Religious Epistemology: A Review

Religious Epistemology by Tyler Dalton McNabb. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019. 47pp. $18.00.

Tyler Dalton McNabb’s new book is advertised, per its title, as a short introduction to religious epistemology in the Cambridge Elements: Philosophy of Religion series. This series aims to provide helpful introductions to key subjects in contemporary discussions of the philosophy of religion. McNabb sets about his goal of explaining and defending religious epistemology–first by defining its key terms, underlining perceived inadequacies in other approaches to epistemology, and then presenting arguments in favor of Alvin Plantinga’s Reformed Epistemology (PRE). McNabb then examines what he considers the strongest arguments against PRE, and concludes by arguing that religious epistemology is able to engage in natural theology through transcendental arguments such as the argument from human knowledge or reason.

The book’s primary value is as a short primer on contemporary discussions surrounding Plantinga’s Reformed Epistemology. Yet this brings us to a significant flaw: the book purports to be an introduction to religious epistemology per se, but is in fact simply a summary of recent work on Plantinga. McNabb states at the outset that he will be defending one specific version of religious epistemology, Plantingian Reformed Proper Functionalist Epistemology. This is, of course, a perfectly fine thing to do; however, anyone coming to this book expecting an introduction to religious epistemologies in general (as the title very much suggests) will be, unfortunately, disappointed. However, despite its narrow focus, this book is helpful as an introduction to some recent work on Plantingian Reformed epistemology.

In Part 1, McNabb argues for the plausibility of Plantingian Reformed epistemology (PRE) over other approaches to epistemology. He begins by explaining that PRE is composed of two key claims: 1) Proper functionalism,[1] and 2) Reformed epistemology.[2] He then provides a quick survey of the claims of “Classical Foundationalists (CF)”,[3] concluding that “few people are classical foundationalists anymore. So, there might not be any good reason to accept the strenuous view that in order for S to know that God exists, S must have access to sufficiently good arguments that support God’s existence” (3). At first glance, one is mystified by the logical leap from “few people adhere to CF anymore” to “therefore one might not need to accept the claims of CF in relation to what is necessary to know that God is”–as if the number of people adhering to some position implies that there may or may not be any good reasons to accept it. However, this claim must be understood in the context of McNabb’s argument, based upon PRE, that if someone has a strong conviction of some belief, then they are warranted and reasonable to believe it (assuming the other PRE conditions for knowledge, listed below, are fulfilled). He suggests, for example, that “[f]or a proper functionalist, the degree of warrant that a belief possesses depends on how firmly one holds to a proposition. Confidence that p is true helps determine whether a potential defeater can be deflected” (31). Bringing this back to his claim about the plausibility of CF, he appears to be saying that, in light of the fact that “few people are classical foundationalists anymore”, it is plausible to think that there are strong defeaters for CF which cannot be deflected, and, therefore, that there is no reason to accept the claims of CF in relation to religious knowledge. This discussion allows me to indicate one of my primary critiques of McNabb’s Plantingian Reformed Epistemology: if McNabb is right, then there is a sense in which a person is warranted to believe P, if that person has a high degree of conviction of the truth of P (and the PRE conditions obtain). This seems to provide warrant for any belief, so long as the agent is sufficiently convinced of it, by making warrant for belief dependent upon a high degree of subjective conviction, and not what is actually the case.

Having suggested that CF is no longer plausible, McNabb goes on to present 4 arguments against it. The first three arguments come directly from Alvin Plantinga’s own work on the subject, which McNabb defends against recent interlocutors. The arguments are: 1) CF is self-contradictory; 2) If CF, then most of our beliefs would be unjustified, and, therefore, not known—this assumes, of course, that knowledge is “justified or warranted true belief”; 3) Humans do not possess “incorrigible beliefs”, therefore CF is false; and 4) though not an argument, McNabb registers his incredulity concerning the necessity of CF criteria for knowledge.[4]

At least two points of critique can be raised at this point. First of all, ironically, though Plantinga and McNabb reject CF, they propose what they call an AC (Aquinas/Calvin) model of epistemology (22). The irony, here, is that in rallying Aquinas and Calvin to their side they appear to misunderstand both Aquinas and Calvin.[5] They appear to interpret Aquinas and Calvin as if they would have at least agreed with, perhaps even proposed, certain key claims in the PRE. In fact, a strong case can be made to show that Aquinas and Calvin would have disagreed with both (i) PRE, and (ii) the Plantingian/McNabb portrayal of their own approaches to epistemology. Arguably, any resemblance between PRE and the views of Aquinas and Calvin is based upon a misinterpretation of Aquinas and Calvin.

