Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Weakness of Robust Evidentialism

The following argument takes issue with what I call Robust Evidentialism. The thesis behind Robust Evidentialism has two components, which are (1) and (2) below. The first part of this thesis is committed to the normative principle that all beliefs require evidential justification, and the second part delimits evidential justification as only that which comes from the sciences. Here, science is to be understood broadly to include the social and natural sciences. This post is an attempt to not introduce the higher-ended debate in a field like epistemology or philosophy of science. Instead, my ambition is to capture how it is that the popular debate actually occurs in popular media. 

The reason behind concentrating on robust evidentialism is that this is the position people like Dawkins and Dennett are committed to in popular debates about science and evolution versus religious claims. According to Dawkins, religious claims are neither justified nor scientific, and you can see how strongly tied evidence is to the legitimacy of a claim for these new atheists. It is held that science is the all encompassing principle to explain all facets of the universe, yet if we hold to our guns, I think you'll find like I do, the problematic feature of maintaining such a position. Let me give you my premises. 

(1) All beliefs must be justified by evidence
(2) The only evidence that can justify beliefs is science
(3) In order to accept premise (1), following (2), (1) must be justified by scientific evidence
(4) (1) is not justifiable by science since no experiment can demonstrate a normative claim—that is to say science only studying factual claims about the world cannot tell us how the world and human beings ought to be.

And by extension we have (5):

(5) Given that science is not up to the task of supporting (1), we have a few options to take this argument:

(a) we can broaden our notion of justification and evidence to include non-scientific evidence up to and including the use of logic and argumentation that philosophers use in addressing problems of a conceptual nature. This involves giving up on premise (2).

(b) we can try to reconcile the divide between normative and descriptive domains of human experience and argue that science can bridge this gap in some way. This involves giving up on premise (4)

(c) we can reject (1) entirely and recognize that some beliefs are self-evidential, and open ourselves up to the possibility that some beliefs are known a priori.

Needless to say, I do not even think option (b) is possible. (a) is a weaker form of (c), and I think if we accept either (a) or (c), then we have no real way to reasonably reject truths claimed by revelation anymore than we do someone claiming the truth of the Ontological Argument for God’s existence based on self-evidential reasoning. Yet, I am strangely comfortable with this predicament because we are right back where philosophy starts with an analysis of our intuitions and the authority philosophy has to deal with problems that cannot be solved by common sense, faith or science alone. Inevitably, this is why we reflect. We reflect on these philosophical mysteries because no amount of any one single strand of science, faith or common-sense is up to the task on its own. 

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