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Proper Function and Religious Pluralism

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AlvinPlantingaPhilosopher Alvin Plantinga has put forth notable ideas in both epistemology and philosophy of religion. Plantinga’s epistemology is foundationalist but it is novel by the fact that it relies on what he calls proper functionalism. His primary work in epistemology can be seen in his books Warrant: The Current Debate (WCD), and Warrant and Proper Function (WPF). However, in his book Warranted Christian Belief (WCB), he examines the intersection between philosophy of religion and epistemology. In this third book, Plantinga argues that a person can have belief in God without argument or evidence and still have rational grounds in their belief. Many objections are raised against Plantinga’s proper functionalism, the most notable being the issue of religious diversity. In this paper I will be explaining the de facto and de jure objections to religious belief, Plantinga’s arguments against classic epistemic positions, the role of warrant and proper function, and what Plantinga calls the Aquinas-Calvin model. All of this will provide a backdrop to the issue of disagreement and its relation to religion. Using the tools Plantinga offers, I will be arguing against religious pluralism and showing why this view does not affect Christian exclusivism.

There are two types of criticisms that are aimed at religious belief. The first is to show that God does in fact not exist. This is the de facto objection to belief in God. Typically atheists or agnostics have appealed to arguments such as the problem of evil to show a logical incompatibility between God’s attributes and the existence of evil. By contrast, the second type of criticism is to show that belief in God is irrational. This is the de jure objection. This objection does not seek to show that God does not exist – maybe it’s impossible to show that God does not exist – nevertheless is seeks to show that belief in God is irrational and is not up to intellectual standards (WCB 15). Plantinga’s goal is to defeat the de jure objection by showing that one can believe in God without argument or evidence. But what would a de jure objection look like? Plantinga considers possible de jure objections from classical views in epistemology and possible objections from Freud and Marx.

In chapter 3 of Warranted Christian Belief Plantinga discusses three classical views within epistemology that have dominated much of the history of philosophy and have caused a lot of confusion as to what counts as knowledge and what counts as justification. These views are classical foundationalism, deontologism, and evidentialism. These all rely on similar principles and have similar assumptions in common. Could a proper de jure objection be found amongst these? Is belief in God justified? Plantinga first considers classical evidentialism. John Locke is the main proponent of this view. Under this view, belief in God is justified if and only if there are good arguments, reasons, or evidence in favor of His existence (WCB 73-4). This view is connected to both classical foundationalism and deontologism. Foundationalism sees knowledge as a structure similar to a house. There are beliefs we hold which are dependent on other propositions within our noetic structure. Consider much of our knowledge about mathematical truths. Beliefs about geometry or trigonometry depend on beliefs about basic arithmetic. Beliefs such as these would not be fundamental or foundational to our belief structure. These beliefs would be perhaps the walls of the belief structure but definitely not the foundation. They require other beliefs or propositions in order to be held. Fundamental beliefs are known as basic beliefs. You can think of these beliefs as being at the foundation of the structure not relying on propositions or arguments for it to be held. One could hold a belief about a sense perception in a basic way. When I look outside I believe it to be dark. But, I do not believe this on the basis of argument. I take my sense perception as a starting point for my belief structure. Plantinga says that “if A is nonbasic for me, then I believe it on the basis of some other proposition B, which I believe on the basis of some other proposition C, and so on down to a foundational proposition or propositions.” This is a broad explanation of what foundationalism is (WCB 73-5). What distinguishes classical foundationalism? Classical foundationalism will regard properly basic beliefs as requiring certainty. Descartes thought these beliefs had to be self-evident or incorrigible. Locke admitted that properly basic beliefs had to be evident to the senses (WCB 75). Under this view, belief is God is rational and justified if and only if it is properly basic (as defined by Descartes and Locke) or if it has proper evidence to support it. This is classical deontologism. We are not meeting our epistemic duties if our beliefs do not meet the standard of classical foundationalism. A de jure question based off this epistemology would show that belief in God is not properly basic (it’s not self-evident or incorrigible that God exists) and it would also show that there can never be good evidence for belief in God (WCB 77-9). All three of these views are dubbed the “classical package” or CP for short. Plantinga argues that this standard of justification is self-defeating. The CP cannot be believed by its own standards of justification. The classical package itself would not be self-evident, incorrigible, or evident to the senses. Thus, it cannot be properly basic. Can an argument be given for the belief in the classical package? Plantinga doesn’t see any arguments or evidence given to justifiably believe in CP (WCB 84-6). A second problem with this view is that under it most of our beliefs would not fit its standard. We can see radical skepticism through the history of modern philosophy up until the Enlightenment. It seems that most of our beliefs would not be justified because they are neither properly basic nor are they believed with proper evidence or argument. This gives us reasons to abandon this view because of its incoherence (WCB 87). Hence, a proper de jure question cannot be found here.

