Existence of God (part 29)

May 01, 2011     Time: 00:27:41


Belief in God as Properly Basic.

Excursus: Natural Theology
§ VI. Properly Basic Belief In God
Lecture 4

We have been talking about belief in God as properly basic. Last time I argued that for a person who has not merely the witness of the Holy Spirit but also good arguments and evidences for the truth of Christian theism, that person is doubly warranted in his Christian belief. He has the warrant from the witness of the Holy Spirit immediately, and he has the warrant that accrues from rational argument and evidence for Christianity. There can be great benefits to this sort of warrant.

Defeaters and Christian Belief

This raises the question of what happens when you run into defeaters for your Christian belief – when you encounter objections or obstacles to Christian belief that are raised through argument and evidence. Certainly this does happen. I remember speaking once to a Christian gentleman from the Soviet Union soon after the wall came down and asking him, “As a Christian living in Russia, what resources do you have for studying Christianity?” And he said there was an encyclopedia of atheism that the state publishes and by reading that you can learn a little bit about Christianity from what it attacks; but apart from that there just isn’t much. And I thought: This dear brother! His only resources for learning about his faith was the encyclopedia of atheism attacking it! So certainly people do find themselves, due to the accidents of history and geography – or perhaps I shouldn’t say accidents but the vicissitudes of history and geography, will find themselves in situations where the evidence and the arguments seemingly go against Christian theism. What do you do in a case like that?

Plantinga emphasizes that just because a belief is properly basic doesn’t mean that it is indefeasible, that is to say, that it cannot be defeated. Properly basic beliefs can be defeated by arguments and evidence that are brought against them. Therefore, just because something is properly basic for you doesn’t mean it is indubitable or certain. If there are defeaters that are brought against a properly basic belief, you have to come up with a defeater of the defeater, if you are to remain rational in holding to that properly basic belief. So you have got to have a defeater-defeater in order to continue to believe rationally. In that case it would mean that a Christian confronted with some defeater, say, the problem of evil as an argument for atheism, in order to remain rational needs to have an answer to the problem of evil. Otherwise, he should give up his belief in God.

Christian Apologetics

This is where Christian apologetics would come in. Christian apologetics serves to provide defeaters of the defeaters that are brought against Christian belief. For example, Plantinga would offer the Free Will Defense against the problem of evil to show that the problem of evil is not a successful argument for atheism. So one thing that apologetics can do is defensive in nature. It wards off, or defeats, the potential defeaters that are brought against Christian belief. Notice in that case, one doesn’t then begin to believe Christianity on the basis of the defeater-defeaters; you still believe it in a properly basic way. You just defeat the objections that are brought against it.

However, this raises the disturbing question – what about somebody like my acquaintance in the Soviet Union who had no ability to get any defeater-defeaters? All he heard was the Marxist propaganda brought against Christianity, and he had no way of having defeaters of those. Is he rationally obligated to commit apostasy and reject Jesus Christ out of his life and become an atheist? Surely that is not right! That seems unconscionable that anyone could be rationally obligated to apostatize.

Original Belief as Intrinsic Defeater-Defeater

Here Plantinga has very helpfully argued that in some cases the original basic belief may itself be so powerfully warranted that it becomes an intrinsic defeater-defeater. It has so much intrinsic warrant that it defeats the defeaters that are brought against it. He gives this very interesting example.1 Suppose that you are accused of a crime which you know you didn’t commit because you were alone at the time that the crime was committed. And yet, somehow, all of the evidence is against you, so that a jury of your peers ought to convict you of the crime, even though you know you are innocent. Indeed, if you were on the jury, you should yourself convict you of being guilty of the crime because all of the evidence is against you! Plantinga says, yet you know you are innocent and didn’t commit the crime. Are you rationally obligated to go along with the evidence and agree with your peers that you are guilty? Obviously not! The belief that you have that you are innocent is so warranted for you that it is an intrinsic defeater of the defeaters brought against it. So you are not obligated to follow the evidence where it leads because you know better.

In exactly the same way, Plantinga makes the theological application by saying the Christian belief may be so powerfully warranted by the witness of the Holy Spirit that it becomes an intrinsic defeater-defeater. It intrinsically defeats the objections brought against it by arguments and evidence. It seems to me that that is entirely correct. It is completely plausible and makes sense. Indeed, I suspect that disadvantaged brethren, like the fellow in the Soviet Union that I met, may actually receive a greater measure of grace from God to endure under such circumstances, a more powerful witness of the Holy Spirit than perhaps you and I receive because we do have good defeaters for the objections that are brought against Christian belief. But God isn’t going to abandon his children to committing apostasy simply because the vicissitudes of history and geography put them in places where the evidence goes against Christian faith. He, through his Holy Spirit, can provide such a powerful witness to the truth of the Gospel that it will intrinsically defeat those defeaters.

