Epistemology as a Matter of Evidence & Disagreement.

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One naturalist writer by the name of Richard Feldman, a philosophy professor, dedicates a good chunk of his essay on the matter of evidence and whether or not people can disagree on the nature of the evidence and be rational in doing so (1). For example, he considered whether or not two individuals with roughly equal intelligence, reasoning abilities, and background information could come to different conclusions from the same data. Since Feldman is a naturalist the question of God’s existence would be quite central to this process as naturalism denies the existence of the supernatural and thus God. Can, for example, Feldman and, say, Tim McGrew (a Christian philosopher who has specialized in Epistemology and Philosophy of Religion) look at the same evidence for the existence of God and come to opposite conclusions? Yes, the can because they have in fact come to opposite conclusions. But Feldman answers that one of them is not being rational, “My conclusion, then, is that there cannot be reasonable disagreements of the sort I was investigating. That is, it cannot be that epistemic peers who have shared their evidence can reasonably come to different conclusions” (2).

But, charitably, Feldman also concedes that even he could be the one who holds beliefs that are not really justified rationally. Thus, what he seems to say is that some people might think that they hold rational beliefs. But since another equally rational person has a different belief based on the same data it is likely that one, or even both of them, does not hold the belief solely on reason alone. I think this is a very good point that Feldman makes. Not only does his point note that intelligent people will disagree on many things (such things need not only be philosophy and God) but it also tells us why there’s disagreement. Firstly one might conclude that intelligent people come to different conclusions because they rarely have all the evidence for something. Yet we needn’t deny that there exist certain propositions for which evidence is so conclusive and compelling that there is no way any rational person can believe otherwise. However, such propositions are far fewer.

This point brings in the subject of philosophies as well as the question of God’s existence. For example, most, outside of western philosophy, would contend that there are compelling reasons and evidence in favour of the existence of God, or some supernatural being, than evidence against it. A naturalist, like Feldman and co., would quite naturally contend otherwise. However, how two very intelligent people, like Feldman and McGrew, would decide which is view more rational would not solely be based on reason but also on a number of subjective factors. In fact, if anyone claims that their belief is based purely on objective grounds then they’re probably fooling themselves or being disingenuous. Absolute objectivity is almost certainly non-existent. However, that is not to say that people do not factor in rationality in their decisions, rather it is not possible to divorce all one’s subjective factors from within the decision process.

So, since we obviously don’t have all the evidence at our disposal we are then forced to make our choice on the evidence that we do have. For instance, what might be conclusive evidence for me in favour of Jesus’ deity, resurrection and God’s existence, namely the argument from the resurrection evidence, won’t be for a naturalist. Thus, even though Feldman and I disagree on the question of God’s existence it is not because one of us is being irrational. Rather, it is because neither of us has all the evidence.

References.

1. Richard Feldman in Philosophers Without Gods (editor Louise Antony). 2010.

2. Richard Feldman in Philosophers Without Gods. 2010. p. 213

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