Setting the bar

I knew I would be told I was setting too high a standard by talking of reliable knowledge (and meaning by it actually reliable knowledge, rather than credible or rationally defensible or arguable beliefs or guesses or intuitions). I knew that so well that when making a couple of notes on belief and reliable knowledge this morning, that was one of the notes I made – the prediction that I would be told that. But the high standard is exactly the point. Why would we want to set a lower standard? Why would we accept a lower standard? I can see why people want to set a lower standard for their own beliefs, and perhaps for their chosen group’s beliefs; but why everyone is supposed to accept a lower standard for certain kinds of beliefs (and not others) in general, I find more puzzling. Especially because the claims we are supposed to accept a lower standard for – a lower standard for defining what reliable knowledge is, remember – are so very large and detailed (albeit conflicting) and unlikely. It is not obvious that the larger and wilder the claim is, the lower the standard for defining reliable knowledge should be. On the contrary. The larger and wilder the claim is, the more we want to know how the person making the claim knows – except, apparently, when it comes to whether ‘God’ exists and whether it is good and what it wants us to do to be good. But that’s just the kind of claim we need reliable knowledge of, and if we don’t have it, we need to be very damn cautious about heeding claims on the subject.

Notice I’m not saying this rules out belief; it obviously doesn’t. But belief isn’t knowledge, and shouldn’t be treated like knowledge. I maintain that it’s not setting too high a standard for reliable knowledge to say that it should be genuinely reliable knowledge. Otherwise it’s not reliable knowledge, and we should talk about something else; but what I’m talking about here is reliable knowledge, so I’m going to define it accordingly, not in some more relaxed way. That’s why I brought it up in the first place. I wanted to point out that we don’t actually have any reliable knowledge on this subject. (Reliable knowledge is a very scarce commodity. Very scarce indeed. But that’s why it’s as well to be modest when making assertions from incomplete knowledge. Assertions about God and what God wants us to do to be good are not always notably modest.)

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