Simon Maria Kopf Launches a New Research Project (2023-24): “Alternative Concepts of God and the Problem of Unconceived Alternatives”

Simon Maria Kopf, Associate Professor of Fundamental Theology at the ITI, launches a new, two-year research project entitled “Alternative Concepts of God and the Problem of Unconceived Alternatives.” The project is funded by the SET Foundations with a generous grant of $25,000. Dr. Kopf will organise an international workshop in the summer of 2024 and publish a special issue on the topic with Prof. Georg Gasser from Augsburg University. One of ITI’s STM students, Mary Innerst, will serve as a Research Assistant on the project.

The aim of the research project is to determine to what extent the so-called ‘problem of unconceived alternatives’ (Stanford 2006), originally formulated in the context of philosophy of science, as a much-noted intervention in the realist/anti-realist debate, poses a challenge for philosophy of religion and theology. As P. Kyle Stanford notes, “The historical record of scientific inquiry itself, I suggested, offers abundant evidence of the repeated failure of scientists and scientific communities to even conceive of fundamentally distinct alternatives to extant theories that were nonetheless both scientifically serious and reasonably well-confirmed by the evidence available at the time” (Stanford 2019, 3915-6).

Conversely, Dr. Kopf will raise the following question about one of the most disputed questions in philosophy of religion in recent decades, namely, alternative concepts of God: Does the historical record of religious practices offer evidence of the repeated failure of theologians and religious communities to conceive of fundamentally distinct alternative concepts of God that are both philosophically serious and an equally reasonable interpretation of religious experience? That is, are there unconceived alternative concepts of God in the history of religion that offer equally convincing explanations of religious experiences and life?

If there is evidence of such unconceived alternatives in the past, then this might give reason to suspect that alternative concepts of God might emerge in the future of which we have “simply not yet managed to conceive” (Stanford 2006, 16). What consequences would this have for philosophy of religion and theology? Are philosophers of religion and theologians, like Stanford proposes for theoretical fundamental scientists, “routinely using a perfectly legitimate inferential tool outside of the epistemic context in which it can be reasonably expected to uncover truths about [God and] the world” (Stanford 2006, 32)? In short, why should theology and philosophy of religion be in a better position than the fundamental theoretical sciences?

In order to address these questions, the working hypothesis for the project is as follows: this insight from the philosophy of science puts new constraints on the ongoing debate about alternative concepts of God in contemporary philosophy of religion, since many (realist) philosophers of religion argue for their concept of God by eliminating rival concepts of God. The problem of unconceived alternatives does not, however, necessarily put the same constraints – although perhaps different ones – on the corresponding theological debate if the latter includes God's self-revelation, or at least theologians often maintain that they are in a better position.

If you are interested in participating, please contact Dr. Kopf: [email protected].