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[This is a penultimate draft. The official version is published in Philosophy Compass, available at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/phc3.12361/full]

Recent Work in Reformed Epistemology

By Andrew Moon

[Word Count: 5435]

Abstract: Reformed epistemology, roughly, is the thesis that religious belief can be rational without argument. After providing some background, I present Plantinga’s defense of reformed epistemology and its influence on religious debunking arguments. I then discuss three objections to Plantinga’s arguments that arise from the following topics: skeptical theism, cognitive science of religion, and basicality. I then show how reformed epistemology has recently been undergirded by a number of epistemological theories, including phenomenal conservatism and virtue epistemology. I end by noting that a good objection to reformed epistemology must criticize either a substantive epistemological theory or the application of that theory to religious belief; I also show that the famous Great Pumpkin Objection is an example of the former. [Word Count: 118]
Keywords: reformed epistemology, properly basic, Great Pumpkin Objection, skeptical theism, cognitive science of religion, debunking argument
1. Introduction

Reformed epistemology, roughly, is the thesis that religious belief can be rational without argument. Much has been written on this topic, so I will narrow my discussion in two ways. First, I will focus on theistic belief, and not on more detailed religious beliefs, such as Christian belief, Islamic belief, and so on.1 Second, I will focus on literature that has appeared since Alvin Plantinga’s (2000) influential Warranted Christian Belief (henceforth, ‘WCB’), the most thorough defense of reformed epistemology. Earlier literature has been sufficiently surveyed elsewhere, and I wish to draw attention to less well known literature.2

In section 2, I provide some background and two arguments by Plantinga for reformed epistemology. In section 3, I present a third argument by Plantinga for reformed epistemology and how it has influenced the recent religious debunking literature. In sections 4–6, I discuss three objections to Plantinga’s third argument, which arise from the following three topics: skeptical theism, cognitive science of religion, and basicality. In section 7, I explain how reformed epistemology could be undergirded by other, nonPlantingan epistemological theories. In section 8, I give a formula for how to object to reformed epistemology, using the Great Pumpkin Objection as an example.


2. Some Background and Preliminary Arguments

Reformed epistemology arose in response to what Plantinga calls the evidentialist objection to theistic belief.3 Roughly, it states,



  1. It is rational to believe in theism only on the basis of a good argument.

  2. There is no good argument for theism.

  3. Therefore, it is not rational to believe in theism.

The evidentialist objection is an example of what Plantinga calls a de jure objection, which concludes that it is not rational to believe in God. This is to be distinguished from what he calls a de facto objection, which concludes that there is no God. The former is a claim about believers or their beliefs; the latter is a claim about God. Someone who espouses a de jure objection but not a de facto objection might say, “Whether or not there is a God, the believer irrationally believes in God when she has no good argument for theism.”

A natural reply to the evidentialist objection is to argue, against premise 2, that there are good arguments for theism. For example, one could defend one of the traditional arguments for God’s existence, such as the cosmological or design arguments. Plantinga proposed another reply. Perhaps, contra premise 1, one can rationally believe in God even if one has no good argument for it. In other words, perhaps the belief can be properly basic. Roughly, a belief is basic when it is not held on the basis of an argument. However, not all basic beliefs are properly basic (that is, both basic and rational). My friend Gambler has no good argument for his belief that his next gamble will win; he believes because of wishful thinking. This belief, though basic, is not properly basic. On the other hand, when I stub my toe and believe that I feel pain, this belief is both basic and properly basic. It is rational and not held on the basis of an argument.

So far, I have talked loosely as if rationality is the only positive epistemic (or intellectual) property. As Plantinga’s epistemology matured, he began to more precisely distinguish between different positive epistemic properties, such as justification, rationality, and warrant (to be described below). Then, instead of talking about a belief’s being properly basic simpliciter, he would make the qualification that the belief is properly basic with respect to some positive epistemic property. For example, a belief can be properly basic with respect to rationality (i.e., be both basic and rational), or it might also be properly basic with respect to warrant (i.e., be both basic and warranted). This led Plantinga to conclude that de jure objections may come in different forms, depending on which positive epistemic property that theistic belief is claimed to be lacking.4

In WCB, Plantinga argues that theistic belief can be properly basic with respect to three epistemic properties. First, a belief can be properly basic with respect to deontological justification, which is, roughly, to be responsible or blameless in holding a belief. While knowing the odds are against him, Gambler irresponsibly believes that my next gamble will win; his belief is not properly basic with respect to deontological justification. Now, suppose it just seems obvious to a theist that God exists, and she has no good reason to reject theism. Plantinga argues that such a person’s belief could be properly basic with respect to deontological justification; she would not be blameworthy or irresponsible for believing.5

