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Apr 02 2014

What philosophers call epistemic peers

After the conversation with Plantinga, Gary Gutting moved on to one with Louise Antony.

Antony is the editor of the wonderful collection of essays Philsophers Without Gods (Oxford University Press 2007). I’ve blogged about it several times. Gutting’s conversation with her is much more interesting than the one he had with Plantinga.

Gutting starts by telling her she’s “taken a strong stand as an atheist” and she replies by saying she doesn’t know what he means by that.

L.A. I don’t consider myself an agnostic; I claim to know that God doesn’t exist, if that’s what you mean.

G.G.: That is what I mean.

L.A.: O.K. So the question is, why do I say that theism is false, rather than just unproven? Because the question has been settled to my satisfaction. I say “there is no God” with the same confidence I say “there are no ghosts” or “there is no magic.” The main issue is supernaturalism — I deny that there are beings or phenomena outside the scope of natural law.

That’s not to say that I think everything is within the scope of human knowledge. Surely there are things not dreamt of in our philosophy, not to mention in our science – but that fact is not a reason to believe in supernatural beings.

It’s a reason to know that we don’t know everything, it’s not a reason to assert the existence of specific supernatural beings. Not knowing is not a reason to invent things and then pretend the invented things are real.

Antony then wonders why he’s puzzled how rational people could disagree about the existence of God. Believers disagree about lots of things. He says he thinks it’s relevant to ask believers why they believe those things too.

G.G. But people with many different specific beliefs share a belief in God — a supreme being who made and rules the world. You’ve taken a strong stand against that fundamental view, which is why I’m asking you about that.

L.A. Well I’m challenging the idea that there’s one fundamental view here. Even if I could be convinced that supernatural beings exist, there’d be a whole separate issue about how many such beings there are and what those beings are like.

You can add detail after detail after detail…and why believe any of it?

Antony points out that people can have good reasons for disagreeing; it’s not the case that one of them has to be irrational.

G.G.: No, they may both be rational. But suppose you and your theist friend are equally adept at reasoning, equally informed about relevant evidence, equally honest and fair-minded — suppose, that is, you are what philosophers call epistemic peers: equally reliable as knowers. Then shouldn’t each of you recognize that you’re no more likely to be right than your peer is, and so both retreat to an agnostic position?

Oh come on – how can you possibly know that any particular person is equally adept at reasoning, equally informed about relevant evidence, equally honest and fair-minded compared to any other particular person?

L.A. Yes, this is an interesting puzzle in the abstract: How could two epistemic peers — two equally rational, equally well-informed thinkers — fail to converge on the same opinions? But it is not a problem in the real world. In the real world, there are no epistemic peers — no matter how similar our experiences and our psychological capacities, no two of us are exactly alike, and any difference in either of these respects can be rationally relevant to what we believe.

Exactly. If philosophers talk about epistemic peers they’re just playing silly buggers.

19 comments

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  1. 1
    Cuttlefish

    My take, again (sorry to sound like a broken record…cd? mp3?): http://freethoughtblogs.com/cuttlefish/2014/02/25/arguing-god-in-the-new-york-times/

    This interview left Gutting looking bad… which, frankly, only underscored how incredibly bad Plantinga looked in comparison to Gutting in the earlier piece.

  2. 2
    Cuttlefish

    Oh, and some bonus Plantinga from his interview… and parasitic worms: http://freethoughtblogs.com/cuttlefish/2014/02/11/did-you-ever-consider-the-possibility-that-maybe-god-is-a-parasitic-worm/

  3. 3
    Ophelia Benson

    Dang, that’s great, Cuttlefish.

    We can’t disprove a God, you know,
    Cos God can’t be defined.
    The God you claim cannot exist
    Exists within my mind

    Ha!

    (What’s more, divine diversity
    Is clearly heaven-sent:
    Whatever God you just disproved
    Is not the one I meant!)

    Brilliant.

  4. 4
    Cuttlefish

    Shit, which one was that? Ah, the Antony one. Thanks!

    Gutting’s interviews are a target-rich environment. They really bother me–I can’t tell whether Gutting is deliberately dense or… well, just dense.

  5. 5
    Athywren

    I wonder if Anthony specifically means the god defined by Christians and the bible (or possibly all of the gods that have been defined by humans throughout history) when she claims to know that god doesn’t exist, or if it’s a blanket statement addressing all conceivable gods? Might have to look her up and see.

