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Proper Function and Religious Pluralism

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.


A Metaethics for Rossian Deontology

I have titled this paper A Metaethics for Rossian Deontology. I will be doing four things in this talk. First, I will be giving a few reasons as to why deontological theories are superior to utilitarian theories. Secondly, I will be presenting Kant’s arguments from the Groundwork to the Metaphysics of Morals and showing that they leave out important moral considerations. Thirdly, with this Kantian backdrop in mind, I will show why Ross has advantages over Kant. And finally my overall aim is to give Ross a foundation for his ethical theory which will be grounded in God.

Utilitarianism is the view that an action is good if and only if it maximizes happiness. It looks forward to the consequences of actions in order to determine their moral value. There are two problems for a utilitarian ethical theory. The first is that it has problems of predictability. It is hard to have knowledge of the future and all the outcomes a given action will bring about. You can bring forth an action thinking that it will have good consequences but it might turn out to have negative consequences. You can also bring about an action that you think will have bad consequences but it in fact promotes a good outcome. There seems to be a problem of having knowledge of future contingent events for utilitarianism. The second problem is that it leaves out intrinsic human dignity. We can think of an example of a woman in a coma who gets raped by a man. From a utilitarian perspective the man’s action has only produced a good outcome – that of pleasure. The woman is unconscious so his actions do not affect her. He is clearly violating her dignity as a human regardless of the outcomes. It is for these two reasons why I see we have grounds to reject utilitarian theories and favor deontological ones.

Deontology is the view that an action is right only if we fulfill our duty for that action. Immanuel Kant, in the first section of the Groundwork to the Metaphysics of Morals, makes an argument that our morality must be based in duty and reason and not in wants or inclinations. He argues that the good will is one that is good in itself, namely, that it is intrinsically good (740). The good will must have reason central to its nature. Kant thinks that our moral reasoning must be a priori. This is because we need moral certainty and deductive reasoning is the only thing that can give us certainty (741). A will is good if it acts on the basis of duty. Kant uses the example of a philanthropist that has sorrow and probably does not feel like being charitable. This person still gives to others not on the basis of his feelings but on the basis of his duty to help others. His action has genuine moral worth (742). Emotional reactions cannot give us a genuine moral standard on how to live. Following the rules out of duty allows us to act morally regardless of how we feel. Kant wants us to abandon our emotions in regard to moral reasoning and cling solely to reason. Kant says the following in respect to our emotions and how they relate to moral worth:

“An action done from duty derives its moral worth, not from the purpose which is to be attained by it, but from the maxim by which it is determined, and therefore does not depend on the realization of the object of the action, but merely on the principle of volition by which the action has taken place, without regard to any object of desire” (743).

Kant argues that not only should desire be disregarded when one is producing an action of moral significance but also that our actions are good or bad in itself regardless of the outcome. This is in stark contrast to any utilitarian theory. Kant argues that we should will that our maxims become a universal law (744). This is what is called the universalizability principle and is fundamental to the categorical imperative as we will see later.

For Kant moral statements come in the form of commands or also these could be understood as ought-statements. You ought to be honest is an example of a moral statement. These statements are called imperatives. There are two types of imperatives: hypothetical imperatives and categorical imperatives. If the action is good as a means to some end then that imperative will be hypothetical. Conversely, if the action is good in itself then that imperative will be categorical (Kant 749). Kant has two main formulations of the categorical imperative. The first is, “act as if the maxim of thy action were to become by thy will a universal law of nature” (Kant 753). This is a more concise statement of the universalizability principle. It is the base formulation for the categorical imperative. When we think of our maxims becoming universal laws we should not think of it in a pragmatic sense. For example, if I universalize the maxim “one ought to steal from others” it seems that the world would become chaotic because everyone would be stealing from everyone and thus I should not act upon that maxim. This is not a correct interpretation of Kant’s first formulation. Kant says something much stronger. He thinks of this imperative as being something that is logically coherent. He uses the example of a hypothetical maxim of “one ought to lie.” This cannot be universalized because it leads to a logical contradiction. The maxim would be a lie and therefore violate itself (Kant 753). Another way Kant wants us to think of this first formulation of the categorical imperative is that “every rational being must act as a universally legislating will” (757). We must view ourselves as the moral legislators – the supreme lawgivers. Kant wants us to think of ourselves as autonomous rational agents.

