Thursday, 29 June 2017

Deformed Epistemology

For some reason, there are some christians who find calling Plantinga’s “Reformed Epistemology” by another name, namely “Deformed Epistemology”, insulting.  They called it name-calling.  I think that’s a little unfair, so I’m going to put a little effort into defending the use of the term “deformed epistemology”.

First, we need to look at what is being either reformed or deformed – epistemology.  This is what Wikipedia has to say (I’ve tidied up the list though):

Epistemology is the branch of philosophy concerned with the theory of knowledge. Epistemology studies the nature of knowledge, justification, and the rationality of belief. Much of the debate in epistemology centers on four areas: the philosophical analysis of the nature of knowledge and how it relates to such concepts as truth, belief, and justification; various problems of scepticism; the sources and scope of knowledge and justified belief; and the criteria for knowledge and justification.

Alternatively, there is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry:

Defined narrowly, epistemology is the study of knowledge and justified belief. As the study of knowledge, epistemology is concerned with the following questions: What are the necessary and sufficient conditions of knowledge? What are its sources? What is its structure, and what are its limits? As the study of justified belief, epistemology aims to answer questions such as: How we are to understand the concept of justification? What makes justified beliefs justified? Is justification internal or external to one's own mind? Understood more broadly, epistemology is about issues having to do with the creation and dissemination of knowledge in particular areas of inquiry.

the study or a theory of the nature and grounds of knowledge especially with reference to its limits and validity

Now I could go on adding text from the IEP (“Epistemology is the study of knowledge”), other dictionaries (like “(epistemology is) a branch of philosophy that studies the origin, nature, methods, and limits of human knowledge”), other encyclopedias (like Britannica: “Epistemology (is) the study of the nature, origin and limits of human knowledge”) and papers on epistemology (JT Tennis in Epistemology, Theory, and Methodology in Knowledge Organization: “Epistemology is how we know”), but I think the point has been adequately made already – epistemology is about knowledge.

If we are going to reform (or deform) epistemology, then we are going to reform (or deform) something about how we interact with or think about knowledge. 

So, let’s look at Plantinga's deformed epistemology and specifically his "proper functionalist version of epistemic externalism" which he summarises in Warranted Christian Belief (p133):

Put in a nutshell, then, a belief has warrant for a person S only if that belief is produced in S by cognitive faculties functioning properly (subject to no dysfunction) in a cognitive environment that is appropriate for S’s kind of cognitive faculties, according to a design plan that is successfully aimed at truth. We must add, furthermore, that when a belief meets these conditions and does enjoy warrant, the degree of warrant it enjoys depends on the strength of the belief, the firmness with which S holds it

Note that, according to Plantinga, knowledge is warranted true belief rather than justified true belief:

That may not come as much of a surprise, given that this book is a sequel to Warrant: The Current Debate and Warrant and Proper Function. In the first of those books I introduced the term ‘warrant’ as a name for that property—or better, quantity—enough of which is what makes the difference between knowledge and mere true belief.

So ... is there a problem with Plantinga's deformed epistemology?

This might not come as a surprise, but I think there is.  Right off the bat, there is the assumption of a "design plan".  I understand that theists believe that there is, in some sense, a design plan to humans.  I do think it's possible to work backwards from a belief in a god, including a belief that one's belief in a god is a true belief and reach a belief that one has knowledge about the existence of a god.  Breaking it down a bit:

Is there a god?
 Do you believe there is a god?

Do you consider your belief to be a true belief?

Is there a truth (or god) detecting design plan in the human brain?

Is your brain working in accordance with the design plan (or is properly functioning)?

Does your belief with respect to god constitute knowledge?

Hopefully it can be seen that the only situation in which Plantinga's deformed epistemology both matters and works is one in which:

1) there is actually a god of the right sort,

2) there is actually a design plan for brains such that, when functioning properly, they seek and find truth (or detect the being that created the design plan),

3) the brain of the theist is actually functioning properly in accordance with that design plan, and

4) the believer does actually have the correct sort of belief about the god that exists.

If there is no god (or no god that fiddles with brains the way that it would have to in order to ensure that humans accurately and truthfully detect it), then Plantinga's argument falls in a big heap.  Remember that Plantinga’s
“reformed epistemology” involves warrant, that warrant is that which “makes the difference between knowledge and mere true belief” and that a key element of warrant is that it involves “cognitive faculties functioning properly … according to a design plan”.

Now, it cannot be that a belief in a god (or a particular sort of god) is a “true belief” if there is no such god.  However, it is conceptually possible that that which “makes the difference between knowledge and mere true belief” could exist even in the absence of a true belief so that a (false) belief that nevertheless has this quality (“warrant”) could be described as a “rational belief”.

Note that when you look for descriptions of “Reformed Epistemology”, you invariably get referred to Plantinga and his attempts to argue that religious belief may be rational.  IEP:

Reformed epistemology is a thesis about the rationality of religious belief.

A section on reformed epistemology appears in the SEP, but within the article on the Epistemology of Religion, an article which makes it clear that it is concentrating on questions of the justification of religious belief and ignoring questions as to whether “these beliefs count as knowledge or whether these beliefs are scientific”.

So, it seems, “reformed epistemology”, despite Plantinga’s protestations, isn’t about knowledge after all, but about the justification or rationality of belief.  It doesn’t really qualify as epistemology at all, or rather it would qualify as epistemology if and only if Plantinga’s god existed, which means he’s seriously begging the question with his terminology.

Note that a not uncommon defence by theists is that reformed epistemology is no more than the position that “belief in God, like belief in other persons, does not require the support of evidence or argument for it to be rational” (Kelly Clark, Without Evidence or Argument: A Defense of Reformed Epistemology).  So, when challenged, they are more than willing to step back from the appearance of any knowledge claim.  But what they are not stepping back from, and this is tricky bit, is the implication of a truth claim.

Reformed epistemology might claim that a belief in a god may be rational despite not having any evidence or argument in its support, but this is entirely contingent on there being a god and the belief in that god being true.  This is why I call this point of view deformed epistemology, it’s not really about knowledge at all, just about justifying (or warranting) belief in a god in the absence of evidence or convincing argument.  And, to the extent that it is an argument about knowledge (because Plantinga doesn’t step away from implying that warranted true belief is knowledge), it’s both begging the question and special pleading (because you can’t use the same approach on other things you might want to believe and claim as knowledge).

Is there anything about Plantinga's “deformed epistemology” that a person who is not already a committed believer should take seriously?  Does it do anything more than provide a fig leaf of rationality to someone who believes something that otherwise should not be believed without very good evidence and/or argument?

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