I thought it was pretty outrageous! When you get done rejecting the three theories restricting self-evidence, there seems to be no difference between it and what you earlier argued is the core of religious experience. If you're really claiming they're the same, I can tell you right now that I have no intention of buying that conclusion so easily!

Fair enough. There's more that can be said in its favor, and now is as good a time as any to do it.

Before you do that, I need to ask why you're saying this at all. Doesn't everyone agree that "faith" means accepting a belief although it is not knowledge? Doesn't the very term mean that what we take on faith we're not certain of?

Not always, no. Although many thinkers have helped popularize that use of "faith" when it’s used in a religious context, that use has also been denied. Augustine referred to his belief in God as certainty,1 for example, and so did the Protestant Reformers Luther and Calvin (although Protestant­ism generally has not followed this part of their teaching). Calvin, for instance, put the position this way:

As to the question, How shall we be persuaded that [Scripture] came from God? ... it is just the same as if we were asked, How shall we learn to distinguish light from darkness, white from black, sweet from bitter? Scripture bears upon the face of it as clear evidence of its truth, as white and black do of their color, sweet and bitter of their taste.2

They who strive to build up a firm faith in Scripture through disputa­tion are doing things backwards... even if anyone clears God's Sacred word from man's evil speaking, he will not at once imprint upon their hearts that certainty which piety requires. Since for unbelieving men religion seems to stand by opinion alone, they, in order not to believe anything foolishly or lightly, both wish and demand rational proof that Moses and the prophets spoke divinely. But I reply that the testimony of the Spirit is more excellent than all reason.3

Scripture, carrying its own evidence along with it, deigns not to submit to proofs and arguments, but owes the full conviction with which we ought to receive it to the testimony of the Spirit [ of God].4

Calvin did not use the expression "self-evident" here, but he may as well have. His speaking of the “testimony of God’s Spirit” is an allusion to the New Testament’s assertions that it is God’s Spirit who must remove the spiritual blindness – the malfunctioning of our self-evidence antennae – that prevents a person from seeing the biblical message as the truth about God from God.

Nor is this position peculiar to Augustine and the Protestant Reformers. The Catholic scientist Blaise Pascal also held that belief in God is knowledge because it is grounded on the same sort of intuitive self-evidence that scientific first principles are. Since he called the processes of proving and evidence-weighing "reason,'' and called the intuition of self-evidence “knowledge of the heart," Pascal has often been misunderstood on this point. Many writers have supposed that by "heart knowledge" he meant some sort of feeling or sentiment. This is clearly not so:

We know truth not only by the reason, but also by the heart, and it is in this last way that we know first principles; and reason, which has no part in it, tries in vain to impugn them .... [For example,] we know that we do not dream ... however impossible it is for us to prove it by reason ... the knowledge of first principles, as space, time, motion, number is as sure as any of those we get from reasoning. And reason must trust these intuitions of the heart, and must base every argument on them... It is as useless and absurd for reason to demand from the heart proofs of her first principles before admitting them, as it would be for the heart to demand from reason an intuition of all demonstrated propositions before accept­ing them...Therefore, those to whom God has imparted religion by intuition are very fortunate, and justly convinced.5

It doesn’t make your position any more palatable to learn that some of my least favorite authors also held it! But you weren't quoting them to show that the position is true, were you? Their remarks weren't supposed to be part of the ''more" you promised to say in its favor?

Certainly not. My purpose was to assure you that this account of religious belief is neither idiosyncratically my own nor, as I said earlier, a ploy to cover for the fact that proofs of God's existence don't work. There is a long tradition of thinkers who have considered attempting to prove God's reality to be a fundamentally misguided project because it differs so widely from the biblical teaching about how humans come to know God.6 Moreover, these thinkers were not what are nowadays called "fideists," that is, people who advocate blind, groundless faith. Instead, they pointed to experience rather than proof as the ground of their belief in God. They held, in effect, that for those who believe in God no proof is necessary; for those who do not, no proof is possible.

Oh, I understand the position all right. You don't need to go on clarifying it. What I need to see is more reason to think it's true than I've been given so far.

