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Alvin Plantinga

Alvin Plantinga is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, and is thought by many to be the most interesting philosopher of religion writing today. Daniel Hill asked him all about his long-awaited new book.

Professor Plantinga, in your new book, Warranted Christian Belief, you distinguish two questions someone might have about a belief – (a) ‘Is the belief true?’, and (b) ‘Is the belief intellectually acceptable?’. As regards belief in God (theistic belief) and Christian belief two corresponding objections are often raised: (i) theism/ Christianity is false, (ii) theistic/Christian belief is not intellectually acceptable. In the book you deal only with (ii), with the sort of person who says “Well, I don’t know whether Christian belief is true (after all, who could know a thing like that?), but I do know that it is not intellectually acceptable.” Why do you not deal with (i)?

First, it is already a very long book – five hundred and some pages; I didn’t want to make it any longer. But second, the only reasonably promising argument I can think of against the truth of Christian belief is that a benevolent, omnipotent, all-knowing God wouldn’t allow evil or suffering in the world. I do deal with that argument in Chapter 14, one of the chapters on putative reasons to give up Christian belief.

You point out in Warranted Christian Belief that (ii) is ambiguous – it all depends on what one means by ‘intellectually acceptable’. You distinguish three candidates for understanding (ii): (iia) theistic/Christian belief is unjustified, (iib) theistic/Christian belief is irrational internally or externally, (iic) theistic/ Christian belief is unwarranted. Let’s look at them in order, starting with (iia) and justification. You say that (iia) is really the question whether theists or Christians are conforming to their intellectual duties in believing in God or Christianity. What do you think our intellectual duties are?

I’d think of the usual suspects: not forming beliefs until you’ve looked at a good bit of the available evidence, training yourself not to jump to conclusions, being prepared to be shown you are wrong, not being unduly suspicious or cynical, and the like. But it seems to me just obvious that a theist or Christian can conform to these duties, i.e. she can obviously be within her epistemic rights, in believing in God or Christianity, even if she does so without any (propositional) evidence.

It’s a commonplace of philosophy that obviously some beliefs must lack evidence; else we would have a vicious circle or infinite regress. You are well-known for your discussion of the classical answer given by John Locke.

I call Locke’s answer ‘classical foundationalism’; he said that the only sorts of beliefs which may lack evidence, ‘properly basic beliefs’ as they’re called, are those which have as their objects self-evident propositions that a properly functioning human can simply see are true, e.g. 2+1=3, or incorrigible propositions about my own mind, such as I seem to see something white, or else propositions about things evident to the senses (e.g. something is causing me to have the ideas I do in fact have or, perhaps, the ground is showing through the snow in my backyard). Every other belief, says Locke, has to get evidence from somewhere. I then point out that on this view most of our beliefs turn out to be unjustified. For example, our memory beliefs don’t fall into any of the three categories of being self-evident, incorrigible, or evident to the senses, and they aren’t inferred from beliefs in one of these categories either.

How do you know that they aren’t subconsciously inferred from such premises? Some philosophers seem to think that we have a sub-conscious inference mechanism.

Well, they certainly don’t seem to be inferred. If they were inferred subconsciously, how would the inference go? As far as I can see, no one has suggested a way in which we could successfully infer, for example, the existence of other minds from the appropriate evidence – whether the inference be conscious or subconscious. In any case, I think that classical foundationalism is ‘self-referentially incoherent’: the principle itself isn’t self-evident, incorrigible, or evident to the senses, and can’t be validly inferred from premises which are selfevident, incorrigible, or evident to the senses. So by its own standards, classical foundationalism shouldn’t be believed.

Couldn’t the classical foundationalist claim that the principle is self-evident, such that a cognitively properly functioning human just sees that it is true?

I guess he could claim that; but is the claim at all plausible? I and many other philosophers understand that principle but don’t believe it; would it be plausible to insist that we must be cognitively dysfunctional?

How would you respond if the objector admitted that one was not contravening an epistemic duty in believing in God or Christianity without evidence, but nevertheless claimed that this was inferior to belief in God or Christianity on the basis of evidence? For instance, she might say that one advantage of believing on evidence was that one had something to weigh against counter-arguments, whereas the basic believer, i.e. the one that believes without evidence, has nothing, so far, to range against them.

