Four Domains of Christian Knowledge: Apologetics (Logic)

Logic

This final area of philosophical inquiry is somewhat other than the rest. Logic is not so much a part of human life to investigate, as a tool we seem capable of accessing in order to do the investigation well. Logic is similar to language in that, while we can think reflexively about both, we need both in order to think reflexively, and think well. Yet, that there is also a second-order, philosophical question about why logic works, or what are logical connections, is itself certainly true. Still logic is essentially just good reasoning, and reasoning is something we do naturally. To study logic is to study the nature of reasoning, and develop methods and strategies by which our reasoning can improve, and truth attained.

Some forms of logic, like symbolic logic, are also similar to languages, albeit non-natural ones. They are highly abstract. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, philosophers like Gottlob Frege, Georg Cantor, Bertrand Russell, and Alfred North Whitehead, developed symbolic logical systems designed to eliminate the ambiguity associated with classical forms of logic that deal with natural language. These systems, based on mathematical reasoning, attempt to illustrate purely structural relationships between entities, regardless of whether such entities are real or not, and they sometimes go under the umbrella term Logicism. These highly abstracted, a priori systems are very technical, and tend to be utilized by professional philosophers in specialized areas of research (like Logic itself).

Alternatively, Classical, or Aristotelian, logic is primarily a prescriptive set of rules regulating our mental operations when seeking the truth about claims about reality. Classical logic deals with natural language claims, and the relationship between words and sentences of natural languages (e.g. English, German, Mandarin, etc.), that is it deals with grammars. It is this kind of logic I will discuss here, since it is most commonly used in developing arguments related to the defense of the Christian faith, and many other areas of everyday philosophical investigation like philosophy of science, religion, aesthetics, and politics.

Formal & Informal Logic

Formal Logic is fundamentally about one thing: structural validity of arguments. This differs from informal logic, which primarily has to do with logical fallacies in premises.

Most people are familiar with some aspects of informal logic, for example fallacies like: the genetic fallacy, ad hominem fallacies, or the fallacy of composition. Most informal fallacies fall into larger categories like: Fallacies of Ambiguity, Relevance, or Sufficiency. Informal fallacies are not less damaging than formal ones, they are just not related to the “form” of an argument. They have to do with language and the meaning of words and sentences.

Informal fallacies usually apply to the sentences themselves, not to the relational structures, or grammar, of arguments. Here is an example of an informal fallacy:

Socrates is a Greek. Greek is a language. Therefore, Socrates is a language.

This is an example of a fallacy of Ambiguity, since the term “Greek” has multiple meanings in common parlance. Thus, it would have to be clarified what the term means in the context it is given. Here is another informal fallacy:

John is an evangelical Christian, so what would he know about science? Even if he has a PhD in micro-biology, he can’t do real science.

This is an example of a fallacy of Relevance, in this case a kind of ad hominem attack, or attack against the person. More specifically this particular instance is a “poisoning the well” fallacy, making an initial claim about a person (or group) that tries to undermine any future claims they may make about a given topic, here the biological sciences. The fact that John is a Christian is simply irrelevant to his being able to practice science well or make accurate pronouncements on scientific issues.

Another kind of fallacy of Relevance is the Genetic Fallacy, which attacks the source of the claim, as opposed to the claim itself:

Evolution endowed human beings with certain cognitive capacities that led to the rise of beliefs in God and gods among early, prehistoric communities. Therefore, belief in God is irrational.

Here, it is argued that because it may be the case that human beings, over a long prehistory, developed certain cognitive capacities that facilitated the belief in supernatural beings, or a supernatural Being, that therefore the belief in those beings, or Being, is irrational. However, the source of the formation of the belief is not ultimately what determines if the belief is true. That must be determined on other grounds, otherwise the Genetic fallacy has been committed.

One final kind of informal fallacy is the fallacy of Insufficiency. This usually has to do with premises that do not rely on a sufficient amount of data or factual evidence to be considered strong premises. For example:

My friend Joe has been smoking all his life, and he has never had any problems with his lungs; therefore, smoking is just fine!

Here we have the fallacy of Hasty Generalization, which bases a radical conclusion, to assume smoking is fine for your health, on a very small amount of evidence: knowledge of just one friend’s capacity to smoke and not get ill. That is called an appeal to “anecdotal” evidence and would be insufficient to warrant starting to, or continuing to, smoke.

Most informal fallacies are found in inductive arguments, not deductive ones, and there are many more informal fallacies that we could give examples for. For a good introduction to Informal Fallacies, see here.

Formal logic

Formal logic, in contrast to informal logic, is concerned with demonstrating how syntax (the order of a sentence) is related to relational validity when two or more sentences are fit together in a grammatical structure. Formal logic is a means to demonstrate how, when declarative statements are strung together through certain operative words like “if…then” “and” and “or,” or “some” and “all,” and put into a sequential order, the conjunction of those sentences compel us to accept or reject a conclusion by the sheer light of reason. Errors in the structure of an argument, however, do not say anything about the argument’s conclusion being true or false, just that the arrangement, or form, of the argument does not show the conclusion to be true or false, because it contains a structural deficiency.

For example, the following argument is logically valid, but the conclusion is false:

Premise 1: All cats are blue
Premise 2: Tabby is a cat
Conclusion: Therefore, Tabby is blue

Here, the structure of the argument is valid, for if all cats really are blue, and if Tabby is a cat, then Tabby must be blue. Of course the problem is that premise 1 is simply false.

