CPBD 066: Andrew Chignell – Debating the Ethics of Belief

by Luke Muehlhauser on September 19, 2010 in Podcast,Problem of Evil

(Listen to other episodes of Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot here.)

Today I interview philosopher Andrew Chignell.

First, we discuss the problem of infant suffering for theism, and then we debate the ethics of belief: Chignell argues for evidentialism and I argue against it.

Download CPBD episode 066 with Andrew Chignell. Total time is 1:08:38.

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(Transcript prepared by CastingWords via two anonymous donors. If you’d like to pay for transcripts of past or future episodes, please contact me.)

Luke: Dr. Andrew Chignell is an associate professor of philosophy at Cornell University. His specialty is early modern philosophy, but today I’m going to interview him about two articles in particular: one, on the problem of infant suffering for theism and another on the ethics of belief. Andrew, welcome to the show.

Andrew Chignell: Thanks, Luke. Happy to be here.

Luke: Andrew, you’ve advanced a version of the argument for evil against theism that is of the logical, concrete, and particularist kind. Could you explain what those three terms mean in this context?

Andrew: Sure. So, the problem with evil is, obviously, that problem that many theists face or religious people in general, who believe in a being or a kind of world governing principle that’s good, all powerful, and all knowing.

Yet, they confront evils in the world, sufferings, badness of various sorts, disvalue. That seems to be incompatible in some ways with this kind of being or principle. So, the problem is just, “How can I continue to believe in this kind of being, when there are these kinds of evils confronting us in this world?”

So, there are different ways to…I mean, this is an age-old problem, obviously. There are different kind of ways to spell it out and set it up, and one of the most prominent ways in the 20th century analytical philosophy is that of J. L. Mackie, this Oxford don back in the mid century, who made it a kind of logical problem.

He had actually tried to show that it’s incompatible or inconsistent logically to believe both that God exists and evil exists. So, tried to spell out what we mean by God and what we mean by evil and show that you actually couldn’t hold both such beliefs without being in a kind of a logical problem. That’s one prominent way of setting up the problem. That it’s actually somehow probably logically or metaphysically incompatible to have both a good all powerful and all knowing God and evil in any amount or variety in the world.

So, there would be other ways of thinking the problem that would think about it in terms of evidence rather than logic and say, “Well, there might not be a logical inconsistency, but, certainly, the existence of evil and the amount that we find ourselves confronting it gives you a lot of evidence against the existence of God”.

So, it’s not a logical incompatibility, but it’s a kind of evidential problem. That would be a different problem than the logical problem, and you might think that even if you had solved the logical problem and shown somehow that God’s existence was logically compatible with the existence of evil that you still had to face the evidential problem that God’s existence is deeply implausible in the face of the kinds of evil that we’re confronting. So, that’s kind of what I mean by the logical problem.

The concrete problem has to do just with the difference between kind of evil in the abstract. Mackie often just talked about any evil at all, any kind of gratuitous suffering and didn’t focus on particular kinds of evils or sufferings that are supposed to be incompatible with God’s existence. So, people who make this distinction distinguish between that very abstract talk about evil and a more concrete focus on the sorts of evils that we actually confront, which are actually much worse, in most cases, than what the mere abstract problem refers to.

So, it’s not just some badness but badness of the Holocaust variety or of the horrendous genocidal war variety or whatever. In particular, in this paper, I follow Marilyn McCord Adams in talking about what’s called horrendous suffering or horrendous evil. That’s the kind of evil that’s so bad that people who are involved in it may think of it as challenging their sense of their life’s importance and meaning and significance. So, it’s kind of a meaning-challenging evil.

That is often called horrendous or horrific suffering among philosophers. So, by concrete we just mean let’s take these really hard cases of horrendous suffering and focus on those, because that, in a way, is the hardest sort of problem for theists, rather than just a mere abstract reference to evil in general.

The last thing was particularist – I think – or the particular problem of evil. That’s just to say: let’s not focus on worlds and whether or not they can be good on the whole evaluated by some 3rd person omniscient narrator, so to speak. Like Leibniz in his odyssey in the response to the problem of evil talks mostly about whether or not the world on the whole can be considered good and, therefore, compatible with the existence of a good God.

Rather, let’s focus on the particular perspective of individuals, who are suffering from abuse or horrendous evils. So, the thought is, “What about the people who suffer and die in the concentration camp or the people who are either perpetrators or victims of genocidal warfare and et cetera, et cetera? So, how can those people see their lives as still meaningful and as consistent somehow with the world in which God exists and not, ultimately, kind of give up on the notion that their lives have some sort of significance?”

So, it’s really an attempt to make the problem as hard as possible not because I want to make it unfair for the theists. It’s just because I think along, again, with the inspiration behind the problem Marilyn McCord Adams, I think you just have to be honest about what the real source of the problem is. It’s not just some abstract worry about whether the world, as a whole, is good or can be possibly actualized by a good God. But, rather, can these concrete evils of the sort that we confront in our world be consistent logically with the existence of a good God and be thought so by the particular people involved in that suffering?

Luke: The concrete particular evil that you have in mind here is infant suffering that presents a logical problem for the theists. What do you have in mind there?

Andrew: Yeah. So, the infant suffering question is the one that a lot of people kind of instinctively bring up. Sometimes, people talk about animal suffering. But, infants are thought to be innocent by many people, thought to be undeserving of any kind of punitive suffering. They don’t have the right kind of agency to be exercising their wills in ways that would make them susceptible to punishment or needing to suffer the consequences of their bad decisions.

So, infants strike you both emotionally and philosophically as the kind of things that need to be protected by a good and omnipotent and omniscient God. I mean, if God could protect somebody and knows where the problem is and is all good and so would want to, doesn’t it seem as though infants would be some of the being that should be protected?

They have all this potential. They are not yet fully developed. They’re innocent. They’re lovable. So, why would God allow infants to be skewered on bayonets in some sort of horrible war situation of the sort that Dostoevsky described in “The Brother’s Karamazov”? That’s the problem that the Ivan Karamazov presents that ends up really challenging his brother’s faith. How could it be that these soldiers could come and seem to enjoy, in front of the mothers, horrendously killing these infants?

