the Website of Timothy McCabe Follower of Christ; Student of Epistemology, Apologetics, and Theology
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Justification by will

Awkward Problems.

Explaining how our own first premises can possibly be rationally justified may seem like an impossible task at first. But, on the other hand, not recognizing them as rationally justified seems to deny rationality to all people.

Rationally justified conclusions must have rationally justified premises. But what can rationally justify a premise?

Sometimes, premises are themselves conclusions from prior premises. This provides an appearance of immediate justification, but it fails as a mechanism for ultimate justification. One conclusion can seem justified by its premises, which seem justified by their premises, which can seem justified by their premises... but eventually you arrive at the person's first premises, the original beliefs they held when they began to exist. These first beliefs must also be justified, but since they are first, they cannot be justified as conclusions of earlier premises, since the person had no earlier premises. But if the initial or first premises have no immediate justification, then the conclusions drawn from them aren't ultimately justified at all, and so on, back down the chain, ultimately disqualifying all following conclusions from being rationally justified, period.

Initial premises cannot be conclusions from prior premises, or they would not be initial. So first premises cannot be rationally justified by appealing to any prior premises. What then can justify first premises, if not earlier premises?

The Münchhausen trilemma demonstrates that I am not alone in recognizing this problem.

Explaining how our own first premises can possibly be rationally justified may seem like an impossible task at first. But, on the other hand, not recognizing them as rationally justified seems to deny rationality to all people.

Point 1. Ultimate Justification.

Claims, assertions, and beliefs can be finally or ultimately rationally justified by creative will or authoritative desire.

Imagine Mark Twain claiming, by authority of his own will, that Tom Sawyer has a particular eye color. Now imagine me claiming that, by authority of my own will, Huck Finn has a particular eye color. There is a significant difference between those two claims. Twain's claim is justified by means of his authoritative will on the subject matter, whereas my claim is utterly without justification due to the lack of authority of my own will on the subject.

With Twain, because of the shared reason for both the claim and the fact being claimed (both find reason for their existence in the will of the actual author), no further justification needs to be found. For example, we don't need to ask why Twain wants Sawyer's eyes to be that color, and even if we did ask, the answer would have no effect whatsoever on the rationality of Twain's statement. Even if Twain's desire itself were completely irrational, his claim (based on the desire) is not. The author's will thus provides ultimate justification for the author's claim.

Claims, assertions, and beliefs can be finally or ultimately rationally justified by creative will or authoritative desire.

Point 2. Immediate Justification.

Claims, assertions, or beliefs can appear to be immediately rationally justified by an entirely different entity than the one making the claim or holding the belief.

Consider a calculator and a Magic-8-ball. They both make claims. The calculator's are considered rationally justified, whereas the Magic-8-ball's are not. What rationally justifies the calculator's claims? The will, reason, intent, and mind of its creator.

However, unlike the Mark Twain example above, once we identify where the calculator gets its assumptions from (namely, its creator), we only have an appearance of immediate justification for the assumptions of the calculator. The person who created the calculator's assumptions did not also create the laws of mathematics, so the creator's assumptions about mathematics still need justification if we seek final or ultimate justification of the calculator's claims.

But the important point here is that the calculator's first premises are not justified by its own reason, but rather by its creator's reason.

Claims, assertions, or beliefs can appear to be immediately rationally justified by an entirely different entity than the one making the claim or holding the belief.

Thus, a Hypothetical Solution to the Problem of Rational Justification.

Consider the calculator again. Hypothetically, human first premises, like those of a calculator, can be immediately rationally justified by our own rational Creator.

Consider Mark Twain again. Hypothetically, our Creator's own understanding of His creation, including the first premises that He gives us, can be ultimately rationally justified by His own authoritative will or desire, like Mark Twain's claims about Tom Sawyer's eye color.

The will of our Creator is thus my suggested solution to the problem of rational justification for human thought. It seems to meet all the necessary criteria for rationally justifying our beliefs that the Münchhausen trilemma demonstrates are absent from alternative offerings.

Challenge: Are God's Beliefs About Himself Rationally Justified?

But a challenge may be offered. God's will is authoritative over creation, so His will can justify both His and our beliefs about creation. But God's will is not authoritative over Himself: He did not create Himself by an act of will. Can His beliefs about Himself be ultimately rationally justified?

I believe so, and here is how I see that as possible within this framework.

Humans can observe God's creation with our own created faculties, utilizing the laws of logic that God has created to govern the operation of the world and to also govern rationally justified thoughts about the world. Within the context of creation, those who think in accordance with God's created rules of thought can discern both that God exists and also what God is like. If we ourselves can discern what God is like within the context of His creation, then God Himself certainly can as well.

God's beliefs about Himself can thus be derivative beliefs, or conclusions, ultimately drawn (only within the context of creation) from His understanding of His creation, which finds its justification in His will. Through this mechanism, within the context of creation, God can know Himself.

This mechanism may not allow God to know Himself outside of the context of creation, but this in no way impedes His views of Himself from being rational in every way that is of relevance to us.

Summary.

Epistemology.

This is a description of an epistemological framework, justification by will, that is different from other epistemological frameworks as I understand them.

  • Foundationalism. It does not appeal to an arbitrary and disputed list of acceptable first premises, labeling them as rational and without need of justification, explanation, or warrant, as foundationalism seems to in many people's minds.
  • Coherentism. It does not appeal to noncontradiction alone as the only sure concept, without explaining how or why that concept came to be so sure, as coherentism does. Nor does it fail to explain whether falsehood or insanity are to be considered rational if they have no internal contradictions, as coherentism seems to. Further, while we all universally seem to recognize that contradiction is indeed justification for rejecting a claim, it is far from agreed-upon that a lack of contradiction is justification for accepting a claim. This makes coherentism a framework for unjustification, but a difficult sell as a framework for justification.
  • Infinitism. Finally, it also does not treat our own first premises as though they are conclusions of prior premises as infinitism appears to.

Instead of falling into any of the above views that the Münchhausen trilemma attacks, I am appealing to two observed phenomena regarding what I suspect all people accept as capable of providing immediate justification for first premises (the rational creator, such as that of the calculator) and also something I suspect all people accept as capable of providing final or ultimate justification for any claim at all (the creator's will, such as that of Mark Twain).

Apologetics.

In addition to being an epistemological framework, Justification by will is also an argument for the existence of a rational, omnipotent, creator God based on the existence of human reason. If our own first premises are rationally justified, it cannot be our own reason that justifies them. But our Creator's will could justify them. If, on the other hand, our own first premises are not rationally justified, then conclusions drawn from them are not justified either, and that appears to eliminate justification for all conclusions about all things of which we ourselves are not the authoritative creators.

I'd love to hear your feedback. If you'd like to continue the discussion, feel free to send me a tweet, or email me.

World Religions and Cults (volume 2)

In Printed Form

Along with numerous other authors including Don Landis, Bodie Hodge and Roger Patterson, Timothy McCabe contributes analyses of various world religions and cults in this volume from Master Books.

Other Writings

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Ultimately there is no other way to do it as long as we are the ones paying the price. In the end, it all comes down to a simple math problem. If God grants me 80 years to serve Him with, and I only serve Him for 79 of those years, then I owe God one year of service: 80 - 79 = 1 If I insist on paying God back rather than accepting His offer of forgiveness through Christ, how will I pay Him back for the one year in which I did not serve Him perfectly?
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