CPBD 072: Tyler Wunder – Why Plantinga’s Reformed Epistemology Fails

by Luke Muehlhauser on October 10, 2010 in Alvin Plantinga,Podcast

(Listen to other episodes of Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot here.)

Today I interview philosopher Tyler Wunder. We walk through the development of Plantinga’s attempt to show that Christian belief is rational and warranted, focusing especially on the failure of his latest attempts, which culminated in the 2000 book Warranted Christian Belief.

Download CPBD episode 072 with Tyler Wunder. Total time is 1:42:30.

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Transcript prepared by CastingWords and paid for by Silver Bullet. If you’d like to get a transcript made for other past or future episodes, please contact me.

LUKE: Dr. Tyler Wunder is a recent graduate of Boston University where he defended his dissertation ‘Warrant and Religious Epistemology, a critique of Alvin Plantinga’s Warrant Phase.’ Tyler, welcome to the show!

TYLER: Thanks for having me.

LUKE: Tyler, let’s start by getting clear on what Plantinga’s epistemological project has been throughout his career. The title of your dissertation is about his warrant phase which kind of implies maybe there was a different phase of his career as well. Could you explain for us what the development of Plantinga’s project and what his goals are?

TYLER: Yes. I think you can divide his religious epistemology pretty fruitfully into three stages following James Beilby and his recent book on Plantinga’s religious epistemology. Starting with stage one, there is Plantinga’s first book, which is called ‘God and Other Minds.’ I suppose I should probably set up what belief in other minds is. It is just simply the belief that there are other mental experiences out there, in reality, that are not your own, that there are people out there who are just as real as you are.

LUKE: It’s a rather astonishing belief that not only do I have a mind, but you’re not a robot.

TYLER: Yes. Yes, exactly. So, anyway, what Plantinga is doing is that in this book he argues the traditional arguments for the existence of God are all failures, but so are many arguments against the existence of God. And then he considers the issue of whether or not there are other minds, whether the belief that there are minds other than our own are justified. And what he ultimately concludes with is that belief in other minds is no better argumentatively supported than belief in God, but that since belief in other minds is clearly rational, then he offers this as a tentative conclusion: then so, too, is belief in God as well. So that’s the basic gist of God and Other Minds, which you can call the first stage in Plantinga’s religious epistemology.

LUKE: So he’s trying to show that it might be rational to believe in God, even if there are no good arguments for God.

TYLER: Exactly, yes. That’s exactly what he’s trying to suggest because there are beliefs that do so qualify – belief in other minds – even though, according to his analysis, there are no good arguments, or ultimately successful arguments for belief in other minds; nevertheless, it’s still rational to believe it. So since there are, he concludes, beliefs that are like that, well, maybe belief in God is like that, too. I mean he does actually have some kind of argument for that. He suggests that there is a similarity between the best, yet unsuccessful argument for God, and the best yet, unsuccessful argument for belief in other minds, that they both somehow share a similar failing. So on that basis, he seems to conclude that, well, then maybe these beliefs are sort of on par in their ability to be rational without their being sort of any successful argument for them.

So that’s in the first stage. The second stage of his religious epistemology gets a good deal more explicit with the epistemological terms, such as foundationalism and properly basic, and reformed epistemology itself is introduced in this second stage of his religious epistemology which, I think, best represented by a series of essays that run from about 1979 until about 1983, and are maybe best represented by a flagship essay called ‘Reason and Belief in God.’

LUKE: Ok. So there he’s maybe saying much the same thing, but he’s just using the philosophical language in a more standard way in talking about foundationalism, properly basic beliefs, and that kind of thing?

TYLER: Yes. It is essentially an extension of the previous argument; he’s just fleshing it out quite a bit. For example, he explicitly identifies his opposition in this second stage, and he called it evidentialism. Evidentialism is essentially the view that belief in God requires some sort of evidential or argumentative considerations if it is to be rational. So having, sort of, explicitly identified that which he is opposed to, he then sets about trying to undermine it. He does that by asking what reason there is to accept evidentialism.

And what he concludes is that the possible hope that the evidentialist has is to appeal to the theory of that which can be properly basic, which Plantinga calls classical foundationalism. And so by suggesting that the best possible support for evidentialism is classical foundationalism, he is then able to attack evidentialism indirectly by leveling criticisms against classical foundationalism.

LUKE: So could you explain what classical foundationalism is, and how Plantinga proposes something that he thinks is superior to evidentialism?

TYLER: Sure. Well, classical foundationalism is a view on what can be, in Plantinga’s terms, properly basic. Perhaps to explain that, I should go back and explain foundationalism, which is the basic epistemological framework for pretty much everything that Plantinga is doing; it’s all occurring within a context of foundationalism.

According to foundationalism, those beliefs which get to be rational or otherwise epistemically sanctioned fall into two categories. They’re either the sorts of things that are based on other beliefs and supported by other beliefs, such as by, say, an argument, and there are those kinds of beliefs which don’t have to be supported in that way, which get to serve as the foundations for the epistemic bedrock by which other beliefs are justified. And the motivation for foundationalism is, of course, to escape the problem of having to justify one’s beliefs ad infinitum: the problem of OK, so I have this belief A and I support it by appeal to B and C.

Well, that’s fine but what’s supports B and C? Well, OK, I have two more beliefs which support each of these. Then how far do you keep going with this, and there are various attempts to try to solve this sort of problem.

There’s a coherent historic look which tries to suggest that the beliefs are allowed to circle back on themselves if only the circle is big enough and comprehensive enough. There’s a, I think, relatively recent view called infinitism, which actually tries to suggest that the infinite regress is OK, and doesn’t actually call the rationality of our beliefs into question, but a very popular response to this kind of problem of where do you stop the chain of justification is foundationalism, which just simply says that there are beliefs which get to serve as foundations, which can be used as justifiers, but which themselves don’t have to be justified. So classical foundationalism is just a kind of foundationalism which has a particular view on what it is that gets to be in the epistemic foundations.

Specifically classical foundationalism says that, all right, if a belief is self-evident, that is, if it’s the sort of thing that when we just contemplate it, if we understand it correctly, we instantly understand that it’s true, something like two plus two equals four or all black dogs are black, you know, these sorts of things are self-evident, so they can be justified without actually having to be based upon an argument, according to the classical foundationalist. Additionally, the classical foundationalist sanctions a class of beliefs which have come to be called, perhaps unfortunately, incorrigible. What that simply means is that these are the sorts of beliefs that are about our privileged first-person introspective awareness.

So my belief that I am currently being interviewed is not an incorrigible belief, but my belief that it seems to me that I am currently being interviewed, that’s incorrigible. I could be wrong about the interview. I could be dreaming and really not being interviewed, but the fact that it seems to me that I’m being interviewed, this is allegedly the sort of thing that we just can’t be mistaken about, so these kinds of beliefs are classified as incorrigible.

LUKE: And why do you say that’s an unfortunate label?

TYLER: Because I think that it doesn’t necessarily connote that which incorrigible beliefs are supposed to be. I think maybe using the word, ‘introspective,’ for example …


TYLER: … ‘introspective beliefs,’ might be more helpful for explaining to undergraduate students, for example, what incorrigible beliefs are. Now, the third and final thing that the classical foundationalist, as Plantinga defines it, there are different definitions of what a classical foundationalist is, and he himself defines it variously, but his most common, and I think encompassing definition of classical foundationalism also allows that the classical foundationalist will accept as properly basic, very simple beliefs about the external world gained via our senses, things like, “There is a tree in front of me,” “There is a window in front of me.” These are the sorts of things which the classical foundationalist, as defined by Plantinga, will allow to be properly basic. If you assume that belief in God is neither self-evident, nor incorrigible, nor evident to the senses, then it follows from classical foundationalism that if belief in God is to be rational, belief in God is going to have to be based on some kind of argumentative considerations. So you can see how classical foundationalism might look like an attractive basis on which to support evidentialism because it does entail evidentialism.

So the problem, of course, the foreshadow of it, is that the relationship doesn’t go the other way, that evidentialism does not entail classical foundationalism, and it’s not in any way committed to classical foundationalism, but anyway, so Plantinga kind of makes this connection between the two, and then attacks evidentialism indirectly by attacking classical foundationalism.

And the two main criticisms against it, there’s two main criticisms against classical foundationalism, are that, one, it will basically lead you to skepticism, or at least, it will lead you to skepticism about many other things that you don’t really want to be a skeptic about, according to Plantinga. Beliefs about, say, other minds or our memory beliefs, these sorts of things, they don’t classify as properly basic by the classical foundationalist standards; therefore, if they are to be rational, they’re going to have to be supported on the basis of ultimately those things which are self-evident, incorrigible, or evident to the senses, and Plantinga is very pessimistic that this can not be done.

That legacy, the whole era of modern philosophy is to show that you can not start with that very slim foundation, even allowing the stuff that’s evident to the senses, which a lot of the modern philosophers wouldn’t have done. It’s just not going to be possible to justify a lot of what we ordinarily, commonsensically consider ourselves to be justified in believing. The other problem, and this is an interesting sort of problem because it typifies a theme that one sees in Plantinga’s writings.

If you read through enough of them, you start noticing that the various positions that Plantinga takes issue with often end up being self-refuting or self-referentially incoherent in one way or another, and he levels this charge against classical foundationalism.He says, “Well, what about the claim classical foundationalism is true, or that classical foundationalism is the best criterion of proper basicality? Is that a rational thing to believe?”

Well, according to the classical foundationalist’s own standards, if that’s to be a rational belief, then it’s going to have to either be properly basic, or it’s going to have to be derivable from the properly basic. Now, it’s pretty obviously not self-evident that classical foundationalism is true; otherwise, presumably there wouldn’t be so much argument about it. It’s not incorrigible because it goes beyond just reporting my first-person introspective experiences.

It’s certainly not evident to the senses. I can’t detect the truth of classical foundationalism in the way that I can detect whether or not there’s a chair outside my door. So if by its own standards classical foundationalism is going to be rational, it’s going to have to be possible to derive it from premises which are self-evident or incorrigible or evident to the senses.

Again, Plantinga’s very pessimistic, and he doesn’t think it can be done. He thinks it has been tried, but that no one has ever successfully done it. He seems to infer from that, that it therefore, probably cannot be done, which is probably going just a little bit too fast; nevertheless, he’s managed to convince quite a few people that there is some serious, serious difficulty in supporting classical foundationalism on the basis of that which it sanctions is properly basic; but on the basis of these two kinds of criticisms, he is attacking evidentialism.

As I mentioned earlier, an obvious response that might suggest itself at this point is, let’s say, you are convinced that classical foundationalism is not a ship worth salvaging, it might occur to you that evidentialism doesn’t necessarily have to accept classical foundationalism, or the evidentialist is not committed to being a classical foundationalist.

