Epistemology: [mass noun] (Philosophy) the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope, and the distinction between justified belief and opinion.
As a Matter of Fact: The Nature of Truth Claims
Debate usually consists of two parts. First there is the Dialectic, or the argument in which the debater tries to vindicate (or validate) their claims, and then there is Rhetoric, or the part of the debate in which the debater attempts to compel you to agree with them. The goal is to get others to agree with you that your truth-claim is also a fact-claim. This is true of the religious debate as well. “Language, including religious language, is partly about propositions, fact-claims, or what we might call “truth-talk”,” affirms the anthropologist David Eller (Eller 2007, p.57).
When it comes to truth claims, or “truth-talk” (i.e., claims which are talked about as being true) the burden of proof always falls on the person making the claim. If for example I said I had a unicorn in my house, it would be up to me to prove to you that this statement was true. If I could not prove to you that what I claimed was indeed the case then my argument would be meaningless. In other words, if I could not offer any evidence to prove to you that I had a unicorn in my house then you would not be obligated to believe my claim. The truth claim would be falsified by my failure to provide any empirical basis for sustaining a belief in the unicorn.
Now supposing I brought pictures of the unicorn standing next to my study desk, although this constitutes as evidence in support of my claim it does nothing to make the claim believable let alone truthful. Alone this form of evidence would be pretty weak, after all, I could have used Adobe Photoshop to take a picture of a horse, add in a fake replica of a horn, and paint it up just the way I liked before offering it to you. Even as this evidence would be fraudulent, again, the burden of proof lies on me to prove beyond a reason of a doubt that I have a unicorn. Pictures alone may not convince you, and so you’d have every right to remain skeptical. Therefore, when trying to affirm a truth claim as factual—you need to do more than provide the bare minimum evidence required for believability, you need to establish a context in which the claim is not only believable but verifiable. If the claims I am making cannot be checked and confirmed, then it’s a good bet that they are fallacious claims, and that my unicorn exists only as a figment of my imagination.
Now suppose I made a more audacious claim than that. Suppose that I have dodged the burden of proof by making my unicorn an invisible pink unicorn. Obviously this doesn’t help my case for two reasons. First, instead of offering any tangible evidence I have made the claim even more tenuous by placing it even further out of the realm of empirical support. Any real chance of confirmation just became unlikely, because an invisible pink unicorn is an imaginary entity, and so the claim that such a thing exists becomes a metaphysical claim. Secondly, this makes any discussion about the nature of my invisible pink unicorn an ontological discussion designated to the realm of theology, and as we saw in the previous article, ontological discussions fail the epistemic standard of what it means to be reasonably and rationally true.
Epistemically Viable: Rational vs. Irrational Belief
Epistemology of belief does not end with mere facts and proofs, however. Any truth claim is, in essence, a prediction. If the meteorologist on the evening news claims it will rain tomorrow he is basically making a prediction—usually based off of scientific data about global climate and weather change. In this sense a truth claim is not only something which can be believed, but it is also something that is making a prediction, i.e. that at the appointed time that we discover this truth the prediction will be fulfilled. Therefore, tomorrow if it should rain as predicted by the news weatherman then the claim is epistemically valid. The prediction was accurate.
However, if a claim makes no valid prediction (including predictions which cannot be counted due to the fact that they are metaphysical in nature and cannot be checked) then the belief in such a claim can never be a matter of factual truthfulness, but rather, a matter of the will to believe. The epistemologist Hamid Vahid puts it more clearly, stating, “In the betting context, however, the pertinent sense of “rationality” or “reasonability” is epistemic since the winning side is determined on the basis of the truth of its prediction.” (Vahid 2008, p.137)
Thus when someone says they believe something is true, we will be more likely to find the claim reasonable and rational if the truth of its prediction can be confirmed. If the truth of its prediction cannot be confirmed then it is more likely to be a false or baseless claim.
