Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Book Thoughts: Clifford Williams, Existential Reasons for Belief in God: A Defense of Desires and Emotions for Faith

One of my joys in the early part of this summer has been catching up on some personal reading.  Last week, I was able to finish reading Existential Reasons for Belief in God, by Clifford Williams (a philosopher at Trinity College in Illinois).  Existential Reasons  is an appeal to allow satisfaction of human needs to play a crucial role in the construction and justification of faith in God.  Accordingly, Williams fits into a contemporary scene marked by the feeling that purely rational apologetics (e.g., theistic proofs, historical proofs for the resurrection and/or reliability of the New Testament) are insufficient (and unpersuasive).    Following the jump, I offer a brief outline and summary of Williams' work, along with a few thoughts and constructive criticisms.

Clifford Williams, Existential Reasons for Belief in God: A Defense of Desires & Emotions for Faith. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011. 188 pp.

The book is broken into three large sections (not formally, but logically).  The first three chapters introduce the thesis of the work, outline the nature (and identity) of existential needs that justify belief in God, and detail the existential argument for belief in God.  The next four chapters consider four major objections to his existential argument.  The final two chapters consider the relationship between faith and emotion, need and reason, returning to his opening thesis.

The work begins (Chapter 1) with a brief (six-page) description of Williams' intent and purpose.  His thesis statement in a nutshell: "the two basic ideas of the book are the drawing power of need and the certifying ability of reason.  Need without reason is blind, but reason without need is sterile.” (12)  

Chapter Two identifies thirteen 'existential needs' that are experienced by human beings - eight self-directed needs (cosmic security, life after death, heaven, goodness, a larger life, to be loved, meaning, to be forgiven) and five other-directed needs (to love, to experience awe, delighting in goodness, being present, justice/fairness).  Williams' work on existential needs is a major strength of the book as a whole.  He notes that the existential needs are widespread and closely inter-connected - the notion of this 'constellation' of needs will be a recurring theme throughout the book.

Chapter Three, the longest chapter of the book, lays out the existential argument for belief in God.  Williams lays out a simple three-step logical argument:
"P1. We need cosmic security.  We need to know that we will live beyond the grave in a state that is free from the defects of this life, a state that is full of goodness and justice.  We need a more expansive life, one in which we love and are loved.  We need meaning, and we need to know that we are forgiven for going astray.  We also need to experience awe, to delight in goodness and to be present with those we love.
"P2. Faith in God satisfies these needs.
"C. Therefore, we are justified in having faith in God." (32)
Williams notes that the existential argument points towards Christian theism particularly, not merely an abstract deism or supernaturalism.  He also seeks to distinguish his existential argument from other, evidential, arguments that are based upon need, using Carl Becker, C. S. Lewis, N. T. Wright, and Blaise Pascal as examples (42-54).

The second major section of the work turns to objections against the existential argument.  

The first major objection Williams considers is the lack of connection between needs-satisfaction and truth-bearing - I will consider this objection and Williams' responses in more detail than the other three.  “Can’t our needs be satisfied by believing in something that does not actually exist?” (61)  Williams considers the counter-example of believing in "Invisible George" in order to satisfy one's need for cosmic security.  His response to the argument is, perhaps surprisingly, to accept it:

“This point is surely right.  It is not enough that our beliefs satisfy our needs.  They must be true as well or we would regard them as deficient.  So the Invisible George Objective is right.  A purely existential justification of having faith in God is illegitimate.  The existential argument for believing in God is defective.” (62)

Having just spent thirty-plus pages outlining and defending his existential argument for believing in God, it is initially surprising that Williams simply capitulates and accepts the critique.  That surprise, however, is mitigated by keeping in mind Williams' thesis: he is not seeking to replace reason with needs, or to do away with evidential arguments for God's existence altogether - rather, he is seeking to emphasize an aspect of human faith, and a motivating factor toward religious faith, that has been neglected and/or under-emphasized in recent apologetics.  Thus, Williams quite reasonably responds by adding the use of reason to need (62-63).  He argues that the best approach is to supplement need with evidence (64), perhaps by using a Lewis-type argument which uses existential need or desire with evidential impact.

