Monday, June 21, 2021

Countering Plantinga's Reformed Epistemology & Randal Rauser's Apologetic


(Note: What follows is a transcription of the video)

In this video I’m going to be responding to both Alvin Plantinga’s Reformed Epistemology as well as Randal Rauser’s wider apologetic effort, with particular emphasis on his new book ‘Jesus Loves Canaanites’. While these two topics seem disconnected, Randal is an ardent and capable defender of Plantinga’s Reformed Epistemology and I believe his wider apologetic effort reveals a problem for both his apologetic and Plantinga’s properly basic belief system.

We will begin with Randal’s apologetic. Randal is far from your average internet apologist that merely knows the ins and outs of the various families of theistic philosophical arguments. What makes Randall so interesting is that I think he correctly identifies the key contemporary problems that are driving people away from the Christian church in the US, EU, and Canada.
Most of this is not unique to Randal, though some is. I chose Randal because he is prolific and an excellent teacher, but I don’t mean to critique him specifically. I chose Randal because he is helpful in highlighting this development in Christian theology and apologetics. I’m using him as a stand-in for what I see as the most effective protestant apologetic.

He sees there are hot button issues that arise out of common Christian teachings that are contradicted by either science or our moral intuitions that lead believers to begin to doubt more core Christian doctrines and eventually apostatize.

The problem for Christian apologists is that unlike mere theism which can easily be abstracted to a philosophical concept, Christianity carries a lot of baggage that can be hard to defend in contemporary times. Randal acts like a trauma surgeon, looking at the Christian church hemorrhaging believers and even more worryingly, he sees the other doctor’s treatments are making the problem worse!

Does Eternal Conscious Torture in hell as a doctrine seem to falsify the idea of a loving god? Defenses of ECT from popular apologists like William Lane Craig and Frank Turek just making the problem even worse? Randal will defend annihilationism and even talk about being a hopeful universalist!

Do LGBTQ sexual relationships just seem to be morally permissible, even laudable? At least in a monogamous married context? Michael Brown and William Anderson’s defenses of the traditional Christian stance not convincing you the bible is right? Randal still affirms the view that the bible morally prohibits such relations, but he will defend LGBTQ affirming interpretations of the bible as consistent with “mere Christianity”. After all, it’s better to have someone be a Christian in a LGBTQ affirming denomination than for them to be an atheist!

Did your church teach you Paul’s theology about Adam being fallen and Jesus having to save us, but evolutionary biology falsifies the idea that there was a historical Adam? Does Dr. S Joshua Swamidass theory that humans generally evolved as described by science, but that god specially created Adam and Eve out of dust, then had the fall happen in the garden of Eden, and then their kids just banged the Neanderthals and other proto-evolved-humans so as to disseminate the “imago dei” throughout our species just sound incredibly ad hoc and silly? Randal will give you the different hermeneutics to read Genesis and Paul so you can give up belief in the historical Adam and retain belief in Jesus and the resurrection!

I could go on, but my point is that it’s not like other Christian apologists will shy away from these hard topics but like the examples show they generally affirm the hard doctrine and try to make the alternative seem undesirable or provide some sort of justification.

Randal often goes in the opposite direction, often denying or redefining these old doctrines and then using his philosophical skills to maintain coherence with what he defines as mere Christianity; often by reframing the issue into something that becomes inherently unfalsifiable.

In fact, reducing issues that by all appearances are falsifiable down into something that is inherently unfalsifiable is one of Randal’s primary strategies. This shouldn’t be surprising, as it’s the general strategy whenever an apologist runs into a problem where Christian teaching becomes falsified as we accumulate more knowledge about the world.

Let me illustrate with a few examples.

One of the most basic falsification criteria for the concept of theism would be to find a contradiction in the definition of god. God is typically defined as an omniscient, omnipotent, and omni-benevolent being.

The issue is that high level concepts like god or omnipotence are malleable things. In fact throughout the history of philosophy of religion contradictions have been found between stated definitions of the tri-omni properties, but then theologians don’t stop being theists – they merely update their understanding of one of the attributes that has caused a problem (ex. omniscience).

Randall heads even that problem off by endorsing what is known as perfect being theology. Here god is “the being that exemplifies the maximal set of compossible great-making properties” and things like omniscience, omnipotence, and omni-benevolence are all great-making properties.

You'll notice that baked into the definition of perfect being theology is the phrase “maximal set of compossible” – which means that if we find attributes of omnipotence that are incompatible with omniscience, for example, then that’s not a problem for theism, because we’ve already defined god in such a way that the concept of god can’t contain any logical contradictions. So if we find one, well that’s just not part of our concept of god!

