Objections to “Warranted Christian Belief”

Alvin Plantinga defends the notion that if God exists, then God can probably be known in a properly basic way. Moreover, if Yahweh exists, then Yahweh can probably be known in a properly basic way.

Crucial to Plantinga’s model of warrant (i.e. the property that makes true belief knowledge) is epistemic externalism.

However, for all we know, God (if God exists) would prefer that we would come to know God in an inferential way based on the evidence. Plantinga never really defends the premise that God would prefer us having knowledge of God in a basic way that is non-inferential.

Moreover, Plantinga asserts that we have a god-detector as one of our cognitive faculties. Plantinga isn’t just saying that we have an awareness of God. Rather, he is also saying that there is a specific faculty we have that recognizes the divine, which is called the sensus divinitatis.

But, Plantinga never provides any argument or evidence for such a faculty. He just says that the people who aren’t aware of God have either suppressed God or have damaged faculties. Unfortunately for Plantinga, this doesn’t explain the distribution and demographics of nonbelief.

With respect to Christian belief, Plantinga says that the Holy Spirit testifies to the truth of Christianity. However, once again, he doesn’t provide any argument or evidence that the Spirit exists.

So, one of my main problems with Plantinga’s project is that it is construed in one big conditional statement that, “If God exists, then we can probably know that God exists.” That isn’t saying a lot, because, in order to know something, then it has to be true. So, it’s not obvious that anyone knows whether God exists. Not to mention one can think that God exists, but it might not arise to knowledge because someone’s confidence level is not high.

Hence, in order for Plantinga to claim that one can probably know that God exists, he admits he would have to demonstrate that God exists. He says that this is a large task, and says it is above his pay-grade. This is a weird double standard that Plantinga employs because when he is critiquing other models of warrant he says things like, “Why think a thing like that?”. It can be quite irritating to see that Plantinga apparently has no self-awareness of this inconsistency.

Furthermore, Plantinga doesn’t seem the least bit bothered by the fact that Muslims and Hindus can come up with a similar model of warrant, which is a little strange because this is one of the same problems that plagued Plantinga’s earlier views of belief in God being justified and basic (Plantinga now thinks justification is fairly easy to have and is distinct from warrant/knowledge).

The upshot is that Plantinga’s earlier works on the matter of belief in God being properly basic was more convincing and plausible (at least to me). Perhaps, that’s because his project before was more modest in some ways. For example, he wasn’t so much interested in showing that belief in the Christian God was properly basic. In addition, Plantinga was focused on epistemic justification as opposed to knowledge, and it seems obvious that the former is easier to show than the latter. This isn’t to say that Plantinga’s earlier project was successful.

3 thoughts on “Objections to “Warranted Christian Belief”

  1. udoantwoord

    You write:
    “However, for all we know, God (if God exists) would prefer that we would come to know God in an inferential way based on the evidence. Plantinga never really defends the premise that God would prefer us having knowledge of God in a basic way that is non-inferential.”

    What God might or might not prefer is simply irrelevant. The question is whether it is warranted to believe in God non-inferentially. Why should Plantinga defend a premise that is not at question in his model?

    You write:
    “But, Plantinga never provides any argument or evidence for such a faculty. He just says that the people who aren’t aware of God have either suppressed God or have damaged faculties. Unfortunately for Plantinga, this doesn’t explain the distribution and demographics of nonbelief.”

    Plantinga isn’t claiming, of course, that his model of warrant (which includes reference to the sensus divinitatus as well as to the Holy Spirit) is true. He says that for all we know the model may be true, and that if Christianity is indeed true, then something like the model is likely to be true. So he’s not merely ‘asserting’ anything, he’s presenting a model.

    In disagreeing that something like the model might be true, you would have to argue that it is unlikely that God would design human cognitive faculties to form reliable beliefs about Him under the right circumstances (which seems an odd thing to do, even for an evidentialist), or that it is unlikely that God, through His Holy Spirit, would directly testify to someone about the truth of Christianity (another odd thing to do if you take seriously Scripture description of the work of the Holy Spirit in people’s lives; see e.g. 1 John 5:9-10, Gal. 4:6, Rom. 8:15,16, John 14:26, John 14:16-17,20, 1 John 3:24, 4:13, John 16:7-11).

