Guest blogger John D of Philosophical Disquisitions summarizes 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. Visit John’s blog for more helpful summaries of contemporary philosophical works.
This series is taking a look at an article by Erik Baldwin entitled “Could the Extended Aquinas/Calvin Model Defeat Basic Christian Belief?” In this article, Baldwin tries to highlight a major shortcoming of Plantinga’s account of properly basic Christian beliefs.
Last time, I outlined Baldwin’s argument. To recap, Baldwin argues that there are multiple viable extensions of the standard Aquinas/Calvin model of warranted theistic belief, that these extensions cover creedal-specific beliefs, and that these extensions are mutually incompatible: at best, only one of them is actually warranted.
This mutual incompatibility gives rise the what Baldwin calls the probabilistic defeater for basic Christian belief. For any particular set of creedal-specific beliefs, the antecedent probability of it actually being warranted is 1/x (where ‘x’ represents the number of incompatible extensions).
This probabilistic defeater presents the believer with a dilemma: either they find evidence showing that their particular extension is better than the others, in which case their belief is not properly basic, or they do nothing and concede that their beliefs are unwarranted.
The key to Baldwin’s argument is the idea of the probabilistic defeater. In this final part, I will cover Baldwin’s defence of this idea.
Is it a Defeater?
Some might object: the mere fact that there are other religious traditions that can appropriate Plantinga’s models does not in and of itself defeat basic Christian beliefs.
Baldwin begs to differ.
Plantinga says that in order for our beliefs to count as knowledge, we must have warrant. Warrant is a product of internal and external rationality. Internally, the believer must have a coherent web of beliefs and must be open to evidence when appropriate. Externally, the four conditions of proper function warrant must be met.
Baldwin argues that the probabilistic defeater is an internal rationality defeater for creedal-specific beliefs. For those who might think otherwise, the following analogy is presented.
Suppose that you and three of your friends (Jim, John and James) are playing some game that requires the rolling of a die. You roll the die, and all four of you look to see what the result is. You see a four, Jim sees a five, John sees a three and James sees a one. Something is wrong.
Each of you an adheres to the Plantingan account of warrant. So each of you reasons: “If my cognitive faculties are functioning as they ought to, then I know that the number I perceive to be on the surface of the die is the correct one, which means that my friends are mistaken and have unwarranted beliefs.”
This conditional reasoning superficially fits with the Plantingan account of warrant. But if we peer beneath the surface, we begin confront a major problem. The fact of the disagreement gives you a good (internal) reason for doubting that your cognitive faculties are functioning properly. This in turn gives you a good reason for doubting that you have knowledge of the number that was displayed on the die.
Now let’s be clear about what this means. It may well be that only one of you has properly functioning cognitive faculties, and so one of you actually does know which number is displayed. However, there is no way to tell which one of you it is without wrestling with evidence and formulating arguments. This is something you should not need to do if your belief was “properly basic.”
The Plantingans at the Post-Conference Dinner
Another example: Suppose Plantinga is attending a Notre Dame conference on the modal properties of ontologically unnecessary beings. After a grueling day listening to philosophers stumbling through outlandish possible worlds, the participants relax for dinner.
Plantinga finds himself at a table with three other philosophers. They are Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu, respectively.1 He begins by telling them all about his epistemological theory and the model of basic Christian belief to which it gives rise. Much to his surprise, they each proceed to outline analogous models of belief that are tailored to the doctrines of their religions.
Suddenly it dawns on them that they cannot all be right. At best, only one of them can have warranted creedal-specific beliefs. Indeed, one of them formulates the probabilistic defeater. The cordial atmosphere of the post-conference dinner is thereby spoiled.
The only way for these Plantingans to figure out which one of them has the warranted beliefs is for them to find evidence in favour of their models. But this would engage them in the type of natural theology that Plantinga wanted to avoid.
There are other potential objections to Baldwin’s argument discussed in the paper. They turn on the fact that a given believer (say, a Christian) will have psychological certitude in their beliefs thanks to certain experiences they have had. These experiences will confirm their commitment to Christianity and will render them unlikely to accept the probabilistic defeater.
Baldwin argues that these objections do not avoid the defeater he has identified. The probabilistic defeater holds irrespective of how strong your commitment to Christianity may be. After all, psychological certitude is experienced by members of other faiths as well.
The probabilistic defeater is based on the antecedent probability of a particular faith being warranted in a properly basic manner. It suggests that the only way to establish that your beliefs are more probable than the others is to find evidence in its favor. But this would mean your beliefs are not properly basic.
It seems then that Baldwin presents a reasonably compelling internal rationality defeater for properly basic Christian beliefs.
- John Danaher
- Baldwin gives these characters the following amusing names: al ben Plantinga, al-Plantinga, and al-Plantingachandran. [↩]