Skip to main content

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.


Tim said…

You write:

Plantinga rightly points out that classical foundationalist accounts of properly basic beliefs are inadequate -- not enough beliefs count as properly basic.

Why think a thing like that? Plantinga doesn't offer anything like a compelling argument for this claim. It's recently been disputed by several professional epistemologists who are more or less old-fashioned classical foundationalists, e.g. McGrew, Fumerton, and BonJour.

I'd hate to see Plantinga get a free ride on this claim ... :)
exapologist said…
Hi Tim,

I haven't read McGrew's stuff yet, but I'm afraid I disagree about Bonour's defenses of classical foundationalism in his recent epistemology primer and in his exchange with Sosa. But I do think if you just widen the circle of basic sources of justification to include perception (and probably testimony -- see especially Graham's stuff), then we can justify all that needs justifying.

But I'm happy to settle on the fact that we agree about the failure of Plantinga's arguments on this matter. ;-)

All the best,

Tim said…

It's not clear whether you're disagreeing that BonJour is a classical foundationalist or just disagreeing with the case he's presented in those two volumes. Though I don't agree with every move he makes, I think he's basically on the right track vis a vis Sosa. But we can agree to disagree there.

Popular posts from this blog

Epicurean Cosmological Arguments for Matter's Necessity

One can find, through the writings of Lucretius, a powerful yet simple Epicurean argument for matter's (factual or metaphysical) necessity. In simplest terms, the argument is that since matter exists, and since nothing can come from nothing, matter is eternal and uncreated, and is therefore at least a factually necessary being. 
A stronger version of Epicurus' core argument can be developed by adding an appeal to something in the neighborhood of origin essentialism. The basic line of reasoning here is that being uncreated is an essential property of matter, and thus that the matter at the actual world is essentially uncreated.
Yet stronger versions of the argument could go on from there by appealing to the principle of sufficient reason to argue that whatever plays the role of being eternal and essentially uncreated does not vary from world to world, and thus that matter is a metaphysically necessary being.
It seems to me that this broadly Epicurean line of reasoning is a co…

Notes on Mackie's "Evil and Omnipotence"

0. Introduction
0.1 Mackie argues that the problem of evil proves that either no god exists, or at least that the god of Orthodox Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, does not exist. His argument is roughly the same version of the problem of evil that we’ve been considering.
0.2 Mackie thinks that one can avoid the conclusion that God does not exist only if one admits that either God is not omnipotent (i.e., not all-powerful), or that God is not perfectly good. 0.3 However, he thinks that hardly anyone will be willing to take this route. For doing so leaves one with a conception of a god that isn’t worthy of worship, and therefore not religiously significant.
0.4 After his brief discussion of his version of the problem of evil, he considers most of the main responses to the problem of evil, and concludes that none of them work.

1. First Response and Mackie's Reply
1.1 Response: Good can’t exist without evil; evil is a necessary counterpart to good.
1.2 Mackie’s reply:
1.2.1 this see…

Notes on Swinburne, "On Why God Allows Evil"

Notes on Swinburne’s “Why God Allows Evil”

1. The kinds of goods a theistic god would provide: deeper goods than just “thrills of pleasure and times of contentment” (p. 90). For example:
1.1 Significant freedom and responsibility
1.1.1 for ourselves
1.1.2 for others
1.1.3 for the world in which they live
1.2 Valuable lives
1.2.1 being of significant use to ourselves
1.2.2 being of significant use to each other

2. Kinds of evil
2.1 Moral evil: all the evil caused or permitted by human beings, whether intentionally or through negligence (e.g., murder, theft, etc.)
2.2 Natural evil: all the rest: evil not caused or permitted by human beings (e.g., suffering caused by hurricanes, forest fires, diseases, animal suffering, etc.)

3. The gist of Swinburne’s answer to the problem of evil: God cannot – logically cannot -- give us the goods of significant freedom, responsibility and usefulness without thereby allowing for the possibility of lots of moral and natural evil. This is why he has al…