A long-time commenter at my blog, Jeff Kesterson, asked me to take a look at his 2018 article “An Overview of the Problem of Evil | Denying the Problem: Reformed Epistemology.” The article offers a critique of reformed epistemology and specifically Alvin Plantinga and yours truly. I’m not going to recap the argument here — you can read or skim it at the link provided — but I will offer a series of responses.
First, a point of clarification. Jeff writes: “Randal Rauser is an intellectual protégé of Plantinga, even having studied directly under him for a stint.” That description could be misleading, so let’s be specific. I took a graduate level course with Plantinga in 1998 on religious epistemology at which time we studied, among other texts, a draft copy of Warranted Christian Belief. That’s it. I’ve talked with Plantinga a couple of times since 1998 but he wouldn’t know me from Adam.
That said, the course piqued my interest in Plantinga’s work and led to me writing my PhD thesis on a moderate foundationalist epistemology to theological prolegomena as a way to address the justification question that has vexed theologians since the Enlightenment.
“Evidence be damned” Strawman
The gist of Jeff’s charge can be found in a couple of quotes near the start of his essay. As he sees it, views like mine lead to
“a refinement and more careful articulation of the ‘I just know deep down that it’s true, evidence be damned’ kinds of responses which are so often appealed to on behalf of theism.”
“It suffers from the same basic problem as the ‘I just know that it’s true’ epistemology of the layperson. Namely, it boils down to: anything goes.”
That’s a strawman. I have devoted my career to articulating reasons and arguments for my beliefs and responding to objections — writing books and essays, participating in public debates and interviews, etc. — and yet my view leads to an attitude of “evidence be damned”? The irony of this charge is thick as the humidity on an August night in the bayou.
Casting the Net or Poisoning the Well
Next observation: Jeff occasionally makes comments about what epistemologists generally believe. For example, he writes: “although many other epistemologists would agree with Rauser that testimony can confer proper basicality, Rauser casts the ‘under the right conditions’ net far more widely than most.” Really? Where is the evidence that my views deviate from a “majority” view in this manner? I will wait for Jeff to provide evidence of the views of most epistemologists. Until he provides that, this is merely a lowgrade attempt to poison the well.
(What is more, keep in mind that most philosophical positions are held by a minority, not least because the options are not binary. Thus, Jeff’s sideline commentary is borderline meaningless, except as that aforementioned attempt to poison the well.)
Missing Critical Nuance
My first complaint above is that Jeff was strawmanning my position. However, that may not be quite accurate. Strawman is an informal fallacy which is based on the intentional misrepresentation of a person’s views. But Jeff’s misrepresentation might be borne of a simple failure to grasp the nuances of particular positions.
As a case in point, he writes: “there’s no need here to get sidetracked on the endlessly stale debates about various candidate ‘criteria for proper basicality.'” This is a stunning statement because the criteria by which we identify which beliefs are in need of evidential justification and which may be properly held absent defeaters is absolutely core to the entire discussion.
That’s why I base my discussion not in some partisan discussion of the epistemic status of various theological beliefs, which is precisely where critics like Jeff inevitably begin. Rather, I begin with a general discussion of how human beings actually form beliefs and how we generally identify those beliefs as having rational epistemic status and the ability to convey knowledge. That’s why I begin with a discussion of sources of belief like sense perception (which Jeff mentions in passing), testimony (which he addresses but deeply misunderstands, more on which anon), rational intuition, proprioception, aesthetic intuition, moral intuition, memory, and so on.
Once you begin to get a handle on how beliefs are formed generally, you have a solid theoretical basis in which to discuss belief in God. Unfortunately, Jeff sidelines this entire foundational conversation as “endlessly stale”. No wonder he ends up misunderstanding so much.
To wrap up, I’m going to turn to some examples of Jeff misunderstanding regarding testimony, Plantinga’s view of proper basicality, and ultimately the most important one of all, the question of epistemic defeat.
Failing to Understand Testimony as Properly Basic
If a belief is properly basic that means that one can rationally form that belief in an immediate way under the right conditions without deriving that belief evidentially from other beliefs. Hence, it is basic or foundational. Jeff seems to understand the concept as when he references how one would sense perceive a kitten and then, based upon that experience, would form the belief that one is seeing a kitten.
Unfortunately, Jeff bluntly says he cannot understand how this could apply to testimony, i.e. forming a belief by way of another person’s witness. He writes: “It makes no sense to me to speak of properly basic testimonial belief, as that would seem to imply that the simple brute fact of the testimony itself serves to justify the testified-to belief.”
First of all, “brute fact” is a metaphysical ascription, not an epistemological one.
