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IV. Son of Great Pumpkin?

Now according to the extended A/C model, belief in God and belief in the central tenets of the Christian faith can be rational and have warrant when they are not accepted on the evidential basis of other beliefs. On this model, they can have warrant that they don’t get by way of being believed on the evidential basis of other beliefs; they can 343 have warrant that they don’t get by way of warrant transfer from other beliefs. In this respect, they are like memory beliefs, perceptual beliefs, some a priori beliefs, and so on. The beliefs of the Christian faith, on the suggestion in question, are a proper starting point for thought. Another way to put this: these beliefs are properly basic, and properly basic with respect to warrant. What I mean to consider next is a nest of objections to the thought that these beliefs could receive warrant in the basic way. Now objections of this sort have so far been centered on the claim that belief in God (as opposed to specifically Christian belief) is or can be properly basic; that is because for the most part it is belief in God, not specifically Christian belief, that has so far been claimed to be or possibly to be properly basic. To simplify matters, I will confine discussion to the sensus divinitatis and belief in God; what I say, however, will apply equally well to the IIHS and the beliefs produced by it.

First, there is the claim that if belief in God is really properly basic with respect to warrant, then arguments and objections will not be relevant to it; it will be beyond rational scrutiny and will be insulated from objections and defeaters. But obviously objection and argument are relevant to theistic belief: therefore, it isn’t warrant-basic. Thus Michael Martin: “Plantinga’s foundationalism is radically relativistic and puts any belief beyond rational appraisal once it is declared basic.”431431   Atheism: A Philosophical Justification (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990), p. 276.

Why think a thing like that? Theistic belief would certainly not be immune to argument and defeat just by virtue of being basic. In this, theistic belief only resembles other kinds of beliefs accepted in the basic way. You tell me that you went to the Grand Tetons this summer; I acquire the belief that you did so and hold it in the basic way.432432   I don’t hold it on the evidential basis of such an argument as George says he went to the Tetons last summer; most of what George says is true; so probably this is. I could accept testimony on the basis of such an argument, and perhaps in certain special circumstances (a murder trial, for example) I would do so; but in the typical case I don’t. But then your wife tells me that the fact is you went to the Wind Rivers, which, she says, you always confuse with the Tetons. Furthermore, the next time I see you, you go on at great length about the glories of Gannett Peak (which is in the Wind Rivers). Then I will no longer believe you went to the Tetons, despite the fact that I originally formed that belief in the basic way. Another example: I see what looks like a sheep in the field across the road, and I form in the basic way the belief that there is a sheep there; you, the owner of the field, tell me that there aren’t any sheep in it, although there is a dog in the neighborhood that looks just like a sheep from this distance. Then I will no longer believe that I see a sheep, despite the fact that the 344belief is accepted in the basic way. Still another example: Gottlob Frege formed in the basic way the belief that for every property or condition, there exists the set of just those things that have the property or satisfy the condition; he learned to his sorrow that this is not so (Bertrand Russell pointed out that it leads to paradox433433   One condition is that of being nonselfmembered; so, if Frege’s belief were true, there would be a set of nonselfmembered sets—which would have to be both a member of itself and not a member of itself. Hence Frege’s belief was false.), and this despite the fact that the original belief had been basic.

So it is not true, in general, that if a belief is held in the basic way, then it is immune to argument or rational evaluation; why, therefore, think it must hold for theistic belief? The fact, if it is a fact, that belief in God is properly basic doesn’t for a moment imply that it is immune to argument, objection, or defeat; it is surely no consequence of my foundationalism or of the A/C model (simpliciter or extended) that basic beliefs are beyond rational appraisal.434434   In “Reason and Belief in God,” in Faith and Rationality (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983), a paper Martin quotes several times in his book, I said, “Suppose someone accepts belief in God as basic. Does it not follow that he will hold this belief in such a way that no argument could move him or cause him to give it up? . . . Does he not thereby adopt a posture in which argument and other rational methods of settling disagreement are implicitly declared irrelevant? Surely not.” See pp. 82ff., “Is Argument Irrelevant to Basic Belief?” I wouldn’t so much as mention this, except that there seems to be a fairly widespread impression to the contrary.