Secondly, developing the first critique, Aquinas’s approach to epistemology though often portrayed as a version of CF, escapes each of the critiques which leveled against CF by Plantinga and McNabb. Henry B. Veatch and Thomas A. Russman rightly point out that Plantinga’s earlier critiques of Aquinas do not land, as Plantinga has interpreted Aquinas’s “foundationalism” as a form of modern Cartesian Foundationalism. Perhaps one example of this will suffice. In relation to the argument that CF is self-referentially incoherent, Plantinga and McNabb appear to be suggesting that i) in CF, “in order for a belief to be justified it must be incorrigible” (3) or based upon an incorrigible belief; ii) “However, the belief that classical foundationalism is true does not appear to be incorrigible or based on a belief that is incorrigible” (3); iii) therefore, CF is self-refuting. One might take exception with premise ii. However, Veatch notes that Aquinas would disagree with the claim made in the first premise. This is because, first of all, as noted above, Aquinas thinks that reasoned belief is fully rational (and, when it is faith in God, belief has the same epistemic certainty as knowledge).

More importantly, as Veatch points out, Aquinas’ understanding of self-evident and indubitable truths is very different from what Plantinga and McNabb describe as incorrigible beliefs.[6] Veatch rightly points out that “no sooner does one consider just how Plantinga chooses to formulate the Foundationalist Principle than one quickly recognizes that, as he formulates it, the Principle certainly is self-referentially incoherent all right. The only trouble is that, formulated that way, the Principle could have not the slightest relevance to Thomistic epistemology at all, with the result that Plantinga’s charge of self-referential incoherence is nothing if not just one more red herring!”[7] Veatch rightly points out that Plantinga is working with a very limited and modern understanding of CF which ancient and medieval proponents of versions of CF would have rejected. McNabb does not appear to even be aware of these responses to Plantinga’s critiques of CF.

We return to our overview of McNabb’s book. Convinced that his four arguments have sufficiently defeated CF—making it at best implausible—McNabb goes on to discuss a number of alternative epistemological theories which, though they are sometimes set up against PRE, can be seen to be compatible with PRE. Here, he considers two Internalist theories (Phenomenal Conservatism and Epistemic Disjunctivism) and two Externalist theories (General Reliabilism and Virtue Reliabilism). These sections summarize the technical literature on the subject.

In the second section, McNabb lays out the primary tenets of PRE as follows: 1) Proper Functionalism, 2) appropriate “cognitive environment”, 3) a design plan which is aimed at producing true beliefs, and 4) a design plan with a high probability of producing true beliefs (9). McNabb goes on to explain and defend each of these points in turn, concentrating most of his energy on the first two (10-18). He then sets out to prove that PRE is not only able to respond to all possible defeaters, but that it has a great deal of explanatory scope and power. He does this by showing how PRE is able to account for knowledge based upon (a) perception (19-20), (b) testimony (20-21), (c) religious knowledge—such as that God is (21-23), and diverse religious beliefs (23-25).

In the third section, McNabb takes on what he thinks are the strongest arguments against PRE, those coming from research done in the cognitive sciences. Here he deals with arguments based upon HAAD (Hyper Agency Detection Device) and various debunking arguments (considering those of Wilkins and Griffiths, and Law). Wilkins and Griffiths argue for the Milvian Bridge Principle: “if belief that P is such that it aids in S’s survival and reproductive behavior, then it’s rational to accept P” (27). However, religious beliefs provide no survival or reproductive benefits, therefore, it is not rational to hold religious beliefs, because the probability that such beliefs are true is quite low (27-28). Stephen Law provides a similar argument using an example called the “snake hallucination scenario” (28-29). McNabb argues that Willikins, Griffith, and Law all fail in their arguments because, first of all, though the HADD does sometimes fail, it functions properly more often than not (as can be seen in our detection of other human minds (29-33). Secondly, “[i]f the religious believer entertains the attempted defeaters and is not significantly moved by them (her confidence is not shaken), then as long as her belief is the product of the aforementioned conditions, her belief is warranted” (31). It is here that McNabb notes that for PRE, more important than “sharable” or “objective” evidence, is the degree of “conviction” of the truth of the belief, and “epistemic probability” (which McNabb describes as essentially referring to “(1) S’s belief that A is warranted given that she believes B, and (2) S lacks a defeater for A” (32). If the religious beliefs of a person are epistemically probable, and obtained via the 4 criteria of PRE, then the person is warranted, says McNabb, to believe them (33).

