Friday, June 25, 2010

Concluding thoughts on the religion posts

Here, here, and here we engaged a lot of new commenters (who I hope will stay!) on the prospect of "knowing" God. This is way out of what I normally post on, so I'm going to leave it - but I had a few concluding thoughts.

First, in the comment section to his own post Evan says: "The thing that gets me is that "knowledge" is such a contested category to begin with, and I often feel like it's a waste of time defending the fort when all we're really fighting for is recognition of theological belief as "scientific" or "positive knowledge"."

I suppose I didn't see the debate that way because I never thought anyone ever thought of theology or religion as "scientific" or "positive knowledge" in the first place. My intent was not to knock down an understanding of religion that saw itself in these terms (because I never thought it did), but more to clarify points that I think are often left vague. A lot of the debate was around what was perceived as a stict epistemology on my part. This is why I wrote the second post - because I really don't have one. I'm a strong proponent of Berger and Luckman. I recognize social construction. I don't write off the prospect that our senses are fooling us and that we're just brains in vats. I recognize the fallibility of our perceptions (I critique the a priorism of the Austrian School of economics on these grounds all the time). I'm a fan of the pragmatist approach. My conclusions certainly don't follow (I don't think) from a strict epistemology. That's just a good first-draft way of looking at it. I tried to demonstrate in the second post that the prospects for knowing God don't improve when you start introducing these qualifications. They only improve if you invent ad hoc epistemologies specifically designed to assume your own conclusions (ie - Mike D's brief rendition of Platinga's model which uses the Holy Spirit - the existence and nature of whom we're trying to get at! - as a source of knowledge in its own right). Anyway, so I didn't intend this to be a stuck-in-the-18th-century epistemology flame war, and I hope it's progressed from that point. My point is only this: that belief in revealed religion is belief that we authorize ourselves to have, not belief that we are externally justified in having. This is faith and I still maintain that it's not that revolutionary of an insight.

My second concluding point is one that I haven't worked out completely, but that I'm thinking through. I think revealed religion is ultimately something of a Gettier Problem. A lot of this discussion has revolved not around substantive knowledge that anyone has of God, but around the prospect of substantive knowledge. The point, however, is that religions are not built on the prospect of knowing something. So we have a belief system that people hold to, that may very well be true, but where whatever justifications they think they have for believing what they do probably aren't valid justifications. All they really have is faith - self-authorization to believe - but that makes 21st century Westerners uncomfortable so they invent justifications for their belief which are not justifiable, but the belief itself may nevertheless still be true and justifiable by means of knowing that the believer isn't privy to. That sounds like a Gettier problem, which is ultimately a question of knowledge-semantics itself. But the dynamics of the Gettier problem - the question of who really knows what and on what basis, and the prospect of truth in the absence of justifiable evidence - seems to be relevant here. Does anyone know if anyone has done work on the Gettier problem as it relates to revealed religion?

OK - that's all for me on this subject for now.

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