Religious Disagreement and Equal Weight

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 I argue in this unpublished note that such views are self-defeating, because given the fact that not everyone you should regard as an epistemic peer has the EW view, holding it implies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.

5 Replies to “Religious Disagreement and Equal Weight”

  1. Keller was just repeating what Plantinga and Van Inwagen said in reply to Hick.

    The exchange between Hick, Plantinga, and Van Inwagen is a foundation of the current discussion of peer disagreement. (I think that Plantinga and Van Inwagen did “gazump” you in print.)

    Here’s the reference for Hick’s article:
    John Hick, “The Epistemological Challenge of Religious Pluralism,” Faith and Philosophy (1997: 14:3), 277-285

    Plantinga’s article immediately follows, and Van Inwagen’s follows Plantinga’s.

  2. For a nice overview of Plantinga’s position here (which is a special case of the “right reasons” view, in this context) and his motivations for it (which include something like Brian’s reasons, but not exactly a “gazump” as I see it), see the following section of his book “Warranted Christian Belief” (subscription required):

    For those of you who don’t have a subscription, the salient section is called “pluralism”, and it starts on page 437.

  3. Would something analogous to type theory help? The idea would be that there is no single principle EW, which is either true or false. Rather, there is EW1 which, if correct, should be applied when faced with first-order beliefs about baseball games, particle physics or whether Bacon wrote Shakespeare. Then there is EW2, which if correct, should be applied to epistemological principles which apply to first-order beliefs, including the principle E1. And so on.

    Even if this is a runner logically, we are still faced with two challenges, to motivate it and to identify the levels of different beliefs.

    Motivation might come from the fact that we are talking about belief. Beliefs are different from physical things, including the states of brain cells which correspond (on a token-token basis) to beliefs. Specifically, we have intentionality, which opens the door to self-reference, the problem which in a different guise created the need for the original type theory. This is only a sketchy motivation, but it might do for starters.

    Assigning levels to beliefs would be easy a lot of the time, but there would also be hard cases.

    Many beliefs, certainly the vast majority of beliefs held by non-philosophers, are clearly first-order. A belief that epistemologists discuss and disagree over principles of equal weight is also first-order. But the definition of the class of first-order beliefs would not be easy.

    EW1, EW2, and so on are clearly second, third and so on order. But what about other epistemological principles, for example that you should believe the logical consequences of your beliefs, or Bayes’ theorem? Their order might depend on the order of that to which they were applied, so they would need to be split into principles of different types too.

    If we got all this to work, where would it leave EW? I could accept (or reject) EW1 without further reflection, but that would be reprehensible. I should think about whether to accept EW1. Knowing that there was disagreement about EW1, I would need to decide whether I accepted EW2 in order to reach a verdict on EW1, and so on up the chain. We might eventually reach an EWn on which there was universal agreement, but I would be surprised if we did. It is more likely that we would give up the pursuit and join Mr Hume for dinner and a game of backgammon (Treatise 1.4.7, para 9).

    Finally, Russell perhaps wisely went no further than this down the road to EW:

    The skepticism that I advocate amounts only to this: 1) that when experts are agreed, the opposite opinion cannot be held to be certain; 2) that when they are not agreed, no opinion can be regarded as certain by a non-expert; 3) that when they all hold that no sufficient grounds for a positive opinion exists, the ordinary man would do well to suspend his judgments. These propositions seem mild, yet, if accepted they would revolutionize human life.

    (Skeptical Essays. I found this on a website which did not give a precise reference, and I have no copy to hand so I have not checked the text.)

  4. When anyone want to regard or appraise a religion one must throughly examine its claims about how the universe or wrold is, how humans “tick” and their theory of the good, that is, what humans ought to do. And their theory, if any, of what is possible and desirable for the future of human life. When one does the preceding it becomes clear that many religious claims are incompatible, some religions make claims that are truer than others, and some make wildly improbable claims for human possibility; and still others make decent even banal claims for proper conduct. Looked at in this way, it would be impossible for religions to be accorded equal weight. The glory of Buddhist reflection on our mental habits towers above the science fiction inanities of Christian science, for example. Not all is equal.

Leave a Reply