Reformed Epistemology

Introduction

In his essay, “The Ethics of Belief.”, William K. Clifford famously said that:

It is wrong, always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence 1

However for some of our core beliefs, we have no evidence at all yet we hold them to be rational. Such as the following:

  • That the world was not created five minutes ago with memories implanted in us
  • That the physical world exists and is not part of our imagination
  • The belief that we are not brains in vats
  • The belief in other minds
  • The belief we are not being controlled by an evil demon
  • The belief that our reasoning is valid
  • The belief that our sense perception is valid
  • The belief in logical truths
  • The belief in causality

In the absence of evidence, what makes them rational is that they are not arbitrary but are properly basic or grounded in our immediate experience of the world. We may not have any evidence that there are other minds, but in the absence of evidence to the contrary, our experience tells us that it probably is so, as a properly basic belief. 

Many philosophers have argued that belief in God can be a rational properly basic belief, based on our immediate experience of the world. In the same way that our beliefs about other minds is properly basic. Alvin Plantinga said:

if my belief in other minds is rational, so is my belief in God. But obviously the former is rational; so, therefore, is the latter 2

Reformed epistemological argument

P1. My immediate experience tells me X

P2. I am rational to believe my immediate experiences unless I have reason to disbelieve

P3. I have no reason to disbelieve X

C. Therefore I am rational to believe X

To deny P2 is absurd, and P3 must be evaluated on a case by case basis. In terms of P1, 

William Alston describes these perceptual experiences (which form mystical beliefs):

M-beliefs are beliefs to the effect that God is doing something currently vis-à-vis the subject—comforting, strengthening, guiding, communicating a message, sustaining the subject in being—or to the effect that God has some (allegedly) perceivable property—goodness, power, lovingness. The intuitive idea is that by virtue of my being aware of God as sustaining me in being I can justifiably believe that God is sustaining me in being. 

Our sources take it that something, namely, God, has been presented or given to their consciousness, in generically the same way as that in which objects in the environment are (apparently) presented to one’s consciousness in sense perception. 3

Objections

One objection to this reasoning is that we cannot determine the reliability of our mystical experiences and perceptions. However this is common to all our experiences and perceptions which suffer from epistemic circularity as Markus Lammenranta explains:

(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. 4

​ Another objection is that mystical experiences can be recreated and therefore have a natural explanation, however Alston notes:

The mere fact that mystical experience can be explained in terms of causally sufficient, proximate natural factors has no tendency to show that it does not constitute veridical perception of God

​Why suppose that this is not the mechanism God uses to reveal Himself to our experience? 5

​A final objection is that of competing truth claims from mystical perception. Again, from William Alston:

​​It can hardly be denied that the fact of religious diversity reduces the rationality of engaging in CMP below what it would be if this problem did not exist.

If…each (religion) is simply spelling out the way the Ultimate is encountered, experienced, and conceptualized from the standpoint of a given cultural tradition, there is no logical conflict between them.

​In each case the person who is in the kind of position I have been describing will be able to rationally engage in his/her own religious doxastic practice despite the inability to show that it is epistemically superior to the competition. Incompatible propositions can each be justified for different people if what they have to go on is suitably different.

In the absence of any external reason for supposing that one of the competing practices is more accurate than my own, the only rational course for me is to sit tight with the practice of which I am a master and which serves me so well in guiding my activity in the world. 6

  1. W.K. Clifford, “The Ethics of Belief,” Contemporary Review 29 (Dec. 1876-May 1877). This is available at http://www.uta.edu/philosophy/faculty/burgess-jackson/Clifford.pdf. Accessed December 5, 2012.[]
  2. Plantinga, Alvin. Warranted Christian Belief. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.[]
  3. Alston, W P, 1991. Perceiving God. 1st ed. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press[]
  4. Markus Lammenranta, IEP. 2018. Epistemic Circularity. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.iep.utm.edu/ep-circ/. [Accessed 24 February 2018].[]
  5. Alston, W P, 1991. Perceiving God. 1st ed. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press[]
  6. Alston, W P, 1991. Perceiving God. 1st ed. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press[]