Tuesday, August 2, 2011

"Consider Such An Atheist": Reformed Epistemology's Novel Notion of Justification

In my last post, I pointed out that Reformed Epistemology sees unbelievers as being irrational in their belief that God does not exist. While they can clearly be justified in unbelieving, they are still irrational (Dr. Plantinga’s words; see my last post and Warranted Christian Belief, pages 184 and 186, respectively). I believe that unbelievers who do not believe in God are not irrational in their belief. I think that unbelievers are misguided in their belief, and that they err in unbelief, but I do not think they are irrational. And why? Here again, I quote the words of John Locke (provided by Dr. Plantinga himself):

He that believes without having any reason for believing, may be in love with his own fancies; but neither seeks truth as he ought, nor pays the obedience due to his Maker, who would have him use those discerning faculties he has given him, to keep him out of mistake and error. He that does not this to the best of his power, however he sometimes lights on truth, is in the right but by chance...he that makes use of the light and faculties God has given him, and seeks sincerely to discover truth by those helps and abilities he has, may have this satisfaction, in doing his duty as a rational creature, that, though he should miss truth, he will not miss the reward of it. For he governs his assent right, and places it as he should, who, in any case or matter whatsoever, believes or disbelieves according as reason directs him” (John Locke, quoted by Dr. Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, page 86).

The one who fails to use reason, Locke says, dishonors his Maker and fails to seek truth. In other words, to fail to use one’s reason is to act “irrationally.” As has been shown in the Freud & Marx Complaint (F&M Complaint), Christians have been accused by both men of acting irrationally, of being delusional, etc. Plantinga aims to rescue Christians from such attacks by providing Locke’s quote here in his chapter titled “Justification and the Classical Picture.” His point is to show that, if to use reason to pursue truth is a noble thing, a sign of fulfillment of human obligation, then how can Christians be accused of not performing this intellectual duty? To this end, Plantinga broadens the definition of justification:

“We are construing justification in a broadly deontological way, so that it includes being within one’s epistemic rights and also includes being epistemically responsible with respect to belief formation” (Plantinga, WCB, page 100).

But this definition is not the common definition used in dictionaries, encyclopedias, etc. concerning justification. According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, to justify means “to show or prove to be right or reasonable.” Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary defines the word “justify” in the same way that the New Oxford American Dictionary does (provides the same definition). In other words, reason is always assumed in the act of justifying, but the evidence is what makes the belief rational.

If Plantinga’s definition of justification is assumed, the mere fact that one has no mental dysfunction alone is enough to justify a belief, whether or not there is evidence at all. This becomes the reason why Plantinga gives the following example of an educated believer:

“Consider such a believer: as far as we can see, her cognitive faculties are functioning properly; she displays no noticeable dysfunction. She is aware of the objections people have made to Christian belief; she has read and reflected on Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche (not to mention Flew, Mackie, and Nielsen) and the other critics of Christian or theistic belief; she knows that the world contains many who do not believe as she does. She doesn’t believe on the basis of propositional evidence; she therefore believes in the basic way. Can she be justified (in this broadly deontological sense) in believing in God in this way?

The answer seems to be pretty easy. She reads Nietzsche, but remains unmoved by his complaint that Christianity fosters a weak, whining, whimpering, and generally disgusting kind of person: most of the Christians she knows or knows of---Mother Teresa, for instance---don’t fit that mold. She finds Freud’s contemptuous attitude toward Christianity and theistic belief backed by little more than implausible fancies about the origin of belief in God (patricide in the primal horde? Can he be serious?); and she finds little more of substance in Marx. She thinks as carefully as she can about these objections and others, but finds them wholly uncompelling” (Plantinga, WCB, 100).

