Warrant and belief
Warrant and belief Peter Fosl talks to Alvin Plantinga about his sophisticated take on the philosophy of religion
I n first meeting the University of Notre Dame's John A O'Brien Professor of Philosophy, one is likely to forget he or she is face to face with one of today's most accomplished and influential philosophers. Alvin Plantinga is a tall man, with a strong jaw, a warm easy smile, occasionally mismatched clothing, and an utterly unpretentious demeanor. He wears a beard without a moustache in the manner of traditional low church simplicity. His enormous capacity for work, his direct and honest address, and his forthright piety exemplify a disarmingly indubitable Protestant rectitude. Plantinga is, however, not only a pleasant and devout man. He is also a philosopher of tremendous sophistica tion and accomplishment. His books and articles have advanced ground brealdng work in modal logic and epistemology as well as the philosophy of religion. A past president of the Society of Christian Philosophers, perhaps Plantinga's most significant achievement has been to integrate his thought concerning the philosophy of religion with his work in epistemology and logic. In doing so he has engaged a number of prominent philosophical controversies.
Plantinga has presented powerful arguments for realism and trenchant criticisms of anti-realism. And his critical views of sociobiology, evolutionary theory, and what Steven Jay Gould has called evolutionary fundamentalism have drawn considerable attention.
I had the good fortune recently to discuss with Professor Plantinga his views on philosophy, science, reason, politics, and faith. What follows is an excerpt.
Fosl: Aquinas regards philosophy as a means of explicating and supporting truths of faith which in important instances are not themselves open to rational assessment. Others, like Kierkegaard, regard faith instead to be fundamentally hostile to reason. What in your view is the proper relationship between faith and reason, and, more specifically, what do you think is the proper relationship between religion and science? Can philosophy challenge the claims of religion?
Plantinga: From my perspective, as from that of most Christians, faith and reason are two partly separate sources of warranted belief; they are also two separate sources of true belief; hence they are two separate sources of knowledge. Reason, as I'm thinking of it, comprises the cognitive powers and faculties of properly functioning human beings.
God has created us human beings with a battery of faculties, or cognitive powers: faculties like memory and sense perception. Another faculty is what we might call testimony, whereby we are inclined to believe what others tell us, and thus can learn from them. Still another faculty is induction, whereby we can learn from experience because we expect the future will be like the past in relevant respects. In addition, there is also rational insight, whereby we know something of mathematics and logic, and can see that the conclusion of a good argument follows from the premises. We can group perception, memory, rational insight, induction and testimony together, and call that group of faculties 'reason'. So there is much we know by reason, including what we know in the sciences.
But from the Christian perspective there is also what we know by faith. These are what Jonathan Edwards calls 'the great things of the gospel': that God has created us human beings in his image; that by virtue of the greatest catastrophe ever to befall the world, human beings have fallen into sin, thus requiring redemption and renewal; that God has provided a means for this redemption by way of the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the second person of the Divine Trinity who emptied himself, became incarnate and took on our nature. I use the term 'know' or 'knowledge', advisedly; faith is not to be contrasted with knowledge. Here I follow John Calvin in holding that faith is a certain sort of knowledge, a special case of knowledge, 'a firm and certain knowledge,' he says, ' of God's benevolence towards us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit.' The main point here is that faith is a special source of knowledge, knowledge that can't be arrived at by way of reason alone. Faith and reason are separate, then, in that the main deliverances of faith are not among the deliverances of reason; we can't by philosophical reasoning or by science discover those 'great truths of the gospel'; and of course there is much that we know by reason but not by faith.
Fosl: Why not? The cases you cite seems to provide excellent examples of just such conflict.
Plantinga: The reason is that the standpoint of science involves methodological naturalism, as it's often called. For present purposes, take methodological naturalism to be two connected ideas: first, that in doing science, one can't properly explain anything by appeal to God's action in the universe. Such beliefs can't be employed as scientific hypotheses. And second, one can't properly refer to or appeal to anything we know only by faith, or that we learn from only revelation, e.g., the Bible. For example, in science we couldn't explain altruism by appealing to the image of God in us human beings, or to the work of the Holy Spirit in human hearts, even if we think that is where the correct explanation ultimately lies; that would be theology rather than science.
But then that means that the scientific standpoint or epistemic base is a proper part of the whole Christian epistemic base; the latter includes the former, together with what the Christian knows or thinks she knows by faith. And it often happens that what is probable or likely or acceptable with respect to part of an epistemic base is not acceptable from the whole epistemic base - and that without creating any problem.
Here's an example: imagine that, just for the fun of it, a group of whimsical physicists try to see how much of physics would be left if we refused to employ, in the development of physics, anything we know by way of memory. Perhaps something could be done along these lines, but it would be a poor, paltry, truncated, trifling thing. Suppose that relativity theory, or some other established part of physics turned out to be dubious and unlikely from this point of view. Suppose, that is, there were a conflict between this truncated physics and physics as ordinarily pursued.
