Saturday, July 30, 2011

Faith, The Scientific Hypothesis, Part B: The Earliest Christian Scientists

In my last post, I tackled Dr. Plantinga’s question regarding faith as a scientific hypothesis. Plantinga seems to question the thought, but as I demonstrated in the last post, the great prophet Elijah did not seem to oppose the idea that faith be treated as a scientific hypothesis; rather, faith could stand up to the gods of this world (1 Kings 18). This explains why Elijah proposed the experiment he did. The result? God vindicated Himself by sending fire to consume all the 12 waterpots of water that had been poured on the altar. God is the God of the physical elements, and it is much to our shame when we do not allow God to show Himself to the world by placing our faith behind a glass cage and saying, “You cannot attack it.” If our God is the one true living God, I think He can handle the attacks. When we refuse to allow our faith to be attacked, the weakness of Christian belief does not lie in God but in us.

In today’s post, I will continue to respond to Dr. Plantinga’s statement about faith as a scientific hypothesis. For those who did not read the last post, I will reproduce Plantinga’s words once more:

“But why make assumptions like that? Why think that theism is rationally acceptable only if there are good arguments for it? Why think that it is, or is significantly like, a scientific hypothesis?” (Dr. Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, page 92)

This statement came right after Dr. Plantinga quoted John L. Mackie’s statement about how Christian belief cannot be rationally defended. Mackie is an evidentialist objector, someone who does not believe that there is evidence for a Creator. In the last post, I agreed with Mackie---since God is not subject to a test tube (is not “directly verifiable”), God can only be validated in the world through logical arguments and propositions. Plantinga disagrees with this and thinks that by labeling faith as a scientific hypothesis, one gives too much credit to the scientific world. However, as I’ve argued in a prior post in this series, is not God the Lord of heaven and earth? Did He not create the earth? If He did, and He is Lord over the physical elements, then science will only manifest His presence, right? If He truly is Lord, science will not oppose His existence, but confirm it. Why are Christians today so afraid of conducting science to demonstrate God’s existence? Are we afraid that we might find something to “disprove” His existence? If this is why we have cowered away from the atheistic objections, it’s only because the intellectual weakness lies in us, not in God. As my tenth-grade teacher Mrs. Blevins once said to a classmate of mine, “It sounds like a personal problem.” I would say that the same statement applies here for individuals that are scared of what science could offer.

In this post, my task is to present the view of faith and science from the perspective of the earliest Christian scientists. For those of you who are interested in the earliest Christian scientists and how their faith in God impacted their scientific work, see Charles Thaxton and Nancy Pearcey’s The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy. Some of Thaxton and Pearcey’s work will be presented in this post.

Charles Thaxton and Nancy Pearcey detail that the Christian faith supplied the grounds for scientific practice, for it was because of faith that science as an art form was conducted. The earliest Christian scientists took their strong belief in God, and combined it with the study of the physical elements, to prove the intellectual viability of the Christian faith. Faith and science, contra Plantinga, are not separated, nor is faith above science; rather, both are mutually compatible.  I once dialogued with a proponent of Reformed Epistemology, used the previous sentence, and this is the response I received:

“But in your statement, Christian faith comes first in the order of inquiry, rather than being based on scientific inquiry.”

But this is beside the point in the current discussion, because I never affirmed a possible prioritization of faith and science. I never stated which came before which in the order of relationship; rather, I simply stated that faith and science were mutually compatible. What I mean by mutually compatible is that both work together, not against each other. And let’s suppose that Plantinga’s view is right and faith does come first; does that still negate the importance of scientific experiment? No. Faith can still come first, while subjecting itself to scientific experiment. This occurs in 1 Kings 18 with Elijah and the Baal prophets at Mount Carmel. Again, this does not endanger the evidentialist view. It’s fine to have faith; evidentialists such as myself believe, however, that faith alone is mere irrationality. Rather, faith must be combined with evidence...or else it is of no use to anyone.

