Beliefs that are forever justified?
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.