Thursday, August 4, 2011

"Beyond Rational Scrutiny": Objections to Reformed Epistemology, Part 1

“First, there is the claim that if belief in God is really properly basic with respect to warrant, then arguments and objections will not be relevant to it; it will be beyond rational scrutiny and will be insulated from objections and defeaters. But obviously objection and argument are relevant to theistic belief: therefore, it isn’t warrant-basic. Thus Michael Martin: ‘Plantinga’s foundationalism is radically relativistic and puts any belief beyond rational appraisal once it is declared basic.’

Why think a thing like that? Theistic belief would certainly not be immune to argument and defeat just by virtue of being basic. In this, theistic belief only resembles other kinds of beliefs accepted in the basic way. You tell me that you went to the Grand Tetons this summer; I acquire the belief that you did so and hold it in the basic way. But then your wife tells me that the fact is you went to the Wind Rivers, which, she says, you always confuse with the Tetons. Furthermore, the next time I see you, you go on at great length about the glories of Gannett Peak (which is in the Wind Rivers). Then I will no longer believe you went to the Tetons, despite the fact that I originally formed that belief in the basic way...So it is not true, in general, that if a belief is held in the basic way, then it is immune to argument or rational evaluation; why, therefore, think it must hold for theistic belief? The fact, if it is a fact, that belief in God is properly basic doesn’t for a moment imply that it is immune to argument, objection, or defeat; it is surely no consequence of my foundationalism or of the A/C model (simpliciter or extended) that basic beliefs are beyond rational appraisal”(Dr. Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, pages 343-344).

In my last post, I took an example of Plantinga’s regarding an educated Christian and asked us to apply it to an educated atheist, someone who has read widely on evolution as well as intelligent design, who has studied theism as much as atheism, but still finds atheism more appealing than William Lane Craig, Lee Strobel, Josh McDowell, or any other Christian apologist. What are we to make of such an individual? According to the Aquinas/Calvin model Plantinga establishes, the unbeliever is “justified, but irrational” to think such a thing. Plantinga distinguishes between justification and rationality in his model. One can be justified in believing wrongly (for example, an insane person) but still be irrational in his or her belief. In the case of an insane person, he or she could believe that you are the former president of the United States (if you look like a former president) but would still be irrational to think so (since you are an average Joe who has never so much as even lived in or near the White House). In the same way, Plantinga would say that an unbeliever such as an atheist fits the bill. He or she could very well be justified in their belief (they have done their intellectual legwork) but be irrational. But again, I ask, why is this the case? We are never told. It seems, though, that the only reason why the educated atheist is irrational is because he does not believe in God (or more specifically, Jesus). However, why is it that believing wrongly makes them irrational? If, as Locke states, an individual has done the intellectual work and arrived at an educated conclusion, what more could he or she do to prove rationality? I don’t know. Plantinga wants to say that a Christian can be rational because he or she has come to a conclusion about the existence of God in an intelligent manner...but aren’t there atheists in the world who have done the same? How is it that Plantinga’s model can afford educated Christians rationality but not educated atheists? And why is it that an uneducated Christian raised in the “boondocks” can be rational for believing in God without evidence, but an atheist raised in rural life is only irrational? Again, it’s because the atheist does not believe in God or Jesus.

Today’s post tackles one of the objections posed to Plantinga’s system: that is, that the idea of a properly basic belief in God places theistic belief “beyond rational scrutiny” (to use the phrase provided by Plantinga himself). Plantinga states that this is not the case. For him, “theistic belief only resembles other kinds of beliefs accepted in the basic way.” In the same way that one can believe something and accept it without evidence until the belief is proven false, so one can accept theistic belief until it is proven false. This seems fair enough.

But I think what Dr. Plantinga misses here about the critique is that there is a claim he makes in his presentation of Reformed Epistemology that places theistic belief beyond normal, everyday basic belief. When Dr. Plantinga states his goal in Warranted Christian Belief regarding his thesis, he says the following:

“I’ll conclude that in fact there is no reason at all to think that Christian belief requires argument or propositional evidence, if it is to be justified. Christians---indeed, well-educated, contemporary, and culturally aware Christians---can be justified, so I shall argue, even if they don’t hold their beliefs on the basis of arguments or evidence, even if they aren’t aware of any good arguments for their beliefs, and even if, indeed, there aren’t any’” (Plantinga, WCB, page 93).

Here is the gist of Plantinga’s argument: Christians can be justified in their beliefs “even if they don’t hold their beliefs on the basis of arguments or evidence...even if, indeed, there aren’t any.” This statement itself is troubling. Would we allow this type of belief to be valid in anything else? I mentioned in an earlier post that a proponent of Reformed Epistemology (RE) once said to me that individuals can be justified in believing in UFOs without argument. If we allow justification to have a subjective component as well as an objective one, we could agree with Plantinga’s thesis. If justification is defined as it is in dictionaries cited in this series, and as it is defined in the common vernacular, then justification only bears an objective component that is based on evidence...and one would say that proponents of UFOs are not justified in their belief.

So, let’s put this to use with a modern example. Would we allow beliefs to be justified without evidence in other areas outside of philosophy? Let’s try theology. Was Marcion deemed acceptable by the early church with his view of “Two Gods,” a God of the Old Testament and a God of the New Testament? No. Was Arius allowed to propagate his Arianism (Jesus is a creation of God) in the early church and labeled rational for so doing? Of course not. In fact, the early church did not believe Arius was acting rationally (which explains why they deemed him a heretic along with his teachings). In proper exegesis, do we allow just any belief to be taught and expounded on the basis that someone is rational for teaching it because “he or she possesses no mental defects”? Of course not.

What about a friend that comes to you and says, “My wife’s cheating on me”? Would you not ask that friend, “How do you know this to be the case”? Would you not require evidence from that friend? Or, would you ask the friend for evidence, get the response that “I don’t have any evidence, just a gut feeling,” and turn around and say, “Okay, your wife’s cheating on you”? I don’t think any of us would agree with that judgment. But with RE, one can believe in God “even if no evidence existed” and still be rational.

If we go back to Plantinga’s example in the quote, one holds a belief until evidence is found to the contrary...but, if one can believe “whether or not evidence exists,” what is evidence needed for? The person would still be right to hold his belief apart from evidence of any kind. When Plantinga says that one could believe in God “even if...there aren’t any [arguments or evidence],” what is someone supposed to think? This is similar to allowing someone to hold to the existence of UFOs whether or not evidence ever surfaces. Surely, we would label someone at the very least “acting irrationally” to adopt such a view. How then is it, that Christian belief is allowed in RE to operate apart from the rule?

Keep in mind that I’ve provided definitions of “rational” and “reasonable” in this series. If something is rational, then it is proven or show to be logical and within the bounds of reason. So, if one removes evidence and arguments from a belief, two things required to demonstrate rationality, what is left? There is nothing left but a belief. And if belief is all that remains, any belief, whether it be Christian belief or the belief in UFOs, can be believed apart from evidence or argument. And for proponents of RE, one may still be deemed rational even if no evidence or argument exists. But what about the Christian who believes their Christian belief corresponds to reality? What does it look like to them, when told they need no evidence or argument, to hold to a belief that need not correspond to reality? Does it seem true to them?

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