How to Respond to Street Epistemology

Maybe you’re here because you’ve recently come in contact with a Street Epistemologist (online or in person) and you weren’t sure how to answer. The questions they asked were difficult, maybe even confusing, and you weren’t sure how to respond to Street Epistemology (SE). What you’ll learn after reading this blog post is that SE is incredibly easy to answer, so long as you know what you’re getting into.

Setting the Scene

Before we begin, let me make a few preliminary remarks. First, the ultimate goal of SE nowadays is to instill doubt in people, not just about Christianity, but about any belief. A successful intervention occurs when the interlocutor exits the discussion with a lower confidence than when they came in. They do this by continually asking “how do you know that” questions. They’ll ask how you know and how you know until eventually you’ve hit rock-bottom and aren’t sure how to answer.

SE-type questions appear difficult to answer simply because they are difficult questions. In epistemology (the formal study of knowledge and justified belief) there’s disagreement on how we should even get started in our theorizing about knowledge. Do we start out knowing some propositions or do we have to have an account of knowledge first [1]? Moreover, what is knowledge? What are the necessary and sufficient conditions of warrant [2]? These are the kinds of rock-bottom questions that professional philosophers have a tough time answering. It’s no wonder they also perplex the average person on the street. Street Epistemology exploits this confusion [3].

Second, keep in mind that Street Epistemologists are not epistemologists. Most haven’t even picked up a single book on the subject. Their training materials focus on the psychology of belief rather than on the epistemology behind it. As such, they are in no position, whatever, to disparage your reasons for belief in God. They might ask you questions you don’t know the answer to, but that says absolutely nothing about whether your reasons are actually valid or invalid. Don’t make the mistake of conflating ‘not having a good on-the-spot answer’ with ‘not having warrant for belief in God.’ The latter doesn’t follow from the former.

Lastly, for an extended example of how I personally engage SE, see my Conversation with a Street Epistemologist. With all this in mind, let’s get started!

Question 1: What do you believe?

The first step of the contemporary SE method is to locate a specific belief someone holds. They’ll give examples like belief in God, Karma, ghosts, and so on. Many of the conversations they have revolve around belief in God. That’s the one we’ll be discussing.

Your Response

The answer to this question for Christians is going to be fairly straight forward. If you believe in God, say that. The SE might want to get more specific, so if you want, you can say something like you affirm the Nicene Creed (which is what I did in my conversation with a Street Episetmologist). This leads us directly to question two.

Question 2: What’s your level of confidence?

Step two of the method involves obtaining a degree of confidence. They want to know on a scale of 0-100 how confident you are that your belief is true. Often they’ll point out that this question isn’t that important. But from what I’ve found, it ties in crucially to the method. For example, they’ll ask, “How can X give you such a high degree of confidence your God is true?” or, “Is faith a reliable method for believing something to be true with 99% confidence?” The confidence level question is actually pretty important, answer it carefully.

Your Response

Instead of giving a numerical figure, say something like “I strongly believe it,” or, “I firmly believe that Christianity is true.” Avoid talk of numerical figures. Why? Primarily because assigning numerical figures to credence levels is problematic. People tend to overestimate in social situations; they give the answer they think they should give, instead of the answer that is accurate or defensible. Avoid this confusion by avoiding numbers.

Question 3: How did you determine your belief is true?

This question is the heart of Street Epistemology. Their ultimate goal is to locate the “real reason” you believe whatever you believe, and lower your confidence that that reason or that method is reliable. If you believe in Christianity because of faith, their end-game is to get you to doubt that faith is reliable (and therefore to make you doubt Christianity).

Your Response

The answer to this question will be autobiographical. If you grew up in a Christian home and that’s why you believe, say it. If you came to believe in Christianity because of the evidence, say it. If you believe in God because you have faith that it’s true, say it. Give your honest answer.

Note: If you answer by citing the evidence (this includes miracle reports and so on), be prepared for the followup question: “If someone could show you that your evidence didn’t actually support the truth of Christianity, would that lessen your confidence that Christianity is true?” The response to this question should be obvious: Yes. It’s a bit like asking, “If someone could show you that the evidence for Abraham Lincoln didn’t actually support his existence, would that lessen your confidence that he existed?”