But before you launch into whatever it is you think can make this position plausible, let me ask you something: Can you really tell me with your bare face hanging out that your belief in God is as certain to you as 1 + 1 = 2? Isn't that hyperbole? Don't you mean instead that your belief in God is an intuition that is something like self-evidence? You don't really think it's literally the same, do you?

Oh, but I do. I find the biblical message to be the truth about God from God as certainly as I do that 1 + 1 = 2. That's because they're both completely certain, and no one can be more certain than that! Of course, I went through a time when I questioned that belief, as most people do. I examined the arguments for and against belief in God and found them all to fail. But the belief itself continued to look true and to make sense of life as nothing else could do. Besides, without the bogus restrictions that have been imposed on it, the conditions self-evidence can surely be met by belief in God.

When I reflect on it, that fact still seems pretty amazing. I find myself thinking as C. S. Lewis did when he commented that it seems preposter­ous that the divine Creator on which all else depends should care for people, offer them a covenant of love, forgiveness and everlasting life, and then fulfill that covenant by coming into creation incarnated in Jesus Christ. But every Christian will tell you that although it seems too good to be true, nevertheless it is true!

OK, OK. I wasn't looking for a sermon. Let’s get to the ''more" you say you can add to your claim that your belief is self-evident? Why should anyone take that claim seriously?

The best thing I can think of would be to give a more detailed comparison of my claim that belief in God is self-evident with that of an axiom traditionally taken to be a clear example of genuine self-evidence. So let's compare the axiom of equals with a summary of the biblical message. Let's compare (1) "Things equal to the same thing are equal to each other" with (2) "God the Creator of the universe offers us a covenant of love, forgiveness, and everlasting life."

Well, right away there's a difference between them in that the axiom is a law - a necessary truth - whereas the religious claim is not. But I suppose you don't think that matters much?

I don't think it matters at all. Why should it? As we've already seen, the issue here is whether a belief is self-evidently true, not whether it's a necessary truth, infallible, or believed by all rational people.

While we're at it, though, let's notice some other ways in which belief in the axiom and belief in God are unalike. First, although we can never observe that everywhere and always two things equal to a third always equal each other, we can on specific occasions observe that it is true. By contrast, we can never observe anything that just is the transcendent Creator. Our experiences of God are never of his bare unconditional being but are mediated through created revelations of Himself. Another dissimilarity between the two is that the axiom is an impersonal truth, whereas revelation from God is experienced as communication from Him as a person. It therefore carries all the freight of a personal relationship and elicits a personal response. This means that there is an importance and an intensity to the experience of seeing the truth of God's word that can never be matched by that of the axiom. On the other hand, there’s a clarity to the axiom that cannot be matched by any personal relationship, and truth about God is no exception. And finally, the consequences of seeing the truth of God's revelation extend to the whole of life, not just to doing calculations. This means that all of life is experienced as his gift so that, as Calvin once put it, "every day, in all things, we have negotiations with God." As a result, the believer can't help but be overwhelmed with gratitude for God's love, forgiveness and guidance.

There are probably more differences, but it's not crucial to go on listing them. The important question here is whether both beliefs are alike in being produced by an experience of intuitively seeing them to be irresist­ibly true without inferring them from other beliefs. As you gathered, I think the answer is definitely “yes.” The basis for the comparison I'm about to offer in support of this, will again be self-reflection.

Since you mean reflection on our own experience, I have to say I'm still not sure about your claim that knowing the axiom should be thought of as an experience. I recall being taught it, accepting it and using it, but I don't recall its ever forcefully dawning on me in a way that would make it a distinct experience.

That may be true without its counting against what I'm saying in the least. Earlier I made the point that experiencing the truth of a belief as self-evident needn't be a distinct experiential episode; it can simply be the fact that the belief looks undeniably true without being inferred from other beliefs. I also pointed out that having it "look true" can arrive on us so unobtrusively as to go unnoticed, or can even remain an unconscious assumption.

