What is “Street Epistemology”? (Part 3)

The time has come for me to weigh in on Street Epistemology (SE), which, as we should all know at this point, is a method for creating atheists. To review very quickly, in Part 1 of this series I introduced SE and made some important clarifications. In Part 2, I explained in frightful detail how the method works. If you haven’t, I would highly recommend reading Parts 1 and 2. Some of the critiques won’t make sense without the requisite background information.

The first half of my critique examines what I think are good-making properties of SE. A lot of Christians seem to think that Boghossian has given us nothing of value. I disagree. I think Apologists can benefit and learn from what Street Epistemologists are doing. The second half of my critique focuses on bad-making properties of SE. Some are surface level, while others, in my opinion, are irreconcilable.

Lest I be misunderstood, this critique is aimed at SE as understood and articulated by Peter Boghossian in his book A Manual For Creating Atheists. It isn’t a critique of the method of those who identify as Street Epistemologists.

The Good

Interventionism

I can’t really see a lot wrong with modeling doxastic openness, or a willingness to revise one’s beliefs. Nor can I see much wrong with creating a friendly dialectical environment, a safe-space where dialogue can flourish, unhindered by the fears of unyielding opposition and vitriolic antagonism.

A potential bad-making property here is that Boghossian’s advice seems to be about manipulating people by seeming nice over actually being nice. Even so, it doesn’t take away from the fact that SE is inspiring atheists to be friendly, cordial, and respectful. This is sorely needed. I can say that from personal experience I am much more open and willing to share my thoughts with a respectful interlocutor than one that is abrasive and unpleasant.

Either way, I think most can agree that we should be respectful and friendly not just because it’s a proven method of persuasion, but because being nice is virtuous. Treating people like human beings is always the right thing to do. Apologists need reminding of this as well (see this post).

Faith

I mentioned in Part 1 how I think focusing on Boghossian’s definition of faith (BF) is counter-productive and unnecessary. This is because Street Epistemology is really about moving someone from doxastic closure to doxastic openness, in other words, moving someone from being 100% certain to being less than 100% certain. As far as that end is concerned, I think SE is quite effective. The whole question of how faith is actually used becomes irrelevant once we remember SE’s primary goal.

To put it another way, even if the Theist doesn’t use BF, they might still believe in Theism with absolute certainty. The method of SE can still be applied without alteration. That’s because Street Epistemology is a method for propagating doubt (even at times in tiny increments). Bickering about definitions of faith misses the point.

That being said, most SE’s (from what I’ve seen) still target BF. This leads to incoherence (see ‘Deeply Incoherent’ below).

Potent when Applied Correctly

Absolute certainty leaves no room for doubt. Someone that is absolutely certain that Trump will win the presidential bid in 2020 must also believe Trump can’t possibly lose. But surely it’s possible Trump loses to whatever nominee the Democratic party chooses. Even if it isn’t likely, it’s still a possibility. On matters of absolute certainty, SE is a great method.

I should also mention that SE shines particularly bright in discussions with lay-people. There, at least, it has a high success rate. And that seems to be the target audience Boghossian has in mind anyways.

I should note, however, that I think SE is powerless against beliefs that aren’t held with absolute certainty.

The Bad

Doesn’t Create Atheists

Part 2 of this series reveals that Street Epistemology doesn’t actually create atheists. The title of the book might be considered a bit misleading in this regard. And yes, I know that Boghossian was pressured by his publisher to name it that. Doesn’t change the fact the title is notably disconnected from the actual content.

This doesn’t mean SE is a bad method for the goal it actually sets. Nevertheless, Street Epistemology is not–by any stretch of the imagination–a method for creating atheists; it’s actually a method for creating fallibilists.

Powerless Against Fallibilism

As I mentioned above, SE is powerless against beliefs that aren’t held with absolute certainty. In other words, the person that embraces fallibilism won’t be affected by Boghossian’s methods. Fallibilism is roughly the idea that no belief can have justification which 100% guarantees the truth of the belief (or at least most beliefs can’t). Also important, fallibilists usually deny that knowledge requires absolute certainty (e.g.: we don’t have to be absolutely certain that the sun will rise in the morning to know that it will). It follows that Christian fallibilists could still know that Christianity is true even if they aren’t 100% certain.

