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G. The Wide Original Position
These thoughts lead to a crucial question: precisely what is it that I believe in the original position? In particular, what do I believe about the reliability of SP and CMP in that position? Is the idea that my beliefs, in the original position, are as much as possible like the beliefs I do in fact have, given that (in that position) I know or truly believe that it is within my power to give up SP, CMP, or both? (Call this the wide original position.) Perhaps that is the way to think of the original position. But this doesn’t take us very far. The fact is that I now believe that both SP and CMP are reliable. Therefore, if my beliefs in the original position are the ones I do in fact have, the question as to the rational course is easily answered: obviously, I should continue to form beliefs in the way I have been forming them. My aim is to be in the right relationship to the truth; I propose to attain as good a mixture of achieving the truth and avoiding error as possible; but in fact I believe that SP and CMP offer a vastly better chance to achieve that goal than any alternative I can think of; therefore, the rational choice for me to make, obviously enough, is to continue both in SP and in CMP.
Here there is a strong odor of triviality. I do in fact think both SP and CMP are reliable; so if, in the original position, I have the beliefs about SP and CMP that in fact I do have, then in that position, naturally enough, the rational choice would be to continue with SP and CMP. Given what I do believe about them, that would be the rational thing to do. This conclusion, while no doubt true, is pretty weak tea. Of course, if I knew I could refrain from forming beliefs in the SP and CMP way, and also believed that those ways were reliable, more reliable than any alternative way open to me, I would choose to continue to form beliefs that way. True, but not very interesting: how would this fact show or tend to show that my SP and CMP beliefs are in fact rational, in some interesting sense? We are told that if we knew it was within our power to continue to form beliefs in this way, and also within our power to abstain from so doing, then if we believed that SP and CMP are reliable, the rational thing to do would be to choose to continue to form beliefs in those ways. No doubt: nothing of interest follows. The same would go for any beliefs I have, no matter how crazy. The same would go, for example, for the insane beliefs of Descartes’s madmen, who believed that they themselves were gourds—zucchini, perhaps, or summer squash—and that their heads were made of pottery. If I really do believe that I am a summer squash, then the rational thing for me to do, if offered the chance, is to continue to form beliefs in a way that yields (as I see it) this true belief. Still, that doesn’t show that this belief itself is rational. We haven’t yet located the de jure question.
However we do have to consider another facet of the dialectical situation, one that so far I have been slighting: I am aware, in the original position, of the fact that neither SP, nor CMP, nor any other major doxastic practice can be noncircularly shown to be reliable. That, after all, is what, according to Alston, precipitated the crisis of rationality and called forth the question of rationality in the first place. It is after we realize this, he thinks, that we are in the desperate situation of which he speaks. So we must add that in the original position I am aware of the fact that we can’t noncircularly establish that the practices in question are reliable. (We must also add, perhaps, that I have devoted some attention to this fact, have thought about it at least a bit; perhaps we should say that I am acutely aware of it.)
This changes very little. In the original position as now conceived (the wide original position), I know that it is within my power to withhold perceptual and Christian belief; I also know that it isn’t possible to give a good noncircular argument for the reliability of these sources of belief; but otherwise my beliefs are as much as possible like they are in fact. And our question remains: what would be the rational thing to do: continue with SP and CMP, or stop forming beliefs in those ways? Again, however, the answer is too easy: of course the rational thing would be to continue with SP and CMP. Once more, this is because I am in fact convinced that these sources of belief are reliable. True enough: I realize that I can’t give a good noncircular argument for their reliability, but this gives me no pause. I can’t see that this puts us in a desperate situation or that it should lead to a crisis of rationality: for this situation is a necessary feature of any doxastic condition. Not even God himself, necessarily omniscient as he is, can give a noncircular argument for the reliability of his ways of forming beliefs.138138 Here I assume what Alston disputes: that God has beliefs. (Of course, on Alston’s view, there would be something like beliefs in God.) But this is really irrelevant to the point I make here, which is that it is a necessary truth that no doxastic agent, no matter how exalted, could give a good, epistemically noncircular argument for the reliability of his doxastic faculties. God himself is trapped inside the circle of his own ideas. About all we can say about God’s ways of forming beliefs is that it is necessary, in the broadly logical sense, that a proposition p is true if and only if God believes p.139139 See my “Divine Knowledge,” in Christian Perspectives on Religious Knowledge, ed. C. Stephen Evans and Merold Westphal (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993). Of course God knows that and knows, therefore, that all of his beliefs are true. However (naturally enough), he knows this only by virtue of relying on his ways of forming beliefs. If, per impossible, he became a bit apprehensive about the reliability of those ways of forming beliefs, he would be in the same boat as we are about that question. He couldn’t give an epistemically noncircular argument for the reliability of his ways of forming beliefs; for the beliefs constituting the premises of any such argument would themselves have been formed in those ways. But any epistemic debility that afflicts a necessarily omniscient being is hardly worth worrying about.
In the wide original position, therefore, I would be convinced that SP and CMP are reliable sources of belief, despite the fact that I realize it isn’t possible to give a good noncircular argument for their reliability; hence, in the wide original position, the rational thing to do, obviously, would be to continue with them. We are still mired in triviality. We still don’t have either the de jure question or the original position quite right. The problem is that if, in the original position, we have the beliefs we actually have with respect to SP and CMP, then it is trivially obvious that the rational decision would be to continue to form beliefs in those ways. Unfortunately, the fact that this is the rational decision, given those beliefs, does nothing to show that the beliefs we form on the basis of SP and CMP are rational in any interesting sense. In particular, the atheologian who raises the de jure question with respect to Christian belief will not be mollified if told that it would be rational, given that you thought CMP reliable, to decide to continue to form beliefs in the CMP way.
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