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Thread: Epistemic Responsibility

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    Epistemic Responsibility

    Can you have epistemically responsible religious beliefs?

    I think we need a new criteria for epistemically responsible beliefs in religion. W.K. Clifford’s overly rigid criteria for responsible belief and William James’ overly permissive criteria for responsible belief leave us no middle ground.

    Clifford’s version of epistemic responsibility (“it is wrong always, and, everywhere for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence”) is too unyielding an expectation for human beings in a world of uncertainty. While he was right that there is no such thing as a private belief, I do not find it realistic to demand all beliefs (religious or otherwise) be supported by “sufficient” evidence. Who decides what is sufficient and when? In the case of a forced option like religion where the supporting evidence for the spectrum of certainty-driven beliefs (atheism included) all end up being circumstantial at best, agnosticism is the only epistemically responsible option in Clifford’s world.

    Unfortunately, we then lose out on the opportunity to access the many benefits that I think only religion can provide.

    Meanwhile, James’ Live, Forced, & Momentous criteria allow too much room for personally and socially destructive nonsense like anti-vaxxers and suicide bombers, so that’s not particularly helpful either.

    What are we left with?

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    Re: Epistemic Responsibility

    The pomposity around evidence really rears its ugly head here. It's not about evidence vs. no evidence, it's the standard of evidence in question. For most devout religious people, the evidence is generated from faithful witness and observation. This was the tradition for centuries in Europe, reinforced with scripture. You can't just act like what billions of people are doing is not real by waving your hand and dismissing it as non-evidentiary. You don't get out of it that easy, even if the current hegemonic epistemology is that of rationality in some areas, you don't get to pretend it's above subjectification. To me this demonstrates a lack of understanding of what epistemology is, possibly due to a mono-epistemological world view. Something as simple as learning other languages and cultures shows that there is not one way of seeing reality. People who have a multicultural understanding can switch between epistemologies at will, and each one seems as concrete as any other while you're immersed in it.

    I don't see how you can talk about epistemology, which is highly varied, yet simultaneously talk about the limited epistemology of secular agnosticism. Why don't you (or Clifford) just own the fact that you have a certain standard of evidence that, when not met, creates an immoral or unethical standard for you?

    The anti-vax piece is a nice little bait tossed in. Vaccines gave my son autism, probably due to sub-clinical meningitis. I have my masters degree in biology so I am well trained in science. You may feign being part of the school of rationality, but I can tell you're not actually a scientist. If you were, you'd be part of scientific circles like I am, who argue about everything all the time. The level of disagreement is vast, despite our similar training. That's because the school of rationality is not immune to epistemology. Scientists themselves are steeped in their cultures and individual realities. Logocentricists love to act like they are the supreme object authority, but actually they are just one epistemology among many, and it disturbs them greatly to have this pointed out.

    There is no epistemological responsibility. I don't need your permission to see the world a certain way; but even if I did, my way of seeing may not be entirely within my control. What is within my control is to engage in practices that enhance the common trust - social contracts if you will - and it's there that responsibilities play out. If I want to relate across commonly agreed reality with other people in a way that alienates me, deprives me of enjoyment or even inflicts harm, then I will suffer.

    Your question is actually a social one, not an epistemological one. For all you know, each individual person has a slightly varied epistemology, despite the outward appearance of coherent culture. Just because we all play the role doesn't mean it holds equal meaning for everyone.
    Last edited by Northern Light; 03-27-19 at 04:05 AM.

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    Re: Epistemic Responsibility

    No such thing as private belief, Cliff ol' boy?
    Last night I dreamed I walked along a moonlight beach with Kristi.
    I do believe this, that I dreamed this dream last night.
    That's about as private as a belief can be, yes?
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    Re: Epistemic Responsibility

    Quote Originally Posted by Angel View Post
    No such thing as private belief, Cliff ol' boy?
    Last night I dreamed I walked along a moonlight beach with Kristi.
    I do believe this, that I dreamed this dream last night.
    That's about as private as a belief can be, yes?
    Good to talk with you again, Angel.

