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Justification and the Classical Picture


In part I, I considered a certain kind of objection to the de jure question with respect to Christian belief—the question, that is, whether it is rational or reasonable or intellectually respectable to accept Christian belief. This objection was that the de jure question is, to say the least, premature: strictly speaking, it isn’t really possible to hold a belief of the sort traditional Christians think they hold. That is because Christians think of God as ultimate and infinite, and there is something conceptually out of order with the very idea that it is possible to have a belief about a being that is ultimate and infinite. I concluded that this objection isn’t cogent; there is here no obstacle to raising the de jure question.

But the next thing to see is that it is far from obvious just what that de jure question or objection is supposed to be; precisely what question (or questions) is it that critics mean to press when they ask whether Christian and theistic belief is rational, or rationally defensible, or rationally justifiable, or whatever? Critics claim that Christian belief is not rationally justified or justifiable: what, precisely, is the infirmity or defect they are ascribing to the Christian believer? What, exactly, is the question? Call this question the ‘metaquestion’. One problem with contemporary discussions of the justification of Christian belief is that the metaquestion is almost never asked. People ask whether Christian belief is rational or reasonable or rationally justifiable; they turn immediately to answering that question, without first considering just what the question is. What is it? That is not easy to say; nevertheless, it is our subject in part II.

This chapter is devoted to examining a certain answer to the metaquestion: that the de jure question is whether Christian belief is justified. That question is one that originates in classical foundationalism, a way of thinking about these topics that has historically been extremely 68 influential and is still very much with us now. According to the classical foundationalist, the de jure question is really the question whether Christian belief is justified; but how is this term to be understood? I shall examine the seventeenth-century roots of classical foundationalism, explore the connection between justification and evidentialism that the classical foundationalist sees, and briefly outline some of its contemporary descendants. Then in the second half of the chapter, I’ll argue both that classical foundationalism faces insuperable problems, and that the notion of justification does not offer a satisfying version of the de jure question.

We must begin with some history—first, a look back into the relatively recent past and then a deeper look into the more remote past. With respect to the first, I can make my point most easily by referring to some earlier work of my own; please forgive the personal reference. The present book, as I said in the preface, is a sequel: to Warrant: The Current Debate (hereafter WCD) and Warranted Proper Function (hereafter WPF); it is also and perhaps more important a sequel to God and Other Minds5656   Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1967. and “Reason and Belief in God.”5757   In Faith and Rationality, ed. Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983). The chief topic of God and Other Minds, as I put it then, is the “rational justification” of belief in God. I set out to address the de jure question; like everyone else, however, I didn’t so much as raise the metaquestion. Following my elders and betters, I initially took it for granted that this question of the rational justification of theistic belief is identical with, or intimately connected with, the question whether there are proofs, or at least good arguments, for or against the existence of God. You discuss this question of the rationality of belief in God by consulting the evidence: does it on balance support theistic belief? (If it does [and does so strongly enough], such belief is rational; otherwise it is irrational.)

And that question, in turn, was so taken that the way to answer it is by considering the arguments for and against the existence of God. On the pro side, there were the traditional theistic proofs, the cosmological, teleological, and ontological arguments, to follow Kant’s classification. On the con side, there was, first of all, the problem of evil (construed as the claim that the existence of evil is logically inconsistent with the existence of a wholly good, all-powerful, and all-knowing God). Then there were also some rather opaque claims to the effect that the progress of modern science, or the attitudes necessary to its proper pursuits, or perhaps something similar lurking in the nearby bushes, or maybe something else that had been learned by “man come of age”—the idea was that something in this general neighborhood also offers evidence against the existence of God. And 69it was also clearly assumed that belief in God was rational and proper only if on balance the evidence, so construed, favored it. So here is a possible answer to the metaquestion and a candidate for the post of being the de jure question: does the evidence support Christian belief? In this chapter I want to think about this answer to the metaquestion. Does it give us a serious question for Christian believers or a serious criticism of Christian belief?

