Consider this line from Kant:
“The delusion that through religious acts of cult we can achieve anything in the way of justification before God is religious superstition.”
—Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, and Other Writings, Revised Edition, Translated by Allen Wood and George Di Giovanni, Introduction by Robert Adams, Cambridge University Press, 2018, p. 200
He is referring to acts which in themselves have no moral significance or are otherwise matters of indifference or even disapprobation to God, such as mere attendance at religious services, the thoughtless profession of religious propositions, apathetic observance of ritualistic practices, etc.* He associates such things with “sorcery” and “fetishism” (202) and “conjuring up” (203) because they are attempts to gain God’s favor through entirely naturalistic practices with no intrinsic moral significance and to use God as a means to get what one wants, which is “absurd.” (203)
Whoever prioritizes such rituals over moral service to God “transforms the service of God into mere fetishism; he engages in a counterfeit service.” (204) Any church that practices such fetishism is engaged in superstitious “priestcraft” and not true religion.
Kant seems to have had in mind the sort of behavior Jesus advised against, namely, the empty babbling (battalogēsēte) that some folks think will gain God’s favor (Matthew 6:7) and the ritualistic priestcraft censured in Matthew 23:23. That Kant is correct seems beyond reasonable doubt, and yet the problem he addresses continues with disturbing frequency. Human beings seem miserably vulnerable to such fetishism.
*Kant grants that one may practice some rituals properly if one is antecedently committed to the moral service of God as taking precedence over ritual.
Jamie Carlin Watson here articulates a problem concerning epistemic justification. He writes:
“But the idea that justification is a matter of having good reasons faces a serious obstacle. Normally, when we give reasons for a belief, we cite other beliefs. Take, for example, the proposition, “The cat is on the mat.” If you believe it and are asked why, you might offer the following beliefs to support it:
1. I see that the cat is on the mat.
2. Seeing that X implies that X.
Together, these seem to constitute a good reason for believing the proposition:
3. The cat is on the mat.
But does this mean that proposition 3 is epistemically justified for you? Even if the combination of propositions 1 and 2 counts as a good reason to believe 3, proposition 3 is not justified unless both 1 and 2 are also justified. Do we have good reasons for believing 1 and 2? If not, then according to the good reasons account of justification, propositions 1 and 2 are unjustified, which means that 3 is unjustified. If we do have good reasons for believing 1 and 2, do we have good reasons for believing those propositions? How long does our chain of good reasons have to be before even one belief is justified?”
A critical question to consider is this: what is the nature of epistemic justification? I have suggested in my published work (here) that there are two kinds of justification: loose and precise. The former is fallible, and roughly a matter of a proposition’s being more likely true than not, given the relevant evidence. The latter concerns being epistemically certain and thus infallible regarding a proposition; i.e., given the pertinent reasons for believing that p, one cannot be wrong that p.
Now, with respect to precise justification (PJ), arguably, (1) is not justified. One cannot be epistemically certain that one sees the cat on the mat, since one might be wrong that one is seeing what one takes oneself to be seeing. And since (1) is not justified, neither is (3).
But we can modify the example to obtain PJ. Consider this:
1*. I am being appeared to cat-on-the-matly.
2*. Being appeared to cat-on-the-matly entails that there is a cat-on-the-mat experience.
Together, these seem to constitute a good reason for believing the proposition:
3. There is a cat-on-the-mat experience.
Arguably, one can be epistemically certain of (1*) and (2*) and hence of (3*). But (3*) is quite different from (3).
What about loose justification (LJ)? Plausibly, (1) and (2) are loosely (and thus fallibly) justified in the sense of being more probably true that not, given the evidence. Therefore, we have reason to believe that (3) is also loosely justified.
But does (1) require independent reasons before one can believe it with LJ? It depends on one’s assumptions. As Watson notes, if one assumes that all epistemic justification requires inferring beliefs from one or more other beliefs, then there is a problem he calls the dilemma of inferential justification (DIJ). On one hand, if there are no good (independent) reasons to believe that (1), then (1) is unjustified and thus (3) is unjustified. On the other hand, if there is a good reason to believe that (1), say proposition (1a), then either (1a) is unjustified or we need another belief, (1b), to justify (1a). This seems to set up an infinite regress, and therefore (1) is unjustified; hence (3) is unjustified.
One can block the DIJ by rejecting the assumption that all epistemic justification requires inferring beliefs from one or more other beliefs. How might one do this? My studied preference is to claim that some beliefs are properly basic and thus self-evident (or otherwise obviously true) or supported by non-belief states, such as direct and indubitable experience. For example, (1*) seems obviously and indeed infallibly true based on direct experience. This approach is called foundationalism. I grant that there are problems with foundationalism, but I cannot address them now.