As human beings our minds have been conditioned by experience and interaction with the natural world. Therefore we either believe a proposition based on good evidence or else we reject it when the evidence is lacking. As the Stanford University philosopher Michael Bratman reminds us, “Reasonable belief is, in an important way, context-independent, at any one time a reasonable agent normally either believes something (to the degree n) or does not believe it (to that degree). She does not at the same time believe p is relative to one context but not relative to another.” (Bratman 1999, p.123)
The claim that “God exists” or that “God is real” is not epistemically viable as such a claim is not context-dependent, rather belief is context-independent (I'll explain more on this shortly). What this means is that it can never be factually true from an epistemological point of view—at least not without empirical support. The claim that God is real is true in the sense that the believer holds the belief of God’s existence as a matter of truth, but these reasons are rarely ever good and so usually fall into the designation of faith. In order for the claim “God exists” to be factually true it would need confirmation, and only after the prediction has been vindicated could the statement gain epistemic credibility as a truth claim.
Just to clarify, context-dependent and context-independent are cognitive science terms related to recognition memory. Recognition memory can be subdivided into two components: recollection and familiarity, sometimes referred to as "remembering" and "knowing." Recollection involves remembering in detail a particular stimulus, including the context in which it was previously experienced. In contrast, familiarity only requires knowledge of the stimulus’s features – the basic realization that one has encountered the stimulus before. Thus, the fundamental distinction between the two processes is that recollection is context dependent whereas familiarity is context-independent. Another distinction is that familiarity is generally an unconscious or automatic process whereas recollection is a conscious effort.
Remembering involves a conscious effort of retrieving information. When you take a history exam you are making a great effort to remember people’s names, places, and dates related to the context of a certain time period or important historical event. When you burn your hand on a stove, for example, when you are older and come across a hot burner you instantly recollect that hot stoves burn and cause pain. This recollection is intuitive—you know that you will get burned again so you avoid contact with the hot burner.
A recent study conducted by Sam Harris and colleagues at UCLA and the University of Southern California found that comparing religious with nonreligious statements reveals that religious thinking is more associated with brain regions that govern emotion, self-representation, and cognitive conflict whereas thinking about ordinary facts, in both believers and nonbelievers, is more reliant upon memory retrieval networks. Activity in the brain's anterior cingulate cortex, an area associated with cognitive conflict and uncertainty, suggested that both believers and nonbelievers experienced greater uncertainty when evaluating religious statements. The study goes on to explain the case for belief being content-independent.[i]
So when believers declare that they know God exists, they aren’t claiming to actually have met God, they are stating that given their experience they believe God is real. This may be described as “experiential knowledge” but it is not “epistemic knowledge” in the sense that it isn’t about the nature of the claim so much as it is about the nature of the experience which compels a religious person to make the claim in the first place. Recollection, on the other hand, has an epistemological basis. It is a matter of the nature of knowing about something, therefore retrieving the information which will qualify the statement as factually true. Therefore when making a literal claim about the existence of God, for example, it is not factually true to say “God exists” because there is no information about God we can retrieve, but it is factually true to say “No gods exist” for the same reason. Atheism, and more generally nonbelief, is therefore epistemically valid positions to take, whereas religious belief is often unfeasible and not epistemically quantifiable and as a result cannot be determined true.
Conditioned to Believe
Belief being content-independent means that we are intuitively detecting elements of truth which relate to our everyday experiences and then finding the best inference, and thereby finding reasonable provocation to believe in any proposition which seams to make sense (given our experiences). Thus a religious person will be more inclined to feel the statement that “God exists” is a true statement because it coincides with their religious or spiritual experiences as a person of faith. Therefore it is perfectly reasonable for a Christian or a Muslim to espouse great affirmations in the existence of God or Allah and the underlying truths of their respective religions. The problem, however, is this: cognitive science reveals that reasonable beliefs are not always rational.
Take for example the following: I find it perfectly reasonable to believe that my wife is the most beautiful (attractive) woman on the planet. My life experience, the context of being married to her and enjoying her reciprocal love and company, all condition me to believe such a claim is truthful just as it is reasonable. But in actuality it is not a perfectly rational claim. Why not? Because of a couple very important factors not to go overlooked. First of all, I have not met all the women who live in the world and so could never be positively certain that I would not find another woman more attractive, and also I nurture a strong bias when it comes to thinking about my wife and other women. This bias is obviously unreasonable in determining whether or not my wife is, in point of fact, the most beautiful and attractive woman alive for these following reasons:
1) I love and respect my wife and don’t want to hurt her feelings (even if one day I should come to find another woman more attractive, no matter how doubtful a scenario it is). This means I will inevitably favor her over other (perhaps) equally beautiful women.
