Plantinga and Warranted Belief

by Luke Muehlhauser on June 3, 2009 in Alvin Plantinga,Reviews

I’m blogging my way through Sense and Goodness Without God, Richard Carrier’s handy worldview-in-a-box for atheists. (See the post index for all sections.) Last time, I discussed II.2.2 The Meaning of Statements. Today I discuss II.2.2.8 Naturally Warranted Belief.

Here, Carrier defends his basic epistemology – his method of knowing – against two attacks from Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga, who claims that (1) Christian belief can be warranted without evidence, and that (2) naturalism can’t warrant belief in anything.

Warranted belief without evidence, 1981 version

First up is Plantinga’s assertion that we can have warranted (justified) beliefs without evidence. Carrier’s response confusingly combines two different arguments made by Plantinga, one in 1981 and the other in 2000. Here, I will split them up and try to infer Carrier’s response to each, and then give my own.

In Is Belief in God Properly Basic? (1981), Plantinga argued that some things are obviously properly basic – that we have warrant to believe them without evidence: the existence of other minds, for example. Plantinga then says that for Christians, belief in God can be properly basic, and thus it’s okay for Christians to believe in God without any evidence.

Carrier thinks this conflicts with his own view, “that one cannot properly believe anything without evidence.”1 But so far, Carrier has said no such thing! In fact, he has said that experience is the only knowledge we have,2 and that thoughts, emotions, and direct impressions count as experiences. And Carrier does seem to think experiences count as evidence, for he writes:

[Page 44:] Plantinga thinks “belief in the past, in the existence of other persons, and in the existence of material objects” are also things we believe without evidence, but that is clearly not true. Ask anyone why they believe in these things and they can start rattling off a long list of experiences they base their beliefs on.

[And on page 45:] The buck stops with the evidence: which means experience, for there is no other kind of evidence.

So, Carrier and Plantinga do not yet contradict each other. They’re merely using different definitions for “evidence.” Carrier uses the word “evidence” to mean experience, as is clear in the above paragraph. And clearly, Plantinga thinks that not all experiences count as evidence, for he says that a Christian may experience God and believe because of this, “without evidence.”

So to me, Carrier’s basic empiricism is compatible with Plantinga’s argument. Using Carrier’s definitions, the mental impression of God is evidence because it is experience; it just depends how you interpret and weigh the evidence (which we’ll get to in later chapters).

But Carrier does respond to Plantinga’s argument when he says3 that “it is not reasonable for anything to be a ‘basic’ proposition if it could be false, since only a proposition that can never be false can reasonably be believed on its own, without any evidence to support it.” Now that is quite sensible.

So here’s the problem for Plantinga. That some Christians have an inner experience they interpret as God in undeniable. That is a truly basic belief, in the same was as my belief that “I have an inner experience of typing on a Dell laptop right now.” Both of these are undeniable. What is potentially deniable – and thus not properly basic – is the leap from basic experience to claims like “I have an inner experience that really is God’s work” or “I am typing on a Dell laptop right now.”

These are deniable – and thus not properly basic – because it’s quite possible that, say, I am dreaming or hallucinating or in the Matrix or simply mistaken (perhaps I’m typing on an HP laptop, but I thought it was a Dell). Likewise, it is quite deniable that the Christian’s experience is not actually God – for example, she could be dreaming or hallucinating or in the Matrix or experiencing Vahiguru or being manipulated by advanced aliens from another dimension.

And in fact, this is what even Christians assume is the case with all non-Christian direct experiences of gods! It is properly basic that a Hindu may have an inner experience they interpret as the work of Shiva, but it certainly does not follow from that that it is properly basic their inner experience is the work of Shiva, and that he needs no justification for thinking so! Even Christians know this, and it is special pleading for Plantinga to assert that Christian religious experiences are properly basic warrant for Christian belief, but that the numinous experiences from other religions are not properly basic warrant for belief in those religions.

I wonder if an Icelandic philosopher will ever declare that, for Icelanders, belief in elves is properly basic.

Warranted belief without evidence, 2000 version

In Warranted Christian Belief (2000), Plantinga made a different argument for warranted Christian belief without evidence, which Keith Parsons sums up as follows:

Briefly and roughly, Plantinga holds that a belief is warranted if and only if it is produced by the proper functioning of a cognitive faculty in the circumstances in which that faculty was designed (by God or evolution) to operate effectively.4

Plantinga thinks that the properly functioning cognitive faculty that provides warrant for Christian belief is the sensus divinitatis God has placed in each human mind. This sensus divinitatis gives direct knowledge of God, without the need for evidence.

So why do a tiny minority of people get this direct knowledge of Plantinga’s particular god, Yahweh? Sin’s the problem. Sin “breaks” the sensus divinitatis such that it is no longer properly functioning. So, atheism is a result of epistemic malfunction, akin to a blind eye.

Setting aside the point that millions of Christians seem to be much more “sinful” than millions of atheists, we must then ask, “How do we know if this sensus divinitatis exists?” Plantinga says that if God exists, it’s likely he would create a sensus divinitatis. But this is far from obvious to me! Indeed, most gods that have been imagined have not been proposed to impart a sensus divinitatis, so it’s not obvious to most people, either! Second, Plantinga’s argument depends entirely on whether or not God exists in the first place!

