I Think, Therefore I Know

introspection, evidence

In graduate school, I once took a course on mind-reading. Seriously. But it was a big disappointment. It turns out that what academics mean by ‘mind reading’ is just reading people’s body language. Next time I’ll make sure the course is taught by Professor Xavier of X-Men fame. We are all glad, though, that actual mind-reading (mental telepathy) is currently impossible for humans (as far as we know). I would not want people knowing my inner-most thoughts, nor would I want to know the secret thinkings of others. We enjoy the safety of being able to hide a part of ourselves, only revealing it to those we deem trustworthy. But this means that there is a huge body of knowledge that I alone have access to: my own thoughts! This access comes through something called introspection.

Introspection allows us to access our memories and be aware of the logical progression of our thoughts. It enables us to consider the sensations created by the five senses. Introspection is how we know our reaction to a person’s story–whether we believe it or not, whether it makes us angry or sad. It ties everything together and makes knowledge possible. Philosophers and scientists puzzle over the nature of introspection, but all recognize it’s importance.

Introspection and Faith

religious experience, prayer, evidence, introspection

In other posts, I’ve discussed various kinds of evidence for belief in God. But how can introspection provide evidence? In Christian theism, we believe that God reveals himself, among other means, through a special form of internal communication or awareness. Some, like John Calvin, have called this the “sensus divinitatis.” God, through the presence of the Holy Spirit within us, can “speak”to us, lead us, comfort us, etc. The apostle Paul, in his letter to the Roman church, says that believers are “led by the Spirit of God.” It is the Spirit who “testifies with our spirit that we are children of God.” (8:16) Jesus himself taught that when the Spirit comes to dwell in us, He will “teach you” and “remind you of all the things I told you.” (John 14:26).

This means that we have access to evidence that comes directly into our minds from God, and we access this evidence via introspection. This probably works in the same way as when you suddenly have a new idea, and you reflect on it. But in this case, it is God who forms the idea in your mind, rather than your own cognitive processes. (So mental telepathy IS possible! But only between you and God.) So a Christian may be able to know that God exists and loves her simply by introspecting on evidence conveyed to her internally by the Spirit.

This Sounds Crazy

If you consider yourself a skeptic of Christianity, then this might sound crazy. But this is where you have to distinguish between irrationality and falsehood. Because if there is a God, then there’s no obvious reason why God couldn’t speak to humans in the way I’ve described. The Christian may be factually wrong, but she isn’t being irrational or crazy. To make a “crazy” charge stick, the atheist must show that there is no God, which cannot be done.

Still, I admit it is odd to say, “I know there’s a God because of this voice in my head.” (Though, it isn’t literally a voice.) We would never accept such an argument for any other claim, right? “I know there are aliens/will be an earthquake/Bob is the murderer because of this voice in my head.” So what makes the God case special? 

Here’s one way to think of it. If Bob were the murderer, there’s no reason to expect that I could know this via a “voice” in my head. But if the Christian God did exist, we have good reason to expect that a Christian could know this via a “voice” in her head. In other words, the Christian God (if real) is willing and able to communicate with believers in this way. Admittedly, the case of aliens is more plausible than the murder case. But we still lack good (non-ad hoc) reasons to think aliens would communicate with us in this way. It’s also important to point out that this is not necessarily the way that people initially come to know that God exists. This source of evidence comes into play only after a person comes to believe in the Christian God.

Craig’s Folly?

William Lane Craig has infamously/famously (depending on your viewpoint) said that “the fundamental way in which we know that Christianity is true, including the belief that Jesus rose from the dead, is through the self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit.” He goes further to say that the inner witness of the Spirit “can be so powerfully warranted in our lives that it will intrinsically defeat the extrinsic defeaters that the atheists and skeptics bring against it.” In English, what this means is that no matter what evidence is presented to him against Christianity, the inner witness of the Spirit will override all of it. Is this reasonable?

Critics of Christianity go berserk at this point. This sounds like flat-out irrational, blind faith to them. Surely, they reason, there could be evidence that would be sufficient to cause a reasonable person to give up their belief in Christianity. But while I may not necessarily agree with Craig, I think the open-mouthed astonishment at so audacious a claim rests on a misunderstanding. 

Clarifying Craig

The fact is, there are certain beliefs we all hold that are so fundamental to us, no amount of counter-evidence would ever be enough to uproot them. Consider this example from atheist philosopher, William Rowe: 

“Suppose your friends see you off on a flight to Hawaii. Hours after the take-off they learn that your plane has gone down at sea. After a twenty-four hour search, no survivors have been found. Under these circumstances they are rationally justified in believing that you have perished. But it is hardly rational for you to believe this, as you bob up and down in your life vest, wondering why the search planes have failed to spot you.”1

In truth, no matter how much evidence they produce supporting your death, it wouldn’t be enough to convince you. So the idea of a powerfully warranted belief that is immune to counter-evidence is a perfectly coherent notion, common to everyone. And Craig simply argues that the inner witness of the Spirit is just such an indefeasible source of evidence.

Conclusion

So no matter your religious views, there’s no harm in acknowledging the reality of introspective evidence. Such evidence pervades our beliefs–it is indispensable. And even the religious skeptic can concede the following conditional claim: If the Christian God exists, then Christians have introspective evidence of his existence. (In fact, the only way to refute such a claim is to show that God exists, but no such introspective evidence exists!) Still, skeptics can maintain that given atheism, no such non-misleading evidence actually exists! In any case, everyone benefits from reflecting on the role of introspective evidence in their belief system. 