    You mention the problem of the distribution and demographics of nonbelief. The problem of the distribution and demographics of nonbelief is, of course, not peculiar to Plantinga’s model of warrant and its implications. It needs explaining, sure, but the problem seems heightened on account of an evidentialist approach to knowing Christianity is true. If we come to know Christianity is true only on the basis of evidence then it seems that many people would not only be excluded from such knowledge but then also rationally justified for denying God’s existence, simply due to the accidents of history and geography or due to cognitive inability. In other words, depending on when and where people were born, they might simply lack access to the relevant evidence, or if they had access, they might not have the ability, due to a lack of literacy or other basic educational skills, to appropriately assess the evidence. Now that’s a problem of distribution and demographics!

    I think the more salient point is that knowing Christianity to be true, is not the same thing as knowing God intimately and personally. In other words, mere evidence does not secure a genuine relationship with God. I agree with Craig when he says that a loving God wouldn’t abandon us to work out by our own cleverness and ingenuity whether or not He exists before we can know Him relationally.

    You write:
    “So, one of my main problems with Plantinga’s project is that it is construed in one big conditional statement that, “If God exists, then we can probably know that God exists.” That isn’t saying a lot, because, in order to know something, then it has to be true. So, it’s not obvious that anyone knows whether God exists. Not to mention one can think that God exists, but it might not arise to knowledge because someone’s confidence level is not high.”

    You seem to misunderstand the purpose of Plantinga’s project; he does not aim to show that theism is true, but simply how it is warranted if true. You cannot fault someone for not doing what they didn’t set out to do! So according to Plantinga’s model it’s not obvious that anyone knows God exists, only if theism is false! But if theism is true, then someone can most likely know that God exist apart from the evidence.

    You write:
    “Hence, in order for Plantinga to claim that one can probably know that God exists, he admits he would have to demonstrate that God exists. He says that this is a large task, and says it is above his pay-grade. This is a weird double standard that Plantinga employs because when he is critiquing other models of warrant he says things like, “Why think a thing like that?”. It can be quite irritating to see that Plantinga apparently has no self-awareness of this inconsistency.”

    But this is precisely what Plantinga denies! If something like Plantinga’s model is true, then you DO NOT have to demonstrate that God exists in order to know that He exists. This is the whole point of reformed epistemology, that like all other beliefs we hold non-inferentially, we can also hold belief in God as properly basic, that is, without inferring it from other beliefs or evidence or argument.

    When Plantinga says that demonstrating the existence of God is beyond the pale of human cognitive ability, it is because he thinks that the standard of what constitutes as proof is higher than what any argument for God’s existence can attain. In fact, he thinks there a very few things that can’t be proved like that. But more specifically he thinks that that arguments for God’s existence are insufficient for transforming religious belief into knowledge. Even if you disagree with his assessment, it is not inconsistent with what he would then go on to say, that “such arguments are not necessary for justified, rational and warranted Christian belief.” (Plantinga, “Rationality and Public Evidence,” p. 217)

    You write:
    “Furthermore, Plantinga doesn’t seem the least bit bothered by the fact that Muslims and Hindus can come up with a similar model of warrant, which is a little strange because this is one of the same problems that plagued Plantinga’s earlier views of belief in God being justified and basic (Plantinga now thinks justification is fairly easy to have and is distinct from warrant/knowledge).”

    There is, of course, a good reason why Plantinga isn’t bothered by other claims based on a similar model of warrant. It’s because he thinks that, in general, basic beliefs are defeasible. In other words, anyone can claim or believe something, but if de facto objections are brought against such claims and beliefs, and if they are successful, then they will count as defeaters of those claims and beliefs and thus show it to be false.

