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Philosophy of Religion Lecture Four: The Epistemology of Religion

1. Evidentialism
1.1 Statement of Evidentialism
A belief is justified iff it is backed by evidence. (Remember: justified beliefs arent always true beliefs!)
Atheists are often evidentialists. There is often thought to be a presumption of atheism. (cf Flew, Scriven) If there is no
evidence of X, then X should be thought of as not existing. (Weaker: we should not think X exists.) The set-up is to default
to atheism (or agnosticism) unless compelling evidence is laid out.
1.2 What counts as evidence?
Do we demand that God makes His existence explicit? Does the history of the world count as evidence? Is the appearance
of churches (pick the appropriate one) count as evidence? What about stories about Christ? If (e.g.) Christianity were true,
should we expect these things? If so, is their being the case evidence? Compare: if theory about quantum particles we cant
see were true, such-and-such a phenomenon would be seen. It is, and this is generally taken as evidence for the theory.
What about religious experiences?
Miracles! (Walking on water, fish from nowhere, coming back to life)
More minor miracles (trawl American daytime TV for evidence of guardian angels, images appearing before
people in times of need etc.)
More commonly discussed: Deep seated feelings that God is present, God is forgiving, God is judging, senses of
divinely inspired contentment etc.
If seeing a house is evidence for believing in houses, is having a sensation of God forgiving you for your sins evidence for
1.3 Whats the evidence for Evidentialism?
Alvin Plantinga runs the following line. What evidence is there for Evidentialism? Is there any evidence for Evidentialism?
Isnt it a purely philosophical standpoint? (In the reading, Plantinga runs a similar line against classical foundationalism. )
2. Reformed Epistemology
1.1 Statement of RF
belief is basic iff it isnt inferred on the basis of another belief. A belief is properly basic iff it is basic and yet justified i.e.
justified, but not inferred from any other belief it has non inferential justification.
Not every belief is basic. Example: Bob murdered John. Example: It is raining outside.
But they could be basic. The classical foundationalist tends to say that they arent. (CF: A belief is properly basic iff it is
incorrigible or certain.) Certainly those beliefs arent of that sort. But classical foundationalism looks to be a bad bet.
Maybe other beliefs can be properly basic. Ive seen Columbo he seems to be right about his hunches. He might need
evidence to do his job, but is it true to say Columbo is unjustified in believing Bob to be the murderer until he finds the
evidence? What if someone claimed to detect rain and did so reliably and accurately? Are their its raining beliefs not,
then, justified?
Or just take even simpler beliefs like: There is a table. Given CF the best you could do would be I am having a table-like
sensory experience Plantinga thinks the experience (not the belief that youre having the experience!) justifies the belief
There is a table. There is a table is (in certain contexts) properly basic.
Plantinga extends this to religious beliefs. God forgives me is justified by the sensation of God forgiving me the
experience, the feeling. So says Plantinga, belief in God can be properly basic.

3.2 Sensus Divinitatis

Why properly? Plantinga (in Warranted Christian Belief) argues that its to do with the functions of the things that give you
that belief.

When you use a system correctly to believe P, for the purpose that matches its function, you are warranted in
believing P (when P is true and justified).

The system that leads you to believe that there is a table in front of you results from a system that evolved
over many years.

That system means you acquire certain beliefs and come to believe that theres a table.

If Columbo did have telepathy then his hunches, whilst lacking in evidence, would count as warranted

If your eyes hadnt evolved in the way they did then even if they delivered true and justified beliefs
you wouldnt be warranted.

If Columbo has a brain deficiency that by chance makes him believe criminals did it (and hes right!)
then whilst hes got a true and justified belief, he isnt warranted in believing it.

Note how this means that whether or not youre warranted in believing that theres a table or that the criminal did it
is external to things that you believe.

It depends upon facts about how you came to have the belief-acquiring apparatus that you ended up with.

It is an externalist theory of warrant rather than internalist.

Two identical agents in two possible worlds can be such that one of them is warranted in believing P and the other
is not.

Calvin believed in a sensus divinitatis.

If we have it, it allows us to form the correct beliefs.

When in certain circumstances we form basic beliefs that theres a God.

We see the grandeur of the universe

We read the Bible and feel God is forgiving us for our sin

Plantinga attributes getting the belief to the correct use of the sensus divinitatis

If theres a SD, and God made us to acquire these beliefs, Christians are warranted even when there is no
evidence in thinking God exists.

Obviously if there isnt a God, then there is no such sensus divinitatis.

3.3 The Great Pumpkin Objection

Imagine you believe in the Great Pumpkin. Can you believe the Great Pumpkin exists? that it forgives you? that it
unconditionally loves you? Pay careful attention to the ways in which Plantinga tries to deal with this.
Thus, for example, the Reformed Epistemologist may concur with Calvin in holding that God has implanted in us a natural
tendency to see his hand in the world around us; the same cannot be said for the Great Pumpkin, there being no Great
Pumpkin and no natural tendency to accept beliefs about the Great Pumpkin.
You may complain that the same could be said of theism! You may refine that objection as being one of question begging. A
crude statement of that would be misguided.

Recall that Plantinga denies the classical foundationalist position. CF is internalist: X being justified depends only on facts
internal to your noetic structure. Externalists think that justification depends on things external to your mind or intellect.
The later Plantinga goes on to endorse a fairly reliabilist externalist scheme. Compare to Columbo and the rain detector.
Like Calvin he believes there is a sensus divinitatis. If we have it, it allows us to form the correct beliefs. As it is a reliable
guide, the belief is justified. Obviously if there isnt a God, then there is no such sensus divinitatis. But if there is a God
and Plantinga is correct that he implanted us then there is. Ones being justified in believing in God might depend upon
God existing (and implanting it in us) but as the RFer isnt an internalist this isnt a problem.
3.3 Religious Experience
We might see RF as extending what counts as evidence, rather than standing in opposition to evidentialism. When we talk
about religious experience, the proponents are generally not referring to visual or auditory experiences, nor miracles.
Theyre referring to deep seated feelings of the source of their beliefs. If you dont have them, the RFer will say your sensus
divinitatis is faulty (and whys it faulty? Refer to Divine Hiddenness, original sin etc.) You may want to look into
neurotheological material.
3. Other Epistemology
Plantinga argues that if evolutionary theory is true (which it is) we should believe in God.
If we evolved then our belief formation processes did not evolve to capture true beliefs. They evolve to capture beliefs that
help you survive. If survival and believing true things coincide great! They do not always coincide (see situations of self
We might react in many ways when we meet a tiger, says Plantinga. We might form the belief that we should calm it down.
But also form the belief that calming it down is best achieved by running, at high pace, away from it. Wed survive, but we
wouldnt have true beliefs.
As we believe that our beliefs are justified, and (allegedly) the probability of them being justified given evolution is low, we
can run a familiar argument.
P (R/N&E) = Low

P (R/S&E) = High

P (S / R&E) = High