The Magazine

Calvin and Hobbes

The revival of Christian philosophy.

Dec 24, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 15 • By THOMAS HIBBS
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PLANTINGA'S "defense" of religious faith takes aim at the supposition that believers need to justify their faith before some neutral court of reason. Since his earliest work, Plantinga has adopted the following polemical strategy: Although there may be no universally persuasive argument on behalf of the truth of Christianity or even theism, there is no convincing refutation of it either. The belief in the existence of God stands on the same footing as many of our other beliefs, such as the existence of other minds, about which philosophers have not been able to reach a consensus.

Indeed, Plantinga goes so far as to deny that religious belief is in need of any justification whatsoever. Like perceptual beliefs and memory beliefs, which ordinary folk accept without demanding proof, religious faith is a properly basic belief, not a belief that is arrived at on the basis of reasoning or inference. Now, critics see this as courting irrationalism and relativism. Cannot anyone declare any belief to be basic and thus remove it from rational scrutiny? According to Plantinga, basic beliefs are not immune to criticism and refutation. We typically take the reports of our senses and memory as basic and, quite reasonably, don't feel the need to justify them. But this does not mean that these beliefs are beyond revision or even repudiation. We may well encounter good reasons to question or reject them.

What is noteworthy about Plantinga's approach is the way it reverses the tendency in modern philosophy to suspend belief in what ordinary human beings take on trust. And this tilting of the balance away from doubt and back to trust involves a rethinking of the entire tradition of modern philosophy.

THE PERVASIVE THEME of Wolterstorff's book on Thomas Reid, the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher, is precisely trust. One of the great dissenters from the mainstream of modern philosophy, Reid advocates a realism that puts him at odds with Descartes, Locke, Hume, and Berkeley. All of these philosophers are proponents of what Reid calls the "theory of ideas," the claim that the immediate object of the human mind is not a thing in the world but an idea in the mind. Given this starting point, the task for philosophy is to try to establish some sort of connection between the idea in me and the world out there. But all such attempts are futile and end either in Hume's skepticism or Berkeley's even more bizarre conclusion that matter does not exist, that there are only minds and ideas.

Reid traces Berkeley's theory back to its roots, the theory of ideas, and begins to wonder what basis there is for this unproven assumption, shared by all modern philosophers. When he finds none, he retreats to the naive assumption of the vulgar, namely, that we immediately perceive sensible things and that, accompanying that perception, is an immediate and irresistible belief in the existence of what we perceive. Reid observes that all human beings, whether they become philosophers or not, share these convictions. Reversing the trend in modern philosophy to hold all deliverances of common sense in abeyance until they have been vindicated by proof, Reid argues that, in any contest between philosophy and common sense, the burden of proof is on philosophy. Of course, philosophy transcends common sense in its descriptive and explanatory tasks; it may even reach conclusions that contravene pre-philosophical beliefs. But it should do so only when driven by clear, unassailable arguments. The proponents of the theory of ideas have no such arguments.

Wolterstorff is careful to note that Reid does envision a positive, reflective role for philosophy. Yet the philosopher needs to beware, lest his aspiration for certitude and unity lead him to flout the sheer variety of kinds of evidence that contribute to human knowledge. There is indeed the evidence of immediate consciousness, on which the philosophers have concentrated. But there is also the evidence of sense, of memory, and of testimony. Wolterstorff underscores Reid's prudent sense of the limitations to philosophical knowledge. The philosopher can note and describe the diverse criteria appropriate to the healthy functioning of our faculties. What he cannot do is reduce all the faculties to one formula.