Beliefs that are forever justified?

Posted on 08/26/11 24 Comments

El Bryan Libre takes issue with my critique of William Lane Craig. He writes

“I think the doubt he’s talking about is strictly whether Christianity (or even just theism) is true.”

“Out of the different ways you could have interpreted him what made you choose to go with the most negative (and easiest to knock down) instead of giving him the benefit of the doubt?”

David P concurs:

“I’m not sure why we should fault Craig for assuming that someone is doubting basic Christian truth rather than your list.”

So have I taken an “uncharitable” reading? Let’s take a look.

Ultima Facie Justified Beliefs

The core of the issue is this. Craig is claiming that certain justified beliefs we have retain ultima facie justification. This means that no matter how much evidence accrues against them, we are under no epistemic obligation to attempt to rebut that evidence. Those beliefs will always remain justified for us.

This contrasts sharply with all our other justified beliefs which are only prima facie justified. In other words, these other beliefs can lose their justification based on the accruing of new counter-evidence. Here is a trite example.

Example: I heard that Will Smith is getting a divorce the other day based on a Yahoo news report. This is a prima facie justified belief. However the next day my wife told me she read that he called a news report to rebut the false rumor that he is getting a divorce. In fact, he remains happily married. Suddenly my justification is revoked.

Common sense would say that all our beliefs are like this (except, perhaps, for a very restricted set of beliefs like “I exist” and “Nothing can be true and false at the same time”).

Craig is claiming that some existentially loaded beliefs are not like this. They cannot lose their justification. And they concern Christianity.

This has an important consequence. It means that when evidence comes against these beliefs, that evidence does not diminish your justification for holding those beliefs at all. And that means even when the evidence seems to support the overwhelming conclusion that those beliefs are false, you can still continue to believe they are true.

This is an extraordinary claim. Think about my Will Smith belief. I ignore my wife’s claim and continue to believe he’s getting a divorce. So she shows me the report. I dismiss it. So she flies Will and Jada Pinkett Smith up to Edmonton to plead with me. And I dismiss that too. Who would think that this constitutes a rational response?

If there are beliefs like this which are ultima facie justified, I want to know what they are!

Which beliefs are ultima facie justified?

So to which beliefs does Craig bequeath this property of ultima facie justification? Le Bryan Libre contends that Craig is speaking at most about two beliefs:

(A) Theism is true

(B) Christianity is true

And so Bryan contends that to suggest the claim can be applied to a broad range of other beliefs (as I have) is taking a very uncharitable interpretation.

Unfortunately this is a very tendentious interpretation of Craig’s claim. Consider the following.

Gary just took a Bible criticism course at university and now has doubts that the Bible can be the Word of God. In other words, to be clear, he doubts the proposition “The Bible is the Word of God”.

Lexie took a philosophy of religion course at university and now finds herself doubting the proposition “Jesus Christ was God incarnate.”

And finally, Mickey spent some time working in famine stricken Somalia and now finds himself struggling with the proposition “God is all loving.”

Is it plausible to suggest that Craig’s advice is aimed not at the real doubts of Gary, Lexie and Mickey but only at those who doubt (A) or (B)? Of course not. Such a claim would be absurd.

Here we need to think for a minute about what is entailed by (B). What does it mean to say that “Christianity is true” need never be doubted no matter what the evidence? Well Christianity is, among other things, a series of truth claims, including the very claims that Gary, Lexie and Mickey are doubting.

So by presenting the claim that Christianity is ultima facie justified, Craig is actually making a preemptive strike against the very doubts of Gary, Lexie and Mickey.

Now this leads us to THE question. If Craig has offered an argument that (B) is ultima facie justified, then which beliefs actually belong in (B)? Which beliefs are such that our justification for holding them is completely unrelated to any putative defeaters to their truth?

Unfortunately, Craig gives us absolutely no guidance on that point.

