Thursday, November 09, 2017

Street Epistemology

In this post I'm going to quote and comment on The​ ​Complete​ ​Street​ ​Epistemology​ ​Guide How​ ​to​ ​Talk​ ​About​ ​Beliefs (5/2016 ed.). Street Epistemology is a tactic used by atheists to undermine the faith of philosophically unsophisticated Christians. 

I'll begin by responding to some stock questions. Then I'll comment on some other material in the guide. 

Q. How​ ​can​ ​​we​​ ​figure​ ​out​ ​whether​ ​there​ ​is​ ​a​ ​reliable​ ​way​ ​to know​ ​that​ ​this​ ​is​ ​true?

A. That's not an easy question to answer. As Roderick Chisholm noted, some epistemologists begin with paradigm-examples of knowledge while other epistemologists begin with criteria or some methodology. There's a dialectical relationship between examples and criteria. They cross-pollinate. 

I don't think either one can function an absolute starting-point. We can't begin from scratch. We have to have some knowledge to assess other knowledge-claims. We must begin in medias res. We must have instances of knowledge as well as intuitive criteria at the outset. On a Christian worldview, that's possible. God endows human minds with innate knowledge or instinctive criteria, such an a natural grasp of informal logic. In addition, he places us in a world governed in large part by ordinary providence, so that we can reliably generalize from representative samples of experience. 

Q. Do​ ​you​ ​rely​ ​on​ ​faith​ ​to​ ​be confident​ ​about​ ​your​ ​religious​ ​beliefs?

A. Depends on what you mean by "faith". If you're using "faith" as a synonym for "belief", then I don't use faith to arrive at belief since that would be circular. Indeed, to pose the question with that definition in mind is prejudicial. You're defining faith in fideistic terms. I understand that atheists view Christian faith as fideistic, but that reflects the partisan perspective of the atheist rather than Christians, per se. So that's a loaded question by smuggling a pejorative atheist assumption into the terms of the question. 

If, however, you're using "faith" as a synonym for the Christian worldview or belief-system, then we do, of course, we use our worldview or plausibility structure to assess particular claims. 

​​Q. How​ ​confident​ ​are​ ​you​ ​that​ ​the​ ​belief​ ​is​ ​true?

A. If you're asking about Christianity, one way to answer is by process of elimination. I'm confident that the alternatives are false. Atheism is false. Buddhism is false. Hinduism is false. Islam is false. And so on and so forth. ​​ ​

Q. ​On​ ​a​ ​scale​ ​from​ ​zero​ ​to​ ​one​ ​hundred,​ ​how​ ​confident​ ​are​ ​you​ ​that your​ ​belief​ ​is​ ​true?

A. I don't think beliefs are strictly quantifiable. 

Q. ​How​ ​did​ ​you​ ​(originally)​ ​conclude​ ​that​ ​this​ ​belief​ ​was true?

A. The formulation of the question is prejudicial. Why make the original process of belief-formation the frame of reference? Suppose I converted to Christianity as a teenager due to some pivotal experience or persuasive argument. However, 20, 30, 40 years later, I might well have additional reasons for my faith. Later and better arguments might replace earlier and inferior arguments. 

Q. What​ ​are​ ​the​ ​top​ ​three​ ​things​ ​that​ ​make you​ ​confident​ ​that​ ​your​ ​belief​ ​is​ ​true?

A. That's simplistic. There are many lines of evidence feeding into my faith. And that can be difficult to untangle. Reasons blend with other reasons. Theistic proofs. Biblical archeology. Religious experience. The argument from prophecy. The argument from miracles. Answered prayer. And so on and so forth. 

Q. What​ ​role​ ​does​ ​X​ ​have in​ ​your​ ​knowing​ ​that​ ​the​ ​belief​ ​is​ ​true?

A. The way the question is formulated slants the answer. But it isn't any one thing. 

Q. ​How​ ​confident​ ​would​ ​you​ ​be​ ​in​ ​the​ ​belief without​ ​X?

A. That question artificially atomizes the belief-structure. But it doesn't rest or fall on one particular piece of evidence. It's not like pulling a strand on a knitted sweater, where it all unravels if you tug one strand. 

In addition, apparent evidence to the contrary is not a good reason to instantly ditch your entire belief-system. Every philosophical position has difficulties. We try to work through difficulties. The question is whether there's a tipping point. 

