Theological Experts?

We all agree that there are scientific experts. That is, there are particular individuals that, via adhering to certain rigorous epistemic standards, stand in a privileged cognitive relation to some portion of physical reality. Could a parallel claim also be true of theologiansthat is, that they too by adhering to certain rigorous epistemic standards, stand in a privileged relation to that portion of reality we refer to as God? One prominent reason for denying that this claim might be true of theologians is because the epistemic standards adhered to by theologians are inherently inferior to those adhered to by scientists. Consequently, we should reject the idea that there are theological experts. In this paper, I evaluate this reason for rejecting the idea that there are theological experts by attempting to isolate a criterion that adequately distinguishes between their respective epistemic standards. I’ll suggest that if we can’t isolate a criterion that distinguishes scientific and theological experts, we ought to allow that there are theological experts, where that term carries with it much the same epistemic authority attributed to scientific experts.

Below are six potential criteria that distinguish scientists from theologians.

1. Scientists abide by the scientific method in evaluating claims. This criterion is untenable as many in the sciences do not abide by the scientific method. Consequently, abiding by the scientific method is not necessary for qualifying as a scientific expert; hence, it cannot be a criterion for distinguishing between scientists and theological experts.

2. Scientists demand evidence for their claims. (Oreskes (2019)) Though this standard seems true enough of scientists, it does not seem as though it adequately distinguishes those working in the sciences from those working in theology. For many theologians demand what can only be understood as evidence for their claims.

3. Scientists subject their claims to the winnowing scrutiny of their academic communities. (Cartwright (2020)) While, again, this seems true enough of the vast majority of scientists, it is difficult to see how it could possibly distinguish the scientific community from the community of theologians as the latter engage in many of the same methods of critical collaboration and peerreview.

4. Science eventually arrives at a consensus in some matters. Arriving at a consensus is neither necessary nor sufficient for something to amount to science, and there have been notable examples of consensuses in the sciences that are misleading. Moreover, there seem to be significant consensuses in theology (e.g., God is omnipotent, God is omnibenevolent). Even if theological experts do not agree on enough to give a finegrained picture of the nature of God, this is not inherently problematic as the current consensus regarding climate change, similarly, does not provide a finegrained picture of the results of climate change beyond approximations of rates of warming and sealevel rise.

5. Scientists respect and incorporate powerful explanatory theories (like evolution) into their work. Many theologians similarly incorporate the best scientific theories into their understanding of God and related phenomena.

6. Scientific theories have predictive power. While many scientific theories have predictive power, many also do notespecially in the historical sciences. Consequently, predictive power is not necessary for something to count as scientific.

Mark Boespflug is a visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Fort Lewis College