Zagzebski, Authority, and Faith

Trent Dougherty


Epistemic Authority is a mature work of a leading epistemologist and philosopher of religion (and metaphysician, too, but that character doesn’t feature in this story). It is a work primarily in epistemology with applications to religious epistemology. There are obvious applications of the notion of epistemic authority to philosophy of religion. For, on the face of it, the notion of some kind of ‘epistemic authority’ may serve as a conceptual anchor for our understanding of faith. Indeed, there is ample historical precedent for this. Faith, says Locke, is ‘the assent to any proposition ... upon the credit of the proposer, as coming from God, in some extraordinary way of communication’. 1 In later Lockeans, ‘credit’ is often rendered ‘authority’, and the terms were used synonymously at the time of his writing. 2 One of the beauties of Locke’s view is its reductionism, that is, it’s parsimony, which is a species of elegance and therefore beauty. Zagzebski’s notion is more high-octane than Locke’s. In this essay I will do four things. In Section 1 I will describe two kinds or notions of authority or at least two usages of the word ‘authority’. In Section 2 I will describe Zagzebski’s use of one of these notions, the non-Lockean one, to ground the reasonableness of religious belief. In Section 3 I will give four arguments against her view. In section 4 I will reply to her critique of Locke. The upshot, in my view, is that though we learn much (very much indeed) from Epistemic Authority (about both testimony in general and religious testimony in particular among many other things), a more Lockean approach to the nature of faith is still preferable.

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