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October 12, 2009



But why would they find this convincing? Wouldn't one have to discover evidence internal to the texts he provides them, in order to confirm their provenance? Anyone can claim they spoke with God, after all. Or is it a given that he has indeed already been in communication with God, and thus is just recalling that he isn't the source of anything he's passing along. In that case, it wouldn't be citing a source so much as disclaiming himself as the source of anything.

Nathan Smith

re: "Anyone can claim they spoke with God, after all."

Well, yes. Whether or not to believe others, given that they could be lying, is a common problem in life. There are various ways to deal with it. One is to inquire into the character of the speaker: Is this the sort of person who would lie? Another is to think about their motives: Would they have a reason to lie? Of course, one will also take into account the antecedent probability of the claim: Do my priors lean strongly against this being the case? Also, the speaker might be not lying but merely mistaken, so one should think about how the belief was formed, and whether they might have erred.

One might also examine the general record of the speaker, to see if they *usually* tell the truth. If speaker A claims that B, C, and D, and I can verify B and C and find them true, I am more likely to believe D. On the other hand, if D is a very different kind of claim than B and C, such that A's ability to accurately judge B and C doesn't seem likely to predict his ability to judge D, or if A has no incentive to lie to me about B and C but does have reason to lie about D, or if A *knows* that I can verify B and C and not D, this type of evidence will be less persuasive.

In the case of religious experience, one reason a person might believe Paul is that they might have had their own encounters with God, and find that some of the things Paul says about God fit with their own experiences of God. They might then conclude: "It seems impossible that Paul could have written X so truly about God if he hadn't had the same experience I have had. That's my only experience with God, but Paul claims to have had many more experiences, and to have come to understand Y and Z as well. I haven't learned Y and Z on my own, but the fact that Paul was right about X disposes me to trust him on Y and Z."

I think religious faith is often built up in this way. As one comes to understand for oneself some things that saints and religious leaders have said, one's confidence that they were right about other things is strengthened. What makes it difficult is that on the most important questions, such as "Can sinful souls really be saved?", probably very few of us in this life fly high enough, so to speak, on our own wings to attain our own autonomous confidence in that. We rely on those above us to describe to us the view, and we only half understand what they are saying. And the most important things do not lend themselves to definition, proof, systematic verbal exposition. The noise of the world usually deafens us to the heavenly music.


One's interlocutor need not be lying. I would say the most common case would be that the person making a false claim is that they are mistaken, not intentionally misinforming.

Just a quibble.

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