Friday, December 8, 2017
A Defense of Reformed Epistemology
There is no doubt that one of the most significant matters of human concern is the existence of God. If an omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good being created the world and everything in it, that is a fact of enormous importance for how we understand ourselves and how we live our lives. It is not surprising then that in many ways God has been at the center of Western philosophical inquiry from the beginning.
Two questions that have been central to this inquiry have to do with whether God exists and whether it is rational to believe that God exists. Many people have assumed that these questions are intimately related. After all, their reasoning goes, it is only rational to believe that God exists if one can satisfactorily establish that God exists. And to establish that God exists one needs evidence—by which I mean propositional evidence, evidence that takes the form of arguments and proofs that any person of adequate intelligence should find persuasive. Hence, in order for one’s belief in God to be rational, one must have good arguments that God in fact exists.
This is the line of reasoning about belief in God that is recommended by a view often called Evidentialism. According to Evidentialism, it is irrational, improper, to believe in God without sufficient evidence. So, from an Evidentialist perspective, the project of attempting to prove that God exists is an essential one for theists. The rationality of theistic belief generally, and Christian belief more specifically, depends on it.
Now Evidentialism is certainly the dominant view in some circles, and one hears frequently among objectors to belief in God that there is not enough evidence that God exists. Still, Evidentialism is not the only way for theists to think about their beliefs. One popular position opposed to it is known as Reformed Epistemology (henceforth RE), which claims that it is in fact perfectly acceptable to believe in God without evidence. A person can be completely justified in starting from belief in God, without arguing to it. To put it another way, belief in God is innocent until proven guilty rather than, as Evidentialists seem to suggest, guilty until proven innocent.
As a matter of fact, I’m inclined to think that Reformed Epistemology is correct: we need not have evidence in order to be rational in believing in God. So, in this essay I’m going to defend briefly RE’s take on the rationality of theistic belief. I’ll first point out a couple of problems with Evidentialism and then argue that it is perfectly sensible to think that belief in God is, like many of our other beliefs, innocent until proven guilty.
Let’s turn then to Evidentialism. When one thinks of the forebears of Evidentialism, two names may leap immediately to mind. Both thinkers made strong statements about the way that all our beliefs must be based on evidence. Nineteenth century philosopher W.K. Clifford famous intoned that “It is always wrong, everywhere and for anyone, to believe anything on insufficient evidence.” And David Hume, an eighteen century skeptic, said in his famous attack on the rationality of belief in miracles that “A wise man proportions his beliefs to the evidence.” Evidentialists apply both of these statements more narrowly to belief in God. Thus, according to Evidentialism, belief in God must be based on sufficient evidence, and the strength of that belief must match the strength of the evidence. Here I want to raise objections first to the Evidentialist claim that belief in God requires (proportional) evidence and then to these more general claims about beliefs and evidence that serve as the Evidentialist’s inspiration.
It’s worth stopping a moment to think about the implications of the Evidentialist demand. And it is striking that many people past and present in fact believe in God and many of them believe so very firmly. So, by the Evidentialist’s lights, for their belief to be rational it must be based on the arguments for God’s existence; and if they believe firmly, those arguments must be (and they must find them to be) extremely compelling.
The problem with this is that we have good reason to doubt that the arguments for God’s existence can play this sort of role and bear this kind of weight for believers. It is doubtful that most theists do or even could base their belief in God on those arguments. Many never hear of the arguments; those who do often learn only easy—and dubious—versions of them; and many don’t have the time or philosophical acumen required to decipher and evaluate the more complex arguments found in philosophical journals and books. Besides, the believer who hopes to base her belief on the arguments will be discouraged to learn that even those who do grasp them disagree on their soundness, so that every argument has its defenders and detractors. And many of the detractors include theists! (Examples abound, but consider in this regard the Kalam Cosmological Argument, an ingenious argument endorsed by Islamic philosophers in medieval times and important Christian philosophers in our own, but emphatically rejected by none other than St. Thomas Aquinas, himself a proponent of other well-known versions of the cosmological argument.)
