Paper on Plantinga and classical foundationalism

After writing my post last night on the Plantinga clique, I realized there’s one easy thing I can do for people who want something more to read debunking the Plantinga clique: post a paper I wrote in graduate school on Plantinga. Here it is (warning: it’s >6,000 words long):

What’s Wrong With Strict Standards for Belief?: Plantinga and Classical Foundationalism

  • JohnH2

    Still wondering if you are of the opinion that one is able to accurately predict when each radioactive atom will decay.

  • Verbose Stoic

    I skimmed this paper and am not an expert on these arguments, but I don’t think the counters you give work that well.

    My interpretation of the debate from the paper is roughly this:

    Evidentialists argue that one ought not believe in God because there is no evidence/the evidence is insufficient to accept that belief.

    Foundationalism says that there are some beliefs that we can accept without or with insufficient evidence. Most accept that we need some beliefs like that or else we can’t have any evidence or knowledge at all.

    Classical foundationalism sets the standard for those beliefs at some form of indubitability, either that we cannot logically doubt them, cannot psychologically doubt them, or cannot practically doubt them.

    However, all classical foundationalist implementations of that fail in some way, either by including things that we really do think we need to justify or by excluding things that we need to accept without justification.

    Therefore, that sort of indubitability cannot be the standard for beliefs that we need not justify.

    Therefore, it is possible that the belief in God is a belief that we can hold without evidence/sufficient evidence.

    Therefore, the evidentialist at least needs to make a case for why the belief in God is not a foundational/basic belief.

    Since Plantinga focuses a lot on basic beliefs, this seems a reasonable interpretation. But then I don’t see how your counters, which seem focused around demonstrating that the examples given don’t really hold that as a standard for belief work. If their standards for beliefs are weaker, then the belief in God might be justifiable by those standards, so it doesn’t address the evidentialist discussion at all. On the other hand, it is clear that they hold those standards for foundational or basic beliefs, those that we can accept without evidence/sufficient evidence, then the criticism of their position is valid, and does strike at the evidentialist as well.

    If Plantinga adds in James’ idea of when a belief can be “basic”, which is that it is important, forced, and live, then we can even have an argument for it being reasonable to treat the belief in God as a basic belief. And I actually do really like James’ idea and think it fairly credible in general, beyond discussions of God.

    So, if we get to this point, the evidentialist, at least, cannot simply say “You ought not believe in God because you have no/insufficient evidence”. We now have a lot more discussion to do about this issue.

    I actually have a similar comment about you using compatiblist free will against the free will response to “The Problem of Evil”. At best, you might be able to argue that a compatiblist free will isn’t enough to get Plantinga what we wants, but since that’s not settled yet I do think most people will accept that the simple definitional “Problem of Evil” can be worked around for at least human action by an appeal to free will, even if we may turn out not to have it or have the right type of free will. So it’s something that those who want to push “The Problem of Evil” have to address, or work around by not including human action. That being said, compatiblism is about preserving what we thought important about free will while still maintaining that everything is deterministic. In that way, it is quite likely that it will preserve moral responsibility and responsibility for our choices, and if we have that then God would give us a mechanism by which we can make meaningful choices, and then tweaking that mechanism to always produce moral ones would be just as much a trumping of meaningful free will as such interference would with dualistic free will.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/hallq/ Chris Hallquist

      Therefore, that sort of indubitability cannot be the standard for beliefs that we need not justify.

      Therefore, it is possible that the belief in God is a belief that we can hold without evidence/sufficient evidence.

      This is a complete nonsequitur. The fact that the indubitability standard doesn’t work doesn’t remotely suggest it’s OK to hold beliefs without evidence.

      It’s important to distinguish between fairly strict standards (like “you should have evidence for your beliefs”) and ludicrously strict standards (“only believe things that are indubitable!”) We can reject the latter while holding on to the former.

      But then I don’t see how your counters, which seem focused around demonstrating that the examples given don’t really hold that as a standard for belief work. If their standards for beliefs are weaker, then the belief in God might be justifiable by those standards, so it doesn’t address the evidentialist discussion at all.

      “Weaker” is relative. Again, it’s possible to have a standard “weaker” than something ludicrously strong like classical foundationalism while still thinking claims like theism need evidence.

      • Verbose Stoic

        This is a complete nonsequitur. The fact that the indubitability standard doesn’t work doesn’t remotely suggest it’s OK to hold beliefs without evidence.

        No, that’s what foundationalism implies: that there are at least some beliefs that we can believe with no or with insufficient evidence (I prefer “insufficient” when we are talking about the belief in God because saying that there is “no evidence” seems to strain what we’d normally consider evidence). So, then, we need to consider how we can tell what those beliefs are. Classical foundationalism used some form of indubitability standard, and by that standard the belief in God wouldn’t count as a foundational belief, because it doesn’t have those properties (or, at least, a good argument can be made that it doesn’t). So the evidentialist position on God works: we need sufficient evidence to believe in God, we don’t have that evidence, therefore we ought not believe in God. But if that standard fails — as it seems to — then the question is at least open again; the evidentialist gets no support from foundationalism for their contention, and it potentially works against the evidentialist because it allows for foundational beliefs that don’t require sufficient evidence. Thus, as I said, the evidentialist now needs to have an argument for why the belief in God cannot be a foundational belief (or else they can reject foundationalism).

        “Weaker” is relative. Again, it’s possible to have a standard “weaker” than something ludicrously strong like classical foundationalism while still thinking claims like theism need evidence.

