Thursday, September 07, 2006

Can I be sure?


Some atheists may ask question’s concerning certitude in a spirit of frivolity, but, as a theist, I consider them central. The problem of certitude is, for me, the greatest roadblock to genuine belief.

If I invoke principles of science, historiography, sound hermeneutics, etc. to ground belief, then those beliefs are all falsifiable (subject to qualification, revision, or wholesale rejection at a later date if new evidence warrants it) and, therefore, not the kind of belief that attends to certainty…at least not the kind of certainty I long for.

There are many things of which I’m certain “for all intents and purposes”, not because I have ontological access to them but because those beliefs are useful. Most of what I believe about the sensible world falls into this category. For most of my day-to-day existence I don’t find it problematic that I can’t know the “essence” of objects of knowledge; life mostly works out just fine in the absence of “God knowledge”. Yet, I suffer bouts of philosophical/spiritual angst when I consider the question of God’s existence and my place in His kingdom. To my mind, the only cure is something akin to infallible certainty. Not saying that it exists or that I have it, just that it seems like the only way out of what would otherwise be an intractable epistemological dilemma.

Infallible certainty, or whatever you want to call it, is unlike certainty we have that, say, the General Theory of Relativity is true, or that Churchill was Prime Minister during WWII, since either/both of these examples could, however improbable it may be, turn out to be untrue. Don’t we need to have more certainty of God’s existence than Churchill’s (or your own mother’s, for that matter) if we are to have anything at all? If we can’t convince ourselves that we do, than doesn’t J.L. have a point?

If we do have perfect certainty, then we don’t need arguments at all, since, if we did, they’d be fallible ones (even if brilliant), and, therefore, our certainty would be fallible too. Right? And since infallible certainty can’t be mediated by rational or evidentiary means, it must be that it is gifted to the elect by God directly. Yes? If in answer to this, one posits a kind of synergistic relationship between the Holy Spirit’s witness and our rational means of inquiry, that doesn’t help, even if it is true, since such a phenomenon would not be open to rational inquiry and would still have to result in infallible certainty; it would simply be the mysterious means by which God instills certainty.

I can’t avoid the conclusion that either J.L. is right and Christians don’t have complete certainty, or Steve and others like him have to admit that they possess a God given imperturbable certainty of His existence and their regeneration. In the latter case I’m forced to conclude that any and all arguments in defense of faith are incidental to faith. If all the best evidence favored those opposed to Christianity, the regenerate would remain unimpressed by virtue of their God given certainty, certainty that stands in no demonstrable causal relationship to any evidence.

If this kind of certainty is possible, I’d sure like to get it.



Hi Stuart,

We need to draw a number of distinctions.

1.No, Loftus doesn’t have a point because he’s inconsistently combining elements of an internal critique with elements of an external critique.

As such, he doesn’t have any consistent argument for either line of attack.

2.We need to distinguish between reflective and prereflective knowledge. We frequently have more reasons that we can give. More lines of evidence than we can ever put into words.

We may initially come to know something, then over time we acquire ever more supporting evidence, but it’s impossible for us to remember everything that went into the formation and confirmation of what we now know.

So, in many cases, our knowledge is overdetermined by the evidence. We have more evidence than we need to know something, and we are unable to reconstruct all the lines of evidence feeding into our belief.

3.Likewise, the way I know something, and the way I prove something may be two very different things.

The process by which I come to know something is rather unique. It cannot be exactly duplicated. Your personal experience is not interchangeable with mine.

And the way I prove it may take a very different form than the process of learning. There’s a logical order and a pedagogical order.

There’s the way in which things are metaphysically interconnected, and then there’s the way in which we discover them.

We may discover them one way, and then prove them on the basis of their metaphysical relations.

4.Likewise, there’s a distinction between knowing something, and knowing how we know it. A friend doesn’t have to identify himself when he speaks to us over the phone. We know the sound of his voice.

How we are able to recognize his voice is a complicated question.

But people often make the mistake of equating second-order knowledge (knowing-how) with first-order knowledge (knowing-that), and if they cannot acquit the second-order level of certainty, they mistakenly infer that they lack any solid knowledge.

5.Probability is a relative concept. Probable relative to what is possible, which is, in turn, relative to what is actual.

We generally believe something is possible because it’s been exemplified in various instances.

6.So everything is not uncertain. You can only question one thing in relation to something unquestionable. You doubt or disbelieve something because it comes into conflict with something you already believe or know to be the case.

It’s easy to believe in something if it’s the kind of general thing we already believe in. If it falls into our preexisting classification scheme of what is real.

If something is real, then it must be possible. And our preconception of the possible in turn colors our expectation of the actual.