Remember what John says in 1 John 5:9 that we read earlier – if we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater. He who believes in Jesus, that he is the Son of God, has the testimony in himself, the indwelling Holy Spirit. Therefore, with regard to the defeaters, when we have arguments and evidence to defeat the defeaters, that’s fine; but even in cases where we don’t, Christian belief is completely rational and, I would say, warranted on the basis of the intrinsic witness of the Holy Spirit, which defeats any defeaters that are brought against it.


Question: That kind of argumentation is like adding an emotional nuance to a completely logical point. It seems like you are using emotions as a point for a logical premise. [Dr. Craig interjects and asks, “How do emotions enter the picture?”]. It seems to me the whole witness of the Holy Spirit could just be, as Richard Dawkins says, a hallucination.

Answer: Well, I disagree with him. I think the witness of the Holy Spirit is not just an emotional experience. I would say this has nothing to do with emotions. What we are talking about here is an objective, external witness borne by God to the believer’s and the unbeliever’s mind, telling him that the great truths of the Gospel are really true, if he will attend to them. We must not confuse this with an argument from religious experience or think that we are talking about emotions. We are talking about an immediate experience and testimony from God himself. Now Dawkins can deny that there is such a thing. He is at liberty to do that. But there is no reason why I should follow him and think that. I experience the witness of the Holy Spirit. Moreover, the Scripture teaches that there is such a witness. So why should I go along with what Dawkins says?

Question: This kind of reminds me of the old verificationist line of thinking, where we only have five senses, and anything outside of that is meaningless. A lot of people do not think about this today, but we do have more than five senses – we have a sense of acceleration, a temperature sense, a pain sense. What is to say that our external perception of the world could not be influenced by some sort of spiritual sense as well? People point out sociopaths, or deaf persons, or mute persons. Just because their sense doesn’t work doesn’t mean they aren’t correct with others.2

Answer: I agree thoroughly! There are other senses that even approximate this spiritual sense more closely. Things like a moral sense – that we have the ability to grasp moral truths. Or aesthetic truths. There is simply no reason to go along with the old empiricist or verificationist idea that anything you can’t prove through your five senses is just a matter of emotional expression or personal taste.

Question: Is there an atheistic equivalent argument that says, “You have convinced me that what you say is true, but I just don’t think it is, so I am not going to agree.”

Answer: It is very hard to see how atheism could be a properly basic belief. This is a very good question because there isn’t any such thing as a witness of the Holy Spirit in atheism. So it is really difficult to see how atheism could make a parallel claim. I know of one atheist who has toyed with something like this. Quentin Smith has said that in the presence of horrible evil it is just a properly basic belief that God does not exist. He admits he can’t give any argument to show that, but it is just properly basic to say this could not have been permitted by God. But if the atheist wants to take that gambit, then I think we can offer defeaters of that by showing that there is no reason at all to think that God couldn’t have permitted this evil – you could do the whole Free Will Defense and the rest of that. I think you can defeat his allegedly properly basic belief. But I do not know of any atheist who has sincerely maintained that atheism would have something parallel in being properly basic.

Question: On the metaphor you use with the court case, if all of the defeaters are against you, how can you say, “I strongly believe that I know I am not guilty?” How can you prove that to the jury?

Answer: You couldn’t! See, that’s the whole point. We have probably seen movies like this, haven’t we? We have all seen movies where some innocent person, through hook and by crook, finds himself in a situation where it really looks bad. It really looks like he did the crime, but he knows he didn’t. But he is utterly incapable of proving to the jury that he didn’t do the crime. And yet he doesn’t have to go along with the evidence that he is guilty, even though he can’t prove that he is not guilty. That is why this is not an argument for theism. This is quite the contrary – it is the claim that it is properly basic. I have no argument to prove this is true – I cannot prove to the jury at all that he is innocent. But he doesn’t have to follow the evidence because he knows he is innocent in a properly basic way.

Question: How would you then explain those Christians who walk away from the faith? I know of people that claimed they had the inner witness of the Holy Spirit, and yet they still, through whatever reason, leave the faith.

