The forthcoming Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Religion is full of interesting stuff! So far, I specially recommend Bishop and Perszyk on alternative conceptions of God and Dougherty and Pruss on apparently unjustified evils as ‘anomalies’ (in the philosophy of science sense). I have not yet read the last four articles. Here, I want to comment on Hud Hudson’s “The Father of Lies?”
(This post got longer than I intended, so I’ve added sub-headings. If you get bored in the middle, please skip to the end. I’ve also bolded important parts to make for easier skimming.)
Hudson’s central contention is that anyone who endorses skeptical theism lacks the resources to rule out divine deception. The reason for this is simple: the skeptical theist ought to admit that we do not know that deception is unjustifiable in all circumstances (in fact, most people think we have good reason to suppose just the opposite). The skeptical theist ought also to admit that we don’t know that we are not in circumstances in which it would be permissible for God to deceive us. So, even if we know that something or other (a text, an experience, etc.) is a divine revelation, we do not thereby come to know that it is true.
Hudson is quite explicit that he is targeting knowledge-level propositional revelation: the thing the religious believer might well want to secure, and the skeptical theist cannot secure, is the notion that certain propositions can be known to be true by revelation alone. My view is that John Locke’s arguments (see section 1.1) and some other related considerations provide strong reason for denying that the sort of propositional revelation traditionally accepted by Christians could yield propositional knowledge, and that this is okay (for Christianity). Hudson’s argument shows that Locke makes a concession to his opponents which he perhaps ought not to make. But, even when combined with Hudson’s observations, these arguments against propositional knowledge by revelation alone do not in principle prevent us from reasonably believing, on the basis of revelation, things that would not be reasonable for us to believe in the absence of revelation. (The ‘in principle’ qualification is important; as will become clear, if the broadly Lockean view I am advocating is correct, then identifying a text as a revelation is a tricky business.)
In EHU 4.18, Locke begins by conceding the principle that if any proposition p is revealed by God, then p. He argues, however, that the claim that some proposition is revealed by God never goes beyond probable belief to become knowledge.
Locke distinguishes ‘traditional revelation’ from ‘original revelation’ (EHU 4.18.3). Original revelation is direct non-verbal communication by God. Traditional revelation is communication from God by means of words. Two things needs to be noted here: first, a vision, dream, etc. in which one hears or reads words which one takes to come directly from God on this view counts as traditional revelation, even if it wasn’t passed down from other humans. Second, the division is not exhaustive. Even within Christianity, there are claims to revelation that don’t fit in either category. An example is Eastern Christian iconography, which is ‘traditional’ in the sense of being passed down from one generation to the next, and is regarded as a form of revelation, but is not primarily verbal. (Most icons are inscribed at least with the names of the saints depicted, but an icon is not a text.)
This distinction is important to Locke because he thinks that God can miraculously give people new ideas, but words (or other conventional signs) can’t be meaningful unless we already have ideas, so ‘original revelation’, as defined, can give us new ideas, but ‘traditional revelation’, as defined, cannot. Locke also seems, in 4.18, to think that traditional revelation has problems about uncertainty of interpretation and original revelation does not. However, in 4.19, which was added in the 4th edition, Locke also raises interpretive problems about original revelation. So I think we are better off with a different distinction. We will distinguish between two ways Christians have traditionally held God to attest to his revelations: public miracles and private religious experience. (Question for readers: are there other forms of attestation in the Christian tradition besides these two?)
Attestation to Revelation by Public Miracles
Public miracles are perhaps the mode of attestation to which Christians have historically most often appealed. But there are two questions here: how can we know the miracle really occurred, and how can we know what lesson we were meant to draw from the miracle? Locke argues that, in general, historical beliefs fall short of knowledge, hence our claim that a miracle occurred will never have knowledge-level justification. However, this just shows that Locke’s standards for knowledge are too demanding. Surely I know that there was once a general named ‘Julius Caesar’. Even relaxing the standards for knowledge, though, do we know that miracles have occurred? I suspect not. After all, essentially all miracle reports are contested, and in nearly every instance there are alternative explanations available which are plausible enough to prevent knowledge-level justification.
