By Prof. Robert C. Koons at University of Texas at Austin
Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, wrote, “Philosophy begins with a sense of wonder,” and concluded that we cannot be satisfied until we have attained knowledge of the highest things. The mathematician Blaise Pascal claimed: “there is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every human being,” and the French existentialist Albert Camus wrote, “There is only one really serious philosophical problem, that of suicide. To judge that life is or is not worth the trouble of being lived, this is to reply to the fundamental question of philosophy.”1 Although Aristotle, Pascal and Camus represent very different points of view, their remarks point to the same basic human characteristic: we seek more than food, drink, and warmth to make us happy. Instead, we want answers to questions about the meaning of life. When we ask “Who am I?”, “What is my purpose?”, “Is there a God?”, and “If so, what is God like?” or “What does God have to do with me or my purpose?” we tip our hand: each of us is on a quest to make sense out of the fragmentary pieces of our existence.2 However, in today’s world, with so many voices offering conflicting answers to these questions, we are in constant danger of slipping into a deep pessimism about the very possibility of reaching real truth.
When we go about the task of making sense out of life, we always rely on a set of beliefs that we already hold. These beliefs act as a grid or filter: they help us figure out which experiences are more meaningful, important, or relevant than others. These basic beliefs, even if we are not consciously aware of them, are among the most important things about us. They determine which questions we will ask, and which answers to these questions we will consider. In this essay, I will present a two-part method for use in evaluating and revising one’s own basic beliefs, and I will apply that method to the evaluation of one particular belief system — that of historic Christianity. I will argue that, when we make use of all the available sources of information, it is reasonable to conclude that Christianity is uniquely true.
Knowledge through Inference to the Best Explanation
If we are to escape intellectual despair, we must find some source of knowledge that is widely shared and on which we can base our judgments. One time-honored and widely cited source is called “inductive inference”. An inference is a step or process of reasoning. In deductive inference, we make explicit what is already contained implicitly in our current stock of information. For example, if I know that all lawyers are overpaid, and that Paul is a lawyer, I can infer deductively that Paul must be overpaid. In contrast, inductive inference involves taking a step beyond what is contained in the data at hand. By inductive inference the mind is able to discern patterns in experience and use those patterns to form reasonable conjectures about unseen or not-yet-seen parts of the world.
Inductive inference often consists in discovering the underlying causes beneath the observed effects, e.g., gravity as the cause of falling apples and orbiting planets, germs as the cause of disease, money creation as the cause of inflation, etc.3 This process is sometimes called the “inference to the best explanation.” We conclude that a certain structure or entity really exists when the hypothesis that it does exist provides the best possible explanation for what we observe. For example, forensic scientists examine the evidence at the scene of a possible crime and then try to reconstruct the most plausible scenario — including the time and manner of the crime, and characteristics of the assailant — that can best account for all of the evidence. We humans have a natural disposition to push this process further and further, seeking the most fundamental and universal of all causes. Physicists, for example, conjecture that the entire observable universe is the effect of a catastrophic Big Bang event 18-20 billion years ago.4
As the process of discovery is pushed to its extreme limit, we find ourselves searching for the uncaused “First Cause” of all observed phenomena, the ultimate source of reality. From the time of the ancient Greeks until today5, and in many different cultures (Greek, Roman, Hebrew, Islamic, Christian and Hindu), scientists, philosophers and many others have found good reason to infer the existence of a necessary, eternal Being from which everything that is fleeting and tangible derives its existence.
We can try to infer additional characteristics of the First Cause by examining its effect, namely, the observable universe. For example, scientists have uncovered more and more evidence in recent years that the fundamental constants of physics and the basic features of the universe have been “fine-tuned” to make life possible. This apparent fine-tuning of these physical quantities gives support to the supposition that the First Cause is intelligent and purposeful, and that we ourselves (as intelligent, social creatures) are the intentional creation of this cosmic designer6. Moreover, recent work on information theory and the origin of life lends further support to the belief that such an intelligent designer was involved at some point or other in the history of our planet7.