Guest Blogger: Aaron Rizzieri on Pragmatic Encroachment, Stakes, and Religious Knowledge

Dear Readers,

May name is Aaron Rizzieri. I am an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at CUNY-LaGuardia. Recently, ex-apologist was kind enough to mention a paper of mine that has recently been picked up by the International Journal for the Philosophy of Religion with the above title. I would like to offer the readers of this blog a brief summary of the arguments contained therein in the hope of stimulating conversation on this topic. All criticism and feedback is greatly welcomed.

Precis of “Pragmatic Encroachment, Stakes, and Religious Knowledge”

Abstract: It is commonly held that epistemic standards for S’s knowledge that p are affected by practical considerations, such as what is at stake in decisions that are guided by that p. I defend a particular view as to why this is, that is referred to as “pragmatic encroachment.” I then introduce a “new argument against miracles” that uses stakes considerations in order to explore the conditions under which stakes affect the level of epistemic support that is required for knowledge. Finally, I generalize my results to include other religiously significant propositions such as “God exists” and “God does not exist.”

Over the last decade or so there has been a debate in the mainstream epistemology literature that concerns whether or not practical considerations can affect the levels of truth-conducive epistemic desiderata such as reliability, evidence/justification, and safety/sensitivity that are required for knowledge. Those who answer this question in the affirmative are said to endorse “pragmatic encroachment.” (Fantl and McGrath 2007 and 2010, Hawthorne 2004, and Stanley 2005) Those who answer in the negative endorse “intellectualism.” (DeRose 2010, Weatherson 2005, Nagel forthcoming)

Consider the following DeRose-style bank cases (DeRose’s actual cases are a bit different):

Case 1 (low stakes): Karen is deciding whether to transfer money to her grandmother on Friday or wait until Saturday morning. Karen has a good memory and she remembers transferring money on Saturday just two weeks ago. It is not particularly important that the money gets transferred by Saturday morning. Her grandmother has enough money for her purposes already.

Case 2 (high stakes): Karen is deciding whether to transfer money to her grandmother on Friday or wait until Saturday morning. Karen has a good memory and she remembers transferring money on Saturday just two weeks ago. If Karen does not transfer the money by Saturday morning, her grandmother will not be able to pay for a life-saving surgery.

The key difference between Case 1 and Case 2 is the stakes that are involved in Karen’s decision.

In Case 1, Karen’s memorial evidence that the bank provided the transfer service on a Saturday morning several weeks prior is sufficient to ground Karen’s knowledge that she will be able to make a transfer this coming Saturday. What about Case 2? Intuitively, Karen does not know that the bank still offers the transfer service on Saturday mornings unless she double-checks. This pair of cases is designed to illustrate that stakes can affect the quality of epistemic grounds that are required for S to know that p. For the sake of simplicity, let us assume that the bank will still offer the transfer service on Saturday. Now let us state Fantl and McGrath’s KA (knowledge action) principle:

KA: S knows that p only if S is rational to act as if p.

In regards to Karen’s practical reasoning, I think that we would all agree that Karen would be acting irrationally if she does not double-check in Case 2, but she would not be acting irrationally in Case 1 if she does not check. With so much at stake, she would be negligent if she did not check in the second case.

When we apply KA to these two cases we get the result that Karen can not rationally act as if the bank will offer the transfer service on Saturday (that t for now) in Case 2, and hence does not know that t in Case 2. The opposite is true for Case 1. KA and related principles are controversial and have been challenged by contextualists who have their own way of dealing with these cases, as well as invariantists that deny that the standards for knowledge undergo any kind of shift. I will not defend KA in this summary, although I have given a partial defense in the paper. The most thorough defense of KA and related principles can be found in (Fantl and McGrath, 2007, 2010)

Assuming that KA is true what are the implications for religiously significant propositions? When I started working on this article I thought the centerpiece would be a new argument against miracles. More specifically, I assumed that just as the comparatively higher stakes in Case 2 rendered that t (that the bank will offer the transfer service) harder to know, the high stakes that are (or at least can be) involved in identifying a miracle would entail that it is more difficult to know that a significant miracle had occurred than a comparatively ordinary (i.e. unimportant) historical event had occurred. I had the following argument (PARALLEL for now) in mind:

(P1) The resurrection of Jesus is a significant purported miracle, knowledge of
which would motivate, at least for some people, a reorientation of one’s way
of living.

(P2) The epistemic standards for attaining knowledge of a proposition that p, that
guides a decision that has significant practical consequences, are
higher than the epistemic standards for ordinary propositions of the same

(C) It is more difficult to know that Jesus rose from the dead than it is to know
ordinary historical facts.

(P1) is worth commenting on.

