The Tentative Apologist
6/28/10 at 03:16 PM 0 Comments

The burden of the critic

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I feel as overwhelmed at the moment as Justin Bieber staring at his in-box. If I try to respond to every critic then this whole dialogue is going to grind to a halt because there just ain't enough hours in the day.

So instead of engaging with any specific critic at this point I'll simply provide a concise summary and partial restatement of my epistemological position and the problems with Babinski's chapter.

Evidence and Belief

Question: Do I need evidence to know p, or even to believe p rationally?

The lessons of epistemology in the last century are that not every p (that is, every claim to knowledge or reasonable belief) can require evidence to be known or rationally believed because if we do require this we immediately face an infinite regress. In order to believe p rationally, I need to appeal to evidence in q. And then to know q I need to appeal to r. And to know r I need to appeal to s....

An infinite regress like this is epistemically vicious: that is, it undermines any claim to knowledge, resulting in skepticism.

So we must delimit in some principled way which p's require evidence and which do not.

On the kinds of evidence

In addition, we need to stipulate what kind of evidence is required for the p's that do require evidence. That will depend on the kind of belief in question. For instance, I would propose that intuition can provide a very powerful form of evidence. Our intuition that nothing can be red and blue all over at the same time is powerful evidence against your neighbor's claim that he has a beach ball that is completely red and blue all over. The fact that your neighbor balks at your skepticism by deriding it as a "subjective intuition" is neither here nor there for you.

It seems that your neighbor with different intuitions simply cannot grasp why you are so skeptical of his claim. Does this mean your intuition isn't evidence? Not at all. But maybe it is evidence of a particular sort.

This leads us to one basic distinction and that is between evidence that is publically accessible and evidence that is not. Jan is having a baby. The doctor sets up the epidural but it doesn't seem to be taking effect. Jan howls. The nurses ask: "Are you feeling pain or just pressure?" "Pain you idiots!" Jan screams back.

It is possible that the nurses could be looking at Jan's vital signs and conclude that she must be mistaken. She is, in fact, feeling pressure and not pain, a conclusion reinforced by the doctor's cool expert testimony that Jan is surely only feeling pressure and must be confused. But even if the nurses could believe this rationally surely Jan is justified in believing she is experiencing pain. Her immediate sensation of pain is adequate evidence for her to believe the proposition "I am in pain" even if it is not necessarily adequate evidence for others. In other words, it is private evidence.

So we must ask, among the p's we believe which require evidence, what kind of evidence do they require? Public? Private?

Defeating p's

By my moderate foundationalist epistemology, which I spent a long time explaining last fall, a claim like "The Bible is God's word" could possibly be (a) among the set of p's which do not require evidence to be reasonably believed or known or (b) among the set of p's which could be known or reasonably believed based on evidence which may be inaccessible to others.

At the very least, it is the job of the critic to provide a coherent epistemology which avoids infinite regress and which offers plausible grounds to believe that "The Bible is God's word" could not be among those beliefs which fit into (a) or (b).

Sadly, people responding in this blog, not to mention Ed Babinski, do not even have that evidential burden on their radar screen.

If a belief like "The Bible is God's word" can be believed rationally or known by (a) or (b), that doesn't mean it gets a free ride. Rationality is always a prima facie ascription, not an ultima facie one, In other words, I take it that the rationality or justification for any given p is defeasible or fallible. (Actually, I take it that there is a small set of indefeasible p's, such as the law of non-contradiction and the cogito, ergo sum, but let's leave that aside. Most p's, including p's about any given text being God's word, most assuredly are defeasible.)

So even if I now rationally believe "The Bible is God's word" that does not mean I will always be able to believe this rationally. Maybe there is an argument coming later in The Christian Delusion to disabuse me of that claim.

Babinski's Burden

So Babinski needs to do two things. First, he needs to show that a person cannot rationally believe (let alone know) "The Bible is God's word" apart from public evidence. Next, he needs to show that no such evidence exists. This would leave the claim that "The Bible is God's word" as irrational to accept.

But that would still leave it open that the Bible might be God's word (even if we cannot rationally believe it is). Thus, to cinch his case Babinski should also provide evidence to show that the Bible is not God's word.

The Tentative Apologist's Burden

I have the same burden in reverse. If I want to disabuse Babinski of not-p, I need to show that he needs evidence and that the evidence is not there. In addition, if I want to convince him of p and not merely leave him an agnostic, I need to provide positive evdience for p.

The confusions of my interlocutors

Many of the interlocutors responding to this blog have been erroneously focusing on my burden, i.e. asking what evidences I have for rejecting not-p and thus accepting p. But as I have already explained, my present concern is not with getting anybody to believe p who presently believes not-p, but rather with pointing out how Babinski has not shown that "The Bible is God's word" is either irrational or false.

A Final Plea

So please go back to square one. The reason it is so important for people to work out their epistemological framework is because we are all likely to find the beliefs we hold reasonable and the beliefs we reject unreasonable. It is thus essential that we hold the set of claims to which we assent accountable to a coherent and defensible epistemology. This is what I do and what I would ask my critics to do as well.

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