Saturday, January 20, 2018

Street Epistemology: A Flawed Approach

In the wake of Peter Boghossian’s A Manual for Making Atheists, the practice and dialogue surrounding “Street Epistemology” (SE) has gained traction, at least in the social/online circles. Evidence of this trend might be found in a simple Google search or looking at Christian apologetic content dedicated to it, such as Justin Brierley’s radio show guests/topics

According to, SE “is the application of epistemology (the study of knowledge) outside of formal academic contexts.” SE casts a wide net but seems very focused on religion. This is natural because questions about the existence of God, life after death, and others have deep and profound significance. For many, these questions are more foundational than questions about politics, the environment, or education. Thus, the focus of SE to date has primarily been to have a respectful and civil dialogue about religious belief. A paradigmatic situation is a non-religious person (e.g. a religious skeptic or agnostic) engaging in a Socratic-type dialogue with a religious (or religious sympathizing) person. I have participated in one of these myself and have witnessed and read about others. The focus of SE as it relates to religious belief is the primary focus of this post.

When I first read about the term “Street Epistemology,” my interest was piqued because of the reference to the study of knowledge. However, as stated above, the method of SE is non-academic. The main thrust of SE is to dig at why a person (P) has a certain belief or set of beliefs (X). Ultimately, the SE practitioner hopes to show that P should not hold X with any confidence or that something is wrong with P holding X. “Officially,” the pure SE practitioner is trying to pursue truth. He accomplishes this in the process of being a good Socratic interlocutor. However, on close analysis, I cannot see how the SE does not bring some serious presuppositions to the dialogue. These presuppositions skew what he wants to accomplish, threatening to undermine the SE project.

SE takes for granted that epistemology is a good starting point for understanding and discussing reality. If this were not the case, the dialogue would not proceed along the lines of belief questioning. The SE wants to know how P came to have an idea or belief X and/or why P continues to believe X. What, if anything, would cause P to hold X less firmly? This is a common SE question. And I think this whole process of inquiry assumes a decidedly idealistic approach. “I have this idea or belief, what explains or is the cause of it?” This hearkens back to Descartes, and I think it ultimately hamstrings the SE.

Consider the following example taken from a blog at

Beliefs people hold about reality are not actually reality. Beliefs are simplified abstractions. The fact that these abstractions have the potential to be inaccurate proves that they are, in fact, two different things.

This is a very interesting position. The remainder of the cited SE blog post builds on this by stating things like “When we talk about our beliefs, we are talking about abstract, internal models of how the real world is and works. These models exist only as ideas in our minds.” This position asserts a fundamental disconnect between the mind and the world. It tells us we do not know things but only ideas or abstractions about (hopefully?) things. But if this is true, how do we ever know any thing? How can we properly adjudicate these “abstractions”? The sole answer on this view can be only with other abstractions. So, we must use ideas to judge other ideas. But what organizes and adjudicates these? The problem persists.

We are then faced with the question of what the SE can really accomplish given his starting point. He is being inconsistent with his inquiry by not first subjecting his own method to itself. If the SE is concerned about pursuing truth and knowledge, he should first establish what these things really are before he proceeds, lest he have no objective measure of the beliefs he seeks to question. And there are many other problems with what the SE is taking for granted. For example, he assumes a correspondence theory of truth while simultaneously removing any means of verifying the correspondence. After all, per the SE, it can only be idea versus idea. Maybe the SE can move to a coherence theory of truth, but this also will not help. The SE seems to presuppose that knowledge is justified true belief but then throws shade on justification by alluding to error with no way to properly account for it. The Gettier Problem is also alluded to, and imminently present, but left untouched.

The blog quoted above is, I think, quite representative of the SE framework. This is evident in the holistic focus on attacking beliefs and justification. It is only by assuming a mind/reality disconnect that belief and ideas can be questioned in the way SE does. In the case of religion, the belief is unjustified because it supposedly has no extramental verification or something along those lines. Thus, there is “no evidence” for belief in God, and so on. But SE talks about evidence and empirical observation while still presupposing that the mind is cut off from the world. The SE impugns the believer for unjustified ideas/beliefs but does not see that he is sawing off the branch upon which he sits. The SE loses the means by which to question religious belief (or any other belief/idea). On the SE view, both the SE and believer (if the believer concedes the same starting point) are essentially stuck in the same position as Descartes at the end of his first meditation. Like Descartes, I fail to see any way out for the SE. The demon will continue his torment.

SE tries to get at the truth about reality by not starting with reality. To me, this seems like a futile project for all concerned. A better use of time would be to live in reality and discuss it as such. The SE only wants to focus on the rationality of religious belief. But Plantinga has already helpfully pointed out, albeit using a very different methodology than I am, that de jure objections ultimately reduce to de facto objections. So, even on Plantinga’s epistemology, our time is better spent discussing metaphysics rather than disputations about the rationality of belief. If the SE is truly committed to truth, then epistemology is not the place to start the conversation. 

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