Beilby on the Variability-of-Belief Problem for Plantinga's Reformed Epistemology

In his paper, "Plantinga's Model of Warranted Christian Belief"[1}, Christian philosopher James K. Beilby raises an interesting and powerful criticism of Plantinga's latest and most mature version of his Reformed epistemology. First, though, some review and stage-setting:

According to Plantinga's account, a belief must satisfy four conditions if it is to have at least some measure of warrant:
(i) The belief must be produced by properly functioning cognitive faculties.
(ii) The relevant cognitive faculties must be successfully aimed at truth.
(iii) The belief must be produced in an epistemically congenial maxi-environment and mini-environment
(iv) The belief is subject to no undefeated defeaters (i.e., reasons against the belief that have yet to be undercut or rebutted).[2]

So that's what's required for a belief to have any warrant at all. But Plantinga allows that warrant admits of degrees, and he ties the degree of warrant a belief enjoys to the degree of firmness with which it is believed.[3] Thus, for a belief to have a degree of warrant sufficient for knowledge, it must be held with a very high degree of firmness.

Putting it all together, Plantinga's account can be summed up as follows:

I. Conditions of warrant are met + high degree of firmness = high degree of warrant.
II. Conditions of warrant are met + low degree of firmness = low degree of warrant.

So that's Plantinga's account of warranted belief in a nutshell. But how does this account connect to his account of warranted Christian belief in particular?

Very (very!) roughly, on Plantinga’s extended A/C model of warranted Christian belief, the internal instigation of the Holy Spirit acts on the believer by repairing the sensus divinitatis and producing a firm and unwavering faith in the Great Things of the Gospel. And since such belief meets all of the conditions of warrant (viz., (a) the proper function condition, (b) the truth-aimed faculty condition, (c) the epistemically congenial mini- and maxi-environments condition, and (d) the no defeaters condition), the degree of warrant enjoyed by the believer’s belief is sufficient to constitute knowledge. Enough review and setup; on to Beilby's criticism of Plantinga's model of warranted Christian belief.

In the paper mentioned above, Beilby argues that there is a tension between the extended A/C model's depiction of the paradigmatic believer's belief as firm and unwavering, on the one hand, and the actual facts about the typical believer's state of belief, on the other. For contrary to Plantinga's account, the belief of many believers is weak and wavering -- the “I do believe; help thou mine unbelief” sort. This is a potentially fatal problem for Plantinga's latest incarnation of reformed epistemology. For if we can't reconcile the model with the data, then Plantinga's model fails the minimal standards that he himself sets for it, viz., that it be at least epistemically possible (i.e., compatible with what we know or have reason to believe is true about the world.).

Unfortunately, it's hard to see how the tension between his model and the data can be resolved in principle. So, for example, it’s implausible (and blasphemous) to say that the Holy Spirit fails in his job to produce sufficiently warranted Christian belief in many believers; nor is it plausible to say that the multitude of believers with less-than-fully-firm faith are actually non-believers.[4] What, then, can explain the data of variability in degree of belief among Christians? Beilby points out that Plantinga chalks up the less-than-maximal belief in the typical believer to the noetic effects of sin. Will this reply solve the tension?

As Beilby points out, it will not. For this would mean that a certain portion of the relevant cognitive faculty's mini-environment (their sin-racked body and mind)) isn't epistemically congenial, in which case the belief fails the “congenial epistemic environment” condition of his account of warrant.[5] As such, those with less than maximal faith have a warrant-defeater for their Christian faith.

[1] in Peter-Baker, Deane. Alvin Plantinga (Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp. 125-165.

[2] "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)

[3] "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.).

[4]As Beilby notes on a related matter: "While it is undoubtedly easier to describe and defend the warrant of "epistemological saints", because the Extended A/C model describes the ideal, fully formed faith of paradigmatic believers rather than the usual, in-process faith of typical believers, Plantinga's attempt to use the Extended A/C model to provide a good way for Christians (including, I assume, typical Christians) to think about the epistemology of Christian belief is in jeopardy. Since the faith of typical believers looks very different from that described in Plantinga's model, they have a choice between questioning the warrant of their belief about God or rejecting Plantinga's model as a good explanation of the warrant of their religious beliefs. Since Plantinga himself argues that the beliefs of "most Christians" are "both externally rational and warranted", the most reasonable option for the typical Christian is the latter." Ibid., p. 146.

[5] Alternatively, the problem could be chalked up to malfunction in the relevant cognitive faculties, due, again, to the ravishes of sin. But then a different condition of Plantinga's account of warrant isn't met -- viz., the proper function condition -- in which case, again, the belief isn't warranted, according to the conditions of warrant laid down by Plantinga himself.


John said...

My belief in God satisfies all the conditions for warrant yet I don't hold to the Christian god. In fact, my properly functioning cognitive faculties tell me there is somthing crazy about a god that requires innocent blood in order to forgive someone for wrongdoing. My God doesn't require blood in order to forgive. "Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sin"

I just ask for forgiveness and my God forgives. He doesn't require blood in order to forgive.

