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Thursday, October 01, 2009

What does it mean to have “evidence” for a “religious belief” about “the world”?

The question and scare quotes are inspired by Brian Leiter’s effort to define “religious beliefs” with the following (partial) stipulation: “Religious beliefs do not answer ultimately (or at the limit) to evidence and reasons, as evidence and reasons are understood in other domains concerned with knowledge of the world. Religious beliefs, in virtue of being based on ‘faith,’ are insulated from ordinary standards of evidence and rational justification, the ones we employ in both common-sense and in science” (page 18).

I found this definition perplexing, because it assumes that “we employ… ordinary standards of evidence and rational justification” applicable to all “other domains concerned with knowledge of the world.” Such an assumption naturally gives rise to the following question: To accept Brian’s definition, must I reject Nelson Goodman’s claim that there is no single set of standards of justification applicable to different systems of describing the world? Goodman argues in Ways of Worldmaking that there are many different and mutually inconsistent “ways of world-making,” each relative to a particular domain. The ways of world-making for a literary critic, novelist, physicist, and painter obey very different criteria of rational acceptability, even though each purports to describe “the world.” So it is a waste of time to come up with a single theory of rational acceptability by which to judge their various statements about the world. This is not to say that we cannot say that such statements are true or false: Vulgar relativism is still just as self-defeating as it ever was. It is just that we do not have a single, coherent understanding of evidence and reasons that applies across different domains of the world – music, literature, physics, psychology, theology, etc. As Hilary Putnam puts it, the odds are really low that “we can find powerful universal generalizations obeyed by all instances of rationally justified belief”(“Two Conceptions of Rationality,” in Reason, Truth, and History at 104).

I would not invite here an argument between fans and detractors of Goodman. Instead, I offer a simple point of information: To buy into Leiter’s definition of “religious belief,” do I need to reject Goodman’s theory of pluralistic justification?

This question invites a further one. Leiter relies a lot on Simon Blackburn’s recent argument that religious beliefs about the world are not entitled to respect – at least, not if they are (in Blackburn's ungainly neologism) “onto-theological.” Should I translate this statement to mean: “Onto-theological beliefs are not entitled to respect – that is, if one adheres to a particularly crude form of scientism that has been rejected by folks like Nelson Goodman, Hilary Putnam, and William James (See James' Hibbert lectures, A Pluralistic Universe)?” Because, if I receive from Blackburn the disrespect that he reserves for people like Goodman, Putnam, and James, because I am deemed to be just as irrational, unscientific, immune to evidence and argument, etc, as they are, then I think that I can live with that.

Posted by Rick Hills on October 1, 2009 at 10:47 AM in Religion | Permalink


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[Deep breath. Here goes.] The last couple comments, particularly Rick Hills', capsules the "ships passing in the night" sense I had when I read the paper originally. Nussbaum thinks of religion as a way human beings search for life's ultimate meaning and, hence, worthy of respect. Whatever the author intended, some of us read his paper as responding: "no, religion is dogmatism; at best it is worthy of legal tolerance, but not our moral respect (as the basis of the legal regime)." The issue is how we go about mediating between what Rick Hills calls vulgar relativism ("all concepts are equal"), and what I think Michael Young (in the Rick Garnett thread) properly identifies as unresponsive dogmatism. If the point is that we shouldn't respect dogmatism, that's fair. Tolerate it, but don't respect it. But I read the proposed definition as attempting to map the line between "dogmatic" and "not dogmatic" on the line between "religious" and "not religious," and that's what doesn't work for me. For example, the paper has what I think is a labored attempt to distinguish dogmatic Marxism from dogmatic religion. The assertion is that Marxists think of, or at least claim, their beliefs as science, and therefore might be more willing to abandon categorical principles in the face of reasons and evidence. That, I think, flies in the face of common sense.

Michael Young took a shot at characterizing my argument, if I may reinterpret his interpretation, as "we have to start with some fixed idea is the equivalent of a seed of dogmatism." I agree we have to start our reasoning somewhere! That's not dogmatism yet; it's simply a refusal to say any stream of consciousness thought is as good as another. It's what you do from the initial reasoning point that determines whether you have fallen into dogmatism or not. Again, if the thrust of the paper is to say that there has to be some standard for reasoned discussion ("not insulated from reasons and evidence"), that certainly appeals to my common sense. (And the fixed point is not immune from questioning or criticism either!)

How I come out on this goes back to some epistemology, and I think it's more Kantian than anything in its influence. 

I would say I'm as much or more an empiricist as to matters in the natural world as anybody. That is, I don't think we can have "knowledge" in the sense of truth statements about pure concepts, whether the product of secular reasoning or religious reasoning. Ascribing truth to pure reason beyond that which can be confirmed by experience does indeed lead to the possibility of dogmatism. That's what Kant called the transcendental illusion. 