Accordingly, Williams supplements his original existential argument with an additional premise (call it P1`):
P1`.  The best explanation for the presence of these needs in humans is that there is a God who has put them into humans. (67)
The existential argument has now morphed into a combined existential/evidential argument that has a stronger combined appeal.

Through the rest of the chapter, Williams considers other aspects of the major objection that have a bearing upon the existential argument - most notably the drive for objectivity and the accusation that emotions lead to bias and subjectivity (74-79).

In Chapter 5, Williams considers a second objection: “If the existential argument for believing in God is sound, would it not also justify believing in an invisible cosmic tyrant who likes to torture humans?” (87)  This objection is similar to the famous 'Great Pumpkin' objection launched against Plantinga's Reformed Epistemology - if one can treat belief in God as properly basic (and therefore needing no epistemic justification of its own), why cannot one treat belief in the Great Pumpkin as properly basic in the same way?  In response, Williams does the equivalent of introduce Plantinga-type defeaters - he proposes five "Need criteria" which can adjudicate between needs that present themselves as justifying external beliefs.  The Criteria include (1) Widespread (nearly universal) experience of the need; (2) Enduring need; (3) Significant need; (4) Interconnected with other felt needs; (5) Strongly-felt need.  Further in the chapter, Williams briefly considers the Freudian hypothesis that religion originates from one (or perhaps two) strongly-felt needs.

Chapter 6 outlines and rebuts a third objection: What about people who say they do not experience any of the needs or desires? (108)  Williams considers but claims to reject the tempting response that “people can have the need for cosmic security, meaning and forgiveness without being aware of it.” (108)  He reasons that a need someone is unaware of, even if they truly have the need, still cannot be used to satisfy the existential argument as laid out in chapter two (and extended in chapter 4).  He then spends the bulk of the chapter encouraging the reader to develop ways to awaken or enhance the needs that do exist in people who are unaware of them (111-23) - including some very helpful suggestions on acknowledging the noncognitive barrier to felt needs posed by self-importance, self-reliance, and/or pride.  

It seems to me that making suggestions for awakening existing existential needs of which the subject is currently unaware is in essence taking the first approach to responding to the objection - despite Williams' protestations to the contrary.  For all intents and purposes, Williams seems to be saying, "Someone may deny having such existential needs whatsoever.  I, however, know better - the needs are there, but the person has buried them, neglected them, or just never had them sufficiently heightened.  Therefore, I need to pull all the tools out of my toolbox, and seek to make them aware of the needs that they really have."  I agree with Williams' approach, and think it is a valuable way to go - but it also seems to go back on his original intention.

Chapter 7 considers the fourth objection to Williams' existential argument: “Although some people need faith in God to satisfy their need for meaning, others find their need for meaning satisfied by pursuing goals without reference to any kind of God.” (131)  Since not everyone needs religion (let alone Christianity specifically), the existential argument fails.  Person A has existential needs, and finds them met through faith in God.  Person B has similar existential needs (which they acknowledge), but finds them met through a satisfying marriage and involvement in their local 4-H Club.  Williams' response is to question the validity or veracity of the 'feelings' via which Person B claims to have their existential needs met through non-Christian (or non-faith) means.

To that end, he proposes four tests for needs-satisfaction: the restlessness test, the obstacle test, the value test, and the satisfaction test (132-40).  Williams concludes that:

(1) Faith in the Christian God satisfies the existential needs better … than belief in a cosmic abstract force, as such belief does not address the need to be loved, the need to live after death or very many of the other needs.
(2) Faith in the Christian God satisfies certain of the existential needs better than belief in most deist conceptions of God, as such belief does not address the need for the close personal connection involved in the needs.
(3) Faith in the Christian God satisfies at least some of the existential needs better than does the faith or other supreme state in non-Christian religions, such as the Buddhist ‘emptiness’, because the faith in non-Christian religions does not deal with all of the existential needs, such as the need for forgiveness or for life after death in a state free of this life’s troubles.
(4) Faith in the Christian God satisfies the existential needs better than non-religious nonfaith ways of satisfying them.  For instance, finding meaning through faith in God is better than finding it only through pursuing weekend hobbies. (141)

Having dealt satisfactorily with objections against his existential argument, Williams begins to recap his argument by launching a passionate defense of the place of emotions in the life of a faithful Christian.  He considers (and successfully dispels) six concerns about emotions (153-64), and presents the novel thesis that faith itself is actually an emotion on its own (166).

