Tom Gilson

Christian Belief and Knowledge: Can We Know Our Beliefs To Be True, and When Should We Revise Them?

While I await James Lindsay’s response to what I understand to be his position, I’m about to dive into three requests he has asked of me concerning belief and knowledge:

  1. To discuss “why is it considered virtuous (or unvirtuous, if they wish to take that side) to avoid revising one’s beliefs?”
  2. To address “what would convince them, as Christians, to reject or revise their Christian beliefs?”
  3. For them to admit explicitly, openly, and unequivocally, as I’ve repeatedly asked, merely that their beliefs are not something they can know to be true (even if they want to continue believing them anyway for other reasons).

Whether James is actually still in the conversation or not, I do not know. If he answers my questions to him, then he’s  in the conversation here. If that’s not his choice it’s okay with me. I’ll respond to these three requests anyway, since they’re reasonably good topics to think through.

1. The Virtue (Or Not) of Revising One’s Beliefs

The first question has an easy answer: it is virtuous to revise one’s beliefs when one discovers that one is wrong. It is virtuous to avoid revising one’s beliefs when one’s beliefs are well grounded and justified. The “why” of that is too obvious to spend words on it.

Related to that, I consider it important to read challenging material, including perspectives I disagree with. My book review list reflects that mix, I think. This practice provides a safeguard against remaining stuck in false beliefs just because of never being exposed to any others.

2. What Would Convince Me to Reject Or Revise My Christian Beliefs?

What would convince me to reject or revise my Christian beliefs would be a better explanation of reality. That’s a one-sentence introduction to a blog series I’m looking forward to starting very soon: the excellence of the Christian worldview in explaining reality in every facet and from every angle. In this series I will also discuss phenomena that are no so easily explained by Christianity, and I think by the end I will show that what remains is still excellence of explanation.

In this series I will address evidences, as James and others have been calling on me to do, along with philosophical and theological reasons I believe Christianity tells a true account of reality.

I might as well acknowledge today, though, that I will not make it my goal to present evidences the way Boghossian seems to want them. In his Manual he explains that if the stars rearranged themselves to spell out, “I am God, believe in me,” such that every person in the world saw it and read it in their own language, that would be “suggestive” but not conclusive, as it might be a “delusion”—the world’s first truly universal delusion, I might add. In a later video conversation with Richard Dawkins he seemed to agree that even the return of Jesus Christ would hardly constitute proof that there is a God.

Therefore there is no conceivable evidence, in Boghossian’s mind, that could support faith in God. Evidence for faith is an empty set in all possible worlds (as philosophers understand possible worlds.) So faith, by his reckoning, is belief without ø (the null set). How that makes sense is a question I Ieave for you as homework. Good luck with it.

Until now in this discussion I have been taking a maximal common ground, minimal conclusions approach toward evidence for faith. I’ve tried to use extremely non-controversial information—the Bible exists, for example—to establish the minimal fact that there are exceptions to Boghossian’s definitions for faith. (He proposes to change the word’s meaning to rule out all exceptions.) From this point forward, I will move toward more controversial positions with more solid conclusions. Of course virtually every religion-related position is more controversial than the Bible exists; so moving into more controversy does not mean I’m abandoning all common ground.

This series will present a cumulative case for the Christian explanation of reality. Along the way I’ll include my answer(s) to James’s “central question,” which is, how do I know that what I call evidence for Christianity is not evidence misattributed? or, What methods does faith use to try to disconfirm its claims about reality?

So again, what it would take for me to revise my Christian beliefs would be a better comprehensive explanation than Christianity provides, which I’ll detail over the course of several posts in weeks to come.

3. To “Admit That Our Christian Beliefs Are Not Things We Can Know To Be True”

This request is carelessly worded. There are Christian beliefs, and there are Christian beliefs. There are some that are absolutely certain and knowable, and some that should not count as knowledge at all.

Let me illustrate first with an almost ridiculously obvious point of Christian knowledge.

At one extreme of knowledge and belief, it is my Christian belief that fellowship with other Christians is generally uplifting and enjoyable for me. This is a biblically-based belief borne out in practice; and/or (vice versa) experiential knowledge supported by biblical teaching. I know it is true, and it’s not subject to revision. If someday I were to find Christians unpleasant and grating to be with, it would not change the fact that today I know that I enjoy being with (most of) my fellow believers.
I know this is not the kind of Christian belief James had in mind, and I’m not going to spend any time “defending” my knowledge of this belief, for that would just be silly. I bring it up instead as a kind of anchor for one end of a continuum of Christian knowledge, the certain-knowledge end.

