existentialism

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Book Review: “Existential Reasons for Belief in God” by Clifford Williams

Clifford Williams’ Existential Reasons for Belief in God (hereafter ERBG) is one of the most unique philosophy of religion books this reader has experienced. Rather than engaging in systematic arguments for the existence of God based upon sensory experience or philosophical reflection on the cosmos, Williams focuses on the subject of his subtitle: A Defense of Desires & Emotions for Faith.

Williams argues that “Christians need a conception of faith that is at least as much need-based as reason-based” (13). By uniting these into one concept Christians can help acquire and sustain faith (13). Need has been too often cast aside or ridiculed when it comes to faith (12).

After these introductory remarks, Williams jumps into detailed argument on the topic. Throughout the work he focuses on the concept that “people acquire their faith partly because they feel that it meets… existential needs and partly because they think that it makes sense or is true” (17, emphasis his). He begins his argument by surveying various types of needs people have (20ff). In chapter 3, Williams presents an existential argument for believing in God:

1. We need [various things like cosmic security, meaning, awe, delight in goodness, etc.]

2. Faith in God justifies these needs.

3. Therefore, we are justified in having faith in God. (32)

Clearly, this is not the typical argument for the existence of God. It’s not an argument for God’s existence at all. Williams recognizes this fact and argues that there is a distinction between evidential and existential reasons for belief. “In evidential justification for believing in God, one believes in God because of what one takes to be good evidence for doing so ” (41). By contrast, “The existential argument… says that faith in God is justified solely because it satisfies certain needs” (41). The argument, therefore, is not to show God exists, but to show that one can rationally believe in God.

Williams argues that such existential justification is permissible for a number of reasons. First, it helps clarify what nature is–it is not merely a faith based on aspects of reality but is instead a faith which is aimed at meeting certain needs (41). Second, people use existential reasoning in other instances–for example when they need to eat, they know that they are justified in going to meet that need (41).

Objections to this reasoning will, of course, be raised. The first objection is that “the existential argument does not guarantee truth” (61). With this objection, one sees the distinction between evidential and existential arguments becoming very clear. Williams returns to the food analogy. The existential argument there would be “1. Humans get hungry; 2. Eating food assuages hunger; 3. Therefore, eating food is justified” (63). Here the argument is not to establish the existence of food but rather to establish that eating food is justified (63). Similarly, with the existential argument for God, the argument is to establish the justification for believing in God (63-64). The argument presupposes, to some extent, the existence of God, and justifies that very belief (64).

Another interesting implication of the distinction between existential and evidential reasons for belief is that they can be combined to form a cumulative type of argument for the existence of God. Williams presents such an argument, which combines these types of reasoning:

1. We [have various existential needs.]

2. The best explanation for the presence of these needs in humans is that there is a God who has put them into humans.

3. Faith in God satisfies these needs.

4. Therefore, we are justified in believing there is a God in whom we can have faith. (67)

But, it may be objected, this argument justifies belief in any type of God! Consider someone who wants to believe in “Tyrant George” because they need humans to be tortured. They could be justified in believing in such a deity based upon their in-built needs. Williams frankly admits that this objection has its merit. The existential argument should be combined with reason (88). But he also takes issue with the “need” to torture. He delimits criteria which define “needs.” These criteria are:

1. Needs must be felt by many others… most people, if not all.

2. Needs must endure…

3. Needs must be significant…

4. Needs must be part of a constellation of connected needs, each of which meets the other criteria…

5. Needs must be felt strongly (89).

Why, however, should we believe these criteria? Williams argues that these criteria are independently verified and that they have been found useful in a number of settings, including psychology, courtrooms, and in assessment of unusual phenomena (90).

A third objection notes that not everyone feels existential needs. Williams challenges this notion and argues that most people will be aware of having the various needs he has outlined (119). Finally, it may be objected that we can satisfy these needs without faith. Williams counters by presenting a various tests wherein subjects may find temporary satisfaction in varied cases but their ultimate needs are not met (133ff).