A related complaint: according to the Great Pumpkin Objection,435435   See “Reason and Belief in God,” pp. 74ff. if belief in God can be properly basic, then so can any other belief, no matter how bizarre: if belief in God can be properly basic, then all bets are off, and anything goes. You might as well claim that belief in the Great Pumpkin (who returns every Halloween to the most sincere pumpkin patch) is properly basic with respect to warrant. You might as well make the same claim for atheism, voodoo, astrology, witchcraft, and anything else you can think of. According to Dostoevski, if God does not exist, everything is possible; according to this objection, if belief in God is properly basic, everything is warranted. This objection, of course, is plainly false. To recognize that some kinds of belief are properly basic with respect to warrant doesn’t for a moment commit one to thinking all other kinds are; even if the extended A/C model is correct, it doesn’t follow that these other beliefs are properly basic with respect to warrant. Descartes and Locke thought some beliefs were properly basic with respect to warrant; should we object that they were therefore committed to thinking just any belief is properly basic?


So the Great Pumpkin Objection as it stands is obviously a nonstarter. Michael Martin recognizes this,436436   Atheism, p. 272. but raises a related objection; it is this objection, I think, that underlies his claim that my views are “radically relativistic”:

Although reformed epistemologists would not have to accept voodoo beliefs as rational, voodoo followers would be able to claim that insofar as they are basic in the voodoo community they are rational and, moreover, that reformed thought was irrational in this community. Indeed, Plantinga’s proposal would generate many different communities that could legitimately claim that their basic beliefs are rational. . . . Among the communities generated might be devil worshipers, flat earthers, and believers in fairies, just so long as belief in the devil, the flatness of the earth, and fairies was basic in the respective communities. (p. 272)

Call this objection ‘Son of Great Pumpkin’ (SGP). How exactly does it go? The first thing to see here is that SGP has moved up a level from the Great Pumpkin Objection itself. The latter complains that, on the view I’ve been presenting, just any proposition, no matter how fantastic, would have to be accepted as properly basic; this complaint, as Martin sees, is obviously false. SGP, therefore, moves up a level: according to SGP, someone who took any proposition p in the basic way could legitimately claim that p was properly basic—properly basic with respect to rationality, says Martin—that is, such that it can be both rationally accepted and accepted in the basic way. Take any possible community and any beliefs accepted as basic in that community: the epistemologists of that community could legitimately claim that these beliefs are rationally accepted in the basic way. Could, if what? What does Martin mean? There is more than one possibility, but I think he means this: could, if the ‘Reformed epistemologist’ can legitimately claim that theistic belief is properly basic. So the structure of the objection would have to be this:

(1) If Reformed epistemologists can legitimately claim that belief in God is rationally acceptable in the basic way, then for any other belief accepted in some community, the epistemologists of that community could legitimately claim that it was properly basic, no matter how bizarre the belief.


(2) The consequent of this conditional is false.


(3) The Reformed epistemologist can’t legitimately claim that belief in God is rationally acceptable in the basic way.


Is this a good argument? One initial problem is that the argument is pretty loosely stated; Martin doesn’t tell us what he means by ‘rational’, and he doesn’t tell us what he means by ‘legitimately’. As to the first, perhaps the best candidates would be rationality as justification (deontological justification), internal rationality, and rationality in the sense of warrant. We needn’t linger long over rationality as justification: obviously the voodooists could be within their intellectual rights in thinking what they do think (if only by virtue of cognitive malfunction); hence they could be justified. But then, presumably someone (the voodoo epistemologists, e.g.) could legitimately claim that those voodooists were justified, no matter what, precisely, Martin means by ‘legitimately’. Premise (2) of the argument, specified with respect to justification, is thus clearly false.

