Faith And Rationality After Foundationalism

The decline in the influence of foundationalism in recent years has many sources. These cannot be evaluated here, but some, at least, require mention for the arguments of post-foundationalist apologetic to be fully intelligible. In the first instance, the circularity that besets Descartes' epistemology does not seem to be correctable. Sceptical doubts about reason, once admitted, cannot be resolved by argument; and in the absence of intellectual demonstration of the reality of an external world, scepticism of the senses, once admitted, cannot be refuted by an appeal to experience. Also, the supposedly certain starting points of the Cartesian tradition are commonly dismissed as illusory. For me to know that I have certain conscious states, these must not merely occur, but occur to a subject who can identify them. But the concepts needful for this, it is commonly held, are only available to language users; and language is a communal rule-governed activity that presupposes the very environment that the egocentric predicament requires us to question. Another argument is that the Cartesian tradition equates rational justification with the presence of inferences from indubitable starting points. The epistemic status of a belief is a function of the calibre of the inference from those beginnings. Since Wittgenstein, it has been increasingly recognized that this model of justification is at odds with the actual practice of human reason in the sciences, at the common-sense level, and in practical affairs. While the Enlightenment's equation of human dignity with rationality is still influential, the equation of rationality with derivation from certain foundations is discredited. There are many distinct and autonomous forms of rationality, and it is arbitrary to suppose that the standards of one must apply within another (Winch 1967). It has become commonplace to maintain that we have an irreducible plurality of doxastic practices, and that scepticism about any one of them is inarticulable within it, and arbitrary and chauvinistic if advanced from outside it (Wittgenstein 1969; Alston 1991:162).

The influence of Wittgenstein has been felt in philosophy of religion in three distinct, and incompatible, ways. There have been those who have claimed that the religious form of life is incoherent (Flew 1955; Maclntyre 1964). There have been those, most notably D.Z.Phillips, who have argued, in a mode more reminiscent of the apparent views of Wittgenstein himself, that the religious form of life is coherent, but can only be seen to be if it is given a non-realist analysis in which questions of dogma and its justification do not arise (Phillips 1965, 1970, 1988; Keightley 1976; Cupitt 1980). Both these perceptions of religion are motivated by an overriding concern with problems of meaning. In the 1970s and 1980s, however, analytical philosophers of religion have been more concerned with the epistemology of religion; the result of this concern has been the appearance of several influential versions of what I shall call the Basic Belief Apologetic (Plantinga 1979, 1983b, 1993a, b; Wolterstorff 1983a, b; Alston 1991).

While it is important not to ignore individual differences, it seems fair to venture the following characterization of the stance that is common to those who adopt this apologetic position. Its essence is the rejection of the view that the rationality of religious belief depends on the possibility of inferring all or part of its content from prior non-religious beliefs. This view is commonly referred to as 'evidentialism', and Locke is most commonly identified as its classical exponent. It is not denied that there may be evidence in favour of religious beliefs; it is denied that such evidence must be forthcoming if religious belief is to be rational, or justified.

This position has important affinities with sceptical fideist claims, but also key verbal differences. The sceptic fideist denies that reason can establish the reality of the external world or the existence of God and tells us to abandon the search for rational justification for either; the Basic Belief Apologetic, while commonly accepting the analogy between the commitments of common sense and those of faith, retains our conviction in the reasonableness of both, by denying something the Cartesian sceptic has assumed: that reasonableness depends on derivation from starting points that are certain. The assertion that it does so depend is an assertion that is not, itself, either beyond doubt or deducible from other assertions that are (Plantinga 1979). To insist on external support for the propositions of faith, while not insisting on such support for propositions of secular common sense or science (a common position) is to be guilty of what Alston calls epistemic chauvinism (Alston 1991). Once this chauvinism is abandoned, it is possible to recognize that belief in God can be rationally held as a basic belief. A basic belief is one that is not held because it is inferred from another belief. Such beliefs, on this view, are prima facie justified: justified, that is, unless one finds evidence that defeats, or refutes, them. In these circumstances, the apologist is best advised to concentrate on showing that potential 'defeaters', such as the problem of evil, do not undermine the faith, rather than labouring to find external grounds for adopting it.

