Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Epistemic Notes

The evidence: Guide lines but not tram lines. 

The following are some responses I made on Facebook to a link publicising this article by and evangelical atheist, George Felis. Felis is of the opinion that "faith" is a moral failing which willfully flies into the teeth of the evidence with nothing but a fideist  rationale, if rationale it can be called. It's true that there are fideist Christians out there who respond in such a way, but the author of the article is over generalizing. In fact even fideists, although they won't admit it, are trying in their perverse way to come up with an embracing world view, based on evidence - in their case what is to them the overwhelming evidence of their intuitively felt gut feelings.

My responses below take the view that world view synthesis is an epistemically risky business; it is an activity which trades-off evidential rigor against far reaching narratives which attempt to make sense of the big picture - usually some kind of anthropic sense. World views can be as rational as the sparse evidence allows, but they lack epistemic authority and are inherently tentative and exploratory in my opinion. To use a Christian metaphor; they are a kind of pilgrimage.

Disclaimer: I would concede the point that when it comes to world view synthesis with its open ended fields of evidence different people join different dots of evidence with different narratives and therefore epistemic humility is in order. However, I don't accept that this can be true, without gross rational violations taking place, when it comes to basic science such as the spherical Earth, and its position in space and time. In the case of Flat Earthism, Geocentrism and Young Earthism, Moon landing conspiracy theorism etc. a fanciful world view is filtering down to the basic science level and corrupting it.

The following has been amended from its original form to enhance readability and content. 

Timothy V Reeves
You don’t have to be a theist to see that this article doesn’t stack up epistemically. All, repeat all, attempts at getting a epistemic handle on the world involve “joining the dots of data” with theoretical narratives that to a lesser or greater degree tax our imaginations and the robustness of our epistemic methods. It is an epistemic error to believe that there is such a thing as some non-contentious standard of “reason and evidence” that take us inexorably and mechanically toward the truth. 

You often hear the cliché “There isn’t a shred of evidence for X”. It is a cliché used by both fundamentalists and evangelical atheists. A much more realistic epistemic scenario is that human beings imaginatively fit the data to the narratives with varying degrees of success. Just how successful depends on the criteria we find in the science of science i.e. meta-science i.e philosophy – a very debatable area. But overall there is a generalised method used by all: Fitting a world view to the accepted data in order to try and make sense of that world i.e. world view synthesis. Some people commit to a world view and others are floating voters

In spite of Aumann’s “agreement theorem” we expect disagreements in this general epistemic process as it is highly dependent of people’s different and open-ended pools of experience, mental traits, context etc. I would probably depart from James Knight on this point. 

It’s interesting to see that Felis quotes the Christian fideists: All fideists I have come across, when probed, reveal that they are actually using the general method of “dot fitting” – perhaps not very well, but they are trying. Fideist assertions, such as quoted by Felis, are there to give conclusions which are actually based on (bad) implicit background reasoning a sacred inaccessibility and authority and thereby apply moral duress in order to dissuade close examination. "Don't analyse it!" cried one aficionado of the Toronto Blessing 

But then Felis himself, as an evangelical atheist, is also trying to apply moral duress; he is accusing those who don’t agree with him of moral failing, as do many Christians; that’s why I would call him “evangelical"

NOTE: Somebody replied that the above sketch is in line with psychological picture that people tend to fit narratives to data retrospectively. 

Timothy V Reeves I had this long email correspondence with James Moar (See below) where we discussed this issue of "narrative weaving". I think I took the line that as far as world view synthesis is concerned all Christians can offer people is "a best fit narrative" and acknowledge that sometimes the fit doesn't seem that good; after all, we're going for the big picture here and epistemic trade-offs are inevitable. I think James Moar felt that this wasn't in line with the committed tone of the Bible. He's probably right, but then the Bible is true to the culture of the day and we can't expect it to be aware of what is probably an epistemic universality which seems to be even built into our neural make it. I'm a Christian myself but as you can see I probably wouldn't classify as evangelical! I don't accept that studied detachment is a sin; as a general value epistemic humility must be maintained at all times (2 Cor 10:12ff)

Timothy V Reeves Although, as I often say, there is a general epistemic “method” which involves a contention/dialogue between narrative and “data” it is clear that the formal methods of the physical sciences don’t always have a natural portability to other disciplines. E.g one could paraphrase Simon's paraphrase as follows:

"One cannot apply physical science's epistemic methods to historical narratives because historical ontology is far more complex than the relatively simple objects of the physical sciences (e.g. water boiling at 100C at sea level, and so forth)."

Although I would contend that history, sociology, political science, philosophy, and even theology do employ a generalised epistemolgy that puts narrative and “data” in dialogue, specific methodologies between disciplines are very different. E.g in the humanities the methods are less formal and consequently the conclusions more contentious than in the physical sciences; that, I suggest, is down to a difference in the complexity of the objects they are dealing with. However, Feyerabend even puts a question mark over the physical science’s claim to formal methodology. The take home lesson: Our epistemology is not robust.

There seems to be some kind of trade-off between ontological complexity and epistemic authority: The physical sciences come over with more assurance in their conclusions. Accordingly, I would rate disciplines in order of their claim to convince: Viz: the Physical sciences, economics, history, sociology, philosophy, and theology. So, if you are going to hazard a world view synthesis that attempts to give the big picture you expect a loss of epistemic authority. In fact you might have to go as far is to admit it is a speculative and conjectural venture. 

The fact that I rate theology as having the lowest epistemic authority no doubt puts me beyond the pale for those Christians of fundamentalist persuasion who try to convince us of the divine authority of their opinions. 

I think James got it very right when he says (See above) 

QUOTE: Here's why. Analyzing Christian belief is not like analysing scientific data - it is more like analysing love…..[and following paragraphs] UNQUOTE

I would certainly go a long with all that! When it comes to theology it is very difficult to generalise from the diversity of personal experience which acts as the nutrient bed nourishing faith. But the trade-off here is that the subjective component of theology means its epistemic authority is considerably lowered. It is my (non-evangelical) opinion that if an atheist claims the “God narrative” makes no sense of their experience then this claim should be respected as a genuine statement made with good conscience. 

Let me answer Simon's question as to whether or not faith is simply an a priori affair where evidences are coped with post hoc; that is, faith conclusions are authoritarian, inflexible and will suffer no potentially challenging dialogue with evidence: I think Simon is likely to be right if one throws one’s lot in with some tight knit Christian sect; sectarian authoritarianism and its claim to divine authority puts one under huge duress to uphold the party line and seek a justifying narrative post hoc, ergo propter hoc. I’ve been involved with evangelicals of one sort or another for many years now and I have to admit that this does happen especially among the fundamentalists of the persuasion. I myself have in the past been under duress to follow suit. However, I’ve long since rebelled because it all so transparently has its roots in human foibles, fears, failings and epistemic insecurities. In particular, in reaction to the latter there is often an attempt to re-establish  epistemic authority using a kind of "The Emperor's New Clothes" social pressure. Much of authoritarian sectarian Christianity has consequently failed to earn its right to intellectual respect as far as I 'm concerned.  Its bad reputation is well deserved!

My own pilgrimage is probably succinctly put as a “God seeking” journey into the unknown. This comes out of what is for me the plausible conjecture (back to James proprietary experience point!) that we are on the inside of some huge immersive (personal) intelligence. My faith is the sum total of my pilgrimage which is in a very unfinished state. Consequently, I believe I have no grounds to badger an atheist into belief....all I can do is show people where I am at personally (which is very unfinished business) and respect the consciences of those who differ in their own journey of life.

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