A former professor at Notre Dame University, Alvin Plantinga, has made something of a name for himself by provoking discussion on “warranted belief”. If I have decided to add my two centimes’ worth to the discussion, it is because the concept is central to my assertion that religious belief is at once blind faith and blind folly. We’re talking here about knowledge, certitude, proof and the justification of belief. My conviction is that religion consists of unwarranted beliefs and that atheism is warranted unbelief.
Epistemology, etymologically, is a discourse about truth. Philosophically, it is a discourse about knowledge and its foundations. What MUST we accept as true ? Most people agree that only axioms qualify. A = A; If A – B = C, then B + C = A; 2 + 2 = 4. It is pretty hard to deny those affirmations, or to suggest they are mere beliefs, hypotheses or myths. We do not BELIEVE they are true; we KNOW they are true. What else do we know is true ? How about : The Sun will rise tomorrow ? We all know that that has NEVER been true, because the Sun does not rise; it just looks as though it does. In fact we all use the expression, but even children know that in reality the daily rotation of the earth accounts for day becoming night and night becoming day. We do not BELIEVE that day will follow night; we KNOW it will. Of course, one could question the CERTITUDE of this knowledge, because as unlikely as it is, something could happen to prevent the Sun from “rising”. Something totally unexpected, such as the collision of the Earth with an avalanche of giant asteroids, could pulverize our planet and make sunrises, us and our whole world things of the past. The stuff of science-fiction, of course, but a possibility that precludes absolute certitude. But – literally for all practical purposes – our certitude is “warranted” by an unbroken record of “sunrises”, by our knowledge of the physical laws governing our galaxy and the Universe itself, and by the extreme unlikelihood of the cataclysm we have described ever happening. One day, of course, five billion years from now, our Sun will become a supernova and will, in fact, never “rise” again.
As I sit here on my ocean-facing deck, I could say the same thing about the certainty of the present low tide becoming high tide.
So we have no doubt about axioms, sunrises and tides. About them, at least, we have certitude. Is everything else subject to … beliefs ? And if so, which of them are “warranted” and “unwarranted” ?
Non-atheists, believers, try to get away with calling atheists’ denial of the existence of God a “belief”. They believe He exists. We “believe” He doesn’t ? Sorry, folks ! Nice try, but it won’t work. Our “unbelief”, our absence, our denial, of belief, different from your belief, is warranted. No one has any valid reason or evidence to assert that God exists. We assert that your belief is unwarranted : the “evidence” you present – the Universe as an effect of a supposed “First Cause”, His “Intelligent Design”, the “miracles” He is supposed to have worked, the “revelation” He is supposed to have provided – are fabrications, myths, the products of wishful thinking. You have CHOSEN to believe in them. We are FORCED to RECOGNIZE that such belief is UNWARRANTED. “Pace” Professor Plantinga.