Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Reformed Epistemology and the Great Pumpkin Objection

This is the Wikipedia entry on Reformed Epistemology and the Great Pumpkin objection, which I alluded to earlier.

It is tempting to raise the following sort of question. If belief in God can be properly basic, why cannot just any belief be properly basic? Could we not say the same for any bizarre aberration we can think of? What about voodoo or astrology? What about the belief that the Great Pumpkin returns every Halloween? Could I properly take that as basic? Suppose I believe that if I flap my arms with sufficient vigor, I can take off and fly about the room; could I defend myself against the charge of irrationality by claiming this belief is basic? If we say that belief in God is properly basic, will we not be committed to holding that just anything, or nearly anything, can properly be taken as basic, thus throwing wide the gates to irrationalism and superstition? (p. 74)

16 comments:

Joe said...

I think this raises a question as to what is a "rational" and/or "irrational" noetic structure.

Plantinga goes through several possible qualities that may attach to a "rational" or "irrational" noetic structure.

So one concern of rationality has to do with having evidence for a belief. This often comes up by atheists when discussing belief in God. However I think it is one of the least important concerns. After all our noetic structure must start somewhere or be circular. Unlike God, we can't comprehend an infinite number of causes/reasons. (As Plantinga says "these busy days who has time for that anymore")

Another has to do with holding contradictory beliefs. This I think is really the epitome of a irrational noetic structure. I think this should be the bitterest pill for anyone who claims to be rational to swallow. Since classical foundationalism is self refuting, it is irrational for this reason and must be rejected.

Plantinga mentions a few more qualities that may attach to a rational noetic structure and really discusses it in depth.

Another idea I think (I don't *think* Plantinga mentions it) would be along the lines of rationality in our choices. Yes even our choices as to what to believe along the lines of Pascal's Wager.

Gordon Knight said...

Joe:

Why is classical foundationalism self-refuting?

Joe said...

The foundationalism to which Plantinga objected (and there may have been different versions of it in existence at the time I don't know) was as I recall stated like this:

"One can rationally hold a belief iff:
1) It is self evident
2) It is perceived by the 5 senses
or 3) you can logically infer that belief from other beliefs that arise from 1 and/or 2."

Lets call the quoted statement belief F

Now the problem is belief F fails its own conditions. F is not self evident it is not directly perceived by the senses nor can you logically infer it from self evident truths or our perceptions.

Clayton said...

Focus on a crazy belief (e.g., a pumpkin belief, that you can fly if you flap hard enough and your heart is pure, etc...). One reason you cannot defend the belief by claiming that it is properly basic is that you don't believe that it is and as doxastic voluntarism is false you can't make yourself believe that it is.

But, this is contingent. Suppose we met someone who really did believe that some belief of theirs was properly basic. There's two conditions to consider. Basicality and propriety. I'd think that we could say that it doesn't satisfy the second even if it satisfies the first. Moreover, there's just no story on which _if_ the content of the belief in question were true we'd expect that the belief would be PB. That's what's supposed to distinguish belief in theism from, say, the belief that flapping the arms with a pure heart will lead to flying. However, it doesn't really distinguish the theistic belief from the Great Pumpkin belief.

A couple things to note. First, it seems that this shows that not being irrational is a pretty cheap epistemic property. It seems a GP believer could have that. Second, it's important for Plantinga's argument (I think) that to challenge the claim that some belief is PB you have to challenge the veracity of that belief.

That being said, the second-order belief that the belief is PB is not itself a PB belief and so we can ask what reason P has for believing the second-order belief.

Also, I've never quite understood why P thought it was so obvious that CF was self-refuting. Suppose Descartes believes that CF is self-evident. Doesn't he evade P's charge?

Joe said...

Clayton said: "Also, I've never quite understood why P thought it was so obvious that CF was self-refuting. Suppose Descartes believes that CF is self-evident. Doesn't he evade P's charge?"

I suppose claiming anything is "self evident" is going to evade any charge. “God’s existence is self evident!”