    It seems logically consistent that no belief can be wholly private, because every belief affects your behavior, thinking, and decisions. That effect may be non-zero (in the case of believing you had a dream, or that a certain burger joint is terrible) or it may be spectacularly life-altering (in the case of believing in a God who wants the infidels dead.)

    The main thrust of epistemic responsibility seems to me to be Effect, rather than Truth. While the effect of beliefs can sometimes be obvious, predicting which beliefs are going to have an effect, or what they will affect, or when, is not easy. And while certain categories of belief will drastically affect my behavior in the world, even apparently "innocuous" beliefs have the potential to become impactful. This is the core of the argument of no "private" belief: there is no quarantine that stops a private belief from bleeding into the world.

    To use an example in the same category as yours, I once had a series of dreams about fighting with my mother. I believed that I had these dreams. For a short period of time, my belief that these dreams happened had an effect on the way I interacted with my mother. She and I don't have a particularly good relationship, and the emotional intensity of my belief that I had those dreams created an impact-- I found myself a bit more testy with her than usual. The arguments in my dreams (which were really just me playing out things I actually wanted to say to her) perched at the forefront of my consciousness around her. I never told her about these dreams. I don't think I told anyone. If I have a belief and tell nobody and yet it still bleeds into my perception of the world and consequently modifies my behavior, then I don't see how any system can quarantine a private belief.

    If beliefs can't really be quarantined, then how are they truly private? There's no such thing as a "private fart" in a crowded elevator.
    Last edited by VINLO; 03-27-19 at 02:04 PM.

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    Re: Epistemic Responsibility

    Quote Originally Posted by Northern Light View Post
    It's not about evidence vs. no evidence, it's the standard of evidence in question.
    I agree. Clifford accuses theists of having beliefs with "no" evidence, and I think he's wrong. That said, the types of evidence considered acceptable for a belief and the amount of evidence required are salient questions. Saying "you don't have enough evidence to believe X" or "X requires Y evidence to justify, which you do not have" are legitimate criticisms of any held belief. I don't think those criticism are (or should be) the chief concern of epistemic responsibility, though. They are Clifford's solution to the concern of epistemic impact: only believe True things.

    Clifford's solution is useful in some cases, but in other cases problematic.

    Quote Originally Posted by Northern Light View Post
    You can't just act like what billions of people are doing is not real by waving your hand and dismissing it as non-evidentiary.
    Well, I'm not. Evidence is not the same as good evidence, which is not the same as sufficient evidence. What evidence is "sufficient"? What evidence is "good?" The inability to answer those questions fairly seems the major problem with Clifford's paradigm, and why I seek a new one.

    Quote Originally Posted by Northern Light View Post
    You don't get out of it that easy, even if the current hegemonic epistemology is that of rationality in some areas, you don't get to pretend it's above subjectification. To me this demonstrates a lack of understanding of what epistemology is, possibly due to a mono-epistemological world view. Something as simple as learning other languages and cultures shows that there is not one way of seeing reality. People who have a multicultural understanding can switch between epistemologies at will, and each one seems as concrete as any other while you're immersed in it.
    True. None of this eliminates responsibility, though.

    Quote Originally Posted by Northern Light View Post
    I don't see how you can talk about epistemology, which is highly varied, yet simultaneously talk about the limited epistemology of secular agnosticism. Why don't you (or Clifford) just own the fact that you have a certain standard of evidence that, when not met, creates an immoral or unethical standard for you?
    I approach this topic through the door of secular agnosticism because A) it seems to be the only epistemology that I've found that even concerns itself with the idea of epistemic responsibility and B) Clifford's standard of evidence has too high of an opportunity cost, which offends my pragmatic nature. I stated as much in my original post.

    Quote Originally Posted by Northern Light View Post
    The anti-vax piece is a nice little bait tossed in.
    It actually wasn't meant to be. I included that as an example because I'm assuming statistical likelihood of agreement on the part of my audience. Regardless of what you believe about whether or not vaccines do cause autism, anti-vaxxers are a small minority both among the public and among scientists. It seemed a safe bet to include as a point of agreement in my argument.

    Note that I'm not arguing majority consensus equals rightness. I just didn't seriously anticipate anyone taking issue with that point, a miscalculation on my part.