And, conversely, here is an example of a conclusion that is true, but where the argument is invalid, and therefore does not demonstrate the conclusion’s truth:

Premise 1: Some men are bald
Premise 2: Tony is a man
Conclusion: Therefore, Tony is bald

Now, it does so happen that the “Tony” I am thinking about, namely myself, is bald, and thus the conclusion is true. But, because the argument is not valid, it bears no weight on that conclusion. It is an invalid argument because premise 1 only says that “some” particular men are bald, and while premise 2 does pick out a particular man named “Tony,” there is no logical connection between the “some” of premise 1, and the “Tony” of premise 2 that forces us to conclude Tony is bald (even if this particular Tony does happen to be bald, that is purely accidental).

If however, like in the previous example, the universal affirmative “all” was used in premise 1, then the argument would be valid, although the conclusion would now be rendered false. Thus, the following is again valid, but false:

Premise 1: All men are bald
Premise 2: Brad Pitt is a man
Conclusion: Therefore, Brad Pitt is bald

Propositional or Semantic Content

Sentences however are not really what we are interested in, rather we are interested in something far more “mysterious,” namely propositions. Sentences are just the linguistic expression of propositions, or semantic content. Therefore, propositions themselves are often, and correctly, seen as non-linguistic, immaterial, yet real objects. This can be demonstrated as follows:

  1. The snow is white
  2. Der Schnee ist weiss

Both of these sentences mean exactly the same thing. However, they are clearly not the same sentence. What is identical is the proposition behind each set of words, i.e. that “snow is white.” But the words themselves are obviously not identical. Moreover, if we were to write a third sentence in Mandarin Chinese, we could have entirely different symbols, yet the same meaning or propositional content. Thus, we can show that propositions and their sentences are not identical.

Logic is therefore the main tool we use to “see” whether two or more sentences, linguistic devices that represent propositions, if tied together in some kind of grammatical structure, force us to think something may, or must, be the case. There is yet another kind of logic, modal logic, which deals expressly with the idea of whether or not certain propositions are “necessarily” true, or only “possibly” true, etc. Simple propositional logic however helps us to determine the truth value of a sentence, which itself is the linguistic expression of propositional content. In classical propositional logic then, there are only two possible values for any declarative sentence, “true” or “false.”

The grammatical structuring of sentences for the sake of determining truth is what we often call an “argument.” Arguments in philosophy come in two main categories: deductive and inductive arguments.

Deductive Arguments

Deductive arguments are comprised of premises and a conclusion. The main thing to know about deductive arguments is this: if the premises are true, and the structure of the argument valid, then the conclusion MUST be true. The classic example of a deductive argument is this:

Premise 1: All men are mortal
Premise 2: Socrates is a man
Conclusion: Therefore Socrates is mortal

If P1 and P2 are both true, then it has to be the case that the conclusion follows. So it goes with deductive formulations of arguments. An example of a deductive argument often used in the Apologetics is the Kalam Cosmological argument, which usually is presented as such:

Premise 1: Whatever begins to exist has a cause
Premise 2: The universe began to exist
Conclusion: Therefore the universe had a cause


If P1 and P2 are true, then the conclusion must follow. Another way of thinking about Deductive Arguments is that they tend to start with a general theory or statement and reason toward a specific conclusion. This can been clearly seen in the two aforementioned arguments that start with broad statements about “all men” and “mortality” and “whatever begins” and “causes” to “Socrates” and “this universe.”

Because Deductive arguments are meant to force one to either accept a conclusion, or reject the truthfulness of one of the argument’s premises, the structure of deductive arguments has to follow certain rules of logic. One way to try and test for the validity of an argument is through Natural Deduction.

Natural Deduction utilizes some intuitive rules of logic, or rules of inference, to create deductively valid arguments. The nine most useful rules of inference are: modus ponens, modus tollens, addition, disjunctive syllogism, simplification, conjunction, hypothetical syllogism, constructive dilemma, and absorption. The aforementioned examples both use the rule “modus ponens” as a means of demonstration. Valid, or sound, deductive arguments are the strongest kinds of arguments, since they force a conclusion upon the hearer.

However, there are very few deductive arguments for anything that cannot to some degree be questioned in the soundness of their individual premises, even if their structures are valid. Finally, the main fallacy associated with Deductive Arguments, is “begging the question” which goes something like this:

Premise 1: The Bible says that God exists
Premise 2: The Bible is true because it is God’s word
Conclusion: Therefore, God exists

Here, the conclusion may be true (I certainly think it is), but the argument is helpless to show it true, because it requires God’s existence to show that the Bible is true (premise 2), yet God’s existence is what the argument is supposed to prove. Thus, from this argument alone, we cannot know the Bible is true, and if we cannot know the Bible is true, then we cannot know that God exists. It “begs the question” or, in other terms, it is “circular reasoning.” Atheists can run into similar problems:

Premise 1: Reason tells us that God does not exist
Premise 2: Reason is the source of all truth
Conclusion: Therefore, God does not exist

Same problem here, since to claim that “Reason” is the source of all truth, requires the use of reason itself. But, how do we know that the very tool we are using to attain truth is itself reliable? Thus, it “begs the question” about whether or not reason really is the source of all truth by simply asserting it to be the case.

Inductive Arguments

Inductive arguments, in contrast with deductive ones, are meant to give strong reasons for the likelihood of a conclusion, but do not force a decision upon the hearer to either accept the conclusion, or reject one of the premises. The hearer could think the premises are strongly supported by the facts, and that the conclusion is strong based on the conjunction of those factually supported premises, yet still believe that there is room for the conclusion to be false. Induction is the primary form of scientific reasoning, and usually starts with particular or specific observations in order to work toward a general conclusion. Inductive arguments are therefore probabilistic in nature. Here is a common example:

Premise 1: Every time I have walked Susie’s dog, it has not bit me
Premise 2: Tomorrow I will walk Susie’s dog
Conclusion: Therefore, when I walk Susie’s dog tomorrow, he won’t bite me

Here, we can see that the conclusion is not certain, but it very well may be probable, especially if the dog walker has walked Susie’s dogs several times without incident. It may not be necessary for me to believe with certainty that Susie’s dog will not bite the walker, but I may wind up believing that due to the pattern that has been set. This is an example of what we might call an inductive generalization.

