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Thoughts of A Certain Bibliophile

“Return to Reason” is a valiant effort in trying to hold down the fort for post-Enlightenment, rational belief in a God. For a short book, it covers a lot of territory, including an argument against natural theology, and a critique of foundationalist epistemology (for definitions of these terms, see the second and third paragraphs respectively). It’s a great undergraduate text for what philosophers call “reformed epistemology” (again, see below) and introduces some of the most popular names in this tradition. Unfortunately, I found this book to be tragically flawed in several respects, and in the end, a terrible failure, both of the imagination and of philosophy. 



Clark begins off on a solid footing with a thoroughgoing critique of natural theology – that is, the idea that a belief in God can be derived from logical propositions that all rational beings can agree upon. The most recognizable of these arguments are seen in Aquinas’ five proofs, including the argument from design and the cosmological argument. He rightly argues that different (rational) people can use different standards of evidence and only think these standards apply in certain situations. For example, regarding the argument from design, some people think that the argument from sufficient reason applies to all things within the universe, while others – namely the people who find the design argument convincing – think it can apply to the universe as a whole itself. Some astrophysicists have recently asserted that the Big Bang itself may not have had a cause (I’m thinking here of Lawrence Krauss), which would blow the entire lid off of the cosmological argument as we know it. Because of this, natural theology seems like a failure on all fronts: using only the tool of classical Enlightenment reason, it’s not the case that all people will agree on the positive truth value of God claims. 




Because this relentless need for evidence and reason, which Clark terms “evidentialism,” cannot prove the existence of God, he sees it fit to critique foundationalism, the belief that all inferential beliefs are based on more basic beliefs. Instead, thinking that he’s offering a detailed critique of foundationalist epistemology, he really just goes on to flatly state that when you want to believe in something, you can “just do it.” In fact, in “Faith and Rationality,” Nicholas Wolterstorff states this flatly and unashamedly. “A person is rationally justified in believing a certain proposition when he does believe unless he has adequate reason to cease from believing it. Our beliefs are rational unless we have reason for refraining; they are not non-rational unless we have reason for believing” (Clark, p. 147). I’m sorry, but this simply isn’t the way that rationality works, and it’s relatively easy to see why. Say I want to belief that an Invisible Giant Meatball Sandwich causes things to fall to the ground, not gravity. Try proving me wrong. 




Instead of changing his worldview in the light of insufficient evidence, like most philosophers would do, Clark followed in the footsteps of an unfortunate yet storied philosophical tradition known as reformed epistemology (so named because of its roots in the Protestant Reformation, especially in the theology of John Calvin), but recently revived by the likes of Alvin Plantinga, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and William Alston. Reformed epistemology holds that belief in a God is both basic and proper, or what philosophers call “properly basic.” “Basic” here means without recourse to being explained by something else (it’s a primary belief which doesn’t need explanation itself), and “properly” means that a belief is justified. In other words, reform epistemologists believe that God is both something that is justified, but also doesn’t have to be explained. Well, isn’t that just precious – and convenient. It seems obvious to me that reformed epistemology is simply a way of trying to smuggle in the back door what you can’t get in if you actually follow the rules of the game of philosophy: you know, like evidence, reason, and logical methods. Does anyone know of a reformed epistemologist who also happens to be an atheist? 




Crickets. I hear crickets. 




I’m by no means uncritical of the Enlightenment, or the traditions that flow from it. But what I find most dishonest about this book is not that it feels that it can dismiss centuries of philosophical thought in 150 pages, but that it makes the tremendously intellectually dishonest move of trying assert (note that I didn’t say “prove” or “demonstrate”) totally ad hoc a belief that can be introduced by no rational means. I’m also not someone who thinks that philosophy should necessarily in any way resemble science in content or method, but one really is treading ground when you import the word “rationality” here, leading people on to believe that it’s anything like the rationality of science. Clark, Plantinga, Wolterstorff and other reformed epistemologists haven’t really critiqued anything. They’ve skirted the issue, and have thereby created a whole new welter of problems for themselves. I can understand when someone asserts that their belief in God is basic – that it is primary, and can’t be explained by anything else. But saying that it’s properly basic – that these kinds of beliefs are justified – is simply not reasonable or rational. There’s a reason why they call it Calvinism. And it should stay in the sixteenth century where it belongs.