In my own case, however, there was a particular episode in which I came to see the truth of the axiom. I can still remember clearly the first time I ever heard "Things equal to the same thing are equal to each other." My ninth-grade geometry teacher, Miss Collins, was explaining how proofs are constructed in geometry. She had told us that proofs require the use of axioms, which are truths so basic that they have no proof but don't need it because their truth is so obvious. I can still recall my reaction. I thought to myself, “Oh yeah? Like what?” As if she had heard my thoughts, Miss Collins said, "For example, things equal to the same thing are equal to each other." And instantly I thought, “Hey! That's right! How come I never thought of that before?”

Though I had never heard the term "self-evident" and the teacher hadn't used it, what I experienced that day was an intuition of the self-evidence of that axiom. I didn't infer it from anything else I knew; all that was necessary for me to see that it was true was to understand it and intuit its truth; and the experience of seeing its truth was irresistible. The experience simply produced my belief in it.

It seems to me that in these respects my intuition of the truth of the biblical message is exactly the same. That's why I've continued to believe it, although I've never known of an argument I thought could prove it. (But then I don't know any argument for the axiom of equals either.) The truth of the biblical message was, like the axiom, something I did not infer from anything else I knew, and my belief in it was simply produced by experiencing it as the truth about God from God.

But aren't you now appealing to memory rather than self-evidence? Aren't you saying that these beliefs are based on episodes of experience you now remember?

Not at all. On the one hand, I can't recall an episode for my belief in God that is similar to the one for the axiom. On the other hand, my belief in the axiom does not now rest on my ability to recall the episode by which I initially experienced its self-evidence. It rests on the fact that every time I think of the axiom I have the same experience of its truth (in fact I'm having it right now!). Its appearing to be self-evident has continued to be an element of my experience, and that is the ground of my belief in it, not merely the memory of the first time that ever happened. In fact, as far as my present belief in the axiom is concerned, it is not even necessary that I be able to recall my first recognition of its truth at all.

Suppose I had grown up in a home with a father who was a mathema­tician and a mother who was a logician. Let's say all my older brothers and sisters discussed math and logic with them at dinner every day. I might very well have absorbed the axiom by social osmosis at such a young age that I could never remember a time when I did not believe it. What difference would that make to my present recognition of  its truth?

The same holds for my experience of the truth of the biblical message. We should not be misled on this point by the fact that some people, when confronted with the question as to why they believe in God, give an account of their conversion - the initial occasion on which they experienced the self-evidence of the gospel. The mere memory of that occasion is not the real ground of their present belief, but the fact that it's truth is self-evident to them now.

This means that those of us who find the biblical message to be self-evi­dent are in just as good a position to know its truth as were those who met and spoke with Abraham, Moses or Jesus. It's a mistake to think that you could make a better judgment of the truth of what they had to say if only you could go back in time and meet them for yourself. Unless you were to experience their message as self-evidently the truth from God, you wouldn't believe it then any more than you believe the scriptural record of it now.7 Being with, and speaking to, those people would be exciting, of course, just as being at a ball game is more exciting than reading an account of it. But as far as the truth of their message is concerned, talking to them would confer no advantage over reading the scriptural record, any more than having attended a game confers an advantage over reading a report of it so far as knowing who won and who lost is concerned.

Since that's your position, I'm going to raise two questions that stem from my doubts as to whether belief in God arises from genuine self-evidence. The first question is, how can we distinguish such an experience from feelings of attraction to a belief? This is especially important with respect to belief in God, since it can be so seductively attractive to think that there's a Creator of the universe who loves us.

The second question is similar to the first: how can we distinguish a genuine experience of self-evidence from the effects of cultural conditioning? The fact that particular religions prevail in specific cultures is surely evidence that those beliefs are culturally conditioned. Aren't emotional attractiveness and cultural conditioning both influences that could lead someone to think his belief is self-evident when in fact it only resembles the genuine article?

Good points. There's a lot of evidence that feelings influence the forming of beliefs, and it would be willful blindness to ignore the cultural influences that predispose us toward certain beliefs. Both points have, of course, been acknowledged by most of those who have defended religious experience as the ground of religious belief.8 There is no question that we must seriously consider whether such influences can deceive us into thinking we have a rational intuition of non-inferential certainty when we don't. What's more, I agree with you that it is possible.

