A Nearby Worlds Objection to Reformed Epistemology

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This paper will analyze Plantinga’s reformed epistemology, explain the idea of a safety-like intuition which reformed epistemology does not satisfy, suggest that this safety-like intuition is necessary for confident theistic belief, and propose that a safety-like intuition can only be appropriately satisfied by inferential justification. Therefore, Plantinga’s reformed epistemology, even if it successfully establishes theism as a properly basic belief, still leaves a theistic believer without a means to satisfy the safety-like intuition and, therefore, without a means to confidently overcome basic defeaters in nearby worlds.

The idea of safety asks, “If I were to believe proposition P, how easily would P be false?” This is typically taken as a qualification for knowledge external to the subject in that a belief is safe whether or not a subject has reason to believe it is safe. Such an example would be the belief that I have hands. If I believe it, then it would probably take a pretty far fetched scenario for my belief to be false; and my belief is safe (because it could not easily be false) whether I reflect on that safety or not. The idea of safety is typically considered in nearby worlds thought experiments. A belief is safe if it is true in all possible nearby worlds (worlds that resemble our own as closely as possible).

However, this idea of safety seems closely related to reasoning used by people in a more internalist kind of way. Even if the average person does not think in philosophical terms of safety and nearby worlds, the question “Would I believe this even if it were false?” seems like a fairly intuitive one. Questions such as, “How easily could I imagine a scenario which explains my experiences and background beliefs in which my belief is actually false?” or “Is such a scenario realistic?” do not seem like considerations foreign to reasonable people. Such reasoning readily translates to “Can I imagine a nearby world in which my belief is false?” or rather, “Is my belief safe?” The relatedness of such questions can be described as a Safety-Like Intuition (SLI) which is an internalist type of epistemological idea (internalist meaning that it is something of which a subject is aware in their reasoning process) which describes the tendency to ask questions concerning how easily our beliefs could be false and whether the world would look any different if they were.

Without satisfying one’s SLI (that is, leaving open the possibility that a belief could easily be false), it seems as though a person is left to doubt whether their belief is true, and one can hardly imagine remaining confident in the truth of one’s belief under such circumstances. This paper will proceed by arguing that reformed epistemology is readily susceptible to defeaters while leave one’s SLI unsatisfied. We will then suggest that inferential justification is necessary to satisfy one’s SLI from defeaters and, therefore, necessary for a person to be confident that they have justified theistic belief. Finally, we will consider and propose answers to a few objections.

Reformed epistemology is Alvin Plantinga’s answer to those who either assert that theism is fundamentally absurd or requires inferential justification. Plantinga refers to a notion of the sensus divinitatus (a sense of something divine) to describe the immediate perception of a deity of some sort whenever someone sees something like a sunset or whatever else it might be that causes somebody to immediately perceive God. Plantinga suggests what is essentially a conditional statement in that if there is a God, then he would equip his creation with something like a sensus divinitatus. Therefore, if such a thing truly was designed by God, is functioning in an appropriate environment, and is adequately designed to perceive His existence, then theistic belief is sufficiently warranted based on such a sensory experience. Given these circumstances, Plantinga seems to assert that “…belief in God is properly basic-that is that it is rational to accept it without accepting it on the basis of any other proposition or beliefs at all.” Not only does Plantinga think that a believer can have rational theistic belief without inferential justification (broadly including argumentation or evidence), but he actively suggests that theistic belief founded on such things is more volatile than taking theistic belief through the sensus divinitatus alone.

But the question is how well warranted (how confident somebody can be in) theistic belief with absolutely no inferential justification. Unfortunately for reformed epistemology, warranted theistic belief seems highly susceptible to defeaters in nearby worlds. For example, one might consider the possibility that the sensus divinitatus from which one has formed properly basic theistic belief is really just a result of some sort of CSR evolutionary mechanismin which case we may still have what we mistakenly think is some sort of sensus divinitatus which really does not have any God behind it at all. Such a hypothesis seems to be compatible with nearby worlds in which there is no God, and it allows for the possibility that one could hold theistic belief based solely on a sensus divinitatus while theistic belief is easily false. Perhaps the best we can truly do in favor of theistic belief in such a scenario is suspend judgment until we can find reason to rule out nearby worlds in which there is no God. However, there seems to be no non-inferential way of ruling out atheistic nearby worlds if we cannot look to the world around us to infer things that would be different about it if there were no God. Therefore, reformed epistemology seems to leave a subject with little confidence that their theistic belief is not easily false given the close proximity of non-theistic nearby worlds.

In order to be confident that theistic belief is safe, the believer must be aware of ways in which any non-theistic world is significantly different from this world or any nearby worlds. In order to see how this would be the case, one must be able to infer from the world around them things that would necessarily be different if there were no God. If it is the case that there are things that would be significantly different if there were no God, then the believer may be confident that all nearby worlds are theistic ones (or that it would not easily be the case that theism is false) in which case theistic belief would be safe in the mind of the subject.
The basic idea is that in order for a believer to be confident that their belief is safe they must infer from the world around them ways in which possible worlds would not be nearby (in that they would be significantly different) if their theistic belief was false. This gives a basic idea of evidence for theistic belief. Evidence for theism can be broadly understood as anything which the believer takes to make their belief less easily false (or in philosophical terms: necessitates God in nearby possible worlds). This could be anything from a warm and fuzzy feeling to a rigorous philosophical argument. Take for example the argument from consciousness. If it is the case that this argument is successful in that someone may rightfully infer from it that God is necessary for consciousness to exist, then any possible world which does not have a God also lacks consciousness. Such a world is very far away from any kind of nearby world, therefore, all nearby worlds are theistic.