Second, a belief can be properly basic with respect to proper function rationality. Suppose Catherine suffers from capgras syndrome and, as a result of this disorder, believes that her husband is a duplicate imposter. Catherine’s belief might be deontologically justified; she might not be blameworthy for holding this belief. After all, it’s not her fault she has this syndrome, and this is how things appear to her. But the belief is not rational; it is the result of a disorder. Plantinga thinks it is implausible that many theists’ basic beliefs are the result of a disorder; in fact, their faculties seem to be functioning properly when they form their belief.6

Third, a belief can be properly basic with respect to warrant. Plantinga does not mean by ‘warrant’ what it means in ordinary English; rather ‘warrant’ is stipulatively defined as whatever it is that makes the difference between knowledge and mere true belief. Suppose Gordon believes without argument that God exists. Even if God does exist, could Gordon count as knowing God exists? Can his belief have warrant? Now, Plantinga does not argue that theistic belief is warranted tout court. Rather, he only argues that it is warranted if God exists. In the next section, I present that argument and also explain some of its influence in the religious debunking literature.


3. Plantinga’s Argument Reconstructed and Debunking Arguments

According to Plantinga’s proper functionalist theory of warrant, roughly, S’s belief is warranted if and only if 1) it is formed by properly functioning faculties, 2) in an environment appropriate for those faculties, 3) according to a reliable, 4) truth-aimed design plan. For example, my belief that there is a computer is warranted if and only if the belief was formed by properly functioning visual faculties, in an environment appropriate for my visual faculties (good lighting conditions), and the design plan of my visual faculties is reliably aimed at forming true beliefs. This is what it takes to know that there is a computer. On the other hand, Catherine’s belief arising from capgrass syndrome is unwarranted because it is the result of dysfunction. And Gambler’s belief is unwarranted because the faculties producing it are not reliably aimed at truth.7

After defending his theory of warrant, Plantinga argues that if God exists, then belief in God would likely meet these conditions for warrant. Here is his argument:

[I]f theistic belief is true, then it seems likely that it does have warrant. If it is true, then there is, indeed, such a person as God, a person who has created us in his image (so that we resemble him, among other things, in having the capacity for knowledge), who loves us, who desires that we know and love him, and who is such that it is our end and good to know and love him. But if these things are so, then he would of course intend that we be able to be aware of his presence and to know something about him. And if that is so, the natural thing to think is that he created us in such a way that we would come to hold such true beliefs as that there is such a person as God, that he is our creator, that we owe him obedience and worship, that he is worthy of worship, that he loves us, and so on. And if that is so, then the natural thing to think is that the cognitive processes that do produce belief in God are aimed by their designer at producing that belief. But then the belief in question will be produced by cognitive faculties functioning properly according to a design plan successfully aimed at truth: it will therefore have warrant (189–190).8


Here is my reconstruction:

  1. If God exists, then God loves us, desires that we know and love him, and is such that it is our end to know and love him.

  2. If God loves us, desires that we know and love him, and is such that it is our end to know and love him; then God is probably such that he “would intend that we be able to be aware of his presence and know something about him.”

  3. If God is probably such that he “would intend that we be able to be aware of his presence and know something about him,” then God probably “created us in such a way that we would come to hold” certain true beliefs about God (e.g., that God exists, is our creator, loves us, etc.).

  4. If God probably “created us in such a way that we would come to hold” certain true beliefs about God (e.g., that God exists, is our creator, loves us, etc.), then belief in God is probably “produced by cognitive faculties functioning properly according to a design plan successfully aimed at truth: it will therefore have warrant.”

  5. If God exists, then belief in God is probably warranted.

I will make two clarifications.

First, Plantinga takes seriously potential defeaters for theistic belief, reasons to not believe in God. Hence, although Plantinga does not think that an argument for theism is required for warrant, an argument against theism could preclude warrant. This is why Plantinga spends the last four chapters of WCB responding to potential defeaters for theistic (and Christian) belief, such as the argument from evil. Discussion of these defeaters is beyond the scope of this paper, but it is worth noting that a complete argument for the proper basicality of theistic belief would require responding to them. Precision might require stating the above argument only in terms of prima facie warrant (warrant in the absence of defeat), but I will leave that assumed.

