A Critique of Reformed Epistemology
Is it rational to believe something if there is no sufficient evidence to believe it? Evidentialists say, 'No.' They would say that it is irrational to believe in God without sufficient evidence. (This is known as the evidentialist objection to belief in God.) On the other hand, Reformed Epistemologists believe that it is rational to believe in the existence of God without evidence. They would not say that there is no evidence for God's existence; they say that someone can be warranted in his belief in God even if there were no evidence for God's existence. In this paper, I will explain what Reformed Epistemology (RE) is and give a critique of it.
RE teaches that it is rational to believe in God without evidence. This viewpoint was developed by certain philosophers such Alvin Plantinga and William Alston. The word 'Reformed' has to do with the teachings of John Calvin so Reformed Epistemologists claim that their viewpoint comes from Calvin. Since Plantinga's views are representative of RE, I will make reference to him.
Reformed Epistemologists say that evidentialism assumes the truth of classical foundationalism. If classical foundationalism is false, then both it and the evidentialist objection to belief in God based on it are false. Foundationalism teaches that a person's belief system consists of both basic and non-basic beliefs. A basic belief is a belief that is not believed on the basis of other beliefs. A non-basic belief is a belief that is believed on the basis of other beliefs. A properly basic belief is a basic belief that a person is justified in holding. Classical foundationalism teaches that in order for a belief to be properly basic, it must be self-evident, incorrigible, and evident to the senses. Plantinga says that classical foundationalism is self-defeating because a person's belief that classical foundationalism is true is neither self-evident, incorrigible, nor evident to the senses.
After refuting classical foundationalism, Plantinga adopts a moderate version of foundationalism. He presents his own criteria of proper basicality. He says that beliefs are properly basic if they are formed by properly functioning cognitive faculties, they are formed in an environment appropriate for the proper functioning of cognitive equipment, and they are formed according to a design plan aimed at truth. If a person's belief is formed by properly functioning cognitive faculties whose design plan is aimed at truth when that person is in circumstances appropriate to the proper functioning of those faculties, then that person's belief is warranted. Plantinga's criteria assume the truth of externalism, which is the view that a person does not need cognitive access to the grounds of his belief. A case can be made against externalism, but making that case is beyond the scope of this paper. Moreover, Plantinga believes in reliabilism, which teaches that in order for a person to know something, his true belief about it must be produced by a reliable belief-forming process. Plantinga goes on to say that belief in God is properly basic. One is warranted in believing in God when Plantinga's criteria of proper basicality are met.
Plantinga distinguishes between the grounds of a belief and the evidence for a belief. To believe something on the basis of evidence is to believe one proposition on the basis of another proposition or on the basis of one's memory or sense perception. In contrast, the ground of a belief is the circumstance in which the belief is generated. If a person were raised in a Christian home where Jesus is mentioned frequently, then this would be the ground of a person's belief in Jesus.
Plantinga believes that we have what he calls the sensus divinitatis, which is the tendency or disposition to believe in God when placed in certain circumstances. The circumstances in which such beliefs can arise are many and varied. For example, a person might have the tendency to believe in God if his life is in great danger or he sees the beauty of a tropical paradise. However, the sin in our lives can interfere with this tendency to believe in God. Were it not for the existence of sin in the world, people would believe in God to the same degree and with the same natural tendency that we believe in the existence of other persons, an external world, and so on. The Holy Spirit can change our hearts so that sin will not interfere with the tendency to believe in God.
Plantinga teaches that the formation of belief in God using the sensus divinitatis is analogous to my sense perception and memory beliefs. Suppose that you are looking at the beauty of the Grand Canyon. You would not form an argument saying that the Grand Canyon is beautiful; your belief that the Grand Canyon is beautiful arises spontaneously. The same is true for memory beliefs. Like obtaining the belief that God exists when I'm placed in certain circumstances, my remembering what I ate for dinner when asked by my co-worker is generated in me the same way.
RE is intended to address the de jure objections to the belief in God instead of the de facto objections. De jure objections against Christianity have to do with whether it is rational or reasonable to believe in Christianity. For example, if someone says that it is irrational to believe in God or in the doctrine of the Incarnation, then this would be a de jure objection to the Christian faith. De facto objections against Christianity claim that Christianity is false. If someone says that the doctrines of the Trinity, the deity of Christ, or justification by faith alone are not true, then he is making a de facto objection. Advocates of RE such as Plantinga say that Christianity is true and they believe that there is evidence for it, but they are focused on refuting the de jure objections against Christianity.
Someone might object to RE by saying that it does not give any argument or evidence in favor of Christianity. People say that RE makes an incomplete defense of the Christian faith. I think the people who raise this objection are misunderstanding the intentions of RE. Plantinga did not develop RE in order to prove Christianity. The aim of RE is not to convince people that Christianity is true. Plantinga wanted to show that it is rational to believe in God without evidence. He did not intend to refute the de facto objections against belief in God. A person should not criticize RE for not accomplishing what it did not intend to do.