The next example moves us from the conceptual to the factual.

Biblical Inerrancy is another doctrine that Randal will defend, though he will state that it is not essential to being a Christian. While he calls it non-essential, biblical inerrancy is very widely held in the church and if one abandons inerrancy of the bible it opens all sorts of problematic questions about which parts of the bible are to be trusted and which are not.

The problem is that the bible is full of claims that science has falsified. I’ve already mentioned the historical Adam, but the worldwide flood of Noah and the decimation of all but a few animals is strictly false, scientifically speaking. That’s the most glaring example, but there are others. Viewers are likely aware that when faced with abandoning inerrancy or dismissing modern science, there is a not-insignificant sect of Young Earth Creationist Christians who will dismiss science so as to preserve their belief in the inerrancy of scripture. They are largely responsible for painting Christians as anti-scientific fundamentalists and have been cited as a catalyst for many apostates leaving the church.

Randal is eager to disassociate YEC from Christianity, but he is keen to keep the doctrine of inerrancy. How does he do this? Well he endorses a view defended by Christian scholar Kenton Sparks in “Gods Word in Human Words” which redefines inerrancy as a concept. Creationists like Ken Ham hold to inerrancy as the belief that the bible is literally true in all its claims. Sparks and Rauser view inerrancy as the belief that the bible does not contain errors in what it teaches.

Did you notice the shift? It doesn’t matter if the bible says the earth was covered by a global flood, because theologians like Sparks and Rauser can interpret the passages in such a way that the story of Noah does not aim to teach that the earth was covered by a flood, it teaches some other lesson. What is that lesson? Well that depends! There are thousands of different Christian denominations and there is a huge amount of disagreement about what various parts of the bible try to teach. For the purposes of defending inerrancy it doesn’t really matter, all that matters is that so long as theologians can interpret just about any other lesson from the story they can safely discard the falsified passages as “not the point of the lesson of the passage”. It also means that it’s literally impossible to prove that the bible has any errors in it given this definition.

The final example moves us from the factual to the moral, and here we will discuss Randal’s latest book “Jesus Loves Canaanites”.

Beyond factual errors, the Christian bible is replete with examples of god doing morally horrible things. From permitting and regulating the keeping of non-Isrealite slaves as chattel to be passed down like a house, to the explicit command to commit genocide - with express instruction that women and infants were not to be spared.

The logic to falsify the idea that even if there is a god, Yahweh - the Christian deity, cannot be god is straight forward:

1. God, if one exists, is all good.
2. An all good being cannot command an evil act
3. The bible’s description of Yahweh’s explicit actions are factually accurate (Christian assumption)
4. The bible shows Yahweh explicitly commanded killing infants on the basis of their race/nationality
5. Killing infants on the basis of their race/nationality is an evil act
6. Yahweh explicitly commanded an evil act.
7. Therefore, Yahweh is not all good
8. Therefore, Yahweh cannot be god

This is a particularly powerful argument against Christianity in particular, and its power is compounded by the fact that some of the most popular apologists working today will defend the Canaanite genocide as a justifiable act by a loving god! William Lane Craig expressly states that it was morally obligatory for the Israelite soldiers to put broadswords into babies. Paul Copan wrote an entire book either minimizing or justifying the Old Testament atrocities and he got the various big names in conservative apologetics to endorse it! As an atheist looking to help move people away from Christianity, this is basically a gift. Nothing discredits a Christian apologist faster than having them present the moral argument for god’s existence and then in retort force them to become an apologist for slavery and genocide.

To be clear, I don’t think Randal’s approach is taken because the traditional approach is turning people away from Christianity. I think he is genuinely and rightly horrified at the description of events, finds the conclusion of the argument above unpalatable, and see’s the traditional approach failing spectacularly.

So what does he do? He performs a Moorean shift – he insists that since the Christian god exists and can’t command a genocide, we must find a way to read the bible so that Yahweh didn’t actually command the thing the bible says he expressly commanded.

This is a particularly hard feat because Randal will find no solace in literary or textual criticism. The relevant parts of the Old Testament are written in the genre of history, not even using the more figurative language found in other parts dealing with the creation of the universe.

So how should one read biblical texts which so blatantly violate our basic moral judgements? Randal proposes 5 principles:

Perfect God Principle – The bible is the product of a perfect god.

Two Authors Principle - every biblical text has both a human author with human authorial meaning (ie. the literal sense) and a divine author and the divine meaning (ie. the plenary sense); which these senses may be identical they may also differ. When they do differ, the plenary sense is the controlling and authoritative sense of the passage and by which the literal sense should be understood.