Surely, he can come up with something else that isn’t subject to these terrible deformities. Plantinga’s response to that is that, well, yes, that’s correct, but the evidentialist faces a very, very steep burden of proof if he wants to support his evidentialism against reformed epistemology, that is the position that belief in God can be completely on the epistemological up-and-up, even if there are no arguments or evidence on its behalf. If he wants to support this position, he’s going to have to come up with a criterion of proper basicality to replace classical foundationalism.

If he doesn’t like classical foundationalism, fine. The evidentialists are obligated to come up with a replacement which overcomes both of these problems: the one that it leads to skepticism, the other that it’s self-referentially incoherent. Obviously, it’s going to have to rule out properly basic theism, or it’s not going to support the evidentialist.

And lastly, there has to be some independent reason to think that it’s true. So that’s the sort of the state that Plantinga leaves his argument with evidentialism, specifically in his second stage of religious epistemology. He’s still largely concerned with epistemic terms like, ‘rationality,’ and ‘justification,’ and other sorts of epistemic concepts that fall into what’s called the, ‘internalist camp’, that is these are sort of epistemic states that we have some kind of introspective access into, whether our beliefs have them or not, whether or not I am justified in believing something is something that I can somehow be made a little bit aware of.

Whether or not my beliefs are rational is something that I have a little bit of insight into, or maybe even a lot of insight into, but this is the general presupposition behind a lot of Plantinga’s epistemology in the second stage of his thinking, and it’s a largely defensive stage. He doesn’t, for example, argue explicitly that reformed epistemology is true so much as challenge evidentialism, show how based on classical foundationalism, it’s not going to have very good fortunes; and put a burden of proof against it that it needs to meet which is very high and difficult looking, and perhaps intimidating to have to even consider addressing. Another large part of what he does is anticipate objections against his own position, and then try to formulate responses to these anticipated objections.

I think there’s one that might be useful to discuss. It’s an objection which has come to be known as ‘The Great Pumpkin Objection’. It’s, I think, a very venerable thorn in the side of reformed epistemology.

I think that it is ultimately because of his dissatisfaction, Plantinga’s own dissatisfaction, with his second-stage response to this objection that has, at least in some small part, motivated his shift towards the third stage, towards the warrant phase. So it might be useful to talk about it a little bit at this point before we move on to talking about stage three.

The basic gist of ‘The Great Pumpkin Objection’, I mean it could be construed in various ways, and Plantinga does construe it in various ways. His typical manner is to raise a number of sort of implausible kind of formulations of the objection, which can be dismissed fairly quickly, and then finally to get around to addressing something that is a little bit more worth considering. What he finally gets around to is a little bit of a reasonable construal of the sentiment of the objection, which by the way, I think is maybe best summed up by the rhetorical question, why can’t anybody do that?

Or why can’t almost anybody do what it is that the reformed epistemologist is doing in defending his beliefs? Why can’t that be done on behalf of all sorts of crazy, kooky, lunatic things? And so Plantinga finally gets around to considering a version of this objection which basically says, OK, you are maintaining that belief in God is properly basic but you are denying that belief in the Great Pumpkin is properly basic.

On what grounds are you able to do this? Why is it that you don’t need a criterion of proper basicality? And offhand, it would seem like this objection would be something that Plantinga would have some sympathy for because, after all, he had pretty much raised the same, or a similar objection against the evidentialist, saying that he had to come up with a criterion of proper basicality if he wanted to say that belief in God was not basic.

And now that Plantinga wants to say that belief in the Great Pumpkin is not properly basic, it seems most fitting to ask, well where’s your criterion of proper basicality, which rules out belief in the Great Pumpkin, is not self-referentially incoherent, and for which there is some independent reason to think is true? This is the point at which Plantinga makes this rather startling shift seemingly without acknowledging that it kind of undermines his prior attack against the evidentialist. He essentially considers two alternatives.

One is methodism, and not methodism in the sense of the religious denomination, but epistemological methodism. According to which, if you want to use a concept properly, you require a criterion by which to judge and assess your usage of that concept. The opposing position, particularism, says, no, no, no, no, usage proceeds the criterion.

We have to be able to use concepts, evaluate concept usage, prior to actually having any developed criterion of that concept because it is by our usage of that concept that we will actually establish the criterion. Now, when he was arguing against the evidentialists, and saying, well, classical foundationalism is defunct; if you want to continue on with your evidentialism, you really should come up with a criterion of proper basicality, he was being a methodist there, but now that the same sort of burden of proof is being thrust upon him on behalf of the Great Pumpkin believers, of which there are presumably none, he’s now shifting away from methodism, and explicitly embracing particularism, and insisting that this idea that you have to come up with a criterion of proper basicality ahead of time is completely off base. The proper way, Plantinga says, to come up with criteria is something which I think could be called the inductive method.

And the inductive method of coming up with criteria for proper basicality, and presumably you could use it for other concepts, as well, is to say, all right, we are going to start out with certain paradigm cases, certain touch stones, or examples of belief — such and such is properly basic and circumstance is such and such — which are just obvious. Then we’ll come up with examples where belief such and such is not properly basic in circumstances so and so, and that’s just obvious. And using these kind of paradigm examples, we can then through some sort of process that looks kind of like John Rawls’ Reflective Equilibrium, eventually come up with some sort of criterion of proper basicality on the basis of these paradigm examples.

Who knows, maybe we’ll come up with a criterion that actually causes us to reassess come of our paradigm cases and make changes to those. So they’re not necessarily set in stone and necessarily unchangeable. All of this actually, to me, anyway, doesn’t really sound too bad until Plantinga considers the question of, all right, well, whose paradigm cases do we use?

The answer that he comes up with is that, well, the Christian is fully entitled to, if he thinks about these things and concludes that belief in God is not supported on the basis of evidence, then it’s entirely right and proper for him to conclude, well, then it must be one of these paradigm case examples of a belief which can be properly basic, and to sort of, using the initial step of the inductive method, just declare belief in God or even Christian beliefs to be properly basic at the outset, as one’s paradigm examples of that which can be properly basic in certain circumstances.

This hasn’t really gone over terribly well. A lot of people have criticized this, including a lot of Plantinga’s fellow Christian philosophers, have been less than fully impressed with this rather brazen declaration that the beliefs, the proper basicality of which are in question in the first place are just being sort of summarily inserted into the realm of the properly basic sort on the authority of, well, “this is just something that a certain subset of the Christian community endorses.”

These are the examples that we choose to use when we’re using the inductive method to come up with a criterion of proper basicality which, by the way, the method is never actually used. It’s only really invoked to perform the initial step of assigning belief in God as a proper basicality, and then no more mention of trying to come up with an actual criterion.

LUKE: This all seems rather sneaky.

TYLER: There is something about it that seems sneaky. Of course, as a response to the, ‘Great Pumpkin Objection,’ although Plantinga addresses this point, he doesn’t seem to recognize it as a furtherance of the sentiments of the ‘Great Pumpkin Objection.’ And that is, well, why can’t I do that? Why can’t anybody do that? Why can’t the evidentialist essentially just parrot it back to Plantinga and say, look, I’m just going to gather with my like-minded evidentialists, and we are going to, on the basis of our group consensus, declare that belief in God is a paradigm example of a belief that can not be properly basic in any circumstances. When the Karl Barths and Alvin Plantingas of the world object, we’ll say, “How is that relevant to our community?”

So, it’s very openly susceptible to a further version of the ‘Great Pumpkin Objection,’ I think, which is one which is very difficult for Plantinga’s second stage. In fact, his response to this, he’s foresightful enough to know that this is going to come up. His response to this is, well, there’s no way get a guarantee in advance that everyone is going to agree on the same initial examples.

So with regard to the evidentialists using the inductive method to support his conclusion that belief in God is not properly basic, and a reformed epistemologist’s use of the inductive method to establish that belief in God is properly basic, ultimately this method is incapable of resolving the dispute between them.

Now, he is careful to clarify that one of them is right and one of them is wrong. He’s not being an out and out subjectivist. He’s not saying that it’s somehow true for both of them.

He saying one of them is right, one of them is wrong. We know which one he thinks is right and which one he thinks is wrong, but as far as the inductive method goes which is what he suggests is the best possible method we can have for coming up with criteria of proper basicality, it can’t resolve this dispute.

LUKE: Well, I certainly hope that Plantinga found that so dissatisfying himself that that’s why he decided to try something else.

TYLER: I think that’s, at least, part of the reason. I think another part of the reason is that he came to be dissatisfied with the focus of debates in religious epistemology on justification and rationality. I think he came to be convinced that these sorts of epistemic statuses were such that they were very easy to achieve on behalf of just about anything. I mean if Plantinga, for example, defines epistemological justification as basically doing one’s epistemic duty, not violating your epistemic obligations, and so it turns out you can actually be justified in a great deal, by being a complete idiot, who honestly, sincerely thinks about things as hard as they can. So long as they do that, and they can’t be faulted and blamed for what they believe, then their beliefs are thoroughly justified on this deontological account of justification even if they’re completely at odds with reality. So he comes to be dissatisfied with these sorts of somewhat liberal epistemic terms, and he turns his attention toward knowledge because, well, for one, the question of whether religious beliefs can qualify as knowledge, I think is independently of interest to religious epistemologists, but also because traditionally within the analytic community it has been insisted that knowledge has to be of things which are true.

And so, the shifting of epistemology away from justification and rationality, which presumably can be attached to false things, and to focus on knowledge, which can only be attached to true things, I think that is also to a significant extent, motivated Plantinga’s shift away from sort of the general epistemological underpinnings of the second stage towards the third stage, which I’ve called the, ‘warrant phase,’ which displays pretty prominently something called, ‘proper functionalism’.

LUKE: Yes. So let’s explain what is warrant.

TYLER: Well, to talk about the proper functionalist theory of warrant I guess we have to talk about warrant. According to a very venerable epistemological tradition, has to be of things which are, as I have already mentioned, true. Also, it seems somewhat trivial. but it is always included in the analysis anyway, it has to be of something that you believe. And so, for example, I could not be said to know that Barack Obama is a secret Muslim because, first of all, I don’t believe that Barack Obama is a secret Muslim, so I couldn’t possibly know that he is. Second of all, even if I did believe it, it’s not true. So on those two counts that sort of example would not qualify as knowledge. Knowledge has to be, propositional knowledge, knowledge of a proposition, the proposition has to be true.

You have to actually believe it, presumably, with a certain amount of confidence, but it’s also part of this same epistemological tradition that, although true belief is necessary for knowledge, it’s not sufficient for knowledge, that there is something more required. I think that the motive behind this requirement is to rule out certain sorts of cases which could be called lucky or accidentally true beliefs. I’ll give you a pedestrian example.

Imagine I visited the local shopping mall, and it’s a busy crowd. Out of the corner of my eye, I think I see my old grade six teacher Mr. Haddock. I don’t get a really good look at him, but I get enough of a look before he is off in the crowd.

I think I’ve got a pretty good eye for faces. I think I saw him. I think Mr. Haddock was at the mall on such and such a day.

Then you twist the example and you say, well, actually my ability to recognize faces is not as good as I really think it is. It turns out I didn’t really see Mr. Haddock at the mall that day or any other day, but it turns out, before I even got there, he had been at the mall picking up something or other, and then he went home. So it turns out my belief that he was at the mall on such and such a day is true and I believe it.

