Baldwin on Basic Christian Belief (part 1)

by Luke Muehlhauser on April 6, 2010 in Alvin Plantinga,Guest Post

cross and wingsCommon 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.

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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.

Plantinga lolHow so?

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.

(click for full size so you can read the text)

(click image for full size so you can read the text)

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).

(click for full size so you can read the text)

(click image for full size so you can read the text)

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.”

Models

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

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{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

blokhead April 6, 2010 at 6:07 am

There was a moment of panic when I thought this post was going to be about actor Billy Baldwin.

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Charles April 6, 2010 at 6:10 am

I am very impressed with John’s work over at PD. This has the making of a great series!

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John D April 6, 2010 at 6:21 am

Hey, looks pretty good. If I say so myself.

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Sharkey April 6, 2010 at 6:33 am

Looking forward to the rest of the series.

I do have a question about the causal theory. It would seem that there is a causal relationship between mathematical truths and mathematical knowledge, at least assuming a constructivist position. Logical truths are based upon properties of the universe we observe; ie. 1 + 1 = 2 could be considered “caused by” the Pauli exclusion principle, a property of the universe. If this can be shown consistently, isn’t Plantinga’s extension of basic beliefs unreasonable?

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Charles April 6, 2010 at 6:42 am

“Truly, I say to you, do not say, ‘I know X.’ Instead, say ‘I believe X with probability Y where Y is less than one.’ ”

“But, teacher. According to your theory we can’t know anything with total certainty!!”

“Get use … to disappointment.”

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Yair April 6, 2010 at 7:43 am

Good to see your posts, here or elsewhere. I enjoy them very much.

I never got why Gettier problems are considered substantial. They seems to me to simply be cases where knowledge claims clearly aren’t properly justified. This may mean we need to better examine the nature of JUSTIFICATION, but not the nature of KNOWLEDGE. The traditional definition of knowledge seems perfectly fine – albeit totally irrelevant to real knowledge IMHO (in that the condition of “true belief” is inapplicable).

I also fail to see anything novel about Plantinga’s fundamentals of epistemology, as described above, except perhaps improvements on terminology. The idea that there are foundational beliefs that are beyond reasonable doubt is at least as old as Descartes, and the idea that we are adopting certain other beliefs without really having good cause to do so, and need to reflect on why and if they’re true, is at least as old as Hume. Plantinga’s real “contribution” seems to be to supply a bad definition of what warrants such additional “warranted basic beliefs”, thereby erroneously leading him to conclude that theism/Christianity is amongst them; hardly great progress. For my money, what warrants basic beliefs is still unclear. Intellectual/Copernican humility perhaps leads to most (belief in other minds, belief in the uniformity of nature i.e. naturalism, and so on), but not others (e.g. Occam’s razor, causality), and isn’t exactly a logical slam-dunk anyway. Not much progress has been made since Hume (Kant, perhaps, excepted), on any philosophical front.

Yair

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Erika April 6, 2010 at 8:48 am

I am looking forward to this series!

One question I have about the idea of a “warranted basic belief” is whether both X and its negation can be warranted basic beliefs. With only the background I have now, I suspect so.

If it is indeed so, I will be interested in seeing how such a belief can be justified as basic. If not, I will be interested in seeing how theism is a warranted basic belief but atheism is not.

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Scott April 6, 2010 at 11:25 am

At first I thought this would be about Stephen Baldwin’s wacko belief systems. Instead, it turned out to be interesting. Cool.

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John D April 6, 2010 at 12:07 pm

Logical truths are based upon properties of the universe we observe; ie. 1 + 1 = 2 could be considered “caused by” the Pauli exclusion principle, a property of the universe. If this can be shown consistently, isn’t Plantinga’s extension of basic beliefs unreasonable?

In the diagram I suggested that such beliefs could be caused under some unconventional or refined theory of causation. However, I don’t think that would really be relevant to Plantinga’s point: it’s not the fact that mathematical beliefs are uncaused that leads him to reject classical foundationalism. He rejects classical foundationalism because he thinks (a) it is self-defeating in that it is not itself a basic belief; and (b) certain other beliefs seem to basic without falling under the criteria set down by classical foundationalists.