Q. ​​What gives​ ​you​ ​the​ ​​most​​ ​confidence​ ​that​ ​your​ ​belief​ ​is​ ​true?

A. No one thing in particular. Take Newman's illative sense or Polanyi's tacit knowledge. 

Q. When​ ​I​ ​asked​ ​whether​ ​you​ ​could be​ ​mistaken,​ ​I​ ​meant​ ​whether​ ​anyone​—​even​ ​the​ ​most​ ​intelligent​ ​and​ ​well-educated​ ​of people​—​could​ ​make​ ​an​ ​error​ ​in​ ​attributing​ ​the​ ​cause​ ​of​ ​an​ ​experience.

A. Of course, but the hypothetical possibility of error in general is not a rational basis for doubting any particular belief. That shouldn't be confused with evidence of error. 

Q. What​ ​evidence​ ​would​ ​change​ ​your confidence​ ​in​ ​the​ ​belief?

A. If you're alluding to Christianity, there's a sense in which Christianity is hypothetically falsifiable. Christianity can't be true if one or more things contrary to Christianity are true. There is, however, no point in jumping down an endless array of imaginary rabbit holes to cultivate doubt for the sake of doubt. That's not a rational procedure, but an intellectual evasion. 

Q. If​ ​evidence​ ​has​ ​no​ ​power​ ​to​ ​alter your​ ​confidence,​ ​are​ ​you​ ​really​ ​believing​ ​based​ ​on​ ​evidence​ ​in​ ​the​ ​first​ ​place?

A. "Evidence" is a value-laden category. We need to go back a step and ask ourselves what the world must be like for reason to be reliable, induction to be reliable, testimonial evidence to be reliable, sensory perception to be reliable, for logic to be necessary and universal. What kind of creatures must we be, what kind of world must we inhabit, for humans to have minds, for our minds to be in contact with reality? 

There's a difference between the defeasibility of particular beliefs or truth-claims and a conceptual scheme on which the very concept of defeasibility depends. The principle of defeasibility has ontological commitments. Some things must be unquestionable to question other things. And reality must have a particular configuration for minds and extramental objects of knowledge to match up. 

Q. How might​ ​we​ ​test​ ​the​ ​belief,​ ​in​ ​a​ ​way​ ​that​ ​would​ ​be​ ​difficult​ ​to​ ​pass​ ​if​ ​the​ ​belief​ ​were false?

A. That's a good question, but consider the underlying assumption. To test a belief presumes a standard of comparison. We can't start from nothing. We can't hold all our beliefs in suspense. 

In that respect, empirical questions are secondary to metaphysical questions. Behind the empirical question is ontological question of what essential enabling conditions must be in place, and what metaphysical machinery must be in place to underwrite them, for us to have confidence about anything whatsoever.

Atheists act as if you can just bracket God and leave all the enabling conditions intact. But that treats the idea of God as if God is just one discrete truth-claim on which nothing of consequence depends, rather than a necessary truth-condition on which everything else depends. An atheist can still attempt to challenge that, but it's a much bigger challenge to a different kind of claim. 

Q. How​ ​might​ ​we​ ​use​ ​faith​ ​to​ ​decide​ ​which​ ​claim​ ​is​ ​correct?

A. If by "faith" you mean the Christian worldview, then creation, revelation, and providence supply benchmarks for assessing individual truth-claims. 

Q. Do​ ​humans ever​ ​misconstrue​ ​reality?

A. Obviously, yet recognition of error assumes that we're capable of accessing reality. But what must the real world be like for our cognitive equipment to be adequate? 

Q. How​ ​does​ ​one​ ​being​ ​raised​ ​with​ ​this belief​ ​make​ ​it​ ​true?

A. It doesn't. 

​Q. D​oes​ ​the Hindu​ ​have​ ​faith​ ​that​ ​Vishnu​ ​is​ ​real?​

A. A Hindu has a socially-conditioned, fideistic belief in Vishnu. However, the question is prejudicial because it treats Christian faith and Hindu faith as though those were analogous, which begs the question against Christianity. 

The​ ​term​ ​"​Street​ ​Epistemology​"​ ​(SE)​ ​originates​ ​in​ ​Dr.​ ​Peter​ ​Boghossian's​ ​book,​​ ​​A​ ​Manual​ ​for Creating​ ​Atheists​​. 

That exposes the ulterior agenda behind these faux innocuous questions. 