Another example:

Premise 1: 85% of Americans own at least one TV set
Premise 2: Tom is an American
Conclusion: Therefore, probably Tom owns a TV set.

Inductive arguments can focus on one set of data, e.g. past dog-walks, ratio of TV’s to American citizens, and try to make a strong, albeit not absolute, inference to the truth. Some, like the second example, can be statistical in nature, and thus, if done right, can be fairly compelling.

Many arguments for or against the existence of God due to the problem of Evil are probabilistic, or inductive ones:

Premise 1: If an an all-loving, all-powerful God exists, then there likely would be no gratuitous evil in the world
Premise 2: There is gratuitous evil in the world
Conclusion: Therefore, it is unlikely that an all-loving, all-powerful God exists

Here, one can see that the conclusion is not certain, it is only a probability argument, and one not based on quantifiable data, but a common sense, qualitative notion of likelihood. There are many responses to this kind of argument against God from the PoE, and both premises can be challenged.

Abductive or Inference to the Best Explanation

As Apologists we often use deductive and inductive arguments to either force a conclusion regarding a specific theistic belief (e.g. God exists), or to compel one to accept the likelihood of a specific belief (e.g. probably Jesus rose from the dead). However, when defending Christianity as an all-encompassing worldview, our apologetical project often synthesizes together many different deductive and inductive arguments to show that, on the whole, Christian theism is the best explanation for the world, and our experience of that world.

This kind of reasoning, where we take into account various scientific and historical facts, philosophical arguments, and other natural and human phenomena to provide an overarching theory, or explanation, is called abductive reasoning, or inference to the best explanation. This is perhaps the most commonly used form of reasoning today in Christian Apologetics, and is often called “cumulative case” reasoning by popular authors and speakers. This kind of reasoning tries to fulfill certain explanatory criteria, such as: explanatory power, explanatory scope, lack of ad hocness, simplicity, predictive capacity, etc., and show why Christianity is a better fit to explain certain facts about the world.

One can think of many facts, or givens, about our experience of reality that seem to be best explained by a broadly religious, or even specifically Christian, explanation of the world.

For example:

  • the almost universal belief in human souls,
  • compelling reports of near death experiences,
  • the existence of anything at all,
  • the intuition of cause and effect,
  • the hard problem of consciousness,
  • the argument from desire,
  • the phenomenon of beauty in both the natural world and in human art,
  • the sense of having free will,
  • the nature of morality,
  • the abundance of miracle reports,
  • the complexity and variety of biological life,
  • the historical witness to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth,
  • the rise, global spread, and longevity of the Christian faith,
  • and, of course, personal religious experiences and changed lives.

When all taken together, and weighed against various competing hypotheses, one can see how the Christian worldview is a powerful explanatory hypothesis when put up against other views like naturalism, pantheism, or polytheism. While cumulative case arguments are not arguments in the same sense as deductive ones, they get right to the heart of answering the most fundamental human question: why? Abductive reasoning of this sort is also the primary way scientific theories are developed. It is the most common, and natural, form of logical argumentation.

Conclusion to Philosophical Apologetics

This series on Apologetics has first taken into account the four main areas of Philosophical inquiry: Metaphysics, Epistemology, Ethics, and Logic. At this point the young Christian, or the Christian young in the faith, may feel overwhelmed. How, after all, can one learn “all this stuff!?” While it is clearly not necessary to be an expert in any of these fields to evangelize, since the power of the Gospel is itself sufficient to convert even the hardest heart, we should also not relinquish the battlefield of ideas to the skeptic, the materialist, or the co-religionist. The pursuit of knowledge is part and parcel of the Christian life of discipleship, and so I end this section with the words of one of the “greatest” of Christ’s disciples, John Wesley:

If we are “overseers over the Church of God, which he hath bought with his own blood,” what manner of men ought we to be, in gifts as well as in grace? …

To begin with gifts, and with those that are from nature: Ought not a Minister to have, First, a good understanding, a clear apprehension, a sound judgment, and a capacity of reasoning with some closeness? Is not this necessary in an high degree for the work of the ministry? Otherwise, how will he be able to understand the various states of those under his care; or to steer them through a thousand difficulties and dangers, to the haven where they would be? Is it not necessary, with respect to the numerous enemies whom he has to encounter? Can a fool cope with all the men that know not God, and with all the spirits of darkness? Nay, he will neither be aware of the devices of Satan, nor the craftiness of his children.

He goes on…

Some knowledge of the sciences also, is, to say the least, equally expedient. Nay, may we not say, that the knowledge of one (whether art or science), although now quite unfashionable, is even necessary next to, and in order to, the knowledge of the Scripture itself? I mean logic. For what is this, if rightly understood, but the art of good sense? of apprehending, things clearly, judging truly, and reasoning conclusively? What is it, viewed in another light, but the art of learning and teaching, whether by convincing or persuading? What is there, then, in the whole compass of science, to be desired in comparison of it?

Is not some acquaintance with what has been termed the second part of logic (metaphysics), if not so necessary as this, yet highly expedient, (1.) In order to clear our apprehension (without which it is impossible either to judge correctly, or to reason closely or conclusively) by ranging our ideas under general heads? And, (2.) In order to understand many useful writers, who can very hardly be understood without it?

John Wesley, An Address to the Clergy (1756)

Four Domains of Christian Knowledge: Apologetics (Epistemology)

Continuing in this short series on Apologetics, here is part II which deals with Epistemology, the second area of Philosophical Apologetics.

