If Faith Isn’t Publicly Justifiable, How Can It Provide Justification At All?

If Faith Isn’t Publicly Justifiable, How Can It Provide Justification At All? July 1, 2009

Chris’s reply to part 2 of my series of objections to religious moderates and intellectuals:

For the purposes of this post, I will identify two claims which many Christians accept (and which I understand you do not): (1) that the central claims of Christianity are true, and (2) that faith, properly understood, is a justified form of knowledge.

Even granting these two premises, I agree that religious activity has certain bad effects which are morally significant. That is, religious activity, as I see it, is an instance of double effect with both good and bad effects. On the above premises, the good effects include the promotion of truth about God and human life and the encouragement of moral living while the bad effects include the possibility of distortions leading to false beliefs and immoral actions.

I do believe that religious persons should be aware of these bad effects and work to mitigate them. When, for example, Christians quote the Bible, they should be aware that some verses are liable to misinterpretation and take appropriate measures to prevent this. Similarly, when Christians advance arguments about sexual morality, they should be aware that some in our society will use them as cover for hatred against certain persons or groups, and Christians must work hard (harder than they currently are) to counteract this kind of hatred.

I suppose that, in the end, almost all human enterprises are cases of double-effect, with both good and bad effects. Certainly, major world-historical institutions, such as the modern capitalism, almost always have both very good and very bad effects. For this reasons, I believe that Christians who do accept the above premises are morally justified in practicing religion, despite its at times very bad effects. At the same time, I appreciate the force of your original argument for those who do not accept the above Christian premises.

(As my argument suggests, I would agree that some of the particular things you list in your original post are bad effects and contend that others are good effects, again, supposing the above premises.)

Thanks so much for your reply, Chris.  Essentially, you concede that if your 2 premises are not true, my argument has a lot of force and you also concede that even if your 2 premises are true, my account highlights some of the actual pitfalls to which religious people in general must be alert and to which religious intellectuals in particular should take pains to warn their fellows against.

So, your premises are “(1) that the central claims of Christianity are true, and (2) that faith, properly understood, is a justified form of knowledge.”  It seems to me that assenting to premise 1 requires (in practice at least) acknowledging premise 2 unless you think that the central claims of Christianity are truly knowable apart from employment of faith as part of the process of “discovery” and “assent” to them.

You may claim some Christian beliefs are not matters of faith but rationally derivable.  I will happily concede that, for example, the existence of God is a matter reason could theoretically investigate.  While I think it is unclear how exactly reason could ever settle the question, I grant that various definitions of a metaphysical principle “God” can be formulated and those each could be assessed the way any other scientific or metaphysical proposition is assessable (depending on the extent to which a given particular conception of God takes more metaphysical or empirically assessable dimensions).

So, let’s stipulate here that those issues are not relevant for this discussion because I am charging religious intellectuals of being complicit in promotion of intellectual vices, whereas rationally assessable claims are ones that can be investigated according to intellectual virtue or vice in a given case.  An acute theist can formulate better reasons for believing in God than a simplistic atheist can formulate reasons against doing so.  And vice versa.

And there is no reason to assume that, strictly with respect to what is accessible to reason and evidence that a priori a given theist or atheist will be less clever or scrupulous or more prejudiced.  It is more likely I think that religious commitments could bias the theist fatally against genuinely entertaining the possibility of not believing.  But, it is also very possible that a given atheist will have emotional prejudices against religion that bias her against even entertaining the possibility of even a metaphysical postulate of God from the start.  And just as religion now warns people against unbelief as a grave error, so an ascendent atheism might add such cultural influences in the future (even though now most atheists are far more free agents with less at stake in switching sides and even more social approval to gain by being as favorable to religion as possible).

The real question is whether faith can be part of a rational epistemology and I insist it cannot and that we are not entitled to any beliefs which require an act of faith for their acceptance.

Jumping to today, Chris writes the following in reply to the last post in the series with Shane:

you seem to conclude that naturalism neither supports the claims of religion nor absolutely, 100% rules out their truth. (That is, you admit that there is a very small chance that the religious claims you list are true.) This does seem to follow from your other views, since many religious claims (like God’s existence) could never be the object of naturalistic investigation.

At this point, you seem to have successfully shifted the burden of argument onto those who accept religious claims. That is, those who accept such claims must establish that religious faith, properly understood, is a justified form of knowledge, just as those who accept naturalism must do (and you have done).

