Saturday, August 6, 2011

Son of the Great Pumpkin Objection (SGP): Objections to Reformed Epistemology, Part 3

“Although reformed epistemologists would not have to accept voodoo beliefs as rational, voodoo followers would be able to claim that insofar as they are basic in the voodoo community they are rational and, moreover, that reformed thought was irrational in this community. Indeed, Plantinga’s proposal would generate many different communities that could legitimately claim that their basic beliefs are rational...Among the communities generated might be devil worshipers, flat earthers, and believers in fairies, just so long as belief in the devil, the flatness of the earth, and fairies was basic in the respective communities” (Michael Martin, Atheism, page 272; quoted by Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, page 345).

In my last post, I discussed Plantinga’s claim that theistic belief was similar to memory belief, a priori intuition, and perception. If this is the case, then belief in God must be subjected to reason and correspondence to reality; it would thus require evidence to validate the claim that theism is true. This spells problems for Reformed Epistemology.

In today’s post, I am back to tackle the SGP: the Son of the Great Pumpkin Objection. Plantinga presents the objection:

“...according to SGP, someone who took any proposition p in the basic way could legitimately claim that p was properly basic---properly basic with respect to rationality, says Martin---that is, such that it can be both rationally accepted and accepted in the basic way. Take any possible community and any beliefs accepted as basic in that community: the epistemologists of that community could legitimately claim that these beliefs are rationally accepted in the basic way” (Plantinga, WCB, 345).

In other words, the issue is no longer (as in the Great Pumpkin Objection, GPO) that any belief could be true, but the idea that any belief could be claimed or asserted as true. There is a distinction to be noted here between whether or not a belief is true and whether or not a belief is claimed as truth.

Here is Plantinga’s response to the SGP objection:

“Suppose we think of the Reformed epistemologists as actually claiming that belief in God and the deliverances of the IIHS enjoy warrant in the basic way; suppose further that they claim this ‘legitimately’---that is, under the current interpretation, suppose this claim itself has warrant for them. Would it follow that for any proposition p, if there were a community who endorsed p, these people (or the epistemologists of their community) would be warranted in believing that p is properly basic with respect to warrant for those in this community? It would not follow. Suppose the extended A/C model is true (not just possible); then (a) the central claims of the Christian faith are, in fact, true, (b) there really are such cognitive processes as the sensus divinitatis and IIHS, and (c) their deliverances do meet the conditions for warrant...It doesn’t follow, of course, that the voodoo epistemologist is also warranted in claiming that voodoo belief is properly basic with respect to warrant. For suppose voodoo belief is in fact false, and suppose further that it arose originally in some kind of mistake or confusion, or out of a fearful reaction to natural phenomena of one sort or another, or in the mind of some group hoping to gain or perpetuate personal political power. If so, then those original voodoo beliefs did not possess warrant. Suppose still further that these voodoo beliefs were passed on to subsequent generations by way of testimony and teaching. Now if a testifier testifies to some belief p that has no warrant for her, then p will also have no warrant for anyone believing it on just the basis of her testimony. If p has no warrant for the testifier, then it has none for the testifiee either---even if the latter’s faculties are working perfectly properly” (Plantinga, WCB, 347-348).

Plantinga wants us to “suppose voodoo belief is in fact false” and “suppose...that it arose in some kind of mistake or confusion.” But why should we assume this about voodooism? We are never told. We are simply told to assume the worst about voodooism, though there is no evidence cited or reasons given to justify the claim. In addition, not only is the voodoo religion attacked, but also the origin of the religion: It “arose out of a fearful reaction to natural phenomena...or in the mind of some group hoping to gain or perpetuate personal political power” (WCB, 348). But this is simply to assume the worst about voodooism without providing sufficient reasons for why we should assume the worst. Secondly, does not the attack on the origin of voodooism match the Freud-Marx complaint against Christianity’s motive for theistic belief as “wish fulfillment”? Plantinga attempts to attack this claim when Freud and Marx attack Christianity:

“In polemic, it is common to attack someone’s views by claiming that the denial of what they think is patently obvious (i.e., such that any right-thinking, properly-functioning person can immediately see that it is so); we then attribute their opposing this obvious truth either to dishonesty (they don’t really believe what they say; after all, who could?) or to their being blinded by something or other---maybe a reluctance to change, an aversion to new ideas, personal ambition, sexism, racism, or homophobia” (Plantinga, WCB, 150).

