Thursday, 27 March 2014

Workshop on Defeat and Religious Epistemology

On 17-18th March, The New Insights and Directions for Religious Epistemology project at the University of Oxford hosted a workshop on defeat and religious epistemology. Papers were given by Charity Anderson (Oxford), J. Adam Carter (Edinburgh), Maria Lasonon-Aarnio (Michigan), John Pittard (Yale Divinity School), Edward Wierenga (Rochester) and Michael Bergmann (Purdue).
The workshop began with a discussion of Anderson’s paper on Defeat, Testimony and Miracles. Anderson considered the rationality of believing in a miracle report in Hume’s infamous essay of Miracles. Anderson discussed the role epistemic defeat plays in Hume’s argument and she claimed that Hume’s central claim is not, as is often thought, that testimony is a weak source of knowledge, but rather, that some kinds of testimony, namely testimony to the miraculous, are unreliable.

There are two aspects this claim, Anderson argued. Firstly, Hume’s claim is that miracles have a bad track record; most people have testified falsely about miracles in the past, he thinks. Anderson claimed that this functions as a pre-emptive defeater to our belief in miracle reports, however, this will not apply in situations in which there is no additional evidence for the miracle and in which we have no other good reasons to trust the testifier (she is not my wife, for example). It also requires that we believe Hume’s claim that testimony to miracles have a bad track record. As Anderson notes, these additional condition mean that there will not be a pre-emptive defeater to miracle reports in every case, and the argument is not as strong as Hume supposes (he wants to dismiss all cases of testimony to the miraculous).

Secondly, Anderson focused on the role of unlikelihood in Hume’s argument. She noted that the improbability of an event by itself cannot act as a defeater for belief as there are cases in which it is rational to believe in a testimony to an improbable event (such as a report that a certain sequence of coin tosses occurred). In Hume’s argument, she claimed, it is not merely the improbability of an event that is significant but the probability of the testifier being deceived, taking into account the improbability of the event. In this sense, she claimed, the probability of the testifier being deceived plays a much more significant role in Hume’s account of defeat than is often assumed.

Adam Carter’s paper (Undercutting) Epistemic Defeat and the ‘Conciliatory’ Road to Agnosticism was also discussed. Carter claimed that concerning our most fundamental philosophical, political and religious beliefs, disagreement can provide an undercutting defeater for our beliefs and, in some cases, we are required to be agnostic concerning them. Carter claimed that a situation is epistemically dangerous for me when I have good reason to think that there is roughly symmetrical disagreement between my epistemic superiors. In epistemically dangerous situations, he thinks, disagreement provides a normative undercutting defeater which undercuts my justification for belief. And thus in areas which are epistemically dangerous, we are required to take weaker doxastic attitudes, such as suspecting, and remain agnostic in our beliefs.

Michael Bergmann closed the workshop with his paper Epistemic intuitions and defeaters for non-inferential religious belief. Bergmann began by discussing non-inferential perceptual and memory beliefs (i.e. beliefs arising from something seeming to be the case, rather than deduced from an argument) and then considered the sceptical hypothesis that are our memory or perceptual seemings might be faulty or misrepresenting reality. Ought this possibility to undermine our non-inferential belief? Bergmann’s response is to note firstly, that we have strong epistemic intuitions when it comes to sceptical hypotheses; perceptual experiences, for example, have such a strong felt veridicality that the sceptical hypothesis seems ridiculous to us. These seemings about the veridicality of my beliefs, as well as the sceptical intuitions motivating the original defeater are epistemic intuitions, thinks Bergmann, much like moral intuitions.

Secondly, Bergmann pointed out that these epistemic intuitions against sceptical hypotheses are much stronger than the sceptical epistemic intuitions that offer a supposed defeater in the first place. He thinks therefore, that the proposed defeater is deflected as my epistemic intuitions against the sceptical hypothesis are stronger than those supporting the defeater.

After considering some potential objections to this account, Bergmann went on to apply this to non-inferential religious beliefs. In the case that I have a theistic seeming, for example, I experience the grandeur of nature and it seems to me that God exists, or I read scripture and it seems to me that God is speaking to me, then I form my beliefs in a non-inferential way, rather than as the conclusion of an argument. Bergmann thinks that the same response to proposed sceptical defeaters can be employed by the theist who considers the hypothesis that his theistic seemings might be misrepresenting reality. If we have the higher-level seemings about the veridicality of theistic belief and these are stronger than the opposing intuitions, then the sceptical defeater is deflected. Bergmann noted that whilst this response feels inadequate to the sceptic, it could potentially provide sensible theists with a way of deflecting proposed defeaters.

There is an upcoming workshop on 24-25 June on
Religious Epistemology and Testimony. Enquiries should be made to: insights@philosophy.ox.ac.uk.

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