Wednesday, January 12, 2011

An Intro to the Philosophy of Religion, Ch. 4 (Faith and rationality)

The nature of faith
Rea and Murray categorize faith as a species of belief, i.e., a "cognitive stance towards a proposition."  They consider four definitions of faith: as believing in something "[1]in the absence of proof...[2]in the absence of supporting evidence...[3]in the face of overwhelming counter-evidence...[4]that we do not know to be true."

Reflection on these definitions shows that each falls short of capturing the whole picture.  Apropos [2], what constitutes evidence?  Philosophers are interested in propositional evidence, that is, evidence that can be the object of belief.  But not all knowledge enjoys propositional support, for instance, skeptical hypotheses such as whether or not we are brains in a vat.  A precise distinction between knowledge and faith proves difficult to draw.  Murray and Rea offer their account of faith as follows:
"We therefore tentatively propose the following as our positive account of faith: to say that a person S has faith in proposition p is to say that S believes p despite the fact that (a) there are alternatives to p that are compatible with whatever evidence supports S's belief that p, and b) there is genuine and somewhat weighty evidence in favor of one or more of those alternatives.  Of course, the phrase, 'genuine and somewhat weighty evidence' is hopelessly imprecise; but in our view, the imprecision does not diminish the value of this account as at least a viable first pass at a positive account of faith."
Reliabilism and Evidentialism
The evidentialist maintains that the justificatory status of religious belief x depends on the strength of the arguments produced for x.  The reliabilist maintains that a belief can be rationally held if (a) they are produced by reliable, cognitive faculties and (b) the believer has no overriding reason to doubt the belief's rationality.  (Rea and Murray side with reliabilism.) Neither camp would deem beliefs rational in the absence of any evidence whatsoever; however, reliabilists disagrees with evidentialists over whether one needs proposition evidence--as opposed to other kinds, such as experiential evidence.  "Experiential evidence comes in varying degrees and can be defeated by other evidence."  For instance, the fact that a great many people throughout history have claimed to have an awareness of God might confer experiential evidence on belief in God--more so than, say, the belief in the Great Pumpkin.

Some beliefs are not held on the basis of other beliefs, and are considered basic.  For instance, belief that an elephant is in the room on the basis of seeing an elephant in the room.  "Properly basic beliefs are beliefs that can be justifiably or rationally held in the basic way."  In other words, they are beliefs that can be experientially justified sans propositional evidence.

Religious disagreement and religious pluralism
Consider scientific theories as a collective attempt to explain sensory experience; likewise, consider religious theories as a collective attempt to explain religious experience.  A problem comes to light here: while scientific theories (arguably) enjoy moderate agreement, religious theories do not.  "Contradictions abound among religious theories"; and thus, religious skepticism holds that [1] religious experience does not track truth (unlike sensory experience); [2] the arguments for particular religious doctrines don't work; therefore [3] religious belief, discourse, and practice should be abandoned.  The skeptic sees religious diversity as evidence that religious theorizing is not truth-aimed: not built on reliable sources of information "about the world outside our heads."

Religious pluralism is the position that no religion has a weighter share of truth about religious matters than others.  If religious theories aren't aimed at true beliefs in the first place, they needn't be troubled by diversity.  On this view, there is no sense in saying that one religion's beliefs are the correct ones. Perhaps many religions manage to capture isolated truths about reality, but overall they are equally valid attempts.

The third view is religious exclusivism.  The exclusivist affirms what the skeptic denies: that religious theories track truth about reality.  An exclusivist also affirms what the pluralist denies: that there is one objectively true religious story about reality.  This doesn't entail that all religious truths are (or can be) known with certainty.  This view does propose that we can have substantial knowledge of the truth about spiritual reality, and with that knowledge we can judge the truth of other religious viewpoints.

Religious diversity presents a serious problem for exclusivists.  Rea and Murray undertake to show that this problem does not render exclusivism unreasonable.  Some construe religious diversity as a pragmatic reason to embrace pluralism: given the variety of religious beliefs held by equally intelligent and well-informed people, pluralism is the more humble and peaceable viewpoint--a lubricant to keep diverse society running smoothly.  But this doesn't show that pluralism is true, or even that religious diversity implies pluralism in some way.  Many infer that morality is relative from a similar fact (that intelligent, well-informed people disagree over morality); this is merely the same move applied to religion.  The problem with this move is that it makes an inference from the fact of disagreement to the alleged goals of those types of beliefs (morality or religion). That inference just doesn't seem warranted, but perhaps this formal argument for pluralism is a better one:
  1. The phenomenon of widespread religious disagreement shows that it is unreasonable, or unjustifiable, to believe anything but the most general and commonly held religious claims
  2. If premise 4.1 [above] is true, then either religious belief is wholly irrational, and religious practice is pointless, or else the goal of religious theorizing and religious discourse is something other than truth. 
  3. Religious belief is not wholly irrational, and religious practice is not pointless
  4. Therefore, the goal of religious theorizing and religious discourse is something other than truth.
There are reasons to reject premise 1.  Imagine that you've been accused of committing a crime.  There is a stack of forensic evidence against you, and all of your (intelligent and well-informed) peers agree that you are guilty.  You distinctly remember being for a walk in the woods at the time that you allegedly committed this crime.  Should you doubt that you were walking in the woods?  No.  But in other examples, such as during a heated argument where someone claims they didn't say something but others in the room disagree, there is reason to question your judgement.  What gives warrant in the second scenario but not the first?  The difference is whether or not disagreement counts as evidence that you are an "unreliable judge" of the fact in question.[1]  Disagreement plus backgrounds beliefs about the matter at hand (background beliefs about religion, morality, your own memory) work together to determine how weighty some piece of evidence is against the reliability of a personal belief.  Perhaps you remember being in the woods, but you also have the background belief that you are prone to getting days mixed up.  Likewise, Christian background beliefs already predict religious diversity.  It's a given.  So the evidential force of religious diversity seems to cut, if anything, in favor of the Christian.

