Spurred on by Lindsay Beyerstein's recent post on agnosticism, coupled with a BookTV discussion with Sam Harris, the author of The End of Faith, and BabaWawa's "special presentation" on Heaven the other night, I've been thinking about the question of justified belief.
As a Christian, and more so I think as a theologian, I have a responsibility to make an account of why I believe what I believe, and I to offer a justification for it. But what kind of a justification ought to be considered adequate? Harris made the point on BookTV that "religious moderates," in contrast to religious conservatives, don't like to deal with argument and evidence. I suppose that there's some truth to that, insofar as a lot of religious liberals are rooted in Freidrich Schleiermacher's conception of religion as a "feeling of absolute dependence." Of course, Schleiermacher was not trying to substitute feelings for arguments; he was offering a phenomenological description of where religious instincts come from. Nevertheless, it has opened the door to a great deal of wishy-washy-ness with regard to the very germane questions of justification in Christian faith.
Of course, Harris wasn't really all that interested in engaging religious "moderates" or "liberals" so much as he was interested in setting up a strawman that was easy to knock down (after all, is it really true that charismatic evangelicals are more interested in evidence than moderate mainline Christians? I'll ask the friend of mine who once told me "don't bother telling me these things, I already know what I believe").
Lindsay, taking on the difference between agnosticism and atheism, makes a very germane point about the linguistic distortions that believers often use to pummel non-believers:
People often like to play "gotcha" with self-professed atheists. If you say that you don't believe in God, they counter with "Well, isn't that just like a religion, then?" These people are twisting the normal vocabulary of knowledge and belief. If we talk about belief in God the same way we talk about belief in other propositions, then it's perfectly natural to call yourself a non-believer.
Agreed. Indeed, I pretty much agree with the overall point she's making. But I'd like to add a wrinkle to the discussion by trying to expand a little bit about what constitutes justified belief.
Most philosophically oriented atheists will argue for something like a "strong evidentialist" position. This point of view argues that it is illegitimate to believe in anything unless you have sufficient evidence, and the kind of evidence that counts as sufficient is something akin to the kind of evidence that you would need to demonstrate a scientific theory. Since you can never know for sure whether God exists or not, you are only justified in believing if you can overcome a fairly high burden of proof. Lindsay makes this very point:
In fact, most atheists lack religious beliefs for the same reason they lack other beliefs--insufficient evidence.
I'm an atheist. I can't prove there isn't a God. (I'm not even sure that the concept of God has been sufficiently well defined that I would recognize a proof of that particular entity's non-existence.)
I can't prove that the phone company didn't kill Kennedy, either. But if someone asks me whether I believe that the phone company whacked JFK, I say no. When I do, nobody asks me to supply proof of the phone company's innocence, or accuses me of taking the phone company's innocence as an article of faith.
The representative of the atheist position on the Waters special made the same basic argument the other night, and it is a hard argument to dispute, provided you agree with the proposition that the only justified belief is one that rises to approximately the same level as a scientific proof.
An interesting twist on this came when Anthony Flew declared last winter that he now felt, on the basis of some arguments about intelligent design, that the evidence was now sufficient to conclude that there was some kind of a God. I have to confess to being a bit embarrassed for Flew, since for such a distinguished philosopher, he's chosen a really rotten ground for belief.
The real problem, and the one I would ask my atheist friends to consider, is that the standard of proof for religious faith is of a wholly different character than for a scientific theory. The philosophical touchstones for thinking about the warrants for religious belief go back to Pascal and Leibniz, not Hume.
Look at the question from this perspective: Suppose I'm trying to figure out the way the universe works, or seeking to make sense of my life. I've got lots of theories of human nature that I can base my self-conception on. I could be a Freudian, a Marxist, a Nietszchean; I could be a liberal democrat or an aficionado of Ayn Rand. I could be any of these things, and many more. Or I could be a Christian. On what theory of human nature should I rest my self-conception? Does Christianity answer the fundamental question of human life any worse than these other theories, or any other theory at all? I would suggest that it is at least as good a theory of human nature as these others, and it is better than many of them.
So then, I think that Christianity ought to be given respect because it offers interesting and (for many) compelling answers to the questions of human life. This doesn't mean it's true, of course. It could be completely wrong and still be interesting and compelling. So, am I justified in believing it?
Here's where Leibniz comes in. A lot of folks misinterpret Leibniz, thinking that in his "best of all possible worlds" scenario he's making a case that his analysis of evil is the way that the world must be. But that's not right. Leibniz is doing what a Christian philosopher should do: He's taking account of the objections to Christian belief, one of which is the existence of evil in the world. A careful reading of the Theodicy would reveal that he actually offers several explanations for the existence of evil. But why?
Leibniz believes, as it seems that Lindsay would as well, that you can't prove God's existence, but you also can't prove his non-existence. The question of God's being is undetermined (and possibly undeterminable!). But Leibniz argues that, if you've got a theory, like Christianity, that makes sense of human life, and is not per se irrational (that is to say, self-contradictory), then it is sufficient to justify belief in that theory on the basis of possibilities. In other words, the existence of evil is a real argument against Christianity. But Christians don't need to prove that evil is justified, they just need to offer a theory that accounts for evil, like the "best of all possible worlds" theory. The ability to provide a possible set of circumstances in which religious faith can be true offers a sufficient warrant to justify belief.
This is of course, a long way from a proof. And for a lot of atheists, it would be insufficient to demonstrate God's existence. But it's not intended to be a demonstration. It's intended to offer an account of a justified belief. Because Christianity is attractive on other grounds (as Pascal would have it: It is worthy of respect because it explains the human condition, and it is attractive because it holds out the possibility that the believer may be happy), it is sufficient to justify belief. But being respectable and attractive still doesn't make Christianity true.
The question is, does it provide a sufficient justification for belief? Must religious belief be justifiable only on the terms set by atheists? Or may it be justifiable on other, less burdensome grounds? We believe all sorts of things with less than scientific proof (My mother loves me; my bank is not cheating me right now; I won't get into an accident if I go through the stop light when it's green at a reasonable rate of speed). Sometimes, we believe these things mistakenly, but if we were to require the kind of proof that Lindsay requires for a belief in God, we'd become paralyzed into inaction. I want to suggest that justified faith in God is much closer to the kind of faith we have in the ordinary events of our lives than it is like a scientific theory.
Another approach, taken by Alvin Plantinga, is to argue that we have as much basis to believe in the existence of God as we do to believe in the existence of minds outside of ourselves (that is to say, I believe that Lindsay has a mind, and she believes that I have one). If we aren't irrational for believing in other minds, are we irrational for believing in God?
So, my question is this: If I believe something that is intellectually worthy of respect and makes me happy, and if furthermore I can provide a coherent account of it that encompasses the various objections to my belief, do I have a rational, justified, warranted belief, or not? If not, why not? Can I have a rational justified, warranted belief in something that is in fact wrong, though I don't know it to be so?
I'm certainly hoping that some others in the philosophical blogosphere take a look at this post and offer their own analysis. I'm interested in hearing what they say. I should point out that I don't take ownership over most of this argument, which has its origins in my philosophy professors Diogenes Allen and Wentzel van Huyssteen, as well as Plantinga, Michael Stenmark, Nicholas Rescher and others. Of course, to the degree that I've muddled their arguments, the fault is mine.
EDIT: A post-Christmas review of this post revealed many, many typos and misspellings. That's what I get for trying to write in a coffee shop with a cold!