Recall once again that SE is about moving someone from doxastic closure, being unwilling to revise beliefs, to doxastic openness, being willing to revise beliefs. But fallibilists are already doxastically open. Thus, it can’t affect them. In order to take someone from fallibilism to atheism, one must radically alter Stage 3 of Boghossian’s Socratic Method. That takes us to the next critique.

Teaches an Impotent Socratic Method

This is where you’ll need to go read the section on the Socratic Method in Part 2 if you haven’t. Boghossian says that all one has to do in Stage 3 of the Socratic Method (Elenchus) is offer possible scenarios where the hypothesis in Stage 2 is false. This, says Boghossian, ought to cause your interlocutor to either reject or revise their hypothesis. This is completely false.

Consider the following mock conversation.

Boghossian: Do you believe the sun will rise tomorrow? (Stage 1: Wonder)

Bertuzzi: Yes, I believe it will. (Stage 2: Hypothesis)

Boghossian: But couldn’t it be the case that the sun spontaneously burns out and doesn’t rise in the morning? (Stage 3: Elenchus)

Bertuzzi: Sure, I’m a fallibilist, for all I know that scenario is possible. It’s extremely unlikely, but I guess it’s possible.

Boghossian: But see now you’ve got to either reject or revise your hypothesis. (Stage 4: Accept or Revise)

Bertuzzi: Why’s that?

Boghossian: Because you agreed that scenario is possible. And if that scenario were actually the case then it would mean the sun wouldn’t rise. Meaning your hypothesis would be false. So you’ve got to either reject or revise your hypothesis.

Bertuzzi: Well, I agreed it’s possible that the sun spontaneously burns out over night, but I also said it’s extremely unlikely.

Boghossian: So what? That possibility means you’ve got to either revise or reject your hypothesis.

Bertuzzi: Actually that’s not true at all. All sorts of wacky things are possible, but that doesn’t mean they’re probable. I mean it’s possible that we’re living in the Matrix, but that doesn’t mean we should doubt that we aren’t. It’s possible the world was created 5 minutes ago with the appearance of age, but that doesn’t mean we should doubt that the past is real.

Long pause…

Boghossian: These conversations don’t really go the way I want when I’m not narrating them…

The point of the illustration is that possibility is not the same as probability. Probability is what requires revision or rejection. If Boghossian had managed to argue that the sun would probably go out over night, if he had really good arguments and evidence, then I would be delusional if I didn’t seriously doubt it would. Until he gave me reason to doubt my hypothesis, I was under no obligation to change anything.

Remember: Possibility comes cheap. All sorts of wacky things are possible, but that doesn’t mean they are probable. This is why I prefer Vlastos’ version of the Socratic Method.

Deeply Incoherent

I’ve already mentioned how SE, when focused on doxastic closure, can operate apart from faith (see above). The fact is, however, that Boghossian thinks SE is properly aimed at faith, and many practicing SE’s target it as well. This results in incoherence.

Boghossian correctly notes that foundationalism is the view that “specific beliefs are justified if they’re inferred from other beliefs.” What he fails to mention is that foundationalism also means there are a number of beliefs which can’t be justified further. In philosophy these are called “basic beliefs.” They are beliefs which one holds that aren’t justified through other propositions (ie: they aren’t justified via propositional evidence [1]). The point is that basic beliefs are justified, they just aren’t justified by some external argument or set of propositions.

On page 63, Boghossian says that SE’s “should use a foundationalist paradigm when deconstructing a subject’s faith.” In other words, SE’s should assume foundationalism during their interventions. That means they should assume that there are these basic beliefs which are rational and justified wholly independent of any propositional evidence. But how, then, can the Street Epistemologist deride ‘beliefs without evidence’ (ie: faith-based beliefs), while assuming foundationalism? To attack faith is to attack foundationalism.

