An Apologetics Primer

Reason & Belief

GEM ’85, this rev. Aug. 2002a

"Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.  But do this with gentleness and respect . . ."     (1 Peter 3:15)

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 1.         Reason and Belief: Towards Reasonable Faith

Since by definition issues are matters of argument, let us start by asking how arguments persuade, and how some arguments prove (or fail to prove) their conclusions.  In so doing, we will see the vital role faith plays in all human thinking and reasoning.  This will set the stage for the more specific issues.

First, we can easily see that arguments make three main persuasive appeals: (1) to “facts” and logic, (2) to authorities, and (3) to emotions.[1]  Of the three, only the first actually has the potential to prove its conclusions.  For, emotional appeals (although often quite effective) cannot ground any conclusions whatsoever.  Likewise, no authority is better than the facts and reasoning behind his or her opinions. 

This is why we should examine claimed facts and inferences from them carefully, to see if “facts” are true and representative of the truth, and that conclusions follow logically from these premises.[2]  Second, since appeals to authority are a practical necessity for real world arguments[3] we must discipline ourselves to authenticate the “authorities” we appeal to; and we should also be alert to bias, mistakes, debatable assumptions and other limitations.  Most of all, while an emotional response may well rest on an accurate perception of a situation, we must always be wary of being blinded by our feelings, fears, ideals, prejudices, assumptions, impulses, lusts, greed and/or envy, or even by unmet needs.

As Luke records in Acts 17:11, the First Century Berean Jews were a good example of such an open-minded but critically aware approach:

The Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.

This example of critically aware, reasonable faith leads to the second main issue.  For, faith and reason are often cast in opposition to one another, as if faith always lacks adequate reason, and as if one can reason without faith.  Indeed, the two are often said to be contradictory.

This view is false.  For, as Jesus points out in Luke 6:39 – 40, blind faith is liable to lead us about as far as the nearest ditch.  Further, once we try to prove a claim A, we need further claims and/or evidence B to establish it.  But B needs C, and so on.  (Philosophers call this an infinite regress.) So, what we always do, sooner or later, is to accept some things, F say, as "true" without further proof, whether consciously or unconsciously — “axioms,” “presuppositions,” "obvious facts," “intuitive knowledge,” “self-evident truths,” “properly basic beliefs” or whatever else we may call them:

[A <---- B <---- C . . . . (to infinity); impossible!] vs. [A <--- B <--- C <--- . . . F]

F, then, is our “faith-point,” from which we begin our thinking and reasoning. For instance, most people take for granted: (1) that there is a real world, (2) that other people have minds, (3) that we can therefore  significantly communicate with one another, and (4) that error exists (which directly implies that truth exists and that there is a real world to be in error about[4]).  Other things are then accepted or rejected based on such “plausible basic beliefs.”

That is, if we try to prove everything, we can prove nothing: even proofs must start from faith.  Thus, faith and reasoning are necessary and interconnected components in our thinking, rather than mutually hostile competitors in the battle for our hearts and minds.  For, all of us must live by faith -- whether Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or New Ager; Marxist, Secularist, Relativist or Scientist.

The idea that Science in particular is shot through with faith is jarring at first sight.  But it is quite true: for, we first infer scientific theories as educated guesses that work to “explain” observed patterns in the world.  Then, we test such models for their ability to predict new observations.  If such a theory/model/ explanation accurately predicts the observations made in a wide variety of tests, it is held to be verified.

In effect, we argue: "IF Theory, THEN Observations; Observations, SO Theory." The underlying logic is thus the same as that of: "IF Tom is a pig, THEN Tom is an animal; Tom is an animal,[5] SO Tom is a pig" — an obvious fallacy, the affirming of the consequent.   [That is, we tend to confuse the logic of implication (A is sufficient for B to be true: A => B), with that of equivalence (A is both necessary and sufficient for B; that is, B =>A as well as A =>B,[6] written: A <=>B).]

Clearly, the capability of a scientific theory to predict observations cannot be a test of its ultimate truth. For, Science can only argue to the best current explanation.[7] So, while scientific methods may help us to discover and test truths, the theories/models/explanations and empirical findings of Science are always provisional — open to clarification and correction.  (The classic case is Newton's Laws of Motion: they withstood every test for nearly two hundred years, then had their limitations sharply exposed between 1880 and 1930.[8])

The key to understanding these limits of scientific thinking lies in the two-way, asymmetric link between explanations/models/theories and the bodies of observations they explain/predict.  First, models logically entail observations; but observations can only provide provisional empirical support for the models.  Second, such explanations/models/theories [E/M/T] must face two critical further tests: (1) self-consistency; (2) supportive/challenging relationships to exiting bodies of accepted theory [BOAT]:  

BOAT <---> Explanation/Model/Theory <-----> empirical observations

For, if a scientific model is not consistent with itself each half refutes the other; so it must be false. If it is consistent and easily integrates into the existing body of accepted theories, there is mutual reinforcement.  However, occasionally a new model or theory may provide a superior [perhaps, the only] explanation of existing observations and accurately predicts fresh ones, but is inconsistent with accepted theories.  In that case, the new theory becomes a challenger to the accepted body of theory, and a Scientific Crisis and/or Revolution may follow.  (This is how Quantum Theory and Relativity became the accepted fundamental physical explanations for the motion of bodies between 1900 and 1930.[9]  And, today, Intelligent Design is challenging Darwinism as the best explanation for the apparently irreducible complexity of life-forms, e.g. the bacterial flagellum — a molecular scale, electrically powered outboard motor.)     

