“I do have a question, Dr. Feser, if you’ll allow it. I have been following William Lane Craig for a while and he’s a lot more insistent on a sort of spiritual confirmation by the Holy Spirit – and that is how he knows the truth of Christianity (this is how I understand his view). The arguments for the existence of God, for him, are maybe “permissions” to believe, or provide space for someone to then be influenced by the Holy Spirit, rather than logically coercive statements (statements that “force” those who understand them to eventually submit and be convinced). As such, Craig has said that if he somehow saw evidence contrary to the existence of God, or that Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead, he would STILL be a Christian based on this Holy Spirit experience.
So my question for you is, you have been a theist for longer than you were an atheist now. So as far as is reasonable to answer, are you still open to evidence to the contrary – that God does not exist, or that Jesus did not really rise from the tomb, or whatever? Do you claim some kind of Holy Spirit confirmation that would keep you in Christianity even if you saw evidence to the contrary?
I hope this question came out in the manner it was intended (genuinely curious, not challenging).”
Well, those are big questions requiring a treatment of their own, but briefly I’d say:
1. One needs to be careful to avoid confusing metaphysical and epistemological questions, which I think is often done in this context. Do I think that the Holy Spirit was guiding me when I came to see God’s existence, etc.? Absolutely. Did that play (and does it play now) any role in my reasons for believing in God? Absolutely not. If someone wants to know why I think God exists, they can read my various writings defending the arguments for God’s existence, because those are my reasons. I wouldn’t say to them “Oh, and also I’ve got this experience of the Holy Spirit.” That’s got nothing to do with it.
Compare: When someone believes something because he can see it, his optic nerves are playing a big role in the process. But that typically has nothing to do with his reasons for believing what his eyes tell him. He doesn’t say “Well, I’ve examined my optic nerves and I think they’re in pretty good shape, etc.” Most people don’t even know anything about their optic nerves. Talking about optic nerves is important when we want an explanation of the physiology of perception, but not necessarily in the justification of perceptual beliefs. Similarly, to say (as we should) that grace can play a role in a person’s coming to realize that God exists doesn’t entail that that fact plays a role in a person’s justification for believing in God. It doesn’t mean that he ought to say “Well, my grounds for believing in God are that He’s gotten me through grace to believe in Him.” And that would be a pretty bad argument anyway, since it’s hard to see how to cash it out except in a subjectivist or fideist way.
See the post I linked to above, where I discuss faith and reason, for more.
2. Re: being open to evidence to the contrary, well, yes and no. That makes it sound like theism is a kind of empirical explanatory hypothesis, and as I’ve argued many times, that’s just a complete misunderstanding of the grounds and content of the classical arguments. Theism goes much deeper than that sort of thing, both metaphysically and epistemologically. It’s rationally more secure than mere empirical hypotheses, not less.
A better analogy would be belief in the external world or in the laws of logic. Am I open to arguments against the view that I’m not in the Matrix, or against the law of non-contradiction? Well, sure, in the sense that any philosopher is willing to consider and think through such arguments. Do I seriously expect there to be good arguments that will get me to doubt my senses wholesale or to give up the laws of logic? Of course not.
That’s what classical theism, rightly understood, is like. It isn’t that hard to prove God’s existence. What takes great effort is showing people how the reasons they think it’s hard rest on a lot of historically contingent bad theory that they’ve imbibed from the surrounding intellectual culture, but for which there really are no good reasons and which lead to absurdity to boot. That’s why only a small part of The Last Superstition is devoted to presenting arguments for God’s existence and so large a part is devoted to general metaphysics, history of philosophy, etc. It isn’t arguing for God’s existence that’s hard. It’s clearing away the gigantic pile of modern intellectual rubbish that keeps people from properly understanding the arguments that’s hard.
Dealing with atheists is in that sense like dealing with people who’ve become convinced that there are no good reasons to believe in the external world and solid arguments for believing it’s an illusion. Only sophistries could get you to believe such nonsense, but the sophistries can be very clever and rest on philosophical mistakes so deep and complicated that it takes a lot of work to extricate someone from this weird tissue of confusions he’s worked himself into.
‘OK, Feser, but that just kicks it up a level. For maybe you’re wrong about that whole analysis of the intellectual lay of the land itself! What about that, huh?’ Well, OK, fine, show me that I am and I’ll hear you out. Maybe I’m also wrong to think that there’s a computer in front of me now — maybe it’s Descartes’s demon making me think so. That doesn’t entail that my not taking the suggestion seriously for a moment is irrational.
The bottom line, then, is that this “being open to counter-evidence” theme that atheists (including my younger self) always raise as if it were extremely problematic itself rests on a number of philosophical assumptions that require careful articulation and evaluation.”