Consider the following argument:

(1) All beliefs without evidence (e.g.: faith-based beliefs) are unjustified. (This is a central thesis in Boghossian’s book)

(2) Foundationalism is true. (Boghossian says SE’s should assume this during interventions)

(3) If foundationalism is true, then some beliefs without evidence are justified. (This is true by definition)

(4) Foundationalism is false. (follows via modus tollens from (1) and (3))

Premises (2) and (4) of this argument combine to form an explicit contradiction. Since premise (3) is necessarily true, it’s true by definition, the SE must reject either (1) or (2).

Now, a charitable reading of Boghossian suggests that he actually denies (1). His thesis isn’t that all ‘beliefs without evidence’ are unjustified, but that all ‘non-basic beliefs without evidence’ are unjustified. However, even on this very charitable reading, Boghossian was both failing to be rigorous (for which there is no excuse), and is also begging the question against competing epistemological theories (e.g.: reformed epistemology, externalist accounts, etc.) [2]. No matter how you interpret Boghossian on this, it doesn’t look good.

False Confidence

The tragic part of all this is that Boghossian’s book is bound to engender a false sense that one is now sufficiently versed in epistemology. This couldn’t be further from the truth. As the previous section demonstrates, it instead encourages either incoherence or lack of rigor and question begging (the latter being a form of ‘belief without evidence’).

Conclusion

I conclude that the person that reads this book is not equipped to convert anyone with half a brain to atheism. Least of all a person that’s read this blog post. For that reason, if you are a Christian and have encountered a real-life Street Epistemologist, make sure to share this series. Heck, share it with Street Epistemologists! Maybe it’ll make some waves and people will be exposed to a little #reason, #logic, and #evidence.


NOTES

[1] Some prefer to express this in terms of “argument.” Basic beliefs are justified apart from argumentation. This has the benefit of not ruling out phenomenal conservatism. That reading is fine with me.

[2] Moreover, he’d need to argue that religious beliefs aren’t themselves basic. Alvin Plantinga has famously argued in Warranted Christian Belief that Christian beliefs can be properly basic and thus justified and warranted apart from argumentation. See my 4-part series for an introduction.

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23 comments

  1. I am amused by your strawman attempt to define this Socratic method as impotent. There’s an insurmountable chasm between a tested scientific reality – the daily appearance of the sun – and a faith-based belief which stems from questionable, if any, evidence. Replace “I believe the sun will come up” with I believe in fairies” and let’s see how confidently your argument reads.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Jerry. We don’t need to replace the ‘rising of the sun’ with ‘fairies’ to see that Boghossian’s articulation of the Socratic Method is impotent (which is the point I was making).

      1. I think we do. The rising of the sun is so easy to prove. The chance of it fizzling out overnight is, pardon the pun, astronomical. Using this as an example of “impotence” is a strawman.

        Follow the same conversation from a belief in fairies and it is MUCH harder to flick PB’s reasoning away.

        I think you may realize this…otherwise your response may have been more substantial than “Uh, no.”

    2. Hi Jerry,

      You’re right that it wouldn’t lead to an error about fairies, but it’s still a fallacious way to reason.

      The fallacious reasoning is this: “But couldn’t it be the case that the sun spontaneously burns out and doesn’t rise in the morning?” shouldn’t change someone’s assessment unless Boghossian could establish that the alternatives were more likely than the sun coming up tomorrow. He doesn’t, so the insistence on change/doubt is logically unfounded.

      Notice that line of questioning always leads to a negative: the person is being asked to revise their beliefs in fairies/the sun/whatever, regardless of there being no logical reason to do that. It always promotes doubt even when it isn’t warranted. So sure, it won’t lead someone to believe fairies exist when they don’t, but it might lead them to doubt science when they shouldn’t, or history, or *any fact*.

      These errors are known as type-II errors (failing to believe something you should) and it is just as important to avoid them type-I errors (false beliefs).

      Sorry for butting in, but I hope this helped!

  2. Hi there,

    I have read your three articles. Interesting read.

    Can you give me an example of a properly basic belief that has no evidence?

