Panentheism.  Revisionism.  Anarchocapitalism.



Essays by Me

Essays by Others

Text taken from here. Date not given; no reference note cite cites anything published after 1989.  Also on this site is Lee's “Does God Have Emotions?”

Lee is the Director of the Institute of Bioethics at Franciscan University of Steubenville, where he is also Professor of Bioethics.  See his site.


Evidentialism, Plantinga, and Faith and Reason

Patrick Lee

A. The False Presupposition of the Evidentialist Objection

     The evidentialist objection presupposes several claims about what is needed for a belief to be a pro-per act.  Of course the evidentialist objector claims that religious belief is not epistemically warranted.  While Plantinga and many others deny this claim, I have argued that we should grant it to the eviden-tialist, in this sense, that the absolute certainty of Christian belief is not epistemically warranted.  But evidentialism also presupposes that one ought not to accept a belief that is not epistemically warranted, in other words, that to accept a belief that is not epis-temically warranted is not morally justified.   So the heart of the evidentialist argument concerns moral justification. 

     The evidentialist norm for believing has been ex-pressed in various ways:  It is wrong to believe any-thing upon insufficient evidence.  Or: One ought to proportion one’s belief in a proposition to the degree of evidence which one has to support that propo-sition.  Or: One ought not to go beyond the evidence in one’s acts of believing.  (I think the word “evidence” here means roughly what I used it to mean above, namely, something of which one is aware which seems to indicate that a proposition is true or likely to be true, and evidence in this sense need not be propositional.)  These ways of expres-sing it come down to the same thing, for what is meant is that evidence alone should be deter-minative of what and how one believes.  Nothing else should affect one’s acts of believing except the relationship between the proposition believed and the evidence one knows that supports  it. 

     However, what evidence is there for this Sola Evidentia position?  After all, an act of believing is a moral act, and moral acts typically relate to several human goods rather than just one.  Why should this human act be motivated or influenced by only one human good—possession of truth—while there seems nothing morally wrong with other human acts being simultaneously motivated and influenced by several human goods?      

     An example frequently discussed is a mountain climber who has climbed to a dangerous spot from which he can escape only by jumping across a wide chasm.  The evidence just on its own indicates that it is only probable that he will make the jump.  (I’ll discuss the type of case where the available evidence goes against one’s belief in a moment.)  But if he believes with certainty he will make the jump then his chances are greatly increased.  It does not seem immoral for him to induce in himself, or to try to induce in himself, the belief that he will make the jump.  Such an act does not seem to involve a disrespect or a disregard for the basic good of possession of truth.  The type of act involved here is:  accepting a proposition with certainty (partly) for the sake of a good which the belief of that proposition, together with its truth, if it turns out to be true, will help or enable one to realize.      

     Another example, more closely analogous to religious belief, is accepting a marriage proposal.  Suppose George proposes marriage to Hilda.  He tells Hilda that he loves her, proposes that they set up together a common life, and tells her of things he has done for her—that he has, for example, bought them a house for the home they will make if she says yes.  So, Hilda seems to have a choice.  She can accept what George says as true and sincere and accept the proposal, or not.  She cannot, obviously, prove that his proposal is sincere.  Let us suppose George is not a villainous type, that there are signs that he is a good and honest person; in other words, one would likely say his claim is “credible,” worthy to be believed.  Well, if Hilda decides to accept, it is likely that she will have more certainty in George than the evidence just by itself about him would epistemically warrant.  But is there anything morally improper about such belief or faith? 

     Religious belief is analogous to acceptance of a marriage proposal.  Religious belief in the full sense, according to Christians, is believing what God has communicated through the words and deeds of prophets and of Jesus. Revelation is not merely impersonal information or a set of speculative truths.  It is a personal communication.  It reveals, in part, who God is, his invitation and commitment to personal communion, and many of the things he has done for us.1   To be sure, there is evidence, or signs of credibility—signs indicating that indeed it is God who is speaking here.  Yet the Christian’s act of acceptance, and the certainty of that act, are motivated not just by that evidence or “signs”, but also by the desire for the personal communion offered.2  Is such an act morally justified? 