Plantinga considers complaints from Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx. He thinks that these complaints from Freud and Marx can generate a proper de jure question. Freud contends that religious belief comes from wish fulfillment. Belief in God is just an illusion that fulfills our desires. According to Freud, this illusion can be disbelieved (WCB 119-20). Karl Marx on the other hand thinks that theistic belief is the result of a cognitive defect resulting from the capitalistic structure. Theism is an “opiate of the masses” and a false ideology. Marx considers religious people mentally defective and insane (WCB 120-1). Both Freud and Marx are giving naturalistic explanations of how theistic belief rises. They are not critiquing the truth of theism (WCB 124). The core of the complaint is that theistic belief is the result of malfunctioning cognitive faculties not aimed at truth. It is either from wish fulfillment or capitalistic brainwashing. Plantinga considers this a viable de jure question. They are complaining that theism lacks warrant (WCB 128-30).

Warrant is a key idea in Plantinga’s epistemology. This word is similar to justification. If a belief is warranted then that belief is held in the proper way. It is acceptable to hold a belief if it is warranted (WCD 3). There are two ways to understand warrant. The first way is internalism. Warrant is dependent on internal states in a person’s epistemic functions. It relies on properties that are internal to the individual. There is a type of special access that is required for warrant. Warrant can be determined by reflection and consideration (WCD 5). Externalism would reject that warrant is dependent on this internal special access. Warrant depends on things outside of the individual’s control. For a belief to be warranted, it would have to arrive by a properly functioning mechanism (WCD 6). Plantinga takes an externalist position on warrant to address how belief in God is rationally acceptable.

Before we can see how Plantinga models Christian belief, we need to understand what proper function means in the context of warrant. Minimally, a belief has warrant if the cognitive faculties are working properly. There are other considerations that also fit into the definition of a properly functioning cognitive faculty. They are dysfunction, design, function, normality, damage, and purpose (WPF 4). The externalist sees our epistemic system in a similar way to how we see other bodily organs. Cataracts, for example, cause fogginess in the lenses of the eye and thus the eye does not function properly. Illegal drugs damage the brain and cause it to malfunction and sometimes create false beliefs which result in hallucinations (WPF 5). Warrant with respect to proper function also requires a proper environment. A cognitive faculty might be functioning properly yet the environment could cause false beliefs. A properly functioning mechanism must be in the correct environment that fits its design (WPF 7). There are two more characteristics to proper function: design plan and reliability of producing true beliefs. What Plantinga means by design is not necessarily a teleological definition. If naturalism is true, then the design plan of our faculties would be for the purpose of survival and natural selection. The same holds true for other organs of the body such as the heart. The heart’s purpose is to pump blood and keep the organism alive. A good design plan is one that is aimed at truth. The faculties might not deliver true beliefs every time, but, the probability that it will is high (WPF 13-20). It is with this externalist explanation of warrant with respect to proper function that we can understand the epistemic model that Plantinga puts forth to overcome Freud and Marx’s de jure question.

It is helpful to note that Plantinga’s overall aim in Warranted Christian Belief is to give Christians a defense of their faith. Chapter 6 is devoted to laying out the Aquinas/Calvin model of religious belief. This model is meant to address the Freud and Marx complaint. This model is based in the thought of Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin. Both of these thinkers thought that people have an innate knowledge of God of some sort. Our cognitive mechanism has this natural divine sense. Calvin calls this the sensus divinitatis. Beliefs about God are triggered in us in the appropriate circumstances we find ourselves in (WCB 142-4). We can find ourselves looking at the earth and all its beauty, the fine-tuning of the universe and its complexities, or maybe looking at cloud structures. Belief in God can be triggered by this wonder of the design and complexity of the universe (WCB 145). Theologians call this general revelation. General revelation is God revealing Himself through nature. In the letter to the Romans, Saint Paul says that God’s invisible attributes are seen through nature and it is there so we are without excuse (WCB 143). The fingerprints of God are on the created order. General revelation is contrasted with special revelation. Special revelation is God’s revelation through the Biblical canon and testimony of His apostles in the Gospels. Knowledge about God through the sensus divinitatis is basic and not arrived by argument or evidence. Plantinga, while quoting Psalm 19, says that “the heavens declare the glory of God and the skies proclaim the work of his hands: but not by way of serving as premises for an argument” (WCB 146). Beliefs produced by the sensus divinitatis are similar to beliefs about sense perception, memory, and a priori belief. We hold beliefs about sense perception in a basic way. I take sense perception to be generally reliable (but not with the standards of absolute certainty as Locke did) and I do not have arguments or evidence for my sense perceptions. I arrive at beliefs about memory in the same basic way and the same goes for a priori beliefs. These things, sense perception, memory, and a priori beliefs, are starting points for the foundation of our noetic structure (WCB 147). Plantinga contends that under this model belief in God is properly basic with respect to justification. Here he means subjective justification. The believer is not violating her epistemic rights by holding this belief in God in a basic way. The believer might consider Freud and Marx and maybe other atheist complaints against religion. Furthermore, they might have taken a course in philosophy of religion and studied objections against God’s existence yet still be convinced that God is real. Likewise, this knowledge of God is properly basic with respect to warrant. The cognitive faculties are functioning properly in the right environment according to their design and are aimed at truth. “The purpose of the sensus divinitatis is to enable us to have true beliefs about God; when it functions properly, it ordinarily does produce true beliefs about God. These beliefs therefore meet the conditions for warrant” (WCB 149).