Epistemology

The study of how we know things is called Epistemology, from the Greek episteme (belief), and logos (knowledge or understanding). It is in this sense that Epistemology is often considered first in the order of philosophical inquiry, for before we can have any knowledge about what kinds of things exist, or how things change over time, or what powers or liabilities substances may have, we would first have to know about how we know these things, and whether or not when we say we know something, we actually do know it.

Current theories of Epistemology differ noticeably from classical theories of knowledge, most of which derive from Plato and Aritstotle who presented knowledge as justified, true belief, even though it is Xenophanes who is often referenced as the father of Epistemology. Moreover, Aristotle’s correspondence theory of truth was the standard theory of truth for well over a millennia, and at least until the Enlightenment in the West. It is stated succinctly:

“To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true.”

Although late 19th and 20th century philosophers and theologians have claimed that the Correspondence Theory (CT) of truth is no longer a viable epistemic theory of knowledge, the fact remains that the CT is still the most common-sensical, and most commonly used approach to knowledge. Thus, it cannot ever be fully discounted, nor relegated to some philosophical dustbin of history. It will always have its defenders, and, most who defend Christianity as a true worldview, will rely on the CT as their primary approach to truth, since a straightforward reading of Scripture best aligns with the CT.

As such then, we have two classical theories, one about truth itself, the Correspondence Theory (CT), and the other about knowledge of truth, or Justified True Belief (JTB for short).

However, there have been major shifts in Epistemology since the classical and Christian medieval eras. Two such shifts were seismic in their impact on Western thought, and our current approach to knowledge. The first such shift came with Rene Descarte, whose attempt to find epistemic certainty established a theory known as foundationalism as the best available theory for guaranteeing knowledge. Foundationalism, in short, is the theory that all justified true beliefs have to be grounded in some foundational beliefs that themselves are not justified by other beliefs. They are justified by something we call “givens” or “raw feels” or “direct experiences.”

Foundationalism

Foundational beliefs are directly given, usually through introspection, direct perception, or something like hearing a personal testimony and remembering it. For Descarte, the foundation of all other beliefs was “Cogito Ergo Sum” or “I think therefore I am.” Or, in other words, because I am a thinking thing, I can at least have certainty that I exist, for something, the “I” or self, has to be doing the thinking. There is obviously much more that could be said about Foundationalism than this, both its “Cartesian” version, and more contemporary versions. To illustrate, however, here are some examples of how Foundationalism might work.

Call a particular belief, (B), for short. Each belief has some proportional content to it, call that (P).

  • B1 = Tony believes that (P1) “the trees outside his back window are green.”

How does Tony know that B1 is justified? Answer: He simply sees trees that appear green to him. The perception of the trees itself is not a belief, it is a “given” that forces the belief upon him.

  • B2 = Tony believes that (P2) “he is thinking about Foundationalism as a theory of justified belief.”

How does Tony know that B2 is justified? His internal introspection of his own thoughts (his thinking about his thinking) cannot be false. The content of his thoughts could be wrong, but that he is having those particular thoughts is neither true or false, he simply is having the thoughts he is having, it is a given that forces the belief to emerge. Givens on Foundationalism are something like non-propositional, direct awarenesses, or immediate experiences.

Still, in the 20th century, Foundationalism fell on hard times, which lead to an emergence of other theories of truth and justified belief. Two alternative theories to Foundationalism are: the coherence theory, or Coherentism, and Post Modernism.

Alternatives to Foundationalism

Coherentism argues that there are no real givens, or direct experiences, that cannot be doubted, and therefore there are no real foundational beliefs. All direct experiences: perception, testimony, memory, even introspection, could, after all, be faulty. We can see this since it is obvious that even the most apparently true perceptions in fact could be faulty, either because they are interpreted wrongly, or they are just not real (like vivid dreams, or drug-induced illusions). Or, we could see how even the famed “Cogito Ergo Sum” may not work on a Hindu understanding of the “I” or “self.”

As such, what matters is not what foundation one’s belief structure stands on, but to what degree one’s individual beliefs logically cohere. In other words, does one have a network of beliefs with as few contradictions as possible. The main problem with Coherentism is that it seems to ignore the truth value of particular beliefs in favor of how those beliefs relate to one another. Thus, that one could have many individual beliefs that cohere well together, but otherwise have little to nothing to do with reality, seems clearly possible, and this is crippling to the coherentist view.

Coherentism in this sense, seems to abandon the Correspondence Theory of truth, and neglect the requirement that beliefs be related somehow to reality, or, in other terms, to a metaphysical counterpart. If Foundationalism is a bottom up belief structure, like a building or pyramid, Coherentism is like a web of beliefs, or a raft, that hangs in mid-air, or floats amid a sea of moving waters.

Post-Modernism, if it can be called an epistemic theory at all, is essentially a view that says no beliefs require any justification at all. And that primarily because it views “truth” fundamentally as a construct or project of either individual minds, or of cultural communities. Reality for the Post-Modernist is simply inaccessible, and because it is inaccessible, every claim to “truth” is inherently false, as it is fundamentally an interpretation of one’s personal experience of something we know not what.

Post-Modernism as an epistemic view can be traced back to Immanuel Kant who made a fateful distinction between the noumena and the phenomena, or “the thing itself” and “the thing for me” (in German “das Ding an sich” and “das Ding fur mich.”) For Kant the activity of the mind made it impossible for us to ever know “the thing in itself” and we could only know “thing thing as it appears to me.” Post-modernism, in this restricted, epistemic sense, says that knowledge is essentially unattainable, because every “fact” about the world, even scientific ones, goes through an interactive, interpretive process.

On Post-modernistic theories, therefore, we should see claims to truth as expressions about one’s experience of the world, not of the world itself. Or, more nefarious perhaps, Post-modernists who have also bought into versions of Critical Theory, see statements as fundamentally “power plays” (alla Nietzsche) aimed at achieving far more immediate and pragmatic benefits. Truth, or claims to it, on this view are primarily assertions of the will to power, means to try and control others for personal or national gain. “Truth” claims are expressions of the philosopher’s desires, not actual conclusions about the world.

