Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Questioning Evidentialism: Dr. Alvin Plantinga and Reformed Epistemology

“Here two things are noteworthy. First, I was somehow both accepting but also questioning what was then axiomatic: that belief in God, if it is to be rationally acceptable, must be such that there is good evidence for it. This evidence would be propositional evidence: evidence from other propositions you believe, and it would have to come in the form of arguments. This claim wasn’t itself argued for: it was simply asserted, or better, just assumed as self-evident or at least utterly obvious. What was then taken for granted has now come to be called ‘evidentialism’...Evidentialism is the view that belief in God is rationally justifiable or acceptable only if there is good evidence for it, where good evidence would be arguments from other propositions one knows. If it is accepted apart from such evidence or arguments, then it is at best intellectually third-rate: irrational, or unreasonable, or contrary to one’s intellectual obligations” (Dr. Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, page 70).

In my last post, I discussed the issue of justification as having two senses: one in which justification is “internal” to the individual and involves one’s consciousness, mental faculties, etc. the other sense of justification pertains to the “external” world---that is, those in community with the individual or those the individual encounters. If one takes the murder trial I used in the last post, one can be internally justified and yet still go to prison for life or face death by lethal injection because he or she was not justified in the eyes of the jury who decided the person’s fate. While justification can be both “internal” and “external,” in some cases, both are not present...and the question is, in such a case, which is more important: internal justification or external justification? You be the judge.

In today’s post, we will take a look at Dr. Plantinga’s critique of evidentialism. In addition, I will respond with my own assessment of his stance.

First, Plantinga notes that “this claim wasn’t argued for: it was simply asserted, or better, just assumed as self-evident or at least utterly obvious” (Warranted Christian Belief, page 70). This claim of evidentialism may very well have been assumed; but it was assumed because of certain other foundations that were well within reason. One of the foundations concerns the following quote of Dr. Plantinga’s:

“evidentialism is the view that belief in God is rationally justifiable or acceptable only if there is good evidence for it, where good evidence would be arguments from other propositions one knows” (Warranted Christian Belief, page 70).

Evidentialism comes from the root word “evidence,” and requires evidence to prove the rationality of a proposition. How does one amass evidence? “good evidence would be arguments from other propositions one knows.” But does this statement not make sense? I mean, we use the known to discover the unknown in our world all the time.

What about mathematical equations? If 2 times “X” equals 10, and we want to find what the variable “X” is, we divide both sides by 2. The result? X equals 5.  If we want to perform any mathematical problem, no matter how complex, we use a reciprocal rule which states, “what you do to one side, you must do to the other.” And when we perform that rule, we find the answers we seek.

Do we not also do this with hermeneutics? Christians approach the biblical text by using the passages that are known and understood to figure out the difficult and hard ones. In order to determine the meaning of a verse, do we not read the verse “in context?” In my hermeneutics instructions, I was taught that “a text means what it means in its context.” One of the biggest contemporary theology battles today concerns women in ministry. What is the biggest text used to justify women not serving in leadership roles in the church? 1 Timothy 2. For centuries, and even today, many take this passage and read it on its own apart from its given context, and conclude that Paul prohibits women from serving in leadership positions. But we do not do this with other issues, do we? Nope. In my hermeneutics class, we always read passages in context. When one reads Philippians 4 and reads Paul’s words that “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” we do not take the “all things” of Philippians 4 to refer to just anything. Rather, read in its context, the “all things” refers to the hardships that Paul faced (Phil. 4:11-12, 14). Paul was saying that “I can get through my difficulties because Christ strengthens me,” as well as “I can rejoice in the good because Christ strengthens me.” Does this mean then, that we cannot do great things for God? No. With God, great things are possible; nevertheless, this is not what Paul meant in the context of the passage. This does not mean that I cannot make biblical inferences. As believers holding to certain doctrines, we make biblical inferences all the time.

On a more basic level, we use letters and syllables to figure out compound words. For instance, we teach our children to take the words “sun” and “shine” after they learn them and put them together to make “sunshine.” Before they can do that, however, they have to know the word “sun” by knowing that the letters that make up the word are “s,” “u,” and “n.” In addition, they must also know the sound each letter makes. The letters then, serve as a foundation for the basic words, and the basic words serve as a foundation for compound words, and so on.

So does it really sound crazy that we would take the known propositions in life and use them to form arguments? Of course not. If we do this with letters, syllables, and basic words, why can we not do this with propositions to form arguments?

Plantinga, surprisingly, would agree with this:

“The propositions that I accept in this basic way are the foundations of my structure of beliefs---my ‘noetic structure,’ as I shall call it for ease of reference. And according to the foundationalist, in an acceptable, properly formed noetic structure, every proposition is either in the foundations or believed on the evidential basis of other propositions. Indeed, this much is trivially true; a proposition is in the foundations of my noetic structure if and only if it is basic for me, and it is basic for me if and only if I don’t accept it on the evidential basis of other propositions. This much of foundationalism should be uncontroversial and accepted by all” (Warranted Christian Belief, page 83).

