Friday, December 28, 2007

An Excellent Encyclopedia Entry on the Evidential Argument From Evil

...can be found here. The author is Nick Trakakis. Nick is a hot up-and-comer in philosophy of religion. He recently published a monograph with Ashgate Press on Rowe's evidential argument from evil, which displays a command of all the literature on the argument. He has also published a slew of journal articles on it, in which he makes a genuine contribution to the debate. He is therefore an ideal person to learn from on this topic.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Philosophical Gerrymandering and Cumulative Case Arguments For Theism

I've argued that no argument for God, taken by itself, demonstrates theism -- or even makes theism more probable than not. However, this leaves open the possibility that, when taken together, these arguments do demonstrate the truth of theism, or at least make theism more probable than not.

Richard Swinburne is one famous philosopher of religion who takes this approach to arguments for theism[1]. He uses a formula from probability calculus known as Bayes' Theorem to argue in this way. He calls an argument that raises the probability of a hypothesis a good C-inductive argument, and he calls an argument that makes a hypothesis more probable than not a good P-inductive argument. He then considers a large variety of arguments for theism, and admits that none of them, when construed as a deductive argument, constitutes a sound argument for God's existence. However, he argues that a number of them, when reformulated as inductive arguments, each raise the probability of theism at least a little bit. Thus, he thinks that a number of them are good C-inductive arguments for theism. And when taken together, they make theism at least a little bit more probable than not, making the set of arguments taken together a good P-inductive argument for theism.[2]

To illustrate Swinburne's ideas about C-inductive arguments, P-inductive arguments, and cumulative case arguments, consider a simpler example. Suppose we're detectives investigating a murder, and that we know that either Smith committed the murder or that Jones did it. Then we have two hypotheses:

H1: Smith committed the murder
H2: Jones committed the murder

Suppose further that the following constitutes all our evidence, or data:

D1: Smith's fingerprints are on the murder weapon (a gun)
D2: Jones's fingerprints are on the murder weapon
D3: Smith had a strong grudge against the victim for sleeping with his wife
D4: Jones disliked the victim
D5: Jones is a terrible shot
D6: A somewhat reliable acquaintance of Jones said they talked to Jones at his house at 8pm, which was only 10 minutes before the time of the murder.
D7: Jones lives about 15 minutes from the victim's house.
D8: Smith lives 5 minutes away from the victim's house.

Notice that no single piece of evidence makes either hypothesis even slightly more probable than not -- i.e., not one of D1-D8, when considered individually, is a good P-inductive argument for either hypothesis as to who killed the victim. However, each one (or at least most of them), when taken individually, raises the probability of the relevant hypothesis at least a little bit, in which case each one (or at least most of each one) is a good C-inductive argument. And when taken together, they do make H1 a bit more probable than H2. In fact, D1-D8, taken together, constitutes a good P-inductive argument for H1. Similarly, even if none of the arguments for God establish the truth or the probability of theism, perhaps they do when taken together. Well, do they?

I've already mentioned that Swinburne thinks they do. Some other examples include J.P., Moreland[3], WIlliam Lane Craig, and Basil MItchell.

So, for example, suppose our hypotheses are:

H1: theism
H2: naturalism

And suppose our data are:

D1: the apparent contingency of the universe
D2: the apparent fine-tuning of the universe
D3: the apparent irreducibility of consciousness to the physical
D4: religious experiences of various sorts
D5: the existence of morality[4]

What's the probability of H1 on D1-D5? Of course, as everyone in this debate admits, there's probably no way to assign precise numerical values to the pieces of evidence here, whether taken individually or collectively[5]. To be charitable, though, let's say that each of D1-D5 raises the probability of theism at least a bit, and thus each is a good C-inductive argument for theism. Furthermore, let's be charitable and say that, when taken together, the probability of H1 on D1-D5 is a very strong P-inductive argument, raising the probability of H1 to .9 (i.e. 90%)[6]. Do we now have a cumulative case argument based on D1-D5 that makes the posterior probability of H1 higher than that of H2?

No, we don't. For to truly assess the posterior probability of a hypothesis, one has to include in the data pool *all* of the evidence that has a bearing on the hypotheses in question; to ignore the other evidence is tantamount to philosophical gerrymandering: artificially limiting the range of relevant evidence in order to ensure the conclusion you want. It would be analogous to arguing above that Jones probably committed the murder by just presenting D2, D4, and D6 of the data presented there, and suppressing all the rest.

But it turns out that there is a lot of data that appears to conflict with theism that needs to be added to the data pool before we can properly assess the hypotheses. Some of this evidence includes:

D6: massive amounts of apparently random and pointless suffering
D7: massive religious diversity
D8: empirical studies on the ineffectiveness of prayer
D9: the apparent hiddenness of God
D10: evolution

But once we throw in this data, it's no longer clear whether H1 (i.e., theism) is more probable than H2 (i.e., naturalism): even if the probability of H1 was about .9 on D1-D5, it sinks down to about .5 (i.e., 50%) when we evaluate it on D1-D10. At worst, H1 is lower than .5 on the total evidence.

So it seems to me that cumulative case arguments for theism fare no better than the same arguments taken singly.
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Footnotes:

1. See especially his classic book, The Existence of God (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979). In this post, I refer to the revised edition (1991). An extensively revised edition was released in 2004. A popular-level presentation of the main ideas in that book can be found in his book, Is there a God? (Oxford: OUP, 1996).

2. While this is roughly correct, technically it isn't quite right. In at least the original edition, Swinburne argues for the weaker claim that, taken together, the arguments for theism he endorses give theism a probability of at least .5 (50%), or thereabouts. He then argues that (what he dubs) the Principle of Credulity applies to religious experience -- i.e., like ordinary perceptual and memory experience, religious experience enjoys prima facie justification (it's "innocent until proven guilty"). But since he thinks he's shown that theism isn't improbable on the evidence (i.e., it's not less than 50% probable), then the prima facie justification of religious experience isn't undercut, and thus religious experience of God justifies theism. In an appendix in the 1991 version of the book, he considers the new "fine-tuning" version of the design argument, and concludes that with this new piece of data, theism is indeed more probable than not, in which case there is a decent P-inductive, cumulative case argument for theism. I haven't read the newest edition of Swinburne's book, but I believe he is even more optimistic about the cumulative case for theism is if anything even stronger than he thought in his 1991 version.

3. Moreland's views here are a bit more optimistic than Swinburne's. He thinks that there are a lot of sound deductive arguments for theism, and that several versions of the design argument are good P-inductive arguments all by themselves. Thus, the function of a cumulative case for theism isn't primarily to make theism more probable than not, but rather to (i) provide a finer-grained conception of the identity of the God established by the arguments (e.g., to rule out deism), and (ii) to strengthen a theistic case already made strong by most of the arguments taken by themselves. See his "rope" analogy of theistic arguments in his debate with Kai Neilsen (Does God Exist? The Great Debate), as well as his remarks in Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (co-authored with William Lane Craig). William Lane Craig seems to endorse this view as well. This comes out especially in his discussion of the arguments of natural theology in his popular-level debates, as well as the co-edited book on the Christian Worldview just mentioned.

4. It should be pointed out that although at least some theists take moral arguments to support theism, Swinburne does not -- indeed, he doesn't even think they make good C-inductive arguments for theism. For he takes moral truths to be necessary truths, akin to mathematical truths (e.g., 1+1=2), in which case they would exist even if God did not. See his discussion of this in his chapter on moral arguments in his The Existence of God (1991).

5. For example, Swinburne says this explicitly in the final chapter (not the appendix) of The Existence of God (1991). Plantinga says this in Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford: OUP, 2000).

6. This is of course extremely generous. For not even Swinburne thinks the probability is this high even when you add more theism-friendly pieces of data (see footnote 2, where I mention that Swinburne thinks the data give theism a posterior probability of around .5). Plantinga more-or-less agrees with Swinburne's assessment. See Plantinga's section on the Problem of Dwindling Probabilities in Warranted Christian Belief, where he argues that inductive arguments for theism aren't sufficiently strong to render religious belief epistemically appropriate.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Online Course on the Old Testament

This looks to be a great course on the Old Testament at Yale. It comes complete with a syllabus and lectures in both audio and video formats. I imagine it's worth browsing around there to find other classes in various disciplines. Isn't it great to know that you can now sit in on courses at Ivy League universities at home in your pajamas, and at no monetary cost to yourself?

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Trouble With Plantinga's Reformed Epistemology In A Nutshell (Draft)

Plantinga rightly points out that classical foundationalist accounts of properly basic beliefs are inadequate -- not enough beliefs count as properly basic. Unfortunately, Plantinga goes too far -- too many beliefs count as properly basic on his account. He wants to widen the circle of properly basic beliefs so as to allow belief in God to count as properly basic, but he can't do so in a way that's plausible.

To see this, recall the inductive procedure Plantinga recommends for generating criteria of proper basicality: a person considers actual and hypothetical circumstances in which a belief of a certain type is formed. In each considered circumstance, the person asks herself whether the belief is rational (i.e., properly basic or properly based) or irrational (i.e., improperly basic or improperly based). If that type of belief is judged to be neither irrational nor rational-but-properly-based, then the belief is judged to be properly basic (at least if it is judged to be so in enough actual and/or hypothetical circumstances).

But at this point, a worry arises: whose judgements do we include with respect to this process of determining which beliefs are properly basic? This worry gives rise to the following dilemma: Either the Christian community limits its group of judgers to, well, the Christian community, or they allow others to judge. If they choose the former, then the worry is that this is arbitrary: there seems to be no principled way to say that other communities can't play the same game. So, for example, suppose atheists choose to limit their judgers to those within the atheist community. Suppose further that, when they go through this process of judging which beliefs are properly basic, they come to judge theistic belief to be something other than properly basic. Then by parity of reasoning, we should say that the atheists are just as much in their epistemic rights in saying that belief in God is not properly basic for them as Christians are in saying that it is properly basic for them. The same goes for every other community -- Muslims, Mormons, primitive island tribes, etc. This entails a radical form of relativism about rationality -- one which many Christians and non-christians will see as unpalatable and implausible (e.g., do Christians really want to say that atheists are reasonable and blameless in their denial of God's existence? Do people, whether Christian or not, want to say that what counts as rational is relative from community to community?).

On the other hand, if they allow other judgers to judge which beliefs are properly basic, then the worry is that belief in God probably won't be judged to be properly basic. In fact, a number of Christian philosophers (e.g., James Sennett) and atheist philosophers (e.g., Keith Parsons) argue that the least arbitrary criteria for proper basicality include the following two: (i) the belief is universally held, and (ii) the belief is such that a recognizable human life is impossible without it. So, for example, belief that there are material objects, that there are other minds besides our own, that there is a past, that memory is reliable, etc., meet these criteria; they are therefore plausibly construed as properly basic beliefs. But on this account, belief in God is not properly basic, since belief in God is neither universally held nor necessary for a recognizable human life.

In short, we have no good reason to think that belief in God is properly basic, and we have good reason to think that it isn't. For we either allow only Christians to judge which beliefs are properly basic or we don't. If we do, then we get an implausible version of relativism about rationality. But if we don't, then belief in God probably won't be judged to be properly basic.

This is a rough paraphrase of an objection raised by a number of philosophers. James Sennett is an example of a Christian philosopher who raises this sort of objection (see his book, Modality, Probability, and Rationality: A Critical Examination of Alvin Plantinga's Philosophy). Keith Parsons is an example of an atheist philosopher who raises this sort of objection (see his essay in the philosophy of religion textbook, God Matters).

