Thursday, February 18, 2010

Intrinsic Defeaters and the Plantinga-Quinn Debate

I've worked up some notes on a strand of the debate between Alvin Plantinga and Phillip Quinn in the 80s and 90s. My aim is to get clearer on their discussion of Plantinga's notion of an intrinsic defeater. As such, I focus on that strand of their exchanges, and not so much on their exchanges on modern and classical foundationalism.

Plantinga[1]: Belief in God is properly basic, i.e., it's rational or justified or warranted wholly apart from supporting arguments. For there is parity between universally accepted properly basic beliefs (e.g., perceptual beliefs and memory beliefs) on the one hand, and basic theistic beliefs on the other. Both sorts of beliefs are naturally and spontaneously "triggered" in a wide variety of circumstances. So, for example, one will naturally and spontaneously form the following beliefs under certain familiar circumstances:

-I see a tree. (upon having a perceptual experience as of a tree)
-I had breakfast this morning. (upon trying to recall what one had for breakfast)
-That person is angry. (upon looking at a particular person's face)

Similarly, one might naturally and spontaneously form the following theistic beliefs under certain familiar circumstances (at least they're familiar to certain sorts of theists):

-God is speaking to me. (upon reading the Bible)
-God has created all this. (upon looking at the starry heavens)
-God disapproves of what I have done. (upon doing something cheap, or wrong, or wicked)
-God forgives me. (upon asking God for forgiveness for the cheap, wrong, or wicked thing)
-God is to be thanked and praised. (when life is sweet and satisfying)

Those who deny that theistic beliefs can be properly basic are adherents of Clifford-style evidentialism, which in turn is grounded in either classical or modern foundationalism. But while such versions of foundationalism entail that belief in God cannot be properly basic, they are self-referentially incoherent: the classical and modern foundationalist theses themselves fail their own criteria of proper basicality; nor can they be properly deductively or inductively inferred from the beliefs they countenance as properly basic. Therefore, Clifford-style evidentialism is unmotivated; as such, it can't serve as a principled basis for ruling out theistic beliefs as being properly basic.

Quinn[2]: Even if belief in God is properly basic for some people (provincial aunt Mabel and pre-critical little brother Timmy), it's not properly basic for contemporary, intellectually sophisticated adult theists. For any basic justification or warrant such beliefs may have enjoyed has been defeated by their knowledge of contemporary objections to/defeaters for theism (the problem of evil, naturalistic accounts of theistic belief, etc.). Thus, to retain justified or warranted belief in God, sophisticated contemporary adult theists require good replies to such criticisms -- defeater-defeaters for the original defeaters for theistic belief. But then their theistic belief is at least partly based on propositional evidence, in which case it is no longer properly basic.

Plantinga[3]: Not necessarily. For this assumes that all defeaters are extrinsic defeaters -- other arguments or evidence. But in addition to extrinsic defeaters, there are also intrinsic defeaters. "When a basic belief P has more by way of warrant than a potential defeater q of p, then p is an intrinsic defeater of q -- an intrinsic defeater-defeater, we might say."[4]

Two examples:
(i) The purloined letter case: Suppose I have means, motive, and opportunity to steal an embarrassing letter that was in fact stolen from the office of my department chair. There is also very strong evidence against me (e.g., I've been known to steal in the past; a trustworthy colleague says he saw someone who looks like me enter the Dean's Office on the day of the incident, etc.). However, I have a clear and vivid memory of being alone in the woods all day on the day of the incident. In this case, I'm rational to retain my belief that I didn't steal the letter because of my memory, even without propositional evidence and argument that could defeat the reasons brought against me; My belief that I was alone in the woods all day on the day of the incident is thus an intrinsic defeater-defeater of the claim that I stole the letter.