Second, I will note the dialectical value of the argument. The fact that Plantinga only defends a conditional conclusion might disappoint some. “I want to know whether belief in God is warranted, not merely that it is warranted if God exists!” one might say.9 However, the conditional plays a key role in his response to de jure objections to theistic belief. For example, consider the Freudian charge that theistic belief is a result of mere wishful thinking. Plantinga responds that if God exists, then theistic belief is not the result of mere wishful thinking. It is ultimately produced by truth-aimed, properly functioning, reliable mechanisms designed by God.10 So, Freud’s objection is plausible only on the assumption that God does not exist. Hence, many de jure objections will fail without a successful de facto objection – an argument that God does not exist – which many de jure objectors do not have.

Since WCB’s publication, Plantinga’s strategy has been used to respond to other de jure objections. In recent philosophy, they are often not called ‘de jure objections’ but are more popularly called ‘debunking arguments’, which criticize the rationality or warrant of a belief because of how it was formed. So, debunking arguments are a type of de jure objection. In response to the claim that evolutionary psychology of religion shows that theistic belief is caused solely by natural processes and not by God, Kelly Clark and Justin Barrett respond,

If God is the first and originating cause of the universe (including all natural laws) and if God were to guide or direct the natural evolutionary processes so that they produced a god-faculty so that people could and would come to form true beliefs about God, then God would be the ultimate cause of our god beliefs… If there is no God, then God could not have been the ultimate cause of the god beliefs… The upshot is that we cannot know whether the evolutionary psychology of religion undermines belief in God unless we already know that there is no God (2011, 21–22).11


Upon considering a similar debunking argument in which an objector claims that the ultimate explanation of theistic belief is not God, Roger White writes,

We would need some reason to suppose that the explanation is correct. How might a theist come rationally to think that the correct ultimate explanation of his belief does not involve God? It would seem that for whatever cause C of theistic belief that science might reveal, a theist should just think that God is responsible for C, that that is just the process that God chose to instill belief in his creatures (2010, p. 583).12


Both dialectics involve two steps. First, the debunker claims that theistic belief lacks positive, epistemic property P. Second, the defender says that if God exists, then theistic belief does have property P. For Clark and Barrett, the property P is the “proper connection” between God and theistic belief. For White, property P is God’s being part of the “correct ultimate explanation” of theistic belief. We can see how both responses follow Plantinga’s strategy. This, then, is a legacy of Plantinga’s argument that we find in the religious debunking literature.
4. Against Premise 2: The Skeptical Theist Objection

In this section, I address the “skeptical theist objection” to premise 2. To explain it, I will first say some things about premise 1, which states, “If God exists, then God loves us, desires that we know and love him, and is such that it is our end to know and love him.” This is ambiguous because the word ‘desires’ could mean all-things-considered desires or merely has some desire. I might desire another piece of chocolate cake but not all-things-considered desire it, given my stronger desire for a healthy body. I will take the ‘desire’ in (1) to be understood as some desire, not an all-things-considered desire.

Premise 2 states that if God loves us, desires that we know and love him, and is such that it is our end to know and love him; then God is probably such that he would intend that we be able to be aware of his presence and know something about him. A general principle supporting (2) is that if one wants X, then it is likely that one would intend to bring about X. The reason for the ‘likely’ in this principle is to account for cases where the subject has other reasons (e.g., other conflicting desires), in addition to the desire for X, which would make it so that she would not intend to bring about X. Could there be such conflicting reasons in the case of God desiring for us to know him?

Yes. To see this, consider one version of the argument from evil:



  1. We cannot think of any good reasons for why God, if he existed, would allow certain evils.

  2. Therefore, there probably aren’t good reasons for why God, if he existed, would allow those evils.

  3. If God existed, he wouldn’t allow those evils without good reasons.

  4. Therefore, there probably is no God.


Skeptical theists challenge the inference from A to B by appealing to our ignorance of God’s total reasons.

However, some say that this acknowledgment of ignorance gives us reason to doubt Plantinga’s religious epistemology. Evan Fales writes,

Many theists—Plantinga among them—have expressed skepticism concerning the possibility of an adequate theodicy. What are the chances that we can know what God wants, when he allows Bambi to roast in a forest fire? (360)
Skeptical theists Justin McBrayer and Philip Swenson (2011) concur,

What a sceptical theist is committed to, though, is a general scepticism about our knowledge of what God would do in any particular situation… Plantinga assumes that if God exists it is obvious that our belief-forming faculties are reliable… Given our scepticism, we are not sanguine about [this] inference (God might well have other interests, motives, etc. than the few that we are able to decipher) (145).


