fideism

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Doubts about Evidentialism? C. Stephen Evans and a fideistic problem for evidentialists

GoulburnStSaviour'sCathedralI’ve been reading through a few books related to apologetic methodology and epistemology of late. Most recently, I have finished Faith Beyond Reason: A Kierkegaardian Account by C. Stephen Evans. One thing that struck me in the book was a brief discussion of a possible difficulty with evidentialism as an apologetic methodology. Evidentialism is, essentially, the notion that apologetics should be based upon evidences to convince unbelievers of the truth of Christianity.* Evans himself did not direct a specific attack against the method, but some of his work could be perceived as a critique of the method. Specifically, he discussed Kierkegaard’s rejection of evidentialism:

[Kierkegaard] wants to argue that if you want something like an eternal happiness more than anything else, then it may be reasonable to commit yourself wholeheartedly to something that promises to help you obtain it, even if the chances of obtaining what you seek are not high because the objective probability that eternal happiness is truly to be gained in this way is not high either. (Evans, 108, cited below)

The thrust of this point is that one may, perhaps, rationally commit to a belief when the risk/reward is at a certain level. It’s a little similar to Pascal’s Wager, but Evans has more in mind than this: “[I]f your desire for this good is high enough… then even a very low probability would be sufficient to motivate belief” (ibid). The argument is therefore more subtle than a simple risk/reward scenario.** Instead, Evans’ point (or at least his exegetical point regarding Kierkegaard) is that one’s own desires play into commitment to beliefs, and that this is not itself an irrational thing.

Yet this point may seem a bit devastating to evidentialists. After all, evidentialists would generally hold that one should not believe without sufficient evidence, and that theistic arguments are strong enough to convince others to believe. If, however, one may grant that it may be reasonable to hold to beliefs even if there is a very low probability on the basis of one’s desire for a certain end, then it seems that evidentialism may itself be a faulty grasping for rationalistic certainty.

Within Kierkegaard’s own context, he was certainly reacting against rationalism. But evidentialism is not reducible to stark rationalism. Rather, it is a method not only of apologetics but also of epistemic investigation, depending upon one’s usage. Perhaps the evidentialist may acknowledge that one may rationally commit to a position–say, theistic belief–based upon one’s desire for that great good, but that does not preclude evidences for that belief. More importantly, the evidentialist may introduce the concept of a defeater–a belief which may serve to disprove or make another belief more improbable. Once one has been presented with defeaters, one may not rationally cling to one’s belief simply because one desires the truth of it; instead, one must either defeat the defeaters themselves or have sufficient evidence to hold to the belief in spite of possible evidence against it.

It therefore seems to me that arguments like Kierkegaard’s point does not do much to discredit evidentialism. Rather, it merely provides a possibility for people to hold beliefs in the absence of evidence either way. Once one has evidence against one’s belief, however, one should–at risk of epistemic suicide–either ground one’s belief or show that the evidence against that belief is not firmly grounded. Evans seems to acknowledge this as well, for he noted the value of evidence despite the possibility for “properly basic” belief.

Of course the question of whether one “should” think one way or another is itself highly contentious. I’ll leave that debate for another post or, even better, the comments.

*Yes, I do realize I’ve vastly oversimplified here. That’s the nature of writing shortish blog posts! For what I consider the best discussion of different apologetic methodologies, check out Faith Has Its Reasons by Boa and Bowman.

**I also acknowledge that Pascal’s Wager is more complex than a simple risk/reward scenario.

Source

C. Stephen Evans, Faith Beyond Reason: A Kierkegaardian Account (Reason & Religion) (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1998).

Links

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SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) 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. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Threshold Belief and Evidentialism- Can evidentialism work?

fbr-cseThe evidentialist school of apologetics is essentially based upon the notion that the evidence for Christianity is such as to make it rationally justified to believe (and perhaps even compel one to believe). Note that evidentialists (generally) do not claim that this means the Holy Spirit plays no part in conversion or that people are fully capable to choose God.* C. Stephen Evans, in his book Faith Beyond Reason: A Kierkegaardian Account, examined evidentialism in light of Kierkegaard’s critique of the method.