The second formulation of the categorical imperative is to “act as to treat humanity whether in thine own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end withal, never as means only” (Kant 756). Human dignity is a central formulation of the categorical imperative. We should never use people as only a means to an end. Kant uses the example of suicide to show how this formulation could be understood. A person who is contemplating suicide should not act upon it because they would be using themselves as only a means to some end namely death (Kant 756). In the same way lying is always wrong because it involves using people as mere means (Kant 757). It is trying to intentionally deceive people into thinking something other than the truth. This duty we have for humanity must also harmonize with our duty to care for ourselves (Kant 757). We need to treat all persons as ends in themselves with intrinsic value and dignity. Kant tells us that we need to “always regard [ourselves] as giving laws either as a member or as a sovereign in a kingdom of ends which is rendered possible by the freedom of the will” (758). He expands the initial formulation to have us view it with the scope of humanity. We do not just treat people as ends in themselves; we treat humanity as an end in itself.

While Kant’s view is an incredibly rich and thought out theory, it has some major problems. One problem is that Kant reduces morality down into this emotionless acting upon the maxims. This is effectively the same as Stoicism (Kant’s Ethical Theory 92). By getting rid of emotion, Kant gets rid of a key feature of what it means to be a human being. Another problem is that you can never lie because by doing so it would be violating the categorical imperative and you would be treating someone as a mere means. This seems problematic in cases in which it seems not only morally permissible to lie but morally mandatory to lie. If a murderer comes to my door and is looking for my friend who I know is in my house, am I ethically mandated to tell him where he is? Kant would say that we would have to tell the murderer where he is if he asks us. For Kant, we are rational agents and we cannot make other agents act in compliance with the categorical imperative. Our concern ultimately should rest upon how we act and not how others act. Lying is not the right course of action. If we lie for our friend we are looking at the outcomes of the action rather than the intrinsic rightness or wrongness of lying. But it seems clear that we have an obligation and a duty to protect our friend from harm. Ross avoids this problem because he allows for the prima facie duties of non-maleficence and justice. We have an obligation to prevent the harm and also an obligation to punish vice and give the murderer his just deserts. Given these problems we must abandon Kant’s view. His view is too narrow and does not explain other ethical considerations.

20th century British philosopher W.D. Ross is in the deontological tradition of ethical theory. He is fundamentally rooted in the deontological camp because he rejects the idea that actions are moral merely on the basis of their outcomes. When a man fulfills his promise he is looking to the past rather than to the future. At the same time, it seems reasonable for Ross that one could break their promise in order to save the life of a person (The Right and the Good 17-18). Ross is an ethical pluralist and a non-absolutist. He thinks that there is more than one fundamental moral rule. Furthermore, these rules can be broken under the appropriate circumstances (Shafer-Landau 220). This gives him a philosophical edge in the normative ethical theory debate. In his work The Right and the Good, Ross calls the plurality of rules prima facie duties. He lists seven of them: fidelity, reparations, gratitude, justice, beneficence, self-improvement, and non-maleficence. He thinks that this might not be a complete list but that these duties he puts forth have to be on the list (Shafer-Landau 221). “There is nothing arbitrary about these prima facie duties. Each rests on a definite circumstance which cannot seriously be held to be without moral significance” (The Right and the Good 20). But, he does not take the meaning of these duties as Kant thought. These duties are strong permanent moral reasons rather than absolute, unbreakable, moral rules (Shafer-Landau 221). Ross thinks that we know these duties intuitively in their prima facie state. They are so fundamental and known so clearly in a similar fashion to how we know the axioms of mathematics (The Right and the Good 29-30). These duties are basic to our belief structure. For a belief to be basic means that it does not depend on evidence or argument in order to be held.