     Moral justification primarily concerns basic human goods, that is, aspects of human flourishing.  In acts of believing the primary good involved—although I will argue not the only good—is possession of truth, or a grasp upon reality.  I believe the basic moral norm can be expressed in this way:  In all of one’s choices and acts of willing, one ought to respect all basic human goods, including such goods as, human life, aesthetic experience, friendship and society, and so on. 

     This position on morality is derived from Thomas Aquinas’s natural law theory, and has recently been articulated and developed by Germain Grisez, Joseph Boyle and John Finnis.3 I can briefly clarify this view by contrasting it with consequentialism or utilitari-anism.  Consequentialism is correct in this sense that moral good is closely linked with the human good or the fulfillment of the whole person.  But conse-quentialism is incorrect in basing morality on the production of goods or benefits rather than directly on how the will is related to human goods.  The moral norm is not that we should maximize human goods, which would justify suppressing a particular human good for the sake of the consequences “in the long run.”  I do not think it morally right to choose to destroy or suppress a human good for the sake of (what one thinks will be) the balance of human goods in general.  Morality does depends how one’s action is related to human goods, but the important relation is this: one’s choice or will should be directed to hu-man goods, and should remain open to all of them.  From this basic principle several more specific moral norms follow.  For example, one ought not to be deterred from pursuing human goods by mere lethargy or laziness; one ought not to prefer the mere experience or the mere appearance of a good to its reality; and one ought not to choose to destroy, damage, or impede one good for the sake of another.  One is not required to pursue all of the basic human goods all of the time, but one is (morally) required to respect them at all times. Perhaps the central question concerning the ethics of belief, then, is: what does respect for the good of possession of truth require? 

     First, respect for this good seems to require that we pursue it at least sometimes.  I would be less than honest if I said I had a love for truth but never made any effort to pursue it. 

     Secondly, I think respect for this good also re-quires that we never choose precisely against it, for example, by suppressing truth for the sake of an ulterior end.  And, thirdly, respect for the good of possession of truth requires that in any of our actions which could affect this good (in ourselves and in others), we at least take it into account, that is, that we not disregard this good.  An example of disre-garding the good of possession of truth is:  believing in astrology because it makes me feel good, or even, believing in  God (or trying to induce belief in God in someone else) solely because one thinks such belief makes people morally better. 

     Yet believing for the sake of a good other than truth need not include any failure to pursue truth, any suppression of truth, or disrespect for the good of possession of truth.  An action that directly bears on one good may be chosen to promote another good without slighting the good the action most directly  bears on.4  Therefore, believing for the sake of a good other than truth need not be immoral. 

     In sum: (1) religious belief can be motivated by a hope for the realization of a basic human good; (2) religious belief need not include a negative attitude toward or a disregard for any other instance of a human good.  From these points it follows that reli-gious belief could be, in the appropriate conditions, a morally good act. More formally:

Every act which does not negate or disregard a basic human good is a morally good act.

Some acts of religious belief do not negate or disregard a basic human good.

Therefore, some acts of religious belief are morally good acts.5

     Someone might object that my account leads to approving all kinds of irrational acts.  Is not the person who believes in astrology because it makes him feel good doing just what I have  described, believing for the sake of a good other than truth?  Is not irrationality precisely allowing concerns other than that for truth to take over? 

     In reply, first, saying that believing for the sake of a good other than truth need not involve disrespect for truth does not mean that every believing for the sake of a good other than truth is respectful of truth and morally right.  If we reject the evidentialist restriction on how concern for other goods can influence one’s actions in relation to truth, it does not follow that we are left no restrictions at all on such influence.  Secondly, I have said that religious belief is analogous to an act of accepting a proposition for the sake of a good which the belief, together with the truth of the proposition, will help one realize.   If the belief by itself were sufficient to bring about the good one is seeking by believing then it seems that the action would be immoral.  Believing in astrology because it makes one feel good, or even, believing in God solely because such a belief makes one more moral, are examples of doing that.  If the  belief by itself—independently of the belief’s truth—were  sufficient to bring about the good one hoped for, then one’s  choice to believe (or choice to do what leads to believing) would include implicitly a willingness or consent to believe falsely.   This would violate the basic good of possession of truth.  But in the type of act we are discussing there need be no implicit consent to believe falsely. That is, no doubt there are acts of religious belief that do involve a disregard for truth, or insufficient regard for truth, but it is not necessary that every act of religious belief do so. 