The reason this question is asked is because they are wanting you to say that your confidence level wouldn’t change. This shows (in their minds) that your “real reasons” for belief aren’t due to the evidence (since taking away the evidence wouldn’t change your confidence). So if you came to believe in Christianity because of the evidence, answer this hypothetical question in the affirmative: “Yes, taking away literally all of the evidence would lessen my confidence that Christianity is true, just like taking taking away all of the evidence would lessen my confidence that Abraham Lincoln existed.”

Question 4: Is faith a reliable method of determining that a belief is true?

Instead of using the term “faith,” they might ask, “Does just believing in something give you knowledge?” or, “If a Muslim came up to me and told me that they believe in Allah because of faith, how could we determine which belief is true?” These are all variations of the same question. The idea here is that “just believing something” can’t tell us which belief is true, only reason and evidence can do that. What’s funny is that they are actually right, but not in a way that impugns the Christian response.

In philosophy, there’s a lot of discussion around the existence of other minds. Do other minds exist? It might surprise you to learn that philosophers agree there’s really no good evidence that other minds actually exist. For all we know, other people are philosophical zombies that look and act like real people but aren’t. Nevertheless, it certainly seems to us that other minds exist. It’s a perfectly rational and sensible thing to believe, despite our not having good evidence.

Notice, however, that having the seeming that other minds exist doesn’t determine that other minds exist [4]. That was never the intention. Instead, our seeming is being used a means of justification. The same is true for belief in God.

Your Response

Here’s how I suggest you respond: “That’s a little like asking if my intuition that other minds exist determines or makes it the case that other minds exist. Intuitions were never intended to operate like that. My seeming that Christianity is true doesn’t determine that God exists, but it can be used to justify or warrant belief in God [5]. There’s a difference.”

Street Epistemologists that ask this question imagine that one’s reasons for belief should determine what’s true. But that’s by no means obvious. If the reason I believe the past is real is because it just seems that way to me, obviously that seeming doesn’t determine that the past is actually real and not an illusion. My seeming that I have two hands doesn’t determine that I have two hands. My seeming that modus ponens is a valid rule of inference doesn’t determine that modus ponens is a valid rule of inference. The list goes on and on.

The work that the seeming is doing is providing justification. It’s a sort of non-propositional evidence. Evidence itself doesn’t even determine that something is true. Instead what it does is gives us the right, epistemically speaking, to believe something. That’s just another way of saying it provides justification.

Honorable Mentions

The previous four questions are the most common questions you’ll encounter during a session with a Street Epistemologist. However, there are a number of ways they could thence take the conversation. As it happens, I’ve written blog posts that cover virtually any route they could take.

Should they ask how seemings or intuitions could justify belief in God, check out my four-part series on knowledge and Christian belief. Should they ask if wish-fulfillment always leads to truth, check out my article on Christianity and wish-fulfillment. If they ask, in a different way, about what to do with competing religious claims, check out my article on whether religious diversity is a problem for Christianity.

The objection from religious diversity is one of the most common questions that come up in SE-type conversations. It’s their go-to in discussions with Christians. However, as I argue in my article, the person that thinks religious diversity poses a serious threat to faith must be prepared to argue that Christianity is false. Street Epistemology, by it’s very nature, can’t accomplish such a thing.

Concluding Remarks

Last of all, if after having read all this, you are still stumped by a question they’ve raised, please do not hesitate to reach out. Best way to contact me is through the website or by sending a direct message on our Facebook Page. I would be happy to dialogue with you about any unanswered question you have. And if I don’t have an answer, we can together find someone that does. You might be surprised how easy it is to get in contact with brilliant Christians.

UPDATE:

I’ve decided to include a link to The Complete Street Epistemology Guide. This is one of their primary training materials for new inductees. Sometimes the best response to something like this involves gathering a bit more background information. If you read this document, which I highly suggest you do, you’ll see that SE-type discussions are extremely scripted. Each part of the conversation is carefully crafted even down to not interrupting people when they pause and look upwards in reflection (see Section 5.4).

The Street Epistemology guide is an open source document–anybody can read it. To view the document, click here.


Notes:

[1] See the problem of the criterion.

[2] This is one of the most fundamental questions in epistemology, and one that professionals are split on.

