Epistemological Issues in Christian Apologetics – Part 2/3

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Atheism, Theism, and the Foundations of Knowledge

Rene Descartes’ project of arriving at an entire epistemological system based on certain foundations that could not be doubted had significant problems which have severely limited its appeal to contemporary philosophers. But the interesting point to be noted is the role of God in the Cartesian epistemology. While the Cartesian search for undeniable certainty may have been misguided, I believe that he was right in stressing the importance of the theistic foundations for epistemology.

There is no way to ”get outside of our cognitive situation”, so to speak, and independently verify the basic reliability of the workings of the human mind. The so-called epistemological problem of criterion demonstrates this well. In order to understand the problem of criterion, it is helpful to concentrate on the two questions that are central to epistemology:

(1) What do we know?
(2) How do we decide that we have knowledge in this particular case?

In order to answer the first question, an answer to the second one would be needed. Similarly, an answer to the second one would seem to necessitate that one has already answered the first question.[8] The only viable solution to this problem seems to be particularism, where one can start with clear cases of knowledge without having to be able to justify them on the basis of some criteria. The other proposed solution, namely, methodism which starts with the criteria for knowledge, leads to an infinite regress of epistemic justification, as there would have to be new criteria, as well as new knowledge that the criteria gets satisfied, at every step in the chain of justification.

The problem that arises with particularism, however, is that taking the apparently clear cases of knowledge for granted constitutes an implicit affirmation of a fundamental trust in the cognitive abilities of the human mind, even if that affirmation is not made explicitly a basis for accepting the clear cases. When one reflects on the relationship between epistemology and metaphysics, the weight of this consideration is highlighted: In some way, what  can be known (epistemology) must be grounded on what exists (metaphysics). The postulation of the reliability of knowledge is thus completely arbitrary and ad-hoc, if that postulation is made within a worldview that has no place for such knowledge. It may indeed be the case that epistemologically, we have to be particularists in order to get the project of acquiring knowledge started. But at some point we have to pause to reflect if our view of reality that is built on the foundations of beliefs arrived at in a particularistic way, will in fact undermine our trust in particularism as an acceptable epistemological view.

But how does this relate to the atheism / theism debate? I will argue that the issue of grounding for basic epistemic trust in our cognitive abilities is a problem for atheism in a way that it is not for theism. Atheism (understood here as including a commitment to philosophical naturalism) must see the world of matter and energy as the most basic and fundamental form of reality that exists. According to the naturalistic view, the existence of conscious minds with cognitive abilities is a relatively recent development in the history of the cosmos. When the atheist looks at the past as he takes it to be, there exists minimally a period of several billions of years (but perhaps even an infinite amount of time) when only impersonal physical processes exist and operate, and nothing that exists at that point even hints at the future existence of personal agents. Were it not for the fact that we know that we are here, we would never predict the arrival of conscious minds by just observing the early phases of expansion in the history of the universe. Not only is the very existence of minds a problem for the naturalist, but the naturalistic attempts to explain why such minds should be endowed with fundamentally reliable cognitive abilities are very questionable at best. As Plantinga has pointed out,[9] natural selection would not favor organisms with veridical beliefs as such. The ability to survive and reproduce is what counts from the perspective of evolutionary advantage, and there is no reason why false beliefs (especially when they are conjoined in an internally consistent whole) cannot produce the required behavior-patterns.[10] And even further, it must be noted that the causal power of beliefs by means of their propositional contents is itself something that is called into question by a consistent application of naturalistic principles to the human mind. If beliefs are in fact only by-products of bodily activity, and do not really cause anything by means of their content, this seems to totally undermine any trust that the naturalist could have in the reliability of his cognitive abilities to produce true beliefs. In light of all of these considerations, it is very questionable that atheism can meet the challenge of providing the grounding for the fundamental trust of our cognitive abilities.

But what about theism? Can it fare any better in the face of this same problem? I think that this can be answered affirmatively. For the theistic worldview postulates a personal mind as the ultimate reality, from which the existence of everything else finds its explanation. That a personal creator can bring it about that there exists other personal agents whose cognitive abilities are fundamentally reliable in forming beliefs about the world is not problematic in any obvious sense. The metaphysical grounding that is needed for the continuing affirmation of the reliability of the particularistic foundations of knowledge is thus achieved, and the problem of self-refutation does not arise.

Notes to Part 2
8. See Moreland & Craig, 2003, 99-102 for an exposition of the problem of criterion in the context of the challenge of scepticism.
9. See Plantinga, 2000, 227-240. For a thorough discussion of Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against Naturalism, see Beilby, 2002.
10. Indeed, there are even some known cases of false beliefs that are beneficial to survival and reproduction. The placebo effect is well known in medicine, and from the naturalistic point of view, the explanation for the prominence of religiosity within the human species will have to be something other than the truth of these religious beliefs, and the most obvious candidate would seem to be that religion helps people to cope with the difficulties of life (which can be rephrased in terms of survival-value). Additionally, it is quite clear on the basis of demographics that religiosity also tends to correlate with greater number of offspring. Therefore, there seems to be nothing that inherently prohibits false beliefs from being evolutionarily beneficial.

Continue to Part 3

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