A Note on Plantinga

3 December 2009

Thursday


Alvin Plantinga

Recently in Skepticism as Critique of Knowledge I had occasion to mention Alvin Plantinga. I have also had occasion on many occasions to give some kind of expression to the philosophical naturalism that is my own point of departure, for example, recently in A Formulation of Naturalism. Since Plantinga is sometimes identified as an anti-naturalist, his thought is about as alien to me as anything could be.

There is something Quixotic about being an anti-naturalist in the 21st century — i.e., there is something heroic and deluded, and therefore doomed, about it. When Huysmans wrote his Against Nature in the 19th century, his anti-naturalism was a very different beast — a Baudelairean beast — than the simple-minded earnestness of Plantinga’s attempt to contravene naturalism a century later. Ironically, it is the earlier anti-naturalism that is the more sophisticated, and it will stand the test of time rather better. Plantinga’s bizarre anti-naturalism is, I suppose, what one should expect of an anti-naturalism of today. Since no plausible or coherent doctrine of anti-naturalism is conceivable, only the implausible and the incoherent alternatives remain.

One of the many errors in Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism is the assumption that evolutionary processes determine outcomes. This is an elementary (and fundamental) error: evolution operates without reference to outcomes; indeed, there are no evolutionary outcomes, only provisional settlements that will be overturned with time. We should not be surprised at this error, for determinism is a distinctive feature of theological thinking, and is a likely way in which the theological apologist will misunderstand naturalistic thought, of which biological evolution is a paradigmatic instance. Science seen through the lens of teleology is unrecognizable for what it was, and becomes something entirely different: it becomes theology.

Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism is completely dependent upon the whole post-Gettier epistemology of analytical philosophy, in which it is simply assumed that knowledge is some variation of justified true belief (a belief now so common that it is abbreviated as “JTB”) plus (aye, there’s the rub) whatever it takes to defeat Gettier-style counter-examples. But Gettier-style counter-examples have no style. What distinguishes Gettier-style counter-examples is their accidental character — they refer to no principle. Knowledge, on the other hand, and in contradistinction to belief, is a principled undertaking. Knowledge is not accidental.

The definition of knowledge as justified, true belief has to contend not only with the Gettier problem, but also with the referential opacity of belief. Belief simply does not behave like knowledge, and the attempt to transform it into knowledge by imposing certain conditions upon it is doomed to failure. Just as knowledge is not accidental, so too knowledge is not opaque. It could be argued that knowledge is the deconstruction of opacity.

Certainly, some qualifications are made here and there in particular versions of knowledge as justified true belief, but the basic psychologistic orientation is unchanged. Plantinga’s argument is dependent upon the idiom of belief, and if it is explicitly denied that knowledge is justified true belief, or indeed any kind of belief at all, the argument utterly collapses. The epistemic underpinning of the evolutionary argument against naturalism only flourishes in the hothouse of psychologism; should the door be left ajar when a cold wind blows (say a cold wind of the medieval past, when knowledge and belief were distinguished, or a cold wind from the continent in the form of phenomenology, which systematically denies psychologism) these rare but unlovely growths would wither and die.

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