Plantinga's Curious Reply to Lehrer's "Truetemp" Counterexample

In a previous post, we saw that Keith Lehrer raised a variation of his famous "truetemp" counterexample to the sufficiency of Plantinga's proposed analysis of warrant. Here is Plantinga's reply:

"As I see it, Truetemp has a defeater for his belief in the fact that (as he no doubt thinks) he is constructed like other human beings and none of them has this ability; furthermore, everyone he meets scoffs or smiles at his claim that he does have it. Truetemp's defeater means that his belief does not meet the conditions for warrant; hence (contra Lehrer) he doesn't constitute a counterexample to my analysis of warrant." (Warrant in Contemporary Epistemology, p. 333).

So Plantinga's reply is that Truetemp's warrant-basic belief is defeated by an inference from two other things he knows: that (i) he is like other people and that (ii) these other people don't have a similar ability to form accurate beliefs about their own temperature in the basic way. He also takes the fact that others scoff and smile at him (presumably in a contemptuous or condescending or incredulous way) to constitute, or at least partially constitute, a defeater for his belief.

Now if you're like me, you're having a hard time seeing how this reply fits with other things Plantinga says. But here's the most significant worry I have with Plantinga's reply to Lehrer: how does this reply fit with his account of warranted theistic belief, and with his model of warranted Christian belief? If holding a belief you take to be warranted in the basic way can be defeated merely by becoming aware that most other people lack a belief-forming mechanism or process you took yourself to have, and/or by the fact that others sneer at you or smile condescendingly at you for claiming to have such a faculty, then since most people don't form Christian belief in the basic way, and since most Christians are scoffed at at least some time in their lives, then how are we to avoid concluding that theistic and Christian belief, even if originally warrant-basic, is likewise defeated?

Here's another worry. In "On Being Evidentially Challenged", and in Warranted Christian Belief, Plantinga argues against Draper's evidential argument from evil by saying that the independent warrant enjoyed by warrant-basic belief -- and thus warrant-basic theistic and Christian belief -- is sufficient, all by itself, to defeat probabilistic inferences -- e.g., probabilistic arguments from evil -- against it. But he seems to have rejected this sort of response in his reply to Lehrer, as he's allowing there that the probabilistic inference from

(i) I'm like other people.
(ii) Most other people don't have the ability to form reliable beliefs about their temperature in the basic way.
(iii) Therefore, I probably don't have the ability to form reliable beliefs about my temperature in the basic way.

defeats a belief that was originally warrant-basic.

So here again, Plantinga's reply to Lehrer appears to be in direct conflict with a key plank in his defense of warranted Christian belief.


James A. Gibson said...

I take it that the moves Plantinga makes here illustrates a more general confusion in the literature about when one has a defeater. Here's another example from, I think, the first warrant book. Plantinga describes someone who's convinced that solipsism is true (or maybe it was that there's no external world), and then walks outside and sees a red trolley bearing down the street at him. Although the belief that there is a red trolley coming down the street is not consistent with the philosophical position just taken up, he still knows the red trolley is coming down the street. (Maybe this was in the chapter on coherentism, I cannot check now.)

Plantinga is right that basic beliefs can defeat probabilistic inferences. Example: suppose the formation of belief upon testimony is warranted in a basic way (though this is not uncontroversial). I determine the probability (correctly) that you have a losing lottery ticket after the numbers have been drawn but do not know your numbers. It is highly likely that you lost. You then tell me that you won and cite your numbers (which I know to be the winning numbers), but you do not show me the winning ticket. The probability that you'd lose, being so high, does not defeat my belief that you won, which is based on your saying so. Whether basic Christian belief defeats the evidential problem of evil is a matter I won't explore here since I think it is important to get the epistemic matters in order first.

There needs to be a principled way of distinguishing between when one has a defeater and when one is confronted with a puzzle. This is something I hope to write on in the next year.

exapologist said...

Hi James,

I'm with you about the ability of at least some cases of properly basic beliefs to defeat at least some sorts of probabilistic evidence.