Now, as you note, naturalism itself is not justified by falsifiable observation, but rather by its overall coherence with our experience, its predictive power, or some similar way. Thus, insofar as Shane tries to justify religious faith through its fit with his experience, he seems to be employing the right kind of argument. Then, it remains to be seen whether there is in fact enough in experience to justify accepting faith as a justified form of knowledge. (I think there is.)

Here, the one thing I would add is that if faith is a form of knowledge given by God, then it might be that some people can more fully grasp its justification than others. This, of course, would make it frustratingly unfalsifiable, yet it does seem that those who do not believe might still accept this special kind of knowledge as a possibility and thus remain agnostic toward the claims of faith.

On whether the existence of God is subject to naturalistic investigation:  The God of the literally interpreted Bible is subject to some empirical tests.  If his miracles are supposed proofs for his existence they can be confirmed or disconfirmed.  Of course, until one has exhausted every possibility of naturalistic explanation one cannot simply throw up one’s hands and call it a miracle.  We do not provisionally declare unknown pathologies attacks of Satan or a demon until we have isolated an exact cause (although early Christians seem not to have such compunctions).  We usually indefinitely assume naturalistic explanations.  However, I think it is conceivable that there could be “miracles” that are confirmable events that take place with .0000000000000000000000000001 probability, which would require so drastically reconceiving the universe to explain them that we are entitled to say it is better to call them a statistical miracle.

But even that makes for a hard leap to a developed theological account as at all an explanation of the event.  Whose theology interprets?  That of the person who underwent the miracle?  Who is to say this person can interpret anomalous events accurately?

Natural investigation can also test whether the universe evidences the sort of order that an all-good God would create or one who was perfect would create.  If these words have any meaning they should give us testable predictions about what nature would be like.

I am unclear about what you mean that there “is enough experience to justify accepting faith as a justified form of knowledge.”  What kinds of experiences exactly would justify using faith as a justification for a knowledge claim?  How would a given experience indicate to me that I now have justification to justify other beliefs based on my simple faith that they’re true?  This makes little sense to me.

If a given faith-based belief is, say, corroborated by experience and therefore reinforced that does not give reason to say that the faith itself was justifying, only that the evidence was justifying.  In such a case I have not had one form of justification for a belief corroborated by a different form of justification, I have rather had one of my unjustified beliefs become justified through evidence.  While the belief was based only in faith, it was still open to refutation by experience.  And holding a belief by faith would be to insist on its established justification in the teeth of future evidence, requiring mental gymnastics of all sorts to rationalize away the new evidence since faith already justified the belief the evidence is now countering.

And even if we conceded that experience could somehow justify treating faith as justifying, what counts as “enough” experiences to justify faith as a justification?   How does one determine in advance what counts as enough?  And whose faith counts as a justified form of knowledge?  Just Christians’?  What about Muslims?  What about believers in magic crystals?  What about believers in Zeus or Scientology or those who are utterly convinced that they themselves are Jesus Christ?

Before I can reply to such a claim I need to know do you really mean to claim that all these people can have justified beliefs based on faith even if these beliefs (a) are inculcated and reinforced through epistemically arbitrary familial and social bonds, (b) contradict your own beliefs, (c) purport to give no publicly accessible and assessible reasons for these beliefs, and (d) base them on idiosyncratically cultural or personal, subjective intuitions?

In what sense are such beliefs justifying, if they’re not publicly justifying.  Who are you even justifying yourself to?  Can there even be such a thing as justification without submission some independent standards of yourself or your community (depending on whether it is your idiosyncratic behavior or thoughts or the community’s which have demands for justification made of them).

As you rightly ascertained, I am interested in shifting the discussion to the burdens of justification of the believer for the time being.  While nearly anything is possible, I don’t see faith-based beliefs, even if they turned out to be true to be justified since they reduce arguments to bald assertions without any comparative tests of their relative strengths possible.

For more on my critique of faith, see my previous debate with Shane which took place over the last week in the following posts:

Objections to Religious Moderates and Intellecuals 1

Objections to Religious Moderates and Intellectuals 2

Objections to Religious Moderates and Intellectuals 3

Objections to Religious Moderates and Intellectuals 4

On Teleology and Intellectual Virtues and Vices (5)

How Faith Is Not Like Other (Revisable) Reflexive Assumptions (6)

Against Faith and In Defense of Naturalism and Induction (7)

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