In “Must properly basic beliefs have universal sanction? A Reply to James F. Sennett (Part 1)” I introduced James F. Sennett’s paper “Direct Justification and Universal Sanction” and stated my intention to offer a critique of it. This is that (long overdue) critique.
Let me state at the outset that I share a lot of common ground with Sennett. In particular, we are both Christian theists who share a commitment to foundationalism and an interest in Thomas Reid’s approach to epistemology. Where we differ is in our attitude toward Plantinga’s (and Alston’s) approach to justification.
According to Plantinga, the question of which beliefs (and which types of beliefs) in one’s noetic structure are properly basic (or, as Sennett says, directly justified) is a question which is answered only within a particular doxastic community (that is, a community of shared belief). For example, a Christian might believe human beings have been equipped with an innate “sensus divinitatis” by their creator to form properly basic beliefs about God with the same immediacy that they form beliefs about the external world, the past, or other minds. Thus, on a Christian view, the sensus divinitatis would constitute one source of properly basic beliefs. By contrast, an atheist who believes human beings have no sensus divinitatis (or at least none that is truth-directed) will obviously reject the notion that there is such a cognitive mechanism. And so Christians and atheists will differ about properly basic beliefs, at least with respect to the sensus divinitatis.
This view makes good sense to me, but Sennett considers it counterintuitive. As he sees it, Plantinga’s account sets the threshold of justification too low and (as I understand Sennett) thereby creates an implausible insularity between different doxastic communities:
“Plantinga’s program suggests that it is inconsequential if a cognizer S directly forms a belief B in a way that violates the accepted practice of any epistemic community other than her own. That is, all that is required for B to be directly justified for S is for it to meet the standards of S’s epistemic community.” (261)
Sennett’s description is correct so far as it goes. But it is not complete. What Sennett leaves out is that on Plantinga’s view individuals who wish to retain the justification for their properly basic beliefs have a deontological obligation to respond to putative defeaters for those beliefs. (For further discussion see Michael Czapkay Sudduth, “The internalist character and evidentialist implications of Plantingan defeaters,” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, 45 (1999), 167-87.)
In other words, on Plantinga’s view there remains ample intellectual trade across the borders of doxastic communities. This trade may not pre-determine what a given doxastic community considers the set of sources of belief which constitute the noetic foundation, but it can indeed radically alter those foundations.
Consider an example. The Mormon believes there is a Holy Spirit who creates a burning in the bosom (BITB) to confirm belief in the Book of Mormon. This BITB is a properly basic generator of justification for other beliefs in Mormonism. But this doesn’t mean the rational discussion is over, for the critic of Mormonism could identify defeaters to Mormonism which are sufficient to undermine the BITB. (One could point out historical problems with the Book of Mormon, challenge the reliability of Joseph Smith as a witness, and so on.) By the same token, an argument of significant strength against the existence of God could be sufficient to undermine the sensus divinitatis for the Christian.
I would submit that this view that understands properly basic justification to be vulnerable to defeaters, including those arising from outside a given doxastic community, is much more intuitively plausible than a view that does not allow for (or makes no mention of) the role of such defeaters. As a result, Sennett’s characterization of Plantinga’s position ends up making it look less plausible than it really is. (Let me hasten to add that I am not suggesting Sennett intended to present Plantinga’s view unfavorably.)
Sennett wants to find a golden mean between Cartesian skepticism and so-called Plantingan relativism. And he finds that middle course in the search for a universal criterion which could be used to identify properly basic sources of belief across all doxastic communities. To find these criteria he turns to Robert Audi’s proposal that there are four sources of properly basic belief: rational intuition, introspection, perception and memory. (262) Sennett does not argue that these four exhaust the types of belief that can be properly basic, but he does argue that they are paradigm instances. The reason is because they conform with widely held intuitions and it is all but inconceivable to think of human beings navigating the world without them:
“It seems clear to me that beliefs produced immediately by rational intuition, perception, introspection, and memory are universally accepted as justified cross epistemic communities, even though they are directly formed.” (264)
This brings Sennett to a formal proposal for identifying the common thread that unites all properly basic beliefs. Sennett calls that quality “universal sanction.” And he proposes three criteria that must be present for universal sanction to obtain:
(i) beliefs belonging to the kind are, under normal circumstances, accepted by virtually all cognizers (the endorsement criterion);
(ii) all cognizers directly form many beliefs of the kind as a matter or [sic] normal living (the universality criterion); and
(iii) the wholesale denial of beliefs of this kind is unthinkable for all cognizers (the inconceivable skepticism criterion). (265)
All cognizers regularly endorse and form beliefs by rational intuition, perception, introspection and memory, and the categorical rejection of any one of these sources of belief would result in a sweeping skepticism. Therefore, we can conclude that these four sources are indeed paradigm instances for types of properly basic beliefs. Sennett is open to there being more (I’ll return to that point below), but sources like Plantinga’s sensus divinitatis and his “internal instigation of the Holy Spirit” do not qualify.
Universality and the nuclear strike
Now it’s time for some more substantial critical response.
Let’s start with the role of universality in Sennett’s proposal. Imagine that a human being, Jeb, undergoes a mutation which leads to his becoming clairvoyant. As a result, Jeb naturally forms beliefs about the world around him apart from conventionally accepted doxastic processes. His clairvoyant ability is mysterious, but I would submit it is no more mysterious than rational intuition or sense perception. (As the history of philosophical theories of rational intuition and sense perception has demonstrated time and again, these doxastic processes remain very mysterious and perplexing, even if we regularly avail ourselves of their deliverances. The same is true of Jeb and his clairvoyance.)
