Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Divine command and natural law epistemology

I am impressed by the idea that other kinds of beings from humans can appropriately have different doxastic practices from ours, in light of:

  1. a different environment which makes different practices truth-conductive, and

  2. different proper goals for their doxastic practices (e.g., a difference of emphasis on explanation versus prediction; a difference in what subject matter is more important).

Option (a) is captured by reliabilism, but reliabilism does not by itself do much to help with (b), and suffers from an insuperable reference class problem.

I know of two epistemological theories that nicely capture the differences between epistemic practices in the light of both (a) and (b):

  • divine command epistemology: a doxastic practice is required just in case God commands it (variant: commands it in light of truth-based goods)

  • natural law epistemology: a doxastic practice is required just in case it is natural to its practitioner (variant: natural and ordered towards truth-based goods).

Both of these theories have an interesting meta-theoretic consequence: they make particularly weird thought experiments less useful in epistemology. For God’s reasons for requiring a doxastic practice may well be linked to our typical way of life, and a practice that is natural in one ecological niche may have unfortunate consequences outside that niche. (That’s sad for me, since making up weird thought experiments is something I particularly enjoy!)

(Note, however, that both of these theories have nothing to say on the question of knowledge. That’s a feature, not a bug. I think we don’t need a concept of (propositional) knowledge, just as we don’t need a concept of baldness. Anything worth saying using the language of “knowledge” or “baldness” can be more precisely said without it—one can talk of degrees of belief and justification, amount of scalp coverage, etc.—and while it’s an amusing question how exactly to analyze knowledge or baldness, it’s just that.)


Heath White said...

It seems to me that there are social versions of these ideas. Examples:

1. One might live in a well-functioning republic where the news is reliable and the scientific method is widely practiced, or one might live in a Stalinist state where the news is propaganda and scientists are frequently manipulated for political reasons. The degree of skepticism one would ideally use toward one's information sources, the reliance on testimony or arguments from authority, etc. should vary between these situations. I tend to think this is the right way to interpret Enlightenment epistemology vs. earlier or later periods: due to dramatic change in both religious and scientific areas, intelligent people were low-trust when it came to authorities of various kinds.

2. A Hegelian might reasonably value coherence more than a Humean, and thus place greater weight on coherentist considerations when theorizing. Or this might vary between disciplines: maybe it is okay if biologists or paleontologists do not have complete evolutionary stories for some branches of the tree of life, but not okay if physicists do not have comprehensive physical theories.

Also, separate point: divine command (meta)epistemology would work only if God had actually commanded some epistemic practices or forbidden others. The only cases I can think of (maybe) are the use of divination (Urim and Thummim, casting lots in the NT) while forbidding other kinds of magic, and the use of prayer. But I don't think this is going to get us a lot of mileage in epistemology. What do you have in mind?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Regarding the final point, even on the ethical side, the ethical divine command theorist can't rely on overt revealed commands, since those revelations were aimed at particular groups, e.g., Israel, while there is a universal ethics for humans. Thus the divine command theorist will presumably say that God's universal ethical commands are written not in a book like the Bible but in the book of human moral conscience. Well, then, the epistemological divine command theorist will say that God's epistemological commands are written not in a book like the Bible but in the book of human epistemological conscience---the faculty which is the source of that nagging feeling when we jump to a conclusion or dismiss an objection faster than we ought.

Heath White said...

So many people lack that nagging feeling... :-)

Alexander R Pruss said...

It looks like the phrase "epistemic conscience" has actually been used by a number of authors, but I've never seen it before.

Regarding 1, I think this could just be a change of circumstance (or apparent change of circumstance) rather than a change of rules. But I agree that one might try to push the variation further than I want to push it (I want to stop at the level of the species).

Regarding 2, I think there could be some room for individual variation both morally and epistemically. Just as there is a value to humanity in people having a variety of skills, there is a value in people having different virtuous balances between virtues, as exhibited by the wide variety of saints. This seems to be true both with regard to moral and intellectual virtues. We can account for these differences in three ways:
1. Vocation: if God calls you to the kind of balance of virtues that St. Therese de Lisieux had, that's the kind of balance of virtues you should have
2. Self-determination: we can choose which balance of virtues we should have
3. Personality: just as our personality, intellect and physique may be a better fit for jobs than others, our personality may be a better fit for some balances of virtues than for others.

It would be really interesting if vocation was the right answer, if some people were called by God to strive for greater unity in their epistemic network while others were called to strive for greater caution.

But just as in the moral case, these differences in balance all exist within the scope of a normative human range, so too there would be a normative human range (Cartesian caution would be beyond the pale).