Sorry, Alvin Plantinga — testimony is not 'properly basic'

Hang around in Christian apologetic circles enough, and you're likely to hear something like this:
"My belief in God is rationally justified on testimony that I hold as properly basic; that is, I do not need any additional evidence to rationally assent to Christian belief".
This was formalized and popularized in modern theological circles by Alvin Plantinga in his book Warranted Christian Belief. An excerpt:
Suppose a Reformed epistemologist believes the great things of the gospel on the basis of the sensus divinitatis and IIHS; suppose he notes, further, that his belief and that of many others is accepted in the basic way (where, of course, accepting p on the basis of testimony is one way to believe p in the basic way). Suppose he further comes to see or believe that God intends his children to know about him and to know the great things of the gospel, but also that it isn’t possible for enough of us to know enough about him by way of inference from other beliefs; he therefore concludes (correctly) that God has instituted cognitive processes by virtue of which we human beings can form these true beliefs in the basic way. He concludes still further that the cognitive processes or mechanisms by way of which we form these beliefs are functioning properly when it delivers them, and are also functioning in an epistemically congenial environment according to a design plan successfully aimed at truth: that is, he concludes that Christian belief, taken in this basic way, has warrant. He thus concludes that these beliefs are properly basic with respect to warrant, drawing this conclusion from beliefs that themselves have warrant; but forming a belief in that way itself meets the conditions for warrant; hence, his view that theistic belief is properly basic with respect to warrant is itself warranted.

Plantinga's barrage of terminology can easily overwhelm: "beliefs are... functioning in an epistemologically congenial environment according to a design plan successfully aimed at truth"; it can be tricky to cut through the fat and identify the problems with his arguments, but there are many.

Plantinga thinks that there are several types of "basic beliefs", testimony being one of them. But, as the above excerpt shows, testimony doesn't exist in a vacuum. Whether one can rationally assent to a belief based on testimony alone is contingent on a variety of factors, which he illuminates in the section that follows:

It doesn’t follow, of course, that the voodoo epistemologist is also warranted in claiming that voodoo belief is properly basic with respect to warrant. For suppose voodoo belief is in fact false, and suppose further that it arose originally in some kind of mistake or confusion, or out of a fearful reaction to natural phenomena of one sort or another, or in the mind of some group hoping to gain or perpetuate personal political power. If so, then those original voodoo beliefs did not possess warrant. Suppose still further that these voodoo beliefs were passed on to subsequent generations by way of testimony and teaching. Now if a testifier testifies to some belief p that has no warrant for her, then p will also have no warrant for anyone believing it on just the basis of her testimony.
That Plantinga cannot see how he undermines his own thesis boggles my mind. One can easily substitute "Christian" for "voodoo" in the above passage to see that the issue at hand is whether one can know, on testimony alone, that the belief in question was warranted in the first place — that is, even if you assent to belief based on what you believe to be properly basic testimony, you have no way of knowing from testimony alone whether the beliefs were acquired in a properly basic way to begin with. If testimony is properly basic, then it is rational to assent to a belief based on testimony alone; it should not matter where or from whom the testimony comes, and testimony alone ought to provide us with knowledge of the truth of the claim. But then Plantinga says that if the belief was not originally acquired in a properly basic way that one is not rationally justified in assenting based on testimony alone. 

And that, of course, is the whole issue: how does the Christian who assents to belief based on testimony know that the belief was originally acquired in a properly basic way? Put simply, they don't. Put more accurately, they can't. The Christian has no way of knowing from testimony alone if their beliefs were, like Plantinga's hypothetical voodoo epistemologist, originally the result of some kind of mistake or confusion. So if you can't ascertain the truth or falsity of a claim from testimony alone, how can testimony be properly basic?

It gets worse

The problem here stems from Plantinga's misunderstanding about how we humans ascertain beliefs, and it doesn't help that he describes something like sensory perception as a "belief" — he says, "[Chrisitian beliefs] can have warrant that they don’t get by way of warrant transfer from other beliefs. In this respect, they are like memory beliefs, perceptual beliefs, some a priori beliefs, and so on." While some may see this as a semantic issue, I tend to think of "beliefs" as things we can have or not have — things we can doubt, deny, or discard should we be compelled by evidence or argument to do so. That's not really the case with something like my own existence or the general reliability of my sensory perception — things Descartes would call a priori truths. I cannot rationally doubt my own existences ("I doubt my own existence" assumes an I that exists!), nor can I rationally doubt the general reliability of my sensory perception without adopting a self-defeating radical skepticism. So instead of calling these things "beliefs", I think it's more precise to call them "necessary assumptions".

