Theism, Justified Belief and a Stroll Down an Empty Street

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This is an account of some philosophical approaches to belief and how they relate to theism. In the tradition of philosophical discourse I have used dialogue to present the arguments. The aim is to be as straight forward as possible.

I've written this hub because I enjoy philosophy, I enjoy writing and I'm interested in theism as a type of belief, so it's nice to combine all three.There is a bit of creative licence used in setting the scene and the dialogues themselves, hopefully this is useful in conveying the essential ideas.
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You stroll down an empty a street, early in the morning. When I ask you later in the day what you did this morning, you tell me matter-of-factly that you strolled down a street. As I'm interested in such things I ask what makes you believe you strolled down a street. Ignoring the strangeness of the question, you tell me you remember doing it. Is this belief justified?

William Kingdon Clifford
William Kingdon Clifford

Enter the Evidentialist

An evidentialist believes it is only sensible to believe things that have supporting evidence. Bill, who is an evidentialist, enters the room. He asks what evidence there is to support your belief that you strolled down the street this morning and is shocked when you tell him there is none.


‘No witnesses? No footage from CCTV cameras? No forensic evidence that places you there?’.
‘No, no and no’, you reply.
‘What makes you believe it then?’ asks Bill.

You tell him you remember doing it, you remember experiencing it.

Bill is not happy. He explains that remembering an experience is not evidence. Only things other people can check count as evidence. No one except you knows your memory. No one can check if you really experienced strolling down that street. You could be lying, or insane, or your memory could be faulty.

Ignoring the suggestion you might be insane, you tell Bill your memory of strolling down the street is all you have. Bill says,

‘It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence’.

For Bill there is ‘insufficient evidence’, so your belief is not justified. Exit Bill.

Rene Descartes
Rene Descartes

Enter the Rationalist

A rationalist believes it’s only sensible to believe things that can be worked out in the mind alone. Things that don’t depend on our senses. René is a rationalist. You tell him why you believe you strolled down the street this morning. He says your senses are unreliable, they can be mistaken.

‘What exactly do you remember?’, he asks.
‘I remember seeing buildings, feeling the wind, hearing different sounds’.
‘how do you know they were real?’
‘They looked, felt and sounded real’
‘How do you know you weren’t dreaming?’
After for a minute, you say, ‘it was too realistic’.
‘How do you know it was not just a very realistic dream?’

René explains that whatever you answer can be doubted, and this is the problem of relying on beliefs based on the senses. Experience is unreliable so these beliefs need to be justified with proof, but that proof itself is experienced through the senses so must then be justified with further proof, and so on. He calls it the infinite regress of justification.

René says only things worked out with the mind alone are reliable. He says that by telling someone what ‘bachelor’ and ‘unmarried’ means, they know the phrase "all bachelors are unmarried" is true. It must be true, by definition. They do not need to interview every bachelor to provide evidence. They can work it our purely with their mind. Mathematics is an example of this type of thinking. We can work out that 1+1=2 is true just by thinking about it.

He calls such beliefs self-justifying truths of the mind because they don't need to be proven by anything else and do not run into the infinite regress of justification problem. Just like the sentence, ‘I think, therefore I am’.

The truth of this sentence, he says, can be worked out with the mind alone. It does not need to be proven by anything else. You only need to know the meaning of each word to know the phrase is true.

Your belief on the other hand relies on your senses and proof that comes through the senses, so it is unreliable and cannot be justified. Exit René.

What’s going on?

Why is a belief as simple as the belief you strolled down the street not justified according to these two ways of thinking? The problem is that neither takes into account the important role assumption plays in the formation of beliefs.

Both of the above ways of thinking are useful in their own right. One is the foundation of science, the other mathematics. No one can deny or dispute the usefulness of science and mathematics. But something isn’t right. Neither of these approaches to knowledge and belief work when it comes to certain ordinary beliefs.

You would indeed believe you strolled down the street this morning even if there was no evidence, and even if your belief depended entirely on your senses, the memory of your experience. Moreover, no one would question your belief or suggest it was unacceptable. Your belief would be considered consistent with a reasonable view of the world.

Alvin Plantinga
Alvin Plantinga

Enter the Foundationalist

Foundationalism is the philosophical view that some beliefs are the foundation of others. These beliefs are essentially assumptions and sit outside of rationalism and evidentialism. They are called basic beliefs.