So, the problem with infant suffering is supposed to be one that presents, again, the most difficult form of the problem of evil for theists suggests that there’s not ultimately a logical inconsistency.

Luke: The example that often comes to my mind, in terms of infant suffering, is those babies who are born with congenital diseases and suffer horrendous pain for a few weeks or a few months or maybe a year or two and then die because of the congenital disease.

The most popular response to any logical version of the problem of evil is Plantinga’s free will defense or some variety of that. But you say that your version of the argument avoids that kind of global solution to the problem of evil. How does that work?

Andrew: Well, it’s not inconsistent with it, but it, in a way, asks for more. So a global solution is one that says “On the whole, the world might be such that its existence is consistent with God’s existence and character.” Plantinga’s famous free will defense, which is really just a regimentation of some famous appeals to the importance of free will in the historical tradition of Christian and Jewish thinking about these things, says that free will, and I was hinting at this with the soldiers example, free will is such a great good, that God effectively takes the risks on board that accompany the existence of free will and accepts the consequences of bad exercises of freedom when they occur.

So God values free will, God himself has free will, and imbues certain of his creatures with free will which is this great, great good. But that comes automatically with certain risks, namely that they will exercise their free will in ways that lead to unjustified sufferings and evils of various sorts. And sometimes a very grand and horrible sort.

But Plantinga doesn’t focus on the particular sorts that we’re considering nor does he really focus on the individuals who suffer these evils. But rather just says “It’s at least logically possible that the value of freedom is so great that God could be thought justified in creating a world in which there are all these moral evils. Evils which are the result in some direct or indirect way of the exercise of freedom,” and tries to kind of push aside the logical issue by just saying “Look, it’s at least possible that they’re consistent in this way.”

Luke: Then concerning evils where free will doesn’t seem to be involved such as in the case of infants being born with congenital diseases, Plantinga would say something like “Well it could be the free will of invisible demons that are causing all of those harms.” And however extremely implausible that is, it’s at least logically possible. So it still avoids the logical problem of evil.

Andrew: Exactly. Yes it’s important to see that for the logical problem you only have to develop a what seems to be possible scenario that would make it consistent with God’s existence that evil exists. So you’re right, he does in a kind of off-handed way, but he’s actually invoking St. Augustine who seemed to think that this is the way to think about it. That hurricanes, tornadoes, diseases and the like may be the result of some other kind of agency that we’re not really aware of.

I don’t think that Plantinga believes that this is the case, but rather just wants to point out that it’s a lot harder to stick theism with a logical inconsistency than Mackie and others would want to admit.

Luke: Then you said that “That’s all well and good Plantinga, ” but your argument asks for something more?

Andrew: Right, so the concrete particular version of the logical problem says that we have to focus on the kinds and amount of evil that we confront here in this world and then we also have to think about them as being somehow made whole from the perspective of the person who suffers them. So it’s not enough.

Plantinga can’t just give this talk about free will and then say “And it might be that the whole world is therefore consistent, in this abstract way, with the existence of God.” Rather, you have to really think hard about particular cases of the worst sorts of evil and also the most vulnerable and innocent-seeming victims. And then try to figure out whether there’s a possible scenario in which those things are consistent with the existence of God.

And so the problem about infants is that, well I mean, just take horrendous suffering generally. Horrendous suffering is the sort of suffering that makes people doubt the very meaning of their lives, makes them think that perhaps it would have been better for them not to exist. There are a lot of people in the Christian tradition who think that there are certain of these things that are just so bad that they don’t really adequately fall out from exercises of freedom.

Let me put that more clearly. You might think that when we exercise our free will, we understand at least something of what the consequences of that exercise will be, and that one of the important things about allowing us to exercise our freedom is that we then see these foreseeable consequences occurring and have to reckon with them and what they mean for our lives and other people’s lives. So it’s important that perpetrators of evil have their consequences occur so that they can see what has happened and that their freedom is in a way respected. Even though all of that causes a great deal of suffering.

So you might think that there are some things that we simply can’t foresee, that there are consequences that go far beyond our ability to even imagine. To allow those things to occur and then say “Well it’s justified by the freedom that was the source of them, ” is not quite something that a good God would do.

So you might picture free will as a little child’s freedom when a child is told not to light a match or not to play with matches in a room where there happens to be a gas leak. The parent says “Don’t light the match, don’t play with matches, ” but it kind of expects in a way that the matches will be played with or knows that there’s a real possibility that the matches will be played with and then leaves the room with the gas leak flowing.

The child does the wrong thing and plays with matches. Does the thing that he was told not to do and his freedom is exercised. Then the whole house blows up and he’s incinerated. You might think that we would feel like the parent is not justified in saying “Well it’s consistent with me being a good parent that this occur because I was respecting the child’s freedom. I had given him the freedom to play with matches and I had told him not to and then he did and so this is what should happen.”

We feel like that’s inadequate and that the parent has more of a responsibility than just that. So a free will defense, when we look at particular exercises of freedom, and the incredibly powerful consequences that they sometimes have, incinerating people’s lives, and taking away all sense of meaning and significance. It starts to look as though the mere appeal to free will is a little bit like the example I just gave, that it’s not the kind of thing we would allow an all-knowing and all-powerful God to get away with. Even if freedom is an important thing, there are some concrete evils with which you can’t appeal to mere freedom to justify.

The infant question is one where you might think that kind of suffering, because these are innocent beings who are not really even capable of exercising agency themselves and often suffer in ways that we can’t really understand, that that’s a case, you might think, where free will defenses are not going to be sufficient.

Luke: But if you’re trying to advance a logical version of the argument, I imagine you have some kind of premise like “an all good, all powerful, all knowing God would not allow evil such that it brings into question the significance of the lives of those involved, ” or something like that. Is that right?

Andrew: Yes, or maybe it allows them to question that significance, but it ultimately gives them, those particular beings, an answer to the question and shows them how their lives could be made meaningful or views as meaningful even when they include that kind of suffering.