On the other end of the knowledge/belief continuum, things are highly uncertain and/or speculative; for example, if I were to draw any conclusions concerning what my day-to-day life in the future state (God’s kingdom) will be like. There are aspects of that future that I think are knowable, but the details definitely are not. Accordingly, therefore, I don’t entertain any beliefs about such details. This, too, is not worth spending time on.

The meat of the discussion is in the middle. Along that continuum there are degrees of belief and degrees of knowledge, so it would be wrong (and silly) for me to make a blanket statement that we cannot know our Christian beliefs to be true.. As I proceed through my series on Christianity as a comprehensive explanation, I’ll be trying to give an accurately nuanced answer to this third question for each topic.

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6 thoughts on “Christian Belief and Knowledge: Can We Know Our Beliefs To Be True, and When Should We Revise Them?

  1. Tom,

    While we are on the topic of faith, I will you and the other participants in the conversation to the work of James W. Fowler on faith in his book:

    Fowler. J.W. (1981). Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning. New York: HarperCollins.

    I refer to James Fowler’s research because he makes the point that people’s religious/spiritual faith is not “fixed” over a lifetime but changes and evolves, often as a result of a “crisis of faith.” He also observes that conversion is a common experience. Fowler defines faith as “…a person’s way of leaning into and making sense of life, which is not equated just with belief or necessarily religious. It is a “…dynamic system of images, values, and commitments that guides one’s life.” He studies how faith evolves through fairly predictable stages that involve questioning and reevaluating our beliefs and commitments over a lifetime. Fowler finds that in this process many people to reaffirm and remain with the teachings of their childhood or “conventional faith”, while others grow into what he calls a “faith of full maturity” that is “more independent and that Fowler calls “a universalizing, self-transcending faith.”

    As you can see, I read assiduously about religion. Research is a big part of my epistemology. JB

  2. Tom,

    Another great book on faith development is this one:

    Bruce Demarest (2009). Seasons of the soul: Stages of spiritual development. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarity Press.

    Thanks. JB

  3. I have been watching this debate for weeks.

    What’s going on is the game of philosophical skepticism.

    Quite frankly James, Bogassian and such the like are using it to manipulate their opponent. They corner their unsuspecting opponent into a position they can easily attack in order to justify their position.

    This method should be exposed for what it is. It’s the height of deception!

    What I find odd with James is while he believes the theist has some sort of confirmation bias at play he never once seems to recognize his own.

    1. His presupposition that philosophical naturalism (or similar) is true. Yes almost all of his explanations seem to lean upon this belief. There are powerful arguments against such a position which I won’t go into however none the less I doubt James would consider such. So how does he know this is a true belief?
    2. He doesn’t seem once skeptical of his own skepticism.
    3. He believes his epistemological stance is the only way to true belief. How about the recognition that because it’s limiting that it may also produce false beliefs. Again how does he know his epistemological belief is true?

    This demand from James is a classic…

    “For them to admit explicitly, openly, and unequivocally, as I’ve repeatedly asked, merely that their beliefs are not something they can know to be true”

    It’s a bully tactic to force his opponent into a position (of doubt) that he can easily attack…

    How about we turn the tables…

    James claims he met stranger X months ago and had conversation Y.

    He claims this belief is true.

    We then say just admit it James you have no evidence for conversation Y or for person X, you’re just pretending it happened. You can’t know it really happened for sure. How do you know James? Just admit this belief you can’t know for sure.. You are taking it on faith, you’re just pretending to know.

    James, Bogassian and crowd should quit the skepticism games.

    The fact is we can know beliefs are true without showing “evidence”.

    If this is the tactic that needs to be used to win their argument in order to avoid interacting with the positive arguments for theism then it’s clearly evident they have no real justification for their position.

    It’s a red herring.

    This method they are using is deceptive and prays on the philosophically weak. And as such they should be ashamed of themselves.

    I just pray the Christian community calls this mental mind game for what it is and exposes them for who they really are (for attempting to use such deceptive methods).

  4. If the issue with Q3 then is the carelessness in the way it is too openly worded, could we then ask something else with a bit more precision: is it defensible for a Christian to say that they know the following is true: There is a personal God, we were born in sin, Jesus was divine and died for our sins, there is now atonement?

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