Now, on to the Christian scientists. Not only did the Christian faith supply the grounds for scientific practice, it also contributed quite a few of the earliest scientists: Johannes Kepler, Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, and Isaac Newton. Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) once wrote,

“The chief aim of all investigations of the external world should be to discover the rational order and harmony which has been imposed on it by God and which He revealed to us in the language of mathematics” (Johannes Kepler, quoted by Nancy Pearcey and Charles Thaxton, The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy. Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1994, page 126).

Science was an undisputable, undeniable tool for the Christian scientist, according to Kepler. The sole purpose of conducting science was to demonstrate the existence of God. Contra Plantinga, Kepler believed that faith could be deemed a scientific hypothesis.

Then, there is Isaac Newton. In his work General Scholium, he wrote that

“this most beautiful system of sun, planets, and comets could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being” (Newton, quoted by Pearcey and Thaxton, The Soul of Science, page 72).

Why is it that Newton believed the Creator of the world was “intelligent”? Because the physical world reflected that intelligence. The mark of intelligence could only be left by an intelligent person. Only a person can produce a magnificent painting, write a book, type a sentence, draw house plans, etc. If the physical world appears intelligent, then it is so because of the Creator who made it. If humans did not create the world we see (and the physical world bears the mark of intelligence), who else could have made it but an Intelligent Designer? Newton also stated in his work Opticks that the purpose of science is to “deduce causes from effects, till we come to the very first cause, which certainly is not mechanical.” For Newton at least, science served an apologetic purpose. As Pearcey and Thaxton note, “Newton wanted his work used for apologetics” (Soul of Science, page 41).

Isaac Newton is an example of an early evidentialist, one who wanted his scientific work to point to the existence of God. So, when Plantinga asks, “Why treat faith like a scientific hypothesis?”, he is going against the common belief of the earliest scientists such as Newton...who lived in a world of religious skepticism and desired to find a way to break through the naturalism of their time. As Pearcey and Thaxton note,

“If Christian belief were truly a barrier to science, it is difficult to explain why so many founders of modern science were believers. Paracelsus, Boyle, and Newton wrote extensively on theology as well as on science. Others---Kepler and van Helmont---filled their scientific notebooks with prayers, praise, and theological musings...many of the earliest scientists studied creation in an effort to know the Creator. Later, when religious skepticism was on the rise, many scientists hoped to use scientific discoveries to buttress religious belief. Newton wanted his work used for apologetics...Mersenne and Descartes...were actively concerned to furnish new weapons to defend religion at a time when the old arguments seem to have been omit or dismiss these religious motivations is to misunderstand the true nature of science” (Pearcey and Thaxton, The Soul of Science, page 41).

The fact that “so many founders of modern science were believers” testifies to the idea that science is not opposed to faith, nor is faith opposed to science. The earliest Christian scientists would have disagreed with Plantinga’s statement that Christian belief need no argument or evidence. Also, the earliest Christian scientists lived in an age of religious skepticism and used science “to buttress religious belief.” Why did they use science? Because “the old arguments seem to have been discredited.” In my mind at least, the old argument about faith as simple belief was not enough to convince the skeptics of their time. This is one of the problems with Plantinga’s system: one can be personally justified in their belief, but what purpose does my faith serve in aiding the unbeliever? None at all. And if all I’m concerned about is my faith, then I can accept Reformed Epistemology. Fortunately, I care about the unbeliever and pray that he or she would come to Christ. I will continue with more on this subject in my next post.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Faith, The Scientific Hypothesis: John L. Mackie vs. Alvin Plantinga

In my last post, I tackled Plantinga’s question regarding the horror of irrationality. If you reread that post, you will find that I deem Plantinga’s question about irrationality to be a shocking question. I would have to agree with Locke there that, if one is deemed irrational, this is not only an affront to the individual...but also an affront to God, the Maker of all humanity. Why did the Lord God invest in humanity and provide us with an intellect if we are not going to use it? What’s the use of claiming “I have intellect” if one never cultivates it or develops it?