(ii) The Moses and the burning bush case: Suppose Moses has an overwhelming and vivid perceptual, auditory, and (no doubt) mystical experience as of Yahweh speaking to him from a bush that appears to burn, and yet is not consumed. Now suppose Freud strolled by and explained to Moses how his belief about Yahweh is the result of neurotic wish fulfillment. In this case, Moses is rational in retaining his belief about Yahweh, even if he were at a loss as to how to show Freud that his experience was veridical and not illusory. Moses' basic belief about Yahweh is thus an intrinsic defeater-defeater of Freud's criticism.

Thus, properly basic beliefs enjoy a degree of warrant that's independent of propositional evidence and argument. And if the degree of warrant of a properly basic belief is greater than that of one of its potential defeaters, then it is an intrinsic defeater of that defeater: it remains properly basic and warranted even in the absence of a propositional argument against that defeater.

Similarly, if belief in God is properly basic for a given theistic believer, and the degree of basic warrant their belief enjoys is greater than that of a given objection to their belief, then their theistic belief is an intrinsic defeater of that defeater; it retains its properly basic status even apart from an argument offered in reply to the criticism to their belief. And if this applies to the contemporary intellectually sophisticated adult theist as well, then they, too, can have properly basic theistic belief.

Quinn[5]: First: while it's certainly true that at least some types of properly basic beliefs have the property of being intrinsic defeater-defeaters for certain sorts of defeaters, it doesn't follow that such types of properly basic beliefs have this property essentially. Rather, properly basic beliefs must meet certain conditions if they are to be intrinsic defeater-defeaters. For example:

(a) Such beliefs must be sufficiently clear (e.g., fuzzy memories, perceptions in dim lighting, etc., have a lower degree of warrant, and thus can be defeated by good evidence).

(b) One must not have decent evidence that the source of such a belief is unreliable (e.g., you have good evidence from your doctor that you have a certain sort of memory disorder that affects the reliability of the sort of belief at issue).

Second: from the fact that

1. some basic beliefs are intrinsic defeater-defeaters.

it doesn't follow that

2. Some theistic beliefs are intrinsic defeater-defeaters.

or even

3. Possibly, some theistic beliefs are intrinsic defeater-defeaters.

(3) may well be acceptable, though, on the grounds that the scenario seems at least possible and, prima facie, it seems as though it would be an intrinsic defeater-defeater for Freud's objection if it were to obtain. Unfortunately, justifying (3) is insufficient in this context. For this only provides reason to think that there is at least one possible world at which belief in God is properly basic for an intellectually sophisticated theist. But what is metaphysically possible doesn't even entail what is epistemically possible (i.e., what could be true of the actual world, given what we already know of it), let alone what is actual.

What about (2)? It'll prove helpful to distinguish several interpretations of (2) before evaluating it (ordered from strongest to weakest):

(2a) For most theists, some thestic beliefs are intrinsic defeater-defeaters.

(2b) For some theists, some theistic beliefs are intrinsic defeater-defeaters.

(2c) It's epistemically possible (i.e., it could turn out, for all we know, that the actual world is such that) for most theists, some thestic beliefs are intrinsic defeater-defeaters.

(2d) It's epistemically possible (i.e., it could turn out, for all we know, that the actual world is such that) for some theists, some thestic beliefs are intrinsic defeater-defeaters.

Which construal of (2) is Plantinga arguing for in his exchange with Quinn? Of course, the one that's of most interest to the typical Christian theist is (2a). For they care (or at any rate, they ought to care) about whether their faith is at least minimally rational. So if they lack both arguments for their faith and adequate responses to criticisms against their faith (or even knowledge that someone, somewhere, has adequate arguments for their faith and adequate responses to such criticisms), Plantinga's arguments will be cold comfort for the vast majority of them if the only conclusion warranted by his arguments is something weaker than (2a). In fact, in the last paragraph of his reply to Quinn, he offers a qualified endorsement of (2a): "I am therefore inclined to believe that belief in God is properly basic for most theists - even intellectually sophisticated adult theists." (The Foundations of Theism, p. 312. Italics mine.)

