Academia, it’s time for a schism

Oliver Traldi proposes that academia can solve its current polarisation by focussing on the epistemic justification of knowledge. I argue the schisms of Protestantism indicate this is likely to fail.

37 Pilate therefore said unto him, Art thou a king then? Jesus answered, Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice.

38 Pilate saith unto him, What is truth?

(John 18:37–38)

In 2016, Jonathan Haidt noted a new trend among universities. Their telos—their goal or fundamental value—had traditionally always been “truth”. According to Haidt, there had over the preceding 30 years emerged a new telos: social justice. But no man can serve two masters, and as such, Haidt argued that if universities deviated from their traditional telos, not only would truth suffer, but eventually—as academia’s knowledge of truly efficacious solutions to social-justice problems diminished—social justice would suffer too. Oliver Traldi recently published an excellent essay at Heterodox Academy buttressing Haidt: the telos of a university cannot merely be truth but rather knowledge—i.e. justified true belief. If the university is justifying its claims with reasons of social justice, then it is not justifying them with epistemically valid reasons, and as such it does not have knowledge. Vigorous and robust academic freedom is required to ensure that academia’s reasons for stating what it states are good reasons; otherwise, it merely has haphazard beliefs that will be true by coincidence at best.

Painting of Jan Hus in Council of Constance by Václav Brožík (1883). (Source: Wikimedia)

But we may wish to ask here: is it true that “social justice” is really an epistemically invalid reason to believe a claim? Indeed, how might we even reconcile differences in what we take to be epistemic authorities? If I may be permitted one snarky remark for this essay, it is that the secular, liberal ivory tower often forgets it is not the first ivory tower. There are, in fact, already parallel institutions of higher learning that starkly disagree with the secular university’s permitted sources of epistemic authority—namely, the seminaries and university of Christian churches.

It is flatly insufficient to claim these institutions do not believe they are seeking knowledge; it is flatly insufficient, too, to say that they are purely seeking especially religious knowledge. Both Catholic and Protestant universities generally have the full complement of non-religious faculties (see, for instance, the list of faculties at the Catholic University of America and at Baylor University respectively), and even seminaries often extend into usually secular disciplines (Fuller Theological Seminary, for instance, offers programs in psychology and cultural studies). These institutions believe they are seeking knowledge in the broad sense—justified, true beliefs about the world.

No, the division between these and secular institutions lies in what would justify the true beliefs for each—and therein, too, lies the crux of what would justify the limits of “academic freedom”. A brief overview, then, of the sources of epistemic authority for the major denominations of English-speaking Christianity:

  • Roman Catholicism accepts two sources of ultimate epistemic authority: the Christian Scriptures and the Tradition of the Catholic Church. This is not to say that science cannot provide epistemic justification for claims, merely that science operates at the level of “secondary causality” (i.e. causality as normally understood), and secondary causality depends on “primary causality” (i.e. God’s continually willing the universe into being) [1]. Science can therefore claim as it wishes—but only to the extent that it does not contradict the revelations of God.
  • Many Protestant denominations affirm sola scriptura, or “only scripture”—i.e. the only ultimate epistemic justification is scripture. For some Protestant denominations who read the entire Bible as entirely literal (as opposed to part-literal, part-poetic, etc.) and who believe this reading disavows the model of primary and secondary causality outlined above, sola scriptura yields doctrines like “young-Earth creationism” or the literal historicity of Adam and Eve.
  • Anglicanism, the deliberately milquetoast addition to the Christian flock, decided to “middle-road” the above two by saying that epistemic authority derives from scripture, tradition, and reason, and that all three must be present for a claim to be ultimately justified. It therefore generally affirms the findings of science and (unlike Catholicism) is generally happy to make inferences from science back to scripture and tradition, not merely the other way around.
  • Methodism, like Anglicanism, affirms scripture, tradition, and reason as sources of authority but adds the experience of the faithful (the famous “Wesleyan Quadrilateral”).

These differences in permissible ultimate epistemic authority also help us to understand how both religious and secular universities believe they are pursuing “academic freedom”, despite the insistence of the latter that the former are engaging in censorship. The telos of academic freedom in any institution, religious or otherwise, is to allow academics to pursue knowledge (see, for instance, Article 39 of the Catholic Church’s Sapienta Christiana for an affirmation thereof). But this necessarily entails that academics cannot pursue blatant falsehood—in particular, “falsehood” according to the epistemic authorities that the university has adopted.

