Philosophy, Science and Religion: Friendly Disagreement, Testimonial Knowledge, and the Importance of Fellowship

The third week of the Coursera course on Philosophy, Science and Religion addresses disagreement and friendly Atheism/Theism.  Professor John Greco lectures on a pattern of disagreement that we see far to often in our modern society.  He does this by presenting an example of the flawed atheist.

In this example the believer feels that the evidence for the existence of God is everywhere.  Everyone can witness this evidence, including the atheist.  Therefore, there must be some intellectual or moral flaw in the atheist.

One of the problems with this example is that it can be turned around.  You see, the atheist feels that the evidence for the non-existence of God is everywhere.  Everyone can witness this evidence, including the believer.  Therefore, there must be some intellectual or moral flaw in the believer.  Sound like a familiar pattern?

Professor Greco spends quite a bit of time on testimonial information as a source for knowledge, and as a path of understanding to a more civil and friendly discourse.  Greco rightly points out that a significant portion of our knowledge has come to us from testimonial sources.  Much of what we know, we know because someone has told us, or because we read it in a book.  This is true, regardless of the topic.  Most of us would not want to simply give up all the knowledge that we have gained from testimonial information – it is vitally important to us all.

When we receive some testimonial information, we have a decision to make – whether to accept this information as true, and count it as knowledge or not.  But what criteria should we use?

One very important criteria all of us use is to consider the source of the information.  We all have certain groups that we are part of, and other groups that we are not part of.  Groups we are part of might include family, friends, coworkers, fellow believers, political parties, countries, and so forth.  From these groups we often have fairly low or easy standards information must pass to be accepted as truth and count as knowledge.  And groups that we are not part of – strangers, the other political party, atheists, other countries, etc., we will tend to have much higher and difficult standards that we will apply to accept their information as truth and count it as knowledge.

This understanding can give a dose of humility regarding our own grasp of knowledge, and can give us another option (rather than intellectual and moral flaws) when evaluating others’ beliefs.

This also adds some value to what we might call fellowship in some form of conversion process.  If we wish to convince someone of our point of view, perhaps one of the most effective ways is to help them feel included in our group.  This can remove unnecessary barriers to accepting our testimonial information as truth and counting it as knowledge.  I had never thought of social conversion in quite this way before.

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