Disagrement,  Doubt,  Epistemology

Dogma, Disagreement and Doubt

If I believe p and someone who is equally rational, has access to the same evidence and spends a similar time as me looking at it believes not p, should I doubt p? This is the question of disagreement and there are two ways to respond to it. The conciliation view is that disagreement with an “epistemic peer” (someone who has approximately equal intelligence, expertise and exposure to the evidence as oneself) obliges one to lower confidence in p. The steadfast view, on the other hand, is that there is no obligation to lower one’s confidence in p. 

Conciliation is motivated by the thought that if someone else comes to the opposite conclusion then it is at least somewhat likely that I have made a mistake in my reasoning. And if I don’t lower my confidence then I am open to the accusation of dogmatism. Remaining steadfast is motivated by the fear of skepticism. It would seem that conciliation entails an undue degree of doubt, that just because someone disagrees with you confidence in what you believe should be diminished.

The question I ponder is: are there any conditions that would make dogmatism justifiable? As I read the debate I am sympathetic both ways. There are some things that I am dogmatic about and many other things I am not dogmatic about.

If the reason that one should side with the concilliationist is that it is morally wrong or irrational to continue to sustain the same confidence in a belief after one has encountered an epistemic peer who disagrees, then the solution  to the dogmatist problem would be an explanation of justification that was found outside the conditions of parity (i.e. equal access and exposure to evidence, equal intelligence etc). The question arises in certain cases. Consider the belief in God. Many believe there is a god. Some of those are committed to a particular religion. Some of those are Christian. Some others believe that there is no god.

It is often the case that theists hold to their belief dogmatically (as defined by the concilliationist) in that they do not lower their confidence in their belief even when epistemic peers hold an opposing view. According to the concilliationist, the theist is open to the accusation that he or she is a dogmatist and, consequently, irrational or immoral.

One response open to the theist is an appeal to revelation. As far as I am aware, there is no work on the idea of revelation in any of the literature on the epistemology of disagreement (it does come up in religious epistemology, especially in discussions of religious pluralism). In Christian theology revelation falls into two kinds: general and special. General revelation is the idea that all people know God through creation. Special revelation is the idea that God reveals himself in special ways–in verbal form, in Christ, by appearances–to specific people. The theist might point out that, in the case of theistic belief, two people could be epistemic peers, but one person has been given special revelation and that the other person has not. There would be nothing immoral about that (unless one wants to accuse God of favoritism, but that is not the charge made by a concilliationist and would have to be dealt with separately. Let me add that I think there would be  good answers to this charge). It would also not be irrational.

This position would also allow epistemic parity to continue on the terms defined by the continuationist – equal access and exposure to evidence and equal intelligence. The justification would be outside of those conditions that define parity.

One objection to this might be how one knows that the form of revelation is really revelation, something given by God and not merely made up by men. The Bible, for Christians, is the self-revelation of God. How do we know that the Bible is revelation from God? One way to answer this would be to present a historical/evidential defense of the veracity of the Bible. However, because the disagreement would then hinge on evidence available to both parties, the problem of disagreement returns and we haven’t really got anywhere.

The other objection is that because the Bible is available to both parties it is possible that two people could read the Bible and conclude that God exists or does not exist. In this case it seems the problem returns and we are left back at the start.

The Christian has another line of response to both objections. By appeal to special revelation the Christian does not mean that the Bible is only available to certain people (anyone, believer or not, can buy a Bible and read it). What the Christian means by special revelation includes another concept – illumination. As well as the objective truth of the Bible, one requires the subjective transformation of the reader. Special revelation includes the ability of the reader to affirm the truth of the Bible and this, in turn, requires a revelatory act of God. This is what Christians mean by illumination. In the church era, some, chosen by God, are re-born, regenerated and given the ability, unique to those he chooses and by the power of the Holy Spirit, to read scripture and affirm its truth. Both the objective (in the text) and subjective (in the reader) components of special revelation are necessary.

The Westminster Confession of Faith puts it this way:

The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man, or church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God… our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.

In this line of thinking the Christian theist does not have to resort to an evidential case nor collapse her case if the other person reads the Bible.

It also produces another proposition. X believes that God has revealed himself in scripture and that God has given X the Holy Spirit that enables X to believe the truth of scripture. Let’s call this proposition r. Y, on the other hand thinks not r. Should X lower her confidence in r? It appears not since r includes the exclusion of Y from the ability to believe X. X can hold to r without holding to it dogmatically and maintaining epistemic parity (as defined by the concilliationist view) with Y. 

David Christensen and Jennifer Lackey. Eds, The Epistemology of Disagreement: New Essays (Oxford: OUP, 2013). 

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.