Belief without Arguments
Epistemology is the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature of knowledge: what it is, and whether we can get it. Religious epistemology is concerned with our religious knowledge, and it has begun to experience a renaissance in the last thirty years.
One of the most exciting changes is that top Christian philosophers have examined the prevalent assumption that arguments are necessary to make Christian belief rational. On this assumption, arguments are needed to show that the central claims of the faith are true (or at least probably true), and our belief is only as rational as our arguments are good.
To some people this sounds like common sense. After all, we’re just holding Christianity up to the same standard we use with all our beliefs, right?
No. Utterly, badly wrong—in fact, many of our beliefs are perfectly rational even without any argument. And belief in God is probably one of them, as many other core Christian doctrines.
This approach to religious epistemology has been developed by a group known informally as the “Reformed epistemologists”: Alvin Plantinga, William Alston, Michael Rea, and Nicholas Wolterstorff.
Here’s how the basics of Reformed epistemology work. make use of a philosophical concept called “properly basic beliefs.” A belief is basic if it is not based on other beliefs. A basic belief is properly basic if we are justified in holding it without basing it on any other belief.
An example of a properly basic belief would be many perceptual beliefs: when I believe it is hot because of the way my skin feels, I am not basing that belief on any other belief (the way my skin feels isn’t a belief). It would be silly to require an argument for this belief—what argument can we provide for the way one’s skin feels? And it isn’t just perceptual beliefs that are like this. So, plausibly, are many of our moral and aesthetic beliefs, as well as our belief that other people have minds (and aren’t mere automatons).
Is there any reason to believe that fundamental Christian beliefs are properly basic? Take the belief that God exists as an example. Reformed epistemologists have pointed out at least two reasons it is plausible to think belief in God’s existence is properly basic.
Plantinga argues, in a similar vein to Reformation theologian John Calvin, that humans have an innate sense of the divine, which draws us naturally to a belief in God, especially when we see the wonders of the world. William Alston argues that the prevalence of mystical experiences in which people “see” God provides properly basic beliefs of a perceptual sort, as with my belief that it is hot. Again, a kind of spiritual sense makes argument unnecessary for rational belief.
None of this is to say that there aren’t any good arguments for God’s existence or Christianity; according to Plantinga, there are “about two dozen or so” good arguments for the former, so the Reformed epistemologists aren’t against arguments.
But even if nobody knew these arguments, we could still have well-justified Christian belief. Grace and peace.
Tags: Reformed epistemology, theism, epistemology, Plantinga
 Technically, as I understand it, a basic belief is a belief that is not exclusively based on other beliefs. It could be based other beliefs, as long as it would also be held without those other beliefs. But we can ignore these details here.
 Plantinga’s idea of our sense of the divine is developed in his book Warranted Christian Belief. I hope to further explore both these proposals in future posts.