If you want to learn whether or not a person is happy, you might ask him, but you shouldn’t assume that he has the relevant expertise to provide a reliable answer.
Epistemic Autonomy and Open Inquiry: A Summary of Maura Priest’s Professional Philosophy Has an Epistemic Autonomy Problem
Introduction and Definitions
Contemporary professional philosophy risks losing its epistemic autonomy, Maura Priest argues in Professional Philosophy Has an Epistemic Autonomy Problem. Sociocultural and institutional factors are present in the philosophical community which make philosophers less likely to achieve epistemic autonomy than one would expect, considering the nature of philosophy as a discipline that requires, encourages, and (historically speaking) has produced many autonomous thinkers. Given these obstacles, Priest (p. 71) contends, individual philosophers and the profession as a whole are worse off epistemically, as is the world at large. In short, given the influence of philosophy on the academy and on the wider culture, less epistemic autonomy among philosophers makes academia and the wider scope of human affairs vulnerable to weaker reasoning, peer pressure, and conformity.
By ‘epistemic autonomy,’ Priest means roughly the virtue of governing one’s own intellectual life. (p. 72) Epistemically autonomous agents have proper control over their intellectual lives and projects, thus regulating them without undue external interference. In contrast, epistemically non-autonomous persons are governed by others; these might be individuals, but social forces and worldviews can also exert control over the non-autonomous. (pp. 72-73) Priest’s conception of epistemic autonomy is akin to Kant’s, who defined ‘enlightenment’ in terms of intellectual independence.
For Priest, self-governance is not a matter of inappropriate self-reliance or obstinacy. Self-governance is consistent with open-mindedness to information from external sources, provided that the self-governing agent performs due diligence in recognizing other sources as trustworthy. (p. 75) The trust given by an epistemically autonomous agent differs from the trust given by one who lacks such independence insofar as the former is grounded in good reasons and method, while the latter probably lacks these. Priest also claims that epistemic autonomy is a degreed property (i.e., one can instantiate more or less of it). Furthermore, since philosophy is a matter of rational investigation and philosophers are trained rigorously in reasoning, argumentation, and creative thought, philosophers epistemically ought to “fall further to the epistemically autonomous end of the spectrum than others.” (p. 77) This statement suggests that philosophers have little justification for abdicating their intellectual autonomy. Rather, the discipline of philosophy demands independence of mind. Philosophers who outsource their epistemic lives risk outsourcing their occupations. (p. 77) In short, as Kant might have put it, epistemic autonomy is a matter of having the courage and diligence to think for oneself regarding one’s scholarship.
Examples of Epistemic Autonomy and Non-autonomy
Priest provides several cases of autonomy and non-autonomy in common employment and academia. Freedom in the general workplace is associated with employees who are authorized to manage their own schedules and projects without being micromanaged by supervisors (p. 73). Regarding the academy, Priest illustrates non-autonomy by discussing the example of a philosophy professor who does not decide his own article topics and theses but delegates that responsibility to his peers (p. 74). Other examples of non-autonomy include scholars who select research topics to please university administrators, obtain grants, or secure employment in a job market that rewards scholars who emphasize orthodox ideas (p. 80).
In addition, Priest claims that the pressure to publish on issues that conform to topics which are popular in academia can lead scholars to produce work that is neither epistemically autonomous nor intellectually heterogeneous. (pp. 82-84). For instance, suppose that a scholar selects a topic for research merely because a university administrator at her university has imposed a requirement that faculty in her department write about that topic in order to be promoted at the end of the academic year. Or suppose that a scholar defends a thesis he does not genuinely endorse with an argument he prefers not to use, doing so only for the sake of publishing in a journal that is favorable to such viewpoints. These would be clear cases of abdicating epistemic autonomy (as Priest defines it) for non-epistemic goals.
Philosopher Justin McBrayer has articulated additional examples of scholars who risk sacrificing epistemic autonomy for non-epistemic ends. In Diversity Statements Are the New Faith Statements, he argues that the faith statements used by religious institutions and the diversity statements used by secular institutions are similar in that they tend to require conformity to relatively vague claims which ignore the careful distinctions and responsible thinking required to accept them intelligently. Such measures pressure scholars to trade autonomy and rigor for peer approval. As McBrayer notes, commitment statements exclude non-conforming thinkers from the respective academic institution, require people to affirm claims they likely do not understand, and block issues from further discussion rather than opening them for exploration. Each of these factors tends to decrease viewpoint diversity, though it should be noted that affirming a commitment statement does not exclude epistemic autonomy. It is possible to accept such statements in an intellectually responsible manner, even if the institutional and social pressures associated with the statements tend to work against autonomy.
