In epistemology, an externalist is one who takes a third person account of knowledge. Rather than answering the first person question "how do I know?" the externalist describes the conditions of knowledge for a knower in a kind of sociologist perspective. One problem that arrises in fields like sociology or for externalism is that there remains the "how do I know this account is true" problem which is an internalist question.
In his book Justification Without Awareness Michael Bergmann gives an externalist account and answers various objections. One of these is the "anything goes objection." This objection says that any religious fanatic can appeal to this same kind of externalist warrant. Bergmann says "What it does mean is that we must give up on the false hope that playing by the rules of proper philosophical exchange will enable us to resolve all serious disagreement about maters such as fanatical religious views" (233).
This made me think of two questions. What about non-fanatical non-theistic religious views? Suppose that the fanatic actually can't consistently rely on the kind of externalism Bergmann articulates. It still seems to me that there are many non-theistic religions that can. Therefore, such an account has not helped us achieve knowledge at all. It has not and cannot settle the most basic and long lasting divisions between humans about what is real.
Next, if this epistemology cannot help us on these basic and long lasting divisions then in what sense is it different than skepticism on this point? The quote above seems to say that we can be satisfied in our beliefs, others can be satisfied in their beliefs, and the discussion ends there. Which is to say we really cannot know.
Saturday, October 18, 2014
The Chronicle recently contained an article about the Christian philosopher William Lane Craig. It gives interesting information about his life, education, career, and influence that I don't need to duplicate here. Instead it can be read at this link.
A few things did stand out to me. I've always admired his debating skills. He often relies on a few specific points that he asks the other participant to address. He believes these give us satisfactory reasons to believe that God exists. They are:
1. The universe had a beginning
2. The existence of morality
3. Religious experiences
4. The resurrection of Jesus
5. How belief in God changed his own life
The article recounts how Dr. Craig's graduate studies were focused first on the cosmological argument (point 1 above) and he is well known for developing (or retrieving) a form of this argument known as the Kalam argument about the impossibility of an infinite regress in time (therefore the past is finite, therefore the universe had a beginning). Next he did work on Biblical textual criticism to support point 4 above (the NT is reliable and therefore we can conclude that the resurrection is true).
Another part of the article that stood out to me was its brief psychological assessment of the kinds of students that get interested in what Dr. Craig teaches. These are young Christians who have questions about their faith and are not getting them answered at church. They turn to Christian philosophers like Dr. Craig and find that their questions are taken seriously.
In one way this assessment is uninteresting and trivial: people with questions about their faith are encouraged by those who give answers within the faith. However I think the author is indicating that something new is occurring in philosophy. In the past few decades Christian philosophers have emerged where previously atheism had controlled philosophy. I'm not sure this is all that accurate. It may be true that atheism was influential in analytic philosophy but this is only a narrow part of philosophy. If one does not confine attention to those few thinkers in the 20th century then the history of philosophy and theology provides ample room for thinking about the basic questions that philosophy asks. In a way this atheistic philosophy involves a larger social shift more than any new philosophical insights.
The article left me wondering whether these arguments do indeed prove that God exists. Could it be true that the universe had a beginning and that this beginning was not creation by God? Can religious experience be interpreted in a way that is not theistic?
Behind these question is another question which is "can we really know?" Is it clear either way, or is it that at best we have some points that will persuade some one way and others another way? My hope is that philosophers will be able to challenge not only the atheism of 20th century philosophy but also the skepticism which concludes that knowledge as certainty is not possible.