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Phil has emailed me to let me know he doesn’t have time to continue in this discussion. He expects to post a final wrap-up of his views on his blog.
Phil informs me that he is still in this debate but lacks time right now to write his next post.
I’ve been trying to answer Phil’s points here, and apparently one or the other of us is missing something. In his August 24 post, he contrasts my statement, “faith is often based on objective evidence,” with “the sort of belief one finds in science.” He says,
I have absolutely no prior prejudices in favor of science (over religion), but I have become a huge fan of science precisely because of it’s extremely robust epistemological foundation in checkable evidence – evidence that one can always in principle see for oneself….
If other individuals witnessed this event too, there would be even more reason for believing. And if this event could – ideally, as scientists do all the time in the laboratory – be repeated multiple times, then we could be even surer that the evidence is solid (i.e., that it’s not the result of delusion, deception or trickery) and thus that the theistic beliefs based upon this evidence are reasonable to accept….
Now, however, he tells us that repeatability is not the issue. It’s desirable, but the “soft sciences” can proceed without them. That’s good for him to acknowledge and to articulate. It helps with his penultimate paragraphs, where he tells us,
Tom writes: “If theism is true, then your standard of knowledge is inappropriate to the question of whether theism is true. Thus to insist on your standard of knowledge as the only appropriate one is to insist that theism is false. But insisting is not arguing or demonstrating.*”
I think Tom is confusing “inappropriate” here with “doesn’t give the answer that I want.”
I would find that quite demeaning if I weren’t so busy finding it wrong on other levels. When I said that to require repeatable evidence to support theism was to define theism out of existence, that was quite true. Phil can bluster on about “what it means to be an epistemologically reasonable person,” but if one’s rules of epistemology have the effect, if there exists a personal creator God, he cannot reveal himself to the humans he created, then one’s epistemological reasonability flies out the proverbial window. That standard of knowledge is quite inappropriate to the question of whether there is a God who can be known to exist. All Phil’s protestations aside, that requirement, which I took to be one he was maintaining, most assuredly defines theism out of existence.
The repeatability requirement would guarantee that Phil got the answer he wanted, even if it were the wrong answer.
But now Phil assures us that repeatability is optional, in spite of what he said about checkability and “repeated multiple times.” That’s good. In that case then what I said about his defining theism out of existence doesn’t apply, because I spoke it specifically with respect to the requirement for repeatability. Either I misread him on that, and he has corrected me concerning what his opinion really is, or else he has corrected himself. One way or the other, we can set that objection of mine aside. (I’ll ask him at the same time to set aside his prejudicial error concerning whether “inappropriate” means “doesn’t give the answer I want.”)
Of course we still run up against difficulties of error correction, as Phil has aptly termed it. It’s a valid issue. How do we know we’re not being fooled, as Joseph Smith was, assuming Joseph Smith wasn’t simply lying through his teeth? How do we know we’re not being fooled as Joseph Smith’s followers have been?
Intersubjective error-checking is Phil’s answer. Note that he says the “soft sciences” do not always require repeatability. (There are some ironies associated with that. And more besides, for the statistically savvy.) I trust he accepts that the soft sciences are not the only class of epistemic methods for which repeatability is not required. He has stated it himself with respect to Franz Ferdinand’s assassination: “We have copious amounts of evidence, confirmed by multiple sources.” These are not scientific sources, not even “soft” scientific ones (though they may draw on science for support in various ways).
In contrast with that matter of historical certainty, Phil has brought up other religions’ assertions of angelic revelation or enlightenment, the raising of Lazarus, a rod turning into a snake, the crossing of the Red Sea, the burning bush, manna falling from the sky, water turning into wine, people walking on water, and a man ascending into heaven. These events cannot be known to be true, he says, because they don’t happen today.
At the risk of being overly blunt (not that he wasn’t asking for it), his examples are silly. Phil almost seems to think that belief in God rests on these things. Either that or else he thinks that theism taken generally, or perhaps Christian theism specifically, has exactly the same kind of evidential support as belief that God spoke to Moses in a burning bush. That’s absurd.
So I’m going to ask Phil to be more rational about theism. I’ll try to make it easy for him, in fact. I’m going to make my position on those events as vulnerable as it can be, and then I’m going to show why that’s okay. Here’s why I believe those particular stories: it’s based on authority, pure and simple.
As we all know, the argument from authority is often a fallacy, but not necessarily. I’m quite sure that Phil’s belief in the assassination of Ferdinand is authority-based, and appropriately so. The argument from authority is fallacious to the extent there is reason to doubt the claimed authority holds relevant knowledge and can be trusted to tell the truth. If the authority is known to be fully knowledgeable and fully honest, then we are fully justified to believe what that authority tells us.
Now, you might think that leads inevitably to the question of whether Christians’ source of authority, the Bible, is sufficiently well informed and trustworthy on these matters. It doesn’t. The reason is because the events Phil has been focusing on are quite peripheral. Suppose there was never any independent reason to believe in the burning bush, the manna from heaven, the walk on the water. Better yet, suppose no one ever wrote down any account of them happening, so that no one has any idea that they did. Would theism fail on that account? No. If theism—specifically Christian theism—failed, then those stories and several others in the biblical record (not all, but many) would fall with it; but it has to be in that order. Christian theism (taken broadly) is the reason we believe those things happened, not vice-versa.
In view of that, I hope Phil will find it in him to stop laughing at these stories. It’s unbecoming, on the one hand. On the other hand, it’s question-begging–even in the extreme case of the herd of swine. Phil says we know enough about psychology, neurology, etc. that “this story isn’t believable for a moment.” Really? I’ve never seen science qua science conclude anything of the sort. I’ve only seen science-plus-materialistic-assumptions reach that conclusion. (There’s a long explanation for that, and I won’t take time to go into it fully here.) Or in other words, the reason Phil “knows” the swine story is silly is because he “knows” Christianity is false; but he keeps bringing up things like the swine story in the course of trying to make his case that Christianity is false. That’s approaching things in the wrong order. It’s circular.
The sciences of neurology and psychology are incapable of proving that a man by the Sea of Galilee wasn’t afflicted by demons, or that demons could not send pigs running down a hill. It’s not in their scope or competence to do that. Science qua science speaks to the regular and repeatable, or more technically, to the abstract-able: that which can be abstracted from, or in a sense pulled out of, large numbers of observations. Science is very bad at the one-off event. We have other ways of studying such things. Historical and forensic methods such as examination of testimony, analysis of effects, observation of artifacts, and so on, are far more appropriate to unique events.
What I’m discovering as we continue in this debate is that Phil’s question about the truth of theism is not as clear as he seems to think it is. He has brought up repeatability and then backed down from it. He has told us that science has disproved certain events in the Bible, but clearly that’s not something science could do in the cases he has cited. So what is he asking?
I note by the way that Phil has offered to answer every one of my questions about science’s explanatory adequacy, and to do it in one article. I’m going to say “no, thanks” to that. I’m surprised he would think he could do that; each of those topics has filled multiple books. I’m surprised he would think that the attempt to do it could possibly move this discussion forward. And I’m surprised he’s forgotten what he agreed to in taking up this debate (point 2 here).
