Faith and Justification

Justification is the support that is given to a proposition or claim. Usually something is justified if we can support the claim with some kind of good evidence. For example, justification that the moon exists is that you can see it with your eyes. Justification that your eyes are working correctly now is that they were working 5 minutes ago. 

A problem arises when you continue to trace back the justification of each statement to the very bottom. This is known as the Munchhausen Trilemma and challenges the notion that knowledge and ultimate justification are actually possible. Continually pursuing the justification of a truth claim by asking “How do you know that?” will eventually fail.

In a nutshell the Munchhausen Trilemma concludes that nothing can be entirely justified. If you start to trace back your beliefs in a linear fashion by looking at what supports each claim, you see that the belief “at the bottom” is something that:

  1. You just believe, but have no justification (you just take it to be true without evidence)
  2. You believe, but you are recycling one of your other beliefs to support it (circular reasoning)
  3. You believe it, because of another supporting belief, and the process goes on forever infinitely 

In the example above of the moon, how do you know the moon exists. Because you can see it? How do you know your eyes are giving correct information? Because you have seen other things that you were able to touch. how do you know your sense of touch is giving correct information? Because it has been corroborated by others? How do you know their senses are working? Because they see the same things as you? What if both of you are wrong?

In order to get round this problem (or at least cushion the obvious blow), various theories of justification have arisen. There are over ten theories of justification but the main three are:

  1. Foundationalism
  2. Coherentism
  3. Infinitism

Foundationalism

Some things can be justified in a foundational way if they rests on an assumption which can nonetheless not be proven, such as “the world wasn’t created 5 minutes ago with all the appearances that it was”. There are many assumptions that we all take to be true but have no proof. Other assumptions are formed based on experience (which can include “God exists”). Depending on your philosophy, the assumption that God exists could be justified in a foundational way.

Coherentism

Something can be justified if it forms part of a coherent set (which can be circular reasoning). For example that your senses corroborate each of your others senses even though you have no way of objectively finding out if any of them are working. Depending on your philosophy, the claim that God exists could be justified if it doesn’t lead to a contradiction.

Infinitism

 The argument for infinitism is as follows:

P1. There are three possible, non-skeptical solutions to the regress problem: foundationalism, coherentism and infinitism.

P2. There are insurmountable difficulties with two of the solutions (in this case, foundationalism and coherentism).

P3. The third view (in this case, infinitism) faces no insurmountable difficulties.

C. Therefore, the third view (in this case, infinitism) is the best non-skeptical solution to the regress problem. 1

Peter Klein has defended infinitism by considering the following two principles:

“Principle of Avoiding Circularity” (PAC).

PAC: For all x, if a person, S, has a justification for x, then for all y, if y is in the evidential ancestry of x for S, then x is not in the evidential ancestry of y for S

Principle of Avoiding Arbitrariness (PAA).

PAA: For all x, if a person, S, has a justification for x, then there is some reason, r1, available to S for x; and there is some reason, r2, available to S for r1; etc.

It is the straight-forward intuitive appeal of these principles that is the best reason for thinking that if any beliefs are justified, the structure of reasons must be infinite and non-repeating. 2

By accepting both PAC and PAA, one is left only with infinitism, an infinite regress of justification. Does infinitism have insurmountable problems, such as the apparent problem that ultimate justification is never attained? Peter Klein responds in part:

although every proposition is only provisionally justified, that is good enough if one does not insist that reasoning settle matters once and for all. 3

The other main argument against infinitism is that it lacks any “first member” we can turn to for justification however Kai Neilsen said:

if a series were literally infinite, there would be no need for there to be a first cause to get the causal order started, there would always be a causal order since an infinite series can have no first member 4

Foundherentism

Although, not one of the main three theories of justification, Foundherentism is a theory which combines elements of foundationalism and coherentism.

Foundherentism is best explained through the analogy of a crossword puzzle. When completing a crossword puzzle, a person evaluates the clue then evaluates all relevant intersecting words which have already been entered into the puzzle. By using both the clue and the existing words, the person is then able to add their “best guess” for a new word into the puzzle. The likelihood of the word being correct is based on the clue as well as the likelihood that the other words in the puzzle are already correct. However the likelihood that the other words are correct are also dependent on the new word added. So each word jointly supports all other words.

This means that the justification for any new word is not arbitrary, and the justification that the word dissects perfectly into the puzzle is not entirely circular, but each word gives support to all the others.