Interpreting the Bible: Straightforward or Sophisticated?

Bible, interpretation

I recently debated (cordially) with a friend about the words of Jesus to Thomas in the Gospel of John, chapter 20, verse 29 — “Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.” My friend interpreted this to be an encouragement toward “blind faith,” while I took Jesus to be saying that those who believe based on the adequate evidence of testimony are even more “blessed” than those who see Jesus in the flesh. My friend takes his interpretation to be the straightforward, common sense view, and he sees my interpretation as strained.

When I make a complex argument for my view on this (or other passages), he contends that we shouldn’t need a PhD to understand this stuff–it was written by, and to, simple, every day people without years of graduate education. I can’t disagree with him on that point. But, at the same time, I believe we make mistakes in interpretation easily due to certain kinds of ignorance. What I want to do in this post is not debate this passage in particular, but rather to argue that the Bible is both simple and complex, both easy and hard, at the same time.

Ask Someone Who Knows

Eugene Peterson, BibleEugene Peterson, who recently passed away, wrote some of my favorite books and my favorite translation of the Bible (The Message). I trust him as an “expert witness” in this area. I trust Peterson for a few reasons. (1) He was a good man, by all accounts, (2) he translated the ENTIRE Bible from the original languages, and (3) he presents an honest and balanced approach to our question.

The Bible As Straight Talk

Peterson argues, in his book, Eat This Book (Eerdmans, 2006), that the Bible was written in ordinary language for ordinary people. This conviction drove his translation work. “I identified with the first writers and readers/listeners of Scripture, whose first concern had to do with living in the company of the Trinity while walking down the muddy roads of Galilee and Judea and navigating through the sexual chaos of Corinth.” (p.165) “[It] occurred to me that the first people who heard or read the Bible didn’t need a dictionary of a concordance. . . All these books came out of the common life and common knowledge of the people, many, maybe most, of them illiterate. Not unintelligent, mind you, but not schooled.” (p. 166)

Peterson agreed with the Reformers on the “perspicuity” of the Bible–“the conviction that the Bible is basically readable as it is. It is not a body of secret lore accessible only to an academic elite. It is written plainly for plain men and women. “(p. 167) This motivated him to work hard to capture the original ideas and intentions of the biblical authors and to translate them into contemporary language and idioms that the ordinary person can understand today.

Daily Bread

bread, Bible

Here’s an example of the tendency to overdo interpretation. For centuries, scholars assumed that the phrase “daily bread” (arton epiousion) in the Lord’s Prayer must have been a reference to some spiritual sustenance, rather than actual, humdrum bread. Part of the argument was that the term epiousion (daily) was not found in any other ancient Greek writings, and must therefore be a special “spiritual” word, obscured from pedestrian readers.

This, of course, all turned out to be rubbish. In 1925, an archaeological dig at Oxyrhynchus (Egypt) unearthed, in an ancient scrapheap, an ordinary housekeeping book. It contained a shopping list for chickpeas, straw, and . . . wait for it . . .  epiousion. It turned out that Jesus’ prayer referred to good old, fresh-baked bread. (pp. 147-150) Sometimes the simplest view is the correct one.

The Bible As Complex Literature

So how can I still maintain that the Bible contains complexities that require expert guides? One reason is what I call the “time travel” problem. Let me illustrate. In Back To the Future, Marty McFly experiences this problem while trying to order a soda at the local hang out.

Marty, who time traveled from 1985 to 1955, asks for perfectly ordinary soft drinks like ‘Tab’ and ‘Pepsi-Free.’ So why doesn’t the bar keep doesn’t understand?  Marty’s not using “mysterious,” confusing words, and yet, no one is 1955 would know what they mean. In fact, some readers in 2018 feel equally flummoxed by the terms. When we read an ancient text from another culture, we experience the same difficulties, but amplified even more. Instead of 1950’s America, we’re reading about 1st century Palestine, or 20th century BCE Egypt.

Peterson discusses these temporal/cultural complexities of exegesis and translation in an essay entitled, Eat This Book: The Holy Community at Table with the Holy Scripture.

The scriptural text is complex and demanding. The primary witnesses to God’s revelation are the Old and New Testaments: Torah and Prophets and Writings from the Old Testament; Gospels, Letters, and Apocalypse in the New. Written in Hebrew and Aramaic and Greek, languages that have, as all languages do, their own peculiar way of inflecting nouns, conjugating verbs, inserting prepositions in odd places, and arranging words in a sentence. Written on parchment and papyri. Written with pen and ink. Written in Palestine and Egypt and Syria and Greece and Italy. . .

. . . Each book has its own way about it, and generally a careful reader begins to learn how to read a book by slowly and carefully poking around in it for a very long time until a way is found. A careful reader (an exegete!) will proceed with caution, allowing the book itself to teach us how to read it. For it soon becomes obvious that our Holy Scriptures are not composed in a timeless, deathless prose, a hyperspiritual angel language with all the quirks and idiosyncracies of local history and peasant dialect expunged. There are verbs that must be accurately parsed, cities and valleys to be located on a map, and long-forgotten customs to be recovered. (pp. 2-3)

International Time Travel

Peterson understands that we, as readers, are international time travelers. And as such, we face all the problems that international travelers face, multiplied by 1,000. The original text makes simple sense to an ordinary person in the ancient world, but can confound modern readers. This is why Peterson felt so passionate about his translation.

ancient, Parthenon, BibleWhen my wife and I travel to another country, we start preparing with Rick Steves. We want to learn as much as we can about the history, language, culture, and geography of our destination. We have enjoyed “walking tours” in places like Athens and Barcelona while listening to Rick Steves’ narration piped through our ear buds. The places simply come alive for us, and we miss out on this without a knowledgeable chaperon. Peterson does the same with the Bible in his teaching and translation, informing and even correcting our experience of the raw text.

