Thursday, June 7, 2012

Disagreeing about Religious Disagreements

Rich Feldman, as usual, sheds a great deal of clarity on religious disagreements here:

Reasonable Religious Disagreements

He endorses this view after considering several alternatives:

After examining this evidence, I find in myself an inclination, perhaps a strong inclination, to think that this evidence supports P. It may even be that I can’t help but believe P. But I see that another person, every bit as sensible and serious as I, has an opposing reaction. Perhaps this person has some bit of evidence that cannot be shared or perhaps he takes the evidence differently than I do. It’s difficult to know everything about his mental life and thus difficult to tell exactly why he believes as he does. One of us must be making some kind of mistake or failing to see some truth. But I have no basis for thinking that the one making the mistake is him rather than me. And the same is true of him. And in that case, the right thing for both of us to do is to suspend judgment on P.

That is, he rejects the widely held notion that it is possible for epistemic peers to share their evidence and reasonably maintain their own beliefs and think that the other party remains reasonable.  You've got to give up your view and retreat to suspension of judgment in the face of an epistemic peer who considers the evidence and still disagrees with you, and she should do likewise.  Notice also that Feldman gives some considerable creedence to the notion that someone could have a piece of unsharable evidence.

On Feldman's scheme, when the positive atheist is confronted by a theist, call her Smith, the atheist might conclude that Smith is not an epistemic peer because she is not "equal with respect to intelligence, reasoning powers, background information, etc."  Starting with the last one first, the atheist might hope to convince Smith by getting her up to speed on the relevant background information.  Or Smith might hope to improve Smith's reasoning powers or skills.  The atheist may not be able to do much about Smith's lack of intelligence, of course.

The obvious point is that the atheist must acknowledge the disagreement may be the result of the fact that that he, the atheist, is lacking with respect to intelligence, reasoning, powers, background information, etc.  The atheist, just like everyone else, must take great care in the face of disagreement to not simply assume that the fault lies on the other side.  It's hard to know whether atheists or theists are more prone to this assumption of epistemic superiority mistake.  In general, the evidence that shows that belief in God is negatively correlated with education, intelligence, and analytical skill does seem to tilt the situation in the atheist's favor. But that general evidence doesn't show that any particular atheist or his position is not the result of some epistemic mistake or problem.  Individuals and the reasonableness of their views must be treated individually.

It seems to me that there's something wrong with Feldman's Modest Skeptical Alternative account in the end.  He's rushing to suspend judgment too readily.  Perhaps that's because he's lacking some background information with regard to religious disagreements.  Having been a student in several of his graduate seminars in epistemology, I certainly won't argue that he's not equal with respect to intelligence or reasoning powers.

I have a couple of half baked ideas here:  I am worried that the powerful human propensity to construct complicated and sophisticated rationalizations for some view out of motivated reasoning can give the illusion that someone is an epistemic peer, or that her view warrants more epistemic respect than it deserves.  (This worry should plague you about your own views as much as about someone who disagrees with you.)

More specifically, the religious urge is powerful and neurobiological, much more so than some commensurate skeptical or atheist urge.  And the propensity towards sophisticated motivated reasoning feeds into the religious urge.  So we have a population of cognitive agents where religious mistakes defended with elaborate rationalizations are the widespread norm.  Given human psychological constitution, we should expect to find a lot of impressive reasoning in favor of belief.  In Feldman's terms, I think what that piece of information should do is show that the bar for taking a believer to be an epistemic peer is higher.  (Yes, I know how prejudicial that sounds.)  The case is comparable for astrology.  If Smith finds out that Jones believes in astrology, even if Jones gives what sounds like a sophisticated, and thoughtful justification for it, Smith ought to be reluctant to conclude that Jones is an epistemic peer.  Jones' belief should act as a defeater to the presumption of Jones' being equal with regard to intelligence, reasoning powers, or background information.  It's not that Jones cannot vindicate herself or her belief; it's just that the belief, in the context of the rest of what we know about the world and ourselves as cognitive agents, is very strong evidence that something's gone wrong on one or more of those three qualifications for being an epistemic peer.

Feldman, citing van Inwagen, says that belief in astrology is simply indefensible.  I agree.  Nevertheless, enthusiastic belief in it is widespread, and elaborate justifications are common.  In the case of astrology, my assumption is that if an adult endorses it, then he or she is most certainly lacking in background information, reasoning or analytical ability, or intelligence.  The only difference I can see with religious belief is that a bigger percentage of the population endorses it.

And now I see more clearly why atheists have the reputation for being smug and superior assholes.  Feldman, to his credit, is urging us to not go down that road.  But I don't see how it can be avoided.

Another way to put the point is to consider the larger populations of cognitive agents we are dealing with.  For virtually any idea, it is possible to find someone who believes it, who appears to be reasonable and thoughtful, and who is in possession of the relevant background information.  John Mack, infamous Harvard psychiatrist, vigorously defended the claim for many years that aliens were visiting the Earth, abducting humans, and conducting bizarre medical experiments on them.  Strange ideas are too seductive to human psychology, and there are too many of us.  There are thoughtful, intelligent, seemingly reasonable people who deny evolution, who believe in witchcraft, who believe that alien spacecraft are responsible for crop circles, who believe that Bigfoot is real, and so on.  If we apply Feldman's principle, then it would appear that we should suspend judgment about all of these matters.  And that result suggests that his principle encourages suspension of judgment about matters that are clearly reasonable to believe given the evidence.