Plantinga Pwns, Part V: Warranted Christian Belief

Leave a Comment

Part IV of this series ended with somewhat of a cliffhanger.  Marx and Freud seemed to think that religion arose through purely naturalistic processes.  Not only that, but the aim of religion was not truth, but something less legitimate - for Marx it was an escape from the harsh reality of existence, and for Freud it was "wish fulfillment."  At any rate, this all makes religion irrational, whether or not it's true.  This Alvin Plantinga came to call the de jure objection.  The root issue is whether or not religious belief - and Christian belief in particular - has any justification.

If we take a step back for a minute, in a previous post, we discussed the difficulties of defining what "knowledge" is.  Most everyone agrees that it entails belief about something that is true.  But there is also the issue of justification.  It seems to be a requirement for knowledge, yet Gettier proposed some thought experiments that showed it is not sufficient.  Since Gettier, this has remained a vexing problem for philosophers.

Plantinga is one of the foremost epistemologists of today, and his solution to the problem is to replace "justification" with what he calls "warrant."  Now, this post and Part IV of this series have both loosely followed his book Warranted Christian Belief.  WCB is actually the third book in his "warrant" trilogy, which outlines his position.  Warrant: The Current Debate, describes the historical and contemporary issues surrounding knowledge (Justified True Belief - see this post), and leads into the second book, Warrant and Proper Function which puts forth Plantinga's argument.  WCB applies his idea of warrant to Christian belief.


So what is warrant?  Without really going into any of the arguments in support of the idea of warrant (you'll have to read the books), "a belief has warrant for a person S only if that belief is produced in S by cognitive faculties functioning properly (subject to no dysfunction) in a cognitive environment that is appropriate for S's kind of cognitive faculties, according to a design plan that is successfully aimed at truth."1

It's clear that warrant has several requirements, and is somewhat more demanding than most definitions of justification.  By "design plan," Plantinga does not mean that humans necessarily were designed by an intelligent creator, only that there is a way in which the human system is meant to work.  So, under naturalism, there could be an evolutionary explanation for the human body having a purpose.  Here is a list of the requirements for a belief in person S to have "warrant," based on the definition:
  1. Cognitive faculties functioning properly (subject to no dysfunction)
  2. A cognitive environment that is appropriate for S's kind of cognitive faculties
  3. (3a) 1 and 2 taking place according to a design plan that is (3b) successfully aimed at truth
What is interesting is that the Marx & Freud (M&F) objections claim theism lacks warrant.  For Freud, theism fails 3b.  The cognitive faculties may be functioning just fine, but they are not aimed at truth but at wishful thinking that will help us get through this harsh life.  This does not mean that theism is necessarily false (though it seems likely), but it does means that if someone comes to this realization they should cease their theistic belief.

For Marx, on the other hand, theism fails 1- our cognitive faculties are not functioning properly when it comes to theistic belief.  And those with properly functioning cognitive faculties will obviously see that materialism is the reasonable position and not theism.

The A/C Model

In answer to this, Plantinga develops a model of theistic belief which has warrant- the Aquinas/Calvin (A/C) model.2  By model, he means a system that could be true.  The interesting thing is that Plantinga doesn't actually argue that it is true; he only argues that the model is possible.  And not simply logically possible, but epistemically possible.  Further, Plantinga argues that there are no cogent objections to the model- or at least none that do not directly object to the truth of Christian belief.  Finally, if Christian belief is true, then the model - or something like it - is also true.3

You may have noticed the unusual name for the model - the Aquinas/Calvin model.  Those two names do not usually go together.4  It is called the Aquinas/Calvin model because both wrote of a certain natural knowledge of God within every human being5- "(and anything on which Calvin and Aquinas are in accord is something to which we had better pay careful attention)."  Calvin calls this innate natural knowledge a sensus divinitatis - a sense of divinity.  This sensus divinitatis is not necessarily static - it does grow, and can be triggered by certain circumstances.  It is akin to a perception or experience (whether it is one or the other or something else entirely is an interesting question, but irrelevant to the argument), and has been affected - damaged or weakened - by sin.  It is not the instigation of the Holy Spirit; it is, rather, a "capacity for knowledge of God" and "part of our original cognitive equipment."

