John Loftus on Reformed Epistemology

Since providing an in-depth analysis of John Loftus’ dubious Outsider Test For Faith, the former-pastor-turned-freethinker has turned his sights against Capturing Christianity. Triggered by our most recent post listing free resources on the view, he takes aim at Reformed Epistemology (RE), the idea that belief in God can be rational and warranted apart from argumentation.

While it’s unclear why a list of free resources lead to a response post, it’s safe to say he doesn’t think very highly of the view. After perusing his thoughts, there’s unfortunately not much by the way of substance to interact with. Instead of a coherent objection to RE, we are greeted with empty rhetoric and brazen psychoanalysis.

Childish?

At the outset, Loftus makes the shocking claim that even children know that Reformed Epistemology is false. To quote him:

Here folks, is what faith does to otherwise rational adults. They are pretending to know things even a child can see are false.

There’s really only two ways to interpret this comment. Loftus is either saying that children can see that Reformed Epistemology is false or that they can see that religion is false. Two points. First, recent work in Cognitive Science of Religion has shown that belief in the supernatural is natural, especially among young children. The vast majority of children, regardless of culture or upbringing, tend to believe in some kind of supernatural realm.

Secondly, the claim that a young child could see that Reformed Epistemology is false is dubious. The complex philosophical concepts involved are legion. To really understand RE (such that one can actually deny it and not a caricature), one requires a grasp of noetic structures, properly basic beliefs, classical foundationalism, proper function, warrant, Gettier, the role of the Holy Spirit in Christian theology, and so on. Loftus shows us these concepts are difficult enough for adults, let alone small children.

Neither interpretation is looking very good.

Plantinga, Psychic

He then goes on to quote Plantinga, ascribing him “psychic abilities”:

Plantinga argues Christians can be entirely rational in having a “full-blooded Christian belief ” [Warranted Christian Belief, p. 200] in “the great truths of the gospel.” [Ibid., pp. 245, 262]. Moderates, progressives and liberals need not apply, says he. For true Christian beliefs come “by way of the work of the Holy Spirit, who gets us to accept, causes us to believe, these great truths of the gospel. These beliefs don’t come just by way of the normal operation of our natural faculties, they are a supernatural gift.” [Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief, p. 262.] If this is not claiming to have psychic abilities to know which Christian beliefs are true ones (what else can he mean here?), then I don’t know what is.

While using the term “pyschic abilities” is liable to elicit a chuckle from his largely atheist audience, it’s clear that Plantinga is not saying he has psychic abilities. For instance, he’s not saying he (or other Christians) possess telekinetic powers, or that they can levitate, or that they can communicate with dead relatives. He’s not even saying Christians have any special abilities. If you read his quote, Plantinga calls the work of the Holy Spirit a gift. But if one is given a gift, they obviously don’t possess that gift as an “ability.”

Now, if by “psychic abilities” Loftus doesn’t mean an actual ability on the part of the believer but that Plantinga’s model involves the work of the Holy Spirit as a gift, then all he’s done is ascribe a negative label to the view. In other words, he’s committed a textbook ad hominem fallacy. Calling Plantinga a “psychic” doesn’t mean Reformed Epistemology is false or probably false. It doesn’t mean that classical foundationalism is true. Nothing of interest follows.

This isn’t philosophy, folks; Loftus is engaging in polemics. Nothing more. For an in-depth look at Plantinga’s model, check out my 4-part series.

Loftus, Psychologist

Amazingly, we haven’t dealt with the most dubious claim he makes. Loftus claims to know why Christians defend Reformed Epistemology. It’s not because they think it’s true or because they’ve been convinced of it’s truth, no. Christians defend RE because “believers don’t think there’s enough objective evidence to believe”:

The very fact RE is seen as necessary to bolster the Christian faith proves, all by itself, that believers don’t think there’s enough objective evidence to believe. Just imagine if it did exist. [Go ahead, imagine it. I’ll wait.] Would anyone bother with RE? Of course they wouldn’t! It would be seen as completely unnecessary and hence a laughingstock to propose and argue for it. You know it. I know it. So some of the very best Christian apologists (on behalf of whatever sect they agree to disagree about) don’t think sufficient objective evidence exists to believe. Let that sink in.

