The Trouble With Plantinga's Reformed Epistemology In A Nutshell (Draft)

Plantinga rightly points out that classical foundationalist accounts of properly basic beliefs are inadequate -- not enough beliefs count as properly basic. Unfortunately, Plantinga goes too far -- too many beliefs count as properly basic on his account. He wants to widen the circle of properly basic beliefs so as to allow belief in God to count as properly basic, but he can't do so in a way that's plausible.

To see this, recall the inductive procedure Plantinga recommends for generating criteria of proper basicality: a person considers actual and hypothetical circumstances in which a belief of a certain type is formed. In each considered circumstance, the person asks herself whether the belief is rational (i.e., properly basic or properly based) or irrational (i.e., improperly basic or improperly based). If that type of belief is judged to be neither irrational nor rational-but-properly-based, then the belief is judged to be properly basic (at least if it is judged to be so in enough actual and/or hypothetical circumstances).

But at this point, a worry arises: whose judgements do we include with respect to this process of determining which beliefs are properly basic? This worry gives rise to the following dilemma: Either the Christian community limits its group of judgers to, well, the Christian community, or they allow others to judge. If they choose the former, then the worry is that this is arbitrary: there seems to be no principled way to say that other communities can't play the same game. So, for example, suppose atheists choose to limit their judgers to those within the atheist community. Suppose further that, when they go through this process of judging which beliefs are properly basic, they come to judge theistic belief to be something other than properly basic. Then by parity of reasoning, we should say that the atheists are just as much in their epistemic rights in saying that belief in God is not properly basic for them as Christians are in saying that it is properly basic for them. The same goes for every other community -- Muslims, Mormons, primitive island tribes, etc. This entails a radical form of relativism about rationality -- one which many Christians and non-christians will see as unpalatable and implausible (e.g., do Christians really want to say that atheists are reasonable and blameless in their denial of God's existence? Do people, whether Christian or not, want to say that what counts as rational is relative from community to community?).

On the other hand, if they allow other judgers to judge which beliefs are properly basic, then the worry is that belief in God probably won't be judged to be properly basic. In fact, a number of Christian philosophers (e.g., James Sennett) and atheist philosophers (e.g., Keith Parsons) argue that the least arbitrary criteria for proper basicality include the following two: (i) the belief is universally held, and (ii) the belief is such that a recognizable human life is impossible without it. So, for example, belief that there are material objects, that there are other minds besides our own, that there is a past, that memory is reliable, etc., meet these criteria; they are therefore plausibly construed as properly basic beliefs. But on this account, belief in God is not properly basic, since belief in God is neither universally held nor necessary for a recognizable human life.

In short, we have no good reason to think that belief in God is properly basic, and we have good reason to think that it isn't. For we either allow only Christians to judge which beliefs are properly basic or we don't. If we do, then we get an implausible version of relativism about rationality. But if we don't, then belief in God probably won't be judged to be properly basic.

This is a rough paraphrase of an objection raised by a number of philosophers. James Sennett is an example of a Christian philosopher who raises this sort of objection (see his book, Modality, Probability, and Rationality: A Critical Examination of Alvin Plantinga's Philosophy). Keith Parsons is an example of an atheist philosopher who raises this sort of objection (see his essay in the philosophy of religion textbook, God Matters).

I'll get around to replies to this objection based on Plantinga's recent externalist construal of proper basicality in a later draft of this post.


Tim said...


You write:

Plantinga rightly points out that classical foundationalist accounts of properly basic beliefs are inadequate -- not enough beliefs count as properly basic.

Why think a thing like that? Plantinga doesn't offer anything like a compelling argument for this claim. It's recently been disputed by several professional epistemologists who are more or less old-fashioned classical foundationalists, e.g. McGrew, Fumerton, and BonJour.

I'd hate to see Plantinga get a free ride on this claim ... :)

exapologist said...

Hi Tim,

I haven't read McGrew's stuff yet, but I'm afraid I disagree about Bonour's defenses of classical foundationalism in his recent epistemology primer and in his exchange with Sosa. But I do think if you just widen the circle of basic sources of justification to include perception (and probably testimony -- see especially Graham's stuff), then we can justify all that needs justifying.

But I'm happy to settle on the fact that we agree about the failure of Plantinga's arguments on this matter. ;-)

All the best,


Tim said...


It's not clear whether you're disagreeing that BonJour is a classical foundationalist or just disagreeing with the case he's presented in those two volumes. Though I don't agree with every move he makes, I think he's basically on the right track vis a vis Sosa. But we can agree to disagree there.

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