Like everyone​ ​we​ ​make​ ​use​ ​of​ ​​inductive​ ​reasoning​​ ​and​ ​​deductive​ ​reasoning​,​ ​while​ ​being​ ​on guard​ ​for​ ​​fallacies​.​ ​Being​ ​human​ ​we​ ​too​ ​acquire​ ​many​ ​of​ ​our​ ​beliefs​ ​through​ testimony​​ ​(while being​ ​aware​ ​of​ ​its​ ​​problems​),​ ​and​ ​cannot​ ​help​ ​but​ ​make​ ​intuitive​ ​​coherentist​​ ​evaluations​ ​of plausibility​ ​when​ ​encountering​ ​new​ ​claims.​ ​However,​ ​with​ Defeasibility​ ​Tests​​ ​we​ ​emphasise falsifiability​​ ​—​ ​the​ ​mode​ ​of​ ​justification​ ​that​ ​powers​ ​much​ ​of​ ​modern​ ​science.​ ​We​ ​also compare​​ and ​​evaluate ​​the ​​probabilities ​​of ​​competing​​explanations ​​using​ Bayesian ​​inference​, and​ ​turn​ ​to​ ​​Occam's​ ​razor​​ ​to​ ​favor​ ​the​ ​simplest​ ​process​ ​that​ ​would​ ​generate​ ​observed events.​ ​We'll​ ​even​ ​dig​ ​into​ ​the​ ​justification​ ​of​ ​extraordinary​ ​claims​ ​in​ ​a​ ​somewhat foundationalist​​ ​manner,​ ​by​ ​following​ ​the​ ​chain​ ​of​ ​justification​ ​until​ ​it​ ​reaches​ ​ordinary​ ​claims, and​ ​seeing​ ​whether​ ​the​ ​inference​ ​holds​ ​up.​ ​One​ ​could​ ​also​ ​say​ ​Street​ ​Epistemologists​ ​are being​ ​​pragmatic​​ ​when​ ​we​ ​apply​ ​​Outsider​ ​Tests​,​ ​as​ ​we​ ​seek​ ​the​ ​practical​ ​consequences​ ​that enable​ ​us​ ​to​ ​adjudicate​ ​between​ ​competing​ ​claims.

i) Many philosophers would take issue with one or more of the assumptions driving Street Epistemology. So Street Epistemology has its own set of privileged assumptions. Criteria it takes for granted. 

ii) Notice the appeal to Occam's razor against "extraordinary claims". One problem is that simplicity often involves a tradeoff between a simpler ontology and a simpler explanation. Eliminating entities may force a more convoluted explanation. For instance, what's simpler–a single Creator or a multiverse (not that those are mutually exclusive)? 

Don't​ ​move​ ​on​ ​to​ ​examining​ ​the​ ​reliability​ ​of​ ​faith​ ​until​ ​you've​ ​agreed​ ​on​ ​what​ ​faith is.​ ​Most​ ​people​ ​concur​ ​with​ ​definitions​ ​that​ ​mean​ ​roughly​ ​"choosing​ ​to​ ​be​ ​more​ ​confident than​ ​you​ ​would​ ​be​ ​if​ ​you​ ​were​ ​relying​ ​solely​ ​on​ ​evidence."​ ​Anecdotally,​ ​we​ ​find​ ​most believers​ ​at​ ​least​ ​agree​ ​with​ ​the​ ​statement​ ​that​ ​"evidence​ ​brings​ ​you​ ​only​ ​so​ ​far,​ ​faith​ ​takes you​ ​the​ ​rest​ ​of​ ​the​ ​way​ ​(to​ ​knowing)."​ ​By​ ​agreeing​ ​to​ ​their​ ​positively-worded​ ​definition​ ​of​ ​faith as​ ​a​ ​way​ ​of​ ​knowing,​ ​they​ ​are​ ​less​ ​likely​ ​to​ ​then​ ​reject​ ​equivalent​ ​definitions​ ​that​ ​highlight​ ​its weakness.

Street epistemologists are bullies who attack soft targets. 

​The​ ​"faith​ ​as​ ​trust"​ ​definition​ ​makes​ ​sense​ ​if by​ ​"faith​ ​in​ ​God"​ ​one​ ​means​ ​"trusting​ ​God​ ​to​ ​fulfil​ ​certain​ ​promises",​ ​but​ ​it​ ​does​ ​not​ ​make sense​ ​if​ ​one​ ​means​ ​"trusting​ ​God​ ​to​ ​​exist​"​ ​-​ a​nd​ ​yet​ ​often​ ​a​ ​believer​ ​will​ ​say​ ​"evidence​ ​alone is​ ​not​ ​enough​ ​to​ ​know​ ​God​ ​is​ ​real,​ ​you​ ​also​ ​need​ ​faith".​ ​ ​they're​ ​talking​ ​about​ ​believing​ ​anyway,​ ​without​ ​the​ ​evidence.​ 

There's a difference between having direct, independent evidence for particular claims and having indirect evidence that's dependent on direct evidence for the reliability of the source. Take a textbook on world geography. A student only has firsthand experience for a fraction of the claims in that book. But if the book is well-researched, then the book in itself is evidence for what it says about various localities. 

