Degrees of Belief, Degrees of Warrant, and Plantinga's Proper Functionalism

*Rough draft*

We're all familiar with Plantinga's account of warrant. As he summarizes it:

"Put in a nutshell, then, a belief has warrant for a person S only if that belief is produced by cognitive faculties functioning properly (subject to no dysfunction) in a cognitive environment that is appropriate for S's kind of cognitive faculties, according to a design plan that is successfully aimed at truth." (Warranted Christian Belief, p. 156)

However, it bears emphasizing that this isn't the whole story about his account. For of course warrant is not the same thing as knowledge for Plantinga; rather, warrant is "that quality or quantity, enough of which turns true belief into knowledge."

Relatedly, Plantinga's account ties degrees of warrant to degrees of firmness of belief:

"We must add, furthermore, that when a belief meets these conditions and does enjoy warrant, the degree of warrant it enjoys depends on the strength of the belief, the firmness with which S holds it." (Ibid.).

But of course there is a fairly wide spectrum of degrees of belief. Putting these points together, we see that on Plantinga's account, a given belief can meet all the conditions of his account of warrant, and yet have nowhere near the degree of warrant required to "turn true belief into knowledge".

Now here's the rub: even if it should turn out that Plantinga's account of warranted Christian belief is correct, and even if Christian belief typically satisfies Plantinga's conditions of warrant, such belief may yet have nowhere near enough warrant to constitute knowledge.

To illustrate:
Billy Joe is reading 2 Corinthians 5:19 (with a humble and contrite heart, say, for good measure), where the author says that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself. In this situation, Billy Joe forms the belief that

P. God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself.

Furthermore, P is produced in Billy Joe by properly functioning, (successfully) truth-aimed cognitive faculties, and in an epistemically congenial environment for forming beliefs of this sort. Unfortunately, though, Billy Joe's belief is of the "I do believe; help thou mine unbelief" sort, i.e., relatively weak, wavering, and fragile.

Thus, although Billy Joe's belief enjoys a smidgin' of warrant, it's nowhere near enough to constitute knowledge. And one worry is that most Christians believe with a degree of firmness that more closely approximates Billy Joe's than that of Plantinga's ideal believer.

(I should note that this point about Plantinga's account of warranted belief is not a new one; in fact, many Christian philosophers have made it. Examples include (the late) Phillip Quinn, James Sennett, Michael Sudduth, Keith DeRose, Andrew Chignell, James K. Beilby, Sandra Menssen and Thomas D. Sullivan.)

1 comment:

James said...

Speaking as a rank amateur and an interloper:
As I get it, there are two options adopted by most reasonably well informed believers today. One is reformed epistemology--Plantingaism. The other is some sort of naturalistic theology--in stern form, Swinburrne. Alston fits somewhere here. And in lively form are the McGrews of Western Michigan. And Criag is a formidable representative, too, even though he would believe (he says) even if his laborious arguments were all reduced to shards (an account of the verisimilitude of his encounters with the Holy Spirit).

Is there some large important third (or fourth or fifth) option I should consider?

Proceeding as if my worries can be confined to the two.

We disbelievers have to like Plantinga. He’s very SAT smart. He’s out of Wayne State, a secular and astringent department. And he shares much of our skepticism. He says that applying the standard criteria employed by ancient (and other) historians, it’s hard to credit the historicity of the Resurrection. He’s one of us.

But then he goes on to bend and twist epistemology so that it will accommodate Christian belief. (Also Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, etc., but never mind..) That’s very exciting--it’s radical, it’s post-modern, it captures the spirt of the age, and it’s intellectually venturesome and daring. An attractive combination.

But I could hardly pay the price Plantinga would extract from me. Not only to entertain--no, embrace--reports anyone with an ounce of historical or common sense can see are dreamy--but also to lower the bar of epistemic acceptability nearly to the ground--only at best millimeters above rock bottom. So that all Goya’s terrors come screaming in, and measles shots accounting for children’s autism.

So I am driven into the arms of the McGrews. But they, of course, are as historians exemplars of ineptitude, selective credulity, and prodigious obduracy, who’ve never met corroboration of Christian dogma they’d not fall over in bending to believe.

So am I mistaken? Or are the two options open to a believer in these modern times (a) a practical sense of historical truth that makes good sense conjoined with an epistemology that makes a travesty of truth or (b) a quite impractical sense of historical plausibility and what confirmation requires conjoined with notions of rationality and epistemic rectitude that are quite sturdy and worthy?

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