The authors’ quotes can apply to my argument reconstruction in the following way. A certain response to the problem of evil expresses skepticism about whether God would have intended or all-things considered wanted to stop certain evils from occurring. This skepticism should cause doubt about whether God would intend for us to know him, and hence, cause doubt about premise 2.

The objection is not making the more contentious claim that skeptical theists must deny all knowledge of God’s intentions. Skeptical theist Michael Bergmann (2012, 15) has argued that on the basis of my commonsense knowledge that I have existed more than five minutes, I can know that, if God exists, then God did not intend to annihilate me before now. Bergmann argues that no part of skeptical theism precludes such knowledge. The question remains whether we can have the sort of knowledge of God’s intentions mentioned in premise 2. This question is worthy of more exploration.13


5. On Premise 3: Cognitive Science of Religion and the Sensus Divinitatis

Premise 3 states, “if God is probably such that he would intend that we be able to be aware of his presence and know something about him, then God probably created us in such a way that we would come to hold certain true beliefs about God.” What is this way that God might have created us? Plantinga endorses the view that “there is a kind of faculty or cognitive mechanism, what Calvin calls a sensus divinitatis or sense of divinity, which in a wide variety of circumstances produces in us beliefs about God” (172).14 Plantinga says that the sensus divinitatis might produce the belief that God created everything when one is beholding beauties of nature, the belief that God is to be thanked when one is experiencing the joy of a new day, or the belief that God disapproves of my action when one acts wrongly (175). Furthermore, these beliefs are basic, that is, “not accepted on the evidential basis of other beliefs” (176). In this section, I discuss questions that arise about the sensus divinitatis; in the next section, I discuss questions that arise about basicality.

Suppose we define ‘sensus divinitatis’ as a module that has the specialized function of forming true beliefs about God.15 Then there are empirical reasons to doubt its existence. Jack Lyons (2009) writes,

It doesn’t begin to follow from our having a capacity to form the belief that God exists that we have a God module… To figure out whether we do have a God module, we can do far more than make a priori guesses conditional on God’s existence or nonexistence (or invoke the authority of Calvin, who was hardly renowned as a cognitive neuroscientist). We can empirically discover (at least in principle) where these beliefs come from… However, there does not seem to be much, if any, empirical support for the claim that we have a system that specializes in producing beliefs about God (160).


Psychologists do identify other cognitive modules: edge detection modules, color vision, face identification modules, and so on. Since there is no empirical evidence of a sensus divinitatis, this is evidence that there is none.16

Here are three replies. Despite its many developments, cognitive science is still young. Our not having empirically discovered a sensus divinitatis yet, therefore, is not good evidence that there is none. Perhaps psychologists need more time to discover it. Second, perhaps Lyons is wrong and that the sensus divinitatis isn’t the sort of thing that one discovers empirically. Perhaps the only appropriate evidence is theological.17

Third, J.P. Moreland & William Lane Craig (2003, 167) have noted that Plantinga’s argument does not require a sensus divinitatis. The consequent of premise 3 states only that God created us in such a way that we would form true beliefs about God. This leaves open exactly what that “way” is, whether this is via a sensus divinitatis, or some other means. For example, there is empirical evidence that we have cognitive systems which, together in natural environments, result in our forming theistic beliefs. The young and burgeoning field of cognitive science of religion (‘CSR’) explores the various mechanisms that naturally incline us to acquire and retain concepts of and beliefs about supernatural beings. These mechanisms include our agency detection device (‘ADD’, a module designed to detect agents), our theory of mind (‘ToM’, a module designed to ascribe mental properties), a mechanism that attributes teleology or purpose to the world, and more. CSR theorists will differ as to which mechanisms are most central to explaining theistic belief, but there is empirical evidence that they play an important role. It seems no more plausible that God would create us to form beliefs about God with a specialized sensus divinitatis than with a number of mechanisms working together. For example, we’ve been designed to form beliefs about food via not only vision, but also via smelling, touching, and tasting. We don’t just have one module, a food-module, for forming beliefs about food.18

The “way” might also involve testimony. Perhaps God revealed himself to a tribe and its leader (call him ‘Shmoses’) by causing miracles that triggered the ADD and ToM. This resulted in their gaining both the concept of and beliefs about God, which they spread to others via testimony. The ADD, ToM, teleology module, and other faculties and social factors helped transmit and sustain these beliefs in future generations. Of course, this is a just-so story, but the point is that a number of theories are compatible with premise 3. Furthermore, Plantinga says he is merely offering a model, so he is probably open to altering his model as empirical theories develop (170).19 However, which theory is true is another matter and is what CSR is currently exploring.20