So the question could be raised, but there has to be some scenario whereby it could be answered.

Luke: So then I imagine the theists saying something like, “Well, I just don’t accept that premise because I think that God is bound by his goodness to make the world good on a whole, but not necessarily good for particular people from their own subjective viewpoint.”

Andrew: Yeah, that’s a good objection. I mean what you’d be trying to do as a theist is reject this attempt to make the problem harder, and to say not just good worlds, but good lives have to be safeguarded. The way to talk about whether a life is good is to at least take seriously the individual’s evaluation of it.

The thought would be a little bit more paternalistic that, “Well, God is, of course, all knowing. If he thinks the world is good, then that’s what important. Your own evaluation of your life and its significance may not be fully informed or fully reliable. So we don’t need to take that into account.”

I think that’s a challenge worth exploring. But I do think there is argument for taking this premise on that is pretty powerful. Mainly just that we think that it’s not really about particular worlds and their goodness that we are concerned, or that God should be concerned with. It’s individual sensors of suffering and consciousness that seem, to us, to be the most valuable, and that seem to generate the problem of evil the first place. How can this suffering by this particular person be considered justified given God’s existence and character?

Who better to understand whether it’s going to be justified in the end than that person, him or her self. I mean of course you can make mistakes, but you sort of idealize and say, is there a scenario on which an idealization of this agent would be able to say: “Yes, I can say that my life is actually fitting into a greater good, or made whole somehow by having evils defeated and overcome?”

So it’s got a bit of a heuristic aspect. But I do think that it’s a refusal to think that God kind of gets to decide when the world is good enough, and that we and our sense of these sufferings are completely unimportant.

Luke: Andrew, are there some other objections that might be raised to your argument?

Andrew: Well, so my argument is based… I mean we’ve kind of set up the problem. My argument in the paper, or the couple of papers that we are talking about, was just that infants are actually not as big a problem for theism as you might think, and as Dostoevsky seems to think, or as others have suggested.

Because what’s really bad about these most bad evils that I was calling “horrendous” evils is their ability to rob your life of a sense of significance, or from the first person point of view, to make you think that your life isn’t worth living, or to make you feel reduced to your mere biology by some horrendous disease, or whatever.

So there is always this kind of somewhat sophisticated meaning-making capacity that is being brought in, and that really makes the suffering acute. So the thought is just that physical pain is bad, but maybe not the worst kind of suffering. And that it’s physical pain in combination, or perhaps even without physical pain, but certainly the key element is the emotional, aggressive, kind of reflective suffering that makes things really horrendous.

So I try to make some arguments for that and then suggest that because infants, as we think anyway, aren’t capable of that kind of suffering, especially if they die in the scenarios that we are imagining, then perhaps they are the sorts of beings whose suffering can be merely balanced off by a good God, by which we mean something like: As long as the career of the infant on the whole, and here we include the “this worldly” as well as “post-mortem” existence if we believe in that, as theists tend to do, if that entire existence is a great good, then it is still a kind of justifiable existence for God to have created, even if there is some intense physical suffering at various points along the way.

That would be a balancing off of evil. What I was arguing is that if there is no horrendous evil involved, then balancing off is OK and consistent with the existence of a good God.

Defeat is a more complicated relation which involves kind of seeing that particular evil as essentially or integrally contributing to the good that is ultimately brought about. And it’s hard to see how, for infants, that’s going to work in the case of suffering and physical death.

So my argument is that you don’t need to actually have the defeat of such suffering in the case of infants, because it’s not the kind of suffering that’s truly… So I try to tie horrendous suffering to defeat and then say that non-horrendous suffering, merely physical suffering, so to speak, or low-level psychological suffering, separation from mother or whatever, that the infant is capable of is not the sort of thing that requires defeat, but just can be balanced off.

Luke: And then, how have others responded to that assertion?

Andrew: So, other people have responded by arguing in various ways that infants are capable of horrendous sorts of suffering, or thinking that even non-horrendous physical pain and low-level psychological distress requires defeat rather than balancing off. That’s probably the most prominent response that people have rejected this notion that a life in which there is a bunch of great good, and in this case it is going to be in the post-mortem, is fully consistent with the existence of God, even if there is some undefeated suffering at the beginning of that life in the form of a physical suffering and death, and psychological distress and all that on the part of an infant.

So the thought would be, “Look, a good, all powerful and all knowing God can’t even get away with allowing that. There has to be full defeat of every evil. That is, it has to be integrally organically connected to the goodness that results in order for it to be consistent with God’s existence. Otherwise, we just have a logical problem remaining.

I think that’s where a kind of deep intuition about value and what’s required for full goodness starts to come out, a difference in intuition.

Luke: Now, do you think that the infant problem of suffering or some other variety of the problem of evil presents a serious or even winning objection to classical theism?

Andrew: Well, the argument in the paper is that it doesn’t. If you accept my view that mere physical pain and low-level psychological distress isn’t horrendous, and thus, isn’t the kind of suffering that needs to be defeated in the technical sense, then there might be a way to get out of the logical problem.

I don’t suspect that the logical problem is going to end up being a winning objection, either at the global or abstract level, or at the concrete particular level. There are a lot of resources that theologians can use, especially once you bring in clues to make it seem as though God could allow this sort of thing to happen and yet still be considered classically good and omnipotent, and all that.

So I am tempted to think that the harder version of the problem is going to be the evidential problem, which I wasn’t trying to address in those papers. But those are the ones…that’s the problem that would say: OK, logically there’s no problem here. But it just looks like it’s going to be very implausible for such a God to allow this kind of suffering for those kinds of beings.” That, I think, is something that certainly pushes me into a kind of questioning mode about whether classical theism can survive.

It doesn’t mean that theism as a whole couldn’t accommodate it. I think you might need to change your conception of what God is like at least somewhat away from the classical picture in order to accommodate the kinds of evil that we encounter.

