Book Review: Knowledge and Christian Belief (part 2)

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 the first post I covered the first four chapters; this post will cover all of the remaining chapters.

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.

As a preamble (written after I finished the book) I have to say that I enjoyed the intellectual challenge of the first four chapters of this book, but I became extremely disappointed in the intellectual laziness of the latter part. As such, I lost a lot of motivation to continue the review, so my comments on each chapter here are going to be a bit shorter than in part one of this review. That being said, here is part two of my review of Knowledge and Christian Belief by Alvin Plantinga:

Chapter 5: Faith

In this chapter Plantinga argues that faith is a type of knowledge one can receive through the Holy Spirit. Because knowledge received through the Holy Spirit is warranted, since 1) the process was designed by God for the purpose of apprehending truth, 2) our cognitive environment was what our truth-apprehending faculties were designed (by God) for, 3) the faculties were designed for apprehending true beliefs, and 4) that faith produces true beliefs (e.g. believing Biblical Scripture) shows that our faculties are functioning properly.

It should be obvious what the problems with this line of reasoning are. All of this is presupposing Christian doctrine is true and then saying that because people believe these doctrines, it must be true. It is a circular argument. Not only that, but it doesn’t address things like the dual nature of Christ, the nature of the Trinity, the Filioque, predestination, or any other hairy theological issues with Christianity that do not seem to have an immediate knowledge (what Plantinga calls basic knowledge).

Indeed, the fact that belief in the Christian doctrine is immediate is a key component of Plantinga’s argument. He says that because someone can read the scriptures and just intuitively feel that they are true means they are warranted in their belief because it is immediate (basic). Interestingly, he then goes on to say that, because of the noetic effect of sin, people are constantly being assailed by doubts. Why are the doubts not warranted as an immediate (basic) form of knowledge? Because of the noetic effect of sin. This is yet another circular argument, because one has to already accept the truth of Plantinga’s particular Christian beliefs in order for the beliefs to be warranted.

Chapter 6: Sealed Upon Our Hearts

I admit to only skimming this chapter after I could see that it was more of a sermon than an argument. But the main point seems to be that humans find the idea of God emotionally attractive and that this, too, is an act of the Holy Spirit.

Chapter 7: Objections

Plantinga says that one objection that can be raised to his model is that Christian belief cannot get warrant from religious experiences because there are better alternative explanations for religious experiences than that they come from the supernatural. Plantinga dismisses this by essentially saying that, because our immediate (basic) knowledge about God is, in fact, immediate, it brooks no argument. This is just asserted without any compelling justification, except by once again invoking the Holy Spirit as the source of this immediate knowledge, once again making the argument circular.

The second section of this chapter says that another objection might be that there is no way to tell, from a religious experience, all of the propositions that go along with Christianity (that God is omnipotent, omniscience, benevolent, etc.). Plantinga argues that we also do not know from our current experience that we didn’t pop into existence with all our memories and everything a microsecond ago, but then says we do know this isn’t the case because we can remember things we did prior to a microsecond ago. He also says that we could also doubt that we see, for instance, a horse, even when one is right in front of us, but because of doxastic experience (the phenomenology of accepting the proposition that the horse is there) we have knowledge that it is there. Once again, these things are asserted without any real argument (I’m left wondering if the unabridged version makes more compelling arguments).

I would also be interested to know what Plantinga thinks of Dr. Michael Persinger’s God helmet.

Are the religious experiences that the people subjected to this experiment have warranted? I also find it interesting that there seems to be a temporal lobe sensitivity, with temporal lobe epilepsy being the most sensitive, wherein this immediate (basic) knowledge of God is either more or less accessible – were some brains created to be more susceptible to the noetic effects of sin, then, I presume?

Chapters 8, 9 & 10: Defeaters?

The final three chapters of the book deal with what Plantinga calls defeaters – arguments that could potentially show that belief in the Christian God is unwarranted. The three chapters look at historical biblical criticism (chapter 8), religious pluralism (that there are numerous religions) (chapter 9), and the problem of evil (chapter 10). I will examine each of these in order.

Plantinga argues that historical biblical criticism – examining the Bible skeptically and without metaphysical assumptions, from a secular, historical point of view – does not offer a defeater for Christian belief because Christians have heard the arguments and are still not accepting them. He says that if historical biblical criticism is to offer a defeater, then its assumptions need to have a more compelling argument – those assumptions being that we don’t assume an interventionist God or that miracles happen without good evidence to believe them. In other words, Plantinga thinks the default position should be the accept an interventionist God and the occurrence of miracles until, presumably, they can be disproven. In sum, though, Plantinga’s argument is essentially that historical biblical criticism hasn’t shaken people’s faith, which Plantinga regards as a form of knowledge, and so it does not supply a defeater.