Plantinga claims that the opposition (Freud and Marx, Dawkins, etc.) does this in the F&M complaint as well as in other statements made. However, does he not do this when he labels the unbeliever as “irrational” in his unbelief (WCB, top of page 186)? And does he not do this again when, in his words about voodooism, he tells the reader to assume that voodooism came about because of fear of natural phenomena, persons clamoring for political power, and that the religion was born out of mistake or confusion? He does what he quotes others as having done on page 150: claiming that Christianity (the opposite of voodoo) is true, and that “properly-functioning” persons, that is “rational” individuals, could see it (because individuals are only “properly-functioning” when they believe in God). While it is opposite Freud and Marx (who claim Christian belief is irrational), it is still the same tactic used nonetheless.

Aside from Plantinga’s shortcomings, let’s take a look at the Son of the Great Pumpkin Objection (SGP). Can other communities claim that their non-Christian beliefs are warranted in the same way that Christian belief is? Plantinga says they cannot, but I respectfully disagree. If there is no evidence presented to demonstrate truth or falsity, any belief can appear to be legitimate.

A good example of this can be seen in the movie Unknown, released just this year (2011). The main role in the movie is played by Liam Neeson, one who is no stranger to great roles in great movies. He plays the role of a hired assassin, trained over months to kill a professor who is working on a great technological advancement for the world. At the beginning of the movie, we are not told Neeson’s occupation as an assassin...rather, all we are told is that Neeson is a doctor, headed to an international conference in Germany, where he will present his research. He gets into a car accident with a taxi driver, ends up in a hospital with permanent amnesia, and forgets his real identity. So, he claims to be “Martin Harris.” His Swiss watch is supposedly a gift from his wife to him, and is marked with the words “From E.H. to M.H.” His wife’s name is Elizabeth, and his name is Martin. We presume that Neeson must be “Martin Harris” because of the initials on his watch (M.H.). Who would wear a watch that bears initials not matching their own?

But then, when Neeson is claiming that “Elizabeth” is his wife (she being at the party with someone else), we discover that there is another person claiming to be “Martin Harris.” The new guy claiming to be “Martin Harris” wears a university badge. When one goes to the university website, the new guy’s photo is under the name, “Martin Harris.” The new guy even has a badge that says, “Martin Harris.” Neeson, on the other hand, does not have his identification to prove he is “Martin Harris.” To make matters worse, when Neeson begins to cite to the men in the room the conversation he had with one of the doctors, the second guy chimes in and starts completing the sentences with the same words as Neeson. It seems that these two men know the same details, recite the same sentences, and both claim to be “Martin Harris.” At this point in the movie, both can make legitimate claims to the identity of “Martin Harris,” though the audience seems to find Neeson most believable. The university professor, though claiming to be “Martin Harris,” appears to be a fake, someone who is setting Neeson up, someone who’s after him, etc. The audience could immediately think “conspiracy theory” when the other guy attempts to steal the identity of the man the audience accepts as “Martin Harris.”

In the end, however, neither Neeson nor the university professor is the real Martin Harris; in fact, “Martin Harris” does not even exist. The identity, we discover in the movie’s end, is nothing more than a cover identity for Neeson, who, as I mentioned earlier, is a hired assassin, trained over months to kill a professor who is introducing his new technological advancement (concerning corn crops).

Why do I use this example? I do so to make a point: that is, while neither person was really “Martin Harris,” at the time, such claims to legitimacy could be made. And the audience, in addition, found the claim of Neeson to be believable. Having watched the movie, I simply never questioned Neeson’s role as the doctor going to an international conference in Germany. With the other non-Christian communities of Plantinga’s quote, claims to legitimacy can be made if, like Neeson, Christianity has no evidence or argument to “seal the deal” in doubting minds and convince others of its exclusive right to truth. While the other non-Christian faiths may not be true at all, to an inquiring individual, they may appear as true as Christianity in their claims. Plantinga may not admit it, but the real question is not “Are these non-Christian religions true?”, but rather, “Can they seem as true as Christianity?” And without evidence, one can only reach, as William Lane Craig says, an “epistemological stalemate” (see William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, Third Edition).

Plantinga claims throughout his work that Christianity is true or false without regard to evidence or argument...but by separating truth from evidence or argument, he allows Christianity to be “true” but “irrational” all at the same time. And by allowing Christianity to be both justified and irrational, he also allows other religions to be both justified and rational in their claims.

This connecting idea of truth with evidence (that is, that truth manifests itself in the evidence) is an idea I will explore in my next post. Stay tuned...

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