That doesn't leave us without resources as to what is right and what is wrong in terms of action, but it does mean that we are going to have to rely on something other than an equivalent to a physical fact as the basis of our morals. (I recognize that's MY view (which I share with others), and there is an opposing view that there are moral facts and they supervene on the natural world (see, e.g., Michael Moore, Russell Shafer-Landau – I think - and others. By the way, I respect the intellectual coherence of that view, but it doesn't seem right to me intuitively.) Kant's view is that reasoning to moral ends doesn't involve truth (the "is"), and hence we can use reason to develop our ends, and not just the means to ends (contra Hume - reason is the slave of the passions, etc.). That is, there are moral universals, but they aren't facts. They are concepts.

The paper acknowledges the Kantian position, but says, I think, it's not a practical way to approach this: one can count pure Kantian agents on one hand. That's right - indeed, it's an overstatement, because a pure Kantian agent would be God. Kant himself says we never really know whether the end product of our practical reason – what we call the moral universals – stems purely from reason or from our physical world predilections. And Kant himself goes overboard (in my view) in taking categorical views when applying the CI to real situations, say, on the primacy of not lying.

What would be a better approach for navigating between the extremes of dogmatism and "vulgar relativity"? I conclude tentatively that Karl Popper had it closer to being right in his essay at the beginning of Conjectures and Refutations. We want to be open to criticism in all things, science, moral judgments, political positions, and even religious dogma that seems unkind or unjust or insane (I have an example in my essay of how at least one religious tradition deals with that difficult issue). We are not obliged to revise every fundamental belief, and we can set a very, very high burden of persuasion before we do abandon one.

I think the key is in our attitude, not in the beliefs themselves. (Or to use some jargon, it's "non-cognitive.") Popper (who, by the way, was apparently very thin-skinned about criticism of him!) gets almost metaphysical here on the possibility of objective truth. He wants us to be very careful in elevating anything categorically to the status of authority, whether it is authority of concepts/reason (e.g. Descartes), or authority of experience (Hume). As Popper says, after rejecting all argument from authority, "If we thus admit that there is no authority beyond the reach of criticism to be found within the whole province of our knowledge, however far it may have penetrated into the unknown, then we can retain, without danger, the idea that truth is beyond human authority. And we must retain it. For without this idea there can be no objective standards of inquiry; no criticism of our conjectures; no groping for the unknown; no quest for knowledge." In other words, we have to navigate carefully between the extremes (with both human and divine dogmatism on one side), and it's not easy.

In practice, we see this attempt to navigate between the two extremes in paradoxes like, "great teachers are also great learners" or in some of the insights from the Tao - "when great leaders lead, the people say we did it ourselves." We also see it in paradoxical assessments of somebody like Ted Kennedy, who had both a clear political vision, but a pragmatist's work ethic – enough to be Orrin Hatch's friend, sometimes ally, and mostly opponent, for example. That, to me, is where the rubber hits the road in terms of assigning too much weight to tolerance, and to little to respect, when we disagree, and that, I believe, is Rick Hills' point (and one to which I alluded at the end of my little essay). It seems to me there's a relationship, though I haven't thought it through, between this toleration/respect issue, and other values central to a robust yet civil democracy, like principles of charitable interpretation, or of empathy.

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Oct 2, 2009 4:50:34 AM

Your question may be about the U.S. Supreme Court, but mine certainly wasn't! If you recall the context of the question I asked, it was whether or not there is any reason for Western Constitutions, like the American, to single out matters of *religious* conscience for special legal solicitude. I conceded there were good moral arguments for liberty of conscience, but concluded there were not good moral arguments for treating *religious* conscience as deserving of special consideration. But, admittedly, that's waht our Constitution does, so in that regard my paper is silent on the question you're more interested in. Now one might ask whether my kind of conclusion should affect how the Court should interpret our existing Religion Clauses, and that's a fair question, though not one about which I have a definite view (though what I've ready by Laycock on this subject seems to me sensible). I'd bet, though, that the Supreme Court's implicit epistemological commitments are a lot closer to the ones I rely upon than they are to Goodman or Putnam!

Posted by: Brian | Oct 1, 2009 4:22:45 PM

The question is not "whether we should accept the claim that religious belief is based on radically different, but epistemically reliable methods." The question is whether the U.S. Supreme Court ought to accept such a claim -- a very different question, given that "we" -- or at least you and smart philosophers like yourself -- are not on the Court. The Court's sense of its own incompetence might, therefore, counsel that it avoid philosophically subtle distinctions that might be rejected by philosophers who've gone off the rails, like Hilary Putnam.

Put another way, philosophically sophisticated distinctions about different sorts of belief systems might have no place in a regime governed by philosophically unsophisticated people who will misuse those distinctions to show disrespect for eminently reasonable beliefs, irritating the adherents of the latter in ways that are disruptive to civil society.

