A Neglected Version of the Great Pumpkin Objection

Here's an argument I'm toying with. (Very rough and partial draft. Comments welcome!)

There's an interesting version of the Son of Great Pumpkin Objection to Plantinga's reformed epistemology that has been raised in passing by Christians (William Lane Craig) and atheists (Keith Parsons) alike. However, so far as I've been able to tell, no philosopher develops the criticism in detail. Here's a first pass at a more explicit statement of the argument.

Setup: Plantinga follows Roderick Chisholm in using 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.)

Now as is well-known, 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. So understood, call Plantinga's relativized version of Chisholm's particularist, inductive method of generating criteria of proper basicality 'PIM' for short.

Now for the argument:

1. If PIM is legitimate, then it's possible for an epistemic community EC to blamelessly use PIM to generate criteria that entail that belief in God is not properly basic.
2. If it's possible for EC to blamelessly use PIM to generate criteria that entail that belief in God is not properly basic, then EC has a legitimate excuse for not believing in God, contrary to the teaching of the apostle Paul.
3. If EC has a legitimate excuse for not believing in God, contrary to the teaching of the apostle Paul, then conservative Christian theism is false.
4. Therefore, if PIM is legitimate, then conservative Christian theism is false.

Call this 'The Conservative Christian Son of Great Pumpkin' objection to Plantinga's reformed epistemology. What could be said in reply to it?

One could reject (1) by arguing that every possible blameless epistemic community would in fact generate criteria that entail properly basic theistic belief. But this strikes me as implausible; aren't there actual epistemic communities like this? Now I suppose one could reply that such actual communities are in fact blameworthy in forming criteria that preclude properly basic theistic belief, on the grounds that we all know, deep in our internalistically accessible hearts, that God exists. That strikes me as false; in any case, to advance this sort of reply is at odds with Plantinga's decidedly externalist reformed epistemology.

Alternatively, one could reject (2). There are two ways to go here. First, one could argue that even if an epistemic community could blamelessly generate criteria that preclude properly basic theistic belief, they may yet be blameworthy if there are non-basic evidential grounds for belief in God with respect to any possible set of blamelessly formed criteria of proper basicality. The problem with this response is that while this may or may not be so, it is the response of one who rejects Plantinga's reformed epistemology.

On the other hand, one might criticize (2) by arguing that an epistemic community could be blameless in not believing in God in a way that's not contrary to the teachings of the apostle Paul. For example, such a community might live in a time or place in which no one has heard of God, in which case the conditions required for properly basic or properly based theistic belief do not obtain in such a community. And perhaps Paul's teachings are compatible with saying that such a community has a legitimate excusing condition for not believing in God.

However, it seems to me that such a reply requires rejecting the most natural reading of Paul's words in Romans 1: 18-23:

"The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse." Furthermore, it's perhaps worth noting that WIlliam Lane Craig agrees with me about the truth of (3) [n.b. add link!]

Finally, one could reject (3). Thus, one might argue that one could still be a conservative Christian even if one rejects Paul's teaching that no normal and sufficiently mature human being has a legitimate excuse for not believing in God. In order to cut debate short about what constitutes conservative Christianity, I'm happy to use a stipulative partial definition: as I'm using the term, 'conservative christianity' requires, at a minimum, accepting Paul's epistle to the Romans as a part of the NT canon, and accepting the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. If some reject this definition, I'm happy to limit the scope of my target audience to those who accept my partial stipulative definition; that's exactly the audience I'd like to address.

Therefore, if the argument above is on track, then it looks as though Plantinga's reformed epistemology isn't an option for conservative Christians. In closing: Plantinga says that "followers of Bertrand Russell and Madelyn Murray O'Hair may disagree [about the Christian's initial data set of particular cases of "obviously" properly basic beliefs, and the criteria of proper basicality that result from Christians employing Chisholm's particularist inductive method], but how is that relevant?" Reply: because it entails that the Apostle Paul was wrong. And while I'm happy with that, I'm not confident that Plantinga would be.


John Danaher said...

Could you clarify the precise sense of epistemic duty that is being used here? I mean is that the believer cannot be criticised/blamed or is it that the believer cannot be wrong?

I am just curious as to how much is actually established by claiming that God-belief is properly basic.

exapologist said...

Hi John D,

I actually had in mind a non-epistemic notion of duty in the argument, so as to avoid Plantina's objections on this score in his previous reply to Michael Martin's Son of Great Pumpkin objection to his Reformed epistemology. Very roughly: in WCP, Plantinga agrees with Martin that non-belief can be consistent with epistemic duties, as well as with just about any internally accessible epistemic properties that one pleases. However, he argues that not every epistemic community can be warranted (where this is construed in externalist epsitemic terms).

I'm using the notion of blamelessness here in the moral sense. The idea is that if PIM is a legitimate way to generate epistemic criteria of proper basicality, then it's epistemically possible for a non-theist epistemic community to be morally blameless in not believing in God. But this conflicts with the teaching of the apostle Paul in the epistle to the Romans, according to which no person is morally blameless for not believing in God, on the grounds that the existence and nature of God are not only seen in Creation, but clearly seen.


exapologist said...

Whoops -- WCB, not WCP. Also, sorry for the sloppiness. Some day, I'm going to start editing before I hit the "post" button....

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