An adopted brother of mind read a book a few years back called “Fit Bodies, Fat Minds,” where the author argues that most Americans would rather exercise their bodies than their minds. And I have (though sadly) found this to be the case. I have seen more scientific research devoted to overweight, obese America than I have seen devoted to “mentally overweight, mentally obese” America! The truth is, that many in the world have no desire to cultivate the human mind. What we have done instead is surrendered the need for education saying, “Well, some are made for it.” When I was in college, I heard many of my family members say, “Some are made for it and some are not.” Can I tell you a secret that I don’t tell many? Having been through nine years of higher education (post-high school), let me say that no one is made for it! No one is able to handle the demands of education and life perfectly. Sometimes, students fall short in their balancing act and make mistakes on both ends. Sometimes, students put their work above their families (I stand guilty of this). But higher education is not about skill or ability; it’s merely about perseverance. Some will persevere through their intense studies and achieve academically, while others will not. I was one of those that persevered through my studies. I was not the smartest person in my classes, not the most intellectually apt, etc...but I applied my mind to academic study. I am where I am today not because I was “born with it,” but because of the grace of God and perseverance. We have bought into a very “animalistic, reductionist” view of humanity because we have listened to Darwinian, evolutionary theory for much too long.

I don’t desire to stay on this subject, but I wanted to make the case above that we seem to care more about the body than the mind. Why can’t we care about them both equally?

In today’s post, the atheist John L. Mackie and Dr. Alvin Plantinga will battle with words. Plantinga spends a lot of time quoting Mackie in Warranted Christian Belief, particularly because Mackie is not an evidentialist, but an evidentialist objector---that is, he believes Christian belief must have tangible evidence of its truth claims...but, rather negatively, deems Christian belief delusional because there is a perfectly natural explanation for all of life. Let’s approach Mackie’s position by looking at the quotes Plantinga provides. First, note that Mackie believes Christianity should have evidence:

“If it is agreed that the central assertions of theism are literally meaningful, it must also be admitted that they are not directly verified or directly verifiable. It follows that any rational consideration of whether they are true or not will involve [whether God exists] must be examined either by deductive or inductive reasoning or, if that yields no decision, by arguments to the best explanation; for in such a context nothing else can have any coherent bearing on the issue (pp.4, 6)” (John L. Mackie, The Miracle of Theism; quoted by Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, page 91).

According to Mackie, the claims of theism are not “directly verifiable.” What does Mackie mean by this phrase? He means that God cannot be investigated “in a test tube.” God cannot be subject to scientific experiment, like natural explanations can. As I mentioned in the last post, God has revealed Himself (according to the apostle Paul) in the things that have been made (Romans 1:18-20). If this is true, then believers must study creation in order to know about the Creator. Mackie’s claim that Christian belief must have arguments and evidence is one that I think Romans 1 attests to. It seems that, in Plantinga’s discussion of Mackie, I will actually agree with Mackie on this one. There is nothing wrong with my God not being “directly verifiable.” The Lord of all the earth can handle the study of science to show His existence. I’m pretty sure God delights in humans using their intelligence (Locke was quoted in the last post).

But with this next quote, we see that Mackie is an objector to the existence of any evidence for Christian belief:

“Here, as elsewhere, the supernaturalist hypothesis fails because there is an adequate and much more economical naturalistic alternative” (Mackie, The Miracle of Theism, pg. 98; quoted by Plantinga, WCB, page 91).

Since Mackie thinks naturalism best explains the evidence, he dismisses Christianity outright. Plantinga’s response to Mackie’s statements is as follows:

“Clearly, this remark is relevant only if we think of belief in God as or as like a scientific hypothesis, a theory designed to explain some body of evidence, and acceptable to the degree that it succeeds in explaining that evidence” (Plantinga, WCB, 91).

