Ed Babinski emailed me a link to a message board discussing the topic “Most annoying Christian and atheist claims”. On the board Ed offered his own two cents and it starts like this:
“The most annoying Christian and Atheist claims occur whenever a particular Christian or Atheist discusses subjects concerning the distant past, everlasting future or unseen dimensions where the honest answer is “I or We don’t know” but they fill in such blanks with highly specific beliefs that they they claim are beyond rational doubt. It would demonstrate greater humility if a person was to assert that some of their beliefs were less than 100% but greater than 50% yet they were unsure exactly how much greater than 50% they were sure of some of them.”
I get one bit of what Ed is saying. Epistemic humility is a good thing. Agreed.
However, that kernel of wisdom comes in a very unfortunate husk. In fact, since the discussion is about things that we find annoying, let me log two things about Ed’s comment that I find annoying. The first is that while I find Ed’s comment very tendentious, its problematic nature is obscured by an annoying ambiguity. That ambiguity is with the reference to those who have “highly specific beliefs that they claim are beyond rational doubt”, a phrase which is ambiguous between the following two claims:
(1) Jones believes p and Jones cannot doubt p.
(2) Jones believes p and Jones believes no other person can reasonably doubt p.
Here’s the problem. There is absolutely nothing wrong with (1) since it is merely a state of one’s personal psychology. And unless you are a doxastic voluntarist who believes we have immediate volitional control over our beliefs it makes no sense to censure individuals simply because at t-1 they find p a compelling belief. So if Jones is convinced that God created the universe and Smith is convinced that the universe has always existed, it makes no sense to censure them. You can present evidence contrary to their belief and attempt to persuade them, but if they consider that evidence carefully and still find themselves with the same opinion it makes no sense to snap “Shame on you! Stop believing that!”
As for (2), I suspect there are few people who hold “highly specific beliefs” about distant protology (origins) or eschatology (destiny) and who believe that no other person could rationally dissent from their opinions. So this complaint simply isn’t relevant.
Was Ed intentionally ambiguous as a way to shield his tendentious claim from refutation? I don’t know. I’m not in a position to opine on such matters because I can’t get into Ed’s head. Alas, he seems to think he can get into the heads of others, and that brings me to the second annoying point, namely Ed’s presumption that anybody who is more confident than he is about what can be known regarding “the distant past, everlasting future or unseen dimensions” is de facto dishonest and lacking in humility. Ed may believe others are wrong. But what evidence does he have that all these folks are categorically dishonest?
He doesn’t. In other words, Ed’s very complaint about others lacking humility is itself lacking in humility. And that’s the great irony here. Ed has no way to gauge the putative honesty of those who express convictions different than his. Such information belongs to those “unseen dimensions”. And thus, it seems like Ed might be wise to take some of his own medicine.
To be sure, Ed is free to have his own opinions about what others know or don’t know. But he should be prepared to back up those opinions with his own evidence. After all, the doubter has an evidential burden as much as anybody. And while he defends his own opinions about what others can and cannot know, he should refrain from adding further speculations on their honesty. Unless, of course, he has additional evidence establishing duplicity. In sum, Ed has presented dogmatism masquerading as open-mindedness.