Friday, August 5, 2011

GPO, The Great Pumpkin Objection (Objections to Reformed Epistemology, Part 2-A

“A related complaint: according to the Great Pumpkin Objection, if belief in God can be properly basic, then so can any other belief, no matter how bizarre: if belief in God can be properly basic, then all bets are off, and anything goes. You might as well claim that belief in the Great Pumpkin (who returns every Halloween to the most sincere pumpkin patch) is properly basic with respect to warrant. You might as well make the same claim for atheism, voodoo, astrology, witchcraft, and anything else you can think of. According to Dostoevski, if God does not exist, everything is possible; according to this objection, if belief in God is properly basic, everything is warranted. This objection, of course, is plainly false. To recognize that some kinds of belief are properly basic with respect to warrant doesn’t for a moment commit one to thinking all other kinds are; even if the extended A/C model is correct, it doesn’t follow that these other beliefs are properly basic with respect to warrant” (Dr. Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, page 344).
In my last post, I started tackling objections to Reformed Epistemology (RE). The first objection I tackled involved the notion that if faith in God is properly basic, then it is beyond rational evaluation. I stated that if there need be no evidence or argument (ie., demonstrable signs of rationality), then RE does place itself beyond rational evaluation. How rational can someone act to claim that something is the case, but have no way of showing the thing in question (in this case, Christianity) to be true? Very little conversation or reasonable ground can be made with someone who believes something to be the case, claims that the thing is the case, and yet, have no tangible way to demonstrate the truth of the claim. This is not rational at all; instead, this is madness.

In today’s post, I intend to tackle what Plantinga labels “The Great Pumpkin Objection.” In his quote, Plantinga provides us with the details of this objection:

“The Great Pumpkin (who returns every Halloween to the most sincere pumpkin patch)...” (Plantinga, WCB, 344)

This Great Pumpkin Objection (GPO, my acronym) is legitimate for many objectors to RE because RE allows faith to be rational without evidence or argument. If there need be no signs of the truth of a claim, the objection goes, then anyone can claim the story of the Great Pumpkin is warranted (while showing no evidence to the truth of the claim). If there need be no evidence to show the truth of the claim, then one can claim anything and deem it “truth,” whether it corresponds to reality or not. This seems clear enough to me to understand.

Yet and still, Plantinga disagrees with this argument:

“This objection, of course, is plainly false. To recognize that some kinds of belief are properly basic with respect to warrant doesn’t for a moment commit one to thinking all other kinds are...” (Plantinga, WCB, 344)

Of course, to allow RE to be correct (according to the Aquinas/Calvin model) does not mean that all beliefs are acceptable this way. However, the question we must ask ourselves is, “Does RE demonstrate itself to be properly basic? Is RE correct? Is this how belief in God is rightly formed?” The problem with Reformed Epistemology is that it wants to tell us it is different from other beliefs on the one hand:

Faith is not to be contrasted with knowledge: faith (at least in paradigmatic instances) is knowledge, knowledge of a certain special kind. It is special in at least two ways. First, in its object: what is allegedly known is (if true) of stunning significance, certainly the most important thing a person could possibly know. But it is also unusual in the way in which that content is known; it is known by way of an extraordinary cognitive process or belief-producing mechanism. Christian belief is ‘revealed to our minds’ by way of the Holy Spirit’s inducing, in us, belief in the central message of Scripture” (Plantinga, WCB, 256).

On the other hand, Plantinga wants to tell us that it is like some of the other beliefs humans have:

“Why suppose that if God proposes to enable us to have knowledge of a certain sort, he must arrange things in such a way that we can see an argumentative connection between the experiences involved in the cognitive processes he selects and the truth of the beliefs these processes produce? That requirement is both entirely gratuitous and also false, since it doesn’t hold for such splendid examples of sources of knowledge as perception, memory, and a priori intuition” (Plantinga, WCB, 331).

Plantinga’s point in this last quote is that perception, memory, and a priori intuition do not have grounds for their beliefs; if this is the case, why think that faith in God must have evidence? However, even if one were to assume that Christian belief is akin to perception, how? Is perceiving God similar to perceiving green grass? Epistemologists such as Robert Audi would say perceiving God isn’t the same as perceiving green grass or other tangible objects, but would still argue that perceiving God could be similar to these things. What about memory? Can one come to believe in God like one forms a memory belief? The belief itself is based on “memory” (hence, “memory” belief) of an event that actually took place in reality. So, if one comes to believe in God like one “remembers” something, there must be some evidence that justifies the individual’s belief in God. And what about a priori intuition? If faith in God comes like intuition does, can someone’s faith in God be a reliable source of evidence for the truth of Christianity? Intuition can sometimes be right, but is sometimes terribly wrong. If intuition is not reliable, and faith in God can exist like intuition, can we even trust one’s faith in God as a sign of rationality? If we can, is it a reliable sign of rationality? No. If faith in God works like intuition, it may allow “some” believers to look rational (since Reformed Epistemology believes that only a few will be saved anyway)...but what about the others? Not every believer (though elect) will be included in this notion of faith if it works like intuition. So why is it that a system that is supposedly for believers would turn into a system that is only for some believers? Something’s not adding up...

According to Plantinga, faith in God could operate as does 1) perception, 2) memory beliefs, or 3) a priori intuition. If it operates like intuition, faith in God is not a very reliable source of truth; if it operates similar to perception, then only some will notice and others will not. This, too, is not a reliable, universal source of truth. If theistic belief operates like memory beliefs, then, while one could be right in one’s belief (as some memory beliefs are), one could also be wrong (as some memory beliefs are). I will get into a discussion of theistic belief as similar to memory beliefs in my next post. For now, let me say that Plantinga cannot have it both ways: if he desires theistic belief to be different from our normal beliefs, he must declare it so. If it is to be like our other beliefs, then it will be subject to reason, as our other beliefs are. 

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