James K. Beilby and James F. Sennett

James K. Beilby is a Christian philosopher at Bethel University (now assistant professor of biblical and theological studies). He is known for his edited collection on Plantinga's evolutionary argument against naturalism, Naturalism Defeated? Essays on Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (Cornell, 2002). He has since written and edited a number of other books, one of which is Epistemology as Theology: An Evaluation of Alvin Plantinga's Religious Epistemology (Ashgate, 2006)

One interesting thing about Beilby is the fact that although he's a devout, conservative Christian, and a scholar of Plantinga's work, he has argued in print against at least two of Plantinga's projects in philosophy of religion: (i) his account of warranted Christian belief, and (ii) his EAAN.

Re: (i): Beilby did his PhD (2002) at Marquette University. He wrote a massive (400+ page) dissertation on Alvin Plantinga's religious epistemology (An Evaluation of Alvin Plantinga's Religious Epistemology: Does it Function Properly?). One of his main conclusions is that Christian beliefs formed as described by Plantinga do not possess warrant.

Re: (ii): In "Alvin Plantinga's Pox on Metaphysical Naturalism" (Philosophia Christi 5:1 (2003)), he argues that a naturalist can rationally resist Plantinga's EAAN if they accept a Lakatosian philosophy of science, and thereby conceive of evolutionary theory as a progressive (as opposed to a degenerative) research program, where the thesis that our beliefs are causally connected to our behavior and are adaptive is one of its auxiliary hypotheses. For since (on Lakatos' phil. of sci.) the epistemic justification of auxiliary hypotheses supervenes on the research program, and since the research program of evolutionary theory is progressive and not degenerative, the auxiliary hypothesis is thereby justified, despite Plantinga's criticisms of various incarnations of this hypothesis in EAAN. Thus, to defeat the auxiliary hypothesis for a Lakatosian who is a naturalist, Plantinga would have to show that the research program of evolutionary theory is degenerative (i.e., it's not enough to poke holes in incarnations of the auxiliary hypothesis, as Plantinga does). Needless to say, Plantinga hasn't met this burden.

Beilby published an article earlier ("Is Evolutionary Naturalism Self-Defeating?", International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 42:2 (1997), pp. 69-78) that defended Plantinga's EAAN against a number of objections. However, in footnote 5 of the Phil. Christi paper, he says that, "While I still hold the points I made in that paper to be generally correct, the conclusion I drew from those points, that Plantinga's argument was for the most part successful, was hasty -- no doubt from the impetuosity of youth" (italics added)! In my experience, this is characteristic of many young Christians in philosophy grad school (including myself for many years): you start off cocky and confident in your faith, now equipped with the sophisticated machinery of formal logic, philosophical analysis, and an understanding of the most sophisticated apologetics. But around halfway though grad school, or in the dissertation writing process, the level of philosophical sophistication, breadth, and maturity that come with many years of grad school overtake the attitude and the confidence about your faith, and you become tentative about your view of the case for Christian theism. For by that time you know first-hand that the naturalistic picture of the world is very intellectually satisfying, and not at all the caricature the apologists told you it was. You also see that the objections of other philosophers to the best philosophical arguments for theism-- and by now your own! -- are actually pretty good. The result is a loss of the confidence in one's Christian convictions. In any case, that has been my own experience, and the experience of a number of the Christian grad students I've known.

This brings me to my final point: James F. Sennett is a philosopher who has a similar trajectory as Beilby's. He started out as a confident Christian and an aspiring apologist. He then went to grad school to do a PhD in Philosophy. Like Beilby, his dissertation focused on Plantinga's religious epistemology, except that he wrote on Plantinga's earlier, internalist account of reformed episetmology, as well as his ontological argument and his replies to the logical and evidential problems of evil (Sennett was in grad school about 8 to 10 years earlier, and thus before Plantinga published his trilogy on warrant). And like Beilby, Sennett concluded that Plantinga's religious epistemology is unsuccessful. Since then, he has written a number of articles defending Christian theism. However, last I heard, he's really struggling with his faith, and his remarks about this mirror my reflections in the paragraph above.

If you're interested in Plantinga's religious epistemology or his EAAN, I recommend ordering a copy of Beilby's dissertation, as well as Sennett's. Like Beilby, Sennett turned his dissertation into a published monograph. Sennett's is entitled, Modality, Probability, and Rationality: A Critical Evaluation of Alvin Plantinga's Philosophy (Peter Lang Pub, Inc, 1992). And, as we've noted before, it would also be a good idea to look at Omar Mirza's dissertation, as well as Tyler Wunder's.


Chad said...

Your point is insightful and well taken (as I just got back from an EPS conference, having put my foot in my mouth on several occasions), but I think it’s quite lopsided. Why can’t we say the following with equal force:

“You start off cocky and confident in your [naturalism], now equipped with the sophisticated machinery of formal logic, philosophical analysis, and an understanding of the most sophisticated [atheology]. But around halfway though grad school, or in the dissertation writing process, the level of philosophical sophistication, breadth, and maturity that come with many years of grad school overtake the attitude and the confidence about your [naturalism], and you become tentative about your view of the case for [naturalism].”

