After Church: What Is Evidence? – Part 5

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Read Part Four First!

This account, of course, does not come without its own baggage. Peirce has been known primarily as a metaphysician and speculative philosopher; however, the intent of trained epistemic habits here is an attempt to extricate him from that same framework. Given this,
problems are bound to arise that Peirce would have no need to counter. First, the necessity requirement on evidence formation needs a proper response, since he did not believe in immediate consciousness. In addition, relativism was never a problem as his metaphysical position basically forces the “community of interpreters” to findthe answer in the infinite long run” – a luxury the epistemologist cannot accept. Thus, dealing with these issues should
allow for, at the very least, a solidly formed account of evidence.

Let us not consider this evidence forming process as some characterization of modernism or a loss of “knowledge”, in the rule based fashion it has acquired. For the former, a few things
can be said. This is a nuanced account that tries to explain how any person can actually form beliefs, specifically with intention. An unconscious, necessary belief system such as that proposed by Conee and Feldman simply does not account for this.

First of all, where does the doxastic attitude arrive from, and from what source? One can imagine it works by instinct or just “by nature”, but this seems a metaphysical claim in an epistemological system. One can also ask: how does one know the quality of one’s evidence Propositional beliefs or testimony may work fine under evidentialism thus construed, as they are relatively definite and accessible, but what of other evidence? Do memory-based, a priori, or experiential beliefs have a particular quality, accessible to all?

These forms of evidence are more “intuitive”, and, according to Plantinga, have a natural “felt inclination” to form beliefs around them, even if a memory is a hazy image at best. The belief has two parts in this understanding, the being-appeared-to as well as the felt inclination – thus, the belief is intentional in some sense, rather than purely obligatory. Apparently, these do not constitute proper evidence in Conee and Feldman’s model – if anything forced a obligatory doxastic attitude, it would seem to be memory or experience.

Furthermore, there is not a clear message as to what would constitute proper evidence in any situation, especially in those instances where one cannot resist a belief! This is because of their entailment of necessity, but their definition of belief remains entirely too broad. Do I have a belief that the lights are on in the room even when I am consciously unaware of such a belief? The only time, in fact, I will have a distinct belief about the lights is when the lights are functioning improperly, or that I need to answer the question of whether or not the lights are functioning and are “on”. That my perceptual faculties recognize the fact of the lights being “on” does not make that a belief that I hold – this seems too general an
application of the terms.

Think of it in this sense: the only reason I perceive, examine, and think about the status of “light in room” comes from the fact that I was forced to think about “light in room”. The belief forms the instant it comes into conscious awareness, not beforehand; when unconscious,
it is merely part of my perceptual states. It is not a confusion of evidential justification with the person, for an unconscious belief, necessarily believed, could fall prey to a tenacious epistemically unjustified belief as much as anything else. This obligatory doxastic attitude, whether justified or unjustified, might become epistemically necessary to the belief-holder without his or her consent – this is a far cry from actual belief formation, which happens actively and consciously to a person. Furthermore, how does one know what their doxastic attitude towards the evidence is? Otherwise, who exactly holds the belief? Conee and Feldman, in this case, are advocating non-propositional beliefs as primary, which I am sure they do not wish to do.

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Bergmann’s removal of the necessity characteristic finds use here. If there is no logical connection between sense experiences and the content of beliefs based upon them, no belief entails a specific kind of sense experience. Smell could just as easily be a sufficient method for determining the roughness of an object’s surface. A person with brain damage, even with an inversion of sense data usage, could still have the same evidence base for a belief, even for the wrong reasons.

Furthermore, the fittingness of an unlearned doxastic response becomes a contingent feature that depends on the cognizer’s properly working faculty – hence, proper function becomes as a part of evidence and belief usage. Adding to this counterexample, to temper the illegitimate cognizer’s viewpoint, the community of “believers” (those who hold beliefs) will evaluate the evidence on which the beliefs are based to determine whether that cognizer deserves to have his evidence count as valid. Once one has removed the doxastic unlearned response to evidence forming a specific belief, the public element can play out without problems.

Next is the problem of relativity – are “true” beliefs simply determined by the evidential criteria of the community? Firstly, many problems of “relativity” in the consideration of evidence can be solved with bringing everyone to the conversation with the same knowledge
base and familiarity with the subject matter; bringing a musician to a discussion among scientific minds will not necessarily give everyone an even ground. Education, as such, is the first step. However, that does not solve the problem when two different people, operating with the same evidence, obtain a different, but rationally and logically consistent, hypothesis.

Regarding certain cases, such as Newtonian physics versus quantum physics, the answer comes simply: the majority “jumps ship” to a new hypothesis which seems to settle irritations about physical processes in a greater fashion than that which came before. However, this means the judgement relies on the subjective opinions of scientists, not on an objective answer that reflects reality. That is the central problem: what is the bridge connecting and resolving the subjective and objective viewpoints?

Charles Peirce’s answer, that human beings will eventually come to a single answer in the “community of inquirers” in the infinite long run, strikes a metaphysical chord too speculative to make any real progress epistemologically. One must avoid the assumptions of a metaphysical explanation while also avoiding an idealization of human faculties (whether positively or negatively) – a balancing
act, to be sure.

In this case, there is a difference between a hypothetical thought experiment and reality. In reality, there will never be an assumption of two rationally impeccable people both coming to two completely different conclusions on the exact same observations; at the very least,  such a situation is so highly unlikely as to be impossible. This is due to human fallibility, as the chance that one’s inferences and reason hit that standard of “perfection”, whatever that might be, seems highly unlikely given any circumstance with two human beings. Even granting the impeccable nature of both reasonable agent’s cognitive faculties, that does not mean that an objective, singular answer does not exist.

Take, for example, the notion of the universe being geocentric or heliocentric. Heliocentricity has become the norm in scientific circles, but that does not mean geocentricity does not still either find believers or practical uses in the sciences. In both cases, there is equally reasonable evidence to suggest either, given a certain starting point and common criteria of evidence. Still, this does not mean that one’s reason will somehow apply to the universe. Barring skeptical objections, the universe does not fit into the mold of human thought necessarily. To detect what is outside the mind and classify it remains an entirely different enterprise than observing what is out there. In that sense is every observation “theory-laden”: one cannot observe without some prior assumptions. But, as noted earlier, this is not a problem if evidence remains a purely public enterprise, as both parties (even in the throes of disagreement) will surely continue to work towards a single answer to the problem, one which answers the questions given the determined and available evidence.

A possible part 6 will apply this to Christianity!

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.