Reformed Epistemology Modified (abbreviate it)

Here is a thought I’ve had about altering the standard structure of Reformed Epistemology while remaining true to the view’s original spirit. Suppose that religious belief is never basic, and a fortiori, never properly basic. That is, suppose that religious beliefs are always and everywhere inferred from other beliefs. To employ some of Plantinga’s examples, suppose I read the Bible. Instead of simply acquiring the spontaneous conviction that God is speaking to me, suppose I go from my belief that I am reading the Bible (and maybe some other beliefs about how personally pertinent or emotionally powerful my reading is) to the conclusion that God is speaking to me: not via some suppressed premiss along the lines of ‘If I am reading the Bible and…, then God is speaking to me’, but just by a direct intellectual movement from one the belief to the other (much as one does not complete a modus ponens inference via the suppressed premiss that modus ponens is a valid argument schema). So too, I observe the stars, and instead of spontaneously thinking that the stars were made, I infer that the stars have a maker from the evidence that there are stars.

Of course, a religious sceptic will think that these are terrible inferences, much as she will think that basic religious beliefs are unwarranted. But supply some substantive religious assumptions, much as Plantinga supplies his Aquinas/Calvin model, and these inferences turn out to be pretty good. To undermine the inferences, the religious sceptic will have to undermine the assumptions – just as she would to undermine Plantinga’s putatively basic beliefs. So we have considerable parity between the original Reformed Epistemology and my modification.

The point of all this, I suppose, is to suggest that Reformed Epistemology took a wrong turn in getting all hung up on the question of whether religious beliefs require evidence. There are other ways to upset the sceptic’s epistemological assumptions than by invoking proper basicality.

A more schematic way to think about. We have the set of all the theist’s beliefs, S. Hold S fixed. Let’s think of it in terms of a processing system involving input, operation, and output. The inputs are the properly/justified basic beliefs, the operation is the totality of justification-preserving inferences, and the outputs are the justified beliefs. The Reformed Epistemologist’s central point is that what the outputs are depends upon what the world is like (holding S fixed). Plantinga gets to this conclusion by arguing that what the inputs are depends upon what the world is like. I am noting that there is an alternative route to that conclusion, namely, to argue that what the operation is depends upon what the world is like. Of course, to do so you would have to say a lot about what a justification-preserving inference is, just as Plantinga says a lot about what a properly basic belief is.


6 thoughts on “Reformed Epistemology Modified (abbreviate it)

  1. Thanks for this, Alec. I greatly appreciate your posts and know that I should contribute something more substantial to this blog than the odd comment. Once term is over…

    I am keen to talk more about basic beliefs and think there are some interesting insights to be gained from taking Reformed Epistemology back to its sources. For now, perhaps I could add two comments that might weigh against your suggestion that we can hold on to Reformed Epistemology without basic beliefs:

    1. The resistance to evidentialism in Reformed Epistemology is a response to what Plantinga refers to as ‘strong foundationalism’. His approach is not utterly anti-foundationalist but represents a weak kind of foundationalism built on basic beliefs. If we take basic beliefs away from Reformed Epistemology, how do you propose we might answer the challenges raised against foundationalism?

    2. An essential part of Plantinga’s A/C model is its appeal to Calvin’s understanding of the sensus divinitatis. If we lose basic beliefs from Reformed Epistemology haven’t we taken the engine out of the car?



  2. Thanks Ed, I think we’d all be very glad to see you make a more substantial contribution. As to your questions:

    1. Could you please clarify this question? I’m inclined to interpret it in either of two ways. First, how does my proposal interact with the challenges Plantinga raises against strong foundationalism? My answer would be that it doesn’t interact with it any interesting way. Plantinga has a good case against strong foundationalism; I don’t presume any particular account of properly basic belief, I’m simply supposing (perhaps fancifully) that no religious beliefs are properly basic for the boring reason that none are basic at all, and seeing what happens then.

    Second, how might my proposal be used to address very general criticisms of foundationalism? The answer to that is that I don’t know; if you give me an example of such a criticism, I’ll come back to you.

    2. Yes, the A/C model, plus Plantinga’s account of properly basic belief, is the basis on which Plantinga argues that Christian belief is warranted. My point is that, by pairing an appropriate account of inference with an appropriate model of God’s relation to human cognition, we can get to the conclusion that Christian belief is warranted by a different route. You might be wondering why we should bother about an alternative route, given the attractions of the sensus divinitatis. My worry is that the traditional RE story is vulnerable in a certain kind of way. A lot seems to hang on whether the relevant religious belief is really basic. If your religious beliefs are inferred from other beliefs then (depending on the inference-type), as John Hawthorne says, you’re out of luck. If you concede that the only good inferences are the inferences recognised as such by the religious sceptic, but your given theist is acquiring her religious beliefs via some other inferences, then you can’t count her belief as justified. So we should think more carefully about whether to make that particular concession to the sceptic.


  3. Hi Alec,

    Thanks for the clarification. I guess I am struggling to see how your account relates to Reformed Epistemology if you get rid of basic beliefs. I am likely missing something in your argument but below are a few of the questions I am left with.