We’ve discussed the need to form evidence from universal propositions that are known and understood by mankind. Next on the list, however, is to tackle the question of why rationality requires evidence. Plantinga places the question before us:

“Further, why would rational justification, whatever precisely it is, require evidence? What is the connection between evidence and justification? And if the latter does require evidence, why would that evidence have to take the form of arguments (deductive or probabilistic), evidence from other propositions one already believes?” (Warranted Christian Belief, page 70)

I’ve already stated that evidence would have to come from known propositions because as humanity, our society is foundational: it is built upon certain things that, when proven true and later assumed, allow us to add to the foundations and develop complex structures and technological advances, etc. Next though is, why do we even need evidence to be rational? Let’s use my courtroom trial analogy from my last post.

Why is it that trials function the way they do? Who decided that evidence was needed to convict or acquit? I don’t know the person involved with setting up courtroom trials in this manner...but I do know that legal matters require evidence, and that this structure existed long before the Enlightenment (the Age that Dr. Plantinga will discuss at length in WCB). One only has to open the pages of the Old Testament in order to find it. For example, Exodus 18 is about Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, who advises him to choose leaders from the tribes to judge cases within each tribe (see Exodus 18:13-26). If this isn’t convincing enough, there is a Book of Judges! And where did the justification for human judges come from? The idea that God Himself is a Judge and will judge His people (see Deut. 32:26; Hebrews 10:30). Even in the Mosaic Law, a man’s claim that his wife is not a virgin had to be validated with evidence. What evidence was this? The wife’s parents had to bring a cloth before the elders to determine whether she was a virgin. If she was, the elders fined her husband, gave the money to his parents, and forced him to stay with his wife and never divorce her all his days. Nonetheless, if the wife was guilty of adultery, she was to be stoned to death (see Deuteronomy 22:13-21).

As can be seen from the Old Testament evidence, no claim was validated without evidence. All claims that were deemed to either be true or false were labeled such on the basis of evidence. And all this was done because the Lord God was deemed Himself to be the Great Lawgiver and the Great Judge. If the Lord God allowed judges and judicial proceedings amongst His own people, and the Lord Himself is a Judge, then should we not view rationality through the eyes of the Great Judge Himself? Should we not be required to have evidence for our faith? Those who claim otherwise, such as proponents of Reformed Epistemology, struggle to read through the pages of Scripture. Perhaps this is why we find Reformed Epistemologists telling us that our epistemologies “should have good, philosophical merit” instead of combining philosophical merit with biblical faithfulness. 


Anonymous said...

Plantinga isn't saying that evidence does not show rationality in court-room cases. He is merely saying that you cannot provide evidence for everything. It is impossible as a human to provide arguments and proofs for every belief we have. For example, you cannot provide evidence for the belief that all beliefs require evidence. To do so would be circular. At some point, we have foundational beliefs that we rest on axiomatically and from which we form other beliefs. You know the sky is blue, you can't prove it, for all you know, your senses of perception may be faulty, but you still know the sky is blue.

Deidre Richardson, B.A., M.Div. said...

Dear Anonymous,

I guess you do not know my policy here at CTS, but here it is: if you do not have a valid account that I can address here at blogspot (that is, a membership at blogger), I tend to ignore comments and abandon them. I want to have real interaction with readers, and think it plain rude that a commenter would remain anonymous while I clearly reveal my identity.

To answer your response, however: I agree that there are beliefs that we have that serve as the foundation from which we form other beliefs. At the same time, are the "assumed beliefs" we have rational? That is the point of the post...to say that we do not think the sky is blue at random, do we? No, of course not! We believe the sky is blue because we've been taught that the color of the sky matches a "blue" crayon or piece of paper, for example. From there, we assume that any time we see that color in or on an object, the item is blue.

Some would interject here and say, "but what if the color wasn't blue? What if the color were some other label but we just have no knowledge of it"? At this point, I would say that the question, as intellectual as it may seem, can serve us no purpose. The reason it cannot serve a purpose is because we cannot know if there are other possibilities for the color of the blue crayon. What if the sky were red? Are we still rational to call it blue? Well, yes! Everything in our experience teaches us that the sky is blue. If the color is red, though the majority of humanity considers the sky to be blue, we have lost nothing by assuming the color is red. If we assume the color is red while the majority of human experience labels it blue, we have a basis by which we can be called irrational.

This idea that the senses are faulty is a question that sounds excellent to ponder on the surface; yet, the problem persists in the fact that we can sit around and question everything within our existence: however, what purpose does it serve? I can question that I have oxygen, but how am I breathing? Is there another explanation that can take the place of the traditional one? No, of course not. This is why I believe RE posits too much philosophical pondering where biblical answers are sufficient.