The Benefit of the Doubt

A blog about Dialogue, Doubts, and Christian Faith ~Travis Dickinson~

Is Christianity doubt-able?: Certainty vs. Confidence

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As a last step in becoming a member of his local church, a friend of mine was interviewed by the pastor and asked whether he was certain that Christianity was true. Because my friend was a philosopher, he said no and a long discussion ensued.

Certainty

Do we enjoy certainty when it comes to our Christian beliefs? Well this all depends on what we mean by ‘certainty.’ Philosophers, like my friend, typically have a very specific notion in mind when it comes to certainty. It means something like that the belief is held without the logical possibility of it being false. One literally can’t even conceive of the possibility of being mistaken.

In the seventeenth century, Descartes was after certainty. In his Meditations, he attempts to doubt all of his beliefs in order to find a belief that could be held with indubitability. For Descartes, if he could even imagine or conceive of some scenario, no matter how bizarre, where a belief is false, then the belief is not indubitable. He considered beliefs about the world of objects around him, including his own body, and realized that all that can be doubted.

You might ask, isn’t it indubitable that one has hands? Well, what if one is a brain in a vat stimulated to have hand-like experiences? Or suppose one is a disembodied soul who is made to think that one has hands but does not. Though bizarre, these scenarios are clearly possible and, thus, even a belief like this is not indubitable.

Descartes finally lands on a belief that is indubitable, and it’s the one line in philosophy that almost everyone has heard at some point: “I think, therefore, I am” (or, in the Meditations, “I am, I exist”). The idea is that he couldn’t doubt his own existence since there would always be some thinking thing doing the doubting. That is, there’s always an “I” doing the doubting. Thus, by doubting his existence, he proves it.

Philosophers tend to have this Cartesian notion of certainty in mind when they talk about certainty. And there’s very little that is genuinely indubitable. On my own view, once we grasp basic mathematical facts (such as 2+3=5), this becomes indubitable for us. Given what we mean by such facts, we can’t conceive of these beliefs being false. Logical facts are like this as well.

Are Christian beliefs indubitable?

When it comes something like that Jesus was raised from the dead at a certain time in history, this is not like a mathematical fact. This is an empirical fact. That I have hands is also an empirical fact. Just like I can doubt that I have hands, I can doubt that Jesus was raised from the dead.

I take it this is precisely what the Apostle Paul is implying in 1 Corinthians 15:13-14:

If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.

Paul implies that it is conceivable that Christ has not been raised since he also points at what is logical entailed by this possibility if it were so. He doesn’t believe it, but he can definitely conceive of it. Notice we can’t conceive of 2+3=5’s being false. But Paul (and we) can conceive of the possibility of Christ not being raised and it has logical consequence. This makes it such that it is possible to doubt in this technical Cartesian sense.

Confidence

Now this isn’t saying anything all that controversial. I promise. I’m just saying when it comes to the central Christian claim (i.e., Jesus’s resurrection), we don’t enjoy Cartesian or mathematical certainty. We don’t enjoy Cartesian certainty about my belief that I have hands, but I don’t lose much sleep about that. It was Cartesian certainty that my friend had in mind when he was interviewed by the pastor. However, what the pastor likely meant was not Cartesian certainty, but something more to do with confidence (or perhaps conviction is a good word here).

I am fully confident Christianity is true. In fact, I’ve given my life to it. I’ve walked away from a lot of things given that I believe with confidence that Christ has plans and intentions for my life. Paul, also, gave up his life because he became convinced that Christianity is true. Being completely confident in the truth of Christianity is consistent with the mere possibility that Christianity is false. It is even consistent with having (not just Cartesian) doubts from time to time.

Why is this important?

This is important because if Christianity is indubitable, then there’s something wrong with us if we ever have doubts. Moreover, evidence and reason is completely pointless. Once we grasp the concepts of a mathematical fact, we don’t need empirical evidence for their truth. But if it is itself an empirical fact of history such as the resurrection, then evidence matters.

We want to work towards confidence, but this, it seems, requires us to consider the case for Christianity.

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2 Replies

  1. G.Miller

    I’ve been reading your posts a while now, and I am wondering if I need to spend that time reading something more down to earth. I can follow your reasoning but an inner voice says “who cares about this?” Will I ever run into a situation where this becomes important, and if I do, won’t I want to retain such information in a more simple concept that is easily understood by a non-church person who is not a philosopher.
    Not saying there aren’t apologetics folks who could use this, but for us laymen I wonder. Your response?

    1. Travis Dickinson

      Thanks for being a reader! Well I of course think it is crucially important! For example, I find a lot of Christians (laymen) struggle with the fact that they aren’t certain about the Christian claims. This post is to say that certainty shouldn’t be what we are after. We should aim for confidence in our Christian beliefs, which tolerates some doubts.

      Will you ever use this with a non-church person? Yes, you sure may. Go to youtube and search for ‘street epistemology’. You’ll hear a discussion about certainty, etc.

      The problem today is that so many Christians don’t value being challenged to think carefully about matters of faith. They want to be spoon fed. I think this has produced an irrelevant church because most Christians can’t articulate a coherent set of Christian doctrines, much less defend them. Sounds like you are being tempted to give up on what’s challenging to you and I’d encourage you to keep pushing.

      However, if the content really isn’t of value to you, then that’s fine. No hard feelings. There very well may be other blogs that are a better use of your time.