Weblog of a Christian philosophy student

Weblog of a Christian philosophy student. Please feel free to comment. All of my posts are public domain. Subscribe to posts [Atom]. Email me at countaltair [at] yahoo.com.au. I also run a Chinese to English translation business at www.willfanyi.com.

Location: Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Sunday, August 28, 2005

What Is Cognitive/Epistemic Honesty?

Summary: This is the second part of a discussion on whether Christian belief can be justified (followed from an earlier post here). I conclude that although Christianity, despite the resurrection may be unjustified under an Evidentialist epistemology, there is a richer more incorporative Coherentist epistemology that gives a truer account of how we arrive at our beliefs and importantly allows for non-rational causes to honestly held beliefs, concluding with my saying that at the very least, Christian belief can be held justifiably.

What Is Cognitive/Epistemic Honesty?

What constitutes cognitive and epistemic honesty? This is an interesting subject not only for epistemology but also for the philosophy of religion, as we attempt to understand the reason and justification for any religiously held belief.

The 'problem', if you will in philosophy of religion, for theists is imposed by those epistemic philosophies which holds that it is not honest to belief something unless that belief is supported sufficiently by evidence. This kind of philosophy is called 'Evidentialism'. According to Evidentialism, unless we can come up with the goods on Christian belief, then we are guilty of some kind of internal dishonesty if we believe.

Rather than attempt to defend myself by laying out what I think constitute good arguments for Christianity, I will instead canvass an alternative to Evidentialism called Coherentism and why Coherentism is better at explaining our intuitions about what constitute honest beliefs than Evidentialism - and hence should be adopted. Then I will examine exactly how a Coherentist system of belief relates to Christian held belief.

Let us say 2 people were having a debate, John and Tim. Tim uses circular logic, and John points this out, and Tim retracts his statement. Then John goes ahead and uses circular logic of his own, but when accused refuses to admit that he has made a mistake. The question is, why is it dishonest for John to do this? The answer is most probably that John is applying special standards to his own actions in terms of allowing special pleading, and not using the standard he uses for others to himself.

And if John actually believes that he hasn't used circular logic - then he is applying a special standard to that belief - a different standard than the one used for his logically correct beliefs. Hence one might say for that reason that such a cognitive belief is dishonest.

Another useful example is the case of the 'friendly fideist'. The problem with fideism is that if one adopts a specific religious position then, if fideism is faith-belief with no evidence, one doesn't really have grounds for rejecting a different religion, yet one does it anyway. But the friendly fideist doesn't do this at all, and gladly accepts truths in all religions. In addition he applies this kind of standard to his other beliefs. So the friendly fideist has the standard that it is acceptable for their to be fideistic beliefs in his/her worldview. Is the friendly fideist engaged in point-blank intellectual dishonesty? It doesn't seem so to me - as long as the friendly fideist is being consistent in all his/her beliefs.

These examples show the underlying logic of another epistemic theory of justification and belief called Coherentism. Basically Coherentism alleges what makes a belief justified is that it fits in generally with the rest of our beliefs. My Coherentist position is that a belief is justified and 'honestly' able to be held if any person uses the standards applied to the rest of their beliefs in holding a belief. Hence John in the above example is dishonestly holding the belief that he can use circular logic in this belief, because that standard is not and cannot be applied to the rest of his beliefs. Similarly the friendly fideist is not engaged in dishonesty even though he/she has a fideistic position, because he/she is consistent, there are no special standards being applied.

While this is fine for an honestly held belief, what constitutes a reasonable belief? Well my position on that is that a belief is prima facie reasonable, if an average person with an average set of beliefs, not having come to them in special circumstances, can apply and hold a new belief without violating any standards held for the set of average normal beliefs.

Hence in contrast to Evidentialism, the Coherentist is concerned with evidence, because that is the standard we apply to many of our beliefs, however the Coherentist is much more broadly concerned with making sure our beliefs can all be held with the same honest standard than whether it is supportable by evidence (which need only be a subset of what makes any position justified in Coherentism). And Coherentism gives a richer more nuanced way of evaluating what are honest beliefs and what are reasonable beliefs than Evidentialism, as clearly as with the friendly fideist there are some beliefs that are not Evidentialist which we would regard as honest.

Evidentialism is so popular precisely for this reason, that it highlights the standard so important to many of our beliefs. However Coherentism can explain Evidentialism and is not as artificially limiting in terming honesty.

I will now go onto the chief quarrel Evidentialism has with Christianity - which is the evidence for Christianity specifically (as opposed to general god-belief.) According to Coherentism, a Christian belief is honest for Christian person X if:

1. X Christian has set of beliefs Set A held to some standard
2. The belief 'Jesus is Lord' is held according to the same standard as Set A

Note it is not only purely intellectual standards but also emotional standards for some of our emotional beliefs that can make Christianity an honest belief. If X Christian has that set of beliefs with that standard, then necessarily for X Christian they hold belief in Christianity honestly.

Now is Christianity reasonable? A belief can be honestly held but not be considered generally reasonable, so we must determine - would a normal person accept Christianity using the same standards for normal beliefs (as laid out above?) So let us see whether these propositions seem valid:

1. X person is a completely normal average person who has come to beliefs Set A completely normally without any special circumstances (in other words Set A is assumed to be a set where X's cognitive faculties are working properly.)
2. X wants to become a Christian because of Jesus high moral character, justified belief in the existence of God, desire for a personal loving relationship with God, and because of the plausibility of Jesus' resurrection.
3. X professes 'Jesus is Lord', according to the same standard of the set of perfectly normal beliefs in Set A

How plausible is (3)? That is the question and answer to whether Christian belief is reasonable.


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