     Thirdly, I believe some degree of evidence is needed in order for the act of belief to be a morally responsible act.  I am not sure we can give an explicit criterion for determining how much evidence is needed. But I think some degree of evidence is required.  If, for example, the man who proposed marriage to Hilda were known to be a J. R. Ewing type, then it would probably be unreasonable for her to accept his proposal as sincere.  The less evidence there is, then I think the more the other factors in the situation must contribute to justifying (morally) a risk with respect to the good of possession of truth.      

     Fourthly, we must remember that respect for the good of truth requires at all times openness to evidence that may go to support a view opposite the belief.  The will to bring it about that I believe p does not excuse suppressing evidence for not‑p.  For one thing, what looks like evidence for not‑p may turn out to be evidence for some other proposition, or it may cause us to understand more fully what it is we are understanding in the proposition p.  It is well to remember here that our goal is not simply to believe true propositions and refrain from believing false ones, but to have a cognitive grasp upon the real, or to have as accurate and complete a picture of what the real is as we can.  The evidence for not‑p may eventually serve to reveal important aspects of the real other than what it first seems to point to.  Because of that fact, and also because the evidence itself is part of our possession of truth, it is never morally permissible directly to suppress evidence.     

     What about believing when the available evidence, or rather the balance of the available evidence, goes the other way?  I do not think this is necessarily im-proper either.  One reason why is that the available evidence may be misleading, and I do not see that taking a second‑order view, so to speak, and holding that the available evidence must be misleading is necessarily disrespectful of truth.  In other words, it is difficult to arrive at many universal rules implied by the respect due the good of possession of truth (but there is at least one exceptionless norm here—the duty not to suppress truth).

      But a further point can be added.  There are three ways the evidence and the situation could stack up.  (1) The evidence and situation might be such that one ought not to believe.  (2) It might be such that it is permissible for one to believe, but also permissible for one not to believe.  And (3), as I shall argue in more detail in a moment, the evidence and the situation might be such that one positively ought to believe.  I think that the more the evidence points in the opposite direction, the less likely it is going to be that I positively ought to believe.  In other words, in a situation where the available evidence does point one way, it may be permissible to believe the opposite, but it is not likely that one would be obliged to do so. 

     In any case, I do not think God has left us in a situation where the available evidence does point in the direction opposite religious belief.  In fact there are signs of credibility for God’s revelation.  Of course, what evidence is available to  reasonably intelligent and conscientious inquirers may not be  readily available to my next door neighbor, partly because I may be too indifferent to speak to him or her about my belief and partly because my life may fail to manifest any of the splendor  of the Christian Faith.  As Christians we have a responsibility to help make the Faith credible.  Faith, as well as redemption and sanctification, are communal.      

     My argument so far has been deductive.  I have appealed to ethical principles to show that concern for a good other than truth can morally justify certainty.  However, a confirming argument can be added:  It seems that friendship, any friendship, is a good that can be realized only by going beyond the evidence.   One does not have to be a dualist to see that crucial aspects of the person, such as a person’s commitments, are not directly seen or experienced by other persons.  And yet it is especially with these aspects of the person that one unites oneself in a friendship.  In a friendship each friend not only cares for the other for the other’s sake, but also in some way chooses, freely accepts, the friendship, i.e., the relationship, itself.  This could not be so unless each friend accepted the other’s (explicit or implicit) claim to be a friend, the other’s claim to care for that friend.  But this caring, this resolve to be a friend, is an aspect of the other person that cannot be directly experienced or proved to exist.  In other words, reaching out to central aspects of another self, in friendship, requires one to go beyond the evidence, for the simple reason that central aspects of the self are beyond the evidence.  One must be willing to accept, without proof, that the other is sincere in his or her offer or claim of friendship. 