        Sure it is. That’s why my last conclusion was “it is possible that the belief in God is a belief that we can hold without or with insufficient evidence”. Presumably, Plantinga and others will have an argument for what standards we can use and God fits into that. James’ standard, for example, would work fine. Against that, the evidentialist needs to provide their own standard and justify that. And at that point. we’re far beyond “You need evidence to believe in the existence of God”, and my main thrust was that the consensus, it seems to me, is that that simple statement is insufficient as an argument against believing in God. It makes a decent summary line, like “Man evolved from apes” but there’s a lot more hidden behind it that you have to understand and argue for before it stands as a credible argument.

  • Richard_Wein

    Hi Chris,

    Interesting paper. I’m not very familiar with the views of most of the philosophers who you mention, but I’d like to comment briefly on Hume, who I think you’ve misunderstood. I don’t think Hume was the radical epistemic skeptic that you (and some other people) seem to see him as, or that he should be considered a foundationalist. I’m convinced that Hume did not consider induction to be illegitimate (as you imply).

    I can’t help feeling that many people pay too much attention to the first of Hume’s two chapters on the problem of induction (where he lays out the problem) and not enough to the second of those chapters (where he gives his own solution). If they do notice the second chapter, perhaps they are misled by the fact that its title refers to his solution as a “skeptical” one.

    I for one reject any sort of foundationalism. My approach to epistemology is a “naturalized” one. The term “naturalized epistemology” is sufficiently open to interpretation that I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that some philosophers manage to combine some sort of naturalized epistemology with some sort of foundationalism. But broadly speaking I would say that naturalized epistemology is hostile to foundationalism. And I see Hume as an early (perhaps the first) proponent of a more naturalized epistemology.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/hallq/ Chris Hallquist

      On the question of whether we should read Hume as a skeptic or as proponent of naturalized epistemology, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say he was… both?

      Because you definitely see in Hume remarks to the effect that his own philosophical conclusions often sounded crazy to him, mixed with smugness about his self-described “scepticism.” But you also see him saying things like he wants to be the Newton of moral philosophy (i.e. psychology), trying to give a descriptive account of human belief-formation in place of traditional epistemology, and so on.

      And if it sounds contradictory to suppose that Hume could be both, well, I don’t think we can always assume past “greats” always had totally coherent views. The roots of naturalized epistemology are definitely there, but I wouldn’t read Hume as having a fully developed naturalized epistemology in the way that modern philosophers might.

      Does that answer satisfy you?

      • Richard_Wein

        Well, my answer to philosophical questions is often, “Yes and no”. So I can’t complain.

      • staircaseghost

        “Radical” is a relative term. I think it’s a mistake to conflate Humean skepticism of metaphysics with Pyrrhonic skepticism more broadly.

        Presumably you accept his skeptical arguments against the ego as an invisible cartesian res cogitans, rather than a parade of thoughts and sensations. So there is an important sense in which “you” don’t really exist. But this is not the same as the Pyrrhonic claim that I am having this conversation with a phantasm or hallucination, or that there is no such person as Hallq.

        Hume’s arguments “against” induction, causality, morality etc. strike a similar note. They are radical revisions of our commonsense prephilosophical theorizing about these topics, but they aren’t calls for us to reject the truth claims of these discourses wholesale.

        His naturalizing tendencies in epistemology aren’t a contradiction to his skepticism, they are its primary motive force. It is by looking at what we do when we infer causes, in purely behavioristic terms, that leads him to doubt that we are discovering any deep facts about the metaphysical structure of the universe. We merely make Pavlovian connections between sensations.

        • Richard_Wein

          “Radical” is a relative term. I think it’s a mistake to conflate Humean skepticism of metaphysics with Pyrrhonic skepticism more broadly.

          Thanks. When I mentioned “radical” epistemic skepticism I had in mind Pyrrhonic skepticism, though that name didn’t spring to mind. (I’ve only come across it a couple of times before.)

          • staircaseghost

            Hume couldn’t’ve been too radical in his skepticism, because he was also a classical foundationalist!

            He only seemed relatively radical (i.e. relative to common sense) because he took the empiricist doctrine that sense-experience is the indubitable foundation of knowledge to its logical conclusion (as did Berkeley, another philosopher wildly misunderstood even by fellow empiricists like Russell.)

            He never debunks any particular scientist’s claim to have found the cause of something, or moralist’s claim to have found something to be noble or vile. He debunks naiive and scholastic and rationalist philosophers’ stories about what upright monkeys are doing when they make these claims. Causing the spectacle of them howling “Nihilism!” in the painful throes of their intuitions being violated — my favorite result of philosophical inquiry.

          • Richard_Wein

            Hume couldn’t’ve been too radical in his skepticism, because he was also a classical foundationalist!

            From a bit more reading, it does sound like he still had one foot in the classical foundationalist camp, while moving in the direction of the more naturalized position that I favour. I suppose it’s the apparent contradiction between the two views that leads some people to read him as a Pyrrhonist:

            “But instead of proposing an alternative account of how scientific theories and predictions might be justified, Hume set out to explain by what mental mechanisms human beings become convinced of empirical generalizations and predictions. As these mechanisms are allegedly based upon habit or custom only, Hume implicitly claimed that scientific knowledge cannot be justified at all: the only thing we can do is to explain causally its genesis. In other words, Hume’s ‘naturalism’ does not compensate for his ‘scepticism’ as far as normative epistemology is concerned.”
            (http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=bsmqdTaGejAC&pg=PA23)

            Implicitly claimed…!!!

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