Al is a foundationalist. You tell Al about the belief you strolled down the street this morning. You tell him you don’t have any evidence to prove it, and your belief relies on the memory of your senses, your experience of it. Al sits back.

‘What’s the problem?’, he asks.
‘Well, there is no evidence to support my belief’.
‘You don’t need evidence’ Al says.
‘How so?’ you ask.

Al explains that the belief you strolled down the street has not been formed on evidence, but is grounded in your experience of doing it. You don’t need to be convinced that you walked down the street. You ‘know’ you did because you experienced it, or at least think you did.

‘What does that mean?’ you ask.
‘It means that practically you assume, like the rest of us, that your senses are reliable. So if you think you experienced strolling down the street, then you will believe you did, unless someone gives you concrete evidence that your experience was false.This is typical of how human beings operate'. He pauses.

‘Has anyone given you concrete evidence that your experience is false?’
‘Not at all’.
‘Then it’s reasonable for you to believe what you experienced’.

In this way Al explains that your belief is a basic belief. You are essentially assuming that your senses are reliable and this assumption is the ‘foundation’ of your belief about walking down the street.

In truth you don’t actually know your senses are reliable. You could be in a realistic dream right now. You could be just a brain in a jar in the laboratory of a fiendishly clever scientist who is stimulating it to create experiences. You could be in a giant computer simulation like The Matrix. There is no way to tell. So you, like the rest of us, just assume your senses are reliable and get on with your life.

‘But why do we assume our senses are reliable?’ you ask.
‘Because it’s useful. If we don’t, things can get difficult’
‘How?’
‘Imagine you live on the plains of Africa. Through the long grass you see a lion running straight at you. You’ve got 2 options. Trust your senses or doubt your senses. If you trust your senses, you’re likely to run for it. If you doubt your senses, you might not.

Transfer that to modern day New York. Through the mass of traffic you see a taxi coming straight at you. You have got the same two options. Trust your senses and act or doubt and maybe not act.’

Al explains that if you trust your senses and are wrong then the consequence is that you simply react without needing to. But if you doubt your senses and are wrong, then the consequence is that you become lion food or a NYC accident statistic. So although intellectually we can doubt the reliability of our senses, practically we don’t without good reason. We assume our senses are reliable because its more helpful than assuming they are not. You think for a minute then say,

‘But wouldn't people think I was crazy to jump out the way of a car that isn’t real?’
‘Depends’
‘On what?’
‘Whether you genuinely believed you were experiencing a car coming at you. If you genuinely believe a car is coming at you, then you would be crazy not to jump out of the way.

Yes that may appear crazy to others, but actually you're doing exactly what anyone would do if they believed a car was coming at them. If the car is not real, you're still not crazy for reacting as if it was, because you experienced it and in the absence of anything to the contrary, you assumed your experience to be reliable. So you may be mistaken but your're not crazy.’

‘So does that mean any belief is justified because I genuinely believe I am experiencing something? What if I really am crazy, or ill or something and I see fairies in the garden? Doesn't this make any old belief justified?’

Al explains that the reliability of the senses assumes a person’s faculties are functioning normally. By faculties he means the parts of the brain that deal with sensory input and processing. Someone who is mentally or physically ill in a way that affects those faculties cannot assume their senses are reliable and neither can we.

So if someone has a tumour on their brain that creates pressure in some area causing hallucinations, their belief that a pink elephant riding a motorcycle is coming at them is not a basic belief. The assumption that their senses are reliable cannot be made, so their belief has no foundation and is not justified. Genuinely believing we have experienced something is not quite enough, our faculties also have to be functioning properly.

For Al the belief that you strolled down the street this morning is grounded in experience that appeared genuine to you, and your faculties are working as they should, therefore your belief is justified and reasonable.

He is quick to point out that it doesn't mean your belief is true. You may well have been dreaming or something else, but it does mean Bill and Rene are incorrect to suggest that your belief is not justified. Al also points at many other everyday beliefs that are grounded in experience not based on evidence and suggests that if your belief is not justified, then none of these basic beliefs are justified.

C. S. Lewis
C. S. Lewis

Enter the theist

Theism is belief in the existence of a deity. Clive is a theist, a Christian. You ask Clive what evidence he has for his belief.

'None’, he tells you. ‘What makes you believe it then?’ you ask.