But before I try to say how to tell real self-evidence from the effects of emotions and cultural influences, I want to preface my comments with two points. The first is that although I think it's possible to point to hall­marks – indicators - of genuine self-evidence, my doing this will not guarantee that we can ever be sure beyond all doubt whether this or that belief is a case of genuine self-evidence or not. Having the right measuring stick won't ensure that we will measure correctly, and we are not infallible about applying such indicators any more than we are about anything else. For that reason, even hard and fast rules for genuine self-evidence wouldn't rule out all self-deception, and I can't even give you hard and fast rules. The hallmarks I'll point to are at best rules of thumb.

The second is to notice that your questions are often raised in connection with religious belief but almost never in connection with the axioms of math or logic or with beliefs arising from normal perception. That is sheer prejudice. We have already noticed that there are disagreements concerning the intuitions of mathematical and logical beliefs, and that people advanced in the disciplines of Hindu and Buddhist teaching reject and repress as spurious the apparent self-evidence of both mathematical axioms and normal sense perception. So I will be answering your questions on the assumption that the answers to your questions are needed by, and apply to, all sorts of self-evident beliefs, not just to divinity beliefs. In other words, the questions you have just raised actually focus on another way that belief in God is like, rather than unlike, the axiom of equals.

As to self-evidence versus strong feelings of attraction, I would say that when the feelings involved are conscious ones we can usually distinguish them from the rational intuiting of truth by introspection; they are just not the same kind of experience. The value of this test is enhanced whenever the truth of a belief is experienced before any feelings of attraction for it arise, or when it overcomes feelings of aversion to it. (This doesn't mean, of course, that the belief can ever be utterly divorced from feelings. Any belief will always have feelings accompany it - if only feelings of confidence in it!) The main thing here is that feelings have no significance so far as justifying the belief is concerned.9 This is usually sufficient to distinguish real self-evidence from, say, wishful thinking. To return to belief in God as our example, many people when questioned about it will say something like: "Well, no one really knows these things for sure, but it would be great if it turned out to be true. Meanwhile, the temple, mosque, synagogue, church or whatever, does a lot of good, and there's comfort in thinking that it could be right." Talk like that is a sure sign that the speaker does not see belief in God as self-evident. The same is true if the person appeals to group loyalty or social utility. Such an answer is a clear case of accepting God's existence as though it were true rather than a case of seeing for oneself that it is true. But perhaps you were thinking more of the influence of unconscious feelings on our beliefs than of conscious ones?

Yes, I was.

These are more difficult to guard against, and I don't know of any way we can ever tell for sure when such feelings are a cause rather than a consequence of someone's taking a belief to be true. The best indicator I can think of is whether the belief is continuous and abiding through many changes of circumstance, time, and place. In fact, the initial certainty of belief in God can mature over the years by being repeatedly confirmed and deepened. That may help distinguish a genuine intuition from unconscious emotions and desires: since unconscious motives can change over time, the beliefs based only on them can lose their appeal. This is reflected in the way people sometimes say that they used to believe in God, but over the years the belief just seemed to fade away.10 If such a belief is retained despite a change in its unconscious motive, its basis will tend to lapse into wishful thinking or group loyalty, which are easier to discern. But as I warned, this is pretty loose and won't rule out the possibility of cases in which an unconscious emotional motive is so powerful that it is indistinguishable from a genuine rational intuition.

Sorry if this is a bit vague, but I just don't see how to do better. The best we can do is see whether the belief endures over a lifetime; the greater the changes through which it endures, the better the indication that the belief is not just emotionally motivated.11 By the way, this test appears to be what was behind the medieval Christian emphasis on the importance of how a person died. In those days, the fact that someone confessed belief in God right up to the moment of death was taken as a good (though not infallible) indication of genuine belief, as opposed to unconscious motives, mere wishful thinking, or group loyalty. In the New Testament, Jesus makes the same point in connection with those whose faith is severely tested. He says: “He that endures to the end shall be saved” (Matt. 24:13).