To reiterate, Christians don’t defend RE because they’re convinced that classical foundationalism is self-refuting or that, following Thomas Reid, belief in God is paradigmatically properly basic, no. Loftus knows better. And apparently so do you! Christians only care about RE (which they secretly know is a laughingstock), because there’s not enough “objective evidence” to believe.

What reason(s) does Loftus give to think his psychological speculations are correct? To quote him, “You know it. I know it.” So Loftus just “knows” what’s really going on. Oh, and so do you. Everybody just “knows” it. The sense of irony I’m experiencing writing this is mind-boggling.

Perhaps the most shocking part of this comment is that Loftus is intimately familiar with the work of William Lane Craig, the worlds most eminent Christian Apologist. Although Craig is best known for his defense of the Kalam Cosmological Argument, he is an ardent defender of Reformed Epistemology. Craig is outspokenly convinced there is very good evidence to believe that God exists and has revealed Himself through the Resurrection of Jesus (see his Reasonable Faith). Yet, as I say, he is still an ardent defender of RE. Why?

How can this be on Loftus’ hypothesis? It can’t. On his view, Craig doesn’t really believe there’s sufficient evidence. So he’s either lying to his audience or sincerely believes it and is deluding himself. Both are serious accusations. One might think they’d need “sufficient objective evidence” to believe either one. But not Loftus. Remember, he “just knows” what’s really going on.

Let that sink in.

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16 comments

  1. Tell a child of about 10-12 for the very first time you can fly on a horse through the solar system, and they will not believe you without evidence. Tell them for the very first time you’re going to raise their late Aunt Gretchen up from the grave, and they won’t believe you without evidence. Tell them anything for the first time that sounds bizarre, and they won’t believe you without evidence. RE says you can believe a whole host of bizarre beliefs without evidence. Try that on children about any bizarre claim made without evidence for the very first time. Then ask them if it is okay to believe without evidence. My guess is they will reject such a supposition.

    In any case, children should be taught not to believe without evidence, which is something I just argued right here:

    http://www.debunking-christianity.com/2018/02/a-list-of-books-for-your-skeptical.html

    Cameron: “The vast majority of children, regardless of culture or upbringing, tend to believe in some kind of supernatural realm.”

    That isn’t too surprising since most children are raised to believe. Did he study children in Sweden or Norway? But even if correct, a new study needs to be done on how much belief comes from our evolutionary past, not on the actual existence of any god.

    1. Hi John. Check out the book I hyperlinked by Justin Barrett. He lists a number of scientific studies and experiments he and secular scientists have conducted on the religious beliefs of young children (across cultures, including China). He also refutes the so-called “Indoctrination Hypothesis” you espouse above. Here’s what he says about it in the book:

      “As initially sensible sounding as the indoctrination hypothesis may be, and though I have had it suggested to me numerous times in informal conversations or in discussion sessions after academic lectures, this hypothesis has received little attention from scholars of religion.”

      What’s ironic is that your initial point, that you can’t convince a child to believe just anything (which I agree with), is evidence *against* the indoctrination hypothesis.

      1. You stretch things beyond credibility to use this data against childhood indoctrination Cameron. You must show why people who are raised a certain way almost always stick with it. This was truer of the past than it is of today though.

        1. I’m fine with saying that culture and upbringing fine-tunes our existing disposition toward the supernatural, but that doesn’t entail that without culture and upbringing there’d be no religious beliefs. The evidence against that view (from Cognitive Science of Religion) is overwhelming. I’d encourage you to check it out.