I think people sometimes resist this viewpoint–that the Bible often requires additional insight and effort to understand–for at least two reasons. First, they like the idea that reading the Bible is an effortless process, requiring very little intellectual work. They passively assume the Spirit will reveal everything to them. Second, skeptics want to flatten out all the genre distinctions and hermeneutical nuances in order to generate more problems and inconsistencies. This sort of fundamentalism helps make the atheist’s case.

Conclusion

study, BibleSo is the Bible straightforward and easy to understand? To the original audience, absolutely. But because we are international time travelers, we often need guides to help us understand what we are seeing. Additionally, interpreting any work of literature has challenges, and the Bible has these more mundane issues as well–verb tenses, vocabulary, context, literary devices, etc. None of these are insurmountable obstacles to understanding for regular folks, but they often require some work and a guide. The “first impression” of a passage isn’t always accurate (or complete), any more than my first impressions of the Parthenon were.

The take away here, for me, is that we ought to hold these two truths in tension as we read the Bible. We come to the text both adequate and inadequate at the same time. This should stir up humility and motivate us to put in our “due diligence” in understanding what is said. But it should also guard us against both discouragement and elitism.

Dealing With Doubt (Podcast), Part 2

Twenty-One Pilots, doubtTwenty-One Pilots captivates their audience, in part, because of their honest portrayal of a complex and often painful mental life. Along with anxiety and depression, they talk about their own struggles with faith and doubt. In their song, “Doubt,” Tyler Joseph writes:

[I’m] scared I’ll die of uncertainty
Fear might be the death of me, fear leads to anxiety
Don’t know what’s inside of me

Later in the song, he says that he’s “shaking hands with the dark parts of [his] thoughts.” This kind of experience isn’t unique to people of faith. The song can apply to a variety of contexts. But it poignantly portrays what many believers go through in their private moments.

I do love poetry and song, but I think there is also a place for careful thought and analysis to inform our beliefs. Joseph doesn’t answer the question, “Is it a sin for a Christian to doubt God?” or “What do I do with my doubts?” And that’s OK. But as a philosopher, part of my calling is to tease out these questions more precisely, so that  our worldviews can become more coherent and logical.

In this podcast episode, I share Part 2 of a presentation I gave last year on “The Myth of Certainty: Dealing With Doubts In the Christian Faith.” Philosopher Andrew Moon (Virginia Commonwealth University) has influenced my thinking a great deal in this area. I borrow Moon’s distinction between “verb doubt” and “noun doubt,” and show how it helps us understand the relation between doubt and faith. I also discuss, in this episode, some of the problem passages in the Bible that seem to portray doubt as sin.

It’s only about 20 min, so take some time to listen and share your own thoughts. Thanks!

Dealing With Doubt

doubt, faith, beliefWe all deal with doubt, no matter what you believe. It is a normal, healthy part of a thinking life. But doubts can cause distress and anxiety for many of us, especially when we think it’s wrong to have doubts, or when we really want to believe something.

Most of us experience significant doubts between middle school and college, when we really start asking questions. Too often, when we go to adults or teachers for help, they dismiss our concerns or imply that there is something wrong with us. (I suspect this is because most adults also have unanswered doubts!) Tragically, this can cause many young people to abandon their beliefs prematurely.

In this podcast episode, I share Part 1 of a presentation I gave last year on “The Myth of Certainty: Dealing With Doubts In the Christian Faith.” I think the model I propose helps anyone who wrestles with the interplay between doubt and belief, whether Christian or otherwise. This model is still a work in progress, so feel free to push back on it or ask questions.

It’s only about 20 min, so take some time to listen and share your own thoughts. Thanks!

That Is Not Logical, Part 1

Spock, logical

Star Trek, logicalI loved Star Trek from the time I was five years old. The show inspired my early artistic skills, here displayed in the marker sketch made by my 5 year old self.   Star Wars hadn’t come out yet, so there was no competition, other than Lost In Space, perhaps. I always had a soft spot in my heart for Mr. Spock.  He unfailingly let Captain Kirk or Dr. McCoy know when they strayed from the logical path. Now, more than four decades later, I appreciate Mr. Spock even more. And I’m not alone. Some fellow Trekkie nerd made the early animated series into a collection of short logic primers.

You can find numerous other websites floating around the interwebs, giving lists of logical fallacies. But I recently was asked by a colleague to present a list of logical mistakes particularly common among Christian communicators. So, in no particular order, I’ve assembled them here. Most are common fare, available in logic textbooks. But a few of these are my own observations. (Also see this post and this post.)

