Foundationalism and the Contemporary God Debate (pt. 1)

In this two-part series, I will attempt to provide a humanist response to the controversial philosophical methodology of “foundationalism” employed in the contemporary “God Debate.” This entry is a purely descriptive account of foundationalism. Part 2 will be the critical response.

Christian public intellectuals have developed a very specific strategy for engagement with the “New Atheists.” Whether it is the public stage or the written word, the “God Debate” is one of the most visible displays of the Christian witness to a secular world. For this reason and others, it is important for our purposes to examine the presuppositions of our answers to skeptical or non-believing inquiry.

In 2003, philosophers J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig published the extraordinarily ambitious Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, in which both authors deal systematically with arguments for and against what they understand to be the most pertinent issues for Christian philosophy proper. The six-hundred and fifty-four page volume spans from the question of philosophy in general all the way to a defense of the “coherence of Christian theism” (501). Although many books deal with these issues in several different contexts, it seems safe to say that Foundations represents the most comprehensive exposition of the “Christian side” of the contemporary God debate.

Readers can already detect the philosophical spirit of Philosophical Foundations before even opening the book. Foundationalism is a way of knowing that begins with certain “self-evident” propositions as objectively true and independent of any sort of historical contingency. These truths are named “basic beliefs” because of their indivisible nature, and it is upon these basic beliefs that any other knowledge propositions must be founded. When Moreland and Craig analyze the work of Alvin Plantinga, then, it should come as no surprise that they are sympathetic to the philosophical task of situating belief in God as properly basic:

[Reformed epistemology] appeals to a cognitive faculty, the sensus divinitatis to explain how belief in God is properly basic with respect to both justification and warrant, the latter being analyzed in terms of the proper functioning of our cognitive faculties. (170)

This is a reference to Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief, where this task is carried out, and it is vital for our purposes to locate the specific theological presupposition.

The sensus divinitatis is a concept directly attributable to the theologian John Calvin in the first book of his Institutes of the Christian Religion. According to Plantinga, the sensus divinitatis is a “natural, inborn sense of God, or of divinity, that is the origin and source of the world’s religions” (148). This idea lends itself quite well to the philosophical project of foundationalism because it is a theological presupposition that is “natural” and independent of its historicity. When Plantinga speaks of the sensus divinitatis as a universal cognitive faculty of human beings, he is positing an avenue through which the human mind may access the true and basic belief in God as the foundation for all other true beliefs. The role of apologetics for philosophers like Plantinga, then, is akin to the Socratic conception of the teacher as a “midwife” who brings to light a knowledge that was in the student already. For the purposes of this study, the vital presupposition of foundationalism is exactly that: far from receiving a knowledge that is subject to the vicissitudes of history, the subject has already a timeless, immovable idea of God simply by existing as a human being.[1] This belief justifies other beliefs, and eventually an entire system of objective truths become available to those who are careful enough to discover them. This is the context within which a book like Foundations is made possible.

Although Moreland and Craig use most of the book to posit the constructive model of the Christian worldview, they do critique as well. Because foundationalist epistemology depends entirely upon self-evident, basic beliefs, there is a sort of “all or nothing” attitude that characterizes the enterprise. Their analysis of morality is a keen example.

According to Moreland and Craig, there is no alternative to the dichotomy of moral absolutism and moral relativism because each system depends ultimately upon their respective basic beliefs: “since one must either be a relativist or an absolutist, then arguments against relativism count as arguments for absolutism” (421). Although it may sound naïve to posit that there are only two real accounts for ethics that actually maintain meaningful differences, this actually seems to be an airtight claim within the context of a consistent foundationalism. If God is in fact properly basic, then to deny his existence means denying the objective foundation for all reality.

Moreland and Craig are obviously sympathetic to the absolutist side of this dichotomy. For them, any relativistic account of morality is problematic because it contradicts the common sense notion that some actions are universally better or worse than others. If ethics is redefined to mean merely the constructed conventions of particular cultures or individuals, there is no way to offer a consistent judgment in regards to the ethical integrity of those particular cultures or individuals. On this relativist paradigm, therefore, objective morality is either non-existent or unintelligible. This is why for Moreland and Craig “the various versions of relativism are extremely problematic. Relativism does not appear to be a defensible moral doctrine, and hence, some form of absolutism would seem to follow” (416).

To be continued…

[1]    Some might accuse me of ignoring Plantinga’s insistence on the necessity of revelation via the Holy Spirit. However this critique is misguided because the point is that the Holy Spirit is still very much an “internal testimony” that is not historically or culturally contingent (242).

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