Having articulated and defended PRE, McNabb moves on, in the fourth and final section to discuss one way in which PRE is able to engage in what has traditionally been called natural theology. He here presents and defends a version of the transcendental argument, that Plantinga developed in his book Warranted Christian Belief, known as the “Argument from Reason” (versions of this argument have been used by many philosophers through the ages to either demonstrate that God is, or, at very least, to demonstrate that the various forms of philosophical naturalism or materialism which have popped up throughout the centuries, are false. Different defenders of this argument have referred to i) intentionality, ii) reason, iii) knowledge in general, iv) knowledge of universals, or, among other things, v) the combined ability of intellection and volition. Plantinga aside, the most well-known recent defender of this argument is C.S. Lewis and those who have defended his version of this argument. Another defender of this argument is Cornelius Van Til, who though less explicit, is making a similar type of argument in most of his works. McNabb here calls upon human knowledge in general. The argument is as follows: if humans have knowledge (and they do), then God exists (33ff). The argument, as presented is valid: i) If humans have knowledge, then God exists. ii) Humans have knowledge. Therefore, iii) God exists.

McNabb goes on to defend the first premise by showing that on the assumption that PRE is the best account of human knowledge, it is more plausible than not that some form of monotheism is a necessary precondition for PRE. He defends the second premise by refuting a strong version of Pyrrhonian skepticism. If he has successfully shown that premise 1 and 2 are true, then premise 3 follows. One of the difficulties of this approach, though McNabb appears to see it as a strength, is that it is, at best, no more than a “plausible” argument. McNabb is arguing that on PRE, if skepticism fails, then it is more plausible than not that God exists. Therefore, we are warranted to believe that God exists.

One wonders, however, what this does for other claims that he has made in his earlier defense of PRE, such as the claim that we can reject the arguments of Law and Wilkins and Griffiths against PRE because, “if God exists (and the story that I give is true), then HADD is reliable with respect to producing general theistic or supernatural belief” (29). In other words, if God exists, then our cognitive faculties can be seen to be reliable when they produce theistic beliefs. The question remains, it seems, of whether God exists. McNabb’s answer to this question is that because humans know things, it is more plausible than not that God exists. This, first of all, seems to be insufficient grounds for supporting his previous arguments in support of PRE, and, secondly, seems to create a viciously circular argument: if God, then PRE, and, if PRE, then (maybe), God. In the end, one must presuppose God in order to know, and knowing is only possible if God is. PRE, at the end of the day, is a much more nuanced and elaborate version of Van Tillian Presuppositionalism, and it falls prey to the same problems, such as relativism.[8]

Though I see serious difficulties with McNabb’s Plantingian Reformed Epistemology (and, arguably, with PRE in general), this book is an excellent introduction to the topic. I would recommend this book to anyone who either needs a refresher in PRE, or who is looking to begin studying it.

David Haines (Ph.D Université Laval) is Assistant Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Bethlehem College and Seminary. He is the author of Natural Theology: A Biblical and Historical Introduction and Defense (Davenant Press 2021), and co-author of Natural Law: A Brief Introduction and Biblical Defense (Davenant Press 2017).

  1. “Proper Functionalism” is a term which refers to the claim that one only has a warranted belief when it is produced by epistemic abilities or cognitive faculties that are functioning properly (they are attaining their proper ends in ways that accord with what they are, and what they are supposed to do).

  2. McNabb defines Reformed epistemology as “the thesis that religious belief can be justified or warranted apart from argument” (1).

  3. Classical Foundationalism is described by McNabb as “the view that our noetic structure can be systematically bifurcated into basic beliefs and based beliefs,” and as adhering to epistemic internalism (2). It is worth noting that there are important differences between Cartesian Foundationalism and Pre-Cartesian versions of Foundationalism (cf. Henry B. Veatch, “Preliminary Statements”, in Thomistic Papers IV, ed. Leonard A. Kennedy (Houston: Center for Thomistic Studies, 1988). The differences are important enough that one could seriously suggest that the Plantingian interaction with CF is inapplicable to pre-Cartesian versions of Foundationalism. See below.

  4. “Incorrigible beliefs” is a technical term within epistemology, referring not simply to a belief that is stubbornly held, but to a belief that is such that the subject is absolutely incapable of ceasing to believe it. It is impossible for the subject to believe its contrary. Descartes’ axiom “I think, therefore I am” is usually taken as the classic example here.

  5. For helpful explanations of Plantinga’s misunderstanding of Aquinas and Calvin, and for rigorous engagement with PRE from a Thomistic perspective, see: Henry B. Veatch, “Preliminary Statements”, in Thomistic Papers IV, ed. Leonard A. Kennedy (Houston, TX: Center for Thomistic Studies, 1988), 17, 44. Thomas A. Russman, “’Reformed’ Epistemology”, in Thomistic Papers IV, ed. Leonard A. Kennedy (Houston: Center for Thomistic Studies, 1988), 189ff, 194ff.

  6. Veatch, “Preliminary Statements”, 25-40.

  7. Veatch, “Preliminary Statements”, 25.

  8. I made this argument regarding presuppositionalism and relativism in David Haines, “A Potential Problem with Presuppositional Apologetics”, Journal of ISCA, 20 no. 1 (March 2017): 44-66. A similar argument can also be found in Veatch, “Preliminary Statement”, 49.


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