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Process-Based Epistemic Arguments

by Francois Tremblay



There are certain epistemic conditions that we should observe in rational disciplines and justified claims, given the nature of knowledge and the epistemic capacities and limits of human beings. Now, there are two kinds of epistemic conditions, of process and of result. We cannot use conditions of result, as this would be circular: it would be, in effect, saying that X is true because X is true. But we can, however, examine conditions of process.

Now, there are a number of simple conditions for rational disciplines and justified claims that we can easily identify.

  • Because reality is objective, we expect a rational discipline that studies a specific aspects of reality, to converge towards that reality. Whatever the truth is about a given aspect, a rational discipline should, by accumulation of evidence, converge towards it in a general manner.
  • Because our cognition is limited, and reality is complex, we do not expect human beings to be able to grasp everything there is to know about any field in one step. Instead, we expect our process of discovery to be hierarchical, that is to say, proceeds from one level of complexity to the next, building on the knowledge found on previous levels.
  • Because our cognition is fallible, rational claims must be considered falsifiable by its proponents, i.e. they must think there are ways to prove the claims wrong. The issue here is not as much that the claims are actually falsifiable or not, but rather whether the proponents are aware of their own fallibility. As corollaries, the claims must also be open to modification and not claim certainty, for the same reason.
  • We can also say something about true claims specifically. Our only valid method to find knowledge consists of examining the weight of objective evidence. Although one can still find a truth by randomly choosing a position, this is very unlikely to happen. Therefore, we should expect a true claim to be made on the basis of evidence.

    After considering these facts, we can propose the following inductive arguments:

    1. A rational discipline usually produces hierarchical and singular (or at least converging) results.
    2. Theism is divided in various forms – religions – which are not hierarchical or singular.
  1. Theism is probably not the result of a rational process.
  2. Rational disciplines usually produce claims that are considered falsifiable, open to modification and do not claim certainty.
  3. Theistic claims are not considered falsifiable, open to modification, and claim certainty.
  1. Theism is probably not a rational discipline.
  2. True claims are usually found on the weight of their objective evidence, not because of belief.
  3. Theism is usually accepted on belief.
  1. Theism is probably not a true claim.

    Note that these three arguments are inductive. An inductive argument uses existing elements and extrapolates a probable conclusion based on that data, instead of using principles to deduce a conclusion. As such, these conclusion are qualified.

    One may also argue that people come to believe in the god-concept on the basis of evidence. Considering the fact that approximately 82% of Christians have become such between the ages of 5 and 13, according to Barna Research (Nov. 15th, 1999), and that the religion of mother – religion of child correlation coefficient in the United States is about 0.9, it is difficult to accept this proposition !

    Regarding the problem of religious diversity, it may be interesting for the reader to note that there are more than 330 000 different churches only in the United States (BELIEVE Religious Information).

    A first, unsophisticated objection would be to claim that these arguments only reflect how atheists think, that these arguments are just appeals to inter-subjectivity, and that a theist could mount counter-arguments based on his own faith. But these arguments do not in fact complain that the theist does not follow our patterns of reasoning, but rather that the conditions of theism are incompatible with the conditions of human understanding.

    One may say that religions do return singular results, since they all make similar claims and all believe in the same god. This position is widely accepted, but does not help to defeat the argument. Whether all religions are about the same god or not, they all differ wildly on all aspects, including the nature of their god, the nature of divine causation, the nature of the divine will, the nature of the proper doctrines, and so on. However we interpret the god of these different religions, the fact is that religions are not singular by any stretch of the imagination.

    Another, more credible, argument would be to say that the arguments are valid but irrelevant. Theism may not be a rational discipline, but is wholly different and detached from the fallibility of human cognition because it is achieved by direct perception of some kind, Reformed Epistemology-style. Given this, we should expect theistic claims to be non-hierarchical.

    But this objection, while seemingly powerful on the face of it, is rather counter-intuitive. Even if the claim “God exists” was non-hierarchical, we should still expect theism in general to be hierarchical, given its apparent complexity. To make this case, the theist would have to prove that theism is not a complex discipline.

    Finally, the theist may argue that we need some process-based means to deny him the possibility that he might have “the right religion” or theistic position. Otherwise, he may very well argue that his religion is different from all others in that it is the “one true religion”. However, to make such a claim, he needs to prove that his religion is actually epistemically different, not just different in content. Otherwise, there is no way to single out any specific religion within the disciplinary framework of theism.

    Last updated: August 5, 2004