I don’t want to go too far into historical details here, but since it is now the season of Easter, I’ll illustrate by talking about the resurrection of Jesus. I think the historical evidence is sufficient for us to claim to know that there was such a person as Jesus of Nazareth, and that the tomb in which he was buried was mysteriously found empty, and his body was never recovered. I also think that no prima facie plausible explanation of these facts has ever been proposed. (One must admit that resurrection – even the resurrection of a holy person and great teacher who is believed to have predicted his own resurrection before his death – is not a prima facie plausible hypothesis. It would take a lot to make us take such a hypothesis seriously if we found a mysteriously empty casket today.) Now, whether some one of the possible explanations turns out to be ultima facie plausible, or at least whether there is a clear winner for least implausible explanation, is going to depend on a lot of difficult questions. So I think it’s safe to say that no one has every genuinely known, on the basis of historical research, what happened to Jesus’ body. I do think that with the right sort of background beliefs one might come to reasonably believe in one or another of the hypotheses (including the resurrection hypothesis), but the intrinsic implausibility of each hypothesis, together with the existence of the alternative hypotheses, is sufficient to prevent knowledge. The case against knowledge is, I think, even stronger for other alleged miracles.
But suppose we did know that Jesus rose from the dead. It is plausible that this would constitute a divine endorsement of Jesus’ example and teachings. But would we then know that God attested to Jesus’ example and teachings as a revelation? I think not. After all (as skeptical theists are always pointing out) God might have all kinds of reasons for doing things that we can’t even begin to fathom. Plus, we can easily construct alternative hypotheses. Perhaps the resurrection was some kind of fluke of nature. Perhaps it was God’s way of registering his extremely strenuous objections to the unjust trial which condemned Jesus. Perhaps it was God’s way of registering his extremely strenuous objections to the very practice of crucifixion, or capital punishment in general. Perhaps God was endorsing the example and teachings of Jesus, but as a merely human exemplar to which we can aspire. So, even if we knew that Jesus rose from the dead, we wouldn’t thereby come to know that God endorsed his example and teachings as a revelation.
Now suppose we knew that God did endorse the life and teachings of Jesus as a divine revelation. We’d still have to figure out what propositional content God was endorsing. That would involve both figuring out what Jesus said and did and figuring out what it all meant. Now, I do think we can know, by historical research, that Jesus said and did certain things, provided we keep our claims sufficiently vague. For instance, it’s pretty clear that he taught about loving your enemies and that he challenged and offended the Jewish religious authorities and so forth. But, again, there are apparently conflicting records, there are disputes about the date, authorship, and accuracy of those records, and some of the alternative hypotheses about these matters have significant plausibility. And then, of course, although the significance of some of these teachings and actions is quite clear, there is no end of interpretive disputes about others.
Could God have used a miracle to attest to a revelation in such a way as to give knowledge, rather than merely reasonable belief? Contrary to Locke, I suspect the answer is ‘yes’. Perhaps those who saw Jesus after his death thereby gained propositional knowledge via revelation. They would only have to get over one of the hurdles I have mentioned: the interpretation of the miracle itself. But God could have been even clearer. For instance, there could have been a voice from heaven (perhaps saying something like “this is my beloved Son; hear him!”) heard by a large number of witnesses known to be reliable, who had a wide range of different prior background beliefs, who each independently recorded their testimony, and who investigated alternative explanations of the voice (hidden ventriloquist?) as thoroughly as possible. Perhaps that would be sufficient for knowledge, and the voice could say something sufficiently easy to interpret, and the further revelation it could attest to might also be clear. I’m not familiar with any claim that this sort of thing happened. (In the case of the voices from heaven occurring in the Bible, it is sometimes said that more than one person heard it, and that does count in favor of the reasonableness of believing the account, but we don’t have strong independent evidence of the reliability of the witnesses, nor was their testimony recorded independently.) So things would have to look quite different from how they in fact look in order to yield propositional knowledge by revelation.