Jeb’s clairvoyant beliefs may be what Sennett calls “excusable” (e.g. Jeb may not be at fault for accepting them), but they are not properly basic. But let’s say that eventually the same mutation spreads to other people and after a few generations everybody outside of Madagascar has this clairvoyant ability but nobody within Madagascar has it. (In case you’re wondering how this radical division comes about, it is because there is a high wall around Madagascar preventing anybody from going in or out. I could enrich the thought experiment further by explaining why there is a high wall, but I’m interested merely in writing a minimal thought experiment, not a robust dystopian fantasy.)
So here is where we are: people outside Madagascar are all clairvoyant, they draw upon this sense as a matter of normal living, and they find that the rejection of clairvoyance is unthinkable. At the same time, 10% of the earth’s population lives in Madagascar and that population is not clairvoyant and thus does not consider this sense to be normal or necessary. And alas, 10% is sufficient to undermine the universality required by Sennett’s criterion. So sorry clairvoyance, but you ain’t properly basic.
You might think at this point that hula hoop has a better chance of becoming an Olympic sport than clairvoyance has of being admitted to the foundations. But looks can be deceiving. In fact, all the rest of the world needs to do is kill all the Malagasies (the residents of Madagascar). A nuclear strike would do the job just fine. Once the Malagasies are gone, all (remaining) people will be clairvoyant. As soon as that happens, clairvoyance will meet the criteria of universal sanction and thereby become properly basic.
This is where our intuitions become critical. To put it simply, it doesn’t seem right to say that a nuclear strike should be adequate to render a source of belief properly basic. And that suggests there is a crucial defect in Sennett’s proposal. I’ll leave it to those interested in defending the proposal to see what it is.
Who defines normal?
Sennett’s proposal also depends on a concept of normalcy: for example, (i) appeals to “normal circumstances” and (ii) to “normal living”. But who defines what normal is? Is normalcy established simply by counting up particular token instances of a type and concluding that the most commonly manifested properties in those instances constitute normalcy for the type?
It could be. If most tigers have stripes you might conclude that it is normal for tigers to have stripes. But this is a ceteris paribus clause, for there may be extenuating circumstances which lead one to conclude that the token examples are somehow corrupted and thus not indicative of what is normal. (To put it another way, that which is common-normal in a type may not be that which is proper-normal for the type.) For example, most killer whales have high levels of human-generated toxins stored in their blubber. This malady may be common, but nobody would propose that it is indicative of something which should be considered proper for the killer whale.
If a doxastic community believes that there are problems in the human population analogous to the contaminated whale blubber, then that community will not consider appeal to “normal” circumstances, where normal is counting how most human beings function, to be a reliable guide to that which is proper for the type. And as Plantinga has pointed out, Christians generally believe something like this is true of the human population. As Plantinga puts it, had there been no fall, human beings would form beliefs about God as naturally as they form beliefs about the existence of an external world. It is only because of the fall that all human beings do not regularly form beliefs about God.
So on a Plantingan view one might point out that universal sanction must be a ceteris paribus demand which is overridden by the reality of the fall. That which is normal (as in common) is not that which is normal (as in proper). By analogy, the fact that some people have visual impairment does not provide a defeater for the visual perception enjoyed by other people. Likewise, the fact that some people have sensus divinitatis impairment does not provide a defeater for the divine sense enjoyed by others.
Testimony and Christian Belief
Sennett does not limit proper basicality (or direct justification) to his paradigm instances. And he includes perception among the other belief types to which he is willing to extend it. Thus he notes as one of the items of his knowledge:
(5) My colleague is unconvinced by my arguments. (273)
Sennett believes this is a properly basic item of testimony. And so, he concludes,
“Beliefs formed directly on receiving testimony or considering a simple inductive pattern are just as worthy of direct justification status, pending defeat, as are perception or rational beliefs.” (275)
I agree heartily: Testimony belongs in our properly basic sources of belief.
While Sennett admits testimony, he refuses to accept the divine sources of belief accepted by Plantinga (and Alston) because they don’t meet his universal sanction criteria:
“the suggestion of Plantinga and Alston that theistic belief is directly justified may be rejected by application of the universal sanction criterion. While many have doubted the Plantinga-Alston claim, few have presented substantive epistemological reason to reject it. Thus, the universal sanction criterion can provide for significant advancement of this debate.” (277)
However, Sennett must address the fact that these sources of belief discussed by Plantinga (and Alston) could be construed as testimonial in nature. For example, in addition to the sensus divinitatis Plantinga also talks about the Internal Instigation of the Holy Spirit (IIHS). And he clearly seems to understand this as a form of testimony, i.e. the testimony of the Holy Spirit. The sensus divinitatis could also be construed as a form of divine testimony (though I admit such a construal would deviate from Plantinga’s description of the sensus as a cognitive mechanism).
Perhaps Sennett could respond by limiting testimony to that which is witnessed to by a human being, but that would surely be arbitrary and ad hoc. If we should make contact with intelligent alien life, it shall certainly be the case that we can come to properly basic beliefs as a result of the testimony of the aliens. And if the testimony of aliens can be properly basic, then why not that of God?