Tuesday, August 5, 2014

What Do We Know, and How Do We Know It? Part 3

In this third installment of our epistemology series, I want to discuss something that’s somewhat controversial. In observing several debates between Christians and skeptics (or adherents of other religious traditions), I have noticed something like the following exchange take place.

Skeptic: “Faith means belief without evidence! You have to have evidence for your beliefs. Therefore, your faith is irrational.”

Christian: “I agree that you have to have evidence for all of your beliefs, but my faith is not irrational because I have evidence!”

Without getting too technical, I think it’s a mistake to claim that in order to believe something, you must have evidence for your belief. Now before I even get started, let me make sure it is clear what I am not saying. I am not saying that your beliefs don’t have to be rational, or that literally any old belief is rational. Instead, I am making the claim that there are some beliefs that you have, right now (if you were to reflect on them) that you do not believe in virtue of any evidence whatsoever. And you are fully justified in taking those beliefs to be correct.

“Give me some examples!” you might demand, and I will oblige. Consider your name. If I were to ask you what your name was, while you could say, “Hold on a minute! I’m going to find the birth certificate, and cross-reference it with county records, and then I’ll have some solid evidence on which to base my conclusion, and we’ll know my name on the basis of the evidence!,” you’re more than likely just going to respond with your name. You aren’t thinking about it, you probably don’t even remember acquiring the belief of what your name is. You just find yourself believing that your name is such-and-such. But suppose you do remember it?

Well that leads to another interesting example. Memory beliefs can be boosted in credibility by evidence. Everyone knows that. But, interestingly, memory beliefs cannot be non-circularly relied upon by themselves. What? Let’s say you watched a video, and it lasted a few minutes (say ten, just for fun). As soon as it finishes, someone asks you, “What was that video about?” Literally everything you say will be from memory, and those constitute your memory beliefs. However, no one will then say “you believe that without any evidence!” Your memory beliefs, without evidence, are normally taken to be justified. But perhaps you will say that your memory beliefs just are the evidences for the claim of what happened during the film. That is all well and good, but what evidence do you have for your memory beliefs themselves? It can’t be that your memory has served you well in the past, for that is a memory belief. It can’t be anything you’ve read or reasoned about in the past, for those are delivered to you via memory beliefs as well.

What about perception? Things that you see in front of you, like trees, people, buildings, and so on, are all perceived by our physical senses. We have no way of determining that these senses are correct, for any tests we may run will rely on these senses being accurate. So what is our conclusion, then? Is it the case that memory beliefs, perceptual beliefs, beliefs about our name and our parents, and all, are all unjustified as they stand (would we really want to say, for example, that no one really knows their own name unless she examines the birth certificate?)? Surely not!

Instead, we have to look at the options. If we agree that these beliefs are or can be justified, then we really have only a couple of options. First, we can say that beliefs are justified circularly, where belief A justifies B, B justifies C, and C justifies A. I don’t particularly like that idea, and I won’t dedicate space to it here (I’ve written elsewhere on it). The other option is to say that these “epistemic chains” end in some belief that is not justified by any further belief, but is nonetheless rational to be held. This is the view I hold.

There are some beliefs out there that, if we found ourselves in the appropriate design environment, we would be warranted in believing. If God exists, it stands to reason that he would create us with a sense of his presence, or his existence. If the Christian God exists, he would want us to know him. He wouldn’t want it to be up to the accidents and contingencies of where we lived, or who we encountered, or the strength or weakness of our intellects. Instead, he would make his presence known to humanity through a sense of the divine. If that happened, then we have warrant to think God exists, independently of any evidence we might encounter.

What does this mean for apologetics conversations? That we merely presuppose God exists? What it means is that the question of whether someone is justified in taking it to be the case that God exists without evidence can only be answered in the negative if it were to be demonstrated that God does not, in fact, exist. There’s nothing irrational about belief in God independent of evidence if God exists. If he does not, then there may be. But either way, one cannot demand that I have evidence for this belief. This view is often called “reformed epistemology,” and was largely developed by Alvin Plantinga (though I don’t see too much Reformed about it!).


  1. Hi Randy (this is Jonathan btw) :). When you say that these epistemic regressions terminate in a belief that is not conferred upon by any other beliefs, is this just another way of you saying that the belief in question is self-evident? TBH, I'm inclined to agree with your view since I'm not willing to bite the bullet and say that circularity is benign here, but I'm struggling to get my head around *how* it can be the case that such a belief can be rationally held without appealing to other beliefs.

    1. I think these types of beliefs can include self-evidence, but we wouldn't want to say that these basic beliefs (that's what they're called, after all) must be self-evident. Consider Plantinga's example that you see a truck barreling down the road at high speeds straight for you, and you simply find yourself believing there is a truck coming at you. You didn't go through a process of inference, or obtain the available evidence and come to the conclusion. Instead, even though your belief that formed does depend on other beliefs, it's not self-evident (it's not true that merely understanding the concepts involved in a truck and moving down the road will allow you to immediately see that this belief is true).

      My major point is that some beliefs are accepted without any evidence, and it seems crazy to say people are irrational for holding them. First, consider the cases I presented above: knowing your own name. Suppose someone does not remember acquiring this belief, and does not investigate to see if it's the case, and does not even reflect on whether or not he has any evidence for his belief that his name is James. Is he irrational for believing that his name is James? Surely not! Suppose he acquires some evidence, or is inclined to think upon his situation and gains evidence. Was he being irrational for believing his name up until that point? He clearly believes it without any evidence whatsoever, and yet we clearly want to say he is justified in holding that belief. Then there are some beliefs that *cannot* be justified non-circularly by other beliefs, such as memory beliefs. Further, the meta-belief that "My memory beliefs are generally reliable" is itself a belief that must simply be taken for granted; there are no other beliefs that will justify it that do not rely on memory's being reliable in some way. My conclusion is neither extreme: I do not wish to chuck out memory and I do not wish to claim that just any belief is properly held. My solution is just to say that one can say his belief in God is properly basic and rational to hold just in the case that God has created us; if God has created us, then it's rational for us to hold that he exists. Of course, no unbeliever will be persuaded by this, but that's not the point: the point is that the believer who hasn't the intelligence to learn of evidences, or who is locked away in a prison somewhere and is unaware of them, is not consigned to irrationality. The rationality question for belief in God, then, will not be independent of God's existence itself. Essentially, belief in God is irrational only in the case where God does not exist!


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