You​ ​may​ ​meet​ ​sophisticated​ ​believers​ ​who​ ​use​ ​the​ ​word​ ​"faith"​ ​differently​ ​from​ ​popular usage.​ ​For​ ​example,​ ​they​ ​may​ ​use​ ​"faith"​ ​to​ ​mean​ ​the​ ​act​ ​of​ ​committing​ ​to​ ​a​ ​belief​ ​that​ ​one arrived​ ​at​ ​through​ ​evidence​ ​and​ ​reason​ ​—​ ​faith​ ​commitment​ ​as​ ​an​ ​act​ ​of​ ​doxastic​ ​closure.​ ​In this​ ​case,​ ​they​ ​aren’t​ ​claiming​ ​to​ ​use​ ​faith​ ​as​ ​a​ ​way​ ​of​ ​knowing​ ​their​ ​beliefs​ ​are​ ​true,​ ​but rather​ ​as​ ​an​ ​end​ ​state​ ​of​ ​some​ ​other​ ​way​ ​of​ ​knowing.​ ​They​ ​may​ ​also​ ​use​ ​"faith"​ ​to​ ​mean simply​ ​​acting​​ ​on​ ​what​ ​you​ ​consider​ ​likely​ t​o​ ​be​ ​true.​ ​You​ ​can​ ​work​ ​with​ ​them​ ​on​ ​their definition,​ ​recognizing​ ​at​ ​least​ ​in​ ​what​ ​ways​ ​it​ ​does​ ​not​ ​fit​ ​with​ ​common​ ​usage​ ​amongst believers.​

That's a signal improvement. 

The​ ​interlocutor​ ​may​ ​give​ ​a​ ​justification​ ​for​ ​their​ ​belief​ ​that​ ​relies​ ​on​ ​an​ ​equally​ ​extraordinary claim,​ ​such​ ​as​ ​a​ ​specific​ ​miracle.​ ​In​ ​this​ ​case​ ​think​ ​of​ ​yourself​ ​as​ ​a​ ​foundation​ ​inspector. Work​ ​with​ ​the​ ​interlocutor​ ​to​ ​determine​ ​whether​ ​their​ ​beliefs​ ​are​ ​built​ ​on​ ​solid​ ​ground​ ​or shifting​ ​sand.​ ​Dig​ ​deeper​ ​into​ ​the​ ​foundations​ ​of​ ​the​ ​interlocutor's​ ​belief​ ​system​ ​by​ ​asking, "What​ ​gives​ ​you​ ​confidence​ ​that​ ​X​ ​is​ ​true?"​​ ​Keep​ ​digging​ ​until​ ​you​ ​reach​ ​a​ ​justification that​ ​is​ ​not​ ​based​ ​on​ ​something​ ​extraordinary.​

Notice the biased classification of reported miracles and supernatural experience as "extraordinary claims". But what's the frame of reference? Is God extraordinary in a world where God exists? Are reported miracles extraordinary claims in a world where miracles actually occur? Unless a Street Epistemologist already knows what kind of world we inhabit, unless he knows that supernaturalism is false, his invidious comparison assumes the very issue in dispute. 

By​ ​asking​ ​about​ ​how​ ​they​ ​originally​ ​formed​ ​the​ ​belief,​ ​they​ ​are​ ​less​ ​likely​ ​to​ ​fall​ ​back on​ ​answering​ ​"How​ ​do​ ​you​ ​make​ ​your​ ​belief​ ​sound​ ​reasonable​ ​to​ ​someone​ ​else?".

But it's often philosophically legitimate to distinguish between personal reasons for what I believe and reasons I might present to a second party. Some of my evidence might be based on firsthand experience, but a second party isn't privy to my firsthand experience. So I appeal public evidence if that's available. 

