Over the course of about a week, I’ve been engaging in a written dialogue with a Street Epistemologist (SE). If you haven’t yet heard of this movement, check out my 3-part series. In brief, Street Epistemologists seek out conversations with people in the hopes of lowering their confidence about a particular belief they hold (e.g.: belief in God).
Iain MacLeod, a Street Epistemologist, was gracious enough to agree to a written exchange. As it happens, not all SE’s are open to this kind of format. There’s a reason for that. Subtextual communication is a big part of the method. Personality, tone, pregnant pauses, insinuation, all of these play a role in successful interventions.
The reason I wanted to do a written rather than a verbal exchange was because I wanted the conversation to be as substantive as possible. Limiting time for responses restricts both quality and substance. The pressures to answer quickly and cleverly simply don’t exist in a written format.
I went into this exchange with the hope of providing a sort of template that Christians can use should they find themselves in an exchange with a Street Epistemologist. The answers I give aren’t unique or ground breaking. This is all pretty standard stuff in the literature on religious epistemology. Christian philosophers have already given adequate responses to every SE-type question imaginable. For more on that, see Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief.
With that end in mind, I’ll also be providing commentary throughout the conversation. I’ll explain why I’m answering one way instead of some other way. The whole picture fits together in the end.
MacLeod: Thanks for reaching out to have this conversation Cameron, I understand you’d like to be the interlocutor with me as the Street Epistemologist?
Bertuzzi: No problem, I’m interested to see how this conversation pans out! Yes, I’ll take the position of “subject” and you the “Street Epistemologist.”
MacLeod: So I’ll ask the first question; could you describe to me what it is that you believe?
Bertuzzi: The easiest way to describe it would be that I affirm the Nicene Creed.
MacLeod: Alright, so you are a Christian and are confident that a God exists, is that accurate?
Bertuzzi: Yes and yes.
MacLeod: Can I get a sense of your confidence that this belief is true, say on a scale from 0 to 100?
Bertuzzi: I’m not really a fan of assigning numerical figures to confidence levels (partly because it fluctuates ever so slightly). Let’s just say that I hold this belief strongly.
I answered this way out of personal preference. Even SE’s emphasize that this question isn’t super important. They just want to gauge before and after the conversation if there’s been any change in confidence. You can answer however you’d like.
MacLeod: That’s totally fair. So how have you concluded that God exists?
Bertuzzi: Christianity for me has never been the conclusion of an argument. For a long time now I’ve just found myself believing it. I’ve looked at objections to Christianity, I’ve read a decent amount of the literature on the problem of evil, I’ve done my due diligence in looking at potential defeaters for my belief. But none of it has been convincing. On the other hand, when I gaze upon a beautiful sunset or look at the night sky, I often find myself thankful to God for allowing me to be part of it. Likewise, when I read my Bible, I often find myself thinking that what is written is true.
This response is exactly what the SE is looking for. They want the religious person to admit they believe in God without argument (or propositional evidence). Since I don’t believe in God on the basis of any argument, this is the response I gave. I have nothing to hide.
Two important observations: First, I mention I’ve done my due diligence in looking at potential objections to Christianity. If you haven’t done that, the strategy I’m using will not be as effective (both dialectically and rhetorically). The best objection to Christianity is the Problem of Evil. For a response to that, see this. Second, I mention that, in certain situations and circumstances, I simply find myself believing that God exists and that Christianity is true. It’s not that I look at a beautiful sunset and then infer that God must exist. The sunset isn’t being used as evidence for God’s existence. Rather, the belief that God exists simply occasions itself or arrises naturally for me in those situations.
Now, some Apologists (especially internalists) will want to say their belief in God and Christianity are the result of an argument. If you’re convinced yours is similarly based, feel free to answer that way. But be prepared for the inevitable hypothetical question later on: “If someone could show you those arguments fail, would you still believe in God with the same degree of confidence?” If you answer yes, they’ll claim you believe on faith anyways and arguments aren’t your “real reasons” for belief in God. If you answer no, some will believe you, others won’t. For the record, someone like Iain would believe you.
