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.


Matt said...

I'm going to agree and disagree with your assessment of the problem. Hopefully in the same sentence.

The philosophical drive is truth. Subsequently, when we speak of epistemic agents, we're speaking to an individuals ability to form justified, true, beliefs.

I think his use of "epistemic peer" is too limited to discuss the full implications of the problem of disagreement. Consider:

Not everyone values truth. There are numerous examples of people holding false beliefs because of their utility to the believer. In short, the beliefs have value, but their value does not come from their truth, but from how they allow the agent to operate in the world.

In these cases, I feel his qualifications for an epistemic agent: background information, reasoning/analytical ability, and intelligence, can be satisfied while similar agents can reasonably ascribe to different beliefs.

If justification for believing P solely came from some some property dependent on the truth of P, then I could agree with Feldman. However, as psychological beings, there are non-truth conducive justifications that lead to beliefs because of their value/utility.

He seems to want to treat everyone as some sort of equal epistemic agent. However, how we ought to act as epistemic agents is often not how we act as psychological agents. His mistake, I think, is the implied idea that all agents are epistemic agents, when in fact that is simply not the case.


Matt McCormick said...

Thanks Matt. Yeah, Feldman brackets off cases of pragmatic justification as you suggest.

Richard said...

It seems strange to approach religious debates as disputes over specific claims. I can only think of a very few times where I've had a conversation that began with with the theist asserting an intelligible theistic claim.

Instead, talk about 'God' seems much more likely to be describing a very malleable intuition.

But, as a piece about reasonable disagreement in general, I think your critique is on-point.

As much as I'd like to think that my epistemic peers are people who don't make errors, that seems self-serving. I know that I'm subject to bias and must be making some number of mistakes.

Once I acknowledge that, it seems easy enough to say, "I believe X. However, conclusion Y could be reached by someone who makes errors about as often as I do."

This would neatly distinguish disagreement over some contested scientific theory (small errors would be enough to push someone one way or the other) from astrology (something large has gone wrong).

Eric Sotnak said...

I suppose I'm a little friendlier toward Feldman's position than you, Matt. But maybe only just barely. I have been thinking along lines I think are substantially the same as yours, here.

Suppose Tweedle is a prominent theistic philosopher. We can easily concede that Tweedle does not endorse theism because of some lack of rational ability, or because she is ignorant of the field of philosophy of religion, or otherwise epistemically disadvantaged vis-a-vis her identical twin, Twiddle, who happens to be a prominent atheistic philosopher. But suppose Tweedle is married to a theist, belongs to a church where she has a reputation to uphold among friends, and serves as faculty advisor to her college's chapter of Campus Crusade for Christ. Tweedle, therefore has invested quite a bit of her self-image in her role as a theist. That is, there are psycho-social pressures on her to hold beliefs supportive of theism.

Now it is possible, of course, that Twiddle likewise is subject to psycho-social pressures to maintain her atheism. But I think that as a matter of empirical fact, theism has such a strong social foothold in most quarters that it may be reasonable to think that Tweedle's theism is more likely to be influenced by psycho-social pressures than Twiddle's atheism.

None of this means, of course, that psycho-social pressures can always be invoked to discount one side of a dispute, but there are cases where I think one cannot help but wonder (for example, one might ask why it just so happens that one is much more likely to find arguments against contraception coming from Catholic philosophers than from non-Catholics).

Matt said...


I think we're in complete agreement, and I bow to your much more clear and concise description.


I see where he separates pragmatic justification. I'm just not convinced that there's anything left after one does that. That is, I'm having trouble coming up with an actual case. I think, when you strip the agent's attributes down such that all that is left is a rational, epistemic agent, that they cannot reasonably disagree about the value of evidence, nor reach different conclusions.

The one exception to my claim would be in a case where, in fact, there is not enough data to lead to a single conclusion. There could be something going on where the gap in evidence is 1. not obvious, and 2. would be the deciding factor between equally compelling conclusions.

I guess he's right within his own narrow description, but my view is that it could never happen.

Matt H

Matt DeStefano said...

Feldman says:

". To defend my atheism, I would have to be justified in accepting some hypothesis explaining away religious belief, for example the hypothesis that it arises from some fundamental psychological need. And, while I am inclined to believe some such
hypothesis, the more I reflect on it, the more I realize that I am no position to make any such
judgment with any confidence at all. Such psychological conjectures are, I must admit, highly
speculative, at least when made by me.

This seems incongruous to me. Does Feldman, in rejecting hypotheses about astrology, Bigfoot, and the magic healing power of crystals have to accept psychological explanations about those beliefs?

Anonymous said...

Feldman's framing of "reasonable disagreements" seems to rely on symmetry of the existence question.

Eg. a 3rd party assessing the guilt of Lefty and Righty (III A).

That seems an unsuitable analog. Bi-standers surely see Lefty is contrarian, whereas Righty gnostic. (With evidence merely testamony that his closest neighbours find unconvincing)

Anonymous said...

@ Matt H: Epistemic value suspension is exceedingly rare, but can happen. Consider a quantum particle with 50% observed locality to the left or right of position X. I say right, you say left, but neither of us is justified. It will be one or the other, and given equally justified sets of premises, adding a proposed locality premise is equally justified by the law of excluded middle since the conclusion "right of x" is as justified as "left of x" in that both imply "right of x or left of x" and are so equally justifiable inferential conclusions formally. However, by far almost everything is not a 50% case. Given the unique epistemic positions of individuals, maintaining skepticism is logically irrational in most scenarios as Dr. McCormick explains. It could be said no such particle exists, but there is not sufficient reason to believe this in that 50% is truly random, and so is implied by quantum indeterminacy as true indeterminacy is predicated on true randomness. This should not be taken as reason to apply skepticism across the board of knowledge (implied by epistemic equality) but only at the edges--as the causal states produced by the 95% likelihood of the big bang are certainties. Following logical similarity I theorize that the remaining 5% translates as skeptical states.

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Morrison said...

Why do you call John Mack "infamous"?

He had strange ideas, but simply being "strange" does not mean an idea is false. (Although it may have led to his murder.)

In fact, I disagree with Mack, but the idea of Aliens visiting the earth is not inherently impossible for any reason I know of.

I question if it is even implausible.

Certainly no stranger than the "Big Bang", spontaneous genertion, or "multiverses" which seem to be commonly accepted.