Carson's Misreading of Plantinga

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I mentioned in this post the one place I've found something in D.A. Carson's writings that I disagree with, and I wanted to explain in detail what that is and why I disagree with him. I've summarized Alvin Plantinga's Reformed Epistemology in this post, so I refer you to that for the basics of the view. Carson discusses the view in Letters Along the Way, pp.151-156 and in The Gagging of God pp.186, 188. In the first book, some of his critique is from what he (or possibly Woodbridge) thinks Plantinga gets wrong about Calvin. I have little to say about that, since I haven't read Calvin on the issue and am not interested in what he said for the sake of getting him right, at least not with respect to this issue. I do think Carson (and Woodbridge) ought to get Plantinga right if they're going to critique him in print, and I don't think that actually happened in this case.

In Letters Along the Way, Plantinga comes off as if he denies the possibility of establishing the existence of God with evidence, as if he doesn't think there is any evidence whatsoever to support Christian belief. Nothing could be further from the truth. Plantinga thinks several arguments for the existence of God are convincing. He thinks there is good evidence to support belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. I'm not sure where this understanding of Plantinga is coming from, but it doesn't fit with Plantinga's actual beliefs or his discussion in the piece Carson and Woodbridge cite ("Reason and Belief in God", in Faith and Rationality, ed. Plantinga and Wolterstorff).

What Plantinga does say is that evidentialism is false as a requirement on knowledge. Evidentialism takes knowledge to be impossible without either evidence or self-evident truths. He allows that people disagree on the value of the evidence, and so he doesn't think evidential arguments will be convincing enough to those with highly skeptical standards. I don't know of anywhere where he simply denies the possibility of gaining support for Christian beliefs with evidence, however. He just doesn't think you need evidence to have knowledge of God. Plantinga does recognize (rightly) that there are no standards agreed on by all sides that we can use as the basis of rational arguments for God. The atheist can just deny any premise necessary to get out of the argument. That's how philosophical arguments work, no matter what the conclusion is. But that's a far cry from thinking such arguments are inconclusive or unsound. To make that jump would require making it in every area of philosophy, making no argument successful or sound. This is simply not Plantinga.

The discussion continues with a number of claims that I find it hard to see as responsible Plantinga exegesis. Woodbridge and Carson compare Plantinga with Barth, with whom I see no comparison. Barth rejects the kind of natural theology that Plantinga has spent a good deal of time defending, even if he's recognized that atheists can deny a premise to any valid argument to get out of accepting the conclusion. Plantinga does discuss the objections he sees to natural theology in the works of Bavinck, Calvin, and Barth. But he does so in order to show that his rejection of evidentialism is in the general Reformed tradition, not to agree with everything in those thinkers' rejection of natural theology. He in fact says that the natural theologian can respond to some of their complaints, and he gives a defense of natural theology before going on to continue his critique of evidentialism and response to the no-evidence argument.

They even call Plantinga a fideist at one point, and I can't see anything like fideism in Plantinga's work. They present Plantinga as making the claim found in Barth and his presuppositionalist heirs that any classical argument for God's existence is a sell-out to autonomous reason, something that I can't mesh with what I know of Plantinga, which he even outright denies in the very article they discuss. He is no presuppositionalist. He discusses a number of arguments for the existence of God in his various writings, and he thinks some of them are pretty good, provided that you accept the premises. His understanding that some question the premises leads to his realization that some won't find them very convincing. But that doesn't mean he's got the same attitude toward them that presuppositionalists have, as if it's idolatrous to present reasons for believing in God. He believes no such thing.

They also complain that Plantinga's Reformed Theology does not give a Buddhist or atheist any reason to be a Christian or even a theist. He never thought it did, though. He's not using Reformed Epistemology as an argument for Christianity or theism. If that were his aim, he would indeed have failed pretty badly. All it establishes is the possibility that Christian belief can amount to knowledge even without any empirical evidence (never mind if there actually is good evidence). It defeats the argument that there is not sufficient evidence for Christianity by showing that (even if there isn't sufficient evidence) such evidence is not required. What's sufficient for knowledge of God is actually knowing God. Really interacting with God amounts to knowing God and thus knowing that God exists. So reasonable faith is possible even if there's no evidence for God. This doesn't show that there is such a being, but that's not the point. Plantinga is responding to a different concern. He's defending against an objection, not presenting an argument for a positive view. This objection is as bad as saying that a response to the problem of evil is unsuccessful on the ground that it doesn't prove theism to be true. That's not what it's supposed to be doing. It's supposed to be showing that the objection fails, not that the view being objected to is true.