While the Christian reads atheists and does not deem their arguments convincing, she doesn’t really deem Christian argumentation convincing either:

“On the other side, although she is aware of theistic arguments and thinks some of them not without value, she doesn’t believe on the basis of them. Rather, she has a rich inner spiritual life, the sort described in the early pages of Jonathan Edwards’s Religious Affections; it seems to her that she is sometimes made aware, catches a glimpse, of something of the overwhelming beauty and loveliness of the Lord; she is often aware, as it strongly seems to her, of the work of the Holy Spirit in her heart, comforting, encouraging, teaching, leading her to accept the ‘great things of the gospel’ (as Edwards calls them), helping her see that the magnificent scheme of the salvation devised by the Lord himself is not only for others but for her as well. After long, hard, conscientious reflection, this all seems to her enormously more convincing than the complaints of the critics. Is she then going contrary to duty in believing as she does? Is she being irresponsible? Clearly not...she isn’t flouting any discernible duty. She is fulfilling her epistemic responsibilities; she is doing her level best. She is justified” (Plantinga, WCB, pages 100-101).

Notice that the individual in question has read the works of atheists (Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, Nielsen, etc.). She doesn’t find them convincing because she’s researched and meditated on their arguments and found them lacking in substance. This shows, as Locke said above, that the individual has been seeking to use her God-given faculties to reason in the world. This is a good thing. She is not only seeking truth, but is obeying her Maker (to use Lockean terms).

Nevertheless, there is still something lacking in her reasoning capacity: what she lacks is the intellectual legwork of studying theistic arguments. In Plantinga’s quote he says, “She is aware of theistic arguments and thinks some of them not without value” but “doesn’t believe on the basis of them.” Does she read on theistic arguments? We are not told. We know that she is aware of them and deems them valuable, but doesn’t really connect her faith with theistic argumentation. The problem with this, however, is that, if she is to make a fully-intellectual decision and completely use her reasoning ability, she must also sort through theistic arguments and incorporate them into her faith and the reasons why she believes Christianity to be true.

Take the example of someone buying a car. When a person goes to buy a car, under normal circumstances the individual would look at all the car models on the lot, and even test-drive the various models to decide which model he or she would want. But let’s say that, on this particular occasion, the individual decides to drive all the various models except the model he wants. Let’s say he wants a BMW, so he drives all the other model cars. After driving those cars, he decides he doesn’t want any of them and decides instead to simply purchase the BMW; but is this the best decision to make? While the car may be more wonderful than the others, the individual in question has not completely fulfilled his intellectual duties: how can one have reasonably chosen the BMW when he did not test-drive it or look at the car’s features and accessories? Just saying, “I don’t like these cars, therefore I like the BMW” is not acceptable when one has not even investigated the BMW or done any research on the car itself. Just because the other cars are not acceptable does not necessitate that the BMW will be the acceptable model. It simply means that there is a possibility the BMW will be the preferred car. Without investigating it, however, one could simply assume the BMW will be within his price range...only to find out that the BMW is far out of his price range and is not even a car that he can afford! Therefore, one needs to know the price, makeup, features, gas mileage, whether the BMW is new or used, etc., before making the purchase. To fail to investigate one car is to fail one’s intellectual duties.

And it is no different with Christianity. Let’s consider the believer of Plantinga’s model. The believer has done some intellectual legwork, reading atheists and Christian objectors and concluding that they are unconvincing...but has she read Christian evidentialists and concluded they are convincing? No. Instead, all she’s done is read the opposing side...but that doesn’t necessitate that Christianity is true because these others are not. She may have read atheist objectors, but what about Muslim or Buddhist objectors to Christianity? Has the Christian in question read other religious objectors? No. Therefore, in her search to have an intellectual belief, she has forfeited a portion of her intellectual legwork. She cannot be justified in her Christian belief for neglecting other religious objectors, any more than a private investigator can be justified in investigating the alibis of three out of four suspects and concluding that the fourth suspect is guilty because the other three are not. The PI, like the Christian, still has further intellectual work ahead.

But...if Plantinga’s notion of justification is correct, she is justified even if she does only a small portion of her intellectual duty and doesn’t have any mental dysfunction. The question we must ask ourselves is, however, one that connects us to the last post: “If the Christian is justified (and hence, rational) in believing this way, why is the atheist, though justified, not rational for unbelieving?”

I will tackle this question in my next post.

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