2) As the adage goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. In other words, because of my genetic make up, my past experiences of which have conditioned me to find certain features more attractive than others, and my proclivity toward finding almond shaped eyes, dark hair, and soft facial features more attractive my personal taste is for Asian women—who I find more attractive than Caucasian women. Yet this is strictly a matter of preference and personal taste. Other people find other types of features more or less attractive.
3) Based on my understanding of fidelity, a cultural component to monogamous relationships, I am culturally conditioned to desire only my wife (even as my biological desire for other women seeks to interfere with my cultural conditioning). Therefore, it serves me as a means of assuring that my wife will mutually return my emotional commitment to her as the only woman in my life who I will deem the most attractive. Failing to do this would be detrimental, and although it does nothing to prove to you that my wife is the most attractive woman in the world, it does everything to convince me of that fact. I believe it because I find it reasonable, even though it’s not entirely rational.
When religious believers say they believe in God, I don’t doubt them for a second, but much like the previous example with my wife, we must realize they are not making a rational judgment but rather an emotionally biased one. Therefore the claim “God exist, he is real, I know it in my heart,” is not an epistemically valid truth claim. It’s a profession of belief. It is an emotional consideration one is inured to favor over other possible truths since they have been culturally conditioned to find such a claim both meaningful and emotionally satisfying (to them).
Likewise, when it comes to the religious claim that God is the source of morality or the belief that you need religion to be morally good, these are not truth claims about God, ethical behavior, or the influence of religion but rather they are conditioned beliefs one finds reasonable because they relate to their personal (subjective) experience(s). In order for the claim to have an credence whatsoever the first claim, e.g. that God is real and a source of goodness, must be confirmed. But this brings with it the original objection that this is not a factual claim which can be epistemologically verified—it is not rational. Although it may be “reasonable” for the adherent of faith to believe in such, it still remains epistemically unverified, makes no real world predictions, and therefore is an invalid truth claim. In other words, the claim is false even as there is reason to believe (or rather, desire to believe) the claim is true. This is the problem with religious belief as I see it. Thus any claim that revealed religion or faith is true, or that morality comes from God, are not truth claims, but instead, are appeals to authority. Thus nonbelievers are well within their right to reject such claims and consider them false.
Jean-Pierre Changeux has made an interesting comment in relation to the claim to authority and the way our brains process information in his engaging book The Physiology of Truth: Neuroscience and Human Knowledge. Changeux suggests that
By removing the possibility of appeal to supernatural authority, it places the full burden of moral responsibility on our shoulders as human beings. The search for the neurobilogical bases of consciousness and rationality, far from impoverishing our conception of human integrity, offers an unprecedented opportunity to properly value the multiplicity of personal experience, the richness of cultural diversity, and the variety of our ideas about the world. More than this, by making it possible to regard moral norms as distinctive expressions of a general disposition to ethical behavior, it suggests new ways in which the rights of individuals may be harmonized with their obligations to the social community of which they are members. (Changeux 2002, p.28)
Morality, then, does have a naturalistic basis, and so the appeal to religion is unnecessary—except for the fact that the religious have been conditioned to think that way.
In conclusion, the epistemology of truth makes it abundantly clear that religious claims about the existence of God, morality, and the like are not factual truth claims but are emotionally conditioned beliefs. Thus when it comes to being vindicated in ones claim, whether in a religious debate or any other dialectic, we now can better detect what is true and what is (most probably) false. Now that neuroscience provides a working model of morality and explains how our brains function we can better distinguish between genuine truth claims and professions of belief. Consequently, this helps us to do away with erroneous religious and supernatural claims, such as “God exists” and “Morality comes from religion/God,” and gives us incentive to start looking toward science to better explain such phenomenon and hopefully aid us in discovering the real answers.