Eleven Logical Mistakes, #1-6

#1 Hasty Generalization 

Taking one example and assuming all other cases are the same. 

puppet, logicalWhen I tell people I’m from Florida, they sometimes look at me and think, “But you’re so pale!” As if all Floridians are tan! Sheesh. But that’s a generalization or stereotype people have. This fallacy arises in Christian circles quite often in the form of anecdotal evidence. We base an entire philosophy of ministry on one story. “Well, Johnny’s life was changed when we did that puppet show!” So, we will now do puppet shows forever. But one story is hardly enough evidence to show that a particular outreach is really effective. Christians also love to generalize about men and women. “Well, my wife is shy and I’m assertive, so really that’s just the way all men and women are!” But that’s a double blunder! Not only is it a small sample size, but even if every one in the church was that way, the sample is biased. Walk outside the church walls and you’ll find much more variety among male and female behavior. Bottom line: all generalizations are bad logic! (Just kidding!) But really, be careful that your conclusion or belief stands on a significant foundation of evidence or “unbiased samples” before you shout it from the roof tops.

#2 Slippery Slope

Assuming that A is bad because it will lead to B (which is bad), but there is no clear causal or logical connection. 

dog, marriage, logical, fallacyThe DirecTV commercial from a few years ago illustrates this beautifully. “Don’t end up in a roadside ditch . . . get rid of cable.” This error occurs, in part, because of a confusion between possibility and probability. Sure, it’s possible that if you have cable, you’ll end up in a ditch. But it’s also possible that you’ll end up a millionaire! The important thing is: what is probable. Christians needlessly use this fallacious kind of reasoning in arguments against gay marriage. “If the state endorses gay marriages, pretty soon we’ll have people marrying dogs and cats — mass hysteria!” Sure, that’s possible. But there’s no clear causal or logical link that leads us to expect that such a thing will happen. So use a better argument! On the other hand, smoking five packs of cigarettes a day will probably lead to lung cancer, which will lead to hospitalization and death. That’st NOT slippery slope reasoning. 

#3 Perception Fallacy

It seems this way to me, so it is this way.

elephant, logical, fallacyIf you’ve never heard of no-see-ums, they’re tiny biting bugs nearly invisible to the eye. Suppose you asked me, “Are there any no-see-ums in here?” After casually looking around the room, if I said, “I don’t see any, so I guess not,” that would be bad reasoning. No-see-ums aren’t the sort of thing you would expect to see, even if they were in the room. So just because you don’t see any, you shouldn’t conclude that there aren’t any around. By contrast, if I claimed there was an elephant in the room, and you didn’t see one, you’d be justified in thinking I was crazy. That’s because elephants are the kind of thing you would expect to see if they were in the room. So it all depends on how reliable your perceptual faculties are in spotting that particular thing.

This mistake became especially apparent to me during the protests here at the University of Missouri in 2015. While black students came out in droves to protest racism on campus, white students were baffled. “What’s the big deal?” they said. “Aren’t they blowing this out of proportion?” Most white students just didn’t see the racism that was being talked about. But the truth is that white students’ “racism perception” isn’t very reliable. Most racism occurs when they aren’t around, and even when they are around, they are often oblivious to it. Minority students, however, are very practiced, from much experience, at noticing racism. So, it’s a mistake to go from “I don’t see it” to “it just doesn’t exist.”

#4 Deconstruction Fallacy

“She only believes X for emotional reasons/bad motives, so X is false (or can be dismissed).”

This error sometimes goes by the name “genetic fallacy,” but I’ve never cared for that label. I like the term ‘deconstruction’ because I often hear people speak of “deconstructing” someone’s views by analyzing their cultural and psychological influences. In the religious realm, both believers and nonbelievers fall into this type of poor reasoning.

crutch, religion, logicalChristians will say of atheists, “they’re only atheists because of a bad relationship with their fathers,” or “they just want freedom from moral restraint.” Thus any intellectual arguments against God are dismissed. But the irreligious commit this classic blunder as well. “Christians only believe because they need an emotional crutch,” or “they only believe because they were raised that way.” And the arguments for faith are dismissed out of hand. But sound reason recognizes that how a person came to acquire their beliefs is irrelevant to the truth of those beliefs. All truth claims must stand or fall independently of the motives or history of those who assert them.

#5 Tribalism Fallacy

“My ‘tribe’ is against X, so X is bad/wrong.”

Trump, tribe, tribalism, fallacy, logical Tribalism becomes, for many, a substitute for thinking. Violators come in all flavors: Christian, atheist, liberal, conservative, etc. Take the debates about Trump. If you’re a liberal, then you know that liberals hate Trump, so that means Trump is bad. No logical argument required. If you’re a conservative, the same procedure applies. And when you find your Tribe holds a certain position, there’s no need to examine evidence or reasons. You instantly defend that position to the death! Conversations about the recent Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kanavaugh offer a consummate example. Don’t look at the evidence–just defend your Tribe at all costs!

Now lest I be guilty of mistake #4 (Deconstruction), let me clarify. I’m not saying that Tribalists’ views can be dismissed out of hand as false or bad, simply because they are Tribalists. I’m encouraging people inclined toward Tribalism to stop and examine their reasoning, and to be sure they are believing according to their evidence. And “my tribe believes X,” is probably not evidence for the truth of X.

#6 Circular Reasoning

X is true because of Y, and Y is true because of X. 

car, logical, fallacyLarry arrives home with his new (used) car. His wife, Lisa, asks, “was the car salesman honest?” Larry answers, “Yup.” “How can you be sure?” inquires Lisa. “Because he told me so.”