I intend to stick with a focused debate. The one real question at hand is epistemology, and how Christians can claim there is reliable, sufficiently error-corrected knowledge that God exists and has revealed himself in Jesus Christ. At least that’s the question as I understand it. But as I have already said, Phil has phrased the question multiple ways: How can we be sure a herd of swine ran down a hill into the sea? How can we be confident Lazarus was raised from the dead? How do we trust the Bible’s stories of demon possession now that science knows that kind of thing can’t happen (begging the question there, I remind you)?
I could ask Phil to ask his question in a more focused, non-question-begging, non-peripheral way, since he’s the one who’s asking. What I’ll do instead is outline the kinds of theistic answers that might guide his question in a more easily discussable direction. We know Christianity is true, and we know it with “error correction,” because:
- There is sound historical evidence supporting the most crucial claims of Christianity, having to do with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
- There are sound philosophical reasons to believe in the necessary existence of the God of theism
- Theism proposes a God who can communicate successfully with humans on his own terms (he is not incapable of correcting errors!)
- Miracles happen in answer to prayer, frequently, still in the 21st century
- Non-theistic (especially materialistic) explanations for human experience are completely inadequate
- Materialistic protestations that science has disproved theism are entirely question-begging
- Other major rebuttals offered to Christian theism, including for example the problem of evil, are weakly supported and/or fail to overwhelm the positive evidence for Christianity
- Although not fully packaged with a bow around it, the Christian explanation for all of human experience is existentially and intellectually satisfying
There, now I’ve gone and raised multiple topics. Let me simplify it down to two: there exist intersubjectively checkable evidences for Christianity, both of a historical and philosophical nature; and objections raised against Christianity do not stand.
If I am right about these things, then Phil is wrong to suppose that Christianity is nothing better than looking for “the answer we want” (hoping he’ll forgive me for bending that slightly out of context), or of evidence-free subjectivity.
And let me add this, without any “if I am right about these things” conditional. Phil has strongly implied, even if he has not explicitly stated it, that Christianity has little intersubjective evidence to support it. That’s utterly false. There are libraries and museums full of intersubjective evidence for Christianity. There is the entire history of the effect of Christianity on the world. I’ve outlined several categories of evidence. Phil knows enough to know roughly what they have to offer.
So I say to you, Phil, it’s time to give up on this theme of yours that theism lacks intersubjective evidence. If you have a question about that evidence—one or two questions, not 20, and on central matters, not peripheral—I invite you now to ask it.
To make my position here as clear as possible, I will again quote some of Tom’s last post and then comment below. I hope readers don’t mind this approach.
Tom writes: “If our topic were science’s position as the one trustworthy method to know all that could possibly be known about reality, it would be easy for me to challenge you multiple ways in just a very few words: What does science understand about free will? What about enduring human identity? what about rationality? What about consciousness? What about meaning? What about purpose? What about ethics? What about the origin and fine tuning of the universe? What about the origin of the first life?”
First of all, Tom’s point here makes no sense: it doesn’t count against a method of knowing – whatever it might be – that it can’t answer every question that one could pose. By analogy, the very best strategy to win a given election might be to run a bunch of negative ads on TV. And yet that election might still be lost. If so, this doesn’t for a moment mean that running a bunch of negative ads wasn’t the best strategy available. The modern world attests – loud and clear – that science is by far a more successful, robust and reliable way of acquiring the deepest knowledge about our universe than, for example, revelation and religious authority. As philosophers of religion often point out, there is extraordinary agreement among scientists all around the world about the most fundamental issues, and this agreement contrasts strongly with the profound disagreement among sincere, passionate religious individuals coming from different faith traditions. Science does not have a lot to say about some of the questions that Tom mentions. But this doesn’t in any way suggest that the Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Mormon, Buddhist, Scientologist, and so on, and so on, has a better method of knowing.
And yes, I would be willing to talk about all the questions mentioned above in one blog post. Although my expertise is limited, I think I could give a pretty compelling summary of what science has to say about the relevant issues. Many of the answers are incomplete for sure. But the historical trend is absolutely unequivocal: the gaps available for supernatural deities like the God of Christianity to occupy are shrinking at an exponential rate.
Tom writes: “You find theism’s claims untrustworthy because we cannot test them in repeatable, laboratory-like manner. I’d like to see you phrase that request in a meaningful manner, answering, Just what is it in theism that ought to be repeatable that way? The life, death, and resurrection of Christ? Hardly. Then what? The burning bush? The raising of Lazarus? Walking on water? Prayer answers? I’m not sure what it is you are calling for.”
First of all, I didn’t say that theism’s claims are untrustworthy because they can’t be replicated (like the claims made by chemists, which can generally be replicated in a laboratory setting). All I said was that repeatability is a desideratum – it’s something desired – because it helps to protect against someone making an assertion – e.g., “the angel Moroni visited me last night,” “I became enlightened under the Bodhi tree,” and “I had a revelation from Jesus Christ” – out of delusion, self-deception or trickery. There are plenty of sciences (for instance, the so-called “soft sciences”) that typically do not involve controlled experiments. In these fields of investigation, though, one typically deals with bits of evidence that can be intersubjectively checked, and this is what helps to guard against the three problems mentioned just above. A Homo erectus femur is good evidence because you don’t merely have to take someone else’s word for it: you can always go check for yourself if you’ve got doubts.
When someone makes a extraordinary conjecture – e.g., that species are not fixed by change over time, or space and time actually form a continuum rather than being distinct entities – there must be extraordinary reasons for thoughtful people to accept it as true. A claim like “Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead” is pretty extraordinary by any measure! What would it take for me to believe it? The same thing it would take for me to believe any of the other many, many ancient stories of strange, supernatural happenings: I would need some really convincing evidence. An event like being raised from the dead is not repeatable the way relating the pressure and heat of a gas is repeatable. Thus , one must look for considerable intersubjective agreement about exactly what happened. But this is not what we get in the Bible – a document written thousands of years ago, back when people commonly mistook neurological disease and mental illness for demon possession. (The Bible even mentions the wonderfully silly story of Jesus driving a couple demons into a herd of pigs, who then drown themselves, if I remember correctly. In the twenty-first century, given all we know about psychology, neurology, biology and physics, this story isn’t believable for a moment. At some point in the distant past it might have been – and one might have even been rational to accept it, given the evidence available then – but not today.)
“I know that you have a reason for asking for repeatability: epistemological error-correction. It’s a way of preventing error and delusion, and in fields of knowledge where repeatability is an available option, it is a very useful option. To make it the standard for knowledge, however, makes it impossible in principle to know anything about a personal God even if he exists.”