So, Plantinga’s entire argument is that if God exists, Christians are probably rational to believe in him.

Wow. Brilliant.

Both of Plantinga’s arguments are perfect examples of Christian apologetic arguments that, when stated in plain language, hardly merit a response.

Naturalism can’t warrant any beliefs?

Plantinga’s second assertion that conflicts with Carrier’s worldview is his argument that naturalism can’t warrant belief in anything. The basic idea is that given naturalism, there’s no reason to think our truth-finding faculties are reliable without an intelligent engineer to ensure such reliability. But we’ll discuss this later, as Carrier refutes the argument in III.9.2 Why Trust the Machine of Reason?

Naturally warranted belief

So what does Carrier think establishes a belief as warranted? He says:

If [a belief] is produced by any causal process that is substantially truth-selective (for example, any process that generates a feeling of confidence that is in proportion to probably genuine realities), then a belief has warrant. Metaphysical Naturalism as described in this book entails that we very probably possess and employ such a process. And when we observe the facts, we will find that Metaphysical Naturalism is indeed probably true, and that such processes do exist in us.

So, Carrier establishes a warrant for belief through the truth of metaphysical naturalism (which he defends throughout the rest of the book), and the methods that we have discovered to be reliably truth-baring (which he explains throughout the rest of the book).

So how do we go about reliably discovering truth and exposing error? I’ll discuss this next, in the introduction to III.3 Method.

  1. Page 44. []
  2. Page 33. []
  3. Page 46. []
  4. The Cambridge Companion to Athiesm, page 109. []

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{ 37 comments… read them below or add one }

cartesian June 3, 2009 at 8:43 pm

Luke,
I think it would help if you actually read the Plantinga, rather than rely on Carrier’s and Parsons’ (admittedly brief and rough!) characterizations of his views. You’ve failed to understand Plantinga’s arguments.

>>Plantinga’s first argument is: “Christian belief in Yahweh is properly basic, but religious belief in all other deities is not. Because I say so.”>>

No, that’s not Plantinga’s argument. You may have been better led by the title of his 1983 paper, “Is Belief in God Properly Basic?” He’s not talking about the specifically Christian conception of God, i.e. Yahweh, in that paper, but rather only the generic concept of God shared by many theistic religions.

Second, he doesn’t even claim in that paper that belief in God is properly basic, but rather that beliefs in propositions “detailing some of his attributes and actions” are properly basic in the right circumstances.

Third, he doesn’t claim that religious belief in all other deities is not properly basic. He just doesn’t.

You’ve really badly mischaracterized Plantinga.
 
>>Plantinga’s second argument is: “If God exists, Christians are probably rational to believe in him.”>>
 
This isn’t strictly speaking an argument. It’s just a conditional proposition. Something resembling it does figure into Plantinga’s main argument in Warranted Christian Belief, however. Something (much) closer to Plantinga’s argument is this:
(1) If Christianity is true, then very likely the Aquinas/Calvin model or something like it is true.
(2) If the A/C model or something like it is true, then Christian belief (as it is typically produced), is warranted.
(3) Therefore, there aren’t any viable objections to the rationality of Christian belief that are independent of objections to the truth of Christian belief. (from 1 and 2)
 
(This is all clearly laid out in the preface (!) of Warranted Christian Belief, so there’s really no excuse for missing it.)
 
He spills a great deal of ink arguing for his analysis of warrant. One non-informative definition of warrant is that which together with true belief yields knowledge. Plantinga’s analysis of warrant is roughly this:


Belief B is warranted for S just in case B is produced by cognitive faculties that are functioning properly, in a cognitive environment that is propitious for that exercise of cognitive powers, according to a design plan that is successfully aimed at the production of true belief.
 
That will help to understand premise (2).
 
So you can see that his conclusion isn’t that God exists, or that Christianity is rational, or anything like that. He has a very specific aim in Warranted Christian Belief, namely to argue for (3) above.
 
>>Not Plantinga’s finest moments, I must say.>>
 
Well, fortunately for Plantinga, you’ve failed to accurately describe any of his moments.
 
Please do read Plantinga’s actual work. WCB is now totally online and free:
http://www.ccel.org/ccel/plantinga/warrant3.iii.html
 
Most of “Is Belief in God Properly Basic?” can be found here:
http://books.google.com/books?id=pj16s_fnr08C&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_summary_r&cad=0#PPA351,M1
 

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cartesian June 3, 2009 at 8:55 pm

>>You may have been better led by the title of his 1983 paper, “Is Belief in God Properly Basic?”>>

I meant 1981. My bad.

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Dace June 3, 2009 at 9:51 pm

I’ll second Cartesian’s post in the details (I think the points Luke raises are good anyway). Plantinga’s quite specific that he wants to show that any ‘de jure’ objection is not independent of a ‘de facto’ objection – targeting Freud, Marx and Nietzsche as the ‘Masters of Suspicion’ to refute. I seem to remember that after building his case for this conclusion, he then goes on in the last third of WCB to argue that there are no defeaters for Christian belief. 