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lukeprog April 6, 2010 at 12:09 pm

Charles,

Yeah, this overview of Plantinga’s epistemological tools is going to be really great for lots of people, methinks.

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John D April 6, 2010 at 12:09 pm

I also fail to see anything novel about Plantinga’s fundamentals of epistemology, as described above, except perhaps improvements on terminology.

This post is really just covering the background to Plantinga’s theory. So the concepts described were not meant to be novel to Plantinga. Part two will cover his actual theory of warrant and how it applies to theistic and Christian beliefs.

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John D April 6, 2010 at 12:17 pm

One question I have about the idea of a “warranted basic belief” is whether both X and its negation can be warranted basic beliefs. With only the background I have now, I suspect so.
If it is indeed so, I will be interested in seeing how such a belief can be justified as basic. If not, I will be interested in seeing how theism is a warranted basic belief but atheism is not.

This series is just covering Erik Baldwin’s objection to warranted basic Christian belief and not to theism in general. However, reading between the lines a bit will address your point.

I think the answer is that if two epistemically plausible accounts of a basic belief can be constructed, and if these accounts negate each other, we would have a defeater for the alleged basic beliefs. This is because the only way to resolve the deadlock would be to appeal to evidence or argument, something the basic believer is unwilling to do.

That said, to make the argument for, say, a sensus atheistus, would require some ingenuity because you would need to construct a model that showed how your lack of belief in God could be properly basic.

That will make more sense once part two is up.

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lukeprog April 6, 2010 at 12:32 pm

As I recall, Plantinga’s major concern with classical foundationalism is that it would render us radical skeptics with regard to a great many propositions that we generally regard as knowing, justifiably. But Plantinga has defended so many epistemological positions over the years that they start to blend together in my head. :)

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John D April 6, 2010 at 12:36 pm

As I recall, Plantinga’s major concern with classical foundationalism is that it would render us radical skeptics with regard to a great many propositions that we generally regard as knowing, justifiably.

That would be what I was trying to refer to under (b) in my response to Sharkey. You put it better though. But he definitely pushes the self-defeating argument as well.

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Mark April 6, 2010 at 12:37 pm

This is a really good idea. I think we need a series of bite-sized, accessible, but nevertheless informed introductions to the basics of academic philosophy of religion. Otherwise, we’re doomed to watching virtually all amateurs on both sides of the debate continue to make the same baldly fallacious/confused moves over and over again. (Not that this won’t happen anyway, I guess, but at least with this we could just link to the introductions and say, “Read this!” instead of repeating ourselves ad nauseam.)

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John D April 6, 2010 at 12:39 pm

to make the argument for, say, a sensus atheistus,

I should correct that. A la Plantinga, you wouldn’t make an argument for a sensus atheistus; you would merely try to show its epistemic plausibility.

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lukeprog April 6, 2010 at 1:04 pm

Mark,

Yeah, this is a major ambition of my website, and John D is very good at it. Nobody reads books anymore; we need blog-sized summaries! :)

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Kyle April 6, 2010 at 2:26 pm

Plantinga has defended so many epistemological positions over the years that they start to blend together in my head.

Luke, I don’t see why you think that. Plantinga has certainly developed his epistemology over decades, expanding it and refining aspects of it, but I’m not aware of any changes that would amount to him having changed his position.

Did you have something particular in mind?

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Jeff H April 6, 2010 at 3:09 pm

Hooray! I love your blog, John, and I’ll look forward to seeing your posts over here as well. Smart choice, Luke!

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lukeprog April 6, 2010 at 3:23 pm

Kyle,

How ’bout the switch from an internalist epistemology to an externalist one? That’s pretty major.

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Andrew April 6, 2010 at 3:26 pm

Luke,

When (and how, exactly) was Al an epistemic internalist?

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lukeprog April 6, 2010 at 3:26 pm

Does anyone else laugh out loud at the ‘O Hai’ Plantinga photo every time they see it? I do.