6. More on Premise 3: Is Theistic Belief Even Basic?

Plantinga says that the deliverances of the sensus divinitatis are basic beliefs. But are they basic? Fales (2004) notes that even if theistic belief is formed spontaneously, or not on the basis of conscious inference from other beliefs, it could still be based on the other beliefs. He says that his belief in the propositions,

(C) It is very probable that most crows are black (377),
(R) What attracts many Republicans to that political ideology is that it makes a virtue of self-interest, and thus provides a convenient rationale for a narrow view of the obligations of generosity and community spirit (378),
(T) Others generally tell the truth (379),
were not consciously inferred from other beliefs. He just finds himself believing them. Yet, they do seem to be held on the basis of other beliefs: beliefs formed in the past on the basis of observations and experiences – about crows, Republicans, and truth-tellers – which seem to be part of the evidential basis for his beliefs in C, R, and T. Similarly, even if theists never consciously inferred their theistic beliefs, Fales notes, it doesn’t follow that they are basic. They could also be based on beliefs formed in response to past observations and experiences.21

Here is one of Plantinga’s responses to Fales:

My main aim was… to hold that theistic belief in general and Christian belief in particular can be accepted with perfect rationality even if the believer doesn’t have any good arguments for belief… as far as that central thesis goes, it doesn’t really matter whether or not there is a clear, important and precise distinction between basic and nonbasic belief. (2007, 614)
When Plantinga was responding to the original evidentialist objection, the concern was that theistic belief was improper because it was not based on a robust philosophical or scientific argument, something like the cosmological or design argument.22 The theistic belief of Plantinga’s grandmother, for example, was in danger of being declared irrational because she had no such argument. Now, suppose we say that a belief is basic if it is not based on this type of robust argument. The “way” mentioned in premise 3 might involve people’s forming a basic belief in this sense, even though the belief might be partly based on background beliefs in the way Fales describes. Plantinga’s argument could then be used to show that if theistic belief is true, then it can be properly basic with respect to warrant in this sense of ‘basic’.23 This would bypass Fales’ argument.24
7. Beyond Plantinga: Applying the Strategy More Broadly

Reformed epistemology is often associated with Plantinga’s proper functionalist theory of warrant. However, some philosophers disagree with this theory, and others are interested in epistemic properties Plantinga does not explore. These philosophers need not reject reformed epistemology. In the following, I will briefly explore the views of some philosophers who think you can be a reformed epistemologist without endorsing Plantinga’s theories.

Let us take a step back and examine Plantinga’s general strategy:

Step 1: Specify a positive epistemic property (or purported conditions for a positive epistemic property).

Step 2: Examine whether basic theistic beliefs might exemplify that epistemic property (or the purported conditions for that property), either on the supposition that God exists or without that supposition.

We can see how Plantinga’s normative epistemology (i.e., his theories of various epistemic properties) supports his applied epistemology (i.e., his religious epistemology). This strategy is very natural and is common in ethics, where one’s normative ethics (e.g., utilitarianism) drives one’s applied ethics (e.g., a position on abortion). Others who are interested in different epistemic properties, or who hold a different theory of warrant, can still follow this strategy and find that their epistemological theory is compatible with reformed epistemology. Indeed, some have found this to be so.

Consider phenomenal conservatism, which states a sufficient condition for prima facie justification:

(PC): If it seems to S as if p, then S thereby has at least prima facie justification for believing that p. (Huemer 2001, 99)

Suppose it seems to me as if there is a cup. According to PC, I thereby have at least prima facie justification for believing that there is a cup. The qualifier ‘prima facie’ indicates that the justification can be defeated by counterevidence. We have now completed step 1 of Plantinga’s strategy.

We may now proceed to Step 2 and examine whether basic, theistic belief can meet PC’s conditions. It can. Chris Tucker (2011) has noted how there are a number of theists for whom, at various points in their lives, it seems to them that God is with them or that God is watching over them. These beliefs are not based on any argument; rather, the theist just believes because they seem true.25

Consider now virtue epistemology. According to John Greco’s (2010) version,

S knows that p if and only if S believes the truth (with respect to p) because S’s belief that p is produced by intellectual ability (71).

