Using natural theology’s five arguments for the existence of God we can provide five excellent reasons to believe in God:
1. God is the best explanation for the existence of objective moral values and duties.
2. God is the best explanation for the beginning of the universe.
3. God is the best explanation for why the universe is so finely-tuned to sustain life.
4. God is the best explanation why anything at all exists rather than nothing.
5. The very possibility that God exists indicates to us that he actually does exist.
This blog does NOT present an argument for God’s existence. Rather, we now want to find out if it’s possible to know that God exists through direct experience and reason, without having any arguments available to us.
Throughout history, most Christians came to believe in God through an entirely different and yet very legitimate, rational means: the inner witness of the Holy Spirit of God.
PROPERLY BASIC BELIEF
It’s the opinion of this website that it’s entirely possible to have a “properly basic belief” in God’s existence that is grounded in experience and reason, without the use of any inferential arguments like the ones we’ve presented in this series.
A belief is “basic” or “foundational” if it does not rely on other propositions to be true for its justification.
When we talk about a “properly basic belief,” we need to clarify that this is NOT an argument in which you have a religious experience and then attempt to use that experience to convince others that God exists. This simply affirms that there can be adequate justification to KNOW that God exists even though you can’t SHOW anyone else that it’s true.
Two examples of basic or foundational truths are the ones we discussed in our fourth introductory blog: self-evident truths (e.g., 2 + 2= 4) and truths derived from direct observation. Another example of a properly basic belief would be the idea that the external world you see around you is real and not simply a figment of your imagination. Another would be the idea that your memory of the past is based on experiences that actually took place and that those memories were not imaginary or artificially created by your mind.
These would all be “basic” truths because they are not reliant on any other evidence or propositions for their justification. They stand alone as warranted because of direct experience.
“Proper,” means that these beliefs are not arbitrary or subjective because your intellectual and sensory faculties are functioning properly. The experience itself is self-authenticating (it’s rational to believe the experience is real), unless there would be a clear “defeater” that might undermine its veracity.
This is how people in scripture knew God. To them, God was a real person whose presence they actually experienced, not just an idea or conclusion drawn from inference (i.e., the essence of being properly basic).
Once again, this is NOT an argument for the existence of God. We’re saying that it’s entirely possible to KNOW that God exists even if you cannot SHOW anyone else that he exists.
As an example, I could be put on trial for a murder I never committed, yet every piece of evidence that is presented to the jury indicates I committed the crime. I personally KNOW for a fact that I’m innocent, yet I can’t SHOW the jury that it’s the case. It’s entirely reasonable to insist that I’m innocent even though I can’t prove it to anyone.
Philosophers call the fact of my innocence a “properly basic belief.” It’s “basic” because it doesn’t rely on other evidence for its justification. I was there and simply know what the facts are in this case. I didn’t do it. It’s “proper” because my faculties are fully functioning and I know what I saw and heard, and it wasn’t me committing a murder.
Even though all the evidence points to my guilt, am I logically justified in boldly declaring my innocence? Yes, I am. I can’t convince the jury that I know more than they do, but I am right regardless of what they think!
A PROPERLY BASIC BELIEF IN THE HOLY SPIRIT
The most fundamental way that most Christians come to a realization that God exists is through properly basic belief in the inner, self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit. “Self-authenticating” refers to the fact that the person who has encountered the Holy Spirit knows that experience is genuine or real. Such an encounter with God does not require that you first examine inferential arguments for God.
Response to Skeptics
Skeptics will sometimes say that rather than this being “self-authenticating,” it’s actually circular reasoning: “You already read about this kind of thing in scripture, so you already believed the conclusion that this was the Holy Spirit you were experiencing and you just assumed that’s what it was.”
In response to such a critique, a Christian would need to clarify that a properly basic belief in the Holy Spirit is not an inference drawn from scripture, but rather it’s a conclusion grounded in direct experience. We wouldn’t normally expect that experience to be used as a means to persuade others, but we would expect the individual who had the encounter with God to affirm that something actually did occur.
