December 6, 2021

This Post is Old!

The post you are reading is years old and may not represent my current views. I started blogging around the time I first began to study philosophy, age 17. In my view, the point of philosophy is to expose our beliefs to rational scrutiny so we can revise them and get better beliefs that are more likely to be true. That's what I've been up to all these years, and this blog has been part of that process. For my latest thoughts, please see the front page.

Zagzebski and Cuneo on Religious Communities

In her book Epistemic Authority, Linda Zagzebski defends a view on which epistemic authority (the right to be believed) is very closely analogous to practical authority (the right to be obeyed). According to Zagzebski, both are justified by my conscientious judgment that I am more likely to achieve my goals (including the goal of believing the truth) if I trust the authority than if I go off on my own.

In justifying authority within small communities, Zagzebski (pp. 144-148) uses the example of a community dedicated to a particular skill or way of life. I might participate in an orchestra, or an astronomy club, or a fiction writers group with the goal of achieving the goods associated with a particular skill. I might make the decision to participate at a time when I have only a vague notion of the goods to be achieved. For instance, I might have no more notion of what makes for good music than 'I know it when I hear it'. By trusting the community, and placing myself under its authority, I can achieve those goods. But teaching someone these sorts of skills involves not only giving practical instructions, but also imparting beliefs. Thus, my judgment that participating in the community is a way to achieve these goods provides epistemic reasons as well as practical ones.

It occurred to me today that Zagzebski's approach dovetails interestingly with Terence Cuneo's account of Christianity as know-how.* According to Cuneo, Christianity is best understood as knowledge how to live in communion with God.

Suppose that Zagzebski is right about authority and Cuneo is right about the nature of Christianity. Then an interesting picture emerges. On such a picture, I might begin by judging that if there is such a thing as communion with God, then joining myself to a particular community is the most likely way of living in communion with God. If such communion seems sufficiently desirable to me, then I might take this step. I needn't be sure that such communion is really possible, or even that God really exists, though of course I won't (rationally) take this step if I don't take there to be at least some likelihood. Having done this, I would take the community's instruction on how to achieve this communion, and this would include instruction in belief as well as practice. I would, in a way, be betting on the community's ability to find our way to God over my ability to find my way alone, and shaping my beliefs and practices according to this bet.

This approach, combining what I take to be the key insights of Zagzebski and Cuneo, is not quite the same as Zagzebski's approach to religious authority (ch. 9) or Cuneo's overall approach to ritual practice. Cuneo takes it to be an advantage of his account that it de-emphasizes individual belief: knowing-how is not believing. But Zagzebski argues that the process of learning a skill or way of life from a community typically involves taking on certain beliefs. Zagzebski's account of religious authority, on the other hand, is all about trusting divine testimony, which may or may not be mediated by a community. What this hybrid approach suggests is that the desire to practice the community's rituals, in the hope of living in communion with God, may be the path in to accepting the community as an epistemic authority.

I have some misgivings about Zagzebski's overall account of authority because I have stronger intuitions about (what she calls) epistemic autonomy than I think her account can accommodate. I'm also a bit unsure about some of the ways she brings practical and emotional issues into her epistemology. At the same time, I think this hybrid Cuneo-Zagzebski picture is attractive in that it likely accurately describes the process of conversion for many people, and the thought processes it relies on do seem to fit a variety of other cases of trusting authorities as well. And it can be made more plausible by recognizing that Zagzebski's account requires us to keep reflecting, and see whether we still judge that trusting the community is a better way to achieve our goals than going it alone. Such an approach allows that I might try out a certain religious way of life, and my (epistemic and practical) trust in the community might grow if my experience continues to suggest that this is a way of living in communion with God, and decline if not. That approach seems to me to be an attractive one indeed.

* A bit of historical trivia: Damaris Masham, writing in 1705, had defined 'religion' as "the knowledge how to please God".
Posted by Kenny at December 6, 2021 2:45 PM
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