If faith is deemed a scientific hypothesis, then it would be subject to the scientific experimental laws. This seems to make sense if faith is a scientific hypothesis. But Plantinga heavily disagrees with this idea:

“But why make assumptions like that? Why think that theism is rationally acceptable only if there are good arguments for it? Why think that it is, or is significantly like, a scientific hypothesis?” (Plantinga, WCB, 92).

This questions sound remotely close to the question Plantinga provided in the last post about the problem with being irrational. Why should we think Christian belief must have good arguments? Because that is what it means to be reasonable. Here’s the definition of “reasonable” provided by the New Oxford American Dictionary:

“adjective. 1. Of a person having sound judgment; fair and sensible; based on good sense; able to think, understand, or form judgments by a logical process.”

Here’s the definition of “rational” provided by the New Oxford American Dictionary:

“1. Based on or in accordance with reason and logic; able to think clearly, sensibly, and logically; endowed with the capacity to reason.”

Christian belief must have good arguments because to provide argumentation regarding a view is how one demonstrates that he or she possesses rationality. If Christian belief is to remain intellectual belief, believers will have to learn how to logically engage unbelievers in the faith.

Let’s look at Plantinga’s question regarding Mackie’s assumption once more: “But why make assumptions like that? Why think that theism is rationally acceptable only if there are good arguments for it? Why think that it is, or is significantly like, a scientific hypothesis?” (Plantinga, WCB, 92)

Why view faith as a scientific hypothesis? Because Scripture testifies that God Himself values evidence over blind faith. A good example of this would be the Mount Carmel Experience, where Elijah was pitted against the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18). In 1 Kings 18:23-24, Elijah provides a “scientific” experiment to take place between himself and the prophets of Baal:

“‘Therefore let them give us two bulls; and let them choose one bull for themselves, cut it in pieces, and lay it on the wood; but put no fire under it; and I will prepare the other bull, and lay it on the wood, but put no fire under it. Then you call on the name of your gods, and I will call on the name of the Lord; and the God who answers by fire, He is God.’ So all the people answered and said, ‘It is well spoken’” (1 Kings 18:23-24, NKJV).

This is the experiment: that Elijah and the Baal prophets would get altars, place bulls on them, wood under the altars, and call on their gods to bring the fire. The God (or gods) that brought fire would be the true God. This is a scientific experiment: placing bulls on altars and calling on God (or gods) to light the wood and cook the sacrifices. Notice, too, the response of the people. Who were “the people”? Look at 1 Kings 18:20---“the people” consisted of “the children of Israel” and the prophets of Baal. All of Israel and the Baal prophets think that Elijah’s experiment is a good idea (“it is well spoken,” they say; see 1 Kings 18:24). Clearly then, the Israelites and the Baal prophets believed that Elijah’s God could answer by fire and attest to His identity. If they did not believe it was possible, why would they agree with it? This is my question to Dr. Plantinga: “Why was faith deemed a scientific experiment in the Old Testament, if we are not to view it as such today?” When we say that faith in God cannot be treated as a scientific hypothesis, what we are saying is that God cannot manifest Himself in the physical elements. Do we not limit God, His sovereignty, and His power, when we say such things? If God is God over the elements and Lord of all the earth, can He not use the fire and wood and water (in the case of Elijah) to show Himself?

Notice what Elijah does in the text: he gives them a physical experiment to perform that everyone can visibly witness and testify to. The Baal prophets cry out to their god, mutilate themselves, and watch the blood run out of their skin while crying out to Baal to answer (1 Kings 18:28). When it gets to Elijah’s turn, he tells the people to fill the waterpots and pour the water on the offering and the wood...not once...not twice...but three times! In short, they poured 12 waterpots of water onto Elijah’s altar. Elijah cried out to God to manifest Himself, and He did: “then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood and the stones and the dust, and it licked up the water that was in the trench” (1 Kgs. 18:38). In short, God manifested Himself in the physical elements.

And I think that, if God could manifest Himself in the days of Elijah, He is more than God enough to manifest Himself in the physical elements today. And He has; all we need to do is just look around at our world. He is always staring us in the face.