The Christian would also need to point out that this same phenomenon occurs regularly to people who have never owned a Bible, who have never read one, or who are perhaps illiterate. They might hear the gospel by way of a radio or a preacher. Think about the fact that for centuries Bibles weren’t printed and readily available to everyone and yet there were Christians who had experiences with God’s Spirit.
Knowing vs. Showing Others
It’s entirely rational for a person to believe the gospel even if he has NO evidence that it’s true. Again, “properly basic belief” is about KNOWING, not about SHOWING or proving it to others.
Implications Of An Experience With God’s Spirit
Something else to keep in mind is the fact that even though a person can know that they’ve had an experience with the Holy Spirit, their free will is still intact and it’s possible to resist the impulse of that Spirit. It’s also possible for a person to sin and cause the Holy Spirit to grieve and thereby diminish his influence in the person’s life.
An experience with God’s Spirit implies that you understand certain truths or recognize certain benefits that result from this new relationship with God, such as:
* “God loves me,”
* “I’ve sinned and fallen short of God’s desire for my life,”
* “I’ve found forgiveness through Christ’s atoning sacrifice for my sin,”
* “The Holy Spirit has given me the hope that he can change the pattern of sin in my life,”
* “I no longer fear death because I have the assurance that I’ll be with God in eternity.”
* “My values have changed, and I have a new outlook or perspective,”
* “I want to better understand his purpose for my life here on earth and serve him.”
God’s existence is not just the conclusion of an inference. He is a personal being who is very real.
How do believers know that? They have that understanding through the inner witness of God’s Holy Spirit by which they experience this reality.
This is a “properly basic belief” that is entirely rational and does not rely on argumentation or inference, but is grounded in experience and first-hand knowledge.
For those who want to know more about this subject, it might be helpful to read Warranted Christian Belief by philosopher Alvin Plantinga.
People sometimes conflate “properly basic belief” with Pascal’s Wager and claim that there is some overlap between the two. However, that’s not the case.
Mathematician, inventor and philosopher Blaise Pascal presented a controversial way of calculating the risk of belief in God versus non-belief. He said that if you’re in a situation where it appears that the probabilities for and against God’s existence appear to be about even, you can have practical reasons that serve as adequate justification to believe in him. Pascal goes on to describe four possible scenarios and their consequences:
1. If you BELIEVE in God and you turn out to be CORRECT, then you’ll have gained an infinite benefit called “eternal life.”
2. On the other hand, if you BELIEVE in God and you’re WRONG, then you’ve lost very little. Perhaps you abandoned a sinful lifestyle for a short time, but that was not a painful price to pay compared to the potential infinite loss you could’ve suffered.
3. However, if you DON’T BELIEVE in God and it turns out that he actually EXISTS, then you’ve suffered infinite loss because you’ll be separated from him forever.
4. If you DON’T BELIEVE in God and it turns out that he does NOT EXIST, you’ve gained the pleasures of sin for a season, but that’s a tiny gain compared to the infinite loss you could’ve experienced if he actually did exist.
Pascal’s Conclusion: You have infinity to gain by believing and infinity to lose by not believing, so for practical reasons it makes sense to exercise belief in God.
PASCAL’S WAGER vs. PROPERLY BASIC BELIEF
“Pascal’s wager” says that, even though you think the odds are about even and there isn’t enough evidence to tip the scales in favor of God’s existence, it would still be rational to exercise belief in God for the above practical reasons. So Pascal is saying that you can believe in God without any warrant at all, where your belief is based on weighing the odds and resulting risk from each scenario and then gambling on that basis.
“Properly basic belief” concerns the idea that you ARE warranted in your belief in God, not by an inferential argument, but in a properly basic way through direct experience with God and your ability to reason. So this isn’t a situation where the odds are about even and you’re gambling based on the risks involved. This is a situation where you know what you experienced, just like you know the external world is real and your memories of the past are based on real experiences.