To avoid misunderstanding, let me add right away that nothing I've said just now about the enduring character of genuinely self-evident beliefs should be taken to mean that they can never change. We already noticed that they can change by being replaced by other self-evident beliefs, that they can be repressed, and that people can even be talked out of them.

Even if what you've said is right, it still leaves me with the suspicion that belief in God isn't based on genuine self-evidence.

Not ever? Is it really plausible that everyone who claims to have had that experience is really only emotionally motivated and confused about it? What of those for whom the self-evidence accompanied one of the more unusual sorts of experiences we discussed at our first meeting? What of cases in which it overcame a strong aversion?

Besides, if you insist on that position with respect to belief in God, won't it apply equally to belief in the axiom of equals? How can you defend allowing your suspicion to undermine real self-evidence for every case of belief in God, but not for the self-evidence of other beliefs?

I don't know how to answer that, so let's go to my other question. Nothing you've said so far touches the objection that religious beliefs are culturally conditioned. And I see no way you can get around the fact that in India most people are Hindu, in the Middle East people are mostly Muslim, whereas in Europe and North America most people are Christian, and so on. By contrast, the axiom of equals is accepted across cultures. Isn't the cultural conditioning of religious beliefs - pardon the expression -­ "self-evident"? Isn't belief in God different in this way from the axiom?

If you're that sold on this point, then it's going to surprise you to hear that I think it's largely a red herring! I know it's widely accepted and has been repeated so often that it's regarded by many as a truism. Neverthe- less, I'm going to argue that although you've started with undeniable facts, the conclusion you've drawn from them is just about wholly misleading. To make clear why that's so, I first need to distinguish two senses of cultural conditioning.

The strong version of this claim uses "culturally conditioned" to mean that all beliefs are completely determined (forced on us) by our culture.

This is a theory that's gotten a significant following lately despite the fact that it has a peculiar and fatal flaw: it's incoherent because it cancels its own claim to truth. For if all beliefs are wholly determined by the culture in which we live, then so is the belief that all beliefs are wholly determined by the culture in which we live. In that case we could never know this theory to be true even if it were true. So this attack on self-evidence goes nowhere.12

The weaker version of "culturally conditioned" is more plausible, since it claims only that our beliefs are culturally slanted, or that a particular cultural background makes people more disposed toward seeing certain consequences of their beliefs. Either way it's phrased, the suggestion is that religious beliefs are among the most susceptible to this type of influence. This is probably the version that seems to you and so many others to be obvious. The reason for its appeal is that it contains a definite element of truth, though, as I said, it's taken to support a false conclusion.

First, let's get clear about the element of truth in the claim: our beliefs surely are conditioned by a host of factors, one of the most important of which is cultural. This goes for self-evident beliefs as well as for those that are not self-evident. No experience of self-evidence occurs in a cultural vacuum. We noticed earlier that whereas self-evident beliefs are not inferred from other beliefs, an experience of the self-evidence of a particular belief often requires that we already possess other specific beliefs, have certain capacities, or have had some kind of training as preconditions for seeing it to be true. So, do I admit religious beliefs are conditioned in this sense? Certainly.

But so are all our other higher-level beliefs, including the learning of our native language and the finer discriminations of tone, harmony, and rhythm used to compose or appreciate music that is typical of a culture. Moreover, there is good reason to think that this sort of conditioning is required to experience the truth of the axiom about equals as well. In his book One, Two, Three, Infinity, George Gamow mentions a tribe of southern Africa that has in their language only the number words "one,” “two," "three" and another word meaning "many."13 Anyone with such a limited array of number concepts would probably not find it obvious that every two quantities buried within the mysterious "many" would, if they were equal to a third, necessarily equal each other. Likewise, it often takes extensive conditioning for a person to be prepared to see the truth of God's existence and his offer of love. But this fact is not a good objection to the truth of the biblical message, or to its being genuinely self-evident. In this sense of “cultural conditioning” it is not the case that if people can’t avoid it when grasping a truth, then that truth must be mere cultural brainwashing. Cultural conditioning, in this weaker sense, merely refers to the way a particular cultural background inclines a person to emphasize certain sides or consequences of a truth, rather than entirely forcing that truth on him or her.

