November 29, 2009

In her series on Christian Belief Through the Lens of Cognitive Science, Valerie Tarico reports on the work of neurologist Robert Burton. Burton argues that “Despite how certainty feels, it is neither a conscious choice nor even a thought process. Certainty and similar states of knowing what we know arise out of involuntary brain mechanisms that, like love or anger, function independently of reason.” I thought of Burton’s stuff recently: over on Common Sense Atheism, Luke Muehlhauser linked to William Lane Craig’s Q&A blog. Someone asks whether Craig would still be a Christian if his favourite arguments were defeated or if Jesus’ bones were found, and Craig responds by saying that “even in the face of evidence against God which we cannot refute, we ought to believe in God on the basis of His Spirit’s witness”. Muehlhauser remarks that Craig “doesn’t give a damn about evidence”.

Muehlhauser is right to say that the inner witness of the Holy Spirit cannot be good evidence. People will believe God has caused certain beliefs to arise in them regardless of whether God has or not. It’s hard to see how evangelicals like Craig could disagree with this, since, for example, they presumably do not think that God convinced Muslims to be Muslim, whereas at least some Muslims do think this.

My sensus divinatatis is tingling

Unfortunately for atheists, lack of evidence will only worry evangelicals if they accept that all beliefs should be derived from evidence. Craig, following Alvin Plantinga, does not accept this (although Craig disagrees with Plantinga on Christian theology: Craig thinks that God “witnesses” to people, Plantinga thinks that people have a sensus divinatatis, a faculty which enables them to know things about God). According to Allen Stairs, Plantinga argues that some beliefs are formed legitimately, but without being inferred from other statements which serve as evidence. Take, for example, my belief that I have a headache, or my belief that I can usually trust my senses, or that the world was not created 5 minutes ago with the false appearance of age. Plantinga calls such beliefs “properly basic”, and says there is no good reason not to put belief in God in the same category.

One objection to Plantinga is that this sort of argument proves too much: Matt McCormick wonders whether he might have a sensus atheistus which assures him that anyone who claims to have experienced God is mistaken. This seems weaker than Plantinga’s claim (since it’s not clear where the atheist sense comes from, whereas Plantinga claims his divine sense comes from God), but then, who cares whether the argument goes against you when you have a sensus atheistus? What of other religions where people claim revelations from God? Craig says his job is to use factual arguments to convince those people that their apparent revelations are merely internal experiences. He says this is what atheists should also do with him, though this seems to contradict his earlier statement that such persuasion shouldn’t work on him.

There’s also the problem of the content of this revelation. Just what is included in it, and how can you tell? Christians are a bit reticent about it, in my experience: Sye the presuppositionalist never did tell me whether he could distinguish between knowledge revealed by God and knowledge he obtained by other means, nor did I ever find out whether the Holy Spirit witnesses to robhu that Hebrews is inspired scripture but 1 Clement isn’t.

Craig seems to go further than Plantinga in one important respect. Plantinga’s work, as described by Craig, tries to address the allegation that Christianity is unmotivated or irrational, by shifting the burden of proof onto people who disagree with it: they must show I’m wrong, Plantinga says, I don’t have to show I’m right. Craig goes further, and says that no arguments or evidence should convince him: that’s unmotivated and irrational.