Re: the Plantinga example you mention: I believe you have in mind Plantinga's proposed counter-example to the necessity of internalist, deontological justification for warrant (in WCD, 1993). I think it's supposed to run (roughly) as follows: suppose you come to believe that some malevolent agent (Descartes' evil demon, say) would bring it about that you believe mostly falsehoods if you *believe* you are appeared to redly when you *are* appeared to redly. Then (in virtue of this fact, plus the the supposed duty to believe truths and disbelieve falsehoods), you come to have a new epistemic obligation to avoid forming such beliefs based on such perceptual appearances. But clearly (or so says Plantinga, anyway), if you disobey the new epistemic duty by believing you're being appeared to redly when a red trolley is coming your way, such a belief would be warranted.

I think Plantinga's case above isn't so clear. But no matter, as your lottery example is a clear case, I think (fwiw, I take testimony to be a basic source of prima facie, pro tanto justification. C.A.J. Coady is good on this point, but Peter J. Graham is even better). However, in the Plantinga-Quinn exchanges, Quinn nicely points out to Plantinga that the ability of a properly basic belief to function as an intrinsic defeater depends on a number of factors (e.g., the degree of resolution with respect to the conditions that gave rise to the belief, the force and vivacity of the belief, etc.).

I also agree with you that we need a principled basis for determining when properly basic beliefs are and are not undercut or rebutted by other considerations. I'd be interested to read what you conclude on this topic when you get around to it.

I think that in the case at hand, though -- and perhaps you agree? -- that Plantinga has gotten himself into a bind. For if we grant that Truetemp's belief is an intrinsic defeater, then Plantinga's account of warrant entails that Truetemp's temperature beliefs are warranted, which seems implausible (if needed, we can make Lehrer's counterexample stronger by replacing the mechanism with one that gives Truetemp a reliable, properly functioning, truth-aimed mechanism for forming beliefs about (say) the location of one of the moons of Jupiter whenever someone says "Jupiter"). If so, then Plantinga's account suffers the fate of death by counterexample, or so it seems to me.

James A. Gibson said...

Hey EA.

That was the case I was thinking of. Thanks! One quick question: where is the Plantinga-Quinn exchange? That I have not read this exchange may explain why I don't follow this: "For if we grant that Truetemp's belief is an intrinsic defeater, then Plantinga's account of warrant entails that Truetemp's temperature beliefs are warranted, which seems implausible," and also why I don't follow that switching the Truetemp case to beliefs about the location of a moon of Jupiter makes the case stronger. Nevertheless, I may be able to assuage your worries.

I agree that Plantinga is in a bind insofar as he needs to specify desiderata for when a basic belief can undermine arguments, the conclusion of which is that the basic belief is not warranted (or false), from those cases in which such arguments do undermine basic beliefs. This is a problem for all of us.

However, it is not clear to me that the problem goes much further. Grant that one can have defeaters from first-person evidence, even if the mechanism that brings about the belief is from a reliable mechanism in the appropriate environment. On Plantinga's view, a person knows p only if p remains undefeated - here I specify only one condition necessary for knowledge. This entails that one has warrant sufficient for knowledge that p only if p remains undefeated (Index this to individuals as necessary.). So if first-person evidence defeats p, then p is not known (or warranted to the sufficient degree).

Truetemp does not know that he has a reliable belief forming mechanism about the temperature, unlike other belief forming mechanisms that are natural to human beings. Even if he thought that he had a mechanism to form beliefs about the temperature in a basic way (say, by reflecting upon the phenomenology of the way the belief arises), it wouldn't follow from this that he would believe that the temp-beliefs result from a reliable mechanism. So in the context in which he lacks independent evidence to assess the veracity of these beliefs, he does (or should once he recognizes he is unique in forming these beliefs) think the beliefs are unnatural given what he knows about the cognitive abilities of the class of human beings. Since he is this class, he should withhold judgment about the temperature - that is, treat the experience of 'it is t here now' not as belief, but something more like a hunch or a guess.