Let’s examine some problems for the Rossian ethical framework. Ross says that one objection could be an Ockham’s Razor objection to ethical pluralism. Ockham’s Razor is more of a methodological critique rather than a knock-down objection to any system. It’s generally stated in two different ways. One way to think of Ockham’s Razor is that we should not multiply entities excessively. This places a methodological limit on our ontological commitments. Ockham’s Razor can also be stated that when we’re confronted with two explanations, the simplest explanation is the best. This means that if a theory can explain the set of facts in the most minimalist way we should favor that theory over theories that require more explanations or commitments. This is an objection to Ross’s ethical theory because his theory isn’t as simple as Kantian ethical monism or any other monistic theories. Ross’s theory has more duties. But Ross says that this really shouldn’t be a problem. He says that “it is more important that our theory fit the facts than that it be simple, and the account we have given above corresponds (it seems to me) better than either of the simpler theories…” (The Right and the Good 19). Theories which are factual seem to be more important than theories which are simple. Another objection to Ross’s view is the problem of choosing when to break moral rules (Shafer-Landau 225). If the duties are not absolute then we can break them. Ross does not rank the rules in a hierarchal structure; they are all on an equal footing (Shafer-Landau 225-226). But maybe our moral reasoning can come into play when there is a moral conflict amongst the duties, for example, by intuitively knowing which duties to break and which to fulfill. We need to weigh the justification for acting upon one duty over another when moral conflict arises. This could be a plausible counter to the objection that has been raised. The greatest problem the Rossian view has is that there is no foundation for these prima facie duties. Ross just thinks we know them intuitively. This presents a gap in Ross’s framework. Kant gave us a ground in our rational faculties but Ross does not present any reason as to how the duties are intuitive. I hope now to give Ross a metaethical grounding in God.

Ross argues that the prima facie duties and intrinsic moral values must have a non-natural basis. His metaethics, which is foundational for his normative theory, is wholly non-natural. Ross says the following in regards to this point:

“Contemplate any imaginary universe from which you suppose mind entirely absent, and you will fail to find anything in it that you can call good in itself. …the value of material things appears to be purely instrumental, not intrinsic” (The Right and the Good 140-141).

There are two options for how one can ground an objective Rossian ethical theory. The first is to hold to a form of ethical naturalism and the second is to hold to a form of ethical non-naturalism. I will argue against the former in favor of the latter.

