a broad Plantingian spirit

Alvin Plantinga is famous for (among other things) his claim that if Christianity is true, then Christian belief is probably justified and warranted. What is interesting about Plantinga’s account of religious epistemology is the “move to metaphysics” (so named by Tyler Wunder), that is, that what it is rational to believe, or what we think is rational to believe, can be very much dependent on our metaphysics (or should be, if we understand the entailments between our beliefs correctly.) So the theist qua theist ought to have different beliefs or expectations when it comes to epistemology than the atheist qua atheist. To place the expectations of one’s own metaphysical camp on the other is to beg the question against them. I think he’s right and I want offer up a similar move myself.

It’s actually a simplification of Plantinga’s own argument for Christian belief enjoying warrant. I think we can reach Plantinga’s basic conclusion while bypassing most of the detail of his epistemological account. Doing so (hopefully) produces an argument which helps make the spirit of Plantinga’s project escape the confines of reformed epistemology. Here’s a stab at expressing what I have in mind:

1. If Christianity is true, then probably God has designed/orchestrated/prepared/enabled a way for at least some people to believe Christianity in a warranted manner.
2. Some people P believe in Christianity.
3. [1 and 2] Therefore, if Christianity is true then God has probably designed/orchestrated/prepared/enabled a way for at least some of the members of P to believe Christianity in a warranted manner.
4. There are quite typical reasons, motives, impulses, pushes, experiences etc. (call this package R) which produce Christian belief in the members of P.
5. [3 and 4] Therefore, if Christianity is true, then probably R produces warranted Christian belief for P.

It seems to me that the weakest premise is (4). It might be doubted that there really are discernible patterns to the believings of different people. But then both Christians and sceptics often act as though there are. Christians believe for emotional comfort, a sceptic might say, thus drawing up a common manner of believing for all Christians (or all the religious generally). People comes to Christ once they come to the end of themselves, Christians might say, again drawing up a general theory of how these believings are conducted. Of course, details may vary massively, and they’ll always be some bizarre cases but it doesn’t seem implausible to me that we could discern broad patterns.

Of course it’s open to the sceptic to argue that, in fact, Christian belief isn’t warranted, and that therefore Christianity isn’t true (a kind of reversal of the move). I grant that this move is open, but they’ll have to support their argument for this conclusion and I don’t think that will be easy to do (not that my reservations ought to stop anyone).

But really, I propose this more for Christian ears as a invitation to conduct religious epistemology in a certain way. It seems to me that certain apologetic methodologies construct their epistemological theories and wield those to support religious belief, all the while oblivious to the fact that the vast majority of believers find these theories utterly removed from their own experience of belief. The evidentialist insists that belief in God is rational because upon a disengaged calculation of the facts, theism comes up top. The presuppositionalist insists that belief in God is rational because we all reason in circles, and only Biblical theism can validly complete a circle while also holding on to the existence of the external world, of morality, logic, truth, and the like. Never mind that probably no ancient Israelite ever doubted the existence of the external world, or saw a need to ‘justify it’ or anything else on that list.

The argument above is that Christians should expect that the more typical influences toward Christian beliefs are those which probably have warrant. Maybe there are also other, more exotic modes of acquiring warrant, but if it’s apologetics that one is interested in, then surely one is concerned to defend the faith that most people actually have. Christians, then, should perform their religious epistemology first of all by a study of religious belief and its phenomenology. Why, actually, do most people believe in God (or not)? What is adopting religious belief like for most people? And in fact, this sort of study involves a honest reflection on what one’s own religious experience is like, which we are often quite deceived about, especially if we’re intellectuals (the tendency to rationalism). This I think is the manner in which Plantinga engaged his project. He often comments on what it is like to believe in God – that it isn’t similar to what it’s like to believe a scientific theory, for instance. (It is interest to note as well how humble is attitude towards his belief seems to be). Now I’ve recently come to believe that his theoretical account of what religious belief is like is in fact wrong (closer than most people’s account, but not fully there – Charles Taylor hits it, in my opinion), but his methodology is certainly on the right track. It’s that methodology which we need.


thoughts on two objections to Plantinga’s religious epistemology

Earlier today I listened to an episode of ‘Conversations From The Pale Blue Dot’ with Tyler Wunder on the topic of Alvin Plantinga’s religious epistemology.

During the interview Tyler raised a number of objections to Plantinga’s project, but there were two in particular that he concentrated on. I happen to think that Plantinga is basically on the right track with his approach, and that Tyler’s objections aren’t anything for the reformed epistemologist to fear. So let’s have a look at what Tyler took issue with…

universal sanction

Tyler correctly points out that classical foundationalism need not be the only epistemological position that can support evidentialism in regard to theistic belief. That is, perhaps there are other criteria for proper basicality that aren’t given by classical foundationalism, and which don’t suffer from the same setbacks, yet still exclude theism. Tyler thinks there is such an alternate principle for identifying proper basicality, one which relies on the notion of universal sanction.

Essentially the idea of universal sanction is that a certain kind of belief can be properly basic only if sincere skepticism in regard to all beliefs of that kind would render human life unmanageable. Thus perceptual beliefs are properly basic because, if we truly took seriously the idea that we cannot trust our senses, our lives would be impossible to sanely live out. The same goes, on this view, for belief-kinds that served as counter-examples to the criteria of proper basicality given by classical foundationalism. Memory beliefs, for instance, are the kind of beliefs such that, were we to sincerely entertain the idea that we couldn’t trust any of them, we just couldn’t function. And the same goes for beliefs about other minds, and the existence of the external world. True, we might sensibly doubt particular instances of these beliefs – I might come to doubt that a particular memory of my childhood is veridical – but I cannot sensibly doubt all my memory beliefs.