Priest proceeds to argue inductively that a paucity of epistemic autonomy is probable in contemporary academic philosophy because: (1) institutional features of the profession tend to prevent autonomy; (2) cultural features of the profession tend to prevent autonomy; and (3) psychological, sociological, and anthropological features of the profession tend to prevent autonomy. For example, Priest asserts that early in their careers, philosophers are pressured to transfer their intellectual agency to more seasoned colleagues because the younger philosophers “believe that doing so will advance professional, social, and other non-epistemic aims” such as pleasing experienced thinkers and university administrators, obtaining grants and awards, securing employment, and attaining higher levels of status in the academic hierarchy. (p. 80) This pressure might persist later in one’s career. Priest writes: “After tenure, philosophers might come face to face with new professional (and non-epistemic) pressures, e.g., the pressure to do research in areas that increase the odds of receiving research grants, of advancing their reputation either within their subfield or the profession at large, or that make it more likely their work will be published …” (p. 82) The result is that a contemporary academic philosopher might spend a career doing work which is not intellectually independent, to the detriment of both the philosopher’s scholarship and the discipline at large.
This problem poses a challenge to the field of philosophy. As Priest puts it, by the time a philosopher has gained considerable experience – an experience that should correspond with proper intellectual freedom – “habits of autonomy abdication might be engrained.” (p. 85) Hence, it is more likely that the field of philosophy will have fewer excellent philosophers than it would have had were the problem absent, since ceteris paribus, philosophers who possess epistemic autonomy are better than those who lack it. Priest closes by articulating a plausible concern that the autonomy problem might subtly weaken the current field until it is “philosophy in name only” and that, given the magnitude of this problem, the effort to solve it is a worthy cause. (pp. 86-87)
At this point, the reader might protest: isn’t Priest’s inductive argument merely anecdotal? Is the argument weakened by hasty generalization? Does she cite broader empirical evidence beyond her observations? Priest answers that such criticisms miss the mark because she is not trying to prove that her experiences are guaranteed to be found by others across the discipline of philosophy, but rather that her examples “point out that the current systemic organization of the profession creates opportunity for these situations.” She continues: “Even if I had been making up my example out of thin air (I wasn’t), the institutional structure of the profession would still render the example plausible. If it is plausible, and if it follows that the profession is prone toward certain epistemic shortcomings, we all (professional philosophers) have reason for concern.” (pp. 84-85) In other words, Priest seems to be claiming that the current structure of academic philosophy is such that examples like the ones she provides are likely to be experienced by those in the discipline.
Significance for the Reader
The significance of this problem seems evident, and not only for philosophy. In general, it is plausible to suspect that any discipline which is (a) structured to oppose intellectual self-governance and (b) has relatively few epistemically autonomous agents is: (i) less likely to be a discipline of open inquiry and (ii) more likely to be ossified by an inflexible orthodoxy which prevents the field from intellectual progress. As Priest notes, such disciplines are prone to weaker argumentation and poorer scholarship, and are less likely to attract talented students. (pp. 71-72) Moreover, there is a worry that some of the field’s valuable research might never reach fruition because of institutional pressures that force authors to write about issues that do not interest them, which might in turn generate publications that infringe upon the author’s autonomy and do not reflect the author’s intended scholarship. (p. 83)
Let us suppose that open inquiry operates on something like the following principle, which I call the principle of intellectual freedom (PIF): in general, permit public thought, inquiry, and speech which are intended for the pursuit of intellectual discovery, provided they do not violate anyone’s freedom of thought, inquiry, or speech and do not pose undue harm to any person. A discipline that produces and promotes epistemically autonomous agents is more likely to employ the PIF, and therefore permit and explore seriously a wide range of views. Such exploration is conducive for a field to make epistemic progress regarding its distinct areas of inquiry, and might well lead to better and more frequent scholarship which reflects the genuine interests and ideas of the authors. But a domain burdened by the autonomy problem is less likely to achieve the goals of open investigation and intellectual independence, and thus inadequately equipped for continued growth concerning its distinct ends. In addition, if knowledge requires epistemic certainty and thus the acquisition of knowledge in the academy is less common than has frequently been supposed, as I have argued elsewhere, then we have further reason to tolerate rational inquiry in pursuit of intellectual discovery.
The PIF raises possible solutions for the problem Priest describes. Academia might begin rigorously to promote epistemic autonomy, rational and respectful disagreement, doxastic tolerance, and intellectual freedom. Something like the PIF might be encouraged across universities, scholarly organizations, and other institutions of higher education. Such an effort might help to counteract the pressures toward non-autonomy that Priest addresses (supposing that such pressures exist), thereby motivating greater intellectual self-government among scholars. This in turn might improve the quality of contemporary philosophy, other disciplines, and the university as a whole.
