Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Does my faith rest on historical and scientific evidence?

I often write on this blog about the historical and scientific evidence supporting Christian belief. Recently, a Christian friend has pushed back on my epistemology. Specifically, he has challenged the notion that the truth of Christianity is established through historical and scientific evidence. This is my response.

The Basics

I would first distinguish between statements that are true, statements that are known, and statements that are certain. Suppose I encounter a stranger on the street and say, “You were born in Tahlequah.” This statement might be true, but if so, I just got lucky. I did not know that the man was born in Tahlequah. However, if I say, “I was born in Tahlequah,” this statement is both true and known. What distinguishes a known statement is warrant. To say I know I was born in Tahlequah is to say I have proper warrant for the belief that I was born in Tahlequah (i.e. my birth certificate). 

However, it is theoretically possible that tomorrow I might receive a letter from the state of Oklahoma explaining that some mistake had been made on my birth certificate. Furthermore, it is theoretically possible that my parents might announce to me that they had, for some reason, lied to me about my place of birth. Now of course all of this is extremely unlikely, but it is not strictly speaking impossible. Thus while the statement, “I was born in Tahlequah” is both true and known, it is not certain. Certainty requires an exhaustive knowledge of all possibilities. 

Known (or warranted) statements can further be divided into two categories. All of our warranted convictions are either warranted with evidence or warranted without evidence. The first category includes all beliefs obtained through the testimony of others or the evidence of our own senses. The second category includes all of our properly basic beliefs, such as our belief in the reality of the external world, the existence of other minds, the reality of the past, the existence of objective moral values, or the canons of logic. These are fundamental beliefs. We know that these beliefs are true, but the truth of these beliefs cannot be established by appealing to any evidence. 

Take for example the reality of the external world. As philosophers are fond of reminding us, it is theoretically possible that you are a “brain in a vat.” In other words, it is possible that all of your sense perceptions are generated by a computer (as in the sci-fi film, The Matrix). Likewise, it is theoretically possible that the universe came into existence five seconds ago, complete with the half-digested breakfast in your stomach (which you never actually ate) and the neural structures in your brain that give you (false) memories about what you did this morning.  Now of course we know that the external world does exist, and we know that the past is real. However, these propositions cannot be supported by evidence; they are basic assumptions upon which all evidence depends. Furthermore, while the existence of the external world is a known proposition, it is not a certain proposition. To say it is certain that I am not a brain in a vat would be to say that it is not theoretically possible that I am a brain in a vat.

Christian Belief

So how does Christian belief fit into all of this? First, are the tenets of Christianity, such as the resurrection of Jesus, known or certain? I take them to be known. I have defined certainty as requiring an exhaustive knowledge of all possibilities. Such certainty thus requires omniscience, which no Christian possesses. Furthermore, Christians often experience doubt, and certainty is incompatible with doubt. 

Since I consider the tenets of the Christian faith to be known, I believe they have proper warrant. This leads to a second question. Are the tenets of Christianity warranted apart from evidence? In other words, are they properly basic beliefs, such as our beliefs in the existence of the external world or the reality of the past? I don’t think so. I define properly basic beliefs as warranted beliefs for which we can give no evidence. For example, it is not that we simply lack sufficient evidence to demonstrate the existence of the external world or the reality of the past; no evidence can be offered at all. The Bible, however, explicitly offers evidence for the tenets of Christian belief (John 20:31). Thus these tenets cannot be lumped in the same category as our properly basic beliefs. Furthermore, to be honest, I simply do not find the existence of God or the resurrection of Jesus as undeniably obvious as the existence of the external world or the reality of the past.

Thus I take the tenets of the Christian faith to be warranted through evidence. This raises at least two problems. First, all knowledge based on evidence is derivative of our properly basic beliefs. For example, all of my scientific knowledge depends upon my fundamental assumption that the external world exists. How then can my belief in God be derivative of more foundational assumptions? Is not God the foundation of knowledge? God is certainly the ground of all truth, but I think that one consequence of our fallen state may be that God is not as immediately apprehensible to us as he will one day be. In other words, the fact that the existence of the external world is more obvious to us than the existence of God may be a consequence of the separation which our sin has wrought. 

Secondly, what of those Christians who do not have the political freedom, education, or leisure time to investigate the historical and scientific evidence for or against Christianity? Are such Christians relieved of the obligation to keep the faith? No! Since God is just, it must therefore be possible for every Christian to keep the faith, regardless of their intellectual ability or library resources. Thus, for at least some Christians, warrant ultimately cannot rest on historical and scientific evidence. This does not mean, however, that the faith of such Christians does not rest on evidence. Evidence can be divided into two categories: public and private. Public evidence would include the written testimony of John’s gospel; it is available to all. Private evidence, on the other hand, would include the internal witness of the Holy Spirit. Those Christians who do not have the ability to defend their faith in the sphere of public evidence may nevertheless have sufficient warrant through the witness of the Holy Spirit.

Finally, we should not think that one’s Christian belief is either warranted through public evidence or warranted through private evidence. I think these two typically work in tandem. For example, public evidence may function in evangelism to strip away barriers that prevent people from hearing the internal witness of the Spirit. In other words, public evidence can demonstrate the basic plausibility of Christianity and thus render people more receptive to a personal encounter with the risen Jesus.

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