God? Seriously? Let’s Be Reasonable
Richard Feldman, in his essay Reasonable Religious Disagreements, inspired in a barrage of altruistic alliteration extrapolated from a co-taught philosophy course entitled Rationality, Relativism, and Religion, demonstrates the polite, prudent, and politically correct way to proceed with a perfectly logical line of unadulterated thinking concerning the ontological status of gods and the arguments that inevitably ensue. This type of college course offering would seem to be an excellent lightning rod for contentious debate but after spending an entire semester with overly polite Religious Studies students, Feldman discovered that the mostly inter-faith class “agreed to disagree,” and subsequently concluded: “reasonable people can disagree” about religious beliefs.
For me, this doesn’t seem much of a take-away from a full (paid) semester of philosophical study. This sentiment is fine and dandy in the spirit of religious tolerance and social graces but does it get us anywhere near the teeth of rigorous skeptical inquiry and dialectic Socraticism? I don’t think it does. And Feldman, upon reflection, doesn’t think so either. Luckily, his training in epistemology and critical thinking skills jarred him from his complacent slumber and allowed him to apply those skills to the problem at hand.
As with any honest examination of facts from shared evidence brought to bear before the altar of reason, Feldman’s upshot in his essay is that, logically, both sides of the god debate cannot be correct.
After a several pages of cathartic venting about the insufferable Cal Thomas and various issue framing, Feldman eventually gets down to the crux of the argument he must have realized was missing in his Triple R philosophy class: there is a truth-value to the proposition that a god or gods exist. His epiphany must have been most enlightening when he realized he wasted an entire semester debating the fine cloth, thread and trimmings comprising each and every Emperor’s new clothes. That gets boring after a while, even for a courtier.
One of Feldman’s finer points made throughout his line of reasoning is that evidence that is “not fully shared” is not really valid evidence (Jamesians may chime in here). This disputation, for Feldman, is simply a point of disagreement that must be settled by something other than unsupported personal insights.
The contention is that private evidence is, in terms of weight and preponderance, just as much in the atheist’s corner as the theist’s—it’s a proverbial wash. E.g., if I think there is a baseball in the fridge and you don’t, then we both have to appeal to some external arbiter to settle the matter. If we both look in the fridge and you claim it would be foolish to rush to judgment because there isn't a baseball in the fridge, then we have two problems. To give special status to personal revelation—brought only in the case of gods (or baseballs)—is imprudent. Insight doesn’t solve the problem; it’s simply a good starting point. William James wouldn't hold out for the "baseball evidence" either because his argument is much more sophisticated; Feldman is addressing a more vulgar degree of ontological disagreement.
In conclusion, Feldman, after wrestling with special considerations of other and various issues, comes down hard on the side of epistemic honesty: “That is, it cannot be that epistemic peers who have shared their evidence can reasonably come to different conclusions.” This leaves us replete with reasons for our beliefs that are warranted by empirical evidence.
Matters of value, ethics, and aesthetics may trouble us for years to come but, eventually, I think we'll find that most ontological disagreements can be easily resolved if both parties agree that scientific empirical evidence—the mainspring that has moved society forward since the dawn of science—is the best judge and jury regarding all things extended.
What’s is most comforting about this proposition is that one doesn’t have to take this sort of philosophy on authority, the proof is right there in the pudding.