3 Minute Intro to Reformed Epistemology
By: Jordan Hampton
Is it rational to believe that God exists? Some people think the answer is no, and here’s an argument in support of that view.¹
It is rational to believe in theism only on the basis of a good argument.
There is no good argument for theism.
Therefore, it is not rational to believe in theism.
Many theists respond by denying premise 2. They claim that there are at least some good arguments for theism. I agree, and if you’re interested in hearing more about them, then check out my animated videos on the cosmological argument, and fine-tuning argument. But what about people who believe in God but don’t have access to these arguments? Well, there’s another way the theist can respond to this argument. They can deny premise 1, saying that it is rational to believe in God even if the belief is not based on an argument. This view is called Reformed Epistemology.
The Reformed Epistemologist doesn't think every rational belief needs to be based on an argument and here’s why. Say you have the belief, “I ate cereal for breakfast.” If all rational beliefs are based on arguments, then to be rational, you’d have to give an argument for that belief.
I remember eating cereal this morning.
If I remember eating cereal this morning, then I ate cereal for breakfast.
So, I ate cereal for breakfast.
There’s a problem though. This argument has two premises, and to be rational in believing those premises, you’d have to give a new argument for each of them. But then those new arguments will have premises, and you’d have to give a new argument for each of them. And this can go on forever. You end up in an infinite regress, and it would turn out that none of our beliefs are rational. That’s too much. Surely some of our beliefs are rational. This gives us a reason to think some beliefs can be rational apart from arguments. Philosophers call these types of beliefs “properly basic". To finish up, let's see how belief in God can be properly basic.
A belief is rational when it’s based on evidence. Arguments can count as evidence, but so can some experiences (arguably including “seemings”). Say you step outside and it seems (or appears) to you that it’s raining. You immediately form the belief, “it’s raining.” The seeming is evidence for your belief, and it’s rational to stick to the way things seem unless you have good reason not to. Similarly, say you step outside, see a beautiful sunset, and it just seems to you that “God made this” or “God is present”. You then immediately form the belief, “God made this.” That seeming is evidence for your belief, and (just like before) it’s rational to stick to the way things seem unless you have good reason not to. In both cases you have a rational belief that isn’t based on an argument. That’s one way that belief in God can be properly basic.
Moon, Andrew (2016). Recent Work in Reformed Epistemology. Philosophy Compass 11 (12):879-891.