Compare belief in, say, 2+1 = 3; would it be sensible to think it would be better to believe it on the basis of evidence, since then you would have something to weigh against proposed counter-arguments or defeaters? I doubt it. If a belief has a lot of warrant, that in itself is something that counts against potential defeaters, whether or not the warrant be of the sort accruing to nonbasic belief (i.e. belief based on evidence).

Let’s turn, then, to (iib), and the question of whether belief in God or Christianity is rational.

Here I distinguish in the book various concepts of rationality, fastening on the idea of rationality as the proper functioning of the rational faculties. I then distinguish internal rationality from external rationality. I say that internal rationality is a matter of the proper functioning of all belief-producing processes ‘downstream from experience’. Internal rationality includes forming or holding the appropriate beliefs in response to experience, holding a coherent set of beliefs, drawing the right inferences when the occasion arises, making the right decisions with respect to courses of action, preferring to believe what is true, and looking for further evidence when appropriate.

Might it not be the case that internal rationality demands the seeking of further evidence in the case of theistic or Christian belief?

Yes, maybe so, or at least perhaps internal rationality in some circumstances might require carefully thinking about the epistemic credentials of theistic or Christian belief. But there is no reason to think such careful thinking will yield any problems. But internal rationality is also too easy to meet. If somebody’s experience includes it strongly seeming to her that theism or Christianity is true then obviously, I say, she is internally rational in believing in God or Christianity, indeed, she would be internally irrational not to.

What is external rationality, then?

I define this as the proper functioning of the cognitive faculties ‘upstream from experience’, i.e., with respect to formation of the right kind of experience. I concede that there is a prima facie plausible objection to theism or Christianity if one interprets your (iib) as talking of external rationality. But warrant includes external rationality, so I go on to consider your (iic), and thereby also dispose of (iib).

‘Warrant’ is the central notion of Warranted Christian Belief and of the other two volumes in your trilogy, Warrant: The Current Debate and Warrant and Proper Function (both OUP, 1993). What exactly is a warranted belief?

I define warrant as that thing enough of which turns a true belief into knowledge. Not all true beliefs count as knowledge, lucky guesses don’t count as knowledge, and the reason they don’t is that they aren’t warranted. So I say that a belief is warranted if and only if (roughly) it is produced by cognitive faculties that are functioning properly in an appropriate environment according to a design plan successfully aimed at the production of true beliefs. Thus warrant includes in its first condition (cognitive faculties functioning properly) external rationality, internal rationality, and justification. Here I’m building on my earlier work in Warrant: the Current Debate and Warrant and Proper Function.

I contend that Freud’s and Marx’s complaints about theistic belief are best interpreted as versions of (iic), the complaint that theistic belief is unwarranted. Freud,I think, alleges that theistic belief is produced by wishful thinking – a cognitive process that is not aimed at truth, though it is working properly. For Marx, theistic belief is produced by cognitive processes aimed at truth, but they aren’t functioning properly, because they are perverted by the unjust social structure in which they are situated. But neither Freud nor Marx offers much in the way of an argument for either of these claims, because what they say presupposes the falsehood of theism. But then what they say doesn’t constitute much of an argument against theism, just as my offering an argument against atheism that presupposed its falsehood wouldn’t be dialectically on target.

The main thesis of your book is that what I’ve called ‘(iic)’ is not independent of what I’ve called ‘(i)’, that is, you say that the claim that theistic or Christian belief is unwarranted presupposes that theism or Christianity is false.