    You write:
    “The upshot is that Plantinga’s earlier works on the matter of belief in God being properly basic was more convincing and plausible (at least to me). Perhaps, that’s because his project before was more modest in some ways. For example, he wasn’t so much interested in showing that belief in the Christian God was properly basic. In addition, Plantinga was focused on epistemic justification as opposed to knowledge, and it seems obvious that the former is easier to show than the latter. This isn’t to say that Plantinga’s earlier project was successful.”

    Plantinga might not have explicitly sought to show that belief in the Christian God was properly basic in his earlier works, but it is clear that such was exactly what he believed all along. There’s no modesty involved here, merely that it took later works to expound on his thinking more fully.

    1. “What God might or might not prefer is simply irrelevant. The question is whether it is warranted to believe in God non-inferentially. Why should Plantinga defend a premise that is not at question in his model?”

      How is that, at least, not implicit in Plantinga’s model? Plantinga says that if God exists, then God has implanted within us a divine sense. Thus, if God exists, belief in God can be properly basic. My problem with this is that there are alternative models that will say that if God exists, then our knowledge of God will be inferential. 

      “Plantinga isn’t claiming, of course, that his model of warrant (which includes reference to the sensus divinitatus as well as to the Holy Spirit) is true. He says that for all we know the model may be true, and that if Christianity is indeed true, then something like the model is likely to be true. So he’s not merely ‘asserting’ anything, he’s presenting a model.”

      That’s exactly my issue. That’s IS THE double-standard. 

      “It needs explaining, sure, but the problem seems heightened on account of an evidentialist approach to knowing Christianity is true. If we come to know Christianity is true only on the basis of evidence then it seems that many people would not only be excluded from such knowledge but then also rationally justified for denying God’s existence, simply due to the accidents of history and geography or due to cognitive inability. In other words, depending on when and where people were born, they might simply lack access to the relevant evidence, or if they had access, they might not have the ability, due to a lack of literacy or other basic educational skills, to appropriately assess the evidence. Now that’s a problem of distribution and demographics”

      Which is only a problem for you as a theist and/or your model of warrant. We can’t just assume that God would create this world. 

      “You seem to misunderstand the purpose of Plantinga’s project; he does not aim to show that theism is true, but simply how it is warranted if true. You cannot fault someone for not doing what they didn’t set out to do! So according to Plantinga’s model it’s not obvious that anyone knows God exists, only if theism is false! But if theism is true, then someone can most likely know that God exist apart from the evidence.”

      I totally understand his project. I don’t care what his intent his; the end-goal is still, at best, trivial. 

  2. udoantwoord

    “How is that, at least, not implicit in Plantinga’s model? Plantinga says that if God exists, then God has implanted within us a divine sense. Thus, if God exists, belief in God can be properly basic. My problem with this is that there are alternative models that will say that if God exists, then our knowledge of God will be inferential.”

    Firstly, the relevant question in a critique like yours is whether Plantinga’s “Warranted Christian Belief” is wrong, not about whether it might be wrong. Of course it might be wrong. Your question, therefore, about what God might prefer is simply irrelevant because it doesn’t establish anything; it’s non-informative – it merely states the blatantly obvious: maybe the model is wrong. Yes, maybe it is. But is it, in fact, wrong? That’s the relevant question!
    Secondly, by offering his model that God can probably be known non-inferentially, Plantinga renders the question of what God would prefer, irrelevant. If the model is true, then it is precisely because it is true, that such a question is irrelevant.

    “That’s exactly my issue. That’s IS THE double-standard.”

    How is presenting a model that would give rationality, justification and warrant for belief in God, a double standard?

    “Which is only a problem for you as a theist and/or your model of warrant. We can’t just assume that God would create this world.”

    Yes, a very astute observation: non-belief isn’t a problem when atheism is true. Okay, then, now that you’ve found it necessary to state the obvious, shall we proceed?
    If Plantinga’s model is correct, then we form beliefs about God precisely because we are in this particular world. In other words, it would be because God created this world we find ourselves in, that we can form beliefs about Him as creator of this exact world. Nobody is assuming anything.

    “I totally understand his project. I don’t care what his intent his; the end-goal is still, at best, trivial.”

    But, again, this is precisely why you don’t seem to understand his project: by the fact that you see the end-goal as trivial!

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