Notice that this has absolutely nothing to do with definition. This isn’t defining God out of existence. Here’s my approach (I could use variables here if that would impress people): first, think hard about what it means to be an epistemologically reasonable person. Most people who spend their lives thinking about such things concur that evidence is what makes beliefs reasonable to accept. Furthermore, it seems like this evidence should be checkable, either through intersubjective observability of specific events or through the repeatability of event-types that can be instantiated at different times. We can’t repeat the singular event of Franz Ferdinand’s assassination, but we have copious amounts of evidence, confirmed by multiple sources. And there is a limited number of scientists looking at images of the Higgs boson at the Large Hadron Collider, but the experiments being conducted will be run again and again so that those experts can be confident in the results.
The point being: all of our hard intellectual work has led to the (tentative but robust) view that beliefs are (more or less) justified in proportion to the evidence that supports them. Now let’s ask the existential question: Is Allah real? What does Tom think? What about the reader? For me, the answer is negative because I just can’t find enough evidence – and I’ve looked! – to convince me that belief in Allah is reasonable. I’m not at all defining Allah out of existence here. I’m just putting forward a basic standard of epistemological reasonableness – one that propositions from “the earth revolves around the sun” to “I had cereal with walnuts for breakfast” to “smoking causes cancer” all satisfy perfectly well – and then applying this standard to the possibility of Allah’s existence. The exact same thing can be said the Christian God, then – a God who’s three completely distinct persons who are also completely identical in substance, a God who many people today still believe created species as immutable types, and so on.
Tom writes: “If theism is true, then your standard of knowledge is inappropriate to the question of whether theism is true. Thus to insist on your standard of knowledge as the only appropriate one is to insist that theism is false. But insisting is not arguing or demonstrating.*”
I think Tom is confusing “inappropriate” here with “doesn’t give the answer that I want.” My standard of knowledge – which, again, is one that every single widely accepted scientific theory meets, and indeed it’s one that most of our mundane beliefs meet too – definitely is appropriate to the question of whether God, Allah, Vishnu, Zeus, Preta, Moroni, Jibril, etc. are real beings or mere fictions devised by pre-scientific peoples to make sense of a strange and mysterious universe. If any of the corresponding existential propositions fail to satisfy this standard, then the rational thing to do is to reject them! This is precisely why I don’t believe (with a high degree of certitude, but not with absolute certitude) that Jibril, Moroni, Preta, Zeus, Vishnu, Allah and the God of Christianity exist. This has nothing to do with definition, as Tom seems to think. It has to do with highly plausible norms of justification and facts about the current evidence available.
So I’m just not seeing Tom’s point here. But maybe I’ve just missed something.
Phil just contacted me to let me know he’s having major computer issues, which is why he hasn’t filed his next article in this debate yet. He will write and post it as soon as possible.
I had hoped to get this discussion focused on one topic of a size appropriate to this venue. The reason for that should be plain enough. If our topic were science’s position as the one trustworthy method to know all that could possibly be known about reality, it would be easy for me to challenge you multiple ways in just a very few words: What does science understand about free will? What about enduring human identity? what about rationality? What about consciousness? What about meaning? What about purpose? What about ethics? What about the origin and fine tuning of the universe? What about the origin of the first life?Presumably you would have answers to offer for all of those questions, Phil. I’m not trying to argue (not here, at least) that you couldn’t answer these questions. But your answers would all be considerably longer than three to ten words each.
Short questions are easy, but short answers are typically worthless. There’s an unavoidable lack of parity there. A 2000-word debate blog post can present an opponent with fifteen or twenty challenges and have room to spare. The answers to those challenges could easily go to 2,000 words each, and more.
I have called on you to propose a topic for us to focus on, and if I read you correctly, the topic you are most interested in is expressed in your question in the fourth paragraph of your last post: Can human beings today have [this sort of] evidence-based belief in the doctrines of Christianity?
You argue the negative:
- There is no objective evidence for the tales Tom believes
- Ancient tales like this can be found all over the world, and Tom surely agrees that most of them are unreasonable
- Tales like these have decreased in frequency along with the rise of science
- Temporal lobe epilepsy can cause religious experiences
- Neurosurgical stimulation can, too
- Drugs can, too
- Most of today’s “very best evidence” for theism is subjective by nature
- But we can only rely on such things as knowledge rather than delusion (ideally, at least) if multiple people experience them and if we can repeat them, as in a laboratory for example
- Theism is rendered unlikely by certain really strange beliefs like “too much evidence might not be good for us”
- The Bible often affirms faith that is not based on evidences
- The Bible says not to think for ourselves
- The Bible says not to cause others to stumble (i.e., doubt)
- The Bible contains ethical filth
- The Bible tells us not to doubt
- The Bible says that knowledge comes by faith, rather (I take it you mean) than by more respectable means
- The Bible fails to support healthy skepticism
- Religious people are really hard to convince that their beliefs might be wrong or inadequately supported
- Analytic thinking is antithetical to religious belief
- Religions “begin their journey with infallible doctrines and immutable truths”
- Science is, by contrast, a way of approaching knowledge that will not claim anything as known unless it is supported with “loads” of objective evidence
And then you close with, “I would be happy if Tom could reply to each of my points here.”
Yes, I could reply to each of these points, and I hope that knowing that will make you happy. There are problems with each of them as you have presented them. But I will not go so far as to actually respond to each of them here, all at once, in response to such a scattershot challenge. Not unless you agree in response to explain how science responds to the difficulties of consciousness, free will, identity (self-ness), rationality, qualia, human meaning and purpose, ethics, the origin and fine tuning of the universe, and the origin of the first life, too, in scientific terms alone, in a single blog post. But you are too savvy to take on a challenge like that, and I wouldn’t think of putting it to you.
So I will choose one, and if the others remain unanswered for now I am quite sure you will see that as wisdom rather than weakness. Once we’ve talked one topic through I’ll be happy to go on to another, if you wish.
You find theism’s claims untrustworthy because we cannot test them in repeatable, laboratory-like manner. I’d like to see you phrase that request in a meaningful manner, answering, Just what is it in theism that ought to be repeatable that way? The life, death, and resurrection of Christ? Hardly. Then what? The burning bush? The raising of Lazarus? Walking on water? Prayer answers? I’m not sure what it is you are calling for.
Theism is, after all, a belief in a personal, sovereign God. Laboratory-like repeatability is for impersonal entities that we can control (or control for). If we were to succeed in putting God under a microscope, we would have proved that it wasn’t God under that microscope.
So in the spirit of discussion I am going to ask you to clarify. Just what is it about repeatability that would make the belief in a personal, sovereign God more credible rather than less?
I know that you have a reason for asking for repeatability: epistemological error-correction. It’s a way of preventing error and delusion, and in fields of knowledge where repeatability is an available option, it is a very useful option. To make it the standard for knowledge, however, makes it impossible in principle to know anything about a personal God even if he exists.
The effect of that is that there might be a God (who knows?) but if there is, then he is a pathetic, dumb God who cannot communicate any truth successfully to humans about himself. There might be a God, but if there is, he could not possibly be the God of theism. Voila! You have defined theism out of existence–and you’ve done it without even having to check whether there is any other kind of evidence for God, or any other way of knowing him! You have your proof against theism–and you have it evidence-free, by definition alone.