So unless you want to classify this as a case of knowledge, you’re going to have to say that, well, knowledge has to have something else beyond just being true and just being believed to rule out these kinds of accidentally true cases. And so what Plantinga’s about is he offers some terminological clarification and says, well, let’s just call this thing, whatever it is that turns true beliefs or merely true beliefs into knowledge, we’ll just call that warrant. Now, you have to be really careful using the term,’warrant’, because warrant has common sense usages that make it a synonym with justification, rationality.

Is that belief warranted? What is your warrant for saying that? And usually, when we use the word in those contexts we mean evidence, we mean reasons. Now that’s not what Plantinga means by the term, ‘warrant.’ He really just means whatever it is that bridges this gap between true belief and knowledge.

It turns out, according to his analysis, that warrant is not justification because justification cannot bridge that gap. It is not rationality construed in a variety of ways. It is not the coherence of our beliefs.

It’s not the reliability of the faculties which produce our beliefs, although he does think that’s part of the story. In fact, it’s the function of the first book of the warrant trilogy called Warrant: The Current Debate to basically clear away all of these competing alternative accounts of what warrant might be before in the second book Warrant and Proper Function where he provides his own analysis of what warrant is.

LUKE: And he says that this third thing, besides truth and belief, that defines knowledge can’t be justification because he has this kind of rights-based view of justification that we talked about earlier where an idiot who is performing his epistemic duties honestly could have really…

TYLER: I think that’s part of the problem that he sees with justification. Yes, absolutely. I mean he has these counter examples, and this is a large part of Plantinga’s methodology here, is to come up with counter examples. For example, justification cases of knowledge where the belief in question is not justified. All right. Well, that shows that justification is not necessary for warrant. And then cases of justified belief which happen to be true, which don’t qualify as knowledge. Those are just cases taken to show that justification is not sufficient for warrant. So that’s the way he proceeds against justification and all of the rest, by using these sorts of counter examples which are based on the assumption that an acceptable analysis of a concept has to be able to account for any logically possible scenario.

This is a very, very strict standard for a successful conceptual analysis. If you read through Warrant: The Current Debate, you begin to see how difficult it is to meet this standard, particularly when the only real restrictions that Plantinga seems to recognize are logical possibility. Just as long as the example doesn’t contradict itself in some way or perhaps contradicts some necessary truth, then it’s OK.

So counter examples involving lesions in one’s brain that cause one to believe that you have a lesion in your brain, or bursts of gamma radiation which freeze your internal cognitive experiences despite the sensory input that you’re being bombarded with; Alpha Centurion scientists…

LUKE: [laughter]

TYLER: …manipulating our minds, so very fanciful stuff. I mean, if the standard is being able to account for any logically possible counter example then, I suppose, fair enough. Although the problem is that that doesn’t turn out to actually be the standard.

That’s the standard that Plantinga uses to attack his competitors, but at the very end of Warrant: The Current Debate, and just prior to giving a little summary description of his own theory of warrant, he suddenly declares that this standard of conceptual analysis, the one that he criticized all of his competitors for not meeting, turns out that’s not actually the right standard. It turns out that that’s an unreasonable standard. It’s these sorts of standards might be appropriate in logic, in mathematics, but it turns out that these are not actually very good standards to use in epistemology, or even the metaphysics of modality, or things of that sort.

I’m always struck by how startling this shift is and how brazen it is [laughter] that he undercuts all of these other potential accounts of warrant using this standard, which he then repudiates prior to introducing his own theory of warrant.

LUKE: Well, then does he go back and reassess all the …


LUKE: … other theories under a new criteria?

TYLER: No. He doesn’t give any indication that this is in any way inappropriate at all.

LUKE: This reminds me of his second stage when he decides that…

TYLER: Oh, yes. Are you talking about methodism versus particularism?

LUKE: Exactly.

TYLER: Yes. Yes, it’s convenient enough at times, but when you don’t need it anymore you can always throw it away and take something else. Making changes is fine. I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with that, but I think it’s important to recognize the implications of these shifts for things that you might have said previously.

LUKE: Well, every round that is going around, he’s got to employ a double standard, as far as I can tell.

TYLER: I would hesitate to say every round, but I would say you can find more than one instance where he’s pretty blatantly employing a double standard: one for himself and one for those that he disagrees with. There is a tendency, he will even be praised in the literature for his bravery at …

LUKE: [laughter]

TYLER: … confronting philosophical orthodoxies, and challenging them, and saying well, why should I think that is so? Why should I accept that? What are the reasons for thinking this is true? And that sounds very much like evidentialism, except, of course, it’s not applied to belief in God, but it is applied to pretty much anything that Plantinga takes issue with.

LUKE: Yeah, so, then when somebody asks him, “Well, why should I believe in God,” then he says something like, “Well, this is what we Christians believe already, so …”

TYLER: I think there is some justice in seeing it as ultimately boiling down to that, yeah.

LUKE: When I discuss Plantinga’s type of apologetics or defense of Christianity on various websites, this is the kind of thing that makes non-believers in God just kind of pull out their hair. [laughter]

TYLER: Yeah, I can kind of imagine that it certainly could be frustrating, I mean especially if you take the bait, trying to come up with an account of warrant which somehow evades all logically possible counter examples. You’d better make sure you get to the end of the book, so that you can realize that it turns out that’s not actually the standard for success after all, and that the standard for success is something that he called the, ‘paradigm case model,’ according to which it turns out that there are these paradigm cases — we’ve already encountered this term before, cases of clear and unambiguous and central usage of a term or a concept. And these are the paradigm cases. It’s only in the paradigm cases where necessary and sufficient conditions have to be provided for conceptual analysis.

LUKE: Yeah, and here we’re wanting to remind Plantinga that scientists on Alpha Centauri are not paradigm cases.

TYLER: Well, it seems to me that they’re not. In fact, I think you can take the spirit of the paradigm cases approach and take it even further, and say, well, look, there’s not just paradigm cases of things which, say, maybe are knowledge. You could say in the same spirit that there are paradigm cases of things which are not knowledge. If you’re evaluating, for example, theories of justification, and you’re doing this conceptual analysis that Plantinga does, then I think you should examine paradigm cases of justification, and not sort of deviant, bizarre cases of justification. I think there’s some justice in asking for the paradigm case spirit to be applied liberally and generously, but anyway, these are the sort of this alleged zone of clarity which we should really be trying to come up with analysis for. Counter-example which are of cases that fall outside of the paradigms are, apparently, not relevant to criticizing a concept on the basis of not providing necessary and sufficient conditions.

So in any event, the theory that he does defend, which I and others have called, ‘proper functionalism,’ essentially says that warrant is some sort of quantity, that the function of four different criteria being met. First of all, if your belief is to be warranted, then it has to be the product of cognitive faculties which are, not surprisingly, given the name of the theory, functioning properly. There has to be no cognitive or mental malfunction in those processes or faculties which are responsible for the belief in question.

So your belief, if it is to be warranted, has to satisfy that criteria. The second criteria is that these faculties have to be operating in what might be called a friendly epistemological environment. If you want to presuppose some things that Plantinga seems to want to presuppose about proper function, namely, that it requires intelligent design, then I suppose you could construe this second criterion as proper functionalism as saying, that the faculties have to operating in a environment similar to the one for which they were designed by their designer, but if you don’t want to put it in that way, then I would supposed you would have to come up some different way of understanding this environmental constraint.

A third constraint is reliability. These faculties have to be functioning in a way that’s statistically reliable. They have to, at least more often than not, produce true beliefs. And furthermore, it has to be that they are somehow aimed or oriented toward producing true belief. It can not be that the faculty producing the belief, whose warrant is in question, it can not be that that faculty is, say, designed to produce beliefs which comfort us and make us feel safe when we have things to fear, or something of that sort.

So there are these four different requirements. If a belief is produced by faculties which fulfill these four requirements, then it gets to be warranted. Warrant is, apparently, something which comes in degrees, according to Plantinga.

If a belief is warranted, then the degree to which it is warranted, you can use that confidence to gauge the degree of warrant in the event that the belief is warranted. He wouldn’t be saying that mere confidence makes a belief warranted.

LUKE: Why does Plantinga think that this is a better theory of warrants than other possibilities?

TYLER: Well, I can start off with a prior issue and that is why he thinks it’s better to look at warranted religious epistemologies rather than other epistemic concepts. I’ve already alluded to the answer to this earlier, and that is that he thinks that warrant is somehow more restrictive, that it’s not so easy to earn on the behalf of just about anything, unlike, say, justification and rationality. Warrant is the gateway to knowledge, so to speak, in that it is by definition, not Plantinga’s analysis of it because that is certainly not by definition true. The analysis of warrant, that which converts merely true belief into knowledge, makes it part of the route to knowledge, which has to be true. So I think Plantinga sees warrant as the preeminent epistemic concept of interest, as far as religious epistemology goes. He thinks that the other sorts of internalist concepts are just too easily satisfied.

So warrant is to be preferred over epistemic alternatives. As far as his particular theory of warrant, well, I’ve already mentioned how in Warrant: The Current Debate he considers a number of alternatives and he criticizes them using this strict model.

I’ve already talked about the double standard there. So I suppose you could say that I’m not terribly convinced on the basis of what he’s done that the proper functionalist theory of warrant is, in fact, superior to its alternatives. I mean the whole point of Warrant: The Current Debate was to clear the field, to make a negative case for proper functionalism.

Just about all of the theories in Warrant: The Current Debate, when he does mount these counter-examples against them, they frequently center around cognitive malfunction, that is they frequently focus on the very thing that his own theory of warrant is tailor-made to satisfy. So he goes through all of these alternatives and shows that they all fall afoul of cognitive malfunction. So accordingly, the solution must be something which takes into account cognitive malfunction and rules it out, so we get proper functionalism.

So I think that’s supposed to be a large part of what supports his theory. As I’ve said, I think it’s questionable how well it’s been supported given that it’s pretty clear that Plantinga’s own analysis of warrant could not survive the strict model of what it is that a successful analysis has to do, namely, account for all logically possible counter-examples. I’m very confident that neither his nor really any non-trivial theory of warrant could carry off that herculean task.

So I think it’s relevant to support that theory, if the negative case in its favor is to be restored, then some second look has to be taken with the paradigm case model seriously in mind before just confidently declaring that, well, because all these cases couldn’t manage to deal with cognitive malfunction, therefore, this theory, which is tailor-made to deal with cognitive malfunction, is somehow superior.

Now, I think another reason that Plantinga might prefer the theory that he’s come up with, as opposed to any others, is because he thinks that proper function as a concept is something which cannot be accommodated in the naturalistic worldview. That proper function only really makes coherent literal sense against the background of a supernaturalistic worldview that involves a designer of the cognitive faculties which are allegedly functioning properly.

LUKE: Yeah, and because they’re functioning according to the intelligent design of the designer.