Canon Principle – The entire biblical text should be interpreted as a unified whole such that some individual texts within the entire canon should be interpreted in light of other texts which serve as interpreted control passages; one identifies which texts should serve as control passages by way of careful theological interpretation of the whole cannon, it’s meaning and purpose.

Jesus Principle – the primary control texts for interpreting all of scripture, including morally problematic violence like the Canaanite conquest are those that comprise the life and teachings of Jesus.

Love Principle – In light of the Jesus Principle, all texts should be interpreted in such a way that they increase the love of god and neighbor; consequently any reading of a text which diminishes love of god and/or neighbor should be rejected as an incorrect reading of the passage.

My point here isn’t to critique the specifics of Randal’s hermeneutic principles, but to point out what is the clear motivation and outcome of his project.

The motivation and outcome is to deem “incorrect” any reading or interpretation of the bible that has Yahweh doing something immoral. It takes what is a clear falsification point of Christianity, that its own holy book contains depictions of its god engaging in evil actions, and proposes a hermeneutical rule which renders it unfalsifiable by interpretive fiat. If this means you must disregard the explicit words of the text, the literary genre of the text, and the traditional understanding – then so be it.

The first critique of Randal’s move here is to point out that he is engaging in a systematic program of rendering his religion unfalsifiable when it clearly was able to be falsified. The problem isn’t just the systematic program or Randal’s specific efforts, that merely helped me realize the problem I’m presenting. The problem is that Christians and apologists engage in this kind of motivated rationalization to make their doctrines unfalsifiable when those doctrines conflict with reality.

I am not advocating for a form of logical positivism, or falsificationist epistemology here – literally everyone is eventually going to be stuck believing some things that can not be falsified in principle. But one does not have to be a logical positivist to point out that when a belief system is constantly defended in this way, it should be a blaring warning sign that something is wrong.

The second, stronger critique is because Randal’s project goes against another part of his apologetic program – his endorsement and rigorous defense of Alvin Plantinga’s Reformed Epistemology.

Reformed Epistemology states that belief in god is “properly basic” a kind of foundational belief that does not depend on evidence. Plantinga famously argues that belief in god is a lot like our belief in sense perception, going so far to say that god created us with a sensus divinitatus, or a sense of the divine, which reveals gods existence like a literal 6th sense. Plantinga even extends this to revealing the truth of a particular religion like Christianity as surely as my eyes reveal the existence of my chair.

Randal defends this view and even extends it to testimonial beliefs. Consider my young child’s belief that electricity is what makes our lights turn on; she has no concept of what electricity is or how various light fixtures work – however her belief about what powers our lights is justified by my testimony. Randal then extends belief in Christianity to this model, so that a child is rational in holding that Christianity is true because a trusted source, their parents, have told them as much.

In order to avoid a complete free-for-all in terms of what can be believed and called properly basic, reformed epistemology holds that certain beliefs, like belief in god, can be properly basic so long as it is absent a defeater.

That is if someone holds a belief to be properly basic, but is faced with a defeater for that belief, then that belief is no longer properly basic.

The clear problem is that apologists espouse belief in god generally and Christianity in particular as properly basic but have systematically gone through Christianity so as to reframe any possible objection in unfalsifiable terms.

We see this when it comes to falsifying Christianity in conceptual, factual, or moral issues present in their theology or their bible. Christians might try to object that Christianity can be falsified if we were to find a tomb with the remains labeled “Here lies Jesus of Nazareth”. The problem here is that it is extraordinarily improbable that a random peasant like Jesus would be given burial in a tomb, have the tomb and remains survive intact, and be labeled. This is especially the case if we take the Christian story on its face that Jesus was crucified as a criminal who at best would have been left to rot on the cross or thrown in a mass grave. Even if we grant that the character Josephus took Jesus’s body and put it in a tomb, there was no talk of the tomb being labeled. We don’t even know where the actual tomb is supposed to have been.

This is no falsification criteria, we know because Christians have written fictional stories of finding such a thing, but then the story ends with the revelation that the tomb was a fake and that Christianity is vindicated. I have no doubt that if such an unlikely thing were actually to be found, there would be charges that it’s a fraud created by atheists or non-Christians.

My point here is that apologists touting reformed epistemology have sold us a bad bill of goods – they claim that their properly basic beliefs need to be open to defeaters, but then systematically remove any possibility of falsification by doing a Moorean shift any time the multitude of baggage inside Christianity is brought up to defeat their beliefs.