Religious pluralism as a defeater is the idea that, because there are multiple, mutually exclusive religions, it is arbitrary to believe one above all the others – it is, as Plantinga says, treating similar things differently. Given this epistemological conundrum, Plantinga instead focuses on the moral conundrum of how believing one thing in light of all the other mutually exclusive options is arrogant. He says it is not arrogant if he has considered all the other alternatives and still continues to believe that Christianity is true. Plantinga also compares his Christian belief to thinking that racism is wrong, saying that thinking racism is wrong even though others disagree is not arrogant, with the obvious twist that he is comparing Christianity with a widely accepted morally superior position. This does not take into consideration the fact that particular religious belief is an accident of one’s birth and is therefore arbitrary: the epistemic superiority claimed by the Christian didn’t come through training or an earnest search for evidence, but purely by accident.

The problem of evil can be succinctly stated thus:

If God is willing but unable to stop evil, then He is not all-powerful; if God is able but unwilling to stop evil, then He is malevolent; if God is unable and unwilling to stop evil, then He is no God; if God is able and willing to stop evil, then why is there still evil?

Plantinga asserts that there is no logical inconsistency between belief in an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving God in the same way that there is no logical inconsistency with a flat earth resting the back of a giant turtle. This assertion is untrue. It is literally saying there is a possible world where a being capable of doing anything (all-powerful) and willing to make the world such that it is best for all creatures (all-loving) is also a world where bad things happen to those creatures. It’s analogous to saying that there is a possible world where I do only morally good things for morally good reasons and yet I am a morally bad person. That Plantinga doesn’t see the logical inconsistency is due to his model of belief being warranted if it is of the immediate (basic) kind: essentially, a Christian can see evil in the world and still believe in God due to the immediate (basic) way of forming beliefs, therefore the existence of evil is not a defeater. In other words, anything that doesn’t convince a Christian isn’t a defeater because it failed to convince the Christian, making yet another circular argument amongst the endless loops of circular arguments present in this book.

My Concluding Remarks

The thrust of Plantinga’s argument in Knowledge and Christian Belief is that, because we (all humans, presumably) believe that God must be real when we look at the world in an immediate (basic) way – not because we look at the world and then reason to the conclusion, but because we believe it immediately upon experiencing the world – then this belief is warranted and therefore knowledge. This is taken in the same way that we are warranted in believing that a tree exists immediately upon looking at the tree, without having to reason from our perceptions to the proposition that the tree exists. This holds, Plantinga argues, because belief of this type satisfies the four criteria for warrant: 1) immediate beliefs are formed by properly functioning cognitive faculties, 2) immediate beliefs are formed in an appropriate cognitive environment, 3) immediate beliefs are aimed at apprehending the truth, and 4) immediate beliefs are capable of being successful in apprehending the truth.

On the face of it this is a compelling argument. However, as I said in part one of this review, this conception of warrant is, well, unwarranted. We do not live in an environment conducive to truth-apprehension, but an environment meant for social cohesion. That is why people can begin to immediately believe things that are not true, such as in the Asch conformity experiments. This is also why two people can view the same news story and come to wildly differing conclusions – we are wired for conformity to our social groups, not for picking out the truth.

But lets say that humans do, underneath all the noise, have faculties specifically for truth apprehension. This could certainly be the case – evolutionarily speaking, it would be advantageous to know that a predator – say, a lion – is there without having to reason from our perceptions first: to have immediate (basic) knowledge. Is there a difference between a belief that something is there and that something was created by a loving, providential God? I would argue that there is a big difference. The former is a doxastic judgment that some particular thing is there; the latter is a doxastic judgment about the nature of something. The difference can be seen in our judgments about the shape of the earth. Looking toward the horizon we immediately see the flat separation between land and sky, which is a doxastic belief that the particular thing is there (the flat-looking horizon); when we do, we also form the immediate doxastic belief about the flatness of the earth: that the earth is flat. This is why our ancient ancestors thought for the longest time that the earth was flat, because immediately upon looking around them this was the immediate (basic) belief that is formed about it. One could even say that our ancestors were warranted in such a belief (at the time), making it a warranted false belief. In the same way, the doxastic belief that some conscious being must have created all this is subject to the same critical inquiry as the earth being flat and is therefore not warranted true belief.

In the end, I had high hopes for this book as I had it on good authority that Plantinga was one of the great thinkers in the field of Christian apologia. I went in thinking I would have the intellectual challenge I was after, only to be sorely disappointed. In my fervor to dig into Plantinga’s work, I’ve bought several other of his books, including the unabridged version of this one (Warranted Christian Belief). I am unsure whether or not to read the 499 page tomb: on the one hand, perhaps the arguments in the unabridged version are more compelling and therefore intellectually more interesting, but on the other hand it might just be a more verbose version of the intellectual laziness I found in this shorter version and therefore a waste of time. A person who is already a firm believer may find some comfort in the circular arguments presented here, but nobody else would find Plantinga’s arguments convincing or even all that thought-provoking.