MacLeod: How does just believing something, or thinking that something is true relate to the actual truth of it?
Bertuzzi: I want to make sure I understand you correctly. Are you asking if “just believing” something is a reliable method of gaining knowledge?
Bertuzzi: I would say yes, in some cases it is. Let me give an example. Most people believe that the past is real. If asked, most would admit they believe the world wasn’t created 5 minutes ago with the appearance of age, they believe the past is real. Now, notice that this belief isn’t arrived at as the conclusion of an argument. Nor is there any propositional evidence (that we’re aware of) that says the past is actually real instead of some elaborate illusion. The past just seems real to us and so many people find themselves believing it. This is a completely natural and rational thing to believe. There are a number of other examples I could give but this one illustrates my point.
What I’m articulating here is a modest form of foundationalism (something that Boghossian himself suggests SE’s use). Foundationalism is roughly the idea that not all of our beliefs are justified on the basis of other beliefs; some of our beliefs are noninferentially justified. These “properly basic beliefs” don’t receive their justification from arguments or propositional evidence (from other beliefs).
I’m giving Iain an example of such a basic belief. If some modest form of foundationalism is true, our belief that the past is real is justified even in the absence of argument and propositional evidence.
MacLeod: Is believing that the past is real rational because everything we know suggests it or because we just believe it?
Bertuzzi: What do you mean by “everything we know” suggests the past is real?
MacLeod: Everything we know as in everything we can observe and infer, always good to clarify.
Bertuzzi: Thanks, let me clarify the epistemic situation. The ‘illusion hypothesis,’ the hypothesis that no rational person believes, includes the appearance of age. On this hypothesis the past isn’t actually real, but it still appears to us that the past is real. The dinosaur bone still exists and looks very old. Our memories, the food in our stomachs, everything exists just the same and looks identical. The difference is that on the illusion hypothesis, even though things appear much older, everything is about 5 minutes old.
MacLeod: I think I understand now. So the way we solve this epistemic situation is to just believe the past is real?
Bertuzzi: That’s a separate question. I’m not giving a solution to an epistemic problem, I’m giving an example of something most people “just believe” that is completely rational and warranted without argumentation. As I mentioned, there are a number of other examples I could give, this is just one of them.
MacLeod: Could you elaborate on how is it rational and warranted to just believe the past is real without argumentation?
Bertuzzi: Are you looking for me to provide a full analysis of all the necessary and sufficient conditions of rationality on the one hand and warrant on the other? I’m not sure I could do that in the context of a dialogue like this. There are many books written on those subjects, themselves being incomplete. What I’m really doing here is showing that some beliefs are accepted by most people without argument. Here’s another. Surely you believe that you are talking with another person right now. You aren’t talking with a P-zombie or a highly functional AI program. Yet did you arrive at that belief through some kind of argument? Here’s something else to think about. Assuming you believe evidence plays a key role in epistemic status, did you come to that belief on the basis of some argument or evidence? Or do you just find yourself having that belief?
Why didn’t I articulate foundationalism here? If I had, Iain’s next question would have (or should have) been, “Why is foundationalism true?” An answer to this question would in essence require me to provide an analysis of all the necessary and sufficient conditions of rationality and warrant. Such an endeavor is clearly beyond the scope of this little discussion. We’d be getting into territory that neither of us are really qualified to opine about.
Also important to note, I am not expecting him to answer the questions at the end. My hope is that he realizes he implicitly holds (or held prior to this conversation) some kind of foundationalist epistemology. The two additional examples I give should reveal that.
MacLeod: Of course, many people simply believe the past is real without argumentation, I should have noticed that was your main point. Does because many people believe the past is real without argumentation mean that just believing something is a reliable method of gaining knowledge?
Bertuzzi: No, that doesn’t necessarily follow. Nor does it follow that it isn’t. Would you mind answering this one question? Do you believe the past is real?