And I can understand why too. This leads to intolerable problems. For example, is “God is good” ultima facie justified but “God is maximally good” not? Is “Jesus is God incarnate” ultima facie justified but “Jesus was fully God and fully human” not? Is “God is three distinct persons” maximally justified but “God the Father filiates the Son” is not?

The unintended consequences of ultima facie beliefs part 1

Let’s go back to 200 BC. If we taught Craig’s views to the Jews at that time, we would equip them with the ultima facie justified belief “Judaism is true”. And that, in turn, would include many other beliefs as being ultima facie justified. For example, if you are a good Jew you know that no man can claim to be God or call God his own Father thereby making himself equal with God. And no mere human can claim “Before Abraham was, I AM!” That’d be crazy. And it wouldn’t matter what that individual would do, what evidence he might provide, to challenge those beliefs in which I have ultima facie justification. Even a resurrection could be explained away.

We all know how that story ends.

So which beliefs might Christians be indemnifying against any counter-evidence by appealing to this strange notion of ultima facie justification?

The unintended consequences of ultima facie beliefs part 2

This leads me back to the point I made last time. If you say (B) is ultima facie justification then who decides which other beliefs are also thereby ultima facie justified? Surely Gary, Lexie and Mickey’s beliefs are, right? What about the KJV only advocate’s beliefs or the young earther’s beliefs?

Doubt and the devil

I already said that sometimes doubts come from the devil. But I also pointed out that sometimes doubt can arise simply because the evidence doesn’t support our beliefs and we need to rethink them. Coming to terms with that fact is part of intellectual maturation, and claiming that a certain undefined set of beliefs are ultima facie justified is not the way to facilitate that maturation.

  • El Bryan Libre

    I think this post saying that what Craig said ultimately, or by implication, applies to these other issues related to Christianity is interesting and I wonder how Craig would respond to that. However that seems different than him actually saying what you said he was saying in the previous post. You seemed to say that he was saying that no doubts related to Christianity need to be fretted over or that you were faulting him for Christians taking his advice that way. You don’t really believe he thinks that do you so why would you think he gives that as advice? Plus it seems like you’re demanding philosophical precision in his answer rather than pastoral precision which would seem to be expected instead since he was giving a pastoral answer to the question.
    Interesting post, though.

    • randal

      “You don’t really believe he thinks that do you so why would you think he gives that as advice?”

      My guess is that Craig doesn’t think we need to worry about defeaters to the Trinity but he does think we need to worry about defeaters to the KJV only. But how he can justify drawing the line where he does I have no idea, especially when everyone who listens to his advice will draw the line differently (and often in a very self-serving way). That’s the point and the problem.

      “Plus it seems like you’re demanding philosophical precision in his answer rather than pastoral precision which would seem to be expected instead since he was giving a pastoral answer to the question.”

      Wait a minute! You don’t give pastoral advice that is philosophically indefensible, especially if you’re an analytic philosopher. As I said at the end of my first article, no advice which is philosophically indefensible can be pastorally wise in the long run.

      • El Bryan Libre

        So then how would you reword what he said to be philosophically defensible but in a pastoral package and not overly complicated and analytic?

        Did he really give philosophically indefensible advice? Or was it just not a full philosophical argument but one that was condensed in pastoral advice that didn’t preempt the objections that might be raised against it. ‘m just wondering if context needs to be taken into account.

        • randal

          “So then how would you reword what he said to be philosophically defensible but in a pastoral package and not overly complicated and analytic?”

          I would abandon the appeal to ultima facie justification. He doesn’t need it. Instead, I would point out that Christians can expect trials, and trials of faith are among them. I’d also point out that Christians have always struggled with doubt. And I’d explain that doubts are analogous to pains in the body. They are not there simply to cause hardship but to signal a problem and so we should pay attention to them. But we don’t do that as individuals. We face doubts as communities, and so when we have doubts we can turn to others in the community — either in our church or in the wider intellectual Christian community — to get pastoral and intellectual support. Finally, I’d point out that doubts remind us we can get things wrong, so occasionally we may find ourselves revising our beliefs in light of our doubts.

