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Plantinga's Proper Functionalism Unmotivated

Plantinga argues that internalist accounts of warrant are inherently inadequate, and thus that some form of externalism must be correct. However, he also argues that standard versions of externalism -- e.g. Goldmanian reliabilism -- are inadequate as well, on the grounds that they can't account for the fact that a belief can't be warranted if it's formed by a mechanism or process that is only accidentally reliable:

"Suppose I am struck by a burst of cosmic rays, resulting in the following unfortunate malfunction. Whenever I hear the word 'prime' in any context, I form a belief, with respect to a randomly chosen natural number less than 100,000, that it is not prime. So you say "Pacific Palisades is prime residential area" or "Prime ribs is my favorite"...; I form a belief, with respect to a randomly selected natural number between 1 and 100,000 that it is not prime. The process or mechanism in question is indeed reliable (given the vast preponderance of non-primes...) but my belief -- that, say, 41 is not prime -- has little or no positive epistemic status. The problem isn't simply that the belief is false; the same goes for my (true) belief that 631 is not prime, if it is formed in this fashion. So reliable belief formation is not sufficient for positive epistemic status." (Warrant: The Current Debate (OUP, 1993), p. 210.).

Plantinga then goes on to argue that an externalist about warrant can avoid the problem of accidental reliability if they go proper functionalist, as a properly functioning truth-aimed cognitive process or faculty precludes accidental reliability. Or so argues Plantinga.

However, Richard Feldman (“Proper Functionalism,” Nous 27 (1993), pp. 34-50) has constructed a variation on Plantinga's "primes" counterexample above to show that the problem of reliably-formed-yet-unwarranted beliefs arises for Plantinga's proper functionalist version of externalism as well. Thus, Feldman changes the counterexample so that the cause of the beliefs about primes is not a burst of cosmic rays, but rather a cognitive faculty formed by an intelligent designer who designs the person to naturally and spontaneously form such beliefs about prime numbers whenever they hear the word 'prime'. In such a case, all of Plantinga's conditions of warrant are satisfied: according to the thought experiment, we have a cognitive faculty that, when functioning properly, reliably produces sufficiently firmly-held true beliefs when in epistemically congenial environments. However, such beliefs have little by way of warrant.

Therefore, the conditions laid out in Plantinga's proper functionalism are not sufficient for warrant. And since his proper functionalist amendment to straight reliabilist externalism fails to rule out the problem cases he raises for the latter, the former appears to be unmotivated.


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Reformed epistemology, roughly, is the thesis that religious belief can be rational without argument. After providing some background, I present Plantinga's defense of reformed epistemology and its influence on religious debunking arguments. I then discuss three objections to Plantinga's arguments that arise from the following topics: skeptical theism, cognitive science of religion, and basicality. I then show how reformed epistemology has recently been undergirded by a number of epistemological theories, including phenomenal conservatism and virtue epistemology. I end by noting that a good objection to reformed epistemology must criticize either a substantive epistemological theory or the application of that theory to religious belief; I also show that the famous Great Pumpkin Objection is an example of the former. And if a copy should make its way to my inbox...

UPDATE: Thanks!