An ethical framework cannot be grounded in an evolutionary and naturalistic account. I think this type of account is fraught with problems. The first and I think biggest problem is that believing evolution and naturalism together is irrational. In his book, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism, Alvin Plantinga argues that belief in evolution and naturalism together leads to the belief that our cognitive faculties are unreliable and thus one cannot rationally affirm evolution and naturalism. This is known as his Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism. Our cognitive faculties are our belief producing faculties. They are said to be reliable if they produce more true beliefs than false ones, say 75%. Plantinga defines naturalism as the belief that there is no such person as God or nothing like God. Naturalism is a stronger position than atheism. Physicalism is also a necessary condition for naturalism (Plantinga 319). By evolution, we mean change in species over time by way of natural selection and genetic drift. Plantinga argues that the probability of the reliability of our cognitive faculties in regards to naturalism and evolution is low. Evolution only rewards behavior that is adaptive for survival and beliefs for the most part do not influence our adaptation. Patricia Churchland says that the essentials of “a nervous system enables the organism to succeed in the four F’s: feeding, fleeing, fighting, and reproducing” (Plantinga 315). Just because evolution rewards adaptive behavior does not mean that the beliefs are true. Our body parts can be in the correct places for survival irrespective of our beliefs about many things. “All that’s required for survival and fitness is that the neurology cause adaptive behavior; this neurology also determines belief content, but whether or not that content is true makes no difference to fitness” (Plantinga 327). Consider the following example Plantinga uses: Let’s say you have a hominid named Paul. When Paul comes into contact with tigers he runs from them. But the beliefs as to why he runs from them is wholly independent of the fact that he runs from them. There might be many belief-desire pairs that lead to the same action. For example, he might run from tigers because he believes them to be an illusion and runs from them to keep his weight down. Maybe Paul thinks he’s taking part in a race with the tigers and wants to win. All these beliefs are false but still get his body parts in the correct places for survival. There is no basis for thinking that his cognitive faculties are reliable. If this is true then the probability that our cognitive faculties are reliable is low. This produces a defeater for the reliability for our cognitive faculties. A defeater is a belief that causes one to give up another belief. For example, pretend I have the belief that Mt. Whitney is the tallest mountain in the world. My friend John, who also happens to be a geologist, tells me that Mt. Everest is actually the tallest mountain in the world. I consider John a reliable source on things in his field. Therefore, I have a defeater for my belief that Mt. Whitney is the tallest mountain in the world. So, if we have a defeater for the reliability for our cognitive faculties then we have a defeater for every belief we hold including beliefs about ethics and more importantly naturalism and evolution. Thus, naturalism and evolution cannot be rationally affirmed. If this argument is successful then we must reject naturalism and evolution. Any metaethical framework must have a correct epistemic framework.

Another problem for a naturalist ground for moral values is the is/ought fallacy. How do we derive ought-ness from is-ness? Just because it is the case that we’ve evolved to respect persons with dignity does not at all mean that we ought to respect persons with dignity. It is impossible to see the fact of the matter and derive an ought from it. At best, these ought’s would be arbitrary and dependent on a society. This is a secondary problem for materialist accounts of the universe. If moral realism is a logically necessary feature of a world containing personal moral agents then what is it that makes it necessary? Thus, it seems to me that we’re only left with a non-natural explanation to account for our prima facie duties.

I believe the only other option we’re left with is to ground the prima facie duties in God. When I talk about God I am talking about a person. I am also thinking of God in the same way Anselm thought about God as the greatest possible being. God’s commanding our prima facie duties gives us objective grounds because God Himself is good. Because we are all made in God’s image, we can grasp His moral law and trust it to be accurate. God has also guided history and ensured the reliability of our cognitive faculties. A divine command theory is compatible with Ross’s prima facie duties. This is also a solution to the is/ought problem. We allow the commands to come from God rather than the material universe. We derive the commands from God. This theological account seems to me to be the only solution to fit the state of the moral facts. .

The Rossian ethical framework is superior to the Kantian framework. I have presented arguments against utilitarianism and have shown why we need to hold a deontological view. I have shown and explained Kant’s theory in the Groundwork to the Metaphysics of Morals and why it is lacking. I have presented the Rossian theory and the central idea of the prima facie duties from The Right and the Good. I have argued that this theory is the correct one and defended it against objections. Given the non-natural source of these prima facie duties, I have presented my own theological explanation as to why they are intuitive and how they are grounded. Ethical theory is something the human condition longs for. We long for answers on how to act and how to be moral. By having a correct ethical foundation we hopefully can see real world ethical dilemmas clearer and become better people through our principles.

*Originally delivered at the CSUB philosophy undergrad conference on May 15, 2015.

Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism

* P= Probability, R=Reliability, N=Naturalism, E=Evolution

  1. P(R/N & E) is low.
  2. Anyone who accepts (believes N&E and sees that P(R/N&E) is low has a defeater for R.
  3. Anyone who has a defeater for R has a defeater for any other belief she thinks she has, including N&E itself.
  4. If one who accepts N&E thereby acquires a defeater for N&E, N&E is self-defeating and can’t rationally be accepted.
  5. ■ N&E can’t be rationally accepted. (Plantinga 344-45)

 Works Cited

Hare, John E. The Moral Gap: Kantian Ethics, Human Limits, and God’s Assistance. Oxford: Clarendon, 1996. Print.

