Tag Archives: decision

A Time for Decision: Is Christianity True? (Part 11)

For the past three weeks we have been standing before first decision point on path from nonbelief to Christian faith. We must decide whether mind or matter is the ultimate reality that explains the existence and nature of everything else. Belief in God presupposes the background belief that mind is at least as fundamental as matter, and atheism presupposes that matter alone is fundamental and explains everything else. If it could be shown that matter is the final explanation for mind and all mind-like features of the universe, belief in God would be defeated. If, on the other hand, mind could be shown to be at least as ultimate as matter, atheism would be defeated.

I argued from three different experiences that it is eminently reasonable to belief that mind is as necessary to explain the world of our experience as matter is. We examined our experience of the intelligibility of the external order of nature. In our analysis we found no way to reduce the intelligible order of nature to pure, unordered matter, and we rejected chance as the explanation for that order. Afterward, we considered our experience of ourselves as initiating causes and creators of information. We argued from this experience that it is reasonable to believe that an active universal mind gives the world its intelligible order. Finally, we argued that our experience of other minds “strengthens our conviction that our minds are irreducible to matter. Hence our experience of active minds/persons other than our own reinforces the idea that a primordial, active mind orders the world.”

We could dwell here forever endlessly debating the many issues involved in the choice between mind and matter as the ultimate reality: How could mind emerge from pure matter? How can immaterial mind exercise causality on a material world? But now it is time to decide. I am convinced that further discussions would not settled the issue definitively. There is no hope that further investigation would bring forward indubitable proof one way or another and remove the necessity for a fallible decision. The best we can hope for is a decision based on reasonable and responsible judgments. And I believe the three arguments we have considered make reasonable our belief that mind is at least as ultimate as matter and make responsible our decision to act on that belief.

Since there are no definitive arguments for either side, some would argue that a stance of agnosticism and indecision is the most rational position. This argument contends that agnosticism’s subjective uncertainty and indecision corresponds to the objective situation of our lack of absolute knowledge whereas a decision to build one’s life and worldview on either alternative goes beyond the evidence. And cultivating certainty and plunging into action beyond the reach of the evidence is abandoning reason in favor of irrational impulse.

I don’t think I need to enter an extended discussion of agnosticism at this point, but I’d like to make two points in response to the argument in the previous paragraph. First, one cannot be agnostic about everything. In the argument above the agnostic makes the judgment that both the evidence for and the evidence against materialism are inadequate to justify knowledge claims and decisive actions. Now either this agnostic judgment is fallible or infallible. If the agnostic judgment rises to the level of genuine knowledge, the agnostic must abandon agnosticism at least on this issue. If the judgment in question is fallible, the agnostic loses the right to criticize atheism or theism for going beyond the evidence; for the agnostic also acts on the basis of fallible judgments. Second, some decisions are so fundamental to the act of living that they cannot be avoided or postponed. Perhaps, I need never form a definitive judgment about whether or not intelligent life exists somewhere in the Milky Way galaxy. I can think of no practical difference my opinion on the subject would make. But we cannot avoid the decision between atheism and belief in God. If we live at all or do anything at all, we must live and act on one belief or another. For these beliefs define the origin and destiny and the meaning and purpose of human life. And these limits determine everything in between, defining the distinctions between good and evil, right and wrong, and the worthwhile and the useless. The rationality of every human act or decision not to act will be judged by its consistency with these ideas. In the case of agnosticism, refusing to decide is to decide to act as if we could live without acting, a huge self-deception.

But I have argued that the decision to reject materialism in favor of belief is quite rational. Once we make this decision–especially since we see that further discussion would not change the necessity of making a fallible decision–we need not look back in doubt. We can move forward to build our thoughts on the foundation of reasonable judgments and responsible decisions made at the first decision point. We can now presuppose the existence of a universal mind that manifests itself in the intelligible order of the world. This forward-looking boldness will characterize each of the decision point decisions we make on the way to Christian faith. These points are watershed moments where one must take risks to move forward into decisive action. We are being prepared for the most demanding decision of all, the move into faith in Jesus Christ.

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Is Christian Belief a Decision or a Conclusion?

In the previous post we addressed the question of what it means to know something. I defined knowledge as true, justified or warranted, belief. It is important to note that this is merely a definition of knowledge. A definition of knowledge cannot tell us whether a particular belief is really true or whether a particular person is really justified or warranted in holding that belief. The definition can be applied to particular cases only hypothetically. If we accept the definition of knowledge as true, justified or warranted belief, it follows that: “If belief A is true and person S is justified in holding A or possesses warrant for A, S knows A.” But the definition gives us no way to get past the little word “if.”

In other words, there is a huge difference between knowing A and knowing infallibly that you know A. (In my view, infallible knowledge is impossible apart from absolute knowledge.) And there is a huge difference between affirming the hypothetical statement, “If belief A is true and person S is justified in holding A or possesses warrant for A, S knows A,” and asserting categorically that “S knows A” or that “I know A.” In common speech, to say “I know A” asserts subjective certainty, and we learned last week that subjective certainty is compatible with falsehood. And to assert that “S knows A” is to express a judgment that A is true and S is justified or warranted in holding A. Clearly, this judgment is also fallible.

Every human act asserting an existential statement of the form “A” or “A exists” or “The belief that A exists is true” is fallible. Even if an assertion is true and is held in a justified or warranted way, the human act of judging a belief to be true is fallible. We cannot infallibly rule out every possible condition under which a belief could be false. The universal fallibility of human judgments makes doubt a real possibility for any judgment. Doubt is the subjective side of fallibility and the subjective opposite of certainty. Doubt no more makes a belief false than certainty makes it true.

We adapt to human fallibility and doubt in much of our lives, especially in those areas where the consequences of being wrong are not severe. In purely theoretical matters—if there are such things—or practical matters of little consequence, we shrug our shoulders and say, “Who cares?” In those areas we are able rather easily and routinely to make decisions and act in the absence of infallibility and complete certainty. We do not notice that our judgments and the actions based on them are fallible and involve risk. But when the stakes are high and great good or great evil may result from our actions, we become acutely conscious of our fallibility. Subjective doubt and anxiety arise and may paralyze us unless we find a way to deal with them.

Now I want to apply these thoughts to our question, “Is Christianity True.” If all human judgments are fallible and if in some really important matters, despite our best efforts to examine and weigh the evidence, we are forced to act on our fallible judgments, there will always come a point at which we must choose, decide, and act despite the risk. Hence in accounting for their Christian commitment, believers need not accept the obligation to “close the loop” and present conclusive proof for the truth of their faith. We can present the evidence and our evaluations of it, but we need not and cannot describe in rational terms the decision to act despite the risk. The necessity of acting on fallible judgments applies to all actions, trivial or monumental, enacted by believers or nonbelievers. Christian faith and commitment should not be held to a higher standard—that is, an impossible one—than other beliefs and commitments have to meet.

The necessity of decision and action based on responsible but fallible judgments determines much of my apologetic strategy and marks it off from many other approaches to apologetics. I hope to guide the reader on the road from unbelief to Christian faith. Along the way, we will come to certain natural decision points where progress demands that we choose one of two ways in the absence of conclusive proof. I will do my best to clarify the nature of the alternatives, the evidence for and against each, and what is at stake in the decision between the two. But rational arguments can take us only so far. Finally, one must choose and act despite the risk.