Popularized​ ​by​ ​author​ ​John​ ​W.​ ​Loftus​ ​(a​ ​former​ ​Christian​ ​apologist​ ​turned​ ​atheist)​ ​in​ ​his book,​ ​"​The​ ​Outsider​ ​Test​ ​for​ ​Faith:​ ​How​ ​to​ ​Know​ ​Which​ ​Religion​ ​Is​ ​True"​ ,​ ​the​ ​Outsider​ ​Test for​ ​Faith​ ​helps​ ​interlocutors​ ​to​ ​see​ ​that​ ​their​ ​reasons​ ​for​ ​believing​ ​are​ ​no​ ​different​ ​from​ ​the reasons​ ​used​ ​by​ ​those​ ​from​ ​other​ ​religions,​ ​and​ ​thus​ ​not​ ​a​ ​good​ ​way​ ​to​ ​judge​ ​which​ ​religion is​ ​true.​ ​

Observe the built-in bias to "The Outsider Test for Faith"? Notice how it presumes all religious claimants are comparable, and the evidence or lack thereof is comparable. Far from being impartial, the "Outsider Test" is predicated on the falsehood of religion generally. That's not a neutral outsider test, but a partisan insider test, reflecting a secular viewpoint. 

You​ ​can​ ​use​ ​an​ ​outsider​ ​test​ ​for​ ​any​ ​kind​ ​of​ ​evidence​ ​used​ ​to​ ​justify​ ​contradictory conclusions.​ ​For​ ​religions,​ ​this​ ​includes​ ​faith,​ ​numinous​ ​experiences,​ ​fulfilled​ ​prophecies, reported​ ​miracles,​ ​and​ ​answered​ ​prayers.

i) Which assumes that all religions have the same evidential appeals. This assumes that all religions have the same quality of evidence. 

ii) Moreover, there can be kinds of evidence that eliminate naturalism without eliminating particular religious claimants. That's a separate issue. A different step in a cumulative case argument. 

However​ ​it​ ​is​ ​most useful​ ​for​ ​extraordinary​ ​claims,​ ​such​ ​as​ ​miracles​ ​and​ ​supernatural​ ​phenomena,​ ​including:

Existence​ ​of​ ​one​ ​or​ ​more​ ​gods​ ​or​ ​immaterial​ ​persons​ ​(theism). 

Phenomena​ ​that​ ​violate​ ​or​ ​suspend​ ​the​ ​operation​ ​of​ ​natural​ ​laws​ ​(supernaturalism, paranormal​ ​and​ ​psychic​ ​phenomena,​ ​miracles,​ ​karma). 

Biological​ ​death​ ​does​ ​not​ ​end​ ​one's​ ​existence​ ​as​ ​a​ ​conscious​ ​being​ ​(afterlife, reincarnation,​ ​resurrection).

Numinous,​ ​revelatory,​ ​or​ ​mystical​ ​experiences​​ ​[​SEP:​ ​Religious​ ​Experience​] 

Personal​ ​experiences​:​ ​answered​ ​prayers,​ ​"worked​ ​for​ ​me"​ ​therapies. 

Testimony​​ ​(e.g.,​ ​anecdotes,​ ​tradition,​ ​authorities):​ ​

i) That's a blatantly sophistical ruse to preemptively discount any type of evidence that falsifies naturalism. 

ii) And it does so by classifying certain phenomena as "extraordinary". By stipulative definition, those are relegated to the dubious status of "extraordinary claims". It creates a standing presumption against them. 

iii) What's the justification for assessing answered prayer by first pigeon-holing answered prayer as an "extraordinary claim"? Why not just assess the evidence for answered prayer? Examine specific evidence for specific miracles. 

For all their rationalistic rhetoric, Street Epistemologists don't actually follow the evidence. They have a priori filters to screen out evidence that runs counter to naturalism. The rationalistic posture is just for show. Defeasibility is a charade. 

Testimony​ ​may​ ​be​ ​helpful​ ​in describing​​ ​the​ ​evidence​ ​for​ ​a​ ​claim​ ​or​ ​how​ ​to​ ​obtain​ ​the​ ​evidence,​ ​but​ ​perceptions and​ ​memories​ ​are​ ​not​ ​generally​ ​reliable​ ​evidence​ ​on​ ​their​ ​own.​ ​Testimony​ ​is particularly​ ​vulnerable​ ​to​ ​errors​ ​and​ ​omissions​ ​by​ ​the​ ​reporter,​ ​intentional​ ​or​ ​not.

To say memory is generally unreliable is self-refuting. Atheists are dependent on their own memories, as well as collective memory. 

1 comment:

  1. Cameron Bertuzzi has written a series on Street Epistemology. Here's a link to PART ONE:

    Cameron has also has a written conversation with one here:

    Jonathan McLatchie was interviewed by a Street Epistemologist here: (part 2 is linked in the description).

    Speaking of atheists, an atheist Convention in Australia was cancelled because of lack of interest. The funny thing is that the convention was named "Reason to Hope".

    Here's an article on its cancellation:

    Here's the website's cancellation and refund announcement [grin]: