Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Can testimony be the basis for a ‘properly basic belief?’

Christian apologist and theologian Randal Rauser has an idea regarding warranted Christian belief that I find particularly interesting, but ultimately wrong.  Randal’s idea is to take the Reformed Epistemology of Alvin Plantinga a little bit further, he wants to use testimony as a foundation for a properly basic belief in something like Christian theism.
This is something he has written on in his book with Justin Schieber “An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar and a bit about on his blog. 
I should point out that Randal prefers using testimony as a basis for properly basic belief in Christianity compared to the traditional appeals to a Sensus Divinitatus, because he considers appealing to a SD to place the theist at a rhetorical disadvantage.
I think Randal’s intuition about being at a rhetorical disadvantage with the Sensus Divinitatus is correct. A mysterious Sensus Divinitatus providing justification for Christian belief in a pre-evidential way is going to sound outlandish to non-believers, and likely would come as a shock to many lay believers in the pews. It’s akin to saying that one’s “Jesus senses are tingling”



In short, I don’t think that this kind of appeal to testimony as a foundation for a properly basic belief in god is going to work.  I think if he is going to go this kind of Reformed Epistemology route, he’s going to have to appeal to a Sensus Divinitatus, ala Alvin Plantinga.




What is a Sensus Divinitatus?  Well it’s akin to saying that we have a 6th sense of sort, the kind that lets us detect that “god exists” or “god is speaking to me” when reading a specific religious text. This allows the believer to form a “properly basic belief” about the existence of god and the truth of their specific religion that is akin to believing that the external world exists. Once they have a properly basic belief of this sort, only the strongest arguments, perhaps even having to show the logical impossibility of the properly basic belief is strong enough to be able to make them give up their belief.  So long as they can have some kind of answer to atheistic arguments, they can retain their properly basic belief.
So Randal thinks testimony from a trusted source can be used to form a properly basic belief about the existence of god or the truth of a given religion.  So if a parent tells their child that god exists and Christianity is true, then the child can take that as a properly basic belief – no sensus divinitatus necessary.
I do think there are problems with this view, and it relates to the nature of testimonial evidence. Consider this blog post where Randal goes into details about when faith in testimony can trump “common sense”.   Here Randal does an absolutely wonderful job attacking an atheist meme in a way I hadn’t initially considered by going through examples where testimonial evidence from an expert in a field would override our common sense intuitions. 
I actually think he’s successful in attacking the meme, but his insights on the nature of faith in testimony undercut his general appeal to testimony as a foundation for Christian theism.
Sure, I can see the idea that as a young child, you can rationally base your religious beliefs on the testimony of your parents and/or peers.  The problem however comes when you’re forced to encounter testimony from others which contradicts the original testimony you’ve received – at which point one is forced to choose which testimony to believe.
It’s at that point that evidential concerns rise up for theistic belief which is what the whole “properly basic” method of justification was meant to avoid.  What’s worse is that in all the examples Randal gives of trusting testimony over our basic intuitions it involves someone with relevant expertise giving information a laymen wouldn’t necessary know about.  What if in addition to the scientist or expert or kindergarten teacher example he gives we have someone else who insists the opposite of their testimony – who is to be believed?  
In each case Randal gives, the testimonial evidence can be backed up by objectively available empirical evidence that can demonstrate the truth of the testimony.  The fact of the matter is that metaphysical questions like the existence of god is not at all like that.
This runs into some serious problems for Randal’s account that I want to go into detail on.
Properly Basic Atheism?
I have two daughters, and I have already told one of them that god does not exist (my second daughter is only a couple of months old).  I am a trusted source of information to her, and so now according to Randal’s view she has a properly basic belief that atheism is true.  This kind of thing is not really possible on Alvin Plantinga’s model with a Sensus Divinitatus, since on atheism there is no special sense to tell us that god doesn’t exist in a basic way.
I have asked Randal about this on Twitter, alluding to how hard it is to defeat a properly basic belief, to which he provided an interesting reply:



Here we get the idea that testimony from a more trusted authority could override the testimony I provided to my daughter that god doesn’t exist, but this seems highly problematic when it comes to metaphysical issues.
First off, what does it mean to be a “more trusted authority” in the context of whether or not god exists? Surely if I continue my trajectory of being a good parent who cares deeply about the wellbeing of my child and I make every effort to ensure that wellbeing, who is going to be more trustworthy than myself?  Compared to most laypeople my amateur status as a philosopher of religion is going to far outstrip most others in terms of understanding the arguments and evidence relating to the existence of god.  So my daughter will have to encounter some philosophers to find someone with more knowledge than I have on the topic, and it’s hard to say they’re more “trustworthy” than her own father, but perhaps they’re more trustworthy on the topic of god’s existence.
But then this is really just an appeal to authority, and those are invalid when a significant number of relevant experts in a field have disagreement on a given issue. Even among philosophers there is not universal agreement that god exists, it’s sharply divided.  So how then is one to find more trustworthy source of testimony about god’s existence?
This is a problem for any contentious metaphysical view. Are the children of David Lewis (assuming he had any) justified in having a properly basic belief about the truth of his views of modality and the ontology possible worlds because “daddy’s an expert and he told me it’s true?”   It seems absurd to say so.
Perhaps children may start that way, but as they get older and on investigation into the nature of the topic itself realize that testimonial evidence isn’t the kind of thing that can serve as a basis for that kind of issue.
Randal’s other method is for my daughter to have an experience of god directly, but then testimony isn’t serving as the basis for her belief, but rather we’re back to the Sensus Divinitatus that Randal was looking to avoid having to use anyway.   There are problems here in terms of how my daughter would know she’s truly experiencing god, and how that squares away vs. contradictory experiences she may have later, or with other people’s experiences – but these are general problems with the Sensus Divinitatus, not Randal’s use of testimony to support properly basic beliefs.
The overall issue is that while testimony can rationally support a number of beliefs, it seems that to have it as a basis for supporting properly basic beliefs can only work in limited cases.  Perhaps in cases where children don’t yet have enough knowledge about the topic or the world to know better.  This seems to be especially problematic when applied to hard metaphysical issues like belief in god, where it is impossible to judge whether or not someone is qualified to offer an authoritative statement on the matter vs. other issues pertaining to topics where evidence is relevant.
However in those cases, we decide on who is a trustworthy source of information based on evidence we have about them and their fields in general – which means we’re playing the evidentialist game which is what the whole “properly basic belief” method of justifying theism is meant to avoid in the first place.
My takeaway from this is that if a theist wants to argue that their religious beliefs are properly basic, they’re going to be stuck with making an appeal to a Sensus Divinitatus and so take on all of the disadvantages that comes with it.  I still don’t think that approach necessarily works very well for the theist, but that’s an entirely separate discussion from what I’ve argued here.

17 comments:

  1. A properly basic belief is a foundational belief that is not backed by reasons. Testimony isn’t like this. Rather, testimony serves as evidence. Hearing something from a trusted source is treated as powerful evidence precisely because they are trusted, so they are much more likely to tell you a fact than a falsehood. This isn’t some foundational belief, rather, it is a belief that can be justified by other facts, namely, the very nature of authority and the frequency with which people speak accurately about their areas of expertise, or how parents, by virtue of their love, are far more likely to want to teach their kids truths than falsehoods. Compare testimony with other common candidates for properly basic beliefs: induction, external world, other minds. These are all notoriously difficult to justify by reference to reasons, so they are often taken as epistemological starting points. Trust in testimony is far easier to justify.
    Plantinga notes 2 different methods of identifying properly basic beliefs: the particularist approach and the criterion approach. According to the criterion approach, we develop a criterion for choosing which beliefs should qualify as basic, and then apply that criterion to testimony to see if it qualifies. According to the particularist approach, we use something like our intuition to identify obvious paradigm cases of properly basic beliefs, and then use those paradigm cases to develop a criterion and then use the criterion to identify other basic beliefs.
    If Randal endorses the criterion method, I’d like to know what criterion he uses to justify testimony as a basic belief. If he endorses the particularist approach, then I must simply disagree. Testimony is not an obvious paradigm case of basic belief. Rather, it seems obvious to me that I believe testimony to varying degrees based on a variety of external reasons, and in the case of trusted authorities, I trust them precisely because I have strong external reasons to think their testimony is especially reliable, not because I have identified their testimony as “basic.”

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    1. Regarding criterion/particularist approaches, I endorse the latter. See my 2009 book "Theology in Search of Foundations" (Oxford University Press).

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  2. "Can testimony be the basis for
    a 'properly basic belief'?"

    As I understand the question as it relates to "God", the only reasonable answer would be "yes".

    No one we know came by a "properly basic belief" in God except through testimony and none of them know of anyone who came by it any other way.

    We would do well to understand that; or strive to understand it.

    Last I did any checking all who had a "properly basic belief" had come by it through testimony and those who had no such "properly basic belief" had simply rejected the testimony.

    Those who claim some other mystical, "sensus" sort of experience may be discredited for lack of convincing evidence to support their "sensus" claims.

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  3. Here's the basic issue: Can testimony serve as a source of properly basic belief?

    The answer depends on what kind of epistemology a person holds. If one is a classical foundationalist, for example, then testimony cannot provide a properly basic source of belief. But I'm not a classical foundationalist. I'm a moderate foundationalist. And according to that theoretical approach, testimony most definitely can be a source of properly basic belief. For a good introduction see Robert Audi, "Epistemology: A Contemporary Introduction," Chapter 7.

    You then try to argue that regardless, there is some particular problem with taking "metaphysical" beliefs on testimonial grounds. There are at least two problems with this claim.

    First, religious truth claims are not the same as metaphysical truth claims. Some religious claims are concerned with metaphysics, some are concerned with ethics, some are concerned with history, some are concerned with epistemology, etc.

    Second, metaphysical beliefs are far more widespread than you seem to recognize. Our noetic structures are chalk full of beliefs that depend on metaphysical commitments regarding causal relationships, agency, personal identity through time, and countless other matters. So if you want to single out metaphysical beliefs for special skepticism, you'll wind yourself up in a heap-o-trouble.

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  4. I suspect there may be some issue with testimony giving properly basic beliefs in general, or at least in a non-trivial way (ie. it would apply only to children or people largely ignorant of a subject), but I'll have to go do some reading per your suggestion to see if my idea holds up.

    However here I'm focusing on the fact that there is a particular problem with taking metaphysical and/or religious beliefs as properly basic, via testimony.


    I'm NOT arguing against taking metaphysical beliefs as properly basic in general, and while I have issues with religious beliefs as properly basic that's not what I'm going for here.

    I would argue that religious and metaphysical claims have the same kind of problem with being "properly basic via testimony" - that is that there really isn't any kind of authority that can be said to have the ability to give any kind of answer on the subjects at hand. While one can instill such a belief in ones children and have it count as properly basic for a time, it would stop being so once the child grew enough to understand the nature of those issues.

    So it doesn't matter that religious truth claims are not the same as metaphysical truth claims, they'd share the same problem.

    Secondly, I'm not arguing against metaphysical beliefs being properly basic or that we must be agnostic on metaphysical beliefs at all. I'm arguing against those beliefs being properly basic via testimony in any interesting way (ie. outside of children too young to think about the topic). I'm not doing away with metaphysics, I'm saying the way you're approaching it is incorrect.

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    1. "I would argue that religious and metaphysical claims have the same kind of problem with being "properly basic via testimony" - that is that there really isn't any kind of authority that can be said to have the ability to give any kind of answer on the subjects at hand. While one can instill such a belief in ones children and have it count as properly basic for a time, it would stop being so once the child grew enough to understand the nature of those issues."

      So let's unpack what you've said here.

      First, you concede that testimony can be properly basic.

      Second, you concede that testimony with religious and/or metaphysical content can be properly basic.

      So your argument is not against proper basicality per se. Rather, you are claiming that this proper basicality is undercut or rebutted by some defeater or class of defeaters.

      But what are those defeaters that undercut or rebut the prima facie properly basic testimonial belief in religious and/or metaphysical claims? You haven't even begun to articulate those defeaters.

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    2. I pointed out many times that testimony can't be properly basic "in any interesting way". A child is not developed enough to do more than believe what they are told - but that doesn't grant that all beliefs they've formed as a result of that testimony should really continue to be held with the privileged status as 'properly basic'.

      This isn't saying those beliefs need to be withdrawn either, or that they should be regarded as false - it should just be realized that they can't be "properly basic". I did provide a reason why for that: Because there is no one who can provide the kind of testimony to you as to the truth of matters like religion or certain areas of metaphysics, at least not at all like testimony regarding more mundane matters like you give in the examples used in the meme post.

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    3. "I pointed out many times that testimony can't be properly basic 'in any interesting way'."

      Um, no. You asserted. "To point out" entails that there is some commonly accepted datum between parties. I deny that this is the case. Testimony is a fundamental and important part of the basic beliefs that constitute the human noetic structure.

      "I did provide a reason why for that: Because there is no one who can provide the kind of testimony to you as to the truth of matters like religion or certain areas of metaphysics..."

      That's not a "reason". That's a bald assertion, and I deny it as patently false. If you want to elevate it to the status of a reason, there should be some evidence supporting the truth of your claim.

      And if you want to defend its truth, you first need to explain how you define "metaphysical" and "religious" beliefs such that those beliefs constitute a unique problem for testimony.

      Remember, as I already pointed out, religious beliefs make a dizzying range of claims in fields as diverse as epistemology, ethics, epistemology, and history. If you really want to try to defend the deeply contentious thesis that a class of beliefs ranging across this diverse field are all uniquely problematic, the onus is on you to define the class precisely and then provide evidence to show it is uniquely problematic.

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    4. When the topics of religious truth and metaphysical truth are inherently unfalsifiable, and there is no consensus among experts in those topics, but in fact widespread disagreement - it means there is no testimonial evidence that can be provided to establish the truth of those matters like they can with other topics where testimony does play a role - like in the examples you gave.

      Consider the kindergartner whose teacher tells them the earth is an “oblate spheroid” but celebrity and rapper B.o.B. tells them that the earth is flat - we can come up with an objective set of criteria as to who should be trusted and why.

      This is not at all the case with religious or metaphysical claims - claims which are inherently unfalsifiable of this sort would be what makes them a unique problem for testimony.

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    5. "When the topics of religious truth and metaphysical truth are inherently unfalsifiable,"

      They're not "inherently unfalsifiable".

      "and there is no consensus among experts in those topics"

      Many fields include areas of perennial debate among experts. Surely you don't think a consensus of 95% needs to be achieved before a truth claim can be reasonably believed via testimony? That's absurd!

      The irony is that even now you're attempting to undertake epistemological analysis when the field of epistemology is precisely one of those fields with a lack of consensus among experts.

      In short: you're hoist with your own petard.

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    6. Core religious and metaphysical questions aren't inherently unfalsifiable? That's there hallmark! How does one falsify the A-Theory of time? Or the B-Theory for that matter? How does one falsify the idea that god exists? How does one correctly identify what it is that serves as the ontological foundation of the good?

      When contradictions are found in the various positions, the ideas behind it morph ever so slightly so as to avoid the contradictions - as they probably should!

      First, there's a difference between "belief via testimony" and "properly basic belief via testimony" - at least it seems so to me.

      Second, not all beliefs are of the sort that consensus among experts needs to be or even can be achieved. What I had for breakfast is an example. I would deny that beliefs about gods and metaphysics would fall into this area however.

      Third - in order to be hoist with my own petard I would have to say that one can't hold beliefs or even properly basic beliefs about metaphysics or religion, or any contentious topic because there is no consensus. But I haven't argued that.

      I've argued you can't get properly basic beliefs about those topics (at least not in any interesting way) via testimony.

      I don't know about you, but I certainly don't hold the epistemological view I have because someone gave me testimony that it was the correct one.

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    7. "Core religious and metaphysical questions aren't inherently unfalsifiable? That's there [sic] hallmark!"

      Christianity is based on the historical claim that God raised Jesus from the dead. That claim entails that Jesus died and then came back to life and departed planet earth. Thus, one could falsify that claim by way of archaeological and forensic evidence that the body of Jesus is still in the tomb. Whatever else you think of the resurrection claim, it is not "inherently unfalsifiable."

      "How does one falsify the A-Theory of time? Or the B-Theory for that matter?"

      Have you ever read the arguments for each view? There are all sorts of arguments and lines of evidence that philosophers of time proffer to support their particular philosophical theory.

      If you think there is inadequate evidence to support a conviction on the nature of time, the onus is on you to demonstrate the fact.

      If you are attempting to import some foreign criterion of falsification to philosophical debate and claim that debate must meet that criterion in order to be justified, the onus is again on you to make your case.

      "When contradictions are found in the various positions, the ideas behind it morph ever so slightly so as to avoid the contradictions - as they probably should!"

      Um, yeah, no kidding. And the exact same thing happens in the formulation and defense of scientific theories. Read Imre Lakatos.