TYLER: That’s right. The design plan, yeah. Early on in Warrant and Proper Function when he’s presenting his theory of warrant, he tries to be ecumenical and tell his readers that his theory can be seen: you can see the design requirement either literally or not literally. But by the end of the book it’s revealed that actually it turns out it’s only really going to work within a theistic or designer worldview. So I think that’s an additional reason for him to prefer, a possible motivation to prefer this theory.

LUKE: Yeah. Well, I could see how you could be ecumenical with the proper functionalistic account. For example, naturalist scientists will talk about how our brains evolved in a particular environment on an the African savannah and they evolved with intuitions and perceptions that work in that particular type of environment, and that that is why when we turn our brains to try to observe and comprehend and make inferences about, for example, phenomena in the quantum world, our brains just break down and just don’t [laughter] respond to that very well.

TYLER: Aren’t able to do very well with that, yeah.

LUKE: So, in those cases, our brains are in a way functioning in an environment not conducive to their design, even though their design, according to the scientists, would be a evolutionary natural design rather than a…

TYLER: That’s a very interesting suggestion. Now, though, although Plantinga would say that ultimately that even there trying to think of things in these sorts of terms ultimately for them unless they presupposed that those things which are functioning properly in some context, and not properly in another that that distinction does not literally apply if those faculties were not ultimately the product of design: something like a design argument that is sort of a by-product of his theory of warrant.

LUKE: Yeah. Well, he argues elsewhere, of course, that naturalism can’t account for brains that would produce knowledge, or that kind of thing, for other reasons, but that’s kind of getting a little off of our topic.

TYLER: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, although, ironically, those I think I know the arguments you’re thinking of and they’re both tied in with his dealings with the, ‘Great Pumpkin Objection’, in the warrant phase. I had actually hoped that I could avoid detailing [laughter] these arguments just because they are so intricate as well as rather elaborate and ultimately, they can be separated from the, ‘Great Pumpkin,’ issue, but they do come up in his stage three response to the ‘Great Pumpkin Objection.’ Oh, that is good, to get a little bit ahead of ourselves, but in any event that is some of why I think he might prefer proper functionalism to its alternatives.

LUKE: Now, when he applies this proper functionalist account of warrant to Christian theology he gets Warranted Christian Belief, which is the title of his 2000 book. So what does that look like then?

TYLER: Maybe we should start with explaining the center piece of that book which is something Plantinga calls, ‘the extended A/C model.’ I should say something about the name. It’s the A, slash, C model because of what Plantinga sees as the agreement between Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin on there being some inborn human sense of the divine.

The model is extended because it is a model not just of how belief in God can be warranted, but how full-blooded Christian beliefs can be warranted, and specifically be warranted in the basic way. Sometimes Plantinga doesn’t make that distinction when he’s writing in Warranted Christian Belief, but I think it should be taken as assumed even when it is not there that he’s defending the possibility of basic warranted belief, that is belief which is not supported on the basis of arguments or evidence, yet is, nevertheless, such that if the belief were true, it would qualify as knowledge, and we know that Plantinga thinks that is because it will satisfy the proper functionalist theory. So anyway, he has this extended A/C model, which is basically a picture of how it is that humanity can have these beliefs and a major part of that picture is this sense of the divine. Recalling Calvin, he calls the sensus divinitatis. This is, allegedly, some sort of inborn faculty that we all as human beings have.

Of course, the immediate objection which springs to mind, at least to my mind, is well it makes sense to say I have faculties of perception. I have, at the very least, abilities of memory. I can do math.

Everyone else can do this to and we all seem to share certain common abilities, by and large, but the suggestion that there’s somehow a faculty of deity detection, the question arises as to, well then why does it not work in so many people? Why is Christian belief not more widespread, or at least why is not theistic belief more widespread? Why is it that in order to cause these beliefs to thrive, you have to educate people, you have to indoctrinate people, you have to raise them and teach them to hold these beliefs?

LUKE: Why is the sensus divinitatis especially defective among scientists and philosophers?

TYLER: Yeah, why do you find these correlations between belief and certain populations? Yeah, absolutely. It seems somewhat mystifying and Plantinga’s answer, well, I don’t think he addresses anything as specific as that question that you just raised, but with regard to why it’s not more universal or why belief in God is not on a par with these other sorts of beliefs, it doesn’t really seem you need the same sort of education. I have memories and you may have to teach me things to get me to remember certain things. Fine, that’s fair enough, but in general I can form memories without being taught how to do so. I can form perceptual beliefs. You have to teach me what the word is: This is a tree; these are what trees are, there’s a certain amount of education, but the bare seeing of the tree, it doesn’t seem to be nearly as loaded as belief in God. Particularly, belief in the Christian God seems to be very heavily reliant on a certain amount of teaching and not just sort of raw experience.

So the explanation for why this sensus divinitatis does not work more universally is sin, original sin.

LUKE: Scientists and philosophers are particularly sinful then?

TYLER: I suppose that you could conclude that. Although, he would certainly not want to say that this sin is in any way a personal or intentional failing. Although, it can be, but I think it can also be seen as more of a disease where the sinner in question deserves more pity than censure. Although you still have to ask, assuming that rates of unbelief are higher in scientists and philosophers? Why is that so? I suppose you could come up with some sort of ad hoc explanation, but that’s the problem, that it would be ad hoc.

LUKE: Well, and also, it would seem like Plantinga would have to say that there’s a particular degree of this type of sinfulness in Sweden and Laos in the late twentieth century, but people in Nigeria and the southern United States are particularly lacking this type of sin. This seems very implausible.

TYLER: Yeah, I am inclined to agree that the geographical distribution of this, essentially, damage to a cognitive faculty, and the fact that its outputs are largely determinable by sociological factors seems strange, but, in any event, he thinks, OK, so the sin solves the problem of why this belief is not more universal, but, of course, we don’t want the sin to be too effective otherwise then you have the problem of explaining why anyone believes these things.

So, it is something Plantinga calls, ‘the internal instigation of the Holy Spirit,’ and this is part of the extended A/C model story of how it is that Christian beliefs can have warrant. That when, for example, if you are sitting and reading some Scripture, and you are fortunate because obviously some people sit and read Scripture and don’t have this experience, according to Plantinga’s model, some people do where, when they are reading Scripture, the Holy Spirit will come into them and heal the damage to their sensus divinitatis, to some extent, allowing to some extent, warranted beliefs about these matters to emerge.

That’s his basic story about how it is that warranted Christian beliefs can be produced. Because presumably, this process is somewhat akin to a cognitive faculty, which functions properly in the environment for which it’s designed in a reliable fashion and is aimed towards producing true belief rather than untrue belief.

LUKE: Does he think that it’s also the same faculty that gives believers more specific theological knowledge because then he would have a problem that this faculty is actually not very statistically reliable because whatever Plantinga believes about God, there’s a very small number of Christians who believe all of that about God. There is such a great variety of theological positions.

TYLER: I do agree. I’m not exactly sure what he would say to that. I suppose one thing that could be done would be to make the outputs of the sensus divinitatis quite minimal. The more minimal you make them the more plausible it is that people share some sort of similar output, but yeah, the more specific you make it, the less it looks like everyone is having the same sort of experience.

LUKE: I guess he can always just say it’s sin.

TYLER: It’s always available to say about this person just they haven’t had the sin eradicated sufficiently, perhaps they had it eradicated to the point where it produces merely warranted belief in God, but they’re Jewish, so they haven’t quite got the right, faculty isn’t quite working properly, and then sufficiently enough to give them warranted basic belief in God, but maybe not sufficiently enough to give them warranted belief that Christ was not risen, for example.

LUKE: Those Jews… so close!

TYLER: Yes, yes.

LUKE: Just missed it.

TYLER: But so far, maybe next time.

LUKE: Oh, damn.

TYLER: Now, the thing about this model, and Plantinga is very explicit here, he is not in any way arguing that this is true, although he thinks that either this or something like this is true, but he is not arguing that it’s true. All that he is arguing is, he makes basically three main claims on behalf of this model.

One, he claims that it provides a coherent story of how presumably basic Christian beliefs can have warrant, that if Christianity is true, then there are no cogent complaints against this model and his third claim, and perhaps the most interesting claim is if Christianity is true, then very likely Christian beliefs have warrant either in the way described by this model of Plantinga’s or in some similar way.

Ultimately, Plantinga sees the truth of what the Christians believe and the warrant of their beliefs has been very closely linked; essentially, that if they’re true, then they will be warranted. If you think about this, it makes a certain amount of sense, all right Christianity is true. So, there is a creator God who did design us and he did design our faculties and if he gave us the sensus divinitatis; well, OK, then that will be true and actually this is a bit sketchy because to say that if Christianity is true then likely it has warrant in some way like the extended A/C model.

What about versions of Christianity which adhere to more evidentialist thinking that don’t subscribe to the presence of a sensus divinitatis or anything like that. It seems to be smuggling that portion of the extended model into the definition of Christianity by saying if Christianity is true then very likely it has warrant in some way akin to that described by the extended A/C model, but anyway because he sees this connection between them he takes from a certain apologetic strategy and says, “OK, look there are two main kinds of objections against Christian belief”.

There are what he calls de facto objection and a de facto objection is an objection that the thing being objected against is false or unlikely.

LUKE: It’s an objection against the fact of the matter.

TYLER: Exactly. So, for example, a de facto objection against belief in God might be the argument from evil. So long as it’s concluding either the God doesn’t exist or the God probably doesn’t exist it qualifies a de facto objection.

The other kind of objection and one that Plantinga curiously says is the more prevalent of the two is what we calls the de jure objection and the de jure objection against something all over in this case we’re specifically talk about Christianity is an objection, which is supposed to follow even on the assumption that that which is being objected against is true.

So, it’s a bit convoluted to get your head around, it’s on the one hand yes a de jure objection it’s an epistemic objection. It’s an objection that there is something epistemologically lacking in the belief in question, that it’s unjustified or irrational or foolish or naive or not intellectually up to snuff. But a specific part of this de jure objection is that whatever it is that it’s complaining about that it’s saying this is the case even if that which is being objected against is true.

So, for example, if I were to raise generic sort of de jure objection against Christian belief I might say, “Look, I don’t know if all that stuff is true. How could anybody possibly know anything like that? But I can tell you this: that even if it’s true, there is something wrong with the believing that is true.”

That’s the basic generic structure of a de jure objection.

LUKE: Well, I think I can give another example, on my website I will often give de jure objections against atheists about their atheism, and I’ll say look I agree that God doesn’t exist. So, I’m not making de facto objection against what they have said but I say something like the arguments that you just gave on behalf of atheism don’t work. And so I don’t think you’re using the right epistemological processes and you should really examine the processes that you’re using to form your beliefs because they’re faulty processes and they’re going to lead you to lots of false beliefs even though in this case here you happen to be correct that God doesn’t exist.