Theism affirms the reality of a great God, not a dumb one. Theism posits a God who created the world, who created humans and our communication and knowledge systems, who knows (I’m understating this to an infinite degree) how to get a message across in the way he intends, with the effect he intends; who could do so even before the advent of science! And after. Without making himself a laboratory subject in the process.
If theism is true, then your standard of knowledge is inappropriate to the question of whether theism is true. Thus to insist on your standard of knowledge as the only appropriate one is to insist that theism is false. But insisting is not arguing or demonstrating.*
I know you will want to ask, if objective repeatability is not an appropriate standard of knowledge for matters relating to God, how can anyone know they’re not falling under religious delusion? It’s a fair question and I’m not ducking it, I’m just putting it in context, and showing that your standard is not as effective for this purpose as you seem to think it is. I’ll come back to that question in due time.
Time is limited, so I would be quite content if you would reply just to this one point here.
*The logical problem may be more apparent in this form, where T is theism, and K(P) is objectively repeatable knowledge (knowledge according to Phil’s standard).
1. If T, then K(P) cannot be the one means by which T could be known (from the definitions of K(P) and T)
2. If K(P) is the one trustworthy means to know whether T, then Not-T (from 1)
3. K(P) is the only trustworthy standard of knowledge (Phil’s position concerning K(P))
4. Not-T (from 2 and 3)
Not-T is proved without reference to any evidence concerning T, but simply by the definitions of T and K(P), and Phil’s insistence that K(P) is the only trustworthy standard of knowledge.
In his most recent post, Tom admits that some cases of faith in the Bible fail to count as reasonable according to basic evidentialist standards. Tom’s very modest goal with his post is simply to show that Biblical “faith is often based on objective evidence.” Stronger theses are easier to knock down (which is why Karl Popper liked them!), but even this weaker claim (“often” rather than, say, “always”) is not hard to shake.
First, one should note how Tom’s above statement contrasts with the sort of belief one finds in science. Theories that come to be accepted by the scientific community as a whole – heliocentrism, evolution by natural selection, the big bang theory, special and general relativity, the theory of the atom, and so on – are paradigmatically based on objective evidence. Indeed, there isn’t a single widely accepted scientific claim that is not based on loads of objective evidence. (Think about this for a moment.) I have absolutely no prior prejudices in favor of science (over religion), but I have become a huge fan of science precisely because of it’s extremely robust epistemological foundation in checkable evidence – evidence that one can always in principle see for oneself. How nice is that?
Second, as a side note, as far as I can tell there is virtually no objective evidence for the claim that some of the events that Tom mentions ever happened. There is, indeed, no reason at all for believing that long, long ago a rod really did turn into a snake, or that the Red Sea really was parted. Ancient tales like these can be found all over the world – and indeed their frequency has diminished over time in proportion to the rise of more empirical, scientific ways of thinking. Surely Tom doesn’t believe that Joseph Smith really did miraculously find some golden tablets buried in the ground. Yet Tom admits to believing that a rod turned into a snake (or at least to the claim that God appeared in a burning bush; this part of Tom’s post is somewhat ambiguous). I think such beliefs are very, very unreasonable.
Third, let’s completely grant for the sake of argument that instances of faith in the Bible do indeed involve solid objective evidence. The question – indeed, the crucial question – that still remains is this: can human beings today have this sort of evidence-based belief in the doctrines of Christianity? If I witnessed God in a burning bush, and if I had compelling independent reasons for thinking that I don’t suffer from temporal lobe epilepsy (which causes individuals to have “revelatory” experiences) or from schizophrenia, that my brain isn’t being electrostimulated by a neurosurgeon right now, that no one slipped a bit of LSD into my punch, and so on, then I would be fairly convinced that God exists – or at least that something very unusual is going on behind the scenes, something I need to know more about. If other individuals witnessed this event too, there would be even more reason for believing. And if this event could – ideally, as scientists do all the time in the laboratory – be repeated multiple times, then we could be even surer that the evidence is solid (i.e., that it’s not the result of delusion, deception or trickery) and thus that the theistic beliefs based upon this evidence are reasonable to accept.
My point is this: let’s just say that the Bible does “often” take faith to involve evidence-based belief. The question relevant to me, you (the reader), Tom and everyone else living in the contemporary world is: Is it possible for Christians today to have “faith” of exactly this sort? That is to say, to what extent are Christian beliefs presently justified by our total evidence? Do we still witness burning bushes? Do we still see rods turning into snakes? Do we ever observe seas opening up like the Red Sea? Do we ever find manna falling from the sky? Do we ever see water being turned into wine, or people walking on water, or beings that claim to be divine ascending into heaven? People back then sure did have a lot more evidence than we do today. Indeed, as I explicitly mention in my book, most of the very best evidence for religion today is characteristically “subjective” in nature – feelings, ambiguous cases of answered prayer, sensing the presence of Allah, God, or whomever, and so on. But subjective evidence isn’t good evidence, since it requires that you have to merely take someone else’s word for it. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to merely take the Muslim’s word for it that Allah is real. I want a bit of evidence that I can check out for myself.
I’m reminded here of Richard Swinburne’s statement that “There is quite a lot of evidence anyway of God’s existence, and too much might not be good for us.” (Still trying to figure out what exactly he’s referring to in the first part – but the second part speaks volumes.) As someone trying to figure out if (a) any religion is true, and (b) which religion is true if one of them is, I need way, way more evidence than I have to commit to any of the world’s many religions.
Fourth, there are plenty of – maybe more, although I haven’t counted – places in the Bible where beliefs that are clearly not based on the best available evidence, or that even contradict this evidence, are taken to be acceptable or preferable. For example:
1.1 The Case of Abraham: the Bible says: “Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead – since he was about a hundred years old – and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God.” [Italics added in most of these passages.]
1.2 Similarly: the Bible says: “It was by faith that even Sarah was able to have a child, though she was barren and was too old.”
2. Don’t Think For Yourself: the Bible says: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil.”
3. Don’t Make Others Stumble: the Bible says: “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble [i.e., doubt]! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come!” [BTW, is anyone else a little morally shocked by this? How could a book inspired by God himself contain such ethical filth?]
4. Ask Without Doubting: the Bible says: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.”
5. Have Faith and Don’t Doubt: the Bible says: “And Jesus answered them, ‘Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen.’”
6. Oh Ye Of Little Faith!: the Bible says: “Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. ‘You of little faith,’ he said, ‘why did you doubt?’”
7. Knowledge by Faith: the Bible says: “By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.”
8. Possibly the most famous example of the Bible endorsing belief without sufficient evidence involves the Apostle Thomas. Thomas was told a truly extraordinary claim: that Jesus rose from the dead after three days of decomposition. As a good evidentialist, Thomas requested evidence – specifically, evidence that he could see/touch for himself – to support this outrageous assertion. Bad move on Thomas’ part. Indeed, the very fact that “doubting Thomas” is a derogatory term indicates that Christianity has a long history of praising belief that’s not based on good evidence (“faith,” I would call it, but see below). Indeed, as Jesus himself said in response to Thomas’ skepticism: “Thomas, because thou hast seen Me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.”