In a secular institution, therefore, academic freedom would allow a geologist to broadly pursue their lines of research without hindrance, but it is seemingly no contravention of academic freedom if a university removed the geologist’s teaching authority for having taught flat-Earthism. Such a doctrine clearly contravenes truth and therefore cannot constitute knowledge. Accordingly, Catholic universities would not revoke an academic’s teaching authority for researching or teaching evolution (this is, after all, merely secondary causality). But, given the epistemic authorities affirmed by the Catholic church, Catholic universities would in full accordance with academic freedom revoke teaching authority for an academic who teaches that the inherent purpose of sexuality is not the creation of new life: knowledge cannot not be contrary to truth. A Biblical-literalist college would likewise in full accordance with academic freedom dismiss a professor who did not affirm the historicity of Adam and Eve: if a literal reading of Scripture is the only ultimate epistemic justification, then the professor could not have been disseminating knowledge.

The above is not intended to convince readers of the legitimacy of the epistemic authorities appealed to above (I do not imagine readers of this blog generally find revealed religion to be particularly compelling). It is merely to note that there is nothing inherent in the concept of academic freedom per se that enables one to condemn the above as violations of academic freedom, since under the epistemic authorities to which those denominations have appealed, the censorship does not inhibit the pursuit of knowledge. And if Traldi’s telos­-as-knowledge model cannot show that dismissing a professor for failing to affirm the historicity of Adam and Eve is a violation of academic freedom, it is unclear how he thinks it will resolve the debate between traditionalist and social-justice directions on secular-university campuses, since the steel-man of the social-justice side is that they wish to affirm social-justice considerations as a valid epistemic justification.

To this, I therefore say: academia, it is a contradiction in terms to have a rational debate about the legitimate sources of epistemic authority. You’ve had a good run, but the cleft is now too deep. Follow your predecessors in the Christian academy. It is time for a schism. Time and again, when Christianity has found itself with incommensurate sources of epistemic authority, we have threatened and executed schisms. Against the authority of Tradition, Lutheranism executed a schism. Against the treatment of Scripture as non-literal, Christian fundamentalism executed a schism. Against the increasingly liberal exegetical strategies of the Episcopal Church, dioceses and congregations continue to execute schisms. And now, 500 years after the Reformation, there are at least as many sources of epistemic authority as there are denominations, each with their own seminaries, each with their journals, each with their own unique truth that it’s their telos to pursue. In Christian academia, there is no real need for debates over telos—if the teloi differ, at worst one can always schism again.

This is, of course, a joke. The fragmentation of Christianity is lamentable. It is hard to think of a period in its history where Christianity is less unified than it is now; it is unclear what unites a liberal Methodist, a conservative Catholic, and a prosperity-gospel Pentecostal today other than paraphernalia, and perhaps some creeds on whose interpretation all three differ. The three could certainly have a conversation about the teloi of their movements, and about what would justify justified true belief, but they would find simply that they flatly disagree. The difference between Christianity and academia is not that it is actually more unified in its telos, but rather that it has not yet fully realised that it is splintered.

So, to Traldi, I propose an alternative solution: there should be no discussions of the university’s telos, and certainly not of the sources of epistemic authority. Learn from Christianity’s mistakes. Everyone should just shut up. If there is no actual common foundation of epistemic authority, then the most likely possible result of investigating the foundation of epistemic authority is schism. If the belief in the literal defeat of sin and death and the literal incarnation of God as man was not enough to bind Christianity fast through its investigations of epistemic foundation, it is not clear to me why the complete absence of any unifying characteristic would bind secular academia through its.

To return briefly to Haidt, his book The Righteous Mind ends with a curious remedy to political polarisation: more bipartisan BBQs [2]. If Congressmen’s spouses are friends, and their children play on the same basketball teams, and they joke about the horrible weather in DC together in their carpools, then perhaps the debates on the floor of Congress would not be so acrimonious. It is likely not possible for Congressmen to build bipartisan friendships on the basis of a genuine shared moral foundation. There is none. But that is no problem: humans are naturally sociable creatures, and friendships can be built on gossamer threads. Academia, traditionally understood, should be irrelevant, dusty, and full of cobwebs. In such an academy—shared telos or no—there should be plenty of gossamer.


[1] A very brief more lucid explanation by actual Catholics can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WNZGxWctjzk

[2] Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind, (New York: Penguin Books, 2012), p.363.

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