In the News: A Fundamentalist Epistemology?

The New York Times yesterday ran some excerpts from a discussion on its philosophy series, The Stone.

ILYBYGTH readers should check out the exchange, since it is one of the few recent forums in which the issue of creation/evolution is given a respectful, intelligent back-and-forth.  It also centers on the notions of a Biblical understanding of knowledge.

In this dialogue, philosopher Michael P. Lynch and physicist Alan Sokal discuss the reasons why there has been no simple cut-and-dried solution to the creation/evolution debates.  In this snippet, Lynch insists–correctly in my opinion–that the issue is not really the science of evolution, but rather the source of epistemic first principles.  That is, how do we come to know something?  Fundamentalists will insist that the first source of knowledge must be Holy Scripture.  If we “know” something that contradicts the Bible, we can’t really “know” it, any more than we can “know” that a dog is a cat.  The reason for the evolution/creation “stalemate,” Lynch argues, is that the arguments have simply circled round and round one another, each arguing convincingly from its own perspective.

In response, Sokal offers what seems to me to be a very concise and cogent explanation of the non-fundamentalist position.  Fundamentalists, he argues, DO share the epistemic principles of non-fundamentalists, except for a few irrationally privileged categories.  Here’s a snippet from Sokal:

The trouble is not that fundamentalist Christians reject our core epistemic principles; on the contrary, they accept them. The trouble is that they supplement the ordinary epistemic principles that we all adopt in everyday life — the ones that we would use, for instance, when serving on jury duty — with additional principles like “This particular book always tells the infallible truth.”

But then we have a right to inquire about the compatibility of this special epistemic principle with the other, general, epistemic principles that they and we share. Why this particular book? Especially, why this particular book in view of the overwhelming evidence collected by scholars (employing the general epistemic principles that we all share) that it was written many decades after the events it purports to describe, by people who not only were not eyewitnesses but who also lived in a different country and spoke a different language, who recorded stories that had been told and retold many times orally, and so on. Indeed, how can one possibly consider this particular book to be infallible, given the many internal contradictions within it?

Lynch responds with a defense that might hearten intellectual fundamentalists.  Here is just a small selection:

The second reason we can’t rest content with the fact that some principles are widely shared is that some debates are over the priority of principles. Some people reject the idea that scientific reasoning should always trump more traditional methods of knowledge. Thus, believers in creationism typically don’t deny induction and abduction (coming up with the best explanation of the data) full stop. Rather they deny that these principles have priority everywhere. Imagine, for example, a dispute over these two principles:

(A) Abduction from the fossil and physical record is the only method for knowing about the distant past.

(H) Consultation of the holy book is the best method for knowing about the distant past.

The friends of (H) aren’t rejecting abduction outright: they are merely asserting that in some situations abduction is trumped by the more fundamental principle (H). So we can’t just call them out for using abduction in some cases and not in others. And obviously, we can’t travel back in time and use observation (another commonly shared method) to settle who is right and who isn’t about the distant past. What that shows is that debates over even very specific principles like these can end up grounding out — either the participants will end up defending their favored principles by appealing to those very principles (citing the book to defend the book) or appealing to other specific principles that the other side shares but gives a lower priority. So shared “natural instincts” and methods can’t always win the day, simply because the problem isn’t always about what is in common. The problem is about what trumps what.

The root cause of the discussion is whether or not there is a distinctive fundamentalist epistemology.  Lynch defends the notion (without embracing or defending the claims of that epistemology), while Sokal dismisses it.  In other words, is the fundamentalist, Bible-centric understanding of human knowledge a legitimately different way of knowing about humanity and the universe?  Or is it simply an overly complicated apologetic?  That is, do fundamentalists merely claim to have a different way of knowing when it suits their theological needs?


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