[3] In the transcript of Reid Nicewonder’s discussion with Tia, at the 5:30 mark, Reid asks the question, “Does just believing in something give you knowledge?” This is a question about the necessary and sufficient conditions of knowledge. He’s asking whether “just believing” is a sufficient condition, or if knowledge requires something in addition (like evidence). This is a valid epistemological question, but not one that Tia can be expected to have a good answer for. Reid uses this to his advantage.

Tia later admits that she knows God exists because of faith, and that faith for her is an “internal feeling.” Reid then asks whether internal feelings are a reliable way to be confident that God exists (7:18). This follow up can be understood as an iteration of the problem of the criterion. She’s already answered what she knows (horn one), but Reid wants to know how she knows what she claims to know (horn two). This is lost on both participants, but yet again works to Reid’s advantage.

[4] Seemings are perceptions or ways in which things appear to a person. See here for a deeper discussion on this topic.

[5] For reasons why this is true, check out my 4-part series on knowledge and Christian belief.

Total
571
Shares

SUBSCRIBE. BE AWESOME.

Get updates on new posts, upcoming live discussions, and more.

13 comments

  1. Hi Cameron

    I think this article seems like a tactic to cling on to a belief equipping people with scripted answers and not personal answers. I think SE is a great way to have a conversation about beliefs, and I’m not sure if you think this type of dialogue is a good or bad thing, but I hope you can see the value in it and that we should have good reasons for holding a belief. We should use reliable methods to come to a true belief, or knowledge rather. Our assertions and conclusions about the world we live in should be based on observation, documentation, peer review, testing, demonstration, reason and logic

    1. Hi Tom, thanks for your comments!

      You say firstly that this article gives people scripted answers instead of personal answers. Yes and no. In question 3 I advise Christians to give their honest answers, which is by definition going to be their personal answer. The only two questions this could be said about are 2 and 4. But instead of impugning a scripted response, why not engage with the reasons I’ve suggested answering the way I did? What’s so wrong with avoiding numerical figures? What’s wrong with the response I suggest for question 4?

      Moreover, I am unconvinced that Street Epistemologists are generally capable of evaluating the reliability of various epistemological methods. They aren’t aware of fundamental concepts like foundationalism vs. coherentism, the problem of the criterion, the Gettier problem, and so on. In this sense, Street Epistemology is a sort of ‘Cargo Cult Epistemology.’ They go in thinking they are suited to do epistemology, when they really aren’t. They don’t know the first thing about it.

      Until Street Epistemologists learn to take epistemology seriously, I simply cannot endorse what they are doing.

  2. It’s the loaded and leading questions which come next which annoy me most.

    It’s very annoying trying to talk to people who try to manipulate the conversation like this. They constantly try to insert their loaded assumptions into the questions. More than that, seeing them do that, makes me think they’re being at best manipulative, and not particularly ethical. I don’t want to think the worst of them, I know its just something they’re told they should do, but it’s hard not to.

    So how do you deal with a string of loaded questions? You can’t challenge them with your own questions – they’re attempting to controlling the conversation to *not* allow that, and can deny the assumptions are even their views. You can’t just point out the question is loaded, or that it is a fallacy, because that comes across as rude and antisocial, even if they *are* purposefully doing it. And you can’t answer the question without commenting, because then you appear to be agreeing with their assumptions.

    Any suggestions how to deal with loaded and leading questions would be much appreciated.

  3. “My seeming that Christianity is true doesn’t determine that God exisets.”
    I’m not sure I understand your turn of phrase as you intended. I read “seeming” as appearance, perception, intuition, maybe belief, something that seems true but may not be true, possibly an illusion or deception. Am I on the right track?

  4. Fantastic article and I think a great starting point for people of all faiths. I am an agnostic and find myself in “conflict” most often with Christians. Your article’s tone suggests that SEs are an unscrupulous bunch. In my personal dealings, I have not found this to be the case and rather that SEs are usually more interested in creating dialogue. I take your point on scripted responses, but feel you’d be better served without tit-for-tat.

    I think the points raised in SE are fair and valid, as are some of your responses. I won’t discuss any logical flaws I find in your article, but I think the responses are not airtight -I would like to read the rest of your writings. I will elaborate later.

    My context is that I am now in a relationship with a Christian girl with whom I am frequently involved in these discussions. The trick is to balance “winning an argument” vs. honestly evaluating each of our logical shortcomings, and determining whether logic is the correct tool at all.

    You do a great service in this article to all, and I look forward to the rest!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*
*