first of all I want to let you know that I really appreciate people like you who stand-up for our faith and defend it with all your heart and mind.
I am a fellow-Christian who is struggling with doubts if it is (at all possible) to really build a rock solid faith that is largely based on a rational foundation. Don´t get me wrong, I find many arguments for God (also presented on your website) very convincing, but I wonder if it is really possible to say: Yes, that is an argument beyond reasonable doubt that speaks in favour of God. What I am trying to say is that today there are so many scientific opinions and facts out there in the world, that for every argument you make in favour of God or Jesus, there is a number of counter-arguments available as well. For example: Take the Kalam cosmological argument (that you present in your book “The Case for the one true God”). The first premise rests on the assumption that something cannot come from nothing. However, quantum physics might be the reason why this is a false statement. I do know that there are scientists out there who will tell you that something cannot come from nothing (like Alexander Vilenkin), but as I said. You just have to search long enough and you will find a scientist like Lawrence Krauss who claims the opposite. So what do yo do? Take the argument (and scientist like Vilenkin) that best suits your case? If you are honest, without being an expert in the field of physics, a layperson can hardly come to a final conclusion. So my question is: What would be your advice for me? Is it possible to defend our faith and the gospel (from your point of view) in a honest way taking into account the many possible explanations and opinions that exist in the world? How do you decide go with Alexander Vilenkin instead of Lawrence Krauss if it is not for the sake of supporting your argument that existed in the first place?
I am really looking forward to hearing from you and send you my best regards and may God continue to bless you and your terrific work!
Preliminary Issue Of Certainty
What I hear you describing is essentially Cartesian Anxiety. I talked about this in “Q&A: Could God Be Playing Us For A Fool?” And in response to that questioner, I said
“What you’re proposing is basically philosopher Rene Descartes’ demon thought experiment. In the first of his 1641 Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes imagines that an evil demon, of “utmost power and cunning has employed all his energies in order to deceive me.” This evil demon is imagined to present a complete illusion of an external world, so that Descartes can say, “I shall think that the sky, the air, the earth, colours, shapes, sounds and all external things are merely the delusions of dreams which he has devised to ensnare my judgement. I shall consider myself as not having hands or eyes, or flesh, or blood or senses, but as falsely believing that I have all these things.”
Descartes was a philosopher famous for searching for a level of certainty that has come to be known as Cartesian Certainty. This is a level of certainty where you have so much evidence and logic to affirm the truth of a proposition that you cannot possibly be wrong. Only when one reaches this level of certainty can one said to “Know” something.
The problem is that this level of certainty is utterly unobtainable in most areas of life. No matter how much evidence you have for X, there is always a possibility that you could be wrong. Even if you are able to shrink the possibility of being in error down to a microscopic margin, you’ll never be able to get rid of it entirely. There are only a few areas in which you can have Cartesian certainty. One of those is your own existence. As Descartes himself said “Cogito Ergo Sum”, in English that’s “I think, therefore, I am.” This is because as soon as you doubt your own existence, you have to concede that there is someone in existence to have the doubt; namely yourself! So if you think about anything, including the possibility that you don’t actually exist, it entails that you do exist.
I then went onto explain that Cartesian Certainty, though certainly something we would should like obtain, is indeed impossible to obtain. And, moreover, it’s not a reasonable standard of certainty anyway. I prefer to classify levels of certainty as courts of law do with legal verdicts, as J. Warner Wallace does in his book “Cold Case Christianity”. I recommend checking out “Q&A: Could God Be Playing Us For A Fool?” for my full response.
Cartesian Anxiety comes from the fact that there’s a never ending series of “what ifs” one can ask on any given topic. What we should aim for is not Cartesian Certainty (i.e proof beyond ANY doubt), but rather certainty “Beyond a reasonable doubt.” That is, to get to a level of certainty where any further possible doubts can be dismissed as unreasonable. For example, it’s possible that my entire life has been nothing but a series of dreams stimulated by a mad scientist because I am but a brain in a vat. But should that mere tiny possibility cause me to break down into an existential crisis? No. That would be unreasonable. I’m certain that I am an embodied brain beyond a reasonable doubt. Any doubts about that are so unreasonable that I can just brush them aside.
Dealing With Counter Arguments
So how do we get to that “Beyond A Reasonable Doubt” level of certainty? You brought up The Kalam Cosmological Argument and said that there are counter-arguments against its premises. I found it odd that you used people like Krauss denying the first premise. I would have used people like Sean Carrol who try to deny the second premise. People who deny the first premise are either uninformed, irrational, quacks, or twisting language. I am a trillion times more certain that anything that begins to exist had a cause for its beginning (i.e not having poofed into being for no reason, no cause whatsoever) than I am that the universe is among the class of things having a beginning. But I degress.
Here, all I can recommend is for you to just do research. You’ll never know how many objections there are to an argument unless you hit the books. And you’ll never know what flaws there might be to such objections unless you look at both sides. This is a reason I like debates and multiple views books like those Zondervan puts out. You get to hear opposing experts intellectually duke it out in the public square. And though you are a lay person, you can use the brain that God gave you to discern who you think gives the better arguments. You can do this not just in live debates where two doctors are arguing against each other on stage, but you can do this in the realm of the written word as well.