TYLER: Right. Yes. It’s an objection that it essentially says, truth aside, there is something wrong with what’s going on here. So Plantinga takes that distinction because he argues that the bulk of the complaints with Christian belief have been the de jure variety, I’m not myself quite convinced that this is so. It might very well be that the bulk of the objections against Christianity had been phrased in epistemic terms as in like this is irrational, this is foolish, this is etc., etc. But I don’t know if those objections will have then gone on and stipulated, yeah, and that’s even if these things are true. [laughter]

TYLER: I don’t know how many people have tacked that on at the end of their epistemic complaints against Christian belief and if you were to go back and ask them I’m not sure that they would necessarily concede that that’s what they had intended, but anyway, this is what Plantinga says is the most prevalent objection against Christian belief and then to respond to it, he says well, look at what I’ve just shown with my extended A/C model. I’ve got the story of how these beliefs can be basic and have warrant and that will follow from the truth of those beliefs. So, for you to object that whether or not these things are true there is something wrong with them, well that’s incoherent because it’s the only epistemic concept of interest is warrant and whether or not these beliefs will be warranted is pretty much precisely when they’re true.

So by Plantinga’s analysis, there is no coherent de jure objection because by conceding the very matter that these beliefs might be true, given the length between their truth and their warrant, you can’t go on and then say, “But they’re not warranted” because it would be when they were true, that they were warranted.

LUKE: Yeah. Here, I think a lot of people are going to respond, “Well, but isn’t the whole point that we’re trying to figure out whether or not Christianity is true?” So, if Plantinga has to say, “Well, if Christianity is true, then it’s probably warranted”, that’s just not answering what we want to know, but then Plantinga is going to say, “Well, that’s not my project.”

TYLER: Yes. That is essentially what he does. He acknowledges that he’s not arguing that these things are true, that he thinks they’re true, that he thinks they’re among some of the most important truths there are, but that’s it just not possible to argue for them effectively; but that that should not be held against them because it’s true of all sorts of other things that we believe, but yet which are not objectionable. So, therefore, according to Plantinga, it’s a double standard to say that Christian belief has to be defended in this way. If not, everything else has to be defended in this way as well. He’s very convinced that there are no successful de facto objections against Christian belief.

So because there are no successful de facto objections, that even though his defense of the epistemological status of Christian belief is only conditional, if these things are true, then they’re warranted, well, as far as he’s concerned, nobody can possibly show that these things are not true. So, there is nothing wrong with believing that they are.

LUKE: Well, Tyler, we’ve already raised a number of objections to Plantinga’s, ‘Warranted Christian Belief,’ project. Are there some other significant objections that you raise in your dissertation?

TYLER: Well, there’s one thing, that I harp on about quite a bit, is something called, ‘universal sanction.’ I have to give credit to James Sennett. He came up with this. What it is is it is a criterion of proper basicality which attempts to meet the burden of proof, which, back when Plantinga was a methodist, had issued against the evidentialist. The nice things about the universal sanction criterion of proper basicality is that it covers the usual sorts of counterexamples that Plantinga raised against classical foundationalism. It seems to rule out theism and to my eye, it looks like a very promising criterion, at least for people who are looking for such things.

Basically, the gist of universal sanction, well, to start off, I have to stipulate that beliefs can be somewhat meaningfully divided up into categories or kinds and in the context of the present discussion, this is not a terribly controversial assumption.

We’ve already been talking about, ‘self-evident beliefs,’ versus ‘incorrigible beliefs,’ versus ‘perceptual and other minds and memory beliefs,’ and theistic beliefs. So this is not a controversial assumption, but universal sanction works with this idea of kinds of beliefs. According to this criterion, a belief kind is universally sanctioned if a thorough-going, sincere skepticism towards those kinds of beliefs, as an entirety, is pragmatically inconceivable. To give you an example, consider memorial beliefs.

I’ve got a number of memories of various things. I’m constantly consulting my memory to tell me where this is, where that is. Presumably, even a little bit of what I should say next, because I have to keep in mind things that I’ve already said and just been saying.

I take these sorts of beliefs for granted, that memory beliefs are, each and every single one of them, guaranteed to be true, or that they’re believed in a dogmatic sort of way. I question individual memory beliefs all the time, both those of others, and those of myself.

This is something we all do, but what we don’t do, at least if we want to engage in a normal, sane, human life, is doubt, seriously doubt, all of our memories in total, all at once. To do so would completely undermine a normal human life, is the way that Sennett puts it.

So memory beliefs are universally sanctioned. Other minds beliefs, self-evident beliefs, incorrigible beliefs, perceptual beliefs, all of these seem to pass the universal sanction criterion quite well. Theistic belief, on the other hand, does not. Theistic belief is not universally sanctioned.

LUKE: So how is this relevant to Plantinga’s warrant phase, then?

TYLER: Well, because you could then ask yourself, “Well, what is an effective criterion of those things which get to be properly basic?” I mean, in the warrant phase, this is a question which kind of fades into the background. I suppose you could take Plantinga’s theory of warrant and say, “Well, this is the theory of what could be properly basic,” but he doesn’t tend to cast it that way.

So universal sanction could, I think, certainly be offered up as a competing criterion, if necessary for that which can be properly basic. Ironically, in the Warrant and Proper Function, which is the second book of the warrant trilogy, when Plantinga’s trying to make a case for his theory by choosing non-controversial examples that a wide readership, not just a theistic readership, but his secular readership, will tend to find plausible.

All of the sorts of beliefs that he lists as being the sort of thing that could be properly basic, all of these things qualify as universally sanctioned. All of them are the sorts of things that it seems at least plausible that a sincere skepticism towards, say, all beliefs about yourself or the external world or induction. If you were just to simply not trust any inducted inferences on principle, life would be hard, to put it mildly, perhaps unlivable.

So, all of these things, which Plantinga is trying to point to as supporting his theory, are things which seem to qualify as universally sanctioned. Yet, belief in God does not seem to be universally sanctioned. So here we have, even despite the shift away from justification and rationality, toward warrant, I still think that universal sanction can be taken as a promising criterion of that which can be basically warranted, and that which can not.

The other objection that’s advanced quite a bit, and it’s one that I’m actually turning that material from the dissertation into a book, which is close to being finished, is the Great Pumpkin Objection, is still applicable to this warrant phase. If you remember, the basic gist of the Great Pumpkin Objection is, “Well, why can’t anyone do this?”

In the second stage of Plantinga’s religious epistemology, the “this” in question was the inductive method, but now the inductive method is gone. So, the apologetic method of the warrant phase is now this connection between the truth of Christian belief or the warrant of those beliefs, and the ability of the extended A/C model to rebuff the so-called de jure objections against Christian belief.

Following James Sennett, I’ve called this “the retreat to metaphysics”, as the name for this sort of general maneuver, which is basically to say, “You can’t criticize my beliefs on purely epistemic grounds. You have to challenge their metaphysical status. You have to argue for their falsehood, not just for their epistemological failings.”

So Sennett’s name, which I think is fairly apt, is, ‘the retreat to metaphysics.’ So the most plausible construal of this rhetorical question, ‘Great Pumpkin Objection,’ “Why can’t anyone do this?”, applied to the warrant phase, is, “Why can’t anybody, or just about anybody, come up their own model of warranted belief in x, which is such that, if it’s true, then the belief that x models will be warranted; thereby, undermining de jure objections against x.”

Why can’t all sorts of undesirable epistemological bedfellows hop in with Plantinga and, basically, hold more or less the same maneuver?

LUKE: Yeah. Why can’t the Muslim just say, “Well, I think that I have a sense of Allah that God put in me, and so, you can’t just say my belief in Allah is irrational. You have to first show that all this stuff about Allah implanting in me a sense of himself is false.”

TYLER: Yes. Yes. Exactly. Actually, Plantinga bites the bullet on that. Maybe, first, I’ll just start out with how he initially precedes against this objection is to consider that there is at least one set of beliefs that can not conduct this retreat to metaphysics, and that is the belief that there are no warranted beliefs.

If you’re considering whether no warranted beliefs or no beliefs have warrant can adopt the retreat to metaphysics, well, clearly it can’t because if no beliefs have warrant is true, then it will obviously not be a warranted belief. So there is at least one counterexample to the, if you want to construe the Great Pumpkin objection as why can’t anybody do this, there is at least one counterexample. One person can’t do this, or at least one belief system can’t adopt this strategy.

Now that’s obviously pretty thin produce and Plantinga recognizes that and he admits, “Well, maybe that looks a little bit like a case of logical legerdemain or logical sleight of hand.”

So he then asks a little bit more of a serious question. Now just can anybody do this? Which can be rebuffed by a single counterexample, but is there any belief systems that are sort of similar to Christian beliefs but are such that they can come up with a model of their warranted basic beliefs such that if their beliefs are true, then they’ll be warranted?

The answer is yes, there are. There are similar belief systems to Christianity, and specifically he lists the other major monotheistic religions, Judaism, Islam. He also refers to, perhaps, some forms of Buddhism, some forms of Hinduism, some forms of Native American religion. The clear implication seems to be that theistic belief systems, belief systems which involve reference to a designer who can make our cognitive faculties such that certain religious beliefs are warranted. If a belief system can do that, then it can adopt the retreat to metaphysics.

In answer to your prior question of what stops the Muslims, I think the answer might be nothing, that the Muslim can probably do the same thing, and say, “Well, you really need to tackle whether or not the things I believe are true, because according to this model of Islamic belief, or presumably you would come up with different models for different sects, because not all of the various sects are going to want to have the same model.”

Right away this suggests that there might be a serious kind of pluralistic proliferation of viable models. I mean, Christianity is not a monolith, Judaism is not a monolith. None of these religions are monolithic. They all have numerous splinters. So the suggestion that theistic belief systems can adopt this retreat to metaphysics has some pretty far reaching implications for what can pull this same maneuver.

But Plantinga doesn’t seem to be bothered by this relativism. Because it seems that he’s satisfied that if it’s just his theistic brethren which get to use this method of defense, then that’s OK. Because at least it advances the situation beyond stage two and its reference to the inductive method.

Remember ultimately Plantinga had to more or less concede that pretty much anybody could use the inductive method, without too much restriction. But with the extended A/C model and its attendant retreat to metaphysics he’s biting the bullet that, yes, there’s a certain amount of relativism in who can use it, but that the relativism is not so widespread as to include everybody.

As his examples of people who can’t use the retreat to metaphysics, and presumably, as examples which are supposed to be more interesting than the logical legerdemain example of no beliefs have warrant, he raises Voodoo and Flat Earthism and Humean Skepticism and philosophical naturalism. He uses these sort of four examples as belief systems which he says can not adopt the retreat to metaphysics as evidence that it’s not the sort of thing that just anybody and their brother can use, and so that therefore it is presumably somewhat apologetically significant.

LUKE: I don’t think only theists can use this kind of retreat to metaphysics, though. I mean, I could say that I believe that we live in a simulated universe that was programmed by a math student in a higher dimension and this math student in a higher dimension programmed in so that we would evolve a faculty that would reliably aim towards a belief set of his existence. Yet, there are lots of different ways that this faculty can work poorly. I am just the only one or one of the few who has been able to overcome these faults of the mechanism, kind of like overcoming sin at the internal instigation of the Holy Spirit, then somebody could reply, “That’s insane. That’s incredibly irrational.” I could say “Well, hold on there. No, it’s not. If my belief is true…”

TYLER: “If what I say is true, then these beliefs have warrant.”

