Thursday, June 09, 2011

moving Plantinga-ward

I've never been a fan of the work of Alvin Plantinga, but there's no doubt that everyone with an interest in the philosophical problems posed by religious diversity should read him. Plantinga's focus is often on questions of evidence, warrant, justification, and so on; he offers an epistemological defense of religious exclusivism in Chapter 10 of The Philosophical Challenge of Religious Diversity. Lately on his blog, Dr. Vallicella has been tackling the question of burden of proof, and I've been paying attention, because this brings us into decidedly Plantingan territory.

Over the past decade or so, discussions about religious diversity have taken a pronounced epistemological turn. From the very beginning, the overriding theme of most interreligious or metareligious discussions has been: we can't even dialogue unless we can agree on some terms. Setting aside the meta-issue of whether term-agreement even matters to most non-academics of different religious (or even nonreligious) stripes, let's accept for the sake of argument that we do need to have some way to communicate with each other. In a discussion of religious diversity, the fundamental question is: what counts as evidence for one's beliefs? Doxastic practices (i.e., the internal, often unconscious, ways in which we come to form beliefs) aren't built on nothing, are they? A cynic might be tempted to say that religious beliefs are all castles in the air, but this stance betrays its own doxastic prejudices. There needs to be a way for both sides to talk about their own beliefs, to justify those beliefs, and to critically appraise the other's doxastic arguments.

Dr. Vallicella has just published another post on burden of proof, and it's mostly about miracles. In this post, he argues that there's no apparent "fact of the matter" regarding the party on whom the burden of proof falls. He notes-- convincingly, I think-- that "burden of proof" (BOP) is commonly understood to fall on one party or the other, but never on both. In the case of miracles, where one side claims miracles exist/are possible and the other side claims they don't exist/are impossible, it's not obvious on whom the BOP falls. Both sides are making a positive claim, after all: the pro-miracle side is making the positive claim that miracles can and do happen; the anti-miracle side is making the positive claim that the universe is, as Dr. V puts it, "causally closed," i.e., admitting of no supernatural causes.* If BOP, as generally construed, falls on the positive claimant, then in cases where both sides are making a positive claim, there's no objective way to assign BOP. All that remains is for people to agree that BOP falls on party X or Y depending on the agreed-upon conventions of discourse:

My point, then, is that BOP-assignments are context- and community-relative and depend on conventions that members of these communities collectively adopt. In the legal context the BOP is on the prosecution while in the science arena, where methodological naturalism rules, the BOP is on anti-naturalists: those who defend miracles, the existence of God and the soul, the libertarian freedom of the will, etc. But the science 'game' is not the only game in town. There is the religious 'game.' No one who takes the latter seriously could possibly think that science delivers the ultimate metaphysical low-down. Relative to the religious 'game,' the BOP will be on atheists.

All of this is applicable to discussions in the philosophy of religion. When two groups of people meet, scriptures (or test tubes) in hand, to hash out their differences, there's a real risk that each group will talk past the other. Meaningful dialogue requires the laying-down of certain ground rules and an acknowledgment, by both interlocutors, that the current exchange is taking place on one of the two parties' home fields.

*Theists can rest assured that, even if it were objectively true that the universe is a causally closed system, this fact would say nothing about the existence of a universe-transcending deity. Deism remains a live option even when miracles are removed from the picture.



Anonymous said...

I confess that I don't quite see the inevitable connection between agreed-upon definitions or meanings of terms and warrants or burden of proof. I suppose if one's concern is proof, one might want to get one's counterpart to agree to some terms so that one could use verbal shenanigans to back him/her into a corner and get him/her to cry "uncle", so to speak. But if one is more concerned with understanding the other's point of view, one need merely to understand the terms without necessarily agreeing with them. Indeed, terms/concepts deeply embedded within a tradition or even individual world-view very different from one's own may be comprehensible to one but so irrelevant to one's own world-view that the issue of true/false doesn't even arise--it's meaningless even to ask the question "do you believe/agree that X is true or not?" I've encountered that several times over the years.

So I suppose my point would be that what's fundamental to inter religious dialogue would depend on the purpose of the dialogue. Warrants may only be fundamental if the point is proof and to agree on who is right, and I would hope that there are other purposes possible for inter religious dialogue.


Kevin Kim said...

I agree that there's no single, overriding purpose to interreligious dialogue, which can occur in many forms, spanning the rigorously formal to the ridiculously informal, and enjoying an equally broad spectrum of purposes.

I also agree that the understanding of terms doesn't entail agreement with those terms... but I think we might be talking past each other, here: I never meant to say that understanding entails agreement; perhaps I should have been more explicit. My claim was almost tautological: understanding allows for understanding. The basic point, which isn't particularly revolutionary, is that if we can't even get ourselves onto the same page (and let's assume for the moment that we're talking about more formal types of interreligious dialogue), then what sort of meaningful exchange can there be?

Switching gears: I think the "cry uncle" scenario is a good characterization of Dr. V's stance. He seems to be visualizing this as a sort of rhetorical turf war, which I think it is: a theist among scientists is naturally going to face their naturalistic/empirical skepticism. An atheistic scientist among theists is naturally going to face that group's skepticism.

If one wishes to assert anything (e.g., "The universe is causally closed"), and if the purpose of the assertion is to engage in a discussion or debate with the intention either to persuade the interlocutor or even simply to "confess" one's own point of view, it seems to me that one is duty-bound to offer some sort of justification for one's stance. Otherwise, the conversation is nothing more than an exchange of assertions:

Person A: Well, I believe X.

Person B: Well, I believe Y.

Person A: OK.

Person B: So there we are.


Pace Sam Harris, I see interreligious dialogue-- at least the more formal kind-- as crucial to the promotion of peace. While I don't see religion as the root cause of most of the stupid things we do, history shows us that much stupidity has occurred in the name of religion. So I do sense an imperative for us to sit at the table and talk, and this shouldn't just be a discussion among believers: it should include the atheists as well. When people come together with so many different assumptions and points of departure, a sorting-out of basic terms strikes me as necessary, and a lot of the talk should center on how people arrive at the worldviews that drive them.

One example of why this is necessary: a common complaint among religionists is that the New Atheists, in their rush to tear religion down, constantly target straw men: overly folkloric and superstitious concepts of God/the Absolute that aren't shared by many modern believers. This is what happens when we don't check our understanding of terms before blundering forward into discussion/debate. Dialogue is already a messy process; this sort of "leaping before you look" only serves to make it messier, and to no purpose.

My take, anyway, for what it's worth.