Attestation to Revelation by Private Religious Experience
The Christian tradition has also often appealed to private religious experience as attestation to divine revelation. Locke added a section, ‘Of Enthusiasm’ (4.19), in the 4th edition to deal with these kinds of claims. Locke’s approach, in general, is just to challenge the proponents of these kinds of religious experiences to give a clear account of exactly what is attested and exactly how it is attested. If the proposition just ‘looks true’, then how is this revelation rather than rational intuition? If the proposition doesn’t just look true but is inexplicably firmly believed anyway, why should we think this is revelation and not just irrationality? Perhaps the proposition in question is of the form God has revealed that p, and I simply find myself believing that, and infer p from it. But it is implausible that I could simply rationally intuit that God has revealed something (unless we are talking about natural revelation – i.e., things God has revealed to me by giving me the capacity to reason!), and otherwise it just looks irrational.
Now there are serious problems here for the proponent of this kind of religious experience, but perhaps they can be met. What we want to say is that there is a certain sort of unique feeling that one gets when contemplating a certain proposition or reading a certain book or something like that. It’s not just that it ‘looks true’. It’s a feeling of a different sort from the feeling one gets when one ‘just sees’ that 2=2.
This approach is better, but it has at least two problems. First, given the actual facts about such experiences, it seems unlikely that we’ll be able to get what the proponents of this approach want out of them. Second, These feelings require interpretation too, and their interpretation is uncertain.
According to the Westminster Confession, “our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth, and divine authority [of Scripture], is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit, bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts” (1.5). I think I know (experientially) what this is talking about. I sometimes have a profound, difficult to describe, religious experience when reading certain texts, and these sorts of experiences seem to have a beneficial effect on moral motivation and character. The trouble is, I haven’t had this kind of experience with every, or nearly every, book of the Bible. Indeed, I can’t remember having an experience like this with any part of the Old Testament except the beginning of Jeremiah and a couple of Psalms. (I just don’t get ancient Hebrew literature.) Furthermore, I have had experiences of this sort with extra-canonical works (e.g., Plato’s Protagoras, Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, Leibniz’s Theodicy). So it’s just not clear how this kind of feeling is supposed to attest to the canon, especially in light of the fact that as the Westminster divines are explicitly aware the Confession is taking a controversial position on the boundaries of the canon. It is far from clear how this controversial position is meant to be justified. (The ‘Scripture proofs’ in the footnotes are totally foreign to the purpose. Incidentally, if Luke 24:44 was relevant, it would get the wrong results, since, among the ‘writings’ (Ketuvim) it validates only the Psalms. But if this is a synecdoche, it could just as easily include the Apocrypha. I guess Romans 3:2 is supposed to show that the Old Testament should include only those books accepted within Judaism, but there was not agreement about the bounds of the canon in Judaism in the first century.)
The moral of the story is: if the tradition is talking about the same kind of experience I have (or something similar), this isn’t going to get the results that same tradition wants. The Westminster Confession also says, “We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church to an high and reverent esteem of the holy Scripture” (1.5), and it seems to assume that this precedes the ‘inward testimony of the Holy Spirit’. That helps some: it’s on account of the Church that the typical believer is only asking the question whether the Bible is a revelation and not questioning each book separately. And perhaps this is justifiable, insofar as the tradition has refined the canon by consideration of religious experience and other relevant factors. This gives a bigger role to tradition than the Westminster divines likely intended, but it’s at least a step toward a more plausible view. But of course there are a lot of contingencies in the historical determination of the canon, and there are still disputes within Christianity. Can I really claim to know the proposition either all of these books are part of a divine revelation or none of them are? I doubt it. How about either all the books undisputed within traditional Christianity are revelatory or none of them are? Again, I doubt it. (Plus, it’s hard to figure out what counts as ‘undisputed’. Is James disputed simply because, during one period of his life, Luther was inclined to reject it?)
My point here isn’t that there are no arguments to support positions on the canon. Nor is my point that religious experience has nothing to contribute. Rather, my point is that any argument that’s going to establish the entire Bible (for some particular disambiguation of the name ‘Bible’) is going to be too messy and uncertain to generate knowledge.