    2. I forgot to mention. This:

      “RE says you can believe a whole host of bizarre beliefs without evidence.”

      is completely false. Plantinga’s model/theory is based on Thomas Reid’s epistemological framework which *starts* with paradigmatic cases of properly basic beliefs. This methodology automatically rules out “bizarre beliefs.”

      I would encourage you to read more of the literature on RE. A lot of it can be found for free at the link you initially reacted to.

      1. Cameron, I studied Plantinga’s thought in a Master of Theology degree program I earned under William Lane Craig. Please don’t tell me to read something I read before you were in grade school.

        The cases made are not analogous to believing a virgin had a baby who was the incarnate son of God as prophesied hundreds of years earlier.

        Here’s a sample from the book I wrote you did not read:

        http://www.debunking-christianity.com/2009/10/is-it-faith-demon-dream-and-matrix.html

          1. I’m not sure what to think since I haven’t read his book. What I do think is that it’s irrelevant to the case for Christianity. Believing in a supernatural power doesn’t make it more believable to a Hindu or Muslim, or an atheist for that mater, that Jesus arose from the dead.

      2. Paul Moser and William Lane Craig are both Christian philosophers who accept RE.

        Moser doesn’t believe Jesus was born of a virgin. Craig does.

        Yet both of them would agree with Plantinga that their faith is supernaturally given.

        Here’s the quote again:

        For true Christian beliefs come “by way of the work of the Holy Spirit, who gets us to accept, causes us to believe, these great truths of the gospel. These beliefs don’t come just by way of the normal operation of our natural faculties, they are a supernatural gift.” [Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief, p. 262.]

        However you determine who is right on this doctrine it cannot possible be determined by the Holy Spirit. But as soon as you go looking for evidence and study the hermenuetics of the relevant passages and the history of virgin birth claims in ancient history to find out, you will be rejecting RE. Once you reject RE in part you can see why you should reject RE in whole.

    3. Cameron’s right about child psychology – and yes, it includes in countries where belief in God is counter-cultural, which is the surprising part. I humbly suggest you check out the actual scientific literature.

      > But even if correct, a new study needs to be done on how much belief comes from our evolutionary past, not on the actual existence of any god.

      Are you suggesting that if it had an evolutionary origin we should think it is unreliable? IMHO, evolution, in general, tends to choose for reliable cognitive faculties.

  2. A psychic is a person who claims to get supernatural knowledge or direction “from the other side” of life as we know it. It’s a person who has “faculties or phenomena that are apparently inexplicable by natural laws, especially involving telepathy or clairvoyance.” It’s the usual word we use to describe someone who claims to get supernatural knowledge. It doesn’t matter if Plantinga doesn’t use the correct word or not. This is what he’s claiming. Embrace it. This is not rhetoric on my part. It’s fact. It’s rhetoric on Plantinga’s part to refuse using the correct word

    Cameron: ” Plantinga is not saying he has psychic abilities.”

    Plenty of psychics don’t claim to have any special abilities either, probably all the savvy ones. Just like Plantinga they would say the other side makes contact with them, not the other way around. The problem is that these psychics, for all anyone can tell, are delusional, or hucksters, charlatans, thieves and liars. Sorry that this puts you in that grouping but then you don’t need evidence to show me wrong, do you? You have insulated your faith from all objective evidence to the contrary. That’s the mark of a delusion. This isn’t an ad hominem. There is an overwhelming amount of evidence that people who believe without regard for evidence, or the need for evidence, or contrary to the evidence are delusional.

    1. “You have insulated your faith from all objective evidence to the contrary.”

      All RE says is that de jure objections reduce to de facto objections. That doesn’t entail there are no good de facto objections. For instance, RE doesn’t entail that there is no good argument from evil that ultimately defeats Christian belief. So the claim above is simply false.

      1. Once you abandon the objective evidence requirement and follow the innate human tendency for for cognitive bias, you cannot be reached with the facts. Hell, at that point you don’t even care for the truth.