I think this same point applies as well to many other beliefs whose basis is intuition. Besides mathematical and logical axioms, for example, there are ethical truths that have been intuited over millennia in virtually every culture. The recog­nition of the immorality of murder for fun is one example. The fact that these beliefs arise in a cultural context and are influenced by their setting does nothing to support the conclusion that they are nothing more than the products of cultural conditioning. Even if there are cultural preconditions for their recognition, and even if there is cultural variance in their formulation, in the nuances of their interpretation, and precisely how they're applied to life, they still have a common core. That, I believe, is powerful evidence that ethical intuition recognizes facts that are true independently of any cultural setting - even if it always does so from within some cultural setting.

Even if that is so, it doesn't account for the wide differences in belief about what is divine that vary from culture to culture. Are you dismissing the masses of believers in each as what you earlier called “fellow travelers"?

Not all of them, no. But I do think it's true that in every culture there are probably more fellow travelers than people who see the truth of its dominant religion for themselves. And lest you take this as a slur on the sincerity of the masses, let me add that this point has been confirmed to me by Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Hindu clergy. At one time or another I have heard them say, "If even half of those who come to worship truly believed, we’d really have something!"

The fellow traveler phenomenon is due, in part, to the fact that so many people fail to take the time or trouble to reflect deeply on what (really) looks divine to them. Their intuitive sense of divinity remains subconscious and vague, and it never gets articulated or refined. In large measure this occurs because the dominant beliefs of their culture tend to repress a belief that differs from them. The existence of such subconscious beliefs about the divine is confirmed, however, by cases in which people who were raised in a certain culture, and who accepted its dominant religion as fellow travelers, instantly converted upon being exposed to another view of the divine. They say that when they encountered the different religious belief, something about it just clicked. It just looked right. They insist that they had never really believed the religion they had accepted until then, but had gone along with it because they’d never known of the alternative, which now looks irresistibly right. And they distinguish sharply their previous acceptance (which they often say was due to cultural and emotional influences) from their experience of what they now see for themselves to be the truth.

The fact that there are such experiences also supports the point made earlier about cultural influence not being all-powerful. If all beliefs were wholesale products of cultural forces, the surfacing of countercultural intuitions about divinity (or about anything else) would be impossible. On the other hand, if intuition outstrips its cultural setting, then coun­tercultural beliefs are easily accounted for.

But you can’t deny that there is also a much higher percentage of what you’re calling ‘’genuine” belief in a religion where it’s dominant in a particular culture. How can you explain that?

I think it's explained by the greater exposure to the belief made available in that culture. Obviously, there will be more people who experience the self-evi­dence of an idea of divinity where the idea is readily available than where it isn't. The same is true of mathematical and logical truths. Most people are not going to think up the axioms of math and logic on their own. Most of those who see them as self-evident were taught them, and most of those who are never taught them never consciously articulate them. Just so with ideas of the divine. Here, once again, belief in God and in the axiom of equals are alike.

Surely, they're not in the same boat when it comes to how widely they're recognized! It seems to me that truths of math and logic have had a cross-cultural recognition that far exceeds belief in God.

I'm not so sure of that. Do more people believe the axiom of equals than believe in God? Probably not. If we stick to 1 + 1 = 2, you may be right. But remember, we've been taking belief in God as our example of religious belief, just as we're taking belief in the axiom of equals as our example of a nonreligious self-evident truth. So bear in mind that what I'm saying about coming to see the truth of the summary of the biblical message also applies to all other beliefs about the divine. You, on the other hand, have just compared all of math and logic with only one divinity belief. The more appropriate comparison, then, would be this: whereas countless millions of people see one or another mathematical or logical truth to be self-evident, which ones they see can vary from person to person. Some people have told me they don't experience the axiom of equals to be self-evident, for example. Likewise, I contend that countless millions see something or other as divine, though just what that is varies. For many that's God; for many others, it's not. This, then, is yet another likeness rather than unlikeness between the axiom and belief in God.

Last modified: Tuesday, January 28, 2020, 7:02 AM