Monday, November 13, 2006

Evidence & argument

Andrew said:

“But I’m talking about saving faith, not, say, my belief that there is a ‘logically compelling’ case for the superiority of Capitalism vs. Communism (which I do, indeed, base on intuition and indemonstrable judgments). I’d like my beliefs regarding spiritual matters to be far more firm than that.”

Fine, but there’s no cookie-cutter approach. Different Christians can be impressed by different lines of evidence. In some cases is a matter of their personal religious experience.

In other cases, they’re impressed by existential considerations involving meaning and morality.

In still other cases, they’re impressed by historical or scientific evidence.

And in yet other cases, they’re impressed by metaphysical arguments.

“It would be nice to have immediate knowledge of God, but barring that, a logical proof starting from premises I’d be crazy to refute would be a close second. I contend that true believers have the former, not the latter.”

i) And why do you think that true believers have the former, but not the latter?

ii) Have you placed yourself in a spiritual environment where you are even subject to a religious experience?

“But you wouldn’t claim that your faith can be falsified, would you?”

The answer depends, in part, on whether you’re defining faith in subjective or objective terms, as well as other distinctions.

i) I don’t believe that the Christian faith is possibly falsifiable.

ii) But, in a counterfactual sense, it makes certain claims which, if false, would falsify the faith (1 Cor 15:14).

iii) Psychologically speaking, I don’t have any doubts about the faith.

iv) However, it’s theoretically possible that I could lose my faith at a later date. Saving faith is a gift of God.

“If so, what would cause you to reject it?”

At this point it’s hard to think of any intellectual reasons. But there might be sinful reasons. An emotional reaction to some personal tragedy. Apostasy due to some immoral temptation.

“Since there is so much on the line (Heaven vs. Hell), I disagree that we shouldn’t hold theistic proofs to a higher standard.”

I consider this the wrong way to frame the issue. It’s not a question of higher or lower, more or less, but enough. Do I have sufficient evidence to implicate the truth of what I believe?

In principle, there could always be more evidence, or better evidence. But is the evidence I have sufficient for my belief to qualify as knowledge? That’s the issue, and not some arbitrary, inhuman standard of apodictic proof.

“I think I’m viewing ‘self-evident’ as broad enough to encompass prereflective and reflective knowledge.”

Well, traditionally, self-evidence is a property attributed to propositions, and my point is that it’s possible for someone to believe in God without having given much thought to the subject. His belief is a result of a subliminal process in relation to his experience of the world around him. He hasn’t made an effort to consciously conceptualize his belief to any great degree.

“For me, the analytical buck stops at the notion of “self-evident” because any attempt at further clarification leads to conjecture (i.e. metaphysics). “

To equate metaphysics with conjecture is, itself, a metaphysical claim. So you can’t avoid metaphysics.

“I’ll accept the metaphysics, when I accept the theology, which will happen as a result of Grace (or whatever it should be called).”

We need to distinguish between saving grace and the means of grace. Exposure to the means of grace (e.g. preaching, prayer, hymns, Bible study, Christian fellowship) is no guarantee that you will be a recipient of saving grace.

But to avoid the means of grace is almost a guarantee that you will never experience saving grace.

Although the means of grace do not necessitate the reception of saving grace, the possibility of saving grace is ordinarily tied to the means of grace—in the examples I’ve cited (see above).

So you need to situate yourself in spiritual environment where such an experience is possible. Salvation doesn’t generally occur in a vacuum.

“You are getting into metaphysics here, so, to me, it doesn’t count against my conception of ‘self-evident’ for the reasons I gave above.”

No, I’m getting into epistemology—not metaphysics.

“But even so, I’d argue that it makes sense to say that God grants to the elect the correct pretheoretical beliefs and precipitates the movements to the correct propositional ones.”

This is confusing revelation with regeneration. Saving grace restores the capacity to believe in the Gospel. But saving grace doesn’t supply the object of faith. That is supplied by Biblical revelation.

“This is a description of conversion, isn’t it?”

No, this is a description of epistemology in general. Not religious epistemology in particular.

“You are just saying that the elect have a God given capacity to achieve self-evident knowledge of God.”

They have a capacity to achieve saving knowledge of God. But I see no reason to characterize this knowledge as “self-evident.”

“And these concepts can't be ‘explained’, they are experienced. They are True but not demonstrably so (in the analytical sense, not the experiential). Is that *not* a biblical way of viewing things?”

That’s a false antithesis.

i) Many articles of the faith are not subject to direct experience.

ii) What we can experience is the providence of God, the word of God, the grace of God, &c.

iii) Many articles of the faith are capable of rational defense.

“One person believes based on the evidence, another does not.”

I disagree. One needs to distinguish between evidence and argument. Saving faith always has an evidential component. But this may take the form of tacit knowledge rather than formal argument.

Many Christians simply lack the sophistication to articulate the rational grounds for their faith. But this doesn’t mean that their faith is groundless.

To say that would impose an internalist constraint on knowledge which is quite artificial.

“How? By appealing to something more foundational? That doesn't make sense on my view. Maybe an example would help?”

i) If a Chinese cosmologist says it’s turtles all the way down, then turtles are his brute fact.

Yet I doubt you believe that terrapin foundationalism is above criticism.

ii) When you hint at a vicious regress, this is an artifact of your hierarchical model. The danger here is to become captive to the incidental implications of a picturesque metaphor.

We need to have more than one model of knowledge. Otherwise we liable to become imprisoned within the spell of a colorful illustration.

iii) One needs to distinguish between the order in which we learn things, the order in which we prove things, and the order in which things cohere.

I can prove that a dog is a mammal by proving that a dog is a subset of an ascending taxonomy, but I can know what a dog is without deducing a dog from a complete taxonomy.

iv) I prefer to take some “undeniable phenomenon,” like instances of successful communication, and reason back from that phenomenon to the truth-conditions which make it possible.

“That would mean to argue over what makes self-evident truths foundational. To me that is not a claim to be argued, it's a definition.”

i) Once again, you’re the one who’s fixated on self-evident truths. I’m far less concerned than you are with classifying truth.

For evidentiary purposes, any truth is evidentiary—whether it’s a self-evident truth or merely evident truth, intuitive or analytic, necessary or contingent.

ii) We also need to distinguish between truths and truth-conditions. Even truths of reason have truth-conditions.

“In a nutshell I guess what I'm claiming is that evidence and arguments underdetermine truth (at least for me), therefore God must intervene to bring about true and certain belief.”

Formal arguments may frequently be underdetermined by the evidence, not due to lack of evidence, but because some or much of the evidence is insusceptible to formalization.

If a friend calls me on the phone, he doesn’t need to identify himself. I can instantly recognize the sound of his voice. But it would be very difficult to tease that into a syllogism.

So we need to distinguish between knowledge and proof. We often know far more than we can ever prove. In such cases, our beliefs are overdetermined rather than underdetermined by argument.

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