For example, when investigating the evidence for evolution, although I am not anywhere close to being an expert in biology or anthropology, I read many many books by ID advocates, creationists, evolutionists (theist and atheist), and I eventually came to the conclusion that Darwinian Evolution a.k.a macro evolution a.k.a common descent had a stronger case for it. And ergo, I became an evolutionary creationist.
Regarding Genesis 1 (about which I recently did a live presentation on YouTube), I read all the scholars I could find on the subject, eventually landing on John Walton’s Cosmic Temple Inauguration/Functional Origins view. My confidence in this was solidified when I scoured the literature critiquing this view and found them all wanting. I decided to write response articles to most (not all) of these after I read them. Those articles can be found here.
And yet I am not nor have ever pretended to be…an Old Testament scholar.
Whether it’s an in-house subject like how to interpret Genesis, or the truth of Christianity itself, you can listen to different experts on different sides of the issue. Eventually you can come to an informed opinion of your own, having listened to the experts who take different positions.
In my book “The Case For The One True God” which you mentioned, I gathered together as many of the objections to each of the arguments I knew of and responded to them. So far, I think I’ve pretty much encountered the vast majority of objections to, say, The Kalam Cosmological Argument or The Fine-Tuning Argument because I keep running into the same objections over and over and over and over and over again. Ergo, I think I’ve done my due diligence and I’m confident that the arguments are sound. I have pretty much found all the objections and answered them; and further debate rests on the sufficiency of my responses. Of course, sometimes I do stumble across new objections, but these are usually “so bad I couldn’t make them up.”
By far and away, most further debate really just depends on whether I’ve answered the objections successfully. For example, you can find lengthy comment sections between me and a fellow named Sam Burke on different blog posts on this website. And in these cases, it is mostly not new objections, but the adequacy of my responses to already raised objections (like The Free Will Defense in response to the Problem of Evil).
I keep running into the same objections over and over and over and over and over again. Ergo, I think I’ve done my due diligence and I’m confident that the arguments are sound. And as a result, I think Christian theism rests on a solid foundation. Debating the issues myself with people who disagree with me usually serves to only solidify my confidence in my beliefs. Although sometimes, as was the case with conditional immortality, that can be the crack in the foundation which eventually leads to crumbling.
So, I don’t think it’s true that “without being an expert… a layperson can hardly come to a final conclusion.“ You don’t need to BE an expert to READ experts and discern who makes the stronger case for X, Y, or Z.
Could The Holy Spirit Be A Defeater Defeater?
Some Christian philosophers – such as William Lane Craig and Alvin Plantinga – would suggest that you don’t even need to do this much research to know that Christianity is true. “The inner witness of The Holy Spirit” will attest to you that it is true. And moreover, that The Holy Spirit can serve as a “defeater defeater”. By this, they mean that the Holy Spirit can not only justify your belief in Christianity in the absence of any known objections, but they can also overturn objections you run into (like the problem of evil).
While I recommend that you check their resources on epistemology out, I myself can’t disagree with them more! I do think belief in God is properly basic. I do think the Spirit can witness to you and you’re justified in believing Christianity is true even in the absence of any arguments. Hardcore evidentialism logically entails that 99% of believers who have ever lived were literally irrational for placing their trust in Christ because most people don’t become believers through a rigorous study of apologetic arguments. Surprisingly, I know one hardcore evidentialist who bit the bullet and said “Yeah, most Christians are irrational.” I’m not willing to go that far. Any view of epistemology that would indict almost the entire body of Christ with irrationality has surely gone wrong somewhere.
Although I haven’t studied the proper basicality/inner witness issue from a philosophical angle, I do affirm it on a scriptural basis. Romans 8:16 says “The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.” And while I’m aware that this has to do with assurance of salvation…look, here’s the thing; you can’t assured that you are the child of someone who doesn’t exist! If The Holy Spirit’s witness can justify our belief that we are God’s children, then that logically entails that The Holy Spirit justifies the existence of the God whose children we are! It would absurd to say that the Spirit could justify belief that we’re God’s children, without also justifying belief in God. If you’re not assured that God exists, you CAN’T be assured that you’re His child. The latter is logically posterior to the former. To be justified in believing the latter, you must be justified in believing the former.
Now, here’s where I stand on the whole proper basicality/inner witness issue. You can be justified in believing Christianity is true on the basis of The Holy Spirit’s inner witness unless you have some reasons to think it’s true.
Hopefully this Q&A article gives you the guidance you need to build a rock-solid faith on a firm evidential foundation. And hopefully by following the advice I gave (i.e basically just do a bunch of research), you’ll eventually find your doubts resolved.
Having already gone through so much of this myself, I can say that I think you’ll be fine. I’ve been intellectually engaging my faith for over 10 years now, and the more reading and writing I do, the more debates I listen to, the more books, journal articles, etc. I look into, the more confident I become that “Mere Christianity” corresponds to reality. Of course, I’ve let go of many of my beliefs over the years too, but these were all inhouse issues (e.g Old Earth Creationism to Theistic Evolution, Eternal Torment to Annihilationism, adoption of The Divine Council and Deuteronomy 32 Worldviews). None of the things in the ecumenical creeds.