In this third look at Tom Clark’s paper, Reality and Its Rivals: Putting Epistemology First, I have just one topic to address:
Most thoughtful religionists, paranormalists, New Agers, or adherents of other non-science based worldviews feel, at least to some extent, the force of the empirical imperative: that beliefs need validation independent of one’s subjective convictions. There are two main ways that they attempt to satisfy this requirement. One is to claim to be doing science, the other is to claim that there are reliable non-scientific ways of knowing which reveal truths that science can’t capture.
I’m surprised he would say there are these two, and apparently just these two, ways in which believers validate their faith independently of subjective convictions. The two he addresses are quite at the bottom of the list among apologetical arguments.
When he speaks of our “claim to be doing science,” he is pointing specifically at biological Intelligent Design arguments.
The first strategy is exemplified by creationists and proponents of intelligent design, who argue that science, were it honestly and properly conducted, would consider and confirm supernatural explanations of phenomena, for instance the appearance of life on earth and the diversity of species. Science, they say, has been hijacked by philosophical and metaphysical naturalists, who conspire to discount evidence that the earth was created 10,000 years ago, or that the human form is the result of supernatural agency, not the historically contingent process of natural selection.
I think almost every apologist would be quick to admit that, no matter how convinced he or she may be regarding biological ID arguments, using such arguments to persuade unbelievers is an uphill battle. There are too many weeds to clear out of the way, especially philosophical discussions about scientific methodologies and what may be admitted as possible explanations. There is also all the weight of established biology to push against.
Over the course of time, ID can indeed be persuasive: witness Antony Flew, for example. But if I were invited to debate an atheist/agnostic on the existence of God, I certainly wouldn’t begin there. The natural world offers much easier starting places, like the evidence of design in the fine-tuning of the cosmos, which I consider extremely strong. It’s so strong, in fact, that the only real competing explanation is as non-empirical, non-falsifiable as you can get, and quite likely the hugest violation of Occam’s Razor in the history of thought.
When Clark expands on the other way he says we believers validate our beliefs, he points only to inner impressions of God that believers sense (specifically John Haught, in Clark’s example). This is a matter for careful thought. Alvin Plantinga, one of today’s leading philosophers of religion, devotes something like one-third of a book to it (Warranted Christian Belief). The end of it all is this: there’s nothing necessarily irrational or incoherent at all about perceiving God through an inner sensus divinitatus. It can most assuredly count as validation for those who do perceive God in that way. It does not count as evidence for others, though. As William Lane Craig puts it, the internal witness of the Holy Spirit is one way I know about God, but not a way I can show God’s reality, for no one else has access to my internal experiences.
So Haught is not wrong about this at all, at least as Clark represents him, but one person’s internal assurance is not expected to be another’s convincing evidence.
Where Clark really misses the boat is in representing believers as having only these two forms of validation. If all I had to go on was the witness of the Holy Spirit within me, I might be fully persuaded on that basis alone—God could do that in me without any external evidence at all if he wished. The fact is, though, I don’t have only the Holy Spirit to show me the reality of God. Christians do not rely on just that; nor do we place our faith in biological Intelligent Design. (There were Christians around for at least a few centuries before Scientific Creationism, after all!) There are multiple other evidences, evidences that satisfy Clark’s “requirement” of “validation independent of one’s subjective convictions. Alvin Plantinga’s quick overview of Two Dozen (or so) Theistic Arguments lists multiple starting points. History provides much evidence in support of the Old and New Testament records.
Clark probably views all these arguments as less than convincing. That’s his privilege, though I would disagree. What seems strange is that he would pick out two of the least convincing (for non-believers) arguments of them all, and present them as if that’s all we count on in Christianity.