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Warranted Christian Belief
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C. Epistemic Circularity

Clearly, we can raise many questions about these practices: in particular, we can ask whether they are reliable. We can also ask whether we can show that they are reliable. If we ask this latter question about SP, then we are asking whether we can show or successfully argue that the beliefs formed in this practice are for the most part true or, at any rate, close to the truth, or likely to be true or close to the truth. Our main target, of course, is CMP; but because Alston thinks of CMP as essentially involving perception of God, he attacks the question of the reliability of CMP in tandem with the counterpart question about SP.

Alston concedes that we can’t give a good noncircular argument for the claim that CMP is in fact reliable. He pays the same compliment to SP, however: we can’t give a good noncircular argument for its reliability either. So that distressing fact about CMP is balanced by a complementary distressing fact about SP. The problem with arguments for the reliability of SP is typically what he calls epistemic circularity, a malady from which an argument for the reliability of a faculty or source of belief suffers when one of its premises is such that my acceptance of that premise originates in the operation of the very faculty or source of belief in question. If you give an epistemically circular argument for the reliability of a faculty, then you rely on that very faculty for the truth of one of your premises. An obvious example would be arguing that your intuitive arithmetical faculties are reliable by pointing out that your arithmetic intuitions seem to you to be intuitively sound. A less obviously circular project would be that of trying to determine if human cognitive faculties (including your own) are reliable by doing some science: you find out what human beings think, and then check to see whether what they think is true. Clearly enough, this procedure is epistemically circular, for you rely on human cognitive faculties—yours—in finding out what human beings think and also checking to see if what they think is true. Alston detects many examples of epistemic circularity (more than you might have thought), some obvious and some not so obvious. I believe he succeeds in establishing the important conclusion that it is not possible to show in a noncircular fashion that SP is reliable—at any rate he gets as close to establishing this conclusion as philosophers ever get to establishing any important conclusion.135135   The argument is given at even greater depth and explicitness in his The Reliability of Sense Perception (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993).

So according to Alston, SP and CMP are in the same leaky epistemological boat. Indeed, the fact is, he argues, all of our basic doxastic practices are in the same epistemological boat; none of them can be shown in noncircular fashion to be reliable.


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