Tom Clark on the epistemic weakness of faith

Tom Clark points out that ‘an essential disagreement between secularists and their opponents is epistemological, about how we hold and justify our factual beliefs.’

Are they arrived at empirically, by consideration of public evidence potentially available to any observer (so that the evidence is intersubjective, not merely subjective), or are they more a function of religious tradition or faith? Are beliefs held to be fallible and thus corrigible by open inquiry and empirical testing, or are they held to be the infallible and unquestionable deliverances of authority, whether scriptural or institutional?

Yup; that’s an essential disagreement all right. In fact without that disagreement the others kind of drift away like smoke, because they are at least in principle resolvable through further discussion and inquiry. But with that disagreement, they aren’t.

On what basis do we choose between these opposing epistemologies? Why should we, or anyone, side with Dacey and the secularists, not the Iranians and other fundamentalists in deciding where to place our cognitive bets? To defend secularism, this root issue of our epistemic commitments must be brought into the public square…The beginning of such an argument is obvious but too often left unstated. It is simply that beliefs arrived at via publicly available (thus intersubjective) evidence, science, critical reason, logic, and open debate – what we might call open intersubjective empiricism – are far more reliable than beliefs based in faith and non-empirical modes of justification, such as appeals to scriptural authority.

Just so. And, Clark goes on to say, even fundamentalists know this when dealing with quotidian matters. I’ve pointed this out a few times myself. Nobody mumbles about faith when she wants to know how to get from Buffalo to Skaneateles, or when to plant tomatoes, or what to put on poison ivy. There are double standards in play. When we actually want to know something in the real world, we do what we know we have to do to find out. When we just want to believe something, we use completely different (and noticeably lax) methods.

But of course these same true believers abandon the epistemic commitment to intersubjective empiricism when deciding about matters of god, human nature, human flourishing and ethics – all the traditional domains of religious belief. They have a double standard of justification, falling back on intuition, faith, scripture and authority when it comes to the basic metaphysical and moral content of their worldviews. The fundamentalist/authoritarian proposition is that we are warranted, when considering matters of ultimate import that make up our worldview, in carving out an exception to the basic epistemic norms that rule our everyday lives.

But we’re not warranted in doing that. The world isn’t divided into two parts, one knowable via intersubjective empiricism and the other knowable via guesswork and fantasy and wishes. It’s odd to think it is.

The question that should be raised publicly, while we still have the chance, is whether and why this exemption is warranted. What is its rational basis? Why are we suddenly permitted to abandon the normal empirical constraints on belief when deciding about such things as god, life after death, the soul, free will, and the status of women, homosexuals, and those of other races and creeds? Is it because there are means of deciding the truth of such matters that are superior to logic, science, public evidence, and critical inquiry? If so, what are these and why are they trustworthy?

No, there are no such means. We know what the proposed alternatives are and we know they’re not trustworthy.

The nut of the article:

The future of secularism may depend on using the open public square to expose the epistemic weakness of faith and non-empirical justifications for belief.

Send me in, coach.

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