          • David Parker

            But on your account, can a Christian be evidentially hoisted out of belief in God or basic Christian doctrines?

            If so, then they can march right to the pearly gates and say, “Not enough evidence, God…not enough evidence.”

            Can they not?

            That seems to be Craig’s point and his need for ultima facie justified beliefs.

            • randal

              “If so, then they can march right to the pearly gates and say, “Not enough evidence, God…not enough evidence.” Can they not?”

              First of all, the Russell reference is a complete red herring. There is a world of difference between the pretentious “Not enough evidence God” and the tears streaming down one’s face “Not enough evidence God”.

              You seem to be presenting a rather reductionist, rationalistic picture of the Christian life as assent to a set of propositions. But belief is as much about action as intellectual assent. Indeed, I would submit that if you read Jesus’ teaching on the matters then action wears the trousers. So the view you and Craig are pushing is a reductionistic rationalism. “Make sure you believe propositions (1)-(5) at the point of your death or your damned forever.” Ech.

              • David Parker

                “So the view you and Craig are pushing is a reductionistic rationalism.”

                Well first let me let Craig speak for himself:

                “It seems to me, therefore, that the biblical theist ought to hold that among the circumstances that rationally warrant and, indeed, justify theistic belief is the witness of the Holy Spirit, and that non- propositional warrant is an intrinsic defeater of any potential defeater that might be brought against it. It is here that William Alston and Illtyd Trethowan’s contributions on religious and moral experience as the grounds for properly basic belief in God become relevant. Though their philosophical viewpoints are diverse, each attempts in his own way to show how an immediate experience of God constitutes the circumstances for a non-inferential knowledge of God’s existence.” (link)

                Speaking for myself, I think epistemic duties need to be reconciled to certain statements in the Bible. I’m not talking hardcore Romans 1, “all atheists are suppressing the truth” kind of stuff (though I think many pass over that verse too lightly with poor exegesis). I’m just talking about the basic idea that God either holds men responsible or not.

                And if a man with normally functioning cognitive faculties dies..and stands before God…we should be able to say whether or not that man violated his epistemic duties if he abandoned his faith in light of arguments he encountered against it.

                That’s all I’m saying. If there are atheists who are not violating their epistemic duties (they study hard, they try hard, they aren’t convinced)…what should God say to them? “Depart from me you never knew me?”

                (Sorry, I couldn’t resist the Russell quote for dramatic effect. I admit to dragging a fish there.)

                • David Parker

                  Likewise I suppose there are Christians who who confess belief yet have zero experiential or propositional support.

                  They affirm what is needed to maintain their social status in the community they grew up in. They participate in all sorts of charity work, love their neighbor, etc. They might even be inspired by religious songs and the life of Jesus. But they haven’t the slightest inferential basis for their belief that God exists or that Christianity is true. In fact, they wouldn’t even say they ever had a conversion experience. They never questioned the truth of Christianity…one way or the other. Like the existence of the back of my hand…I never had an experience of it “being there” that was especially confirming. I also never had any doubts about its being there. Now if this is a basic belief, it’s a rather vacuous one if you ask me.

                  Consider the content of their belief that God exists. What the heck does it amount to? At least the unconvinced but studious atheist has some content to his belief that God probably doesn’t exist.

                  No real point here, just thinking a bit further about it.

                  If belief in God is like the belief that the back of my hand exists: unchallenged and relatively unrecognized, then I’d say something important is missing.

                  We’d want to add in something about “they need to challenge themselves intellectually” or “they should read something stimulating.”

                  But that’s not an epistemological problem. It’s a problem with how people live their lives. Not sure what I think about that.

                  • randal

                    You have to wonder about people who confess the right things but have no real interest in them. They have no passion and no doubt. It is like the lights are off and nobody’s home. I’m not sure what to say about such cases.