(Note by the way that being a “doubting Thomas” is what being a good scientist is all about. In fact, as I write in A Crisis of Faith [which, apparently, no one here has actually looked at]: “… scientists are the most skeptical group of people out there. They are in the business not only of answering questions, but of questioning answers. As a general rule, you might say that it’s more difficult to convince scientists that the beliefs they already accept are true than any other community of individuals. In contrast, it’s more difficult to convince religious individuals that the beliefs they accept are false than any other group of people. This gets back to the “why” versus “what” issue: science is obsessed with arriving at beliefs that are well-founded, while the world’s religions begin their journey with infallible doctrines and immutable truths.”)
These are only a few examples of how the Bible talks about faith – about the acceptance of beliefs in the absence of good checkable evidence. Don’t think too hard, don’t doubt, just believe! (I’m reminded here again of studies showing that analytic thinking is antithetical to religious belief.)
Fifth, to be clear about something, I really don’t care whether one pairs the term “faith” with our concept of evidentally unjustified belief or with our concept of belief that’s supported by the totality of the evidence. We all agree on the conceptual distinctions here: some propositions are well-supported and some are not. How we link those concepts up to lexical items doesn’t really matter – indeed, you can call the former concept “Joe” if you’d like (and if one did, then I’d say that, e.g., Hinduism involves a lot of Joe).
My approach in Crisis was not lexically biased towards my current, tentatively-held atheism. Rather, my approach was – to spell it out straightforwardly, as I’ve done with just about all my views in this mildly anti-philosophical debate – (a) to look at the claims made by Christianity (and other religions, like Mormonism and Islam), and then (b) to take a look at the best available evidence (on the explicit assumption that evidence is what makes beliefs reasonable to believe). In my best judgment, (c) the central claims made by Christians largely lack any kind of good supporting evidence – certainly they lack the sort of evidence that corroborates scientific claims like “mass and energy are equivalent,” “space and time form a continuum,” “humans evolved from australopithecines,” and “the earth revolves around the sun, not the other way around.” All of these are hugely well-supported, and this is precisely why whole scientific communities hold them. And finally, given the conclusion of (c), I select the term “faith” – “widely” used by the relevant experts in precisely this way – to pick out the particular species of belief needed to accept the central propositions of Christianity, which appear to be largely unsupported by fact. My approach thus puts semantics at the very end, and careful epsitemological examination at the beginning. (This is in part why the shameful term “internet atheism” is both undeserved and unnecessarily pejorative.)
I have plenty more to say about these issues, but time is limited. I would be happy if Tom could reply to each of my points here.
More than once now I’ve mentioned that faith as exemplified in the Bible is often based on evidences and on reason. I think it’s a good time now to show what I mean. Even though it means I’m planting two articles here in a row, it might help get us unstuck and moving forward again, which is worth it if it works. We could set aside some of what I said about the process in my previous article.
The paradigm cases of faith for Christians are those that are found in the Bible. If the Bible presents faith as belief disconnected from evidence or reason, then that’s what we all ought to take faith to be. If on the other hand there is faith in the Bible that is based on or supported be evidence and/or reason (from this point forward I will simply say “evidence”), then it is plainly not true that all faith is disconnected from evidence–not unless the Bible itself misuses and misconstrues the term faith. Since the faith that Christians endeavor to develop is biblical faith–faith as defined and exemplified in the Bible–it would hardly do to say that the Bible got faith wrong.
I do not mean to say that all instances of faith in the Bible are based on objective (third-party verifiable) evidence. We don’t know what it was that caused Abraham to believe, other than a direct personal encounter with God. (Later in his life God performed a miracle in the birth of Isaac.) I only mean to show that faith is often based on objective evidence.
So let’s look at some instances:
1. Moses. God appeared to him in a burning bush. That was evidence of God’s reality, which it was rational for Moses to accept. There was also at that time the demonstration of the rod turned into a snake. Based on that experience, Moses believed God and obeyed.
I must pause right away to address a possible objection: “Do you mean to say you think that really happened?! That’s evidence-free faith right there!” Yes, I do believe it happened, but you do not need to believe it yourself in order for the example to apply. You see, the question for now is not what happened in biblical times, but rather how is faith exemplified in the Bible? And here it is portrayed as the result of God convincing Moses through evidence. So clearly faith in God can be built upon evidence.
2. The people of Israel in the Exodus. God showed his reality to them through objective signs: the plagues on Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea, the production of water from the rock and manna from the sky, and so on. Moses implores the people to believe just on account of what they had seen:
“For ask now of the days that are past, which were before you, since the day that God created man on the earth, and ask from one end of heaven to the other, whether such a great thing as this has ever happened or was ever heard of. Did any people ever hear the voice of a god speaking out of the midst of the fire, as you have heard, and still live? Or has any god ever attempted to go and take a nation for himself from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs, by wonders, and by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and by great deeds of terror, all of which the LORD your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes? To you it was shown, that you might know that the LORD is God; there is no other besides him. Out of heaven he let you hear his voice, that he might discipline you. And on earth he let you see his great fire, and you heard his words out of the midst of the fire. And because he loved your fathers and chose their offspring after them and brought you out of Egypt with his own presence, by his great power, driving out before you nations greater and mightier than you, to bring you in, to give you their land for an inheritance, as it is this day, know therefore today, and lay it to your heart, that the LORD is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other.
3. Gideon. In Judges 6 we see that God gave him evidence of his reality and of his guidance by way of the fleece.
4. Elijah and the people of Israel. In 1 Kings 18, Elijah prayed that it would be known that there is a God in Israel. It was in this very context that he set the stage for God to demonstrate that reality: the great burnt offering on Mount Carmel. In other words, the prayer was not that the people would take up belief in God for no reason at all; rather it was that God would show himself before them all.
5. The disciples of Jesus Christ. Jesus “presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3, emphasis added).
6. Paul, and those who came to faith under his teaching. See for example Acts 19:8ff (emphasis added):
And he entered the synagogue and for three months spoke boldly, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God. But when some became stubborn and continued in unbelief, speaking evil of the Way before the congregation, he withdrew from them and took the disciples with him, reasoning daily in the hall of Tyrannus. This continued for two years, so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.
And God was doing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so that even handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were carried away to the sick, and their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them.
I could offer many more examples, but these should suffice to show that biblical belief is often (even if not always) built upon objective evidence. So as I have already said, I wonder if it might even be sufficient to allow us to move off of the sticking point, “faith is necessarily opposed to evidence and reason,” and on to more interesting question, such as: “Is there evidence and reason to support Christians’ faith today?” (That’s rather a broad topic for this forum, but it’s the general form of a more interesting question.)