    Quote Originally Posted by Northern Light View Post
    Vaccines gave my son autism, probably due to sub-clinical meningitis. I have my masters degree in biology so I am well trained in science. You may feign being part of the school of rationality, but I can tell you're not actually a scientist.
    I'm sorry about your son. You're right, I'm not a scientist-- but I don't think having a master's degree is a necessary condition to form a responsible opinion on this topic. We're not talking about quantum mechanics, here. I have no doubt that the issue gets logarithmically complex the more knowledge about it you have, but your appeal to your own authority as a scientist is insufficient to convince me that A) being a scientist offers better protection from irresponsible, irrational belief or B) your belief about autism is by default closer to the truth than mine (or other scientists) by virtue of your education.

    "I'm a scientist" is a poor justification. I don't think you would accept that as an explanation from someone else, so why would you expect me to buy it?

    Quote Originally Posted by Northern Light View Post
    If you were, you'd be part of scientific circles like I am, who argue about everything all the time. The level of disagreement is vast, despite our similar training.
    Not sure what your argument is here? Regardless, I don't want this to become a discussion about the veracity of your belief in the relationship between vaccines and autism.

    (cont.)

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    Re: Epistemic Responsibility

    Quote Originally Posted by Northern Light View Post
    There is no epistemological responsibility. I don't need your permission to see the world a certain way;
    Of course you don't need my permission. That doesn't eliminate responsibility. You don't need my permission to drive without a seatbelt, either.

    Quote Originally Posted by Northern Light View Post
    but even if I did, my way of seeing may not be entirely within my control.
    Great point. This certainly impacts the level of epistemic responsibility we can reasonably hold people to, but it still doesn't eliminate responsibility.

    Quote Originally Posted by Northern Light View Post
    If I want to relate across commonly agreed reality with other people in a way that alienates me, deprives me of enjoyment or even inflicts harm, then I will suffer.
    And others will probably suffer too. The means by which you acquire beliefs about reality seem an effective place to seat responsibility for the way those beliefs affect society.

    Quote Originally Posted by Northern Light View Post
    Your question is actually a social one, not an epistemological one. For all you know, each individual person has a slightly varied epistemology, despite the outward appearance of coherent culture. Just because we all play the role doesn't mean it holds equal meaning for everyone.
    Epistemic responsibility's concern is social effect, but it is still an inherently epistemic question. I think you are right to suggest that each person has a slightly varied epistemology; that does not mean we should not question or guide it for maximum positive impact.

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    Re: Epistemic Responsibility

    Quote Originally Posted by VINLO View Post
    Good to talk with you again, Angel....
    Yes, nice having you back.

    I haven't read Clifford, and frankly had to google "epistemic responsibility," which is also called "intellectual responsibility" in the entry I read.
    I would like to understand the concept better before replying to your "private belief" post.
    Is "epistemic responsibility" simply coterminous with epistemic justification?
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    Re: Epistemic Responsibility

    Quote Originally Posted by Angel View Post
    Yes, nice having you back.

    I haven't read Clifford, and frankly had to google "epistemic responsibility," which is also called "intellectual responsibility" in the entry I read.
    "Intellectual Responsibility" is tied up with so much other garbage and meaning that I don't want to use it here. I think people like Noam Chomsky and Sam Harris are partly to blame for that. Intellectual responsibility is often labeled as a mandate for 'intellectuals' to seek and destroy false beliefs. That is not at all what I am referring to.

    Quote Originally Posted by Angel View Post
    I would like to understand the concept better before replying to your "private belief" post.
    Is "epistemic responsibility" simply coterminous with epistemic justification?
    No, I don't think so. They are closely related though, at least insofar as I understand them. The following are my definitions:

    Epistemic justification: understanding and categorizing methods of justification for beliefs.
    Epistemic responsibility: beliefs have potential for enormous personal and social impact, both good and bad; therefore, the epistemic justification we use for beliefs carries some moral responsibility.

    I believe that a system of epistemic justification that permits holding socially and personally corrosive beliefs that are not necessitated by preponderance of evidence is a moral hazard.

