God Among the Philosophers

October 1999By Philip Blosser

Philip Blosser, a Catholic, is Professor of Philosophy at Lenoir-Rhyne College, a Lutheran college in North Carolina. His most recent book is Scheler’s Critique of Kant’s Ethics.

The Analytic Theist: An Alvin Plantinga Reader.  Edited by James F. Sennett. Eerdmans. 367 pages. $30.

In the spring of 1980 Time magazine reported: “In a quiet revolution in thought…that hardly anyone could have foreseen only two decades ago, God is making a comeback. Most intriguingly, this is happening not among theologians or ordinary believers…but in the crisp, intellectual circles of academic philosophers, where the consensus had long banished the Almighty from fruitful discourse.”

That earlier consensus — according to which theism was held to be intellectually untenable, and “God talk” neither verifiable nor falsifiable and, hence, meaningless — had long put Christian philosophers on the defensive. Few Christian philosophers were to be found in the decades preceding the 1970s, and even fewer were willing to identify themselves publicly as such.

But all that has changed. The Society of Christian Philosophers, which Alvin Plantinga helped to found in 1978, has over 1,100 members today and has become what one observer called “the largest single interest group among American philosophers.” Christian philosophers enjoy an unprecedented credibility today in the secular academy. Plantinga himself, an evangelical Calvinist, has served as President of the American Philosophical Association and was invited to give the prestigious Gifford Lectures in Scotland in 1987.

How did this change come about? First, the earlier philosophical consensus began to disintegrate as its presuppositions were discredited. The logical empiricists’ principles of rational justification were shown to be incapable of meeting the demands of their own criteria. Further, by around 1980 most philosophers were admitting that the whole Enlightenment project of enshrining pure reason was a failure.

Second, among those pointing out the failure of the Enlightenment project and attacking some of its most entrenched orthodoxies were philosophers who were orthodox, practicing Christians. Among these, probably no one has been as close to the heart of contemporary philosophical conversations as Plantinga, whom Time called “America’s leading orthodox Protestant philosopher of God.”

Largely as a result of Plantinga’s influence, the Christian philosophers’ earlier beleaguered posture, resulting from their perpetually unsuccessful attempts to meet the skeptic’s insatiable demand for “sufficiently credible” empirical evidence and rational verification for their beliefs, has become a thing of the past. In its place has come a freshly confident assertion of the theist’s “epistemic rights” in taking belief in God, including a wide range of beliefs about the existence and nature of God, as “properly basic.”

The heart of this bold new initiative among Christian philosophers — sometimes referred to as “Reformed epistemology” because of its loosely Calvinistic historical associations — is a dual challenge to the evidentialist and foundationalist assumptions underlying the Enlightenment’s rejection of theism. In the most generic sense, evidentialism holds that a belief is rational only if it is based on sufficiently compelling evidence or rational justification, and foundationalism holds that some of our beliefs (non-basic beliefs) rest on other beliefs (basic beliefs). For example, my (non-basic) belief that there must be a fire somewhere is based on an inference from my (basic) belief that I am perceiving smoke, while my belief that I am perceiving smoke is immediate (basic) and is not inferred from any other belief.

Thus, evidentialism, as a theory about what beliefs we are entitled to have and the degree of confidence we may be permitted to have in them, is viewed by Reformed epistemology as an adversary of theism when it is linked to a form of foundationalism, which, in addition to distinguishing basic from non-basic beliefs, relegates religious beliefs to “non-basic” status. On this view, only those beliefs are properly basic beliefs which are either (1) self-evident, (2) evident to the senses, or (3) incorrigible. Since theistic belief does not meet any of these criteria and is not inferable from beliefs that do, theism is viewed as rationally unjustifiable.