LUKE: Yes.

TYLER: Yes, I think you definitely have seen through the game. This kind of ties in with a criticism that I raised in my dissertation, was that the dismissal of Voodoo and the Flat Earthists’ ability to adopt this retreat to metaphysics is far too quick.

In fact, Plantinga doesn’t offer any arguments at all. He just simply states, as if it is obvious, that “Well, of course the Voodooist can’t adopt the retreat to metaphysics, ” and “Of course, the Flat Earther can’t do this.” But when you actually sit down and think about it and ask yourself “OK, what do Voodooists believe? What is part of their belief system?” it turns out that it takes very little research to find out that Voodooism as a belief system refers to powerful supernatural agents. Even as part of their mythology, either does or can have a creator god.

With these resources in place, it seems to me that there’s no reason to think that a diligent Voodooist who has read his Plantinga couldn’t sit down and come up with a parallel model to the extended A/C model which, using elements of Voodoo, I hesitate to call it theology, but Voodooology comes up with a “just so” story of how it is that if these beliefs are true then they will satisfy whatever account of warrant they think is the best one.

So contrary to Plantinga’s decree, I don’t think it’s at all obvious that Voodooists can’t adopt the retreat to metaphysics.

With regard to Flat Earthers, if you just take, in isolation, the Earth is flat and that’s all you consider. Well, OK fine, sure, just because I believe the Earth is flat and it’s true, it doesn’t follow from that that that belief will therefore be warranted. Fair enough. I mean in the same way, if Voodooism is the only thing that you describe Voodooism as “there are zombies and chicken sacrifices, ” well the truth in that doesn’t imply that belief in those things are warranted either.

But when you actually look at the fuller belief system that’s behind it, and for example, with the Flat Earthers, if you ask yourself, “Well, who is it that believes that the Earth is flat?” Or, “Who is it that has believed that the Earth is flat?”

It turns out that belief in a flat Earth is very often, although not always, but very often combined with fundamentalist Christianity.

LUKE: Yes, or Islam. I actually saw a Muslim official debating on, like Saudi Arabian television, or something like that, with a Muslim scientist. The Muslim official was giving all these arguments, a long list of arguments as to why the Earth was flat.

TYLER: Really?

LUKE: Oh, yeah.


LUKE: Like, three years ago. It’s on YouTube. I’ll link to it in the show notes.

TYLER: I’ll have to catch up. [laughter] Goodness, I didn’t know that.

LUKE: Yes.

TYLER: I had assumed that there were contemporary Flat Earthers, but just that they were difficult to find. There’s actually, a wonderful book came out a little while ago. I believe the author’s name was Christine Garwood. I would have to double check that. But it’s called “Flat Earthism” or “Flat Earther” or “Flat Earth” something like that.

It’s about the history of the idea that the Earth is flat. There’s some hilarious stuff about the co-discoverer of evolution, Wallace. Because he was hard up and needed the money entered into these public debates with this very prominent Flat Earth advocate who had the pseudonym of Parallax.

How these debates, well, they didn’t go as Wallace planned, let’s put it that way. I don’t know if he ever actually managed to collect his money from this Parallax fellow. It seemed overall like a bad idea to debate one these people one of these people on the flatness of the Earth. But in any event, you can see how: OK, well can belief in a flat Earth adopt a retreat to metaphysics well what happens if we just graft the earth is flat onto the extended A/C model?

If we incorporate the entire model as it is because certainly I’m sure fundamentalist christians would find the model congenial in many ways, perhaps lacking in others.

But certainly not something that would be entirely odious to them and just add a few details like that one that the clear and obvious interpretation of the Bible is that the earth is flat and the Bible is to be trusted in all things.

LUKE: Yeah.

TYLER: So if devilish scientists with their satanic pictures from space try to convince you that the earth is a globe, these things are just wrong. You can use sin to for why it is that mostly everyone else is mistaken because they are not part of the elect and so like in the case of voodoo I don’t think that one can just say baldly a belief in a flat Earth can not adopt to treat the metaphysics.

Plantinga didn’t choose these examples arbitrarily, he choose things because these are the sorts of things that you can get away in our society with pretty much dismissing out of hand as being kooky and nutty and not really too many people are just going to stand up and defend them.

So, the idea of that one of these or both of these Voodooism and Flat Earthism can plausibly adopt a the retreat to metaphysics seems to me to cast serious doubt on the apologetic merits of that maneuver.

So what, why should I care about that? I mean, what even I do have to think this is true? What actual reasons can you provide to support this?

LUKE: If you think that it’s impressive that you can say well, if it’s true then it’s warranted, well it’s not impressive because the Voodooist and the Flat Earther and the math student stimulated universe person can say exactly the same thing.

TYLER: So I suppose you could even use that to say so even if, let us say for the sake of argument that the naturalist can’t adopt the retreat metaphysics as Plantinga argues, I don’t know that really much matters because of the fact that denizens would be the epistemic dustbins can pull out maneuvers does to me kind of suggests that there is not too much merit to being able to adopt to treat the metaphysics.

The arguments that Plantinga uses, the naturalist ability to adopt to treat metaphysics are actually very aggressive arguments, which are designed to show not simply that the naturalist can not adopt to treat metaphysics but that there is something seriously wrong with naturalistic belief, in short, that if naturalism is true then there can be no knowledge and if naturalism is true then a fully informed rational naturalist will discover if he follows a certain line of thinking that Plantinga presents that his naturalistic beliefs are actually self undermining and there is that feeling again of how the positions that Plantinga take the issue with, tend to be self undermining.

I guess, the classical foundationalism in stage two, back in stage one God and Other Minds being the candidate for self undermining that pops into my mind is a verificationism that was self undermining. Now on the warant phase, it’s naturalism that is self undermining.

I would hazard to wager that if there is a fourth stage to Plantinga’s religious epistemology, whoever plays the role of the villain will be self undermining.


LUKE: Well, we will wait and see if that turns out to be true.

TYLER: That’s an inducted inferance that I make on the grounds that such inferences can be properly basic via the universal sanction criterion of proper basicality.

LUKE: Wow, well there you go. You have wrapped it up. [laughter]

LUKE: Gosh, well you have raised a lot of objections against Plantinga’s epistemology, the last two that you raised kind of the resurrection of the ‘Great Pumpkin Objection’ and…

TYLER: Universal sanction.

LUKE: Yeah, universal sanction. Do you have any ideas about how Plantinga might respond to those arguments?

TYLER: The universal sanction is curious. He is surely familiar with it because the book in which it is presented he writes a very glowing endorsement, that is Plantinga, writes a very glowing endorsement on the back of Sennett’s book, which features the universal sanction criterion of proper basicality. Now I’m not saying that logically entails the Plantinga read the book or read it scrupulously, but I from what Sennett says is it seems that Plantinga was pretty heavily involved in guiding Sennett and providing advice and feedback on draft and such.

So, I think it’s very rational belief for me to hold that he is at least aware of the criterion, but he has unfortunately never actually explicitly addressed it in print.

So, I can only speculate how he might respond to it and there’s is a couple of different ways. One, he could… I suppose just raise a straightforward counterexample, which is the method that he seems to generally prefer against such things, that is come up with a case of warrant or properly basic warrant that was not universally sanctioned.

And then that would show that universal sanction was unnecessary or if you come up with a case of basic belief that is the universal sanctioned which is not properly basic well then that would show that the criterion was insufficient.

I suppose he could try that sort of strategy although I think he would have to remember to keep in mind the paradigm case model and not just resort to any old bizarre counter examples that might do the job actually using the standard which he advocates for defending his theory would make things a little bit more difficult but probably more fruitful as well.

So, that would be one way to deal with it.

Another way to respond to universal sanction might be to address the problem of self referential coherence. This is the demand that in order for universal sanction to be a plausible criterion of proper basicality that we should listen to and reject basic theistic belief on the basis of that we need to see that universal sanction can sanction itself as a rational belief.

That is either the belief universal sanction is the best criterion of proper basicality either that belief will have to itself be properly basic by the standards of universal sanction or it’s going to be derivable from an argument that has premises which are made up at the bottom of just those things which the universal sanction sanctions.

LUKE: It sounds like very much Plantingan objection.

TYLER: I think it’s a plausible sort of thing that he might say. Now he was able use this kind of ploy against classical foundationalism fairly effectively, he was able to persuade some people who weren’t initially persuaded such as Philip Quinn, for example, who was initially, Quinn, I think he was bit suspicious that Plantinga had moved a little too quickly against classical foundationalism, but ultimately Plantinga convinced him that, although the case against classical foundationalism, although it wasn’t anything like a proof, Quinn did eventually end up conceeding that things did look pretty challenging and I think part of why he was fairly successful at convincing people that classical foundationalism was a dud, things looked a little dire when the only resources that you have at your disposal are those things which are self-evident, incorrigible, and evident to the senses.

I think many agreed with Plantinga’s intuition that, that is the kind of a meager base from which to work, whereas universal sanction allows beliefs about other people’s mental state, testimonial beliefs, of course, all the things condoned by classical foundationalism, but a whole wealth of other additional things not sanctioned by classical foundationalism and so although I don’t know that anyone has come up with the sort of proof that presumably Plantinga would insist upon – supporting classical foundationalism on its own foundation - I don’t think the reason for extreme pessimism that it can not be done is there in the case of universal sanction as it was in the case of classical foundationalism but there’s some more reason to be optimistic that good case could be made for this criterion of proper basicality on the basis of the wealth of things that it does endorse.

LUKE: Then how do you think you might respond to the latest iteration of the ‘Great Pumpkin Objection’?

TYLER: Well, with regard to Voodoo, when I said it takes a very little research to show that Voodooism involves reference to supernatural agents, well, I literally meant very little research because I did very little research on Voodoo. I suppose Plantinga could do more of research and find out that it turns out that the dominant mythologies involved in Voodoo are such that you could not in fact satisfy the proper functionalistic account of it.

I mean, it could be done. It’s an open question, it’s an empirical question, whether or not it could be done. I am suspicious that it can be done. But I haven’t actually done the research myself and so Plantinga could do it and show that I’m actually being overly optimistic here.

So that’s one way, I suppose, you could respond to the Voodoo point. With regard to the flatness of the Earth, given some of Plantinga’s responses to other similar sorts of absurd objections, there is some reason to think that he might respond by simply saying well yeah but we all know that the Earth’s not flat so even if they can adopt to retreat to metaphysics, who cares, they’re wrong. He takes this kind of response in regard to a suggestion that there is a god who has given us a sense of detecting giant invisible rabbits that live in Cleveland or something like that.