As for Jeff’s claim that this “makes no sense”, perhaps I can be of service. We learn language by way of testimony. As we are sitting, drooling, on the floor, our mother kneels in front of us, holds up a spherical object, points at it, and says “BALL.”
Are we justified in forming the belief that the spherical object is a ball based on that testimony? Or are toddlers obliged only to form those beliefs if they undergo additional evidential reasoning in support of the general reliability of their mother as a testimonial witness?
The latter option is, of course, absurd. We can’t get going in this world unless we cede to our moms (and dads, and siblings and family friends, and kind acquaintances and strangers) the status of their testimony as the basis on which we form beliefs.
Okay, you might think, perhaps properly basic testimony is okay for toddlers, but surely not for adults! But that makes no sense. If it is rational and justified for one to form beliefs based on the immediate testimony of others, and assuming one has no overriding reason to doubt that testimony, then that is true whether one is a toddler or a teenager or a middle-aged professor.
Hopefully, it makes some sense now.
Failing to Understand Properly Basic Theism in Plantinga
My next example of a failure to understand comes with Jeff’s citation of Plantinga on properly basic theistic belief. Let’s begin with the Plantinga quote:
Someone in whom [the sensus divinitatus] was functioning properly would have an intimate, detailed, vivid, and explicit knowledge of God; she would have an intense awareness of his presence, glory, goodness, power, perfection, wonderful attractiveness, and sweetness; and she would be as convinced of God’s existence as of her own.
Jeff then comments:
I would have a fair amount of sympathy for any theist who might find themselves in the sort of ideal circumstances here described by Plantinga, although I’d still contend that it would nonetheless be a mistake to infer theism even under such circumstances.
Here’s the problem. Plantinga isn’t saying that the theist has an experience and infers theism, as Jeff puts it. Rather, the theist has an experience and immediately forms beliefs about God’s acting in his or her life.
Ironically, Jeff’s language is serendipitously appropriate in one sense. The properly basic belief is, first of all, not God exists, but rather God loves me or God is speaking to me or what have you. Compare: human beings don’t begin with that person exists. Rather, they begin with that person is smiling at me. That is the properly basic belief from which the belief “that person exists” may be deduced with this connecting premise: “If a person smiles at me then that person exists.” One could reason to the proposition that God exists evidentially in that way based upon the properly basic belief that God loves me or God is speaking to me. But contrary to what Jeff says, it is most certainly not a mistake to infer theism under such circumstances.
Next, let’s return to Jeff’s charge that “anything goes.” We can launch off of the following excerpt:
One more example from Rauser’s work: His one-time coauthor Justin Schieber asserted that “Heaven is a place where free will is preserved yet has no evil. Such a world is possible for God to create from the start. He chose not to.” Rauser replied, “If [Schieber] wants to present an objection to theism he needs to show that God doesn’t have morally sufficient reasons [for choosing not to create “heaven” from the start].”
Jeff doesn’t like that response. Indeed, he thinks I am thereby setting the bar of contrary evidence unreasonably high and in the process sustaining this illegitimate anything-goes approach to epistemology.
But that’s not the case. Imagine that you begin your first day of a five-year apprenticeship under a world-famous master of X. Your first task that day is to clean the toilets of the facility with a toothbrush. After work, we meet up for a beer and you tell me (a guy who knows little of the master or his craft) what you did all day. “Are you kidding?” I sputter. “Cleaning the toilets with a toothbrush? That guy’s a huckster!”
You reply, “If you want to present an objection to the master, you need to show that he doesn’t have sufficient reasons for asking me to clean the toilets with a toothbrush.” Surely that’s a fair point, isn’t it? Two novices are not in a place to question a master on the first day of a five-year apprenticeship. Consequently, the fact that one cannot see how the master’s instructions serve the final goal does not provide a reason to believe the master’s instructions do not serve the final goal.
In my conversation with Schieber, I’m pointing out that he’s acting like the buddy calling out the master as a huckster. If he wants to make the charge, he needs to provide a reason to believe that God could not have morally sufficient reasons for making imperfect human beings with the ability to acquire virtue over time (and experience suffering with it). Until he does that, he doesn’t have a sustainable objection.
Now you might be thinking: Fair enough, but then at what point in the apprenticeship would the apprentice be justified in concluding that the master is, in fact, a huckster? Surely there must be some point, right? Otherwise, anything goes!
True enough, but the reality is that this will likely be a person-relative judgment. If the master takes on 100 apprentices, many may drop out at various points over 5 years, convinced that he is a huckster. They may be rational to do so but others may be rational to stick with it. At the very least, it is most certainly clear that not anything goes.
As for Jeff, he hasn’t provided a good reason for me to think that we are anywhere near that threshold. And complaining, falsely, that my epistemological framework leads to an anything-goes mentality goes no distance toward moving the balance in his favor.