Plantinga’s incredibly weak arguments in Warranted Christian Belief

When I initially planned chapter 6, I had meant to say something about Alvin Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief. The book strikes me as in a way representative of a certain kind of defense of religion, except that it takes points that are often tossed off without any argument and defends them in what looks like a much more careful way. Emphasis on “looks like.”

I didn’t really grasp this until I sat down to carefully read the transcript of this interview with philosopher Tyler Wunder, whose dissertation was on the problems with Plantinga’s book. It’s a long interview, but on a careful reading, Wunder’s critique of Plantinga comes down to a couple of key screw-ups on Plantinga’s part.

The first problem is that Plantinga is trying to attack evidentialism, which, as Wunder explains, is “the view that belief in God requires some sort of evidential or argumentative considerations if it is to be rational.” And he does so by attacking a specific form of evidentialism, classical foundationalism. But:

the problem, of course, the foreshadow of it, is that the relationship doesn’t go the other way, that evidentialism does not entail classical foundationalism, and it’s not in any way committed to classical foundationalism, but anyway, so Plantinga kind of makes this connection between the two, and then attacks evidentialism indirectly by attacking classical foundationalism.

Wunder gives Plantinga a pass on this to a large extent, but it renders a major section of Warranted Christian Belief useless. The other major problem comes from Plantinga’s claim that because Christianity teaches Christians are getting information direct from God about the truth of Christianity, you can’t show Christianity is irrational without showing it’s false (never mind how that works, it actually won’t matter here). This move has been called the “retreat to metaphysics.”

Now Plantinga acknowledges that other religions might use a similar defense, and he’s OK with that. But he denies that you could use this approach to defend just any crazy belief, and specifically mentions Voodoo and Flat Earthism as beliefs that can’t use his strategy. And here’s Wunder’s brilliant take down of that:

This kind of ties in with a criticism that I raised in my dissertation, was that the dismissal of Voodoo and the Flat Earthists’ ability to adopt this retreat to metaphysics is far too quick.

In fact, Plantinga doesn’t offer any arguments at all. He just simply states, as if it is obvious, that “Well, of course the Voodooist can’t adopt the retreat to metaphysics, ” and “Of course, the Flat Earther can’t do this.” But when you actually sit down and think about it and ask yourself “OK, what do Voodooists believe? What is part of their belief system?” it turns out that it takes very little research to find out that Voodooism as a belief system refers to powerful supernatural agents. Even as part of their mythology, either does or can have a creator god.

With these resources in place, it seems to me that there’s no reason to think that a diligent Voodooist who has read his Plantinga couldn’t sit down and come up with a parallel model to the extended A/C model which, using elements of Voodoo, I hesitate to call it theology, but Voodooology comes up with a “just so” story of how it is that if these beliefs are true then they will satisfy whatever account of warrant they think is the best one.

So contrary to Plantinga’s decree, I don’t think it’s at all obvious that Voodooists can’t adopt the retreat to metaphysics.

With regard to Flat Earthers, if you just take, in isolation, the Earth is flat and that’s all you consider. Well, OK fine, sure, just because I believe the Earth is flat and it’s true, it doesn’t follow from that that that belief will therefore be warranted. Fair enough. I mean in the same way, if Voodooism is the only thing that you describe Voodooism as “there are zombies and chicken sacrifices, ” well the truth in that doesn’t imply that belief in those things are warranted either.

But when you actually look at the fuller belief system that’s behind it, and for example, with the Flat Earthers, if you ask yourself, “Well, who is it that believes that the Earth is flat?” Or, “Who is it that has believed that the Earth is flat?”

It turns out that belief in a flat Earth is very often, although not always, but very often combined with fundamentalist Christianity.

[snip]

But in any event, you can see how: OK, well can belief in a flat Earth adopt a retreat to metaphysics well what happens if we just graft the earth is flat onto the extended A/C model?

If we incorporate the entire model as it is because certainly I’m sure fundamentalist christians would find the model congenial in many ways, perhaps lacking in others.

But certainly not something that would be entirely odious to them and just add a few details like that one that the clear and obvious interpretation of the Bible is that the earth is flat and the Bible is to be trusted in all things.

[snip]

So if devilish scientists with their satanic pictures from space try to convince you that the earth is a globe, these things are just wrong. You can use sin to for why it is that mostly everyone else is mistaken because they are not part of the elect and so like in the case of voodoo I don’t think that one can just say baldly a belief in a flat Earth can not adopt to treat the metaphysics.

Plantinga didn’t choose these examples arbitrarily, he choose things because these are the sorts of things that you can get away in our society with pretty much dismissing out of hand as being kooky and nutty and not really too many people are just going to stand up and defend them.

So, the idea of that one of these or both of these Voodooism and Flat Earthism can plausibly adopt a the retreat to metaphysics seems to me to cast serious doubt on the apologetic merits of that maneuver.

Concisely: Plantinga realizes it would be bad if it turned out that any crazy belief could adopt his defensive strategy. But pretty much any crazy belief can adopt his defensive strategy if you add “God told me so” to it. And this is a very natural move for two of the examples Plantinga specifically mentions of beliefs that allegedly can’t adopt his strategy, Voodoo and Flat Earthism. Voodoo because it involves a belief in gods and spirits, and Flat Earthism because Flat Earthism typically shows up as a particularly nutty strain of Christian fundamentalism.

  • jamessweet

    If I might generalize here, I think Plantinga is engaging in what seems to me to be a very common error — usually made by people who are not trained in formal logic, so Plantinga’s engaging in it is either disingenuous or truly a shocking blind spot for him — which is used to weasel out of a reductio ad absurdum.

    I might call it the absurdum est absurdum fallacy, and it basically goes like this:

    ALICE: I justify my proposition P by using argument X.
    BOB: Your argument fails. If that argument were valid, then I could use a parallel argument X’ to justify a proposition P’, and we both agree that P’ is false.
    ALICE: No no, X’ can’t possibly justify P’, because P’ is prima facie absurd.

    In other words, instead of responding to the chain of reasoning that resulting in the reductio ad absurdum, the person defending their assertion simply notes that since — in her mind, at least — her assertion is obviously true, it is absurd that it could result in an absurdity. The reductio is turned on its head.

    I suppose it’s an extension of the observation that “one person’s modus ponens is another’s modus tollens“. Bob argues that P->Q, both parties agree ~Q, therefore Bob asserts ~P. Alice rebuts: (~Q ^ (P->Q)) -> ~P, both parties (still) agree ~Q, and Alice is quite sure about P… therefore, Alice asserts, ~(P->Q).

  • Laurence

    I love that interview with Tyler Wunder. I’ve listened to it a couple of times, and he does a very good job of making Reformed Epistemology look even silly than it does at first glance.

  • PocketWocket

    My biology teacher recommended that our class attend a talk by Plantinga (funded by the Templeton folks) in my freshman year of college…. Reading more about him just makes me wince to think that woman’s still teaching.
    In other news, I think this is the first time I’ve seen “that that that” used in a sentence.

    • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist Chris Hallquist

      In high school, my Sapnish teacher told us that the fact that English allows suck sentences is one reason English is a defective language.


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