January 10, 2011
Belief in God
Belief in God as Properly Basic
What counts as justification for belief in God? Alvin Plantinga in his book Warranted Christian Belief has argued that man has a sensus divinitatis or “sense of the divine,” opening the possibility that belief in God could be properly basic. Plantinga goes on to argue that attempts to reject Christian theism as unwarranted fail. Here Dr. Craig answers a questioner’s objections to Plantinga’s model and expands Plantinga’s notion, suggesting that the witness of the Holy Spirit provides Christians with proper grounding for belief in God.
I have some questions about Reformed Epistemology and your view on the witness of the Holy Spirit as explicated in Question 68.
Following the lead of Alvin Plantinga, you try to argue that classical foundationalism is self-refuting because the criterion used by classical foundationalism ("only propositions that are self-evident or incorrigible are properly basic") for discerning properly basic beliefs and beliefs derived from properly basic beliefs is itself neither properly basic nor derived. You say it is not properly basic because, using classical foundationalism's own criterion, it is neither self-evident nor incorrigible. But your assertion that the criterion cannot be demonstrated by using evidence is a bit hasty. After all, you have not shown that the criterion used in classical foundationalism is incoherent; all you've shown is that we simply lack any evidence for it at the moment, but as you know, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. And unlike the self-refuting criterion used in logical positivism, the one in classical foundationalism can at least be verified in principle. Furthermore, appealing to Reformed Epistemology to escape this does not help either because the criterion used by Reformed Epistemologists ("only propositions that are self-evident, incorrigible, or appropriately grounded are properly basic") is itself not properly basic and, using Plantinga's hasty reasoning, is not evidentially supported either. So Reformed Epistemology does not do anything to alleviate the problem. Given this, should not one also reject Reformed Epistemology as self-refuting as well?
Second, there are better criteria available than the ones used either by the classical foundationalist or the Reformed Epistemologist, particularly universal sanction. According to universal sanction, a belief is properly basic if it is pragmatically indispensable. The nice part about this criterion is that it allows for a type of evidentialism which avoids all of Plantinga's counterexamples. For instance, under universal sanction, memory beliefs, belief in the reality of the external world, belief in other minds, and so on, are properly basic because doubting or denying them would make living a normal human life impossible. We need these beliefs in order to live happy and fulfilling lives. Now interestingly enough, universal sanction effectively prevents any theistic beliefs from being properly basic, for it is pragmatically conceivable that one lives a happy life without belief in God. I think Sennett in spot on in his analysis here. The reason we accept belief in other minds, the external world, and our memories is not because we somehow "know" that they are true; it is all psychological, for we desperately want these beliefs to be true because we know that it would be impossible to live a fulfilling life without them. Now, Plantinga would probably say that universal sanction is self-refuting, but there are problems with that strategy as mentioned earlier. Would you now agree that universal sanction is superior to Plantinga's criterion?
Third, in the context of Plantinga's work, a properly basic belief is a basic belief that has not been attacked with any defeaters; once a defeater is given, though, the properly basic belief becomes simply a basic one. At this point, one can either relinquish the basic belief or hold on to it in the case that she can find arguments with which to defeat the original defeater, which would then restore the belief's proper basicality. On your view, though, the witness of the Holy Spirit is a properly basic belief AND an intrinsic defeater-defeater, so if someone were to offer a defeater to Christianity that you could not answer, would your belief in God be basic or properly basic?
Next, when you say that one is rational to believe in God on the basis of the witness of the Holy Spirit, do you mean rational in the sense pertaining to justification or warrant? If by "rational", you mean "justified", then you have really shown nothing. Muslims, Hindus, and atheists are all rational under this definition since they are within their epistemic rights. Nothing has been done to show that Christianity is true. On the other hand, if by "rational", you mean "warranted" in the Plantingian sense, then you need to explain why other properly basic beliefs that are warranted turn out to be false (like faulty memory beliefs).
It is worth noting that the relationship between properly basic non-theistic beliefs and their grounds are vastly different from the relationship between supposedly properly basic theistic beliefs and their grounds. There is always a certain correspondence between the content of an experience and the content of a belief grounded by that experience. For instance, my feeling of pain grounds the belief that I am in pain, not some unrelated belief like "evolution is true" or "a=a". However, according to Plantinga, experiencing guilt, happiness, and danger or reading the Bible serves as grounds for properly basic theistic belief. But surely you notice the disparity here, Dr. Craig! What Plantinga is asking us to do is to conclude, on the basis of a few emotions, that a necessary, eternal, self-existing, omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, omnipresent, omnitemporal, unembodied mind created the universe out of nothing and regularly interacts with humans and has revealed himself to man in the form of Jesus of Nazareth, who was born of a virgin, performed numerous miracles, was crucified, descended into hell, rose from the dead, ascended to heaven, and now sits at the right hand of God, exists! The belief is so unrelated to its alleged grounds that one can only wonder how Plantinga gets away with this! Surely you don't believe that belief in the God mentioned above is solely grounded by a mere religious experience, right?