  6. 6
    MyaR

    Just as I got to this passage

    O.K., if you hold my feet to the fire (which is what you’re doing), I’ll admit that I believe I know what sort of experiences the theists are talking about, that I’ve had such experiences…

    my cat came over (for wild boar treats) and stepped on my ipad in order to get to the deliciousness. When I had convinced her that the boar was gone, my browser was on the ASPCA donation page. Coincidence? Or evidence?

  7. 7
    Ophelia Benson

    Yes, I’ve done at least one post about his annoyingness in the past.

  8. 8
    SC (Salty Current), OM

    But suppose you and your theist friend are equally adept at reasoning, equally informed about relevant evidence, equally honest and fair-minded — suppose, that is, you are what philosophers call epistemic peers: equally reliable as knowers.

    That’s impossible. Theists are by definition unreliable as knowers, on that subject at least. They accept belief based on authority, or what other people say, rather than on a reasoned evaluation of the evidence. They accept epistemic authoritarianism, which is neither honest nor fair-minded.

  9. 9
    MyaR

    What would real world epistemic peers even look like? The only thing I can think of is identical twins who spent literally all of their time together, and even then, you couldn’t guarantee exact equality in fetal development, so environmental effects on cognitive processes would be unknown.

  10. 10
    Ophelia Benson

    Plus even then there are lapses of attention and the like. It’s not as if being educated is just a matter of pouring, as from a pitcher. it’s a matter of transmission, and the receiver is not always operating at max capacity. One twin could be hanging on every word while the other is doodling and not listening. Plus they would read at different speeds. Plus they would get totally fed up with being pasted together EVERY MINUTE and run away from each other. It just can’t be. It’s a silly abstraction that doesn’t correspond to what Gutting needs it to.

  11. 11
    MyaR

    Exactly. It’s a useful tool for thinking about certain things, but it’s not something that actually exists. (I keep thinking there’s a connection to the illusory nature of free will hiding somewhere in there, too. If I had to guess, I would expect Gutting to believe it’s not illusory, but that could just be my own biases.)

  12. 12
    John Morales

    SC@8:

    Theists are by definition unreliable as knowers, on that subject at least. They accept belief based on authority, or what other people say, rather than on a reasoned evaluation of the evidence. They accept epistemic authoritarianism, which is neither honest nor fair-minded.

    What? No.

    (It’s not even the case that all theists deny empiricism!)

  13. 13
    SC (Salty Current), OM

    What? No.

    What? Yes. Or are you suggesting that they each independently invented the identical idea of a god, even though the theistic argument is the opposite?

  14. 14
    John Morales

    No, SC, I’m suggesting that you are over-generalising.

    (From which authority do you imagine the first theist got the idea? :) )

  15. 15
    sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d

    Antony then wonders why he’s puzzled how rational people could disagree about the existence of God.

    There are no rational people. There are people who try to be rational and there are people who claim to be rational, but there are no people who are always and unthinkingly rational about everything. It’s still a good idea to try to be as rational as we can be, but we shouldn’t claim or believe that we are completely rational.

  16. 16
    Dunc

    I wonder if Anthony specifically means the god defined by Christians and the bible

    Which one? There’s about eleventy billion different kinds of Christians, all separated by their inability to agree on the specific nature of God and the precise meaning of the Bible, or even which books are in it.

  17. 17
    SC (Salty Current), OM

    No, SC, I’m suggesting that you are over-generalising.

    (From which authority do you imagine the first theist got the idea? :) )

    No living theist originated the idea, so what I said would apply to every one of them. The only (theoretical) exception would be the person who originated the idea millennia ago. I don’t really believe it appeared from a single individual completely out of the blue – that’s rarely how culture works – but it’s not really relevant to my point.

  18. 18
    Johnny Vector

    Also, Morales, we can follow the evolution and emergence of monotheism from polytheism, even just within the bible. I hardly think layering on additional powers and pruning the number of existing gods is a valid counterpoint to taking things on authority.

    Even if you suppose there was one guy somewhere in the distant past who came up with the idea of gods in the first place, that doesn’t exactly counter SC’s point.

    “Sky cake! SKY CAKE!!!

  19. 19
    Athywren

    @Dunc, 16

    Which one? There’s about eleventy billion different kinds of Christians, all separated by their inability to agree on the specific nature of God and the precise meaning of the Bible, or even which books are in it.

    Fair point. I was referring to that whole class of fictional character, since, despite all their protestations that their god is nothing like that nonsensical god that the guys across the street worship, it’s all the same basic thing, isn’t it?

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