7.Instead, then, of beginning with doubt or uncertainty, it’s a safer and sounder procedure to begin with the fact that we must know some things to be true, and then ask what else must be true for these to be true. What other conditions must be in place? What other things must exist for me to know what I know?

8.There can also be intellectual impediments to faith. False assumptions. False expectations. These create a mental block to faith and/or certainty.

We can’t directly convince ourselves, but we can remove artificial obstacles which get in the way of spontaneous assent.

9.Absolute certainty is not a condition of saving faith. I’m not saying that absolute certainty is unattainable. But it’s a mistake to set the bar that high.

Christians vary in their spiritual experience. They vary in their level of certitude.

Likewise, the same Christian may become more certain or less certain over time. His level of certitude can increase, decrease, or fluctuate.


  1. Listen up Steve, when will you ever understand that it is impossible to do what you ask me to do.

    No, Loftus doesn’t have a point because he’s inconsistently combining elements of an internal critique with elements of an external critique.

    You will never accept any critique from me as an internal one, unless I end up agreeing with you. Don't you see the impossible standard here? I could say the same thing about your critique of the Muslim faith or even atheism. I could say you are critiquing other faiths externally from the outside too. For your understanding of an internal critique is one that agree with you. Get the point, okay?

    it stands to reason, of course, that to disagree with anyone's faith I must be on the outside. It's impossible to disagree and not critique that faith externally.

    I just disagree with you. Say it. I just disagree with you.

  2. No John, just admit you are wrong. Just admit it. Admit it.....

  3. C'mon Steve. I'm outside of the faith, so how am I going to do an internal critique? That's just stupid. It's like asking me to critique the decor in your family room without me actually standing in the room. I mean really, c'mon now. Do you take me for an idiot or something?

  4. Loftus shows an amazing lack of ability to understand presuppositions.

    Not that I'm shocked by that or anything.

    You don't have to agree with a position to mount an internal critique of it. All you have to do is ACCEPT THE PREMISES OF THAT SYSTEM FOR THE SAKE OF ARGUMENT and then show how THOSE PREMISES lead to contradiction WITHIN THE SYSTEM.

    Hopefully the emphasis will help.

    To help illustrate it, you can check out I wrote on it. Since the dialogue is "fiction" I'll summarize the philosophical underpining here:

    Take a worldview. It works as a system. The definitions of terms within the system have to be defined by their use in the system.

    So let us suppose we have System One (or S1 for short). S1 proposes a concept (C1).

    Now suppose that you have a different system. Your system is S2. S2 proposes a contradictory concept, C2.

    In this case, you cannot argue that S1 is wrong because C1 contradicts C2. Such would be an EXTERNAL critique.

    To mount an internal critique, you must instead take S1 and show that S1 is inconsistent if C1 is defined as C1. The definition of C2 is never brought in, because C2 is external to S1.

    To equate this to the atheist/theist debate, on a simple level, where S1 = Christianity and S2 = Loftusism:

    S1 has a concept in it (C1) that says: "God's commands are for man, not God."

    S2 has a concept in it (C2) that says: "God ought to do whatever he commands."

    Thus, arguing that "C2 contradicts C1" (or "God ought to do whatever He commands" contradicts "God's commands are for man, not God") is an EXTERNAL critique.

    An internal critique would be: "God's commands are for man, not God" is inconsistent with the rest of Christianity.

    But all Loftus does is demonstrate that Christianity is incompatible with his philosophy. Such is neither surprising nor relevant.

  5. Oops. For some reason the ending tag for the link disappeared between my previewing my comment and actually publishing. Sorry!

  6. I know what an internal critique is, but thank you for elaborating this to me as if it was an entirely new thought to you. The problem is that no matter what is said against Calvinism the people here will regularly argue that it failed in some regard. Manata even went so far as to claim Bill Craig did not understand presuppositionalism and hence he could not offer an internal critique.

    What I'm saying is that no matter what I say the people here will always say I do not understand Calvinism, even when one of their own claims that I'm on to something.

    I have posted something on my blog. I think it's right on target and I think non-Calvinistic Christians will agree with me. I also think educated Calvinists will agree with me. But the folks here at Triablouge would've argued that I misunderstand Calvinism (that is, until I predicted here what they will say, 'cause now who knows what they'll do). But I think that if they cannot show me I'm wrong their best tactic is to ignore it, admitting defeat.

    Or, someone can tell me why it isn't an internal critique. I think it is.

  7. Loftus wrote:
    Or, someone can tell me why it isn't an internal critique.

    Isn't that what Steve has been doing?

  8. Steve wrote:
    9.Absolute certainty is not a condition of saving faith. I’m not saying that absolute certainty is unattainable. But it’s a mistake to set the bar that high.

    How do we measure certainty, and what level of certainty is a necessary condition of eternal life? What precisely does a person need to have certainty about to have saving faith?