Theistic Notebook

May 22, 2011

Plantinga contra evidentialism (part 2)

Filed under: Notes — David P @ 8:42 am
Tags: , ,

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.
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