Saturday, December 26, 2009

Reasonable religious disagreement and the private evidence problem

Suppose Feldman is right that reasonable people cannot (in full awareness of each other) draw different conclusions from the same evidence while each regards the other as a peer. He thinks that in such cases, the reasonable thing to do is suspend judgment. He notes that it in realistic cases, we won't have the same evidence to support our beliefs:
In any realistic case, the totality of one’s evidence concerning a proposition will be a long and complex story, much of which may be difficult to put into words. This makes it possible that each party to a disagreement has an extra bit of evidence, evidence that has not been shared. You might think that each person’s unshared evidence can justify that person’s beliefs. For example, there is something about the atheist’s total evidence that can justify his belief, and there is something different about the theist’s total evidence that can justify her belief. Of course, not all cases of disagreement need to turn out this way. But perhaps some do, and perhaps this is what the students in my class thought was going on in our class. And, more generally, perhaps this is what people generally think is going on when they conclude that reasonable people can disagree.

Can we say that reasonable disagreement is possible in cases where the parties to the disagreement have 'private evidence'? He says, "It is possible that the private evidence includes the private religious (or nonreligious) experiences one has", but he seems to think that these experiences won't present much of a problem. The idea is that the theist (alleges) she has private evidence for her beliefs and this allows someone with a conciliatory view to say that theist is reasonable in the face of disagreement.

He says:
This response will not do. To see why, compare a more straightforward case of regular sight, rather than insight. Suppose you and I are standing by the window looking out on the quad. We think we have comparable vision and we know each other to be honest. I seem to see what looks to me like the dean standing out in the middle of the quad. (Assume that this is not something odd. He’s out there a fair amount.) I believe that the dean is standing on the quad. Meanwhile, you seem to see nothing of the kind there. You think that no one, and thus not the dean, is standing in the middle of the quad. We disagree. Prior to our saying anything, each of us believes reasonably. Then I say something about the dean’s being on the quad, and we find out about our situation. In my view, once that happens, each of us should suspend judgment. We each know that something weird is going on, but we have no idea which of us has the problem. Either I am ‘‘seeing things,’’ or you are missing something. I would not be reasonable in thinking that the problem is in your head, nor would you be reasonable in thinking that the problem is in mine.

I don't think this helps with mystical experience, not if the theist alleges that the object of such experiences chooses who to reveal itself to. It's not as if you can sneak a peak at God, on the theist's view, if you hide behind a bush while God appears to someone else.

Much of Feldman's remarks have to do with feelings of obviousness and insight that the theist and atheist can share, but if these remarks are intended to deal with religious experience, they don't seem to work:
Similarly, I think, even if it is true that the theists and the atheists have private evidence, this does not get us out of the problem. Each may have his or her own special insight or sense of obviousness. But each knows about the other’s insight. Each knows that this insight has evidential force. And now I see no basis for either of them justifying his own belief simply because the one insight happens to occur inside of him. A point about evidence that plays a role here is this: evidence of evidence is evidence.More carefully, evidence that there is evidence for P is evidence for P. Knowing that the other has an insight provides each of them with evidence.

Suppose that evidence that there is evidence for P is evidence for P. Can't P be better supported by the ground level evidence for P than the evidence that such evidence exists? If so, will the atheist really 'share' the theist's evidence when the theist reports a mystical experience?

Suppose we think of evidence as non-inferential knowledge. The theist claims that they know non-inferentially that God is speaking to them. This allegation, if true, means that their evidence rules out the hypothesis that there's no God. I see no reason to think that the theist's report of such an experience gives the atheist evidence that rules out the hypothesis that God exists and no reason to think that the upper limit of evidential support provided by an experience is determined by the degree of support a report of that experience can provide for another. So, I don't think there's anything in these passages that deals with the problem of private evidence understood as a kind of (alleged) mystical experience.

