Friday, June 20, 2014

Review of Tyler McNabb's Discussion on Objections to Plantingian Epistemology

Because I lost a bet (come on, Blazers!), I am reviewing doctoral student Tyler McNabb’s paper (which may be a chapter of his forthcoming dissertation) entitled, “Warranted Religion: Answering Objections to Alvin Plantinga’s Epistemology.” Here, Tyler considers the four-conditioned theory of warrant. The conditions are as follows:

(1) One’s cognitive faculties must function properly
(2) One’s cognitive environment has to be sufficiently similar to the one for which the cognitive faculties were designed for,
(3) The design plan that governs the production of such belief is aimed at producing true belief, and
(4) The design plan is a good one in that there is a high statistical (or objective) probability that a belief produced under these conditions will be true.

Essentially, Tyler wants to tackle two objections that he feels do not get enough treatment in the literature (ironically, I wanted one of them to have, well, more treatment!). The first objection he confronts deals with the idea that the conditions for warrant are too narrow; that is, they exclude some specific possible cases where warrant is had even though one of the criteria are left unfulfilled.

In this case, that idea is Swampman. The idea is that lightning could strike a swamp and a person (say Randy) simultaneously. While Randy is utterly destroyed, out from the swamp comes a perfect replica. He walks, talks, and thinks like Randy. He holds all the same beliefs Randy did prior to the lightning strike, and for all of the same reasons. The objection is that Swampman is not exemplifying criterion (1) of Plantinga’s theory of warrant. He does not have properly functioning cognitive faculties, because there’s just no “right” or “wrong” about the way in which they function; they came about due to no design plan or anything, just pure chance/accident. Yet, in theory, we want to say Swampman, holding beliefs for reasons—indeed, identical beliefs and reasons as Randy, does have warrant. Thus, it follows that criterion (1) of Plantinga’s theory of warrant fails.

Tyler’s response to this is two-fold. First, he responds that this lacks a “tight connection” to truth. Essentially, Swampman is merely lucky when it comes to his cognitive beliefs. He writes, “Because there are no ways in which his cognitive system should produce any beliefs appropriately in this way, it would appear that any true belief that is produced would lack a tight connection to truth.” Thus, since Swampman does not have a tight connection with truth with respect to his beliefs, then Swampman really isn’t warranted in holding the beliefs he does hold, after all (and thus, it’s not a true counterexample).

There does seem to be one problem with this objection to Swampman, however. Just what is a “tight connection to truth”? It seems that a tight connection to truth is that there is some relationship held between a belief and it’s being true, and that it does not merely happen to be the case that the belief is true. But isn’t this connection more or less what we mean by “proper function”? If so, then the objection to the counterexample would be question-begging. However, it’s worth noting that all Tyler is saying here is that a good account of warrant wants to avoid mere luck; if that entails proper function, then so much the worse for Swampman. He essentially illustrates just this point by discussing (the second part) what he calls the “Gambling Demons” scenario. This scenario involves demons pulling levers for some unfortunate person’s beliefs, and reasons for holding them. It’s at least possible that when a particular instance of this occurs, it lands on the right belief for the right reasons (e.g., in a situation where one is walking on the street, the person actually does believe he is walking down the street for the reason that he experiences it, or has chosen to do it, or whatever)—too bad for the demon. But if that’s true, we wouldn’t want to say that person was really warranted in his belief. Instead, we would say he just got lucky—he just as easily could have ended up with the belief that he was giving the Gettysburg Address for the reason that his shoes were cell phones. If this is cognitive luck, then Swampman looks for all the world like a case of cognitive luck.

Interestingly enough, though, I wonder if more could have been said about this. One interesting concern I have is that, in the Demon Scenario, the reasons for holding a belief are themselves individual beliefs. So, if I hold the belief that I am giving the Gettysburg Address because my shoes are cell phones, surely that entails that I believe my shoes are cell phones. But then the reasons for holding beliefs are themselves beliefs. Does this invalidate Tyler’s scenario? Not that I can see. For what, in the scenario, is the reason for the belief that my shoes are cell phones? The demon’s pulling that particular lever at random. So some beliefs not only lead back along a chain to this lucky scenario, but are themselves directly connected, with no intermediary chains, to this lucky scenario. That strengthens it, as far as I’m concerned (this is because these chains are likely to confer warrant, or not confer it).

The second section is dealing with the objection that the theory of warrant is too broad; it would allow several other worldviews to be warranted, and thus they would be in the same epistemic boat in which Christianity finds itself. I myself like Plantinga’s answer: the idea is that, so what, in principle, with other religions being potentially warranted? The primary way to deal with that is to investigate the de facto claim as to whether or not these other religions are true!

Tyler deals with one particular strand of Hinduism, however. Within this section, I thought he did an excellent job at showing that Hinduism does not have a truth-aimed cognitive faculty according to a design plan. Basically, he brought out the similarity between Hinduism and Kantian epistemology; essentially, no one can know the nature or truths about ultimate reality itself. Aside from the fact that this is self-refuting, it shows that it is not aimed at truth. This is because that truths that are pragmatic for the Hindu (and even encouraged and entailed by its precepts and truths) are, at the level of ultimate reality, not actually true. This means that, ultimately, the cognitive faculties, on Hinduism, are not truth-aimed, and thus fail Plantinga’s condition of warrant.

Basically, Tyler has shown that Swampman is probably best described as an instance of cognitive luck through an interesting thought experiment. He also has suggested that, while it may be possible, in principle, for other religions to be warranted, that specific examples of this alleged warrant will fail one of Plantinga’s conditions. Thus, two major examples of objections against Plantinga’s epistemology are removed as defeaters. I definitely recommend this (whenever it gets published).

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