Friday, December 25, 2009

Reformed Epistemology (Part 2): The Attack of the Plantingas

This post is part of my series on Nicholas Everitt's The Non-Existence of God. For an index, see here.

I am currently working my way through Chapter 2 of Everitt's book, which deals with Alvin Plantinga's arguments for Reformed epistemology (RE).

I closed out Part 1 with a summary of classical foundationalism: a theory of epistemic justification that rests on the notion of basic beliefs. Basic beliefs are beliefs that need no justification: all other beliefs must be derived from them.

As we saw, for classical foundationalists, there are two types of basic belief: (i) self-evident or logical truths; and (ii) beliefs about conscious states. Plantinga wants to bless God-belief with proper basicality.

The Flaws of Foundationalism
Plantinga paves the way for a reformed epistemology by first pointing out the flaws in classical foundationalism. They are twofold.

First, there seem to be certain beliefs that we are justified in having that are neither basic, nor derived from basic beliefs. Everitt uses the following example: "I ate toast for breakfast." This belief is not self-evidently true; nor is it about a current conscious state (the memory might be, but the content of the belief is not equivalent to the memory). Maybe evidence could be adduced to support this belief, but surely this is unnecessary; surely I can just know that ate toast for breakfast without the need for further justification.

This first objection can be simplified: classical foundationalism is too strict. It would commit us to a thoroughgoing scepticism which is unheard of in most types of inquiry.

Second, and more seriously, Plantinga charges classical foundationalism with self-refutation. Recall, that are supposedly two types of basic belief, every justified belief must either be a basic belief or be derived from one. But what about the belief in classical foundationalism? It is neither self-evidently true, nor is it about a present conscious state. Thus, it would seem to be bankrupt.

The dismissal of classical foundationalism is a core component of reformed epistemology. Plantinga suggests that many objections to the proper basicality of God-belief can be traced back to the failure to fully appreciate the rejection of classical foundationalism.

A Reformed Epistemology?
Pinpointing the flaws in classical foundationalism is easy. Plantinga also has to make the positive case for RE. Let's see what this case is. (I hope you are sitting comfortably, because you are about to be exposed to some brain-liquefying ideas.)

First off, Plantinga is actually proposing a reformed foundationalism. This foundationalism would have a much broader typology of basic beliefs. Indeed, basicality would now include memory beliefs and, no surprises here, God-belief.

These basic beliefs would no longer need to incorrigible or infallible: there may well be reasonable objections to them (defeaters). For example, my belief that I had toast for breakfast could be defeated by video evidence to the contrary. However, and this is crucial, the person with the basic belief is entitled to continue to believe provided (i) they have never heard the objection or (ii) they have defeaters for the defeaters.

This last point is crucial because religious apologists will often play the possibility-card in debates about God's existence. In other words, they will say that because God-belief is properly basic, they need only show possible objections to atheistic arguments. The objections might be highly improbable, but that doesn't matter.

Is Belief in the Great Pumpkin Properly Basic?
One standard objection to RE is that it is too open-ended: any arbitrary belief, such as belief in the Great Pumpkin, can count. Plantinga thinks this is not true, but admits he does not have precise criteria for distinguishing basic beliefs from other beliefs.

He argues that this is not a major problem because we often "know" the difference between two things without being able to adduce specific demarcation-criteria. For example, we all know that a mouse is not the same as an elephant, but we may not be able to articulate the precise criteria for mouse-hood (such essentialism is ruled-out by evolution anyway).

Instead, he proposes that we proceed inductively: that we gather many examples of basic beliefs and infer demarcation-criteria from these examples. In so proposing, Plantinga is endorsing a view called particularism, which uses what we know to infer criteria for how we know it (see here).

Sceptics will be quick to point out that this task is impossible because there is no neutral starting point from which to begin: atheists think God-belief not properly basic and theists do, we need to appeal to some independent criteria (like those of classical foundationalism).

Plantinga argues that neutral starting points are not needed. The theist can feel secure that they are right to believe as they do. How so?

Grounded, but not Reasonable
This is where the idea of groundedness becomes important. Plantinga argues that although basic beliefs need no justification (and so cannot be "reasonable"), they can be experientially grounded. For example, my belief that I am in pain can be grounded in the conscious experience of pain.

How can God-belief be experientially grounded? There are some examples. For instance, you could start reading the Bible and become convinced that God is speaking to you through the text; or by having a guilty conscience after doing something wrong and becoming convinced that there must be a moral lawgiver.

These two examples would seem to take us beyond the general theistic god and into a more specific religious god. But if they work, all the better for the religious believer.

That's it for now. In the next part, I will detail Everitt's objections to RE.


  1. How does Plantiga establish that god beliefs and memory beliefs can be basic?

    Because he says so?

    To clarify I do not understand how he is able to just expand the basic belief category on a whim.

  2. Yes it is a rather suspicious argument. It seems to be an argument by fiat alright. I'll look at the responses to Plantinga in the next post on this.

    Might be a couple of days before I get to it though.

  3. Cool. By the way I really enjoy the quality of posts on this blog, keep it up!

  4. Plantinga endorses Chisholmian particularism, and correlatively, an inductive method for formulating criteria of proper basicality:

    "We must assemble examples of beliefs and conditions such that the former are obviously properly basic in the latter, and examples of beliefs and conditions such that the former are obviously not properly basic in the latter. We must then frame hypotheses as to the necessary and sufficient conditions of proper basicality and test these hypotheses by reference to those examples." (Plantinga, Alvin. "Reason and Belief in God", in Faith and Rationality: Reason and Belief in God (U of Notre Dame Press, 1983), p. 76.)

  5. Thanks for that exapologist. I was working off the summary in Everitt, which is based on that 1983 paper.

    For anyone in the dark:

    Particularism works from what we know (i.e. the contents of our beliefs) to how we know (i.e. the criteria for knowledge).

    I've included a link to a good summary of Chisholm's particularism in the text.