I'll get around to replies to this objection based on Plantinga's recent externalist construal of proper basicality in a later draft of this post.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

On One of the Main Reasons Why I Think Christianity is False (Reposted)


An Inference to the Best Explanation: Jesus as a Failed Eschatological Prophet (Re-posted)

I agree with mainstream scholarship on the historical Jesus (e.g., E.P. Sanders, Geza Vermes, Bart Ehrman, Dale Allison, Paula Fredriksen, et al.) that Jesus was a failed apocalyptic prophet. Such a hypothesis, if true, would be a simple one that would make sense of a wide range of data, including the following twenty-one (or so):

D1. John the Baptist preached a message of repentance to escape the imminent judgment of the eschaton. Jesus was his baptized disciple, and thus accepted his message -- and in fact preached basically the same message.
D2. Many (most?) of Jesus’ “Son of Man” passages are most naturally interpreted as allusions to the Son of Man figure in Daniel. This figure was an end of the world arbiter of God’s justice, and Jesus kept preaching that he was on his way (e.g., “From now on, you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Matt. 26:64). Jesus seems to identify himself with this apocalyptic figure in Daniel, but I'm not confident whether this identification is a later redaction. Either way, it doesn't bode well for orthodox Christianity.
D3. The earliest canonical writing (I Thess): Paul taught of an imminent eschaton, and it mirrors in wording the end-time passages in the synoptics (especially the so-called "Little Apocalypse" in Mark, and the subsequently-written parallels in Matthew and Luke).
D4. Many passages attributed to Jesus have him predicting the end within his generation (“the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15); “this generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (Mark 13:30); “truly I say to you, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel until the Son of Man comes” (Matthew 10:23); “Truly I say to you, there are some of those who are standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power.” (Mark 9:1); "From now on, you shall see the Son of Man coming in the clouds..." (Matthew 26:64)).
D5. A sense of urgency permeates the gospels and the other NT writings. E.g., the disciples must hurry to send the message to the cities of Israel before Daniel’s “Son of Man” comes; Jesus' statement that even burying one’s parents has a lower priority; Paul telling the Corinthians not to change their current state, since it’s all about to end (e.g., don’t seek marriage, or to leave one's slave condition, etc., since the end of all things is at hand; and on and on, all the way through the NT corpus).
D6. Relatedly, Jesus and Paul taught a radical "interim ethic" (e.g., don’t divorce, radical forgiveness, don’t judge others, love one’s enemies, etc.). This makes sense if they believed that the eschaton would occur within their generation, and that all needed to repent and prepare for its arrival.
D7. Jesus had his disciples leave everything and follow him around. This makes sense if Jesus believed that he and they were to be God’s final messengers before the eschaton.
D8. Jesus gathered twelve disciples, which is the number of the twelve tribes of Israel. He also said they were to sit on twelve thrones and serve as judges of the twelve tribes of Israel. This reflects the common expectation that at the end of days, all twelve tribes would return to the land.  The twelve are a symbolic representation of restored Israel.
D9. There is a clear pattern of a successive watering down of Jesus’ prediction of the eschaton within the generation of his disciples, starting with Mark (widely believed among NT scholars to be the first gospel written), and continuing through the rest of the synoptic gospels. By the time we get to John, the last gospel written, the eschatological "kingdom of God" talk is dropped (except for one passage, and it no longer has clear eschatological connotations), along with the end-time predictions, and is replaced with "eternal life" talk. Further, the epistles presuppose that the early church thought Jesus really predicted the end within their lifetimes. Finally, this successive backpedaling continues beyond the NT writings and into those of the apocrypha and the early church leaders, even to the point where some writings attribute an anti-apocalyptic message to Jesus. All of these things make perfect sense if Jesus really did make such a prediction, and the church needed to reinterpret his message in light of the fact that his generation passed away, yet the eschaton never came.
D10. Jesus’ base followers were all considered to represent the “bottom” of society in his day: the poor, sinners, prostitutes, outcasts, tax collectors, lepers, and the demon-possessed. This is perfectly in line with the standard apocalyptic doctrine of the reversal of fortunes when the kingdom of God comes:  “the first shall be last, and the last shall be first”. 
--> D11. Jesus performed many exorcisms, which he claimed marked the inbreaking of the kingdom of God on Earth. They were thus signs of the imminent apocalypse. Satan and his minions were being cast out of power, and God’s power was taking its place.
D12. Jesus’ trip to Jerusalem for the Passover Celebration, and his subsequent activities there, are best explained in terms of his apocalyptic message and his perceived role in proclaiming it. Jesus went to the temple during the Passover Festival, and spent many days teaching about his apocalyptic message of the imminent coming kingdom of God. The apocalyptic message included the idea that the temple in Jerusalem would also be destroyed.
D13. Jesus caused a disturbance in the temple itself, which appears to have been a symbolic enactment of his apocalyptic teaching about the temple’s destruction.
D14. Jesus’ betrayal by Judas Iscariot, and Jesus’ subsequent arrest, is best explained in terms of Judas’ betraying to the religious authorities (the Sadducees and the chief priests) Jesus’ teaching (to his inner circle of disciples) that he would be the King of the Jews in the coming Kingdom of God.
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D15. Jesus was executed on the charge of political sedition, due to his claim that he was the King of the Jews. His execution was therefore directly related to his apocalyptic message of the imminent coming of the kingdom of God.
--> D16. The fact that not just Paul, but also all the other NT authors believed the end would occur in their generation makes perfect sense if Jesus really did make such claims
D17. The fact that the early church believed the end would occur in their lifetime makes perfect sense if Jesus really did make such claims
D18. Consider also E.P. Sanders’ argument: the passages that attribute these predictions to Jesus and Paul satisfy the historical criteria of multiple attestation (and forms), embarrassment, earliest strata (Mark, Q, M, L, Paul’s earliest letters, the ancient “Maranatha” creed/hymn) etc., thus strongly indicating that these words go back to the lips of Jesus.
D19. Jesus’ parables: virtually all explicitly or implicitly teach a message about an imminent eschaton.
D20. Jesus’ “inversion” teachings (e.g., "The first shall be last, and the last shall be first"): a common theme among Jewish apocalypticists generally. The general message of apocalypticists is that those who are evil and defy God will not get away with it forever. The just are trampled, and the unjust prosper; thus, this situation needs to be inverted – as it will be when the “Son of Man” from the book of Daniel comes to exact God’s judgment at any moment.
D21. The fact that the first generation church didn’t write biographies about Jesus, but instead the second generation church wrote the gospels composed of bits of sayings attributed to him, would make sense if his followers believed that the End would occur so quickly (based on Jesus’ teachings) that such a task would be pointless.

But suppose all of this is wrong -- or at least wrong in the one respect that Jesus didn’t mean “this generation” in the way it seems. Still, Jesus did say that the end would come soon, and his apostles said that these were “the last days” etc.

Furthermore, consider:

D22. Certain relevant data in the book of Revelation:

-The author is talking about events within his day
-He attributes a quick return to Jesus -- one that would occur in his day.
-Using cipher language, he names Nero as “the Beast” (in ancient languages such as Hebrew and Greek, letters served double-duty as numbers. Thus, it was common to refer to someone without actually saying their name by stating the number that the letters in their name adds up to). Well, Ceasar Nero’s name adds up to 666, and he was ruling and persecuting the church during the time that the book of Revelation was written. In fact, some manuscripts of the Book of Revelation have the number read ‘616’, which turns out to add up to a slightly less formal version of Nero’s name!), thus clearly indicating that the end was supposed to be imminent.
-But it’s been about 2,000 years since then, in which case the author of the Book of Revelation was flatly wrong.

And so, no matter which way you slice it, the “statute of limitations” has run out on Jesus and his apostle’s claim for an imminent end. But if so, then by OT standards, Jesus was quite simply a false prophet, in which case he’s not a person that a reasonable and ethical person should follow. In fact, the Bible itself tells us that God doesn't want us to listen to or follow false prophets. So, for example, here's a statement attributed to God in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 18:21-22):

"You may say to yourselves, "How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the LORD ?" If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him."

And here's another:

"The prophets prophesy lies in my name: I sent them not, neither have I commanded them, neither spake unto them: they prophesy unto you a false vision and divination, and a thing of nought, and the deceit of their heart." (Jeremiah 14:14-15)

It needs to be emphasized that this line of reasoning isn't controversial among mainstream, middle-of-the-road NT critics. I'm not talking about a view held by the Jesus Seminar, or earlier "radical" form and redaction critics like Norman Perrin. Rather, I'm talking about the kinds of considerations that are largely accepted by moderates who are also committed Christians, such as Dale Allison and John P. Meier. Indeed, conservative scholars of the likes of none other than Ben Witherington and N.T. Wright largely admit this line of reasoning. Why are they still Christians, you ask? I'll tell you: by giving unnatural, ad hoc explanations of the data. For example, Meier gets around the problem by arguing that the false prediction passages are inauthentic (i.e., Jesus never said those things; the early church just put those words on the lips of Jesus, and they ended up in the gospels); Witherington gets around the problem by saying that what Jesus really meant was that the imminent arrival of the eschatological kingdom might be at hand(!); Wright gets around the problem by adopting the partial preterist line that the imminent end that Jesus predicted really did occur -- it's just that it was all fulfilled with the destruction of Jerusalem (Oh, really? So are we also to think that since he's already come again, he's not coming back? Or perhaps there will be a *third* coming? But even putting these worries aside: why does Paul tell various communities very far *outside* of Israel about the same sorts of predictions of an imminent end that would affect *them* -- one that, like the one Jesus talked about, involved judgement, destruction, and the gathering of all the elect? And again, what about the author of Revelation's detailing the end-time judgment, which includes the Roman Empire *outside* of Israel, during the reign of Nero?). Are you convinced by these responses? Me neither. And now you know why nobody outside of orthodox circles buys them, either.

To all of this, I say what should be obvious: you know, deep in your gut (don't you?) that such responses are unnatural, ad hoc dodges of what we know to be the truth here: Jesus really did predict the end within the lifetime of his disciples, but he was simply wrong.

Notice that the claim here is different from one often confused with it, viz., that Jesus happened to say some things that could be interpreted as asserting that the end would occur in his lifetime. This isn't the claim I'm making. Rather, it's the much stronger one that Jesus was an eschatological prophet -- the end time message was what he was all about. It wasn't tangential to his central message; it was his central message: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!"

Putting it all together, we get the following argument for Jesus as a failed apocalyptic prophet:

Let:
H1= the hypothesis that Jesus was a failed apocalyptic prophet of an imminent eschaton.
H2= the hypothesis that Jesus is the Son of God of orthodox Christianity.

And let D1-D22 be the data sketched above. Then the argument can be expressed as follows:

1. H1 is a better explanation of D1-D22 than H2.
2. If H1 is a better explanation of D1-D22 than H2, then H1 is more probable than H2.
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3. Therefore, H1 is more probable than H2.

I'd like to mention a related point. If the mainstream scholars of the historical Jesus are right and the points above are correct, then it looks as though this line of reasoning undercuts Craig’s abductive argument for the resurrection of Jesus. For it seems extremely unlikely that a god would resurrect a false prophet (recall, for example, the passage from Deuteronomy above). In any case, it would have been interesting to see how William Lane Craig would have responded if Bart Ehrman brought up this point in their debate on the resurrection of Jesus (Ehrman himself is a proponent of the "eschatological prophet" account of Jesus. See his book, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millenium (OUP, 1999)). See also Dale Allison's Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian ProphetE.P. Sanders' The Historical Figure of JesusPaula Fredriksen's From Jesus to ChristFredriksen's Jesus of Nazareth, King of the JewsGeza Vermes' The Changing Faces of Jesus, and of course Albert Schweitzer's classic The Quest of the Historical Jesus.

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Monday, October 22, 2007

Arguments From Consciousness for God's Existence

A number of contemporary Christian philosophers think there's a good argument for God in the phenomenon of consciousness, including Richard Swinburne, Robert M. Adams, J.P. Moreland, and Victor Reppert. There are at least two forms of the argument.