Furthermore, on Post-modernist views of knowledge, abstract thought and metaphysical speculation become almost totally irrelevant, or, are seen as linguistic games that have these far more mundane goals. As such, “God talk” is often not about an actual divine, eternal, all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving, causally efficacious personal Being and Creator of the universe, but rather about our human concepts of such a Being, and how those concepts cause us to think, or not think, to do, or not do, certain things in the physical world.

“Post-modern Christianity” has become a popular trend since the 1960’s, and is often connected to liberal and progressive forms of Christianity, but need not be so liberal. For theologians have pointed out for centuries that reason itself is damaged through the Fall of Adam, and, in that sense, there are always, and only, finite and flawed interpretations of reality.

While some people who attach themselves to post-modernism, tend to see foundational truth claims as ever-changing and always in need of reinterpretation, this doesn’t have to be the case. But, it does make it very difficult to understand how there can be any universal truth of the Gospel that transcends both time and culture. The “poster-boy” for this kind of Christianity was for many years Bishop John Shelby Spong, who was notorious for rejecting almost every metaphysical and moral claim of the Bible, yet still presenting himself as a believing Christian, and leader in the Episcopalian church. Occasionally one will see atheist “Christians” who are still employed as pastors or preachers by some church that has bought into post-modernism like this.

A counter to this kind of extreme post-Modernism in so-called Christian circles, might be a modified or moderate post-modernism, one which takes into account the fact that reason seems often not only deficient, but also not neutral. In other words we are creatures of desire as much as reason, and if there are real noetic effects of sin, then there may be a form of reason itself that must be redeemed in order for us to really think properly about anything.

Still, as an epistemic theory, post-Modernism has rightly been shown by professional philosophers to be not only a self-refuting proposition, but also a fairly dangerous one at that. Much of the rise of philosophical popularizers like Jordan Peterson has been due to their withering critique of Post-Modernism.

Externalist Answers to Epistemological Problems

The second seismic shift of the Epistemological landscape started with a landmark paper written by Edmund Gettier in 1963, whose name is now synonymous with certain epistemological thought experiments, know as “Gettier problems.” Gettier basically showed in his very short essay (just under 3 pages) that one can have justified, true beliefs, yet still not have real knowledge about something. The key to what makes the difference between having a justified true belief, yet not having knowledge, depends on how I came to have the justified, true belief. In short it cannot be the case that in my “mental journey” to having a justified and true belief, there was a false belief, or something purely accidental, that lead me to have that justified and true belief. I cannot say I know reality, if it happens by sheer luck, or through some falsehood, that I hold a justified, true belief!

Without going into detail on how Gettier showed this discrepancy in the classical formulation of knowledge, these problematic thought experiments led to what is now called “externalist” views of knowledge, or views that posit that a belief can be justified based on how it was formed, and that regardless of whether or not the believer is aware of any reasons for actually believing what she does.

Reliablism, or Proper Function views are called externalist views of justified belief. They rely not on whether there are foundational beliefs per se, or what those beliefs may be (although some Reliablist and Proper Function advocates, like Alvin Plantinga, are also foundationalists), but focus mainly on how the beliefs themselves are formed. Thus, the Proper Functional view, for example, posits a model of what it thinks it would take for a belief to be justified, and, if that model is correct, then we can assume we have at least some justified beliefs, and hence some knowledge. Robert Audi, a Christian philosopher, describes reliablistic interpretations of knowledge succinctly:

“Knowledge, so conceived, results from the successful functioning of our epistemic equipment, which consists above all of finely tuned perceptual, memorial, introspective, and rational instruments.” (Audi, Epistemology)

In this sense, knowledge is the result of the proper functioning of our mental “equipment,” similar to how the healthy flow of blood in the body results from the proper functioning of our heart. How we know whether our mental equipment is functioning properly, however, is another problem.

There tends to be two ways of looking at externalist views like Proper Function as an epistemic theory: a naturalistic, and a supernaturalistic way. Naturalistic views treat human beings as basically highly evolved, yet purely biological animals that have luckily developed the right kinds of cognitive tools to accurately collect data and track facts about reality. There just happens to be a lucky, accidental interaction where that thing that is me forms beliefs about the natural world that are accurate representations of the world. What demonstrates the reliability of this process is something like the fact that we continue to survive fairly well in our environments.

On naturalistic accounts like this, if I have a perceptual experience of the green trees in my backyard, it is because evolution has endowed me with the right kind of visual processing equipment to receive such perceptual data, and because the trees themselves cause me to have those perceptual experiences. There are only two things: my brain with its bio-chemical reactions, and my environment. In short, the natural world triggers functions of my brain, which then cause me to have beliefs. However, when it comes to other kinds of true beliefs, for example like “2 + 2 = 4” or “If Jane is taller than Sally, and Sally taller than Sue, then I know that Jane is taller than Sue,” it seems like naturalistic, proper function theories are inadequate. Naturalistic theories seem riddled with such problems regarding how we know things, or whether the things we know are true, or, if blind evolution is the correct, why true beliefs would actually aid survival, as opposed to false ones.

When it comes to supernaturalistic theories of proper function, no one has done more to develop a rigorous system of how we can have justified (or in his terms, “warranted”) true beliefs grounded in the proper function of our cognitive capacities than Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga (perhaps the 20th century philosopher most responsible for the resurgence of Philosophy of Religion as a serious academic discipline). On Plantinga’s “Reformed Epistemology” view, we can have justified, or warranted, beliefs based on the proper functioning of our mental faculties, because those faculties have been designed by a Divine Being, namely God, to function in specified way, and in such an environment, as to produce accurate and true beliefs about not only the physical world, but also the metaphysical and spiritual world. As such we can have true perceptions of physical realities, and also we possess a “sensus divinitatus” that gives us some true beliefs about the spiritual realm, and even God.

