Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Does epistemology matter?

A number of articles recently assert that the epistemology of religion doesn't matter; what matters are the practices. (The latest of course, being Religion, Heuristics, and Intergenerational Risk Management, with my response.) And it is asserted that epistemology doesn't matter in a deep way: even if we know that the underlying structure of a set of practices is false, even in the "worst" sense of falsity, that doesn't matter. I find this position deeply problematic.

As a scientific thinker, epistemology and truth are important to me. So when someone says knowledge and truth doesn't matter, then a red flag goes up in my mind. But I am open-minded, so I will speculate about what such people could possibly mean by such a thing.

First, thinkers such as Reed and Taleb say that what matters about religion is faith, trust, and commitment to a way of life. But on what basis can a person figure out which way of life to have faith in, to commit to? Everyone is committed to a particular way of life. If religion just means that people should do as they themselves choose, taking into consideration the physical and social consequences of their choices, then these thinkers have defined religion into vacuity. That cannot be their intent: if everyone everywhere is already religious, then it would be astonishing for Reed and Taleb, for example, to exhort economists to incorporate religious thought. Clearly these authors intend to say "religion" means something more. But what?

A crucial feature of religion, according to Reed and Taleb, is its division between the sacred and the profane, with the sacred immune to "rationalization" in the weaker sense that we don't need to understand why something or another is sacred and profane. But again, sacralization without an examination of at least why human beings make and accept the division is just prosaic conservative historicism: we should X because we've done X for a long time, and it hasn't killed us yet. Not a bad general principle, but conservative historicism is hardly religious (conservative historicism explains why I continue to use English despite not being a linguist, United States currency despite not (yet) being an economist, or drive my car without being an engineer.)

(And the historicist argument can be abused, as Reed and Taleb abuse it in their paper:
Just as nature is ‘wiser’ than us (in a statistical, risk-management sense) with regard to a vast swathe of threats, illnesses, etc., just as our knowledge only surpasses nature’s in unusual and rare circumstances, so religious man is wiser than irreligious and non-religious man with regard to a vast swathe of threats, moral and spiritual illnesses and problems, etc. The knowledge of irreligious and non-religious man surpasses that of religious man only in rare and unusual circumstances. Until we have had a lot longer to develop non-religious heuristics that work, we should not throw the precautionary, religion-as-risk-management baby out with the superstitious, theological-claptrap bathwater. (224)(
This is a good argument against repealing the First Amendment and making religion illegal — a position held by only a tiny few completely marginalized idiot atheists — but it is not an argument at all that as the authors claim, examining the epistemic basis of religion is naive or unwarranted. And, of course, people have been examining the truth and knowledge claims of religion for all of recorded (Western) history; such inquiry has as much historical sanction as religion itself.)

It's one thing to say it's valuable to divide the world into the "sacred" and the "profane", but what should go where? Just the division does not seem satisfying by itself. The Nazis definitely divided the world into the sacred (the Aryan race) and the profane (everyone else); the fundamentalists' sacred is the heterosexual monogamous marriage and the life of the fetus; their profane is the homosexual and the individual woman. And, of course, many persistent social institutions, such as the United States constitutional regime, divide the sacred (free speech, property rights, federalism) and the profane (what the federal government may freely regulate). Even academic economics sacralizes (wrongly, in my opinion) the autonomous rational utility-maximizing agent. Again, if everyone does sacralizes something, and if thinkers do not tell us how to distinguish good sacralization from bad, the definition descends into a useless vacuity.

Reed and Taleb exhort us to sacralize behaviors that minimize risk and avoid rare (but inevitable) catastrophe. Good advice, to be sure, but Taleb has spent considerable effort, largely persuasive, on establishing an epistemic basis not only that we should minimize risk, but also on specific ways we can minimize risk. Clearly, this is not the epistemic basis Reed and Taleb intend to shield from epistemic scrutiny. We are clearly entitled to ask how Taleb knows that certain behaviors minimize or fail to minimize risk (and how he knows that the risks truly exist), and clearly Taleb has a responsibility to answer such questions, which he has.

We get closer to Reed and Taleb's meaning when we look very closely at their assertions. We need a good epistemic basis to decide what to sacralize, and we need religion to transmit and propagate what is sacred and profane. Furthermore, even if the underlying ideology of one or another religion doesn't have even minimal epistemic validity, we should judge it not on that basis, but on the basis of its ability to cement epistemically valid sacred norms across time. They say that "religion supplies potent tricks to mitigate people’s natural epistemic arrogance and overconfidence about the future" because "[p]eople can understand the notion of God, not unexplained rules, interdicts, and categorical heuristics" (222). I cannot interpret this passage except as endorsing Plato's concept of the noble lie. There's a lot of things to like about Plato, but his absolute contempt, however paternalist and benign, for the common person is not among them.

If this is truly the view of Reed and Taleb, then we must see their assertion that the epistemic truth of religion is irrelevant and its study naive to be at best disingenuous. If the deficiencies of religious epistemology were necessary to transmit good risk management behavior, then a critical examination of their epistemology would be not naive but positively dangerous. If so, I think they should say so; even if they believe the common person can't handle the truth, they are speaking in their paper to the intellectual "elite," such as it is. And if we can't handle that truth, who knows what truths we can handle? Who decides? Reed and Taleb? They seem like nice people, but I don't trust anyone to tell me what I can and cannot know.

I do think that religious epistemology and truth claims are essential to transmitting its message, including any risk-management behavior it might include, but I do not think it is particularly dangerous to undermine it. And I most emphatically do not believe that "religious man is wiser than irreligious and non-religious man with regard to a vast swathe of threats, moral and spiritual illnesses and problems, etc." (224). I reject this statement not only because I have no idea what Reed and Taleb mean by "religious," "irreligious," and "non-religious", nor what they mean by "moral and spiritual illnesses and problems," but also because I think — with good evidence — that the evils of religion, caused by the very same epistemic defects and profound conservatism that (might) preserve risk-management, far outweigh the benefits.

I am certainly willing to debate and critically engage in this examination, but it is insulting to have such inquiry dismissed as naive.


  1. "Until we have had a lot longer to develop non-religious heuristics that work, we should not throw the precautionary, religion-as-risk-management baby out with the superstitious, theological-claptrap bathwater."----utter BS!!
    This would make sense if there was anything about religion that made sense as risk-management because I don't see evidence for any good about religion.

  2. I'm not an economist, so I read the article through several times in case I was missing some subtle point. However, the phrase that kept coming into my head was: "The crazy is strong with this one."

    A few examples would have helped their case. Perhaps suggesting everyone build a giant ark in preparation for the "black swan" event of a massive global flood? Or killing off all the first-born might ensure against the rise of some particularly nasty dictator?

    Of course, there's always the advice of Matthew 6:27-29. How do they deal with that?
    "27 And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life? 28 And why are you worried about clothing? Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin, 29 yet I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these.…"

    If the top five percent gave all their money to the poor, that would probably improve the future circumstances of a considerable proportion of the world's population. Perhaps Taleb could start suggesting that at his workshops?

    1. I'm not an economist, so I read the article through several times in case I was missing some subtle point. However, the phrase that kept coming into my head was: "The crazy is strong with this one."

      I hope you mean Reed and Taleb, but you wouldn't be the first to call me crazy. '=)

    2. Yes, Reed and Taleb (probably should have made that a bit clearer). :-)

    3. You're fine, Kevin. Just yankin' your chain.


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