Stay tuned; there will be more to come on the manifestation of God in the physical world. God bless.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

"What's Wrong?": Reformed Epistemology's Faux Pas

Suppose your beliefs don’t correspond to the standards the classical foundationalist or evidentialist holds before you: so what? Exactly what is the matter with you? You will be told that your belief structure is unacceptable and not rationally justified, and that you yourself are irrational; but again, so what? What is wrong with being irrational or holding beliefs that are not rationally justified? It certainly sounds reprehensible, but what, exactly, is the problem? That is what we must know if we are to understand our de jure question” (Dr. Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, page 85).

In my last post, I talked about the need for evidence and how evidence should be based on propositions that we know. I also discussed that the Hebrew Old Testament Scriptures use the courtroom/judgment theme, showing that the idea of legal rules prevailed upon society long before contemporary times. All of this will continue to play a role in journeying through Dr. Plantinga’s argument.

I have not covered classical foundationalism and Plantinga’s critique; nevertheless, I have discussed his definition of evidentialism. In the quote above, he acknowledges, “You will be told that your belief structure is unacceptable...that you yourself are irrational,” but he doesn’t seem to understand exactly why evidentialists and classic foundationalists are so opposed to the idea of faith without evidence: “what is wrong with being irrational or holding beliefs that are not rationally justified?”

This is an important question to answer if one is to consider the de jure objection to Christian belief. So, what exactly is wrong with being irrational? The problem with being irrational is that it is “against reason” to be so (hence, the word irrational means “against reason”). And why is it against reason to be irrational? Because humans were created with reasoning faculties via the intellect. And to fail to use reason is to fail to live up to one’s human responsibility. Hear the words of John Locke on the subject:

“faith is nothing but a firm assent of the mind: which, if it be regulated, as is our duty, cannot be afforded to anything but upon good reason; and so cannot be opposite to it. He that believes without having any reason for believing, may be in love with his own fancies; but neither seeks truth as he ought, nor pays the obedience due to his Maker, who would have him use those discerning faculties he has given him, to keep him out of mistake and error. He that does not this to the best of his power, however he sometimes lights on truth, is in the right but by chance; and I know not whether the luckiness of the accident will excuse the irregularity of his proceeding. This at least is certain, that he must be accountable for whatever mistakes he runs into: whereas he that makes use of the light and faculties God has given him, and seeks sincerely to discover truth by those helps and abilities he has, may have this satisfaction in doing his duty as a rational creature, that, though he should miss truth, he will not miss the reward of it. For he governs his assent right, and places it as he should, who, in any case or matter whatsoever, believes or disbelieves according as reason directs him” (John Locke, quoted by Dr. Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief, page 86).

Locke states that the person who believes without reasons “neither seeks truth as he ought, nor pays the obedience due to his Maker, who would have him use those discerning faculties he has given him...” (Locke, quoted by Plantinga, WCB, 86). First, the one who believes without reason is not seeking truth (according to Locke). Next, the one who believes without reason is not obeying his Maker, God who made him and granted him reason that he would use it. The one who does not use reason “must be accountable for whatever mistakes he runs into,” Locke says. Why are all three of these items negative? Because God has granted the individual reason. He is different from the animal kingdom. The animal kingdom does not possess intellect and has not been granted the privilege nor ability to reason. Humanity is the only part of God’s creation that possesses such ability. And to use reason is to live up to our “humanness,” without which, man is nothing more than an animal.

I appreciated Plantinga’s quotation of John Locke, and I value what Locke has to say. I agree that human responsibility involves reasoning, using human intellect to make sound choices. However, I want to tackle Plantinga’s questions myself. So at this point, I will provide my own responses to Dr. Plantinga and his questions in his statement at the beginning of this post.