Answer: Remember what I said that because a belief is properly basic doesn’t mean it is indubitable? In order to experience the witness of the Holy Spirit in its fullness, we need to walk in the Spirit daily. We need to be filled with the Holy Spirit, to be controlled and empowered by the Holy Spirit. This is where philosophy connects very practically with spiritual formation and Christian living. Think of a person who is living in disobedience and who is quenching the Holy Spirit – for example, by not following the Holy Spirit’s leading to do something, but instead may be following in American materialistic, consumerist values and culture – or a person who is grieving the Holy Spirit through sin. Both of those are mentioned by Paul: quenching the Holy Spirit and grieving the Holy Spirit. Think of a person that has unconfessed sin in his life – he is looking at pornography or he has got a bad temper that isn’t submitted to the Lord, and he sins. Those kind of sins disrupt your fellowship with God, and you are not walking in the fullness of the Holy Spirit, and that is going to weaken the witness of the Holy Spirit in your life. If this epistemology is right, then to me this underlines hugely the importance of keeping short accounts with God, confessing your sins daily, self-examination, to be sure you are walking in the fullness of the Holy Spirit, and so forth. Otherwise, as you have said, you can get off the track. I remember seeing one of these statements by one of these apostate Christians on the internet and it was very interesting. He said, what happened to me is that I began to no longer have my daily devotional time with the Lord and I didn’t read my Bible and pray every day, and I began to drift away from that.3 As he left those spiritual disciplines, it made it easier and easier for him to drift away. The fact that there is a witness of the Holy Spirit that is adequate and sufficient for warrant in Christian belief and that it is something that is self-authenticating doesn’t mean that you cannot grieve and quench the Holy Spirit and therefore mute his witness in your life.

Question: First, could you make a distinction between this and fideism? Second, is this the G. E. Moore shift that if you have enough original warrant it can somehow overpower defeaters?

Answer: Yeah, I see your point. G. E. Moore, a philosopher back in the beginning of the 20th century, said: “Here is my right hand, and here is my left hand. There! We have a proof of the existence of the external world!” What Moore meant, of course, is any argument against the existence of the external world is going to be less obviously true then the fact that I have a right hand and a left hand. I think he is right about that. It is like an intrinsic defeater of any argument brought against the reality of the external world, like you are a brain in a vat or a body lying in the Matrix and this is a virtual reality and it is all illusory. It is kind of like that.

Now, is this fideism, you ask. What is fideism? Fideism comes from the Latin word “fides” which means “faith.” So fideism is the view that the way you know Christianity is true is you just take it by faith – it is just belief by faith. Is that what this is? Plantinga resists that label vigorously. It is no more by faith than my belief in the existence of the external world or the reality of the past is by faith. Plantinga says these are part of the deliverances of reason. It is just that they are not inferred beliefs. These are part of the foundations of your cognitive system of beliefs. But they are just as much deliverances of reason as the inferred beliefs. These are just part of the foundations rather than inferred from the foundations. I think he is quite right about that. It isn’t fideism; it is saying that these beliefs are deliverances of reason which are properly basic in virtue of the fact that they are grounded in our experience and are not defeated by anything. So it is not fideism. Fideism would be the view that you have no warrant for your Christian beliefs and you just leap into the dark and believe it anyway. This is an account of warrant. This is not to say you are unwarranted in your Christian beliefs. This is an account of warrant. So it is quite different from fideism, which says you believe without any warrant.

Question: Going back to the court case and the evidence presented to the jury points towards guilt when you are actually not guilty. Seems to me the person in that case has to conclude that the evidence is incomplete. Therefore, there should be other evidence out there. It may not be immediately knowable, but the fact that the available evidence points to a false conclusion indicates there is something missing.

Answer: Right, I agree with that, and I think that is what the Christian like my friend in the Soviet Union would say: “I can’t refute these arguments because I do not have the materials. But I believe there are answers to them if only I had access to it.” For example, somebody who [hears it said], “Belief in the resurrection of Jesus is derived from the myths of Osiris and Adonis in ancient pagan religions” may be unfamiliar with those ancient religions, and he doesn’t know if that is true, and he can’t disprove that. But he says, “I know Christ is risen because I know Christ, and if I did have familiarity with those texts, and if I were an expert in ancient mythology, then I would know that your argument is wrong, and there is a flaw there somewhere, but I am just too ignorant to know where it is.” You are absolutely right; this is not a claim to believe something false.

I think some of the internet infidels who have criticized me on this have misunderstood this. This is not a claim to say that you should believe something that is contrary to reason or that it is somehow not a fact. Rather, it is just to say what you just said – on the basis of the witness of the Holy Spirit, you know when you are in a situation like this that all the facts aren’t in and that your information is incomplete and therefore you are perfectly rational to believe and have faith and confidence that if you did have all the facts then the objection would be exposed as false. That is a good point.4

Question: Could you talk about people like Tertullian and Kierkegaard who said they believe Christianity because it is absurd – what is the basis for their belief and how do we avoid that?

