Why Should I Believe My Belief?

Sep 26, 2002 |J. Budziszewski

Sometimes theology can be kid stuff.

Peter had stopped by to ask what I would be teaching the next semester. None of my planned courses fit his schedule (which didn't seem to surprise him), so he seemed to be ready to leave.

But he didn't. Each time he stood up, he thought of some trivial question, then sat down again to ask it. I began to think he'd get leg cramps if he kept this up.

"Why don't you tell me what's really on your mind?"

"What do you mean? I wanted to know what you were teaching next semester, and — "

"But you knew that already. And you didn't really come here to ask about the Semester in Uzbekistan, or the Internship in Antinomianism."

"What are you, psychic or something?"

I grinned. "Yes."

"Well," he said, "there is something I've been wondering about. It's not why I'm here. But since you bring it up, I guess I might as well tell you."

"You might as well," I agreed.

"I was talking with my friend Don. You know him."

"Sure. It's through him that I know you."

"Well, the other day he asked whether I believe in God, and I didn't know what to tell him."

"You don't know whether God is real?"

"It's not that. I don't know whether I believe in Him."

"Isn't that the same thing?"

"No. See, I do believe in God. But I don't see why my belief should be true. So maybe I don't believe in Him, if you see what I mean."

"Maybe you're trying to say that your belief doesn't reflect real knowledge, so even though you believe in God, you also think maybe you shouldn't. Am I getting warm?

"Yeah, that's it. See, one of my other professors said that the only reason I believe in God is that I've been brought up that way. If I'd been brought up by pagans, probably I'd believe in lots of gods. If I'd been brought up by atheists, probably I wouldn't believe in any god. So I have this belief — but so what?"

I reached for my coffee. "Peter, tell me something."

"What?"

"What makes you sure that you believe in God only because you've been brought up that way?"

He gave me a funny look. "Because I was brought up that way. My Dad and Mom told me God made the world, and I believed them."

"Did they also teach you 'one plus one is two, two plus two is four'?"

"Sure."

"Would you say that you believe those things just because you were brought up that way?"

He hesitated. "No-o-o. Because I could see for myself that what they said was true. When I put one penny with one penny, I got two pennies."

"So the mere fact that you were brought up to believe something — "

" — it doesn't show that I don't have other reasons to believe it. Right. But that's just it. 'One plus one is two' is different from 'God made the world.' I have other reasons to believe in one plus one, but I don't have other reasons to believe in God. My parents said God made the world, I believed them, and it stuck. It seems to me that's all."

"Did you believe everything they told you?"

"Well, no."

"For instance."

"They told me that if I lost a tooth and put it under my pillow, the tooth fairy would come while I was sleeping and leave a quarter in its place."

"Why didn't you believe them about that?"

"I could never see what use a fairy would have for a tooth. Besides, some of my friends got dollars for their teeth, and others didn't get anything. Then one day I lost a tooth and forgot to tell my parents, and that night the tooth fairy didn't come. So I decided the tooth fairy must be Mom and Dad."

"Very astute. So you believed your parents when what they told you made sense of other things you knew, but not when it didn't?"

"I guess so. 'One plus one is two' fit in fine with what I knew about adding pennies. But the tooth fairy didn't fit in with how some kids got dollars and others got nothing, and it didn't fit in with the time I forgot to tell my parents I'd lost a tooth."

"It didn't fit in with what you knew about motives, either."

"What do you mean?"

"You knew that nobody does anything without a reason. Otherwise it wouldn't have worried you that you couldn't see what use a fairy would have for a tooth."

"I guess I did know that about motives. It's funny to think of a little kid knowing something like 'Nobody does anything without a reason.' " He grinned. "I must have been pretty smart, huh?"

"Children know more about some things than we give them credit for. So when your parents told you God made the world, what other facts did this claim fit in with?"

"I can't think of any at all."

"Tell me this, then. Did they tell you out of the blue that God made the world, or was it the answer to some question?"

"It was the answer to a question. I'd asked them who made the world."

"So it did fit in with something you already knew."

"What?"

"You already knew that someone had made the world."

"I didn't know that. I just thought it."

"All right. But why did you think it?"

"Because even a kid knows that the world must have come from somewhere."

"Why?"

"Because there's got to be some good reason for everything."

"That's a rough paraphrase of what philosophers call the 'principle of sufficient reason' — that anything that doesn't have to be requires a cause sufficient to account for the effect. So you're saying that even as a child, you had intuitive knowledge of the principle of sufficient reason."

"I guess that is what I'm saying, Prof."

"And you had intuitive knowledge that the world is not the sort of thing that 'has to be.'"

"That too. Hey, my kid self is looking smarter and smarter."

"So it is. But there must have been at least one other thing you knew in those days."

"Why do you say that?"

"Because you didn't ask what made the world — you asked who made it."

"I don't think that means anything. That's just how kids think. They don't know about impersonal stuff, like gravity and electromagnetism. They only know about personal stuff, like Mom baking cookies."

"A lot of people make that claim. But are you sure it's true? Think back to your own childhood. Suppose your father had been reading a book to you and he had asked, 'Where did this picture come from?' How would you have answered?"

"I would have said 'Someone colored it.'"

"And did you think 'someone' was a person?"

"Yes."

"But now suppose you had been taking a walk with your father after a rainstorm and he asked, 'Where did this big puddle come from?' How would you have answered this time?"

"I would have said 'The rain.'"

"And did you think 'the rain' was a person?"

"No."

"So you knew the difference between personal and impersonal causes after all."

"Now that you put it that way, I guess I did."

"So what made you think that a personal rather than impersonal cause made the world — that it was made by a who and not a what?"

Peter reflected. "I guess the world must have seemed more like a picture than a puddle."

"That's a pretty deep intuition. So you're telling me that even as a child, you understood that some things might be due to impersonal causes, but other things could be brought about only by persons?"

"I guess I am saying that. That's pretty amazing. I sure didn't know I knew that stuff."

"We call that kind of knowledge 'latent' or 'implicit.' Latent knowledge is all that you know without being aware that you know it."

"There must be a lot of latent knowledge."

"There is. In fact, to ask who made the world and not what made the world, you would have needed at least one more piece of latent knowledge. It wouldn't have been enough to know that some things require personal causes and others don't."

"Um — right. I would have had to know how to tell which things need personal causes and which ones don't. Because I already knew that the world was one of them.

"Correct."

"But Professor T — "

"Yes?"

"If you asked me how I tell which things need personal causes, I couldn't tell you."

"All that means is that your knowledge is still partly latent. It doesn't mean that it isn't knowledge."

"But wouldn't I make mistakes now and then? Wouldn't I sometimes get things that do need personal causes mixed up with things that don't?"

"No doubt you would. Anyone might. For example, an archeologist digs up all sorts of things, and usually he can tell which ones are artifacts and which ones are just rocks. But every now and then he might dig up a rock and mistake it for an artifact."

"So what keeps me from making the same mistake about the whole world? I think the world is an artifact, but maybe it's just a rock. I think it was made by a who, but maybe it was caused by a what."

"Go back to the principle of sufficient reason."

"Anything that doesn't have to be requires a cause. Right, we said that. But I don't know what the — "

"That's only half of the principle."

"Was there another half?"

"Anything that doesn't have to be requires a cause sufficient to account for the effect. Remember the puddle and the picture?"

"Sure."

"The rain could have made the puddle, and the artist could have made the picture, but the rain couldn't have made the picture. That cause wouldn't have been sufficient to account for the effect."

"All right, I can see that the rain couldn't cause a picture. But without even knowing all the different kinds of what that there are, how do I know that there isn't a single what that could have been sufficient to cause the world?"

"Think of it this way. Would you agree that the world has both whos and whats in it?"

"That's pretty obvious."

"And would you also agree that a who is greater than a what?"

"What do you mean?"

"For one thing, a what can make a what, and a who can make a what, but only a who can make a who."

"That seems true."

"Now put those two points together. If only a who can make a who, and the world includes whos, then only a who could make the world."

Peter's eyes widened. "So when I was a kid — and I asked who made the world — "

"Go on," I said.

" — I was asking the right question."

"You were. You knew intuitively that a powerful who was responsible. What you didn't know was who He was."

We were silent for a few moments. Peter asked, "Why doesn't everyone know this stuff?"

"Deep down," I said, "I think everyone does. It's like what a great teacher of my faith wrote in a letter to one of the early churches: 'For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities — his eternal power and divine nature — have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.'"

Peter frowned. "Without excuse for what?"

I smiled. "For pretending they don't know what even a child can see."

Copyright 2002 J. Budziszewski. All rights reserved.

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