Greco says that an achievement is a kind of success because of one’s ability. Suppose I am up to bat, I get distracted by an annoying fly, I try to hit the fly, and in the process, I happen to hit a speeding baseball and score a home run. This is success through accident, not success through ability; it is not an achievement. A true belief is warranted, on Greco’s theory, when one attains a true belief because of one’s intellectual ability, when one achieves a true belief.

We may proceed to Step 2. Anthony Bolos (2016) says that theistic belief could satisfy the conditions of genuine achievement. He writes,

One strategy, for example, would be to simply demonstrate the parallels between perceptual knowledge and religious knowledge on the reformed account. Both instances of knowledge are the result of one’s cognitive faculties which, when successful, demonstrate the cognitive abilities of the agent. In each of the cases, the success in question is appropriately related to the agent’s cognitive abilities (186).


If Bolos is correct, then we can see how reformed epistemology is compatible with virtue epistemology.26

I have now given two examples of how reformed epistemology might be applied to other epistemological theories. In fact, I find plausible that there is no nonskeptical theory of an epistemic property P that couldn’t count many people’s theistic belief to be properly basic with respect to P.27 Showing that there are such theories is where more work should be done.28


8. The Great Pumpkin Objection and How to Properly Criticize Reformed Epistemology

Here is a simple formula for criticizing reformed epistemology. First, make clear whether you are criticizing the normative theory (call this a normative criticism) or the application of that theory to religious, basic belief (call this an application criticism). Then, successfully criticize either the normative theory or its application. An example of an application criticism is the above skeptical theist objection, which gives some theists reason to doubt that theistic belief meets the proper functionalist conditions (even if God exists).

The normative criticism will often require attacking a theory that’s already been well defended in the epistemological literature. For example, one might object that since one cannot always know, by reflection, whether one’s theistic, basic belief is produced by properly functioning faculties, there is something inadequate about Plantinga’s reformed epistemology. However, this is really just a criticism of proper functionalism, a normative theory, and also of the many other normative theories that imply that you cannot always know, by reflection, whether the relevant conditions for justification or warrant obtain.29 For this criticism, one cannot stay at the level of religious epistemology. One must move up to the normative level and engage in epistemology tout court.

It will be useful to see how my formula clarifies two objections to reformed epistemology. They are the Great Pumpkin Objection and the related Son of Great Pumpkin Objection:

(GPO) If theistic belief can be properly basic, then so can Linus’ belief that there’s a Great Pumpkin.30

(SGPO) If the theist may claim that her theistic belief can be properly basic, then Linus may claim that his belief that there’s a Great Pumpkin can be properly basic.31

The objector will then deny the consequent and conclude that the antecedent is false.

Back in the eighties, it was understandable for Plantinga (1983, 74) and Michael Martin (1990, 272) to take seriously GPO or SGPO, when no developed normative theory undergirded reformed epistemology. But suppose a reformed epistemologist – such as Plantinga, Tucker, or Bolos – defends a normative theory, T, for an epistemic property, P, and uses T to undergird the view that theistic belief can be properly basic with respect to P. The GPO and SGPO are now more dubious, since their success depends on whether T, which underwrites theistic belief, also underwrites Linus’ belief.

GPO and SGPO must therefore be reformulated:

(GPO*) Theory T, which implies that theistic belief can be properly basic with respect to P, also implies that Linus’ belief that there’s a Great Pumpkin can be properly basic with respect to P.

(SGPO*) Theory T, which implies that the theist may claim that her theistic belief can be properly basic with respect to P, also implies that Linus may claim that his belief that there’s a Great Pumpkin can be properly basic with respect to P.

The objector must then argue both that the implication about Linus’ belief in GPO* or SGPO* holds, and also that the implication is false. We can see now that the real charge is that T, a normative theory, is too permissive.32 In other words, these are normative criticisms.

For example, suppose the reformed epistemologist is a phenomenal conservative. Then the objector could claim, “This phenomenal conservatism that you endorse also implies that Linus could be prima facie justified in believing (or may claim he is prima facie justified in believing) that there’s a Great Pumpkin because of a seeming!” The objector must then argue that this implication follows from PC and also that the implication is false, which will require diving into the epistemological literature on phenomenal conservatism and responding to its defenses.33

I conclude by emphasizing how firm the grounds are upon which reformed epistemology stands. Those grounds might have been shaky when Plantinga and others first defended it, but that was when it was not backed by a substantive normative theory. Now, a number of diverse, prominent theories in mainstream epistemology undergird reformed epistemology, which makes it very resilient in the face of potential objections.34


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1 Most of the religion-specific literature has been in response to reformed epistemology as applied to Christian belief, discussing issues about sin, the Holy Spirit, and more, which I will not address in this paper. Reformed epistemology has also been applied to Islamic belief (Baldwin (2010) and Baldwin &McNabb (forthcoming)), Advaita Vedanta Hindu belief (Christian (1992) and McNabb (2015)), and to Neo-Confucian belief, (Tien (2004)).

