Presented on July 16, 2006
Last revised September 16, 2006
These pages are a review of Alvin Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief, as I taught it in a four-week class at Blackhawk Church.
In Part I, I introduced a common reaction to my profession of Christian belief. “Do you really believe that Jesus literally rose from the dead? How can you, in this day and age?” It’s as though people think better of me, and are just trying to be nice by not bringing up the obvious foolishness of faith. When I am confronted, its usually about evolution, or current social issues, and not the core of what I believe. If that gets any reaction at all, it gets an intellectual eye-roll.
The subject of Plantinga’s book, Warranted Christian Belief, is about this sort of reaction. Plantinga divides objections to Christian belief into two categories—de facto objections and de jure objections.
The de facto objection is that Christian belief is not true. (By “Christian belief,” Plantinga means beliefs about the divinity of Jesus Christ, His resurrection from the dead, etc.I’ve used the Apostles Creed as an example). Truly disproving Christian belief is different, and harder, than claiming that young-earth creationism or Biblical inerrancy is not true. Christianity, including its Old Testament Jewish roots, is grounded in historical events and human experience. Were these events unlikely—no, miraculous!—in light of common human experience? Certainly! Most Christians will agree with you. But how can anyone prove that they did not happen? That is much more difficult.
What most people consider winning objections to the truth of Christianity are actually objections to the inerrancy of Scripture and certain claims based on it, such as the age of the Earth. To Plantinga, these are not central, at least not like the Apostles’ Creed, nor do the central beliefs of Christianity depend upon them being true.
Plantinga claims that, among philosophers, the strongest de facto objection to Christian belief is that it is logically inconsistent. This takes the form of the problem of evil, which goes like this. Christians claim that God is all-powerful and all-good. There is widespread evil in the world, indicating that God either can’t stop it, or chooses not to. God is therefore either not all-powerful or not all-good. Plantinga goes on that this objection has been answered, and it has become a weaker position that the existence of evil is evidence against Christian belief, but not proof.
So, Christian belief is left in a no-man’s land. It can neither be proven nor disproven, where proof is a notoriously slippery term. Enter the de jure objection. Though Christian belief might possibly be true, the burden of proof is placed on the believer, and, in the absence of such proof, it’s not “OK” to believe it. It’s not something we can know, at least not in the way that we know things that we really know, as opposed to things we just believe.
The highlighted words show something we all do but seldom think about. We act as though we know things. We rank beliefs based on how sure we are of them. But most of us seldom think about how we do this sizing up of ideas. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that deals with how we know what we know. In the process of looking for, and answering, the de jure objection to Christian belief, Plantinga explores various models or systems of epistemology. He first introduces and resolves de jure objections arising from the “Classical Package” of evidence and reason, and he then moves onto questions of proper function and warrant.
Plantinga spends Chapters 3 and 4 of Warranted Christian Belief describing what he calls the “Classical Package” of Western epistemology:
A self-evident idea is one that you can’t fail to accept, once you understand it. An example is, “1+2=3.” A thought like, “My hand hurts,” concerns our own mental state and is also regarded as properly basic. Finally, “There are trees outside” is a product of direct, simple observation.
According to Plantinga, this model arose during the period of great philosophical turmoil of the 17th and 18th centuries, following the 16th century Reformation. The sight of Protestants and Catholics both claiming certain truth, and being willing to die (and kill) over their differences, caused philosophers to abandon the notion of tradition and authority such as organized religion as reliable markers of truth. Their project was to start over with what was certain and to rebuild knowledge. In the new epistemology, legitimate knowledge could only come from a relatively narrow foundation of properly basic beliefs, or arrived at by reason. The victors (who, it is said, write the history books) call this period “The Enlightenment.”
The Classical Package of Enlightenment epistemology continues to dominate Western thought, and naturally so. Especially when it comes to understanding the physical world and running a society, this way works better than what came before. We are steeped in this way of thinking. So when a truth claim arises, we immediately look for evidence and reason. Plantinga says that this reaction is so automatic as to be unconscious. So when the subject of Christian belief comes up, talk quickly turns to evidence and reason.
The Classical Package is not inherently anti-theistic or anti-Christian; it merely tends to find belief to be epistemologically lacking. Even before the Enlightenment, there had been logical and philosophical arguments for (and against) the existence of God, and the notion that belief at some level was reasonable clearly survived the Enlightenment.
Explicitly Christian belief also survived, but was now exposed to new challenges and ways of thinking about its foundations. The Reformers had already confronted tradition and the Church as a source of truth—Sola Scriptura, the Bible alone, was the foundation. Some Enlightenment philosophers, like John Locke, allowed room for divine revelation in the foundations of knowledge. (John Locke’s writings on government were also highly influential on the Founding Fathers of the United States of America). Others, like David Hume, were harsh critics of Christian belief. A wedge was driven between belief in God and Christian belief. There were apparently many deists among the educated class—people who believed firmly in God, but not in something like the Apostles’ Creed.