The first argument postulates God's activity as the best explanation for why our concious states are correlated in a lawlike way with certain brain states. Thus, it's utterly mysterious why one set of brain states actualizes experiences of, say, the color red, rather than some other set of brain states, if God doesn't exist. For if the natural world is all there is, then the conscious states of the color red are indentical to or otherwise reducible to physical states in the brain. But if so, then there should be no mystery: just like any other scientific phenomenon in the physical world, once you know the physical basis of phenomenon, there is no residual mystery why *that* physical state gives rise to *this* phenomenon. E.g., once you hear the scientific story of heat as molecular motion, it's no longer mysterious how heat, as opposed to, say, cold, is caused by molecular motion. Not so with our experience of red. For once you hear the scientific story about c-fibers firing in the brain, there's *still* a residual mysteriousness as to why *that* brain state gives rise to *this* experience of red. Therefore, if the lawlike correlation between brain states and conscious states is to have an explanation, it must be in terms of something beyond the natural world. And God is the best explanation. The idea is that God creates the lawlike correlations, and if he felt like it, he could've correlated the different brain states with our experience of, say, red. Call this 'The Correlation Argument'.

The second argument postulates God as the best explanation for the mere existence of consciousness. This argument has various forms: some try to argue that we have immaterial souls that can survive the death of our bodies (at least in principle), and posit God as the best explanation of the existence of souls (where else could they come from? The Big Bang? Evolution?). But a weaker version brackets the question of whether we have souls that can survive the death of our bodies, and just focuses on the fact that consciousness is extremely difficult to make sense of if the natural world is all there is. For consciousness has properties that don't seem reducible to the properties of physical objects. Therefore, since conciousness can't be accounted for purely in terms of the physical world, it must have a cause in terms of something beyond it, and the best candidate for such a cause is a god. Call this 'The Soul-Stuff Argument".

In effect, both arguments have the following five-step strategy. In Step One, they tell the naturalist that the kinds of entities in their ontology are limited, of necessity, to very few, and only have a limited set of properties (viz., the entities describable by the language of chemistry and physics). In Step Two, they point out that they must therefore explain all phenomena in the universe in terms of just those entities. In Step Three, they argue that certain phenomena (e.g., consciousness, the correlation between certain conscious states and certain brain states) can't be explained in terms of just those entities alone. In Step Four, they assert that theism is the only plausible view that has an ontology that's adequate to explain those phenomena. And in Step Five, they invite you to conclude that theism is true.

I think these arguments are both flawed, and that the flaw in each occurs at Step One, i.e., that the kinds of entities in the naturalist's ontology are necessarily limited to those describable in the language of chemistry and physics. This is because there is no good reason why the naturalist must accept the miminalist ontology foisted upon him by the theist. And if not, then the options for the naturalist aren't "(i) shoehorn all phenomena into a limited ontology of fundamental entities described by chemistry and physics or (ii) believe in gods and souls and become a theist." For there is a sensible third option, viz., (iii)* postulate more entities in your basic ontology*. Let me elaborate on this reply.

Recall the different versions of naturalism discussed in a previous post. Thus, there is Conservative Naturalism, which claims that the natural world can be exhaustively defined in terms of the language of contemporary chemistry and physics (or some revised account of chemistry and physics not too dissimilar from their current construals). By contrast, Moderate Naturalism allows abstract objects to be a part of the ontology of the natural world, and Liberal Naturalism goes further to include not only abstract objects, but further attributes of concrete objects that allow non-physical properties to be a part of their essence.

In light of this account of the varieties of naturalism, we can state the underlying dubious assumption in both The Correlation Argument and the Soul-Stuff Argument: both assume that Naturalism entaills Conservative Naturalism. That is, both arguments assume that if certain aspects of conciousness can't be accounted for in terms of the language of contemporary chemistry and physics, then we need to bring in such exotica as immaterial substances, such as souls and God (who, after all, is supposed to be just a "great big" unembodied soul).

The reason why this is a dubious assumption is because Naturalism *doesn't* entail Conservative Naturalism. But if not, then we have more options on the table before positing God if it turns out that some aspects of consciousness can't be accounted for in terms of the world described by the language of chemistry and physics. Thus, instead of the following false dichotomy of options implied by the Arguments From Consciousness:

CN: the world is composed of all and only things exhaustively desribed by the language of chemistry and physics.

T: the world is composed of two kinds of substances: purely phsyical substances and purely immaterial substances, and these two sorts of substances are distinct entities.

There are really three that are relevant:

CN: the world is composed of all and only things exhaustively desribed by the language of chemistry and physics.

LN: the world is composed of just one kind of substance, and its essence has both physical and phenomenological or protophenomenal (or at least representational or protorepresentational) attributes (an alternative version of LN: the one kind of substance is neither physical nor mental, but but the physical and mental are composed of it).

T: the world is composed of two kinds of substances: purely phsyical substances and purely immaterial, mental substances (conscious minds), and these two sorts of substances are distinct entities.

But if so, then before the theist can infer God and immaterial substances as the best explanation of conciousness, he must not only rule out CN (Conservative Naturalism), but he must *also* rule out LN (Liberal Naturalism). And this he hasn't done. But if not, then since both versions of the Argument From Consciousness only rule out CN (at most) before inferring T, both are unsound.

Now I know you're thinking that LN is a weird view. But the problem is that Theism is *at least* as weird as LN. But if so, then it seems that the Christian philopher is in trouble. For it seems that he'll never be able to say why we should prefer T to LN. For *LN explains consciousness at least as well as T*. To see this, let's see how each of the two arguments from consciousness fare in light of replies from the standpoint of LN:

I. The LN-based reply to the Soul-Stuff Argument: LN allows that the features of experience are not reducible to the *physical* aspects of natural objects, yet they are nonetheless reducible to the *phenomenal* (or perhaps protophenomenal) aspects of natural objects, and the latter are just as essential and basic to natural objects as the physical aspects. Thus, consciousness *is* reducible to the basic properties of natural objects postulated by Liberal Naturalists. But if so, then the key premise of The Soul-Stuff Argument is undercut.

II. The LN-based reply to the Correlation Argument: According to some versions of LN, such as Spinoza's version -- or more recently, David Chalmers' version -- natural objects have both physical and protophenomenal attributes as a part of their essence. Furthermore, the protophenomenal attributes are inherently representational, and they accurately represent the physical attributes. Think of the fundamental stuff of the universe as information. Now information can be expressed in physical form or phenomenal (or protophenomenal) form; indeed, perhaps each form is just a different side of the same coin. if so, then it's *not* mysterious why certain brain states are correlated to certain phenomenal states in a lawlike way -- if the latter is just a sort of "mirror" of the former, then it couldn't have been otherwise! if so, then LN explains the correlation between the physical and the mental, in which case the key premise of The Correlation Argument is undercut.

If what I have said above is on track, then *even if you grant* that the phenomena highlighted by the Arguments From Consciousness, these points, by themselves, don't yet give you an argument that points to God as the best explanation. Let me belabor the point a little bit more. Suppose we treat the phenomena of the Arguments From Consciousness as data, and LN and T as hypotheses attempting to explain the data. Thus, suppose we have:

Data:

D: The phenomena of (i) the mere *existence* of consciousness, and (ii) the apparently contingent yet lawlike *correlation* between conscious states of one type and brain states of another type.

Hypotheses:

CN: the world is composed of all and only things exhaustively desribed by the language of chemistry and physics.

LN: the world is composed of just one kind of substance, and its essence has both physical and phenomenological or protophenomenal (or at least representational or protorepresentational) attributes (an alternative version of LN: the one kind of substance is neither physical nor mental, but but the physical and mental are composed out of it).

T: the world is composed of two kinds of substances: purely phsyical substances and purely immaterial, mental substances (conscious minds), and these two sorts of substances are distinct entities.

Now the problem is that even if you think that P(CN/D) is extremely low, you don't *thereby* have reason to think that P(T/D) is greater than 1/2. For since you would expect D if LN were true about just as much as you would expect D if T were true, it looks as though T and LN are roughly equally probable, if all the evidence we have is D; that is, P(LN/D) = P(T/D). But if so, then the Arguments from Consciousness, whether individually or collectively, don't make theism more likely than not.

Thus, it appears that LN should be a real headache for theists. For LN explains the phenomena highlighted by both formulations of the argument from conciousness at least as well as T. Therefore, even if LN is weird it's *no weirder* than theism, and its view of the mind as a distinct immaterial substance that interacts with the brain. Indeed, the fact that LN doesn't suffer from the interaction problem that plagues substance dualist accounts of the mind (not to mention the hypothesis that God -- an immaterial substance -- interacts with the world) seems to give it a slight *advantage* over theism in explaining the phenomena in question. But if so, then the arguments from consiousness don't give us sufficient reason to accept T -- LN stands as a nasty obstacle between CN and T. And if that's right, then the prospects for a successful argument for God from consciousness looks pretty bleak.

To sum up: Arguments From Consciousness point to the existence of consciousness and/or its contingent yet lawlike correlation with certain brain states as a problem for naturalists. Their strategy is to get you to accept a very minimal ontology, and then say that if you can't shoehorn everything into it, then the only way out is to become a theist. Many naturalists attempt to tackle the argument head-on, accepting the costraints of explaining everything (including consciousness) in terms of this limited ontology, but then arguing that they can do so. My strategy is different and easier: just *broaden your ontology*, so that there are more fundamental properties to get the explanatory work done.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Some Thoughts About the Argument From Reason

Just in case you're interested: I recently had an enjoyable discussion at Victor Reppert's "Dangerous Idea2" blog with a philosopher (and a nice guy!) named Alan Rhoda (UNLV) on The Argument From Reason. Here's the link.

I'm still thinking about the argument. Let me know what you think (and please point out my blunders!)

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Some Varieties of Naturalism

There are several versions of naturalism. Naturalists share in common the view that the natural world is all there is -- there is no supernatural realm of spiritual beings. However, naturalists differ in how they define 'the natural world'. Now there are at least three broad ways of characterizing "the natural world", and so there are at least three kinds of naturalists -- let's call them 'Conservatives', 'Moderates', and 'Liberals'.

Conservative naturalists are straight physicalists -- nothing exists but the physical, and the physical is characterized by all and only the properties listed in physics and chemistry textbooks.

Moderate naturalists differ from Conservative naturalists, in that they expand their conception of natural world so as to include abstracta (e.g., propositions, properties, possible worlds, etc.). Recent proponents include Tyler Burge, Jeff King, W.V.O. Quine, Roderick Chisholm, and Kit Fine.

Finally, Liberal naturalists differ from Moderates and Conservatives, in that they admit into their ontology of the natural world the abstracta of the Moderates, but they also allow for a conception of concreta according to which they have more properties and powers than the Conservatives and Moderates allow. Thus, perhaps they're straight Spinozists, or type-F monists, or panprotopsychists, etc. Liberal naturalists include Benedict Spinoza, Bertrand Russell, Galen Strawson, Donald Davidson, Thomas Nagel, David Chalmers, Daniel Stoljar, and Derk Pereboom.

In light of this sketch of the varieties of naturalism, we see that from the fact that one is a naturalist, it doesn't follow that one is averse to entities that don't belong to the ontology of Conservative naturalism. To put it differently: naturalism doesn't entail Conservative naturalism.

A Quick Thought About Universals

Sometimes there is, I think, a resistance to Platonism about abstract objects. Here's my hunch about the cause of resistance: only substances can exist independently of other entities, such as physical objects, and perhaps immaterial substances, such as souls, if such there be. But abstract entities aren't substances; therefore, they can't exist independently of other things. But Platonism entails that they *can* exist indepedently of susbtances; therefore, Platonism is false.