        1. John Loftus

          So you admit that cognitive bias is perception and not cognition, i.e. objective evidence is perception after all…

          Therefore, bad perception results in bad “critical thinking”, right?

  3. Cameron: “Calling Plantinga a “psychic” doesn’t mean Reformed Epistemology is false or probably false. It doesn’t mean that classical foundationalism is true. Nothing of interest follows.”

    If apologists have to resort to private subjective experiences, which can clash with each other, then I think is does undercut them to a degree, yes.

    Cameron: “Loftus claims to know why Christians defend Reformed Epistemology. It’s not because they think it’s true or because they’ve been convinced of it’s truth, no. Christians defend RE because ‘believers don’t think there’s enough objective evidence to believe.’”

    I think it’s the best explanation of the facts. Plantinga does not think the arguments for the existence f God work. In his own words:

    “I don’t know of an argument for Christian belief that seems very likely to convince one who doesn’t already accept its conclusion.” [Warranted Christian Belief, p. 201].

    He’s not alone. Christian apologist John Feinberg doesn’t think they work, for he wrote, “I am not convinced that any of the traditional arguments [for God’s existence] succeeds.” [Feinberg, Can You Believe It’s True?, p. 321]. Christian philosopher and apologist Richard Swinburne specifically rejects the Moral Argument to God’s existence, saying, “I cannot see any force in an argument to the existence of God from the existence of morality.” [Swinburne, The Existence of God, p. 215.]

    At the very least, what would you think of the Mormon church if they said they know their faith is true due to the witness of God in their hearts, evidence be damned? Wouldn’t you ask with me why they’ve abandoned the requirement for sufficient objective evidence? Wouldn’t it appear to any non-believer in any different religion that abandoning this requirement is admitting that those who defend the faith–not the rank N file mind you–tacitly acknowledge the requisite evidence doesn’t exist? What other reasonable alternative is there?

    Claiming I’m a psychic when there is objective evidence for what I say can only mean that you have poor cognitive faculties.

    I have argued in my book “How to Defend the Christian Faith” that the whole reason why there are five major apologetical methods is because four of them arose by apologists who didn’t think there was sufficient objective evidence for their faith. If we grant 20% of apologists defend each method that means 80% of apologists think objective evidence is not their primary concern.

    https://www.amazon.com/How-Defend-Christian-Faith-Atheist/dp/163431056X/ref=as_sl_pc_ss_til?tag=wwwdebunkingc-20&linkCode=w00&linkId=NY6EU3LEWMY6444L&creativeASIN=163431056X

    Cameron: “Craig is outspokenly convinced there is very good evidence to believe that God exists and has revealed Himself through the Resurrection of Jesus (see his Reasonable Faith). How can this be on Loftus’ hypothesis? It can’t. On his view, Craig doesn’t really believe there’s sufficient evidence.”

    In his book the very first chapter says the holy spirit provides the proof. No inconsistency there. At the end of his debates Craig is quick to say he’s only an imperfect witness to the truth that only the holy spirit can offer people, if they are willing to submit to him. That’s not being inconsistent either.

    Cameron: “So he’s either lying to his audience or sincerely believes it and is deluding himself. Both are serious accusations.”

    Yes they are. I demand an apology and a retraction.

    Why don’t you stop pretending to know what you don’t know? That is a sure mark you are not an authentic person. You’ll argue for your faith regardless of the facts. Your claim about Craig just now is proof of it.

    1. John Loftus

      You write:

      “But even if correct, a new study needs to be done on how much belief comes from our evolutionary past, not on the actual existence of any god.”

      First, I should point out to you that plenty of anthropological research has indeed been carried out and the conclusion of all the research is that:

      It is instinctive that all human cultures have a belief in divine punishment.

      So, in evolutionary terms the question would be: How did humans acquire this concept?

      Two, how would you explain in evolutionary terms how all human cultures have universal flood narratives?

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