Kant, Immanuel. “Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals.” Classics of Political and Moral Philosophy. Ed. Steven M. Cahn. New York: Oxford UP, 2002. 740-75. Print.

Plantinga, Alvin. “The Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism.” Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism. New York: Oxford UP, 2011. 307-50. Print.

Plantinga, Alvin. “An Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism.” YouTube. YouTube, n.d. Web. 13 May 2015.

Ross, W. D. Kant’s Ethical Theory: A Commentary on the Grundlegung Zur Metaphysik Der Sitten. London: Oxford UP, 1965. Print.

Ross, W. D. The Right and the Good. Oxford: Clarendon, 1930. Print.

Shafer-Landau, Russ. “Ethical Pluralism: Prima Facie Duties and Ethical Particularism.” The Fundamentals of Ethics. New York: Oxford UP, 2010. 220-39. Print.

Alvin Plantinga – Against Materialism

The debate over what consciousness is and how it interacts with the body is a debate in which both science and philosophy operate. Philosophers have generally referred to this debate as the mind-body problem. The two general views on how to confront this problem are materialism and dualism. “Materialism is the idea that human beings are material objects — brains, perhaps, or some part of the brain — without immaterial selves or souls” (Plantinga 3). Conversely, dualism is the view that human beings are comprised of an immaterial soul and a material body. Under this broad view, humans are not only their body; they are primarily a soul. Both of these views are metaphysical positions. If materialism is true then human beings are just one substance. If dualism is true then human beings are two substances – an immaterial substance and a material one. I will not be analyzing how these two substances are integrated in the human being. Some philosophers think that human beings are composites and not necessarily two substances. Analytic philosopher Alvin Plantinga puts forth two arguments against materialism in his essay. His argument strategy is to use the modal intuitions of possibility and impossibility in relation to the mind-body problem. I will argue that Plantinga is correct in his assessment of materialism and that his two arguments are valid and sound.

Plantinga’s first argument is called the replacement argument. He thinks is it possible for a person to exist when their body doesn’t. He does not argue that we can exist disembodied but rather he does argue that we could exist in a different body. If materialism is true, then I am a material object. I am most likely identical to my brain or some part of my body. It seems completely possible that I could exist while my body no longer exists. Plantinga says that if it is true that a person could still exist even when their body no longer exists, then that person and his body are not identical (4). This is true because of Leibniz’ Law, specifically the identity of indiscernibles. “This says that if A is strictly identical with B, then A and B have exactly the same properties” (Armstrong 3). If the modal properties are different, then those two things are not identical. In the case of me and my body, the modal properties are different. Plantinga imagines a situation where modern science has advanced so well that it can replace body parts extremely quickly. The process can replace all of his body parts. He also imagines that his old body is annihilated. All of this takes place while he is “reading the comic section of the newspaper” (Plantinga 5). Science says all the matter in our body is completely different from our old body some time ago. Plantinga thinks that accelerating the process seems possible regardless of cell assimilation (6). Cell assimilation is the time required for new cells to integrate into the body. Our bodies are constantly creating new cells and these cells assimilate through causal activities with other cells in the body. All that is required for this argument is the following (B standing for body): “It is possible that: the cells in B are replaced by other cells and the originals instantly annihilated while I continue to exist; and the replacement time for B and those cells is shorter than the assimilation time” (Plantinga 6).