Well, suppose we specify the argument to internal rationality; take ‘rationally acceptable’ to mean ‘internally rational’. Then again the answer is pretty easy. A belief is internally rational if it is produced by faculties functioning properly ‘downstream from experience’ (see above, p. 110)—if, given your experience (including doxastic experience) at the time in question, it is compatible with proper function that you accept the belief in question. That could certainly be so for the voodooists. Perhaps they have always been taught that these voodoo beliefs are true, and all alleged contrary evidence is cleverly explained away by the priests; or perhaps they are all in the grip of some cognitive malfunction upstream from experience, one that skews their doxastic experience. If that could be so for the voodoists, then the voodoo epistemologists could no doubt know that the voodoists are internally rational in these judgments, and hence (one supposes, legitimately) report this fact. Premise (2) fails for internal rationality, just as for justification.

Accordingly, if we are to have something worth considering here, the argument must presumably be specified to rationality in the sense of warrant. The question is whether, if I can legitimately claim that belief in God is properly basic with respect to warrant, the epistemologists of the voodoo community can legitimately claim that those voodoo beliefs are properly basic with respect to warrant. But now we do need to know what is meant, here, by ‘legitimately claim’. There seem to be three salient possibilities: claim truthfully, claim justifiably, and claim warrantedly. First, therefore, Martin could mean that if belief in God can truthfully be said to be warrant basic, then the same goes for voodoo belief. We have already seen, however, that this is false. It is entirely possible that belief in God have warrant in the basic way and voodoo belief not have it in the basic way; this state of affairs would obtain, for example, if the A/C model is true, but voodoo belief originates in some kind of cognitive error. So premise (1) of the argument would fail.


Second, Martin might mean that if belief in God can justifiably be said to be warrant basic, then the same goes for voodoo belief: it too can justifiably be said to be warrant basic. Again, this is too easy: obviously those epistemologists might be justified in thinking that voodoo belief was warrant basic: it might seem just obvious to them, after protracted reflection and after considering objections, that, indeed, voodoo belief is warrant basic. So taken, premise (2) fails.

If we are to locate a respectable objection, then, it looks as if we must specify ‘legitimately’ to ‘warrantedly’. Take both ‘rationally acceptable’ and ‘legitimately’ as ‘warrantedly’: then is the argument a good one? Martin’s claim, so construed, would be that (1) if the claim made by the Reformed epistemologist—namely, that belief in God is properly basic with respect to warrant—has warrant, then for any proposition p (no matter how bizarre) accepted by some community, if the epistemologists of that community were to claim that p is properly basic with respect to warrant, their claim would itself have warrant; (2) the consequent of (1) is false; the conclusion of the argument would be that the Reformed epistemologist’s claim does not enjoy warrant. A problem with evaluating this version of the argument is that the Reformed epistemologist (this Reformed epistemologist, anyway) doesn’t claim as part of his philosophical position that belief in God and the deliverances of IIHS do have warrant. That is because (above, p. 186ff.) in all likelihood they have warrant only if they are true, and I am not arguing that these beliefs are in fact true. No doubt the Reformed epistemologist does believe that they are true, and is prepared to claim that they are, even if he doesn’t propose to argue for that claim. So for the nonce, suppose we think of the Reformed epistemologists as actually claiming that belief in God and the deliverances of the IIHS enjoy warrant in the basic way; suppose further that they claim this ‘legitimately’—that is, under the current interpretation, suppose this claim itself has warrant for them. Would it follow that for any proposition p, if there were a community who endorsed p, these people (or the epistemologists of their community) would be warranted in believing that p is properly basic with respect to warrant for those in this community?

It would not follow. Suppose the extended A/C model is true (not just possible); then (a) the central claims of the Christian faith are, in fact, true, (b) there really are such cognitive processes as the sensus divinitatis and IIHS, and (c) their deliverances do meet the conditions for warrant. Suppose a Reformed epistemologist believes the great things of the gospel on the basis of the sensus divinitatis and IIHS; suppose he notes, further, that his belief and that of many others is accepted in the basic way (where, of course, accepting p on the basis of testimony is one way to believe p in the basic way). Suppose he further comes to see or believe that God intends his children to know 348about him and to know the great things of the gospel, but also that it isn’t possible for enough of us to know enough about him by way of inference from other beliefs; he therefore concludes (correctly) that God has instituted cognitive processes by virtue of which we human beings can form these true beliefs in the basic way. He concludes still further that the cognitive processes or mechanisms by way of which we form these beliefs are functioning properly when it delivers them, and are also functioning in an epistemically congenial environment according to a design plan successfully aimed at truth: that is, he concludes that Christian belief, taken in this basic way, has warrant. He thus concludes that these beliefs are properly basic with respect to warrant, drawing this conclusion from beliefs that themselves have warrant; but forming a belief in that way itself meets the conditions for warrant; hence, his view that theistic belief is properly basic with respect to warrant is itself warranted.