Luke: Well very interesting, perhaps we can move on to a slightly less depressing topic than infant suffering. [laughter]

Let’s talk about the ethics of belief. You recently published for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy the article for the ethics of belief. Could you give us a brief overview of the development of that debate over the ethics of belief and what different philosophers have said throughout the past 150 years?

Andrew: Sure. The ethics of belief is essentially the question whether we have duties of a certain sort, both either moral or some other sort of duty, to believe in certain ways or to govern our belief forming practices in certain ways. So you might think that there is a certain way of believing or allowing yourself to practice belief formation that is actually immoral. If you were to, for instance, refuse to consider evidence whenever you formed beliefs and therefore started forming all of these beliefs about people and circumstances that were not at all justified by evidence in your possession. That would lead you to various kinds of beliefs that could be harmful or oppressive or noxious in some other way.

So you might think that there’s a kind of moral requirement that you take into account certain kinds of evidence when you are forming your beliefs. And so people debate about whether there are these moral norms, whether there are other kinds of norms involved in believing, pragmatic kinds of norms.

If there are these things then where the source of those norms comes from. What kinds of values are we talking about? How can you actually think that believing is something that we can be doing in a wrong way if belief isn’t voluntary? Or if belief is voluntary, then why can’t we change our beliefs on many occasions at least without a lot of effort et cetera, et cetera.

So it opens up all kinds of interesting psychological issues and cognitive science issues as well as intersecting ethics and epistemology and [inaudible].

Luke: Could you give us sort of a sense of the development of the debate over the ethics of belief since Clifford and what Clifford advanced?

Andrew: Sure. I think in a way it’s a little misleading to say he started the debate although that’s what we often do say. He wrote an article or a little essay called “The Ethics of Belief, ” and kind of named the debate. So we usually refer to him and his article when we start talking about this. But clearly lots of people in the history of philosophy have talked about belief and whether it’s got certain norms that need to be accommodated and whether it’s irrational to believe in certain ways. In fact all talk about justification is in some sense a way of talking about whether we are right in holding a certain belief or forming beliefs in certain ways.

But what Clifford did that was very striking was make it a kind of moral question. That’s why ethics here starts to take on an important role. When we say “ought we to believe something” or “it is wrong to believe that, ” we often hear that as a kind of moral rather than a merely epistemic question, or ought. So in formulating a really strict doctrine in the way that he did, the doctrine that, as he puts it, “it’s always, everywhere and for everyone immoral or wrong to believe on insufficient evidence, ” Clifford kind of sets the terms of the debate that then continues on into the 20th and 21st centuries.

The most important interlocutor responding to Clifford, at least early on, was William James in the late 19th century who kind of makes fun of Clifford and thinks of him as this overly rigorous person who insists that we always have sufficient evidence for every single belief that we form. In the course of exploring various kinds of cases, both religious and otherwise, James makes the point against Clifford that surely there are at least times when we are at least permitted to form beliefs without having sufficient evidence, and possibly there are times when we are downright required to do so in order to accomplish some other important pragmatic or moral goal.

So those two have kind of set the terms of the debate. Clifford being on the side of you always have to have sufficient evidence for all of your beliefs or else you’re morally wrong, and James on the other hand saying “No, no, no, there are plenty of cases in which for pragmatic reasons or religious reasons or broadly practical ethical reasons you need to, or at least can, believe without sufficient evidence.” Those two positions have become kind of the touchstones for the rest of the debate that has gone on since.

Luke: Well it seems to me pretty impractical to insist that we all have good evidence for all of our beliefs, I mean no matter what standard of evidence you go with. I imagine myself having to just not even gett out of bed in the morning because there are so many things that I do that I just more or less take on faith and I don’t have time to develop good evidence for everything that I do throughout my day, interacting with a thousand different systems.

Andrew: That’s interesting. I think Clifford’s position is often called evidentialism, as a view that you have to have sufficient evidence for your beliefs, or that it’s wrong not to. There are different kinds of evidentialism, his is a particularly moralistic kind.

But I would think that that view is the most popular among philosophers. So there’s got to be a way, I would think, of construing what evidence means or what it is it have evidence that would allow them to make sense of your daily practices and think that you’re not completely out of line. I think they’re going to say “Sure, you have evidence for the floor’s existing so that you can take a step forward or the computer is going to work and so you’re going to push the right button.” They don’t think of the possession of evidence as this extremely articulate, high level kind of thing that would make it seem utterly impractical for you to have evidence for your beliefs.

That said, there will be many people who agree with you, anti-evidentialist or non-evidentialists who think, yes, James was right and you’re right to think that we really don’t have or can’t have evidence that’s sufficient for knowledge for all of our important beliefs. So we often have to just move on faith or something like pragmatic acceptance in the absence of sufficient evidence.

So a lot of the debate here is going to be about what evidence is and what it is to have that evidence.

Luke: What I’ve noticed several times is that some particular philosophers who defend Clifford’s principle that it’s wrong everywhere, always, and for everyone to believe on insufficient evidence, when they’re talking about that moral epistemic principle, they have one notion of evidence, and then when they’re talking about evidence in other fields they have a very different notion of evidence.

So for example, in going about your day they’ll say “Well, it’s sufficient evidence to believe on the testimony of one person that such and such is true.” That’s how you get about going your day. You couldn’t go about your day of you had to inquire of three different people and look for physical evidence of all the things and claims that you’re running on.

But then in other contexts they would never accept such little evidence as one person’s testimony, and it seems inconsistent to me. I’m not going to name any names because I’m probably going to embarrass myself in misrepresenting someone then. But that’s what I seem to be running into.

Andrew: That’s probably right that people will be a little bit fast and loose with what they take “sufficient evidence” to amount to in different situations so that their views survive and their answer to a particular question comes out right. That said, it does seem as though in different cases and different contexts, you’re going to think that sufficiency of evidence is quite different.

So if it’s a case where you’re an airplane pilot and you have to figure out whether you’re at the right velocity, or at the right altitude, the testimony of the flight attendant is not going to be sufficient evidence. You need to verify at least with respect to certain instruments, and maybe also ground control, and things like that.

