The Absurdity of Epistemic Recursion

The other day I encountered a Christian who suggested that, based on my notion that rational belief is a degree of belief that maps to the corresponding degree of perceived evidence, I would be required to not only assess the reliability of my mental faculties in assessing a given proposition, but that I would need to also assess the reliability of my mental faculties to assess my mental faculties, and then recursively assess this assessment ad infinitum until I had no justification for any significant degree of belief in the initial proposition.

Here are his very words.

So suppose I agree with you that, given my past experience and familiarity with my own fallibility, I make sure to always proportion my degree of belief to the evidence. Some proposition, call it P, presents itself. I evaluate the evidence for P and decide there is a good amount of evidence in its favor, say for the sake of argument that I think it is 75% likely to be true on the evidence. I determine that I have good reason to believe that P. But that determination is, itself, a reasoning process that I have a belief about, namely I have a belief that my reasoning process has properly arrived at a proper assessment of the probability of P given the evidence. We will call this belief about the likelihood of P Q. My experience with my ability to assess probabilities given evidence tells me that I should put 95% confidence in Q. But if that is true, then I need to lower my confidence in P, since Q tells me that I could be wrong about P being 75% likely. My confidence in Q is a belief that I am also not certain of, and so it, R, says that it is 95% likely that Q is right. But that means that I should be 95% sure that I am 95% sure that I am 75% sure of P. And each time I iterate this, and reflect on my certitude, I must lower my confidence that P until it approaches the point where I cease to be confident that P is true at all.

This demonstrates a lack of understanding of how science works. Let’s walk through this.

I determine that, based on the evidence I perceive, there is a 80% probability that proposition X is true. We can write this as…


When scientists assess the probability of a proposition, they include an assessment of the resolution, biases and accuracy of their instruments in the degree of certainty in the probability. For example, if a sociologists, based on a survey, assesses the probability of a child born into a Evangelical home to still be Evangelical at age 20 to be 80%, that assessment of 80% has attached to it a degree of confidence.

This degree of confidence is called the margin of error. The margin of error does not change the statistically determined probability. It only changes the error bars. If the sample size is small, the statistical analysis may yield an 80% probability, yet margin of error will be large. If the sample size is large, the statistical analysis may again yield an 80% probability, yet margin of error will be smaller. But the assessment for both samples may be identical at an 80% probability.

There may be, in addition to small sample sizes, other elements that can affect the margin of error. One could be a sampling bias. Perhaps Evangelicals are more/less likely to respond to surveys than non-Evangelicals. Perhaps the survey was conducted Sunday morning when most evangelicals are not available to respond to surveys. There are many potential weaknesses in the measurement apparatus. These should be identified in determining the degree of confidence in the statistical determination of the 80% probability, but do not change that 80% probability itself. They only change the margin of error, our confidence in our conclusion.

Part of the assessment also includes the scientists assessment of their track record of reliability. Have they made mistakes in methodology in the past that have resulted in low accuracy of predictions? If so, this does not change the probability they assign to the proposition upon assessment, but only their degree of certainty in that assessment, the error bars.

In light of this, this apologist, if he has even a fundamental understanding of science, will have to admit that an assessment of the tools of assessment, including the mind doing the assessment, does not in any way affect the probabilistic conclusion. Only the margin of error can be affected.

But perhaps that is what this apologist is actually saying. Perhaps he is saying we don’t have any respectable margin of error in any assessment we make. Let’s take a closer look.

Let’s say our conclusion of P(X).8 is accompanied by a margin of error (ME) of 10%. We might write this…

P(X).8 & ME(X).1

This apologist, for some reason, believes we need to include a recursively to this. This is what we might end up with after 5 recursions.

P(X).8 & ME(ME(ME(ME(ME(X).1).1).1).1).1 = .00001

The error bars would be located at the poles! This would indeed destroy our confidence in our apparatus of assessment!

But is this what scientists do?



Let me list a few reasons, some very obvious.

1. It would have destroyed science long ago. If no one had had legitimate confidence in the apparatus of their methodology (including their own minds), science would have never gotten off the ground. But science works! Are we now to trade what works for something that doesn’t?

2. There is no logical imperative to employ this silly recursive assessment of the assessing apparatus. If there is, I’d like to see it laid out in syllogistic form. It appears that this apologist would like to force this rule on recursion on the scientific method so he can dismiss it as unreliable. This is straw-manning in its most dishonest form.