    1. How does your account of direct inference differ from spontaneous conviction?

    2. What are the ‘substantive religious assumptions’ that you would supply. What would be your grounds for supplying them?

    3. Why is it a problem for Reformed Epistemology that a lot hangs on understanding religious belief as basic?

    4. Why can’t religious belief be properly basic AND practically inferred in some sense?

    5. Does your argument assume that no beliefs (or knowledge) whatsoever are basic or that no religious beliefs (or religious knowledge) are basic?


  4. 1. The important difference is as follows. In my story, the theist is inferring one belief – God is speaking to me – from another belief – I am reading the Bible. Or in other words, the theist takes the fact she is reading the Bible to be evidence supporting her belief that God is speaking to her. In the case of basic belief, the belief is acquired without any supporting evidence, that is, without reference to any other belief. The theist reads her Bible and comes to believe that God is speaking to her, without explicit acknowledgement of the fact that she is reading the Bible figuring in her thought process.

    2. I have in mind that the substantive religious assumptions are easy to justify given Christian theism. I’d be assuming that, say, whenever a person reads the Bible, God speaks to them. That seems like a sensible assumption for a Christian to make. If that’s the case, then, the rule ‘infer that God is speaking to x from x is reading the Bible’ will preserve truth. Thus the inference looks pretty good. So too the assumption that all material objects are (in some sense) made by God. Thus the rule ‘infer that x has a maker from x is a material object’ is truth-preserving, and the star-maker inference looks like a good one.

    3. The problem is this. We have one theist who sees the stars and spontaneously believes that God has made the stars. We have another theist who is blind, and is told about the stars. She thinks ‘huh, there are these things called stars, they’re like this. God must have made them’. It seems like both theist’s beliefs about divine starmaking are on a roughly equal footing. If we just have an expanded conception of what’s a properly basic belief, however, and not an expanded conception of what’s a good inference, only the first theist’s belief will get to be justified.

    4. Well my answer to this would be that basic beliefs are different from inferred beliefs in the way outlined in my response to 1. Inferred beliefs are inferentially based on other beliefs, and basic beliefs are not. Though there’s an interesting question about whether any properly basic belief is legitimately inferred from the empty set of beliefs. This certainly seems to be what’s going on in the case of logical truths, which you can derive from no premisses via the inference rules of classical logic.

    5. I struggle to see how you could get by with no basic beliefs whatever. My thought is that, even if we fancifully suppose that there are no basic religious beliefs, a story rather like the Reformed Epistemology story could still be true.
    I say that the stories are similar in that, in both cases, the theist’s beliefs are justified even though, so far as the atheist is concerned, they are not supported by her evidence. It’s not that they evaluate, say, the degree of confirmation from fine-tuning and disconfirmation from evil slightly differently: from the atheist’s perspective, it looks like there’s no evidential support, or nothing like enough to furnish justification. But the religious facts are such that the facts about justification differ radically from the atheist’s assessment.


  5. Aaaand coming late to the party having skimmed the above comments…

    This seems relatively legit- almost Wittgensteinian, I might say, if I’m reading it right: namely, that it is a major danger in positing beliefs as ‘properly basic’ to suppose that their content is divorced from our other beliefs or that they are believed non-inferentially, and so have a character of absolute necessity which cannot be disrupted from without. Anyway, if that is a decent reading of what’s being suggested, I like the model- there are properly basic beliefs, but our arriving at them is secondary (both temporally and logically): we always begin with non-basic things, and so our understanding of what is basic is conditioned by these prior beliefs.

    I have a feeling that (again, if I’m right about what you’re saying) it’s going to be fun seeing how I try and argue that this model makes a nonsense of many natural theology whilst you (probably?) look at it as a way of grounding it….


  6. Thanks Watson, as I supposed I had better call you henceforth. I wasn’t trying to criticize the notion of properly basic belief per se, more pointing out that properly basic beliefs will only get you so far, and that there are other interesting epistemic phenomena to consider. Indeed, as I’m sure you will be unsurprised to hear, I worry that you might be dismissing properly basic beliefs too fast.

    A basic belief, I take it, is just a belief that is not based on evidence. I wake up, look around, and believe that the sun is up. My believing so is a spontaneous reaction to my waking and looking. I don’t notice the specific degree of illumination inside and think ‘hmm, that would be odd if it were before dawn’ or anything. I am exposed to the environment in the right way, and I acquire a true, properly basic belief about my environment.

    This is consistent with the belief not having ‘a character of absolute necessity’, as you put it. Perhaps I remember that Lewis is filming outside tonight, and they have phenomenally strong lighting such that I can’t tell Lewis-lighting from sunlight when the curtains are drawn. In that case, I might abandon my belief that the sun is out, even though it started out as basic – perhaps properly basic, or even true and properly basic. Or, if the beliefs about Lewis-filming are lodged firmly enough in my mind, I might interfere with the initial formation of the belief. Usually, I would acquire a properly basic belief under roughly these environmental conditions, but my the rest of my beliefs are such that I never do.

    On this view, then, we always start, and can only start, from basic beliefs. But, as in the example, these will often be quite specific beliefs, such that the sun is up, rather than weightier beliefs that might do a lot of theoretical work for us, such as that there is an external world is that induction is justified.


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