But in other cases where you’re just asking, “Do we have any Diet Coke on board?” then the testimony of the flight attendant is going to be just fine to count as sufficient evidence. And you can go ahead and believe that we do when she says, “We do, ” or believe that we don’t when she says, “We don’t.”

So, I think that there can be some bad faith here, so to speak. But there’s also just an important recognition that what counts as evidence and what counts as sufficient evidence is going to have to differ depending on your role, depending on your context, depending on the practical importance of the belief that you’re forming.

Luke: Well, I like how you cache that out. It sounds like that might actually be, in some ways, equivalent to the way that I think about these things, but I am using the words differently. So the way I would put it, for ethics of belief, at least with my current meta-ethical understanding, is to say that – epistemically – evidence has a certain meaning and it’s a bit stronger than just requiring testimony from one person in most cases.

But then on the moral issue, it’s a moral issue which situations we decide we need to have sufficient evidence for. So the moral issue is separate from the epistemic issue. And so in the case of landing a plane, or in making decisions about policy involving global warming that could affect the lives of millions of people, or other political decisions, about energy policy, or in voting about the rights of millions of human beings. For example, the rights of gays to get married - I think the beliefs that are involved in making those kinds of decisions that have major impact, we have a moral obligation to spend some time to investigate those beliefs, and try to have the right beliefs about those subjects.

But then, I would say, as a moral issue, there are lots of less consequential beliefs that we are allowed to not have the right kind of evidence for, because there are greater moral concerns than investigating every single belief that you have.

So I would just kind of cache things out a little bit differently. I would still require that evidence has a fairly strong meaning, but I would just say that we’re morally not obligated to have strong evidence in all cases because of the consequences of certain beliefs are so much greater than the potential consequences of other beliefs.

Andrew: I think you could go that way. I think you could think, “OK, we’re going to hold the notion of evidence as a high level notion, and it would have to be self-conscious, articulable, usually propositional things that you could cite and provide as an argument if somebody asks you.” That is going to require more inquiry, and more reflection, and more discussion, probably.

So if you think of it that way, then I think the way you’re setting it up is probably right. There are some cases where we just don’t need that kind of evidence. Many cases. And other cases where we do, given the moral or practical results that we’re thinking about our consequences.

But I think philosophers or epistemologists will tend to think that evidence is the sort of thing that you need in order to count as knowing something. So I kind of use evidence and justification as synonymous in most cases. In order to be justified you have to have a certain amount of evidence.

Luke: Right. But justification, you’re still talking about an epistemic norm, right? Not a moral norm?

Andrew: Yeah, yeah. So an epistemic situation would be one in which we have knowledge, and in order to have knowledge you have to have some kind of justification for evidence. Yet in many of the cases I suspect you’re going to use as examples things that we don’t really have to worry too much about what we believe, because there’s not that much of a practical consequence.

Most epistemologists will still want to say that we have knowledge when somebody tells you that “Such and such was reported in the New York Times,” or when you’re confronted with your toothbrush perceptually and so you think your toothbrush is in a certain place on the sink. All of those things may not have much practical consequence, but you still have a certain kind of justification through perception or testimony. And that justification could be a kind of evidence if you’re called upon to cite it, say. And then you would want to say those things count as knowledge.

So I think the they’re going… Evidentialists, the people who agree with Clifford that you always have to have sufficient evidence, are going to want to also say that what they mean by evidence is maybe quite a bit less demanding than what you think.

Luke: Um-hm.

Andrew: So they’re going to say we get sufficient evidence all the time, and it’s only in the cases where people just take these leaps of faith into the darkness that we should be denying that they’re satisfying the relevant norm.

There might be other cases of the sort you’re mentioning, where the usual levels of evidence — evidence sufficient for knowledge — are themselves not enough, and we have to get even better, maybe evidence sufficient for certainty. So it might be that what you’re sensing as the norm to get evidence in those cases is really more of a norm to get tons and tons of evidence, just because the consequences of getting it wrong would be so significant.

Luke: Well, if you don’t mind I’ll just continue to use my own view as a foil for investigating the rest of what philosophers say.

Andrew: Yeah.

Luke: So my own response would be something like, “Look, we can’t just change what the evidence means based on moral consequences. And moreover, if we’re going to lower the bar for what is required for knowledge so low that, for example, the testimony of one stranger is enough to count as giving us knowledge in certain particular situations, then the result of that is that that method of knowing is extremely fallible.”

I mean, it could be somebody playing a prank on you. It could be somebody telling you something they don’t know anything about, because you pass them on the street and they just want to say, “Oh, yeah. I think it’s over there, ” and they’re totally wrong. Then our knowledge becomes so incredibly fallible and unreliable that I don’t understand why we’re calling it knowledge anymore.

Now, in the language that we use as philosophers in talking about epistemic justification is going to be a little bit different than the knowledge that I use throughout the day. I would be tempted to say, “Oh, no! I know it’s over there, ” even when my evidence is fairly limited.

But when I’m speaking from the point of view of a philosopher and talking about epistemic justification, if I’m going to say that the testimony of one stranger gives me knowledge, then I have an extremely low view of knowledge that is only just a tiny step above just bare belief. And I don’t think it makes sense to talk of justification in those terms.

So I would rather keep the bar a little bit higher when I’m talking about knowledge, so that it’s a useful term as apart from just bare belief, and then involve moral concepts when I want to talk about the moral consequences of belief and what types of justification is required morally, rather than epistemically.

Andrew: OK, yeah. I think you can do that. I just think maybe the one negative consequence there is that you end up saying that at least from the official, philosophical point of view, we don’t have knowledge in a lot of the cases where kind of we take ourselves to, and where we will often use the term knowledge.

So I think philosophers try to stay really close to common sense, or common language, where possible. Given that the testimony of one person is going to be sufficient for us to think that we know and say that we know, in many cases, the philosopher is going to try to come up with an analysis of knowledge that respects that.

Luke: Right. Because we don’t want to confuse ourselves by making philosophers’ words mean different things than people’s words.