Finally, Plantinga's model presupposes that Christianity is true. Plantinga essentially is defending the proposition: If Christianity is true, then Christian belief is warranted (as explained by his model). But Plantinga never gives any support for the antecedent of that material conditional; he just says that demonstrating the antecedent is not his project. But if that is so, then Plantinga really has not shown much other than that de jure objections to Christianity fail. But I fail to see how his model shows how a Christian can rationally believe that Christianity is true. Do you hold to this view? You seem to argue in the opposite direction of Plantinga: If there is a witness of the Holy Spirit, then Christianity is true. Do you believe that THAT conditional is true?
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In assessing Alvin Plantinga’s theory of religious knowledge, it’s important to keep clearly in mind what his aims are. As he describes his project, it is two-fold: First, a public project aimed at showing that there is no objection to Christian belief unless Christian beliefs can be shown to false and, second, a private project aimed to provide the Christian community with a plausible account of how Christian belief is warranted.
With regard to the public project Plantinga wants to show that there is no good reason to think Christian belief is unjustified, irrational, or unwarranted unless it can be shown that Christian beliefs are false. Some readers might think, “Well, of course!”; but they need to understand that at least until recently it has been argued that even if Christianity were true, we would not be justified in believing it. Usually this is because it is claimed that there is a lack of evidence for Christian beliefs such as the belief that God exists. Now Plantinga disagrees with that assertion; he thinks that the theistic arguments make it more probable than not that God exists. But he wants to defend the view that Christian belief can be justified, rational, and warranted even in the absence of evidence. In order to show this he develops a model for how one might be warranted in Christian belief on the basis of an innate cognitive faculty designed by God to produce belief in Him under certain circumstances and on the basis of the witness of the Holy Spirit to the great truths of the Gospel contained in Scripture.
Now Plantinga doesn’t claim to show that his model is true but merely that for all we know, it may be true, and, moreover, if Christianity is true, then something like the model is very likely to be true. If he succeeds in establishing these modest claims, he will have shown that there is no objection to Christian belief apart from demonstrating that Christianity is false, or, as he puts it, there is no de jure objection to Christian belief independent of a de facto objection.
So on Plantinga’s view belief in God can be (and he thinks should be) a properly basic belief not inferred on the basis of evidence. Now as you note, Timaeus, the classical foundationalist has traditionally held that only self-evident or incorrigible beliefs are properly basic. Plantinga doesn’t deny that such beliefs are properly basic, but he presents two considerations to prove that so restricting properly basic beliefs is untenable: (i) If only self-evident and incorrigible propositions are properly basic, then we are all irrational, since we commonly accept numerous beliefs that are not based on evidence and that are neither self-evident nor incorrigible. (ii) The proposition Only beliefs that are self-evident or incorrigible are properly basic is not itself properly basic, since it is neither self-evident nor incorrigible. Therefore, if we are to believe this proposition, we must have evidence that it is true. But there is no such evidence.
Belief in God – Answering three objections to belief in God as properly basic
Now your first objection is that perhaps the evidence justifying this belief will be found. It’s very difficult to see how that could possibly happen, Timaeus. It’s hard to see what sort of evidence could justify such a view, especially in light of (i). If we take an inductive survey of beliefs we think are properly basic, there will be no agreement that they are so restricted. But the more important point is that given the admitted present absence of such evidence, it is currently irrational to accept classical foundationalism. Therefore, it is impotent as an objection to including belief in God as properly basic.
You then assert that the criterion used by Reformed Epistemologists is itself not properly basic or evidentially supported. But this is a misunderstanding. Reformed Epistemologists like Plantinga don’t offer any criterion of proper basicality. Plantinga eschews any search for such a criterion and suggests that if we want to see which beliefs are properly basic, the best we can do is just take an inductive survey of our beliefs, and he insists that the theist will include belief in God among such beliefs, even if unbelievers do not. So Reformed Epistemology is not self-refuting, since it doesn’t offer any criterion of which beliefs are properly basic.