              • Lac

                “There is a world of difference between the pretentious “Not enough evidence God” and the tears streaming down one’s face “Not enough evidence God”.”

                While in general, I agree with this comment, I have to say that the latter type of unbelief is not sustainable over the long term without pushng one into long-term despair and depression. The fact is the Christian community is just not open to severe doubt, and it is difficult to find a community to embrace such doubt (that has the expertise and wisdom to understand such doubt and answer questions about academic scholarship, science etc). Most Christians don’t even ponder such issues….or shall I say, haven’t been forced to ponder this issues by the good luck of choosing educational degrees in areas outside the sciences and religion.

  • Mike Fischer

    I think you correctly identified the reducto ad absurdum here. This reminds me of the problem with presuppositional apologetics: the same arguments apply equally well to any other belief system.

    My biggest problem with Craig’s points #1 and #2 is that they’re just not very helpful advice. It leaves the serious doubter or the unbeliever with the classic bootstrapping problem: how can you rely on the self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit when you’re not convinced he exists? And again, it’s equally effective in the hands of the Mormon apologist, for example.

    I guess Craig’s advice is more for the “casual” doubter, who can still act as though his beliefs were true, than the “serious” doubter, who can no longer stake any important behavior on his “beliefs” until more evidence comes along.

    I’m unfortunately in the latter camp. I’m still in Christian community, but at times, engaging in some of the Craig-recommended spiritual disciplines fills me with a literally nauseating cognitive dissonance. So I’ve taken a step back from some things.

    Craig’s point #3 is helpful, and I’d add to that a healthy, ongoing dialog with friends on both sides of the debate. But some don’t have the luxury of being so casual in their investigations.

    P.S. Thanks for your blog, Randall! It’s very helpful in clearing away the cobwebs of beliefs that I once thought one must hold to be a Christian.

    • randal

      Thanks Mike.

      Pastorally speaking I think the most helpful thing is to recognize that doubts are a part of the Christian life and have been experienced by Christians throughout history. My favorite example is John the Baptist who went from boldly proclaiming judgment and baptizing his cousin to sitting dejected in prison wondering whether Jesus really could be the messiah. Gosh, if John can end up in a prison of doubt, why not me too?

    • Brap Gronk

      Please don’t stop, Mike. Keep going, you’re almost there. Maybe this will help combat any nausea you experience as a result of your journey:

  • Jpuras

    One thing that this society tells us is beyond doubt is the Scientific Method.

    Just try expressing doubt about that in a college classroom

  • David Parker

    “Unfortunately, Craig gives us absolutely no guidance on that point.”…in the 5 minute video clip..but if you read the first chapter of his apologetics book, he is a bit more clear. :-)

    • randal

      I can be more clear in a five minute video clip.

      • David Parker

        I’ll concede to you that the Woody Allen clip was pretty darn good. ;-)

        • randal

          I have in my collection somewhere a video circa 1975 of a film starring Josh McDowell as himself lecturing at a university campus with plaid pants and a fiery red shirt.Now THAT is cool.

  • David Parker

    “Coming to terms with that fact is part of intellectual maturation, and claiming that a certain undefined set of beliefs are ultima facie justified is not the way to facilitate that maturation.”

    Perhaps. Here is Craig’s response to Plantinga’s prima facie approach to basic beliefs.