One of the primary arguments Kierkegaard had against evidentialism** is that a human being is incapable of considering the whole range of facts regarding a piece of evidence and so may never be justified in holding evidential belief. Evans characterized this argument (following the terminology of Robert Adams) the “postponement argument”:

The idea… is that historical inquiry is never completed, and thus historical beliefs based on such inquiry must always be tentative. It is always possible, at least theoretically, that new evidence will emerge that will overturn any historical conviction. Thus, if religious beliefs were based on such evidence, they would have to be of this tentative character. (Evans, 108, cited below)

Now–this is key–Evans also noted that “Kierkegaard thinks, however, that religious beliefs should have a kind of finality that differs from this kind of scholarly judgment.” With these quotes in mind, we may examine what seems to be a Kierkegaardian objection to evidentialism.

The objection seems to be that faith requires a kind of certainty which may never be provided by historical inquiry; thus, historical inquiry (evidences) may not provide a justifiable grounding for faith. I think the main problem with this is that Kierkegaard seemingly insisted on an impossible level of certainty for evidence. That is, a dismissal of evidentialism based upon this reasoning seems to be only warranted because Kierkegaard has adjusted the level of evidence needed. It is true that historical inquiry may only ever provide probability, but that does not imply we are incapable of believing anything historical.

Of course, one may argue that I have missed the point Kierkegaard is trying to make. It’s not that all historical inquiry must be subjected to the standard of certainty; rather, only on matters of ultimate import must we have certainty. If this were his claim, I think one may rightly respond by questioning why that would be the case. However, it seems, according to Evans, that Kierkegaard was less concerned with a rejection of evidentialism than he was concerned with maintaining a place for the emotions and subjectivity within faith. On that count, I don’t know of any evidentialist who would argue that one cannot have subjective or emotional reasons for faith either.

Now, to return at last to the quote block above. If all that faith were based upon within an evidentialist system were historical evidences, then it seems the quote is correct regarding the tentative nature of faith. But the evidentialist claim is not that faith may only be based upon evidence. Instead, it is that the evidence is such as to justify or ground faith (some would argue it is enough to compel faith). So perhaps Kierkegaard and evidentialism are not irreconcilable after all.

Perhaps the strongest objection which may be derived from the above comments from Evans and Kierkegaard center around the notion of threshold belief. Evans very briefly hinted at this possible problem for evidentialism: basically, the notion is that for the evidentialist method to work, there must be some “threshold” for commitment to a belief. For Kierkegaard, that threshold is certainty, which is why historical evidence cannot satisfy his criterion. However, for the evidentialists themselves, the question remains as to what that threshold is. If this threshold cannot be pinned down, it may be argued, evidentialism as a system cannot work. I think that this challenge is less an arguments against evidentialism than it is an argument for epistemic uncertainty. However, diving into such an argument is beyond the realm of what I want to hit here. For now, I think that I may answer this argument by simply saying that it does not follow that 1) if we can’t pin down an exact threshold beyond which we must be convinced to commit to a belief then 2) we cannot commit to a belief. The argument is simply off target.

Notes

*I say this so as to avoid lengthy debate, one way or the other, regarding how one comes to be saved. My intent in this post is to investigate the apologetic method, not soteriological details.

**I should note that Kierkegaard should be understood within his historical context, in which he was reacting against overly rationalistic faith. Thus, his (sometimes extreme) reaction against rationalism–while overreaching–is perhaps more understandable. There is also, of course, some anachronism in this statement because “evidentialism” is being used in its specific fashion to reference the method of apologetics, while Kierkegaard was reacting against rationalism. I acknowledge this anachronism but simply point out it is for the sake of simplifying terminology in the post.

Links

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Sources

C. Stephen Evans, Faith Beyond Reason: A Kierkegaardian Account (Reason & Religion) (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1998).

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) 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. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

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.

——

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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