for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.
-1 Corinthians 11:19
I wish in this post to sketch the philosophical idea of an “epistemic peer” and use it to analyse how we understand the phenomenon of Protestant interpretative disagreements.
What is an Epistemic Peer?
Roughly, an epistemic peer is someone who matches another in epistemic qualities. Although the phrase “epistemic peer” was only coined much later, the philosopher Peter Van Inwagen actually articulated the concept in an autobiography of his in 1994 entitled Quam Dilecta. The paper is mostly concerned about his intellectual journey into Christianity, etc. However in a later part of his autobiography he discusses the epistemic situation of justification for religious beliefs and raises the problem of “epistemic peers”. To quote him at some length:
Let me begin with a fact about philosophy. Philosophers do not agree about anything to speak of. And why not? How can it be that equally intelligent and well-trained philosophers can disagree about the freedom of the will or nominalism or the covering-law model of scientific explanation when each is aware of all of the arguments and distinctions and other relevant considerations that the others are aware of? How can we philosophers possibly regard ourselves as justified in believing anything of philosophical significance under these conditions? How can I believe (as I do) that free will is incompatible with determinism or that unrealized possibilities are not physical objects or that human beings are not four-dimensional things extended in time as well as in space, when David Lewis–a philosopher of truly formidable intelligence and insight and ability–rejects them and is aware of and understands perfectly every argument that I could bring against them?
Well, I do believe these things. And I believe that I am justified in believing them. And I am confident that I am right. But how can I take these positions? I don’t know. That is itself a philosophical question, and I have no firm opinion about its correct answer.
Thus we can define an “epistemic peer” in the following way: An epistemic peer is someone who possesses the same rigor of logical reasoning, command of the same facts or information, intellectual capacity, charity and integrity in representing each other’s position, etc, as another person.
It is clear from the outset that an epistemic peer is sort of like an “economic man”, a sort of idealisation. However this is not a problem as whether or not someone can really perfectly match another in epistemic qualities, people occasionally do acknowledge the existence of epistemic peers of equal, if not superior, epistemic qualities. This would bring us to the problem of epistemic peer disagreement.
Epistemic Peer Disagreement
As Peter Van Inwagen wonders, how could he hold the positions he does when his epistemic peer, David Lewis, disagrees with him? This is called the problem of “epistemic peer disagreement”, the question as to whether the existence of epistemic peers is epistemically significant. There are basically two philosophical answers to this problem.
On the one side we have what we call the “conciliationist”. The conciliationist would argue that the acknowledgement of the existence of epistemic peers who disagree with you is itself epistemically significant, independently of any further arguments about the issue or claim at hand. Thus, the sheer existence of epistemic peer disagreement should lower your confidence in your claims or should reduce its epistemic value.
On the other side we have what we call the “steadfast” proponents. The steadfast philosopher would argue that the existence of epistemic peers is not epistemically significant and that one should hold one’s epistemic ground on one’s claims and not budge at all.
There is a lot of back and forth between the two views in recent philosophical literature and I do not intend to go through them here. I merely develop the framework of epistemic peers as conceptual tools to analyse the question of Protestant interpretative disagreements.
Are Protestant Interpretative Disagreements Theologically Significant?
Now it is a common high church apologetic charge that Protestant interpretative disagreements, by itself, discredit their theological position. They can argue that we have equally learned, equally pious and charitable bible scholars, who comes to very different conclusion about what the Bible teaches. This ought to by itself discredit their theological claims and arguments supposedly based on the same Bible. It is clear that implicit in this charge is the “conciliationist” premise, that the sheer existence of epistemic peer disagreement should by itself discredit one’s theological position.
Now charity demands that we acknowledge that fellow Protestants who disagree with us are not less than us in piety, in wisdom, in knowledge of the Scriptures and in rationality. Thus the existence of epistemic peer disagreement on biblical interpretation is a real one, it is not something we ought to dismiss. On this the high church apologist is correct.
The Conciliationist Approach
If we adopt a “conciliationist” point of view, how would that modify our theological position? One could go the whole hog and say that ergo Protestantism is epistemically bankrupt with regard the Christian faith and search out for denominations with perfect epistemic peer uniformity (good luck finding that though, even in high church denominations!).
On the other hand we can adopt a more nuanced “conciliationist” position which I would call the “irenic” approach. The “irenic” approach will tell us to hold those beliefs which are more widely shared with more confidence, while holding those beliefs which are less widely shared with less. Thus for example, the divinity of Christ, the resurrection, the universal priesthood of the believers, the supremacy of the Scriptures, etc, ought to be held with great confidence because those doctrines enjoy wide consensus among Protestant believers. Other doctrines like predestination, the sacraments, the mode of church government ought to be held with more caution and less confidence.
The “irenic” approach would necessarily lead to a gradation of Christian doctrines, that is, some doctrines are more essential or central to the Christian faith than others. There would be massive theological cognitive dissonance to say that we should hold doctrines in disagreement with less confidence and yet that they are vital or essential to the faith. It is impossible to hold, at the same time, with less confidence a doctrine which is considered vital to the faith and ergo is to be held firmly with confidence.
The Steadfast Approach
On the other hand one can take the steadfast approach to theological peer disagreement. One can simply say that the fact that fellow believers, of equal if not superior epistemic qualities, disagree with me is not itself epistemically significant, it does not in the least affect the epistemic credibility or value of my theological beliefs.
How might want go about justifying a steadfast approach to Protestant epistemic peer disagreement? One way would be to said that the end point of theological study or discernment is the satisfaction of one’s conscience. Our epistemic duty, as far as theology or doctrine is concerned, is to ensure that the beliefs we hold are those arrived at to the best of our epistemic abilities and out of the motive for a desire of truth itself rather than out of any other prejudicial attachment. Thus in the process of our theological study and prayerful reading of the Scriptures, the beliefs which are formed out of this process which satisfy our conscience is by itself epistemically sufficient.
Ultimately as far as we ourselves are concerned, it is to God alone to whom we will have to give an account of our beliefs, not to other people who disagree with us. If the end point of doctrinal or theological reasoning is the satisfaction of our own conscience, then the fact that other people are satisfied with a different conclusion is quite frankly “none of our business” and they will answer to God themselves for their beliefs, not to us.
Both the conciliationist and the steadfast approach are not mutually exclusive. We can both hold that the end point of all theological reasoning is the satisfaction of our own conscience while at the same time allowing our conscience to be informed by the wisdom and knowledge of our theological peers, giving their epistemic qualities some weight and letting their disagreement affect what we can hold in good conscience.
In the end, there are no doubt some theological beliefs which we would be “steadfast” about, and some which we would be “conciliationist” about. What I think however is vital to take away from this is that the existence of epistemic peer disagreement on theological issues is something which needs to be considered properly and its implications teased out carefully that we might not fall into the convenient rhetorical tricks of those who would have us sacrifice our consciences and mindset to pretended uniform theological authorities.