This is the weekly Q & A blog post by our Research Professor in Philosophy, Dr. William Lane Craig.
Dear Dr. Craig, I am a huge fan of yours. Though in Ghana, a predominantly religious country with not much secular and humanist presence, your work has strengthened my faith and sharpened me in my encounters with unbelievers mostly online. And as secularism is gradually gaining grounds, I believe your work will help many here to stand up for the Faith.
I have read and listened to you on your reformed epistemologist view; the Christian faith being based on Holy Spirit witnessed properly basic beliefs; distinguishing between knowing and showing your Faith to be true and all. In your statements, and especially with reference to the recent 'Problem with Christian Apologetics' podcast, you state that when a believer encounters a more skilled and sophisticated rebuttal of his Faith, because he knows his Faith to be true primarily by the Witness of the God, he only has to go and research on good defeaters to the rebuttals. The unanswered rebuttals in no way should trump the witness of the Spirit to us on the Truth of Christianity.
My question is, wouldn't that be argued to be having the end game in mind and only finding the reasons to shore up a presupposed conclusion? Wouldn't the incentive to beef up your case lead to interpreting the data to fit the conclusion already at hand? I believe you hold that we should move towards where the evidences lead us, how open are we to the evidences if we have a conclusion that has got to and can only be upheld? I would love to have a response from you.
Thank you Sir.
Dr. William Lane Craig’s Response
It’s wonderful to receive your letter, Ishmael! It’s so encouraging to know that there are people in Ghana who are finding Reasonable Faith materials helpful.
Your question is a good one, as there is a great deal of misunderstanding of Reformed Epistemology. The Free Thought subculture out of which much of popular atheism springs tends to be committed to classical foundationalism, which holds that only beliefs which are self-evident, incorrigible, or, perhaps, evident to the senses can be properly held as basic or foundational; everything else must be inferred via argument.
Pop cultural atheism doesn’t realize that classical foundationalism is epistemologically bankrupt. It would consign us all to scepticism or irrationality, since much of what we believe (like the reality of the past, the existence of the external world, etc.) cannot be justified in that way. Moreover, the position is self-refuting, since classical foundationalism itself is neither self-evident, incorrigible, or evident to the senses nor capable of inference via argument from beliefs which are. We need to proclaim loud and clear that classical foundationalism is dead and that we all rationally accept beliefs which cannot be justified by argument and yet which don’t meet the classical foundationalist’s narrow strictures for proper basicality.
It is the merit of Reformed Epistemologists like Alvin Plantinga to ask why belief in God cannot be among those properly basic beliefs that we rationally accept. In his Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford University Press, 2000) Plantinga argues convincingly, I think, that apart from a demonstration of Christianity’s falsehood, there is no good objection to the claim that we can know the great truths of the Gospel (the central truths of the Christian faith) through the witness of God’s Spirit. For if Christianity is true, then obviously God could vouchsafe to His children knowledge of the great truths of the Gospel in this way. Indeed, a loving God would not abandon people to the vagaries of argument and evidence, which are relative to a person’s place and time and opportunities and education. In rejecting the witness of God’s Spirit as a means of knowing Christianity’s truths, Free Thought atheists and agnostics are presupposing that Christianity is false, which is question-begging.
The best way to look at this, I think, is as follows: we have two independent sources of warrant for our Christian beliefs, one of which is much superior to the other. One source is the arguments and evidence in support of Christian truth claims. The other is the testimony of God’s Spirit. We thus have dual warrant for our Christian beliefs. A person who finds himself in circumstances in which he lacks the arguments and evidence (say, someone in a North Korean camp), still has the warrant afforded by God’s Spirit.
We often find ourselves in circumstances in which we have such dual warrant for our beliefs. Take memory beliefs, for example. Suppose that someone demands how you know what you ate for breakfast. You could provide evidence in terms of your habitual pattern of behavior, the residue on the dirty dishes in the sink, and the testimony of family members who saw you eating breakfast. But even if that evidence were unavailable, so that you could not convince someone else, you yourself would still have the warrant of your own memory of what you ate for breakfast. Indeed, your belief isn’t based on evidence at all, convincing as it may be, but is a properly basic belief. You have two independent sources of warrant for your belief.