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Bill Maher April 6, 2010 at 5:35 pm

I do Luke.

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Kyle April 6, 2010 at 11:09 pm

Luke,

That would be a major shift, but I don’t know what you’re referring to. Have you come across an article or book where Plantinga defends internalism? Or have you read somewhere that Plantinga used to be an internalist?

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Sabio April 7, 2010 at 4:36 am

Really well written !
I understand the need to define “truth”, “belief” and “self” I never understood why the concern for “knowledge”. I guess you are trying to distinguish between “to know” and “to believe”. I guess I have always felt that in saying the “know” something, they are simply saying that they “believe” something with a high degree of certainty. Hmmm, confusing.

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lukeprog April 7, 2010 at 6:15 am

Kyle,

Plantinga defended an internalist epistemology until about 1989.

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Kyle April 7, 2010 at 9:00 am

Luke, do you really mean that Plantinga defended internalism up to 1989 or do you mean he didn’t explicitly defend externalism?

Consider these quotations from Faith and Rationality (1983) p79:

“Let us say that a belief is justified for a person at a time if (a) violating no epistemic duties and is within his epistemic rights in accepting then and (b) his noetic structure is not defective by virtue of his then accepting it.”

“In each case there is some circumstance or condition that confers justification; there is a circumstance that serves as the ground of justification.”

Plantinga is not explicitly defending externalism, but his description certainly seems to be leaning heavily in that direction. For Plantinga, in these passages, it is one’s circumstances that confer justification not internal states.

I realise that these quotations are ambiguous, but the tenor of Plantinga’s writing in epistemology has always seemed to me to be externalist, and I see nothing in it that is in conflict with his later writing (except the choice of terminology).

Do you have some other passages in mind that point in the other direction?

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John D April 7, 2010 at 11:40 am

Re: internalism/externalism

I wouldn’t be willing to comment on whether Plantinga’s position has changed over the years since I haven’t read enough. But I will say that his account of warrant has both an internal and external aspect to it. Internally it consists of maintaining a coherent web of belief (noetic structure, if you like); externally it consists of satisfying the four conditions of proper function.

That becomes pretty important to Baldwin’s argument. As will become apparent once the other parts of this series are up.

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BJ Marshall April 8, 2010 at 4:10 am

For the record, I <3 teh phiLOLsopher.

I don’t see how what’s good for the other minds goose is good for the Christian gander. They seem to me to be of wholly other kinds. The former involves an embodied mind while the latter invokes a disembodied, timeless, spaceless, transcendent mind.

Isn’t this some kind of equivocation fallacy with the term “mind”?

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Bradm April 25, 2010 at 12:51 pm

Luke,

I just ran across this post. I’m curious about your claim that Plantinga switched views. Did you have a certain article or book in mind from 1989 where he wrote about his change?

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lukeprog April 25, 2010 at 7:27 pm

Bradm,

No particular paper. That seems to be about the time when Plantinga switched from internalism to externalism, as later evidence in his Warrant trilogy.

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Bradm April 25, 2010 at 8:34 pm

Well, I have a hard time coming up with what you are referring to. Obviously Plantinga’s views have developed over the years but I’ve never seen this claim before. Could you be more specific about what you mean? What, exactly, is this major switch in his thinking?

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Andrew May 11, 2010 at 6:37 am

I’ve seen this meme repeated a few times on the internet now (“Plantinga used to be an internalist”), and I’m curious how it got started.

So I asked Al yesterday. He says he’s never defended internalism in epistemology. If he was ever an internalist, it was only in this sense: he hadn’t thought about the matter, and took internalism to be something of a default position (as it was, for much of the 20th century). But he’s been an externalist for as long as he’s had a reflective opinion on the matter (long before 1989).

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lukeprog May 11, 2010 at 8:35 am

Andrew,

That’s very interesting! Thanks for sharing. Someone better studied than I might argue that Plantinga implicitly defended an internalist epistemology prior to the late 80s, but I really don’t know.

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