In favour of this view is that all the belief-kinds that are non-controversially accepted as properly basic seem to meet this condition. At least, I can’t think of any that don’t. So we have a prima facie plausible principle for proper basicality. The trouble for the theist is that it seems like beliefs about God, or gods, can be sincerely doubted without rendering human living unmanageable. There might be emotional or existential difficulties in living without belief in God, but these are surely nothing like the kind of practical impossibility posed by denying the reliablity of our sensory perceptions, or memory beliefs. So the principle of universal sanction excludes theistic belief, thus supporting evidentialism.

Without some non-controversial counter-example, what can the reformed epistemologist say in response? Well clearly universal sanction does not meet its own criteria for proper basicality. It can be denied easily without rendering human living practically impossible. For it to be coherent, then, it must be supported by argument. An a priori argument for its truth doesn’t seem to be available, so presumably the argument is inductive and looks something like this:

1. Total sincere skepticism in regard to all non-controversial properly basic belief-kinds cannot be held without rendering human living practically impossible.
2. Most, if not all, non-controversial non-basic belief-kinds can be regarded with total sincere skepticism without rendering human living practically impossible.
3. Therefore, probably a belief-kind is not properly basic unless regarding it with total sincere skepticism renders human living practically impossible.

But this argument can easily be handled with the resources of reformed epistemology. If Plantinga’s A/C Model is viable, or something like it is, then if Christian theism is true, belief in Christian theism probably can be a properly basic. So if Plantinga is correct, and Christian theism is true, any full inductive survey of basic beliefs will include Christian theism, and thus no such survey will imply that universal sanction is a necessary condition for proper basicality. In other words, universal sanction can only be inferred as a result of such a survey if it is presupposed that Christian theism is false. And this is perfectly in accord with the aim of Plantinga’s project, which is to show that there is no de jure objection without a de facto objection. Nothing here overturns that conclusion. Sure, one could restrict the survey to only non-controversial beliefs, but if one believes that there are more basic beliefs than those that are non-controversial, then such a survey will be arbitrary, or question-begging. Why should the convinced proponent of Plantinga’s model take the dispute about it as evidence of it being flawed? I conclude, then, that Tyler has to show that Plantinga’s model is incoherent, or in some sense faulty – that is, he would have to show that, actually, if Christian theism is true it isn’t likely that Christian theism is properly basic – in order for the argument to work.

the retreat to metaphysics

Now Tyler doesn’t (at least here) seem to dispute the coherence of Plantinga’s model so much as argue that the tactics it employs can be equally utilised by belief-systems that are clearly unwarranted. The effect of this argument, then, is to say that since clearly unwarranted beliefs can make use of Plantinga’s strategy, this strategy cannot be epistemically useful – we can’t use it as a measure of a belief’s warrant, or as a shield against de jure objections to that belief. Remember that Plantinga’s strategy is to argue that if Christian theism is true, then probably Christian theism is properly basic. That is because (in summary form), if Christian theism is true, there is a God who wants us to know him, and his salvation, and does not want us to have to be intellectually elite or lucky in order to do so. Moreover, there seem to be teachings in the Christian scriptures and theological traditions that imply or give support to the idea that belief in God is generated by an innate sense of God, or by certain experiences, or the activity of the Holy Spirit, or something similar. Thus, if Christian theism is true, probably Christian theism is a properly basic belief, and there is no way to make a purely epistemic objection to Christianity without objecting to its truth. This strategy is what Tyler calls ‘the retreat to metaphysics’.

Plantinga concedes that the same move to metaphysics can probably be used by other relevantly similar belief-systems, like Islam, or Judaism, or maybe Hinduism and some others, but insofar as one strays away from some sort of theism, the prospects of successfully making such a move are poor. Tyler thinks that Plantinga is far too quick in thinking that the retreat to metaphysics is so restricted. He thinks that such a move is available to all sorts of dubious beliefs, like the belief in a flat earth, or voodooism.

I think Tyler’s approach here is flawed. Obviously, for pretty much any belief, we could give an account consistent with that belief of how that belief could be properly basic. But that does nothing to show that the proper basicality of that belief is probable given its truth. It isn’t enough to show that it is possible that on, say, naturalism, that naturalism is a basic belief. One must show that it is probable, given naturalism, that naturalism would be a basic belief. It isn’t enough to say that is possible that, if voodooism is true, then voodooism is a properly basic belief. It has to probable for it to be analogous to Plantinga’s A/C model! Without doing that, one cannot show that Plantinga’s model lends itself to such unwelcome allies. Tyler did not consider these sorts of probabilities in this interview, though perhaps he does in his dissertation on the topic.

That said, there is another approach one could take to try and make Tyler’s objection stick. One could just forge an account of the proper basicality of a belief, into the belief itself. For the sake of argument, let’s concede that on voodooism simpliciter, it is not probable that, if voodooism is true, then voodooism is a properly basic belief. But now consider voodooism+ which is the belief that voodooism is true, and that, through some supernatural power, belief in voodooism can be properly basic. Clearly, if voodooism+ is true, the probablity that voodooism can be a properly basic belief is 1, because voodooism+ by definition includes the claim that voodooism can be a properly basic belief. Voodooism+ seems to be able to take advantage of the retreat to metaphysics. Is this, then, analogous to Plantinga’s A/C model? I think not because voodooism+ is entirely ad hoc. It is posited just to provide justification for making the move to metaphysics. But the same is not true for Christian theism. The components of Christian theism that lend themselves to the move to metaphysics can’t sensibly be said to have been invented just for the purpose of allowing that move.

So again, Plantinga’s model meets with no serious objection.