John Loftus on Reformed Epistemology (Why I became an Atheist Review Part 2)

Alvin Plantinga’s position is that the traditional way of thinking about knowledge ( classical foundationalism) is wrong because there are many basic beliefs that we have that cannot be justified evidentially. One of these is our belief in the the external world. We don’t believe in the external world or in other minds based on evidence. In the same way, we believe in God, not based on evidence, but because we find ourselves believing it in a basic way. Rene Descartes was a 17th century philosopher who set about to doubt everything he believed. He found that he could easily doubt the existence of the external world by positing the existence of an evil Demon that was deceiving him into thinking that there was an external world. A newer version of this is that we are merely “brains in a vat.”  These brains receive stimuli by some unknown agent which produce everything we see, hear and feel. This is a difficult problem that you will read about in every introductory Epistemology class, because there is no non-circular response you could give. You cannot give evidence for the reality of the external world, because you would need to appeal to the external world in order to validate it ( which presupposes the reality of the external world in order to argue for its reality). Plantinga claims that we are perfectly justified in believing the external world, even if we have no argument or evidence that it is real. Loftus responds that even though the evil Demon hypothesis is possible it is not probable by a “long shot”.[1]

The “evil Demon” or “brain in a vat” scenarios don’t need to be a real in order for Plantinga’s point to be correct. Or, it doesn’t need to be true that the evil Demon is there, or that we are brains in a vat. It only needs to be a possibility. Loftus doesn’t defend himself in claiming that the scenario of the problem of the external world is unlikely. It isn’t possible to judge the probability of the hypothesis. That’s the whole point of the problem. How can you judge the probability of the fact that the external world isn’t real, when any evidence you could use to judge its probability is the external world itself? It only implies that you cannot know that the external world is real. In other words, you have to suspend judgment on the reality of the external world. Loftus also says that “ there is no reason and no evidence to suppose that such a being exists.”[2] We have no evidence for the reality of the external world either, because any evidence that we could offer comes from the external world and so presupposes it’s reality. The point of the dilemma is to point out that the data supports different theories. One theory is that the world is real, but there are other theories that fit the data just as well. So why pick one theory over the other? Why say that the external world is real when another theory will explain the evidence just fine? Loftus paraphrases Michael Martin as saying that the view that the external world is real is the simplest ( by appeal to Ockham’s Razor).[3] Not necessarily. Ockham’s Razor says that one must not multiply metaphysical entities beyond what is necessary to explain the evidence. But if that’s true then one can argue that the evil Demon or Brain in a Vat Hypothesis posits fewer entities than the hypothesis that the external world is real. If the evil Demon or Brain in a Vat hypothesis is true, then you are only positing solipsism, which is a very simple hypothesis. It only requires the existence of your mind, some advanced being who is tampering with it, and the equipment ( if any) he is using to tamper with it. The hypothesis that the external world is real affirms the reality of many objects, billions of brains, billions of galaxies, and a billion trillion stars ( that’s 21 zeros!). Sure, the universe of the non-specified advanced being might be the same. But the hypothesis doesn’t require it. Loftus also contends ( with Michael Martin) that if such an evil Demon deceives us then no belief is rational and that we could never believe anything at all.[4] But it is not true that the problem of the external world implies anything about our cognitive faculties being jeopardized. Loftus then contends, citing Michael Martin, that the problem is unfalsifiable.[5] Falsifiability is a theoretical virtue of science and presupposes the concept of empirical evidence, which is not available to the person responding to the problem of the external world. To give you an idea of why it is not appropriate here is because I can accuse Loftus of unfalsifiability just as justifiably. The hypothesis that the external world is real is also unfalsifiable. One cannot have empirical evidence that it is wrong. Once again, this is the entire point of the problem. The problem is that the evidence favours a number of different hypotheses and there is no way of deciding between them, or gaining some new evidence. That’s not because they commit the fallacy of unfalsifiability but because they deal with first principles of reality, or first principles of the very context in which falsifiability occurs. Finally, he claims, again citing Michael Martin, that the evil Demon hypothesis cannot explain the survival of the human race, because human beings would have needed to act on correct beliefs coming from the evidence around us.[6] This presupposes the reality of the external world and so is a circular argument. Also, the internal consistency of the external world does not show that it is true. An illusion can have a rational structure. If nature functions consistently, and humans gain true beliefs about the rules of the illusion, then that would explain the evolution of correct beliefs within the context of the illusion. But that doesn’t mean the whole thing is not false. The evolution of human beings assumes the reality of the external world and the reality of the past, which are both being drawn into question by the problem of the external world. So you cannot use them to answer the objection without circularity.

Next Loftus claims that Reformed Epistemology is wrong, because we would never accept the idea of believing without evidence in any other area.[7] But this is not required to believe Reformed Epistemology. It is not necessary that Reformed Epistemology apply to every single domain of human knowledge in order to be true of some domains of human knowledge.

Plantinga attacks classical foundationalism by contending that it is not self-evident, incorrigible, or evident to the senses. In other words, it is not a basic belief. So why believe it’s true? Loftus responds by contending “…I think the demand for sufficient evidence to justify what we can claim to know has sufficient evidence for it.”[8] Ironically, the way Loftus phrases it perfectly shows the vicious circularity of what he is saying. He proposes another conception of basic beliefs whereby something being properly basic includes a truth that is “defensible by argument.”[9] He says that this avoids the problem because it doesn’t demand evidence for the basic belief but only argument from that evidence. But how will you argue from non-existent evidence? His contention here makes no sense. And argument is a type of justification which precisely precludes a belief being basic. If you need to justify it further, then whatever claim(s) you use to justify it becomes the new basic beliefs. So, by definition, if a belief is defensible by argument, it is not basic. Finally, to justify hard rationalism with evidence and argument is circular ( because that is to justify reason through reason). Loftus also claims that higher biblical criticism invalidates Plantinga’s contention and simply makes some general remarks about higher criticism ( without making an argument). There are many Christian scholars who have responded to higher biblical criticism, and not all of it is incompatible with orthodox Christianity. Also, Plantinga has a whole section on higher biblical criticism in Warranted Christian Belief, which Loftus does not address.

Loftus also does not address the other reasonable things we believe without evidence, such as the existence of other minds, the existence of the past and the validity of our memories, the truth of the scientific method and of induction more generally, and the existence of objective morality.

[1] Ibid., 43

[2] Ibid., 43

[3] Ibid., 43

[4] Ibid., 43

[5] Ibid.,43

[6] Ibid.,43

[7] Ibid., 44

[8] Ibid., 44

[9] Ibid., 44

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