Nagel on Plantinga

This is, it seemed to me, a very fair-minded and illuminating treatment of the philosopher Alvin Plantinga’s new book, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism, by the philosopher Thomas Nagel.  Nagel comes from an atheist and secular perspective, while Plantinga’s perspective is theistic.  Much of the evaluation (and likely the book itself) is far beyond my philosophical depth, treating issues of epistemology (though I did find the discussion of the issue of the derivation of “basic knowledge” interesting, and am not sure I understand the analogy that Nagel says Plantinga draws between the operation of faith and memory).  Here is a portion where Nagel is discussing Plantinga’s view of faith:

Faith, according to Plantinga, is another basic way of forming beliefs, distinct from but not in competition with reason, perception, memory, and the others. However, it is

a wholly different kettle of fish: according to the Christian tradition (including both Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin), faith is a special gift from God, not part of our ordinary epistemic equipment. Faith is a source of belief, a source that goes beyond the faculties included in reason.

God endows human beings with a sensus divinitatis that ordinarily leads them to believe in him. (In atheists the sensus divinitatis is either blocked or not functioning properly.) In addition, God acts in the world more selectively by “enabling Christians to see the truth of the central teachings of the Gospel.”

If all this is true, then by Plantinga’s standard of reliability and proper function, faith is a kind of cause that provides a warrant for theistic belief, even though it is a gift, and not a universal human faculty. (Plantinga recognizes that rational arguments have also been offered for the existence of God, but he thinks it is not necessary to rely on these, any more than it is necessary to rely on rational proofs of the existence of the external world to know just by looking that there is beer in the refrigerator.)

It is illuminating to have the starkness of the opposition between Plantinga’s theism and the secular outlook so clearly explained. My instinctively atheistic perspective implies that if I ever found myself flooded with the conviction that what the Nicene Creed says is true, the most likely explanation would be that I was losing my mind, not that I was being granted the gift of faith. From Plantinga’s point of view, by contrast, I suffer from a kind of spiritual blindness from which I am unwilling to be cured. This is a huge epistemological gulf, and it cannot be overcome by the cooperative employment of the cognitive faculties that we share, as is the hope with scientific disagreements.

Faith adds beliefs to the theist’s base of available evidence that are absent from the atheist’s, and unavailable to him without God’s special action. These differences make different beliefs reasonable given the same shared evidence. An atheist familiar with biology and medicine has no reason to believe the biblical story of the resurrection. But a Christian who believes it by faith should not, according to Plantinga, be dissuaded by general biological evidence. Plantinga compares the difference in justified beliefs to a case where you are accused of a crime on the basis of very convincing evidence, but you know that you didn’t do it. For you, the immediate evidence of your memory is not defeated by the public evidence against you, even though your memory is not available to others. Likewise, the Christian’s faith in the truth of the gospels, though unavailable to the atheist, is not defeated by the secular evidence against the possibility of resurrection.

2 responses

  1. I guess this is what Justice Thomas meant when he said, in the interview I quoted yesterday, “I thank God I believe in God.” Who knew the Justice was a Plantingist? Confirmation hearings never really get to the important stuff.

  2. As deterministic science continues to prove that beliefs are compelled rather than “rational,” often based on what we had for lunch, we’re going to reach a point where we give up on capital-T “Truth” altogether or else package it in with theistic belief. Because if beliefs and truth are irrational and imposed, and the only remaining question is whether it’s a gift that we believe X or a curse. Of course, the doublethink that we are rational (without admitting the religious content of this claim) will probably continue for a long time: it’s pretty well-entrenched.

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