This sounds laughable, but it’s easier to fall into this kind of logical error than many realize. Christians frequently and famously commit this mistake when they defend the Bible.

Christian: The Bible is the Word of God.
Skeptic: How do you know?
Christian: Because it says so in the Bible.
Skeptic: But how do you know what it says is true?
Christian: God’s Word is always true!

This is a bad argument. There are many other logical ways of arguing for the truth of the Bible, so Christians need not resort to circularity. But it happens in other venues as well. “Abortion is murder!” “Why do you think that?” “Because it is the wrongful killing of a person!” (But that’s simply another way to assert “Abortion is murder.”) The bottom line is, be sure that when you state reasons for your conclusion, you aren’t merely rephrasing your conclusion.

Tune in next time for Part 2 of “That Is Not Logical!” Mistakes #7-11

Responsible Religious Belief Q&A

responsible belief, SASHAThis video records the Q&A after talk I gave to the University of Missouri SASHA club (Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists, and Agnostics). The title was “Responsible Belief,” and I shared with them a model of how beliefs are formed and evaluated responsibly. That went about 30 min. Then, we had Q&A and everyone stayed. It was a wonderful conversation and one of the highlights of 2015 for me. At some point, I may post the original presentation.

I’ve broken the 30 min of Q&A into 3 separate videos, and this is Part 1. If you’re interested in how a Christian might respond to being put on the hot seat in front of a lot of smart people, you’ll enjoy this!

 

The Special Significance of Testimony in Christianity

doubting thomas, evidence, belief, testimonyImagine the scene: you’re standing around at party with your friends, and out of nowhere, Jesus appears! And this isn’t the first time, either. But Tom missed all the parties where Jesus showed up, and he thinks you’re all having alcohol-induced hallucinations. This time, however, Tom sees Jesus himself. He reaches out and touches him to be sure. Then Jesus says, “Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.” (Cf. John 20:29)

People puzzle over this strange statement. Critics quickly take it to mean that Christian faith means believing without evidence. Even some Christians interpret Jesus as saying that people should “just believe” and stop asking questions. Take the proverbial “leap of faith,” even if it makes no sense whatsoever. They pair Jesus’ words with Paul’s frequently abused assertion, “for we walk by faith, not by sight.” Is this “blind faith?” Is that what Jesus and Paul meant? (1) If so, this strikes a blow against the view that Christianity is a rational worldview! Thankfully, we can make sense of these statements in a way that doesn’t require abandoning coherence. 

Seeing vs. Evidence

kermit, testimony, evidenceThe main mistake we make here is in thinking that “seeing” and “evidence” are the same thing. But evidence comes to us in several forms, only one of which is sight. Epistemologists, who study how beliefs relate to evidence (among other things), agree that there are five primary sources of belief and justification (this includes evidence): perception, testimony, inference, memory, and introspection.(2) For our purposes, we can roughly equate sight with perception–that is, gathering data through the five senses. So, what Jesus and Paul might be saying is this, “It is better not to limit your yourself to the evidence of (physical) perception,” or even, “You should prioritize non-perceptual sources of evidence.” If I’m right, this supports the coherence of Christianity as a rational worldview. 

One question we might ask in testing this hypothesis is, “Why would Christianity favor the other four sources (esp. testimony) over perception? I mean, isn’t perception the best and most reliable way to gather information and evidence?” Well, let me offer two reasons in favor of this favoritism, and one response to the claim that perception is the best of the five sources.

Is (Physical) Perception the Best Source of Evidence?

forensic evidence, testimonyIn some contexts, I think we would say “yes.” Physical or forensic evidence can be more reliable in a murder case, for example, than testimonial evidence. (I’m no legal scholar, but this seems a safe assumption.) But what about outside the courtroom, in everyday life? Is there any reason to favor the evidence of my five senses over the evidence of testimony, inference, etc.? All five sources are vulnerable to error, and no single source can be set as judge above the rest. They must work in cooperation.

Why can’t I endorse one source as preeminent? The minute I try to set one source above the others, I run into problems. First, by what process did I determine that my preferred source is more reliable than the others? Whatever process I employ, it must, by necessity, involve the use of inference (one of my sources). And if it is inference (reason) that I set up as judge, then who evaluates the process I used to decide that? Reason? Ha! Circularity ensues. If some other source, then inference is no longer King. They must all be taken as a team, serving as checks and balances.

Why Would Christianity Favor the Other Four Sources?

So why would someone be “blessed” by relying on non-perceptual sources of evidence? Simply put, the fundamental beliefs of Christianity traffic in non-physical or abstract entities. Perception just isn’t very helpful in coming to know about such things. And this isn’t just true in religion. It’s true in mathematics, philosophy, ethics, cosmology, human value, and other areas. 

trinity, testimony, evidenceConsider some of Christianity’s most basic claims. God exists, God is a trinity, Jesus is God-incarnate, there is life after death, there are objective moral values and duties. Physical perception won’t (directly) tell you any of these things. So it’s no wonder that St. Paul, in the context of discussing life after death (“walk by faith” 2 Cor. 5:7), says that we can’t rely on our five senses to provide evidence of such things. This doesn’t mean that physical perception doesn’t play a role in faith–it can. Hundreds of people confirmed the physical resurrection of Jesus by empirical observation: sight, touch, sound, maybe even smell! Nature itself indirectly points to God’s invisible attributes. But non-perceptual sources, especially testimony, open to door to so much more. 