He conceded in the end that, yeah, if the story about how God has given us those faculties is true then the beliefs that those faculties produce… will be warranted. But he dismisses that as being irrelevant because there is no such faculty, there are no such rabbits, and the whole thing’s not true.

LUKE: Well, but isn’t that the whole point?

TYLER: Exactly.

LUKE: Isn’t the whole point that these are absurd false beliefs? So that’s why this is not the way to go at knowledge?

TYLER: Yeah. Because if all you do to dismiss those things is to say well they’re false. Well, then why doesn’t the naturalist, upon hearing of your impressive ability to be able to adopt a retreat in metaphysics, just roll his eyes and say yeah but none of that stuff’s true.

LUKE: Yeah.

TYLER: I mean if he can’t do that then I don’t understand why it is that Plantinga thinks that he can just dismiss these other absurd things. Perhaps it’s a reticence to understand that some people see the things that he believes as being sort of on par absurdity wise with these bizarre scenarios as with space aliens and faculty producing belief in invisible rabbits and things of that sort.

LUKE: Well, and when Plantinga says we have a sensus divinitatis I do just roll my eyes and say yeah but we don’t.

TYLER: Yeah.

LUKE: I mean there’s just no reason to think that we have a sensus divinitatis.

TYLER: It does seem a bit pressing to ask, what reason do we have to think that there is such a thing? That there is this inborn sense of God? Heaven forbid, if it’s not something we can detect empirically, is it?

LUKE: Yeah. Well, and let alone the idea of a spaceless timeless non physical transcendent being who thinks and has knowledge and makes decisions and has desires or pro attitudes but without a brain or a nervous system. I mean this goes on and on and on. [laughs]

TYLER: Yes, yes, yes. Many, many, many difficulties with it. Although, the one thing is that it’s got going in its favor is that it’s very socially acceptable.

LUKE: Yeah, that’s about it.

TYLER: The idea that there can be consciousness disembodied from a brain, it may be a difficult belief to defend but it is not an uncommon belief. Which, of course, does not count in the belief’s favor in any way. Just because it’s common doesn’t mean that it’s prudent or wise or true. But it can perhaps help one feel that what one believes is supported.

Maybe the best thing to do in the face of these problems with Voodooism and Flat Earthism is to bite the bullet and say, OK, well I’d already conceded that other theists could adopt the retreat to metaphysics. Why don’t I just bite the bullet and say, OK, you got me Voodoo can do it too. Turns out I hadn’t realized that they had supernatural quasi theistic agents. OK, fair enough. Yep. Yep, all right the Flat Earthers because you grafted it onto a theistic belief system, yes, they can do the same thing.

But to then turn and say, but look the whole reason why these guys can adopt this maneuver is precisely because of their reference to a supernatural agency. So, again, it is the supernaturalists who can adopt the retreat to metaphysics, not the naturalists.

So, even if I have to admit that the Voodooist and the Flat Earther can adopt my apologetic strategy. Nevertheless, perhaps Plantinga would be satisfied if only he could deny the same privilege of the naturalist, even if he had to bite the bullet on the Voodooist and the Flat Earther.

LUKE: Not a privilege I want, frankly.

TYLER: [laughter]

LUKE: I really don’t need to pull the retreat to metaphysics, thank you very much.

TYLER: The thing is I couldn’t bring myself in my dissertation, and it was getting quite long so it was time to finish off anyway, but I couldn’t bring myself to bother trying to come up with a model of naturalistic belief basic or otherwise such that if it was true, then it followed that these beliefs would satisfy the proper functionalist theory of warrant. I mean at least in part because I’m not convinced that the proper functionalist theory of warrant is necessarily the way to go in epistemology. But I speculated I think probably accurately that there won’t be too many naturalists who will actually be terribly interested in coming up with their own naturalistic model of warranted naturalistic belief that can adopt a retreat to metaphysics.

But the reasons that Plantinga raises against their ability to do it, and further for the incoherence of the naturalistic world view, I just don’t think they’re very satisfying arguments.

LUKE: Well, Tyler, you’ve done a wonderful job of explaining why Plantinga’s account of “Warranted Christian Belief” is very problematic. I wonder if we could back up just briefly, and I’ll ask you do you think that there is a different way in which belief in the god of classical theism could be rational? A more promising route than the one that Plantinga has developed?

TYLER: Well, hmm. I don’t know if I could say more promising. I have to say I think the way it should be done is to the quality of the arguments on its behalf. For myself I find that, for example, the phenomenon of evil and the arguments based upon it are just much more plausible objections to the idea that the universe is run by an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good, all-loving, eternal, et cetera, et cetera, creator than such phenomena as motion and change and even some of the more recently discovered.

I don’t find those things are as good evidence of such a being as evil is evidence against such a being.

LUKE: Well, Tyler, it’s been a great pleasure speaking with you. Thanks for coming on the show.

TYLER: Well, thank you very much for having me.

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{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

Muto October 10, 2010 at 5:51 am

It fails because the belief that it fails is properly basic^^


John D October 10, 2010 at 8:00 am

This was excellent. I’m reading his thesis now and it too is excellent. Thanks for sharing it here.


Patrick October 10, 2010 at 9:13 am

I don’t think this is actually on itunes.


exapologist October 10, 2010 at 9:48 am

Hooray! This made my week. Thanks, Luke and Tyler!


ShaneSteinhauser October 10, 2010 at 10:51 pm

I wish you guys would have talked more about particularism vs methodism. Methodism says that all beliefs need to be justified by a method in order to count as knowledge. But if everything needs to be justified then what justifies your method of justification? Particularists try to solve this problem by saying that not all beliefs require justification. The problem I have with particularism is that it makes *anything* reasonable.


James October 11, 2010 at 3:06 am

I joined the Mormon church when I was 23, for reasons Plantinga would be pleased about. Mormons take their epistemological foundation to be their “testimony” which is basically their direct knowledge that the church is true. I remember thinking, “Well, if it really is true, then the feelings I have are really evidence for the truth of it, and therefore justification for me to believe.”

I left the Mormon Church when I was 28, basically because of the great pumpkin. I went on a mission and taught a lot of other people, and saw the “feelings-based epistemology” pointing people in all different directions. I realized that my little philosophical manuver would only be a route to the truth if my feelings were infallible.

Now, instead, I hold tentative conclusions with various levels of confidence, but I am not certain of anything. I think of myself as like a tennis player with my weight evenly distributed, ready to shift to whatever seems true next. A lot of religious folks get into trouble when their fears (or their God) demand that they have more certainty than the evidence provides.


Patrick October 11, 2010 at 8:13 am

You know what bugs me the most about Plantinga? The feeling I have that I’ve done all of these arguments before, with much less intelligent people, but at the same time that I’ve exhausted all the details that Plantinga does.

A: I know God exists.
B: Really? How?
A: Well, I just know. I have faith that I have a personal relationship with Jesus.
B: Oh, is that really “knowing?” I mean, lots of people have faith in lots of things that contradict your religion.
A: But my faith is better than theirs.
B: But surely they could say the same thing.
A: But they’d be wrong.
B: I imagine they’d say that as well.


Garren October 11, 2010 at 8:46 am

Having read the Warrant trilogy, I frankly don’t see why religious skeptics should feel the least bit threatened even if Plantinga’s main argument is wholly successful.

All he’s really doing is pointing out that it begs the question to assume Christian belief must be demonstrably true by secular standards before it can count as knowledge. Why? Because certain kinds of Christian belief would count as knowledge without meeting a secular standard.

Most skeptics these days aren’t making the claim which Plantinga (successfully, I think) refutes. We’re much more interested in whether there are any rationally compelling reasons for non-Christians to adopt Christianity. Loftus’ “Outsider Test,” essentially. But since Plantinga isn’t trying to meet the standards of the Outsider Test, it doesn’t matter that other beliefs can make use of his epistemological model.

Of course Plantinga does occasionally try to go on the offensive against naturalism. I not only think he fails at that, but he fails in a Young Earth Creationist scale of misunderstanding evolution. He really should stick to defense.


cd October 11, 2010 at 10:50 am

You know what bugs me the most about Plantinga? The feeling I have that I’ve done all of these arguments before, with much less intelligent people, but at the same time that I’ve exhausted all the details that Plantinga does.

I thought Plantinga was a fairly original thinker, initially. The more I read and hear the clearer it becomes to me that he’s all about fighting Quine and NE to save some gaps for theity. EAAN is pretty much the Argument From Consciousness restated in form of an argument from incredulity/denial about the adaptive efficiency of evolution.


Jim T October 11, 2010 at 1:07 pm

You DARED to MOCK the Great Pumpkin!


Patrick October 11, 2010 at 6:53 pm

Ok, help me with this.

One of the issues that comes up near the end of the podcast is the classical “why can’t anyone say that” argument that’s classically levied against every form of “I’m justified in believing what I believe just cuz” theory of epistemology.

Plantinga answers this by categorically going through various religious and metaphysical belief systems and detailing whether they can or cannot make use of his “if my beliefs are true then they’re warranted” framework. Or at least… that’s what he says he does, and that seems to be what you treat him as having done.

But isn’t what he really did a review of whether these various belief systems actually DO use this retreat into metaphysics? I mean, lots of belief systems don’t do this retreat. But a lot of belief systems haven’t got centuries worth of religious apologetics trying to invent fancy ways to justify believing in magic. If they did, it would be trivially easy for them to use Plantinga’s framework.

Couldn’t you just graft the statement, “…and also humans intrinsically have the ability to just plain know that my belief system is true” onto any given belief system and instantly render it Plantinga-Approved?


Garren October 11, 2010 at 7:44 pm


Couldn’t you just graft the statement, “…and also humans intrinsically have the ability to just plain know that my belief system is true” onto any given belief system and instantly render it Plantinga-Approved?

To many belief systems, sure. All you have to do is explain how your belief system tells a story which results in adherents knowing its truth in a properly basic way.

However, I don’t see how tacking on that ending can work with the the usual kind of modern naturalism to say, “if naturalism is true, then belief that naturalism is true would be properly basic.”

But that’s ok. So far as I know, no one is claiming that “properly basic if true” is a reason to believe something, or that “not properly basic if true” is a reason against believing something.

So nearly anyone could use his “framework,” but the conclusion is so modest I have no objection to nearly everyone doing so.


Patrick October 11, 2010 at 8:11 pm

Alright, any given belief system except naturalism.

I was just trying to distinguish between the question I perceived as being asked:

“Couldn’t anybody do this if they wanted to?”

and the question I perceived as being answered:

“Right now, not everybody does this, just the theists.”


Jim T October 11, 2010 at 8:13 pm

I’m going to listen again and see if I can get around what just seems to be so absurd about Warranted Belief, especially for such a complex theology as Christianity.

Thanks for this episode


lukeprog October 11, 2010 at 9:23 pm

I’m glad people like this one.


Reginald Selkirk October 12, 2010 at 9:00 am

Garren: Of course Plantinga does occasionally try to go on the offensive against naturalism. I not only think he fails at that, but he fails in a Young Earth Creationist scale of misunderstanding evolution.

