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Phenomenal Conservatism and the Epistemology of Religious Belief

A "hot" view in epistemology at the moment is a version of evidentialism called "phenomenal conservatism", the view that if it seems or appears to one that P, then one thereby has at least some defeasible evidence that P. Variations of the view have been around for a long, long time, but the recent popularity of the view traces to at least two works by Michael Huemer (University of Colorado, Boulder): (i) Skepticism and the Veil of Perception, and (ii) "Compassionate Phenomenal Conservatism", Philosophy and Phenomenological Research (2007), pp. 30-55.

Well, the thesis of phenomenal conservatism is fast becoming a "hot" application topic in philosophy of religion (in particular, in supporting the rationality of theism). For a top-notch example, see Chris Tucker's paper, "Phenomenal Conservatism and Evidentialism in Epistemology", forthcoming in VanArragon, Raymond and Kelly James Clark (eds.). Evidence and Religious Belief. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (For Tucker's general defense of phenomenal conservatism, see this paper, which is forthcoming in Philosophical Perspectives.)

Get ready for a boatload of papers on this, folks. Evidentialism just became sexy again among theists.

Comments

anon said…
Hey Exapologist,

I'm glad we have you around in the blogosphere. Thanks for the posts.

I'm curious. Are you an agnostic or an atheist or what?
exapologist said…
Hey anon,

Thanks! I'm an agnostic.

Best,
EA
stevec said…
"...the view that if it seems or appears to one that P, then one thereby has at least some defeasible evidence that P."

What?

In 1995, I moved to the Yukon wilderness with my wife. While there, in our cabin, we had a child, a daughter, with the most beautiful blue eyes you've ever seen. In 1996, they were both killed and eaten by a grizzly bear. It appears to me that my dead daughter's eyes were blue.

Apparently I have some defeasible evidence for this. I'd like to know what it is.

BTW, as I understand and use the terms, "agnostic" and "atheist" are orthogonal. Most atheists are agnostic atheists -- they do not claim to know that no gods exist, but lack belief in any of them. Likewise, theists can be gnostic or agnostic.

So, do you harbor any beliefs in any gods? If no, then you're a (presumably agnostic) atheist. If so, then you're a (presumably agnostic) theist.

This "Are you agnostic or atheist?" question is a bit like asking "are you Mexican or vegetarian?"
exapologist said…
Hi Stevec,

Words fail. I feel like the wind has been knocked out of me. I can't pretend to know what that's like, or how you must have felt and continue to feel from it. I am so, so sorry for your loss.

Sincerely,
EA
stevec said…
Uh, sorry, That was just a made up hypothetical story. I thought it was outlandish enough to be obviously made up, but I guess not. It was first sprung on me at iidb.org maybe 4 or 5 years ago (before the implosion over there), when I tried (and failed) to defend the notion that knowledge should produce testable claims, that what one claimed to know, should be testable.
exapologist said…
Phew! I wondered if it was real, but I didn't dare question it on the off-chance that it was true. In any case, I'm glad to hear it's not!

About my agnosticism: I'm primarily describing myself as an agnostic for pragmatic purposes. I think atheists make things harder on themselves by arguing that the evidence is against theism, or (an even harder task) to argue that theism is false. For if the aim is just to show that theism is without sufficient justification, then one need only perform the much easier task of showing that, at the very least, the evidence goes no further in its support of theism than it does in support of other live hypotheses (say, the disjunction of epistemically possible versions of naturalism). If one can do that, then one has thereby shown that the evidence doesn't favor theism over the alternative live hypotheses. And to do that is just to defend agnosticism.
exapologist said…
Hi SteveC,

In 1995, I moved to the Yukon wilderness with my wife. While there, in our cabin, we had a child, a daughter, with the most beautiful blue eyes you've ever seen. In 1996, they were both killed and eaten by a grizzly bear. It appears to me that my dead daughter's eyes were blue.

Apparently I have some defeasible evidence for this. I'd like to know what it is.


The evidence would be your perceptual (visual, auditory, etc.) and mnemonic seemings or experiences of the (horrific!) event. Such vivid experience would provide very strong evidence of the occurrence of the event. A fortiori, then, such seemings would provide at least some evidence of the event. As such, the case conforms with the thesis of phenomenal conservatism.
stevec said…
Ok. Perhaps I was confusing verifiability with falsifiability.

And, I suppose any evidence we might have for anything is really only experienced once immediately, and thereafter, only by means of memory, and in all cases through the filter of the mind, and even in the immediate experience memory must come into play as there's no stopping time, and no way, it seems to me, to experience a thought to completion until it's already slipped into the past.

And I have to apologize again for springing that story on you that way, it wasn't my intent. Reading back what I wrote just now, it did have considerably more of an air of verisimilitude than I'd meant to impart when I wrote it.

I'll go back to lurking now.
exapologist said…
Hi SteveC,

No need to apologize, my friend. And please do feel free to comment whenever you like!

Best,
EA

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