I just finished listening to this week’s episode of “Unbelievable”, titled “Is belief in God ‘properly basic’? Tyler McNabb vs Stephen Law.” Incredibly, Justin mentioned that this is the first time they’ve devoted a show to the epistemological question of whether belief in God can be properly basic. Given that it is a topic which has received an enormous amount of attention in the last twenty years, that was definitely a surprise.
The two participants were Tyler McNabb, a Christian PhD candidate in philosophy and Stephen Law, an atheist philosopher and academic whose output is of sufficient cultural significance that he has attained that lofty title of public intellectual (at least in my estimation).
In this article I’m going to offer some quick reflections on the McNabb-Law exchange, but you will be far better served if you first take the time to click on the first link above and devote an hour to listening to the show before you read the rest. Don’t worry, I’ll wait. It shan’t take long.
Okay, now that we’re all on the same page, I’m going to offer some comments on the show.
For starters, I thought McNabb did a decent job of explaining his position, though he did try to pack too much technicality into a popular radio format. But Stephen Law and Justin Brierley compensated by simplifying and restating where needed. Regardless, I commend McNabb for a concise presentation. He was clear and confident and amiable. I also am in fundamental agreement with his position. (However, I tend to make the same point by focusing on testimony within the Christian community rather than via a mysterious sensus divinitatis because I believe the latter places the theist at a rhetorical disadvantage. But that’s a relative quibble.)
My two main points are in response to Law. Of these, my first point is to underscore how much Law conceded to McNabb. In short, Law agreed with McNabb that an externalist epistemology in the reliabilist school is likely correct. (I don’t know if McNabb would agree that proper functionalism should be considered as a token example of reliabilism, but I suspect we can all agree that the two are at least kissing cousins.) Moreover, Law agrees that belief in God cannot be excluded a priori from inclusion in the sphere of beliefs which are held as properly basic.
This means that the essence of the debate between McNabb and Law is whether there are defeaters sufficient to undercut the prima facie justification for theists who are aware of all the live defeaters. Law’s concession on this point is huge. You see, if you spend any time interacting with average atheists on the ground you encounter the attitude that Alvin Plantinga and proper basicality are a joke, a bald ad hoc attempt to shore up theistic belief in a last ditch attempt to avoid the overwhelming evidence against it by finding a non-evidential means to justify theism. However, Law agrees that some form of externalist epistemology is probably correct. And that, in turn, shifts the discussion from externalist epistemology per se to the question of whether there are defeaters sufficient to undercut the prima facie justification of an informed theist like McNabb. (Note that Law’s position already cedes the rationality of uninformed theists who accept God’s existence and are simply unaware of any defeaters.)
My atheist friends need to grapple with this fact. So let me repeat it for good measure. Law does not dispute the nuts and bolts of Plantinga’s externalism. He only disputes whether the defeaters for theism are sufficient to undercut the justification for a theist who is aware of those defeaters, i.e. a person like McNabb.
So how strong is Law’s case? Does he present a defeater of sufficient force to undercut the justification of folks like McNabb? To make his case, Law points to the fact that we are unreliable agency detectors. That is, we are liable to find agency where none exists. From this, Law claims that we ought to draw the general skeptical conclusion that we cannot trust our basic beliefs about invisible agents (like God).
It is at this point that I depart from McNabb and offer a different response to Law. My response goes like this: Fair enough, humans are fallible when it comes to forming beliefs about (invisible) agency. I concede that point. But here’s the thing. Humans are also fallible when it comes to forming beliefs about the past. If you don’t believe me, read the article “Why Science Tells Us Not to Rely on Eyewitness Accounts.” There you will read a sobering discussion of how human memory works. The author observes:
“Many people believe that human memory works like a video recorder: the mind records events and then, on cue, plays back an exact replica of them. On the contrary, psychologists have found that memories are reconstructed rather than played back each time we recall them.”
While memory is obviously fallible — indeed, highly fallible — few of us are willing to concede that these observations are sufficient to warrant a blanket skepticism about all the deliverances of our memory.
With that in mind, we now come to Stephen Law. Law argues that our beliefs about agency acting in the world are unreliable. As with the memory case, I’m willing to concede the general point. But just as I require more evidence to concede that I can never trust my memory, so I will require more evidence if Law wants to claim that I can never trust my beliefs about invisible agency.