I think this line of reasoning is flawed. To see this, consider the following distinction. It's a truism that everything exists. However, not everything that exists is instantiated. So, for example, the property of being a Wal*Mart one cubic foot larger than any currently existing Wal*Mart is a property that *exists*, and yet it isn't *instantiated* anywhere. Lots and lots of properties exist that aren't instantiated; in fact, many properties *can't* be instantiated (e.g., being a married bachelor). Others are actually yet contingently instantiated (e.g., the property of being the President of the United States), and some are necessarily instantiated (e.g., the second-order property of being a property is necessarily instantiated by all properties). Thus, there's a distinction between existing and being instantiated. Many things both exist and are instantiated; many others exist and are not.

In light of this distinction, I think I can put my finger on the mistake in the line of reasoning underwriting the anti-Platonistic intuition of many: they plausibly think that:

1. No property can be *instantiated* without an ontologically prior substance in which to inhere.

and conflate that with the claim that:

2. No property can *exist* without an ontologically prior substance in which to inhere.

Unfortunately, while (1) is at least plausible (although notice that it's false: recall the example of the second-order property of being a property: it's instantiated, and yet by another *property* -- not a *substance*), (2) seems outrageous.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Does Naturalism Entail Materialism?

Suppose you're a non-theist of the thoroughly secular sort: not only is there no theistic god, but neither is there a deistic god; nor are there any finite gods or a world spirit, or anything of that sort. There is just the natural world. Must you thereby be a materialist? That is, must you believe that everything is composed of matter in the old-fashioned sense? To put it more formally, consider the following strict conditional, which I shall call 'Naturalism Entails Materialism' (NEM for short):

(NEM) Necessarily, If naturalism is true, then materialism is true.

Now my question is this: is NEM true? If it is, then this isn't obvious. I've argued in a previous post that naturalism is compatible with the existence of abstract objects. That is, naturalism is compatible with the existence of immaterial, necessarily existent, non-spatiotemporal entities (I also argued that traditional theism is *incompatible* with the existence of abstract objects in that previous post). For naturalism is only committed to explaining things *that need explaining* in terms of the natural world. But if abstracta are necessarily existent, then they need no explanation. Thus, since naturalism is compatible with the existence of abstract objects, then since such a view is incompatible with materialism, we *already* have a sufficient reason to reject (NEM).

However, I want to argue here that (NEM) is false for reasons independent of this. For naturalism doesn't entail that the ordinary spatiotemporal world of visible objects is wholly "physical" in some crude sense. For naturalism is compatible with the view that ordinary substance has an immaterial aspect as a part of its essence. Read Spinoza and Bertrand Russell, for example. Or, more recently, read Daniel Stoljar and David Chalmers. According to past and contemporary philosophers such as these, matter may well be different from what we imagine. For example, think of material substance as having, *as part of its essence*, *both* material *and* immaterial attributes. Or think of substance as being, at the most fundamental level, *neither* mental *nor* material, but the stuff out of which both matter and mind are *derived*. If these views are coherent and plausible (and I think at least a few of them are), then we have more reason to think that (NEM) isn't a necessary truth.

Ok, but what's the big deal? This. It's common for Christian apologists to say that if one is an atheist, then one must be a naturalist, and that if one is a naturalist, then one must be a materialist (in the sense that the material objects, and the properties of them studied by the sciences, are all there is). And if this is so, then it's very hard, if not impossible, to account of the existence of a number of things. For example, abstract objects and consciousness. Now as I've argued in the previous post mentioned earlier, it's not true that a naturalist can't account for abstract objects (or more carefully, we don't *need* to account for them, if by "account" one means "explain". For abstract objects are necessary existents, and as such, they don't *need* an explanation in terms of something beyond them).

But in light of the present post, we see that it's much, much easier to account for consciousness as well. For while it may be very difficult to account for consciousness in terms of our ordinary conception of matter and its properties, if *any* theory like the sorts mentioned above is coherent, then one can say that the fundamental features of natural objects have what it takes to give rise to consciousness, as proto-mental facts are *basic* features of natural objects. In fact, such theories make it easier to account for the interaction between mind and body than substance dualist theories typically espoused by Christians. For unlike the latter view, the former sorts of views don't have two fundamentally different sorts of substance trying to interact. Rather, you have both material and "mental" aspects inhering in a *single* kind of substance.


Thus, being a naturalist does not thereby commit one to being a materialist. For on the sorts of theories of substance mentioned here, it's *true* that the *natural* world is all there is, but it's *false* that the *material* world is all there is. But if so, then in addition to the argument in my previous post about the compatibility of naturalism and the existence of abstract objects, we have yet another reason to think that (NEM) is false.

In light of this post and the previous, it is I hope very clear that Christian apologists have their work cut out for them. It will not do to just point to certain sorts of phenomena -- such as abstracta or consciousness -- and say that these are difficult or impossible to account for on a materialistic account of the world. For a naturalist can *grant* all of this, at least for the sake of argument, without batting an eye. For again, as we've just seen, naturalism isn't wed to materialism. Materialism may or may not be sufficient to explain all the phenomena that needs explaining (the jury is still out on that one). But the theist assumes that if it is *not* sufficient, then we should add to our ontology of material substance a god or two to get the explanatory work done. But what *I'm* saying is that there is a less radical and more economical response to such a situation: instead of *adding* a new kind of substance to our ontology, why not merely *modify* our *existing* theory of substance so that it *is* sufficient?

This completes my posting on the relationship between non-theism, naturalism, and materialism. The moral is that Christian apologists are aiming at the wrong target: they need to take aim at *naturalism*, not *materialism*. Unfortunately, naturalism is a tougher explanatory ship to sink, as it has a vastly larger warehouse of conceptual resources to draw from.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Sunday, September 02, 2007

The Very Best Debate on Theism is Now Occuring Online

Here. I'm not talking about a circus-show, low-brow debate of the sort William Lane Craig regularly engages in (replete with rhetoric, cheap debating tricks, and showmanship). Rather, I'm talking about a *real* debate between top philosophers on both sides of the fence. It's somewhat difficult to follow if you don't have a background in philosophy, but it's nonetheless accessible if you're willing to think hard, read the footnotes, and exercise patience in following the arguments. I promise you it'll be worth it!

Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Real News

This is off the topic of the primary aims of this blog, but I feel that this is too important to leave unmentioned. There is a worldwide movement to get *real news* back on the air. The site is called just that, 'Real News'. Please take a look at it here

Please visit the site, look around, and tell everyone you know about it. Please post a link on your blog for the site, if you are so inclined.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Notes on Ch. 6 of Rowe's Philosophy of Religion Text: "Faith and Reason"

Notes on Rowe, Ch. 6 – “Faith and Reason”

