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Plantinga vs. the New Atheists

Did God Get Things Terribly Wrong?


Alvin Plantinga is one of the most prominent figures in a group of philosophers who work on what one could call religious epistemology. Plantinga has decided to take on the “new atheists” in his latest book Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (Oxford, 2011) and while I applaud that project, I’m not optimistic that he is going to succeed in the manner he hopes he will.

Plantinga writes in the preface that “according to Christian belief, God has created us in his image, which includes our being able, like God himself, to have knowledge of ourselves and our world.”

Really? Our knowledge is like God’s? So God is constantly having to discard flawed theories of physical reality in favor of what appear to be better theories? So the discrete bits of God’s “knowledge” are as incompatible as general relativity and quantum mechanics? That’s a disturbing thought. I like to think God is always right, not that he is constantly getting things wrong and having hence to revise and improve his theories.

Plantinga contends that knowledge of physical reality is possible only if one assumes that there’s some kind of pre-established harmony between the way our minds work and the way the world is. That’s actually a very reasonable claim. He’s right in that without some assumption of that sort, we’re stuck in the Kantian realm of the way the world is for us, rather than the way it is in itself. Humanity has been deeply uncomfortable with this insight ever since Kant first expressed it. The view that knowledge liberates us from the confines of our subjectivity seems an almost ineradicable intuition, a fact about the way the mind works. And yet, it is not merely difficult to defend; many would argue that it’s demonstrably false.

It’s not that science is a free for all, or that reality is however and whatever we say it is. To say that we cannot escape the confines of our subjectivity, even when we are at our most objective (as is the case, hopefully, when we are doing empirical science), is merely to say that the world is always going to look to us the way it does, not because of the kinds of individuals we are in particular, but because of the kinds of creatures we are in general. Kant didn’t actually discover this fundamental truth about what you could call our epistemological predicament. This insight goes at least all the way back to the ancient skeptics.

Plantinga is correct in his observation that atheists who claim to base their views in science lack support for their belief in the veridical nature of scientific “knowledge.” He’s incorrect, however, in his claim that believers stand on firmer ground.

Plantinga asserts that God “created us and our world in such a way that there is a match between our cognitive powers and the world. To use the medieval phrase, there is an adaequatio intellectus ad rem (an adequation of the intellect to reality).”

“Medieval” is the operative word here. Plantinga seems stuck in some medieval world view. He appears to have forgotten that science “progresses.” That is, he appears to have forgotten that we are constantly getting things wrong. The history of science makes it glaringly obvious that the purported fit of which Plantinga speaks between our cognitive powers and the world is far from a good one.

Plantinga engages in elaborate machinations in an attempt to defend his view. One of the most intractable problems in the history of epistemological theorizing is known as “the Gettier problem.” Edmund Gettier published a little two-page paper entitled “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge” back in 1963 that has been the bane of epistemologists ever since. Basically, what Gettier showed is that it is possible to have a justified belief that is true by accident, or a belief where the justification is not related to the truth in the way we intuitively believe it ought to be.

The second of Gettier’s two counter examples to the view that knowledge is simply justified true belief concerns a man, Jones, that another man, Smith, has reason to believe owns a Ford. Why does he believe this? “Smith’s evidence,” writes Gettier, “might be that Jones has at all times in the past within Smith’s memory owned a car, and always a Ford, and that Jones has just offered Smith a ride while driving a Ford.”

“Let us imagine, now,” continues Gettier, that Smith has another friend, Brown, of whose whereabouts he is totally ignorant. Smith selects three place names quite at random and constructs the following three propositions:

1. g. Either Jones owns a Ford, or Brown is in Boston.

2. h. Either Jones owns a Ford, or Brown is in Barcelona.

3. i. Either Jones owns a Ford, or Brown is in Brest-Litovsk.

Each of these propositions is entailed by (f) [the belief that Jones owns a Ford]. Imagine that Smith realizes the entailment of each of these propositions he has constructed by (f), and proceeds to accept (g), (h), and (i) on the basis of (f). Smith has correctly inferred (g), (h), and (i) from a proposition for which he has strong evidence. Smith is therefore completely justified in believing each of these three propositions, Smith, of course, has no idea where Brown is.

But imagine now that two further conditions hold. First Jones does not own a Ford, but is at present driving a rented car. And secondly, by the sheerest coincidence, and entirely unknown to Smith, the place mentioned in proposition (h) happens really to be the place where Brown is. If these two conditions hold, then Smith does not know that (h) is true, even though (i) (h) is true, (ii) Smith does believe that (h) is true, and (iii) Smith is justified in believing that (h) is true.

It’s kind of a contrived example, but it makes a good point. A belief can be true by accident. When it is, that is, when the justification does not relate to the truth of the belief in the way we think it ought to, we’re inclined to think that the belief in question does not amount to knowledge, even though it satisfies what have long been taken to be conditions necessary and sufficient for knowledge.

Everyone has been trying to better Gettier and this has generated some very interesting work in epistemology. No one seems able to do it, however, without abandoning some intuition we feel is basic to knowledge. You can get around the Gettier problem, for example, if you just add a proviso onto your account of justification that requires that it relate to the conditions in the world that are responsible for the belief being true. The only problem with such an account of justification is that we are never in a position to determine whether this is the case. It is possible, on such a view, to have knowledge; you just can’t know when you know something. The problem is that we’re inclined to believe that you can’t know something without also knowing that you know it.

So the project to better Gettier continues…

Plantinga believes he’s done it though. He gives a detailed account of how his theory of what he calls “warrant” (which is Plantinga’s version of “justification”) avoids the Gettier problem in his book Warrant and Proper Function (Oxford, 1993). Look closely, however, at what Plantinga says about how “warrant” avoids the Gettier problem. The basic idea, says Plantinga, is simple enough:

[A] true belief is formed in these cases all right, but not as a result of the proper function of all the cognitive modules governed by the relevant parts of the design plan [i.e., God’s plan]. The faculties involved are functioning properly, but there is still no warrant; and the reason has to do with the local cognitive environment in which the belief is formed. Consider the first example, the original Smith owns a Ford or Brown is in Barcelona example. Our design plan leads us to believe what we are told by others; there is what Thomas Reid calls “the Principle of Credulity,” a belief-forming process whereby for the most part, we believe what our fellows tell us … [C]redulity is part of our design plan. But it does not work well when our fellows lie to us or deceive us … as in the case of Smith, who lies about the Ford” (33-34).

What, you ask? Who said anything about lying? Gettier doesn’t say anything about lying. Jones never says he owns a Ford. Smith’s evidence, again, is “that Jones has at all times in the past within Smith’s memory owned a car, and always a Ford, and that Jones has just offered Smith a ride while driving a Ford.”

You can’t avoid the Gettier problem by pointing out that God designed us generally to believe what other people say because no one lies in either of Gettier’s examples. It would appear that Plantinga hasn’t even read Gettier because the example in question is Jones owns a Ford or Brown is in Barcelona, not Smith owns a Ford or Brown is in Barcelona, and it is the second of Gettier’s two examples (or counter examples) not the first.

If God had a design plan for the operation of the human intellect, I’m inclined to believe that part of that plan was that we should actually read the works on which we argue we’ve improved. Something went wrong with that plan somewhere!

So where does the problem concerning the relations between science, religion, and naturalism really lie? I’m afraid it may not lie where Plantinga thinks it does and that he may have to find some other way to discredit the views of people such as Dawkins and Hitchens.

M.G. Piety teaches philosophy at Drexel University. She is the editor and translator of Soren Kierkegaard’s Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs. Her latest book is: Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology. She can be reached at: