Knowledge, Doubt and Belief in God

A postscript by Jerry Gill 56 to an article by James Taylor 78 in the winter 2012 magazine and a dialog between two philosophers.

As a fellow philosophy professor, the issues you wrestle with have lodged at the forefront of my mind as well. I admire how you wend your way through the insights of Professors Wennberg, Ortberg, Plantinga and Willard as they dealt with Descartes and Kierkegaard. I’m pleased to learn that faculty encourage current Westmont students to struggle with these questions before coming to their own conclusions.When I was a student, we received answers without giving due consideration to the questions themselves. I think Plantinga’s approach of “justified basic beliefs” involving a more “relaxed” conception of knowledge ends up allowing people to believe whatever they’ve been brought up to believe.

I see the issues running on a continuum between defining knowledge in terms of absolute, deductive certainty and purely subjective faith. I think both Plantinga and Willard follow the right track by embracing what you call a “more relaxed conception of knowledge” in your final paragraph. However, there remains a danger here of opening the way for people to believe whatever they feel is right for them without any critical reflection.

Several times you mention Pascal’s insights, and I too suggest following him, especially when he says,“The heart has reasons which the reason knows not of.” He speaks of “reasons” of the heart, not “feelings” or “hopes” of the heart. The key lies in defining knowledge as broader than certainty but not without some “reasonableness” based on honest reflection and openness to difficult questions.

I consider the insights of Michael Polanyi concerning “tacit knowing” helpful. He suggests that focusing on deductive and inductive rationality when defining knowledge has led us to denigrate other aspects of cognition. He doesn’t mean pure, subjective“leaps of faith,” as Kierkegaard describes. Instead, he refers to integrating the indirect dimensions of our experience that make up the broader fabric of our lives, such as family, friends, teachers, history, science and logic. He considers knowledge an accumulative result.

As we interact with these factors in daily life, we test whether or not they warrant our commitment. Do they constitute a level of knowledge that enables us to function effectively without having to claim absolute certainty for them? While we can have good reasons for our beliefs without having to prove them, we also have the responsibility to make sure we’re not embracing personal beliefs because they’re comfortable.

I like Paul’s comment, “Now we see through a glass, darkly.” It’s possible to express both confidence and humility about our religious faith. As with most other important aspects of our lives, we can proceed with confidence while continuing to be open to others’ ideas and beliefs. As Jesus said, “By their fruits you shall know them” (Matthew 7:16). Peter said: “Be prepared to give a reason for the hope that is within you” (I Peter 3:15). The test of our beliefs lies in whether or not we live them out.

James Taylor ’78 responds:

I appreciate the time you took to let me know what you think about my article “Can Doubters Know God?” I disagree with little in your postscript and enthusiastically endorse most of it. But we differ on assessing the implications of Plantinga’s “reformed epistemological” account of the conditions under which belief in God can be properly basic. You say this “more ‘relaxed’ conception of knowledge ends up simply allowing people to believe whatever they have been brought up to believe.” I disagree.

First, Plantinga says a properly basic belief can be an instance of knowledge only if it is “undefeated”—if there are no good reasons for thinking it false or insufficiently justified. In his view, it’s not possible for people to have basic knowledge that some proposition is true if they merely believe “whatever they ‘feel’ is right for them without any critical reflection whatsoever.” Awareness of a reason to doubt the truth or justification of a belief prevents that belief from counting as knowledge.

Second, Plantinga counts a belief as properly basic only if it’s based on an appropriate ground or the right kind of experience. Mere “feelings” or “hopes” don’t suffice. Plantinga gives examples of adequate experiential grounds for properly basic belief in God (e.g., believing that God is to be thanked and praised in the context of worship, believing that God disapproves of what I have done in the context of having sinned, believing that God forgives me in the context of confession, etc.) that involve concrete contexts in which we consider ourselves in relationship, communion or communication with God. Here I think Plantinga’s account could helpfully be spelled out or supplemented by what you say about Pascal’s “reasons” of the heart and Polanyi’s “tacit knowing.” Since the experiences he identifies are aspects of our “behavioral interactions” with others and with God as we “carry on our daily lives” they can accumulate in a way that provides an appropriate and adequate grounding for ongoing, properly basic belief in God.

People who understand that properly basic knowledge of God requires genuine experience of God have a reason to wonder if their lives manifest the presence, power and provision of God.Those who doubt that their experience has a divine imprint have a reason to wonder whether they know that God exists.They also have a good reason to do whatever they can to have such an experience. Pascal said only two types of people made sense to him: those who have sought God and found him and those who have not found God but are searching for him.

Jerry Gill ’56 replies:

It’s been a long time since I’ve read Plantinga, and the case you make on his behalf helps. But we’re back on regular epistemological ground regarding the pros and cons for particular beliefs. The believer must continue to be open to possible objections, but there needs to be a practical limit to how long and how “open” we should be. I’m concerned about believers who make claims about knowledge without any idea of the issues involved. The term “undefeated” sounds a bit too open-ended and convenient for the believer not to address the issues.

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