Priest underscores a difficulty concerning autonomy that thinkers across academic disciplines should consider, regardless of whether their respective fields are currently facing the challenge. Even if the degree of severity of the autonomy problem is open to reasonable debate, Priest’s article is a helpful taxonomy of the sorts of non-epistemic interests likely to impede epistemic independence and free inquiry in the academy.
Crozat, E. 2022. Why Fallibilistic Evidence is Insufficient for Propositional Knowledge. In Logos and Episteme, Vol. 13, Issue 2, July 2022.
Crozat, E. 2022. Education and Knowledge. Forthcoming in Logos and Episteme, Vol. 13, Issue 3, October 2022.
Kant, I. 1784. What is Enlightenment? Columbia University. http://www.columbia.edu/acis/ets/CCREAD/etscc/kant.html
McBrayer, J. 2022. Diversity Statements Are the New Faith Statements. In Inside Higher Ed. May 23, 2022. https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2022/05/23/diversity-statements- are-new-faith-statements-opinion Priest, M. 2022. Professional Philosophy Has an Epistemic Autonomy Problem. In J. Matheson & K. Lougheed (Eds.), Epistemic Autonomy (pp. 71-91). Rout
 See What is Enlightenment?, available at http://www.columbia.edu/acis/ets/CCREAD/etscc/kant.html. Date of Access: September 8, 2022. Kant describes the epistemically non-autonomous (i.e., those in “self-imposed nonage”) as follows: “If I have a book that thinks for me, a pastor who acts as my conscience, a physician who prescribes my diet, and so on–then I have no need to exert myself. I have no need to think, if only I can pay; others will take care of that disagreeable business for me.”
 By extrapolation, one might be reasonably concerned that similar problems exist in other disciplines.
 Given the influence of philosophy on other disciplines, one might be concerned that this weakening of philosophy might spread through the academy.
 My use of ‘public’ corresponds roughly to Kant’s application of that term in his discussion of the public and private uses of reason in What is Enlightenment? The public use of reason ought to be free at all times, he writes, though there might be legitimate restrictions on the private use of reason.
 See Crozat, 2022 and 2022.
Some religious believers assert that if there is a conflict between a passage of the Bible (or another sacred scripture) and human reason, one should defenestrate reason. The reverential motivation of this claim is understandable. But the claim is false, and its claimant is likely naïve on this issue.
You can’t dispose of reason in this way, nor can you suspend it for the sake of accepting some scriptural proposition. For the passage of scripture must be communicated to you. In other words, you must read it, have someone read it to you, explain it to you, etc. Then you need to construe the proposition conveyed to you. What does it mean? Such interpretation is inescapably a job of reason. Hence, you can’t dismiss reason in favor of scripture. And since you can’t do so, it is false that you should do so.
In short, the passage of scripture filters through your reason, and thus, though it might sound shocking to the pious ear, reason is an indispensable judge and not a courtroom outcast.
Here is another consideration. The claim that reason should be dismissed if it conflicts with scripture comes too late. You are already engaged in the reasoning process. It looks like this:
If scripture and reason conflict and the standoff is mutually exclusive, both cannot remain. Hence, either scripture must be rejected, or reason must be rejected. But scripture should not be denied. Thus, reason must be abandoned.
Now, regardless of whether this is an acceptable piece of reasoning, the fact is that it is a case of reasoning. One cannot coherently forsake reason and yet at the same time keep the very reasoning upon which one builds one’s disowning of reason.
I was thinking today about the myth of Sisyphus, king of ancient Corinth who was punished by the Greek gods for his wily attempts to avoid death. His penalty: pushing a boulder to the summit of a hill in Hades, only to have the rock roll back to the bottom, where he was forced to repeat the task, ad infinitum. That’s some serious rock n’ roll.
The Sisyphean task has come to symbolize the existentialist theme that human life is absurd. Reflecting on this point reminded me of a novel I read about 25 years ago while in college: The Children of Sisyphus, written by sociologist and novelist Orlando Patterson. The book was required reading in a literature class at SDSU taught by Dr. JoAnne Cornwell. It was a good class, and the book influenced my thinking at the time.
The novel underscores the absurdity of human life by presenting stories about poor and uneducated characters living in a garbage dump in Jamaica. Their desperate efforts at a better life make for a starkly existentialist narrative, complete with the evils of gullibility, wishful thinking, superstition, manipulation, religious fraud, squalor, and prostitution.
If you have an existentialist bent, you might want to give the book a try. I haven’t read it since college, though I believe it’s in my library somewhere.
(My library is divided into two sections. Section One is what’s on my bookshelves. Section Two is packed away in containers in my garage, awaiting the day when I have the shelf space to accommodate them. I suspect Patterson’s book is in the garage. This is no slight against his book, but instead represents the reality that my house is moderate in size and that I’m raising two young men who need space.)
Hades condemned Sisyphus to his unattainable task; the rational isn’t sentenced to engage the irrational.