It doesn’t follow, of course, that the voodoo epistemologist is also warranted in claiming that voodoo belief is properly basic with respect to warrant. For suppose voodoo belief is in fact false, and suppose further that it arose originally in some kind of mistake or confusion, or out of a fearful reaction to natural phenomena of one sort or another, or in the mind of some group hoping to gain or perpetuate personal political power. If so, then those original voodoo beliefs did not possess warrant. Suppose still further that these voodoo beliefs were passed on to subsequent generations by way of testimony and teaching. Now if a testifier testifies to some belief p that has no warrant for her, then p will also have no warrant for anyone believing it on just the basis of her testimony. If p has no warrant for the testifier, then it has none for the testifiee either—even if the latter’s faculties are working perfectly properly.437437   See WPF, p. 83. I am taught a lot of garbage by my parents (out of profound ignorance, they teach me that the stars are really pinholes in a giant canvass stretched over the earth each night in order to give humankind a good night’s sleep, or that Frisians are politically inferior and should not be allowed to vote); then, even if my own cognitive faculties are functioning properly in the conditions propitious for warrant, my beliefs acquired by way of this testimony lack warrant.

So consider the voodoo epistemologist, and suppose he accepts those voodoo views on the basis of testimony and (analogous to the Reformed epistemologist) reasons from their truth together with other premises to their being properly basic with respect to warrant. Then his conclusion that voodoo beliefs are warrant-basic will not itself be warranted, because it is accepted on the basis of an argument at least one premise of which has no warrant for him. That is because 349inference exhibits the same sort of warrant-dependent structure as testimony. I believe p and q; these together yield (deductively, or in some other way) r; r will have warrant for me if p and q do (and perhaps we must add if p and q, the conjunction of p and q does); but if either p or q lacks warrant for me, the same will go for r. (Clearly I can’t come to know some proposition by inferring it from propositions some of which I don’t know.438438   Here I ignore such carping criticisms as that I might deduce r from p and q by deducing it from p alone, which does in fact have warrant for me.) The voodoo philosophers are mistaken in holding their voodoo views; furthermore, their claim that voodoo views are properly basic with respect to warrant is both false and not itself warranted.

It could certainly happen, therefore, that the views of the Reformed epistemologist are legitimate in the sense of being warranted, and those of the voodoo epistemologist, who arrives at his views in structurally the same way as the Reformed epistemologist, are not. That could be if, for example, the central claims of the Christian faith are true and voodoo belief is false. It is therefore not the case that if the claim that belief in God and in the great things of the gospel is properly basic with respect to warrant is itself warranted, then by the same token the claim that voodoo belief is properly basic with respect to warrant is itself warranted. Martin’s argument, construed as we are currently construing it, therefore fails; its first premise is false.

By way of summary: Martin’s complaint, apparently, is that if the Reformed epistemologist can legitimately claim that Christian belief is properly basic with respect to rationality, then the philosophers of a community with clearly crazy beliefs could, with equal legitimacy, claim that those crazy beliefs are properly basic with respect to rationality; but clearly they couldn’t claim this; so the Reformed epistemologist can’t legitimately make his claim. This complaint is multiply ambiguous, inheriting the multiple ambiguity of ‘legitimately’ and ‘rationality’. Most of the disambiguations, however, show no promise at all. The last disambiguation, where both ‘legitimately’ and ‘rationality’ are both understood as referring to warrant, is at least interesting; the argument so construed, however, suffers from the annoying defect of having a false premise. Son of Great Pumpkin does no better than Great Pumpkin.439439   Note, in particular, that Son of Great Pumpkin doesn’t furnish the objector with a criticism of Christian belief that is independent of its truth—that is, can be thought to hold even if Christian belief is in fact true. It therefore does not provide a de jure criticism.

