"Reformed Epistemology" is the title
often given to an influential body of apologetic arguments that
have been offered in recent years by a group of Protestant Christian
philosophers: in particular by William Alston, Alvin Plantinga
and Nicholas Wolterstorff. The title comes from the fact that
these arguments have been said to represent the same judgments
of the relationship between faith and reason that are found in
the Sixteenth Century Reformers, particularly John Calvin. While
I incline to think this rather domesticates Calvin for the philosophical
community, I am not interested in arguing this historical point.
I have my own preferred name for this set of arguments: I call
them the Basic Belief Apologetic, for reasons that will be obvious
when we get into the detail. I want to suggest two things in this
paper. First: the Apologetic is a sound one. Second: it is far
less important than it is commonly thought to be, and in fact
accentuates a problem to which its practitioners seem to think
it is a solution.
If we look at the condition of contemporary
philosophy of religion, we find that there is quite a lot of continuing
activity in traditional natural theology. The bestknown
example of a contemporary natural theologian is Richard Swinburne.
But I think it is fair to say that the continued activity in natural
theology has been upstaged by the Apologetic that I wish to discuss
this morning. For if that apologetic is sound, one of the primary
motives for doing natural theology is a mistaken one.
One can believe this without believing that
natural theology is impossible. Indeed, Plantinga, for example,
has practiced it quite often. He has revived the Ontological Proof,
for instance; and his latest book, Warrant and Proper Function,
concludes with two chapters that are obvious examples of original
natural theology (with an epistemic base). If the Basic Belief
Apologetic is sound, however, doing natural theology is religiously
questionable, or at best unnecessary. For it has, the argument
goes, been undertaken for reasons that can only seem compelling
to thinkers who have been entrapped by assumptions that have dominated
western philosophy since Descartes and Locke the assumptions of
what the Reformed Epistemologists refer to as Uclassical,' or
There is some unclarity, or perhaps some historical
disagreement, among Reformed Epistemologists, about how far back
one has to go to find the origins of the assumptions they are
attacking. Plantinga writes occasionally as though foundationalism
is a philosophical stance that we find in Aquinas and in Plato.
But for the most part the assumptions are traced to the early
modern period, and in particular to Descartes and to Locke.
The historical point is not solely of antiquarian interest, since
it is selfevident that the enterprise of natural theology
is one that predates Descartes and Locke, neither of whom were
very good at it. I shall use the phrase "Enlightenment Foundationalism"
to refer to the tradition and assumptions of Descartes and Locke
and those who followed them and derived their attitudes toward
faith and reason from them.
What, then, is Enlightenment Foundationalism,
and what are its attitudes toward faith and reason? Here follows,
with apologies, a little potted history.
lt all starts with Descartes, who says himself
that he is seeking to lay foundations on which he will build a
firm and lasting structure in the sciences. In the sciences.
The foundations he lays are being laid so that the sciences
should be free of two quite different hazards. The first, which
Descartes talks about quite a lot, is the challenge of Pyrrhonian
scepticism. This was enjoying a fashionable revival because of
the rediscovery of the works of Sextus Empiricus. Popkin has made
it very cleasr that scepticism is not something Descartes invented
in the First Meditation, which I was taught, but something he
found around him and tried to answer; he answered it by carrying
some of its arguments further than they had been carried by Sextus
and his followers, and then refuting them. As a result of this,
he bequeathed modern philosophy a completely different understanding
of what a sceptic is, which is not much like the one that existed
before. For one thing, the old type of sceptic actually existed;
Descartes' sceptic was merely an invented personage that it became
the duty of every redblooded epistemologist to refute.
I cannot develop this here. But Descartes bequeathed
the following picture of the problem the sceptic is supposed to
pose. The sceptic is not, in the first place, devoid of knowledge;
he has lots of it. But all the knowledge he is sure he has is
knowledge of the state of his own ideas; this, however, he does
have. As Hume put it later, consciousness never deceives. So the
sceptic is equipped, in Descartes' view, with a bedrock foundation
of knowledge, of his own mental states. The problem is the problem
of moving out from this knowledge to knowledge of the "outer"
or "external" world, whose very existence is problematic.
So the problem Descartes sets himself to answer is that of overcoming
what is sometimes called the Egocentric Predicament.
There is only one way out, if there is any.