It is natural for critics to respond to this apologetic by accusing it of being a defence of arbitrary or groundless believing. This has been answered through an important distinction between the ground or occasion of religious beliefs, and evidence for them. To say that religious beliefs are not based upon others (in the manner of traditional natural theology) is not to say they are groundless (Plantinga 1983b); for they may be grounded in religious experience, or the reading of Scripture. Such grounds, however, are not the sources of premises from which religious beliefs are inferred (as they were, for example, in the traditional 'argument from religious experience'). They are, rather, the proper occasions for them, as sensory experiences are the proper occasions for the onset of perceptual beliefs about our environment (rather than the source of premises from which we infer propositions about that environment). Alston has argued at length (Alston 1991) that 'Christian mystical experience' in fact provides a source of nurture and testing for Christian beliefs, as sensory observation provides such a source for secular common-sense beliefs about the physical world. In both cases, however, the demand for external justification is a vain and self-defeating one, and the justification of the doxastic practice of the perceiver and the Christian does not depend on the completion of the foundationalist enterprise of providing it.

Plantinga has lately argued that Christian beliefs may well have warrant, which is his term for that 'elusive quality or quantity enough of which, together with truth and belief, is sufficient for knowledge' (Plantinga 1993b: vi). Warranted beliefs are those that are the product of cognitive faculties that are functioning as they should in their proper environment, and follow a design plan aimed at truth (rather than at survival or happiness). This epistemology permits us to ascribe warrant not only to the beliefs favoured by classical foundationalism, but also to sensory beliefs, beliefs based on testimony, inductively grounded beliefs, and many others. Each type, if generated appropriately, is properly basic. He plans to argue that Christian beliefs also have warrant, as they too derive from such a cognitive faculty: one that disposes us to accept beliefs about God.

The basic belief apologetic has rapidly become a received wisdom. It has become so because its proponents have, rightly, challenged a fundamental assumption of an earlier received wisdom that has perhaps run its course. In doing so they have shown that religious beliefs can be accommodated within the purview of an understanding of the powers and limitations of human reason that envisages a wide variety of rational forms of life, each with standards of its own that are independent of the judicial processes to which philosophers have sought to subject it. It is important to concede that such an understanding is not intrinsically anti-religious (or, for that matter, anti-metaphysical). But it is also important to recognize that the catholicity of its ascription of rationality extends to many forms of life that are hostile to

Christianity, and also to many forms of religion that appear incompatible with it.

There seems no case for denying the qualification of rationality to religious faith, merely because one supposes it to lack external justification— unless one is willing to follow the sceptic in denying this qualification to common-sense perceptual judgements, or to natural science. For the doxastic practices that are a part of faith are discernible, capable of discriminating justified from unjustified constituent beliefs, and of responding to external criticisms. It is also possible, from within the doxastic framework of the faith, to provide systematic criticism of competing belief-systems, and of explaining the inclination of the adherents of those competing systems to embrace and sustain them. The faith can provide plausible explanations for evils; it can discriminate between genuine and bogus spiritual manifestations; and it can offer a critical understanding of the secular mind and the mind of other faiths.

But the very parity that makes it needful to classify the faith as rational makes it needful to classify competing belief-systems as rational also. There are many of them, and it is a striking cultural phenomenon of our time that we understand them, and how they view one another, better than it has been possible to understand them before. It is not merely that Christianity and atheistic naturalism confront one another, each armed with its arguments and insights to answer and expose the other, although this confrontation is real and familiar. It is also a feature of our cultural scene that there are a wide variety of apparently competing religious belief-forms that are live options to many thousands; and there are a wide variety of competing naturalistic systems of thought that contend for the conversion of their adherents' personalities in a manner that used to be thought unique to religion. What John Hick has called the religious ambiguity of the universe (the fact that it is rational to accept both a religious and a naturalistic understanding of our situation) is a multi-faceted ambiguity, in which the rationality of an indefinite number of sophisticated and unsophisticated systems of thought, each equipped with transforming experiences and ways of life, presses itself upon us (Hick 1989). The situation is one that seems tailor-made for the classical sceptic's suspense of judgement, for he did not deny, but emphasized, that the systems between which he declined to make a selection were all supported with reasons, which seemed to balance one another. In Plantinga's most recent terminology, many systems rest on convictions that seem to their adherents to have warrant; and since the factors that yield warrant only turn true beliefs into knowledge and not false ones, one cannot ascribe warrant without making a judgement of truth first.