Andrew: Yeah. Or we want to say we think of common sense and intuitions that come out of common sense, and every day language, as a data that we work with, in part. So we don’t want to go so far from every day language that…

“You know, all these people say they know these things all the time, but we have a very high-level definition of what knowledge is. So we actually think they don’t know all those things that they say they know.”

That might have more of a kind of Cartesian thought about what knowledge is. You have to have clear and distinct perception, and anything else just doesn’t cut it, in terms of knowledge. I think contemporary epistemologists like to lower the bar as much as possible.

Luke: I understand what you’re saying with regard to the data that we’re working with is what people are talking about.

Andrew: Yeah.

Luke: So, for example, I wouldn’t require a Cartesian standard of evidence, and I wouldn’t require certainty for knowledge, but I do think that people, as a practice, way, way over-believe things. So I don’t mind saying that they don’t know a lot of the things that they say they know. In fact, that’s a very simple fact to prove, that people don’t know what they think they know.

Andrew: Yeah. Well, don’t forget that knowledge also entails truth, it’s of course the case that we don’t end up having as many true beliefs as we think we do, and so therefore, we don’t know any of those beliefs.

You might be arguing about whether or not a lot of these beliefs are true, when you say “These aren’t really known.” But what I’m thinking about is not so much the truth component of knowledge, but the evidence component or the justification component. There, I would want to say that people do have, for the most part, evidence that is sufficient to make the belief into knowledge, if it is true.

Of course, if it’s false, then it’s not going to be knowledge, by definition. But if it’s true, then their justification is sufficient.

Luke: Yeah, and I think the reason that people have so many false beliefs that they think is knowledge, is because the epistemic processes that they’re using are not up to snuff. So that’s why I want to say that their concept of justification and evidence is not what it should be, even though, just because the way that we use words like knowledge, it doesn’t require clear and distinct perception, or certainty.

Andrew: Yeah, so it sounds like you have kind of a middle position on what evidence has to be and how strong it has to be, whereas I was thinking that most epistemologists probably have a kind of low-level notion at this point, and the Cartesians would have a very, very high level notion. I think that’s their arguments for taking each position, but they’re also consequences of taking each one.

So what’s interesting to me, is that you started off by saying “Now, who could be an evidentialist? Who could ever think you have to have evidence for all of your beliefs?” Now it kind of sounds like you’re morally disapproving of many people’s claims to have knowledge, when in fact they don’t have sufficient evidence.

Luke: That’s right.

Andrew: So it sounds like you actually are tempted by this evidentialist position, and you want to maybe condemn a lot of people for claiming that they have knowledge when they don’t have it.

Luke: That’s right. The difference that I’m drawing between myself and what you’re calling “most epistemologists,” is that in epistemology, in terms of justification, I have a higher standard of evidence. But as a moral issue, I think that there are a great many beliefs for which we are permitted to not really have much evidence at all.

But yeah, I do hold out moral condemnation for people who make no attempts at all to justify their beliefs, and therefore end up contributing to the maiming and killing of millions of people. It’s a form of moral negligence.

Andrew: So you wouldn’t want to morally condemn people, who in their normal, everyday lives, form beliefs without sufficient evidence.

Luke: Right. I don’t think that they are morally obligated to develop great evidence for whether or not the coffee that they’re getting has not been poisoned at Starbucks, or whether the Apple store is down the street that way, as opposed to that way, because the stranger told you so.

I don’t think people are morally obligated to investigate the evidence and have great evidence for those claims. They can if they want. That’s permitted, but not obligated.

Andrew: OK, good. That brings out a point that I didn’t do a good job of making earlier, which that these oughts can come from very different sources, and the kinds of value involved can differ.

So I think in the article, I distinguish between three different sorts of value, which can help to generate a norm. One can just be kind of prudential or pragmatic value. If you want to get something, then you have to have a certain kind of practice. So it might be that you’re failing to do what you need to do, by way of forming belief, in order to get the end that you’ve set for yourself.

But what we’ve been talking about is the difference between two other kinds of value: epistemic and moral value. I think what you’re saying is that, “Look, epistemically, of course, we might be going wrong a lot of the time, and we’re not doing what we would need to do in order to get knowledge if the belief is true.”

That’s merely an epistemic failure, and that’s not really important, given our other concerns. It’s only in cases where there’s lots of consequences at stake, that we have moral failure. What we should be thinking about in the ethics of belief, is really the cases in which there’s moral responsibility to form a belief or withhold a belief.

Luke: Right. I should clarify one thing. There’s kind of two different views about the comparative importance of the different types of norms. So maybe a traditional view would be that the moral norms trump all the other kinds of norms. If something is morally wrong, but prudentially good, you should go with the moral norm.

Then a more contemporary view in analytic philosophy is that, well, the balance might be a little bit different. It might turn out to be that prudential norms are really the most important. If your prudential norms tell you to do one thing, and the moral norms tell you to do the other thing, you’re justified in some kind of global sense in going with the prudential norms.

For my own part, I don’t know the answer to that question. So, when I talk about the issues, I usually talk about them, just from the assumption of the older view, that most people are probably familiar with, especially if they’re religious.

So I’m just kind of saying, if the moral norms trump things, then we globally ought to follow the moral norms. Or I can just say, as a moral issue, I condemn people, and I don’t even have to bring up whether or not I’m condemning them in some kind of global sense of the consideration of various kinds of norms.

Andrew: Right. That makes sense. I guess the difference I would have is that, because I define evidence in a somewhat looser, or lower-level fashion, I would say that it might be the case that we have moral norms always to believe on sufficient evidence. But that turns out to be a lot easier than you’re suggesting.

Then there might be kind of other moral norms, let’s say, and in important cases, where there are big consequences for lots of people, we have the moral obligation to believe on not just sufficient evidence, sufficient for knowledge, but evidence that’s much closer to certainty.

Luke: Yeah. And again, I think that might turn out to be actually be equivalent. We’re just using different words.

Andrew: Yeah. Well, except that I can say there are moral norms to believe on evidence in all cases, and that you want to reject that. So in a way, it makes me sound more moralistic, I guess, about our beliefs.

