One of the biggest accusations levied against Christianity – and theism in general – is that it is completely irrational, but when one examines an epistemological system that allows for knowledge, one must come to the conclusion that Christianity and theism are far more rational and plausible than naturalism. The problem for naturalism is that, in order to operate, it must believe in some form of knowledge aquisition. The problem begins when naturalists have accepted justified true belief (JTB), as their cornerstone for knowledge – JTB, via Gettier’s counter example, has been shown to be deficient. Plantinga has found a solution to the problem of knowledge through his theory on warrant and proper function. Naturalism, beginning with a nominalistic metaphysic, cannot possibly meet all the criteria for warranted beliefs. Theism, specifically Christianity, does meet all the criteria and therefore is more apt to produce a system geared toward obtaining knowledge. Therefore, in order for one to be rational in one’s epistemological system, one must first be theistic in one’s metaphysical system.
In order to first understand why naturalism is not rational, one must first understand what naturalism is and what epistemological system it adopts. First and foremost, naturalism relies on the idea that there are absolutes in this world that can be known. For the naturalist, such absolutes must first be justified via evidence. If a theory lacks quantitative and empirical evidence, then to the naturalist such a theory cannot be true. This is why naturalism makes no claim to a deity – a deity cannot be empirically proven (that is, put under the microscope and evaluated); therefore such a deity is subjective in the naturalist’s world. If a person claims a certain belief B leads to knowledge S then one must have empirical evidence to validate B. To the naturalist, S cannot come from B unless there is empirical evidence E to lead one to S from B.
This way of thinking is generally called JTB, where ‘justification’ means ‘to have empirical evidence.’ As Moreland and Craig explain, under such a view something must have evidence in order to be counted as knowledge. This explains why naturalists say any view of theism is irrational or implausible – the litmus test for naturalism relies on physical evidence. “Causes from a supernatural power” is viewed as illegitimate because it is a “God of the gaps” way of thinking; in light of physical evidence, theists invoke God without having adequate reasoning for doing so. Thus, Christians – supposedly lacking empirical evidence – fail to meet the qualifications of JTB and are subsequently considered irrational. Naturalists, however, view themselves as justified under JTB and must rely on JTB in order to validate their view of empiricism.
The problem with JTB and its alternative, Coherentism
Though JTB seems solid, there are counterexamples that show JTB to be inadequate as an epistemological system. In the 20th century, Gettier provided a counter example that shows how one can have JTB without having knowledge. Gettier proposed that Mr. Jones (J) and Mr. Smith (S) go into an interview, both having ten coins each in their pockets. J knows that S has ten coins in his pocket and is far more qualified for the job. He also knows that the person with ten coins will get the job, but is unaware that he has ten coins in his own pocket. J then proposes that S will get the job. In the end, however, J ends up getting the job. Though J is justified via the evidence, holds truth in knowing that the person with ten coins will get the job, and truly believes the previous two, ultimately J does not have knowledge. In this manner, Gettier showed that JTB is insufficient as a source of knowledge.
Another alternative to JTB is to simply reject the idea that humans can have proper knowledge and, instead, treat knowledge as a social construct (via coherentism). In coherentism there are no such things as ‘basic beliefs.’ Instead, Q justifies P, R justifies Q, and P justifies R. Though the circle might become bigger, ultimately coherentism is a circular belief, or a web of beliefs, where past experiences and social experiences make up a person’s beliefs. Thus, one never has ‘absolute knowledge,’ but instead must acknowledge that one’s knowledge is limited to one’s upbringing and past experiences.