It is important to note that this sense of divinity is not arrived at by argument or inference. It is more along the lines of perception, memory, and a priori belief.  According to Plantinga, a belief of one of these kinds is known as a properly basic belief.  What is a properly basic belief?  First, by basic we mean the belief is not arrived at by evidence or propositions.  For example, when you see a tree, you do not go through various steps of considering the aspects of the visual stimulus, the function of your eyes, the signal that is sent via the optic nerve, and the brain's reception of the image, and then finally come to the belief that you are being appeared to tree-ly and therefor there is a tree.  No, it is far more direct- you see the tree and immediately believe that there is a tree.  Likewise, with memory, "You ask me what I had for breakfast; I think for a moment and then remember: pancakes with blueberries.  I don't argue from the fact that it seems to me that I remember having pancakes for breakfast to the conclusion that I did; rather, you ask me what I had for breakfast, and the answer simply comes to mind."6  Second, a belief is properly basic if it has warrant.  For example, while we do not arrive at a memory by argument (it is basic, as explained above), in order to be properly basic it must be a memory that came about using properly functioning cognitive faculties in an appropriate environment according to a design plan successfully aimed at truth.7

Does Belief in God Have Warrant?

It depends.  No false belief has warrant sufficient enough for knowledge.  So if God does not exist, belief in God does not have warrant.  Even if false beliefs can have some warrant, it seems belief in God cannot.  Because if God does God does not exist, there is no sensus divinitatis, so what faculty would lead to such a belief?  In such a case Freud or Marx would apparently be right.  On the other hand, if God does exist, then it seems likely that theistic belief has warrant.  If Christianity is true, something like the A/C model exists, and this gives Christian belief warrant.

So where does this all leave us?  In my previous post I promised to end this one with a twist.  Here it is; it is really the heart of WCB:
...[T]his dependence of the question of warrant or rationality on the truth or falsehood of theism leads to a very interesting conclusion.  If the warrant enjoyed by belief in God is related in this way to the truth of that belief, then the question whether theistic belief has warrant is not, after all, independent of the question whether theistic belief is true.  So the de jure question we have finally found is not, after all, really independent of the de facto  question; to answer the former we must answer the latter.  This is important: what it shows is that a successful atheological objection will have to be to the truth of theism, not to its rationality....  Atheologians who wish to attack theistic belief will have to restrict themselves to objections like the argument from evil, the claim that theism is incoherent, or the idea that in some other way there is strong evidence against theistic belief.  They can't any longer adopt the following stance: "Well, I certainly don't know whether theistic belief is true --who could know a thing like that?-- but I do know this: it is irrational...."  There isn't a sensible de jure question or criticism that is independent of the de facto question.  There aren't any de jure  criticisms that are sensible when conjoined with the truth of theistic belief; all of them either fail right from the start (as with the claim that it is unjustified to accept theistic belief) or else really presuppose that theism is false.  This fact by itself invalidates an enormous amount of recent and contemporary atheology; for much of that atheology is devoted to de jure complaints that are allegedly independent of the de facto question.  If my argument ... is right, though, there aren't any sensible complaints of that sort.8
As usual, Plantinga does not overstate his case.  And yet the implication of his argument is impressive.  If it is possible that theism is true, then it is possible that the A/C model or something similar is correct.  And if that is the case, then it is possible Christian belief has warrant.  And if that is the case, then there is no good de jure objection independent of the de facto.  Note that it doesn't take theism having warrant to dismiss de jure objections; it only needs to be possible that theism has warrant for the objections to fail.

While the argument has a pretty startling conclusion, it isn't an argument for the existence of God, and it won't lead anyone to Christian belief as it doesn't argue that such a belief is true.  Nonetheless, the argument could be used to remove barriers to belief in the mind of a skeptic.  If an atheist, for example, comes to see that de jure objections hold no water and that Christian belief might have warrant, then he may be more open to arguments for its truth.

Part VI of this series - the last part - will cover the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism.  Unlike most of Plantinga's work, it has garnered quite a lot of attention from the atheists of the internet.

1.  Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief, p. 156
2.  Not to be confused with air conditioning!  Though that does remind me of this clip where a South Bend news crew interviews Plantinga over that very subject!
3.  See p. 169 and following for more on this.
4.  Perhaps only someone who has been a professor at Notre Dame and Calvin College could come up with something like this!
5.  This echoes Paul's thoughts in Romans 1:18-20
6.  p. 175-176
7.  It is possible to have a basic belief that isn't properly basic, such as a belief that comes about through cognitive malfunction, in which case it would lack warrant.  Déjà vu may be an example.  Some experts chalk it up to wish fulfillment (that seems to be the go-to explanation for anything they haven't figured out), a mixup between long-term and short-term memory, or confusing the present with a memory that is similar but not the same.
8.  p. 191 
Next Post Newer Post Previous Post Older Post Home


Post a Comment