what might be called science-and-religion “summas” from the perspective of their own religious tradition. One thinks, for example, of Arthur Peacocke’s Theology for a Scientific Age, Muzaffar Iqbal’s Islam and Science, and Alan Wallace’s Choosing Reality. Discuss two such integrative works that operate from different religious perspectives. What insight does comparing such works offer into the possibility of arbitrating disputes among the competing truth claims of the world’s religions?

In what senses and for what reasons might one characterize recent "religion and science" dialogue over the past decade or so as an emerging "academic discipline"? In what ways does this dialogue transcend or otherwise escape such categorization? Mention the work of at least four specific scholars in your response.

To what extent should methodology in "religion and science" be consistent when one is working across religious traditions? Is methodological consistency even possible in crosscultural and interreligious studies? Reflect on the nature of methodology per se in your response.

“Intellectual inquiry in religion and science carries a normative imperative. That is to say, all religion-science work of any value aims to discover truth or goodness or beauty, and to argue on behalf of this discovery.” Discuss.

Does the common metaphorical nature of both scientific and religious language dilute the nature of the truth claims made in both areas? Use specific examples in your response.

Philosophy of Religion

Sample Exam Instructions

Instructions: This is a four-hour, closed-book examination, in which you are to write on four questions. Answer all parts of the questions you choose, paying close attention both to accurate exposition and to constructing persuasive arguments for your point of view. Do not to write on the same figure or theme at depth in more than one question.

Afterwards: You will have the opportunity at the end of your last examination to take a copy of your answers away and type them up. You may make only the following kinds of changes in this process: improve grammar, correct spelling, and expand abbreviations. Please state that “This is an accurate and truthful copy of my examination” and sign the statement on the front page of your typed exam.

Philosophy of Religion

Sample Exam Questions

In the philosophy of religion, how is the field “religion” to be demarcated? Give a brief history of attempts to define religion in the Western philosophic tradition, and discuss some criticisms of the European Enlightenment views of the nature of religion. Provide your own answer to the question of how to identify phenomena, structures, or dimensions of life as religious.

Many disciplines contribute to the interpretation of religion, including for instance poetry (as in T. S. Eliot), art (as in Michaelangelo, Hindu statuary, Tang Dynasty landscapes), music (as in Bach’s oratorios and masses), psychology, sociology, anthropology, neuroscience, physical and philosophical cosmology, ethics, theology in various senses, and philosophy in various senses from the Western, South Asian, and East Asian traditions. Give a fairly detailed account of how four of these (or similar) disciplines engage the subject matter of religion, indicating some of the important respects in which they interpret religion as well as some of the important respects in which they do not register religious elements. Are the disciplines you discuss reductive? In benign or vicious senses? Remember that your answer itself will convey a philosophy of religion, shaping certain contours of what you take religion to be relative to these disciplines.

Categories for understanding religion all have a history. Philosophy of religion arose in the West and its categories have been accused of bias, for instance in supposing that Christianity is a paradigmatic religion, that religion is theistic, that religious belonging to a particular group is important, or that scriptures are authoritative. How should the study of religion develop categories that minimize bias and tolerate the widest range of different religious elements without becoming vacuous? Present a theory of inquiry into religion that addresses this question. Discuss at least two thinkers of the last two centuries who have contributed to your thinking.

With what kinds of categories should religion be studied?  Philosophical, scriptural, anthropological, psychological, sociological, fideistic?  Others?  Situation your answer within the contemporary discussion of categories for understanding religion.

Religions are often thought to have some important relation to something ontologically ultimate, for instance the Dao, Brahman, or God. On the other hand, some religions have a multiplicity of ontologically ultimate principles, for instance the pagan pantheon of gods, the daos that can and cannot be named in Daoism, Principle (li) and Material Force (qi) in Neo-Confucianism. Assuming for the moment the importance of “ontological foundations” for religion, adjudicate the question of the unity or multiplicity of “ultimates.”

Whereas some religions, in their primary rhetoric, stress relations to ultimate ontological realities (God, the Dao, Brahman), others stress the ultimate seriousness of the religious quest; Buddhism is an example of the latter. These are not necessarily contradictory views, because ontological realities can lay ultimate obligations on people and religious quests can aim at union with or achievement of ultimate realities. Provide an interpretation of the relation between ultimate ontological realities and ultimate religious quests, taking into account some examples of each but explaining the underlying structure you believe to obtain.

Western thinkers have often attempted to prove the existence of God as conceived by Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. Explain the logic of at least two such proofs, e.g. Anselm’s ontological argument, Thomas Aquinas’ cosmological proofs, Spinoza’s deduction of necessary substance, or Hegel’s dialectical argument. These proofs also have been criticized. Discuss criticisms of the two proofs you explain. Then give a philosophical account of the nature of proofs for God, their suppositions regarding rationality and faith, and their force.

Prove the existence of God, and comment on alternative proofs to yours.  If you believe God’s existence cannot be proved say why, addressing such questions as the nature of the God whose existence is to be proved, the nature of existence as a contingent or necessary predicate, the nature of proof itself, and the relation of proof to religious faith.  If you prefer to work with some conception of the Ultimate other than God, e.g. the Dao, Brahman, Buddha-Mind, or Nature, do so, constructing alternative sub-questions that call forth the problematic of the questions raised here.

