Luke on reformed epistemology and moral realism

In his blogging, Luke of Common Sense Atheism has made some fairly harsh, and largely unexplained, swipes at reformed epistemology (Alvin Plantinga’s project of trying to show we can accept Christian doctrine without any argument or evidence for doing so), saying things like “reformed epistemology is neither” and that it is a “Candidate for ‘Dumbest idea of the Century.’” He’s also lashed out at atheist philosophers like Russ Shafer-Landau for being willing to take moral realism as just intuitively obvious, comparing them to the hated reformed epistemologists. I want to comment on this, because I think Shafer-Landau’s position on ethics is extremely plausibe, and while I don’t think Plantinga’s philosophy works as a defense of Christianity, I do think that Plantinga is clearly right about some of the points he makes along the way to defending his position. Understanding what Plantinga gets right is important because it will stop atheists from wasting their time on confused criticisms of him, and will improve the quality of their thinking on issues like moral realism.

When I try to talk about these issues, I instinctively reach for Descartes and Hume–I want to say something like “If you look at the fate of their philosophical projects, you’ll see that efforts to provide evidence for everything we believe are doomed to fail.” But a lot of people would be justifiably annoyed by such a facile appeal to famous names, so let me try to be a little more precise:

Descartes: Descartes’ project was to try to forget everything he knew and build up an edifice of certain knowledge from nothing, and he was working with a notion of “certainty” highly influenced by mathematics. Most philosophers now think Descartes’ project was a dismal failure, not only because of flaws in the particular arguments he used (like his attempted proofs of the existence of God, and his insistence that God wouldn’t allow us to be wildly deceived about what the world is like), but also because he set impossible standards for himself: he purports to be willing to consider (and later, able to refute) the possibility of a deceiving demon who has him confused even about the most seemingly obvious mathematical truths, which seems to make impossible Descartes’ attempt to escape skepticism by arguments, because the demon might be tricking him into thinking he has good arguments when he doesn’t (which is plausible in part because lots of philosophers think Descartes didn’t have good arguments).

Hume: Hume was trying to work out the implications of some assumptions about what we can know known as empiricism: all we can know is what we experience directly, and what is logically deducible from our concepts and what we experience directly. As Hume pointed out, very little is logically deducible from what we experience directly–notably, nothing about our future experiences is logically deducible from those experiences. So, if empiricism is true, we don’t know an awful lot of the things we think we know. Though Hume admitted he found this conclusion psychologially impossible to take seriously, he presented it as his official philosophy.

In light of these disappointing predicaments, most analytic philosophers today implicitly adopt an approach to understanding the world radically different than that of Descartes and Hume: instead of trying to start with nothing and passing everything through strict standards of epistemic legitimacy, we just take whatever seems obvious to us as working assumptions until given reason to think a given assumption is mistaken. This isn’t license to go on merrily believing whatever we happened to believe freshmen year; the idea is we have to think about what we can infer from the most obvious truths about the world, and more importantly think about what contradictions there might be in our starting assumptions, and put in the effort figuring out which assumption to jettison when we do find contradictions.

Luke doesn’t give much indication of what his own thoughts on these issues are, beyond “all these people are wrong.” There is one sentence from the moral realism post that does seem to shed some light on his position: “it’s the duty of the person making a claim to prove it is correct.” This sounds like like a conversational norm (if you’re going to tell someone something, you’d better prove it) but my guess is that what Luke really has in mind is a norm governing private belief (if you believe something, you’d better be able to prove it). To extrapolate a little, I would say that Luke’s position resembles that of Descartes and Hume in that he wants there to be a fundamental, quite strict standard to which all belief is held, but a standard which is more meetable than Descartes’ or Hume’s.

If that’s the claim, the key to evaluating it is knowing what “proof” here means. The sort of epistemological position I am defending owes a lot to G. E. Moore (one of the founders of the analytic tradition), and while he rejected the standards involved by the Descarteses and Humes of the world, he did talk about being able to prove things: he thought all you needed to do to prove the existence of an external world was to hold up your hands and say “here are two hands.” The sense of “proof” used here is highly intuitive: normally, if you ask me to prove that I have an X (pair of hands, roll of $100 bills, spaceship, whatever) showing you my X is proof enough. If this is what Luke means by “proof,” then there are a lot of things we have which may be in trouble under Descartes’ or Hume’s standards for what we can believe, but are not in trouble under Luke’s standard.