Blessed Testimony

family, relational, testimony, loveThe Christian faith favors testimony as a mean of transmitting belief and knowledge because, unlike other sources, testimony usually requires human interaction and is thus a relational means of knowledge transmission. The Christian God seeks to create a community of believers, not merely a mass of isolated individuals. By working through human relationships and conversation, God can establish bonds of trust and love between people, forming the basis of community. People can and do come to believe without relationships, but those who already have a connection to another person in the church will experience the benefits of belonging to a community of love. By analogy, imagine if babies just appeared in the world via magic, rather than through human reproduction! The sense of belonging and obligation created through reproduction in the human family provides far superior conditions for new humans. “Spiritual reproduction” via testimony also creates more “blessed” conditions for new believers. (Testimony also confers benefits on the messengers, but I’ll save that for another time.)

Back to Thomas

So I hope I’ve made some sense of Jesus’ words to Thomas here. By opening ourselves to other sources of knowledge, we increase the potential for a deeper experience of God and human community. We can experience the comprehensive revelation of God: written word, philosophical argument, inner awareness of moral conviction, indirect evidence through nature, etc. Testimonial conversations usher us into the Kingdom both spiritually and communally. Jesus’ words (“blessed are they . . .”) speak to all those who ponder the truth of Christianity, but who simply don’t have the benefit of Thomas’ proximity to the physical Jesus. Even Thomas might have been more “blessed” had he believed based on the testimony of his friends.


(1) For a careful look at the biblical context, see this excellent blog post.

(2) For more, see Robert Audi’s Epistemology: A Contemporary Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge, Routledge, 2000.

Should I Change What I Believe?

Magdalen College, Oxford, C.S. LewisIn the summer of 2017, I visited the University of Oxford and walked the flower-covered grounds of Magdalen (oddly pronounced “Maudlin”) College. I imagined myself retracing the steps of C. S. Lewis as he first wrestled with the idea of faith in God. He describes his conversion this way:

“You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.” (emphasis mine)

Lewis experienced a process that everyone goes through at one time or another. We start with a belief, we encounter something that unsettles that belief, and then we either find a way to retain our belief, or we change to a different belief. Personally, I don’t think we can directly control what we believe, but we can often indirectly influence the process. But how do we decide what to do when we feel that unsettling?

Winds of Change

weather vane, changeOnly in the last few years have I come to appreciate the expression “winds of change.” When there is a change in air pressure in one place, you feel that change in the form of air moving quickly in or out of your location. That moving air brings a change in weather. (Apologies to any meteorologists out there for my crude description.) Sometimes we feel the “winds of change” in our mental life. Something is unsettled and moving. We encounter new evidence (either in the form of an experience or a set of reasons presented to us) against our view of something and our belief becomes unstable.

The question is, what should we do when we feel that unsettledness? It seems there are several possibilities:

  1. Do nothing. I can take a passive stance and just let the winds of belief blow me wherever they will. Change? Sure! Anytime, any belief.
  2. Stick my head in the sand. I can ignore the new evidence and distract myself from thinking about it further, until I can hopefully just forget about it. Then I will avoid anything that reminds me of that evidence.
  3. Investigate. I can check out the new evidence and test it’s quality or seek corroboration. I can also seek counter-evidence (reasons to doubt the new evidence) and additional evidence for the position I currently hold. Once this is done, I can move toward a new position or affirm my current one.

Something about the first approach appeals to us. It takes no effort, for one. It also sounds so flexible and open-minded. But while flexibility and open-mindedness can be virtues, you can have too much of a good thing. One danger with this approach is that some evidence is misleading evidence.

evidence, knifeEver read a good murder mystery where someone tries to frame another person for the murder? Jenna plants a bloody knife in Jake’s house, she transfers money into his bank account, etc. The average person sees these “clues” and believes Jake must be guilty. But a good detective doesn’t form conclusions quite so quickly or easily. They hold out, they investigate and test the evidence. This sort of reactionary believing happens on social media all too often. We swallow “fake news” or posts that turn out to be hoaxes or just mistakes. So, it seems better to form beliefs more carefully, but without losing flexibility and open-mindedness.

Believe it or not, approach #2 also has a virtue. If all your current beliefs are true, then the head-in-sand technique can help you avoid ever forming a false belief! But it will be at the cost of ever learning any new truths. And besides, I know that my current stock of beliefs isn’t perfect. #2 isn’t as safe as it seems.

Investigation

Of the three options, #3 provides the best way to ensure you are moving toward the truth, or at least toward the most reasonable belief. If you care deeply about having true and reasonable beliefs, then it is wise to invest some time in investigation when you experience an “unsettling” in your worldview.

san francisco, beliefsMy senior year in college, I flew west for a summer mission initiative in San Francisco. My room mate in the dorms, Jasper, didn’t at all fit into the box of what I thought an evangelical college student should be. He had long, crazy hair, dressed in a sort of “grunge” style, and (gasp) listened to secular music! So I thought I was more “mature” than Jasper in my Christian faith, since I wasn’t as “worldly.”

By the end of the summer, however, it became clear that not only was Jasper more mature in his faith than I was, but he emerged as the spiritual leader of the entire mission. Over those 6 weeks, I watched Jasper carefully, and I saw enough evidence in his life to “shift” my belief about secular music. When I returned home from California, I had changed my view and finally felt the freedom to re-embrace my favorite band, U2. (I know how ironic that sounds, given that U2 are very Christian in their message.)