Is it impossible to conceive that F is possibly false? I can conceive that F is possibly false. Therefore I don't think its self evident.

More lax definitions of "self evident" IMO usually amount to "I really strongly believe this is true but can’t really support it so I will cop out and claim its self evident."

Joe said...

Clayton
You make some good points and some points that show its hard to come up with a definition of properly basic beliefs. But such beliefs must exist right?

Clayton: "A couple things to note. First, it seems that this shows that not being irrational is a pretty cheap epistemic property. It seems a GP believer could have that."
If you mean to say someone who is irrational is one who holds beliefs that contradict each other then yes I *suppose* I may be able to think of a GP believer who is not irrational. I mean I certainly have beliefs that would contradict the belief that the GP exists.

"That being said, the second-order belief that the belief is PB is not itself a PB belief and so we can ask what reason P has for believing the second-order belief."

I would say we do not need to know we know B in order to know B. In the same light we do not need to know B is a properly basic belief for it to be a properly basic belief.

Brandon said...

I think there are several things that get mixed up in this sort of objection. If the objection is put in terms of "why cannot just any belief be properly basic", then Plantinga has a perfectly straightforward response to that: the fact that people will differ on particular cases doesn't imply that any particular person's best account of what counts as properly basic will admit "just any belief" as properly basic: what counts as properly basic is determined inductively on the basis of the examples one has available oneself. Since (despite inevitable overlaps) different communities have different examples of what they would consider properly basic, not everyone will agree about the precise boundaries. But it's simply a non sequitur to conclude that on this view no one has any good reason to think there are boundaries, or that irrationalism follows.

The serious issue (which Clayton raises in passing) is how you handle disagreement about what's properly basic, which is a different issue. What happens when we meet a community of GP believers? We can't say that *we* don't see how it can be properly basic; that tells us nothing, since their whole claim, ex hypothesi, is that *they* do. But Plantinga doesn't think that there's no recourse here; for one, he explicitly says more than once that very good evidence can sometimes show that a belief you thought was properly basic is not. (For instance, solid evidence that you are hallucinating overrides the apparent proper basicality of the belief that you are seeing a tree.) And, moreover, he thinks proper basicality can be supported by pointing to particular grounds that occasion the belief -- experiences, etc. Properly basic beliefs have grounds, they just aren't founded on other beliefs (e.g., not all our perceptual beliefs are grounded on other beliefs, because this would involve an infinite regress that would problematize our ability to regard them as good beliefs). And these grounds also can be discussed. The real question is what more than this one might want.

exapologist said...

I agree with Clayton that it's not so clear whether classical foundationalism is self-refuting. This comes out in the debate in the literature between Plantinga and Quinn (Hasker's "Scoring the Plantinga/Quinn Debate" brings this out as well).

Very nice articulation of Plantinga's views, Brandon.
Also, doesn't Plantinga go further in weeding out weird epistemic communities in his later writings by appeal to his externalism (e.g., in WCB?

Steven Carr said...

BRANDON
Since (despite inevitable overlaps) different communities have different examples of what they would consider properly basic, not everyone will agree about the precise boundaries.

But it's simply a non sequitur to conclude that on this view no one has any good reason to think there are boundaries, or that irrationalism follows.

CARR
I guess it is very like morality.

Can we take just any old morality as properly basic?

We would have to evaluate morality on a case by case basis.

What counts as a properly basic belief about morality has to be determined on an inductive basis using examples one has available oneself.

Of course, different cultures will have different properly basic beliefs about morality.

But it is a non sequitor to say that just because different cultures have different properly basic beliefs about morality that there are no moral boundaries, or that immorality follows.

Steven Carr said...

Can we discuss the grounds for properly basic beliefs, when , by definition, there is no evidence for properly basic beliefs?

Joe said...

exapologist wrote: "I agree with Clayton that it's not so clear whether classical foundationalism is self-refuting. This comes out in the debate in the literature between Plantinga and Quinn (Hasker's "Scoring the Plantinga/Quinn Debate" brings this out as well)."

