21 February 2017

Randal Rauser's peculiar focus on "rationally justified belief"

I like Randal Rauser. Although we have no shortage of disagreements over matters of theology and philosophy, I give him major kudos for continually advocating for irenic dialogue by criticizing both atheists and theists when they caricature one another, and for constructively engaging with several atheists—including of course Justin Schieber, whose book collaboration with Rauser I reviewed extensively here on The A-Unicornist, as well as his recent and very irenic engagement with Jason Thibodeau over a few blog posts. He's also a strong critic of Trump and occasionally shows himself to be refreshingly progressive for a Christian theologian.

I've been following Randal Rauser for several years now, and a recent post of his has me thinking about what I see as his rather peculiar approach to apologetics: namely, his frequent focus on "rationally justified belief". I'll provide a few examples:

  1. In his live debate with Justin Schieber, Rauser's primary argument was that one does not need evidence to be rationally justified in assenting to theism.
  2. He's posted many times about 'properly basic belief' being derived from testimony, personal experience, or from Plantinga's "sensus divinitus". 
  3. His fairly recent post, which I criticized here, in which he defended as "rationally justified" an acquaintance's belief that God orchestrated an everyday miracle of sorts. 
  4. In his book with Schieber, his counters to Schieber's evidential arguments almost always centered on what the theist could be rationally justified in believing about God's morality, intention, and purpose.
My early blogging days were weaned on the likes of William Lane Craig and other natural theologians who used logical and evidential arguments to persuade others that theism is true. This meant that several aspects of the arguments could be contended:
  • The assumptions underpinning the premises
  • The evidence referenced by the premises
  • The logical coherency of the arguments
Rauser's approach is very different. I liken it to walls and bridges. Arguments in natural theology are attempts to build bridges with skeptics and doubters who are demanding evidence that theism is true. They draw on a combination of logical argumentation and empirical evidence to make a case that a rational person should believe in the existence of God. 

But Rauser's arguments are more akin to walls. They do nothing to establish that a skeptic or doubter ought to change his or her mind. Instead, they insulate the beliefs from criticism. I disagree, for example, that "testimony" constitutes what Rauser calls a "properly basic" justification for assenting to beliefs about metaphysical and theological issues. But even if I did agree as a matter of principle, I do not have access to Rauser's personal experience. The testimony to which I have access could just as well provide a properly basic means by which I could reject theism, but would not provide any reason for Rauser to change his mind. 

Shared Reality


The central issue, as I see it, is one of shared reality. That is, we all have our own subjective experience, or qualia, that defines our own experiences to which others cannot have access. But we also share a reality in which we agree or disagree on claims of truth, an intersubjective reality, if you will. It's entirely possible for a belief to be internally consistent and coherent but to still have absolutely no connection with that shared reality. In philosophy, the idea that a belief is justified (or justifiably held) by its internal coherency is called coherentism. The primary objection is that internal coherency is a necessary but not sufficient condition to determine the truth of a belief, in what is called the isolation objection to coherentism (from the SOP):
There is an obvious objection that any coherence theory of justification or knowledge must immediately face. It is called the isolation objection: how can the mere fact that a system is coherent, if the latter is understood as a purely system-internal matter, provide any guidance whatsoever to truth and reality? Since the theory does not assign any essential role to experience, there is little reason to think that a coherent system of belief will accurately reflect the external world. 
Just to be clear here: I am not saying that Rauser is subscribing to a coherentist theory of justification. I'm bringing this up simply to point out that whether or not a belief system is internally coherent tells us nothing about whether it is actually true—that is, whether it maps to our shared reality.

The same issue rears its head regarding rational justification. Rauser and I may disagree over the particulars of what constitutes rational justification, but one thing is not in dispute: that the internal rational justification for a belief tells us nothing about whether it maps to our external shared reality. That is, I may have an experience I strongly believe is true, such as a vision or witnessing a 'miracle' of some kind. I could, in theory, construct an argument to suggest that in the absence of defeaters, I am rationally justified in trusting my rational intuition and sensory experience. However, even if I were correct in that regard, such a belief would do nothing to establish the objective truth of my beliefs. I might be "rationally justified" in assenting to the belief, but I'd still have all my work ahead of me to be able to demonstrate the truth of my belief to others.

Demonstrating the truth of belief requires much more than simply the confidence that one's own beliefs are rationally justified. It requires making logical and evidential arguments that are, in principle, accessible to other rationally capable human beings. This is why I find Rauser's approach so peculiar: he doesn't seem interested in changing others' minds; rather, he seems primarily focused on defending himself, and other believers, as rationally thinking individuals. The problem is that one can be wholly rational and still objectively wrong. Furthermore, just as we can arrive at incorrect beliefs through rational means, we can arrive at objectively true belief through irrational means. Rational and irrational thought processes don't, in themselves, tell us anything about the objective truth or falsity of a belief; rather, they reflect the degree to which our beliefs are formed by, and amenable to, evidence and argument.

What's the point?


When I read (or listen to) Rauser's arguments about rational justification, I cannot help but want to shout, "WHO CARES?!" As a skeptic and doubter of theistic claims, I am not concerned with whether Rauser feels personally justified in assenting to his beliefs. Rather, I am interested in whether he can show that his beliefs are objectively true, that they are part of our shared reality. When I argue for theological non-cognitivism, for example I am attempting to speak a shared language, using shared meaning, and drawing on shared experience. I am attempting to demonstrate that the concept of God is internally incoherent, and thus does not meet a necessary (though not sufficient!) criterion of an objectively true claim. If I argue against the Kalam Cosmological Argument, I am attempting to show that the assumptions underpinning the premises are false and/or that the evidence cited in the premises is inaccurately represented. In other words, I am trying to build a bridge to demonstrate to the theist that this argument does not demonstrate what he or she claims it does. 

But when Alvin Plantinga claims that he's rationally justified in believing in God because he possesses a "sensus divinitus", he's building a wall—I, and apparently many others, have no such intuition. When WL Craig argues that his faith is underpinned by the "inner witness of the Holy Spirit", he is building a wall—an argument that, by his own admission, is not amenable to evidence or argument. The same is true when Rauser claims his belief is justified by "testimony"—since others do not any way to independently dis/confirm the reliability of such testimony, Rauser is constructing a wall around his beliefs rather than a bridge that allows others to rationally assent to them.

Theists occasionally get frustrated at atheists who demand that the existence of God be demonstrated with evidence. They suggest that there are plenty of beliefs, like the veracity of our rational intuition or sense perception, that we assent to without evidence. In addition to conflating very different types of belief (I would argue that it's misguided to even call trust in our sensory perception a "belief", but that's a topic for another day), this type of objection fails to acknowledge that evidence is the language of our shared reality. Collectively, we all may be rationally justified in holding a multitude of conflicting beliefs. The question is: how do we parse out those purportedly rational beliefs about our subjective experiences into rational beliefs about shared, objective truth? If we're ever going to build bridges to persuade one another we have to agree to speak the same language. And if we're not interested in persuading one another and would rather just erect walls, what's the point in debating our beliefs in the first place? 

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