I wonder if we should start over again. We are “getting nowhere slowly,” as you put it. Now you should know that used to do a lot of sailing, which has been defined as the fine art of getting wet and becoming ill while slowly going nowhere at great expense, so I’m not entirely opposed to going nowhere slowly. But it’s a matter of context, and I think both you and I would rather do that out on the water with a cool breeze than in an online debate.
Anyway, I thought the purpose of our debate was to clarify the definition of faith, especially whether faith could in any circumstances at all be reasonable. I refer back to our email exchange prior to opening the debate. We had some initial discussion in which I disagreed with your definition of faith. You defended it, naturally enough. When I suggested we debate here, then, I wrote,
I suggest we focus our debate on the word “faith:” what it means, what it means specifically with respect to Christian belief, whether it implies a disconnect from facts or evidence, whether or not it’s (at least potentially) justifiable as an approach to knowledge, etc.
This sounds great. I would be very happy to be involved.
So I took it that we were focusing our debate “on the word ‘faith:’ what it means, …” I think you took that as our topic, too, but in a somewhat different sense than I did. I’ll try now to explain what has motivated me to go the direction that I have with it.
In your first post you said that faith and reason are in tension, that it’s widely held that faith is unreasonable, and that faith is disconnected from verifiable evidence. I took those, perhaps incorrectly, as being statements representing your understanding of what faith is by definition. Clearly you positioned faith as a form of belief that is not testable by evidence.
You also raised questions along the way about what sort of evidence the Christian can offer for our faith. That seems premature to me, for it comes across as the following: given that faith is a form of belief that is disconnected from evidence, what evidence do you have for your faith?
That’s not the whole story of the debate so far, obviously, but it’s a major piece of it. I trust you can see now why I would want to be assured that when we each use the word “faith,” we know what we (and the other) mean by it. As you continue reading here I hope you’ll also see why I would propose that Christian faith is not (or at least not typically or normatively) what you take “faith” always to be.
But first I need to try again to clear away some underbrush. You have said just now that,
Tom keeps making a different argument than the one mentioned just above, namely that the propositional sense of faith isn’t the one most relevant to Christianity. I keep saying it is relevant, deeply relevant.
This is more than confusing, because quite simply I haven’t made that argument, much less kept on making it. Rather I have said that there is no particularly useful distinction to be made, in practice, between faith as a propositional attitude and faith as a relational attitude. I can’t have relational faith in person X unless I have believe propositionally that y is true of X. I can make that propositional/relational distinction conceptually, but it’s meaningless in actual practice.
I’ll explain by way of illustration. My faith in God as a person is my faith that God is in fact the infinite Trinitarian creator being who has revealed himself through his acts in history, and especially in the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Those are propositional beliefs, and since I take it that they are true and justified (for they are evidentially based), I would go so far as to label them as knowledge.
Now of course there is a side of faith (a most significant aspect of it) that goes beyond those items of knowledge, though not without evidence. For example, I know that God has been faithful to keep his promises to his people for generations upon generations. Given that knowledge, when I face a difficult situation–for example, the news today that I have a torn tendon in my foot, for the second time this year–I can have faith, or trust (the two are absolutely synonymous in this context) that he has not abandoned me, and that he will work this for my good. But this is not evidence-free fantasizing. It’s a reasoned conviction that God will be who I already know God is.
(If you thought my definition, “biblical faith is trust based on knowledge” meant just relational trust, I hope by now it’s clear that I had no intention of communicating that, and the word “trust” does not entail it, either.)
Now you might ask me, “what is this evidence that you claim you have for this faith?” Given your definition, though, that is tantamount to, “what is this evidence that you claim that you have for your evidence-free beliefs?” It’s rather hard to start offering you my answer when the question implies that your contrary answer is the only one that’s possible. Given your position on faith, it seems to me the better part of wisdom to start with the question, “can faith have evidence supporting it?” before proceeding to, “what evidence is there for my faith?” (And as you’ll see below, I am indeed going to suggest that we start over again, with something like that as our question, so that we do in fact start at the right place.)
You say you are a philosopher. You say it with appropriate caution. You say that, being a philosopher, you have sided with the philosophers’ definition of faith. I say in response, if the philosophers had all defined faith as being incompatible with evidence, then you might have a leg to stand on there, but they simply have not.
Further I say that if philosophers say that Christianity involves a faith that is incompatible with evidence, just because they believe faith is by definition incompatible with evidence, that position runs up hard against contrary evidence itself. (Perhaps it is a statement of faith? No, but I couldn’t resist asking.) Large numbers of Christians (theologians included, I assure you) hold that their Christian faith accords with evidence. Throughout the Bible, appeals to belief are coupled with encouragements and admonitions to observe and consider evidence. If faith as it is exemplified in the Bible is evidence-based, then it could hardly be accurate to conclude that faith is never evidence-based. Philosophers may say that it is; those philosophers are wrong.
I began this long article by suggesting we start over again. I was going to keep this short, and simply suggest we reboot our discussion by narrowing it down to a proposition to debate, for example:
Proposed: that faith is by definition a form of belief that is essentially and necessarily disconnected from (inaccessible, unsupported by… you choose your preferred term) evidence.
I was going to suggest that in the beginning, as I said. I went ahead and responded to some of your recent points instead. Now I am going to ask you to consider that resolution as the focus of our discussion. If there is some other topic you wish to discuss, by all means present your counter-proposal. I would ask that it be consistent with what we discussed in the preparatory email exchange, and that it not be overly broad. I find that when a topic covers too much territory, it’s really hard to avoid getting nowhere slowly.
I’ve read Tom’s latest post several times, and am having a bit of trouble following his arguments. Maybe the best approach would be to simply copy-paste some of his claims and then comment on them. I don’t particularly like doing this, but I think it would help to keep things clear.
Tom writes: “Phil and I agree that the question now is what definition of faith is relevant for current purposes. As far as I’m concerned, the only current purpose of interest is the faith of historic, orthodox Christian theism, so I will stick with that.”
Maybe we’re just interested in different things. What matters to me is whether or not the claims made by Christianity – historic, orthodox Christianity, if you’d like – are true or false. Immediately, since we’re talking about truth and falsity, we’re talking about faith as a species of belief, as a kind of relation holding between individuals and propositions that describe some possible configuration of reality. If this isn’t what you’re interested in, then fine. I have no problem with that, but then we might not have much to talk about.
Tom writes: “Now, whether Bishop’s definition is one that’s widely held by scholars, as Phil says it is (and I could hardly disagree) is again a matter of very little interest. Scholars widely hold that “bridge” means “a means of passing across a river, canyon, street, etc.” (or something very much like that), but if the topic is electronics, it might mean a sort of rectifier (device for de-alternating current), and if the topic is social games it might mean a four-hand card game.”
Exactly right, Tom. And if the issue is “Faith and reason: the epistemology of faith,” then the topic is propositional faith! If we’re not clicking on this point, then we may be wasting our time.
Tom writes: “Even Bishop himself examines multiple ways of defining faith, and though he describes one as widely held he obviously does not intend it to be taken as canonical.”