What is doing the work, then, is not just that other people do not also form such beliefs or that they scoff at him, but that his beliefs are unnatural given what he knows about the cognitive abilities of human beings. He lacks the contextualization we have from the third-person perspective which incline us to treat them as warranted (without paying attention to Truetemp's first-person evidence). But once the first-person evidence comes in, he has a defeater, and thus fails to know.

Now move to Plantinga's account of Christian belief. On his account, there is a context or set of background beliefs that explain the scoffing, that explain why some individuals fail to form theistic (or Christian) belief in a basic way. And he also has an account that explains why it is natural for individuals to form theistic (or Christian) belief. So here, the first-person evidence, it seems to me, differs from that of Truetemp's. This way separates the cases. (This was rushed since I have a party starting, like, now. Apologies if it takes effort to make sense of it!)

exapologist said...

Hi James,

The Plantinga-Quinn exchanges take place in the following papers:

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

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

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

-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.

In any case, off to bed. I hope to say more after Father's Day.


Anon said...

Hi EA,

Thanks for all the interesting recent posts on Plantinga. I have two thoughts. One thought is about your discussion of the Truetemp example. The other is about the overall drift of these posts.

1: It is not clear to me (yet) that Plantinga's response to the Truetemp example undermines his account of warranted Christian belief. In Lehrer's case, Truetemp is the only guy who thinks he has the relevant ability. While it's true that many people don't form Christian beliefs in the basic way, its also true that lots of people (allegedly) do. To really test whether Plantinga's response to Truetemp undermines his account of warranted Christian belief, it seems to me that you would have to modify the Truetemp case so that while (admittedly) lots of people don't have Truetemps ability, many (allegedly) do.

So change the example by stipulating that a third of the worlds population think they have Truetemp's ability. Then see what your intuition about the case is. I think the modified case is much more analogous to Plantinga's account of Warranted Christian belief than the original Truetemp case.

Now, suppose Plantinga held the following pair of beliefs:

A: If you think you have an ability and no one else at all thinks you have that ability and no one else at all thinks anyone else has that ability and everyone thinks you are crazy and you know all of this, then you have a defeater for your belief.

B: If you think you have an ability and lots of people also think that they and you have that ability while lots of people don't, you don't have a defeater for your belief that you have the relevant ability.

On the face of it, I don't see anything problematic about holding both A and B to be true. Whats more, it seems to me that if Plantinga holds both A and B, then he gets the folowing judgments about the relevant cases:

Truetemp: Unwarranted
Modified Truetemp: Warranted
Christian Beleif: Warranted

Now, someone might reasonably think that B is false. They might think that the presence of widespread disagreement means you should go agnostic and so B isn't true. I get that. But if someone takes that line, then it makes the success of the objection from Truetemp depend on the success of the objection from disagreement. And so we have reduced two objections to one.

#2: Here is a general concern I have about the overall drift of these posts: It seems like the strategy is to say consider a bunch of objections to Plantinga's epistemology. See his theory is false. So Christian beliefs aren't warranted.

Yet a lot of the problems you raise for Plantinga's theory are, as you point out, problems that are shared by other prominent epistemological theories. Everybody's epistemology suffers from serious problems. But that doesn't imply that they should be skeptics. If Plantinga's epistemolgoy suffers from those same problems, then I don't think that implies those who accept his view should be skeptical w/r/t Christianity.

To me, it would be much more telling if you pointed to a bunch of problems that are unique to Plantinga's epistemology. If you could say look Plantinga's epistemology doesn't solve any problems that other theories have and it has all these additional problems that the other prominent theories don't have, then that would be much more impressive to me.

Anyway, thanks for the excellent posts and I like the new design of the website.

P.S. It seems to me that a weird disanalogy between the Truetemp examples and the case of allegedly warranted christian belief is that it is much easier to empirically test whether one has the Truetempish abiltiy than it is to test whether one has the relevant christiany basic beliefish ability. I'm not sure that this difference is relevant. But it struck me.

exapologist said...