These features of arguments for God’s existence raise questions about whether the Evidentialist demand can be met by most believers. Many believers past and present have lacked the time and resources to ponder arguments for God’s existence, and of the fortunate ones who have studied them, not all have found the arguments convincing to the degree required to justify firm belief in God. And all this raises the following question. If God does in fact exist and has the attributes that the Christian church have historically attributed to him, would God make rational, proper belief in him depend on comprehension and acceptance of these arguments? Presumably God wants people to know about him; but if so, it would hardly be surprising if God should give us some other way to do so, rather than limiting rational and justified belief in him to those relatively few people who both understand the arguments and find them convincing.
Now, I’ve presented all this as an objection to Evidentialism, but one might of course construe it instead as an objection to belief in God. After all, if there is a general rule requiring that all beliefs be based upon evidence, then that rule also applies to belief in God; and if most believers don’t (and haven’t) followed that rule, then their belief in God is unjustified. And then we theists will just have to learn to live with our epistemic failings or, better, fall into line by ceasing to believe God until we have sufficient evidence. We can’t go crying out for exceptions to the rules of rationality just because it is inconvenient for us to follow them.
So, the second point we must consider in our case against Evidentialism is this more general demand that our beliefs be based on evidence. I’m going to suggest that the demand is untenable as it’s usually understood. For what does this demand really look like? It can’t mean that we must hold all our beliefs on the basis of arguments. After all, with our beliefs we have to start somewhere. Some beliefs have to be basic—we must be rationally permitted to reason from them without having to reason to them. If you think of a belief system as a building, we must have a foundation (the basic beliefs) on which to build the rest of our beliefs. (The bricks can’t all rest on other bricks.) Practically everyone will admit that. But the question is, what beliefs can we properly start with, and which do we need to reason to (that is, for which beliefs do we need evidence) if we are to be justified in believing them?
It seems that a satisfactory answer to this question must meet two conditions. First, it must be such that, given the answer, it turns out that a reasonable number of our beliefs actually are justified. If an answer implies that only very few of our beliefs are properly basic, and that most of our other beliefs can’t be inferred from that small set of properly basic ones, then the answer should probably be rejected (or else we should conclude that most of our beliefs aren’t justified, a conclusion that we should only be forced to in the face of extremely compelling arguments). Second, it must be such that the answer itself turns out to be justified by its own criteria. If it should turn out that we have insufficient evidence for the belief that we need sufficient evidence, then that belief is unjustified and presumably shouldn’t be accepted. In other words, the evidential demand must meet its own standards for rational belief.
Different philosophers have given different answers to our question of what beliefs we can properly start with and which we must reason to, but one common answer, inspired by such great modern philosophers as Rene Descartes and John Locke, is known as Classical Foundationalism (CF). Briefly, CF claims that only beliefs that incorrigible (such that the believer can’t possibly me mistaken about them, such as my belief that I exist), self-evident (so that anyone who understand it can see that it’s true, such as the belief that bachelors are unmarried), or evident to the senses (that is, sensory beliefs about one’s immediate environment) can be basic beliefs. We may properly start only with those. All our other beliefs, if they are to be justified, must be inferred from those basic beliefs. Unfortunately, CF fails to meet both of the conditions mentioned above. First of all, it seems that memory beliefs, for example, turn out to be unjustified based on CF. After all, my belief that I had oatmeal for breakfast is neither incorrigible, self-evident, nor evident to the senses; and it is very difficult to see how I could reason to it from such a small class of basic beliefs. So if CF is true, it follows that memory beliefs are unjustified, and that is an unacceptable result. Second, consider the belief in CF itself, according to which all beliefs, if they are to be justified, must be incorrigible, self-evident, or evident to the senses, or inferred from those basic beliefs. CF itself is surely not incorrigible, self-evident, or evident to the senses, and it is very difficult to see how it could be inferred from such beliefs. But then by its own standards we shouldn’t believe it. So it appears that on two grounds CF should be rejected.
