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#666 Belief on the Basis of the Spirit’s Witness

January 26, 2020

Dear Dr. Craig,

Since my devout Christian mother knows I long ago gave up Christianity in a fiery relinquishment that started me off first as a mean-spirited, nihilistic atheist, then as a humble agnostic, and finally, years later, as a confident Spinozan pantheist, which I remain, we have never debated religion.

But recently we got into a rather intense debate about Christianity. In the end, after much arguing by both of us, with tears in her eyes she claimed she knew that Christianity is true because of the witness of the Holy Spirit in her heart. Yet when I challenged her, asking her to tell me precisely what compelling evidence she has that makes her feeling of experiencing the inner witness of the Holy Spirit more than a merely intense emotion, she fumbled for words and could not offer any.

So I ask you. What compelling evidence do you yourself have that what you experience as the inner witness of the Holy Spirit is more than a merely intense emotion generated either by some external natural cause or by some inner natural cause, perhaps simply your desire for Christianity to be true? After all, many religious believe they have intense emotional confirmations of their religions. What makes a Christian’s experience of the Holy Spirit so special? If you cite Scripture, I’m afraid that does not do much for your case. For the fact that your holy book describes the inner witness of the Holy Spirit is not itself compelling evidence that what you experience, and what my mother experiences, is anything more than a merely intense emotion caused naturalistically. Why? Because it is already, according to you, the foundation of your knowledge of existence of the Holy Spirit; and thus to argue that your inner witness of the Holy Spirit is compelling evidence of the truth of Christianity is to argue in a circle. Or so it seems to me.



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Dr. craig’s response


I normally don’t get called upon to settle family arguments! But in this case the issue is philosophical, so I guess I’ll venture to get involved. 

It seems to me, Alice, that you’re confusing your mother’s claim that belief in Christian theism is for her a properly basic belief grounded in the witness of the Holy Spirit with her offering an argument for Christian theism from religious experience. Were she doing the latter, your objection would be relevant; but it is not relevant to someone who claims to know that God exists in a properly basic way.

Now your mom is, indeed, offering an argument; but it is an argument, not for Christian theism, but for the claim that Christian belief can be rational and warranted in the absence of argument and evidence. Philosophers call beliefs like this “properly basic beliefs.”  They aren’t based on some other beliefs; rather they are part of the foundation of a person’s system of beliefs.  Other properly basic beliefs would be the belief in the reality of the past, the existence of the external world, and the presence of other minds like your own. 

When you think about it, none of these beliefs can be proved.  How could you prove that the world was not created five minutes ago with built-in appearances of age like food in our stomachs from the breakfasts we never really ate and memory traces in our brains of events we never really experienced?  How could you prove that you are not a brain in a vat of chemicals being stimulated with electrodes by some mad scientist to believe that you are a woman with a body engaged in relationships with other people?  How could you prove that other people are not really androids who exhibit all the external behavior of persons with minds, when in reality they are soulless, robot-like entities?

Although these sorts of beliefs are basic for us, that doesn’t mean that they’re arbitrary.  Rather they are grounded in the sense that they’re formed in the context of certain experiences.  In the experiential context of seeing and feeling and hearing things, I naturally form the belief that there are certain physical objects which I am sensing.  Thus, my basic beliefs are not arbitrary, but appropriately grounded in experience. There may be no way to prove such beliefs, and yet it is perfectly rational to hold them.  Indeed, you’d have to be crazy to think that the world was created five minutes ago or to believe that you are a brain in a vat!  Such beliefs are thus not merely basic, but properly basic.

In the same way, belief in God is for those who know Him a properly basic belief grounded in our experience of God. This was the way people in the Bible knew God, as Professor John Hick explains: 

God was known to them as a dynamic will interacting with their own wills, a sheer given reality, as inescapably to be reckoned with as destructive storm and life-giving sunshine . . . . They did not think of God as an inferred entity but as an experienced reality. To them God was not . . . an idea adopted by the mind, but an experiential reality which gave significance to their lives.[1] 

In the absence of some defeater of that experience, the Christian believer is perfectly rational in accepting belief in God in a properly basic way. Your mother is under no rational obligation to prove to you that her experience is veridical, anymore than you are to prove to the sceptic that your belief in the external world is veridical. It is up to you (just as it is up to the sceptic) to prove that your mother’s experience is purely emotional or delusory.

Here is how I would formulate your mother’s argument:

1.  Beliefs which are appropriately grounded may be rationally accepted as basic beliefs not grounded on argument.

2.  Belief that the biblical God exists is appropriately grounded in the witness of the Holy Spirit.

3.  Therefore, belief that the biblical God exists may be rationally accepted as a basic belief not grounded on argument.

You may not accept (2), but then you don’t have the witness of the Holy Spirit that your mother claims to have. Your lack of such an experience does nothing to defeat her experience.

I’d encourage you to watch the movie “Contact.” The climax of the film comes when the sceptical heroine played by Jodie Foster has an overpowering experience revealing to her the deep meaning of the cosmos. “I never knew!” she cries. “I never knew!” She has no way of proving to her colleagues that what she experienced was real, yet she knows it was. She had a properly basic belief grounded in experience even though she felt at a loss to prove the veridicality of that experience to those who did not have it. Similarly for your mom.

An interesting twist in the film is that later on, some evidence does emerge that her experience was genuine after all. This is analogous to Christian evidences like the historical evidence for Jesus and his resurrection. Evidence can confirm what one knows in a properly basic way.

Finally, I wonder, Alice, if you have reflected on the irony that your mother could have easily turned the tables on you and demanded to know what the evidence is for Spinozistic pantheism. Why isn’t that just an emotional delusion? Indeed, Spinozistic pantheism faces powerful defeaters. Not only is there no reason to think that the universe is necessary and eternal, much less divine, but all the evidence we have says that the universe is contingent and temporally finite. The various arguments for God’s existence that I have defended are incompatible with Spinozistic pantheism. Thus, you find yourself epistemically in a worse position than your mom.

1. John Hick,  “Introduction,”  in The Existence of God, ed. with an Introduction by John Hick, Problems of Philosophy Series (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1964), pp. 13-14.

- William Lane Craig