Moral philosopher Immanuel Kant’s first formulation was that of normative behavior. He posited,
“Always act according to that maxim whose universality as a law you can at the same time will.”Stated otherwise, behave as though the decisions you make would be acceptable to you if made by everyone, everywhere. Hence, if buying ones wares is a behavior that you can universally will or abide, then do not exempt yourself by theft. This is sometimes called the “universalizability test.” When the “universalizability test” is applied to epistemology, we find that the only way of knowing, the only paradigm that can stand is naturalism or methodological naturalism.
Religious Fundamentalism—Local Truth Systems/Privatized Truth
How does a religious fundamentalist know—what is her epistemology? Using the example of theistic religions, the Christian or Muslim fundamentalist knows by the same means that everyone else does—by use of the senses. However, fundamentalist epistemology diverges when it comes to authority and subjectivity. The fundamentalist’s primary epistemological commitment is to remain faithful to the “faith/truth once given” generally in the form of apodictic revelation like the Bible or the Quran. Fundamentalist truth is static, and the fundamentalist is not able to abide or abet revisions to dogma (Clayton, p. 33). Hence, fundamentalism is characterized by “tenacity, authority, a closure of inquiry, and an absence of growth” (Anderson, 3030).
Fundamentalism privatizes truth. It appeals to the authority of scripture or to subjective experiences. It is closed to criticism, walling itself up into privatized, localized truth systems, and the fundamentalist exempts her dogma, her truth from criticism, sheltering her beliefs in a veil of ignorance. She maintains her local shrine and protects it from criticism.
Unlike privatized, localized truth systems, science seeks to find the realities, the truths that cut through and transcend subjective contexts. Science is a process, a way of knowing, and an epistemological commitment. By definition scientific knowledge is empirical, fluid, and continually open to revision. It does not cluster around sacrosanct ideas, it does not enshrine and wall in the sacred; rather, it exposes all ideas to criticism and to the rubric of empiricism and naturalism.
Dogmatic Epistemologies are Immoral
When we apply Kant’s first formulation, the “universalizability test,” to fundamentalist epistemology, we find it immoral. The scientist and scientific epistemology seek to “discover a single underlying framework that belongs to every possible observer” (Clayton, p 41). This single framework is naturalism—the paradigm that everyone can share in regardless of birth or life position. The fundamentalist seeks to create and defend a local truth system, a shrine, a set of impassible truth and unalterable knowledge that is exempt from the same criteria she would apply to other truth systems.
Would the fundamentalist Christian, for example, abide and abet the Muslim believer in making the same gratuitous assumptions and defenses of the Quran that she makes for her own view of the Bible? No, she exempts her local truth shrine from criticism, from the universal acid of naturalism, that she would gladly apply to her neighbor’s local truth shrine. If there ever were an idolatry, it is that of local truth systems, that of fundamentalism.
In light of Kant’s first formulation, the only responsible and ethically consistent epistemology is that of methodological naturalism and/or science. Every other epistemology is local, non-universal, and exempts itself from the stream of progress.
Anderson, Douglas. "Pierce's Common Sense Marriage of Religion and Science" in The Cambridge Companion to Pierce. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Clayton, Phillip. Adventures in the Spirit: God, World, Divine Action. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008.