Someone might object to RE by saying that if RE is true, then any belief can be properly basic such as the belief in the Great Pumpkin. Plantinga would respond by saying that there are no circumstances in which we would expect this belief to arise and our cognitive equipment are not aimed at believing in the Great Pumpkin. God has given us a natural tendency to see His handiwork in the world around us, but the same cannot be said for the Great Pumpkin. John Calvin argues that God has implanted in all men a certain understanding of the divine majesty and that there is no nation so barbarous, no people so savage, that they have not a deep-seated conviction that there is a God. The idea of the Great Pumpkin is not a deep-seated convicted that has been implanted in our minds. God has revealed Himself to us, but the Great Pumpkin has not done this.
In this paper, I have spent some time discussing the nature of RE. Now, I would like to evaluate it. I will discuss two areas of agreement and two objections. I agree with Plantinga's analysis of classical foundationalism; he has shown it to be self-refuting. A person's belief that classical foundationalism is true is not self-evident. Neither is it incorrigible nor evident to the senses. Since the evidentialist objection to belief in God is based upon classical foundationalism and since classical foundationalism is self-refuting, the evidentialist objection to belief must be dismissed. Plantinga has successfully answered the critic's objection that belief in God is irrational without evidence.
I agree that it is rational to believe in God's existence without evidence. Not everyone has access to or the ability to assess most of the arguments for God's existence. Not everyone can understand Anselm's ontological argument. Some people cannot refute Mackie's version of the argument from evil. Most people have not done serious reflection on all of the arguments for and against God's existence. Not everyone has thought about how to answer all of the objections to God's existence. Many people do not come to belief in God on the basis of the arguments for God's existence.
One objection against Plantinga's view is that there seems to be an inconsistency between Plantinga's view that our cognitive faculties are functioning properly and the view that the sin in our lives has negative effects upon our cognitive faculties. On the one hand, Plantinga teaches that our minds are functioning correctly. On the other hand, the sin in our lives has affected our minds in such a way that it interferes with the tendency to believe in God. God has revealed Himself clearly to us through the creation of the world, but the sin in our lives causes us to not give God honor or thanks. We would rather deny God's existence than to believe in Him. If the belief in the existence of God is supposed to be properly basic, then a failure to acknowledge this would be a sign of faulty thinking. Our cognitive faculties are not functioning as they ought to function. A person could claim that our cognitive faculties are functioning properly if we are free from the influence of drugs, alcohol, or some disease like Alzheimer's disease, but being free from the influences of those things does not necessarily mean that our minds are functioning as they ought to function.
A second objection against RE is that the case that Plantinga makes that believing in God is properly basic seems applicable to adherents of other religions as well. Members of other religions can claim that their religious beliefs are properly basic. For example, Muslims can say their belief in Allah is properly basic; they could claim that Allah has given people the tendency to believe in him in certain circumstances and that their cognitive faculties are aimed at believing in Islam. Mormons, Hindus, and Buddhists can say that their cognitive faculties and their circumstances give them warrant to believe in their deities. All of those religions cannot be true. Their truth claims about God contradict each other. I do not think that RE alone can refute this objection. RE does not have the criteria for determining which belief about God is properly basic. RE entails the idea that adherents of other religions can be rational in their beliefs. Even though Muslims and Jews have beliefs about God that contradict each other, both of their beliefs can be rational. RE does not preclude believing in the deities of other religions.
I think that RE advocates such as Plantinga have successfully refuted classical foundationalism and I agree that belief in God can be rational without evidence. They try to make the case that belief in God is rational without evidence, but they are not saying that there is no evidence for God's existence. The intention of RE is not prove that Christianity is true. I gave some objections to RE. There seems to be an inconsistency between Plantinga's view that our cognitive faculties are functioning properly and the view that the sin in our lives has negative effects upon our cognitive faculties. Adherents of other religions can claim proper basicality for their religious beliefs. For example, Muslims and Jews have different beliefs about God, but their beliefs can be rational according to RE. Overall, RE advocates can refute the charge that belief in God is irrational. RE can be made stronger if there were ways to overcome the objections mentioned in this paper.
1. 'Reason and Belief in God', The Analytic Theist An Alvin Plantinga Reader edited by James F. Sennett, p. 137, Eerdmans Publishing Company 1998.
2. Can You Believe It's True? Christian Apologetics in a Modern & Postmodern Era, John Feinberg, p. 221, Crossway 2103.
3. Ibid. p.229.
4. 'Reason and Belief in God', The Analytic Theist An Alvin Plantinga Reader edited by James F. Sennett, p. 141, Eerdmans Publishing Company 1998.
5. Can You Believe It's True? Christian Apologetics in a Modern & Postmodern Era, John Feinberg, p. 223, Crossway 2103.
6. Institutes of the Christian Religion Volume 1, John Calvin, pp. 43-44, Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1960.