That is the discovery within the mind of some idea or ideas that
can guarantee they represent a reality outside it. Notoriously
Descartes tries to provide this escape route by developing the
doctrine of clear and distinct ideas whose veracity is guaranteed
by the proof of God's existence; the socalled Cartesian
circle results from the fact that the proof of God's existence
relies on the very intellectual processes that God's existence
has to underwrite. This is not our concern now, however; what
is relevant now is that the socalled foundationalism of
modern epistemology derives from the manner in which Descartes
seeks to refute scepticism, and has two key components: (1 ) the
belief that the certainty of all real knowledge depends on the
derivation of the propositions we claim to know from propositions
of a privileged class that are beyond doubt; (2) the belief that
the propositions in this privileged class are in it because they
are uniquely accessible to indeed are within
the subject's consciousness:
such as selfevident truths (for Descartes and his rationalist
successors) or sensory experiences (for Locke and Rfs
successors in the empiricist tradition).
But Descartes was not only seeking to fend
off Pyrrhonian scepticism. His hidden agenda also included he
wish to create an accommodation between science and the church
authorities who had shot themselves in the foot by condemning
Galileo. He needed a sound theoretical base for a guarantee of
had been condemned by an apparently tolerant clerical hierarchy
because he had been unwilling to accept the supposedly conciliatory
suggestion that his astronomical claims were mere convenient devices
for predicting celestial phenomena. Descartes wanted science to
have the unquestionable underpinning that shows it tells us how
the world outside really fs. The foundationalist programme
is one that shows science to be the source of truth. Of course
a price has to be paid: science is only the source of truth about
material things. But it is that. If one is prepared to pay that
price, then one has a theoretical basis for saying that
all theological comment on science is henceforth inappropriate.
If this historical estimate of what Descartes
was about is right, it explains the subsequent development of
a cultural situation to which the Basic Belief Apologetic is a
contemporary response. What Descartes has done is create a philosophical
situation in which the purpose of epistemology and indeed metaphysics
has not been the integration of secular knowledge and religious
faith, as it was in Aquinas, but their separation. The understanding
of what knowledge is is one that seeks to guarantee the autonomy
of science, and naturally invites one to doubt whether there can
be theological knowledge at all.
But this implication took time to be recognised,
ironically because there was so much natural theology, and because
its most popular form, the Design Argument, was supposedly a scientific
proof. But it was eventually recognised, for two reasons: (1 )
the rise of deism brought about a split between philosophical
proofs of God and the appeal to revelation, so that it was no
longer obvious that if you proved God exists you might expect
him to have revealed himself in history; (2) Hume and Kant showed,
or were thought to have shown, that the proofs, especially the
Design Argument, were failures. By the time they had shown this
(or were thought to have shown this) the Cartesian foundationalist
programme had so determined the culture of philosophy that success
in natural theology was assumed, almost on all sides, to be a
prerequisite for the existence of any theological knowledge whatever.
Found.ationalism had spawned what Reformed epistemologists now
call ~evidentialism." This (if I understand correctly) is
the contention that for belief in God to be reasonable belief,
it has to be shown to be at least likely on the basis of reasons
that can themselYes be known to be true on the foundationalist
model. That is, it has to be supported by evidence that is not
itself theological in character. Knowledge of God must be mediate
or inferred knowledge, as it is in classical natural theology.
The Basic Belief Apologetic, to which I now return, is a protest
against this assum ption.
The protest begins with a selfreferential
argument that Plantinga has stated several times. Why should we
assume that no belief is rational if it is not either selfevident,
or an incorrigible deliverance of consciousness, or inferred from
some other belief that is in one of these two classes? The thesis
that only beliefs that conform to this requirement are rational
ones can not itself be stated without violating this principle,
since it is neither selfevident nor incorrigible, nor deducible
from a proposition that is. "It is no more than a bit of
intellectual imperialism on the part of the founationalist."
But if we resist it we will see that belief in God may well be
rational even if it is not inferred from beliefs that conform
to the foundationalist programme. It might be ~ properly basic."
Those who believe in God this way have not been shown by the foundationalist
to have violated any epistemic or doxastic obligations in doing
This is the negative thrust of the Basic Belief
Apologetic; and I think there is no point whatever in fighting
it . But it leaves a deep uneasiness behind it, as all selfreferential
refutations do. For they never address the motives behind the
adoption of the incautious principles they refute. Plantinga,
Alston and Wolterstorff are aware of this unease, and try to address
it. It comes, of course from the fact that if we put aside any
requirement for independent justification for religious belief,
we seem to open the way to anybody's dogmatic assertions, to a
potential chaos of clashing convictions in which one enthusiast's
leap into absurdity is as good as anyone else's, and (as Locke
put it) ~there is nothing but the strength of our persuasions
whereby to judge of our persuasions."