2 See Bolos & Scott (2016) for an excellent survey, and Bergmann (2015a) and Beilby (2007) for helpful introductory articles. For discussions of reformed epistemology in the context of religious epistemology more generally, see Smith (2014) and Dougherty & Tweedt (2015). For books on reformed epistemology, see the influential Plantinga & Wolterstorff (1983), the popular-level Plantinga (2015a), and Beilby (2005).

3 This should not be confused with the more general view named ‘evidentialism’ in mainstream epistemology, which states that a belief’s justification depends solely on the believer’s evidence, where ‘evidence’ is understood to include more than just arguments. See Tweedt & Dougherty (2015) and Long (2010, 377) for more on the distinction.

4 After making these distinctions, Plantinga said of his early years that he was “someone a little long on chutzpah but a little short on epistemology” (1998, 373).

5 See chapter 3 of WCB for further exploration and defense.

6 See chapter 4 of WCB for further exploration and defense. Plantinga also distinguishes between internal and external rationality, which I overlook in this survey.

7 For a book-length defense of this theory, see Plantinga (1993). For more recent discussions, see Boyce & Plantinga (2012) and Boyce & Moon (forthcoming).

8 Plantinga can be interpreted as giving two distinct arguments for the conditional. The first would be at the bottom of 188 to the top half of 189, and the second would be at the second half of 189 to the top half of 190. The first would appeal to a very long hypothetical syllogism; the second would combine conditional proof and reductio ad absurdum. Since I see the two arguments as appealing to the same premises, I only discuss the first one.

9 For example, see Richard Swinburne (2001, 206). Cf. Schonecker (2015) and Plantinga’s (2015b) reply.

10 For more on this point about wishful thinking, see pp. 194–198, especially p. 197, in WCB.

11 Although no reference to Plantinga’s argument is made in this quote, its influence is clear from references found on pp. 11 and 18 of their paper.

12 In note 9 of his paper, White notes that Plantinga might have influenced his argument, but he’s not sure if he’s remembering correctly.

13 I explore it in Moon (draft).

14 Many doubt that what Plantinga means by ‘sensus divinitatis’ is what Calvin meant by it. See Moreland & Craig (2003, 168), Clark & Barrett (2010), and especially Jeffreys (1997), Sudduth (2002), and Plasger (2015). Plantinga doesn’t seem too worried about this, saying, “Whatever Calvin thinks, it’s our model” (2000, 173). See also Plantinga’s (2015b) reply to Plasger.

15 I follow Lyons (2009, 89) by defining a ‘module’ as, roughly, an isolable cognitive mechanism that specializes in a task or function, and exhibits a kind of functional unity. However, only functional specialization, and not isolability and functional unity, are directly relevant to our discussion.

16 Cf. Fales (2003, p. 361).

17 But see Moreland & Craig’s (2003, 168) theological reasons for doubting there is a sensus divinitatis.

18 Above, I defined ‘sensus divinitatis’ as a single module, but one could define it more liberally, as Clark & Barrett (2010) do, to denote a set of mechanisms working together. Thanks to Justin Barrett for helpful discussion. Of course, people can use the term however they wish, so long as they’re clear.

19 An alternative model is given on p. 176, according to which the sensus divinitatis helps people see the truth of a premise in a theistic argument, by which they infer theistic belief. De Cruz & De Smedt (2014) explore in an empirically rigorous way how modules studied in CSR might be relevant to people’s finding intuitive premises in arguments from natural theology. Michael Sudduth (2002) offers a model grounded in reformed theology, according to which only the belief that God exists is basic, and God’s properties are inferred. See Plantinga’s (2002, 132–135) reply to Sudduth.

20 For surveys of the CSR literature and some of its epistemological ramifications, see Clark & Barrett (2010) on the relationship between CSR and the sensus divinitatis; Clark & Barrett (2011), who use a Reidian perspective; Clark & Rabinowitz (2011), who focus on testimony and safety; Thurow (2013), who focuses on sensitivity and unreliability arguments; and De Cruz & De Smedt (2014), who focus on CSR and natural theology. See also Murray (2009) and Leech & Visala (2011).