Point is, it’s a little disingenuous to say there’s some inherent or even common connection between intellectual maturation and holding theistic views tentatively. Of course, when Flew showed a similar tentativeness with his atheism, it was not a sign of intellectual maturity, but impairment. Big talk is made of theistic philosophers shunning various aspects of natural theology, but what of Quentin Smith’s concession that both the conceptualist and ontological argument for God’s existence are sound. Not a word.

Of course, if a sharp eyed critic admits or identifies the failure of arguments sympathetic to his own views, this is commendable. Plantinga is marked for doing that himself. But suppose Christian belief is true, and likely warranted in a way similar how Plantinga suggests. Even if such an idea is possible, a Christian’s pessimism regarding natural theology is not at all an indicator of the strength or justification of his or her beliefs. That it is would more likely indicate “a certain variety of ‘liberal’ theologian, crazed by the thirst for novelty and the desire to accommodate current secularity,” to use Plantinga’s phrase (Warranted Christian Belief, p. 198).

Ron said...

I've yet to read much of Plantinga besides his EAAN essay. Someday I'll get to reading his stuff. I admit that it is a little over my head since philosophy was not my major in college and will not be what I study in grad school next year. (I am a history buff) I really do think that it is fascinating though. For me C.S. Lewis's argument against naturalism in Miracles was most decisive for me supplemented with Victor Reppert's book. What do you think of that argument? Plantinga's argument is obviously an offshoot of this more basic one.

I guess my thinking is that if Lewis and Reppert are right than Plantinga's argument is just icing on the cake for the theist, or more simply one that takes a mind-first view of reality over a matter-first view.

Btw, do you have any recommendations for philosophy books on logic or whatever I'd need to adequately understand Plantinga's argument? I took an intro to symbolic logic class in college but I forgot much of it.

exapologist said...

Hi Chad,

Thanks for your thoughtful remarks.

It looks as though we may be talking past each other, at least to some extent. Although I do think it's common for Christian philosophy grad students to become more tentative in their faith, I don't think my anecdotal evidence is sufficient to support a general claim of that sort. I do think the claim's pretty sensible and benign, though: at least in many disciplines and areas of specialization, it's not obvious which position is correct, even if one thinks one's arguments are sound for one's own position. This is especially so in the discipline of philosophy. A plurality of positions on very many topics are rich and sophisticated, and each are defended by very bright and clear-headed philosophers, each one fully aware of the arguments of the others. And as is often argued in the current epistemology of disagreement debate, this should cause one to be, at the very least, non-negligibly tentative about one's views.

This leads me to a point on which I think we agree: a rigid, non-tentative adherence to, say, atheism is equally epistemically inappropriate. I think this was one of your main points, no? I think you and I agree with Smith's remarks in his paper, "The Metaphilosophy of Naturalism", that too many atheists are too cocky and dismissive of Christian philosophers and the case for theism. The case is indeed sophisticated, and merits an answer (ironic sidenote: I was the one who got that article on heavy rotation among apologists like Moreland, back when I was still a Christian, in my second year of grad school). So I agree that there's no asymmetry here in this sense: grad school in philosophy should make one tentative about large-scale views such as philosophical theism and naturalism; hence, my agnosticism. I'm with Paul Draper in this regard: neither of us is a convinced naturalist. We both think the evidence is very, very messy, and there are interesting arguments all around. So your point about the need for tentativeness at the other end of the spectrum is well taken.

I'm not sure I'm following you in your final paragraph. Are you saying that if Plantinga's externalist account of warranted Christian belief is correct, and Christian theism is true, then such belief is warranted wholly apart from arguments? This may well be true. It also may be that Plantinga's right to say that the de jure objection to Christian theism isn't independent of the de facto objection (but see Parson's remarks on this in the God Matters anthology). But my own view, for what it's worth, is that a successful de facto objection against Christian theism in particular has been made. For it seems to me that the mainstream view of Jesus as a failed apocalyptic prophet of an imminent eschaton is persuasive. But if Jesus is a false prophet, then on the assumption of the inspiration of the relevant OT passages, Yahweh doesn't take kindly to false prophets. And if that's right, then the probability of God raising Jesus from the dead is virtually nil. But that's of course a big claim. I hope to get around to developing and defending it some time down the road.



exapologist said...

Hi Ron,

I do find versions of the argument from reason to be among the best arguments for theism. I'd like to do some more research before I say much about it, but my current short answer is the Lakatosian line Beilby raises that I mentioned in the post above.

To see an initial assessment of Reppert's version of the argument, see the book symposium on his C.S. Lewis's Dangerous Idea, in Philosophia Christi 5:1 (Summer 2003).

A working knowledge of Bayes' Theorem is helpful in assessing Plantinga's EAAN. A good primer on Bayes' Theorem, as well as basic inductive logic, is Ian Hacking's An Introduction to Probability and Inductive Logic. He gives helpful exercises as well.



Ron said...

Thanks for the recs. :)

Andrew said...

You say "last you heard" he is really struggling with his faith.

Can you provide some verification of that?

Thanks in advance.

(By the way, if you simply ignore my comment and moderate me out, I will justifiably conclude that you can't and so state on such boards as I visit. Thanks again.)

exapologist said...

Hi Andrew,

Sure. I have in mind Sennett's remarks here.

Review of Trakakis' (ed.) <i>The Problem of Evil: Eight Views in Dialogue</i>

Daniel Johnson reviews the book for NDPR .