In this guest post philosopher Tyler Wunder offers a response to my article “Must properly basic beliefs have universal sanction? A reply to James F. Sennett Part 2“. Dr. Wunder graduated with a PhD in philosophy from Boston University in 2007 with a dissertation on “Warrant and Religious Epistemology: A Critique of Alvin Plantinga’s Warrant Phase.” If you’d like to hear more from Dr. Wunder you can check out this interview he did with Luke Muehlhauser of Common Sense Atheism.
I thank Dr. Wunder for his contribution to the discussion and I look forward to joining the conversation after the Labour Day long weekend.
* * *
Thank you for the intriguing follow-up to your initial posting. Presently, I would like to comment on two items from the initial section of this latest installment. (I must apologize for both the length and my inability to figure out how to use italics in my response). The first item concerns your discussion of Sennett’s complaint that Plantinga-justification is too easily met. You suggest this complaint can be countered by adding an epistemic obligation to meet defeaters. I think this is something of a step in the right direction, but I worry that invoking epistemic deontology (as Plantinga renders it, anyway) has an unfortunate consequence: it takes attention away from the argumentation (for example, that provided by the defeater against the defeatee) and redirects it to the less relevant (so I say) cognitive-ethical conduct of the holder of the prospectively defeated belief. As Plantinga admits quite candidly in Warranted Christian Belief, in order for a sophisticated Christian’s basic beliefs to be epistemically justified in the face of objections (defeaters by another name), all she need do is some reading and a little soul-searching: if at the end of it all she’s still not convinced by these defeaters, she can hardly be expected to go along with them and so her basic belief remains deontologically justified (see pp.99 – 101). Granted, she will have to do some work to discharge her obligations: but the end result (deontic epistemic justification) seems ultimately a product of her feelings and thoughts about her own conduct; the justification is effectively independent of the cogency of her reasoning or the quality of the evidence on which said reasoning is based, but instead a function of whether she has made the appropriate (i.e., responsible) effort.
To me it appears that Plantinga’s warrant-phase work, rather than raising the bar for epistemic justification, lowers it even further. By way of a specific example: I seem to recall that in the pre-warrant period Plantinga was extremely reluctant to allow that voodoo-beliefs (and other epistemic undesirables) could be properly basic qua justification/rationality, sometimes even going so far as to say that it (they) couldn’t be properly basic because it (they) wasn’t (weren’t) true; but in the warrant period he seems only too happy (see WCB, p.346 for example) to grant basic voodoo-beliefs can be both deontologically justified and rational. The clear implication of this and other warrant-phase comments is that basic belief in just about anything can be deontologically justified or internalistically rational with relative ease. So there is some initial reason to be sceptical of the claim that adding talk of defeaters to the picture, along with the requirement to meet epistemic obligations, will effectively meet Sennett’s complaint.
The second item I would like to comment on is the comparison of defeaters against Mormon properly basic beliefs with defeaters against the “sensus divinitatis for the Christian”. Your example of a sufficient undercutting defeater of the sensus divinitatis is “an argument of significant strength against the existence of God”. I agree wholeheartedly that any such ‘significant argument’ should be a sufficient defeater of the belief in question. But it is worth noticing that this kind of argument is in a completely different league from your suggested defeaters against the Mormon’s belief. For starters, this ‘significant argument’ defeater of the sensus divinitatis would also serve as a defeater of the Mormon’s beliefs, but the reverse is not true. To make the comparison more apt, I think it would be better to replace (or perhaps supplement) the original example with examples that are more like your defeaters of Mormonism (i.e., replace/supplement “an argument of significant strength against the existence of God” with “one could point out historical problems with the New Testament, challenging the reliability of its authors as witnesses of the events they describe, and so on”). Presumably there could in principle be still other arguments that would provide a sufficient undercutting defeater of the sensus divinitatis (as deliverer of properly basic theistic and/or Christian beliefs) for the Christian, but which would not also have to serve as arguments for either God’s nonexistence or the general historical unreliability of the New Testament.