    The problem with such a religious epistemology, it seems to me, is that it still, like theological rationalism, sanctions what Martin Luther called the magisterial use of reason. That is to say, theistic belief is still subject to potential rational defeaters and cannot be rationally held unless such defeaters are defeated. But a little reflection will show that such an epistemology is as religiously inadequate as evidentialism. Consider, for example, a young German student of pietistic Lutheran upbringing who, desiring to become a pastor himself, goes off to the University of Marburg to study theology. There he sits under various professors of Bultmannian stripe and finds his orthodox theistic faith constantly under attack. He looks about for answers, but finds none in either his reading or in discussions with other persons. He feels utterly defenseless before his professors’ criticisms, having nothing but the reality of his own experience of a personal God to oppose to their arguments. Now on Plantinga’s view as thus far explained, such a student seems to be irrational to continue to believe in God; he has an epistemic obligation to give up his faith. But surely this is unconscionable. For it makes being a theistic believer a matter of historical and geographical accident. Some persons simply lack the ability, time, or resources to come up with successful defeaters of the anti-theistic defeaters they encounter. Plantinga claims to have shown that there are, to his knowledge, no irrefutable defeaters of theism. Well and good; but what about all the millions of persons prior to Plantinga who were not so ingenious, who did not, for example, see the distinction between a defense and a theodicy, and who, like Plantinga, found all proposals of the latter sort “tepid, shallow, and ultimately frivolous?”[15] Even Plantinga’s colleague Philip Quinn, himself a distinguished theistic philosopher, confesses that he sees no solution to the problem of evil and therefore has “very substantial reasons” for believing that God does not exist.[16] The point is not whether Quinn is correct-indeed, Plantinga does, it seems to me, supply defeaters of the purported defeaters of theism-, but rather that there must be millions of people like Quinn, who, due to contingent factors of geography and history, are at a loss as to how to answer the objections to theism they confront. Are we going to deny them, on pain of irrationality, the joy and privilege of personal faith in God? If so, will they therefore be eternally lost for not believing in God? To answer affirmatively seems unthinkable; but to answer negatively seems contrary to the biblical teaching that all men are “without excuse” if they do not believe in God (Rom. 1:20). So long as we retain the magisterial use of reason, the sting of evidentialism has not been removed.” (link)

    • randal

      “Now on Plantinga’s view as thus far explained, such a student seems to be irrational to continue to believe in God; he has an epistemic obligation to give up his faith. But surely this is unconscionable.”

      Why “unconscionable”? Is it still “unconscionable” if Christianity happens to be false? And anyway, what’s the big deal for Craig. Perhaps that guy opts to persist in that belief because he values some things more than being rational on every belief. After all, few if any of us are perfectly rational all the time. So what if he maintains a belief about God despite prima facie defeating Bultmannian evidence to the contrary and in doing so he is irrational for that period until he finally identifies defeaters? What’s the big deal? Did the sky fall?

      • David Parker

        So it sounds like you think basic beliefs are prima facie justified, but it isn’t a big deal if we continue to hold onto those beliefs in the face of putative defeaters…epistemic duty needn’t be an immediate knee jerk reaction to the evidence perhaps.

        I’d agree with that. Craig would as well. But he’d maintain that ultimately, that belief ain’t gonna be flushed out by propositional evidence. It enjoys non-propositional warrant and is an intrinsic defeater-defeater.

        But something Craig isn’t clear on is whether an undercutting defeater (one that doesn’t contradict the belief itself but the reliability of what produced it) wouldn’t work to dislodge it. Maybe if a theist studied religious experiences in other cultures, and saw how scientists were able to stimulate the brain to produce religious experiences…he’d have enough evidence at that point?

  • Jeff

    Sorry if I’m dropping an atom bomb in an otherwise focused, civilized discussion, but I find the idea that certain propositional beliefs are necessary in order to avoid the fires of hell to be monstrous and absurd. Is God offended by our doubts? Is God offended by the fact that I oscillate between Christian theism, deism, agnosticism, and whatever else? If I happen to find myself in a state of deism/agnosticism/atheism at the moment I die, am I headed for toasty land? What level of non-doubt do I need in order keep my ticket to heaven? 51%? Is God really such a petty mental enforcer? Wasn’t the Protestant Reformation all about combating the notion of God as petty tyrant judge?

    Doubt is something that discomforts us, not God. If we’re not seriously doubting, at least from time to time, then I’m not sure it can be said that we’re growing. At least, not growing in one very important way.

    Great post, Randal!

    • randal

      I wouldn’t agree that an exclusivist position is monstrous and absurd, but I do agree that it is false.

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