     If this is true, then belief is not a necessary means toward friendship, but a part of it.  Friendship is im-possible without belief, without accepting something upon insufficient evidence, without an assent (accep-tance of a proposition as true) not proportioned to the evidence.  Now, friendship is a morally good thing.  Therefore belief, going beyond the evidence, which is part of it, must also be morally permissible.  Or, to state the argument differently, if the evi-dentialist objection against religious belief were ef-fective, it would also show that friendship is immoral, which, I think, we can take to be a reductio ad absurdum.   

     In sum, according to the evidentialist objection, a belief must be epistemically warranted in order to be morally justified, and the evidence for religious belief is not sufficient to provide epistemic warrant for the degree of certainty characteristic of religious belief. Plantinga denies that evidence is needed for epis-temic warrant and argues that belief in God is episte-mically warranted in the absence of any evidence whatsoever.  Others argue that there is sufficient evidence to render religious belief epistemically war-ranted.  I have sided, however, with those who hold that it is incorrect to assume, as the evidentialists do, that a belief must be epistemically warranted in order to be morally justified.  And I argue that con-cern for a good which the belief plus the belief’s truth would help one realize can supplement evidence in order to morally justify certainty.         


B. Why Reasons Are Needed For Religious Belief

     I have said that evidence is needed for the belief to be reasonable. But one might question this.  Why are reasons needed at all for religious belief?  Why not just say that concern for a good other than truth can by itself morally justify a belief?   

     Whenever one acts one ought to be concerned with how one’s action is related to the various goods that will be affected by one’s action.  Epistemic warrant is secondary.  The purpose of epistemic warrant is solely to ensure that one is more likely to possess more of the truth than one would if one’s beliefs were not epistemically warranted.  So, in every act of belief—an action which necessarily bears on the good of possession of  truth—one ought to be concerned with how one’s action affects the good of possession of truth. Therefore, if one stops and asks oneself whether one’s religious belief is a good thing, then one morally ought to examine or consider how that belief is related to the good of possession of truth before one accepts or continues to accept it.  That is, one morally ought to consider how likely it is that this belief is true.  So if one considered whether one’s religious belief is a good thing, but failed to examine how this belief is likely to be related to truth, that is, if one failed to consider the evidence, then one would act without sufficient regard for the good of possession of truth.   For this reason, for those who reflect on their religious belief, to believe in the absence of reasons or evidence seems objectively immoral. 

     What about someone who does not reflect on his religious  belief, someone who believes sponta-neously, without asking himself whether his religious belief is a good thing—for example, a child?  Is such belief objectively immoral or improper?  I believe the answer to this question is no, for there  does not seem to be any general moral duty to scrutinize every  spontaneous choice, and I see no special ground for there being  such a duty in the area of choices which involve how one is  related to the good of possession of truth.  So, for those who reflect on their religious belief evidence is necessary.


C. How Evidence or Reasons Function In Religious Belief

     The main function of evidence or reasons in religious belief is not to show the truth of what is believed—for then faith would not be required.  Nor is the main function of reasons even to show the truth of the factual proposition that God has spoken.   Rather, the main function of reasons in religious belief is to show the truth of the moral proposition that I ought to believe. 

     Suppose a young man has just been in a serious motorcycle accident and almost killed.  He is lying in the hospital bed with his head bandaged so that he can only see dimly and hear vaguely.  Suppose also that the hospital authorities have informed him that his treatment will be discontinued unless he proves himself able to pay the bill, and he cannot do that.  Further, the boy was estranged from his family a few years back; he left home, say, after a heated argument with his parents.  While he is lying in the hospital bed a man comes into his room, claims to be his brother, and claims to have a message from their father, that the father is in town and would like to visit the boy and receive the boy back into the family.

     Since the boy cannot see or hear well, it is not immediately evident that the person speaking to him really is who he says he is.  Maybe, the boy reflects, the man is really a doctor trying to make him feel good before he dies.  So, it seems that the boy has a choice; he can believe the claim or not.  What  should the boy do? 

     Perhaps he would listen to the alleged brother very carefully.  Perhaps he would investigate him and what he says, to determine as well as he could whether he acts like his brother would act, whether he does and says just the kinds of things his brother would say and do.  Similarly, people looking into the Christian claim should look at Jesus, his deeds, and his teaching to see whether Jesus does indeed act like a messenger from God, and whether he does and says the things that only a messenger of God would and could do.