Coherentism, however, does not work as a valid alternative to JTB because it is simply too illogical. The flaw with coherentism is that it is circular in its way of thinking. Though social experiences and individual experiences might play some part in knowledge, one must accept that there are foundational beliefs that allow for the interpretation of such experiences. If a boy puts his hand on a hot iron, the foundational belief of pain (through the senses) will teach him not to put his hand on a hot iron. If pain P justifies the belief that putting one’s hand on a hot iron hurts (Q), then what causes one to believe in P (what is R)? Though one might hypothesize on the neurons in the brain that cause P, ultimately P is still a basic belief, justified by nothing because it is properly basic. Coherentism, having no foundation and running in circles, eventually contradicts itself and the reality of the human experience, where properly basic beliefs can be found.
If coherentism fails, along with evidential JTB, then one must still admit that knowledge can be gained through a priori knowledge that is often self-evident. If something is self-evident it does not need evidence to justify it – something that is self-evident needs no justification (such as 2+2=4). As Paul Boghossian states, “Not every belief needs to be supported by some independent item of information that would constitute evidence in its favor: some beliefs are intrinsically credible or self-evident…What non-circular evidence could one adduce, for example, for the belief that one is currently conscious?” In other words, there has to be a way to have properly basic beliefs without any form of evidence to justify them (for ‘justifying’ such beliefs would render them obsolete as a priori).
Plantinga’s response: warrant and proper function
Alvin Plantinga has offered an interesting solution to the problem of knowledge and how it is obtained through his theory of warrant and proper function. What Plantinga means by warrant, according to Craig Mitchell, is “warrant…whatever it is, enough of which makes true belief knowledge.” Warrant, therefore, is that which supplies rationale (not evidence or justification) for true belief being knowledge. Under the idea of warrant, one does not need evidence to support the belief that one has obtained knowledge. This does not mean anyone can declare knowledge on any subject without authority, but it does mean that one does not need to supply evidence for every belief in order for every belief to be knowledge.
Plantinga says that warrant has to meet four conditions before proceeding to a fifth. In Warrant and Proper Function Plantinga explains:
“Four conditions for warrant: (1) the cognitive faculties involved in the production of B are functioning properly; (2) your cognitive environment is sufficiently similar to the one for which your cognitive faculties are designed; (3) the triple of the design plan governing the production of the belief in question involves, as purpose or function, the production of true beliefs; and (4) the design plan is a good one: that is, there is a high statically or objective probability that a belief produced in accordance with the relevant segment of the design plan in that sort of environment is true.”
After all of these conditions have been met, one must have belief B in order to have warrant W. The more B one has, the more W one has – for the only way to truly have knowledge through W is to truly have B for something. One might have W for believing that one day humans will live on Mars, but until one has B for this concept, one does not truly have knowledge. However, this equation (B àW) can only work once the previous conditions have sufficiently been met.
When Plantinga discusses ‘proper function,’ he is referring to one’s mental faculties being in proper order. As Mitchell states, “By functioning normally, Plantinga means that things are working in a broadly statistical sense.” This would mean that there is nothing interfering with the proper function of the mind. If one has B that it is raining outside, there is nothing causing one’s mind to function improperly (i.e. one has a defect that makes one hear rain when it is not really raining). This does not mean, however, that the faculties are operating in a perfect manner, for as Plantinga says, “Clearly the faculties relevant with respect to a given belief need not be functioning perfectly for me to have warrant for my beliefs; many of my visual beliefs may constitute knowledge even if my vision is not 20/20. Similarly, my faculties can function properly even if they do not function ideally.”Thus, the mind does not need to be functioning perfectly; it merely needs to be functioning properly.
The idea of proper function alone, however, is not sufficient; it also needs the mind to be placed within an environment that is suited for the mind. Assume aliens from the planet Hupton pick up a human. On Hupton there are plants that secrete chemicals that are not detectable to Huptonites, but humans can see the vapor and the vapor obscures human vision, so that when a human looks at a Huptonite through the vapor he thinks he sees a cat (when, in all reality, Huptonites look more like bears). Though the human’s mind is functioning properly, because it is outside of its cognitive environment it cannot produce knowledge. Therefore, in order for proper function to mean anything the mind must also be placed within a cognitive environment that is suited for the human mind.