0. Preliminaries:
0.1 So far, we’ve focused our discussion on the issue of whether there is a rational basis for belief in the god of classical theism.
0.2 This discussion has presupposed two ideas
0.1.1 religious beliefs should be evaluated “in the court of reason”
0.1.2 religious beliefs will find favor in this “court” only if they are supported by sufficient evidence
0.3 But a number of people have criticized these two assumptions
0.3.1 against the first assumption: religious beliefs should be accepted by faith, and not by reason
0.3.1.1Faith must be (a) a free choice, and (b) one that requires unconditional acceptance and commitment
0.1.3.2 But if faith were based on reason, then it would be either based on evidence that proves the truth of the relevant religion, or evidence that makes it probable.
0.1.3.3 if faith were based on evidence that proves the truth of the religion, then we are no longer free to accept or reject that religion (since proofs rationally compel belief)
0.1.3.4 On the other hand, if faith were based on an argument that makes the truth of the religion probable, then unconditional acceptance of and commitment to that religion would be ridiculous.
0.1.3.5 therefore, either way, faith shouldn’t be based on reason.
0.3.2 against the second assumption: some beliefs are rational without argument
0.4 These points reveal the need to explore the relationship between faith and reason:
0.4.1 we need to explore the nature of faith to see whether it’s a rationally acceptable basis for a religious form of theism
0.4.2 we need to explore whether theism is among the beliefs that are rational without argument
1. Exploring the First Question: The Nature of Faith, and its Relationship to Reason
1.1 Aquinas’ account
1.1.1 Faith is the cognitive state between knowledge and opinion
1.1.1.1 Knowledge is a firm and sure cognitive state of assent to a belief that’s compelled by the evidence, and therefore isn’t free.
1.1.1.2 Opinion is a less-than-firm cognitive state of assent to a belief that’s not compelled by the evidence, and is therefore free
1.1.1.3 Faith is a firm and sure cognitive state of assent to a belief that’s not compelled by the evidence, and is therefore free. 1.1.2 two categories of divine truth: those that are demonstrable by reason, and those that aren’t
1.1.2.1 Truths about the divine demonstrable by reason
1.1.2.1.1 that God exists
1.1.2.1.2 that God created the world
1.1.2.1.3 that God is good
1.1.2.1.4 etc.
1.1.2.2 Truths about the divine not demonstrable by reason: (include) beliefs required for salvation
1.1.2.2 this allows saving faith to be free and worthy of merit
1.1.2.2.1 and this, in turn, makes it appropriate for God to reward faith
1.1.3 as it turns out, however, most religious believers have to accept by faith the divine truths demonstrable by reason
1.1.3.1 most people don’t have the time and training required to study and learn the arguments for these truths
1.1.3.2 and even if they did, most of them don’t have the ability required to grasp these arguments
1.1.3.3 however, those who learn of these truths by reason cannot accept them by faith, and are thus not freely assented to by such people
1.1.4 although faith is different from reason, faith requires reason
1.1.4.1 faith should only assent to propositions revealed by God
1.1.4.2 but how do we tell whether such a proposition is a part of God’s revelation?
1.1.4.3 this is where reason comes in. Reason guides faith by determining which truths have been revealed by God
1.1.4.4 careful! Reason can’t show that such propositions are true.
1.1.4.5 rather, it can only indicate that such propositions are revealed by God
1.1.4.6 and reason can’t prove that they’re revealed by God; rather, they can only show that this with some degree of probability (thus leaving room for free will to assent to them). Arguments for revelation include:
1.1.4.6.1 arguments based on fulfilled prophecy
1.1.4.6.2 the argument from the success of the Church
1.1.4.6.3 the argument from miracles
1.1.5 in the afterlife, all divine truths will be the object of knowledge, and not faith
1.1.6 Criticisms:
1.1.4.1 Can reason really demonstrate God’s existence? (Think of the arguments for theism we’ve considered, and the criticisms of them.)
1.1.4.2 it makes faith dependent upon whether reason can indicate that a religious text is from God. (This seems all the more troubling if reason can’t first demonstrate whether a god exists at all)
1.2 Clifford’s account
1.2.1 Clifford’s Thesis: “It’s wrong, always, everywhere, and for everyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”
1.2.2 the case for Clifford’s Thesis: the Shipowner illustration:
1.2.2.1 a ship-owner talked himself into believing that his ship was seaworthy without sufficient evidence
1.2.2.2 unfortunately, the ship sunk, and all of those on the ship drowned.
1.2.2.3 the ship-owner was blameworthy for his belief
1.2.2.4 we would still think he was blameworthy even if the ship didn’t sink, since his guilt is due to the way he formed his belief, and not its consequences
1.2.3 Criticism of the Shipowner illustration
1.2.3.1 the case doesn’t show that it’s wrong to believe without sufficient evidence
1.2.3.2 rather, it only shows that it’s wrong to act on beliefs that lack sufficient evidence.
1.2.4 Clifford’s first reply:
1.2.4.1 the criticism falsely assumes that it’s possible to compartmentalize belief so as to prevent its consequences in action
1.2.4.2 but it’s not possible; beliefs are intimately tied to our actions, and thus inevitably influence them
1.2.5 Clifford’s second reply:
1.2.5.1 belief without evidence also has indirect effects that are harmful
1.2.5.2 they make the believer credulous, and susceptible to deception and other types of harm
1.2.5.3 by putting up with unsupported claims, one contributes to a lack of intellectual standards in one’s community, reverting back to a regressive state of superstition, savagery and primitivism that took humans millennia to overcome
1.2.6 Therefore, ethically permissible belief/faith must be based on reason, where this is spelled out in terms of sufficient evidence
1.2.7 criticisms: see James’ argument for his own view below
1.3 James’ account:
1.3.1 Setup: reason, the passions, and belief
1.3.1.1 James thinks that there are two causes of belief: reason and the passions
1.3.1.1.1 reason evaluates the evidence for and against a proposition, and directs the will either to believe, disbelieve, or suspend judgment, in conformity with the evidence
1.3.1.1.2 the passions = everything else that can lead us to believe or disbelieve something (e.g., desires and preferences)
1.3.1.2 traditionally, philosophers have argued that one should suppress the passions and listen to reason alone when it comes to belief
1.3.1.3 Clifford is clearly within this tradition
1.3.1.4 James agrees with it up to a point, viz., when it comes to beliefs for which the evidence points one way or the other
1.3.1.5 however, he disagrees when it comes to beliefs for which the evidence doesn’t point one way or the other (plus some other qualifications, to be spelled out below)
1.3.2 choosing to believe an option is permissible without sufficient evidence iff it’s undecidable, live, momentous, and forced
1.3.2.1 a proposition is undecidable if the evidence for the proposition is either counterbalanced, or there is just no known relevant evidence either way (if there is at least just a little more evidence for one side of the debate than there is for the other side, then it’s decidable)
1.3.2.2 a choice to believe is live for someone if both hypotheses are appealing and are seen by them as real possibilities for their life (if not, the choice is dead to you)
1.3.2.3 a choice to believe is momentous if your decision isn’t easily reversible, something of importance depends on whether you make the right choice, and you may not have a chance to choose again at a later time (if not, the choice is trivial)
1.3.2.4 a choice to believe is forced if suspending judgment has the same consequences of choosing to disbelieve it (if not, the choice is avoidable
1.3.3 Careful!
1.3.3.1 James agrees with Clifford that it’s never permissible to believe something if there is evidence against the proposition, and no good evidence for it.
1.3.3.2 also, he thinks it’s impermissible to believe an undecidable proposition if it’s dead, trivial, or avoidable
1.3.4 Applying the theory of permissible belief to religious belief
1.3.4.1 Undecidable?
1.3.4.1.1 Many theists think it is decidable, and in favor of theism
1.3.4.1.2 many atheists think it is decidable, and in favor of atheism
1.3.4.1.3 if either of these two camps is right, then James’ theory doesn’t apply – it can’t be used as a basis for theistic belief
1.3.4.1.4 however, the agnostics may well be right that the evidence is too ambiguous to indicate a conclusion about theism either way
1.3.4.2 Live?
1.3.4.2.1 many in the West feel that religious forms of theism (e.g., Christianity) are live options to them – not ruled out by the evidence, and they could see a religious life as a real possibility for them
1.3.4.2.2 the same goes for atheism
1.3.4.2.3 thus, for such people, religious forms of theism are live options
1.3.4.3 Momentous?
1.3.4.3.1 if religious forms of theism offer great and unique benefits even if it’s false, then religious theistic belief is momentous
1.3.4.3.2 on the other hand, it’s less clear that theistic religious belief is momentous in the other two senses
1.3.4.3.2.1 do you really have just one chance to accept it?
1.3.4.3.2.2 are initial decisions really irreversible once you make them?
1.3.4.4 Forced?
1.3.4.4.1 if its unique benefits only exist if religious theism is true, then it’s not forced in James’ sense
1.3.4.4.2 for if theism is false, then there are no great goods to be lost and horrible suffering to be endured if we either reject it or suspend judgment
1.3.4.3.3 still, we can modify his account to allow for this conditional kind of a forced option
1.3.5 James’ argument for the permissibility of religious belief
1.3.5.1 There are three possible belief policies one can adopt with respect to theism:
1.3.5.1.1 the theist: risking error for a chance at truth and a vital good
1.3.5.1.2 the agnostic: risking a loss of truth and a loss of a vital good for the certainty of avoiding error
1.3.5.1.3 the atheist: risking error and the loss of a vital good for a chance at truth
1.3.5.2 But all three policies are undecidable, and choosing one of the policies is live, momentous, and forced
1.3.5.2.1 Clifford’s mistake was to think that the agnostic’s policy is the only rational option
1.3.5.2.2 but we’ve just seen that each option is on a par with the others
1.3.5.3 Therefore, although there is no duty to choose to believe, one is in one’s rights in doing so, if one so chooses (key quotes, p. 103)
1.3.6 Rowe’s criticisms:
1.3.6.1 it seems that choosing among the three belief policies is decidable on rational grounds. Indeed, James himself appears to be offering reasons for preferring the theistic belief policy
1.3.6.2 James mischaracterizes Clifford’s agnosticism -- Clifford does offer reasons to prefer the agnostic’s policy
1.3.6.2.1 it can lead to harmful actions to oneself or others
1.3.6.2.2 it can weaken the precious yet fragile individual and social habit of demanding evidence for beliefs, which, if lost, can lead back to a descent into the age of superstition and savagery
1.3.6.3 so, if James is to vindicate his account of permissible yet rationally groundless belief, he must show either that (a) such belief won’t weaken the habit, or (b) that the risk of weakening the habit is outweighed by the possible good from theistic belief

2. Exploring the Second Question: Can Theism Be Rational Without Argument?
2.1 Plantinga’s account
2.1.1 setup:
2.1.1.1 the need for basic beliefs: the Regress Argument
2.1.1.2 non-basic vs. basic beliefs
2.1.1.2.1 non-basic beliefs are beliefs based on arguments
2.1.1.2.2 basic beliefs are believed without being based on propositional evidence; rather, they’re occasioned by certain sorts of “belief-triggering” experiences
2.1.1.3 improper vs. properly basic beliefs
2.1.1.3.1 an improperly basic belief isn’t produced by triggering-conditions that would make the belief appropriate
2.1.1.3.2 a properly basic belief is produced by triggering-conditions that would make the belief appropriate
2.1.1.4 examples of properly basic beliefs: that there are other minds, that material objects exist, and that there is a past
2.1.1.5 why Plantinga says that properly basic beliefs are rational “without evidence or argument”: because he construes evidence and argument as propositional evidence, as opposed to (for example) evidence provided by being directly aware of something
2.1.1.6 just because a belief is properly basic, it doesn’t mean that it’s immune from criticism; it can be neutralized or rebutted by defeaters (recall our discussion of religious experience)
2.1.2 Plantinga’s thesis: belief in God is properly basic
2.1.2.1 Plantinga grants that religious experiences count as properly basic theistic beliefs
2.1.2.2 however, he also thinks that there is a much wider range of triggering-conditions for properly basic theistic belief
2.1.2.2.1 reading the Bible and thereby believing that God is talking to you through it
2.1.2.2.2 looking at the starry night sky and thereby believing that “God made all of this”
2.1.2.2.3 having a sense of guilt and thereby believing that “God disapproves of what I’ve done”
2.1.2.2.4 etc.
2.1.2.3 again, like other properly basic beliefs, theistic basic beliefs are open to defeat in principle; however, they are rational unless or until such defeaters are given
2.2 Rowe’s assessment of Plantinga’s account
2.2.1 clearly there are cases in which belief in God is properly basic, e.g., a child raised in a community of devout believers who are constantly told by them that God is good, looks out for their needs, etc.
2.2.2 however belief in God is not properly basic for sophisticated Western theists; for they are aware of a number of defeaters to theistic belief that knock it out of its properly basic status (e.g., the problem of evil, religious diversity, contemporary psychological explanations for religious belief, the success of the sciences to explain natural phenomena, etc.)
2.2.3 Plantinga’s examples of “widely realized” triggering-conditions for theistic belief might render such belief properly basic, but no more so than the “widely realized” triggering-conditions for properly basic belief in Santa Claus (cf. his example of the 14-year old theist in a community of believers)
2.2.4 Plantinga must explain why, given his thesis about the wide variety of triggering-conditions for theistic belief, there are so many people who never achieve properly basic belief in a theistic God – and why many have properly basic belief in non-theistic divine beings

Some Misgivings About Plantinga's Reformed Epistemology

The main thesis of Alvin Plantinga's Reformed Epistemology is that belief in God is, or can be, properly basic; that is, it can be reasonable to believe in a god without any propositional evidence or arguments whatsoever. His Reformed Epistemology comes in two forms: Old School (the version he developed and defendend from the end of the 70s to the late 80s/early 90s) and New School (the version he developed and defended from the early 90s to the present).

To understand the difference between Plantinga's Old School and his New School Reformed Epistemology, we must first point out a distinction between two competing accounts of knowledge and justification: internalism and externalism. Very rougly (VERY roughly -- there are a gazillion versions of internalism and externalism out there now, and there a lots of subtle distinctions regarding them; my characterization here runs roughshod over them), internalism is the view that the factors that render a belief known or justified are internal to a person, in that such factors are mental states, such as reasons and evidence. By constrast, externalist theories assert that the factors that render a belief known or justified are at least partly external to the agent. For example, on one common view of externalism, at least part of what it is to know or justifiedly believe something is for it to be *caused* in the right way. But often, if not always, the relevant causal chain is at least partly located outside the person, in the surrounding environment. For example, if I know that a tree is in front of me, my knowledge is at least partly constituted by the fact that I'm standing in front of a tree, and the tree is causing my perceptual experience of it. And since the tree and the causal chain between us are outside of me, I can't know whether the belief is justified just by reflecting on my evidence.

I must emphasize a crucial implication of externalist theories of knowledge and justification: ***they entail that one can know or be justified in believing something without knowing *that* one knows or is justified in believing it.*** So, for example, if my belief that I see a tree in front of me is caused in the right way, then I *know* that I see a tree in front of me, even if I couldn't give you an argument to save my life that would prove that my belief wasn't caused by a hallucination, or an evil demon, or the Matrix, or whatever. This point will play a crucial role in Plantiga's defense of belief in God on New School verson of Reformed Epistemology.

In light of this distinction, we can make sense of Plantinga's Old School and New School versions of his Reformed Epistemology: his Old School version was based on an internalist theory, and his New School version is based on an externalist theory.

For an explication and defense of his internalist, Old School version, see my previous post. Here I will just point out a popular objection to it, known as "the Great Pumpkin Objection". Recall that according to the Old School version, a belief is properly basic if it's formed in the right way. What's the right way? Answer: it's formed in accordance with the criteria of proper basicality generated by your community. Now according to the Great Pumpkin objection, if belief in God is properly basic in virtue of it being formed according to a theistic community's criteria of proper basicality, then this is a game that any community can play: Wiccans, Flat-Earthers (and people who believe that the Great Pumpkin returns to the pumpkin patch every year), etc. may come up with other criteria of proper basicality that conflict with those of Christians, and thus have properly basic beliefs that conflict with theirs as a result. But, so the objection goes, this is absurd; rationality isn't relative from one community to another, at least not to this degree. Further, and relatedly, the cost of rendering belief in God rational on this account is too great; for it entails that it can be equally rational to be an atheist if one belongs to a community of atheists who form basic beliefs according to *their* criteria of proper basicality. For there just are no objective, community-independent criteria of proper basicality by which one could judge one community rational in their beliefs, and another irrational. Thus, according to the Great Pumpkin Objection, Plantinga's epistemology entails a nasty arbitrariness as to what sorts of beliefs can count as properly basic (i,.e., rational yet non-propositionally supported), and (due to their belief that non-believers are "without excuse" for their unbelief, due to the supposed obviousness of theism) this should be seen as unacceptable by Christians no less than non-Christians.