This “here let me show you” approach to proof is interesting, because it suggests a reason for being much more confident in our knowledge about the physical world than, say, philosophical opinions. But if you think about this for a moment, this is not at all a good thing for Luke’s standard of legitimate belief. Most importantly, it raises the question of how we can believe statements in epistemology, like, “our senses are generally reliable” or “you shouldn’t believe what you can’t prove.” Probably there are interesting ways of understanding “proof” in which such statements are provable, but I would be curious to know what specifically Luke has in mind here (if he does have a well-developed idea in mind). Moore’s approach to these problems was to say that admit that only some of our common-sense beliefs are provalbe, but that there are things we can know without proving. For now, I’m cautiously skeptical of the possibility that any such approach could work.

A better response to Plantinga is just to point out that belief in the Christian God isn’t very much at all like most of the common-sense beliefs commonly cited as threated by Descartes & Hume-style skepticism (like belief in the reliability of our senses), but is an awful lot like beliefs most Christians wouldn’t accept without evidence–namely, the beliefs of other religions. That kind of response is very hard to reject without special pleading on behalf of Christianity, and doesn’t involve commitment to any potentially troublesome epistemic principles.

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  1. Chris,

    Very interesting post. On this bit though:

    “A better response to Plantinga is just to point out that belief in the Christian God isn’t very much at all like most of the common-sense beliefs commonly cited as threated by Descartes & Hume-style skepticism (like belief in the reliability of our senses), but is an awful lot like beliefs most Christians wouldn’t accept without evidence–namely, the beliefs of other religions. That kind of response is very hard to reject without special pleading on behalf of Christianity, and doesn’t involve commitment to any potentially troublesome epistemic principles.”

    - I am unsure that it is a problem for Plantinga that the beliefs Christians might accept are similar to those than muslims, for example. (though I’m no expert on Plantinga’s epistemology) Suppose that there is no qualitative difference between Christian claims and muslim claims – that they are in the same epistemic box.

    For a start, I’m not sure that reformed epistemology governs all that many Christian beliefs. Sure, the existence of God can be properly basic, but it doesn’t follow from that that some specific piece of doctrine is. So all the Abrahamic religions can help themselves to reformed epistemology so far as the existence of God goes, but there’s still more to do. Plantinga would presumably say that divine inspiraton of The Bible over the Qur’an requires evidence.

    So, if the set of propositions that reformed epistemology covers is actually quite limited, it’s not a problem for the reformed epistemologist that Muslims and Christians disagree. For, they might well agree on the set of propositions that reformed epistemology covers (eg. that God exists).

    Even if that’s not the case though, I’m not sure the reformed epistemologist is in trouble. For, aren’t reformed epistemologists typically reliabilists of sorts (I’m fairly sure that Plantinga is a reliabilist of sorts). So, the Christian reformed epistemologist believes that (at least some) Christian beliefs are the product of a reliable belief forming practise (or something like that).

    Now, if that’s right, it’s either the case that:

    a) muslim beliefs that are inconsistent with Christian beliefs are the product of a reliable belief forming practise


    b) they’re not the product of a reliable belief forming practise

    Your worry is that the Christian reformed epistemologist might be forced to put muslim beliefs on a similar epistemic footing to Christian beliefs. Well, if (b) is true, they don’t. If (a) is true, then that’s not necessarily a problem. A belief can be the product of a reliable belief forming practise, but yet be false. So yeah, I don’t think either horn of that dilemma is a problem.