3. The process of employing this invented rule of infinite recursion of assessments would require eternity. This apologist seems to believe that we need to assess our assessment of our assessment of our assessment…ad infinitum. This apologist presumably is not currently engaged in this assessment of his own assessments. Why impose it on others?

4. For an epistemic agent to be rational in any given epistemic context, they merely need to position their degree of belief in a proposition X to the degree that the evidence relevant to X warrants. This conclusion is in no way immutable. It may be changed later as more evidence arrives, including evidence relevant to the mental faculties of the scientist.

In conclusion, it appears that his epistemic recursion is not something done by this apologist, but only something he is imposing on the normal successful epistemology employed in scientific inquiry in an attempt to make it equivalent or inferior to his own epistemology.

The epistemology employed by science works. Those holding to religious epistemologies are justifiably envious of its success. And this is the probable cause of their failing attempts to dismantle the epistemology of science.

UPDATE: The following was posted on a Facebook group in “response” to this article. I’ll answer {thus} between the lines.

In addition to violating the spirit of this closed group, Phil Stilwell misrepresents [commenter], and posts an Unbelievable? argument on his own blog. Phil wildly fails to realize that his own epistemology must provide an answer to the problems posed by Humean skepticism and the problem of induction. {I don’t need to address those issues related to “truth” and “knowledge”. I’m not addressing what is “truth” or how we acquire “knowledge”. I’ve made it very clear I’m focused on rationality. This perennial conflation between truth and rationality is the crux of the problem.} Rather than answering those problems, he instead charges [commenter] with being inconsistent in his own epistemology. But [commenter] doesn’t hold a Humean epistemology. Phil does. {Wrong. I don’t. And, yes, [commenter] needs to substantiate his own epistemology. Of course.}
Phil then affirms [commenter]’s very true claim that his epistemology cannot be supported if meta-skepticism is true, because the fundamental principle “apportion one’s evidence…” cannot itself be evidenced. {Simply ask yourself what would it mean to believe something to a degree NOT corresponding to the degree of the evidence. Where has this method ever worked?} Phil doesn’t actually think his guiding epistemic principle is irrational, however, because in his metaepistemology he mistakenly identifies rationality with pragmatism, and thinks that this apologist’s condition for belief-justification is not pragmatic, and therefore not rational. {You are here suggesting that, following what works needs to be demonstrated to work. :) See the problem?} For pragmatic reasons, he tells us, it’s impossible to support any beliefs if skepticism is true. But one must get along in the world with some beliefs, therefore [commenter]’s question can be rejected. {[Commenter]’s question can be rejected since he is confusing “truth” with “rationality”.}
It’s quite a spectacle. By identifying the two concepts with each other, he strips rationality of any content, and therefore any of its epistemic weight. {If you want absolute truth/knowledge, you’ll likely never find it. But the lack of it does diminish rationality in any way. Once again, you’ve confused “truth” with “rationality”.} Because if rationality is just what works, and what works is just a subjective inference, then the deluded are just as warranted in their beliefs as those who are mentally sound (whatever that means if skepticism is true.) {If we are deluded by an evil demon, yet honestly follow what we perceive to work, we are rational but wrong. That’s due to no lack of responsibility on our part. Rationality is our only epistemic responsibility.} If Phil replies that “[what] works” is just getting what you want given the furniture of the world, then he abandons the subjective inferentiality of his own meta-epistemology, and loses again. {Simply wrong. Rationality (once again) is simply believing X to a degree that maps to the degree of perceived evidence for X. This is not that difficult. Simply pay attention to what I actually say.}

Note that this is not an actual response to my post above.

Christian apologists are simply attempting to distract from the fact that they have a bankrupt epistemology that they can’t defend.


2 thoughts on “The Absurdity of Epistemic Recursion

  1. Well, it appears the 2 commenters in question could not distinguish between a theory of knowledge (which I am not expounding) and the notion of rationality (which I am expounding). Time after time they were told not to confuse the two, and time and time again they kept suggesting I was forwarding a theory of knowledge. I don’t believe a coherent theory of knowledge exists if knowledge is to be anything other than a high degree of certainty justified by relevant evidence. I’ll not be dialoging with these commenters any further.

  2. The following post is related and may be helpful to those honestly wanting to understand my position.

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