Answer: It is hard to know about Tertullian. He was an ancient church father. He was also extremely rational. But at least with Kierkegaard, the Danish 19th century philosopher, his writings are so extensive that it is clear – he was a bona fide fideist. Kierkegaard believed that there is ultimately no warrant for Christian belief and you simply take a leap of faith to believe. What he tried to do is to motivate this leap by showing how life lived apart from God ultimately degenerates into despair, boringness, and languishing in absurdity. He tried to motivate the person to make the leap. But ultimately for Kierkegaard it is a criterion-less leap of faith. He thought that Christianity was indeed absurd because it says that God, who is timeless, entered into time in the Incarnation and that this is absurd – the presence of the eternal in the temporal. When I was in college, I actually went through a temporary flirtation with Kierkegaard because I could not figure out the Incarnation. I couldn’t figure out how could God be timeless and yet enter into human history. It seemed to me that it was absurd. One of my theology professors said, “Well, the problem with that is you can think of things that are more absurd than the Incarnation. For example, that God would become a cow instead of a human being!” So it isn’t the ultimate absurdity, as Kierkegaard thought. And I thought, Yeah, I guess that is true! I ultimately came to change my view about God’s eternity, that God is in time since the moment of creation, and therefore the Incarnation is no problem because God is already temporal and therefore can enter into relations with humans in history. Kierkegaard would be a bona fide fideist, and Plantinga’s epistemology, his theory of knowledge, would be a rejection of Kierkegaardian fideism. Plantinga would say that when you believe in the great truths of the Gospel, you are warranted in doing so on the basis of the inner sense of deity that God has placed in your mind and on the basis of the inner witness of the Holy Spirit.

Question: It seems like a natural defense would be to say to atheists that you would not take any reasonable action in your life based on the probabilities of their belief. For example, an atheist belief in evolution and the improbabilities inherent in that – if you had to make a life decision based on those same probabilities, you wouldn’t do that since they are so improbable.

Answer: Let me interrogate you; I am not understanding your point. The atheist we are imagining – for example, in the Soviet Union – the Marxist, propagandist teaching in the university – he thinks that it is probable that God does not exist. When he weighs the evidence, like Richard Dawkins, he will say that on balance, it is overwhelmingly probable that there is no God. What is the matter with that? If I had arguments that showed it was overwhelming probable that there is a God, then I would say, “Yes, you ought to believe.”

Followup: In application to his life, when he went out in his daily activities, he expects people to behave a certain way. And if they don’t, there is no reason to believe that they would behave that way unless there is something about humans that motivates them to move that way.5

Answer: I think what you are raising is that you are saying that atheism is practically unlivable because he can’t live as though other people are valueless products of natural selection and genetic mutation. I think that while that is making a good point about the existential impossibility of atheism, it doesn’t really address the problem that we are dealing with here about what you ought to believe. Bertrand Russell once said in response to a woman who said, “Mr. Russell, if what you are saying is true, then the world is a terrible place,” Russell said, “Madam, the world is a terrible place, and you just have got to come to terms with it.” The hard-nosed atheist would just admit he cannot live consistently and happily with this worldview, but nevertheless the evidence suggests it is true, and we find ourselves in this unwelcome predicament. I think what you are suggesting is correct in saying, “But wait a minute, why think we are in this predicament?” If it really is unlivable, maybe we ought to go back and look again at the evidence. I think that is entirely appropriate. I try to get people to do that myself. But nevertheless, a person who is in the situation where the evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of atheism, apart from the witness of the Holy Spirit, it would seem he ought to go along with the evidence, unless there is something else that has greater warrant that warrants him in thinking that that evidence is somehow false or incomplete. I think that is exactly the situation we do find ourselves in, as Scripture teaches and as Christian experience reveals.

Next time, we are going to look at the question of how to deal with somebody else, like the Mormon or the Muslim, who says, “I have a self-authenticating witness of God’s spirit in my heart and therefore I know that the Book of Mormon is true or that Islam is true, and my experience is just as good as yours.” Shouldn’t that lead you to be skeptical of your own experience and to think that you are perhaps deceived? How do you respond to that objection? That is what will be covered next.6


1 4:59

2 10:01

3 15:07

4 20:10

5 25:08

6 Total Running Time: 27:41