Unknown said...

@Cole. Your comments are based on a caricature of the Christian view of atonement.

@ exapologist. You’ve given a very fair explication of my argument. I think that this exposes a flaw in Plantinga’s argument. But I also said that this flaw might be fixed if Plantinga explicates the role of human freedom in relation to his model. He didn’t want to do so because it would require to model to ‘take sides’ theologically. But I think he needs to do so. An Arminian view of human freedom and resistable grace will go a long way to explaining the problematic data

Jim Beilby

exapologist said...

Hi, Jim.

Thanks very much for commenting! I have a post I'm preparing on your proposed "fix" for Plantinga's account, but I wanted to contact you about it to make sure I understand what you're suggesting before doing so. In any case, while you're here, would you mind if I did so?


John said...


What do you mean it's a caricature? Christianity teaches that God sacrificed His only Son in order to make atonement for our sins. It wasn't just death that God was after it was blood. I see no need for such a thing. My God doesn't do things like that. When I do something wrong I just ask for forgiveness and She forgives me. The more my cognitive faculties function properly the more bizzare it seems.

Reasonably Aaron said...

Hi exapologist,

I have a question or two...
Would I be correct in saying that Plantinga argues that belief in God is warranted because (in part) it originates from a properly functioning cognitive faculty vis-a-vis the Sensus Divinitatis (SD)?

Does this beg the question about his belief in the existence of the SD? Is his belief in the SD warranted based on his criteria of warrant?

Personally I would say that his belief in the existence of the SD is not caused by either properly functioning cognitive faculties nor faculties aimed at truth. I am wondering if he has covered such an objection before.

Would this style of warrant-cum-knowledge argument suggest that those who believe they have ESP (and the cognitive faculties associated therein) would also have a warranted belief even if we could not establish such phenomena were real or detectable (by ESP apologetics)?

- Aaron

exapologist said...

Hi Reasonably Aaron,

He wouldn't quite go so far as to say he knows that his Christian belief IS formed by properly functioning cognitive faculties, etc., etc. He's an externalist about warrant, and so he only argues for the weaker claim that IF his Christian belief arises from properly functioning faculties, etc., etc., THEN this belief is warranted.

It's natural to think that this sort of claim is of no help if one can't establish that the belief IS produced properly, but on externalist theories of warrant, one can know without knowing THAT one knows. For on such epistemological theories (which are popular among non-theist epistemologists as well, btw), If the belief is produced by a reliable process, then one is warranted in believing it; if not, not.

About the ESP point: yep, you got it. You're raising a variant of what's known as 'The Great Pumpkin Objection' to Plantinga's Reformed Epistemology. Plantinga has replies to it, but they're, well.... I leave it to the reader to decide their merits.


mpg said...

Hi Ex

I wonder if you have read Plantinga's reply to Kim's pairing problem for substance dualism? It was discussed on Prosblogion recently. I was wondering if you think Plantinga's reply. In short he states that a theist has no problem of pairing immaterial souls with material bodies, since they think God can cause space and time by logical necessity, God pairs the immaterial soul to the material body, by logical necessity, (I am not confident I have summarised this well). Many theistic philosophers seem convinced of this, but it smells to me, but I'm not sure why.

Just wondering what your thoughts are, if you have any, on this argument.


JDB said...

If there are noetic effects of sin which merely weaken Christian belief, why is this sufficient to render the epistemic environment un-congenial? In read Plantinga, I have never taken it that a congenial epistemic environment has to be a perfectly congenial epistemic environment, any more than the other criteria must be instantiated perfectly.

exapologist said...

I saw the post over there, but haven't had a chance to read it. Sounds interesting, though!

I suspect lack of perfect conditions is granted in Beilby's argument. I think the worry is supposed to be that the typical believer's faith isn't just less than maximal, but relatively weak and wavering.[1] But since Plantinga ties degree of warrant to degree of firmness, the beliefs of such Christians have little by way of warrant (at least not in virtue of the IIHS as depicted in the extended A/C model), in which case the relevant epistemic mini-environments for such believers is unfavorable wrt the IIHS (assuming other factors have been ruled out).
[1] Thus, epistemologist and Christian Keith DeRose:

“I, however, have not been blessed with Plantinga faith. I believe that I have been blessed enough to have had experiences that are in some ways like those Plantinga describes, but for me, the most I have received directly from the Holy Spirit have been gentle nudges toward belief, certainly nothing even approaching the firm and certain conviction of which Plantinga speaks. And if the people I’ve talked to are to be believed — and they are — there are many who would be thrilled to receive faith as Plantinga describes it, but who have not, despite Plantinga’s claim that faith — presumably as he defines it, as a firm and certain conviction — “is given to anyone who is willing to accept it” ("Are Christian Beliefs Properly Basic?" APA Eastern talk, 1998. Available here.

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