I’ve also experienced times where my view has been challenged, and after investigation, I’ve held my ground. I’ve even moved to a position of “I don’t know” on a few topics. It’s not about which position you take, it’s about responsibility. I want to be responsible with my mind and my beliefs, the same way I try to be careful what I eat and assimilate into my body. (I wrote about another time I changed beliefs here.)

Flexible, but Discerning

earthquake, beliefsI actually went back to live in California for a few years, about a decade after that summer mission. Loved it. Except for the earthquakes. When you feel that rumbling, and your picture frames start rattling off the shelves, it’s quite unsettling.

Sometimes we feel that rumble in our worldview when we have new experiences and talk to people with different perspectives. But we don’t have to respond in panic and fear. Quality buildings are strong, but also flexible, to better withstand quakes. We need that, too. Stay flexible and ready to adjust as needed when the quake comes. We can stop and decide to take some time to investigate. “It is the mark of a mature mind,” Aristotle says, “to be able to entertain an idea without accepting it.” Hold that idea (and the evidence) in your hand and give it a good hard look. Then you can rationally, responsibly discern whether to toss it, table it, or move toward it.

Is Faith Irrational?

I came across this wonderful post by Liz Jackson, a Notre Dame PhD candidate in philosophy. She argues for the rationality of faith by taking an argument against her view and showing that it fails. Of course, this doesn’t “prove” anything, but it does undermine several common attacks made against the rationality of faith. I’d be interested to hear from skeptical readers whether they think Jackson succeeds, or if they have an alternative way to argue for faith’s irrationality.

One point that stands out to me is that skeptics shouldn’t just define faith as irrational. She explains why in the post.

Read her post here.

I discovered this blog (The Open Table) just today, but it seems like a good one.

An Atheist, an Agnostic, and A Theist Walk Into A Bar

(That literally happened to me one time.) Ok, this joke still needs writing, and that’s not my thing. But I do want to try and tease out a related conversational knot that’s been giving me trouble. In short, the knot involves the answers to the following questions:

  • What does it mean to be an atheist?
  • What does it mean to be a theist?
  • What does it mean to be an agnostic?

Why does this matter? Because labels matter to us. If someone called me a “feminist,” my reaction might depend on what they mean by the term. If it just means “someone who advocates for the complete social, economic, and political equality of the sexes,” then I’m happy to carry the label. But if they mean it pejoratively to mean “someone who hates men and wants women to take over the world,” then I’m going have a problem with that. So which is the correct definition of feminist?

Similarly, if someone calls you an atheist, what exactly does that mean? You might accept the term when defined a certain way, but not when defined in another way. Also, if I say something like, “atheism is irrational,” the reasonableness (or truth) of that claim depends on the definition being used. If it means, “someone who knows with certainty that no gods exist,” then few people will accept the label, and rightly so.

What I want to do here is compare two approaches to defining these terms, and explain why I recommend one over the other. I’ll start with what I call the “four quadrants” model.

The Four Quadrants Model

Some people propose we renovate these terms (atheist, agnostic, theist) a bit to make things clearer and avoid foisting burdensome views upon others. Here is the renovation proposal:

atheism, agnosticism, belief grid

There is a certain elegance and symmetry to this model. You have ‘theism’ and ‘a-theism’ juxtaposed with ‘gnostic’ and ‘a-gnostic.’ Very nice.

This “quadrant model” carries other advantages as well. First, it takes some pressure off of atheists who don’t want to claim that they “know” there are no gods. Second, it also takes pressure off of theists in exactly the same way. Third, it uses the term ‘agnostic’ in a way more true to the original meaning of the Greek word. In ancient Greek, ‘gnosis’ means ‘knowledge’ and the prefix ‘a’ mean ‘without’ or negation. So, to say that I am “agnostic” literally means “I don’t know.”

Cons of the Quadrant Model

Unfortunately, there are some drawbacks to this model. For one, the unconventional use of ‘gnostic’ and ‘agnostic.’ While I do love etymologies (word origins), most people find them rather pedantic. The simple truth about language is that meanings change over time. A word gets it’s meaning from usage. If we were arguing about what technical term philosophers should use, that might be a different story. But if we want an ordinary term for common usage, it is simpler to use the word conventionally. So, when it come to ‘agnostic,’ most people understand this to describe someone who is undecided about God’s existence. And when it comes to ‘gnostic,’ this term gnostic, mysticalrefers to followers of an religion that revolves around the possession of esoteric, mystical knowledge (Gnosticism). For Christians, this is especially important, because ‘gnostic’ carries a heavy negative connotation, and has for thousands of years. To be a “gnostic theist” is to be a heretic, for most Christians. So, shifting meanings in this way muddies the waters.

Secondly, this model suggests that knowledge and belief are like height and width–two separate dimensions of thought. But belief and knowledge relate more like acceleration and force. Belief is a component of knowledge, just as acceleration is a component of force (F = ma). So it is misleading to represent them on two perpendicular axes.