Luke: [laughs] It just cracked me up, hearing you describe yourself, but even both of us as moralistic, in comparison to some traditions of moralism that I come from personally.

Andrew: [laughs] Yeah.

Luke: [laughs] Well, we’ve spoken about maybe two different kinds of positions on the ethics of belief, Andrew, but what a couple of the other theories that are out there on the ethics of belief?

Andrew: So there would be people who reject evidentialism for various reasons. I mentioned briefly, Jamesian-style views. Maybe I should say something a little more about that.

Luke: Yeah.

Andrew: William James is known for having… I mean he wrote this essay called “The Will to Believe,” but he actually later said that he wished he called it “The Right to Believe.” He was trying to develop, basically a series of scenarios or cases, in which he thinks that you certainly can, and maybe should go ahead and believe, even if your evidence is insufficient.

Some of those cases are worth reflecting on, because they get at the differences that we might have about the notion of evidence, and what’s required to count as having sufficient evidence. James had some great cases that make you reflect about some of these principles, including the classic case of the person who is stuck on a mountain. She may be mountain climbing, and there is a big chasm in front of her, and a storm is coming in, and there is no other way to back up because there has been a landslide, say. And so she’s stuck looking at this chasm, and is facing certain death – starvation or something – if she doesn’t jump over it, and yet doesn’t really have sufficient evidence on any understanding of that notion to think that she can make it over the chasm. She thinks it’s either a 50/50, or maybe even less than 50/50, chance that she’ll make it because she’s not that great a jumper, or it’s a really big chasm.

But James says that in this case she has the right to believe that she is going to make it; kind of this, “I think I can, I think I can” idea. Where, if you believe not just that you might or maybe can, but that you will, then you are actually more likely to make it. And James invokes certain kinds of psychological principles and data that suggest that that is true of us, that when we believe certain things will happen, then we are more likely to act in such a way that they do.

So he says, “How can Clifford be so moralistic in this case and say that the woman, as she believes ‘I will make it’ and then goes ahead and jumps, is making some more of a moral error and should be condemned for it?” In fact, she has the right to believe, and indeed, maybe she is obliged to believe. Maybe the rational thing to do is…certainly the prudentially rational thing to do is believe. And so Clifford can’t be right that always and everywhere you have to have sufficient evidence.

So that’s a kind of maybe prudential non-evidentialism.

Luke: And how does the evidentialist respond to something like that?

Andrew: Well, there the evidentialist is going to say that James is maybe misdescribing the situation. Perhaps what he is saying is that she needs to believe that it is maybe not more than 50/50 likely that she will make it, but maybe focus on a salient belief like that she can make it.

And so, really say, “I think I can,” or, “I believe that I can,” instead of the unjustified belief that she will. So the evidentialist is going to say there is something in the region here that is OK, but it is not the adoption of a belief for which you have insufficient evidence. Rather, focusing on something that you do have sufficient evidence for but that might give you the same psychological payoff. Maybe even just something like: “I don’t believe that I can’t.”

Luke: Are there additional views that are defended in the literature today on the ethics of belief?

Andrew: Yeah, there are different versions of anti-evidentialism, or non-evidentialism that may not so much come from a prudential angle in the way that James says, but rather come from a view in epistemology that says that we don’t have to have evidence or beliefs that we just find ourselves with, that beliefs are innocent until proven guilty, if you will.

So until you have some sort of reason to give up a belief, it’s OK to continue to hold it, even when you don’t have sufficient evidence. That’s a view called Conservatism in epistemology that is quite popular, actually. So there’s a kind of natural belief forming process that produces various beliefs in you. You are fully fine, at least from an epistemic point of view, certainly from a moral point of view, in holding these beliefs until somebody gives you, or the world gives you some reason to question them. It’s only when you have the potential defeaters of these beliefs that you should, in any moral or epistemic sense, investigate your evidence.

So that would be a kind of rejection of Clifford for epistemological reasons rather than prudential reasons.

Luke: What’s the name for the position that one is morally allowed and sometimes even obligated to retain one’s belief in contradiction to all of the evidence?

Andrew: A strong version would be fideism, which just comes from the Latin word for faith. To have faith, I think, isn’t always to just believe what you have evidence not to belief. That would be the extreme version. But for whatever reason, the name “Fideism” has been associated with this strong view.

That seems kind of like a sort of irrationalism. So you take yourself to have evidence in favor of God’s not existing, say, maybe it’s evil and infant suffering, but then you go ahead and believe even in the face of that evidence that God does exist. So it’s a pure leap into the opposite of what you take yourself to have evidence for.

I don’t even know about the extent to which that’s psychologically possible. Well, there’s certain writers in the history of philosophy and theology. Tertullian is probably the most famous example. He’s an early Christian writer who says that he believes because it is absurd, or what he believes is absurd, or it’s the absurdity of the belief that actually makes him want to hold it.

And I think he had certain views about the nature of reason and its inability to understand certain big truths about incarnation, or Trinity, or something like that that would have led him to say something like that. But surely it can’t be a universal prescription for our belief practices to believe whatever you take to be unjustified in the face of evidence to the contrary.

But you might say there is a weaker version of fideism, which has a little bit more going for it, which is to say that in the absence of sufficient evidence, there might be cases where you can just kind of leap into a certain kind of faith in a proposition. That might be true even if you don’t have prudential reasons in favor of the belief either. It might just be something you can do for arbitrary reasons or no reason at all. I’m not so sure that that’s psychologically compelling either as a picture, but it’s one that certain people have had.

Then fideism can also be used for the view that says it’s only when you have good moral or prudential reasons for holding something that you can believe it in the absence of sufficient epistemic evidence.

So the word gets thrown about a bit, and you have to be careful to specify what you mean by it. But in any case, all of those positions would be anti-evidentialist positions.

Luke: Then finally Andrew, why are you an evidentialist with regard to the ethics of belief?

Andrew: I think I’m an epistemic evidentialist. Before I was characterizing my position as more moralistic than yours, but I’m actually still not completely sure if I want to say that there is a moral obligation to always have epistemic evidence.

