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.