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Warranted Christian Belief
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B. Most of Our Beliefs Unjustified?

In his controversies with David Hume, Thomas Reid pointed out that the vast majority of our beliefs do not seem to conform to (CP): at least as far as justification is concerned, they are none the worse for that. This sentiment was echoed in the nineteenth century by others, in particular, Cardinal Newman. Says Newman:

Nor is the assent which we give to facts limited to the range of self-consciousness. We are sure beyond all hazard of a mistake, that our own self is not the only being existing; that there is an external world; that it is a system with parts and a whole, a universe carried on by laws; and that the future is affected by the past. We accept and hold with an unqualified assent, that the earth, considered as a phenomenon, is a globe; that all its regions see the sun by turns; that there are vast tracts on it of land and water; that there are really existing cities on definite sites, which go by the names of London, Paris, Florence and Madrid.107107   A Grammar of Assent (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1979), p. 149.

But how much of this can be seen to be probable with respect to what is certain for us? How much meets the classical conditions for being properly basic? Not much, if any. I believe that I had cornflakes for breakfast, that my wife was amused at some little stupidity of mine, that there really are such ‘external objects’ as trees and squirrels, and that the world was not created ten minutes ago with all its dusty books, apparent memories, crumbling mountains, and deeply carved canyons. These things, according to classical foundationalism, are not properly basic; they must be believed on the evidential basis of propositions that are self-evident or evident to the senses (in Locke’s restricted sense) or incorrigible for me. Furthermore, they must be probable and seen to be probable with respect to propositions of that sort: there must be good arguments, deductive, inductive, or abductive to these conclusions from those kinds of propositions.

If there is any lesson at all to be learned from the history of modern philosophy from Descartes through Hume (and Reid), it is that such beliefs cannot be seen to be supported by, to be probable with respect to beliefs that meet the classical conditions for being properly basic. So either most of our beliefs are such that we are going contrary to epistemic obligations in holding them, or (CP) is false. It certainly doesn’t seem that we must be flouting duty in holding these beliefs in the way we do. I believe in the basic way that there is a lot of snow in the backyard just now and that I met my class yesterday; I don’t believe either of these things on the basis of propositions that meet the classical conditions for proper basicality; I do not believe there are any propositions of that sort with respect to which they are probable. Of course I realize I could be mistaken; but am I flouting duty in so believing? I reflect on the matter as carefully as I can; I simply see no duty here—and not because I doubt the existence of duties generally, or of epistemic duties specifically. Indeed there are duties of that sort: but is there a duty to conform belief to (CP)? I don’t think so. But then how can I be guilty, blameworthy, for believing in this way?

Could it be that I escape blame only because of ignorance? As we saw in WCD (pp. 15ff.), there is a distinction to be drawn between subjective and objective duty, a distinction that goes all the way back to the New Testament. The apostle Paul takes up the question whether it is wrong to eat meat sacrificed to idols. Paul holds that this isn’t really wrong; however, if someone thinks (mistakenly) that it is wrong, then it is wrong for him to do so: “I am absolutely convinced, as a Christian, that nothing is impure in itself; only, if a man considers a particular thing impure, then to him it is impure” (Romans 14:14). Certain kinds of actions (e.g., eating meat sacrificed to idols) are objectively permissible: if what makes an action wrong is that God has prohibited it, then these actions have not been prohibited by God. But if I believe they are wrong—say I mistakenly believe they have been prohibited by God—then I am blameworthy if I perform them. Conversely, certain actions in certain situations are objectively wrong; they are not to be done. Still, if I don’t know that they are not to be done and justifiably believe that they are permissible, then I am not blameworthy if I do one of them. My objective duty is what I objectively ought to do; my subjective duty is what I (nonculpably) take to be my objective duty.

And perhaps the classical foundationalist can take advantage of this distinction as follows: “True,” he says, “you are not blameworthy in failing to conform your beliefs to (CP). But that is only because of ignorance. Fortunately for you, you nonculpably can’t see that you have a duty to conform your beliefs to (CP); that protects you from blame and guilt; nevertheless, you really do have an objective duty to regulate belief in the fashion I have described, even if you can’t see that you do.” Here discussion seems to come to an end. All I can do is ask my interlocutor why he thinks there is such an objective duty and how he came to the knowledge, as he thinks, that there is any such thing. Can he do more than to simply repeat that as a matter of fact we all have this duty? But why should we believe that? What reason is there for thinking it true? Further, I can’t properly accept (CP), even if by some wild chance it happens to be true. For if it is true, then to do my duty with respect to accepting it, I must believe it only on the basis of properly basic propositions, and ones such that I can see that they evidentially support (CP). But I don’t see that any such propositions support it (and the evidentialist apparently can’t help me by, e.g., giving me an appropriate argument). So if it is true and I accept it, I will be going contrary to objective duty; but if I accept it, I will (naturally enough) think it is true, and will therefore believe I am going contrary to my objective duty; hence if it is true and I believe it, I will be going contrary both to objective and subjective duty.


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