But a turning point came with the rise of the theory of evolution. It provided an intellectually acceptable answer to the argument from design—the idea that the complexity of the world we know implies a design, and hence a Designer. To the skeptic, the story ever since is of a “God of the gaps;” God is invoked to explain gaps in our knowledge and, with continuous scientific progress, the gaps are always shrinking. Though not proven false, belief in God, and by extension Christian belief, is becoming less and less reasonable every day, and is headed for the scrap heap. It may have been the best option for our ancestors, but “given what we now know,” theism, and certainly Christian belief, are not justified, because they lack evidence. Belief fails the test of the Classical Package. It is neither properly basic, nor does it logically follow from beliefs which are properly basic.
Plantinga’s answer is “so what?” He points out that the Classical Package cannot pass its own test. Why should a person accept it in matters of theology? On what grounds can a person criticize someone who doesn’t accept it? Plantinga also points out that most of what most people believe, and act upon, can’t pass the test of the Classical Package either, but “they are none the worse for it.” In an earlier book, God and Other Minds (I haven’t read it yet), Plantinga says he shows that, relative to the Classical Package, belief in God is in the same shape as belief that other minds besides our own really exist. If we accept the latter, we have no epistemological reasons to reject the former out of hand.
In Plantinga’s view, belief in God and Christian belief are not really the sorts of things we argue about. Believers don’t believe because they find Christianity the best explanation of a set of evidence. Rather, they “just believe.” Evidence (or at least others’ testimony to evidence) may be involved, but an evidence-and-reason argument is not where belief comes from. My own story in Part I is typical.
In challenging the Classical Package, Plantinga apparently finds common ground with the postmoderns. But while the postmoderns tend to reject most or all claims to absolute knowledge, Plantinga seems to argue for an expansion of what is accepted at properly basic, by drawing on the concept of warrant.
In Chapter 5 of Warranted Christian Belief, Plantinga backs into the central concept of “warrant” by way of the objections of Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx. He finds their objections to contain a stronger poison than the rationality and justification of the Enlightenment thinkers.
No one denies that belief in God, and the more complex Christian belief, are real phenomena, and maddeningly persistent ones at that. It’s claimed that the Twentieth Century saw more Christians martyred than in all the rest of history, so the beliefs are not something casually held. Justified or not, the very persistence of belief “given what we know now” calls for an explanation. The believer will say, “Because it’s true, and truth is a stubborn thing.” The unbeliever must explain the phenomenon of belief in some other way.
Freud explained religious belief as having roots in wish-fulfillment. We believe it because, deep down, we want to believe that there’s someone big and strong looking out for us. Marx explained religious belief as a necessary weapon in the class struggle, and useful for dulling the pain of the oppressed working classes—“the opium of the people.” Belief is stubborn becuase there are forces at work, both within us and within our societies, to produce and nurture them.
According to Plantinga, Freud and Marx would agree that belief in God and Christian beliefs are not conclusions based on evidence, as in the Classical Package, but are produced directly in our minds and societies. The problem, they would say, is not lack of evidence for them, it’s the fact that they are not produced for the right reasons. They do not exist because they are true, they exist because they are useful. Therefore, they lack something called warrant.
The concept of warrant as that which distinguishes knowledge from belief which happens to be true, originated around 1940. Plantinga has apparently made its definition and application a large part of his life’s work.
Here is my understanding of Plantinga’s definition:
A belief that is formed by a way of knowing, whose purpose is to produce true beliefs, functioning properly in a person, under conditions which allow proper function, is said to have warrant, i.e. it’s “epistemologically OK” to believe it, unless it has defeaters.
When I taught this at Blackhawk Church, I used the following example. It got a lot of laughs and seemed to help people understand.
Start with my belief that I had grits for breakfast. I remember doing so.
This belief is produced by memory, and the purpose of memory is to produce true beliefs. Even the evolutionist would probably agree—a squirrel that can’t remember where it buried the nut—oh, never mind. But the purpose of memory is to produce true beliefs. It isn’t always right, but that’s what it’s for. If I had dreamed I had grits for breakfast, that would not convey warrant, because, unlike memory, the purpose of dreams is not to produce true beliefs. Some of our dreams may be true, but beliefs formed on the basis of dreams are not generally warranted.
In the case of my memory, it is generally functioning properly. I have not been diagnosed with any memory-related illness, and I am (not yet) having very many senior moments. My memory is not infallible, but it is generally reliable. Were this not the case, my belief concerning the grits would not be warranted.
Now, suppose between breakfast and my talk at church, I was kidnapped by a cult. They made me say, over and over, “I had grits for breakfast, and they were truly tasty.” I remember having grits, and my memory is functioning properly, but the black hood and gun were not environmental conditions that lead to the formation of true beliefs. So, no warrant.
Finally, what if I remember having grits, and made it from breakfast to my talk unscathed. But my wife raises her hand, and says, “We went out for breakfast, and you had cream of wheat. They were out of grits.” (Now, to the trained palette, there are significant differences between cream of wheat and grits, and I would have remembered such a shortcoming on the part of the restaurant, but it’s an example, OK?) She then produces a receipt, with the correct date and my signature. Though produced by a truth-forming process, functioning properly, in a conducive environment, my belief that I had grits for breakfast is not warranted, because the receipt constitutes a defeater.