However, as Quinn argues in his rejoinder, Plantinga offers nothing in their exchange that could adequately support (2b), let alone (2a). To see this, recall Plantinga's two paradigm cases of intrinsic defeaters:

(i) The purloined letter case
(ii) The Moses and the burning bush case

In case (i), we have a clear, fresh memory that serves as an intrinsic defeater-defeater of evidence that one stole a letter out of the department chair’s office. Such a belief has a lot by way of psychological force, vivacity, and warrant. In case (ii) Moses has an overwhelming experience as of God speaking to him from a bush that appears to burn, and is yet not consumed by the flame. It, likewise, has a lot by way of psychological force, vivacity, and warrant. Thus, if you were to be the subject in either scenario, and you met conditions (a) and (b) mentioned earlier (clear, fresh, vivid experiences in normal conditions, and you had no decent evidence that your cognitive faculties are unreliable with respect to forming the relevant sort of belief), then such beliefs have such a high degree of force, vivacity, and warrant for you that they will overwhelm the force of virtually any argument one could offer.

The same is true of the uncontroversially properly basic beliefs Plantinga mentioned in the earlier paper, viz.:

-I see a tree. (upon having a perceptual experience as of a tree)
-I had breakfast this morning. (upon trying to recall what one had for breakfast)
-That person is angry. (upon looking at a particular person's face)

For these are clearly analogous to cases (i) and (ii) in terms of warrant, force, and vivacity. In effect, Plantinga has given a list of examples of (what epistemologists call) Moorean facts. As such, their force, vivacity, and warrant will trump just about any philosophical argument against them, even if one is unable to refute them.

However, the crucial issue is whether Plantinga's examples of the humdrum variety of properly basic theistic beliefs -- the sorts of cases that are applicable to the typical Christian believer (and not just Moses and, perhaps, a handful of other fortunate souls) -- are comparable to cases (i) and (ii) in terms of degree of warrant, force, and vivacity.

Well, are they? To help answer this question, let's review Plantinga's examples of what he takes to be the typical, humdrum triggering conditions of properly basic theistic belief for most theists:

-God is speaking to me. (upon reading the Bible)
-God has created all this. (upon looking at the starry heavens)
-God disapproves of what I have done. (upon doing something cheap, or wrong, or wicked)
-God forgives me. (upon asking God for forgiveness for the cheap, wrong, or wicked thing)
-God is to be thanked and praised. (when life is sweet and satisfying)

Reflecting on such cases as these in his own Christian life, Quinn finds that they don't have anywhere near the degree of force, vivacity, and warrant of, for example, that involved in the Moses and the Burning Bush case; i.e., they don't seem to be anything remotely like Moorean facts for him. And of course, very many Christians likewise testify of having, at most, "gentle nudges" with respect to the sorts of triggering conditions of belief Plantinga mentions. But if so, then the relatively weak force, vivacity, and warrant such beliefs enjoy will not be sufficient to function as intrinsic defeaters for the objections to the faith that intellectually sophisticated adult theists are aware of. As such, it's not at all clear that Plantinga has even justified (2c); a fortiori he has not justified (2a). And if that's right, then it looks as though Plantinga has failed to deflect Quinn's charge: even if belief in God could be properly basic for parochial or pre-critical theists, it's not properly basic for intellectually sophisticated contemporary adult theists.

--------------------------------
[1] Plantinga, Alvin. "Is Belief in God Properly Basic", Nous 15:1 (1981), pp. 41-51.

[2] Quinn, Phillip. "In Search of the Foundations of Theism", Faith and Philosophy 2:4 (1985), pp. 469-486.

[3] Plantinga, "The Foundations of Theism: A Reply", Faith and Philosophy 3:3 (1986), pp. 298-313.

[4] Ibid., p. 311.