Williams closes the book by considering two paradigmatic approaches to the nature of faith - Aquinas' 'belief view' that holds faith to be about the rational content; and Kierkegaard's 'personal relationship view' that holds faith to be "a person-to-person connection." (171)  Williams aligns himself squarely with Kierkegaard's understanding of faith, supplemented by Williams' own work on the nature of emotions and the certifying value of reason.

The field of Christian apologetics is wide and varied.  Currently, there seems to be a strong tendency in most apologetic schools towards some variety or another of 'evidentialism' - the notion that we can present strong evidence in favor of the Christian faith that ought to persuade the skeptic or unbeliever.  From Craig's Reasonable Faith, to Wallace's Cold-Case Christianity, to McDowell's Evidence that Demands a Verdict, to Boa & Bowman's Faith Has Its Reasons, there is a strong rational, evidential, almost court-case approach to persuading others of the truthfulness of the Christian faith (see former crime journalist Lee Strobel's The Case for ... series for additional examples).  That is emphatically not to say that the above-mentioned apologists neglect matters of the heart, emotion, or needs.  Nonetheless, Williams perceives a potential weakness in the traditional evidential approach (a perception shared by others - see, e.g., Imaginative Apologetics, edited by Andrew Davison), and seeks to fill that lack.

His Existential Argument for Justified Belief in God does seem, as I mention earlier, to mirror a Plantingian epistemology - belief in God is justified on the basis of need, apart from evidential reasons.  However, there is a subtle difference.  Williams notes that, like his analogous argument for satisfying hunger-needs, his existential argument presupposes that God actually exists to satisfy the existential needs.  The existential needs may be the "trigger" that prompt an individual toward faith in God; but only if God actually exists will those existential needs be satisfied.

Furthermore, Williams notes throughout that reason (or rationality) and evidence serve a "certifying" role within faith.  Satisfaction of needs may be the source of belief, but reason certifies the belief as being true.  For Williams, faith has an object - and if the object of faith does not exist, then the faith is not worthwhile.  Thus, his existential argument for belief in God is not a relativistic, subjective argument - rather, it is one that is publicly accessible and even defeasible.  To that end, Williams introduces criteria at various points: e.g., (1) Need critiera (89ff), which designate whether a proposed need counts as an existential need that can justify belief [hence responding to the Tyrant George objection]; (2) Satisfaction criteria (139ff), which designate whether emotions one claims help satisfy one's existential needs are valid or not.  Furthermore, Williams does not leave his "existential needs" amorphous and abstract - he spells them out concretely (in Chapter 2).  Potential critics can bite into his 13 expressed needs - but to be honest, I think Williams is right on the mark in his designations.

Last Word
There were places that Williams leaves me somewhat unsatisfied.  His 'Restlessness Test', which is supposed to help discern whether existential needs are truly met through various means, ultimately collapses into a relative, 'I-say you-say', claim that does not help his overall case.  His insistence (75) that "The desire to be aware of people’s discomfort and pain is needed to observe people being in discomfort or pain” seems not only overly-hopeful, but actually false to me.  I agree that moral desires are important to moral feelings and actions; but I also think moral facts can be sufficient.  In the case at hand, I have observed in myself the ability to observe people's discomfort without having any desire to be aware of their discomfort.  It seems many times that my ability to know someone is in pain is entirely unrelated to any desire on my part.

Quibbles aside, I appreciated Williams' work and his overall argument.  The dual stress upon rationality and human needs is helpful.  We are not only rational creatures, but emotional and existential creatures as well.  If God has indeed created us with a sensus divinitatis, it would seem God has also created us to naturally have certain spiritually-oriented existential needs like the ones Williams identifies.  An apologetic that points to those needs will have persuasive and personal power - particularly when the dialogue-partner can attest to the existence of those needs within himself or herself.

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