The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology: A Brief Summary and Evaluation of Alvin Plantinga’s Argument

In his article “The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology,” Plantinga argues that the Reformed tradition has had a tendency to refuse to succumb to natural theology. The reason being that the Reformed tradition views the idea of God as properly basic. By properly basic, Plantinga means that this belief (i.e., the idea of God) is not grounded nor supported by anything else—it merely is (with or without arguments). A properly basic belief is a belief that is not contingent upon anything else; it is not a belief that needs an argument or a proof to support it. Most people throughout history had believed in God—with or without evidence. This seems to suggest that the idea of God is a “natural” starting point for most humans; it is the “default position” with which most of us function in the world.

Plantinga begins his article by mentioning briefly the diverse views the Reformed tradition has had towards natural theology. Citing Herman Bavinck, Plantinga summarizes his anti-natural theology view: “[A]rguments or proofs are not, in general, the source of the believer’s confidence in God” and “[A]rgument is not needed for rational justification; the believer is entirely within his epistemic right in believing that God has created the world, even if he has no argument at all for that conclusion.”[1] Plantinga, as a Christian himself, also points to the Bible as a template for how natural theology should be done: it shouldnt. He writes, “There is nothing by way of proofs or arguments for God’s existence in the Bible; that is simply presupposed.[2] The Bible itself does not respect natural theology. If so, why should we?

John Calvin, the reformer of reformers, writes that “we conclude that it [belief in the existence of God] is not a doctrine that must first be learned in school, but one of which each of us is a master from his mother’s womb and which nature itself permits no one to forget.”[3] What about those who are “naturally” atheists and unbelievers, what explains there predicament? Calvin has a ready-made answer for that: sin. Our minds have been clouded by sin so much that some of us no longer even have this allegedly “properly basic belief” in God. Plantinga, summarizing Calvin’s views, bitingly suggests that “one who doesn’t believe in God is in an epistemically substandard position—rather like a man who doesn’t believe that his wife exists, or thinks she is like a cleverly constructed robot and has not thoughts, feelings, or consciousness.”[4] Ouch! It seems that all atheists potentially may be denying not only God’s but even their spouses’ existence! So much for those who reject properly basic beliefs. He who has this so-called properly basic belief doesn’t hold belief in the existence of God as being made rational by virtue of supporting arguments, be they the teleological, ontological, or cosmological arguments; no, “he doesn’t need any argument for justification or rationality.”[5]

Plantinga then goes on to speak of epistemic foundationalism. He defines classical foundationalism as being a noetic structure in which belief B is founded upon belief A; where beliefs can be right or wrong; where there are “responsibilities and duties that pertain to believings as well as to actions…”[6] In classical foundationalism, “[t]o criticize a person as irrational, then, is to criticize her for failing to fulfill these duties or responsibilities.”[7] However, the problem with classical foundationalism is that some of our beliefs are, well, properly basic. For example, “I believe that 2+1=3…and don’t believe it on the basis of other propositions.”[8] Moreover, one can believe one loves another human being on the basis of nothing—I can meet a girl I’ve never seen before and have such feelings for her that may be rationally unjustifiable. I can feel pain in my body and not have to believe that I have the pain because of something else—I simply believe I have the pain without resorting to arguments for or against such a properly basic belief. Plantinga also mentions how some of our properly basic beliefs have different “depths of ingression.” Some of our beliefs—like the belief that I have pain in my neck—will not have any repercussions if, say, I awake and find the pain was an illusion. Losing such a properly basic belief will not cause me to undergo a paradigm shift.

Plantinga points out that when the Reformers rejected classical foundationalism, they were not, by any means, rejecting everything these guys taught. Rather, they rejected the idea that all our beliefs needed to be grounded (read: founded) upon something else. All of our beliefs need reasons, arguments, justifications, other beliefs, etc., in order to be “rational.” One may call such Reformers “weak foundationalists.”

An objection here could be made to Plantinga’s claims. He foresees this and finishes his article by dealing with “the great pumpkin objection.” The objection goes like this: if people have properly basic beliefs, how do we know which beliefs they are? For example, what if someone were to argue that belief in the great pumpkin is basic? How do we go about arguing with that? Planting believes that we must inductively decide whether beliefs are properly basic or not. Of course such a method is not definitive—it is by no means deductive. “We must assemble examples of beliefs and condition such that the former are obviously properly basic in the latter, and the examples of beliefs and conditions such that the former are obviously not properly basic in the latter. We must then form hypotheses as to the necessary and sufficient conditions of proper basicality and test these hypotheses by reference to those examples.”[9] In other words, if you see another human being walking towards you, and you are not on any known hallucination-inducing medications, you’re probably right in thinking there really is a person there. Finally, there is no way we’ll even reach a consensus. People will simply disagree regarding which beliefs are basic or not. Most of us, as history has shown, will simply take belief in God as properly basic, whether other people agree with us or not.

I, myself, find Plantinga’s argument, overall, as being rather convincing for several reasons. First, Plantinga is right in concluding that we’ll probably never reach a consensus regarding what is basic and what is not. After seeing many, many debates throughout my life, I only get the feeling—which is now bordering on certainty—that human beings are not capable of consensus in regards to that which is or is not “rational.” We have inherent differences in the way we reason. Foundational principles for some of us are entirely different than those around us. What for some passes as “self-evident,” passes as “self-delusion” for others; what one sees as “rational,” another sees as empirically and logically “irrational.” Certainly, our brains are structurally different—we have brain-prints that are simply unique; we each have brains full of neurons wired differently from the wiring of the next person standing next to us. No two of us agree on everything. And those of us who don’t agree, clearly are in the right and are rational! It is that one who is not rational. Therefore, the belief in a universal logic or a universal foundational principle is absurd—the empirical evidence has been in for thousands of years in human history, and humans are guaranteed one thing: they will disagree (while arguing that their side is more “rational.”). I will have nothing to do with a utopian belief that a universal rationality exists—I remain thoroughly unconvinced by philosophers who argue otherwise.

Second, there is hardly a reason to think that logically a universal logic exists. Kurt Gödel, surely, had shown the “impossibility of proof” even within such a stringently certain field as mathematics. Even math has axioms which remain self-referential. If self-referential, there is no way to ultimately prove them—all one can do is assume they are true. One can only say that 0 equals 0—all the while believing one understands what 0 actually means (since, in the example, it is self-referential). Elements of paradox and, potentially, faith exist even in formal logic. Given the reality of Gödel’s two incompleteness theorems, I believe it’s fair to extend the implications to rationality as commonsense. What one deems is rational in one’s own subjective logical “noetic structures,” may be the very thing that another—subjectively—rejects as axiomatic. For example, in thinking about what constitutes proof, some of us—both “rational” theists and “rational” atheists—disagree. On the one hand, the theists take for granted some key axiomatic beliefs, such as the critical belief that there exists something potentially outside the empirical world of our senses. The atheists, on the other hand, are uncritically accepting of the empirical senses. While they may (or may not) reject some aspects of their empirical certainties, most uncritically assume that what they see is really true and real. Given these realities, realities in which I see different noetic structures operating on vastly different and unabashedly contradictory faith-based unprovable axioms, it is impossible—at least for me—to uncritically accept and sustain the untenable belief that universal rationality and a “universal logic” exists. With that, I must remain in complete agreement with Plantinga: there are properly basic beliefs, and we will never agree on them.

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Alvin Plantinga, “The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology,” in Philosophy of Religion: Selected Readings, eds. Michael Peterson, William Hasker, Bruce Reichenbach, and David Basinger, 5th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 208. Italics original.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 209.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 211.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 210.

[9] Ibid., 214.

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