Note on Believing in God

What kind of thing is belief in God (not to be confused with faith)? Is it the same kind of thing as any other belief? I don’t think so. Believing in God can’t be the same as belief in, say, a 10th planet beyond Pluto. They are different kinds of belief – one concerns an object in space and time, one concerns the uncreated. That is, to me, what makes it so different. If God is uncreated, then things like experience, belief, and knowledge that we have of Him are going to of a different order altogether.

Note on Strengthening Faith

When someone says something in regards to, say, a fact of science, that ‘it strengthened their faith’, what exactly does that mean? That acquiring this particular piece of empirical knowledge somehow increased either the quality or quantity of their faith? How would this work? I see statements like that often, but I’m not sure what is really meant by them. One believes in God – does learning X mean that now they really believe in God? Or that if there was any doubt, now there isn’t? But suppose X hadn’t been found out. Would said faith be weaker than if X had? I doubt that very much – I have a hard time imagining a devout Christian would have their faith shaken by not coming across a certain fact – if they did, then that would serve simply to show the folly of basing one’s faith in God upon a particular empirical fact.

Or suppose that the opposite of X, Y, had been found out. Would that have weakened said faith? I doubt that, because I don’t think what is meant by ‘strengthening faith’ is that X actually increases the quality of one’s spiritual confidence in God, or corrects a deficiency or weakness in said faith, but rather that X simply affirms what is already believed. I know my wife is a lovely person, but when she makes a nice dinner or cleans up the kitchen, I don’t say, ‘wow, that really strengthened my belief that she’s a nice person.’ I already know she’s a nice person – dinner simply serves to confirm what I already know. A poor analogy that’s best not pressed too far, but it serves the point.

Anyway, my point is that I don’t think most folks who say that X strengthens their faith actually mean that. From a theological perspective, God strengthens my faith – not any particular empirical or metaphysical fact. I think it was Newman who said, ‘I believe in design because I believe in God, not in God because I believe in design.

In Defense of the Wager

Pascal is known in the religious/philosophy/apologetics world because of his (in)famous wager. I won’t review the argument here – it can be found online in various translations quite easily.

When one views just the argument on its own, without any context, one comes away less than impressed. A brief look at the context of the argument as well as Pascal’s overall method and goals, however, throw the argument into sharp relief.

Pascal spends a number of pages in his Pensees on boredom. He sees mankind as a fundamentally bored species, who seeks all manner of diversions so as to keep the boredom at bay. Pascal’s aim, then, is too argue against this indifference and boredom and jolt the passive unbeliever not into believing but into taking seriously the notion of belief. The wager is not a slam-dunk argument, but it’s not meant to be. It’s not meant to stand up to rigorous analytic philosophical dissection. It is the climax of Pascal’s efforts in the Pensees. After spending page after page detailing the misery of man in his boredom, the wretchedness of his reason and his pathetic attempts to keep boredom at bay, Pascal’s wager then is meant to move the apathetic person from his state of boredom and diversion into a frame of mind that takes seriously Pascal’s religious claim – that apart from God, man is only in misery and darkness.

Belief and the Will

Is belief an act of volition? Can I simply choose to believe some proposition freely?

Suppose I say that I am a married bachelor. This is a self-evidently false proposition – but if belief is an act of the will, is it possible to believe it in spite of its self-evident falsity? The question here becomes a different one, however – can a self-evidently false proposition be believed?

Warrant is the key, here – I suppose anyone could belief anything if they truly wanted to – though we would be inclined to call such belief delusion. There has to be warrant for belief. Perhaps I need to read up on Alvin Plantinga.

Consider a slightly different case: self-deception, or deception of any kind, or a circumstance in which someone becomes convinced, either through self-deception or outside deception, that a false proposition is true. These cases are such that there appears, at least to the believer, sufficient warrant for belief. But whence cometh warrant? Is warrant strictly external evidence that P is true? If I am deceived into believing a false proposition, perhaps someone else isn’t – there is warrant for me but not for them. Is warrant then purely subjective? Perhaps an either-or dictotomy is unwarranted. Warrant can be both external-objective (say, an experiment) as well as internal-subjective (say, my gut feeling). But which really counts? A fervent believer will believe P in the face of any and all external-objective evidence (EOE) to the contrary – so does EOE even matter? Is belief strictly an internal affair? There appear to be some things that I believe without making any conscious choice to believe, and with no warrant, either of the external or internal variety. These would fall under the banner of properly basic beliefs (more Plantinga) – things that we simply take as basic, like the existence of a past, the world, other people, other minds, etc.

