Oct 03

How Warranted is Properly Basic Belief?

This is a guest post by Matt DeStefano, and is part of the continued series Why Christianity is False. You can read more of Matt’s work at Soul Sprawl. In order to keep discussion under one heading, please visit the original piece here to comment.


This is in response to Dr. Matthew Flannagan’s essay Showing Christianity is True. I’ve previously written a response to Dr. Flannagan in my post When Christians Play the Part of Skeptics, and when we were deciding as a group which articles we wanted to tackle, I happily picked a name I recognized. Flannagan is easily one of the best thinkers of the bunch, and I was certainly interested in the topic of his essay: the epistemology of religious belief, and more specifically, reformed epistemology. If you haven’t already read it, I would definitely take the time to peruse the article and then you can understand where my critique is coming from.Flannagan begins by laying out a few questions that seem to have intuitive answers: Are there other minds? How do I know the Universe wasn’t created Last Thursday with the appearance of age? How do I know it’s wrong to inflict pain on others? He continues by saying:

Unless we want to fall into a global scepticism that defies all common sense we have to acknowledge that there are some beliefs which we hold rationally and know are true that, nevertheless, cannot be shown or proven to be true from premises that all intelligent people are required to accept.

I’m curious as to how Flannagan is using the term “proven to be true”. He seems to be setting the bar at deduction: unless we have a valid deductive proof with premises that “all intelligent people are required to accept”, then we cannot accept things as true. Or, rather, we can rationally hold these beliefs to be true without argument or evidence. This is a key move of the reformed epistemology movement, and one I think is gravely mistaken. This is a radical epistemological stance that seems like a carryover from Cartesian foundationalism. It seems that philosophers and scientists make claims of knowledge that aren’t deduced from a valid logical argument. We seem to know things like exercise increases overall health, alcohol consumption causes liver damage, and nicotine is an addictive substance. Perhaps Flannagan’s answer to this would be that we could only know these things by properly basic beliefs (the physical world is real, cause and effect, etc.), but it’s interesting that under this type of skepticism, he would have to conclude we don’t actually know those things.

Flannagan moves on to say that even though these can’t be proven true by argument, they aren’t groundless. He quotes Platinga and distinguishes between two types of experiences and “evidence” that lead us to ground our properly basic beliefs: sensory data evidence and doxastic evidence. Sensory data is fairly self explanatory: experiences we get from touch, sight, hearing, and all of the other senses we use to interact with the physical world.

Doxastic evidence is a bit of a queer category: he quotes Platinga again as saying that doxastic evidence is when “the belief feels right, acceptable, natural.” This seems to be the type of evidence that leads Flannagan to what I gather is his thesis:

Belief in the existence of God is, from the believer’s perspective, properly basic and grounded directly in some form of religious experience; hence it is justified and rational to believe these doctrines independently of any argument in favour of them.

This immediately raises a hundred different red flags in my mind. How do we know that our beliefs aren’t what are causing us to have a religious experience? How do we characterize that religious experience as one relating to Yahweh rather than Zeus or Thor? How do we know the difference between when we have a religious experience and when we are being delusional? What types of “feelings” are required in having a religious experience? These are things you’d expect someone defending the idea of a properly basic belief grounded in religious experience to address.

Nisbett and DeCamp Wilson, in their landmark Telling More Than We Can Know: Verbal Reports on Mental Processes have shown our remarkable inability to properly account for causal effects on our behavior. It’s odd to me that Flannagan and other reformed epistemology advocates place so much emphasis on our ability to introspect and not only confirm the character of the experience (religious or otherwise), but purport a causal relationship between that experience and the Christian God simply by examining our own feelings regarding our experiences. Is this really the only basis required for properly basic belief?

However, Flannagan skips over this seemingly vital defense and continues by addressing a slightly different question: How can we convince people that haven’t had these doxastic experiences that Christianity is true? Flannagan lays out a few different possibilities:


1. Rebutting Objections to Christian Belief

Flannagan points out that while you need not give argument for your belief in Christianity (Can you imagine an atheist saying ‘I have a properly basic belief that there is no God!’), it does not mean that Christianity cannot be defeated by reasons against them. However, providing an “out” for Christian belief no more convinces me of its truth than Russell’s justification for his celestial teapot convinces me of its truth. In fact, the more wild and improbable the defenses become, the more inclined I become to dismiss it entirely.

It also stands that Christianity has gone under significant changes through out its history, and has an enormous amount of doctrinal change and fracturing. Which Christianity do we need to object to? What prevents the apologists from just moving back the goal posts everytime a significant part of Christian doctrine is rebutted?


2. Showing Alternatives to Christianity to be False

He states that if you can illustrate that all of the viable alternatives to Christian theism are false, then you have a valid reason for accepting Christianity as true. Of course, this becomes an increasingly hard task when you have to compare religious ideologies. What metric do we use to determine what qualities of God are actual, and which ones are merely accidental byproducts of a flawed human conception?

Ironically, the skepticism that RE is built upon vanishes when we begin talking about other worldviews.


3. Reason Conditionally as a Christian

Flannagan says that if you reason conditionally as a Christian, you can provide “satisfactory” answers to existential, moral, and other types of questions. This isn’t a small debate, but I think Christianity fails to answer some of its most basic internal questions, let alone external questions. In fact, a large portion of atheist writing is actually aimed at showing how badly the Christian metaphysical system answers questions about reality.

Actually arguing those positions goes beyond the scope of this essay, but all over my site and other atheists’, you can see arguments as to why theism fails to explain basic tenets of the universe, or even basic internal convictions of theism itself.


4. Put that Person in a Position to have Requisite Experience

Flannagan makes an extremely peculiar analogy:

Suppose I see a tree in the park and my wife asks me to show her that this tree exists. The obvious way to do so is not to construct a proof of the existence of a tree but to take her to a park and show her it. Similarly, many people fail to grasp self-evident axioms of logic because they fail to understand them, but when these are explained to them they become self-evident.

This rests upon the claim that God is as self-evident as logical axioms, or trees existing in the park. If a theist could simply bring me to a church and point to God, the God thesis would be much less controversial. Those comparisons are far too generous, and I think even Flannagan would deny their relation if pressed further. The amount of detractors who were sincere believers before their deconversion serve as strong counter examples to the existence of God (or a ‘requisite religious experience’) being as self-evident as touching a tree in a park.

Apparently, if a person goes to church where “God is at work”, and reads Scripture, interacts with other Christians that this will put them in a place where they might have a requisite religious experience. So, immerse someone in a culture and they might adopt its tenets. It’s no secret that churches use this method all of the time. Unfortunately, this method smacks of cultism. If you brought someone to a Scientology compound, it’s possible that they might after considerable immersion begin to buy into the ideology. But, should we gather from that conversion that Scientology is true? Absolutely not.

Flannagan brings up Pascal, saying that while the agnostic simply cannot choose to believe (a concession many Christians don’t realize), he can choose to search, to try and understand, and when the agnostic does so sincerely, he will come to experience God. But, this reaches back to what I called the vital defense of reformed epistemelogy: give me some reason to suspect that these doxastic experiences are from God. Otherwise, I think it’s more reasonable to just assume I’m experiencing hyper-active agency detection or delusions.


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