To head this off, Reformed epistemologists
have developed a positive line of argument which I also think
is sound and will not contest. I continue for the moment with
Plantinga's version of it. Although a believer may hold his or
her belief in God without inferring it from other beliefs (that
is, may hold it as basic), this does not make it groundless.
For it may be occasioned (or as he expresses this, "called
forth") by religious experience. Such experience will not
be something from the report of which the believer then infers
some belief about God, but will be that which, nevertheless
grounds his or her conviction. He proceeds to draw an analogy
between belief in God and other, secular, beliefs that are also
held as basic but have analogous occasions, and which we have
no temptation (unless we are epistemological sceptics) to dismiss
as groundless or arbitrary. (Obvious examples are sensory beliefs
or inductive beliefs or beliefs about other minds.) This analogy
between religious and secular beliefs is prominent in the trilogy
of which he has so far published the first two volumes, and is
central to the similar argument for the rationality of Christian
belief developed by Alston in Perceiving God, which I think
is the finest document of Reformed Epistemology to date.
This apologetic argument is one with an ancestry.
It is used by fideistic thinkers such as Pascal and Kierkegeard,
in a form that I have discussed elsewhere and have called the
Parity Argument. In its fideistic form it owes a good deal to
classical (or preCartesian) scepticism: Pascal and Kierkegaard
maintain (as I read them) that in daily life we can and must follow
beliefs that reason has no chance of justifying, and that if we
are prepared to do this in accepting the deliverances of senseperception,
for example, there is no good reason for hesitating to accept
the truths of revelation. They are indeed outside the scope of
human reason, but so are the convictions of everyday life. When
heard from the pulpit, this argument is sometimes put by saying
that we need faith to believe that the sun will come up tomorrow
as much as we do to believe that Jesus was the Son of God.
The Reformed epistemologists are not
maintaining this, or claim that they are not. Plantinga in particular
rejects the title of fideist. In seeing why he rejects this title
we can see more clearly what sort of epistemological position
the basic Belief Apologetic implies. It does not try to place
faith outside the realm of reason, but to make us face up to the
fact, or supposed fact, that postCartesian foundationalism
has misdescribed what reason requires. Reason does not require
us to construe all wellfounded belief as belief that is
derived from the startingpoints that foundationalism approves.
Here Reformed epistemology has found a hero: Thomas Reid. As Alston
and Plantinga and (especially) Wolterstorff read him, Reid saw
that we are constituted so as to form beliefs about the world
as the result of a wide range of quite distinct and autonomous
kinds of occasion for example, through memoryexperiences,
through the hearing of testimony, through perception, through
inductive repetition, and the like; and it is mere epistemic chauvinism
(to use Alston's phrase) to insist that all rational beliefformation
must follow one or two patterns. Here, of course, what Reid says,
or is read as saying, is very like what we have heard in our own
day from Moore and from the Wittgenstein of On Gertainty. On
this view, the rational being is not someone who follows the Procrustean
path of attempting to force all beliefformation into one
pattern, but someone whose beliefs are determined by the
doxastic practices that are built into our natures. The consequence
of this (which, historically, it does not seem that Reid himself
drew) is that religious beliefs too are formed by rational beings
as the result of the kinds of religious experiences of God's actions
and God's presence to which Christians down the centuries have
pointed. The basic beliefs of the Christian are not a challenge
or an offense to reason, but one more manifestation of reasonableness.
On the whole I accept this thesis, though I
will note that there is one interesting difference here between
Alston and Plantinga. Alston's book argues that what he calls
Christian Mystical Practice, or CMP, is a wholly rational mode
of beliefformation, and that in all relevant respects (not
all respects whatever) it resembles our habitual doxastic practice
of forming and sustaining beliefs about the physical world through
sensory experience. In arguing this he unsurprisingly stresses
the distinctive phenomenology of Christian mystical experience,
which he says can be rendered as experience of God appearing to
us. He concedes, indeed he emphasises, that when philosophers
have attempted, in the Cartesian tradition, to provide external
justification of our reliance on sense perception, their arguments
have always been circular, but he maintains that this does not
show reliance on senseperception is irrational, since this
reliance is a socially established doxastic practice that offers
rewards that at least meet the standards of practical rationality.