Williams also surveys various thinkers–from Pascal to William James to Freud–and what they had to say about needs. He offers critiques of several theories while advancing his own.

There are those who may be thinking this is, so far, an entirely fideist account. Williams begs to differ and provides several reasons for why faith and emotion can work with the mind and reason to bring about a satisfactory, fulfilling faith (chapter 8). He concludes by showing various ways needs can draw us toward and away from God. Ultimately, “We humans find ourselves with certain deep and abiding needs… We need meaning… We need to kneel, so we kneel” (183).

One interesting thing to note throughout the book is that Williams continually underscores his points with excerpts written by people who have had various existential needs met by faith. These illustrations are also used to show various objections or difficulties people have when their needs aren’t met. They give ERBG a unique feel to it–one that is more intimate than most philosophy works. They’re also useful in that they give readers a concrete example for his argument.

Those coming from a very evidentialist view of apologetics and philosophy will have difficulties with this book, as this reader can attest to. It’s hard to admit that needs and emotions have their place in a rational world, but Williams does an excellent job focusing the reader on this fact. Too often, the focus is only upon a  posteriori arguments based upon the world as opposed to those based upon the human condition. Williams adequately defends existential reasons for belief, and–perhaps most importantly–presented them in a way to which evidentialists can relate and understand. He acknowledged difficulties in the argument and responded to many key objections. Hopefully, Williams has reopened an avenue for philosophers of religion to explore. Too long have they ignored the usefulness of existential reasoning.

Source:

Clifford Williams, Existential Reasons for Belief in God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Academic, 2011).

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

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“Extraordinary claims need…” What, exactly?

We’ve all heard it before, “Extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence.”

It’s a maxim repeated all over the internet, and it keeps popping up in debates between Christians and atheists. But what exactly is the phrase telling us? Do extraordinary claims really need extraordinary evidence? And what exactly qualifies as “extraordinary” evidence anyway?

Is it true?

Do extraordinary claims really need extraordinary evidence? Well, intuitively, it seems the answer yes. But is it really true?

Suppose I were to claim that I were not a human, and instead am a giant pink salamander. What kind of evidence would be required in order to back this claim? Well I could obviously submit pictures of myself typing these blog posts as evidence. I could submit videos. I could allow people to come observe me. None of these would really be “extraordinary” types of evidence. Merely observing something is nothing extraordinary. But these could certainly serve as proof for my claim. People would be justified in believing me upon observation–it’s possible that they could be within their epistemic rights simply by seeing pictures of me typing (though with Photoshop and the like, it is more difficult to justify that epistemically).

So despite our intuitions, it seems there must be some kind of argument to establish the truth of the phrase. It seems, upon further thought, that the phrase is false. Ordinary evidence (x observes y to be the case, therefore, x believes y is true) will do even for extraordinary claims. Examples of this nature could be multiplied. So it seems the phrase, on this interpretation, is simply false.

What qualifies as an ‘extraordinary’ claim?

Another problem with the statement “Extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence” is that those who make the claim never explain what exactly it is that qualifies as an “extraordinary claim.” I mean surely, we could reduce almost any claim to something extraordinary, if we worked hard enough. I claim to be human; that entails a huge amount of ontology such as the existence of a planet which is capable of supporting life, the existence of life on said planet, the higher order of life such that intelligent life could exist, intelligent life which created machines capable of typing out thoughts, etc, etc. Any claim could be said to be “extraordinary”. The attack on “extraordinary claims” fails, in part, because it does not define what qualifies as “extraordinary”. I suspect this is another case of proving too much or not enough: either all claims are extraordinary and not to be believed until we have overwhelming evidence, or claims need just enough evidence to be justified in believing them.

Without a clear explanation of what qualifies as an “extraordinary claim” (and I think there can be none offered without begging the question), there is no reason to accept the statement as true to begin with. But this leads us to the next level:

What is ‘extraordinary evidence’?