He believes he experiences god’s love, forgiveness, hope etc. And when he feels particularly distant from god he tells you he experiences desolation, sadness etc.

You are not happy.

‘That isn’t evidence’ you say, ‘that’s all subjective. You could be lying, or insane, or just mistaken’.

Clive resents the suggestion that he is insane, but says that's all there is.

'So there’s no evidence whatsoever to support your belief, but you believe it anyway?’ you ask him.

Clive replies ,

‘You don’t believe you strolled down the street this morning because someone convinced you with evidence. You believe it because of what you experienced. You think you experienced strolling down the street, and there is nothing wrong with your faculties, so you assume your experience is reliable and you believe it. It's a basic belief.

Well I don’t believe in god because someone convinced me with evidence. I believe it because of what I have experienced. I think I have experienced god, and there is nothing wrong with my faculties, so I assume my experience is reliable and I believe it. It's a basic belief.

If my belief is not justified, your belief is also not justified. If your belief is justified, then my belief is justified also.

We are either both justified in our beliefs, or both unjustified in our beliefs.

So which is it?‘

You ponder the question . . .


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Comments 8 comments

William R. Wilson profile image

William R. Wilson 6 years ago from Knoxville, TN

Interesting stuff, Don. Alvin Plantinga almost makes sense, as presented here.

Of course there's a difference between believing in something that is a normal, everyday type of occurrence (like walking down the street) and believing in something supernatural.

I can accept that I am typing on this computer because I have a lot of evidence that I am doing so. But I don't have any evidence that Krishna is watching me type on this computer, and even if I believed it completely, I would still have no evidence other than my own experience of believing it.

Likewise with you walking down the street. If you walked down the street this morning, you likely started from somewhere and ended up somewhere. You probably remember certain physical details of your journey that you could return and point out. Perhaps you will have to walk down the same street to return to where you came from - or make the same trip again tomorrow. And if all else fails, you can take Bill or Rene or Alvin back to the street you walked down and say, see, the street is real, and I walked down the sidewalk on this side of the street from here to here, and turned on this sidestreet.

Religious belief, unfortunately, cannot have the same quality of evidence.


Don W profile image

Don W 6 years ago Author

Thanks for your comment William. You seem to have missed the point though. The point is not whether evidence is available or what quality it is. The point is that basic beliefs don't need evidence to be justified.

Evidence may happen to be available for some basic beliefs like the belief you walked down the street this morning, but it isn't NEEDED for you to believe it. Your belief is grounded in experience, not formed on evidence. You would not stop believing you did something, just because you couldn't prove to yourself (or someone else) that you did it. You may doubt it, you may be confused about it, but you would only stop believing if someone categorically showed your experience to be false. Essentially lack of evidence is irrelevant to your belief if your belief is grounded in apparent experience.

Plantinga's point is that such beliefs are common in everyday life, and some theistic belief seems to fall into the same category. It is grounded in apparent experience, not formed on evidence. Like anyone else a theist will not stop believing something they have apparently experienced just because they can't prove it to themselves or someone else. In the absence of anything to the contrary, they, like everyone else, assume there experience reliable.

That contradicts the argument by some non theists that theistic belief is abnormal or defficient on some way. Either we are all abnormal because we all believe certain things without needing evidence, or some beliefs (those grounded in experience) simply don't need evidence for us to believe them and theistic belief is one such belief.


William R. Wilson profile image

William R. Wilson 6 years ago from Knoxville, TN

"The point is not whether evidence is available or what quality it is. The point is that basic beliefs don't need evidence to be justified."

Perhaps I projected a little too far ahead in my comment. But I would argue that we should constantly question our beliefs and the evidence for those beliefs. Sure, there are things we just accept - but is it healthy or moral to accept those things? Enlightenment thought holds that humans are rational actors who do things because those things are in their own best interests. But modern research is beginning to indicate that humans are far from rational, that our logic is usually used not to come to the most logical conclusion, but to justify our conclusions after we have already made them.

"Evidence may happen to be available for some basic beliefs like the belief you walked down the street this morning, but it isn't NEEDED for you to believe it. Your belief is grounded in experience, not formed on evidence. You would not stop believing you did something, just because you couldn't prove to yourself (or someone else) that you did it. You may doubt it, you may be confused about it, but you would only stop believing if someone categorically showed your experience to be false. Essentially lack of evidence is irrelevant to your belief if your belief is grounded in apparent experience."