A semantic issue perhaps, but I think it's worth calling attention to because Plantinga is claiming that testimony is in some key ways the same type of belief as belief in one's own existence or the reliability of one's sensory experience. But that can't be true, because we never assent to testimony independently of background evidence. This is the key concept that Plantinga overlooks. He tries hard to emphasize that beliefs held in a properly basic way can still be undermined by evidence, but it's my view that this just confuses what a "basic belief" is. He gives the following examples:
You tell me that you went to the Grand Tetons this summer; I acquire the belief that you did so and hold it in the basic way. But then your wife tells me that the fact is you went to the Wind Rivers, which, she says, you always confuse with the Tetons. Furthermore, the next time I see you, you go on at great length about the glories of Gannett Peak (which is in the Wind Rivers). Then I will no longer believe you went to the Tetons, despite the fact that I originally formed that belief in the basic way. Another example: I see what looks like a sheep in the field across the road, and I form in the basic way the belief that there is a sheep there; you, the owner of the field, tell me that there aren’t any sheep in it, although there is a dog in the neighborhood that looks just like a sheep from this distance. Then I will no longer believe that I see a sheep, despite the fact that the belief is accepted in the basic way. Still another example: Gottlob Frege formed in the basic way the belief that for every property or condition, there exists the set of just those things that have the property or satisfy the condition; he learned to his sorrow that this is not so (Bertrand Russell pointed out that it leads to paradox), and this despite the fact that the original belief had been basic.
You can believe that this is a picture of Alvin Plantinga by accepting my testimony as properly basic.
The problem is that there is a great deal of background evidence that necessarily informs his probability of assent to my claim that I went to the Grand Tetons. The most obvious is whether he thinks I am a generally trustworthy person; or, if I'm a stranger, if he believes that people, in general, are trustworthy — that this just isn't the kind of thing that people usually lie about. Such beliefs themselves are rooted in a wealth of evidential experience, often accumulated over a lifetime. And there are other factors, like whether he knows of the Grand Tetons or finds it to be a plausible existant — i.e., even if I'm a reliable and honest guy, he probably wouldn't believe me if I told him I vacationed at the Four Seasons Moon Resort. 

Moreover, my claim about where I went on vacation is a relatively banal claim. It's not particularly important whether anyone else believes it; it's not a critical ontological claim about reality or an important historical event. Accordingly, we rightly are more skeptical and critical of grand claims about historical and ontological truth claims than we are about mundane claims like where I vacationed last summer or the yellow car I say I saw on the freeway this afternoon. It's disingenuous to treat a claim like "I went to the Grand Tetons this summer" the same as we treat a claim like "Jesus Christ died for your sins, and if you confess your sin and believe in your heart he rose from the dead, you will be saved and spend eternity in paradise".
It's also worth pointing out that even if Plantinga thinks (based either on his experience with me or with people in general) that I'm a generally reliable and trustworthy person, a certain level of skepticism — even if trivially small — is warranted about my claim. That's because we know, again from evidence, that people can and do make mistakes, that our memories are highly fallible and we often recall them erroneously. The correction Plantinga hears from my (in this case, fictional) wife should not be completely unexpected — he need not assent to my claim with any sort of scientific or philosophical certainty. He'd have been perfectly rational to think that, even if the probability were small, I might be mistaken about where I vacationed.

Given that a measure of healthy skepticism is warranted even in such banal circumstances, it is certainly all the more warranted with regard to extraordinary claims about supernatural interventions, divine spirits, and a god who ritualistically sacrifices himself (to himself, apparently) in a blood ritual to save our doomed eternal souls. Moreover, we aren't isolated in small indigenous tribes or even in relatively large but isolated cultures of antiquity such as Rome. We have a wealth of knowledge easily accessible to us, and the existence of gods and claims about how they intervene in the natural world are very much the subject of controversy. In order to hold testimony as properly basic, Plantinga resorts to special pleading regarding the veracity of Christian claims. But if testimony is properly basic unto itself, we're just as rational to assent to the voodoo epistemologist's claims as we are the Christian's.

But it's all so... boring!

But perhaps the worst part of Plantinga's argument is just how little it actually tells us. Since we can't know whether a belief was originally acquired in a properly basic way merely from testimony alone, we can't know if we're justified in accepting testimony as properly basic. This means that claiming that I am rational to hold a belief because of testimony cannot tell anyone anything at all about whether my beliefs are actually true. It's simply a statement that I believe I am not irrational to hold these beliefs. But of course, lots of people with incompatible beliefs hold such a view. It's like saying, "People generally think they are right about their beliefs". Shoot a canon and throw a parade for that profundity.

This all stems from Plantinga's misguided view of rationality. Rationality is not a position — it's a process, one in which knowledge is inherently provisional. And since testimony, independently of evidence, cannot tell us anything about the truth or falsity of a belief, it's irrational to assent to a belief on testimony alone. We have to consider all of the human thought to which we have access, which necessitates that we approach all such ontological claims with a measure of skepticism. Plantinga's argument is a convoluted attempted to excuse himself from skepticism of his own beliefs, and it does nothing but show just how irrational his justification for belief really is.


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