Epistemic Options for Christian Apologetics

For the purpose of Christian Apologetics, the question that lies before the defender of orthodox Christian claims is to what extent he feels we must justify our true beliefs, and, how he thinks we should go about demonstrating that justification. There are essentially two camps when it comes to religious epistemology, that of the Plantingian sort, which suggests justification is external to the believer, and grounded primarily in the process of belief formation; and internalism, which suggests that justification is accessible to the believer, and must be grounded in personal reasons for believing. On internalist views, without good reasons that the believer herself is also aware of, there is no justification to believe any proposition of the Christian faith.

On the first view, beliefs cannot really be justified through arguments or evidence. Justification comes through the witness of the Holy Spirit, as He awakens our sensus divinitatus or “sense of the divine,” which itself has been put there by the Divine Architect. Here we find ourselves believing true things, because the process of God enlightening us to reality is a reliable process. This epistemological view is best suited to presuppositional apologetics, which suggests that arguments and evidence are ill-suited to bringing the skeptic to belief in God, because reason itself is, due to sin, a deficient and faulty mechanism if God exists, and a totally unreliable process if He does not. There must be a God, if we are to think at all that we are able to reason properly. Thus, we should start with God, and only then can we talk about what reason is capable of doing for us, and the justification of our beliefs. Arguments and evidence can be brought in later to bolster confidence in Christian belief, but ultimately what matters is the process of belief formation.

This is to be contrasted with the other, somewhat more common, mode of religious epistemology, which tends to see justification as something internal to the individual, and grounded in that person’s reasons for believing a particular claim. As such, internalists, who tend also to be foundationalists, will suggest that evidence and arguments are the better way for an individual to have justified, true beliefs. Here reason is certainly damaged, but God has allowed men to be able to have a sort of “natural light of reason” as part of his common grace. And that natural reason can be drawn to God through rational argumentation and a fair presentation of the evidence. This epistemological view is best suited toward evidential (or classical) Apologetics, which places a strong emphasis on deductive and inductive arguments for certain Christian claims, e.g. the Resurrection of Jesus.

Epistemology: Conclusion

In conclusion, there are options for Christian apologists when it comes to epistemological theories about knowledge, but, for the most part we would want to adopt minimally some version of the Correspondence Theory of Truth. Even if some kind of Post-modernistic thinking that takes into account the role of personal experience in one’s ability to reason about the world is necessary to work into our epistemology, we should not goes as far as to believe we must throw out truth claims because of the interpretive facet of the human mind.

In the next post we will look a the third area of Philosophical Apologetics: Ethics.

Epiphanic Redemption And The Problem of Pain

15 From my youth I have suffered and been close to death;
    I have borne your terrors and am in despair.
16 Your wrath has swept over me;
    your terrors have destroyed me.
17 All day long they surround me like a flood;
    they have completely engulfed me.
18 You have taken from me friend and neighbor—
    darkness is my closest friend.

Psalm 88, a song of Heman the Ezrahite

The Problem of Pain

If there is one almost irreconcilable problem for Christianity it is the problem of pain and suffering. This tragic mystery, of how an all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing God could allow suffering, pain, and extraordinary human cruelty, in a world where human beings seem either woefully helpless (against things like tsunamis, or bone cancer), or profoundly depraved (as in the rape of Nanking or the Armenian Genocide), presents itself as more than just an intellectual dilemma for Christian apologists. It is the thing which ultimately drives many away from faith in God and the promises found in Jesus Christ.

That said, I am not presenting a specific, theistic argument here, or a theodicy trying to reconcile particular instances of pain and suffering with God’s providential purposes, at least not directly. Rather I am making an appeal– an appeal to something we have reason to believe does occur, and, if it does, may be the kind of thing, perhaps the only kind of thing that would ultimately rectify the human experience of horrible suffering and extraordinary evil. And, if this rectifying kind of thing were actualized, then we might have very good reason to believe that Christianity is indeed true, and maybe believe that with certainty.

Kinds of Pain

But, what could rectify the kinds and degrees of suffering human persons experience in this world? First, let’s define what kinds of suffering there might be. It seems to me there are roughly four kinds of evils in the world that can befall the human person:

  1. Physical pain caused by natural evils
  2. Emotional pain that results from the same physical pain caused by natural evils
  3. Emotional pain caused by either:
    • a) Things other human agents do to other human agents or
    • b) Strong desires or longings left unfulfilled in one’s life
  4. Extraordinary evil, which is a special kind of 3a, in that it manifests itself in some act of unconscionable malice or malevolence at the individual level of human moral interaction (e.g. child sexual abuse), or at the macro-level of societal interaction (genocide).

Some examples of (1) would range from a toothache to bone cancer. The emotional suffering that emerges, and lingers, due to the c-fibers that fire during the instances of physical pain these biological deficiencies cause, would be an example of (2). Examples of this kind of emotional pain might be the kind of self-reflective questions that accompany the persistent enduring of physical pain: e.g. “Why is this happening to me? Why now? Why cancer, when I am so young and have children to raise?” Alternatively, someone punching me without warning is also an instance of physical pain caused by a natural evil, in that it is the force and the mass of the fist striking my nose that causes the pain. But, in the case of the punch, what distinguishes it from the toothache, or the cancer, is the additional emotional pain that arises on account of it being an intentional act by another moral agent (3a).