It is clear, and denied by no-one, that a belief can be prima facie justified, or properly basic, yet turn out to be mistaken, or unjustified ultimately. Although apologists are right to question the pretensions of philosophers who insist on adjudicating the faith before permitting the rational person to adhere to it, they cannot fail to recognize that the faith they defend in this way makes uncompromisingly 'realist' claims to truth: it does not offer itself as a mere viable option for the rational seeker, but as the key to an authentic relationship with God.

It might be that the one true faith is surrounded with comparably rational alternatives between which one merely has to do one's best to choose, just as it might be that, as John Hick and Wilfred Cantwell Smith have argued, there is reason not to regard the religious world-views as competitors in the way they appear to be (Smith 1981; Hick 1989). But it is a highly questionable understanding of rationality that does not admit that the fact of such an embarrassing richness of alternative world-views, and the existence of the supportive experiences and intellectual resources of the alternatives to one's own option, create a rational difficulty for that preferred option—especially when the demand of the faith is not for the sort of adherence proportionate to the relative weighting of a preferred alternative among many, but for a total commitment.

In these circumstances it is important to look again at what the arguments of traditional natural theology were thought to establish. They were thought to establish not merely that the faith was rational, but that some key elements within it could be proved to be true. This implied not merely that it was rational to believe the propositions of the faith, but that it is irrational not to believe those that were proved. It was this, indeed, that helped to make it intellectually necessary that the faith be seen not to contradict reason in those areas where it might seem at first sight to do so—for if God is a proven reality, intellectual difficulties in acknowledging him must have a solution.

This should suggest that the abandonment of a foundationalist view of the role of philosophy does not show that a successful natural theology, or a successful pursuit of religious evidences, is not of apologetic importance. (It is noteworthy that Plantinga himself argues that his epistemology points to a theistic metaphysics, while insisting that warrant does not depend upon it. See Plantinga 1993b: 216-37.) I conclude with some explicit suggestions of how these forms of philosophical activity could fulfil vital apologetic roles.

Believers rarely, now, reject the cultural assumption that it is to science we must turn if we are to learn the workings of our world. They differ from their naturalist fellows in insisting it is necessary to add to what science tells us in order to recognize our place within the cosmos. While no natural theologian has maintained that all the details of the Christian, or any other theistic, world-view can be established by his arguments, some forms of such argument, beginning with (say) cosmological theories acceptable to both, have been said to show that the early development of the universe required benignly intelligent direction (Leslie 1989, 1990; Van Inwagen 1993), or that evolutionary explanations of adaptive human and animal behaviour cannot account for the emergence of conscious mental life (Swinburne 1986: ch. 10).

I offer no assessment of these arguments here; but if they were successful, they would serve to lessen the degree of ambiguity that otherwise besets us, by showing that commonly recognized evidence requires the sort of explanation that only theistic cosmic schemes can provide.

It is common among defenders of the faith to maintain that the primary obstacle to faith is our unwillingness to accept our own need for it; and it was Kierkegaard's great contribution to discern the role such unwillingness plays in the philosophical debates about faith's rationality. It is, however, also true that in our secular and pluralistic age, the abundance of rational alternatives is also a motive that makes many hesitate. In such circumstances the continued pursuit of the objectives of natural theology has a clear function, and defeatism about its feasibility can have no theological justification. A successful natural theology would not stand in the way of human obstinacy; people could refuse to believe as easily as now. But a successful natural theology would demonstrate that only obstinacy, not rational puzzlement, stood in their way.

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