This quadrant model also fails to provide a safe conceptual space for the truly undecided. True undecidedness is a real position on many important questions, including scientific ones. In numerous cases (e.g., the multiverse), the most rational thing to say is “I neither believe there is an X, nor do I believe there is not an X.” But the diagram above tells me that I must pick a quadrant.  I must either believe (the space below the ‘x’ axis) or not believe (the space above the ‘x’ axis). If we revised it to allow people to be on the axis, perhaps right at (0,0), then what do we call them? There is no in-between because the model is binary in principle.

confused, atheist, agnosticFinally, the fellow in the upper-left quadrant confuses a few things. He wants to say “I don’t believe any god exists,” but he also wants to say “I’m not CLAIMING that–I might be wrong.” I understand the discomfort here. He doesn’t want to make a strong claim, because that would require a strong defense, which is a burden he doesn’t want. Fair enough. But he isn’t like a helicopter that has yet to land. He has landed, even if tentatively. He thinks there are no gods. He’s not saying he is certain, or that he can prove anything, he is simply describing where he has landed. And he admits that he may have landed on the wrong spot. That’s fine. But even a tentative landing represents a claim about what you think is true about the universe. I’ll say a bit more beloe about the the difference between “having no belief about p” and “not believing p.”

The Sliding-Scale Model

Instead of a binary-based model, and the restrictions that entails, I prefer a sliding-scale approach.  This non-binary model allows for a wide range of possibilities, grouped into three natural categories. Rather than being forced to choose from only four possible positions, people can personalize their position based on their beliefs and confidence level.

I didn’t have a cute graphic for mine, so I made this:

belief scale, agnostic

On this view, you can be anywhere between 0-100% confidence about a certain idea or claim. (“p” refers to any claim, or proposition, like “God exists.”) If you find yourself hovering around the 50% mark, we’ll say you neither believe it nor disbelieve it. This is where we should fall on claims like “this fair coin will land on heads when flipped.” Sometimes we say things, loosely, like “I don’t know.” But this conversationally implies that we simply don’t have a belief one way or the other.

pool jump, confidence, beliefIf you land roughly between 65-100% confident that p, then you clearly believe it is true.  At 100% confidence, you have no doubts and think there is no chance that p is false. (Notice that we’re saying nothing about knowledge here. This is only about beliefs, just to keep things simple and clear.)  If you fall anywhere in between 0-35%, you think that p is false, though the closer you get to 50%, the more you lean toward thinking there’s some chance it could be true. For example, suppose I’m looking over a balcony, wondering if I could jump safely into the pool. I give myself about a 15% chance of plunging safely into the water. So, if you ask me, “Do you believe you can make it?” I’d say, “no.”  If you have 0% confidence that p, then you have no doubt it is false–you disbelieve it with maximum confidence of its falsehood.

The Sliding-scale & God

Now, if we apply this to our debate about definitions, here’s how I think it works in terms of belief about God. If you have ~65% or more confidence that God exists, then you believe that God exists and we call you a theist.  (I think most of us agree with that.) But theists, like atheists, can possess little or much confidence. If you are ~35% or less confident that God exists, then you disbelieve that God exists and we call you an atheist. (Nothing about knowledge here!)

Both segments (red and green) of the scale represent a “belief state,” two sides of the same coin.

coin flip, tails, beliefBut that’s ok because merely believing or disbelieving that p doesn’t saddle you with an undue burden. I call them both belief states because disbelieving that p is roughly synonymous with believing that p is false. I.e., “I disbelieve that God exists” is the same as “I believe there is no God.” It’s like someone saying, “I don’t think the coin will be heads”– you wouldn’t need to ask whether they believe it will be tails. It’s just a belief! No big deal. Whether it is rational or whether you know is a different ball game and will require more justification. But the atheist need not attain certainty or prove there is no God in order to be a rational atheist.

Questions & Concerns

Some atheists prefer the quadrant model because they are more comfortable saying “I don’t have a belief about God–I lack belief in God.” But saying you lack a belief about God’s existence is not accurate. Atheists lack an affirmation of God’s existence, but they have a belief state (doxastic attitude), and that belief state is disbelief. They take the claim “God exists” to be false. If you don’t take it to be false, then you are either undecided or a theist. The only people who truly lack a belief about God are those who have never considered God’s existence, like my dog Duke or my friend’s baby. They just have no belief state about God whatsoever.

Huxley, agnostic, agnosticismWhat about agnostics? Now, I admit that the term ‘agnostic’ as a label for the undecided is somewhat regrettable, given the literal Greek meaning. Coined by Thomas Huxley in the late 19th century, the term served to contrast his position against those who felt they had attained “gnosis” or knowledge of answers to the big questions. Huxley used the term to express either skepticism or humility or both. But regardless of Huxley’s intentions, the term now refers to someone who is undecided on a matter, religious or otherwise. For now, it works. Launch a campaign to shift the usage if you dislike it, but it isn’t quite right to tell people that they’re using it wrong now.

To avoid mixing up atheism and agnosticism, note that the claim “I don’t believe that any gods exist” (as in the four quadrant graphic above) can mean several different things. Consider the claim E: “the number of stars in the universe is even.” If I say that “I don’t believe E,” that could mean: (1) I think E is false, which implies that I hold the odd-number-stars view; or (2) I don’t believe E, but I don’t think it’s false either. I’m just undecided, or agnostic on the matter. So when you want to express atheism and NOT agnosticism, it is better to say something like, “I believe there are no gods,” or more simply “I disbelieve theism.”

If you discover that the belief-state you are in is difficult to defend, welcome to the club! Each position has its unique challenges and weaknesses. There’s no problem with redefining your position in order to make it more defensible, as long as the changes are not “Ad hoc” and the new definition is coherent and unconfusing.