My favoured objection to Plantinga’s model:
“We might further offer objection to Plantinga’s claim that his model is consistent with all we agree to know. Presuming that Plantinga includes within the corpus of conventional knowledge the body of scientific studies to date, then he seems to be mistaken. Not only should we give less credence to Plantinga’s model if it is inconsistent with well-established positive truths of science, we should also accord it less credence if scientific inquiry yields no trace of evidence for the physical aspects of the model. The profane sensory faculties with which Plantinga compares his sense of the divine are well-documented – countless studies have inquired into their workings, and affirm their existence. The human brain has, in this century, been probed as never before. An adherent of the model might expect that somewhere, in this mountain of research, the possibility of the sensus divinitatus might gain some backing. Though it is hard to imagine an experiment which could properly test its operation, we might take it that the existence of an independent cognitive structure, whose activity is contemporaneous with mystical experience would provide us with some evidence for Plantinga’s model. Yet, current scientific knowledge is devoid of such evidence. In fact, the study of mystical experience seems to point toward the malfunction of cognitive structures which serve quite different functions.”

Another interesting objection, I think:
“Finally, we might also remark that there is perhaps an ethical objection to be made of Plantinga’s model. The model suggests that Christian believers have no duty at all to show that their beliefs are true, and that, since they believe as they do, they are entirely warranted to act in accordance with these beliefs without intellectual humility. The worry here is that the exclusivist nature of Plantinga’s model leads directly to a kind of intolerance – there is, in the model, no place for a healthy skepticism which facilitates discussion and understanding of alternative positions. As Deane-Peter Baker notes, the history of religious exclusivism places an onus on the Plantingian Christian to give compelling reasons for why a dissident of the view should give up their ethical qualms and take exclusivist Christianity seriously.”

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Lorkas June 4, 2009 at 5:02 am

cartesian:(1) If Christianity is true, then very likely the Aquinas/Calvin model or something like it is true.
(2) If the A/C model or something like it is true, then Christian belief (as it is typically produced), is warranted.

So these two propositions are saying (together): “If Christianity is true, then Christian belief is warranted”. Is that right?

cartesian: (3) Therefore, there aren’t any viable objections to the rationality of Christian belief that are independent of objections to the truth of Christian belief. (from 1 and 2)

Is he saying “The only good objections to the rationality of Christian belief are objections that it isn’t true” or “To object to the rationality of Christian belief is to object to its truth”?

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Reginald Selkirk June 4, 2009 at 6:38 am

Matt McCormick says:

Suppose that I tell Plantinga and Craig that I have my own special sensus atheistus and it assures me, beyond any possibility of mistake, that anyone who claims to have direct experience of God is mistaken. Now at least one side of this standoff of magical intuitions has got to be mistaken.

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Lorkas June 4, 2009 at 6:48 am

Why, that would be cheating, Reginald!

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cartesian June 4, 2009 at 6:55 am

>>Not only should we give less credence to Plantinga’s model if it is inconsistent with well-established positive truths of science, we should also accord it less credence if scientific inquiry yields no trace of evidence for the physical aspects of the model.>>
 
Recall that — in his main argument — Plantinga never claims that Christianity is true, or that we do in fact have this sensus divinitatis, or anything like that. He just claims that IF Christianity is true, probably we have this sensus divinitatis, and that IF we have this SD, then Christian belief (as it is typically produced) is warranted.
 
You seem to be challenging the truth of the consequent of the first conditional and the truth of the antecedent of the second conditional. But the conditionals can be true even with a false antecedent or false consequent. So your objections to Plantinga’s main argument are wide of the mark, since they don’t succeed in challenging any premise.
 
Also, I’m certainly no expert in this so please correct me if I’m wrong, but haven’t there in fact been studies that purport to show that there is some part of the brain intimately related to the production of mystical experiences and belief in the supernatural? I’m thinking of this sort of thing:
http://godpart.com/index.html
 
And the sensus divinitatis need not be a differentiated and distinct part of the brain, like the pituitary gland or something. It may be totally functionally integrated in some part of the brain — the frontal cortex say — and be individuated only by its tendency to cause theistic beliefs. And it’s hard to deny that humans seem to have some innate tendency to produce theistic beliefs.
 
>>The model suggests that Christian believers have no duty at all to show that their beliefs are true>>
 
Well, that’s not entirely accurate. Plantinga thinks that Christians (just like everyone else) have duties to address defeaters when they emerge. That’s why Plantinga spends so much time in WCB defeating defeaters, as you yourself are aware.

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cartesian June 4, 2009 at 7:00 am

Lorkas,
I said that these are the premises of Plantinga’s main argument:

>>(1) If Christianity is true, then very likely the Aquinas/Calvin model or something like it is true.
(2) If the A/C model or something like it is true, then Christian belief (as it is typically produced), is warranted.>>

You asked:
>>So these two propositions are saying (together): “If Christianity is true, then Christian belief is warranted”. Is that right?>>

Not quite, if you notice the “very likely” part of (1). What they entail is that if Christianity is true, then very likely Christian belief as it is typically produced is warranted.

>>Is he saying “The only good objections to the rationality of Christian belief are objections that it isn’t true” or “To object to the rationality of Christian belief is to object to its truth”?>>

He’s saying that one cannot sensibly object to the rationality of Christian belief without objecting to its truth. That is, objections of the following form are lame: “Well, regardless of whether or not Christianity is true, it’s not rational to believe it since there’s insufficient evidence.” Plantinga thinks (and argues) that one can’t set aside the truth of Christianity when evaluating whether or not it’s rational to believe it since, if it’s true, it’s most likely warrant-basic, i.e. warranted even without any compelling arguments or evidence (like our belief in other minds).