Hence, regarding type (3a), immoral human action, this would be the emotional pain that someone must endure when another moral agent either physically or emotionally damages them. Although, as I pointed out above, it is hard to see how physical damage, especially physical damage that is known to be intentionally carried out by one agent against another, would fail to cause subsequent emotional damage (barring exceptional circumstances, like the lack of capacity to have emotions). Therefore, someone getting mugged on the street, or a wife being raped by her husband would be examples of (3a). The latter however causing greater degrees of emotional trauma than the former, since other kinds of moral goods: promises, trust, and prior intimacy, have been broken in the case of the rapist husband, but not necessarily in the case of the anonymous mugger.

There is another kind of emotional suffering, however, (3b) is the kind of suffering that would come via a deep sense of unfulfilled longing. Not the kind that arises when we don’t get to have our favorite flavor of ice cream, because Baskin Robbins just ran out of Rocky Road, but the kind of ongoing pain that haunts someone when they realize they will never find someone to marry who really loves them, or when someone learns that the years of hard work and sacrifice they put in to prepare themselves to qualify for a special job or occupation was simply not enough, and they must now let go of that dream in order to move on with life.

I use one of my own examples for (3b), which would be the emotional pain of disappointment I experienced after spending over two years preparing myself physically and mentally for US Army Special Forces; first getting selected, then spending 17 months in the Q-course, but only to realize, perhaps too late, that I simply wasn’t going to make it all the way through. I had two berets at the end of my Army career, neither was green, and I had spent nearly three years killing myself to attain something I didn’t get, and still wonder whether I should have pursued at all (although I do credit the training I experienced in the “Q” with potentially saving my life a year later in Afghanistan).

While character development can certainly take place in many instances of unfulfilled dreams or lost opportunities, and valuable life-lessons are learned in failure, the disappointment of ultimately not making it through to some final consummation or clearly defined end state of a sought after goal is often a bitter pill to swallow. Soldiers who have left a theater of operations before seeing any real success on the ground know this feeling all too well. The sacrifices are deep and manifold, yet the gains seem meager and obscure.

Finally, there is also the kind of suffering that some, like military men, often wind up fighting against, namely type (4) pain and suffering. This suffering takes the form of what one genocide researcher, James Waller, calls “extraordinary evil.” Extraordinary evil is the kind of evil that breaks through the veil of normalcy in human history, causing us to collectively gasp and corporately weep. This is the stuff of genocide, be it Germany in the 1940’s or Rwanda in a few short months in 1994. But, within those seemingly macro-level events, are the actual grotesque, micro-events that make us question both God, and our own humanity. These are the hacking of bodies, the dismembering, the raping, the violating in every way, shape, and form of that which the Bible tells us is sacred and holy, and made in God’s image. It is image bearers torturing other image bearers.

Then, even outside of the context of war, there is the gruesome reality of things like child rape, mutilation, torture, and other things that real human beings somehow find themselves capable of doing: more image bearers desecrating other image bearers. This is the type of suffering that can make belief difficult. Surprisingly though, even this kind of evil does not stop many who have experienced it from believing in Christ, often in a far more profound way than those who have not had such experiences. Which leads us to ask how this might occur?

Is There an Answer?: The Hope of Epiphanic Redemptive Experience

In detailing these kinds of pain, and giving concrete examples, I hopefully have avoided whitewashing or marginalizing the serious challenge they present to the truth and goodness of the Christian message. With all that, and there is quite a lot of that there, what kind of thing could not just counterbalance such horror, but actually transform each instance of extraordinary evil into something one could justifiable call redeemed?

First, there are two distinctions to make if we are going to get a grip on how something like the sadistic torture of an innocent could become redeemed. One, the only kind of thing that can be understood to be redeemed from any person’s privileged, first-person perspective, is their own privileged, first-person experience. I cannot really experience my neighbor’s toothache, even if I can have compassion for her in the midst of it. Thus, a redeemed pain or injury suffered must be my own pain or injury, not of someone else’s, so too theirs cannot be of mine.

Thus we reject the notion that anyone, even Bill Clinton (or counselor Troi), can actually “feel” the pain of another person. First-person experiences are just that– first-person. As such the kinds of experiences that could make horrible, atrocious pains or sufferings redeemed experiences are themselves first-person experiences particular to the individual. They, the redeeming experiences, would be “custom-made” to the individual’s psychology, physiology, and personal history. There are no collective pains. Nor is it the case that individual experiences of pain add to some theoretical tally of overall suffering. Pains endured individually are redeemed individually, even if they may involve others in the process of redemption.

Second, no other person can know what would be the exact experience that would make some other person’s first-person experience of pain and suffering justifiably redeemed. So, if Bob has experienced extraordinary evil X, then only Bob can know what would redeem X. Even Bob’s best and closest friend of 70 years (perhaps his life-long spouse, Sally) cannot know what particular redemptive experience, E, would be the one that would in fact redeem Bob’s experience of X. E is reserved for Bob, and Bob alone. Just as Sally will have some other E, E*, that will redeem her X*.

So, redeemed pains will be redemptive, experiential instances whereby 1) the first-person experience of an individual, S, is the only thing that is in view, and 2) only S will know what can do the redeeming of the pains he or she has suffered, since only he or she has experienced those pains. Again, this safeguards against thinking that their are such things as collective pains, which there clearly are not, and also that I could know what your experience of your own pain is, and, subsequently, what it would take to fix it– something Job’s friends thought they could do, but failed at miserably.

It is not without irony that the character of Job is here invoked. For in Job we have what seems like the kind of irreconcilable suffering we’ve mentioned, i.e. the kind of suffering for which there seems no good counterbalancing reason, and where each of the four categories of suffering mentioned above are present. Since the book of Job maintains Job’s moral innocence throughout, the injustice of all four experiences of human suffering is thereby exacerbated. Job is not being punished, nor getting his just desserts. He suffers physical and emotional pain (boils and the loss of children to a natural disaster) and extraordinary evil (slaughter of faithful servants at the hands of the Sabeans and Chaldeans) without apparent purpose (from his perspective).