Yes. I argue for this thesis by claiming that if theism or Christianity is true then very likely theistic or Christian belief is warranted, and I argue for this by explaining how it could be that theistic or Christian belief is warranted. This explanation presupposes the truth of theism or Christianity, but my point is that an attempt by the objector to show that theistic or Christian belief is unwarranted has to show that the explanation I give is false, and, I claim, this can’t be done. I should add that I don’t try to show that my explanation is true, merely that it is true for all we know, in particular, that the objector can’t show that it isn’t true, and can’t give any cogent objections to it that aren’t also cogent objections to the truth of theism or Christianity. I also say that if theism or Christianity is true then something very like my explanation is true. So I conclude that there is no version of (ii) that is independent of (i). Hence the person that says “Well, I don’t know whether Christian belief is true (after all, who could know a thing like that?), but I do know that it is not intellectually acceptable” doesn’t have a tenable position. In other words, a successful atheological objection will have to be to the truth of theism, not to the rationality of theistic belief. If my argument is right, any objection to the rationality of theistic belief will presuppose that theism is false. My argument isn’t just for the proposition that if theism is true, theistic belief is rational. It is also for the proposition that any decent argument for the irrationality of theistic belief would have to go by way of the assumption (as in Freud and Marx) that theism is false.

Could you summarize your explanation for us, please?

I call my explanation the ‘Aquinas/Calvin model’, since I derive it broadly from the teachings of the philosopher Thomas Aquinas and the theologian John Calvin. For theistic belief, the explanation holds that God has created each of us with a natural faculty similar to our other natural faculties (perception, memory, reason), which in appropriate circumstances directly creates theistic belief in us without those beliefs resting on any propositional evidence. Hence theistic belief is produced by cognitive faculties functioning properly (as their designer, God, intended) in an appropriate environment (the one they were designed for – life on Earth) according to a design plan successfully aimed at truth (we may presume that God does not make mistakes and wants us to form true beliefs about him). Hence theistic belief has warrant, and, if held with sufficient strength and is true, constitutes knowledge. Indeed, far from theistic belief being irrational I think that atheistic belief is irrational, because it is not formed in accordance with a design plan successfully aimed at truth.

What about belief in God that isn’t basic, but instead rests on arguments and (propositional) evidence? Do you think that is irrational too?

I’d say that failing to believe in the basic way is a defect. But I think that’s consistent with saying that belief in God on the basis of argument can have warrant. In the same way, my inability to follow a certain argument might be a cognitive defect; but my belief in the conclusion of the argument (on the basis of some other source of belief – testimony, for example) can still have warrant.

How do you defend specifically Christian belief?

Here I extend the explanation I gave for theism, so I call this ‘the extended Aquinas/Calvin model’. I claim that the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, directly produces in the Christian basic belief, that is, belief that does not rest on propositional evidence, in the great truths of Christianity as learnt by testimony from what God has revealed in the Bible. Testimony, the Bible, and what I call, following Calvin, ‘the internal instigation of the Holy Spirit’: these, on the extended model, are together the central source of warrant for Christian belief. By virtue of the internal instigation of the Holy Spirit, we come to see the truth of the central Christian affirmations as set forth in Scripture. The internal instigation of the Holy Spirit is therefore a source of belief, a cognitive process that produces in us belief in the main lines of the Christian story. Both testimony and the activity of the Holy Spirit are sources of warrant in that the internal instigation of the Holy Spirit is a special case of testimony (just as both vision and perception are sources of warrant for a visual belief). The Bible is involved in the process as the origin of the propositions believed. So Christian belief is produced by cognitive processes (the internal instigation of the Holy Spirit) functioning properly (since it is the direct action of the Holy Spirit it can’t fail to function properly) in an appropriate environment according to a design plan successfully aimed at the production of true belief (the Holy Spirit doesn’t make mistakes and wants us to form true beliefs). Christian belief is therefore warranted, and, if held sufficiently strongly, warranted sufficiently to constitute, if true, knowledge.

You then go on in the book to consider various objections to your suggestion about the nature of the warrant for theistic or Christian belief, one being that other theistic religions than Christianity can tell a similar story to the one you tell, such that belief in them is not faced with any objections to its warrant that are not also objections to its truth. Does this bother you? Isn’t it frustrating that you know that their beliefs aren’t warranted, but can’t refute their arguments that they are warranted? After all, don’t Christians have a duty to evangelize them?

Well, I suppose I’m in the same condition with respect to other theistic religions that I say one who rejects theism is in with respect to theistic belief. So consider an element of a theistic religion that is incompatible with Christianity: any argument I can give for such religious beliefs being unwarranted will presuppose that those beliefs are false. That doesn’t frustrate me much, though. And while Christians are enjoined to evangelize, this will ordinarily mean preaching the gospel. It won’t ordinarily mean arguments for the conclusion that those non-Christian beliefs lack warrant.

