Are we justified to believe in God without evidence? (Part 3)

The following is my response to one of three articles written by Jonathan Garner on the issue of properly basic beliefs and whether we need evidence or arguments before we are rationally justified to believe in God.


I quote (in bold) from Garner’s article and then comment as follows (read the full article here:

You write:

“Philosopher and theologian, William Lane Craig, argues that one can be rationally justified and warranted in accepting his/her experience of God or The Holy Spirit as evidence for the truth of theism and Christian theism. In fact, this sort of belief is properly basic, not inferred from other beliefs. I agree with Craig that this sort of experience can count as rational justification or warrant. However, Dr. Craig argues something further that I don’t agree with.”

Actually, in the context of reformed epistemology, this is not at all what Craig is saying. He is not saying that a person’s experience of God (or the Holy Spirit) is evidence for the truth of theism (or Christian theism). That would be an argument from religious experience, possibly even a good argument, but one which reformed epistemology is not concerned with.

What Craig is saying is that a person’s belief in God is rational, justified and warranted without any evidence, even the evidence of a religious experience. In other words, it’s not any experience that grounds such a belief, but the belief is grounded by the truth of theism (as Plantinga, for example, expounds in his model of warrant). According to RE it is because my belief in God is warranted that I experience God and experience Him veridically.

You write:

“In general, Epistemologists seem to be a little worried when someone claims a basic belief to be invincible or not able to be defeated. It seems, at least in general, that we want to say that basic beliefs are prima facie justified, and not ultima facie justified. The former means that we can believe something, unless or until we are given good reasons to think otherwise, in which case we need to give up our original belief in said matters. The latter says that certain beliefs will be forever justified, and we don’t really want to say that a certain belief (except perhaps a few beliefs) are forever justified.”

Yes, in general, epistemologists do not regard basic beliefs as indefeasible. But what Craig has shown is that there might be exceptions to the rule in the form of an intrinsic defeater-defeater where a belief is warranted in such a proper way as to defeat any an all defeaters brought against it.

You write:

“I don’t think The Holy Spirit can act as a defeater of every single objection. There have been many times in my life when someone claimed that God was pushing them towards X, when in fact all the evidence pointed to the contrary. You can be sure that person changed their mind only when it was actually not possible anymore for them to accomplish their seemingly God ordained goal. A good Christian friend of mine thought that God was calling him to be a missionary overseas and that he was going to evangelize. Well, my friend died 2 weeks later in a tragic accident so he never got to accomplish what he thought was one of God’s missions for his life….Also, there have been many times when I thought God was telling me a certain interpretation was correct in scripture, or that He was convicting me of such and such, when in fact people then pointed out how my interpretation couldn’t be right and that what I felt convicted of was really guilt, not conviction. In the case of interpretation my view was utterly incoherent, in other words, my interpretation was contradictory and thus logically impossible.”

All these examples you mention is confounding the issue. The question of how a person can know what the Holy Spirit’s will is for them is an entirely different matter than having a properly basic belief that there is a Holy Spirit to begin with. Your examples has more to do with navigating the dynamics of a relationship with God, than with reformed epistemology proper.

You write:

“1. We need to be careful about drawing epistemological principles from rare cases.
– Dr. Craig’s analogy is just one possible case and a rare one at that. It doesn’t seem wise to make general rules about warrant and justification from an analogy, at least most of the time. If Craig’s case is different, he needs to show why.”

But Craig isn’t making general rules, but explaining an exception to the rule.

You write:

“2. Dr. Craig’s analogy might not seem that strong after further consideration
– Holy Spirit Epistemology is primarily about belief in God being properly basic or non-inferential. However, in the court analogy it seems that the person who knows they’re innocent is presumably because of beliefs that are inferential and not because they’re basic. The person knows where they were at the time of the crime, what they were doing, why they were doing it , etc.”

You are mistaken. The whole point of the analogy is that a person’s belief in their own innocence is like a properly basic belief which is illustrated precisely by the fact that there is no evidence to support their innocence. Furthermore, when I know that I haven’t murdered someone, then I definitely don’t infer it based on any evidence, I just know it in a properly basic way. In the analogy it is precisely the facts of where I was at the time of the crime, what I was doing and why I was doing it, that will somehow be brought against me as evidence of my guilt. So if the evidence is somehow stacked against me and I can’t refute it, should I therefore accept that I am indeed guilty of murder even if know I didn’t do it? No, that would be ludicrous! But I guess you either see this or you don’t…

You write:

“3. Maybe there’s a point where the person in the court case must give up belief that he’s innocent
– Suppose there was DNA evidence and so forth so that it was undeniable that the man is guilty. Furthermore, there’s also evidence showing that the man is prone to hallucinations and delusions, which explains why he thinks he’s innocent. Should he then act like an alcoholic denier and deny all the evidence against him of which also explains why it seems like he’s innocent? At this point it looks like the man needs additional reasons for thinking he’s innocent besides the fact that it seems like he’s innocent, like reasons listed in point 2.”