Obviously, some theistic arguments will be better than others in that some are more easily defeated than others. This raises a normative question of what good evidence should be/at what point someone has done their due diligence in seeking out and answering defeaters for their beliefs. While there is certainly a much larger discussion on evidence and the quality of different kinds of evidence to be had, it seems to be the case that the most easily defeated kinds of inferential justification seem to be circular (being persuaded by the beauty of grace assuming that it is the case that such grace is truly offered by a God even though such a doctrine could theoretically be preached in a non-theistic universe) or based solely on personal experience (In the fashion of Scrooge, we might ask if our experience is based on bad food rather than an act of God).

As in any philosophical conversation, there are a variety of possible objections. While it is not feasible to conclusively address them in this paper, I will suggest ways in which a few of them might be addressed.

The first possible objection that comes to mind is that the sensus divinitatus is widespread and seems commonly accepted. Therefore, it seems as though people can be (and are) confident without inferential justification. But it is worth noting that reflection on the widespreadness of theistic belief is itself inferential from the world around us. Even though people may indeed feel confident without inferential justification, such confidence is easily removed by aforementioned defeaters, and we should question whether neglect of such basic possible defeaters (or an inability to understand them) is something we person should try to emulate. This of course raises the issue of what it means to be sufficiently epistemically responsible which is a topic for another paper.

Another possible objection is at what point enough possible worlds are theistic in order for a person to feel justified in theistic belief. Should a person suspend judgment if half of all nearby worlds seem safe for theistic belief? The answer is that it seems to be an all or nothing game. If a cosmological argument is taken by the believer to necessitate a God in one nearby world, then any world involving a cosmos anything like ours must have a God. Either a person has reason to believe that theism is true in all nearby worlds (and therefore safe), or theistic belief is not safe to that person at all. Perhaps there is a case to be made that safety could work along a spectrum, but that too is a topic for another paper.

Perhaps we may worry about skepticism such as a dreaming hypothesis that acts as a defeater for all kinds of things in nearby worlds, but I propose that arguments from consciousness and first causes could still work since I could not be dreaming if I was not conscious or caused to exist. One must also question if a world in which I have dreamed everything which has led to my formation of theistic belief is truly a nearby world.

Finally, one might ask if reliance on inferential justification resigns us to an infinite regress if we must justify our justification. This is a topic of serious debate in epistemology, and this is not the place to settle that debate. Even if we acknowledge the possibility of an infinite regress concerning the inferential justification that rescues us from our defeaters in nearby possible worlds, that does not mean the answer to addressing that infinite regress is removing the only solution we seem to have that is capable of addressing defeaters in nearby possible worlds.
In a similar vein, Plantinga suggests that reliance on inferential justification leaves the subject wondering if their inferential justification will be defeated. Obviously, one should find a good amount of inferential reasons that their theistic belief seems safe and should be able to defend those reasons. But once a believer has found a satisfactory amount of evidence ruling out any nearby world that is not theistic, then they should be in a position that some of their evidence can be challenged yet they still have plenty of other evidence to rely upon. It may be difficult to describe a hard and fast rule on how much inferential justification is enough or at what point the justification is sufficiently justified, but abandoning the project altogether seems reckless and prone to leaving subjects relying on reformed epistemology at the mercy of any defeater they can imagine in nearby worlds.

If we desire confidence in the face of defeaters we must turn to evidence in the form of inferential justification that points to all nearby worlds being theistic. If we cannot address defeaters to theistic belief in nearby worlds, then we hardly seem in a position to be confident in theistic belief. Therefore, Plantinga’s externalist considerations concerning the circumstances in which theistic belief would be warranted seem to be the wrong kind of consideration as we seek assurance of theistic belief. Furthermore, Plantinga’s assertion that theistic belief should not be grounded in argumentation is a sure way of leaving a believer, no matter how warranted they may actually be, with no means of addressing the uncertainty brought by non-theistic nearby worlds. We must turn our attention to internal considerations concerning our SLI and the inferential justification necessary to satisfy it in order to be confident that our theistic belief is not easily false.

Note: For a copy including the original footnotes, contact the author.

Plantinga, Alvin. “Religious Belief Without Evidence.”
https://blackboard.hillsdale.edu/bbcswebdav/pid-223492-dt-content-rid-1433108_1/courses/PHL-342-01-17SP/Plantinga%2C%20Religious%20Belief%20Without%20Evidence.pdf. Web.

Plantinga, Alvin. “Warrant: A First Approximation.” Warrant and Proper Function (1993): 3-20. Print.

Plantinga, Alvin. Warranted Christian Belief. New York: Oxford UP, 2000. Print.

Thurow, Joshua C. “Does Cognitive Science Show Belief in God to Be Irrational? The Epistemic Consequences of the Cognitive Science of Religion.” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 74.1 (2011): 77-98. Print.

Kyle Huitt
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Kyle Huitt

Part of the multitude that has lost their faith, but part of the few that has returned to it. This blog is my attempt to describe why I returned to the faith, and to maybe prevent somebody else from leaving it in the first place. Studying philosophy and history at Hillsdale College. Member of Delta Tau Delta fraternity.
Kyle Huitt
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