J.L. Schellenberg’s Wisdom to Doubt, Chapter One: The Subject Mode

This is the first in a planned series of blog posts reviewing J.L. Schellenberg’s important book, The Wisdom to Doubt.

The first chapter of Schellenberg’s book is valuable to anyone who wants to think clearly about unrecognized evidence, including the implications of unrecognized evidence for arguments from silence and cumulative case arguments. See why.

The first section of Schellenberg’s book is titled, “Finitude and Future: Seven Modes of Religious Skepticism.” Here “modes” means something like “types” or distinct conceptual categories. He calls the first mode the “Subject Mode” because it focuses on matters related to the subject of a belief (i.e., the person who holds a belief), matters which can make it difficult to justify holding a belief. Schellenberg sums up a central thesis in chapter one as follows:

there are, at any point in any human intellectual inquiry, and in relation to any belief it may be thought to yield, various ways in which positive and negative evidence and also vindicators and defeaters can go unrecognized by us. (17)

Underlying this thesis is the concept of “unrecognized evidence,” evidence that has somehow gone unrecognized. But how or why is such evidence unrecognized? Schellenberg introduces a useful taxonomy of unrecognized evidence, which may be summarized as follows. For any piece of unrecognized evidence, we are either capable of recognizing it or not. If we are capable of recognizing it, the evidence could be unrecognized because it is inaccessible or because it is accessible and overlooked or because it is accessible and neglected. If, on the other hand, we are not capable of recognizing the evidence, this could be because the evidence is undiscovered or because it is undiscoverable. 

Not only is this taxonomy interesting in its own right, but I think it could be enormously helpful for thinking about so-called “arguments from silence.” So let’s dive into this a bit deeper.

As I read him, the distinction between overlooked and neglected evidence turns upon the distinction between whether the failure to recognize accessible evidence was avoidable. If we are capable of recognizing an item of evidence, the item of evidence is accessible, and we are are unavoidably prevented from giving our attention to it, then the unrecognized evidence is overlooked evidence. If, however, we are capable of recognizing an item of evidence, the item of evidence is accessible, and our lack of recognition is avoidable, then the unrecognized evidence is neglected evidence.

Schellenberg gives the example of a woman, bruised and bleeding, lying beside a running path in a park. You are running on the same path in the park. Just as the woman is about to come into your field of view, something (such as an airplane overhead), distracts you and you look up the entire time you are running past the woman. You are capable of seeing the woman (i.e., you’re not blind), the woman was in plain sight (i.e., not hidden behind some bushes), but you were unavoidably prevented from giving your attention to the woman. In that sense, the evidence is overlooked.

Suppose on the other hand, you were not blind but had a peculiar habit of walking on the path blindfolded, perhaps with the assistance of a service dog. (And assume the service dog did nothing to alert you to the woman’s presence, perhaps because she wasn’t obstructing your path.) Your failure to recognize the evidence (of the injured woman) was entirely preventable and due solely to your habit of walking blindfolded. In that case, the evidence would be neglected.

Inaccessible evidence is evidence which is just somehow missed or not investigated. This could be due to laziness, deception, the evidence being hidden, or just the limitations of finite beings.

Undiscovered evidence is evidence we fail to see because our intellectual evolution and development hasn’t yet progress to a point to make it possible. For example, the evidence from contemporary cosmology for the inflation of the universe would just be undiscovered evidence for humans living 2000 or even 200 years ago.

Finally, undiscoverable evidence is just what it sounds like: evidence which is in principle impossible for finite beings like humans to ever recognize. This evidence could support or discredit beliefs, including what Schellenberg calls religious or irreligious beliefs.

Using this taxonomy of unrecognized evidence, Schellenberg then argues that there “may often be justification for doubt about whether the examined evidence is representative of all the evidence that bears on the justification for the belief in question” (28). Indeed, his words suggest the following argument:

(1) For all we know, there is neglected or overlooked evidence relevant to this proposition.
(2) Most commonly, neglected or overlooked evidence is negative rather than positive.
(3) So, for all we know, there is unrecognized evidence with a negative bearing on belief of this proposition.
(4) Now we are in no position to rule out that such evidence would have a strongly negative bearing.
(5) So for all we know, there is unrecognized evidence with a strongly negative bearing on belief of this proposition.

As Schellenberg observes, propositions which are precise, detailed, profound, or attractive are especially vulnerable to unrecognized evidence; propositions which are precise, detailed, profound, and attractive are even more so. This is important because, as he argues, it is especially applicable to religious inquiry and so to both religious and irreligious belief. (I don’t have the space to do his argument justice here.)

This writer found this portion of the chapter to be especially valuable because it provides some much-needed caution against cumulative-case arguments in the philosophy of religion. For example, suppose that I become convinced that all of the Draper-style, evidential arguments against theism are correct and that none of the Swinburne-style, evidential arguments for theism are correct. Even if I am justified in rejecting theism on that basis, I would not be justified in accepting metaphysical naturalism, in part because of the strong likelihood that that there is unrecognized evidence with a strongly negative bearing on metaphysical naturalism.

This last paragraph was very quick; I don’t have the space to capture all of the nuances here. For a defense you’re going to need to read Schellenberg’s book yourself.


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