But Plantinga has an at least prima facie plausible reply to this objection. The basic idea is that Plantinga's account doesn't entail that just any old belief, or class of beliefs, can count as properly basic, for:

(i) The beliefs must have the right sorts of non-propositional/causal grounds, viz., an appropriate set of triggering-conditions (Plantinga asserts that the triggering-conditions for theistic belief are "widely-realized", but he mentions some of them, such as, e.g., looking up in the starry sky, which triggers the belief that "God made all of this"; having a contrite, repentant heart, which triggers the belief that "God forgives me for what I've done", etc.) Thus, since beliefs that lack such causal triggering-conditions can't count as properly basic, it's simply not true that Old School Reformed Epistemology entails that just any old belief can count as properly basic. Here, then, is one principled way to differentiate proper from improperly basic beliefs.

Futher,

(ii) Epistemic communities generate criteria of proper basicaliy in the way that Chisholmian particularists do, viz., thinking about particular beliefs and whether they strike one as rational, and then, on this basis, framing hypotheses on as to which classes of beliefs are properly basic and which are not, etc. (See my previous post for how criteria for proper basicality are generated according to Chisholmian particularists like Plantinga). And while it's true that different epistemic communities may well generate different critieria of proper basicality, and thus may countenance a different set of beliefs as properly basic, that's just life in philosophy: philosophers hardly agree about anything, including which sorts of beliefs are rational and irrational. At any rate, each community is responsible to their own criteria of proper basicality, and so the christian will have a principled basis for not countenancing the atheist's beliefs as properly basic. Rather, they'll reject it on the grounds that it doesn't satisfy *their* community's particularistically-generated criteria of proper basicality, which in turn were generated in the appropriate Chisholmian particularist way (again, see my previous post for an explication of the way in which particularists do this).

On the basis of these points, Plantinga can remove a good deal of the force of the Great Pumpkin Objection (but see my previous post, where I discuss some remaining nasty problems for Old School Reformed Epistemology by James Sennett).

But this isn't the end of the story. For soon came what's called the "Son of Great Pumpkin" objection, which is that, while it may be that each community has their own criteria of proper basicality, and these have been generated in the proper (broadly Chisholmian particularist) way, this account of proper basicality is *itself* implausible, since it allows for this community-relative rationality. Thus, whether or not a belief can be countenanced as rational by one's epistemic community is cold comfort if such a theory of rational belif entails an implausibly radical form of community-relative rationality.

At that point, Plantinga started changing his epistemology by adding to his internalist account of justified belief an externalist account of knowledge -- or as he calls it 'warrant' (which is, as he puts it, "that quality or quantity, enough of which turns true belief into knowledge"). He developed his externalist theory of warrant in three volumes put out by Oxford University Press: (i) Warrant: The Current Debate (1993), (ii) Warrant and Proper Function (1993), and (iii) Warranted Christian Belief (2000). Roughly, Plantinga's theory of warrant says that a belief is warranted if and only if it is produced by cognitive faculties functioning properly, in accordance with a design plan aimed at truth. Thus, if I form the belief that I see a tree in front of me, then that belief is warranted if my belief was formed by my visual perceptual faculties, those faculties are functioning properly (I wasn't just hit in the head by a brick, I haven't recently taken a hit of acid, etc.), and my perceptual faculties were in turn designed (by God or evolution or both) in such a way that their goal is to get me to form true beliefs (as opposed to, say, survival, or happiness. If my cognitive faculties are *not* aimed at truth, but at one of these other goals, then my cognitive faculties might very well generate lots and lots of *false* beliefs -- and they will do so even when they're functioning *properly*; hence the clause requiring that our cognitive faculties are aimed at truth).

Now clearly this is an externalist theory of warrant. For we can't tell, just by thinking about it, whether our cognitive faculties are functioning properly (at least sometimes, anyway), and we can't tell, just by thinking about it, whether our cognitive faculties are designed in such a way that they aim at producing true beliefs. With this externalist account of warrant, though, Plantinga has found a way to respond to the Great Pumpkin Objection. For although his *internalist* theory of *rationality* and *justification* is still basically the same old one he had from the 80s, and thus still allows for community-relative rationality, his *externalist* theory of *warrant* does not. For in the final wrinkle of his theory of warrant, which is spelled out in Warranted Christian Belief, God -- the Christian God -- is the one who's designed our cognitive faculties, and he has fashioned them according to his own design plan, which is aimed at truth. And among the beliefs he has caused to be triggered under the right circumstances are specifically *Christian* beliefs, such as (what he calls) The Great Truths of the Gospel. Now Plantinga admits that he has no proof or argument to show that the Christian God exists. But -- and this is where the crucial implication of externalism comes in --*it doesn't matter*. For *if* you are a Christian, and *if* the Christian God exists, and *if* God caused you to believe the Great Truths of the Gospel in the externalist way sketched above, then your belief is warranted, even if you have no idea *that* it is. For again, his theory of warrant is an externalist theory, and as such, one can know something without knowing *that* one knows it. All that matters is that your belief was produced by a reliable process or mechanism, whether or not you know that it was.

Thus, Plantinga can respond to the Great Pumpkin Objection as follows: Only externalist theories of warrant are tenable (as he argued ably in his three-volume series on warrant), and externalism about warrant entails that a belief may be warranted as long as it arises from a reliable source, even if one has no idea whether that source *is* reliable. But if so, then as long as, say, your belief in the Great Truths of the Gospel arose from a reliable source, it's warranted. And if it did, and if the basic beliefs of *other* epistemic communities with basic beliefs that *conflict* with these are *not* generated from reliable sources, then *their* basic beliefs are *not* warranted. Now we may not be able to *tell*, via argument, which community, if any has the reliably generated, and thus warranted, basic beliefs. But that doesn't cut any ice one way or the other. All that matters is whether the Christian's basic beliefs *are* generated by a reliable source.

So here's the big picture: there are all of these communities, and they have their own appropriately-generated criteria of properly basic beliefs. And a number of the properly basic beliefs of each community clash with those of the others. But that's okay, because that's the best we can do. Each community thus may well be *rational* and *justified* in the *internalist* sense: they are faithful to form their beliefs according to their community's criteria of rational belief. However, *only one* community, at most, has all of their basic beliefs *caused* in the right way, and thus only one community (at most) has a full set of properly basic beliefs that are *warranted*. In this way, then, he can answer the Son of Great Pumpkin Objection.

Well, that's Plantinga's latest version of Reformed Epistemology, and that's how he responds to some of the most powerful objections to his view of the proper basicality of belief in God. What to make of this?

My own view is that Plantinga's proper function epistemology, upon which his account is based, admits of counterexamples, (and these are well-known in the literature). But at any rate, I'm happy to grant Plantinga all of the points above: re his replies to Great Pumpkin and Son of Great Pumpkin. But that's not very interesting. Plantinga himself admits at the very end of Warranted Christian Belief that he doesn't know, and probably *can't* know (in the internalist sense) whether basic Christian beliefs are generated by a reliable source, and thus can't know (in the internalist sense) whether Christian beliefs formed in this way are warranted. All one can know, at best, is the *conditional* claim that *if* Christianity is true, and thus the beliefs are formed from a reliable source, *then* christian beliefs formed in this way are warranted. And of course, the appropriate response to that is "big deal". The same thing goes for the Muslim and the Zoroastrian or the Jew: if *their* God exists, and he created our cognitive faculties to form beliefs about The Great Truths of (say) the Koran, then *their* beliefs are the warranted, properly basic ones, and not those of the Christian. In fact, we have no way of knowing whether *any* such account is correct.

So in the end, Plantinga has not given us reason to be Christians. He has only given a coherent account of *how it could be* that a Christian could be in their rights, and even warranted in believing in Christianity without propositional evidence.

Friday, July 20, 2007

A Defense of Plantinga's Reformed Epistemology From My Chrstian Days

Here's a paper defending Alvin Plantinga's orginal, epistemically internalist version of reformed epistemology from my first year of grad school.

Plantinga, Sennett, and Reformed Epistemology

In “Reason and Belief in God” (hereafter ‘RBG’), as well as in many other contexts, Alvin Plantinga argues that belief in God is “properly basic” That is, belief in God is rational, or justified, or warranted without being based on propositional evidence. This thesis constitutes the core of what is known as ‘Reformed Epistemology’. Call this thesis ‘RET’. James Sennett, among others, denies RET. For example, in his Modality, Probability, and Rationality, he argues that Plantinga fails to show that it is even epistemically possible that RET is true. In this paper, I will give a sketch of Plantinga’s case for RET, as well as Sennett’s critique of it. Finally, I will argue that although Sennett’s arguments have some force, he ultimately fails to make his case against RET. For he fails to adequately appreciate some features of Plantinga’s epistemology, features that he borrows from the epistemological writings of Roderick Chisholm. Once these features are fully appreciated, it is clear that Sennett’s objections are wide of the mark.


1. Plantinga’s Case for RET

1.1 The inadequacy of Classical Foundationalism
In RBG, Plantinga sets out to demolish the grounds for thinking that belief in God is not properly basic. There, he points out that the grounds for this claim stem from an epistemology he calls ‘Classical Foundationalism’ (hereafter ‘CF’). CF is the view that all known or justifiably believed propositions are either (i) self-evident, incorrigible, or evident to the senses, or (ii) based on (i.e., entailed or sufficiently inductively supported by) propositions of the type mentioned in (i). Now beliefs that satisfy (i) have typically been called ‘foundational beliefs’, and these are among the ones that Plantinga labels ‘properly basic’. But if CF is true, then it would appear that belief in God is not properly basic. For theistic belief doesn’t seem to be self-evident, nor does it appear to be incorrigible or evident to the senses. But if not, then belief in God fails to satisfy the conditions spelled out in (i). So we have good reason to think that if CF is true, then belief in God is not properly basic.

Plantinga has two main objections to CF. First of all, he points out that if it’s true, then it entails the absurdity that a large host of our beliefs that we take to be rationally held, such as the beliefs that there is an external world, that our memories are often reliable, that there is a past, that objects continue to exist when no one is looking at them, etc. (call such beliefs ‘the Commonsense Beliefs’) are in fact irrational, unjustified, or unwarranted. Plantinga doesn’t spell out his reasoning for this conclusion in much detail, but it seems pretty clear what he has in mind. One can suppose the argument for this point has two stages. In the first stage, one would argue that the Commonsense Beliefs aren’t properly basic. For it’s pretty clear that, for example, our belief that the world has existed for more than ten minutes isn’t self-evident: it isn’t certain for one, just on the basis of understanding the meaning of the statement. Furthermore, it’s definitely not an incorrigible belief: it’s not impossible to doubt it in the way that it’s impossible to doubt beliefs about certain kinds of one’s occurrent mental states. Thus, for example, it’s (at least epistemically) possible that the world came into being ten seconds ago, with all of our “memories” created with it. Finally, the belief isn’t evident to the senses, for only things in the present can be evident to the senses. Thus, belief in a past isn’t properly basic. And presumably this line of reasoning can be applied to the other kinds of Commonsense Beliefs mentioned above.

One can imagine that the burden of the second step of the argument is to show that the Commonsense Beliefs aren’t sufficiently based on properly basic beliefs. For recall that according to CF, only perceptual beliefs, beliefs about one’s immediate sense impressions, certain other occurrent mental states (such as what I am feeling or thinking about (or at least what I think I am feeling and thinking about)), and logical and mathematical truths are the only kinds of beliefs that could be properly basic. But then it seems impossible to deduce the commonsense beliefs from the properly basic ones. For example, one can’t deduce the belief that objects continue to exist when one isn’t looking at them from statements about what is evident to the senses. For it seems logically possible that I could have all of the same perceptions of (say) a tree in my back yard, yet it frequently pops in and out of existence while I’m at school. Furthermore, it seems clear that the Commonsense Beliefs can’t be sufficiently inductively supported by properly basic beliefs. Take my belief that I have existed for over five minutes. What properly basic beliefs of mine make it probable that this belief is true? And how are we to interpret probability here? Surely I can’t use the relative frequency interpretation of probability in this case without begging the question. Presumably, similar problems apply to the other Commonsense Beliefs. Therefore, the Commonsense Beliefs aren’t properly basic, nor are they sufficiently based on such beliefs. But if so, then if CF is true, then the commonsense beliefs are irrational and/or unjustified. But surely this is implausible: such beliefs are obviously rational and justified. And since CF is the view that leads to this absurdity, we should reject it.

