I hereby assert that God exists and that I am in the fortunate position of knowing this to be the case. Of course I am aware that these assertions are likely to prove ever so slightly controversial (indeed Anna Ichino's previous post raises some insightful and thought-provoking worries about whether I am even correct in thinking that I believe these things) but let’s assume for the time being that they are correct. Furthermore, let’s suppose that you don’t share this knowledge. What, then, can I do to bring you to a position where you too know that God exists?
One obvious suggestion is that I provide you with some cogent argument demonstrating God’s existence. Debates concerning the epistemic status of theistic belief have traditionally centred around the evidential value of such arguments with numerous works discussing religious epistemology focusing exclusively on theistic (and anti-theistic) arguments and a number of philosophers endorsing claims to the effect that the rationality of theistic belief stands or falls with the success of these arguments.
Recently, though, (thanks in no small part to pioneering work by the likes of William Alston and Alvin Plantinga) the focus of discussions in religious epistemology has now widened significantly to include putatively non-inferential justifications for theistic belief arising from certain perceptual (or quasi-perceptual) experiences of the kind discussed in Joshua Cockayne’s recent post. But what if I am unable (or unwilling) to furnish you with arguments or experiences of the relevant kinds? Is there anything else I can do to enable you to know that God exists? Here is one simple suggestion; I do what I have done in the first sentence of this paper. I merely tell you – without argument or additional evidence of any kind – that God exists. In other words I attempt to bring it about that you know that God exists on the basis of my testimony alone.
In my view anyone who believes that we can have knowledge of God’s existence should accept the further claim that we can acquire such knowledge on the basis of testimony; knowledge – whether of God or of more mundane matters – is essentially social. In most areas this claim is now pretty much a commonplace and (folk wisdom about ‘believing half of what you see and none of what you hear’ notwithstanding) most philosophers are happy to accept that testimony is a vital and indispensable source of knowledge. There are, however, still those who argue that there are some domains – aesthetics, ethics, mathematics or (most relevantly for our purposes) religious belief – which serve as exceptions to this general trend. I think these philosophers (often referred to as ‘pessimists’) are wrong across the board.
While a blog post isn’t the place to launch into a full-fledged defence of the claim that testimony can serve as a source of theistic knowledge (or of knowledge in the other areas listed above) I want to briefly discuss one reason for being pessimistic about the success of the pessimist’s project. In my view the prima facie plausibility which pessimism in various domains possesses is often the result of arguments that conflate the absence of knowledge (or of legitimate belief) with the absence of some other valuable aspect(s) of the relevant practice. It is true for example that a person who based their religious beliefs on testimony alone would – again, assuming that theism is true – miss out on much of value possessed by a fellow believer who comes to belief on the basis of a genuinely revelatory and life-changing religious experience (though it’s worth noting that the same applies to someone who comes to believe on the basis of a cogent argument).
And, of course, there is much more to genuine religious commitment than mere propositional belief (as previous posts from Anna and Joshua highlight). Full-blooded religious practice will typically involve all manner of affective, practical, and interpersonal aspects that just don’t seem to be the kind of thing we can acquire (at least in any straightforward way) via testimony. None of this shows, though, that there is anything remotely problematic in forming theistic belief on the basis of testimony. Perhaps these additional elements of religious commitment are not available via testimony alone but there is no barrier to prevent the person who initially forms their beliefs on the basis of testimony from going on to acquire them. Indeed having the correct propositional beliefs, whether by testimony or otherwise, would surely be a help rather than a hindrance to this endeavour.