Consider fideism – holding something by brute animal faith, in the teeth of all evidence. Believing what you know ain’t so. A leap in the dark, or a poorly thought out wager. Does fideism hold up to scrutiny? One would hold P by faith because there is no reason or evidence that warrants it – but is not the fact there is no evidence serve as evidence that one needs to hold it by faith? This seems self-refuting – fideism holds things by faith because there is no evidence for it – and that is the evidence that one needs to take it on faith! Note that this kind of faith is not the kind of faith that historical Christianity, or myself, holds – which is a personal trust in a covenant God who has revealed and proved Himself worthy of that trust.

Wittgenstein on Belief

‘If someone can believe in God with complete certainty, why not in Other Minds?’ (Ludwig Wittgenstein, ‘Culture and Value’, p. 73e)

This is, so far as I can tell, where the first stab at something like properly basic beliefs (in the modern, Plantingan sense) was formulated. It’s interesting – Wittgenstein reverses the usual, ‘belief in other minds is rational, so why not belief in God,’ form of the argument. Can it still stand as a convincing idea?

What’s interesting is that Wittgenstein assumes that belief in God is totally, completely rational (we might even use the term, ‘basic’) – and that it’s belief in other minds as rational that is justified by the rationality of believing in God. We might be able to take his thought a bit further: can anything be believed in with complete certainty if God is not first believed in? Thinkers such as Cornelius van Til, one of the primary philosophers behind a movement in Reformed Christian thought, would say a resounding no. I do not agree.

Wittgenstein knew what ‘complete certainty’ meant here – not simply being sure or confident, but certain in the mathematical sense: as certain of God as one is of 2+2=4. One could argue that only in mathematics can one be certain of things in a mathematical sense, but the question still remains: is it belief in God that justifies belief in other minds, or belief in other minds that justifies belief in God, or is there another alternative?

Some Thoughts on Properly Basic Beliefs

The central thrust of properly basic beliefs ( a theory of knowledge developed by in part by Alvin Plantinga, referred to has PBB from here on out) is that there are certain things (God, other minds, the past) that do not require evidence to be rationally believed in. They can be believed in the properly basic way – to believe otherwise would seem to indicate some cognitive dissonance. This seems to be the case – to not believe that the past happened because of a lack of convincing argument would indeed seem to be odd.

Is this self-defeating, however? If I claim that I don’t need evidence to believe in, say, God, because I can believe in things like other minds, the past, etc, that’s giving evidence that I don’t need evidence.

Or, perhaps, this is a more helpful way of thinking of it: PBB says that evidentialism is wrong – but surely it says this on the basis of evidence. This seems to me to be a bit self-defeating. Can one say on the basis of evidence that evidentialism is wrong? If it’s not self-defeating, it certainly seems suspicious.

But perhaps PBB says something true: it says that on the basis of evidence, evidentialism is wrong – evidentialism cannot justify all our beliefs in a non-circular way. It is evidently true that evidentialism is wrong. If something is self-evidently wrong, then one is not unjustified to call it wrong on the basis of its self-evidence.

So on the basis of evidentialisms self-evident falsity, PBB can claim that evidentialism is indeed false without that claim being a case of self-defeat. It is not self-defeating for PBB to claim that evidentialism is false on account of its self-evident falsity.

Pascal on Believing

‘We know truth, not only by the reason, but also by the heart, and it is in this last way that we know first principles; and reason, which has no part in it, tries in vain to impugn them. The sceptics, who have only this for their object, labour to no purpose. We know that we do not dream, and, however impossible it is for us to prove it by reason, this inability demonstrates only the weakness of our reason, but not, as they affirm, the uncertainty of all our knowledge. For the knowledge of first principles, as space, time, motion, number, is as sure as any of those which we get from reasoning. And reason must trust these intuitions of the heart, and must base them on every argument. (We have intuitive knowledge of the tri-dimensional nature of space and of the infinity of number, and reason then shows that there are no two square numbers one of which is double of the other. Principles are intuited, propositions are inferred, all with certainty, though in different ways.) And it is as useless and absurd for reason to demand from the heart proofs of her first principles, before admitting them, as it would be for the heart to demand from reason an intuition of all demonstrated propositions before accepting them.

This inability ought, then, to serve only to humble reason, which would judge all, but not to impugn our certainty, as if only reason were capable of instructing us. Would to God, on the contrary, that we had never need of it, and that we knew everything by instinct and intuition! But nature has refused us this boon. On the contrary, she has given us but very little knowledge of this kind; and all the rest can be acquired only by reasoning.

Therefore, those to whom God has imparted religion by intuition are very fortunate and justly convinced. But to those who do not have it, we can give it only by reasoning, waiting for God to give them spiritual insight, without which faith is only human and useless for salvation.’ (Blaise Pascal, ‘Pensees’ 282)