In my March 8th debate with Justin Schieber I offered three arguments, the first of which was concerned with defending the claim that belief in God can be properly basic. In his rebuttal Justin offered a couple arguments. I’m going to respond briefly to these two arguments here.
Universal Sanction Objection
Justin’s main rebuttal to my argument consisted of an appeal to the criterion of “universal sanction”. This criterion is James Sennett’s attempt to identify a particular criterion to delimit the kinds of beliefs that can be considered properly basic. Justin summarizes Sennett’s view as follows:
“First that beliefs of the kind are, under normal circumstances, are accepted by nearly all thinkers. Secondly, that thinkers directly form beliefs of this kind as a matter of normal living. And third, that the denial of beliefs of this kind, is unthinkable.”
I responded by arguing that universal sanction would disallow moral beliefs from constituting properly basic belief because these beliefs do not enjoy universal sanction. As an example I pointed out that the clinical psychopath constitutes approximately 2% of the population and lacks the faculty of moral intuition by which most people intuit particular moral facts.
Justin replied by claiming that psychopaths do not live sufficiently normal lives to the rest of us and thus the fact that they lack moral intuition is not a defeater to its universal sanction. But this is false since, as I noted, psychopaths can and do lead highly successful professional lives as CEOs, stock traders, or lawyers.
For those interested in a deeper discussion about these epistemological issues, you can listen to my podcast “68. Justin Schieber on knowledge, God and morality.”
Now we can turn to Justin’s first objection where I will spend more time. I call it the “promiscuous” objection because Justin couches it in terms of a “promiscuous belief system”, that is, a belief system that fails to discriminate adequately between the kinds of beliefs that can properly be considered to be properly basic (that is, rationally believed without supporting evidence) and the kinds of belief that must be excluded from being properly basic.
In short, Justin fears that if one accepts belief in God as properly basic, then one will be set on a slippery slope to recognize that all sorts of beliefs could be accepted as properly basic. And before you know it, everything will be doing what is epistemically right in their own eyes. I’m going to quote Justin from the transcript beginning at 51:30:
“For example, this [Rauser’s] method works equally as a justification for belief in Islam, or any other promiscuous belief system so long as its adherents have a sufficiently advanced imagination, such that they can paint a story in which their cognitive processes – according to that story – are reliable. What’s to stop people from using the same reasoning to justify belief in fairies, for example? When challenged they could always retreat to metaphysics and say that their exists some fairy godmother that, through some yet to be understood magical process, ensures that our belief forming mechanisms in the brain are generally oriented toward true belief.
“Now, I’m not arguing belief in God is like belief in fairies. However, I am arguing that the justificatory story that we are being told by Randal is disturbingly similar. There’s very little on Randal’s view here in his first argument that it couldn’t justify.”
Let me start with Justin’s observation that the analysis of theistic belief would allow Muslim theistic belief to be properly basic. Justin thinks this amounts to an objection. But why would that be an objection? The purpose of the epistemologist is not to develop partisan accounts of rational belief and knowledge as if one must set out to be sure the Christian theist can be justified but the Muslim theist cannot be.
Justin comes to epistemological reflection as a self-described “naturalist”. I come to epistemological reflection as a Christian theist. This means that each of us will be expected to seek to develop an account of epistemology in accord with our set of prior beliefs about the nature of the world. And that’s certainly what Justin does. He begins with an assumption that theistic belief is false, and then seeks to demonstrate that it is irrational.
The biggest problem Justin faces is that while his epistemological reflections are borne out of prior assumptions regarding the nature of the world, he seems unaware of this fact. As a result, Justin objects that I am developing an epistemological account informed by my assumptions regarding the nature of reality when he is doing precisely the same thing. Justin reminds me here of John Locke in Essay Concerning Human Understanding, imploring his fellow English compatriots that they must always form belief in accord with Reason, as if Locke’s account of “reason” were not itself already front-loaded with a set of assumptions.
Fairies and Sprites
Let’s consider Justin’s concern about fairies with this all in mind. Justin is deeply worried at the prospect of people developing an epistemology that could allow the properly basic belief in fairies. He says,
“What’s to stop people from using the same reasoning to justify belief in fairies, for example?”
But let’s pause for a minute. Why does the notion of developing a basic belief about fairies seem problematic? Precisely because such entities are not presently part of our plausibility structure and this is at least in part because we believe we have reasons (i.e. defeaters) to believe fairies do not exist. For example, we’ve bought into a narrative that fairies are fanciful denizens of folklore and children’s fantasy and nothing more. Consequently, any putative belief about the existence of fairies requires first the dismantling of these objections and a retooling of your plausibility structure. How might that happen?
To answer that question let’s shift for the moment from fairies to sprites (the meteorological kind). Here I’ll quote from my article “Sprites and near death experiences.”
“If we go back to the early 1970s several reports began to emerge from pilots, largely airline pilots with a few military pilots as well, who reported seeing what appeared to be lightning flashes appearing above thunderstorms and flashing more than 100 km up into the earth’s mesosphere. Scientists were duly skeptical because there was previously no known evidence of such a bizarre and extraordinary phenomenon. Some dismissed the reports outright. Others kept an open mind.
“And over the years the testimonial reports began to accrue. Finally, in the last decade definitive evidence of this curious and rare phenomenon, which has since been dubbed a “sprite”, has emerged. Now sprites have been photographed, their structure is being studied, and we are slowly beginning to understand this extraordinary phenomenon of lightning that flashes up … way up.”
I want to make two points from this example. Today sprites form part of our plausibility structure. So let’s say that there is a skeptic of sprites who is riding in an airplane above a supercell when suddenly he sees the flash into the mesosphere. That sense perceptual experience could provide the basis for him to conclude “By gosh, sprites do exist!” While this individual is aware of the concept of sprites, he comes to believe they exist based on his sense perceptual experience of a sprite. Moreover, the body of evidence that informed this individual prior to his own experience traced back to those first experiences of those pilots. They may not have had the sophisticated description (and whimsical name) available to later meteorologists, but they did have an experience and they knew they saw something that didn’t fit into meteorological knowledge to that point.
Let’s say you are in your garden relaxing when you hear a whirring sound. Assuming it is a hummingbird, you turn to look in the rose bush and are startled to see what looks like a miniature human being flittering about the garden. You have no reason to believe you are hallucinating and the riveting experience unfolds over a couple minutes. You don’t know what you saw, but like those pilots flying above the storm and Burton Cummings entering the church, you know you experienced something. At that point your properly basic belief might be this: “I saw a humanoid creature flying about the garden,” from which it follows that “Flying humanoid creatures exist.” And from there it is but a matter of whimsical relabeling to conclude “Fairies exist.”
The discovery of fairies would be incredible, but it certainly isn’t impossible, and only the most unimaginative ideologue would attempt to preclude the possibility. After all, extraordinary new species, like meteorological phenomena, are discovered all the time. So there is no particular problem at all with the possibility that sense perceptual experience could warrant one in believing fairies as surely as it warranted one in believing in sprites.
The same goes, of course, for God. But here it must be said that the mere association of God to fairies that Justin makes is uninformed at best, hubristic at worst. Billions of people report an experience of God. Justin may not have that experience, but one might think the better part of wisdom would have him at least concede the rationality of these experiences for the billions who have them.
Don’t worry about promiscuity. Worry about Procrustus
In Greek mythology Procrustus is a dark figure who has a history of cutting off the limbs or stretching the limbs of those he meets to make sure they fit into his iron bed. This is the Greek version of attempting to fit every square peg into a round hole. While Justin worries about epistemic promiscuity — that lack of discrimination — he would do better to worry about his own penchant to impose a procrustean bed formed by his own plausibility structure onto data of experience.
Naturalists have a bad history of attempting to cram the natural world into their dogmatic iron bed of naturalism. Take, for example, J.L. Mackie. As a naturalist Mackie believed that objective moral facts do not fit into his view of the world, and so he developed an error theory of morality according to which all objective moral statements are, in fact, false. This is a disaster, for Mackie’s own ideological commitments lead him to reject a significant aspect of reality (i.e. the moral sphere).
When it comes to morality Justin admitted in our debate that he has “no idea” how human beings acquired a truth-directed (as opposed to merely adaptive) faculty of moral intuition. But he was wise enough to avoid the Mackie pitfall and accept the deliverances of this mysterious cognitive faculty even though he cannot explain it.
What Justin needs to do is set aside his atheistic dogmatism and keep the same open mind when it comes to belief about God that he grants to belief about morality. In other words, he should worry less about epistemic promiscuity and more about Procrustean epistemology.