And now consider physicists who do physics from the scientific epistemic base: they note that there is this conflict between physics done that way and physics done from the truncated base. Would such physicists have anything that could be thought of as an intellectual problem; would they or should they suffer from cognitive dissonance? Surely not. They would note, as a reasonably interesting fact, that there was indeed this conflict: the best way to think about the subject matter of physics from the standpoint of the truncated epistemic base is not the same as the best way to think about that subject matter from the perspective of the whole scientific epistemic base. But of course they take the perspective of the scientific epistemic base to be normative here; it is the right perspective from which to look at the matter.
I submit that the same goes I submit that the same goes for sociobiological science and the Christian epistemic base. The former is in this respect like truncated physics. Concede for the moment, that from the point of view of the scientific epistemic base, constrained as it is by methodological naturalism, sociobiological science is the right way to go. The important thing to see, however, is that the scientific epistemic base is only a part of the total Christian epistemic base.
When the Christian adds to the scientific epistemic base what she thinks she knows by faith - that God has created us human beings in his image, for example - we don't get a base with respect to which sociobiological science and the Christian way of looking at altruism et al. are equally well supported; what we get is a base that doesn't support sociobiological science at all. Hence Christians are not subject to any problem or cognitive dissonance here; there isn't a problem.
Fosl: I suppose I'm troubled by your claim that sociobiology isn't well supported from what you call the whole Christian epistemic base. This seems to imply that faith actually alters what is to count as rational, what is to count as rationally well justified, or at least what is to count as better justified? Your account also holds that what you call naturalistically constrained reason is insufficient by itself to establish the 'knowledge' you call faith and the Christian epistemic base. Hence, faith and the Christian base entail a form of knowledge that requires something extra-rational to establish it, or, as you put it, 'faith is a form of knowledge that can't be arrived at by way of reason alone'.
Plantinga: As you say, 'faith actually alters what is to count as rational, what is to count as rationally well justified, or at least what is to count as better justified.' But that isn't all that surprising. Most anything you learn can alter what will count as rational for you. Thus I learn that you live in Kentucky: given the rest of what I know, it is then no longer rational for me to believe that you live west of the Rockies. Propositions I accept, like those that I accept by faith, clearly constrain what I can rationally believe. If I believe that there is an omniscient God, for example, I can't rationally add to my noetic structure the proposition that there are truths no one knows.
Fosl: But does this work in the other direction? That is, can naturalistically constrained reason alter what can reasonably count as a matter of faith? You claim, following Calvin, that the things we 'know' by faith are 'both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit,' but surely reason must have some role to play. And if it's possible for naturalistically constrained reason to support faith, isn't it also at least possible for naturalistically constrained reason at least partially to subvert faith?
Plantinga: Reason can assist in supporting faith in a variety of ways; the two most traditionally emphasized have been positive and negative apologetics.
The first is a matter of giving rational proofs or arguments (proofs or arguments from reason alone) for central propositions of the faith, for example, that there is such a person as God. This is the locus of traditional (ontological, cosmological, teleological) and non-traditional theistic arguments.
The second, negative apologetics, is a matter of rebutting or refuting arguments against propositions of the faith: for example, the free will defense with respect to the claim that the existence of evil and that of God are logically incompatible.
Another example would be refutations of arguments for the conclusion that Christian or theistic belief is irrational, because there isn't enough evidence for it. Still another example would be a refutation of arguments for the conclusion that it isn't possible that one person's suffering (Christ's suffering, for example) could atone for the sins of other people.
Fosl: Of course, naturalistic thinkers claim to have developed independent reasons why one should not regard matters of faith as knowledge. Is it possible on your view that they are right in this? I suppose another way of putting my question is to ask whether or not your think it possible for naturalistically constrained reason to demonstrate that one ought to regard only the naturalistic epistemic base as the proper whole base upon which to think and conduct scientific inquiry? Why decide in favor of what you call the Christian epistemic base?
Plantinga: Yes, I should think it is possible for reason to partially subvert faith; this would happen if, for example, there were a really good argument from premises evident to reason for the denial of something central to faith. That is what people who urge anti-theistic arguments (the argument from evil, for example) are trying to come up with. I certainly can't see how naturalistically constrained reason could demonstrate that one ought to regard only the naturalistic epistemic base as the proper whole epistemic base - unless what one means here is this: given the truth of philosophical naturalism (the view that there is no God or anything like God) it follows that the right base from which to do science is the naturalistic base.
That sounds plausible, but it wouldn't trouble Christians, since of course they don't accept naturalism. But I suppose the question really is: given just the deliverances of reason, can we show that the naturalistic base is the right one from which to do science? And there I'd say that I haven't the faintest idea how that could be shown. Naturalism certainly doesn't follow from the deliverances of reason, and as far as I can see, neither does methodological naturalism.