    Cheers
    Shane

    1. Basic beliefs are justified without argumentation. Many beliefs about our mental life are justified in this way. If I am in pain, I naturally believe I am in pain. I don’t need an argument for that. Other kinds of basic beliefs are mathematical and logical truths (like 2+2=4 and modus tollens). There are other examples if you need more.

      1. Thanks for that,

        I might be confused about what you were saying in the article. You said:

        “His thesis isn’t that all ‘beliefs without evidence’ are unjustified, but that all ‘non-basic beliefs without evidence’ are unjustified.”

        Can you just clarify, what your position is, and how you justify Mr Bogosian’s position, on whether non-basic beliefs have evidence?

        Cheers
        Shane

          1. Yeah, not the clearest of sentences. Apologies.

            Do you believe there is a basic belief that has no evidence? Do you think Peter Bogosian believes there is a basic belief with no evidence, and if so, how did you make that assessment about his belief?

            Cheers

      2. To clarify, there is evidence that you are in pain, in that you feel the pain. There is evidence that 2+2=4 and that logical truths are true. None of these beliefs are without evidence.

        Cheers
        Shane

        1. This is where things get a lot more complicated. The phenomenological experience of pain is not propositional evidence. Nor is it an argument. One doesn’t consciously work out an argument in their head like: I am feeling pain, if I am feeling pain then I have good evidence for believing I am in pain, therefore I shall believe I am in pain. And then on the basis of this argument form the belief they are in pain. None of that happens. It’s all instantaneous. Same goes for beliefs formed on the basis of memory.

          What (I think) you’re getting at is that these beliefs have to be “tied” or anchored to the world in the right way. And on that point I agree. I am an externalist.

          By the way, the examples I gave are all standard in the literature. I borrowed them from the work of a professional epistemologist.

          1. Thanks for trying to sort through this with me. I would claim that Mr Bogosian thinks any belief without evidence is unjustified. You say

            “His thesis isn’t that all ‘beliefs without evidence’ are unjustified, but that all ‘non-basic beliefs without evidence’ are unjustified.”

            So it seems like you are saying, that he thinks, there are some basic beliefs, that have no evidence, and yet they are justified.

            Is this an accurate interpretation of your quoted sentence?
            Do you believe there are basic beliefs that have no evidence.
            Do you think Peter Bogosian believes there are basic beliefs with no evidence?

            Cheers

          2. Yes, he says that SE’s should assume foundationalism in their interventions. Foundationalism entails that there are these basic beliefs that are justified apart from any propositional evidence. Maybe he doesn’t know this, but then he’s made a rather fundamental mistake. If he does know it, he is blatantly contradicting himself and thus teaching an incoherent method.

            As for what I believe, I am a moderate foundationalist. My view is that we have ‘basic beliefs’ that are justified apart from propositional evidence or argumentation (I also add a “no defeaters” clause).

  3. Thanks for this! You write more clearly than I do.

    Your section about fallibilism is spot on. Peter Boghossian has used exactly the same arguments against elements of scientific theories: he writes that we should not say the elements of our theories exist in reality because it’s possible that in future there might be other scientific theories which don’t have the same particles or fields. Yes, it’s *possible* that we are so badly wrong, it’s just not *likely* for the well established models like quantum electrodynamics which he singles out. It seems like a pretty gross epistemic error not to distinguish the difference. Hello, type-II errors.

    Your imagined conversation points out beautifully why that is a terrible epistemology.

    > The tragic part of all this is that Boghossian’s book is bound to engender a false sense that one is now sufficiently versed in epistemology.

    Exactly. Ironically though, in my experience, none of them actually want to discuss epistemology even after you ask to.

    1. Agreed. And yeah, I don’t think people really understood that the mock conversation showed the ineptitude of Boghossian’s method. Vlastos’ version of the Socratic method is about getting one’s interlocutor to agree to premises that contradict her original hypothesis, not merely getting assent to the possibility of being wrong.

      And I also agree that most SE’s don’t want to discuss philosophy at all. They don’t know what their epistemological commitments are. They don’t know why their epistemology is better than others or even why faith (as ‘belief without evidence’) is unjustified or unreliable. It’s one big mess.