I’m not sure I understood that. Would I be correct in interpreting that as, “Plantinga fails as badly in going on the offensive against naturalism as YECs fail at understanding evolution” ?


Garren October 12, 2010 at 9:46 am


I am specifically referring to his argument in Warrant and Proper Function questioning the rationality of naturalism because under the naturalists’ story of our origins (natural evolution), there is no reason to think our beliefs and truth would significantly correlate.

You can read much of it here.

I just find it astonishing that anyone would doubt the adaptive value of true beliefs, at least of some beliefs in areas pertinent to survival (as the saying goes ‘medium sized objects moving at medium speeds’). For all the leeway he asks from secular philosophers when it comes to his origins story, I don’t see how he can get away with being so weirdly uncharitable toward natural evolution.

Worst part is that I’ve argued with YECs who cite this argument in their favor. I know people can misuse good ideas, but in this case I think they are doing an honest job of using a bad idea.


Reginald Selkirk October 12, 2010 at 10:36 am

Another fabulous optical illusion demonstrating the imperfections of our perceptions and cognition:
Tricky Circle Illusion


lukeprog October 12, 2010 at 10:50 am


Good one.


James October 12, 2010 at 12:50 pm


I saw a youtube video with someone trying to tell Dennett that evolution only has to give us the correct behavior, not the ability to know truth.

Dennett compared that to someone saying that evolution only has to make birds fly, not give them wings.


Reidish October 13, 2010 at 11:55 am

This is one of the best you’ve done so far. Thanks to you and Tyler.


Muto October 13, 2010 at 12:00 pm

I agree with the other commenters. This was a very well done and interesting interview.


Michael October 15, 2010 at 12:02 pm


Very informative podcast. I found the guest quite lucid and well informed on his topic which was fascinating.

Having no training in philosophy and not having read any of Plantinga’s work, I previously had the impression that he was a major figure in philosophy of religion. After this podcast I am less clear why that should be the case. I was struck by how little relevance his work seems to have for people who are not professional philosophers or who had a very strong interest. Am I wrong, or does his work seem to have little to say about what is true or probable vs. what can be argued in a highly technical framework? I recall being struck by this in some of his offered solutions to the problem of evil — technically possible but not things he seems to actually believe or think others could possibly believe (e.g. demons causing earthquakes).

I guess I find the seemingly more practical approach of the OTF of John Loftus more relevant.

Luke, I also wanted to praise you for the balance you find between offering your own opinions and letting your guests hold forth. I think you do a great job of letting your guests talk! I’ve stopped listening to a few otherwise great podcasts because the hosts spend about 1-2 minutes formulating each question. Bravo! (Philosophy Bites is also great in this respect.)



lukeprog October 15, 2010 at 12:46 pm

Thanks, Michael.

Plantinga’s goals are often limited. For example, he doesn’t argue that it’s probably that demons cause earthquakes, but merely that this logical possibility defeats the logical argument from evil as formulated by J.L. Mackie. And in his latest warrant work, he doesn’t argue that Christianity is probably, just that it could possibly be rational to believe in God without evidence if Christianity is true.

Not very interesting assertions, I agree.


Silver Bullet October 20, 2010 at 9:27 pm

Great interview with a great interviewee. Holy thorough and clear Batman.

1. Have you had a chance to discuss Wunder’s thoughts on Baldwin’s internal rationality defeater for Plantinga’s warranted Christian belief?

2. It seems worthwhile pointing out to Christians who claim that their beliefs are properly basic, that this merely means that their beliefs are rational IF they are true, and that this statement goes no distance whatsoever in actually indicating that their beliefs ARE true.


lukeprog October 20, 2010 at 10:44 pm

Silver Bullet,

1. No.

2. Yes!


Curt November 21, 2010 at 8:42 pm

Great interview Luke.

Plantinga seems to place much emphasis on the idea that arriving at true beliefs is possible only in a universe with a God. From the bleacher seats, I wonder why Plantinga’s universe, with its supernatural, omnipotent agent, is more likely to result in true beliefs than a purely natural universe.
This agent may or may not desire to lead us into true beliefs. This agent may be deceptive, apathetic, or capricious. There may be competing agents each promoting their own ‘truth’ to believe. Agency undermines certainty. A purely natural universe in which all is determined by the outworking of natural forces and matter avoids the uncertainty introduced by an agent.


Eric December 8, 2010 at 5:22 pm

@ Curt
I suspect he would point to his specific agent, which he believes does not deceive. Although interestingly enough, it seems as though his epistemology says ANY belief can use the retreat to metaphysics so long as the belief entails certain knowledge the belief is true. So long as the belief contains something supernatural (which is like clay that can be molded into damn near anything), it can append itself to satisfy Plantinga’s framework. In this sense, someone can believe that their agency made THEM rational and all others irrational. And this would be a rational belief. They can believe the agency wants them to kill everyone of a particular race. THAT would be rational. Kinda scary…

Also, I have yet to see many people defending Plantinga on this post… I was hoping to see if they had any responses…


TRIALNERROR February 10, 2011 at 1:22 am

I am willing to debate Alvin Plantinga on my deeply held, fully warranted intuition that Alvin Plantinga, according to the epistemology of Alvin Plantinga, is clearly God. I challenge him here and now to meet me in public debate and attempt a rebuttal thereof.


Dianelos Georgoudis August 11, 2011 at 8:31 am

I agree that this was a very informative interview. What I disagree with is the judgment that Plantinga’s conclusion that “if theism is true then it is rational to believe in theism without evidence” is not an impressive result. After all, most atheists insist that those who believe in theism without having evidence are being irrational, and Plantinga proves that this very broadly held atheistic belief is in fact wrong.

Now in the interview the objection is suggested (but not demonstrated) that by the same measure “if voodooism is true then it is rational to believe in voodooism without evidence”. Suppose that this can be demonstrated by showing that voodooism is similar to theism in the relevant sense. How would *that* be impressive? Showing that any belief system which is similar to theism in the relevant sense enjoys the same epistemic advantage makes no point whatsoever.

Finally, it is rather clear that metaphysical naturalism does not enjoy this epistemic advantage. So, it remains irrational to believe in metaphysical naturalism without evidence. Which renders most naturalists irrational, because when asked about what evidence they have, they either know of none (but express certainty that there is plenty), or else typically argue that the great success of the physical sciences is evidence for naturalism. But the latter is an obvious case of committing the fallacy of affirming the consequent. After all, on theism too the physical sciences would be greatly successful, so the fact that the physical sciences are greatly successful does not discriminate between the two worldviews. (And this is putting it charitably, because, arguably, the success of the physical sciences is more probable on theism than on naturalism.) Another answer a naturalist may give is that modern science has falsified many theistic beliefs, such as, say, that the Earth is in the middle of the universe, or that prayer is effective in healing sick people. But modern science has falsified many naturalistic beliefs also, such as that the universe is deterministic, or that the universe has no beginning, or that causality is local – to mention just a few central beliefs that virtually all naturalists as recently as the beginning of the 20th century believed in. So again, no evidence for naturalism can be found here. Another answer a naturalist may give is that the problem of evil renders theism very improbable, thus leaving only naturalism as a viable option. This is clearly fallacious, because there are many supernaturalistic ontologies which are impervious to the problem of evil. Finally, in a recent issue of Philo which was dedicated to naturalism there was only one argument presented for naturalism in a paper by Evan Fales, which basically argued on the grounds that we only observe embodied minds and never disembodied ones. But in fact we don’t observe embodied minds either, hence the problem of other minds. In conclusion, if there is evidence for naturalism, I personally don’t know of any, and apparently most naturalists don’t either.


Nightvid Cole December 31, 2011 at 3:48 pm

@Dianelos Georgoudis The first paragraph of yours pre-supposes Plantinga’s views on the necessity of “designed” mental faculties as a major factor in whether or not a belief is warranted. You gave no argument as to why that should be accepted.

The second paragraph of your comment simply misses the whole point, namely, that this epistemology leads to conclusions that are on their face either absurd or render the notion of warrant at least pragmatically meaningless and/or out of line with the way we would ordinarily want to invoke the concept, as well as the way intended by Plantinga’s “neo-fideism”. It is intended as an analogical reductio ad absurdum .

As to the first part of your last paragraph, the success of natural science is less plausible on theism (at least interventionalist-theism) than naturalism because the latter has greater explanatory scope: The absence of an intervening agent is a less ad hoc explanation for why we can get away with ignoring supernatural interventions into the universe than is an explanation like “God wanted us to be able to….since He would rather…than….even though…..and so chose to make it look as if naturalism were true, but this isn’t a dishonest God because….” (Fill in the “…” ‘s with whatever you like)

As to the latter part of your last paragraph, I think you are confusing observation with direct obervation. Normally in the scientific-empirical sense of the term “observation”, observation of a thing includes observation of what we have inductive reason to believe is caused by that thing. So as long as you use your terms in the normal senses, it is patently false that embodied minds are not observed.


Dianelos Georgoudis January 5, 2012 at 10:22 pm

Nightvid Cole:

Plantinga’s proposition under discussion, namely that “if theism is true then it is rational to believe in theism without evidence”, is a conditional. Therefore Plantinga need not give an argument for the truth of theism or for the truth of what theism entails, such as that God has designed our mental faculties.

As for Tyler Wunder’s analogy with voodooism: An analogy is a valid way to demonstrate an absurdity, as long as the analogy is proper in the relevant aspects. In our context, for example, one relevant aspect is that theism entails that God has designed our mental faculties. Does voodooism also entail that voodoo spirits have designed our mental faculties? Does voodooism entail the other relevant properties of theism, such as that God loves us dearly, wants us to know the truth, etc? I don’t really know. But here is my point: If voodooism is similar to theism in all the relevant factors then no absurdity is demonstrated. If voodooism is not similar to theism in all the relevant factors then the analogy is improper. Either way then Tyler’s argument from analogy fails.

As for the idea that God’s interventions in the physical universe are not noticed by the physical sciences, two points: First, given what we now know about the physical universe it is possible for God to massively intervene in it without even in principle physical science being able to notice it. See http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/2009/09/quantum-drivel-for-id.html for a discussion about this issue. The further question about *why* God would want to interact with the physical universe in such a physically unnoticeable way is an appropriate one, but leads us into theodicy, which lies far beyond the subject matter under discussion.

Finally, I don’t think that “observation of a thing includes observation of what we have inductive reason to believe is caused by that thing” reflects what we normally mean by “observation”, especially in the context of the physical sciences. So, for example, physicists do not say that we observe the bending of spacetime, or that we observe quarks, or that we observe the Big Bang. Anyway, here is the problem with other minds: It’s not only the case that we don’t observe them, but that we don’t observe anything which according to naturalism is caused by them either. Physicists do not need the “consciousness hypothesis”. That’s why philosophers have long pondered the question of how do we know that other minds exist. (In this context you might want to look for David Chalmers’s argument about “philosophical zombies”.) Plantinga’s argument then is that most of us know about the existence of other minds by the same cognitive process by which many of us know about the existence of God.


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