Dr Ben Holloway, Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

Pastor Jim believes that Jesus rose from the dead. What reasons does he have to think it is true? He might start with the gospels and appeal to what we are told. But suppose someone asks what makes him think the gospels are true. Again, it is likely that he’d be reaching for reasons. He’d want some reason to think that the gospel writers are credible witnesses, that they knew what they were talking about and told the truth. But why think that?

I am not now going to expound on a case for the resurrection of Jesus. What I want us to notice is that a common way to reason is to base some beliefs on others. This is also a natural way to defend a claim when challenged. However, for every chain of beliefs, one must stop somewhere. But where? We can’t go on forever!

The potential for an infinite regress of beliefs poses a problem for any theory of knowledge proposing that we are justified in believing one thing based on another. The problem would be solved if there were some beliefs that are justified but not on the basis of another belief. Such beliefs are called basic beliefs. A foundationalist thinks that there cannot be an endless chain of beliefs. Instead, some beliefs must form a foundation upon which all the other beliefs rest. In other words, there must be some basic beliefs.A man standing on four books labelled Matthew, Mark, Luke and John

Consider Pastor Jim’s belief that Jesus rose from the dead. He believes on the basis that Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, tell him so. He believes that the gospel writers provide an accurate report of events either because they consulted or are themselves credible eyewitnesses to the event. He also believes that the text we have has sufficiently survived transmission. If asked repeatedly what justifies each belief, he would eventually have to arrive at some basic beliefs. He might say that perceptual systems are good enough to be trusted to generate justified beliefs. So, the eyewitnesses can trust the beliefs produced by what they saw and heard. Alternatively, he might say that testimony should be accepted unless proven otherwise. Those are the sorts of beliefs that are basic.

Notice that we have arrived at an end to our chain of beliefs. What else can be said to ground the pastor’s beliefs? One might add to his thinking the assertion that the Bible is inspired by God, thus it is devoid of error, but one would only know this from the Bible and another series of premises leading to a conclusion. Hence, the addition would require its own chain of beliefs, one belief resting on another.

What are the other options? One’s chain of beliefs cannot terminate in an unjustified belief. If it could, then the chain can stop anywhere one pleases. Perhaps Pastor Jim just arbitrarily stops at some point. If Smith asks, ‘why do you think Luke is right about the birth narrative in his gospel,’ there would be nothing in principle wrong with Jim just replying, ‘he just is. I believe Luke is correct because he is correct.’

Neither can the chain of beliefs go on forever. If a chain of beliefs can go on forever, then no belief would ever be justified. For every step back on the chain, there would be another step. Thus, you’d never get to the belief in question.

It can’t be a circular chain either. Say you believe that Luke is honest because Paul trusts him (Col 4:14). And say you also believe Paul because Luke trusts him. Do you really have any reason to believe either of them? Thus, says the foundationalist, there must be some beliefs that are basic.

Initially, foundationalists thought that basic beliefs must have a special kind of certainty. They attempted to build their knowledge on a few infallible beliefs. The problem for this classical view is that we possess many beliefs that are neither justified by other beliefs nor infallible, but rational. For example, take the belief that there is a cup on the desk. I did not derive the belief from another belief nor is it impossible for the belief to be false (I could be dreaming). There are quite a lot of beliefs that cannot pass the test. In addition, the belief that all beliefs are either justified by other beliefs or infallible is itself neither justified by other beliefs nor is it infallible (something Christian philosopher, Alvin Plantinga, has pointed out). Hence, many foundationalists reject the earlier classical form.

More modest foundationalists believe that a basic belief does not have to be infallible. Instead, beliefs can obtain basic status if they are not derived from any other belief and there is no available reason to think they are false. Basic beliefs like these can be overturned only if there is good evidence for their falsity or reason to think that whatever mechanism produced them isn’t working correctly. They can’t be overturned merely by showing that it is possible they are false.

For example, I believe other people have minds. I might think it is possible that no other person has a mind. They could all be robots running a very sophisticated A.I. I don’t have to give up my belief that they do have minds just because it is possible that they don’t. I also possess no good evidence for my belief that other people have minds. This also doesn’t mean that I should give it up. Thus, it is a legitimate basic belief upon which I can base other beliefs such as other people are morally responsible for their actions. I would only give up my belief in other minds if someone showed me good evidence for the falsity of my belief. If someone proved to me that there are no other minds. Without such evidence, I can carry on rationally believing they do.

Other basic beliefs can be formed from the deliverances of our memories and perceptions. Since those are crucial to grounding eye-witness accounts of the resurrection, they are crucial in any defense of that belief. Some thinkers take belief in testimony itself as a source of basic beliefs. Hence, the chain stops earlier. The outcome is that pastor Jim can arrive at some basic beliefs in his chain of reasoning. If so, and what he believes is true, he has knowledge of the resurrection.

However, saying exactly what gives basic beliefs their justification isn’t easy. Although we might all agree that we can generally treat perceptual beliefs as basic, that doesn’t tell us why we ought to. There are two general answers to this issue. The first says that what explains our agreement is that we all have a strong intuition that perceptions are trustworthy unless shown otherwise. Could we be mistaken in our beliefs generated by seeing things? Sure. But ‘it seems to me’ is enough to confer justification on a belief unless proven otherwise. If one challenges it, one is exposed to a form of skepticism that would rule out justification for most of our everyday beliefs.

The second strategy involves an appeal to the reliability of our cognitive equipment. Instead of appealing to how things seem to us, we might instead appeal to how well our cognitive equipment is working. Is my perceptual system reliable, working correctly? If yes, then I have what I need for a basic belief. It is produced by a reliable mechanism. Hence, I can trust what it produces (again, unless shown that it is false, or the mechanism unreliable).

Some objections to eyewitness testimony found in Scripture argue that witnesses suffered some sort of hallucination or were under the influence of some malevolent psychological problem. Both those objections are to the reliability of their cognitive mechanisms.

The next Philosophy for Life blog will explore this further, looking into postmodern skepticism. Stay tuned!

Further reading: One of the more important Christian philosophers of the past century is Alvin Plantinga. His work in epistemology has been groundbreaking and of great benefit to Christian thought. Although he has many large volumes on epistemology, he has also produced a short and eminently readable introduction to his thought on Christian knowledge called, Knowledge and Christian Belief (Eerdmans, 2015). If Plantinga’s thought is interesting to you and you’d like somewhere to start, may I recommend a recently published introduction by my friend and colleague, Greg Welty called, Alvin Plantinga (P&R Publishing, 2023).