    Why? It’s straightforward why if (b) is true, it’s not a problem. What about (a)? Well … when I was a Christian (I have since lost my faith) I didn’t think that it was a problem that muslim beliefs might be on a similar epistemic footing as my Christian beliefs. After all, muslims and Christians (and those of no faith, and so on) are all trying hard to answer difficult questions. It’s not obvious that one is on a better epistemic footing that another, and if one is on better epistemic footing that has the queer consequence that lots of intelligent people (eg. the non-muslims, if Islam turns out to be on a better epistemic footing than other belief-systems) are being massively epistemically irreponsible. So, I like the charity contained in the thought that mutually exclusive belief-systems might be on similar epistemic footing, and that at some point you must have to declare which side of the line you fall on.

    Where it might create problems is when it comes to salvation. If there are no good reasons for preferring Christianity to Islam (for example) then it’d seem unfair for God to punish whichever of us get the wrong answer. But if you have a view of salvation in which everyone is saved (as I did, when I was a Christian), that’s not a problem.

    Anyway, this comment is long enough. Thanks for the great post!

  2. But Plantinga’s argument doesn’t depend even a little bit on the assumption that belief in the Christian God is like common-sense beliefs in the sense you have in mind. The only thing it has to have in common is a reliable-enough method by which the true belief comes to be held by the person in question. His epistemology is reliabilist, and thus a belief can constitute knowledge as long as it’s caused in the right way by a reliable belief-forming mechanism. If God does exist, then there’s no more reliable way of forming beliefs about God than by genuinely interacting with God by prayer, reading scriptures inspired by God, interacting with other believers with genuine relationships with God, and so on. So if God does exist then Christian belief can constitute knowledge even for those with no evidence for God. Since Plantinga isn’t trying to give a positive argument for God’s existence but is merely responding to the claim that no one could have knowledge of God’s existence without enough evidence, he has in fact succeeded. He’s given an account according to which someone could know that God exists, and it’s account that explains why the skeptical critic doesn’t have enough information to claim that the Christian doesn’t have genuine knowledge. Nothing in that argument relies on belief in the Christian God being very much like belief in the external world.

  3. Jeremy: I’ve not read Plantinga himself, so I’ll have to go from Allen Stairs’s summary.

    Isn’t Chris’s point that Plantinga has not shown that the believer does have a reliable belief forming mechanism? If you say “where’s your evidence?” and I say “I don’t need any because I’m directly in a relationship with God”, you can certainly question whether my notion that I’m in that relationship is reliable. According to Stairs, Plantinga says that in general there’s no way of determining what are properly basic beliefs other than by looking at paradigmatic cases, but the case of religious belief (or perhaps more precisely, the notion that God has somehow engaged with you directly) is in fact one where Christians would deny that, say, a Mormon’s “burning in the bosom” was reliable. So if I’m a Christian or a Mormon, even if I find myself with the notion that I’m in a relationship with God, I ought to be concerned that my notion may in fact be mistaken, just as the other fellow’s is.

    Stairs says that this controversy isn’t fatal, but that the more of it there is, the more of a problem it becomes. There does seem to be quite a lot of it about religion, though perhaps Plantinga’s argument is stronger if you just apply it to, say, theism rather than specifically to Christianity.

  4. Given that Plantinga is an externalist about justification, would it matter that he hasn’t shown that the believer has a reliable belief forming mechanism?

  5. I guess I read Chris as suggesting that there are epistemically salient disanalogies between belief in God and belief in the reliability of the senses, even on an externalist perspective. Namely, the senses are for the most part universally agreed to be reliable, and there is only rarely any problem harmonizing our own perceptual beliefs with that of others; whereas embracing any one religious belief immediately requires us to cast doubt on the proper functioning of the majority of humanity’s religious faculties. Even if our own faculties are functioning properly, it seems we possess a defeater to that claim.

  6. [I've noticed I got "my" and "your" muddled up in my previous comment, as I swapped them round to avoid sounding too accusatory toward the believers by making me the believer in may example, but didn't catch all of them in my edit: my point is that the fact that lots of people disagree with my unjustified belief should worry me.]

    I’m not that familiar with the internalist/externalist distinction, so I looked it up. Apologies if we’re doing Philosophy 101 here, but how does Plantinga make the claim that stuff about God is in fact one of those things we can be justified in believing without being able to become aware of a justifier? An externalist apparently just asserts that there are some such things.