Second, Plantinga argues that CF is self-refuting. To see this, let’s state the definition of CF more explicitly:

(CF) A belief B is justified for a person S iff B is either (i) self-evident, incorrigible, or evident to the senses, or (ii) based on (i.e., entailed or sufficiently inductively supported by) propositions of the type mentioned in (i).

But then it is clear that CF itself isn’t self-evident, incorrigible, or evident to the senses, nor is it based on propositions that are. Thus, CF is necessarily false, since this is the lot of all self-refuting statements. For these reasons, then, we should reject CF. But CF is the basis for thinking that RET is false. Therefore, the central grounds for rejecting RET are undercut.

1.2 Toward A More Plausible Foundationalism
In the place of CF, Plantinga suggests that we adopt a modified version of foundationalism (hereafter ‘PF’). In RBG, he suggests that we follow Roderick Chisholm in generating the criteria for foundational – or properly basic – beliefs by a sort of inductive process. As Plantinga puts it,

"We must assemble examples of beliefs and conditions such that the former are obviously properly basic in the latter, and examples of beliefs and conditions such that the former are obviously not properly basic in the latter. We must then frame hypotheses as to the necessary and sufficient conditions of proper basicality and test these hypotheses by reference to those examples."

How does it work? Again, Plantinga doesn’t provide much detail, though I think we can spell out what he has in mind. The process can be construed as having several steps. In the first step, one examines one’s beliefs that one takes to be rational. For example, suppose I reflect on the belief that I had a fried egg sandwich for breakfast this morning. Suppose further that, upon reflection, I find that I truly believe this. Finally, suppose that it seems to me that the belief is justified, or rationally held. If so, then one can go on to the second step. In this step, I consider whether I believe this proposition on the basis of other propositions, or whether I believe it in the basic way. As it turns out, I see that the belief is basic for me: I don’t believe it one the basis of other beliefs of mine. I can then go on to the third step. Here, I examine a number of other memory beliefs that seem to be rationally held by me, and I see that they are also held by me in the basic way. I then go on to the fourth step. At this point, I try to surface the kind of circumstances they have in common. For example, I am not on drugs, I’m sufficiently rested and relaxed, etc. Then I have the materials for some preliminary premises in an inductive argument: Belief b1 is justified for S in circumstance c1, belief b2 is justified for S in circumstance c2, etc. From here I go on to the step: I construct the argument that since memory beliefs b1, b2, etc. of k are properly basic in circumstances c1, c2, etc., respectively, then probably all beliefs bi∈B (i.e., all memory beliefs) in all relevant ci∈C (i.e., all relevant circumstances) are
properly basic for me. Thus, we now have our criterion for the proper basicality of memory beliefs, inductively supported by the process of the previous steps: There is a set of circumstances of kind C, and a set of (possible) beliefs of kind B, such that for any person, S, if S forms some bi∈B in some ci∈C. then bi is properly basic for S. One can go on to apply this process to every kind of one’s beliefs, until one has criteria for all basic kinds of beliefs. Using such criteria, one can then sort out all of one’s beliefs into two categories: properly basic and properly based (where properly based beliefs are sufficiently inductively or deductively supported by one’s properly basic beliefs).

Two things should be said about the procedure mentioned above. First of all, it is crucial to notice that PF doesn’t commit one to the absurd view that just any belief can be properly basic. For the beliefs must have the right kind of grounds. To see this, recall that the inductive procedure of forming criteria for proper basicality makes crucial reference to beliefs formed in certain circumstances. These circumstances crucially involve certain kinds of experiences. So, for example, consider my belief that I see a tree in my backyard. This belief isn’t properly basic under just any circumstances. Rather, it is properly basic only if I am in certain kinds of circumstances, e.g., standing in my backyard and attentively looking in a certain direction when there is a certain amount of sunlight, etc. Furthermore, I have to have a perceptual experience of the tree. So if a belief isn’t formed in the right kind of circumstance, and if it doesn’t involve the right kind of experience, then it can’t be properly basic. Thus, it’s not the case that just anything goes with respect to proper basicality. Second, just because a belief, or even a kind of belief, is considered to be properly basic after such a procedure, it does not follow that it is henceforth indefeasible. Other evidence or relevant considerations could turn up which may undermine the proper basicality of a belief (or kind of belief). Plantinga -following John Pollock - calls those things that undermine beliefs ‘defeaters’. There are two basic kinds of defeaters: undercutting and rebutting. An undercutting defeater is a defeater that removes the grounds that one may have for believing a proposition. Thus, if one has an undercutting defeater for some belief B, then one has sufficient justification to withhold judgement with respect to B. A rebutting defeater, however, has more force. If one has a rebutting defeater for some belief B, then one has sufficient justification to believe not-B. With this in mind, we may say that if a belief B is taken to be properly basic by some person S, then B may lose its basic status for S if S comes to have an undercutting or rebutting defeater for B. So, clearly, basic beliefs are defeasible. These two points remove (at least some of) the air of arbitrariness and dogmatism that may seem to attach to the approach.

1.3 The theism-friendly implications of the new foundationalism
Plantinga thinks the same inductive process mentioned above can be used to show that belief in God is properly basic for theists. For example, the theist may examine her beliefs that, say, God made the world, that God disapproves of what I’ve done, etc. If she then reflects on whether such beliefs are rational for her, and concludes that they are, then she may look to see what they have in common. For example, perhaps her belief that God made the world arises within her when she looks at the sky on clear, starry nights, and her belief that God disapproves of what she’s done spontaneously arises within her when she performs certain actions, say. Suppose she thus sees that she doesn’t base these beliefs on other beliefs, such as (say) arguments from natural theology. From this, she concludes that she believes such things in the basic way, and properly so. If all of this is so, then she may formulate criteria of proper basicality accordingly: There is a set of possible circumstances of kind K (e.g., K could be looking reflectively at the starry heavens, or performing a certain putatively immoral action, etc.) and set of (possible) theistic beliefs of kind T such that for any person, S, and theistic belief ti∈T, if S forms ti in some ki∈K, then ti is properly basic for S. In this way, then (thinks Plantinga), belief in God can be properly basic for the theist, in which case we have good grounds for accepting RET.


2. Sennett’s Critique

2.1 Community-relative rationality
Sennett thinks that Plantinga’s case for RET fails. For one thing, he argues that PF entails that rationality and justification are community-relative. This is because Plantinga’s method of generating criteria of proper basicality is too “loose”: such a method permits the possibility (and probability) that different people, and different communities of people, will come up with different and incompatible beliefs that they take to be properly basic. One person will go through Plantinga’s inductive procedure and conclude that belief in God is properly held in the basic way, and another will not. But then, according to PF, the incompatible basic beliefs of the two people are equally justified. Furthermore, it is difficult to see how there can be a resolution as to which person is right about the proper basicality of belief in God. For clearly it won’t help if each of the two people simply report what beliefs are properly basic for them. But this goes against our intuitions about rationality and justification. We believe that a necessary condition for any adequate epistemology is that it ensures the ability to resolve disparity among the beliefs of different people. But if rationality is what Plantinga takes it to be, then it seems that there is no way to resolve such disparity, and this is unacceptable.

2.2 Not a genuine epistemology
Furthermore, PF is not a genuine, normative epistemology, but rather one that merely generates descriptions of what certain people believe in certain kinds of circumstances. Sennett thus takes Plantinga’s supposed epistemological methodology to be nothing more than a way to discover what one believes naturally without propositional grounds. But left out of such an account is the crucial normative element that determines the epistemic propriety or impropriety of such beliefs. One also needs to give an account for why or how such beliefs are justified: what is the justification-making property for such beliefs?

2.3 An adequate foundationalism exists that precludes RET
Finally, a more plausible epistemology can be constructed that avoids the problems Plantinga raises against CF, yet still prohibits belief in God from being properly basic. Recall that Plantinga argues that CF (i) entails that many of our obviously justified/rational beliefs are in fact unjustified/irrational, and (ii) is self-refuting. But Sennett suggests a modified version of foundationalism (henceforth ‘SF’) that avoids objections (i) and (ii), yet prohibits theistic belief from being properly basic. Sennett argues that the obviously rational Commonsense Beliefs precluded by CF all share a common feature: Universal Sanction. He stipulates that a belief B enjoys universal sanction just in case B is a member of a belief-kind K, such that the members of K (i) are affirmed by virtually all people under normal circumstances, and (ii) can’t conceivably be countenanced as unjustified by healthy human beings. With the criterion of universal sanction, SF confers proper basicality on the obviously rational Commonsense Beliefs that CF prohibits. Indeed, Sennett’s criterion of Universal Sanction is little more than an expression of the conditions that make a belief commonsensical. Furthermore, all of the beliefs that CF renders rational are also considered rational under SF. Finally, SF is well motivated, in that its criterion of universal sanction is intuitively plausible. But if so, then SF can be used to reject PF. Sennett offers the following argument for this for this point:
CF fails because it does not allow for the proper basicality of the Commonsense Beliefs.

5. All Commonsense Beliefs bear Universal Sanction.
6. Theistic belief does not bear Universal Sanction.
7. Therefore, there is good reason for SF, which allows for the proper basicality of the Commonsense Beliefs yet reject the proper basicality of theistic beliefs.
8. Therefore, there is reason to reject CF yet also reject RET.

Sennett thinks that the inference from (6) and (7) to (8) is justified if we think that if a belief has Universal Sanction, then this is a good reason to think that it is properly basic; and if we that that if a belief lacks Universal Sanction, then this is a good reason to think that it is not properly basic. Therefore, Sennett argues, PF is not to be preferred to SF, and so Plantinga’s case for RET fails.

3. Evaluation: A Defense of RET
In my view, Sennett’s arguments appear to have considerable force. However, it’s not at all clear to me that Sennett has refuted RET. For he has failed to appreciate some key features of Plantinga’s epistemology: features which, when adequately understood, show that Sennett’s objections are misguided. The features I have in mind are derived from the epistemology of Roderick Chisholm. To gain an adequate understanding of these features, it will be helpful to look briefly at how they arise in the context of Chisholm’s discussion of the Problem of the Criterion.

3.1 Clarifying PF: a particularist theory
Chisholm argues that the Problem of the Criterion arises from two questions: (1) What do I know/justifiedly believe? And (2) how do I decide, in any given case, whether I know/justifiedly believe something? Question (1) pertains to the extent of our knowledge/justified belief, and (2) pertains to criteria for knowledge/justified belief. It appears that one can answer either question just in case one can answer the other. Consequently, failure to answer either question seems to imply that one can’t answer either of them.

Chisholm points out that, barring agnosticism and skepticism, there are two options in solving the problem generated by (1) and (2). One can either (a) try to formulate criteria for knowledge/justified belief without appeal to particular instances of knowledge, or (b) try to identify particular instances of knowledge without appealing to criteria. Chisholm calls option (a) ‘methodism’, and he calls option (b) ‘particularism’. However, he argues that if one is to know anything, then (b) is the only genuine option. For to opt for (a) is to demand, prior to the knowledge of any true proposition, that a criterion for how one knows a given proposition, P, must be in hand. And of course if this were so, then one would need a criterion for knowing whether the previous criterion is a good one. This leads to a vicious infinite regress of required criteria, and so leads to skepticism. If this is right, then it appears that if there is knowledge, then particularism is true: we can know/justifiedly believe at least some things without knowing how we know/justifiedly believe them. This last statement constitutes the essence of particularism. Call this thesis ‘the Particularist Thesis’ (‘PT’ for short):

(PT): For any (properly functioning) human being S, there is at least one belief B, such that (i) S has B, (ii) S sees that B is justified for S, and (iii) it is not the case that S sees the justification for B.