     The boy might scrutinize the alleged brother’s message to see if it is the sort of message his father would give, whether, perhaps, it reveals things only his father would know, whether, that is, it has the marks or signs of really being a message from his father.  Likewise, people can investigate Christian teaching  and ask whether it has signs of having a divine origin.   

     Suppose that in the boy’s case the evidence is not sufficient to compel the boy’s assent.  Suppose that the evidence by itself does not warrant absolute certainty, but, say, only a high degree of probability.  Nevertheless, at some point there might be enough evidence so that the boy ought to accept the claim.  The basic goods of friendship (with his father) and health (his own) could require this; that is, there could be situations in which anyone who has a love for these goods would accept the claim.  The boy ought not to demand absolute proof before he accepts the claim made by the (alleged) brother.  Were he to do so, this would indicate an ungracious or impious attitude toward his father and perhaps an insufficient regard for his own health.

     Similarly, at some point the evidence for the Chris-tian claim might be such that it does not provide epistemic warrant for absolute certainty, but is enough so that one morally ought to accept the proposal as certainly true.  Just as in the boy’s situation, so here, to demand absolute proof, to demand proof that would be proportionate to the assent asked of one, is lacking in the virtues of gratitude and piety, and perhaps an intelligent con-cern for one’s ultimate welfare. And this shows how evidence or reasons function. They function, not to show with absolute certainty the theoretical proposition that the claim is a fact, but to show the moral proposition that I ought to believe. Without such reasons or signs of credibility it may still be permissible to believe.  But it seems that reasons or signs of credibility are needed to put one in a situation where one morally ought to believe.   

     It is worth remembering that someone may have reasons for believing something without being able to articulate those reasons.  The reasons for holding that God has indeed spoken, the signs of credibility, need not be the same as what one may read in an apologetics book.  The sublimity and evident sanctity of Christian doctrine, of the liturgy, and of the Church (or members of the Church), these are signs indicating that the gospel is God’s message and that the Church has a divine origin and guidance. 

     One’s ability to see this sublimity or more-than-human quality is aided, or perhaps in most cases, made possible, by divine help, i.e., divine grace.  The recognition of beauty and the recognition of gene-rosity in other people require an ability or “sense” on the part of the subject.  An art critic sees beauty in a painting where others without his “aesthetic sense” will see only paint on a canvas.  Someone who has no generosity himself is typically unable to see gene-rosity in others, so that such a person continually asks, “What’s that person’s angle?”  The beauty and generosity are really there, only they require an ability or sense on the part of the subject to be recognized.  In a similar way, the presence of the Holy Spirit in a human  person enables her to recognize the sublime and the holy, or  really, the divine, in the words and deeds of the prophets and of  Jesus, handed on to us in the Church.  Thus, of the Good  Shepherd, Jesus says that he calls his own sheep by name and the  sheep hear his voice, “And the sheep follow him because they know  his voice.  But a stranger they will not follow, but will flee from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.”   (Jn, 10:4‑6)

     In sum, I have argued that Plantinga’s account of epistemic warrant is mistaken or incomplete, and have argued for an internalist constraint upon the circumstances that provide epistemic warrant.  Second, with this stricter or narrower view of epistemic warrant, I argued that we should probably grant that the certainty of Christian belief does not have epistemic warrant (although it is not irrational either).  Third, I argued that the certainty of Christian belief is morally justified, because it is morally proper to believe partly for the sake of a good other than possession of truth, in the case of Christian belief, for the sake of the personal communion offered.   Fourth, I argued that to be morally justified, the religious belief of reflective believers must have evidence or reasons, for only then does such an act of belief have the morally required regard for the basic good of possession of truth.  And, fifth, I  argued that the function that reasons or evidence play in a  reasonable act of faith is to make it clear to oneself that one’s  act of belief is a morally responsible act, or that one morally  ought to believe.