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cartesian June 4, 2009 at 7:06 am

Reginald/Matt,
>>Suppose that I tell Plantinga and Craig that I have my own special sensus atheistus and it assures me, beyond any possibility of mistake, that anyone who claims to have direct experience of God is mistaken. Now at least one side of this standoff of magical intuitions has got to be mistaken.>>

Well, that’s not entirely true. It’s possible that some people have a sensus atheistus assuring them that atheism is true and others have a sensus divinitatis assuring them that theism is true. That’s a perfectly coherent situation that we might be in. So in that sense, both Plantinga and this Matt guy could be right at the same time, contrary to what Matt says.

Now of course atheism and theism can’t both be true at the same time, and so it couldn’t be that some people have the SA and some people have the SD and both testify truly. Quite right. But what does that have to do with Plantinga’s argument?

Here again is Plantinga’s argument, for convenience:

(1) If Christianity is true, then very likely the Aquinas/Calvin model or something like it is true.
(2) If the A/C model or something like it is true, then Christian belief (as it is typically produced), is warranted.
(3) Therefore, there aren’t any viable objections to the rationality of Christian belief that are independent of objections to the truth of Christian belief. (from 1 and 2)

So which premise or inference is Matt McCormick challenging? As far as I can tell, Matt McCormick has completely failed to engage the argument.

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lukeprog June 4, 2009 at 7:08 am

cartesian,

I fixed my post a bit, but it would still help if I took the time to read through the entirety of both Plantinga’s arguments, yes! Thanks for clarifying his positions for me.

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lukeprog June 4, 2009 at 7:16 am

cartesian: So which premise or inference is Matt McCormick challenging?

I don’t think Matt has challenged the argument, and neither have I. Instead what we’ve said to Plantinga is, “So?” In his interviews, Plantinga seems to present the ‘basic belief’ line of reasoning as if it’s an argument for the existence of God, but it’s really not at all.

Later, I shall have to read Warranted Christian Belief and then respond to its premises.

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Lorkas June 4, 2009 at 7:24 am

Even if the argument is valid, it is still valid to argue that belief in Christianity is irrational.

The structure of the first two premises of the argument is:

p -> q (with a “very likely” modifier on this implication)
q -> r

p is “Christianity is true”
q is “the A/C model or something like it is true”
r is “belief in Christianity is warranted”

The conclusion I stated before (without including the “very likely” modifier–an oversight) was p -> r, which follows directly from (1) and (2). Therefore, if it can be demonstrated that not-r, then not-p is very likely also.

So if we can demonstrate that belief in Christianity is unwarranted, then we can infer that Christianity is very likely false.

Another criticism that might be offered is that we can make this argument work for any religion, if we replace Christianity with the other religion. In that case, this argument (taken in the context of Plantinga’s broader argument) shows that belief in any religion can be warranted without evidence. I don’t particularly have a problem with the contention that religious beliefs are evidence-independent. I do think that claiming one particular religion (like Christianity) is especially supported by an argument like this shows either a lack of thoughtfulness or dishonesty.

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Lorkas June 4, 2009 at 7:35 am

cartesian: Also, I’m certainly no expert in this so please correct me if I’m wrong, but haven’t there in fact been studies that purport to show that there is some part of the brain intimately related to the production of mystical experiences and belief in the supernatural?

Yes. The temporal lobes seem to be particularly active when we ask spiritual people to pray or meditate, and feelings of spirituality can be induced by applying a magnetic field to them.

However, experiences of ghosts, aliens, magic, flying, and out-of-body experiences can also be induced in this way, so I don’t think it really helps the case of religion to be associated with this kind of activity in this part of the brain.

Interestingly, many people who claim to have no sensus divinitatus (like Richard Dawkins) don’t seem to experience these things when magnetic fields are applied to the temporal lobes. Go figure.

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cartesian June 4, 2009 at 7:44 am

lukeprog: I don’t think Matt has challenged the argument, and neither have I. Instead what we’ve said to Plantinga is, “So?” In his interviews, Plantinga seems to present the ‘basic belief’ line of reasoning as if it’s an argument for the existence of God, but it’s really not at all.Later, I shall have to read Warranted Christian Belief and then respond to its premises.

I agree that you guys haven’t challenged the argument. But weren’t you at least trying to? Up in that blog post of yours it sure seems like you’re trying to make trouble for Plantinga’s view.

In which interview does Plantinga seem to present the basic belief line as an argument for the existence of God? That would be very careless of him, and I’ve never heard or read him suggest any such thing.

I hope you do find time to read WCB, though it’s quite long, so you may want to be selective about which parts you read.

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cartesian June 4, 2009 at 7:54 am

Lorkas,

>>Even if the argument is valid, it is still valid to argue that belief in Christianity is irrational… So if we can demonstrate that belief in Christianity is unwarranted, then we can infer that Christianity is very likely false.>>
 
So it sounds to me like you’re accepting Plantinga’s argument, and granting that he has achieved his aim in WCB. Well, good for him I guess.
 
Sure, you can use Plantinga’s argument in the way you describe. If you can really show that Christian belief is not warrant-basic, you will thereby show that Christianity is probably false. But to show that it’s not warrant-basic, you’ll have to show that it’s not produced by a properly functioning cognitive faculty operating in a congenial epistemic environment according to a design plan successfully aimed at truth. To show this will require that you challenge the truth of Christianity. So, just as Plantinga predicts, your objection to the warrant of Christian belief will not be independent of an objection to the truth of Christian belief.
 
