Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Inadequacy of Traditional Supports For Faith

In my discussion of the problem of reconciling faith with reason and empirical evidence, I set aside the issue of alternate means of support for claims of faith. In what follows I will try to analyze a cluster of related problems regarding other potential supports for faith, problems which give us reason to doubt faith can provide an alternate route to justified beliefs. The three main sources of justification that are often put forward as grounding faith claims are authority, tradition, and revelation. I'll tackle these in turn.

The most commonly used justifier of faith is probably authority, both in dogma and in practice. Analyzing the logic of authority is tricky, largely because two very different types of appeals are broadly categorized under this heading. Appeals to authority can be appeals to a governing figure or ruling body as a last word on a particular question or dispute. I take religious appeals to authority to be this kind of appeal to authority. In these cases, the appeal is intended to be a conversation stopper. The sort of appeal I’m thinking of here is the one that says “No matter what you say about gay marriage, ultimately the Bible says it’s wrong, and therefore it’s wrong.” These sorts of appeals leave no room for discussion or revision. One problem with this “last word” type of appeal to authority is that it leaves it up to the purported authority to determine what issues are finally decided. This leaves ample space for the Church to declare some issue settled and final as a matter so crucial to the integrity of faith that it cannot be discussed, even when those matters appear only tangentially related to theology (such as the Copernican view of the solar system).

But the main problem with appeals to authority in this sense is that the appeal to authority is simply fallacious. There is no logical connection between the truth value of a proposition and its utterer. A proposition is either true or false based on whether things in the world stand in the relation that the proposition says they do. There is a fact of the matter about whether the earth goes around the sun, or the other way around. What the Church declares to be the case is irrelevant.

Another way to adjudicate competing truth claims that bears a superficial resemblance to the appeal to authority is the appeal to experts. Appeal to experts is often a means of obtaining a warranted belief, and appeal to authority is often confused with it in discussions of epistemic warrant. However, the appeal to experts (and I’m thinking here of disciplines like the sciences, medicine, and history) differs from the appeal to authority  in several key components.

First, the knowledge gained by appeal to an expert is essentially a probabilistic inference; it is not considered to be a final statement on a particular issue. If I say for example that I know that the split between our ancestors and the ancestors of modern chimpanzees occurred roughly 6 million years ago, I am basing that knowledge on the considered judgment and consensus opinion of people who have studied the issue with a level of understanding and technical facility that I don’t possess. But my assertion is not intended to proclaim certitude on the issue, but only to infer that if this is what the consensus of scientists who know about the issue claim, then it is more likely to be right than competing claims, or at any rate, I have no standing to say otherwise.

I can have this confidence because of the second feature of expertise that separates it from authority, which is the fact that the claims of the expert are revisable under known research methods, decision procedures, peer review, etc. This is what we might call the “critical stance” of the sciences. The critical stance provides a hedge against a demonstrably false or empirically unwarranted claim gaining much of a foothold among scientists for long by forcing the proponents of a particular claim to present evidence that their hypothesis covers the range of facts it is supposed to cover without leaving out facts covered by competing hypotheses. The methods employed by science to correct internal errors as well as the fact that truly scientific claims are often posited in such a way as to contain the conditions for their falsification. This is not to say that all work in the sciences follows the regulative ideal of science I am sketching here (history is always messier than theory), but the practice of science has produced a depth of knowledge about the natural world goes a long way toward justifying our assent to the consensus opinion of experts.

Related to the appeal to authority, but differing slightly, is the appeal to tradition to constrain what is assertable by faith. Tradition can avoid some of the problems with appeal to authority by the same move toward probabilistic inference that justifies the appeal to expertise. If the appeal to tradition can reliably sort warranted from unwarranted propositions, then perhaps tradition can serve as the requisite constraint on faith to keep the relativism that is a consequence of unconstrained faith at bay. However, to do so, the church would need to show that the methods of adjudicating competing claims are grounded in some kind of evidential basis which does not result in an appeal to authority. In other words, the traditionalist has to show that the methods of arriving at truth within the tradition leave room for self-correction in the face of contrary evidence and can provide a means of independent verification or falsification, preferably from external sources.

It is unclear to me that the methods of traditional religion to justify and organize claims exhibit anything like this structure, however. First, a large number of religious claims have no means of confirmation within the tradition, let alone outside of it. Many of the claims of Christianity are taken as basic (on faith, one supposes) but are extremely improbable prima facie and are not the sort of things that would need to be settled on the basis of faith. The resurrection, for example, is an incredibly unlikely event if true. The evidence for it is a collection of texts, not all consistent, written several decades or more  after the purported event, by people who were not present at the time. This is further complicated by the fact that the oldest texts are not unambiguous about whether the event occurred. Second, many of the claims that have been asserted over the years as supported by tradition which are verifiable have been disconfirmed (the bible contains historical inaccuracies, etc.), which should further erode the confidence that tradition is reliable enough to ground epistemic warrant or confidence that it has the ability to effectively constrain faith claims.

Revelation fares no better under examination. Revelation comes in two guises: personal revelation and testimonial revelation (like scripture). Evaluating the value of either is similar: in order to determine how much weight to place on either one's own experience of receiving a direct message from God or that of someone else it is pivotal to judge whether the best explanation for the epiphanic event is really communication with a divine being. For much the same reasons I discuss here there is little reason to put much epistemic weight on belief in personal revelation as an appropriate way to ground beliefs. Given that even the most fervent religious believer will admit that the overwhelming majority of claims to have a special revelation are bogus, the category of revelation as a whole is suspect enough to doubt any particular instance.

Each of the traditional supports for faith, then, appears to fail to adequately ground faith claims, leaving reason and evidence as the sole supports for warranted belief. Absent an adequate defense of religious belief that is supported by reason and evidence, we have no reason to entertain religion's claims to truth.

No comments:

Post a Comment