The problem with being irrational is that, as Locke would say, one is thinking against the human faculties he or she has been given by God. What is wrong with being irrational or holding beliefs that are not rationally justified? The problem with being in this state is that, if one believes in something without reason, then anything is believable! Take UFOs, for example. I was told the following once by someone who has studied Reformed Epistemology intensely:

“Plantinga’s view is that one can come to rationally believe in God, or can come to have warranted belief in God, without evidence or argument. Just about anyone, theist or atheist, thinks that one can come to believe in God without evidence or argument, even as one can come to believe in UFOs, Elvis the Messiah, or Harold Camping’s eschatology, without evidence or argument.”

So, let’s say that someone does believe in UFOs. Is this belief rational apart from evidence? No. And why is it not rational independent of the evidence? Because UFOs do not correspond to reality! Truth corresponds to reality. If something does not correspond to reality, then it is not true. Therefore, if one believes in God, but God has no existence in reality (or has not manifested Himself in reality), then He does not exist...and Christians are living an illusion. Fortunately, for us, Christ has appeared on earth, in reality, and has left the empty tomb as evidence that He does exist. Therefore, I wouldn’t put faith in Christ on the same plane as faith in UFOs. One exists, while the other does not. One has its existence in reality, while the other does not. Jesus as a historical figure actually lived in a common Jewish family, was circumcised, lived as a carpenter’s son, gathered disciples to Himself, was falsely accused of treason, crucified on a cross, and rose the third day. Scholars still debate whether or not Christ rose from the dead; but they do not debate His life. He really was born, and lived, and was tried, found guilty, and crucified on a cross as a common criminal. All those facts are historically verifiable. Show me one shred of evidence that points to the existence of UFOs! Name one date, one place, etc., where someone has actually seen a UFO...and if you can show me that, I’ll recant my statement.

Plantinga goes on to make this statement about those who argue that Christianity is irrational:

“Many evidentialist objectors argue that theistic belief is irrational because there is insufficient evidence for it; they clearly think being irrational is a bad business; but they seldom say what’s bad about it. Instead, they move immediately to the task of showing, as they think, that there is insufficient evidence for belief in God. This prior question, nevertheless, remains crucial: insufficient for what? What is supposed to be bad about believing in the absence of evidence?” (Plantinga, WCB, page 86)

Plantinga makes a point when he says that there are many atheists and agnostics who believe that Christianity is irrational and yet, do not state why. However, his last question in the quote is a bit troubling: “What is supposed to be bad about believing in the absence of evidence?” Evidence is supposed to verify reality; believing in the absence of evidence is to believe despite reality (no evidence). Therefore, to believe in the absence of evidence is to have faith in that which does not correspond to reality. And if one believes something that does not correspond to reality, is this not the same as someone having an imaginary friend that he or she thinks exists, has a name, a personality, and a life of its own?

Imagine if you were the person believing in an imaginary friend. To you, this “friend” others, you are crazy, just going through a mid-life crisis, etc. Something is weird about you, but everyone thinks that you’re going through a phase that you will eventually grow out of. But are you rational to think such a thing? The answer is no. Only an irrational person would believe that imaginary friends exist. Children may seem very cute at a young age believing in imaginary friends; however, it is still an irrational position to take. After all, if the friend existed, he or she would not be “imaginary.” The label “imaginary” is ascribed to the invisible friend for a reason...

For Christians, believing in God would be like believing in an imaginary friend...if God Himself did not leave us evidence of His existence. Paul spells this out for us in Romans 1:

“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse” (Romans 1:18-20, NKJV).

Notice that God is deemed to have “invisible attributes,” attributes that are unseen, and that these attributes are “understood by the things that are made.” What is Paul saying here? He is telling us that the only way we can know God as human beings is through His creation, as well as the Scriptures, which were penned by the Holy Spirit (see Psalm 19). Why is this the case? Because, without the known world and the known Word, God would be invisible and no human being would have any idea of what God was really like. Take a look at the philosophers on Mars Hill (Acts 17): did they not deem God to be “unknown” (Acts 17:23)? When Paul preaches to them, he begins with the words, “the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you.” The group had a belief that there was a God; they just did not know who that God really was. And all of humanity would be worse off than those of Mars Hill had God not revealed Himself in the natural world.