Thanks for bringing this debate to my attention.
Does Quinn claim that CF is self evident?

I'm also curious if you, or anyone, knows any texts that give an in depth discussion of what it means to be "self evident."

exapologist said...

Hey, Joe,

No, Quinn didn't think CF was self-evident. Rather, his point was the weaker one that whether or not CF is self-evident, Plantinga had so far failed to rule it out -- there are other moves a CF could make that Plantinga had thus far not dealt with. So, for example, Quinn pointed out that a CF could use Plantinga's own particularist, inductive method of surfacing criteria of proper basicality, and that it might turn out, for all Plantinga had shown, that criteria in keeping with CF are justified. These criteria (ordered triples of beliefs, circumstances, and the property of being properly basic) could then rightly be seen by the CF as self-evident.

Hasker's nice discussion of the Plantinga-Quinn debate can be found in Faith and Philosophy 15:1 (1998), pp. 52-67.

Brandon said...

Exapologist,

You're right, of course; but this is a part of Plantinga I always find myself fuzzy on.

Steven,

The example of morality is probably a good one; one might argue, in fact, that it is precisely an instance of this disagreement over what counts as properly basic.

Steven Carr said...

Plantinga can have no qualms about the wildest excess of moral relativism, as his justificaton of his 'properly basic beliefs' can justify pretty much anything as properly basic.

Brandon said...

Plantinga can have no qualms about the wildest excess of moral relativism, as his justificaton of his 'properly basic beliefs' can justify pretty much anything as properly basic.

Suppose A and B disagree about some fundamental moral matter; A claims that p is a properly basic belief and B claims that ~p is a properly basic belief. This is not the end of the discussion, but simply one way of beginning. They can look at the grounds for each properly basic belief (e.g., what experiences underlie them) in order to understand each other's claim; A might be able to present some good evidence that B's grounds are misleading; and so forth. Things like burden-of-proof arguments lose their teeth, of course; but that's not relativism, it's just a more complicated rational inquiry.

So this is not really a problem for Plantinga; the joint fact that

(1) people disagree about fairly basic things in morals; and
(2) they have to work out what is moral starting with those fairly basic things (which may be revised through evidence later)

doesn't imply that moral relativism is even a possibility. And, again, there are rational constraints: good evidence can show that your grounds for the alleged properly basic belief are misleading (e.g., good evidence that I'm on a hallucinogenic drug puts into question whether I can believe that there's a tree on the grounds that I see it), or the real grounds could be rather different from the grounds I thought (in a way that could make a difference), and so forth. Plantinga's argument simply doesn't imply that anything can be justified or that truth is relative (this claim overlooks large swathes of Plantinga's account); the point of difficulty is not that there are no rational constraints on what can count as poroperly basic, but whether there are stronger rational constraints than Plantinga's account allows.

Steven Carr said...

BRANDON
Suppose A and B disagree about some fundamental moral matter; A claims that p is a properly basic belief and B claims that ~p is a properly basic belief. This is not the end of the discussion, but simply one way of beginning. They can look at the grounds for each properly basic belief (e.g., what experiences underlie them) in order to understand each other's claim; A might be able to present some good evidence that B's grounds are misleading; and so forth.

CARR
Brandon is quite right.

The standard attack on moral relativism is that one relativist is not able to discuss with another relativist about whose moral beliefs are most grounded in reality.

But they obviously can.

But this means that we atheists now have every right to criticise Plantinga's belief in God.

Plantinga would no longe rbe able to say , as Victor's Link 'He claims that Christians are only responsible to its own epistemic norms, not the norms of atheists.'


If , for example, William Lane Craig testifies that he had a personal experience of God after crying out all his bitterness and anger, we can say that crying is not grounds for a properly basic belief.

These 'epistemic norms' must be also the norms of other people, or else relativism would be revived and roam the earth, courtesy of Plantinga declaring he is not interested in the 'epistemic norms' of others.