Let's say I have a dream about walking down the street. I wake up the next morning, forget about the dream, but later I see something that reminds me of walking down that street in my dream - but I don't realize that it was a dream.

I have the experience of walking down that street. I can remember walking down it. But it didn't happen!

Is that a matter of consequence? Not really - until I start making decisions based on my false memory. Perhaps I remember that there was a police station on that street in my dream. Someone gets in trouble, and I point them to that police station - but in reality it's not there!

So it's not 'good enough' in my mind just to accept a belief.

"That contradicts the argument by some non theists that theistic belief is abnormal or defficient on some way. Either we are all abnormal because we all believe certain things without needing evidence, or some beliefs (those grounded in experience) simply don't need evidence for us to believe them and theistic belief is one such belief."

I agree that we all believe certain things without evidence. But I don't necessarily agree that it is acceptable or moral (not sure that you are arguing this, I'm just saying) to do so.

All humans have some sort of concept of divinity. But is that proof that god exists? Or is it simply a product of the way we humans have evolved to understand the world? We seek cause and effects, patterns. We try to understand - and when something happens that we can't explain or that seems purposeless, we attribute purpose anyway.

Is this abnormal? No. Is it irrational? Yes. Is it human? Absolutely. Is it truth? Who knows?


Don W profile image

Don W 6 years ago Author

Truth is a different matter. This isn’t about truth or falsehood. It’s about justification. You may not be able to determine if a belief is true, but it may still be justified.

Your police station for example. You believed you’d seen it because you (apparently) experienced seeing it. That experience was indistinguishable from the other times you’ve experienced seeing things. So even if you discover later that the police station was just a dream, your belief at the time was entirely justified. You assumed your experience to be reliable as we all do.

But there is a problem with your example. Say you discovered the police station was just a dream. How do you know that wasn’t part of a dream and in reality the police station does exist? How do you know you aren’t dreaming right now? How do you know everything we call reality (including dreaming) isn’t part of something else which isn’t reality?

That’s the infinite regress of justification mentioned in the hub. We can doubt our perception, but logically that doubt must go on forever for anything perceived through the senses. So practically we just stop doubting. We suspend our disbelief. We draw a line in the sand. That line is our experience. Because Doubting further is essentially irrelevant. It won’t help us as individuals in any practical way.

Is that healthy? Yes. It helps us to live. Doubting everyday experience would paralyse us into inaction which is not conducive to living in the world we (apparently) live in.

As for moral. I suppose you mean “good”. Good according to who? According to what? If you mean fulfils the intellectual duties of us as reasonable people, then yes it’s good in that sense. It’s quite reasonable to suggest that things which help us live are good. Suspending our disbelieve helps us to live and is therefore good in that sense.


ilmdamaily profile image

ilmdamaily 6 years ago from A forgotten corner of a dying empire. OK, it's Australia :-)

Great hub - very well written on a complex topic.

It's nice to see a coherent meditation on the origins and justifications of belief.

Most of the discourse surrounding belief around here (hubpages) comes from the basis of an unstated assumption in the superiority of materialism - it's nice to see someone actually take the time to show what a complete house of cards the whole question of belief is.

Good work:-)


Daniel Carter profile image

Daniel Carter 6 years ago from Western US

Curiouser and curiouser. The more I learn, the less I seem to know. However, as pointed out in your hub, *experience* seems to be all-important in justifying beliefs. My experience with religion and so much of life, is so very different than many of my family and friends that it often makes them uncomfortable. (I doubt most of the beliefs that I feel I was expected to accept.) But there doesn't seem to be any real concern over my sanity or intellect, which makes it even more difficult for some.

However, I found your comparisons between the different approaches to beliefs and thought quite interesting, and I don't think I've ever seen Evidentialism, Rationalism, Foundationalism, and Theism in an all-in-one package for any reader. Thanks for that. Very insightful.


aguasilver profile image

aguasilver 6 years ago from Malaga, Spain

Great hub, on that I must agree, and food for thought, I'm in CS's camp of course, but then it seems I got there by passing through all the others!

John


Akriti Mattu profile image

Akriti Mattu 19 months ago from Shimla, India

Excellent post. Read 3 of your posts. Found all of them good. Will be reading more soon :)

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