If this is true, philosophers who have denied the same to be true
for Christian Mystical Practice have been guilty of applying a
In the first two books of his ongoing trilogy,
Plantinga, following the arguments in his earlier essays, has
emphasised a much wider set of analogies between Christian beliefs
about God and secular beliefs. On the one hand, he has offered
as examples of properly basic beliefs about God, beliefs such
as a Christian's conviction that God is wrathful at his wrongdoing,
or her conviction asshe repents that God has forgiven her
sins; and it is striking that these may well not have any distinctively
religious phenomenology about them. And on the other hand, in
Warrant and Proper Funchon, he follows Reid in listing
a large number of rational doxastic practices, of which only some,
such as senseperception and memory, could be said by anyone
to have a distinctive phenomenology.
It is too early to say how far this difference
represents a different apologetic argumentform. But if there
is no primacy to be given to the forms of religious experience
that have a distinctive phenomenology, it seems that many of the
occasions of the formation of basic religious beliefs have nothing
distinctive about them to the believer but the fact that on these
occasions believers come to have the convictions whose rationality
is being defended.
Those familiar with Plantinga's two recent
volumes will of course want to emphasise that I have left out
what he makes central there, namely the concept of warrant. I
will conclude my very inadequate exposition of what he says by
commenting on this. He distinguishes now between two aspects of
the rationality of beliefs, namely justification and warrant.
A belief is justified if those who have it have come by it in
ways the fulfil their doxastic obligations: if they have not neglected
to look or listen or read, and have not been bigoted or biased.
But we can fulfil all such obligations and still not have warrant
for what we believe.. Warrant is that "elusive quality or
quantity enough of which, together with truth and belief, is sufficient
for knowledge." A believer has warrant for a true belief
if the belief, in addition to being true, is the product of some
cognitive faculty or mechanism that is functioning as it should
in its proper environment, and is a mechanism that is aimed at
truth. Briefly and informally, Plantinga accepts from "reliabilist"
theories of knowledge that we may well know things without having
privileged access to the nature of the processes that yield
our knowledge; what counts is that we have reliable faculties
(such as senses or memory) that are functioning in a way that
is up to standard; and they have to be faculties whose aim is
truth. Some beliefgenerating mechanisms are not aimed at
truth but at survival or comfort: an example is the unwarranted
but often beneficial conviction of patients with lifethreatening
diseases that they are certain to recover.
If this complex of conditions is satisfied,
in Plantinga's view, a true belief is warranted. The key to the
argument is the claim that there are many beliefgenerating
mechanisms that yield warrant, in additions to those approved
by classical foundationalism.
I begin my responses to this Apologetic by
returning again, briefly, to the apparent lack of unanimity about
the importance of a distinctive religious phenomenology. If we
see the task of the apologist as that of bridging the divide
between believers an doubters who already share a large number
of secular common sense convictions, the presence or absence
of a distinctive religious phenomenology can be very important.
For that phenomenology can be used to reinforce the analogy between
the religious practice where it is central, and the secultr doxastic
practices where there is a distinctive phenomenology also, such
as sense perception. If doubters do not have the relevant religious
experiences, not only is that their loss, but they incur the special
duty of explaining away their occurrence in the life of believers
a duty which generates, thus far (one thinks of Freud,
for example) some rather strained and fanciful theorising. But
if religious experience does not include a distinctive phenomenology,
and the apologetic that centres on it offers us merely a doxastic
machinery that generates convictions, then doubters can simply
say that the religious doxastic machinery is absent (or does not
work) for them. In saying this they are doing nothing that is
inconsistent with their prior acceptance of secular common sense
convictions. Plantinga is right that this does not impugn the
believer's doxastic practices; but it is equally true that there
is nothing in the doubter!s refusal to endorse them that represents
a violation of the doubter's doxastic obligations either.
I will try to put this point in terms of Planting's
later language of warrant. He explains what warrant is in a way
that implies that only true beliefs can have it. One is tempted
to think that a false belief could have it: for if warrant is
that which, when added to true belief, yields knowledge, it seems
that whatever fulfills this role might be something that could
be added to false beliefs too, although of course it would not
yield knowledge in their case. But Plantinga defines warrant in
detail as something we have when a doxastic mechanism functions
as it should, and is one that is aimed at truth. So to ascribe
warrant, thus understood, to religious beliefs, is to presuppose
there /s religious truth. The believer is in violation of no doxastic
obligation in supposing this. But the doubter is in violation
of no doxastic obligation by declining to.
