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Are Religious Beliefs Groundless?

Some Philosophers and Theologians Have Claimed That Religious Beliefs Are ‘Groundless’. Explain What Is Meant by This Claim and Assess Its Plausibility                                                                        200995235 – January 2019

Scholarly conjecture surrounding the claim that religious beliefs are ‘groundless’ are numerous. Norman Malcolm, in ‘On the Groundlessness of Belief’, outlines a notion of groundlessness which not only furthers, but also makes accessible the constructs Ludwig Wittgenstein attributed to the notion of language games, in such a way as to incorporate religious beliefs. The foundationalist theory is of propositional nature to the fundamentals of how groundlessness works- ultimately requiring there always to be an underlying belief, until the core foundation is reached and one can justify no further. I seek to show how the very nature of groundlessness is lived through human experience and how Malcolm’s assertions are understood by other scholars in their attempts to categorise belief and religious belief. ‘Groundlessness’ varies in application depending on your understanding of the term itself- Malcolm is confident in associating belief with groundlessness, however, R.M. Hare is cautious to do so- instead preferring the term ‘blik’ to ascribe to groundless notions of individuals. Antony Flew opts for a different term altogether, deeming that ‘groundlessness’ is not what occurs when a belief is presented with counter evidence that is simply dismissed- he would go so far as to say these beliefs were consequently ‘meaningless’.

Norman Malcom was an American philosopher and student of Ludwig Wittgenstein who had a particular focus on religious belief. Malcolm attributes the notion of ‘groundlessness’ to Wittgenstein, however, religion was not the direct focus in the publication of “On Certainty”, compiled from Wittgenstein’s notes after his death in 1951. Wittgenstein applied the theory of religion to his concept of language games which Malcolm describes as being “embedded in action” to which “neither stands in need of justification” (Malcolm 1977:100). Language, here, being a way of life, to which one does not affiliate unless one is within that particular culture- in such, our language is so intrinsic to our way of thinking that we consider not its origins or derivatives, but rather, it is a central component to our way of life- “not in the sense of a groundless opinion, but in the sense that we accept it, we live it” (Malcolm 1977:98). Religion, on this basis, is groundless in the sense that basic beliefs, which, when given foundations, mean nothing. Such beliefs, however are held in place by what lies around them, rather than any pre-requisite before them- in the same way that language is intrinsic to our way of thinking, religion follows this pattern also. This initial proposition of ‘groundlessness’ is in direct contrast with the foundationalist theory which maintains that “all justified beliefs rest ultimately on a foundation of non-inferentially justified beliefs” (Fumerton 2002:210). Therefore, if you are inferring a belief from another state of affairs, then the initial belief is not the foundation, however is preceded by other features or beliefs about the world. In this sense, a pyramid is constructed on which, from the base of foundational beliefs, builds beliefs drawn from these foundations, and on these beliefs, those which are drawn from their pre-requisites, in turn by their foundations, are constructed. Simplified, a continuation of the question ‘so what?’ is useful in aiding our understanding. By this meaning, one is seeking the construct which comes before each pretext of belief that could possibly serve as a foundation. In an attempt to separate ‘groundlessness’ from ‘foundationalism’, an alternative model, a network of such, was proposed. The network does not constitute merely beliefs, but the beliefs, being integral to a form of life, comprise the things we do- so our actions-with the things we believe. A network such as this gives structure and strength to the worldview. Interconnectedness of these beliefs, feelings and practices, is not advocating for a foundational construct, as none of these ideals are self-substantiating- in such, none of them have the self-evidence required to stand alone at the base of the pyramid. “You must bear in mind that the language game, is, so to say, something unpredictable” (Wittgenstein 1969:559) and such is the life and network of those within such existence. On the surface, it could appear here, that Wittgenstein is referring to a foundation, if a belief is held in place by what surrounds it, however, by constructing this network, one can understand that such beliefs are, as with language, a part of an individual’s life, and without self-justification, they remain outside the reach of foundationalism.