[5] Quinn, "The Foundations of Theism Again: A Rejoinder to Plantinga", in Zagzebski, Linda, ed. Rational Faith: Catholic Responses to Reformed Epistemology (University of Notre Dame Press, 1993), pp. 14-47.

10 comments:

Steve Schuler said...

Hey X.

Just want to give you a shout-out from your unseen audience in the cyber-world to let you know that I am really enjoying and benefitting from your writing here. You might not know if somebody didn't tell you, right? Well, keep up the good work!

exapologist said...

Hey Steve,

Thanks very much for your encouragement!

All the best,
EA

Jason Streitfeld said...

It seems to me this line of argument is somewhat off. Plenty of people claim to have experienced miracles or to have had "religious experiences" in which they felt God's presence. If Quinn's position requires drawing a strong line between this and the feeling of God one would have whilst observing a burning bush on a mountain . . . well, I don't see how that line could be drawn. Nor do I see why we should grant that Moses, for example, had grounds for any "properly basic" belief in God.

More fruitful, I think, is to challenge Plantinga on the notion of "properly basic" beliefs itself. It think it's fishy. By what criteria can we regard properly basic beliefs as such?

It would seem that, if one claims to have a properly basic belief that does not fit some proposed criteria, then they can claim their belief is an intrinsic defeater-defeater for that criteria. So no criteria could be established.

I think the claim that "God" is a properly basic belief has two motivations, and two consequences. One, it allows theists to deflect any inquiry into the meaning of the belief in quesiton. Second, it allows theists to evade responsibility for their use of that idea. The notion of "God" can thus be used to support any argument, and no criticism may be levelled against it.

That is what "properly basic" seems to amount to, in practice. Why should any self-respecting philosopher take it seriously?


-Jason

exapologist said...

Hi Jason,

It's true that many claim to have religious experiences, but such experiences aren't primarily the sorts of grounds for basic theistic belief Plantinga primarily has in mind (for that sort of case for properly basic theism, see William Alston's Perceiving God. But I think the point of Quinn, Beilby, Menssen, et al. that many Christians fail to have the degree of belief required by Plantinga's account is a plausible one.

I'm inclined to accept a foundationalist, or perhaps a foundherentist epistemology, where some beliefs are basic in at least the weak sense that they enjoy prima facie pro tanto justification (e.g., perceptual, memorial, and introspective beliefs). As such, I don't find properly basic beliefs as fishy.

In any case, while I have sympathies with your incredulity re: Plantinga's Reformed epistemology, I think something a conversational "golden rule" applies here: treat your interlocutor as you would want to be treated. Well, I want my reasons to be heard with a patient and sympathetic ear, and so I try to extend that courtesy to my interlocutors.

Best,
EA

Jason Streitfeld said...

ex-apologist,

Thanks for the response.

I did not mean to sound impatient or unsympathetic, but I can see where my tone was inappropriate. For example, I should not have said, "why should any self-respecting philosopher take it seriously?" Instead, I should have put it this way: "Why should anybody take it seriously?"

As I argued, there would seem to be a serious problem with any attempt to establish a criterion for properly basic beliefs, and so nobody could ever know--or hope to establish--that any particular belief was properly basic. If this problem cannot be overcome, then what is the proper response when a person claims to have a particular properly basic belief?

-Jason

exapologist said...

Hi Jason,

Good point. Plantinga follows Roderick Chisholm in his rejection of epistemological methodism, on the grounds that always requiring criteria for how one knows something leads to a vicious infinite regress, and thus to skepticism. He also follows Chisholm in adopting a particularlist, inductive method of generating criteria of proper basicality. 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." (Plantinga, Alvin. "Reason and Belief in God", in Faith and Rationality: Reason and Belief in God (U of Notre Dame Press, 1983), p. 76.).

So the idea is that clear cases of particular instances of knowledge are epistemically prior to general criteria for knowledge. From the particular cases, one examines what features they have in common, and then formulates hypotheses to the effect that all beliefs with those features are tokens of knowledge.

