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Refuting Theistic Epistemic Standards

by Francois Tremblay



The debate between atheist and theist used to be epistemically simple: generally, both sides implicitly accepted that only rational, natural evidence was acceptable. Faith was seen as a way to God but not as proof of God. Debates tended to hinge on natural facts such as the existence of the universe, causality, design, and so on. Science had not advanced sufficiently to provide ammunition to the atheistic side.

Now that cosmological and biological discoveries have defeated the classical arguments, the new current of argumentation relies on taking the battle further and questioning the very validity of reason and science as methods – as epistemic standards. To these standards, the theist opposes his own a prioris (the infallibility of the Bible, perception of “divine intervention”, divine revelation) as equal or superior standards.

I will give three ways to refute these non-rational epistemic standards, although “epistemic standards” is a bit of a misnomer given that it also applies to things like the Bible. Basically, these fatal refutations apply to any non-rational deduction or process.

1. All such standards would be circular, as they would assume the existence of God in order to prove the existence of God.

Acceptance of the Bible or divine revelation presumes the truth of a great number of presuppositions which he cannot justify, and which lead to circularity. I gave examples of such presuppositions in my article ‘The Impossibility of Divine Intervention’.

To accept the Bible as an epistemic standard, for example, we would need to justify propositions such as:

  • I believe that God exists.
  • I believe that God can, and does, intervene in the universe.
  • I believe that God can speak to human beings.
  • I believe that humans can understand God and write his words in a book.

    But if we need to believe that God exists to accept the standard by which we say that God exists, we have a circular argument. All theistic standards are circular because they rely on something outside of the human mind as source.

    2. Doing so contradicts the contingent nature of the theistic worldview itself, which cannot contain any principles. He must either accept our epistemic playing field or lose by default.

    This argument is already fully described as the ‘Argument from Correct Choice’. It is much stronger than refutations 1 and 3, because it denies the theist’s use of any standard, rational or otherwise. Even if the theist uses a rational deduction, he could not justify that deduction, as the theistic worldview precludes the existence of principles (including the logic he is using to make the deduction).

    3. Demonstrating that another epistemic standard is valid is impossible without the use of reason, since only reason is derivable from foundational principles.

    To prove that the standard is valid would require the theist to demonstrate it. But such demonstration would have to proceed from rational methods, such as the senses (we would need to perceive that demonstration), logic (we would need to understand that demonstration), etc. Therefore any such attempt presumes that reason is valid, and the believer must still remain within the limits of reason.

    On the opposing claims of Reformed Epistemology, see my refutation in ‘Plantinga’s Basic Beliefs: Not Quite Basic’.

    Suppose that a believer tells you that he accepts divine revelation as an epistemic standard, and that this permits him to hold a belief in God as true. Let’s go through the points again:

    First, how can we accept that “divine revelation” is indeed a communication from God (that is, actually “divine”) unless we presuppose the existence of God? And since “divine revelation” is used to prove the existence of God and yet presupposes the existence of God, it is a circular argument. It also begs the question of how the believer knows that he can understand God, that he is communicating with God and not Satan, and so on and so forth.

    Second, how can the theist claim that “divine revelation” is a correct principle if he cannot hold any principles at all? God could very well decide to transform his “communications” into delusions or schizophrenia, without the believer being able to make the difference. Without a necessary standard, the theist is ultimately forced to nihilism.

    Lastly, how can the theist show us that “divine revelation” is a correct standard without appealing to rational processes? He could tell us about some “revelations” he received, but how can we perceive and understand what he is saying without the senses? If he likewise tries to point to the practical consequences of these “revelations” (such as a better life), we must ask him how he knows that the consequences are positive without a rational standard.

    Last updated: February 2, 2005