Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Revelatory regress

Once again, I'm going to comment on a post by Alex Malpass, an atheist with a doctorate in philosophy. 

Traditionally, it is held that there are two ways of gaining knowledge; either through the senses, or through the use of pure reason...Some presuppositional apologists try to have the best of both worlds, with a third type of epistemological category; revelation. 

False dichotomy. Revelation is a very traditional epistemological category. And not just biblical revelation. The heathen believe in various forms of revelation or divination: dreams from gods, apparitions of dead ancestors, &c. 

This has the content of a posteriori knowledge, but with the certainty of a priori knowledge; one can know that God exists ‘in such a way that they can be certain’. It is an impressive claim, but one which I think is susceptible to an infinite regress.

I'd avoid casting the issue in terms of "certainty". One problem is that "certainty" is equivocal. At a minimum, it's necessary to specify the type of certainty in view. For instance: 

There are various kinds of certainty. A belief is psychologically certain when the subject who has it is supremely convinced of its truth. Certainty in this sense is similar to incorrigibility, which is the property a belief has of being such that the subject is incapable of giving it up. But psychological certainty is not the same thing as incorrigibility...A second kind of certainty is epistemic. Roughly characterized, a belief is certain in this sense when it has the highest possible epistemic status...Certainty is often explicated in terms of indubitability.

Rather that casting the issue in terms of certainty, I'd recast the issue in terms of what is necessary to ground knowledge. 

There is a simple apologetic mantra, often used by presuppositionalists, about the impossibility of having this type of knowledge unless you are on the right side of the creator of the universe. It says that ‘unless you knew everything, or were told by someone who did, it would be impossible to be certain about any matter of fact’. The obvious implication is that only by being directly revealed something by God can we come to know it for certain. 

I don't know for sure who Malpass has in mind. He seems to be alluding to Sye Ten Bruggencate, although his characterization would also be applicable to Clarkian Scripturalism. 

I claim that there is a problem for this idea; that it faces an infinite regress. The problem has to do with the possibility of mistaken claims of revelation. So imagine a person, let’s call him Sye, who thinks that they have had a revelation from God that p is true. In addition, let’s also imagine that some other person, let’s call him Ahmed, thinks that he has had a revelation from God that ~p is true (i.e. that p is false). Now, if we asked him about this, Sye is clearly going to say that only he is correct in this matter. Sye would say that poor old Ahmed mistakenly thinks he has had a revelation when he has not.

But the question would become ‘how can Sye know this?’ Imagine that Sye offers up something about his revelation that he claimed made the difference, and according to which he could tell that his revelation was genuine, and not a mistake. This could only be something relating to the way in which Sye experienced the revelation. But no extra experience could make this difference...The internal experiences of both agents could be exactly similar in all relevant respects, and it is still conceptually possible for at least one of them to be suffering from a false impression. 

That raises a raft of issues:

1. I myself think revelation is necessary to ground sense knowledge. Sensory perception gives us appearances. Appearances all the way down. So we can't tell from sensory perception alone to what degree appearance maps onto reality. In that regard, we need revelation as an independent, external check on sensory perception. 

Of course, revelation is also processed through the senses, but there's a difference between sensory information and propositional information. While propositional revelation may use sensory perception as a medium, it's distinct from the medium–just as a carrier wave is distinct from what it carries. 

However, I wouldn't necessarily argue that revelation is veridical apart from our knowledge of the world. Rather, the two sources of knowledge are complementary. 

2. Since I don't wish to have a character named Sye represent my side of the argument, I'll use my own names. Let's call the recipient of revelation Christopher and the mistaken claimant Borg.

3. In Malpass's comparison, Borg isn't a liar or charlatan. He's sincere. He did experience something. Let's say it's a hallucination, which he mistakenly identifies with revelation. 

4. Christopher and Borg don't have the same psychological experience. In the case of Christopher, there's an objective stimulus causing his impression, whereas, in the case of Borg, it's a figment of his own imagination. So it's incorrect for Malpass to say "the internal experiences of both agents could be exactly similar in all relevant respects" unless both individuals are hallucinating. If, by contrast, one of them really did have a revelation, then his psychological experience is not equivalent to the experience of the hallucinator. 

5. That still leaves unanswered the question of whether there's differential evidence given in the revelatory experience itself, apart from external corroboration, that makes it veridical. Once again, I wouldn't normally isolate a revelatory experience from our knowledge of the world, but let's play along with that framework and see how far we can take it. Is it possible to recognize a divine disclosure if all you have to go by is the divine disclosure? Recognition generally uses past experience as a frame of reference. But is it possible to have direct recognition without precedent? Let's take some comparisons:

i) Suppose I'm adopted, but I don't know it. In my teens I happen to encounter one of my biological parents. No one told me who they are. It's a chance meeting. But there's something uncannily familiar about them. And I don't mean family resemblance. Rather, there's a psychological affinity, where I can see myself mirrored in them. Same thing if I had a brother, but we were separated at an early age, and I don't remember him. Then I happen to bump into him one day, and there's something strangely, unmistakably familiar about him, as if I've know this person all my life.

ii) Let's stipulate strong A.I. for discussion purposes. Suppose I design a game with conscious virtual characters. Can I program them to recognize who I am, so that if one of them meets me in the game, he will instantly sense who I am? Suppose I program the characters to have a chess move in the back of their minds. They've had the thought of that chess move for as long as they can remember. Then when they meet me (or my avatar), I mention the chess move–or a countermove. It's a code to trigger instant recognition. 

6. It also depends on the mode of revelation. A revelatory angel is a representative of God rather than a direct encounter with God. But suppose I suddenly find myself in the presence of another mind that has total telepathic access to my own mind. It is not, in the first instance, what I know about that being but what he knows about me. I sense that he knows everything about me–the way my Creator would know everything about me. In addition, he makes me aware of what he's aware of. Not everything, but far beyond what I'm naturally capable of apprehending. Can God gives us a preconception or innate idea of what he's like so that if we encountered him, we'd know it was God? Why not?

7. Also, this isn't just hypothetical. Many years ago I underwent old-hag syndrome for about a year. I was conscious of a presence, a mind more powerful than my own. Not divine, but an indication of what it would be in telepathic contact with an overwhelming mind.  

So even if we draw the issue narrowly, as Malpass does, I don't think revelatory epistemology generates an infinite regress. 

1 comment:

  1. "While propositional revelation may use sensory perception as a medium, it's distinct from the medium–just as a carrier wave is distinct from what it carries."