Archive for the ‘epistemology’ Tag

How is Religious Belief Justified?

In an earlier post I claimed that one can, in principle, have good reasons to trust (and thus to believe) in God. This is to say that theistic belief can be justified. What would be required in order for someone to be justified in believing that “God exists”? What I’m going to do here is give a brief overview of the various ways philosophers try to answer this question.

There are at least three main views on how belief in God is (or should be) justified: [A] by argument, [B] by experience, and [C] by proper basicality.

To say that the rationality of theism is dependent upon argument means that, in order for me to be justified in believing in God, I must have some argument (or set of arguments) which shows that God exists (or at least probably exists). An argument involves an inference from premises to conclusion.

The Cosmological Argument, for example, aims to show that the existence of the universe as a whole requires a creator. Another is the Teleological Argument, which aims to show that the order of the universe requires a designer. From the fact of the universe, or of the universe’s orderliness, one infers the existence of a creator or designer. On this view, religious beliefs are to be held on the basis of such inferences.

One prominent philosopher who argues along these lines is Richard Swinburne. On Swinburne’s view, theism is taken as a hypothesis to explain various natural phenomena – e.g. the universe, physical laws, consciousness – just as scientific hypotheses are postulated to account for empirical data (see The Existence of God, 2nd edition). So according to this position, I could only be justified if I come to believe in the existence of God as a inference from other things I know to be true, as a conclusion of an argument or as an explanation of data available to me.

To say that the rationality of theism is dependent upon experience means that, in order for me to be justified in believing in God, I must have some experience (or set of experiences) which shows (or indicates) that God exists (or at least probably exists). The difference between experience and argument is that when we know something by experience, it is through direct acquaintance rather than inference.

For example, suppose I learn about my new neighbor by his knocking on my door one day and introducing himself “Hello, I’m John” – in that case, my knowledge of John is via direct experience. On the other hand, suppose I learn about the new neighbor when I receive misdelivered mail intended for the house next door, addressed to someone named “John” – in that case, my knowledge of John is inferential – I infer that there is some person named John who lives in the house next door. This view holds that we would know God by acquaintance, through our own direct experience, rather than as an inferred conclusion of an argument.

One prominent philosopher who argues along these lines is Paul Moser. On Moser’s view, God, being perfectly loving, would want what is best for us, and thus would provide evidence of his existence in a way that would be morally beneficial to those who receive it.

A direct authoritative call from God to humans would seek to find acknowledgement and agreeable reception in human conscience, where people can experience deep conviction and move toward cooperation with God’s will and conformation to God’s moral character. Human yielding to such a call would enable God’s presence to emerge non-coercively with increasing salience in a human life, and it would advance human transformation away from selfishness and toward God’s perfectly unselfish will (Moser, The Evidence for God, 149).

Lastly, to say that theism is rational in virtue of proper basicality means that belief in God does not depend upon anything else for its justification. A basic belief is one which is not accepted on the evidential basis of other propositions. A belief is properly basic if one is justified in holding the belief in that basic way (i.e., not on the basis of other beliefs).

To illustrate this, consider Alvin Plantinga’s view. According to Plantinga, belief in God forms naturally by the sensus divinitatis, a faculty which in various certain circumstances triggers theistic belief in the person.

It isn’t that one beholds the night sky, notes that it is grand, and concludes that there must be such a person as God: an argument like that would be ridiculously weak…Is it rather than, upon the perception of the night sky or the mountain vista or the tiny flower, these beliefs just arise within us. They are occassioned by the circumstances; they are not conclusions from them (Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief, 175).

The difference between proper basicality (Plantinga’s view) and experience/direct-acquaintance (Moser’s view) is that for Plantinga, the experiences which occasion theistic belief to be formed by the sensus divinitatis do not actually show that the belief is true. They naturally give rise to the belief, but they don’t evidentially ground it or indicate its truth. Whereas for Moser, though the belief (that “God exists”) does not result from the experience as an inference, the experienced reception of God’s volitionally-engaging call does ground the belief which results from it.

These three positions each provide an answer to the question–what is required for religious belief to be justified?–and as such, they are not compatible. This is because the positions disagree on what’s necessary for justification.

However, if taken as answers to the question–what can justify religious belief?–then they are compatible, because [A] argument, [B] experience, and [C] proper basicality can be taken as three sufficient means for justification. That is, perhaps some people believe because of arguments, some because of experiential evidence, and others because of their sensus divinitatis.


Justification and Belief in General

As I said before, we should aim to have as many true beliefs and as few false beliefs as we can (that is, if we want to be rational). But this raises the question, how do we know whether a belief is true or false? In most cases, we don’t (not with complete certainty). So, we have to evaluate beliefs in terms of whether or not they are justified. A belief is justified for me only if I’ve got some good reason to think it’s true. If I don’t, I’m not justified in believing it.

For example, I’m justified in believing that “my cup is empty” because I can see there’s no water in the cup. Hence I have a good reason to believe my cup is empty. But I’m not justified in believing that “there are an odd number of leaves on the tree outside” because I haven’t counted them all, and I can’t tell just by looking at the tree whether there are an odd or even number of leaves. So, I don’t have a good reason for that.

Not all beliefs are justified by my senses (what I can see, hear, touch, etc). My belief that my senses are reliable, for instance, is not held on the basis of any data I receive from those faculties (that would be circular). And moreover, I know that “all bachelors are unmarried” and that “all triangles have three sides” by reason alone, simply because those propositions are true by their terms’ definitions.

Beliefs can also be justified on the basis of others’ testimony. Suppose my friend tells me over the telephone that he watched the game on his TV the other night. Then, I would have a good reason to believe that he watched the game (and hence, I would be justified in so believing). Much (if not most) of what we believe about the world is based on what other people tell us, what we read, what we hear.

So clearly, there are many ways that beliefs are justified, and different beliefs are justified in different ways.

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