    For example: if you are siting at your desk, the preponderance of sensory data you have offers powerful certainty in the belief of you sitting at a desk. The belief might be wrong-- you might be a brain in a vat-- but the preponderance of available evidence is so intense, any sane person who ends up sitting at that desk is going to feel the same pull towards certainty. I'm sure a philosopher could rationalize his/her way out of that sensation of certainty if he/she wanted to, but the evidence of its veracity is going to be the same, and just as compelling, for most anyone. The deeper you dig into the available evidence of you at your desk, the stronger that certainty would become. I don't think it would be fair to hold you (or anyone) morally responsible for believing you are at a desk.

    However, as the preponderance of evidence for a belief wanes, moral responsibility increases. A Christian who states that they just "have faith" that the Bible is the divine word of God carries far greater epistemic responsibility than the person who sits at a desk and says "I believe I am sitting at a desk."

    --

    As with our conversation about morality, this is the first time I am articulating ideas about this and so I apologize if I am repetitive or unclear. The main reason I come here is to iron my own beliefs by having other people test them.

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    Re: Epistemic Responsibility

    Quote Originally Posted by VINLO View Post
    "Intellectual Responsibility" is tied up with so much other garbage and meaning that I don't want to use it here. I think people like Noam Chomsky and Sam Harris are partly to blame for that. Intellectual responsibility is often labeled as a mandate for 'intellectuals' to seek and destroy false beliefs. That is not at all what I am referring to.



    No, I don't think so. They are closely related though, at least insofar as I understand them. The following are my definitions:

    Epistemic justification: understanding and categorizing methods of justification for beliefs.
    Epistemic responsibility: beliefs have potential for enormous personal and social impact, both good and bad; therefore, the epistemic justification we use for beliefs carries some moral responsibility.

    I believe that a system of epistemic justification that permits holding socially and personally corrosive beliefs that are not necessitated by preponderance of evidence is a moral hazard.

    For example: if you are siting at your desk, the preponderance of sensory data you have offers powerful certainty in the belief of you sitting at a desk. The belief might be wrong-- you might be a brain in a vat-- but the preponderance of available evidence is so intense, any sane person who ends up sitting at that desk is going to feel the same pull towards certainty. I'm sure a philosopher could rationalize his/her way out of that sensation of certainty if he/she wanted to, but the evidence of its veracity is going to be the same, and just as compelling, for most anyone. The deeper you dig into the available evidence of you at your desk, the stronger that certainty would become. I don't think it would be fair to hold you (or anyone) morally responsible for believing you are at a desk.

    However, as the preponderance of evidence for a belief wanes, moral responsibility increases. A Christian who states that they just "have faith" that the Bible is the divine word of God carries far greater epistemic responsibility than the person who sits at a desk and says "I believe I am sitting at a desk."

    --

    As with our conversation about morality, this is the first time I am articulating ideas about this and so I apologize if I am repetitive or unclear. The main reason I come here is to iron my own beliefs by having other people test them.
    Interesting calculus.
    Epistemic responsibility is inversely proportional to epistemic justification?
    Is that the idea?
    Moreover, epistemic responsibility is a moral responsibility?

    In simple non-philosophical terms, the stronger the reasons to believe the weaker the moral responsibility for those beliefs?
    And the other way around: the weaker the reasons to believe, the stronger the moral responsibility?

    Do I begin to understand the concept?
    Last edited by Angel; 03-27-19 at 06:01 PM.
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    Re: Epistemic Responsibility

    Quote Originally Posted by Angel View Post
    Interesting calculus.
    Epistemic responsibility is inversely proportional to epistemic justification?
    Is that the idea?
    Moreover, epistemic responsibility is a moral responsibility?

    In simple non-philosophical terms, the stronger the reasons to believe the weaker the moral responsibility for those beliefs?
    And the other way around: the weaker the reasons to believe, the stronger the moral responsibility?

    Do I begin to understand the concept?
    Yeah, I think that's a good summation of what I just said. Although your description just brought forth a potential error in my paradigm: wouldn't it also follow that the greater the evidence to hold a belief, the greater moral responsibility is generated when that belief is not held?

    I don't know if that's in opposition to, or in alignment with, the paradigm I've created here.

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