Malcolm gives the example of two contrasting, yet interlinked beliefs- “the view that material things do sometimes go out of existence inexplicably, with our own rejection of that view” (1977:93). The belief here, that material things do not cease to exist, appears to be groundless on the basis that there is no better evidence for this claim than the belief that material things only sometimes cease to exist. These beliefs therefore, are just as consistent as one another in the sense that they are action guiding rather than drawn from evidence. In practical terms, Malcolm uses the example of a lawn chair to illustrate the groundlessness of the item having simply ceased to exist. This is a notion that individuals require no justification for, as “it could be said to belong to ‘the framework’ of our thinking about material things” (Malcolm 1977:93)- In such, no falsifiable evidence is sought to prove that the lawn chair had not simply disappeared from existence, more so that it is an accepted central construct of life, that material things cannot simply cease to be. Wittgenstein thus asks, “Does anyone ever test whether this [material object] remains in existence when no one is paying attention to it?” (1969:163)- the answer being undoubtedly not. Questions such as these represent a system fundamental to the understanding of constructs and ideals contained within our worldviews, within which evidence is sought. “Of course there is justification, but justification comes to an end” (Wittgenstein 1969:192) and it is with this, that groundlessness is drawn upon to indicate that evidence is only justifiable up to a certain level, with justification ceasing when the beliefs which lay in place around the principle in question are not something we, as individuals, consider, but rather live out- in this case, it is something that we just take on the basis of knowing, the consequent impossibility of a material object simply ceasing to exist. Using Wittgenstein’s principle of ‘language games’ here, accepting the belief that material objects simply do not cease to be is not a choice, rather, as we develop, we associate with different propositions and beliefs which shape our thinking and construct our lived communities. Wittgenstein states that “a language game is only possible if one trusts something” (1969:509) in conjunction that an individual will trust in their belief for reasons, perhaps inexplicable to them, aside from the feeling that they know it to be true. In the case of the lawn chair ceasing to exist- an individual trusts in their belief that this is an impossibility and requires no justification for this assertion- it is neither in doubt, nor “adopted as a hypothesis” (Malcolm 1977:95). This trust is part of a network of lived beliefs, feelings, and practices which constitute an individuals’ understanding and approach to their worldview. Trust in such assertions is not a consideration, it is not a question we ask with sincerity if determining the existence of material objects. Determining belief from this inexplicable but definitive truth “does not rise of fall on the basis of evidence or grounds; it is groundless” (Malcolm 1977:95).

Having explained the concept of groundlessness and introduced Malcolm’s views, I would now like to consider other scholars whose input is helpful when considering whether religious beliefs have grounds or not. Firstly, R.M. Hare uses the construct of a ‘blik’ to explain the attitudes of an individual. Hare is cautious to ascribe the term ‘belief’ to actions as he maintains they do not hold any assertions- in such, there is no trust or confidence being placed in the belief, contrasting with Wittgenstein’s notion of a language game becoming plausible only when one has trust. For Hare, a ‘blik’- being the way an individual perceives the world- is not grounded in evidence, rather, they provide ways for an individual to interpret the evidence they are given. Malcolm does not shy away from using the term ‘belief’ as an interpretation for the way someone interprets an event in their worldview, however, in relation to the example of material objects ceasing to exist, I believe this could be a corresponding term for what Hare would deem to be a ‘blik’. Malcolm clearly wants to interpret the notion that material things do not simply cease to exist, as being an undoubted belief- a ‘blik’ in Hare’s line of thought- but ultimately, in my opinion, these terms could be considered somewhat on an interchangeable basis. Both the idea of an undoubted belief and a ‘blik’ are not constrained by foundations of evidence, they are both ways in which individuals look at and live out their perceptions without questioning their origins. There is no concern here for self-justification because it is an accepted notion that certain fundamental ideals are central to our way of life. Considering the example of the lawn chair simply ceasing to exist, a ‘blik’, here, signifies the person perceiving the situation in a way which allows them to conclude from their interpretation of evidence, the nature of  whether material things can or cannot cease to exist- this perhaps serves as a more logical notion for Hare, rather than siding with Malcolm’s usage of the term ‘belief’ in which blind trust is placed in what an individual deems to know- they seek no justification for something which is self-evidently false. Ultimately, however, both terms are action guiding, with no requirement for pre-requisitioned evidence- merely the intrinsic understanding of the perceptions in play- it is in this sense, that both a ‘belief’ and a ‘blik’ could be constituted as groundless.

Using this basis of Hare’s interpretation, it is now important to consider how this transfers onto religious beliefs. Hare, based on the notion that religious beliefs are seemingly irrefutable, would suggest that this consequentially shows them to be a ‘blik’- He is not suggesting here, as mentioned above, that religious beliefs are assertions, however, it is rendered with certainty that an individual understands what constitutes this ‘blik’ and why. It is in this sense that, in accordance with Malcolm, the term ‘groundlessness’ is applied to highlight a worldview in which evidence is not sought for the foundation of a belief, or in this case a ‘blik’- but instead, these constituent parts are self-evident to the believer in such that they do not seek justification for their interpretations. Antony Flew, however, whilst largely inferring that religious beliefs look like they cannot be refuted as at the presentation of counter evidence, the believer is able to explain away this evidence, he ultimately comes to a different conclusion for the apparent ‘groundlessness’ defined by both Malcolm and Hare. For example, Flew asks the question “What would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a disproof of the love of, or of the existence of, God?” (Mitchell 1971:15)- In this sense, the believer always has a response and each time counter evidence is presented a further response is given. With each further example, Flew would maintain, we begin to lose our grip on what it means that, for instance, God loves us, and in the end, we come to misunderstand or simply not know at all, what is, and was, originally meant by our belief- It is in this sense that Antony Flew would perceive religious beliefs to have no content and in such, meaningless. Drawing these two scholarly views together, in my opinion I would side with Hare, on the basis that it seems too presumptuous to disregard a belief as meaningless on the basis that the believer explains away potential counter evidence. For me, this constant unwillingness to give in to the counter evidence would seem to suggest that the individual is certain in their trust for interpreting their perceptions of the world, so much so, that swaying them from this belief appears to be as impossible as Malcolm explaining the possibility of believing material objects can simply cease to exist. Instead, I would suggest that the believer is so bound into their worldview or ‘blik’ that they simply need no evidence, or counter evidence, to find grounds for their perceptions- they are simply held in place by what surrounds them and the environment in which they are lived out. For these individuals, having a pre-requisite belief or foundational construct is unnecessary, and in such, the ‘groundlessness’ is accepted as the network of beliefs, feelings and practices are interconnected, formulating the very ‘blik’ that the individual wishes to uphold.

