Common Sense Atheism welcomes another guest blogger: John Danaher of Philosophical Disquisitions! John will summarize contemporary articles in philosophy of religion in plain talk so that you can be up to speed on the God debate as it ensues at the highest levels of thought.
Alvin Plantinga, rightly recognized as one of the most important philosophers of religion of the 20th Century, thinks that Christian beliefs can be properly basic. That is: Christian beliefs can be rationally held without evidence.
Erik Baldwin thinks he is wrong. He argues that Christian beliefs have to be established via reason and evidence.
Baldwin makes variations of this argument in several papers. In this brief series, I will examine just one of these papers:
“Could the Extended Aquinas/Calvin Model Defeat Basic Christian Belief?” (2006), Philosophia Christi 8, 383-399.
One of the downsides of Baldwin’s article is that it presumes a familiarity with Plantinga’s epistemological theory. If you aren’t conversant in this theory you might find the whole thing a little difficult to follow.
To make up for Baldwin’s presumptuousness, the first two parts in this series constitute my best shot at summarising Plantinga’s multi-volume opus on warranted Christian belief. If you are already familiar with this, you might like to: (a) wait until part three of this series; or (b) pounce on my no doubt inadequate summary.
In this first part, I will review some of the key epistemological concepts that Plantinga relies upon. As I see it, there is a cosy quartet of them: (i) basic beliefs; (ii) externalist/reliabilist theories of knowledge; (iii) explanatory models; and (iv) defeaters and epistemic duties.
Basic Beliefs: The Doxastic Panic Room
The world can be an intellectually destabilizing place: theories get revised, paradigms are shifted, beliefs are challenged and convictions are weakened. Is there anything that is not open to doubt and revision?
Classical foundationalists say “Yes.” To them, all our beliefs have their foundation in a set of basic, unchallengable beliefs. These basic beliefs form a doxastic panic room: a safe haven in which we can weather the skeptical storm. (“Doxastic” just means “relating to belief.”)
Which beliefs belong in the doxastic panic room? Two types are usually singled out by the classical foundationalists: logical truths and sensory perceptions. Things like “1+1=2” and “I see a green apple in front of me.” Beliefs of this sort do not need to be justified, deduced, inferred or otherwise rationally established. They are “properly basic.”
There are various ways in which to challenge classical foundationalism. One could argue that those two types of belief are not immune from skeptical challenge, or one could argue that the class of basic beliefs needs to be broadened.
In his early work, Plantinga adopted the second of these challenges. He argued that other types of belief could be properly basic – in particular, theistic and Christian beliefs.
Well, consider our belief that other people have conscious minds. This is not basic in the classical sense. Indeed, as all philosophy students will know, it is a belief that is open to skeptical challenge. And yet we all cling to this belief, despite the fact that we are not able to provide a full rational justification in its favour.
Well, says Plantinga, what’s good for the other minds goose is good for the Christian gander. If we’re rational to believe in other minds, why can’t we be rational to believe in God?
Externalist/Reliabilist Theories of Knowledge
What is knowledge? For a long time, there was a standard answer. Knowledge was justified true belief. According to this account, when I say that “I know X,” what I really mean is that “I believe in X, X is true, and I have justifications (reasons) for believing in the truth of X.”
This account of knowledge came under assault in the 20th century, most famously from the pen of Edmund Gettier. In a 1963 paper, Gettier outlined several scenarios in which all three of the above conditions (belief, truth and justification) were met and yet it still seemed incorrect to say that someone had “knowledge of X.” A Gettier scenario is illustrated below.
Gettier’s analysis provoked a search for a new condition that would help to plug the gap between true belief and knowledge. There are two famous examples that are worth mentioning.
First up, Alvin Goldman’s causal theory of knowledge. Goldman argued that in order for my “belief in the truth of X” to be counted as knowledge, it must be caused by whatever property of X makes X true. It is pretty clear that Goldman’s theory is limited since there does not appear to be a causal relationship between mathematical truths and our belief in those truths.
A second theory comes from Robert Nozick. This is the truth-tracking theory. According to Nozick, what gives us knowledge is our ability to track the truth of certain propositions through counterfactual possible worlds. In other words, I have knowledge because (a) I believe in X when X is true; and (b) if X were not true, I would not believe in X. (There is an additional condition to Nozick’s theory that is illustrated below).
Plantinga has his own theory of knowledge that we will cover later. This theory describes the relationship that needs to exist between beliefs and the external world before those beliefs will count as knowledge. This is the “warrant relationship.”
Plantinga’s theory of properly basic theistic and Christian beliefs makes use of explanatory models. Anyone who is familiar with science will know that a model is something that takes a target phenomenon (S) and sets out a process, mechanism or algorithm that accounts for S.
The Newtonian theory of gravity is a familiar example of a model. It takes a target phenomenon – the motions of the planets and falling things here on earth – and provides a mathematical model of that relationship.
Plantinga presents two models that try to account for theistic belief and Christian belief. We will look at those models later.
Defeaters and Epistemic Duties
The final element of Plantinga’s theory comes from the twinned concepts of defeaters and epistemic duties. We will look at each in turn.
With the expansion of the category of basic beliefs to incorporate not just “1+1=2” and “I see a green apple in front of me” there comes a need for some epistemic humility. We cannot cling to beliefs as steadfastly as we once could. There may well be serious and fatal objections to our basic beliefs. These objections can be called “defeaters.”
But we need not have too much epistemic humility: it takes a lot to defeat a warranted basic belief. This is because the defeaters are usually less warranted than that which they might defeat. Also, defeaters are usually non-basic in nature. So, the mere fact that something is a warranted basic belief is usually enough to cut off any objections to that belief.
With characteristic clarity, Plantinga puts it this way: the warranted basic belief is an intrinsic defeater-defeater of these non-basic defeaters. Baldwin, then, is trying to provide a successful intrinsic defeater for properly basic Christian belief.
The notion of “epistemic duty” is also important to Plantinga’s theory. If a believer has a basic belief in God or Christianity, and if they can deal with relevant defeaters, then they are not failing in their epistemic duties. They are, in their pursuit of knowledge, above reproach.
Great! Now we understand the basic concepts that make up Plantinga’s epistemological theory. In part 2, we will see exactly what use Plantinga makes of these concepts in presenting his theory of warranted Christian belief.
- John Danaher