      "Second, not all beliefs are of the sort that consensus among experts needs to be or even can be achieved. What I had for breakfast is an example. I would deny that beliefs about gods and metaphysics would fall into this area however."

      Once again, we see that your "argument" reduces to your stipulation that it's so. You've provided no reason to believe that this is the case and you're not the Pope so declarations won't get you far.

      "in order to be hoist with my own petard I would have to say that one can't hold beliefs or even properly basic beliefs about metaphysics or religion, or any contentious topic because there is no consensus. But I haven't argued that."

      Look at your own comment. You begin by criticizing philosophers (in this case philosophers of time) because their views aren't "falsifiable". But your entire analysis is based on your own personal intuitions on an area of philosophy (epistemology) in which you are not even familiar with the arguments and analysis (as with the chapter I recommended to you in Audi's book). I'm surprised you're not connecting these dots to see that you're sawing off the very branch you're sitting on.

      "I've argued you can't get properly basic beliefs about those topics (at least not in any interesting way) via testimony."

      Yes, based on your spurious "lack of consensus" claim when you're entire argument is based on your own epistemological intuitions for which there is, to put it charitably, a lack of consensus.

      Peace out.

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    8. "Christianity is based on the historical claim that God raised Jesus from the dead. That claim entails that Jesus died and then came back to life and departed planet earth. Thus, one could falsify that claim by way of archaeological and forensic evidence that the body of Jesus is still in the tomb. Whatever else you think of the resurrection claim, it is not "inherently unfalsifiable."

      Oh come on. If Jesus was crucified he was likely put in a mass grave with all the other criminals. Chances of him being in a tomb, let alone of it having any significant writing on it are next to nill. So yes, if there was a tomb with said info on there it could theoretically falsify it, but that's not likely to be done for a criminal. This is to say nothing of the amount of religio-porn that has been written about this weird kind of scenario only to have such a thing turn out to be a hoax so the story can end with a "yay Christianity is still true" message. You might as well say the claim "Julius Caeser had an apple for breakfast on June 3rd, 83BC" is falsifiable if we could find archeological and forensic evidence detailing his breakfast on that specific date.

      "If you are attempting to import some foreign criterion of falsification to philosophical debate and claim that debate must meet that criterion in order to be justified, the onus is again on you to make your case."

      That is not at all what I've stated. I've stated that believing these views as properly basic on the basis of testimony is not justified. Read that line again, because you continually seem to be missing this crucial point.

      I'm not even saying you can't have justified religious or metaphysical beliefs. You clearly can. I'd say you should look at the metaphysical arguments and lines of evidence for philosophies of time and come to a conclusion on it, realizing that such a debate can never truly be settled due to the very nature of the question.

      I don't think my daughter can have a properly basic belief in a given metaphysical position just because "Daddy said the A-Theory of time is false!".

      This isn't a criticism of philosophers of time, it's a criticism of your approach.

      "
      Yes, based on your spurious "lack of consensus" claim when you're entire argument is based on your own epistemological intuitions for which there is, to put it charitably, a lack of consensus."

      This would have sting to it if I was arguing that any of these conclusions are ones we should hold as "properly basic". I have never said that we can't justifiably hold views for which there is a lack of consensus. I'm saying once you're an adult and understand the topics at hand, basing your views on the sheer fact that "someone told me this view on a contentious topic is true" is a really shitty basis for a belief, let alone a "properly basic belief".

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  5. "A mysterious Sensus Divinitatus providing justification for Christian belief in a pre-evidential way is going to sound outlandish to non-believers, and likely would come as a shock to many lay believers in the pews. It’s akin to saying that one’s “Jesus senses are tingling"

    >>Your statement ignores the fact that a huge portion of conversion takes place mercilessly because of such a sense. That the is the basis of mystical experience which is strongly validated through emprical research.

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    1. It doesn't require empirical validation to be PB but it has it anyway. Alston includes mystical experience as PB.

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  6. You say: "I do think there are problems with this view, and it relates to the nature of testimonial evidence." But proper basicility is not supported by evidence. That's the whole point. Bit I think Testimony can trgger the sense.

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  7. “Even among philosophers there is not universal agreement that god exists, it’s sharply divided.”

    https://philpapers.org/surveys/results.pl

    It’s really not that divided

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