No, he does not. All he says is that when it comes to the issue of whether or not religious belief is reasonable, of what exactly the epistemological status of religion is, then the relevant definition of faith is propositional. As I’ve maintained all along.
Tom writes: “I think he [Phil, presumably] thinks that some scholars think it essential to faith that it “involves accepting what cannot be established as true through the proper exercise of our naturally endowed human cognitive abilities.” So, I say those scholars are wrong. That’s the point of this discussion.”
First of all, this has not been the point of our discussions! My entire last post was trying to make it the point of our discussion, but based on some of what Tom said in his last post, my extreme clarity wasn’t enough. Tom keeps making a different argument than the one mentioned just above, namely that the propositional sense of faith isn’t the one most relevant to Christianity. I keep saying it is relevant, deeply relevant. Why? Because being a Christian means believing that God exists, believing that Jesus is God’s “son,” believing that Jesus died and literally rose from the grave three days later, and so on. I would be happy to talk about particular instances of faith in propositions that Christians of a given denomination accept, but this would involve first agreeing upon the distinctions I make in the last post. Once we have these distinctions fixed – once we have a shared understanding of the different senses of “faith” and of which sense is most pertinent to the epistemology of Christianity – then we can proceed to talk about whether or not the claim that (say) Jesus ascended into heaven is justified.
I should emphasize here that my approach does not deviate in any significant way whatsoever from the most widely accepted and generally established approaches in the philosophy of religion. In fact, I just cracked open an old textbook I have on the philosophy of religion that’s written by two theists (with, indeed, a clear agenda in the book); the book is called An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion. A section entitled “The nature of faith” in a chapter entitled “Faith and Rationality” opens with:
“… we need to be clear that there are some senses of the word “faith” – perfectly respectable ones – that will not be the focus of our attention here. In what follows we will be considering faith as a propositional attitude, that is, a cognitive stance towards a proposition. … In this chapter, we will be concerned primarily with faith as a propositional attitude. In particular, we shall be thinking of faith as (merely) a species of belief. The reason we focus on this sense of the term, to the exclusion of others, is that this is the sense primarily at issue when people raise questions about the rationality of faith or about the relationship between faith and reason.” (page 95)
Later on, the authors present an underdetermination argument to support their tentative thesis that faith – indeed, Christian faith – can sometimes at least be consistent with the evidence. (I think this argument gets things wrong in a few places, for reasons I’d be happy to discuss sometime.) But Tom and I are nowhere close to having a conversation like this yet, because Tom thinks that my adoption of exactly the approach exemplified in Bishop’s article, in the book quoted above, and in virtually every other university-published work on the philosophy of religion is “tendentious.”
(Note also that arguments from authority are only fallacious if the authority fails to be an expert on the relevant subject, or if there is no consensus among experts in the relevant domain of study. Tom says: faith as trust is more relevant [that is, presumably, relevant to issues of truth and rationality] than faith as belief, and your view, Phil, that the opposite is true is tendentious. I respond: no, I’m just adopting the basic concepts and frameworks held by the majority of philosophers of religion; I’m accepting the most “widely held” definitions of terms like “faith” and “reasonable” among epistemologists. Tom, this is not at all a fallacious “argument from authority.” Its no more fallacious than the claim: “Most medical researchers say that vaccines for babies are safe. Therefore, it’s reasonable to believe that vaccines for babies are safe.”)
Tom writes that “TFBW has noted other other valid ways of thinking of faith.” Yes, there are other valid ways of thinking about faith. But, at the risk of belaboring an already severely, tediously, massively belabored point, if the issue is truth and rationality, then there is only one way of thinking about faith that’s centrally relevant: faith as a propositional attitude. The reason is, again, because trust, loyalty, and so on, are all phenomena that are neither true nor false. They don’t involve accepting claims about reality – e.g., Allah is God; Vishnu created the universe; Jesus ministered to the Lamanites – that can either succeed or fail to accurately correspond to the way things really are.
One of the links above goes to a comment on Tom’s website that reads: “If Phil’s intention in defining ‘faith’ was “to capture what most people mean most of the time by the lexical item ‘faith’”, then he would have been better served by referring to a dictionary rather than an encyclopaedia of philosophy. Being Australian, I prefer the Macquarie Dictionary, but Merriam-Webster will serve just as well. In short, the most common usage relates to trust or loyalty, the next most common relates to belief held in the absence of proof (especially, but not exclusively, belief in God or religious doctrines), and the third relates to the beliefs themselves as a system (e.g. “the Protestant faith”).”
Perhaps I should have been explicit; I thought the epistemological context of the discussion was clear enough. What I wanted was to capture the definition of “faith” that most people use most of the time with respect to religious belief. Bishop captures this very simple idea at the beginning of his SEP article: “The concept of faith is a broad one: at its most general ‘faith’ means much the same as ‘trust’ [exactly as the dictionary reports]. This entry is specifically concerned, however, with the notion of religious faith—or, rather (and the difference is important), the kind of faith exemplified in religious faith.” Note that I did not add the parenthetical; I only added the brackets.
The dictionary is very often a good starting point for understanding terms, but philosophy still exists today in part because there is a lot more to say about our concepts – like those of knowledge, faith, justification, evidence, justice, freedom, free will, consciousness, and so on – than what the dictionary tells us. This was not a helpful comment for Tom to link up to.
The above commenter then ends his/her comment with this: “Frankly, if Phil thinks that this distorted view of faith is the consensus view, then he needs to get out of the echo chamber more often.”
I am in the same chamber as everyone else who studies the philosophy of religion (some of whom are theists!). Although my opinions on specific issues may differ from other philosophers, there’s a common agreement about the space of possible views, based on a common acceptance of certain conceptual distinctions, definitions, and so on. This is not “internet atheism” by any stretch.
Tom writes: “Now, Phil analyzed two forms of faith: faith as a species of propositional belief (believing that), and faith as trust (believing or trusting in). This, I take it, was in response to my analogy of faith in my to-be-wife, as I expressed it in my first article.”
No, it wasn’t. The distinction I made is a standard one in the philosophy of religion. I presented it in my last post because of your (apparent, but also vaguely confused) insistence that trust is more relevant to Christianity than belief, even though trusting in something requires first that one believes that the relevant something exists, and indeed in your own definition of faith you state that belief is the thing upon which trust is based.
Tom writes: “Phil says “faith in the fiducial sense is non-propositional in nature: the relation it involves is something along the lines of interpersonal rather than cognitive propositional.” But this is absurd. Does he suppose that the trust I expressed in my fiancee as a future bride was non-propositional? Does he doubt that I ever thought, “Sara would be a great wife because … “? Does he think my belief in her as a future wife was devoid of belief that she and I would get along well together for years to come?”
Do I think that your belief in your future wife was devoid of belief that you guys would get along well? Nope. And this was my whole point. You are getting these two distinct phenomena confused: just because you can give an example that involves both X and Y doesn’t for a moment mean that X and Y aren’t distinct from each other. X and Y are distinct, you just put them together in a single example. Thus: you keep saying that trust is fundamental, but then you slip in all this stuff about knowledge / belief. If your trust did indeed involve belief, then it’s truth-evaluable and we can have a good old philosophical conversation about the extent to which it’s epistemically justified by the evidence. If your trust was belief-based, then it’s exactly the sort of cognitive phenomenon that I’m interested in. I honestly don’t think I could make myself any clearer on this issue.