I think that, in part, my view about what evidence is and what it is to possess evidence is pretty loose. So it ends up being a lot easier than you might think to have evidence for many of our beliefs. And I do think that where we don’t have evidence there is at least a prima facie obligation to try to withhold belief because the consequences of even apparently trivial cases of unjustified belief can be more important and significant than we think. If you allow yourself to believe something without evidence and then behave on that basis, it may actually have more significant consequences that you realize.

In any case, this is something Clifford often points out, it shows a sort of disrespect for our collective efforts to respect reason and reasons in one another that may lead to bad habits of mind, and ultimately to intellectual vices that can bleed into others of your practices, whether it be in moral or intellectual academic work.

So I think that as a rule of thumb anyway, going for beliefs when and only when we have evidence for them is something that you could make a good argument for, and that it may be a kind of moral argument. Although, again, I’m unsure I want to say that.

Luke: Well Andrew, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you. Thanks for coming on the show.

Andrew: Thank you. It’s been really interesting for me, too.

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Steve Maitzen September 19, 2010 at 10:16 am

If I may, Chignell’s distinction between God’s having to defeat horrendous evil while only having to balance off non-horrendous evil invites the problem I’ve called “reverse triage”: the more horrendous (or more nearly horrendous) the evil, the more likely it is on theism that the evil is (to quote Chignell) “essentially or integrally contributing to the good that is ultimately brought about” for the victim. Hence the less obligated anyone is to prevent or relieve the evil. If so, we should attend to non-horrendous evils first and horrendous evils only later (if ever). Theistic attempts to answer the problem of evil tend to turn ordinary morality on its head.


Jeff H September 19, 2010 at 11:46 am

I’m not sure about this whole idea of epistemic or moral duties to gather evidence before holding a belief. It certainly seems to make sense, but I think there’s a problem for both Luke’s view and Chignell’s view.

Chignell says we are morally required to gather evidence when a belief has important consequences. But in order to determine this, we must examine whether we believe that the belief has important consequences. Then we have to determine whether this meta-belief is important enough to require evidence to believe. And of course, we could continue down the line, continually making decisions about whether each belief is morally significant or not. It seems this could go on ad infinitum.

Luke says that we are only epistemically required if the belief has important consequences. But it seems like this encounters the same problem – how does one know whether the consequences are important without a further belief that this is or isn’t the case?


Hermes September 19, 2010 at 1:04 pm

Steve, that’s interesting. It makes me think about the contrast between your overview of the Christian/Jewish mythos and the Greek.

At first glance they seem to be quite different from the Greek focus on tragedies; often evil expressed through a seemingly unavoidable fate.

The evil deeds themselves are often on a human level, caused through impulse and/or ignorance even if fated. The protagonists in a tragedy are daring and noble figures that are still oh so human. We feel sympathy for them regardless of how high or low they are at any point in the tale because we can emphasize with them. We can’t help but feel for them, even as they take actions intentionally that we would never do ourselves.

Even within the context of the story itself, if a few facts were made available early enough, and 5 minutes were given for calm consideration of the facts by those who were previously fated to ignorance, it would render many Greek tragedies into joyous festivals of compassion and reuniting. There are usually multiple victims of the tragic arc, not just the protagonist, and no group is demonized.

With a few exceptions, the Greeks don’t focus on wholesale slaughter either, as the Hebrews did. When they did (Homer’s Iliad) some individuals were dropped in the middle of the stories and given compassionate consideration even if they were not hear of before or afterwards. This doesn’t happen in the Bible; the enemies are all evil. The Hebrew leaders are almost always blessed if they follow God, and punished excessively if they don’t follow God’s commands precisely. Dehumanization or demonization is rampant.


lukeprog September 19, 2010 at 2:40 pm

Hmmm. Thanks, Steve Maitzen.


Alex September 19, 2010 at 6:55 pm

Just a note to say I *love* your interviews to bits, and I think you’re doing a tremendous job, both in content and in execution. Keep it up, and if you need help in any way don’t hesitate to shout / whisper.


lukeprog September 19, 2010 at 7:59 pm



Guenther September 20, 2010 at 6:18 pm

It seems that some form of a “free-will” defense is commonly used in response to various formulations of the “problem of evil”.

So if we accept the free-will premise, my question would then be: Is there “free-will” in heaven? If yes, then clearly god knows how to create an environment where presumably no evil exists and yet you have free-will. Why not do it that way in the first place? If there is no free-will in heaven, then who would want to go there?


Robert Gressis September 20, 2010 at 8:02 pm

Hi Guenther,

Real quick: it could be that God wanted to create a world with both heaven and this life so that he could get as wide a variety of goods as possible–if he started everyone in heaven, then it would be the case that there would be all sorts of virtues that we don’t retain. That’s not the only thing to say–it could also be that a world in which people freely overcome temptation to get into heaven is more valuable than one in which they don’t do that too, though if you take up this approach it seems to me that you have to endorse Plantinga’s supralapsarian theodicy.


Michael September 23, 2010 at 12:08 pm

Luke: Thanks so much for your podcasts! I learn an amazing amount in every one.

I have a question about the free will defense to the problem of evil. Theists seem to take as given that free will is sufficiently desirable to justify infants being tortured or dying of painful congenital diseases.

But doesn’t the Bible present many examples of God violating free will? Isn’t even a healing miracle denying somebody the freely willed consequence of whatever brought on their disease? Doesn’t a God-endorsed genocide deny infants the opportunity to lead a life where they can freely make any variety of choices?

It just strikes me as inconsistent that God is deemed unable to intervene in the case of a suffering infant because it would violate somebody’s free will, while intervening through miracles, by sending Jesus to earth, by smiting, etc. in other cases.

I am sure theists have responded to this. I am curious what they would say!


lukeprog September 23, 2010 at 12:14 pm


Yes, the God (or gods) of the Bible violate free will several times. The usual response is not surprising. As always, they just cherry-pick the verses that agree with their theology, and dismiss or minimize the others.


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