A regular thought about Evidentialism, the view that one may believe only on the basis of one’s evidence, is that it is intrinsically opposed to religious commitment. This is partly because religious belief is regularly taken to be posited on simple faith, belief without and perhaps contrary to one’s evidence. But this commitment about evidential backing for religious belief is itself controversial, as support for religious belief can be garnered from many sources—reflection, natural theology, revelation, and tradition only to begin. Consequently, the demands of evidence and what constitutes evidence is not a debate exclusively between the religious believers and skeptics, but it is a debate that may be productively run internal to the religious perspective.
Anthony Booth’s Islamic Philosophy and the Ethics of Belief is exemplary of this debate, and in particular his case is that it is run internal to the medieval Islamic tradition. Given that many of the categories of this debate are ones that arose after the publication of William Kingdon Clifford’s epochal “The Ethics of Belief,” a good deal of the discussion requires taking on a lens of twentieth- and twenty-first-century debates about the ethics of belief and viewing past debates through it. Once these categories are in place, new options and lines of reasoning emerge that seem unique to the Islamic tradition. As Booth frames it, the intersecting medieval Islamic philosophical programs, that of falasifa, yield a wide breadth of debate:
I consider the falasifa’s intellectual project as one primarily engaged in the ethics of belief. That is, they were concerned with understanding the epistemic (and in many cases the non-epistemic) conditions of justified belief; in particular, they sought to understand when belief is blameworthy, and, as in the case of apostasy, when it is punishable by death. (3)
In this regard, evidentialism is not only a cognitive norm, but it is, internal to the religious traditions, a theological norm, too.
Of particular interest for Booth is belief based on prophecy, since whether prophecy counts as evidence in many ways depends on whether there really are gods (or a God), prophets, and the kind of communication at issue. As Booth captures the problem:
If we take an Evidentialist view, then we must, on pain of special pleading, consider a theistic belief justified just in case it is believed on the basis of sufficient evidence. In other words, a religious belief’s correctness is determined by its truth conditions. (9)
This does create quite the epistemic challenge—that prophecy can be evidence only if it really is prophetic, which in many ways is exactly the question. The falasifa Booth identifies as unique and of particular interest on this matter are those he identifies as Moderate Evidentialists. Al-Farabi, in particular, took on a demanding program with regard to knowledge (one Booth sees as having a witheringly demanding requirement of knowing that one knows as a condition for first-order knowledge), and so had a form of infallibilist evidentialism constrain correct management for beliefs by the Prophet. But we, on the other hand, cannot live up to those demands. Instead, Booth’s version of al Farabi (and Averroes later) holds, “it is possible for us, ordinary humans, to reason our way to justified belief in religious and moral matters, but it will necessarily stop short of proper certainty” (21).
In stark contrast, Booth brings Al-Ghazali’s The Incoherence of the Philosophers to bear on the matter, and he shows a contrary trend of what he calls “Moderate Anti-Evidentialism.” Al-Ghazali and the Ash’arite thinkers reacted to the rationalism of the Averroist evidentialists, and held that, as Booth frames it, “for all propositions p, except for one very special proposition, p should be believed because God wills it” (30). God’s will plays a unique role in the normativity of not only action (as we might see with commandments, for example) but of belief, too. The one exception, we should note, is the belief that the prophet is a genuine prophet. Identifying the legitimate prophet, as it turns out, is the only freestanding epistemic task for any believer. And so, it seems, both the Moderate Evidentialist and the Moderate Anti-Evidentialists in this tradition share the same problem.
The key to all of these debates, by Booth’s lights, is identifying “the epistemic elite,” those for whom more reflection and evidence is possible, and so those for whom the intellectual demands are greater. For the Moderate Evidentialists, al-Farabi and Avicenna, prophets must be philosophers, capable of having reflective knowledge of when they know. (Again, they must live up to the KK-requirement for knowledge.) In particular, these epistemic elite must be capable of identifying their beliefs as certain. Booth presents the requirements as follows:
S is absolutely certain that P if:
- S believes that P.
- S believes that P for epistemic reason.
- S (infallibly) believes 2.
- S (infallibly) believes that it is impossible for there to be no epistemic reasons for her to believe that P.
- S (infallibly) believes that there can be no time at which there is no epistemic reason for her to believe that P.
- Conditions 1–5 hold essentially, not accidentally (pp. 45–50).
In short, for the Moderate Evidentialist such as al-Farabi, certainty is no accident, but is a cognitive success that is achieved not only reflectively, but infallibly, and in a way that reflects the necessity of the truths grasped.
The anti-Evidentialist al-Ghazali, however, holds that such knowledge is beside the point about whether one ought to believe, since irrefutable evidence holds no normative weight for those who hold that it is God’s will that is the source of cognitive normativity. Again, the exception is that of identifying the genuine prophet, which Booth holds al-Ghazali takes to be a matter of “testing whether following the prophet’s practical guidance really does lead us to live happier lives—whether it leads to a state where our hearts have been ‘purified’” (61). But this puts the anti-Evidentialst in an epistemic pickle, since now there is a gap between identifying the truths about what makes humans flourish and happy (presumably things we, if al-Ghazali is right, would need a prophet for) and whether the prophet at issue correctly says those things. We may take the former on authority, but that precisely is where the issue lies—properly identifying the authority. In the end, the problem comes to who is the better “persuader,” which is a solution at which any worried about apostacy should blanch.
A consequence of this debate is that the sides come out with a sense of intellectual humility with regard to identifying true prophets and the correct content of prophecy. This moderacy, Booth holds, has significant political implications. In particular, a form of liberalism arises as a state-side manifestation of the fallibilism that is necessary. Al-Farabi holds that only the prophet herself could have perfect knowledge, and further, there are times when the prophet is absent and cannot speak to issues of the day. Just as there are perfect and imperfect knowers, there are perfect and imperfect cities, and we are in a sense in a position of inhabiting both of the latter. Of the imperfect cities Al-Farabi holds that the democratic city is best and capable of pockets of perfection. For those not living in a time of prophecy, “we must concern ourselves with something less than absolute certainty” (81), and so we must resolve to respect the views and lives of others pursuing God and the good in their respective ways. In turn, Booth holds that this line of thought yields goods in Islamic critique of Islamist extremism, and it provides a model for religious belief in pluralist societies.
Islamic Philosophy and the Ethics of Belief is controversial both in its religious epistemic program and in its political application. It is a great pleasure to bring together these scholars to discuss Booth’s challenging and important book.