Tom writes: “So I think that a large portion of what Phil offered in his last article is simply wrong, and I call on him to set it aside, and take seriously the force of the analogy that he tried to sweep away with it. The relevant distinction is not between faith as belief-that and faith as belief-in, for the two are not so distinct after all. The relevant distinction is between Faith(WH) and Faith(C).”
Not to be ornery, but this is just so confused; I hardly know where to begin. The original reason I made (well, borrowed from innumerable other philosophers of religion) the belief that / trust in distinction is because Tom insisted that the most relevant sense of Christian faith is as trust. I assumed that he meant trust in God. The problem is that Tom also claimed that this trust was based on knowledge – a species of belief that, by definition, involves the acceptance of both true and epistemically justified propositions. Thus, while Tom asserted that faith is trust, he simultaneously proposed that faith is fundamentally a belief-based phenomenon. Again, these are two distinct senses of “faith.” I focus on the belief / propositional sense in A Crisis of Faith because this is the sense that’s more germane to questions of epistemology, and epistemology is what matters with respect to deciding whether or not one should be a Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Mormon, Scientologist, Zoroastrian, and so on.
If faith is trust based on knowledge, then the philosophical questions are: what is the epistemic status of the relevant propositions? Can they be justified? Are they reasonable to accept? Do they really count as knowledge, as Tom insists, or are they better described as some other species of belief? Again, as far as I can tell, there is virtually no evidence that can be checked for the proposition that, say, “God is three distinct persons who are identical in substance.” If I’m right about this – and I’d be happy to get some solid objective evidence to show that I’m wrong – then believing in the trinity doesn’t qualify as knowledge at all, since the belief lacks justification and justification is a matter of evidence. Thus, believing in the trinity involves something more like faith – a species of belief that, as Bishop explicitly states, doesn’t appear to meet the epistemological requirement of evidentialism.
Here’s my diagnosis so far; here’s what I think the ultimate problem between me and Tom is: My background is in philosophy. Although I always feel pretentious using this appellation (and therefore don’t often), I am a philosopher who’s deeply interested in religion. In particular I’m interested in whether or not the claims of the world’s many religious traditions – from Christianity and Islam to Scientology and Zoroastrianism – are reasonable or not. I want to know if the doctrines and dogmas that individuals all around the world hold with the greatest possible conviction and sincerity are true or false.
As a philosopher interested in such things, in the epistemology of religion, I have adopted the basic framework used by philosophers of religion, whether atheist, agnostic, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and so on. This is, indeed, what scholars do: one goes to school to learn about a a given discipline like philosophy, and then building upon the work of everyone else you try to make an original point of your own. Thus, my approach is essentially the same as what’s expressed in that great resource of disinterested philosophical explication, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (This is why I’ve mentioned it many times: it’s highly sophisticated, written by experts, and it does an exceptionally good job – with a few anomalies – of presenting an unbiased statement of different philosophical issues.)
The point is that my account of faith as propositional and my claim that most instances of what people around the world believe “out of faith” fail to meet the epistemological requirement that beliefs be proportioned to the evidence is in no way tendentious, as Tom has repeatedly stated. I am squarely within a well-established tradition of philosophy and theology, even though my conclusions differ from those of some other philosophers / theologians (such as Swinburne and Plantinga). This isn’t assigned reading, but if you’d like to know more about my own overall framework for thinking about the reasonableness of religious belief, or even about what “being reasonable” might mean, see any of the following articles:
Omnipotence [since Tom seemed convinced that the relevant paradoxes have been solved centuries ago!]
There’s hardly anything that I say in my book or in this debate that isn’t already in these articles (or other articles like them; this was not an exhaustive list)! Indeed – and this is a crucial point – one of the major impetuses behind A Crisis of Faith was precisely to bridge the gap between (a) non-experts who may not have a very clear understanding of the different senses of faith, of which are epistemologically relevant, of what constitutes truth, justification, evidence, and so on, and (b) the experts who spend their days cogitating such things. When it comes to questions like “Is faith a respectable epistemic attitude?” the difference of opinion between epistemologists and the public is not much different than that between biologists and the public on the issue of evolution. As a Christian believer – a professed creationist – entering into a university philosophy program years ago, I found this apparent expert / non-expert divide very shocking. (And one finds it on so many issues, from climate change to whether homosexuality is psychologically unhealthy, and so on.)
So, just as some authors have argued that we need more “science ambassadors,” I think we need more “philosophy ambassadors” to go back and forth between the philosophical community and the public. This was part of what I wanted to do with Crisis, and it’s in part what this debate is about for me. If Tom and I can agree on the basic ideas put forth in, for example, the articles above, then I think we can move forward. But if Tom is going to say that faith as “trust in” and faith as “belief that” are “not so distinct after all,” and if the reason he gives for this is an anecdotal example of a case in which they both co-occur, then we really don’t have much to talk about. If you’d like, I can give you an example in which, say, an individual exhibits both hate and love towards another person. But this doesn’t for a moment mean that hate and love are “not so distinct after all.” It just means that these two very distinct things have been combined together in one particular instance.
Tom ends his post with this question: “Suppose for the sake of argument there were evidential grounds for believing that there is a God, and that he has revealed himself in the Bible and especially in Jesus Christ. If that were true, would the faith of Christians still be a form of Faith(WH)?”
Well, there are several ambiguities here. The answer to this question depends on what exactly “evidential grounds” means. According to the standard evidentialist account of justification, what matters is one’s total evidence. That is to say, if there is a little bit of evidence for some belief A but a whole lot of evidence from some belief B, where A and B are incompatible beliefs, then one should accept B even though A has some positive supporting evidence. The point: “evidential grounds” might not be enough. It depends on the other beliefs available, on the relative strength of the evidence for the belief, and so on. (For example, there is indeed some evidential ground for belief in UFOs flown by aliens. But the evidence is so incredibly weak compared to the evidence in favor of the view that these stories are the result of optical illusions, human gullibility, delusion, and so on, that the reasonable position is to tentatively hold that UFOs flown by aliens don’t exist.)
Having said all this, if a given religious belief – whatever it may be – can be grounded in one’s total evidence – preferably evidence that can be checked and double checked by third parties – then the “faith” involved would indeed be justified! Religious faith in such a case – if one still wants to call it that – would be reasonable by evidentialist standards. To recapitulate for the n-teenth time, this is exactly the issue that interests me, and it’s what A Crisis of Faith is largely about: Here’s the standard notion of what it means to be reasonable, here’s the standard notion of what truth is, here’s what most philosophers take “faith” to mean, and then here are some reasons for thinking that religious faith is unreasonable. My approach in Crisis could hardly have been clearer and more philosophically acceptable.