In terms of the plausibility of the claim that religious beliefs are ‘groundless’, I think it is useful to consider objections raised by Colin Lyas in relation to Malcolm. Lyas, to me, seems to be advocating that Malcolm’s claim is, in a sense, false- that his “claim that religious belief is groundless looks, then, to be at odds with known facts about religion and religious belief” and therefore it seems that Malcolm has misunderstood the nature of religious belief with the absence of “reflection upon what believers do and say” (Lyas 1977:159). For Lyas, there is an equivocation in Malcolm’s statement in that his claim that individuals seek no grounds for their beliefs, “does not follow that there are no grounds for a belief” (Lyas 1977:161). For example, a Christian does not necessarily readily seek grounds for the belief that Christ died for our sins, however, I believe one cannot then merely say that there are no grounds for Christs’ actions. This is supported by the very facts we glean from the Bible- 1 Corinthians 15:14 states “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith”, suggesting that even though Christians may not search for the grounds behind their faith, does not mean that their beliefs rest as groundless. This depicts a shift, therefore, between individuals not seeking grounds, and there simply being no grounds at all- Malcolm, however, does not accept this proposal. He would claim that it is more the outcome of “describing what certain people do- how they think, react, live” (1977:102) that matters, and in such, no shift has occurred as it is more a matter of appropriating how concepts operate in real life- understanding the notion that concepts do not require pre-requisites but can simply be held in place by what lies around them. Malcolm and Lyas hold contradicting views here, and this continues onto the concept of changes in belief also. For Lyas, a change in belief does not occur without grounds, and is not, therefore, made ‘groundlessly’ but “they are made for a reason” (1977:170). It can be seen from Wittgenstein, however, that if one affiliates with the view that belief is a language game, a part of one’s life which is, so to say, unpredictable, then one also accepts that the life we lead based on this language game, must too, have a sense of unpredictability. A language game is neither “reasonable (or unreasonable)” (Wittgenstein 1969:559) and if our form of life follows this basis, in such, can be changed and reimagined to suit our lived experiences, then surely, so too, can our ungrounded beliefs with which our experiences fundamentally coincide with. Personally, Lyas’ objection to Malcolm’s views are, to me, valid, however not in such a way as I would affiliate with them. Whilst it is true, in my opinion, that not seeking grounds is fundamentally different from there not being grounds- I believe that how an individual interprets this is then at the core of their belief.  Religion being a way of life, a ‘language game’ as Wittgenstein would contribute, does not make a belief any more worthy, or indeed unworthy, if grounds are consequently proven or unproven. Individuals perceive the world differently to each other and where one may look for grounds, another may not- An individual choosing not to seek grounds and trusting in their very belief that upholds their worldview, does not mean they are rejecting the notion of there ever having need for grounds, they are simply maintaining that for them, such a belief is so intrinsic, so fundamental to their worldview and how they live out their experiences, that giving a grounding to this will not structure their views any differently- they need no self-justifying element to a belief, which to them, is a given, something that captures their trust and inevitably, in the face of any pre-requisitional or counterintuitive evidence, will remain ‘groundless’.

To conclude, I believe I have proposed an analysis of the term ‘groundlessness’ in conjunction with its plausibility, in such as to identify scholarly conjecture and opinion within this realm. Ultimately, it has not been my aim to argue the falsifiability of the term ‘groundlessness’ but instead to analyse the term itself and to assess the plausibility of appropriating this term to the broader nature of religious belief. Personally, ‘groundlessness’ for me is both a plausible and valid appropriation for the lived experiences and nature of individual perceptions as it sets aside judgement and validity to make way for the grass-roots level at which people operate. Groundlessness is not a depreciation of value in belief but a way to give reason and meaning to such a belief, in that it is with the belief that the trust resides- self-justification and evidence are set aside as “the belief is distinct from the commitment which may follow it, and is the justification for it” (Roger Trigg, cited in Malcolm 1977:99).

Bibliography

  • Fumerton, Richard. 2002. Theories of Justification. In The Oxford Handbook of Epistemology, ed. Paul K. Moser. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 204-233
  • Lyas, Colin. 1977. The Groundlessness of Religious Belief. In Reason and Religion, ed. Stuart C. Brown. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, pp. 158-180
  • Malcolm, Norman. 1992 [1977]. The Groundlessness of Belief. In Contemporary Perspectives on Religious Epistemology, ed. R. Douglas-Gelvett and Brendan Sweetman. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 92-103
  • Mitchell, Basil. 1971. Theology and Falsification. In Philosophy of Religion, ed. Basil Mitchell. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 13-22
  • Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1979 [1969] On Certainty, trans. Denis Paul and G. E. M. Anscombe. Oxford: Blackwell


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