>>Another criticism that might be offered is that we can make this argument work for any religion, if we replace Christianity with the other religion. In that case, this argument (taken in the context of Plantinga’s broader argument) shows that belief in any religion can be warranted without evidence.>>
 
Well, I don’t think it will work for just any religion, but you’re right that many other religions could co-opt Plantinga’s work to argue that there is no de jure objection to their religion that is independent of a de facto objection. You are correct there. But as far as I can tell this isn’t a problem for Plantinga. The more the merrier, he would probably say.
 
>>I don’t particularly have a problem with the contention that religious beliefs are evidence-independent. I do think that claiming one particular religion (like Christianity) is especially supported by an argument like this shows either a lack of thoughtfulness or dishonesty.>>
 
OK, but Plantinga doesn’t claim that Christianity is especially supported by an argument like this. He doesn’t claim that Christianity is supported at all by an argument like this! The conclusion of this argument is NOT that Christianity is true, or that it’s warranted, or anything like that. The conclusion is just that there is no sensible objection to the warrant of Christianity that is independent of an objection to the truth of Christianity. That’s the main conclusion of Warranted Christian Belief.
 

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cartesian June 4, 2009 at 8:03 am

Lorkas: Yes. The temporal lobes seem to be particularly active when we ask spiritual people to pray or meditate, and feelings of spirituality can be induced by applying a magnetic field to them.However, experiences of ghosts, aliens, magic, flying, and out-of-body experiences can also be induced in this way, so I don’t think it really helps the case of religion to be associated with this kind of activity in this part of the brain.

Smith: I think there’s a computer in front of me.

Jones: How do you know?

Smith: My visual faculties tell me so. There’s a region of my brain responsible for representing the external world and delivering beliefs about what’s out there. Studies show that what they call my “visual cortex” is particularly active when I open my eyes and look around.

Jones: Well, I’ve got bad news for you. Weird visual hallucinations can be induced when this region of your brain is tampered with. For example, some people seem to see little pink rats when a magnetic field is applied to this region of the brain. So you claim that a reliable part of your brain has produced this belief that there’s a computer in front of you, but I don’t really think it helps your case to be associated with that kind of activity in this part of the brain.

Smith: I’m not persuaded, Jones. That my visual faculties may malfunction under weird conditions shouldn’t at all diminish my confidence in their deliverances now. I’d actually need evidence that my visual faculties are actually not truth-directed now in order to defeat my belief that there’s a computer before me.

——————————————————-
And of course the same thing would go with this region of the brain responsible for theistic belief. Pointing out that it can go haywire when tampered with doesn’t give us a reason to think that it’s not ordinarily reliable.

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Lorkas June 4, 2009 at 8:03 am

Then apparently Plantinga and I don’t have a disagreement on this issue, if all he’s trying to prove in this argument is that challenges to the rationality of Christianity are necessarily challenges to the truth of Christianity. I guess it was worthwhile if he was really bugged by people saying “whether or not Christianity is true, it’s irrational to believe it”. (Although, if what they mean is “even if Christianity is true, you didn’t use your rational faculties to determine that it’s true”, then it seems to be a more reasonable statement)

I guess I would echo lukeprog’s “So…” here. I guess it just seems obvious that challenging the rationality of Christianity is pointless unless you’re also contesting the truth of Christianity. A “well done” to Plantinga for constructing an argument to demonstrate it, though.

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cartesian June 4, 2009 at 8:08 am

Lorkas: Interestingly, many people who claim to have no sensus divinitatus (like Richard Dawkins) don’t seem to experience these things when magnetic fields are applied to the temporal lobes. Go figure.

And I imagine that many people who claim to have no visual perception (e.g. blind people) don’t seem to experience visual hallucinations when magnetic fields are applied to their visual cortex. But this shouldn’t diminish our confidence in our visual faculties, right?

Well, the same thing goes with the sensus divinitatis, if it exists. The fact that Dawkins — a guy who claims he doesn’t have a functioning SD — doesn’t experience weird spiritual hallucinations when the SD is tampered with probably just shows that he’s right: he doesn’t have a functioning SD (just as the blind person doesn’t have a functioning visual faculty). That doesn’t mean that I don’t have a functioning SD!

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Lorkas June 4, 2009 at 8:13 am

cartesian: And of course the same thing would go with this region of the brain responsible for theistic belief. Pointing out that it can go haywire when tampered with doesn’t give us a reason to think that it’s not ordinarily reliable.

I don’t contest that the temporal lobes can be fooled. In fact, I think this is what’s going on when people claim to have spiritual experiences like the ones I described above and like religious ones.

The temporal lobe’s main function is to detect patterns and agency. It’s what recognizes objects when you see them, and it’s what recognizes syntax in language. It’s well documented that the temporal lobes are more likely to detect agency where it isn’t than they are to fail to detect agency where it is. That is, the temporal lobes are hard-wired to make type I errors.

This is for a very good evolutionary reason–it is much better to make a type I error (mistake a stick for a snake) than it is to make a type II error (mistake a snake for a stick). When you make the type I error described above, you get startled a bit at worst, but if you make the type II error, you could be killed.

