In the discussion thread to “66. Reformed Epistemology: A Conversation with Myron Penner” Mike D objected to Myron Penner’s description of Reformed epistemology because it supported the conclusion that “people who hold starkly antithetical beliefs can both claim to have formed them according to the criteria laid out by Penner.” In other words, two different people can both claim to have rational beliefs even when those beliefs are contradictory and are formed under closely parallel situations.
I pointed out that this is not, in fact, a problem. To illustrate the point, I provided the following scenario:
“Smith is a sommelier, Jones is a mechanic. Smith sips the wine and detects a fine floral bouquet, hints of oak and an aftertaste of peach. Jones slurps the wine and detects none of those things. Jones’ inability to detect the finer notes of the wine does not provide a defeater to Smith’s ability to do so.”
I noted that both Smith and Jones could be rational in retaining their beliefs about the wine despite the contradictory report of their companion. Smith could rationally retain his position based on the belief that Jones lacks his finely tuned palate. By contrast, Jones could rationally retain his position based on the belief that Smith is a blowhard who is apt to play up his alleged ability to discern the quality of fine wines as a way to further his career.
Given that both Smith and Jones could rationally retain their beliefs despite the contradictory testimony of their companion, Mike D’s objection to Reformed epistemology fails.
More recently, George Veenhuyzen took up the gauntlet by rephrasing the objection (Mike D echoed this restatement in a subsequent comment as well). George analyzes the sommelier example beginning with his first, brief paragraph:
Smith and Jones are not epistemic peers. Smith has had special training and experience to hone his senses to identify certain flavours and describe them using certain buzzwords that Jones has not.
George is correct. Smith could retain his beliefs about the wine based on his belief in his superior tasting skills. (At the same time, as I also noted, if Jones had good reason to believe Smith was a blowhard who lacked superior tasting skills, then he too could retain his belief.)
Indeed, that was the point of the illustration. Similarly, the theist who forms beliefs about God in a properly basic manner can retain those beliefs in the face of disagreement. Just as Smith and Jones will be inclined to seek an explanation for the disagreement, so will the theist. For example, it could be that the non-theist lacks the fine-tuning of cognitive abilities the theist possesses (e.g. a properly functioning sensus divinitatis). Or it could be that God has sovereignly revealed himself to the theist in a way that he has not yet revealed himself to the non-theist. The point is that the non-theist’s insistence that they do not sense God is not, of itself, a defeater to the theist’s insistence that they do sense God.
Keep in mind that this goes both ways. Just as Jones could conceivably respond in kind (“Smith is just makin’ that stuff about the wine up”) so the non-theist can plausibly reject the theist’s testimony and thereby retain their rational belief in non-theism.
Now let’s return to George’s comments. Next, he proposes there is a condition under which the sommelier would be rationally obliged to adopt agnosticism. That would obtain if the person he disagreed with were also a sommelier of approximately equal skill, a so-called “epistemic peer”. In this case, the sommelier would, according to George, be rationally obliged to adopt an agnostic position regarding the quality of the wine. This is how he explains it:
If 2 sommeliers disagree on the flavours in the wine, it seems to me that they’ve both got a problem. Who’s right? The epistemically responsible thing for them to do is to remain agnostic regarding their disagreement and find some way to resolve it that will involve evidence. They’re no longer entitled to their beliefs by way of direct justification.`
There’s no reason to think that the Christian community is somehow epistemically superior to the community of Jews, Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Muslims, non-believers, etc. Their either all wrong or only one is right. To rationally believe that one is right requires evidence.
The first thing to note is that if George is right then it would follow that atheists are likewise being “irresponsible” for retaining disagreement with other groups. If the “responsible” thing for Christians and Jews and Hindus to do is to become agnostics, then likewise the responsible atheist, humanist and naturalist will also be obliged to become an agnostic. So George has unwittingly (as I take it) presented an argument against atheism here.
The good news (for Christians, Jews, Hindus, atheists, humanists and naturalists) is that George’s analysis is false. We can see this by enumerating some examples where disagreement among peers does not require agnosticism.
We can start with an example from medicine. Doctors occasionally disagree on the best course of treatment for a patient. If George’s principle were to be applied consistently, every time a disagreement existed, the doctors ought to become agnostic about which is the best course of treatment. Keep in mind as well that if you are agnostic about the best course of treatment, then you ought not recommend a course of treatment. And yet doctors regularly recommend treatments in the face of disagreement, and they are right to do so.
Or consider economic policy in the face of a slowing economy. One group of economists recommends austerity. Another group recommends stimulus. According to George’s principle each group ought to abandon their opinions and adopt agnosticism, thereby leaving the economy to stagnate. But this is absurd.
The same goes for philosophers, including epistemologists. Note that George’s principle is an epistemic claim. And it is a claim which many epistemologists reject (myself included). Therefore, it would seem that if George accepts it then he is obliged to reject it.
To sum up, doctors can rationally retain their belief in the face of peer-disagreement. So can economists. And sommeliers. And philosophers. And the rest of us. Peer-disagreement is a part of life and is not, in itself, a sufficient basis to suspend one’s convictions in favor of agnosticism. Thus, it follows that disagreement in matters of God’s existence does not oblige the Christian to abandon their theistic beliefs. Nor does it oblige the atheist to abandon their atheistic beliefs.