Hi James,

I want to make sure I'm following your last comment. So the idea is that the moves Plantinga makes in defense of his general account of warrant are consistent with the moves he makes in defense of warranted Christian beliefs. And the reason for this is that in both cases, inductive arguments are sufficient to defeat warrant-basic beliefs if they call into question the very reliability of the faculty in question (not just any particular belief that issues from it. Call this a reliability defeater, as I think Plantinga does somewhere). And while there is a reliability defeater against warrant-basic beliefs issuing from Truetemp, there isn't a successful defeater against warrant-basic Christian belief. For unlike the former case, in the latter case, there is a defeater-defeater of the reliability defeater, viz., the Christian account to the effect that the data of all the people reporting not having warrant-basic Christian belief is explained in terms of sin and (relatedly) willfully, unrighteously supressing the truth about the existence and particular nature of God, which is clearly seen via the Creation. Do I have it right?


James A. Gibson said...


Right. There is a successful reliability defeater for Truetemp, but not so for Christian belief, limiting our discussion to the scoffing and disbelief by others (here I am bracketing other issues that may raise successful defeaters, e.g., problems of evil). I am not sure that we can say without qualification that there is a reliability defeater and also a defeater-defeater for Christian belief generally, although for some persons this may make sense. The worry there, without giving a case, is just the issue that the set of background beliefs an individual has is relevant to the incorporation of new pieces of evidence; so one person may acquire the initial defeater from the scoffing, say, and yet another does not, depending on the background beliefs and what role they play. I'll assume that there is a reliability defeater for the Christian, at least initially, which must acquire a defeater-defeater. Though again, I don't believe it is necessary to grant this for every individual.

Concerning the explanation you cited for the failure of belief: my own view is that the Christian should argue for multiple explanations for the failure of others to believe the Christian story, and they should not - for just any piece of the Christian story one fails to believe - move straight to the sin explanation. But let's suppose Plantinga ran that as the explanation.

So you've got my response correct, I think. Given how we are construing the story having noted the above qualifications, there is a successful reliability defeater for Truetemp. Truetemp lacks the background beliefs relevant to explaining the formation of his beliefs about the temperature and the failure of others to form similar beliefs. So Truetemp infers the unnaturalness of his temperature belief, those formed in his unique way, and doubts the reliability of this belief-mechanism. Defeater. For Plantinga, the Christian has the relevant background beliefs such that though there is a reliability defeater, the background beliefs about sin and the sensus divinitatis raise a defeater defeater.

What's the problem with this?


exapologist said...

Hi James.

I'm not sure I think there' a problem or not with your reply -- maybe it works! I'm just trying to get clear on the sorts of moves Plantinga might make in defense of his account, in order to be in a better position to evaluate it. On the face of it, though, it seems to me that you're right that Plantinga can make the moves you suggest to make the things he says fit together.


exapologist said...

Hi Anon,

Thanks for the kind words!

Thanks also for your thoughtful comments on the issue at hand. I'm just starting to think about your remarks, but I hope to get back to you soon on this. In the meantime, what do you think of James' remarks? I think there's something to that sort of reply, although I'm not sure whether the Christian story about the Fall, or perhaps the post-birth sin of unbelievers makes good sense of the data. Of course, as an unbeliever, I'm a bit skeptical(!). Still, the Christian might be able to accept the story, so long as the actual data regarding unbelief and religious demographics isn't better explained my some other hypothesis, in which case the reply is defeated. Here's my initial concern about such an approach, though, fwiw.

Regarding your remarks on the drift of my posts: I certainly don't want to infer that Christianity is false from problems with Plantinga's account! That of course wouldn't follow. (see my discussion with Dan Speak, though, here, for a summary of my worries for Plantinga's latest account of warrant in general and warranted Christian belief in particular.)
I certainly think the data appealed to in the arguments of natural theology provide at least some support for the theistic hypothesis. Whether the hypothesis makes the best sense of all the relevant data is another matter, though.


Anon said...

Hi EA,

James' remarks seem interesting. But I haven't read them in detail yet. Give me a few days to think about them and I'll see if I can come up with some thoughts on it.