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I have been following Randal Rauser’s Blog lately.  I enjoy reading his comments and watching his interviews and other youtube content.  I like his approach to apologetics and these topics generally.  He also has written quite a few books.  His most recent book is “Jesus Loves Canaanites.”   It addresses the issue of difficult readings in scripture and in particular the Old Testament.   He has been on a few youtube channels where he supposedly discusses the book but I tend to doubt those discussing it with him have read the book.  So I figured I would at least read the book and offer some thoughts on what I consider the substantive stances he takes.   As I started reading it, I realized that he addresses several interesting topics that I have been meaning to write about anyway so I am going to break up this review into a few blogs. 

His overall thesis in the book is that we can use our moral sense to interpret scripture.  It is not a one way street.   It is not the case that we are solely to inform our moral sense by what we read in scripture but it is also ok to use our moral sense to inform what scripture means/says.  This is itself an interesting topic but on the whole I agree with him.    I would likely formulate the argument a bit differently and I may discuss that in a different blog. 

I want to address some of the general epistemic arguments and claims that he makes.  These concern the various cartesian arguments that can lead us to be skeptical of the external world.   I have talked about these arguments here.  But in short one argument is: how do we know we are not dreaming?  After all we have had dreams where we seem to have experiences that seem very real.  And anything we believe is real about the external world could merely be part of a dream.  We don’t believe there is a real material world that corresponds with our “dream world” so why think there is one with our experience now? Berkeley is a philosopher that famously maintained there is no external world just our experiences.   Rauser offers an argument by analogy against this view.  This is what he says:    

“Thus far, I’ve argued that you cannot refute the skepticism of the external world proposed by Berkeley and others like him simply by appealing to your direct experience of sense perceiving the world. But here’s the really critical question: does it follow from this that you are obliged to give up your belief that you are directly sense perceiving the external world? No, in fact, that does not follow at all. The fact that you cannot refute Berkeley does not mean that you have to agree with him. Nor does it mean that you suddenly need to become agnostic about the whole question. You can still retain your convictions in the external world even if you cannot show Berkeley to be wrong.

How so? Consider an analogy from yet another type of belief: memory. Let’s say you remember very clearly that you were at home alone all day yesterday working in your garden. So you are completely shocked when the police storm into your house and arrest you for a murder carried out at that exact same time. Later, when the detective is interrogating you, he outlines a motive for you to commit the crime, a motive which you cannot easily refute. In addition, you are dismayed to learn that two witnesses have identified you as the murderer and their confident testimony appears to be backed up by some surveillance footage which shows a car like yours arriving at the scene of the crime. Based upon that weight of evidence, the detective may be justified in believing that you are guilty of murder. However, it does not follow that you are obliged to believe that you are guilty. Nor would it require you to become agnostic as to your potential guilt. The motive, testimony, and surveillance footage notwithstanding, you could go right on trusting your very clear memory that you were, in fact, home working in your garden the whole time.

The contrast between you and the detective parallels the contrast between the world-realist who believes there is a world external to our mind that we perceive and the idealist or skeptic who rejects that claim. The skeptic may be persuaded by the evidence that there is no external world just like the detective is persuaded by the evidence of your guilt. But just as you have a private memory that grounds and thereby justifies your belief in your innocence so a person may have personal sense perceptual experiences every waking moment that ground and thereby justify their belief in an external world. Even if you cannot refute the detective, you are still justified in maintaining your belief in your innocence. And even if you cannot refute the idealist or skeptic, you are still justified in maintaining your belief in the external world. Thus, you would be perfectly within your rights to respond like this: “Look, I don’t know how to refute Berkeley’s ‘idealism’ or other skeptical scenarios. I concede that it is possible that I am wrong and that I really am asleep or in a matrix. Or maybe I’m a brain in a vat. But why should I be moved by the mere possibility that one of those scenarios could be true? What I do know is that my experiences seem overwhelmingly to be of a world external to my mind. And the power, the weight, the ineluctable gravitas of that experience, an experience that is clearly part of general common sense shared by most people, all that vastly outweighs the strength of your piddling skeptical claims that I am really just experiencing sensory ‘ideas’ in my head.”

Rauser, Randal. Jesus Loves Canaanites: Biblical Genocide in the Light of Moral Intuition (pp. 63-64). 2 Cup Press. Kindle Edition.

First a few things we agree on.  I agree you can be justified in maintaining your belief even though you can’t convince others.  I also happen to think you are not justified in changing your belief even if you convince everyone of something you know is not true.  That is not to say other people’s views should never have any influence on my own beliefs but I certainly agree there are times where we should not care what others, who are less informed about the situation think. 