Is atheism irrational?
Alvin Plantinga has fashioned an argument which, if successful, renders atheism irrational.  First, imagine a drink called XX that, when ingested, will render your cognitive faculties completely unreliable.  You might think you're sitting at your desk when you're actually lying in bed.  Second, suppose you acquire evidence that you have ingested XX.  What should you make of the following proposition (S is you)?

(R) S's cognitive faculties are reliable.

Well, firstly you couldn't have evidence for (R) that hasn't already assumed (R), since reliable cognitive faculties are a prerequisite for assessing propositions about reliable cognitive faculties.  More importantly, if you have reason to reject (R), on the basis of evidence that you've ingested XX, then you have reason to doubt all your beliefs, including the belief that you've ingested XX!  Defeating (R) defeats everything...resulting in global skepticism.

Why should we think this is actually true in the case of naturalism and evolutionary theory?  According to Plantinga, evolutionary theory is concerned with survival and reproduction, and doesn't give a fig for true beliefs.  The ability to arrive at truth about the world might be (and Plantinga would say is) irrelevant to the function of enabling us to survive and reproduce.  For example, a man who wants to die and believes that the best way to secure death is to run away from tigers and mate frequently with women.  He'll do just as well as the man who doesn't want to die, and believes the best way to secure life is the same.  Thus, Plantinga argues that the probability of our faculties being reliable--given evolution and naturalism--is low.  But if so, then the atheist who accepts evolutionary theory and naturalism has a defeater for his belief that naturalism is true...and a defeater for all his other beliefs too.  Rea and Murray suggest that even a modest version of this argument would still work: arguing that natural selection might produce some true beliefs, but why should we think our philosophical and religious beliefs are among these? [2]

[1] There are "undercutting" and "opposing" defeaters.  It sounds like Rea and Murray are arguing that an undercutting defeater is necessary here, since presumably there is no opposing defeater for basic beliefs such as my belief that I was at work yesterday morning.  See this article for more information on defeaters.
[2] See Plantinga's paper "Naturalism Defeated." Stephen Law has been working up a response.  Also see Fitelson and Sober's response.  The debate continues...


shiningwhiffle said...

As a religious pluralist, I take issue with their description of pluralism. It's coherent to hold that not all religions are equally true without positing any as a completely true, or even holding that one has been selected by God to be most true.

Moreover, a pluralist about religion may be so as part of an broader pluralism about everything, as with William James and Hilary Putnam. I think my own views are similar to Putnam's, but I can't seem to find any exposition of exactly what he thinks now that he's abandoned internal realism.

Likewise, I don't see any contradiction between being a pluralist and saying that the goal of religion is truth. You'll never get the whole picture in this life, but that's true of anything worth knowing about.

On the other hand, I don't think abandoning truth as the goal of religion is crazy, either. In my view, the value of knowing something is the value of knowing that particular thing, given what else you know and believe. Taken out of context, even truth can lead you astray — even as a theist I admit there are people who would be a lot less dangerous if they didn't believe in God. (And when I was an agnostic, I ran across atheists I wished would go back to church if it would curb their self-destructive or hateful tendencies.)

David Parker said...

"It's coherent to hold that not all religions are equally true without positing any as a completely true, or even holding that one has been selected by God to be most true."

I'm not sure what objection is here. Holding that no religion is *completely* true doesn't define one as pluralist, exclusivist, or skeptic. It seems to me that all three positions permit modest claims about particular religious truth. For instance, Christians may not affirm all the orthodox doctrines, or the doctrines of any particular denomination. They might still believe Christianity is the "best bet" or else the "most true religion."

I'm not sure how God's choosing a single true religion bears on coherence. Either God has or hasn't, but there are arguments both ways. Right?

shiningwhiffle said...

Perhaps my apprehension is from the word "weightier share of truth about religious matters." Obviously drift in belief over time will change the overall truth content of the set. But maybe it means "equal in essentials": equal at center, but perhaps not at the edges.

I don't think pluralism commits one to the view that *all* religions are equal, even at the center, but certainly to the belief that more than one are. Otherwise, as you pointed out, "pluralism" becomes meaningless.

And yes, there are arguments both ways on God's choosing a single religion. I was simply objecting to what I now see was an uncharitable interpretation of your post.

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