In the final part of Warranted Christian Belief you turn your attention to defeaters for theistic or Christian belief. You define a ‘defeater’ for a belief as another belief such that when one comes to believe it one may not rationally continue to hold the first, ‘defeated’, belief. After returning to Freud’s and Marx’s theories of religion, you then proceed to consider some alleged defeaters.

Yes. I consider the alleged defeater from Historic Biblical Criticism, which claims that we cannot deduce from Scripture in the accepted scientifichistoric manner all the traditional beliefs of Christianity. My response is simply that deduction from Scripture in the accepted scientific-historic manner is not the source of warrant for the believer, and so the purported defeater is irrelevant. I then consider the suggestion that, given the plurality of religions, the probability of the truth of Christianity is low. My reply is that this supposed defeater is irrelevant since the Christian does not believe and derive her warrant from the balance of probabilities.

What about, though, the more general view that one is not warranted if one holds basically (i.e. without evidence) a belief with which others disagree?

Such an idea is unwarranted by its own lights, and we’ve no reason to believe it. I don’t think that there’s any duty to withhold basic belief in the face of disagreement, and, although it might be warranted for the objector to withhold Christian belief, the Christian knows that she has a source of warrant the objector lacks: the internal instigation of the Holy Spirit.

Finally, you turn to the alleged defeater of suffering and evil. You don’t deal with the objection that God and evil are logically inconsistent since professional philosophers have largely abandoned it, and because you have said a lot about it elsewhere.

That’s right. Instead, I consider the claim that the existence of evil and suffering is much more probable with respect to atheism than theism and so our belief in the existence of evil and suffering gives us a reason to give up theistic belief. I reply that this principle applies only to beliefs that derive their warrant probabilistically from other propositions, which is not so for theistic or Christian belief.

What about the argument that atheistic belief is properly basic when one sees the existence of evil?

I think that the warrant for theistic belief for the Christian is much greater than that for atheistic belief. And a Christian has a defeater in a particular set of circumstances only if it is part of our cognitive plan to give up theistic belief in those circumstances, and we have no reason to think that it is.

But if this were a good answer to the objection, then surely it would thereby defeat every possible defeater against theistic or Christian belief? Shouldn’t we rather be looking at under what general conditions the design plan legislates for the giving up of a basic belief?

I don’t think my answer would defeat every possible defeater. Suppose there really were a contradiction between some element of Christian belief and the existence of suffering and evil; and suppose it were easy to see the contradiction. Under those conditions we’d have good reason to think, given our design plan, that the existence of suffering and evil was a defeater for Christian belief, at least for those who clearly saw the contradiction.

I was very interested in your argument, given in passing, that naturalism is selfdefeating. Could you tell us about that, please?

According to my argument, one who accepts naturalism (the belief that the natural world as discovered by the natural sciences is all there is) together with the contemporary evolutionary account of the origin of our cognitive faculties has a defeater for the belief that her cognitive faculties are in fact reliable. Consequently she has a defeater for every belief she holds and so should hold every belief she holds, including her belief in naturalism and evolution, only tentatively, i.e., not sufficiently strongly that it would, if true, constitute knowledge.

Are you happy to extend your account for warrant and proper function to other things than beliefs? For instance, perhaps our actions should be thought of as rational if a properly functioning agent would do them? Or are you interested in extending your design-plan approach to other philosophical questions, e.g. questions in philosophy of mind or philosophy of language? Do you plan to continue working in epistemology or return to other areas of philosophy of religion?

Yes, I certainly believe my account can be extended in those ways; but at the moment I think I’ll have to leave the work to others. I’ve done enough epistemology to last me for a while. Right now I’m thinking about philosophy of mind. I don’t know what I’ll be working on after that, but I’m very much interested in questions of religion and science.

Professor Plantinga, thank you very much indeed for all your time and effort.

Thanks very much for your questions.

[Daniel Hill once won a prize for having the biggest feet in Chile.]

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