With the Book of Job in sight, what I am ultimately suggesting then as a sufficient answer to the apparent irreconcilability of human suffering with the Christian faith, must include one more countervailing experience: the direct manifestation of God to the human agent. This direct manifestation we can call “epiphanic,” for it would be a religious experience of the quality of Job’s direct encounter with God, or of the kinds of direct encounters so many Christian men and women have had throughout the centuries, regardless of time, culture, age or personal context. So, an epiphany of God and a countervailing experience of redemption are what the author of Job seems to tell us is the only answer to the irreconcilable problem. Let’s call this the “epiphanic redemptive experience.”

The Epiphanic Redemptive Experience (R) has two aspects then: 1) a new and deeper knowledge of God’s personal nature, and 2) a countervailing experience of a set of conditions or circumstances that doesn’t just “balance out” S’s experience of X, but that makes the experience of X, the extraordinary evil suffered, fully and completely justified. In short, S would know that X happened for this reason and that that reason was a good enough one to make X entirely acceptable to the sufferer. The Epiphanic Redemptive Experience is an experience of such power and beauty, both in the pleasure it gives, and the explanation it offers, that it truly is a fully justifying experience of any evil, X.

The Book of Job demonstrates this kind of countervailing experience, in that Job receives both a personal epiphany of God, Job sees God face-to-face, and Job, at the end of his life, receives a greater portion of that which he enjoyed at the beginning of his life. Both conditions of R seem satisfied in Job’s case. However, serious criticisms have been offered by skeptics and theologians about whether or not goods like children, i.e. real persons, can so be replaced so easily in what looks to be a rather crude swap. If so, perhaps the second condition is not satisfied, since Job has lost unique children that obviously cannot be so simply replaced.

Leaving aside whether or not the author of Job is recounting an actual historical event, or just making a theological point (on my view, both), we must remember that the idea we have in mind is that God can provide the individual, here Job, with that R which for the individual countervails the suffering he or she has endured. So, for Job, as an ancient patriarch, winding up with more children and grandchildren, a thriving family business, more livestock, and the opportunity to see his children and their inheritance prosper to the fourth generation, very well may be the specific Job-tailored answer that fulfills the second condition of R. HeJob, needed to see, regardless of our modern skepticism, these kinds of rewards in order for him to feel that his prior suffering had indeed been redeemed. For Job, this likely satisfies the second condition of R, even if we moderns find it distasteful.

To reiterate: each R for every S’s X will be specific to S. The R itself has an objective component to it, i.e. the direct revelation of God’s personal nature, and a subjective component, i.e. the particular set of countervailing experiences that God tailors to the individual. Let’s go back to Bob. On this account Bob, subsequent to his suffering, will experience some aspect of God’s personal nature that he did not previously perceive or grasp, and Bob will also experience some reward, which, being tailored specifically to Bob’s prior suffering, makes that prior suffering fully understandable and fully justified. Bob, through the Epiphanic Redemptive Experience is made not only into a wholly renewed person, but is now a person whose experiences of God and the Good outweigh his experience of suffering and evil.

So, while I cannot, being consistent with my own claims, work out this kind of redemptive formula for any particular instance of X for some other subject, S (e.g. I cannot work out concretely what would be the exact R for a woman who was raped by her husband), I can argue for two conditions that would suffice to countervail and redeem my own X and the X* of the woman: a direct revelation of God in all His glory, power, beauty and love, and a first-person experience of those conditions that only God knows perfectly, and that are specifically tailored to the particular set of emotions of the sufferer, and that further grant peace and fulfillment to the individual who has experienced the suffering in question.

Epilogue: Unfulfilled Desires Filled by Christ

In his short story, Araby, the turn-of-the-century Irish author James Joyce has his main character, an adolescent Dublin boy infatuated with an older Irish lass, experience the pain and conflict not only of a desire unfulfilled, but of the irony of realizing that the desires he possesses are themselves deeply flawed and illusory. At the end of the story, after attempting to buy a small love token from the exotic oriental bazaar “Araby” for the object of his affection, the narrator realizes the folly of his desires, having a sort of anti-epiphany:

“Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.”

For the narrator of the story, this experience of unfilled desires (3b), which, in one sense, is more fundamental and prior to the other forms of pain mentioned above, there is no experience of God in the moment of despair. Nor are we told, or is there any hint of, some later experience that might countervail the young boy’s feelings of foolishness, shame, and loss. But, as was recently pointed out to me in a Sunday sermon, this Joycean response to unfulfilled desire is the antithesis of the Gospel’s message. It is not that the Bible doesn’t validate the reality of real, embodied suffering, as Job and Psalm 88 attest, but rather that the biblical writers, unlike Joyce, don’t leave us “gazing into the darkness,” eyes burning “with anguish and anger.”

For, in the moments of greatest despair, in the times when our hearts feel empty, and our desires are left unmet; or worse, when all appears pointless and futile, it is in this time we are called to look up, not up into darkness, but rather to look up to see the hope and light of Christ. For it is in this moment when the Revelation of God, the true Epiphany of the God Who redeems, can meet us in the moment of despair.

For, when God appears to us, and explains to us, it is not our eyes that wind up aflame, but our hearts:

30When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them.  Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him,and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together and saying, “It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.”Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread.

Luke 24: 30-35

Where Joyce leaves our suffering mind gazing into darkness, a hopeless victim of unwanted and unfulfilled passions, St. Luke tells us of an encounter: a concrete presence of the Redeemer, who takes away our guilt and shame, overpowers death, and promises a life of desires fulfilled, and pains redeemed. When we see Him, then our eyes will be opened and filled with light, and the darkness flees.