Having said this, if God had not revealed Himself, would He not be on the same plane as UFOs? Yes, He would. Which means that, if it is irrational to believe in UFOs, who have yet to be seen, would it not be just as irrational to believe in a God that no one has seen or has any evidence of? Praise be to God, He has revealed Himself in the natural order, the Word, as well as in the face of Jesus Christ!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Questioning Evidentialism: Dr. Alvin Plantinga and Reformed Epistemology

“Here two things are noteworthy. First, I was somehow both accepting but also questioning what was then axiomatic: that belief in God, if it is to be rationally acceptable, must be such that there is good evidence for it. This evidence would be propositional evidence: evidence from other propositions you believe, and it would have to come in the form of arguments. This claim wasn’t itself argued for: it was simply asserted, or better, just assumed as self-evident or at least utterly obvious. What was then taken for granted has now come to be called ‘evidentialism’...Evidentialism is the view that belief in God is rationally justifiable or acceptable only if there is good evidence for it, where good evidence would be arguments from other propositions one knows. If it is accepted apart from such evidence or arguments, then it is at best intellectually third-rate: irrational, or unreasonable, or contrary to one’s intellectual obligations” (Dr. Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, page 70).

In my last post, I discussed the issue of justification as having two senses: one in which justification is “internal” to the individual and involves one’s consciousness, mental faculties, etc. the other sense of justification pertains to the “external” world---that is, those in community with the individual or those the individual encounters. If one takes the murder trial I used in the last post, one can be internally justified and yet still go to prison for life or face death by lethal injection because he or she was not justified in the eyes of the jury who decided the person’s fate. While justification can be both “internal” and “external,” in some cases, both are not present...and the question is, in such a case, which is more important: internal justification or external justification? You be the judge.

In today’s post, we will take a look at Dr. Plantinga’s critique of evidentialism. In addition, I will respond with my own assessment of his stance.

First, Plantinga notes that “this claim wasn’t argued for: it was simply asserted, or better, just assumed as self-evident or at least utterly obvious” (Warranted Christian Belief, page 70). This claim of evidentialism may very well have been assumed; but it was assumed because of certain other foundations that were well within reason. One of the foundations concerns the following quote of Dr. Plantinga’s:

“evidentialism is the view that belief in God is rationally justifiable or acceptable only if there is good evidence for it, where good evidence would be arguments from other propositions one knows” (Warranted Christian Belief, page 70).

Evidentialism comes from the root word “evidence,” and requires evidence to prove the rationality of a proposition. How does one amass evidence? “good evidence would be arguments from other propositions one knows.” But does this statement not make sense? I mean, we use the known to discover the unknown in our world all the time.

What about mathematical equations? If 2 times “X” equals 10, and we want to find what the variable “X” is, we divide both sides by 2. The result? X equals 5.  If we want to perform any mathematical problem, no matter how complex, we use a reciprocal rule which states, “what you do to one side, you must do to the other.” And when we perform that rule, we find the answers we seek.

Do we not also do this with hermeneutics? Christians approach the biblical text by using the passages that are known and understood to figure out the difficult and hard ones. In order to determine the meaning of a verse, do we not read the verse “in context?” In my hermeneutics instructions, I was taught that “a text means what it means in its context.” One of the biggest contemporary theology battles today concerns women in ministry. What is the biggest text used to justify women not serving in leadership roles in the church? 1 Timothy 2. For centuries, and even today, many take this passage and read it on its own apart from its given context, and conclude that Paul prohibits women from serving in leadership positions. But we do not do this with other issues, do we? Nope. In my hermeneutics class, we always read passages in context. When one reads Philippians 4 and reads Paul’s words that “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” we do not take the “all things” of Philippians 4 to refer to just anything. Rather, read in its context, the “all things” refers to the hardships that Paul faced (Phil. 4:11-12, 14). Paul was saying that “I can get through my difficulties because Christ strengthens me,” as well as “I can rejoice in the good because Christ strengthens me.” Does this mean then, that we cannot do great things for God? No. With God, great things are possible; nevertheless, this is not what Paul meant in the context of the passage. This does not mean that I cannot make biblical inferences. As believers holding to certain doctrines, we make biblical inferences all the time.