However, I do not think his analogy works.  In the murder case you have actual evidence that the detective does not have.   You have compelling subjective evidence that you did not commit the crime.   Subjective versus objective evidence can be loosely defined this way:  “Subjective evidence” is evidence that others cannot examine.  Rauser refers to this evidence as a “private memory.”  Of course you do not need to keep the memory “private” in the sense of keeping the memory secret.   You can explicitly shout out what you remember from the rooftops.  But the actual experience of having the memory can not be shared.  It can only be conveyed by statements and hearing or reading the statements is not the same as actually having the memory of the experience.     “Objective evidence,” on the other hand, is evidence that others can examine. 

“Subjective evidence” often gets a bad rap. I was discussing something with John Loftus and he said we should only consider objective evidence. I think that is really bad advice (and I suspect Rauser would as well) but I think there is enough confusion on the issue that it is worth talking through a bit.

In cases where we directly and personally witness an event we have subjective evidence of what occurred.  Our experience of what we witnessed can not be directly shared.   Of course we can write it down and then that written report is objective evidence that others can examine for themselves.  But our creating that writing describing what we saw (that is the creation of objective evidence) should not immediately increase the strength of our own belief.  That would be silly.

Historians often deal with objective evidence.  But the objective evidence they use is often derived from subjective experiences. We certainly hope they are derived from people actually seeing or hearing things with their own senses. “Pre-historic” is usually defined as the time before a culture had surviving written records.  Most of the objective evidence that historians are using are writings.   The writings are objective because anyone can examine them.  They are not solely in the mind of the historian.   Many of the ancient copies of scripture that we have also counts as objective evidence.   

Rausers situation is one where the subjective evidence – your memory of what you did that day – is much stronger than any sort of objective evidence the detective can bring whether it is video of a car that looks like yours or witness affidavits putting you at the scene etc.   Here is another example of the power of subjective evidence.     

A lawyer is defending Don who is accused of murdering Victor.  One problem for the state is they never found Victor’s body.    In closing the defense lawyer goes through various pieces of evidence that he thinks show his client is innocent and he also says “I know Don did not murder Victor and you will soon know it as well.”    He then dramatically points to the doors of the court room and says “that is because any second Victor is going to walk right through those doors!”

He sees everyone in the Jury turning to look at the doors.  He figures clearly they must have doubts since they looked at the doors.  But they quickly come back with a guilty verdict!  He asks a Juror “how could you have found him guilty I saw you and the rest of the Jury look at the doors so you must have had doubts!”  The Juror says “yes I looked and it seemed everyone in the courtroom looked at the doors.  But I happened to look at your client, Don, and he didn’t turn around to look at the doors.”

 In this case the defendant knew Victor was not going to walk through those doors based on his subjective experience of killing him and disposing of the body.  It doesn’t matter if his lawyer had video that seemed to show Victor was alive after the alleged murder or other objective evidence such as recorded statements or testimony that anyone could hear.  And of course the Jurors knew that Don the defendant had access to the most powerful evidence anyone could have on this question – knowledge of his own subjective experience regarding what he did on the day in question. Since Don had access to that subjective evidence the smart juror was most interested in the probability Don would put on Victor walking through those doors.

So in these cases the defendant has subjective evidence that others don’t.  However, in the skeptical arguments there is no reason to think the evidence is any different for Berkeley or Rauser or anyone else.  There is no evidence that would show we are not dreaming (or a brain in a vat etc.) that I posses and others don’t.   Indeed it is very difficult to even imagine what such evidence could be.    

Rauser goes on to seemingly embrace a sort of intuitionism.  Intuitionism roughly posits that something seeming so to us is itself evidence.  I have mixed views on this.   He is in good company with philosophers including not only GE Moore but also Michael Huemer and Russ Schaefer-Landau.  However here is a well written and short article by Richard Joyce that I think presents some of the shortcomings of the view. 

Click to access joyce_2009_symposium.huemer.pdf

But as far as the analogy I don’t think it works because in the murder case the accused knows he is innocent because he has better evidence – albeit subjective evidence.  In the skeptical case I think we are all in the same boat about the evidence we possess.  I think how we deal with the skeptical cases tells us more about how people draw lines of epistemological standards than it does about who has better evidence or who is evaluating their experiences better.    I think the skeptical cases are most interesting because they often clearly demonstrate how people do not actually stick to the epistemic standards they claim to uphold.