Alvin Plantinga considers a few objections to his thought experiment. He responds to an objection from a “Star Trek” scenario where a person is beamed or teleported to a new location. The objector thinks that this thought experiment is analogous to Plantinga’s and thus it clearly shows that it’s possible that your body survives this type of replacement. Plantinga does not think that this thought experiment is analogous. His argument says that your old body is completely destroyed while the Star Trek thought experiment is just a disassembly and reassembly of your same body. Another objection says that persons are events, not necessarily a material substance. It is true that I am the same as my life – an event– in the actual world, but my life could have been different. There is no necessary identity with me and my life. It fails to get around the replacement argument (Plantinga 7-11). Plantinga’s argument does seem to be true. It does seem possible that I should exist in a different body while my former body is destroyed. As long as this is logically possible then materialism cannot be true since we are not necessarily identical to our body.

His second argument is also from a modal intuition but this time it is an argument from impossibility. The motivation behind offering this second argument is because some critics might not fully trust possibility intuitions. For this second argument he explains basic features of consciousness we all know to be true. All of us have first person experience of emotions. We all have desires and beliefs. All things being equal, we cannot be identical to anything that lacks these properties. The problem for materialism, and the main point of this argument, is consciousness itself. How can a material object have beliefs, desires, experiences of pain et cetera? (Plantinga 11-12). Plantinga cites Leibniz’ thought experiment on how this can be demonstrated. Leibniz asks us to imagine a machine that perceives, desires, and thinks. Imagine that this machine is the size of a mill – we can enter this machine. When we look into the machine, all we can see are parts that are causing these perceptions to happen. But the interaction of these mechanical parts does not show any content as to what the perception or belief is. This seems false because we know the content of our own minds. Therefore, Leibniz thinks that materialism cannot adequately explain the content of our minds (Plantinga 12). What are beliefs comprised of in a materialist perspective? The materialist would argue that these beliefs are events. These events are something that takes place in the neuron structure of your brain. These beliefs have propositional content. Plantinga jokingly uses the example that his “belief that naturalism is all the rage these days has as content the proposition Naturalism is all the rage these days (Plantinga 13). All beliefs must be able to express propositional content. This is problematic for materialism because, as Leibniz’ argument showed, neurons firing in the brain does not reveal any type of content. How can a set of neurons be related to a proposition? It seems impossible to see how material interactions could possess content of this sort. If they have no content they how can material beliefs be about anything? (Plantinga 15). One objection could be that computers have propositional knowledge. Computers are material objects that have wires, mother boards, and hard drives. We can store propositions on a computer such as “naturalism is all the rage these days” (Plantinga 16). Thus, the objection would show that material objects can contain content. But this does not follow since, in the example with the computer, the content has to be original and not derived from actual consciousness. We input the proposition into the computer; the computer does not think up the proposition on its own. Peter van Inwagen sees this as a difficulty for materialism. He thinks it is hard to account for beliefs and content under materialism but he also thinks that dualism is not better off. An immaterial substance interacting with a material substance is equally mysterious because we cannot have a mental image of an immaterial substance (Plantinga 17-18). Plantinga thinks that this is irrelevant because just because we cannot have a mental image of something does not mean it’s mysterious. We do not have mental images of numbers for example but it seems clear we can know what numbers are to some degree. We have an understanding of numbers. Peter makes the second point that materialist can at least have a representation of the interaction amongst the material parts while dualist cannot have one. Dualism implies the soul, which is a simple entity that is not comprised of parts (Plantinga 19-21). To ask for a representation of how the interaction takes place is to misunderstand the nature of the soul. It is to want a set of causes to explain the interaction. If the soul is a simple substance, then the interaction is direct. Plantinga concludes that consciousness is only mysterious when we think of it in materialist terms. He also concludes that his argument and rebuttals to objections show that a material thing cannot have beliefs or content (Plantinga 20-22).