What's funny is that Carson and Woodbridge go on to present a view that they think lies between the overreaching overconfidence of evidentialists who think the evidence for God is so overwhelming that skeptics are complete idiots and the overreaching underconfidence of what they mistake Plantinga as doing. But the middle-ground view they present seems to be Plantinga's own view. They admit that we shouldn't overstate the evidence, as Plantinga says. They also think we shouldn't understate it, as I think Plantinga's career shows that he would say.

Carson leaves out much of this in his much briefer treatment in The Gagging of God. I hope that is because he was convinced away from some of this between the two works. But he repeats enough of it to be worrying. He also adds one thing in the second work that isn't in the first. He thinks Plantinga should speak not just of what's epistemically ok (i.e. we can really know God or have justified beliefs) without evidence but what we ought to believe. It's true that Reformed Epistemology doesn't do much work in arguing that we have an obligation to believe anything in particular, at least not in the presentations I've read. But that's not what it's up to. It doesn't show that Plantinga has no notion of obligations to believe in God. He may well think there is such an obligation. I suspect he does, but I've never seen him deal with the question. He began this research program in order to respond to an objection, and he need not get into that issue to respond to the question. But his positive apologetic work, including his argument against naturalism, do lead to positive beliefs that one ought to believe on the basis of the argument. If his argument is sound, then we ought to believe that naturalism is false. I don't think he would deny anything like that.

So why assume that, just because this one argument doesn't deal with the question, Plantinga doesn't think we have such obligations? He denies that evidentialism leads to the obligation to disbelieve, but he doesn't comment in "Reason and Belief in God" on whether we have epistemic obligations to believe in God. It's clear from the rest of his work, however, that he does think we have some epistemic obligations in a direction away from naturalism and atheism, and I suspect he does think we (or at least some people) have epistemic obligations to believe in God. As far as I know, he might think everyone has epistemic obligations to believe in God.

So I conclude that Carson and Woodbridge simply don't understand the argument Plantinga is making, even though they can put together sentences that say the things Plantinga would say and that sound fair to his view, at least until they present their criticisms. Their criticism shows that their understanding of it is inaccurate to his views. I hesitate to say such strong statements against someone whose work I hold in high regard. This is really the only thing I can recall that I've read in the numerous works of Carson I've read that I can say I'm confident in disagreeing with (and there was one other thing in a talk I heard, which I explained in the comments of the previous post linked to above). I consider his work to be especially careful, balanced, and respectful of those he disagrees with. But he simply gets Plantinga wrong. Plantinga's view doesn't have the consequences he thinks it has, and it doesn't involve denying the things he says it denies. In other words, to use a common Carson expression, Carson's view of Plantinga is right in what it affirms but wrong in what it denies. I think Plantinga deserves a lot more credit for this argument, and I think he's basically right. But even if I disagreed with the argument, I'd have to say that what Carson and Woodbridge say about it is pretty unfair. They attribute to him views that he does not hold and then shoot down a straw man in their criticisms, recommending a so-called mediating position that turns out to be the very view Plantinga actually holds.

Update: I found Plantinga's long list of theistic arguments that he thinks are pretty good. 

5 Comments

Hey Jeremy,

You say: "Evidentialism takes knowledge to be possible without either evidence or self-evident truths."

I don't think that's true. Evidentialism is a theory about when one is justified. According to the evidentialist, S is justified that P just in case S's evidence supports P. Since justification is a necessary condition on knowledge and I can't see how no evidence could support any proposition, i don't think what you said is consistent with the evidentialist's position.

Maybe it was a typo.

Yes, that was a typo. Thanks for catching it.

Ah, I see. I totally get why you disagree with Carson's (and Woodbridge's) criticism of Plantinga now. Thanks for such a clear and thorough explanation, Jeremy!

Jeremy,
I do not have LAtWay handy with me. Are you sure its a fictional account? What's also odd to me that Cars/Woodb. do not strike me as folks who would write a fictional account of anything.

It's like me telling you that, of late, I have taken to writing sonatas.

God Bless,
Raj

They say it's fictional at the beginning. Carson wrote a book of sonnets. A novel comprised of letters isn't a huge surprise given that he's published a book of poems he's written.

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