Fosl: Without simply asserting a claim to revelation or the action of the Holy Spirit, is there any way to decide between the Christian epistemic base and the strictly naturalistic epistemic base? More generally, is the selection of which epistemic base to use at all decidable in any non-arbitrary way?
Plantinga: The selection of the evidence base to use for the formation of one's beliefs surely isn't just arbitrary - it's not like tossing a coin — but I doubt that wherever A uses one base and B another, there are good arguments that A can use to show B that she's wrong, or good arguments B can use to show A that she's wrong.
Fosl: Among the most controversial dimensions of your thought has been your criticism of naturalistic evolution and of the question of whether new species evolve out of prior species. Can you briefly summarize your objections? What does it mean when you say that naturalistic evolutionary theory is self-refuting?
Plantinga: I don't have any objection at all ro the idea that new species can or do evolve from previous species, although I am agnostic about the whole molecules-to-man evolutionary story. But that a great deal of evolution has in fact occurred seems pretty clear.
When I say that naturalistic evolution is self-refuting, I don't mean to attack evolutionary theory at all. What I mean to attack is the conjunction of evolutionary theory with philosophical naturalism, the view that there is no such person as God or anything at all like God. I say this conjunction is self-defeating. The argument is a little complex (it's chapter 12 of Warrant and Proper Function) but in bare bones outline it goes like this.
(1) The probability of R, that our cognitive faculties are reliable (provide true or verisimilitudinous belief), given N and E (the conjunction of naturalism with evolution) is low or inscrutable. (Doubts of this very kind were expressed by Charles Darwin himself; hence we can call (1) 'Darwin's Doubt'.)
(2) One who believes N and E and sees that (1) is true, has a defeater iot R, a reason not to believe it, to withhold belief from it. So one who accepts N and E (and sees that (1) is true) will, if rational, doubt that R is true with respect to her.
(3) But anyone who doubts R, has a reason to doubt or withhold any belief she takes to be produced by her cognitive faculties; hence she has a defeater for N and E itself. So N and E is in this way self-defeating. Each of (l)-(3) is of course controversial, and I try to defend each in War rant and Proper Function and in Naturalism Defeated? Essays on Plantinga's Evolutionary ArgumentAgainst Naturalism. I believe the argument is in fact successful, and have learned a great deal about it from responding to those essays.
Fosl: Yes, I think this is a fascinating argument. For myself, I suppose I'm unsure of the truth of your premise (1). From speaking to you before about this and reading your work my understanding is that you maintain that there are many possible sets of false beliefs which would have been adaptive to us through out the process of natural selection, while there is only one set of adaptive true beliefs. Hence it is not probable that the natural process (i.e. the process unguided by God) selected the true set. I'm still unsure about this.
Plantinga: I can't repeat the argument for that premise here, but an important part of the argument depends on the premise that if N and E are true, then the purpose or function of our cognitive faculties, if they have a purpose or function, is not that of providing us with true or versimiltudinous beliefs (as on theism) but rather that of maximizing fitness, i.e., maximizing survival and reproduction.
Fosl: Your argument curiously reminds me of Edmund Husserl's objections to psychologism and naturalism in his 1911 essay, 'Philosophy as Rigorous Science'. Like you, Husserl argues that naturalism is self-subverting. But, of course, it does not follow for him from that failure that matters of faith are properly regarded as knowledge. That is to say, the falsehood of naturalism does not entail theism.
Plantinga: My argument is directed only against those who think N and E are both true. My argument isn't directed against someone who is a naturalist in some other sense — maybe thinks naturalism is useful, or interesting, or aesthetically pleasing, or has that hair shirt quality Bertrand Russell says he likes his beliefs to have, or whatever, but doesn't think it's true. And that's right: to show that naturalism is self-refuting is not to show that theism is true. The argument is for the conclusion that you can't sensibly accept both N and E; it doesn't follow that you are rationally obliged to accept theism. You could, for example, just be agnostic.
The difference between the theist and the naturalist here, is not that the theist has a good argument for the reliability of our cognitive faculties (any such argument, for example Descartes's, would be circular) but that the partisan of N& E has a defeater for R, while the theist does not.
The Philosophers' /Wagaz/ne/Spring 2000
Equinox Publishing is a leading publisher specialising in books and journals in the humanities, social sciences and performing arts. We recognise and believe in the integrity of good ethical practice in publishing in order to promote and maintain the quality our contributors produce. As a publisher, we uphold the standards set forth in the COPE code of practice www.publicationethics.org, specifically for all contributing parties: author, editor, reviewer and as publisher.
We have communicated these standards to our journal editors who share in our aims for ethical publishing practice and agree to work towards these standards throughout the editorial process. Together, we ensure the ongoing excellence and quality for which Equinox is recognised.