I think this is the malfunction that led to the development of religion in the first place. If you have an overactive agency detector and no knowledge of the natural reasons for lightning and thunder, then what will you be thinking during a thunderstorm? Someone powerful is angry. Or if something serendipitous and lucky happens to you (you make it through a nasty wreck, or find a $5 bill when you forgot to bring money for lunch, etc), our zealous temporal lobes tell us that someone made that lucky thing happen to us.

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Lorkas June 4, 2009 at 8:15 am

cartesian: And I imagine that many people who claim to have no visual perception (e.g. blind people) don’t seem to experience visual hallucinations when magnetic fields are applied to their visual cortex.

Wrong (depending on the reason for the blindness). If you take a person who is blind and apply a magnetic field to their visual cortex, they experience flashes of light just like anyone else. That is, unless they are blind because of a defect in the visual cortex.

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Lorkas June 4, 2009 at 8:19 am

I wonder what the implications are if an omni-omnibus being exists who created our temporal lobes so that we could experience him, but gave some people temporal lobes that don’t function in that regard. Does it mean that he doesn’t want us to recognize him and worship him?

If it’s true that our religiosity is determined by how a part of our brain functions, is it fair to offer any punishment or reward on that basis?

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lukeprog June 4, 2009 at 8:34 am

cartesian: In which interview does Plantinga seem to present the basic belief line as an argument for the existence of God?

His interviews for Closer to Truth come to mind, though maybe I’m just hearing everything he says through my own ‘argumentative’ filter.

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cartesian June 4, 2009 at 10:32 am
cartesian June 4, 2009 at 10:35 am

Lorkas: If it’s true that our religiosity is determined by how a part of our brain functions, is it fair to offer any punishment or reward on that basis?

I’d say “no.” That clearly wouldn’t be fair. I don’t think that Christianity teaches that you’ll be punished or rewarded on the basis of your religiosity. In Matthew 25 Jesus explains the basis on which people will be punished or rewarded: what they do.

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Lorkas June 4, 2009 at 10:46 am

cartesian: In Matthew 25 Jesus explains the basis on which people will be punished or rewarded: what they do.

Great. That means that I can continue to assert, as I do, that the evidence suggests that God does not exist, and treat my fellow human beings as I strive to treat them anyway, and I’ll be cool with God. I’m glad to hear that you believe in a more reasonable God than your average Christian does :)

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Lorkas June 4, 2009 at 10:47 am

cartesian: lantinga’s original 1981 article: http://www.fileupyours.com/…

“fileupyours”? lol

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cartesian June 4, 2009 at 11:38 am

lukeprog: His interviews for Closer to Truth come to mind, though maybe I’m just hearing everything he says through my own ‘argumentative’ filter.

Yeah, I’ve watched those, and while he’s certainly making an argument, he’s not arguing that God exists on the basis of this proper-basicality stuff.

The point of this proper-basicality stuff is just to defeat the evidentialist objection to Christianity, which is quite prevalent. In fact I think you, Lorkas, Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, et al. all endorse the evidentialist objection in some form; it usually evinces itself as a complaint against ‘faith’ as inherently irrational.

So that’s the answer to your and Lorkas’ “So what?” question. The “So what?” of Plantinga’s work is that this evidentialist objection is undercut. The weird thing is that the ‘New Atheists’ seem blissfully unaware that this objection of theirs was undercut a few decades ago. I’m glad you at least are looking into it.

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cartesian June 4, 2009 at 11:47 am

Lorkas: Great. That means that I can continue to assert, as I do, that the evidence suggests that God does not exist, and treat my fellow human beings as I strive to treat them anyway, and I’ll be cool with God. I’m glad to hear that you believe in a more reasonable God than your average Christian does

I agree with you. I think the point of evangelism is to spread good news about what Jesus has done (namely, atoned for your sins), and to offer people a truly flourishing life via the regeneration of the Holy Spirit. Any other way of life is at best subsisting and not flourishing (and at worst a slow road to hell).

But perhaps you think missing out on this alleged flourishing is worth the risk, given the state of the publicly available evidence. And that’s fair enough. I think the publicly available evidence is neutral, in that one can look at all the publicly available evidence and reasonably conclude atheism or reasonably conclude theism. It’s that way with every philosophical problem I’ve looked into, sadly. We’re doomed to have a paucity of evidence with respect to the issues we care most about.

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Lorkas June 4, 2009 at 12:16 pm

cartesian: But perhaps you think missing out on this alleged flourishing is worth the risk, given the state of the publicly available evidence. And that’s fair enough.

I actually was a Christian for 10 years, and I have to say that I disagree with your assessment of the Christian life as “flourishing” relative to the life of the naturalist. Obviously this is a matter of taste, but I prefer intellectual and moral freedom to morality by divine dictum and truth declared by a single book from a single ancient tribe.

When someone asks me to return dogma and fiat morality, I feel like a freedman who is encouraged to return to slavery.

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Lorkas June 4, 2009 at 12:25 pm

cartesian: The “So what?” of Plantinga’s work is that this evidentialist objection is undercut. The weird thing is that the ‘New Atheists’ seem blissfully unaware that this objection of theirs was undercut a few decades ago. I’m glad you at least are looking into it.