Alvin Plantinga’s arguments are correct. It seems to me that both are valid and sound. The use of modal intuitions seems to be fair in his method of argumentation. I think it is clearly possible that I could exist while my body does not. This could be false in the actual world. Just because it is false in the actual world does not mean that it is false in all possible worlds. I can imagine a world in which it is true. The argument from impossibility seems to be even stronger than the first. It seems hard to see how a material object can be about something. Our brains are just neurons firing away that have no content of what the beliefs are. Both arguments against materialism are successful and show that dualism has more explanatory power over it.

I have shown both arguments Alvin Plantinga puts forth in his essay Against Materialism and have argued that they are both true. The importance of the mind-body debate is not only philosophical but also practical in how we view human beings. Questions of ontology effect how we think in all other branches of philosophy and life.

Works Cited

Armstrong, D. M. Universals: An Opinionated Introduction. Boulder: Westview, 1989. Print.

Plantinga, Alvin. “Against Materialism.” (n.d.): n. pag. Web. 21 Nov. 2014.   <>.

Ontological Arguments: Problematic Versions and a Victorious One

The ontological argument was formed by Saint Anselm in 1077. It is commonly recognized as being one of the most popular proofs for God’s existence. Descartes also brought the argument back in a different (and more simpler) form as well. Ontology is a branch of metaphysics that deals with the study of existence or being. Thus, the argument is rightly called the ontological argument.

Anselm’s version of this argument go as follows:
(1) Suppose that God exists in the understanding alone.
(2) Given our definition, this means that a being than which none greater can be conceived exists in the understanding alone.
(3) But this being can be conceived to exist in reality. That is, we can conceive of a circumstance in which theism is true, even if we do not believe that it actually obtains.
(4) But it is greater for a thing to exist in reality than for it to exist in the understanding alone.
(5) Hence we seem forced to conclude that a being than which none greater can be conceived can be conceived to be greater than it is.
(6) But that is absurd.
(7) So (1) must be false. God must exist in reality as well as in the understanding.

Now, (3) and (4) have many problems associated with them. The biggest problem is this: Does the fact that one can conceive of something make it true? To conceive means to form thoughts and ideas. I can conceive many things that do not exist. I can also conceive of them existing in reality. Also, in regards to (4), is existence in reality greater than in the understanding alone? Kant would attack this premise. He said that existence is not a predicate. This means that ideas that exist in the understanding (meaning the mind) are equal to ideas that exist in reality.

As a theist, I would have to accept this criticism against this argument. Our conceptions are only in our minds. Because we can think of things existing in reality does not make them real nor does it make them greater. Ideas with existence as a predicate are still ideas which exist in the understanding.

Descartes’ argument goes like this:
(1) God is a being that has all perfections.
(2) Existence is a perfection.
(3) Therefore, God exists.

Kant would again attack (2). Existence as the predicate to a subject (namely God in this case) does not warrant reality. Also, this version seems to reek of circular reasoning. (2) has the same truth value as the conclusion and thus it is circular. Even if (2) were true, it would be hard to really prove that it‘s true.

Alvin Plantinga has formed a new version of the ontological argument using modal logic.

(1) It is possible that a maximally great being exists.
(2) If it is possible that a maximally great being exists, then a maximally great being exists in some possible world.
(3) If a maximally great being exists in some possible world, then it exists in every possible world.
(4) If a maximally great being exists in every possible world, then it exists in the actual world.
(5) If a maximally great being exists in the actual world, then a maximally great being exists.
(6) Therefore, a maximally great being exists.

A possible world is a way the whole of reality could be and not a set of possible planets. For instance, there could be some possible world in which my name is actually Jim instead of Jesse. There could be a possible world in which McCain is elected President instead of Obama. This concept of possibility applies to this argument. The actual world is defined as the presently existing world. Also simply put, a being which is maximally great is a being with the properties of omniscience, omnipotence, and moral perfection.

This argument really hinges on (1) being true. If (1) is not true then the argument falls flat on its face. If (1) is true (even the mere possibility) then it follows from that that (6) is true. The possibility of maximally great being existing is not impossible. It seems logically coherent unlike say, a married bachelor or a triangle with 18 sides. If this argument succeeds, then it is victorious and actually has more power than former ontological arguments. The reason why the modal version is better is because it does not assume existence is a predicate for perfection. It merely hinges on possibility.

