Theistic Notebook

May 22, 2011

Plantinga contra evidentialism (part 2)

Filed under: Notes — David P @ 8:42 am
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Plantinga’s Reformed Epistemology bears heavily on the claim that properly basic beliefs are grounded by appropriate conditions.  In the previous post, we looked at some properly basic beliefs, and we found that the (classical) foundationalist criterion (self-evident, incorrigible, or evident to the senses) fails to capture the full range of obviously properly basic beliefs.  It also seems to steer us towards the rocks of self-referential incoherence.  Turning now to belief in God, Plantinga gives examples of circumstances that “call forth belief in God.”  He claims there is a disposition in us to believe certain propositions in these scenarios.  So it appears he is offering some conditions that the theist might accept.  Here are a few of his examples:

  1. Contemplating the beauty or vastness of the universe calls forth a belief that this vast and intricate universe was created by God.
  2. Doing something that is clearly wrong leads me to believe that God disapproves of what I’ve done.
  3. Confession and repentance brings about a feeling of forgiveness accompanied by the belief that God forgives me for what I’ve done.

What is important about these types of beliefs, is that they self-evidently entail that God exists.  So strictly speaking, there is such a person as God (Plantinga’s preferred way of affirming that God exists) is not a properly basic belief; instead, the propositions expressed by 1-3 above are.

Can we just pick and choose properly basic beliefs?

Hopefully by now the answer is apparent.  No!  Just because we jettison the foundationalist criterion (self-evident, incorrigible, or evident to the senses), that doesn’t commit us to accepting all beliefs as properly basic … for instance, the belief that the Great Pumpkin returns every Halloween.  But surely the Reformed Epistemologist must give an account of properly basic belief.  Plantinga demurs.
“Suppose I don’t know of a satisfactory substitute for the criteria proposed by Classical Foundationalism; I am nevertheless entirely within my rights in holding that certain propositions are not properly basic in certain conditions…it would be irrational to take as basic the denial of a proposition that seems self-evident to you.  Similarly, suppose it seems to you that you see a tree; you would then be irrational in taking as basic the proposition that you don’t see a tree, or that there aren’t any trees.  In the same way, even if I don’t know of some illuminating criterion of meaning, I can quite properly declare [a meaningless expression] meaningless.”

But Plantinga does propose a way for us to establish the criterion of proper basicality using induction. We approach the problem by stacking up obvious examples of conditions where beliefs are held in the properly basic way (and of course we need another pile for obvious ones that are not properly basic in certain conditions).  We will then test various hypotheses against these examples to come up with the an appropriate general statement.  But of course, not everyone will agree on what belongs in the stack.  In particular, Christians may have beliefs about God in their stack.  And thus, the Christian needn’t worry about the Great Pumpkin objection if maintains that we are disposed to believe in God but not the Great Pumpkin.  Of course, the atheist will not agree…but Plantinga questions whether this is particularly relevant.  He says that the “Christian community is responsible to its set of examples, not to theirs.”

In summary, Plantinga has argued three basic points:

  1. The foundationalist criterion (self-evident, incorrigible, or evident to the senses) is not a necessary condition for proper basicality.
  2. One who designates belief in God as properly basic needn’t affirm that such a belief is groundless.
  3. Even if we can’t give a full account of the criterion for proper basicality, we needn’t grant that all beliefs are properly basic.  We can work inductively towards a general criterion using a set of obvious examples.

May 13, 2011

Plantinga contra evidentialism (part 1)

Filed under: Notes — David P @ 8:34 pm
Tags: , ,

W.K. Clifford once said that, “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”  To the contrary, Alvin Plantinga famously maintains that one can rationally believe in God without evidence.  In this series, I will take a look at Plantinga’s essay, “The Evidentialist Objection to Theistic Belief” (Religious Experience and Religious Belief, 1986).  A similar argument is given Faith and Rationality: Reason and Belief in God, 1983.

First off, Plantinga defines a properly basic belief as one that can be rightly held without evidence.  Contrary to popular opinion, properly basic beliefs are not gratuitous or groundless (more on this term later); nevertheless, philosophers disagree over what criteria we should apply to these basic beliefs–that is beliefs that don’t rely on other beliefs for their justification–to classify them as properly basic.  Many foundationalists maintain something like this:

(C) p is properly basic for S if and only p is self-evident, incorrigible, or evident to the senses of S.

Unfortunately, Plantinga finds that this claim can’t satisfy its own criteria for being properly basic (it is neither self-evident, incorrigible, or evident to my senses).  In the absence of any arguments in its favor (which themselves would need to rely on properly basic premises), Plantinga concludes that “the classical foundationalist is in self-referential hot water–his own acceptance of the central tenet of his view is irrational by his own standards.”

Next, Plantinga examines three basic beliefs:

(1) I see a tree.
(2) I had breakfast this morning.
(3) That person is angry.

We will focus on (1) for simplicity.  We can see that a certain sort of experience, perhaps alongside other criteria, justifies one in believing the proposition expressed by (1).  Here’s the trick: this belief has some criteria that grounds its justification; however, Plantinga doesn’t take what many of us see as obvious for granted.  He doesn’t consider the experience of seeing a tree as evidence for (1).  But why doesn’t Plantinga take my being appeared to treely as evidence for belief in the proposition I see a tree?  Because we don’t “infer that belief from others…[or accept it] on the basis of other beliefs.”  In other words, we don’t refer to any propositional evidence when justifying our beliefs about (1).  Thus, by Plantinga’s definition the treely appearance grounds the belief in (1) but it is not (propositional) evidence for (1).  A basic belief is grounded if held in the appropriate justifying circumstances.  Plantinga construes properly basic belief as follows:

(4) In condition C, S is justified in taking p as basic.  Of course C will vary with p.

C obviously includes the treely appearance but is that sufficient?  No.  Perhaps I am heavily dosed with hallucinatory drugs and am clearly not justified in holding (1) in the properly basic way under such conditions.  But regardless of the criteria which justifies this belief, this criteria is the “ground of its justification and, by extension, the ground of the belief itself.”  Next we’ll see how this ties in with belief in God.

1 – recall William Lane Craig’s showing versus knowing distinction

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