I do not believe that you address this issue in your paper, but I'll take another look.

Posted by: Rick Hills | Oct 1, 2009 1:31:22 PM

1. I don't see what argument Putnam has that commits him to relativism about justification. Goodman is such a relativist, so is Rorty. (I stopped reading Putnam after he went off the rails awhile back, so it may be I've simply missed the relevant arguments.) I think the ultimate quesiton isn't who holds what view, but what the argumetns are and whether they are any good. In the "Why Tolerate Religion?" paper I discuss a version of this issue: namely, whether we should accept the claim that religious belief is based on radically different, but epistemically reliable methods. You might look at what I say there, rather than my trying to replicate the points in a blog comment. (A point of clarification: I don't see that anyone is denying there are ordinary standard of evidence and justification in the sciences and common sense; I do see that some philosophers deny that there is a unitary set of such standards [but that's fine]; and I see that Goodman, at least, thinks those ordinary standards are not the only epistemically reliable ones to employ. It's the latter claim that's at issue.)

2. I do not see that scientism in the sense you defined it is implicated in the argument.

Posted by: Brian | Oct 1, 2009 1:03:35 PM

(1) Thanks, Brian, for the plain answer. Here is a further question: If your definition of "religious belief" depends on a definition of "justification" that is contested by serious -- albeit perhaps mistaken -- philosophers like Goodman or Putnam, then can that definition be used as a basis for constitutional doctrine? Put another way, would it be improper for the Court to say, "religion is entitled to tolerance but not respect (in the Leiterian senses of these terms), because it rejects ordinary standards of justification and evidence," when serious philosophers deny that there are "ordinary" standards?

(My own untutored intuition -- I've given the matter about seventeen minutes of thought -- is that law ought ideally appeal to concepts about which there is some consensus. ("We like Carnap, you like Goodman, we win, 5-4," just has a nasty ring to it, to my ears).

(2) I guess that the simplest definition of "scientism" is the improper appeal to methods of science in a field that properly relies on different methods.

Posted by: Rick Hills | Oct 1, 2009 12:48:22 PM

My comment and Paul's seem to have crossed paths. Insofar as Goodman is a relativist about rational justification, as I take him to be, then that view is incompatible with the thesis I am defending.

Posted by: Brian | Oct 1, 2009 11:40:08 AM

1. Yes, one does need to reject Goodman's view, at least as he understands it. I'm not aware of many philosophers who accept it by the way. One doesn't, however, have to think that there is a unifed method of rational inquiry across all domains of cognitive inquiry, just that whatever methods are in use across these domains are different in kind from whatever we think is the right characterization of the bases of religious belief (what I call "faith").

2. I'm not sure I understand the second question. What do you mean by "scientism"?

Posted by: Brian | Oct 1, 2009 11:37:06 AM

Also, if I might briefly follow-up, I think you confuse two claims here. Claim 1: "there are different standards of rational justification for different domains." Claim 2: "there is nothing in common among those domains that count as having standards of rational justification." It's possible to think that, say, literary criticism and physics have different standards of rational justification, but that in both cases there's an essential element that they share in common -- off-the-cuff, let's call that element "an appeal to evidence and the revisability of beliefs based on that evidence." Then Brian can simply be read to suggest that religion does not have that element that is shared by the diverse standards of rational justification. Again, no denial of Goodman is required.

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Oct 1, 2009 11:35:46 AM

(uh, please strike the "that lead to the sorts of beliefs" from that)

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Oct 1, 2009 11:27:02 AM

The key word here is "rational." I can't speak for Brian, but I doubt that many who agree with his position (a group that includes me) would describe the "ways of worldmaking" associated with music, painting, novels, etc., as appealing to "evidence and rational justification." Nor, I think, would most reasonable people really assert that you can acquire the sort of thing that one usually describes as "knowledge" from the sort of aesthetic experience that comes from listening to, say, a John Coltrane recording. (Except, of course, that one can gain knowledge of one's own mental states, reactions to music, etc., as well as knowledge of how good music is made -- but these kinds of knowledge can be understood in the ordinary, "scientistic," way, as the product of observation, evidence, and rational understanding.)

If this is right, Brian need not reject Goodman's theory, as you describe it. He simply needs to slightly reword what he said: religion is understood as immune to the sorts of reasons and evidence that lead to the sorts of beliefs that we ordinarily use to get generally applicable, communicable, intersubjectively justifiable, and reliable beliefs about the world. As opposed to the misty sorts of beliefs about the world that we'd get by listening to Trane blow the sax.

Or do you really think that we can come to rationally justified beliefs about the world from listening to My Favorite Things?

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Oct 1, 2009 11:26:03 AM

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