Such assumptions have set the agenda for the modern debate about the rationality of religious belief since the 17th century, with defenders of theism repeatedly trying to satisfy these criteria. Plantinga’s approach is best understood as a completely different strategy for responding to this challenge. Instead of agreeing to play by the rules set by the opposition, Plantinga disputes the rules, claiming that they indefensibly restrict the beliefs that qualify as properly basic. He claims that belief in God can sometimes be perfectly rational even without being based on an inference or argument.

At this point, Plantinga’s strategy banks on an emerging consensus about the failures of modern epistemology. For several centuries philosophers have been trying to prove the rationality of a number of commonsense beliefs, such as my belief that the world is more than five minutes old, my belief in an external world, and my belief that there are other minds besides my own. It was thought necessary to show how such commonsense beliefs could be rationally inferred from other properly basic beliefs. The spectacle of so many brilliant philosophers struggling to prove what virtually nobody ever doubted, and then utterly failing in their attempts, dispelled the solemnity surrounding the epistemological canons of evidentialism and foundationalism. The consensus that has emerged is that the mistake was in the assumption that this sort of rational justification was ever necessary.

In his early book God and Other Minds (1967), Plantinga fired the epistemological shot heard ’round the philosophy-of-religion world. There he argued that the attempt to prove the existence of other minds suffers from the same kinds of difficulties as the attempt to prove God’s existence by arguing from analogy to an intelligent designer. Both attempts rely on problematic arguments from analogy. The impossibility of proving that other minds exist by means of analogy from my direct experience of my own mind, he argued, should cast doubt not on the rationality of our belief in other minds, but, rather, on the foundationalist theories that claim we can hold only beliefs that we can support by rational inferences. In fact, he argued, if it is rational to believe in other minds immediately, without being able to prove their existence, then it is no less rational to believe likewise in God.

In his now famous 1983 inaugural address as John A. O’Brien Professor of Philosophy at Notre Dame, Plantinga called on Christian philosophers to free themselves from the agenda set by the secular academy, advising that they have as much right to start from Christian assumptions as secular thinkers have to start from naturalistic ones. Since that time, following his own advice, Plantinga has continued to define and refine his own standards of rationality in terms of “warrant” and the “proper function” of cognitive faculties.

Some of Plantinga’s contentions are controversial even among his allies. His claim that a person is rationally entitled to believe in God even if he can offer no argument for that belief and cannot infer that belief from other beliefs he holds, does not seem problematic in itself. Aquinas would agree. But neither Aquinas nor many Catholic philosophers would agree with Plantinga that belief in God is not merely a foundational belief but is a foundational knowledge; or with his frequent suggestion that since theistic belief is properly basic, natural theology is useless; or with his view that the rational “warrant” for beliefs lies in the “proper function” of an individual’s cognitive faculties, a criterion not only involuntary but external and inaccessible to the consciousness of the believer. Further, even Reformed philosophers have wondered what, exactly, is Reformed about Reformed epistemology, although some affinities may exist between the theory’s individualistic, externalist, and nonvoluntarist emphases and Calvin’s predestinarian individualism and Calvin’s notion that theistic belief is a natural disposition (sensus divinitatus) implanted in us by God but corrupted by the noetic effects of sin.

Plantinga clearly remains an outstanding resource for Christian philosophers in the academy today. The Analytic Theist offers an excellent introductory anthology of his writings, with a large cross section of representative material, as well as some lesser known but valuable essays. Subjects range from natural theology, the ontological argument, free will and divine foreknowledge, to religious pluralism and exclusivism, Christian philosophy at the end of the 20th century, and an amusing exposé of “historical-critical” biblical scholarship gone to seed (“Sheehan’s Shenanigans: How Theology Becomes Tomfoolery”). The selections were clearly made with a scholarly audience in mind and, as the adjective in the book’s title denotes, Plantinga is an “analytic” philosopher, intensely focused on close analysis of logical arguments, so some selections will prove quite challenging. Yet one certainly need not be an “analytic” philosopher or even a professional in philosophy to benefit from the book.

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