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!

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