In God and Other Minds, I argued first that the theistic proofs or arguments do not succeed. In evaluating these arguments, I employed a traditional but wholly improper standard: I took it that these arguments are successful only if they start from propositions that compel assent from every honest and intelligent person and proceed majestically to their conclusion by way of forms of argument that can be rejected only on pain of insincerity or irrationality. Naturally enough, I joined the contemporary chorus in holding that none of the traditional arguments was successful. (I failed to note that no philosophical arguments of any consequence meet that standard; hence the fact that theistic arguments do not is of less significance than I thought.) I then argued that the objections to theistic belief are equally unimpressive; in particular, the deductive argument from evil (the argument that there is a contradiction between the existence of God and the existence of evil), I said, is entirely unsuccessful. So I saw, as I thought, that neither the arguments for the existence of God nor the arguments against it are conclusive; but then where does that leave us with respect to the question of the rationality or rational justifiability of belief in God? Does it follow, as seemed to be the prevailing opinion, that agnosticism was the right response and that belief in God, under these conditions, is irrational, contrary to reason, not rationally justifiable? That seemed to me wrong, but where could we go to pursue this question? How could we carry the inquiry further?

Faced with this impasse, I decided to compare belief in God with other beliefs, in particular, our belief in other minds. There is allegedly a traditional philosophical problem of other minds: since we can’t perceive the thoughts and feelings of other people, do we know and how do we know they really have thoughts and feelings? More poignantly, how do we know that what we take to be persons (beings with thoughts, feelings, and intentions) really are persons and not, for example, cunningly constructed robots?5858   Actually, this is not a traditional philosophical problem in the sense that it is a problem for all philosophers or all positions in philosophy; you will find it pressing only if you accept some version of classical foundationalism. I noted that the dialectical structure uncovered in the case of theistic arguments is recapitulated in the case of other minds: the objections to belief in other minds 70don’t seem at all formidable, but unhappily there also aren’t any good arguments for other minds—particularly if we employ the same high standards of goodness as were ordinarily applied to theistic arguments. I claimed that the strongest argument for the existence of God and the strongest argument for other minds are similar and that they fail in similar ways. Hence my “tentative conclusion”: “if my belief in other minds is rational, so is my belief in God. But obviously the former is rational; so, therefore, is the latter.”

Here two things are noteworthy. First, I was somehow both accepting but also questioning what was then axiomatic: that belief in God, if it is to be rationally acceptable, must be such that there is good evidence for it. This evidence would be propositional evidence: evidence from other propositions you believe, and it would have to come in the form of arguments. This claim wasn’t itself argued for: it was simply asserted, or better, just assumed as self-evident or at least utterly obvious. What was then taken for granted has now come to be called ‘evidentialism’ (a better title would be ‘evidentialism with respect to belief in God’, but that’s a bit unwieldy). Evidentialism is the view that belief in God is rationally justifiable or acceptable only if there is good evidence for it, where good evidence would be arguments from other propositions one knows. If it is accepted apart from such evidence or arguments, then it is at best intellectually third-rate: irrational, or unreasonable, or contrary to one’s intellectual obligations.

Second, I failed to ask why this question of rational justifiability is important or, indeed, what the question is. I didn’t give that question—namely, the question what is this rational justifiability of which I am speaking?—so much as a passing glance. Further, why would rational justification, whatever precisely it is, require evidence? What is the connection between evidence and justification? And if the latter does require evidence, why would that evidence have to take the form of arguments (deductive or probabilistic), evidence from other propositions one already believes? And what sorts of propositions could properly function as the premises of these arguments? I didn’t raise these questions. It wasn’t, however, because their answers were well-known, so that further inquiry would be carrying coals to Newcastle. On the contrary: no one else asked or answered these questions either; instead, people turned directly to the arguments for and against theistic belief, taking it utterly for granted that this was the way to investigate its rational justification.5959   The exception was William James, whose “The Will to Believe,” in The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (New York: Longmans, Green, 1897), was widely anthologized and took the radical line (as it was then perceived) that if religious belief is a live option for you, and a forced option, then believing even without evidence is excusable. See below, p. 89. Taking evidentialism for granted was de rigueur then and is still popular now. But what is 71this rational justification? And why does it require evidence, propositional evidence? And how does it happen that everyone just took for granted this connection between justification and propositional evidence? These are some of the questions we must ask.

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