So, scientific explanations, at best, give provisional knowledge.  At worst, they may become little more than a clever attempt to explain away the cosmos — everything from hydrogen to humans — on materialistic philosophical assumptions.  In either case, Science deeply embeds faith; it should therefore leave room for reasonable doubt and debate about its current “best explanations/models/theories.”

Many people, however, sharply reject such an organic link between Science and faith, because for them "Science" is synonymous with “rationality,” or even "knowledge" — and "faith," with "irrational or intellectually dishonest, closed-minded belief," or even "ignorant superstition and prejudice."  Nevertheless, the point plainly still stands: scientists, too, work by the light of faith (cf. Thomas Kuhn’s paradigm concept in his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions)

We may thus safely conclude that each of us, consciously or unconsciously, holds to a set of plausible basic beliefs, which define our different worldviews — different ways of understanding/interpreting ultimate reality, the world and ourselves.  Fortunately, our basic beliefs need not be arbitrary; for we can be open to correction in light of experience and/or the discovery of inconsistencies[10] or other logical errors. However, we must also be aware that even if certain ideas "make sense" or “seem absurd,” such perceptions may well owe more to debatable assumptions, or gaps in our knowledge, or mistakes in reasoning — or even to outright bias and closed mindedness — than to what holds in the real world.

The Early Church's experience with Jews and Greeks provides a good example of this problem.  Often, people were not willing to listen to eyewitness testimony about Jesus' life, death and resurrection, because it did not fit in with their preconceptions about God.  Five hundred eyewitnesses notwithstanding, they had closed their minds!  (See 1 Cor. 1:18-25, 15:1-20; also Acts 17:16-33.)

Plainly, we need to beware of the fallacy of the closed mind.  On the other hand, since it is impossible to "be neutral" on the big questions — we would then face an infinite regress of proofs — our intellectual commitments need to be open-minded, critically aware and honest.  Therefore, as educated Christians, we should think through our own basic commitments, and seek to bring those we argue with to the point where they too can be aware of their own core beliefs and values; so that they in turn may recognise their need for repentance and to cry out to God, who "rewards those who earnestly seek him."  [Heb 11:6.]  

Of course, this requires diligent study, careful reasoning, humility, patience, prayer, and last but not least, courage.  For, we must not forget that Stephen was both the first Christian Apologist [Acts 6:8 – 10], and — precisely because of the irresistible force of the Spirit-filled wisdom of his case — the first Martyr [Acts 6:11; 8:1].  But equally, it was one of his chief opponents who — through his own encounter with the risen Christ — would take up the torch of Spirit-anointed truthful wisdom and run with it: Saul of Tarsus.


NOTICES: This course module was originally created by Gordon Mullings, in 1985, for use as part of a manual for Cell Group Leaders for the UCCF, in Jamaica and the wider Caribbean. It has been subsequently revised and developed, to date. (DISCLAIMER: While reasonable attempts have been made to provide accurate, fair and informative materials for use in training, no claim is made for absolute truth, and corrections based on factual errors and/or gaps or inconsistencies in reasoning are welcome.) FAIR USE: The contents of this module are intended for use as a support for learning about responding to the typical intellectual challenges to the Christian Faith and gospel that are commonly encountered in the Caribbean, especially in tertiary education and in commentary in the regional and international media. Permission is therefore granted to link to this page for fair use under intellectual property law, and for reasonable citation of the linked content on this site for church- or parachurch- group related training and/or for personal or academic use; this specifically excludes reproduction, linking or citation for commercial, controversial or media purposes without the Author's written permission -- especialy where matters relating to the validity and value of Faith/Religious/Atheological Commitments and Truth-Claims are being debated or disputed. PDF version available, under similar terms. COPYRIGHT:GEM 2002. All rights are reserved.


[1] Cf. Aristotle’s The Rhetoric.  “Facts” is used to distinguish perceptions or claims from established facts.  (NB: One has a right to believe that one’s direct sense perceptions, memory etc. are typically accurate, but are subject to the possibility of error.) 

[2] If, granting premises P, then a conclusion Q must necessarily be true, Q follows logically from P: P => Q.

[3] Not least, because none of us has the time or wisdom to prove for him- or her- self the accumulated learning of the ages.

[4] Therefore, we should humbly face the possibility that we may be in error, but insist on good reason for accepting “corrections” to important beliefs.  Cf. Trueblood, General Philosophy, pp. 47 – 52, ff.

[5] Say, a cat.

[6] In a valid implication, P => Q, P is a sufficient condition for Q and Q is a necessary condition for P.

[7] Charles S. Peirce called this process of argument by proposed best explanation/model/theory “abduction.”  In deductive arguments, one reasons from “facts” to their logical implications, which are thus “proved” from the “facts.”  By contrast, in Science we argue that if certain hypotheses were true, then certain observed (and/or predicted) “facts” would follow as direct implications. Thus, the observed/predicted “facts” provide “support” — but not actual proof — for such hypotheses/explanations.

[8] The case also strongly shows that the power of a theory/model to explain/predict observations (and even to guide us in developing technologies to control or influence events) cannot be a proof of its ultimate truth. 

[9] Newtonian Dynamics has been retained as a relatively simple model for the motion of large, slow moving bodies.

[10] Logical inconsistencies affirm and deny (usually implicitly) the same claim, resulting in confusion.  For example, the claim “there are no absolute truths” is itself an absolute truth-claim.  It therefore refutes itself.  No good comes of such confusion, so we must purge our thinking of contradictions.