1 See Germain Grisez, The Way of the Lord Jesus, I, Christian Moral Principles (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1983, chapter 20. There is a disanalogy with cases of human belief or faith which troubles some people.  In other cases of belief or faith it is usually obvious that the one to be believed is indeed speaking, while what is not obvious is that the one believed is honest or knowledgeable. In religious belief it is just the reverse—what is not obvious is that the one to be believed is speaking.  It is not God’s veracity that nonbelievers principally doubt, but that God has spoken at all.  Nevertheless, in both cases one’s act of believing goes beyond the evidence:  in religious belief one’s certainty goes beyond the evidence regarding whether God has spoken, but in belief of a human person one’s belief goes beyond the evidence regarding the veracity of  the speaker.  So this disanalogy between religious belief and most other instances of belief cannot reasonably be a basis for deriding religious belief.  In any case, we are primarily interested in the act of accepting that God has spoken, even though the believer accepts both that God has spoken and that what he says is true in a single act.  For more on this, see my “Reasons and Religious Belief,” Faith and Philosophy, 6 (1989), pp. 19‑34.

2 The situation is more complicated than what I have just said indicates.  One is accepting the Christian claim not only for the sake of personal communion offered but also for the sake of possessing truth.  Everyone knows that there is a sense in which to understand Christianity well one must live it.  If Christianity is true then there is a whole world of truth that can be delved into and appreciated only by someone who lives the Christian life.  Hence the good of possession of truth itself can call for assenting to propositions with more certainty than the evidence by itself would seem to warrant.  It is as if there were a hypothesis that could only be tested by someone who believed in it 100 percent.  Suppose to test a hypothesis in biology one had to live many years on an isolated island, but that to survive on the island one had to believe the hypothesis with absolute certainty.  The analogy is not exact, but the point is that there is, as it were, a short‑run view of possession of truth and a long‑run view.  One’s commitment to Christianity is motivated not  only by the desire for the personal communion offered but also by  the desire for truth, truth not in the narrow sense of this or  that proposition conforming to reality, but truth in the sense of  as deep and complete and true a picture of reality as possible.  

3 Cf. Germain Grisez and Russell Shaw, Beyond the New Morality, 3rd edition (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University, 1988); John Finnis, Joseph Boyle, Germain Grisez, Nuclear Deterrence, Morality and Realism (Oxford: Clarendon, 1987), pp. 175‑197. 

4 Perhaps the ethics of belief can be clarified by comparing it with the ethics of sex, although of course there are also important differences.  The sexual power is naturally oriented to the procreative good, while the cognitive power is naturally oriented to the possession of truth.  But just as it does not  follow that the sexual power must be used only for procreation  (no one argues this) so also it does not follow that one’s  cognitive acts, one’s acts of believing, must be influenced only by the goal of truth.  What follows is that all of the basic goods that could be affected by the action carrying out one’s choice must be respected.  Just as one ought not to negate the procreative good, so one ought not to negate the good of possession of truth. 

But just as the choice to engage in sex for the sake of expressing marital communion is morally good if it is a choice that does not disregard the procreative good; so it would seem that the choice to believe for the sake of a basic good which the belief, together with the truth of the belief, will help one realize, could in some instances be morally good, i.e., in those instances where truth is not disregarded.  In neither case does there seem to be a choice to impede or destroy an instance of a basic good; in neither case does it seem necessary that one  disregard an instance of a basic good. The two cases seem to be similar in this respect.

Yet there is this significant disanalogy.  In sex, failing to procreate is only not realizing a good that could have been realized.  With the intellect, if one’s belief fails to attain truth, it is false, which means one’s cognitive grasp upon reality is harmed (in an important matter) instead of simply not being realized.  For this reason, while one need not intend or try to bring it about in every sexual act that conception result (it is enough that one’s sexual act be open to conception, I would argue); in every act of belief one ought to hope, and if necessary make an effort to bring it about, that one’s belief is true.  Still, in both cases there seems to nothing wrong in one’s act being influenced simultaneously by more than one good.

5 I believe it is easy to see in such a case how someone can have a choice bearing on his belief even though it is not a bare choice to believe or to disbelieve.  It is easy to imagine someone in the situation described having a choice to let the evidence he sees move him to assent (or dissent), to continue the inquiry, or to dismiss the claim on the grounds of lack of evidence. 


Posted July 7, 2010