In addition to all this, one must also believe in a design plan. This is where the supernatural metaphysic in Plantinga’s epistemology begins to take shape as a necessity. Though proper function and proper cognitive epistemological environment are necessary, they are not sufficient; these mean nothing if arrived at by accident, for there is no promise that if a mind is functioning properly and is in its cognitive environment that it will still obtain truth. In order to obtain truth the mind must be aimed toward truth and to be aimed toward truth, the mind must be designed. Plantinga argues this point by saying, “…and the modules of the design plan governing the production of B are (1) aimed at truth, and (2) such that there is a high objective probability that a belief formed in accordance with those modules…is true…” The only way to achieve this view is to begin with metaphysical realism in an externalist sense – the belief that truth exists outside of man and is imparted onto man – and from there move into epistemology. The only way for warrant to work is if the mind has been designed and aimed toward truth.
The prior three premises are all necessary for knowledge, but even taken as a whole are not sufficient; the final step is that the design plan must allow for the probability of discovering truth. The only way this can occur is if the designer of the mind has not only aimed the mind at truth, but allowed the mind to possess cognitive faculties that can actually obtain the truth and therefore knowledge. Plantinga argues, “…there are cases where belief-producing faculties are functioning properly but warrant is absent: cases where the design plan is not aimed at the production of true…beliefs but at the production of beliefs with some other virtue.”What Plantinga means is that the best one can hope for outside of the aim of truth and probability of finding truth is warranted beliefs, which is ultimately the absent of truth and subsequently absent of knowledge. Therefore, in order for one to have warrant, one must also have the probability of discovering truth.
Warrant, then, works as a proper alternative to JTB and a response to coherentism in that it allows for knowledge without evidence. Evidence, as shown through Gettier, is insufficient for knowledge. Likewise, as Boghossian argues, there must be some beliefs that are so basic they need no justification (evidence). In light of this, warrant is the only current epistemological system that works in providing an answer to how a priori beliefs can exist without the need to be justified.
Warranted Christian Beliefs
Since warrant is the most plausible system in epistemology, one must now ask if Christianity is a belief that fits the standard of warrant. If Christianity’s system contradicts the four premises of warrant (properly functioning mind, proper cognitive environment, design plan aimed toward truth, and probability of discovering truth) then Christianity must be viewed as irrational and most likely incorrect in its assessment of the world. If, however, Christianity’s system coincides with warrant then one must, at least at the intellectual level, lend Christianity credit as a rational system.
Within Christianity, warrant is often referred to as ‘revelation.’ Greg Bahnsen argues that revelation is that which comes to man as knowledge when the mind is working in order with creation. The whole of Christian knowledge relies on the idea that God created man in a certain fashion as to discover the truth (as, in Christianity, truth is external to man and not internal). In explaining the Reformed view of truth via Van Til, James White states, “The concept of truth in the theology of Cornelius Van Til is that which is presupposed and independent of human verification…Truth comes to humanity through God’s revelation in Scripture.” Francis Schaeffer, a student of Van Til, likewise argues, “It is plain, therefore, that from the viewpoint of the Scriptures themselves there is a unity over the whole field of knowledge. God has spoken, in a linguistic propositional form, truth concerning Himself and truth concerning man, history and the universe.”
The above shows that, to Christianity, God imparts truth onto man. Christians believe that God created man with a mind capable of understanding, placed that mind in a proper environment, designed the mind to be aimed toward truth, and finally provided a statistical likelihood of discovering truth. Christianity’s philosophical system allows for and relies on warrant because of its view of revelation (both natural and supernatural). There can be little doubt that Christianity fits into the only valid epistemological system and, therefore, is rational.