So, Ishmael, would you say that a person is biased because he accepts without evidence his memory belief that he had eggs for breakfast? Of course not! He has warrant for his belief that he had eggs for breakfast. As Plantinga emphasizes, properly basic beliefs are part of the deliverances of reason, just as much as inferential beliefs. (Of course, if you construe the term “evidence” widely enough to encompass memory, then Plantinga will say that the Spirit’s witness is also, in this wider sense, evidence—but that’s not how Reformed Epistemologists typically use the term.)
Notice that what we are said to know by means of the Spirit’s witness is not the fine points of Christian doctrine, much less the arguments of natural theology and Christian apologetics! In fact, those who hold that a non-inferential knowledge of God is available take a wide variety of views of natural theology and Christian evidences. Some like Plantinga have a robust natural theology (though he is sceptical of Christian evidences). Others like Karl Barth or Paul Moser disdain natural theology and even regard it as downright deleterious to a saving knowledge of God. The plain fact is that people who embrace Reformed Epistemology don’t conform to a party line with regard to theistic arguments or Christian evidences.
Why should they? Since they think that a non-inferential way of knowing the great truths of the Gospel is superior to argument and evidence, they can actually be more objective than evidentialists, whose belief (or disbelief!) rises or falls with those arguments! In my own case, it took doing a doctoral dissertation on the subject before I settled my mind that the kalam cosmological argument is sound, and it wasn’t until many years later that the work of Stephen Davis convinced me that a sound and persuasive version of the Leibnizian cosmological argument could be formulated. It was only more recently that I changed my mind about the worth of the ontological argument. By contrast, I remain unpersuaded by Quentin Smith’s conceptualist argument for God, much as I would like it to go through. Since my faith is warranted independently of those arguments, I can be more objective than the free-thinking atheist whose world will come crashing down if even one of those arguments turns out to be sound.
Now I realize that I haven’t really gotten yet to the point of your question, which concerns my claim that the witness of God’s Spirit is indefeasible, that is to say, it is what Plantinga calls an intrinsic defeater of any defeater brought against it. This is not a claim inherent to Reformed Epistemology, and I have no inkling of how many Reformed Epistemologists would endorse it. But it seems to me eminently reasonable. It seems to me unthinkable that our loving Heavenly Father would leave one of His children in a situation in which that person is rationally obliged to apostatize. I think that God would in such a situation warrant even more powerfully the truth of the Gospel by means of His Spirit so that the person would remain rationally warranted in his belief despite the defeaters brought against him.
So I do not think, nor have I ever claimed, that we should always “move towards where the evidences lead us.” Evidences are shifting and in a given circumstance may not point toward the truth. Plantinga gives the illustration of a man accused of crime which he knows he did not commit. Even if the evidence stands against him so that a jury of his peers should find him guilty, is the man obliged to follow the evidence where it leads? Of course not! There can obviously be situations in which the evidence points to a false conclusion, and if we have sufficient independent warrant we should not follow the evidence where it (mis)leads. (Maybe we should give such a situation a catchy name, like The Shawshank Redemption Exemption.)
You ask, “wouldn't that be argued to be having the end game in mind and only finding the reasons to shore up a presupposed conclusion?” Well, if by “the end game” you mean, not the arguments of natural theology and Christian evidences, but the great truths of the Gospel, then, yes, that is in view. But it is not merely “presupposed”—it is warranted! It is the question–begging assumption of free-thinkers that it is just presupposed. Just as the innocent man accused of a crime will try to find the reasons why the evidence ranged against him is somehow flawed, as he knows it is, so we, too, are perfectly rational in looking for the flaws in the defeaters brought against the truth of Christianity.
Finally, you ask, “Wouldn't the incentive to beef up your case lead to interpreting the data to fit the conclusion already at hand?” Now wait a minute, let’s not get confused! We’re not talking about one’s positive case for the truth of Christianity. As we’ve seen, Reformed Epistemologists differ widely whether there even is such a case to be presented. Far from beefing up one’s apologetic case, having a non-inferential knowledge of God can and often does lead to weakening it because such a case becomes superfluous. So it cannot be correct that claiming to have non-inferential knowledge of God leads to beefing up one’s case.
What’s at issue here, rather, is whether holding that the witness of God’s Spirit is indefeasible leads to some epistemic misstep. If it does, then I’ll gladly give up that claim. After all, that claim is not essential to Reformed Epistemology, much less Christianity. But I don’t see that you’ve identified any epistemic transgression so far.
This post and other resources are available on Dr. William Lane Craig's website: www.reasonablefaith.org