As with all beliefs, in the absence of ultimate and objective justification, a person can be justified in a foundherent way, if there is an experiential basis for the belief and it coheres to all the other beliefs someone already has. It is impossible to know that the set of beliefs are all correct but there is good justification to believe so.

Mormon epistemology relies strongly on the personal experience of God and personal revelation. However this is coupled with strong reasoning and using our own cognitive faculties to “study it out” in our minds.

Richard G. Scott said:

As each element of truth is encountered, you must carefully examine it in the light of prior knowledge to determine where it fits. Ponder it; inspect it inside out. Study it from every vantage point to discover hidden meaning. View it in perspective to confirm you have not jumped to false conclusions. Prayerful reflection yields further understanding. Such evaluation is particularly important when the truth comes as an impression of the Spirit 5

Epistemic Circularity

Epistemic circularity is an expression used by William Alston in his book “Perceiving God”. 

From William P Alston: 

We must either use sense perception as the source of our premises, thereby already assuming that it is reliable, or else get our premises from some other source(s) that we would have reason to trust only if we already had reason to trust sense perception.

Nothing is a reliable source for beliefs generally except an infallible and omniscient authority. 6

From IEP:

(Alston) argues that there is no way to show that any of our basic sources of belief–such as perception, intuitive reason, introspection, memory or reasoning–is reliable without falling into epistemic circularity: there is no way to show that such a source is reliable without relying at some point or another on premises that are themselves derived from that source. Thus we cannot have any noncircular reasons for supposing that the sources on which we base our beliefs are reliable. 7

The practice of forming perceptual beliefs about the physical world based on sense experience falls into epistemic circularity, because in order to validate the reliability of sense perception, we must assume the validity of sense perception. 

Epistemic circularity affects sense perception, logic and reasoning and memory.

William Alston argues elsewhere that despite epistemic circularity in our most basic doxastic practices, we show “practical rationality” in trusting them as we are left without alternative.

Certainty vs Faith

Although we can be psychologically certain of propositions, problems in justification mean we cannot be epistemologically certain.

William P. Alston said:

Nothing is a reliable source for beliefs generally except an infallible and omniscient authority. 8

So if we cannot be certain, we can pragmatically act in faith and trust. From the Lectures on Faith:

If men were duly to consider themselves, and turn their thoughts and reflections to the operations of their own minds, they would readily discover that it is faith, and faith only, which is the moving cause of all action, in them; that without it, both mind and body would be in a state of inactivity, and all their exertions would cease, both physical and mental.

Who cannot see, that if God framed the worlds by faith, that it is by faith that he exercises power over (all temporal, as well as eternal things), and that faith is the principle of power? And that if the principle of power, it must be so in man as well as in the Deity?

We here understand, that the sacred writers say, that all these things were done by faith—It was by faith that the worlds were framed—God spake, chaos heard, and worlds came into order, by reason of the faith there was in HIM

Had it not been for the principle of faith the worlds would never have been framed, neither would man have been formed of the dust—it is the principle by which Jehovah works, and through which he exercises power over all temporal, as well as eternal things. Take this principle or attribute, (for it is an attribute) from the Deity and he would cease to exist. 9

  1. IEP. 2016. Infinitism in Epistemology. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.iep.utm.edu/inf-epis/. [Accessed 29 July 2016].​[]
  2. Klein, Peter D. “Human Knowledge and the Infinite Regress of Reasons.” Philosophical Perspectives 13 (1999): ​[]
  3. Klein, Peter D. “Human Knowledge and the Infinite Regress of Reasons.” Philosophical Perspectives 13 (1999):[]
  4. . Kai Nielsen, Reason and Practice (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), p. 171[]
  5. Richard G. Scott. 1993. Acquiring Spiritual Knowledge. [ONLINE] Available at:https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1993/10/acquiring-spiritual-knowledge?lang=eng&clang=ase. [Accessed 12 August 2016].[]
  6.  Alston, W P, 1991. Perceiving God. 1st ed. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.[]
  7.  IEP. 2016. Epistemic Circularity. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.iep.utm.edu/ep-circ/. [Accessed 8 July 2016].[]
  8. Alston, W P, 1991. Perceiving God. 1st ed. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.​[]
  9. Lectures on Faith. 1835. Lecture 1: Faith Defined. [ONLINE] Available at: http://lecturesonfaith.com/1/. [Accessed 24 June 2016].[]