Giving up your belief of innocence is precisely what you shouldn’t do! It would be completely rational to doubt any and all evidence which implicate your guilt, if you know you didn’t commit the crime! This stance is not at all comparable to an alcoholic denier. An alcoholic who denies his addiction, is most often (as many alcoholics would testify) suppressing all the reasons for accepting an addiction because it would cause them shame or would potentially deprive them of the perceived benefits of further indulging the habit. The point is that an alcoholic is suppressing their guilt (of being addicted to alcohol) despite the evidence, in a way that is clearly dissimilar to how the accused in a crime is denying their guilt based on knowing they didn’t commit the crime despite the evidence.

But should a person give up belief in their innocence if they are presented with evidence that they are prone to hallucinations and delusions? One should be careful here, because the sword is double-edged. With what do we expect such a person to replace their false belief? Surely we don’t expect them to replace it with a true belief, because the issue is precisely one about the ability to distinguish between reality and fantasy. It is due to their perpetually confused mental state that reference to their ‘epistemic obligation’ seems quiet misplaced. Maybe one could argue that someone’s mental condition doesn’t exclude the possibility of at least periodic lucidity accompanied by the ability to correctly distinguish reality, presumably such as during a court hearing. But then they could also know, for the same reason, that they didn’t, in fact, commit a specific crime. And if they can know this, then it is simply not the case, after all, that they must give up belief in their innocence.

You write:

“Dr. Craig says that it might be the case that The Holy Spirit acts in a way as to defeat any defeaters brought against the believer. However, Dr. Craig gives no reason at all to think that this is plausibly what is actually going on. He say its possible or that he can’t conceive of it. Well it may also not be possible and it may also seem conceivable. My point being, we need more than logical possibilities for an argument to go through and be considered strong. Craig said that it seems to him that God would intensify the witness. Of course it seems to him this way, but what’s the argument that it is this way in reality? He doesn’t give an argument nor did he give an actual argument for thinking that his other seeming is correct regarding apostasy.”

You seem to be reading Craig simply to denounce him, not to really understand him. Craig’s implicit reason for thinking that the Holy Spirit acts as an intrinsic defeater-defeater is because that is what he thinks you could expect of a loving God, the sort of God that cares about people coming to and being secure in their relationship with Him. The reason he can’t conceive of someone finding themselves in a position of forced apostasy, therefore, is not simply due to his cognitive inability or just due to some wild theological guess, but because such a situation would go against all he knows about the character of God. And therefore, when he says it ‘seems’ to him that God would intensify the witness of the Holy Spirit, he is, again, not merely sucking his thumb, but pointing to the very reasonable thing anyone could expect of loving God to do in such a situation.

I see plenty of reason, both logically and biblically, to think that what Craig says here is eminently reasonably, if not obviously true. In fact, I find your skepticism incredulous and unfounded.

You write:

“At the heart, Dr. Craig gives no good reasons to think a basic belief in God is invincible, but as I’ve already implied, Craig does (in my opinion) indeed give us good reasons for thinking that an experience of God can count as warrant for the Christian. So Craig’s work on Holy Spirit Epistemology shouldn’t be seen as a total failure. And the end of the day, Craig fails to give a convincing case to think that the basic belief in the truth of Christianity is somehow not able to be rationally defeated for the believer. Perhaps, someone will someday be able to mount a powerful argument to think that The Holy Spirit can serve as an intrinsic defeater, who counters every defeater lodged at the Christian.”

You don’t need a powerful argument to think that the Holy Spirit can serve as an intrinsic defeater. If God exists as the kind of loving God who wants people to come to know him as described in the Bible, then you already have such a defeater. You can doubt it – or you can rejoice over it. I know the course of action I find more reasonable!


[Garner quotes from my response and replies as follows:]

“Actually, in the context of reformed epistemology, this is not at all what Craig is saying. He is not saying that a person’s experience of God (or the Holy Spirit) is evidence for the truth of theism (or Christian theism). That would be an argument from religious experience, possibly even a good argument, but one which reformed epistemology is not concerned with.”

That’s not very charitable. I’m speaking of “evidence” in terms of first person. I’m not using it in the narrow sense that Plantinga uses it. In fact, what I mean here by “evidence” is synonymous to what Plantinga calls “grounds”.


[Garner responds again, and I reply:]

“That’s not very charitable. I’m speaking of “evidence” in terms of first person. I’m not using it in the narrow sense that Plantinga uses it. In fact, what I mean here by “evidence” is synonymous to what Plantinga calls “grounds”.”

You think I’m being uncharitable in my interpretation of what you wrote. But don’t you think that when you’re critiquing someone on a subject where the words being used have very specific meanings, then being imprecise is rather intolerable? It seems ever so glib to say this is not what you meant, if the very meaning of certain words and their implications is precisely what is at stake in the context of epistemology. That is why I pointed out that some people would use their “experience of God” as evidence for the truth of theism, which is, to quote Craig, “treating these experiences as something from which a belief is inferred.” You went on to say that this sort of belief is properly basic, but this is precisely where you create confusion. First of all, why use ‘evidence’ if you meant ‘ground’? These are distinct concepts in epistemology, not explained away by notions of “narrow senses”. Secondly, these experiences in Plantinga’s model serve as triggers for the operation of the sensus divinitatus which forms belief in God. It is therefore incorrect to say it is the experiences, as such, that ground belief in God.

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