MacLeod: I absolutely believe the past is real, but let’s keep the conversation focused on your beliefs. If this example doesn’t imply that just believing something is a reliable method of gaining knowledge, what does?
If I were to question him further on this, I would have asked what argument or evidence lead him to believe the past is real, that it wasn’t created 5 minutes ago with the appearance of age. Unfortunately, given the nature of these SE-type conversations, I wasn’t able to probe this any further.
Bertuzzi: I’m glad to hear you believe the past is real. Undoubtedly, you, like most people, have known the past is real for some time now. Regarding your last question, are you asking for the necessary and sufficient conditions of warrant? Is that what you’re asking?
MacLeod: Not exactly. Just to be clear, are you saying that because many people just believe certain things (like the past being real), and these things are true, then just believing something is a reliable method of coming to knowledge?
Bertuzzi: Thanks, let me try and clarify. I’m giving one example of a belief most people will immediately recognize as rational to believe without argument. However, in my mind, in order to demonstrate that this belief is rational and warranted without argument would require me to lay out (and defend) all the necessary and sufficient conditions of knowledge and show how it doesn’t violate any of those conditions.
MacLeod: I certainly wouldn’t expect you to do that if you think it would be necessary in order to answer my question, let’s move on. You mentioned that you didn’t find any of the objections to Christianity convincing, what would you say upholds your belief in God?
Bertuzzi: There are going to be two kinds of responses to this question. On the one hand, if Christianity is true, then the reason I believe in God is because I’ve freely responded to the inner witness of the Holy Spirit in the right way. On the other hand, if Christianity is not true, then maybe the reason I believe is simply because of something like wish fulfillment, or perhaps I was just raised a certain way and haven’t found any reason to give up those beliefs. Hard to say. But the answer will be radically different depending on the truth (or falsity) of Christianity.
I answered his question by introducing Reformed Epistemology. In Warranted Christian Belief, Plantinga argues that epistemological objections to Christian belief are not independent of metaphysical objections. In other words, there is no saying that Christian belief is irrational, unreasonable, or unwarranted unless one is willing to argue that Christianity is false. This is because (i) if Christianity is true, then Christian belief is likely warranted, and (ii) if Christianity is false, then Christian belief is probably not warranted. For more on this, see my 4-part series.
Internalists might jump off at this point (if they haven’t jumped off earlier). And that’s totally fine. But since I think Reformed Epistemology is true, this is the route I am taking.
MacLeod: Interesting, I appreciate your ability to look at this so objectively. How might we determine if you believe because of your upbringing etc. or because of the interventions of the Holy Spirit?
Bertuzzi: Good question. However, I think it’s important to note that even if it’s true that I believe in Christianity (at least in part) because of wish fulfillment and my upbringing, it doesn’t follow that God doesn’t exist. God could have instilled in us a desire to know Him. I think the appropriate question to ask is this: Is Christianity true? That’s a question worth exploring.
Essentially what I’m doing here is clarifying that it’s not an either/or; God could use wish fulfillment and one’s upbringing to reliably engender belief in the truth of Christianity. I secondly bring it right back to the metaphysical question.
MacLeod: That’s a good note. We can definitely explore that question if you like, how can we find out if Christianity is true?
Bertuzzi: Let’s see if we can agree on a distinction before moving forward. Knowing that Christianity is true is different from showing that Christianity is true. Knowledge about Christianity is going to depend on whether there actually is this person called the Holy Spirit witnessing to people’s hearts and minds. So instead of asking the epistemological question, “How can we know that Christianity is true,” we should instead ask the metaphysical question, “Is Christianity true?” Can we agree to this distinction?
MacLeod: Sure, let’s investigate the question “Is Christianity true?” instead then. Do go on.
Bertuzzi: I’m glad you’ve agreed to discuss the metaphysical question. I know Street Epistemologists don’t usually stray from talking epistemology, in fact it’s explicitly prohibited in Boghossian’s book. In answer to the metaphysical question we’d want to investigate the evidence for God’s existence more broadly and Christianity in particular. In support of God’s existence, I would turn first to the contingency argument which is an argument for God’s existence from the fact that contingent things exist. I’ve written on that here. In support of Christianity in particular, I’d defend a Bayesian-style argument for the Resurrection of Jesus. I’ve given a talk on that here (the transcript is available there as well). Which would you like to explore?
