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Warranted Christian Belief
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C. Is This the de Jure Question?

Have we found the (or a) relevant de jure question? Is the right question to ask the question whether Christian belief is Alston justified? More specifically, the question, for a given Christian belief B I hold—the belief, say, that in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself—is whether there is some truth-conducive ground G such that I hold the belief in question on the basis of that ground. But is this really a viable de jure question? I want to suggest that it is not. When we ask the de jure question about Christian belief, we are asking whether Christian belief is acceptable, OK, such that a sensible, intelligent, rational, informed person in something like our epistemic circumstances could or would hold such beliefs. The question as to whether such belief sometimes or typically has a truth-conducive ground, however, seems to be a very different question. I have two reasons for thinking so.

In the first place, several important sorts of beliefs—a priori belief and memory belief in particular—do not seem to have a ground in Alston’s sense at all, but are nonetheless perfectly in order from an epistemic point of view. Consider memory. You remember what you had for lunch: lentil soup and a doughnut. This belief isn’t based on propositional evidence. You don’t infer it from other things you know or believe, such things, perhaps, as your knowledge that you always have a doughnut and lentil soup for lunch, or your knowledge that it is now shortly after lunchtime and there are doughnut crumbs on your desk and an empty plastic soup dish in your trash. So it doesn’t have a mediate ground. But it also isn’t based on an experience. At any rate, it is clear that memory beliefs are not based on anything like sensuous experience or phenomenal imagery.120120   See WPF, pp. 58ff. There may be a bit of such imagery present (a fragmentary and partial image of a doughnut or a bowl, perhaps), but you certainly don’t form the belief on the basis of that image. It is clear that you could remember without having that imagery—or, indeed, any other imagery; some people report that they have no phenomenal imagery associated with memory at all. So the imagery isn’t necessary. It is also insufficient; you could also have that imagery without remembering. The reason is that the imagery that goes with imagining that you had a doughnut and lentil soup for lunch, or entertaining the proposition that you did, is indistinguishable (at least in my own case) from the imagery that goes with remembering that you had a doughnut and lentil soup for lunch. And even if you do have fairly explicit phenomenal imagery in connection with this memory, you surely don’t know that it was lentil soup on the basis of that imagery; the image isn’t nearly clear, detailed, and explicit enough to enable you to distinguish it from, for example, imagery of pea soup, or bean soup, or many other kinds of soup.121121   See WPF, pp. 57ff.

Accordingly, it isn’t that you know it was lentil soup on the basis of this experience; you don’t form the belief that it was lentil soup with that experience as ground. (The image seems to be more like a disposable decoration.) Instead, you simply remember, simply form that belief. Or, perhaps more accurately, that belief is formed in you: you don’t yourself, so to speak, take much of a hand in forming it.

The same goes (though perhaps more controversially) for a priori belief.122122   See WPF, pp. 104ff. I believe the proposition Necessarily, if all men are mortal and Socrates is a man, then Socrates is mortal. Now there is, indeed, a sort of imagery connected with this belief when I entertain it—perhaps something like a fragmentary image of the relevant English sentence written on a blackboard as in a logic class. But surely the belief isn’t formed on the basis of that imagery; that imagery isn’t anything like a ground for it; it doesn’t stand to that imagery in anything like the way in which my belief that the snow in my backyard is melting stands to the visual imagery I now enjoy. Indeed, the imagery accompanying that proposition is the same, so far as I can tell, as that which accompanies entertaining Necessarily, if all men are mortal and Socrates is mortal, then Socrates is a man.

So many memory and a priori beliefs are not formed on the basis of a ground in Alston’s sense, either mediate or immediate. But of course many memory and a priori beliefs are eminently sensible, reasonable, rational, and the like. It therefore follows that a belief need not have a truth-conducive ground to be reasonable, sensible, or rational.

Second, there are also beliefs that do have a truth-conducive ground (explained as Alston explains it) but are nonetheless not sensible or reasonable. A belief is based on an adequate ground, says Alston, if and only if it is based on a ground such that it is objectively probable that it is true, given that it is based on that ground. Note that (if objective probability conforms to the probability calculus) a necessary truth will have an objective probability of 1 on any other proposition whatever. Consider therefore the proposition 29 × 38 = 1102: the probability of this proposition is 1 on any condition whatever. Any belief in this proposition on any ground, therefore, is automatically a belief on the basis of an adequate ground. More generally, any grounded belief in any necessary proposition p is justified on this account; for the objective conditional probability that p on any proposition will be 1. So suppose I am extraordinarily gullible when it comes to set theory and believe, say, Cantor’s Theorem (according to which the cardinality of any set is always less than that of its power set), not because I have understood a proof or been told by someone competent that it is true, but just because I picked up a comic book on the sidewalk and found therein a character who claims it is his favorite theorem. Then this belief of mine has a truth-conducive ground, but isn’t rational or reasonable.

Further and closer to current concerns, according to the bulk of the theistic tradition, God is a necessary being who has his most important attributes essentially: there is no possible world in which he does not exist, and none in which he lacks such attributes as omniscience, goodness, love, and the like. If this is true, then the proposition that there is such a being as God (or that he is omniscient, or loving) will have an unconditional objective probability of 1, and consequently an objective conditional probability of 1 on any other proposition. Hence for any ground at all, the probability that one of those beliefs is true, given that it is formed on the basis of that ground, is 1. In asking the de jure question about belief in God, however, we presumably do not mean to ask a question to which an affirmative answer follows just from the fact that God is a necessary being who has his primary attributes essentially. Suppose God is indeed a necessary being; then if I believe in God just to please my friends, or because I am brainwashed or hypnotized, or because I am part of an evil social system, I will be justified in the Alston sense. If so, however, it is too easy to achieve justification in this sense.

No doubt there are variations on Alstonian justification, and in a complete treatment we should have to deal with them. But vita brevis est, even if philosophia longa est. I tentatively conclude, therefore, that the de jure question is not the question whether Christian belief is Alston justified. The de jure question is still elusive.


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