I think this suggests that the Basic Belief
Apologetic serves, even in a postfoundationalist context,
only as a negative or defensive apologetic, not a positive one.
As a positive one it relies on a mere presupposition that there
is religious truth, and does not embody any argument to show that
there is any.
But let us put this difficulty aside. I think
there is a point of much greater importance to be made. It is
a point that, in the literature to date, only Alston has seen
fit to attend to. The very parity that makes it needful to classify
faith as rational if we are not to deny the title to sensory or
memory or inductive beliefs, makes it equally needful to classify
other, competing, beliefsystems as rational also. They too
are the result of socially established doxastic practices; they
too are capable of discriminating justified from unjustified constituent
beliefs; and they tool are capable of responding to external criticisms
and of explaining the psychological appeal of the competition.
To say that the doxastic mechanisms that yield them are not aimed
at truth is to speak from within your own doxastic system, but
not to refute theirs.
Examples are easy to come by, and hard to cut
off once one begins. The first set of examples are other religions.
There are the other theistic religions. More seriously, there
are the other religions that are not clearly theistic, and which
have radically different religious phenomenologies at the core
of their spirituality. The second set of examples are nonreligious
soteriological systems like Freudianism and Marxism, that offer
liberation from deep spiritual disorders, diagnostic explanations
of resistance to their prescriptions and modes of doxastic practice
that conform to these diagnoses. And a third set of examples (and
I think this wili do to make the point) are nonsoteriological
secularising systems of thought like the philosophies of Lucretius
or Hume or Bertrand Russell that judge religion itself to be a
source of spiritual and doxastic disorder from which they think
we should be relieved to be emancipated.
These classes overlap; and they are all capable of justification, as far as I can see, by arguments of the form that Reformed Epistemologists use to defend Christianity. Which is not in the least to argue that these
arguments are unsound. If classical foundationalism is a spent force,
they are sound arguments; but they leave us with a doxastically crowded
field. And each competitor in the field is an open option to a great many
One way of describing this perplexing situation
is that we live in a multiply ambiguous world. This is a world
in which Christianity competes, it seems, with other doxastically
rational religious traditions which are increasingly wellunderstood
by it, and it by them, and them by each other; and in which each
such tradition competes with many forms of secularised naturalism
of which the same can be said.
This situation is one that is tailormade
for someone who thinks like the preCartesian sceptic, who
saw a large variety of competing ideologies and beliefsystems,
and saw that each could sustain itself by philosophical argument,
and judged this very fact to be a reason to suspend judgment about
all of them. This is a rational response, and readily understandable
after a few courses in philosophy and comparative religion. But
it is not the only rational response. What is one to say if one
recognises that this is our intellectual situation, but does so
while remaining in one of the competing beliefsystems, such
as Christianity or Buddhism, or whatever?
I submit that the doxastic obligation of the
rational being faced with this ambiguity is to try to resolve
it; to try to disambiguate our world. If it is doxastically
proper to retain a set of convictions in such a world, it is nevertheless
obligatory to find some arguments to sustain them. This, after
all, is what traditional natural theology sought to do. It predates
Enlightenment foundationalism, and I submit that Christianity
has more need of it than ever. The arguments of Reformed epistemology
do not show it is not needed. All they show is that Christians
have not been irrational to come by their beliefs without doing
it first. This is not enough, once one comes to see how readily
the same point can be made about so many other world views.
One does not defeat one's opponents by beating one's own chest.
Reformed epistemology does not show us we do not need natural
theology. It helps reveal a situation in which we can see we need
it more than ever.
University of Calgary
Alston, William P. Perceiving God. Cornell,
Ithaca, 1991 .
Plantinga, Alvin. "Reason and Belief in
God", in Faith and Rationality, ed. Plantinga and
Wolterstorff, Notre Dame, 1983. Warrant: The Current Debate.
Oxford, 1993. Warrant and Proper Function. Oxford,
Wolterstorff, Nicholas. "Can Belief in
God be Rational if it has no Foundations?" in Faith and
Among Terence Penelhum's many books are is:
Reason and Religious Faith, Boulder, Westview Press, 1995
Butler, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985