What exactly is “extraordinary evidence” anyway? The phrase is thrown around as though it has meaning, and for someone studying philosophy with a heavy analytic bent, this is maddening. What is meant by “extraordinary”!? I think it could give us one of two options: either a) a large amount of evidence; or b) extremely powerful evidence. But even these definitions are ambiguous: what constitutes a “large amount” of evidence or “extremely powerful” evidence?

The phrase therefore seems to rely upon a certain ambiguity in order to maintain its power. There is no clear definition of what constitutes extraordinary evidence; and it seems likely that the phrase is merely used to try to increase the burden of evidence on the theist. Without a clear definition or any kind of argument to support the assertion, however, the theist is justified in rejecting it.

Is that the issue?

Perhaps I’ve missed what’s really the issue here. I suspect the reasoning is that the phrase is meant to refer either to:

1) Things which can’t be observed in the usual fashion

2) Things of great existential import

Consider 1) first. The reasoning here could be that something, like God, which can’t be observed simply by going somewhere and staring, would need extraordinary evidence in order to justify belief in said being. The problem here is that the definition of extraordinary is being used differently than (I think) the phrase is intended. For here, extraordinary would have to mean simply”other” than the ordinary. There would have to be some kind of evidence for a thing’s existence such that it would act as a substitute for “seeing” the thing. But that doesn’t mean we need “more” or “greater” evidence for something described by 1) than we would for something which is a standard, everyday kind of thing. All it means is that we’d have to have a different kind of evidence.

What kind of evidence, specifically? Well it seems as though logical evidence or philosophical argument could serve as a valid substitute for empirical evidence. So either of those could serve to justify someone in her belief in a deity.

Consider 2)–that claims of great existential import need extraordinary evidence. William Lane Craig discussed this in his Reasonable Faith Podcast, “Doubting the Resurrection.” He asserted that if something is of existential importance, we don’t demand more evidence for it; if anything, we should be more open and eager to explore the viability of the claims. Craig proposed the following example: suppose you are diagnosed with a fatal disease and there was “some experimental evidence that a vaccine… might cure you, wouldn’t you be desperate to [try the medicine and] find out if that might save your life… rather than saying, ‘Well, this is such a life-changing situation that I’m going to be as skeptical as I can, and only take this medicine as a last resort when it’s been demonstrated absolutely that” it will cure the disease.

The key point is that claims of extraordinary existential significance require evidence, but they are of such import that it is almost absurd to be totally skeptical of these claims due to their total importance. As Craig points out, if God exists and sent His Son to save us through belief in Him, that is such an extraordinarily significant difference between the universe if that is true as opposed to if it is false that it is worth exploring. He points out that even if there’s only a 1/1,000,000 chance that it’s true, it is worth looking into.

The most obvious rebuttal to this kind of reasoning is a kind of argument from religious diversity: “All the world’s religions have existential significance, and it would be impossible to fully explore all of them in a lifetime”… therefore, what? Perhaps one could argue that because we can’t explore all the options, we shouldn’t bother with any–but that seems to be throwing out everything for no reason. A diversity of options does not entail the falsehood of all.

It may be best to instead look at world religions in light of the kinds of evidence which could be available, and take 1) above with 2) to yield an exploration of religions based upon the types of evidence available for them. For example, the Qur’an contradicts the Bible on the topic of whether Jesus was crucified. Yet we have irrefutable evidence that Jesus was indeed crucified from both Gospel accounts and extrabiblical, contemporary accounts. Therefore, one could see it fit to exclude Islam from the exploration and move on. Perhaps one finds the existential claims of Buddhism less compelling than that of Judaism–in such a case, she would be well within her epistemic rights to explore Judaism rather than Buddhism.

A complete answer to this objection would take us far afield, but for now I think that it may be best to note simply that the objection does not undermine the argument against 2) anyway. As noted, a mere diversity of positions does not entail they are all false. Similarly, our inability to explore all possible options does not mean we should explore none. Perhaps it means, instead, that we should get started.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

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