Caribou Coffee & The Epistemology of Faith

I used to visit a Caribou Coffee in Waukesha quite frequently. They were the best, because they sold dark chocolates by the register, and had free refills. Many of the workers seemed to belong to a local, hip evangelical church, given their tattoos and turns of phrase. As somebody who is very interested in epistemology, the study of knowledge, I once posed this question to one of the workers with an ornate Jesus tattoo:

“What, if any kind of evidence or argumentation, would you need to dissuade you from Christianity?”

For example, in a debate, Christian apologist William Lane Craig was asked if the bones of Jesus Christ would destroy his faith. Craig answered yes, as Jesus’ bones would indicate that He did not raise from the dead, and the Resurrection did not occur.

In response to my question, this fellow said he believed by faith, and that was not the sort of thing that could be dissuade. I didn’t want to press him more, but I found it interesting how we seemed to be operating with differing epistemological models.

The Harvard Professor, and perhaps the only American Libertarian of widespread respect in Anglo-American philosophy, Robert Nozick offers a theory of Justification of Beliefs that I find compelling, the “Truth-Tracking” account:

An agent has knowledge of something if…
1. Proposition P is true
2. The agent believes P is true
3. The agent believes P because of a method[s] of inquiry that support that proposition is true
4. If P is false, those same method[s] would indicate that as well

For example, if my friend and I got into a dispute about the price of soy milk, we could settle this dispute by going to the store to investigate. If I believe the price is $2.99, I know that finding the soy milk section will either reinforce this belief, or if the soy milk is actually $3.99, contradict this belief. I can state how my beliefs are justified, how they may be justified, and what would contradict or challenge my beliefs. Notice, all knowledge in this schema is justified belief; even the most basic or well-supported knowledge is still a form of belief.

Of course, evaluating evidence is a complicated matter, and there are many instances in which we could not give an example of one piece of evidence knocking down a belief, because confirmation and knowledge are holistic. Medicine is a clear example of this, as well as evaluating another person’s character. Still, intellectual honesty compels us to consider how our beliefs might be challenged, and what it would take to change them.
Religious epistemology is a different, as “Believing” in Jesus Christ includes both accepting descriptive propositions (the details of His life, his sayings, tenets of the Church), but also a devotional assent, an acceptance of a set of normative principles. While this was not my intention, I’m sure the barista took my question more as, “What sort of worldly things would keep you from going to church and participating in your community” rather than, “What, if any, empirical findings would challenge your belief that Jesus Christ is the Son of God?” Faith, for many, appears to operate like this,

An agent has knowledge of something, by faith, if…
1. Proposition P is true.
2. Faculties of reasoning are faulty by the corruption of Sin.
3. God instills a warrant to believe P by a faculty of faith, distinct from reason.
4. Empirical evidence does not, in and of itself, overturn faith. Only a new, clarified sense of faith can do that. Thus true-faith causes a belief to be super-warranted, and other evidence is to be treated with great suspicion.

Following point four, this is why I suspect that many religious people will respond in a debate by questioning the doubtful one’s character or intentions rather than the doubtful’s argument, because access to truth, according to this epistemological model, has little to nothing to do with methods of reasoning. Doubtfulness is a result of rejecting God’s warrant and relying on one’s faulty faculties of reason; if they cannot accept the truth they already know to be true, than there can be no debate.

This line of thinking, of course, begs the question, because it presupposes the conclusion (God has given us warrant for the truth) in the premises.

This faith-based epistemology, rooted in emotional conviction is not, of course, limited to Christianity, or religious group at all. The fact there is more than a dozen active socialist parties in the United States, none whose membership exceeds 20,000 people, strongly suggests that faith-driven epistemology is more common than one would initially think. Notice too, how disagreements with a zealot political participants often turns into accusations that one is brainwashed by the media, being manipulated by various conspiratorial forces, lacking class-consciousness, and so forth. Once one believes they have a supreme warrant for their beliefs, they seem to become remarkably difficult to converse with.

I do suspect that the best theory of justification rests somewhere in the middle of these two systems; Nozick’s theory may work for a number of direct, empirical questions, but it doesn’t obviously translate to many of the “Big Truths” we seek: What is the best political party to support? Who should I trust? Should we have children in the age of Climate Change? What kind of lifestyle will be the best for me? Is church something worth going to? Who is to blame for economic inequality? What is the responsibility we owe developing nations? The bigger the case, the more robust an epistemology we will need before we can even attempt to claim “The Truth?”

A resistance to responding to empirical evidence is a sign of fanaticism, and an inability to recognize the complexities and holism of life decisions is juvenile.

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