Book Review: Knowledge and Christian Belief (part 1)

Knowledge and Christian Belief by Alvin Plantinga. Copyright 2015. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 126 pages.

Here I am going to give a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of Alvin Plantinga’s 2015 book Knowledge and Christian Belief. In this first post I will cover the first four chapters; the subsequent chapters will be covered in another post.

This book is meant as a layman’s version of Plantinga’s much longer and more technical 2000 book Warranted Christian Belief. and so it is possible that some of my criticisms are addressed in the more thorough treatise. Here I will only be taking the shorter book into consideration.

Chapter 1: Can We Speak and Think About God?

Here Plantinga says we can think about God in some intelligible way because it is possible that we are such creatures as can think of things as they exist in-themselves (i.e. we can actually comprehend the Kantian noumenon).

Plantinga here seems to think that we can perceive and understand the world as it exists in-itself, as opposed to what Anselm says about the way we can think of God through imperfect or inexact ways like seeing the sun as sunlight on the wall. Plantinga, in other words, accepts the univocity of being proposed by Duns Scotus rather than the analogical being of someone like Thomas Aquinas or Anselm.

Chapter 2: What is the Question?

Plantinga asserts that Christian belief is not arrogant (it is not like saying “I think I am right and I am right and you think you are right but are wrong”) in the same way that the belief that I shouldn’t lie about my colleagues to get ahead even if others do believe this is arrogant.

Plantinga then goes on to say that Christian belief is not unjustified by classical foundationalism because classical foundationalism itself is unjustified by classical foundationalism (it can’t be justified by reference to an internal state of mind or a self-evident proposition). Plantinga goes on to say that we don’t control what we believe, but this is in itself a sort of “incorrigible” belief, since it requires recourse to our own internal state (the proposition “that I believe P”).

Perhaps the justification for classical foundationalism isn’t in classical foundationalism but is in pragmatism? There isn’t really a system that can prove itself using itself as Kurt Gödel showed. That means recourse to an external epistemological justification is more rigorous: we are justified in accepting foundationalism because it works. The question, of course, becomes: how can we justify pragmatism? This leads us to the Münchhausen trilemma – everything comes down to either a circular argument, an axiomatic argument, or a regressive argument.

Regardless, Plantinga goes onto say that it is possible for a person with a rational mind to be exposed to all the arguments against God and still believe in God, thereby doing their duty to justify their belief in God.

Plantinga then describes his idea of warrant: that which differentiates knowledge from a merely true belief. He gives four criteria for warrant: 1) that the mind with the belief is working properly; 2) that the mind is working in the right cognitive environment; 3) the mind is using faculties that are meant to apprehend the truth rather than, say, a comforting belief (whether or not the comforting belief is true); 4) that the mind is such that it is even capable of successfully ascertaining truth (e.g. evolution or God didn’t create us with some inherent glitch). This conception of warrant is contrary to Plantinga’s conclusions from chapter 1 in that here he concedes that our minds can structure our perceptions if any of these are not satisfied, which Plantinga says can be the case in certain instances. Presumably, using the same flawed faculties, Plantinga believes that we can determine when it is that we are satisfying these four criteria for warrant.

I would argue that we regularly do not satisfy numbers 2) and 4). We do not satisfy 2) because the cognitive environment of objective (non-biased) thinking is not the correct environment for human’s way of thinking and 4) because our brains evolved for survival and not apprehending truth, meaning when it comes to the truth, our thinking is not successfully aimed at true belief.

Chapter 3: Warranted Belief in God.

In what Plantinga calls the Aquinas/Calvinist model (A/C model), he says that we are all born with an innate theistic knowledge or divine sense; we know about God by looking at His creation in a basic way, that is, immediately and without reflection the knowledge that God is behind creation arises in us. Of course, it is also the case that we have an innate “knowledge” that the earth is flat – when we look out at the horizon, we sense the earth’s flatness in a basic sense – but science shows this to be false, meaning that accepting such beliefs as knowledge is “flouting epistemic duties or obligations.”

This sort of basic “knowledge” can arise through scientific manipulation: the God helmet shows that the innate “knowledge” of God (or, at least, spiritual phenomena) is explainable naturalistically.

Also, having innate “knowledge” simply means that we evolved to think that way because it conferred some survival benefit (or is a spandrel). Contrary to what Plantinga says in chapter 1 about our minds being such that they are able to apprehend truth (either because God made us that way or because we evolved that way) our minds are actually formed for survival, not the apprehension of truth. This is why we invented science: as a way to correct for the way our thinking is not successfully aimed at true belief.

Plantinga goes on to a demonstration of why we couldn’t have warranted false belief in God. This is in order to show that the truth of God’s existence and whether or not we are warranted in believing in God’s existence are linked together: the skeptic could not concede that one is warranted in believing in God but that it is the case that God does not exist. Plantinga does this using the possible worlds form of epistemological justification: all nearby possible worlds where God does not exist will incorrectly produce a belief in the existence of God, meaning we are not generating beliefs with a properly functioning truth-apprehending cognitive faculty and therefore we are not warranted in believing in God. As I said above, I would agree with this interpretation: we do not have brains meant for truth-apprehension. However, one could use the Jordan Peterson pragmatist criteria for justified true belief: the belief in God has been useful to humans in our evolutionary past, which means people are justified in believing in God even if God does not exist. This does not satisfy Plantinga’s criteria for warrant, but it does mean that people can have justified false belief in God.

Chapter 4: The Extended A/C Model

In this chapter Plantinga outlines the noetic effect of sin, though he never calls it that. The Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry (CARM) discusses the Noetic Effect of Sin:

There is a difference between understanding and accepting. Many nonbelievers can understand doctrinal issues of Scripture but will not believe them. So, there is a difference between ascentia (intellectual acknowledgment) and fiducia (faithful trust). So, on the one hand, those who are not believers can understand spiritual things but they cannot accept them and this seems to be the case as described in the Bible: 1 Corinthians 2:14, “But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.”

The fact remains that we are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26). We can recognize certain logical absolutes such as the laws of logic and use them in debates. In fact, Christians have developed various logical proofs for God’s existence using logic, evidence, and Scripture. But, they are resisted and denied by those who are outside of the faith. So, we could say that proof is different than persuasion and, since a person is unregenerate, he cannot be persuaded. Therefore, the noetic effect of sin will manifest, and unbelievers will use their minds to deny God’s truth and remain in their sin.

This is an epistemological argument that says non-believers lack fiducia, or faithful trust, in the claims of their particular religion. Essentially it is saying that anyone who does not believe has to be either deceived or self-deceiving in their lack of belief. I have talked about the noetic effect of sin elsewhere, so I won’t belabor the point here, save to say that the only way to get out of it is to presuppose some religion and then say that that religion is the only way out of it.

To be continued…