Now in the spirit of Son of Great Pumpkin, we might raise a slightly more general question here. I propose the extended A/C model as a way in which Christian belief can have warrant in the 350basic way and argue three things: (a) this model is possible, both logically and epistemically; (b) given the truth of Christian belief, there are no philosophical objections to this model’s also being not merely possible but true; and (c) if Christian belief is indeed true, then very probably it does have warrant, and has it in some way similar to the extended A/C model. Now couldn’t this be argued with equal cogency with respect to any set of beliefs, no matter how weird? And wouldn’t that at any rate reduce the interest of my claim?

Certainly not. Many propositions are not such that, if they are true, then very likely they have warrant: the proposition No beliefs have warrant comes to mind. But, you say, isn’t this just a bit of logical legerdemain; are there any systems of beliefs seriously analogous to Christian belief for which these claims cannot be made? For any such set of beliefs, couldn’t we find a model under which the beliefs in question have warrant, and such that, given the truth of those beliefs, there are no philosophical objections to the truth of the model? Well, probably something like that is true for the other theistic religions: Judaism, Islam, some forms of Hinduism, some forms of Buddhism, some forms of American Indian religion. Perhaps these religions are like Christianity in that they are subject to no de jure objections that are independent of de facto objections. Still, that isn’t true for just any such set of beliefs. It isn’t true, for example, for voodooism, or the belief that the earth is flat, or Humean skepticism, or philosophical naturalism.

For consider the set of beliefs involved in Hume’s skepticism with respect to his origins and the origins of his cognitive faculties (above, p. 218). Hume—at any rate, as we understood him in chapter 7—holds that we ought to be skeptical of the reliability of our belief-forming processes. He thinks he can see that what nature inevitably leads us to believe is unlikely, or arbitrary, or at best extremely dubious; hence the right cognitive attitude with respect to the beliefs induced in us by nature is that attitude of ironic detachment. We recognize that we can’t help holding these beliefs; we also recognize that they are not to be relied upon. But if we are skeptical of the reliability of our cognitive processes, then we also have reason to be skeptical of any particular deliverances of those processes, including the beliefs that lead us to be skeptical of them—hence the reflexive, self-referential character of the irony. Now: can we find a possible model in which these beliefs—including the beliefs that what nature leads us to believe is arbitrary, or not to be relied upon—are warranted? More poignantly, can we find a model such that if this belief is true, then very likely it is warranted? Clearly not.

Perhaps someone will think that Hume’s skepticism about his origins and the origins of his cognitive faculties is not much like Christian belief; no doubt this is true. So consider instead philosophical naturalism: the view that there is no such person as God or anyone (or anything) at all like him. (Contemporary naturalists ordinarily 351add that the only things there are, are the entities hypothesized or acknowledged by contemporary science.) Such naturalists also add that we and our cognitive faculties have arisen by way of the processes pointed to in contemporary evolutionary theory—principally random genetic mutation and natural selection. This is, of course, a great deal more like Christian belief. For many, perhaps particularly many academics, it plays some of the same roles as those played by religious belief: it tells us where we come from, where we are going, and what the fundamental explanations are for the main features of our own nature. But if I am right in the argument I gave in chapter 12 of WPF (and corrected in this volume, pp. 227ff.), this set of beliefs is not such that if it is true, then very likely it has warrant. For what the argument shows is that if these beliefs are true, then it is not likely that our belief-producing processes and mechanisms are, in fact, reliable, in which case the beliefs that they produce, including the belief that naturalism is true, do not have warrant. So it is false that what I argue for Christian belief is true for just any set of beliefs; indeed, it isn’t true for what (in the Western academic world, at any rate) is perhaps the main alternative to Christian belief.

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