This is the sixth installment of my meandering review of John Loftus’ book Why I Became an Atheist. For part five click here. In this section I’m going to critique Loftus’ understanding and presentation of Alvin Plantinga’s epistemology in chapter 2. This section begins on page 44. Since I defended Plantinga’s epistemology in my PhD thesis (and my 2009 book Theology in Search of Foundations), this material was of some interest to me.
Unfortunately, Loftus’ presentation continues to be hampered by confused terminology as he now states that the term “hard rationalism” (which he had earlier equated with Clifford’s empiricism) is synonymous with “classical foundationalism” (44). Contrary to Loftus’ assertions, those are two distinct positions. As I noted in part 4, rationalism is a position that identifies knowledge with aprioricity and deduction. Classical (or strong) foundationalism is a particularly austere theory of noetic structure and justification transfer which may be rationalist, or empiricist, or a combination thereof.
Misrepresenting Plantinga’s position (Part 1)
More importantly, Loftus seriously misrepresents Plantinga’s position for he claims that Plantinga is “attempting to make the evidentialist challenge irrelevant to his faith in God….” (45) This is most emphatically not the case. Plantinga grants only prima facie justification to Christian belief, while recognizing that this justification can be overturned by various evidentialist challenges (or defeaters). Consider Michael Sudduth’s description of Plantinga’s position:
“even if theistic belief can be immediately warranted, negative evidence could eliminate or significantly reduce warrant and thereby undermine the immediate knowledge of God. Plantinga himself seems to recognize this. For example, suppose someone comes to believe that her theistic belief is the product of wish fulfillment and that beliefs produced in this way are unlikely to be true. In this case, the person would acquire an undercutting defeater for her theistic belief. She has lost her grounds for continuing to believe in God, at least with the same degree of firmness. Such a defeater should be distinguished from a ‘rebutting defeater’ against belief in God, namely, an overriding reason for supposing that theism is false. The problem of evil and arguments for the logical inconsistency of theism would provide potential sources for this sort of defeater. “ (Sudduth, The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology, 89-90)
I discuss this topic in Theology in Search of Foundations (273) where I point out how Plantinga recognized the potential of defeaters to undermine theism both in his famous 1983 essay “Reason and Belief in God” as well as his 2000 book Warranted Christian Belief. Thus, Plantinga believes that both undercutting and rebutting defeaters (as Sudduth defined them) can potentially undermine the theist’s justification. This means that for Plantinga religious belief remains within the space of reasons, ever vulnerable to potential defeaters. Consequently, it is manifestly false to claim that Plantinga seeks to make evidentialist objections to belief irrelevant.
Interestingly, just a page later (46) Loftus quotes from a passage where Plantinga discusses the potential of an evidentialist challenge arising from biblical studies. In that case, Plantinga, notes, “Christians would have a problem, a sort of conflict between faith and reason.” (46) Incredibly then, the evidence to falsify Loftus’ characterization of Plantinga’s view is right there in Loftus’ own book.
Misrepresenting Plantinga’s position (Part 2)
As I just noted, Plantinga concedes the possibility of a potential defeater arising from biblical studies. He goes on to say that should a true conflict arise, he doesn’t know whether he would give up the Christian faith or revise it. He doesn’t know how he would respond.
Loftus responds to Plantinga as follows:
“This should be an easy choice to make for many people. If someone were to become convinced from higher biblical criticism that Christianity is a delusion, then he or she should not continue to believe. It’s that simple.” (46)
Loftus pulls a bait and switch here. Plantinga never mentioned a person becoming “convinced … that Christianity is a delusion”. Rather, he described a person holding a belief for which there is some putative defeating evidence whilst not knowing how to resolve the conflict. Those are completely different issues.
Consider an analogy. One day Dave’s son is arrested for murder. This comes as a complete shock to Dave who deeply loves his son and has always thought the boy to be a law abiding citizen. Initially, Dave is absolutely convinced that his son must be innocent. But when he attends the pretrial hearing he learns of DNA evidence, an eye-witness testimony, and a motive, all appearing to implicate his son.
At this point Dave faces a situation that parallels Plantinga’s putative defeater, and he doesn’t know how to resolve it. He is not yet convinced that his son is guilty. But he is no longer certain that he is completely innocent either. He faces a genuine dilemma.
That is the kind of situation that Plantinga describes as being faced by the Christian. It is one in which they would not know how to resolve a conflict between belief and some evidence, not one where the person is already, as Loftus says, “convinced … that Christianity is a delusion”. Obviously the person who persisted in belief after being convinced that very belief is false would be irrational. But Plantinga never said otherwise. Loftus is guilty here of a bait and switch by replacing Plantinga’s reasonable position with a mere strawman.
Before I move on, let me make one more comment about the reasonableness of Plantinga’s position. To do so, let’s return to Dave’s dilemma. Given his personal knowledge of his son, a lifetime of experience with him, and the deep existential ties that bind them, it is wholly reasonable and indeed to be expected that his father would not immediately conclude to his son’s guilt at the pretrial hearing. A reasonable and loving parent would wait for the trial and carefully consider all the evidence.
Likewise, for the Christian, give their personal knowledge, lifetime of experience, and deep existential ties, it is wholly reasonable that they too would wait for all the evidence to come in and consider it all very carefully. In cases like this people regularly take time to process evidence. And Plantinga’s honest declaration that he doesn’t know how he would respond speaks to the complexity of this type of belief crisis.
So is Loftus guilty of deception or merely shoddy research? I must assume the latter: he simply has not taken the time to understand Plantinga’s position properly. And so he retreats to gross caricature in a lowbrow attempt to further his case.
An egregiously errant timeline of Plantinga’s intellectual history
Elsewhere, Loftus completely bungles Plantinga’s intellectual history. He claims that Plantinga defended an internalist epistemology “from the end of the 1980s to the early 1990s” (46), after which point Loftus asserts that Plantinga began to defend an externalist theory.
In fact, Loftus’ dates are way off. By the “end of the 1980s” Plantinga had already abandoned internalism. (See, for example, his pivotal 1988 paper “Positive epistemic status and proper function,” Philosophical Perspectives, no. 2, pp. 1-50.) And while Loftus claims that Plantinga only began to defend an internalist epistemology in the late 1980s, on the contrary, Plantinga had already developed an internalist epistemology twenty years earlier in his 1967 book God and Other Minds. (See the preface in the 1990 edition of God and Other Minds for a helpful discussion.)
In sum, Loftus’ recounting of Plantinga’s intellectual history is riddled with error.
Incontrovertible evidence of slap-dash research?
Some of these points may seem niggling to some readers. But repeated errors of this type — adopting confused terminology, caricaturing one’s opponent’s positions and misrepresenting their intellectual development — illustrate the inexcusably slap-dash quality of Loftus’ research. This matters for it shows that Loftus’ case is being built on half-understandings and sloppy caricatures of his opponents.
This is not the way to present an intellectually serious defense of atheism.