According to PARALLEL, it is not the resurrection qua miracle, but the resurrection qua significant historical event that causes a rise in the epistemic standards. Just how significant the miracle would be depends on which theological context of interpretation would be correct.

(P2) states that the epistemic standards for attaining knowledge of a significant proposition, are higher than the standards for ordinary propositions of the same type. All I have in mind is that knowledge that j will require a higher level of inductive support than knowledge of less significant historical propositions. Several defenders of the resurrection attempt to infer that a bodily resurrection is the best explanation for a set of data. Let us now address the question of whether or not knowledge that j that is grounded in an IBE would require a higher level of explanatory power than an ordinary historical proposition would.

Hume’s objection to knowledge of miracles does not involve raising the amount of total evidence that is required for knowledge of a miracle in comparison to ordinary historical facts. A person’s total evidence is a function of both their background knowledge and the specific evidence that they have for a hypothesis. Hume’s concern, modified for IBE, was that purported miracles have such a horrendous fit with our background knowledge concerning the laws of nature that the explanatory power and scope of a miracle hypothesis would have to be extraordinary in order to offset this deficiency. Hence, the problem that PARALLEL presents for the miracle hypothesis and Hume’s problem are cumulative. Even if the miracle hypothesis were to have such explanatory power and scope that it was all things considered the best explanation in comparison with naturalized accounts of the data, PARALLEL entails that it would have to be the best explanation by far in order to qualify as known.

Is PARALLEL sound? The questionable premise is (P2). (P2) is prima facie plausible because, at first glance, it looks as if the practical significance of that j renders that j relevantly similar to that t in our second bank case. On closer inspection, there is an important dis-analogy between the two cases that becomes apparent when we apply Fantl and McGrath’s KA principle to the case of miracles. Remember, KA states that one can know a proposition that p, only if one is reasonable in acting as if that p. In the second bank case, Karen was not reasonable in acting as if that t, unless she gathered further evidence that the bank was going to be open.

The same does not necessarily hold for the resurrection hypothesis and a variety of other religiously significant propositions. Arguably, if one’s total evidence for that j rendered it the best explanation of the data, then it is practically rational to believe and live as if that j, even in the absence of knowledge-level evidence for that j. This is the lesson of the Pascal/James tradition that has always insisted that practical factors such as what is at stake can render it reasonable to act as if a proposition is true even if the evidence for and against it is counterbalanced or perhaps even worse. The point here can be generalized in the following “relevance of stakes” principle:

RS: The stakes that are involved in acting as if that p at a context have the effect
of raising the epistemic standards that are required for knowledge that p,
only if the evidence that is required for rendering it reasonable to act as if
that p exceeds the level of evidence that is typically required for knowledge
of that p’s type when not much is at stake.

In other words, since it would be practically rational to act as if that j if this proposition were merely more well-evidenced than its denial (an issue that I don’t take a stand on), it is not the case that it would only be practically rational to act as if that j only if we possessed total evidence (including background evidence) for that j that greatly exceeded the evidence that is required to believe an ordinary historical proposition.

Hence, instead of discovering an argument that is complimentary to Hume’s, I discovered the RS principle that when applied to the case of miracles precludes a rise in standards for the knowledge of miracles based on stakes considerations. In the main paper I go on to argue that there are cases in which stakes dictate that some theists need higher levels of evidence to know that theism is false than they need to know less significant metaphysical propositions. Similarly, there are atheists that need more evidence in order to know that atheism is false than they need to know less significant metaphysical propositions.


exapologist said...

Hi Aaron,

Nice paper and post!

I have a clarification question. Suppose I agree with you that the high practical stakes for the believer don't require higher evidential standards if only the believer is effected. However, suppose that the believer's belief has significant likely negative impact on others who don't share the belief (say, in how they vote on matters of foreign and domestic policy). Shouldn't we then say that the evidential standards for belief do indeed rise for the believer? If so, then this exception to the "higher stakes entails higher standards" principle doesn't apply to believers of the latter type. The way you describe your example believer in your paper seems to me to suggest that you might agree. Am I right in thinking so?

Aaron said...

Hi EA,

Thanks for the question. There is a lot that is going on beneath the surface here in regards to the foreign policy example. If an evangelical has theological beliefs that entail, e.g., that Israel must be supported at all costs and this results in harm on the Palestinians, then since the harm is prima facie unjust we have a defeater for her theological belief by way of modus tollens. Hence, the need for more evidence may have been generated by a defeater that is in need of undermining.
Similarly, if someone states that I need to believe X or suffer God's wrath the sense that the asserter needs greater evidence for what she is asserting may be traceable to an intuition that it is unlikely that a moral divine being would command such a thing. Especially under the conditions of uncertainty in which we all live.