I might revisit this argument in more detail once I study modal logic in the future.

Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism: A Summary

Alvin Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism is probably one of the most interesting arguments I have heard. Plantinga says this argument he formulated was inspired and somewhat derived from an argument by C.S. Lewis of the same sort of nature.

He first defines some key words used in the argument.
-Theism: The belief that there is an all-good, all-powerful, and all-knowing God. This God is personal and created the world.
-Naturalism: view that there isn’t any such a person as God. Nothing like God. A bit broader than atheism.
-Evolution: random genetic mutation worked on by natural selection and genetic drift.
-Cognitive faculties: “the powers or faculties of capacities whereby we have knowledge or form belief: memory, perception, reason, maybe others”

Only in creatures with reason and logic is there found an image of God.

“Since human beings are said to be in the image of God in virtue of their having a nature that includes an intellect, such a nature is most in the image of God in virtue of being most able to imitate God (ST Ia q. 93 a. 4)
Only in rational creatures is there found a likeness of God which counts as an image . . . . As far as a likeness of the divine nature is concerned, rational creatures seem somehow to attain a representation of [that] type in virtue of imitating God not only in this, that he is and lives, but especially in this, that he understands (ST Ia Q.93 a.6). -Saint Thomas Aquinas.”

Many people seem to believe that evolution and naturalism are compatible. But isn’t there a problem for the naturalist? Our cognitive faculties would have evolved from blind processes, genetic drift, and natural selection. This evolution process took billions of years.

Evolution does not care about true beliefs. All it cares about are feeding, fleeing, fighting, and reproducing. It rewards behavior that fall in line with these four things. But it does not guarantee truth in any way. Darwin himself had doubt about this. Darwin said, “the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?”

This doubt, as Plantinga states, can be represented like this:
P meaning probability.
R meaning the reliability of our cognitive faculties.
N&E meaning naturalism and evolution.

Plantinga goes on by figuring out the probability of the reliability of our faculties if naturalism is true. He does this through thought experiments, examining contemporary naturalistic views of the mind, and how evolution affects (or lack thereof) our beliefs. He finds the probability to be staggeringly low.

The summary of the core of his argument goes like this:
One who accepts N&E has a defeater for R (because of the probability). If you have a defeater for R then you have a defeater for any belief you have because any belief is a product of your cognitive faculties. But one of your beliefs is N&E. Therefore you shouldn’t accept naturalism as a rational position because it is self-defeating.

He says:
“One who contemplates accepting naturalism, and is torn, let’s say, between naturalism and theism, would reason as follows: if I were to accept naturalism, I would have good and ultimately defeated reason to be agnostic about naturalism; so I shouldn’t accept it. (An argument for the irrationality of naturalism, not for its falsehood.) The traditional theist, on the other hand, has no corresponding reason for doubting that it is a purpose of our cognitive systems to produce true beliefs, nor any reason for thinking the probability of a belief’s being true, given that it is a product of her cognitive faculties, is low or inscrutable. She may indeed endorse some form of evolution; but if she does, it will be a form of evolution guided and orchestrated by God. And qua traditional theist — qua Jewish, Moslem, or Christian theist – she believes that God is the premier knower and has created us human beings in his image, an important part of which involves his giving them what is needed to have knowledge, just as he does. The conclusion to be drawn, therefore, is that the conjunction of naturalism with evolutionary theory is self-defeating: it provides for itself an undefeated defeater. It is therefore unacceptable and irrational.”

This argument leaves the metaphysical naturalist in a very uncomfortable position that their belief in naturalism might be false due to the low probability of their cognitive faculties being reliable. This argument is sound and Plantinga delivers it effectively.

For a full text of the argument click here.