One objection to this might be, “Christianity believes man is fallen and that men will reject God, therefore Christians cannot believe in a properly functioning mind that is aimed toward truth since so many will eventually turn toward a lie,” but this objection is false. As previously noted, Plantinga does not argue for a perfectly functioning mind, but a properly functioning mind – this means some minds will function more properly than other minds. Secondly, as Bryan Follis notes, the Reformers, “…believed that the image of God extends to everything that makes human nature distinct from the other species of animals, and while the whole image was damaged by sin, only the spiritual qualities were completely lost…However, this knowledge about God is not saving knowledge of God and is inadequate because of our blindness.” Under this view, men reject God because they can reject the proper function and run away from the truth. Josh Rushdoony makes this even clearer by saying that though God is self-evident and properly basic, men have the freedom to turn away from this belief and act irrationally – he theorizes that man purposefully suppresses the basic knowledge of God. Therefore, one can argue that because of the Fall of man, men will turn away from God in pursuit of irrationality – being aimed at truth does not necessitate that one will willfully move toward truth.
Naturalism and Warrant
As seen prior, naturalism has relied on JTB, which is highly insufficient, so one must wonder if naturalism can make the leap over to warrant. Due to the nature of warrant, naturalism cannot fit within this epistemological system. The inherent problem with naturalism is that it hypothesizes that the mind is not concerned with truth so much as it is concerned with survival. As Plantinga adequately explains:
“The principle function of purpose, then, of our cognitive faculties [under naturalistic evolution] is not that of producing true or verisimilitudinous beliefs, but instead that of contributing to survival by getting the body parts in the right place. What evolution underwrites is only that our behavior be reasonably adaptive to the circumstances in which our ancestors found themselves; hence it does not guarantee mostly true or verisimilitudinous beliefs. Of course our beliefs might be mostly true or verisimilitudinous; but there is no particular reason to think they would be: natural selection is interested not in truth, but in appropriate behavior.”
Since naturalism is only concerned with pointing the human mind toward survival and not truth, it cannot provide for warrant and is therefore illogical and most likely implausible.
A naturalist might argue that truth is merely pragmatic and therefore it is absurd to aim toward truth, but by doing this, the naturalist would ultimately be undermining his own belief. To argue that truth is pragmatic is the same as to argue for coherentism, which if a naturalist does this, he must admit that even empirical evidence is subject to the societal interpretation of evidence. An archeologist might say that evidence shows that Native Americans came across a land bridge over the Bering Straight ten thousand years ago, but a Native American might say the evidence shows that the ‘great god’ created the Native Americans in North America. If there is no such thing as truth, then the naturalist cannot say either is right or wrong.
The naturalist simply cannot bring up an argument against warrant without destroying his own ground for belief in naturalism. As previously shown, he cannot argue for coherentism because it would ultimately defeat naturalism. Likewise, if the naturalist argues that naturalism guides people toward the truth he would have to abandon the idea that nature guides humans toward survival, which would negate the idea of natural selection. Under the idea of warrant and proper function, the naturalist simply has no way of appearing rational without first abandoning certain precepts, or without admitting there is a God.
In conclusion, one must accept warrant as a sufficient and necessary means toward gaining knowledge. JTB and coherentism simply fail, either in obtaining knowledge or at explaining the whole of human existence. In light of this, warrant is the most plausible explanation for knowledge. To accept warrant, however, one must believe in some form of theism in one’s metaphysics in order to operate rationally within one’s epistemology. This, likewise, makes Christianity (as well as any other theistic beliefs, such as Judaism, Islam, Deism, etc) a completely rational system. Naturalism, on the other hand, becomes completely inadequate and irrational because it simply cannot explain how the mind can be designed to aim toward truth when naturalism is only concerned with survival. This simply proves that one must be a metaphysical theist (specifically one that believes in realism and externalism) to have any hope of being rational in one’s epistemology.
J.P. and Craig Moreland, William Lane, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 74.
James Emery White, What is Truth? A Comparative Study of the Positions of Cornelius Van Til, Francis Schaeffer, Carl F. H. Henry, Donald Bloesch, and Millard Erickson (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 1994), 60.