From this model Plantinga draws three entailments. The first is that if God does not exist then theists are probably not warranted in their belief. If God does not exist then a sensus divinitatis does not exist. It would be hard to see how theism could be warranted if God did in fact not exist. The second entailment is that if God does exist then theistic belief is warranted. God would have given us the sensus divinitatis so we could know Him and worship Him. Finally, Plantinga shows that a proper de jure question is not independent of a de facto question. In order to criticize the rationality of theism, one would need to show theism to be false. The A/C model stands or falls ultimately on the de facto question (WCB 155-60).

A common objection to Plantinga’s Reformed epistemology is the problem of religious pluralism. How can someone such as Plantinga hold an exclusivist view in Christianity? John Hick argues for religious pluralism. He does not consider all religions to be true, but rather than all religions are false. Hick argues that there is an ultimate reality to which he calls The Real and that all religions are grasping for The Real but get it wrong. The Jew, Muslim, and Christian are all trying to describe The Real based on their own interpretation (Stairs 253-4). It seems pompous to claim to one religion when there are so many other religions. After all, are not all these other believers in other religions rational in believing what they believe? How could Plantinga respond to such a charge? Christians believe that people are born with original sin and that sin has damaged every facet of the person. One facet would be the cognitive faculties. God restores these faculties by the work of the Holy Spirit. Thus, non-Christians are not warranted because their cognitive mechanism is not functioning properly and is not aimed at truth. This is not necessarily their fault; the fact of sin is outside of their control. Sin also affects our affections and desires. Plantinga says that “the condition of sin involves damage to the sensus divinitatis, but not obliteration; it remains partially functional in most of us. We therefore typically have some grasp of God’s presence and properties and demands, but this knowledge is covered over, impeded, suppressed” (WCB 166-75). This could be one way to explain why there are so many religious convictions without retreating into pluralism. Isn’t The Real also a religious conviction? Does Hick consider his own view false? If he considers it true, would not he be an exclusivist? He considers every religious view other than his own to be false. There seems to be a self-defeating element to this view. The defender of proper functionalism would also charge Hick as misunderstanding the objectivity of Christian belief. He relies on internalist principles for religious experience that could be construed as subjective experience (Stairs 259). But, Plantinga’s epistemology is not subjective. The rationality of Christianity is not independent of the truth of Christianity. The pluralist misunderstands this and views all religion as a matter of interpretation.

I have sketched out Plantinga’s Reformed epistemology and the Aquinas-Calvin model. I have shown that given the noetic effects of sin that religious pluralism does not defeat Christian exclusivism. The empirical fact of sin should not cause pride but rather cause one to realize that it is because of God’s grace that one believes. Exclusivism should not be seen as prideful from a Christian worldview.


 Works Cited

Plantinga, Alvin. Warrant and Proper Function. N.p.: Oxford UP, 1993. Print.

Plantinga, Alvin. Warrant: The Current Debate. New York: Oxford UP, 1993. Print.

Plantinga, Alvin. Warranted Christian Belief. New York: Oxford UP, 2000. Print.

Stairs, Allen, and Christopher Bernard. “Religious Diversity.” A Thinker’s Guide to the Philosophy of Religion. New York: Pearson Longman, 2007. 251-70. Print.




  1. Anthony says:

    Reblogged this on Reflections and commented:
    Excellent introduction to Alvin Plantinga’s epistemology.

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