Epistemology and the Regress Problem (Routledge Studies in Contemporary Philosophy)

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Most of the topics of epistemology are as relevant for the study of religion as they would be in any other academic field. However, some topics deserve more specific discussion, as they are important to scientific practices in the study of religion. Religious claims with reference to transcendent truths or agents are impossible to validate scientifically, and most religious discourse is impervious to the data, explanations and interpretations of the sciences. This being said, it is equally evident that the subject matters of the study of religion can in fact be studied as human behaviors, ideas and institutions, and in that respect there seem to be no particular problems concerning truth claims.

In this respect, the science of religion belongs squarely with the human and social sciences and it basically faces the same problems. Because of its academic history and its global, cross-cultural ambitions, however, there are some points that deserve mention in relation to epistemology in general. Epistemology is the theory of knowledge, what it consists of, how we get it and how we may defend and justify our knowledge.

Traditional epistemology includes a number of key questions: 1 What is knowledge? Two related questions along similar lines are: What is this thing called science? Chalmers The main approaches in epistemology are normally divided into: 1 Empiricism, 2 Rationalism and 3 Constructivism. To the empiricist the means for building knowledge proceeds by induction and the criterion of validity is provided by reference e.

Chalmers : 1— The categories by which we understand the world are largely shaped by the way the world is. As simple as it seems and as effortlessly as it works in our daily life, most philosophers agree that this is a dubious solution, because the move from one step to the next is mostly inexplicable. The empiricist view is closely linked to various forms of realism.

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Churchland Contrariwise, our experience and knowledge are shaped by cognitive mechanisms. We may believe all kinds of things about the world that may becompletely wrong i. However, how things appear in our impressions are, of course, interesting subject matters to scholars of religion who study among other things religious thoughts and convictions. This view holds that social conditions and forces are responsible for our knowledge and knowledge-forming processes.

Such social epistemology is less concerned with the traditional quest for certainty and justification, and it is therefore more concerned with the coherence of beliefs. It is focused less on reference and more on inter-subjectivity and pragmatic viability. However, in the radically social perspective, any belief that is institutionalized in a community may then count as knowledge in its own contexts and provide its own justification.

As scholars of religion know, this may easily lead to relativism and again to scepticism, because how are true beliefs to be distinguished from false, and what are the criteria for truth and falsehood?

The social epistemology and the social construction of knowledge paradigm gained momentum in the midth century. However, social facts are not just social—they are also facts and so objects of study for the human and social sciences. Instead, coherence between beliefs, theories and what we may currently consider best evidence for our claims is all that is left from the classical epistemological toolbox. It can go on into infinity: in empiricism with ever smaller or bigger entities and in rationalism with global brain functions or transmitter substances.

The regress problem remains a stubborn one. Just as in a crossword puzzle, where the fit of a word should be both horizontal and vertical, what we count as our best knowledge should fit with both available evidence and the theories we currently hold to be valid. With evidence and justification being infinite and theories being provisional, this is probably as good as it gets Laudan ; Putnam Positivism developed as the key philosophy of scientific progress in the 19th century.

The basic principle is that science should be concerned with issues of which we can have positive and reliable knowledge and so metaphysical speculation should be avoided. This is basically a very sound drive towards objectivity and neutrality.

For reflexivity as an epistemic criterion of ontological coherence and virtuous social theorizing

Not least, the study of religion has benefited from positivistic attitudes in research. Then again, even positivists have opinions and biases and they also subscribe to theories even if they are not aware of it. The ideal in current scholarship is then a drive to include the premises for research and so extend the reach of objectivity to scientific practice itself e.

Chalmers : — If the study of religion were to totally avoid reduction, in this sense, the only task left would be to repeat what the believers think, say and do. In some circumstances that might be a noble undertaking, but science it is not.

Epistemic Regress Problem (Walter Sinnott-Armstrong)

A curious phenomenon has appeared among the human and social sciences over the past decades, and it has not contributed to their authority or influence in the academic world in general. In its most radical forms social epistemology makes it impossible to decide on the validity and soundness of propositions: Whatever is considered true by whomever and by whatever standards is then true. This is relativism in the extreme.


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It is difficult not to go along with Boghossian's critique for although we may agree that our current knowledge, be it scientific or common sense, is historically contingent and provisional—this does not entitle us to claim whatever we want and then demand to be taken seriously. There are indispensable standards of objectivity and reasonability that are the basis for the formation of all human social behavior e. Rescher Most of the discussions in epistemology and the philosophy of science have focused on the conditions and problems for the natural sciences in their pursuit of reliable knowledge, foundations and justifications.

Knowledge formation in the human and social sciences have not been considered to the same extent, and these fields have not been considered by some to be scientific at all. However, this does not imply that it is in principle impossible to have a reasoned science of religion, as reasoned as any science about any other kind of human practice Jensen b. It has, however, long been proven invalid to ground scholarly practice in subjective, first-person introspection.

Even the most introspectionist person needs language and concepts to think about her introspections and so the subjective, the intersubjective and the objective are linked and deeply interdependent Davidson In the study of religion scholars possess an immense array of products of human minds and practices as their data. These products are created by humans and they feed back on humans in cultures, societies and histories. If this seems to imply some measure of idealism and circularity, then such are the conditions for the human and social sciences as hermeneutics teaches us. Humans act for reasons, willingly or unwillingly, consciously or subconsciously, individually or collectively and so reasons can be causes and this makes for the interesting fact thathumans are both driven by causes as biological organisms and reasons—as enculturated agents.


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Of course, this also opens the door for political, ideological, religious or economic influences and considerations when we turn to actual scientific practice, for scientists are also human beings. Scientific pursuits do not unfold in a void or proceed from nowhere. For instance, studies of religion have been under the influence of a very powerful model of religion derived from Western Christianity that is used even by non-Western scholars. Hence, the need for historical and theoretical awareness is obvious. A generalizing science study takes concepts, models , hypotheses and definitions as its theoretical objects, and this holds for the study of religion as well.

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Theory is the necessary condition for there being any knowledge at all. Some social sciences e. Also, there is a difference in the position of generalizations : in the natural sciences generalizations are of course made by scientists but the important question is how they can be tested and what the results are; whereas in the human and social sciences the relations between generalizations and data are more circular and the important issue is what the generalizations yield in epistemic terms.

That is: how good are they? They are tested more for their utility than for their truth-properties.

A comprehensive philosophical approach to Qohelet's epistemology

This may be explained in the following way: in a generalizing science of religion, theories are tested not simply in relation to objects; they are tested in relation to other theories. So the process is, ultimately, one of the falsification of theory by theory. The question of what constitutes the units of comparison and generalization cannot be settled simply by reference to evidential data. Theories and evidence data are mutually constitutive. Generalizations are the results of theoretical reflections on what is considered to count as evidence within a given theoretical definition-space.

Consequently, there is no generalization or testing of hypotheses without comparative work. When introducing the complex topic of explanation it should be noted from the outset that there are obviously different kinds of explanations that operate on different levels. There is nofixed consensus on the issue. At most, there are a few prevalent conventions among philosophers of science concerning types and functions of explanations.

A covering law model usefully covers events in the physical world such as explaining the boiling point of water. The problem is, obviously, how to use this type of explanation in the social and human sciences. What place, if any, could it have in the science of religion?