No doubt many have worries about particularism. Perhaps the main worry is that PT seems to be false: it doesn’t seem possible to see that a belief is justified without seeing its justification (where ‘justification’ denotes the propositional evidence for a given belief). A detailed defense of PT would take up a whole paper (or, as is more likely, a book), so I will briefly gesture to two considerations. First, this conclusion seems to be an inevitable consequence of the reasoning above, if one is convinced that we have at least some knowledge. Second, consider the following analogy: Consider Ralph. Ralph is a man with lots of native intelligence. However, he couldn’t afford to go to college, nor has he had time to develop his skills in articulating and defending his opinions to others. Now suppose that Ralph has been called to jury duty. He attends, and carefully listens to the complex and subtle arguments of the lawyers on both sides. At the end of the trial, and after much thought, Ralph makes his decision: he thinks the defendant is innocent. However, after the trial, when a friend asks him why he thinks the defendant is innocent, he is unable to articulate his reasons to his friend, at least not in any satisfying way. Frustrated by this, Ralph goes home and writes out his reasons for his verdict. As it turns out, however, he can’t spell out his reasons in terms of good inductive or deductive arguments. It’s not that he now sees that his reasoning behind his verdict is faulty. Rather, it is just that he can’t put it into words, nor can he think out the reasoning in his head in terms of cogent, persuasive arguments. In this case, Ralph can see that his verdict is justified, but he can’t see its justification. I therefore submit that, with respect to at least some of our beliefs, we are like Ralph: we can see that they are justified, but can’t see their justification. Thus, for these two reasons, I think that PT is true.

With the above brief sketch of Chisholmian particularism in hand, we are now in a position to defend RET against Sennett’s attack. For suppose we now understand Plantinga’s basic theistic beliefs, which are generated via the inductive procedure mentioned earlier, in such a way that they are justified or known in the Chisholmian particularist sense. Then it appears that we may conclude that they are immune to all of the objections raised by Sennett. To see this, let’s examine each of his objections in light of this particularist construal of properly basic theistic belief.

3.2 Against the charge of community-relativity
First, on such a construal, our method of determining such beliefs doesn’t entail that they are community-relative in any damaging sense. To see this, consider what it is that makes one worry about the charge of community-relativity. Intuitively, the worry stems from the fact that we want an epistemological theory that implies that we have (or can get) a reliable indicator of when a given proposition is true. Let’s call the thesis that is expressed in this want, ‘The Reliable Indicator Thesis’ (RIT):

(RIT): (i) There is a reliable indicator I of when a given proposition p is true, and (ii) we have access to I.

We usually call such an indicator ‘justification’. Now the worry seems to be that epistemological theories that imply that justification is community-relative undercuts RIT. For according to such theories, two different people can be justified in holding their respective beliefs, even though the beliefs of one are incompatible with those of the other. But if so, then it would seem that clause (i) of RIT is false. For then it would appear that justification is not a reliable indicator of when a proposition is true. But RIT seems true. Therefore, we should reject community-relative epistemological theories.
This worry is understandable. However, I think it is ultimately an exaggerated worry. For according to Plantinga’s version of “community-relative rationality”, the fact that people can rationally hold beliefs that conflict with beliefs rationally held by others does not rebut clause (i) of RIT. Rather, it merely rebuts the thesis that justification is an infallible indicator of when a given proposition is true. But then no plausible theory includes that thesis. For, ever since Gettier, we have learned to be content with (less than perfect) reliability from justification. If it ever became clear that particularist justification of basic beliefs (i.e., seeing that a basic belief is justified) was unreliable (below 51% of the time, say) in indicating the truth, then of course Plantinga’s theory would be damagingly community-relative. But this hasn’t been shown, so we don’t yet have a damaging objection to PF.

That the worry under consideration is exaggerated can also be seen by considering Plantinga’s epistemology from another angle. Recall that according to his theory, beliefs taken to be properly basic (at least the one’s Plantinga is concerned with, viz., theistic beliefs) are only prima facie justified: they are always open to the threat of defeat. Now, intuitively, if a belief is true, then it cannot be ultimately defeated. And if a given belief repeatedly survives criticism and potential defeat, then this fact is an indication (though, admittedly, not an extremely strong one) that such a belief is true. So it isn’t merely justification per se that is a reliable indicator of truth. Rather, it is (so far) undefeated justification that fills this role. So consider our two people with their prima facie justified beliefs, each of whose beliefs contradict those of the other. In defense of Plantinga, we might say that, true enough, both are prima facie justified in their beliefs. However, since reality is one determinate way, at least one of the beliefs of one of them is false. But if so, then the belief(s) of one of them is merely prima facie justified, while the conflicting belief(s) of the other are ultimately justified. And the system of defeaters utilized in Plantinga’s system will (ideally, at least) weed out the merely prima facie justified beliefs. If his epistemology were damagingly community relative, then it would deny these last two points, asserting instead that the beliefs of both people are ultimately justified.

From the above discussion, we have surfaced a criterion for deciding whether an epistemological theory is damagingly community-relative:

(DCR): For any epistemological theory E, if (i) E implies that one’s basic beliefs can’t be seen to be known/justified, (ii) E implies that one’s basic beliefs are indefeasible, or (iii) E implies that logically incompatible basic beliefs are ultimately justified, then E is damagingly community-relative.

But we have seen that Plantinga’s epistemology doesn’t fall prey to DCR. So, unless Sennett can give us a more plausible version of DCR, such that PF falls prey it, I submit that RET is in the clear on this score.

An analogy might help to make clear the above point. Consider two courthouses: GPI and IPG. In GPI, a person is considered guilty until proven innocent, and in IPG, one is considered innocent until proven guilty. Now, clearly, it is usually much harder to establish guilt in IPG than it is in GPI. Similarly, it is usually much harder to establish innocence in GPI than it is in IPG. However, it seems that it is possible that in both courthouses, the jury may come to a reasonable verdict as to the guilt or innocence of a given defendant. Analogously, there are two types of epistemological theories: particularist and methodist. The former theories are similar to GPI (call such theories ‘GPI-theories’), and the latter theories are similar to IPG (call such theories ‘IPG-theories’). Clearly, Plantinga’s theory is an example of a theory similar to IPG. Now basic beliefs are like the defendants in the courthouses. For it is usually more difficult to determine the proper basicality of a given belief with GPI-theories than it is with IPG-theories. Similarly, it is usually more difficult to determine the improper basicality of a given belief with IPG-theories than it is with GPI-theories. However, it seems possible that both types of theories can make the correct determination of such facts. With that said, let’s move on to Sennett’s next objection.

3.3 PF and normativity
In light of our discussion of the particularist features of Plantinga’s reformed epistemology (namely, its inclusion of PT), I think it is clear that Sennett is mistaken in claiming that PF is merely a descriptive theory of what some people naturally find themselves believing. For according to PF, beliefs are not appraised as properly basic merely because every member of the relevant epistemic community happens to form them in certain circumstances. To the contrary, a necessary condition for a belief’s being properly basic is that it be seen to be justified or known for the person in question. On this account, then, it is not enough that one finds oneself having a certain kind of belief in a certain kind of circumstance. They must also be able to see that the belief is justified. And it is this feature of PF that makes it a normative epistemological theory. Therefore, Sennett’s objection here is a failure.

3.4 SF is not rationally preferable to PF
Finally, even granting that SF can, in principle, be preferable to PF for persons that have never been in the relevant circumstances that generate properly basic theistic belief, SF is not preferable to PF for people that have been in such circumstances. For, given that no epistemology is justified for a person if it doesn’t account for all of their justified beliefs (i.e., all of their beliefs that they can see to be justified), then if a person has a properly basic theistic belief, then PF is preferable for that person.

Furthermore, and quite apart from the last point, Sennett’s argument for the objection under discussion is problematic in itself. For recall that, according to Sennett, the property of Universal Sanction is just the property of being a belief (i) that is affirmed by virtually all people under normal circumstances, and (ii) that can’t conceivably be countenanced as unjustified by healthy human beings. But if so, then Universal Sanction is subject to the same criticism with which he charged PF: it doesn’t speak to whether such beliefs are justified; rather it merely tells us that we need beliefs that have Universal Sanction to live in a way recognizably similar to how we now live. But if this is what Universal Sanction amounts to, then it is clear that it doesn’t do any normative work with respect to basic beliefs. That is, having Universal Sanction doesn’t make a belief likely to be true. Of course, it’s clear that beliefs that bear Universal Sanction are justified. But according to PF, what justifies such beliefs is not their having Universal Sanction. Rather, they have Universal Sanction because they are seen to be justified (in the particularist sense). Sennett has the reasoning backwards. Thus, Sennett’s justification for his inference from (6) and (7) to (8) is faulty, and so his argument is unsound. Therefore, I conclude that Sennett’s objections are unsuccessful, and so he has not shown that theists aren’t justified in taking belief in God as properly basic.

3.5 A final worry
I suspect that many are still not satisfied with Plantinga’s particularism. For it seems that it allows too many beliefs to be prima facie properly basic. For recall that Plantinga’s is an “innocent until proven guilty” epistemology: Many of one’s beliefs are considered to be justified unless or until one has reason to think otherwise. Of course, as we have seen, not all basically held beliefs have this status. Rather, they must first pass our (inductively generated) criteria of proper basicality. However, it must be admitted that it is plausible to think that some beliefs that are in fact false will be considered to be properly basic, and further that these will never, in fact, be defeated. But isn’t this an unacceptable conclusion?
No. To see this, consider GPI and IPG from our “courtrooms” analogy. Now it seems that while both GPI and IPG have their strengths (e.g., they can both be used to get the right verdict), they also have their distinctive weaknesses. For while GPI convicts nearly all of the people that should be convicted, it also, in all probability, convicts many that should not be convicted. Similarly, while IPG acquits nearly all of the people that it should acquit, it also, in all probability, acquits many people that it should not acquit. Which courthouse is better? It depends upon what you think is more important: convicting the guilty or acquitting the innocent. If you think the former consideration is most important, then you will think that GPI is best. But if you think the latter consideration is most important, then you will think that IPG is the best. Similarly, while GPI-theories and IPG-theories each have their strengths, they also have their distinctive weaknesses. For while the former theories prevent many false beliefs from being reckoned as justified, they also, in all probability, prevent many beliefs from being considered justified that ought to be so considered. Similarly, while the latter theories consider many beliefs to be justified that ought to be so considered, they also, in all probability, consider justified many beliefs that ought not be so considered. Which type of theory is better? Again, it depends upon what you think is more important: believing as many truths as possible or disbelieving as many falsehoods as possible. If you think the former consideration is most important, then you will think that GPI-theories are best. But if you think the latter consideration is most important, then you will think that some IPG-theory is best (and, of course, PF is an IPG-theory). While I think the latter is the more important of the two, in this paper I just want to make the weaker point that it isn’t clear that the latter isn’t the more important. Thus, I think that this objection isn’t in any way fatal.


4. Conclusion
In summary, then, we have taken a brief look at Plantinga’s version of reformed epistemology, as well as Sennett’s critique of it. We then clarified it in light of Sennett’s criticisms, concluding that PF can adequately deal with them. But if so, then unless we can think of other grounds that would defeat PF, then we may conclude that RET is in the clear: belief in God is properly basic for theists.
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