What? You have spent this entire time saying that this doesn’t argue for the existence of God, and now you’re saying that the objection that there is no evidence to suggest we should believe in God is undercut by the argument?

The objection that we should not accept the hypothesis of God because there is no evidence is perfectly reasonable, despite your claims to the contrary. If theism is properly basic, then it is reasonable, but there is contention about whether or not it is so. The only thing the argument says is that you can’t object to the rationality of theism without objecting to the truth of it. It’s perfectly valid, despite this, to argue that we should conclude that theism is false because there is no evidence for it (just like there’s no evidence for magic, ghosts, fairies, or elves).

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cartesian June 4, 2009 at 1:32 pm

Lorkas: I prefer intellectual and moral freedom to morality by divine dictum and truth declared by a single book from a single ancient tribe.

Well, I’m not sure what you mean by intellectual and moral freedom, but I think that I do have a great deal of intellectual and moral freedom as a Christian. I get to believe the true and do the right. That’s pretty sweet. (Of course non-Christians can believe a lot of true stuff and do a lot of right stuff as well!)

And you do think that morality has some foundation, right? Perhaps not divine commands, but something else, right? There are universal moral imperatives like “Don’t rape,” aren’t there? And you base your morality on these universal imperatives, right? If so, we seem equally ‘enslaved’ to moral imperatives.

And I don’t think the Christian is committed to saying that the Bible is the only source of knowledge, just that it is a (really good) source of knowledge. How is that at all like slavery? Sounds kind of liberating to have found a highly reliable source of knowledge.

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cartesian June 4, 2009 at 1:48 pm

Lorkas,
>>What? You have spent this entire time saying that this doesn’t argue for the existence of God, and now you’re saying that the objection that there is no evidence to suggest we should believe in God is undercut by the argument?>>
 
There’s no incompatibility here. These are two different and perfectly compatible claims:
(1) S doesn’t argue for p.
(2) S argues that a certain objection to p fails.
 
For example, I might argue with Ray Comfort about whether some of his weirdo objections to atheism work. In such a case, I could refrain from arguing for atheism while arguing that an objection to atheism fails.
 
Plantinga is doing something similar. In Warranted Christian Belief, he’s not arguing for theism. He’s just arguing that a certain type of objection to theism fails (if theism is true). Nothing incoherent here.
 
>>The objection that we should not accept the hypothesis of God because there is no evidence is perfectly reasonable, despite your claims to the contrary.>>
 
If Christianity is true, that evidentialist objection is not reasonable. That’s the point. So to show that the evidentialist objection is reasonable, you first have to show that Christianity is false.
 
>>The only thing the argument says is that you can’t object to the rationality of theism without objecting to the truth of it. It’s perfectly valid, despite this, to argue that we should conclude that theism is false because there is no evidence for it (just like there’s no evidence for magic, ghosts, fairies, or elves).>>
 
I think you’re still not feeling the weight of Plantinga’s work. Let me try to put it to you this way. There are two categories of beliefs:
CATEGORY 1:
There are other minds.
There is an external world.
The world was not created 5 minutes ago with the appearance of age.
Induction is reliable.
The universe isn’t constantly expanding and shrinking yet maintaining the same proportions.

CATEGORY 2:

There is a teacup orbiting Saturn.
There are fairies.
There is a Flying Spaghetti Monster.

The beliefs in Category 1 are properly basic. It’s reasonable to believe them even in the absence of compelling argument or propositional evidence. The burden of proof is on the skeptic of these beliefs.

The beliefs in Category 2 are not properly basic. One can reasonably believe in them only if one has compelling argument or evidence. The burden of proof is on the adherent of these beliefs.

A lot of atheists have assumed that Christianity is in Category 2. And so they reason in this way: “Whether or not Christianity is true, it’s unreasonable to believe it given the scarcity of evidence. That is, whether or not it’s true, the burden of proof is on the theist, and that burden has not been met. Therefore we should be atheists.”

What Plantinga showed is that IF Christianity is true, it’s in category 1. And so the argument in the previous paragraph fails, since the premise is false. It’s not the case that whether or not Christianity is true, it’s unreasonable to believe it given the scarcity of evidence, since IF Christianity is true, it’s (very likely) reasonable to believe it even given the scarcity of evidence.

So Plantinga has defeated one very popular argument for atheism, by showing that the premise is false. In light of Plantinga’s work, atheists must rely on objections to the truth of Christianity, and cannot rely on premises like whether or not Christianity is true, it’s irrational.

Way to go Plantinga. Thumbs up buddy.

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Lorkas June 4, 2009 at 3:46 pm

cartesian: The conclusion is just that there is no sensible objection to the warrant of Christianity that is independent of an objection to the truth of Christianity. That’s the main conclusion of Warranted Christian Belief.

This is the conclusion, stated in your own words. This does not imply that we should believe Christianity without evidence, it only says that a cohesive objection to the rationality of Christianity must necessarily be an objection to the truth of Christianity.

The lack of evidence for Christianity is evidence against it, because the truth of Christianity (as stated in the Bible) has lots of implications in the natural world. Such as “prayer will make a sick person well” (James 5:15-16). This is not an ambiguous claim in James–it doesn’t say “pray and the sick might get well”, it says “the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well”.

If “Christianity is true” implies “prayer will make a sick person well” (which, if you take the Bible seriously, it does), and we observe that the latter is false, we can conclude that the antecedent is false. This is just one simple way in which Christianity, as presented by the Bible, fails to accurately describe the natural world.