Important European Enlightenment thinkers such as Hume and Kant argued that religious belief should rest on solid rational grounds. Other thinkers, especially among postmodernists, say that beliefs are really a form of practice and that authentic practice is what defines ideal community membership; George Lindbeck, for instance, says that basic religious beliefs are expressions of the underlying grammar of religious communities understood as cultural-linguistic systems. Adjudicate this issue, and say in what sense, if any, you think that religious beliefs can be true or false. What are the criteria for true beliefs?

Many modern Western philosophers, e.g., Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Berkeley, Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant, Hegel, and Whitehead were enthusiastic about modern science as they understood it (and practiced it in several cases). They believed that the new scientific understanding of the world required altering inherited conceptions of God. Trace the philosophies of three of these thinkers with regard to the implications of scientific theories for their conceptions of God. Explain their philosophical theologies in some detail. Evaluate the effectiveness or contributions of your three chosen thinkers for understanding God in light of modern science.

Although many Western philosophers have attempted to develop conceptions of God that are compatible with scientific knowledge of the world, others have been skeptical of religion itself, sometimes on epistemological grounds (Hume) and sometimes because they take religion to be something very different from what it understands itself to be (Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud). Discuss and evaluate the views of three thinkers of this sort—that is, thinkers illustrative of the so-called “hermeneutics of suspicion”—and develop your own position with regard to how to understand religion’s face-value claims to truth.

In the 19th and 20th centuries it was common for anthropologists, philosophers, and some theologians to define religion in part as belief in supernatural things. The conception of the supernatural is dependent on the conception of the natural. Review the main points of the debate and then provide your own philosophy of what nature is. Then say whether you believe religion is committed to something supernatural relative to that. Be careful to control for what you yourself believe to be true in this matter, and what certain religions you discuss are committed to believe. Is a naturalist interpretation of religion possible that is not a washed-out scientism?

Beginning with your own theory, explain whether you believe real reference can be made to God or Ultimate things.  Then explain why this question has become problematic in Western discussions, giving a brief critical history of the discussion since Hume and Kant.  Discuss this Western conversation in relation to at least two forms of Buddhism that differ on the issue of reference, e.g. Yogacara (yes on reference, but only to consciousness) and Madhyamaka (no on reference, as in Nagarjuna).

Elaborate your own conception of the Ultimate (God, Dao, etc.) and then show how it answers in detail one of the following of the big dilemmas: the one and the many; the contingency or necessity of the world; the distinction between illusion and reality (using sources from Indian thought); the rationality of the world, as in the question how mathematics is applicable to actual things.

Explain how you think philosophy is relevant to (1) the understanding of religion, and (2) to improving the sophistication of religious life.  If you believe philosophy is not relevant to either (1) or (2), explain why.  Then situate your position in the philosophic discussion since Hume and Kant.

Some thinkers believe that modern science contradicts religiously viable conceptions of God or the Ultimate.  Explain this claim and trace it out in some thinker.  Then evaluate the claim, saying to what extent you believe the claim is justified, what specific conceptions of God are ruled out, etc.  Say specifically whether the modern scientific discussion militates against the view that the cosmos is created by God.

How do you believe philosophy of religion needs to relate to comparative religions, or at least comparative theology (religious beliefs and justifications)?  If you believe that philosophy of religion can stick with one religion (e.g. as the “reformed epistemologists” such as Plantinga and Wolterstorff say), than answer the criticisms of those who think comparison is necessary to define the field of religion.  If you believe that philosophy of religion requires a comparative database, explain you theory of comparison, relating it to at least one other theory of comparison.

Summarize Hume’s argument about miracles in Of Miracles. Is Hume’s argument sound? What were some of the effects of his argument on subsequent theology and philosophy of religion? Enter your own view on these matters as you engage Hume’s.

Compare William Alston’s Perceiving God and Wayne Proudfoot’s Religious Experience on the question of the entitlement of the experiencer to take religious experiences at face value. Do cultural and linguistic context so condition religious experience that it becomes useless as a source of information about the reality and nature of the objects of religious experience?

What is postmodernity? What is its importance for the philosophical study of religious ideas and practices? Mention at least two figures holding different views on this question and explain how your own thinking stands in relation to theirs.

Can the authority of religious tradition ever be a valid source of knowledge? Answer this question with reference both to South Asian pramana theory and Western epistemological debates. Explain how the Reformed Epistemology of Nicholas Wolterstoff or Alvin Plantinga relates to your answer.

Describe the social functions of religious beliefs in an afterlife such as reincarnation, immortality of the soul, and resurrection of the body. How do such beliefs arise? Choose one and state the best rational case for it and the best rational case against it. Which side of the argument do you find more persuasive? Why?

What is the meaning of the fact that great suffering occurs in the world, sometimes because of deliberate cruelty or culpable neglect, for religious understandings of nature and ultimate reality?

The information on this page is copyright 1994 onwards, Wesley Wildman (basic information here), unless otherwise noted. If you want to use ideas that you find here, please be careful to acknowledge this site as your source, and remember also to credit the original author of what you use, where that is applicable. If you want to use text or stories from these pages, please contact me at the feedback address for permission.