On a more basic level, we use letters and syllables to figure out compound words. For instance, we teach our children to take the words “sun” and “shine” after they learn them and put them together to make “sunshine.” Before they can do that, however, they have to know the word “sun” by knowing that the letters that make up the word are “s,” “u,” and “n.” In addition, they must also know the sound each letter makes. The letters then, serve as a foundation for the basic words, and the basic words serve as a foundation for compound words, and so on.

So does it really sound crazy that we would take the known propositions in life and use them to form arguments? Of course not. If we do this with letters, syllables, and basic words, why can we not do this with propositions to form arguments?

Plantinga, surprisingly, would agree with this:

“The propositions that I accept in this basic way are the foundations of my structure of beliefs---my ‘noetic structure,’ as I shall call it for ease of reference. And according to the foundationalist, in an acceptable, properly formed noetic structure, every proposition is either in the foundations or believed on the evidential basis of other propositions. Indeed, this much is trivially true; a proposition is in the foundations of my noetic structure if and only if it is basic for me, and it is basic for me if and only if I don’t accept it on the evidential basis of other propositions. This much of foundationalism should be uncontroversial and accepted by all” (Warranted Christian Belief, page 83).

We’ve discussed the need to form evidence from universal propositions that are known and understood by mankind. Next on the list, however, is to tackle the question of why rationality requires evidence. Plantinga places the question before us:

“Further, why would rational justification, whatever precisely it is, require evidence? What is the connection between evidence and justification? And if the latter does require evidence, why would that evidence have to take the form of arguments (deductive or probabilistic), evidence from other propositions one already believes?” (Warranted Christian Belief, page 70)

I’ve already stated that evidence would have to come from known propositions because as humanity, our society is foundational: it is built upon certain things that, when proven true and later assumed, allow us to add to the foundations and develop complex structures and technological advances, etc. Next though is, why do we even need evidence to be rational? Let’s use my courtroom trial analogy from my last post.

Why is it that trials function the way they do? Who decided that evidence was needed to convict or acquit? I don’t know the person involved with setting up courtroom trials in this manner...but I do know that legal matters require evidence, and that this structure existed long before the Enlightenment (the Age that Dr. Plantinga will discuss at length in WCB). One only has to open the pages of the Old Testament in order to find it. For example, Exodus 18 is about Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, who advises him to choose leaders from the tribes to judge cases within each tribe (see Exodus 18:13-26). If this isn’t convincing enough, there is a Book of Judges! And where did the justification for human judges come from? The idea that God Himself is a Judge and will judge His people (see Deut. 32:26; Hebrews 10:30). Even in the Mosaic Law, a man’s claim that his wife is not a virgin had to be validated with evidence. What evidence was this? The wife’s parents had to bring a cloth before the elders to determine whether she was a virgin. If she was, the elders fined her husband, gave the money to his parents, and forced him to stay with his wife and never divorce her all his days. Nonetheless, if the wife was guilty of adultery, she was to be stoned to death (see Deuteronomy 22:13-21).

As can be seen from the Old Testament evidence, no claim was validated without evidence. All claims that were deemed to either be true or false were labeled such on the basis of evidence. And all this was done because the Lord God was deemed Himself to be the Great Lawgiver and the Great Judge. If the Lord God allowed judges and judicial proceedings amongst His own people, and the Lord Himself is a Judge, then should we not view rationality through the eyes of the Great Judge Himself? Should we not be required to have evidence for our faith? Those who claim otherwise, such as proponents of Reformed Epistemology, struggle to read through the pages of Scripture. Perhaps this is why we find Reformed Epistemologists telling us that our epistemologies “should have good, philosophical merit” instead of combining philosophical merit with biblical faithfulness.