Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Plantinga contra evidentialism (part 1)

W.K. Clifford famously asserted that, "It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence."  Alvin Plantinga famously maintains that one can rationally believe in God without evidence.  In this series, I will examine Plantinga's essay, "The Evidentialist Objection to Theistic Belief" (Religious Experience and Religious Belief, 1986).

First, Plantinga lays out his definition of a properly basic belief as one that can be rightly held without evidence.  But contrary to popular opinion, properly basic beliefs are not gratuitous or groundless (more about this term later).  What criteria determines whether a belief is being rightly held or not?  Many foundationalists maintain something like this:
(C) p is properly basic for S if and only p is self-evident, incorrigible, or evident to the senses of S.
Unfortunately, this claim doesn't satisfy its own conditions for being properly basic (it is neither self-evident, incorrigible, or evident to my senses), so an argument is needed to support it.  In the absence of such arguments, Plantinga concludes that "the classical foundationalist is in self-referential hot water--his own acceptance of the central tenet of his view is irrational by his own standards."

Next, Plantinga examines objections to the Reformed view that belief in God is properly basic.  First, he notes three basic beliefs:
(1) I see a tree.
(2) I had breakfast this morning.
(3) That person is angry.
We will focus on (1) for simplicity.  We can see that a certain sort of experience, perhaps alongside other conditions, justifies one in in believing the proposition expressed by (1).  Here's the trick: some condition(s) attach to these beliefs and Plantinga says they are the ground of its justification; however, he doesn't take the experience of seeing a tree as evidence for (1).  So, why wouldn't Plantinga take my being appeared to treely as evidence for the proposition I see a tree?  Because we don't "infer that belief from others...[or accept it] on the basis of other beliefs."  In other words, we don't refer to any propositional evidence when justifying our beliefs about (1).  Plantinga then construes properly basic belief as follows:
(4) In condition C, S is justified in taking p as basic.  Of course C will vary with p.
C obviously includes the treely appearance, but is that sufficient?  No.  Perhaps I have taken lots of hallucinatory drugs; I'm clearly not justified in holding (1) in the properly basic way under such conditions.  But regardless, the point stands that some set of conditions attach to the belief that (1) is true, and they are the "ground of its justification and, by extension, the ground of the belief itself."  Next we'll see how this ties in with belief in God.

1 - recall Craig's showing versus knowing distinction


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