In this article I offer a response to Tyler Wunder in “A Quick Response to Randal Rauser’s Critique of Universal Sanction (by Tyler Wunder)“. In his quick response Tyler offers two points. In my response I’ll focus on Wunder’s first point since it is, as I see it, the more substantive one.
In my original response to Sennett I pointed out that Plantinga includes a deontological element qua properly basic beliefs, but it is limited to shoring up the putatively properly basic beliefs against proposed defeaters to those beliefs. Wunder contends that this is inadequate for it shifts the focus onto one’s self-assessment on whether one has met one’s duties in responding to defeaters. In short, it is ultimately a subjective assessment which is separate from the intrinsic strength of the defeater. As Wunder puts it:
“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.”
Wunder explains further:
“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.”
Wunder then goes on to point out that even Voodoo beliefs could be prima facie properly basic on this view:
“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.”
Let me start with the Voodoo bit and work backwards. Wunder presents the recognition that Voodoo beliefs could be properly basic as somehow problematic. It seems to me, however, that this kind of incredulity is fueled by the various pop cultural associations that come with Voodoo, from the countless Hollywood films that invoke Voodoo themes (e.g. “The Serpent and the Rainbow”, “The Skeleton Key”, “Voodoo Academy,” and the first Voodoo-themed film, “White Zombie”, which appeared way back in 1932) to the well established tropes like casting hexes with Voodoo dolls and disinterred zombies.
To start, we should keep in mind that Voodoo is, in its essence, a form of deism that recognizes the existence of finite spirit agencies which can be controlled through various means. The fact that a belief system such as this should have certain doctrines which could be accepted as properly basic absent defeaters within a particular doxastic community doesn’t seem like any major concession to me. (For one thing, the fact that Voodoo beliefs can be properly basic does not entail that every Voodoo belief is properly basic … or even properly non-basic.)
Imagine two children growing up in New Orleans. Ambrosine’s parents are atheist philosophers who teach at LSU and from the earliest age they raised her to believe there is no God, no life after death, no objective good or evil, and so on. Meanwhile Marie was raised in a New Orleans Voodoo society, with its complex melding of Francophone culture, Roman Catholicism, and traditional Voodoo. Both Ambrosine and Marie hold their main metaphysical and ethical beliefs as a result of testimony received from within their respective doxastic communities. Is Ambrosine’s set of atheistic beliefs properly basic? They certainly could be. But then why couldn’t Marie’s beliefs be likewise properly basic? Would the sky fall if they were?
Let’s back up to Wunder’s main concern that limiting epistemic deontology to responses to defeaters is inadequate because it ultimately reduces to a personal self-assessment that one has met one’s epistemic duties. Is this a problem?
My first issue with Wunder’s objection at this point is that it is very individualistic, for it suggests that individuals undertake these reflective tasks wholly apart from the input of their epistemic community. Like Athanasius who, in the popular imagination, rejected the Arian world that stood against him (Athanasius contra mundum) in defense of Nicene orthodoxy, so the rest of us can likewise dismiss our entire doxastic communities with impunity in favor of our chosen beliefs.
But that isn’t right. To say the least, much more needs to be said.
Consider the close parallel with ethics. A wise person who desires to do the right thing seeks the input of his wider community. He doesn’t make unilateral decisions. He seeks out the opinions of others, as iron sharpens iron. So it is for those seeking to believe rightly. When they encounter defeaters, they should seek the input from their wider community. Of course there is no guarantee that your doxastic community will provide a wise consensus, and there may come a point where you say “Here I stand, I can do no other” even if that places you at odds with your doxastic community. But let us not think that these decisions are merely undertaken by isolated agents with no input from the community in their midst. In summary, Wunder’s characterization of this process of “belief reclamation” is oversimplified to the point of distortion.
This leads me to the second issue which, working back in reverse order, brings me to Wunder’s first comments. Wunder asserts that it seems to him Plantinga’s approach would lead to the subversion of good reasoning to one’s duty fulfillment. Here I would simply invite him to unpack this charge further with concrete examples and some kind of evidence that this result would indeed follow.
Frankly, I often hear detractors from proper functionalist and reliabilist epistemologies make grand assertions about the negative impact these epistemologies will have on reasoning. Consider, for example, Jeff’s comment just today in the blog when he observed:
“the biggest part of what disappoints me about [Randal’s] epistemology is that it insulates him (and Christians in general, and even voodoo believers and flat earthers) from feeling a pressing need to present any robust positive case for his Christian beliefs.”
Here I’ll make two observations. First, this is completely disconnected from reality. In the last year I’ve published two apologetics books, delivered many public lectures on apologetics, taught a graduate course on apologetics, engaged in four public debates (three on the existence of God and one on the virgin birth), given several radio interviews on apologetics, debated twice on the existence of God and truth of Christianity on national radio, and written many apologetics articles for this blog. Where’s the evidence that my epistemology “insulates” me?
Second, where’s the general evidence that those who endorse proper functionalist or reliabilist epistemologies are more likely to be “insulated” from providing evidence for their beliefs? Given that Jeff doesn’t hold to one of these epistemologies, presumably he isn’t “insulated” from providing evidence for his claims.
Likewise, I’d be interested to see Wunder’s expanded defense of his assertions.