The Counsel of Trent

writing is thinking

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Faith, Evidence, and Certainty

An old correspondent recently avowed a sort of fideism. However, as far as I could tell he was no such thing. See what you think: here's my side of the conversation.
I suspect you’ve got an odd epistemology yourself or an odd way of saying your faith is irrevisable (or both).

Thesis 1: An odd epistemology.

The common sense epistemology is evidentialism which is summed up on the following two propositions.

EJ Doxastic attitude D toward proposition p is epistemically justified forS at t if and only if having D toward p fits the evidence S has at t.

ES The epistemic justification of anyone’s doxastic attitude toward any proposition at any time strongly supervenes on the evidence that the person has at the time.

Now the only way it could be rational to hold a proposition irrevisably would be to be 100% certain of it. But according to EJ, that means you’d have to hold that the evidence was maximally persuasive. Necessarily, either it is or it isn’t. If you think it is, then your no Wittgenstenian after all (side note, did you hear that DZ Philips died recently. A colleague of mine did is PhD with “Dewey” and spoke at the funeral), but rather just a *very* optimistic apologist. If it isn’t, then 100% certainty is irrational because it doesn’t fit the evidence. (This is a *different* point than being 100% committed which might be practically rational even if 100% certainty isn’t epistemically rational.)

Note that even if you think belief in God properly basic, not even Plantinga takes belief in Xnty to be PB. And there’s nothing in the extended A/C model to suggest 100% certainty. And if that’s the route, then still there’s nothing Wittgenstenian or Kierkegaardian about that. Besides, the two are quite different. I don’t think there’s much hope of making Christian claims out to be one of Wittgenstein’s hinge propositions and Kierkegaard is concerned about *commitment* not epistemic certainty. The Knight of Resolution goes on *in spite of* certainty. If he were certain then there’d hardly be room for a leap of faith.

Thesis 2: An odd way of characterizing irrevisability.

So as I understand it, you assent to the following two theses:

(MN1) If there were conclusive evidence against Xnty, then I would stop believing it.

(MN2) That there is conclusive evidence against Xnty is epistemically impossible for me.
Now, (MN2) doesn’t really make that strong a claim. What’s epistemically possible changes with the evidence so (MN2) could change upon reading a powerful essay and getting new information. Then (MN1) would kick in and *presto* we’ve got revision. So this “irrevisability” seems really, really weak. Too weak to deserve that name.

Side note. If you assent to (MN1) then I see no principled reason not to assent to

(MN1’) If there were sufficient evidence against Xnty, then I would stop believing it.
Now consider the following hypothesis.

(SH) There is evidence I’m not aware of or which has not yet been discovered which is sufficient to disprove Xnty.
I find it hard to believe it could be rational to hold that (SH) is false with a degree of certainty over .95 or .97. At any rate the only way it could be rational to have 100% certainty in it would be to *deduce* it, but that’s not even a relevant possibility in this case.

Again, none of this prevents one from seeing value in Kierkegaard’s view of faith (Wittgenstein is *quite* another matter). Pascal taught us that. You can be fully committed without being fully certain. I live this every time I climb a rock face or a frozen waterfall!


Keywords: faith, rationality, evidence, justification, epistemology, Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein


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