      1. Sorry, I butted in on your first question. I’m not sure I did a better job explaining, because your mock conversation is already clear. They’re told to try to change the subject according to their flowchart (preferably to BF, like your commenter tried to) when you’re making good points, so it’s hard to know if they’re genuinely not understanding.

        I totally agree about Vlastos’ version. I’m far from a philosopher but that is how it actually works when you read Plato. It seems kind of important that you actually have the logical contradiction! One method is logically sound, the other is not…

  4. Interesting article. I haven’t read Boghossian’s book myself, but I am fairly familiar with SE as it is practiced by various people who record their conversations. While your criticism may very well apply to the book (can’t really make a judgement on that), I think you might find much of it a lot less applicable to how the technique is actually used in practice.

    1. You point out that SE isn’t necessarily connected to faith (or BF, as you call it). That is certainly true – if the investigation of a particular belief reveals the interlocutor not to rely on BF at all, the topic may not even come up in the course of a conversation. Practically however, BF lies (self-reportedly!) at the heart of many believer’s reasons for supernatural beliefs. This becomes evident when thought experiments are invoked: When asked whether they would remain confident if all their evidential reasons were not available to them, many believers answer in the affirmative and cite faith as the source of that confidence. Examples of this are plentiful on YouTube’s SE channels.

    2. I’d say creating atheists is, despite the sensationalist title of Boghossian’s book, not really a primary objective of SE. Rather it aims more generally at making people more reflective about their own positions, and encouraging them to at times investigate even those that they have long taken for granted and that they cherish deeply. I think most people who practice SE would feel successful if that was achieved, regardless of what final conclusions their interlocutors might draw in the end about single questions. If they gain a better understanding of why they believe what they believe and their confidence ends up in better accordance with their reasons (whether that’s higher or lower), SE has worked.

    3. SE and belief review isn’t an all-or-nothing approach in the way that you describe it, and it is certainly not useless for interacting with fallibilists. A fallibilist might still, upon review of their epistemology, see their confidence in a particular belief as too high or too low and adjust it accordingly. There’s a big difference between being 90% certain or, say, 60% certain of the truth of some proposition. You will notice that in practice, SE doesn’t usually operate by the standard of “Is your confidence less than 100%? Alright, good talk!”.

    4. Your mock conversation does seem to expose a flaw in the type of Socratic approach that Boghossian describes. However, in practice hardly anyone would lead the discussion in the direction you described. Rather, they would probably ask you what it is that makes you so confident that the sun will rise in the morning and then go further into analyzing the methods you used to determine that. In the end, SE is not something that will make you seriously doubt whether the next day will happen, and neither should it be.

    5. Boghossian may gloss over the topic of properly basic beliefs in the book, but from watching quite a few SE interactions I can tell you that these are not a common topic to come up when someone is explaining why they believe in their religion. It’s not even on the radar usually. Most people implicitly understand their supernatural beliefs not to be basic.

    You should check out some examples of SE in action on YouTube, you might be surprised at how different it looks compared to a dry analysis on paper. Search for Anthony Magnabosco. Cheers

    1. Hi, thanks for the comments. Yes, I realize that my critique is aimed at Boghossian’s book. His actual methods in real-life might even be very different from how he articulates them in the book.

      I’ve been studying the work of guys like Magnabosco. Currently having a written dialogue with a guy that claims to be a Street Epistemologist (Anthony unfortunately turned down a written exchange). Their method is different but not much better.

      1. Fair enough. I think if you’ve represented Boghossian’s positions correctly, I share a lot of your criticism.

        If you’re interested in a live conversation with a “seasoned” Street Epistemologist, you could contact PineCreek on YouTube. He’s a 40-something year-old former Christian that regularly has conversations with apologists, pastors and other believers in a style that resembles SE but is not quite as rigid. Very cordial guy. Anyways, just a suggestion. Have a good one.

        1. Thanks, I’ve reached out to him as well (or rather he reached out to me), but unfortunately he wasn’t willing to do a written exchange either. The SE I’m currently dialoguing with has had to have a little coaching on his own method, but in the end I think it will be representative of SE-type exchanges.

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