For what it's worth, I think Plantinga goes wrong by liberalizing and relativizing Chisholmian particularism. Plantinga intends his use of "obviously" in the passage above to be relativized to epistemic communities ("obvious to us folks"), so as to allow controversial beliefs that are nonetheless strongly held in a given epistemic community to qualify as "obvious", and thereby to allow for correspondingly relativized, theism-friendly criteria of proper basicality. This goes against the spirit of Chisholm's approach, as his intent was to only countenance Moorean facts as clear cases of knowledge.

Ironically, Chisholm warns against the dangers of a liberalized standard of clear cases of knowledge in The Problem of the Criterion, the very book Plantinga appeals to as the basis of his fundamental epistemological approach: “We are all acquainted with people who think they know a lot more than in fact they do know. I’m thinking of fanatics, bigots, mystics, and various types of dogmatists.”

Best,
EA

Jason Streitfeld said...

I do agree that we cannot always require criteria for how we know something. (Wittgenstein made this point by way of a regress argument, too.) But I don't see how this point supports the appeal to properly basic beliefs.

Plantinga's proposed method has two components:

1) First we find examples of beliefs which are obviously properly basic, and examples of beliefs which are obviously not properly basic.

2) Then we use these examples to decide whether or not any rule for proper basicality is valid.

I agree with your criticism of the first step. Indeed, it seems to be the very problem I was having earlier. I guess Plantinga thinks it's okay to claim that some belief is properly basic, if you are backed by a well-motivated community of believers. But that just makes "properly basic" a synonym for "belief our community agrees cannot be questioned," doesn't it?

We can also criticize the second step. Even if we did begin with an uncontroversial set of properly basic beliefs, how could we be sure that we hadn't left out some properly basic beliefs with quite different properties? And how could we be sure that the properly basic beliefs we did establish shared any significant properties with other properly basic beliefs?

By the way, I wonder about how you seem to freely switch your discussion from properly basic beliefs to knowledge. Surely not all tokens of knowledge are properly basic beliefs, are they?

exapologist said...

Hi Jason,

I guess Plantinga thinks it's okay to claim that some belief is properly basic, if you are backed by a well-motivated community of believers. But that just makes "properly basic" a synonym for "belief our community agrees cannot be questioned," doesn't it?

I think it might be more charitable to avoid attributing the synonymity claim you have here to Plantinga. I think he wants to claim that theistic belief is "triggered" in certain sorts of circumstances in a way relevantly analogous to the way in which, say, "I see a tree" is triggered in certain circumstances. And if the latter is thereby justified, so, likewise, is the former. Now I don't buy that, but that's what I take Plantinga to be arguing.

We can also criticize the second step. Even if we did begin with an uncontroversial set of properly basic beliefs, how could we be sure that we hadn't left out some properly basic beliefs with quite different properties? And how could we be sure that the properly basic beliefs we did establish shared any significant properties with other properly basic beliefs?

As to the first question, I think Plantinga would just shrug and say, "Sure, but that's the best we can do".

I think a construal of your second question has real force. Some philosophers (e.g., Nicholas Everitt) have argued that Plantinga-style proposed examples of properly basic theistic belief suffer from a number of disanalogies with widely accepted candidates of ordinary properly basic beliefs. For example, there is a clear sort of affinity between the belief or experience and the referent for the latter; not so for the former.

exapologist said...

Hi Jason,

You wrote:

By the way, I wonder about how you seem to freely switch your discussion from properly basic beliefs to knowledge. Surely not all tokens of knowledge are properly basic beliefs, are they?

No I agree. It's just that it didn't seem to me that anything turned on the distinction with respect to the points I was trying to make.

Jason Streitfeld said...

I just today got email notification of the last two comments. I'm not sure if you're picking up the discussion again, or if there was just a huge delay in the notification process. In any case, I've decided to post a lengthy response on my blog: Properly Basic Beliefs.