Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Epistemic Duty

I said to my friend ‘you’re right, you shouldn’t believe it’. Things which are outside your epistemic world you have an epistemic duty not to believe in them. Belief in the extraordinary, the miraculous, the supernatural is not to be taken up simply because someone, even someone you would normally consider credible, tells you. Faith in the supernatural is not a lemming like rush over the cliff of rationality. So how do we get to there from here? It’s the scenic route. Maintaining your sceptical distance you are nevertheless drawn into areas where objective evidence is not available. Each new step coheres with the last in a progress which can also be backward as well as forward. You can move for instance from a belief in the possibility of reincarnation to a belief in reincarnation because it ties in with other beliefs and a total view of personality and identity. You might develop a positive belief in the communion of saints through being surprised by your response to the life of some saint.

Elisa at her blog sanscrite
tells of her atheist great-grandfather, a doctor, who was called by the municipality to verify the incorruptibility of the body of St.Rita of Cascia. It apparently is and presumably that was his finding. The supernatural reason that is proffered for such phenomena was one which he naturally could not accept. Such was his epistemic duty. Like the infidel Hume he had to ask himself - which is the greater wonder, that it is a proof of sanctity or that there is a natural explanation however obscure. He would be bound to go with the lesser wonder.

Vacillation by W.B. Yeats from The Winding Stair and Other Poems


Must we part, Von Hűgel, though much alike, for we
Accept the miracles of the saints and honour sanctity?
The body of Saint Teresa lies undecayed in tomb,
Bathed in miraculous oil, sweet odours from it come,
Healing from its lettered slab. Those self-same hands perchance
Eternalised the body of a modern saint that once
Had scooped out pharaoh's mummy. I - though heart might find relief
Did I become a Christian man and choose for my belief
What seems most welcome in the tomb - play a pre-destined part.
Homer is my example and his unchristened heart.
The lion and the honeycomb, what has Scripture said?
So get you gone, Von Hűgel, though with blessings on your head.


elisa freschi said...

Dear Ombhurbhuva,

thanks for the mention. As it is often the case, I am forced to admit that I am too simple to completely grasp your arguments. If we have an epistemic duty not to be gullable, is there any way in which faith is not epistemically sound? Maybe in the case it is based on personal experience? But then what guarantees the validity of personal experience? Or when there is no other way to know about X?

ombhurbhuva said...

How can one move into that final stage of the ethico-mystical (Von Hugel)? As you mentioned there may be an element of the non-rational in it or what is commonly called grace. I think that Von H. is seriously neglected and could well be the subject of a separate post but what he has to say about the transition to the final stage is :
"A final transition, the addition of the third force, that of the emotional experimental life, must yet be safely achieved. And this again is perilous: for the two other forces will even if single, still more if combined, tend, to resist this third force's full share of influence to the uttermost." (from The Mystical Element of Religion)

You could be dragged back into superstition or rationalism towards emotional, gullibility or intellectual aridity. Von H. traces this in the various phases of the major religions and the traditions within them.