MacLeod: I have a different question; if someone could sufficiently explain to us that the argument from contingency did not prove that God exists, would you still be as confident that He did?
Notice he immediately shifted the conversation away from discussing the truth of Christianity, even though that’s precisely what we just agreed to talk about. Iain does this because SE’s are trained to avoid facts (see Part 2 of my series on Street Epistemology). During their “interventions” they are told to focus on epistemology, not on metaphysics. The strategy I’m using, however, doesn’t permit this. It puts the focus back on the metaphysical question (which is logically where it should be).
I mentioned earlier that this question would inevitably pop up for the person that claims to believe in God on the basis of the evidence. What’s odd is that it pops up in the context of our discussion when I’ve already explicitly told him I don’t believe in God on the basis of any argument.
Bertuzzi: I see what you’re getting at. I mentioned at the beginning of our exchange that my belief in Christianity is not based on the conclusion of an argument. It’s not contingent on the success of Natural Theology. So even in that hypothetical situation, I wouldn’t be any less confident. That being said, it’s still possible for my confidence in Christianity to be shaken. If someone were to produce a successful argument against Christianity, then I would be faced with a potential defeater for my belief. Depending on the strength of the argument (and other factors), it could potentially lessen my confidence in the truth of Christianity.
MacLeod: So to be clear; is it accurate to say your belief is not contingent on any argument, and is based on you finding yourself believing it?
Bertuzzi: I would just want to say that it’s contingent insofar as my belief in God could–at least in principle–be defeated by a really good atheistic argument. But, yes, as I mentioned at the outset, I didn’t arrive at Christian belief through an argument.
MacLeod: Well, I could ask plenty more questions but I think we’ve gone on long enough. This was a very enjoyable and interesting conversation, thanks again for deciding to have it!
Bertuzzi: Yes, I agree, it was a fun conversation. I might take you up on your offer and ask you some questions of my own 🙂
MacLeod’s Closing Remarks: This was a great talk overall, and I hope I adequately represented how Street Epistemology is generally carried out. I’ve read through the other posts about SE on Capturing Christianity, and I will say there is a lot of valid criticism there. Something I should definitely note, however, is that I have not read Boghossian’s “A Manual For Creating Atheists”, and neither have many other Street Epistemologists. While the practice originally stems from that book it is by no means indicative of what SE has become, which is the non-confrontational use of the Socratic method to identify and discuss the methods used to arrive at deeply held beliefs. For almost all of us, it’s about the quest for truth, and in doing this we seek to help ourselves and others find the truth, whatever that may be.
Bertuzzi’s Closing Remarks: All in all, my discussion with Iain was enjoyable. He was a great dialogue partner. I also appreciated his courage in trying a format that other SE’s shy away from. Iain might not be the most seasoned SE, but he’s a really nice guy and deserves a lot of respect. Thanks Iain!
To Christians that have read this exchange, I hope that what you’ve seen here will help you navigate future discussions about your faith (even if it isn’t with a Street Epistemologist). If you’d like more information on the ideas I express here, check out this 4-part series I compiled on whether Christians can know that God exists. Beyond that, I highly recommend reading Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief.
Finally, to the Street Epistemologists that have made it this far, my fear is that you might be saying to yourself that Iain hasn’t represented SE very well or perhaps even that I went out of my way to make him and the method look bad. Let me clear the water. There was no intention, none whatsoever, to make him look bad or to misrepresent how SE is actually performed. Doing so would be a complete waste of my time. I sought to represent SE as accurately as possible. We even edited our conversation, heavily at points, to make it more representative. Regardless, if that’s you, if you think you could do a better job at SE-ing Bertuzzi, feel free to ask whatever SE question Iain missed in the comments or accept my invitation to do another written SE exchange.