Let’s take a breath for a moment and recap. Evidentialism is the view that one must have evidence (propositional evidence) for God’s existence in order to be rational in believing that God exists. Evidentialism is inspired by the demand posited by thinkers like W.K. Clifford and David Hume, who claim that all beliefs must be based on evidence and that strength of belief must match strength of evidence. As we have seen, there is good reason to doubt that most theists do or could meet this demand, and good reason to think that if God exists, God would not make justified belief in him dependent on the arguments of philosophers. Further, the demand for evidence is problematic insofar as Classical Foundationalism, an influential position about which beliefs one can justifiably start with and which require arguments, is unacceptable. It is the position of Reformed Epistemologists that that we can properly start with belief in God, and in what follows I want to show briefly why they think so.
To see that belief in God might be properly basic, it’s worth thinking for a moment about the way that many theists come to beliefs about God. In some ways, beliefs about God are like lots of our other beliefs. Consider, for instance, perceptual beliefs about our immediate environment. I walk into a classroom, look around, and immediately find myself with the belief that there are people in front of me. I don’t reason or argue to that belief; instead, my visual experience simply triggers my cognitive faculties to produce that belief in me. Consider also beliefs about other people. I don’t come to believe that the person I’m talking with has a mind or a mental life and feelings like mine on the basis of an argument. Much work in philosophy has shown that arguments for those conclusions are much too flimsy to justify beliefs of that sort, beliefs we hold extremely firmly. But it seems that arguments aren’t needed for them anyway: those beliefs, like perceptual beliefs, are simply triggered by experience, and we are justified in holding them without argument. Those beliefs, as we might put it, are innocent until proven guilty. We are justified in believing them and reasoning from them until we have good reason for thinking that they’re false.
It seems that beliefs about God are a lot like perceptual beliefs and beliefs about other people. As Alvin Plantinga, a prominent Reformed Epistemologist, has pointed out, certain kinds of experiences can simply produce in us beliefs about God. Doing something wrong can trigger the belief that God is unhappy with us; seeing something gloriously beautiful can produce in us the belief that God is to be praised; enduring certain kinds of trials can result in our having the belief that we need God to help us (and pleading with God to do so). Again, these beliefs are triggered by experiences in the same way that beliefs about our physical environment or beliefs about other people’s mental states are. And it seems that if those beliefs can rationally be held without arguments—those beliefs are innocent until proven guilty—the same should be true of beliefs about God. It would seem arbitrary and unfair to demand otherwise.
I said before, when offering a critique of Evidentialism, that if it would be surprising if God would make rational belief in him depend on a person’s grasp of the complex and controversial arguments for God’s existence. One might expect God to make knowledge of him available through some other means. Plantinga, following John Calvin, suggests that God has done just that by creating us with a sensus divinitatus, a “sense of the divine” that produces in us beliefs about God and grants us a natural awareness of God’s activity in the world. So just as we have been created with cognitive faculties like vision, memory, a moral sense, and some sort of person-detecting device, all of which produce in us beliefs about the world (and do so immediately and without depending on inferences from other beliefs), we also have a faculty that produces in us beliefs about God. Of course, this sensus divinitatus, like our other faculties, can malfunction; there are all sorts of things that can cause it not to work well. And it appears that for many people it does not work as it should. Perhaps they need the work of the Holy Spirit, the testimony of the church, or some kind of personal crisis to help their sensus divinitatus to work better or to allow them to pay more attention to what it tells them. Still, the idea that God has equipped us with a natural, way of knowing about him seems to fit well with the religious leanings that people in fact generally exhibit, even if the knowledge of God that it produces is limited and needs to be augmented by special revelation.
It seems entirely plausible, then, to think that one does not need evidence in order to be rational and justified in believing in God. Belief in God can quite properly be taken as basic—we can start from it rather than having to argue to it. And that is precisely the viewpoint of Reformed Epistemology. But I must conclude with an important qualification. RE does not imply that evidence of the sort that the classical arguments for God’s existence present is worthless or unhelpful. Far from it. These arguments can remove barriers to belief by showing the skeptic that theism is at the very least intellectually respectable; they can allow the sensus divinitatus to work more freely; they can make a person more open to the work of the Holy Spirit and the transformation through Christ that God desires to enact in her. There are many reasons to study and learn from these arguments—even if the person who lacks the opportunity to explore them or does not find them especially compelling can still be entirely rational in believing in God and keeping God at the center of her life.