Plantinga, Chisholm, Particularism, and Irony

It's final's time, and I'm buried in work. So in lieu of a new post, here's an old comment of mine pulled from the archives:

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.

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.”


Myron Penner said...

you're right in your observation that plantina's use of "obviously" in the passage implies that the identification of properly basic beliefs (pb's) occurs w/in particular epistemic communities, but wrong about why. this is driven methodologically by his fallibilism. how else are pb's to be identified, and where else?

AIGBusted said...

I think the methodist view is correct, although widely misunderstood. I once read a quote from a philosopher who said that specifying a definition for the word "knowledge" should instantly solve the whole problem, because when we do this it is as if we have learned the internal shape of the lock, and so finding the keys that fit inside (the particular beliefs that fit the definition of "knowledge") is no big deal.

Do you have any thoughts on that?

exapologist said...

Hi Myron,

how else are pb's to be identified, and where else?

How about the method I suggested in the post, i.e., the one accepted by Chisholm himself -- globally obvious seemings -- i.e., Moorean facts? By such a method, beliefs that issue from the standardly accepted sources of prima facie pro tanto justification -- perception, memory, introspection, rational intuition, and testimony -- are vindicated.


Dr. Rizz said...

EA and Myron,

Track record considerations, which dovetail with coherence requirements, might also do the trick. The criteria for a good track-record (basically IBE type criteria) would have to be accepted at face value but any particular faculty should earn its keep by generating beliefs with explanatory power, predictive success, and coherence with other beliefs.

Scott said...

"How about the globally obvious seemings...?.... beliefs that issue from the standardly accepted sources of prima facie pro tanto justification -- perception, memory, introspection, rational intuition, and testimony -- are vindicated."

I am skeptical that all of these are globally obvious. Lots of people, for example, reject rational intuition, right? And some people think we are in a computer simulation and think this implies that perception is unreliable, right? Lots of people deny that testimony is a basic source of belief, don't they? So I doubt that appealing to globally obvious seemings will pick out the right basic beliefs.

In addition, this way of picking out basic beliefs doesn't seem to me to get the modal facts right. If a decent number of people decided that memory or sense perception or testimony were unreliable, then they would still be basic. Or so it seems to me.

Does this line of response strike you as plausible? Or am I not getting it?

exapologist said...

Hi Scott,

Thanks very much for your helpful comments. I could have been clearer. By 'globally obvious seemings', I mean seemings or appearances that issue from these sources that have maximal (doxastic) force and vivacity (think of Hume's notion of force and vivacity here), or near enough. Such seemings provide a very strong doxastic "tug" to accept that things are thus-and-so, even if they can be resisted with much effort and reasoning. And while it's true that, rightly or wrongly (I won't presume which), some epistemologists resist and (sometimes) reject the epistemic credentials of such seemings (e.g., radical skeptics about perceptual experience), nearly all take them to have such doxastic force. And my core claim is that these sorts of seemings are the ones that should be used for epistemic theorizing. I also believe this captures Chisholm's approach well.

It's true that some epistemologists still take testimony to be inferential and not basic (although this is much less so since the publication of Tony Coady's seminal book on testimony). It's also true that some don't take rational intuition as basic. Finally, it's also true that some epistemologists don't take perceptual seemings as basic, but rather take them to be inferences from internal states (cf. Descartes, and more recently, Bonjour, Fumerton et al.). But, again, most epistemologists take them to have very high doxastic force. So I guess what I'm inclined to allow here is that it's at least epistemically possible for a seeming to be globally obvious, and yet inferential. Such an account seems compatible with Plantinga's Chisholm-style particularist inductive method of epistemic theorizing. Given the account of globally obvious seemings characterized above, epistemologists proceed to theorize about the grounds of such seemings. Some will take all such seemings to be basic; some will take at least some to be non-basic or inferential; and some will take at least some to be a mix of both (cf. DeRose, Haak, Beilby et al). But the crucial point, which is one that even Plantinga recognizes, is that theistic belief will not meet the conditions of globally obvious seemings, as they lack a universally experienced doxastic force and vivacity comparable to (e.g.) ordinary perceptual seemings.