21 Koons (2011) similarly argues that all our perceptual beliefs are theory dependent. He then argues that “theistic belief cannot be properly basic, but only because no kind of belief can be properly basic” (843). Interestingly, Plantinga (1993, 100–101) had earlier already discussed the sort of argument that Koons makes, with plausible counterexamples to his universal claim. Cf. Sudduth (2002, 89–90).

22 Or perhaps the requirement for good argument was even stronger: that the belief meets the standards of classical foundationalism. For more, see chapter 3 of WCB.

23 Bergmann (2015b, 35–37), a reformed epistemologist, develops a view that explicitly allows for background beliefs to play an evidential role in something like the way Fales describes. He uses Robert Audi’s (2004, 45–46) distinction between conclusions of reflection and conclusions of inference, the latter being drawn from inference and the former emerging “noninferentially from an awareness of a variety of observations, experiences, and considerations” (2015, 36). Theistic belief, on his view, could be a conclusion of reflection but still be properly basic. Also relevant are Derose (draft a) and Pritchard’s (2003, 57–60) foundherentist model, Beilby (2007, 147–151), and Lyons (2009, 162–163).

24 See also the definition of warrant basicality that Plantinga (2007, 618) develops in his response to Fales.

25 Also, if Tucker is correct, then he would have a good reply to Long’s (2010) evidentialist, de jure objection to theistic belief.

26 For more on the relationship between reformed epistemology and virtue epistemology, see Zagzebski (1993), Pritchard (2003), Axtell (2006), and Bolos (2016). Of note, Pritchard (2003, 60–65) develops an account of how theistic basic belief could result from reflective virtues, and Bolos (2016) argues that theistic basic belief could result from what Pritchard calls a strong achievement, which is characterized by the agent’s overcoming an obstacle or demonstrating a significant skill. These accounts might handle earlier criticisms by virtue epistemologists (e.g., Zagzebski, Prichard, and Axtell) that reformed epistemology does not sufficiently involve the agent.

27 Others have applied their normative theories to reformed epistemology. Wolterstorff (1983) applies an epistemic conservative view, Alston (1991) applies his theory of perceptual justification, and Shaw (2016) applies his disjunctivist view.

28 According to reliabilism, a belief is justified only if it is produced by a reliable process. Sanford Goldberg (2014) charges that systematic disagreement about religious matters shows that religious belief is not formed by a reliable process; hence, the believer does not meet the reliabilist condition on justification. Furthermore, a believer who is aware of this disagreement has a defeater. Although Goldberg develops both charges in admirable detail, he does not address the responses to this sort of argument by Kwan (2006, 654–657; 2011, 263–283), Murray (2009, 172–173) and Clark & Barrett (2011, 26–29). This is a fascinating topic about which there is insufficient space to discuss in detail here.

29 Bergmann (2006, ch. 8) argues that virtually all nonskeptical epistemological theories, both externalist and internalist, have this implication. Cf. chapter 4 of Williamson (2000).

30 This was first introduced in Plantinga (1983, 74–78).

31 See Martin (1990, 266–276), Plantinga (2000, 343–352), DeRose (draft b), Bergmann (2006, ch. 8), and Scott (2014). I think Bergmann most clearly gets to the epistemological heart of the issue.

32 Some literature discusses whether Plantinga’s reformed epistemology allows for nonChristian religious beliefs to be properly basic, which, in my framework, is really about whether proper functionalism allows for this. See Plantinga (2000, 349–351), Beilby (2007, 143–147), and the references in footnote 1 of Beilby’s paper. He says that some Christians will find this implication of proper functionalism problematic (145). However, if it’s a problem for proper functionalism, then it’s a problem for most epistemological theories.

33 See section 5 of Tucker (2011) for a response to the claim that PC is overly permissive. In chapter 8 of his book, Bergmann (2006) argues that virtually all nonskeptical epistemological theories face a charge of being overly permissive in these ways. See pp. 229–232 for why he thinks the charge fails.

34 Thanks to Aaron Arinder, Mark Baker, Max Baker-Hytch, Justin Barrett, Anthony Bolos, Domingos Faria, Tyler McNabb, and Chris Tucker for helpful written comments and discussion. Thanks to Michael Bergmann for helpful discussion. Thanks also to participants in the Spring 2016 Rutgers Cognitive Science of Religion seminar, including Robert and Marilyn Adams, Mark Baker, Laura Callahan, Alvin Goldman, James Jones, Daniel Rubio, Philip Swenson, and Dean Zimmerman.





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