The second issue is, why should I interpret the feeling I have as a divine endorsement of the book I’m reading? And if I interpret it that way in some cases, why not in others? Now, perhaps it does make sense to take more seriously the proposition that a certain book is a revelation if there are other people around who believe that. We shouldn’t be overly individualistic in our epistemic practices. Similarly, if a whole bunch of people have closely examined a certain rock and determined it not to be gold, and I look at it and it looks like gold to me, it might be appropriate for me to conclude either that I’m hallucinating or that I’m not good at recognizing gold. But if that’s the case, then I (I mean me personally) should also conclude that I’m not super-reliable at recognizing divine revelations. This is perfectly compatible with thinking that humans in general are reliable enough at recognizing revelations that I should take more seriously the possibility that a book or collection is a revelation when there is a community that believes that book or collection to be a revelation. This will massively decrease the number of candidate revelations, and then I can apply other considerations, including my own religious experience, to make a guess among them. But let’s face it: there’s a certain amount of guesswork going on here.
In addition to widespread disagreement, which provides strong evidence that this sort of experience is significantly less reliable than ordinary sense experience, there is, again, the issue of credible alternative hypotheses, including various cognitive malfunction theories. I think each of us should be quite resistant, on Reidian grounds, to the claim that our faculties are malfunctioning, but this resistance needs to be defeasible. Sometimes it is reasonable to believe that one is hallucinating. Furthermore, in a case like this, where one is dealing with a feeling that admits of alternative interpretations, it is possible to endorse a story that involves non-divine origin of the feeling without claiming hallucination: one can deny that the feeling presents itself as a divine endorsement of the text. (At least, upon reflection, it seems to me that I could do that.)
Now perhaps I’ve got this all wrong. Perhaps the experience I’m thinking of is not the same as the one the tradition has had in mind. If this is your view and you want to give me the level of confidence in Christianity you enjoy due to an experience you’ve had and I haven’t, you can’t argue with me, you can only pray for me. If you want to convince me that you, and others who have such experiences, have the internalistic component of knowledge-level justification (which may or may not be all there is to such justification), you’ve got to describe the experience to me in more detail than I’ve heard it described in the past, and you’ve also got to show me how it leads to justification.
I’d be remiss if I ended this section without mentioning that William Alston’s very sophisticated treatment of this subject (in Perceiving God) mitigates a lot of these concerns. If I was trying to defend the claim (which I do endorse) that such experiences can contribute to the reasonableness of one’s belief, I’d be drawing heavily on Alston. But I just don’t see that his response to the plurality problem and other related issues is strong enough to yield genuine knowledge. (Maybe I’m just not as Reidian as Alston.)
Who ever supposed that scientifical proofs were necessary to make a Christian?
– Crito, in Berkeley’s Alciphron, sect. 6.31
If I lived in the 18th century, I would have been accused of being a closet atheist by now, and it might be time to move to Amsterdam. I hope the 21st century is as much different from the 18th century as I think it is. Let me take a couple steps back now.
We’re considering an argument with the following form:
- Experience or fact x is a divine attestation of object or event o as a divine revelation.
- If God attests to something as a revelation, then that thing is indeed a revelation.
- o is a revelation.
- It is part of the content of o that p.
- If some proposition is part of the content of some revelation, then that proposition is true.
- p is true.
Locke’s arguments, my further elaborations on those arguments, and Hudson’s skeptical theist arguments together amount, I think, to a strong case for the claim that, if the blanks are filled in here in a way that would support Christianity, we don’t know any of the premises. As a result, such an argument will not (alone) generate knowledge of the conclusion.
So what? The blindingly obvious fact of widespread religious disagreement, including among very intelligent, well-studied individuals, ought to show us that these questions aren’t easy. Is it so surprising to find that the evidence, even when we include religious experience, doesn’t allow us to reach a firm conclusion and claim it as a genuine item of knowledge?
If we can motivate the premises, show that they are reasonable to believe, we will give rational support to the conclusion. (Of course, on a Bayesian model, the levels of uncertainty in each premise multiply to make a more uncertain conclusion, but if you think you can know something without having credence 1 then this is going to happen with known premises too.) I’ve hinted at ways we might do this for one particular assignment (x = the empty tomb; o = the life and example of Jesus; p = we ought to love our enemies). On the view of faith I have previously put forward (or, for that matter, on Lara Buchak’s much discussed account), if we can give a similar defense for some other relevant substitutions (rather stronger than my example), this ought to be a sufficient basis for rational faith.
In giving my examples, I was talking about my elaboration of Locke’s points, but it should, I hope, be clear that the same applies to Hudson’s point. We have excellent reason to believe that the conditions in which deliberate deception is morally permissible are quite restricted, and we have no reason (that I can think of) for supposing that God in such a case with respect to us. The skeptical theist thinks that since we have good reason to believe that God exists, and we have absolutely undeniable evidence that the Holocaust occurred, we have good reason to suppose that God has sufficient moral justification for choosing not to intervene to prevent the Holocaust. We can’t begin to imagine what such a justification might look like but, the skeptical theist argues, in light of some general facts about our cognitive condition, the fact that we can’t imagine the justification is not evidence against its existence. This is totally different than the case of divine deception because we do not have strong independent evidence that divine deception has occurred.
This approach does put limits on how extreme our skeptical theism can be, but if skeptical theism was going to be that extreme it was going to be in trouble anyway. Does the skeptical theist really want to say that it is unreasonable for us to deny that God has morally sufficient reason to damn the innocent?
To make an analogy: intuiting that something is impossible or finding oneself unable to conceive it (despite the fact that such a conception ought to involve only concepts of which one has a good grasp) is sufficient for reasonable belief in the impossibility of that thing. But our modal intuitions are sufficiently fragile and unreliable that if we gain evidence that the supposedly impossible thing is actual, or is permitted by the laws of physics, it doesn’t take much evidence to overwhelm the rational force of intuition. (Or so say I.)
What the skeptical theist needs is the claim that our view that there is no morally justifying reason should be easily defeasible in this way, not that we shouldn’t have such views at all. Actually, the skeptical theist has an easier route here because there are many apparently unjustified evils that might turn out to be justified if we were wrong about causal connections in the world, even if we were right about value all down the line. The skeptical theist just needs to claim that between the empirical causal claims and the a priori moral claims there is enough uncertainty to make defeat relatively (epistemically) painless. (An aside: I’ve never actually been very comfortable with skeptical theism, and I think the previously mentioned Dougherty-Pruss paper gives a more promising alternative approach.)
I want to conclude by asking a question: why do people even want to defend a genuine knowledge claim here? Some people have a fundamentalist desire to build a ‘fortress of certainty’ to protect themselves from having to rethink their views in light of new evidence. If one has absolute certainty, on the basis of divine testimony, that the earth is no more than 6,000 years old, one has no need to consider scientific evidence, and if one doesn’t have to consider evidence one doesn’t have to worry about being wrong. Although evolution and the age of the earth were, of course, not the issues of the day, these are the sorts of people Galileo, Locke, and Berkeley had to deal with. But surely this isn’t what’s going on with the professional philosophers who endorse this kind of view today. (At least I hope not.)
An alternative motivation, raised by Alex Pruss in a comment on Keith DeRose’s argument against religious knowledge, is that doctrinal statements accepted by some Christians, including the Heidelberg Confession and the First Vatican Council, affirm that faith is a kind of knowledge, and this seems to have a basis in, e.g., 1 John. In my comments on DeRose’s post, I suggested that these could be taken as referring to objectual knowledge of God rather than propositional knowledge about God. I hope to work this out in more detail in the future.
Hudson’s article ends in aporia, because he himself is attracted, he says, to the idea of propositional knowledge by revelation alone. I would like to know why Hudson, and others, are attracted to this idea. To me, it seems like an unnecessary liability.
(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net.)