30 June 2012

Reformed Epistemology and Religious Pluralism

Alvin Plantinga

John Hick

Alvin Plantinga's argument against religious pluralism points to one particular reliabilist argument and tries to refute it. He uses the argument of John Hick, that nearly 99% of people, the religion that an individual professes is the religion in which they were raised - an accident of their birth. Someone born to Buddhist parents will almost always be a Buddhist, a Muslim to Muslims, a Christian to Christians, etc. Plantinga accepts this at face value, but then moves off in a direction I see as a tangetn. Plantinga asks "does it follow that I ought not to accept the religious views that I have been brought up to accept, or the ones that I find myself inclined to accept, or the ones that seem to me to be true? Or that the belief producing processes that have produced those beliefs in me are unreliable? Surely not."*

Plantinga goes on to imply that Hick's argument works against the pluralist. If the pluralist is right and beliefs are largely a product of our upbringing, then if a pluralist were born in a different time or place he likely wouldn't be a pluralist. If our beliefs are largely an accident of our birth, then so is the belief in pluralism.

He continues, that if his (Plantinga's) beliefs are true, they could be produced by a reliable, properly functioning belief producing process. From this he concludes that "there is no reason whatever to think that the exclusivist might not know tha they are true."

For Plantinga, the existence of the multiplicity of religions counts for nothing to advance the belief in pluralism. The fact may call into question the source of one's belief, but it does not follow from the existence of many religions that any one particular religion (Plantinga's own) is false. It may be a shame that billions of people may have faulty belief producing processes and will burn in Hell forever, but Plantinga can accept that with stoic resolve.

I don't buy this. If most people go through similar belief producing processes and tend to find themselves believing the dominant set of beliefs as their culture, how can Plantinga claim that his beliefs are more likely to be true than someone else's just because they formed in him? What offers him special status? How does he know his belief producing process (which just so happens, by coincidence, produce beliefs conforming to his culture) is functioning reliably and properly and is not working as such in others with different beliefs? What makes Plantinga's belief that his belief producing process is functioning reliably and properly and the process in other exclusivists who have different beliefs is not functioning properly and reliably?

Furthermore, Plantinga's Reformed epistemology is anti-foundationalist. Plantinga rejects the notion of evidence or proofs for supporting beliefs; instead affirming that his beliefs are basic beliefs, that can be known without proof or evidence, yet are not self-evident (such as belief in an external world or belief in other minds). What, then, is the basis of Plantinga's belief that his exclusivist belief generating process is working reliably and properly?

It can't be that this metabelief (the belief that his belief generating process is functioning reliably and properly, and furthermore, is producing the correct set of exclusivist beliefs and all other exclusivists with contradictory beliefs have faulty belief generating processes) has come about through an analysis of different religions and assessing which one is most correct, because Plantinga rejects any method of assessing the truth value of these beliefs. Plantinga affirms this metabelief either because it is an attempt to justify a rejection of Hick's pluralist argument based on nothing at all, or is itself a product of the culture in which he was raised.

This does not mean that the pluralist position is correct, or even that Plantinga's own exclusivist beliefs are false, merely that his refutation of the pluralist falls apart on its face.

*All quotes from "Pluralism: A Defense of Religious Exclusivism"