Your second objection is to offer another criterion for properly basic beliefs that would exclude belief in God as properly basic, namely, properly basic beliefs must be universally sanctioned. But this criterion falls prey to the same two objections raised by Plantinga. (i) There are myriads of beliefs which we accept in a properly basic way which aren’t universally sanctioned. For example, my belief that I had scrambled eggs for breakfast is not pragmatically indispensable. Even if it were for me (which it’s not), it certainly isn’t for someone else who isn’t I and didn’t eat scrambled eggs for breakfast. Most of our properly basic beliefs are highly individualized and therefore not universally sanctioned. (If you relativize your criterion to individual persons, then you’ll have to allow that for some people belief in God might be pragmatically indispensable!) (ii) The belief that only universally sanctioned beliefs are properly basic is not itself universally sanctioned. But neither is there any evidence that only universally sanctioned beliefs are properly basic. So this objection doesn’t exclude the proper basicality of belief in God. Universal sanction is not superior to Plantinga's criterion, first, because Plantinga doesn’t have a criterion, and second, because universal sanction falls prey to the above objections. (Not to mention the fact that on your view, while our beliefs may be properly basic, they don’t seem to be really warranted, leaving us in almost utter scepticism!)
Third, as to the role of defeaters of properly basic beliefs, the notion of an intrinsic defeater-defeater is not mine, but Plantinga’s. An intrinsic defeater–defeater is a belief that is so powerfully warranted that it defeats the putative defeater brought against it without any need of additional beliefs to come to the rescue. Plantinga gives the charming illustration of someone accused of a crime which he knows he didn’t commit even though all the evidence is stacked against him. He is rational in believing in his own innocence despite the evidence which would rightly convince someone else that he is guilty. In application to the witness of the Holy Spirit, my claim is that God can so powerfully warrant Christian beliefs that they become intrinsic defeaters of the defeaters lodged against them, so that, yes, they remain both properly basic and warranted.
Belief in God – The rationality of theistic belief
When I say that one is rational to believe in God on the basis of the witness of the Holy Spirit, do I mean rational in the sense pertaining to justification or warrant? Read what Plantinga says in response to the “Son of Great Pumpkin” objection in Warranted Christian Belief. He is emphatic that justification is easy to achieve (even Voodoo epistemologists can be justified in their beliefs!) and that what he’s talking about is warrant, that which turns true belief into knowledge. You complain, “Nothing has been done to show that Christianity is true.” Ah, but Timaeus, that’s no part of Plantinga’s project! His aim, remember, is merely to show that for all we know, his model may be true. When you assert, “you need to explain why other properly basic beliefs that are warranted turn out to be false (like faulty memory beliefs),” you err in thinking that such beliefs are warranted; they’re not. They may be justified in the sense that the person holding them is within his rational rights or exhibits no cognitive defect, but he’s not warranted.
As for the disparity of the conditions grounding properly basic beliefs, there’s no reason to think there has to be uniformity here. In any case you misconstrue the model when you say that “on the basis of a few emotions” Plantinga is asking us “to conclude” that such and such a being exists. You’re treating these experiences as something from which a belief is inferred, and that’s not the model. Rather these experiences serve as triggers for the operation of this innate, God-given faculty which forms belief in God (and even then not necessarily including all the superlative theological attributes you mention, of which very few people are even aware). As for the content of Christian beliefs, you’re overlooking the role of Scripture in Plantinga’s model: it is through Scripture that we learn of the great truths you mention, and then the Holy Spirit commends these truths to us. We don’t just come up with them out of the blue; we read of them in Scripture. So, right, I and Plantinga do not think or propose that “belief in the God mentioned above is solely grounded by a mere religious experience.”
Finally, you’re correct that Plantinga claims that “If Christianity is true, then Christian belief is warranted.” You’re also correct that he “says that demonstrating the antecedent is not his project.” You then complain, “But if that is so, then Plantinga really has not shown much other than that de jure objections to Christianity fail.” Right, which is to admit that his public project has been a resounding success! No longer can unbelievers grumble that Christians are irrational, unjustified, or unwarranted in believing as they do in the absence of evidence. Unbelievers will have to come up with disproofs of Christian beliefs in order to show that such beliefs are irrational, unjustified, or unwarranted. So your next remark, Timaeus, just doesn’t make sense: “I fail to see how his model shows how a Christian can rationally believe that Christianity is true.” That’s exactly what you just admitted it does show, unless you’ve got some arguments you’ve not yet shared to show that Christianity is false.
Do I hold Plantinga’s view? That question takes us from his public project into his private project. Should I as a Christian adopt his model as a way of understanding how Christian beliefs are warranted? Here I do have some reservations. See my assessment in the chapter on Religious Epistemology in Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. I’m inclined to place more emphasis on the witness of the Holy Spirit rather than on some innate cognitive faculty. Still, at the end of the day I think that Plantinga is right that if Christianity is true, then something like the model is very likely to be true. I also think that “If there is a witness of the Holy Spirit, then Christianity is true.” And I think Plantinga would agree.