Philipse on the Rationality of Beliefs

I have to admit that I found Chapter 5, where Philipse tries to outline what it would take for a belief in God to be rational, very, very confusing. I did a lot of epistemology in my day, but a lot of the distinctions he was drawing were a bit foreign to me, and so to really understand the distinctions he’s trying to make I’d probably have to go back over and read it again, and read more on the subject. That being said, one of my confusions wasn’t really due to that at all, and made me realize a major issue that’s been running through the entire debate up until now.

Philipse draws a distinction between internalist and externalist accounts of, I guess, justification. But he characterizes the externalist view as being reliablism — the idea that you are justified in believing that X if your belief that X was produced by a reliable truth-forming faculty — and contrasting it with the internalist view that justifies belief on the basis of reasons. Now, since Philipse takes the internalist view as being the most reasonable, and I’m an avowed reliablist, I wasn’t exactly going to find that view credible. But the most puzzling thing about this is that it seems to be rather self-defeating. How would we know that appealing to reasons produces true beliefs? If appealing to reasons, in any manner, is a process it has to be demonstrated to be a process that produces true beliefs, and in that sense it has to be justified by reliablism. If one rejects a reliablist justification there, it sounds like an claim that the internalist account justifies by reasons but sees no need to determine if that process of finding reasons to justify a claim produces true beliefs the majority of the time … which hardly seems like justification at all. So it doesn’t seem, to me, like you can actually divide reliablism from justification by reasons the way Philipse wants to.

But this made me realize an underlying issue with the entire exercise: there are two questions to be asked here. The first is “Is a person’s religious belief rational?”. The second is “Does that person reasonably believe that their religious belief is rational?”. I don’t want to claim that Philipse thinks that these are the same question, because there are a number of indications — including the internalist/externalist distinctions that he makes in this chapter — that he does. He just seems to think that the first question is meaningless if the person can’t answer the second question. But this gets into first and second order knowledge.

The idea is basically this: if I have a belief that is a justified true belief, then I know that proposition is true. So, in terms of first-order knowledge, the statement “I know that X” is true; I really do know that X is true. Now, the second-order knowledge statement is “I know that I know that X”, which would mean that I have a justified true belief that my belief that X is a justified true belief. Now, in this case it seems quite clear that I could merely believe that I know that X, and so have first-order knowledge but not have second-order knowledge. But this wouldn’t mean that I would no longer have that first-order knowledge, or even that my belief that I have first-order knowledge was irrational. It seems, then, that I could know that X without being able to justify, at least to the level of knowledge, that I really do know that.

Now Philipse, I imagine, will reply that what I’m saying is the externalist view, and he thinks the externalist view isn’t a good one. He’d try to assert, I think, that you can’t credibly claim to know something unless you can justify that you know it, but as seen above that gets into at least a claim that you have to have a justified belief that you know or are rational in believing that you know or rationally believe that X. The problem with this though is that you start getting into third and fourth and higher degrees of knowledge. Sticking with knowledge for a moment, if in order to know that X I have to know that I know that X, then in order to know that I know that X I have to know that I know that I know that X, and in order to know that I know that I know that X I have to know that I know that I know … well, you should be getting the idea by now. So insisting that one must know that they know something — ie be able to justify it to that level — before being rational in making that claim simply isn’t workable; it simply is not possible for us to parse out all the orders of knowledge that we’d need to be able to make that claim, and if Philipse decides to arbitrarily stop at second order knowledge then we can ask why we shouldn’t just stop at first order knowledge and call it a day.

It seems to me here that Philipse’s main concern isn’t so much about justifying the belief to yourself, but about justifying it to others. In short, it seems to me that in order to consider a belief in God rational, it has to be the case that the person has to be able to answer the question “Why is it that you think your belief in God is rational?”. But that’s a question that I answer from other people, not from myself. Thus, at this point, Philipse’s argument seems to work more as a demand from those who don’t believe in God to demonstrate that their belief is rational, and thus to justify the rationality of their belief to others. Sure, Philipse can justify it as a claim that you can’t consider a belief rational unless you yourself know why it is rational, but this is certainly not an uncontroversial claim for a number of reasons.

First, we can return to Plantinga. If Plantinga says that someone’s belief in God is rational because they do have a properly functioning sensus divintatis, and that therefore their belief was produced by a reliable truth-forming faculty, then it is just true that they know that God exists … even if they can’t prove that. And thus any evidence from people who come to different conclusions is meaningless; one is right, one is wrong, but we know not which one. If someone accepts this, then any demand Philipse would make for them to justify their belief is nothing more than a demand from someone else to prove to them that their belief is true or justified … and under the Reformed Objection that’s not acceptable. Their belief is factual or it is not, and they don’t know which yet. But it is the belief they have, and that someone else doesn’t share it is no reason for them to reject the belief they have.

Second, we can take someone who accepts the Web of Belief. The answer is almost the same: this is the belief I have. It fits in my Web of Belief without contradictions, and when I act on it no new contradictions appear. So, why should I consider it irrational if I can’t point to some kind of sufficient justification for its rationality? Being in the Web and causing no contradictions is enough to get basic rationality. So simply because someone demands a justification doesn’t mean that not being able to provide a justification means that the belief is irrational. At best, it demonstrates that I don’t know it true.

So, in both cases, I think the reply to Philipse is that unless he can demonstrate that the belief is irrational, it’s fine for me to consider it rational as long as it passes some basic tests for rationality, and that doesn’t mean Philipse evaluating the purported reasons against some standard that he himself sets. He can try to demand sufficient reasons for natural theology, because natural theology and theology in general should be about providing those sorts of reasons. But simple, every day belief need not be, as Plantinga and the Web of Belief demonstrate.

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