Now, just to be clear, that doesn't mean that the atheist should defer. They shouldn't believe that the kinds of experiences that the theist report are possible. (Should the theist believe they have the kinds of experiences they do? If 'should believe' is cashed out in the way that I think Feldman wants to, I cannot say with much confidence that the theist shouldn't believe that they could have the kinds of mystical experiences they report. (If, however, you shouldn't believe p if p is false or p isn't something you know, that's another matter ...)) The problem is that I don't see how Feldman can use the conciliatory view in the way he seems to want to without either begging the question against the theist who claims to know God directly via mystical experience or assuming something questionable about the kind of justificatory support experience provides.


exapologist said...

Suppose we switch from cases of atheist/theist disagreement to, say, Hindu/theist disagreement, where each adherent appeals to religious experience as non-inferential evidence. Do you think a Feldman-style line like the one you discuss here would go through?

Also, have you seen Bryan Frances' paper, "Spirituality, Expertise, and Philosophers" (in vol. 1 of Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Religion)? He seems sympathetic to the points you raise here, but points to cases where the theist is confronted by spiritual experts who have had the sorts of religious experiences had by the theists, but reply with something like the following:

"Yes, many of us have had those spiritual experiences too, as have many of our students, and after many years of study and further and more mature spiritual experience we think that those
experiences you had don’t support what you think they support—even though we’re aware that
they certainly seemed to at the time" (Frances, p. 22 of the draft on his webpage).

I guess this sort of case isn't quite on point, since it's a case of confrontation with one of one's putative epistemic superiors, rather than one with an epistemic peer. Still...

Clayton said...

"Do you think a Feldman-style line like the one you discuss here would go through?"

Good question. I don't know what I'd want to say. I know I'd want to say that there are similar cases of disagreement concerning perceptual faculties I actually believe in, and there I'm tempted to say that the report of an incompatible observation is a perfectly good defeater. The problem with the atheist/theist example is, in part, that the atheist doesn't have the right sort of experience to report to defeat.

I need to look at the Frances article. The points I raised here are inspired, in part, by some things Plantinga says. Almost never agree with him, but I think he can say lots in response to Feldman. Thanks for the reference, I'll need to read that.


Gregory Wheeler said...

Happy New Year, Clayton.

This might not make direct contact with your discussion of Feldman's view on disagreeing peers, but it is in the neighborhood. The short of it is that I think that C&F-style evidentialism under constrains what evidence is. I'll try to be brief in framing out why.

There are a lot of different disciplines that study the brain, but I am taken with the 'brains are for driving or suppressing action' view that is endorsed by much of the research on neural motor control. Slogan: There are many ways into the brain, through the senses, but only one way out: the motor control system. Setting aside dilating pupils and cold sweats, we interact with the world and communicate by controlling 600 or so muscles. And a lot of this we do symbolically, some of which we put into language.

The information we store, the memories we form, all of this is a handmaiden to action or potential future action; thought, on this view, is motor planning without motor control. We get fouled up thinking about 'truth conditions', whether it concerns 'conditionals' or analysis of doxastic attitudes, when what our cognitive functions are mostly concerned with is controlling error. There's a lot more thread on this 'action and uncertainty' spool to unwind, but you get the gist.

So consider Feldman's dean in the quad example. Why are you in your right mind to think that he is out of his? Answer, you spent a lot of time as a kid knocking things over and misnaming things, and by the time you've reached adulthood and been admitted to university you have a pretty good grasp of when you can be wrong about picking out human-sized objects in plain view. So, one report from someone else, no matter how sincere and trustworthy he may be, is not going to upend your judgment on this case. Two or three others reporting as Feldman does and against you or think that you are suffering a hoax, but not that you are wrong. Perhaps only after another case of disagreement, involving a different and independent set of witnesses, might you then begin to think that you've lost your own senses.

So, first point, I don't think the dean case is plausible. Second point, the type of belief is important. Even if you think my view about brains is question begging and wish to expand the pathways in from the 5 senses to include divine revelation, we still can ask about the comparative reliability of that set of pathways.

This is already too long. But, the general thing that I think is missed by mentalist evidentialism is that evidence on this view is a (static) mental state, it is a piece of one's mind, and the examples discussed for ranking the strength of evidence is, when discussed, implicitly treated as though it were mainly a subjective affair.