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Dace June 4, 2009 at 4:21 pm

@Cartesian
“You seem to be challenging the truth of the consequent of the first conditional and the truth of the antecedent of the second conditional. But the conditionals can be true even with a false antecedent or false consequent. ”

No, I’m challenging one of the four claims that Plantinga makes on behalf of his model: “I claim that these models are epistemically possible: they are consistent with what we know, where “what we know” is what all (or most) of the participants in the discussion agree on” (Part III., 6,I,A). And he makes the claim with good reason, since even if the conditionals you cite are true, it would be irrational for the Christian to accept the consequents of them if the antecedents of either were improbable. Since the SD is unlikely, and the Christian knows this, then he cannot infer that his belief is warranted. 
Plantinga’s treading a very fine line here. If the Christian wants to be justified in holding on to his belief, then the probability of his belief being warranted has to be at least 0.5.  But suppose A=Chrisitanity is true, B= we have an sensus divinitatus, and C=Christian belief is warranted. The relevant formulas are :

p(A) x p(A->B) = p(B)  and  p(B) x p(B->C) = p(C)
..assuming that the conditionals are true, and that this is all that is shown, we get..

(0.5) x (1.0) = (0.5), therefore, (0.5) x (1.0) = 0.5

So, Plantinga only just seems to show that Christianity is rational. But plug in some uncertainty concerning the SD, we adjust p(b) down,  and the latter equation comes to say (0.45), which we times by (1), yielding a 0.45 probability of warranted christian belief, making it irrational to believe. (Either one or both of p(A) or p(A->B) would need to be adjusted down too). The same downgrading occurs if Lukeprog is right that p(A->B) is less than certain, with the same consequence. 
(I’m sure I’ve presented this wrongly, but the principles seem right.)

“Also, I’m certainly no expert in this so please correct me if I’m wrong, but haven’t there in fact been studies that purport to show that there is some part of the brain intimately related to the production of mystical experiences and belief in the supernatural? ”

Yes, and as I understand it, no particular part of the brain has been singled out, but rather, a multitude of areas of the brain are thought to play a role – makes sense when you think just how many facets of life religion ties together. The book you cite, at least from the “Premise” section there, doesn’t seem to do much more than speculate on the alternative hypothesis, despite the provocative title.

“And the sensus divinitatis need not be a differentiated and distinct part of the brain, like the pituitary gland or something. It may be totally functionally integrated in some part of the brain — the frontal cortex say — and be individuated only by its tendency to cause theistic beliefs.”
Don’t you think that some corner of the brain, devoted only to religious experience, is unlikely to be coincidental, and therefore constitutes a shading of evidence in favour of the SD, and therefore of Christian belief? I do. But then you have to accept that the alternative hypothesis is a shading of evidence against the existence of the SD, and so of Christian belief. If there is positive evidence for a hypothesis, there must be negative.
That’s not to say that the evidence will be very strong, and certainly, it could be that a dispersed SD is just what God designed for us. But it’s enough to cause the probabilities to dip below 0.5, which is all that is needed.

“Well, that’s not entirely accurate. Plantinga thinks that Christians (just like everyone else) have duties to address defeaters when they emerge. That’s why Plantinga spends so much time in WCB defeating defeaters, as you yourself are aware.”
Certainly it’s accurate – I said that Christians have no duty to show that their beliefs are likely true, and you responded by pointing out that they have a duty to show their beliefs are not likely false. The ethical point I raised was that the exclusivist Christian had a greater burden than that in modern society because of the potential for harm that exclusivist religions have. 

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Josh June 4, 2009 at 10:15 pm

My biggest problem with Plantinga’s argument is that it gets us nowhere.  Now you can’t argue for or against Christianity, or any other religion.  For example, if Christianity remains true in spite of all the evidence against it (of which there is plenty), then someone like me can never be convinced, because I just happened to miss out of the SD.  Similarly, Christianity may be false and the trickster god (the same one that rewards you infinitely for disbelief) may have implanted false SD’s and only those of us with SA’s have it right.

Now, I’m not necessarily objecting to the truth or validity of Plantiga’s argument.  I’m merely saying that IF ITS TRUE, then it’s a game breaker.  Then I wonder what we’re doing here.

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drj June 15, 2009 at 4:54 am

I don’t know if anyone bothers to respond to old posts or not, but I want to throw my question out there anyways..  Caveat: I am really just getting my feet wet with discussions like this, and this sort of material… I have read many summaries and commentaries on the EEAN, and the warranted belief, but not the actual material from Plantinga, so perhaps he does actually address the question I pose below.
Does not Plantinga introduce the very same problem, namely the unreliability of cognition, into theism, that he believes is present in naturalism (w/ evolution)?
Why should we trust our cognition under theism, when he claims that in a sinful world, our properly functioning cognitive faculty can be tampered with, or malformed by sin to the degree that it can not detect properly basic truths?
It seems to me you can pluck the words ‘evolution’ and ‘naturalism’ out of the EEAN and plug in ‘theism’, and ‘sinful world’, and come up with an equally potent defeater for theism (by Plantinga’s standards).

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lukeprog June 15, 2009 at 6:53 am

drj,

Great question. I’ll have to read more Plantinga to answer it.

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