I was in Barnes and Noble the other day flicking through the new books, and I saw this book by a local religious figure, Timothy Keller called The Reason for God. It’s meant to be a response to all sorts of arguments for religious scepticism. I was only skimming, as you do in bookstores, and most of the points seemed fairly familiar, but I was struck by the following short passage on arguments from disagreement.
The noted religion scholar John Hick has written that once you become aware that there are many other equally intelligent and good people in the world who hold differente beliefs from you and that you will not be able to convince them otherwise, then it is arrogant for you to continue to try to convert them or to hold your view to be the superior truth.
Once again there is an inherent contradiction. Most people in the world don’t hold to John Hick’s view that all religions are equally valid, and many of them are equallty good and intelligent as he is, and unlikely to change their views. This would make the statement “all religious claims to have a better view of things are arrogant and wrong” to be, on its own terms, arrogant and wrong.
This seems related to my argument against Equal Weight (EW) views on disagreement, views that say you should give equal weight to your own judgment and the judgment of epistemic peers. I argue in this unpublished note that such views are self-defeating, because given the fact that not everyone you should regard as an epistemic peer has the EW view, holding it implies that you shouldn’t hold it. So I was worried I’d been gazumped in print.
On closer reading this seems not to be the case. I was deriving a problem by applying EW to an epistemic principle. Keller seems to be making one of the following two arguments, the first of which seems pretty bad to me, the second a little better.
The first argument seems to be that since most people don’t have some kind of ‘balanced’ view about religion, assigning some credence to different theistic views and some credence to atheistic views, taking others’ judgment seriously requires that you don’t do this either. But I don’t think this is plausible as a refutation. People who put forward the EW position are well aware that they might end up with a position different, at least in its credal weighting, to everyone else, and I don’t see why the fact that they do so is an objection.
The second argument, and this is more interesting, seems to be that we get an odd result if we apply the EW principle itself to the position that lots of other folks, theists and atheists alike, are our epistemic peers. You only get an argument for religious agnositicism from EW if you assume that lots of other people, both theists and atheists, are your peers. But those other people don’t seem to regard you (the agnostic) as an epistemic peer in the relevant sense. So by EW you should not give full credence to the assumption that they are peers.
This does seem like an interesting point to me. It isn’t at all obvious whether it is possible to use EW to derive any interesting agnostic conclusions without some strong assumptions about peerhood. And it isn’t clear that holding on to those assumptions is consistent with EW. So it isn’t clear what the real world consequences of EW exactly are.
Perhaps Keller goes too far in saying, given the reasons he adduces, that EW is inconsistent. But he might have raised an interesting kind of self-defeat challenge.
Posted by Brian Weatherson in Uncategorized