This relates to what Plantinga called “The Son of the Great Pumpkin Objection” in his published works. For young people who don’t know, the Great Pumpkin is a concept from the old Peanuts comic strip and cartoon show from back when Plantinga was young. It was a fictional entity that would descend on the pumpkin patch every Halloween and manifest itself. The problem for reformed epistemology is the charge that it completely relativizes what is rational to different community groups, so that a community that raises a person to believe in the Great Pumpkin can not be charged with being irrational by people outside their group.

Plantinga’s response is to say that the presence of defeaters – such as the repeated failure year after year of the Great Pumpkin to materialize every Halloween would serve as a defeater, which would render belief in the Great Pumpkin no longer properly basic. So falsification is far from being incidental to Reformed Epistemology, it has a critical role that discarding brings strong consequences.

In fact Plantinga’s example of the Great Pumpkin failing to materialize year after year on Halloween being a defeater is ironic – after all Jesus is the one whose message started with “Repent for the kingdom of god is at hand!” the same person who supposedly said that the kingdom of god will come before his generation passes away – two thousand years ago! Many scholars will say that Jesus was a failed apocalyptic prophet and his original message was that the end of the world was soon at hand. Telling people to “sell all your things and follow me” makes a lot more sense in this context.

And yet Christians will do mental gymnastics to deny that Jesus was a failed apocalyptic prophet, or they’ll acknowledge it and then build their theology around the problem. No repeated failure to arrive after over two thousand years can falsify Christianity; but a few years with no pumpkin is supposed to be enough?

Let's put this in another context. I wonder what Plantinga would say to the group that holds belief in the Great Pumpkin to be properly basic but respond to his “defeater” by embracing the same kind of metaphysics that Catholics use to say that the wafer and wine literally transform into the body and blood of Christ during communion? They make a distinction between the “accidents'' and the “substance” of things, and the “substance” changes from bread and wine to flesh and blood, but the “accidents” such as the molecules and physical properties stays as it was.

So if the Great Pumpkin believer responded by saying the Great Pumpkin actually came back to every pumpkin patch every Halloween by simply changing the substance but not the accidents of the most worthy pumpkin in every patch, only manifesting fully on the final or perhaps the grandest Halloween – would the Great Pumpkin believer be justified in retaining belief in the Great Pumpkin as properly basic? I don’t see how they wouldn’t on Plantinga’s scheme. In fact I can see them chide Plantinga for only engaging in the most rudimentary versions of Great Pumpkinism and avoiding ‘sophisticated Pumpkinology’.

The main difference between the Great Pumpkin and a religion like Christianity, at least from a pre-evidentiary standpoint that Plantinga moves the debate to, is that there is no great number of Great Pumpkin believers – and so no legions of Pumpkin apologists and theologians who spend careers working to refine their theology and smooth over the problems that are baked into their ancient religion. Consider two basic tenants of Christianity, the Trinity and the Incarnation – concepts that by normal description would entail a contradiction at the heart of Christian theology. God is three persons in one being. Jesus Christ is fully man and fully good.

How does this not just disqualify Christianity off the bat?

Well if you close your eyes and concentrate, you can have your Sensus Divinitatus hear the beeping as Christian apologists back up the metaphysical dump truck to unload the amount of ad-hoc assumptions about being and personhood necessary to avoid the “apparent contradictions''. For some reason these assumptions aren’t widely held among non-Christians, even theists, almost as if it is a perfect case of motivated reasoning.

If we were to give an equivalent amount of metaphysical assumptions to the Great Pumpkin I’m certain we can render it just as coherent and unfalsifiable.

Plantinga’s Reformed Epistemology was supposed to be a “modest project” whose purpose was for Christians to avoid the charge of irrationality from atheists for “believing something without sufficient evidence”. Plantinga’s answer was to attack the evidentialist assumptions inherent in that statement and his solution was to talk about warrant – the sort of thing that makes a belief into knowledge. His conclusion was that belief in god or Christianity can be properly basic as described, and that Christian belief is warranted if it is true. Plantinga doesn’t attempt to show that Christianity is true, his purpose is to show that it is rational to believe in Christianity absent any evidence.

My purpose here was to show that Plantinga’s criteria for rationality of properly basic beliefs fails because it cannot actually answer the Son of the Great Pumpkin objection – that Plantinga’s criteria for properly basic beliefs results in a full blown epistemic relativism, even for things that we would all agree is irrational – like belief in the Great Pumpkin.

This puts Christians in a bit of a dilemma:

  • Either they must give up Reformed Epistemology and come up with another response to charges of irrationality based on evidentialist objections or

  • They may keep Reformed Epistemology but must abandon defenses of their otherwise falsifiable beliefs by rendering them completely unfalsifiable.

Option 1 is a problem because metaphysical arguments always leave room for doubt and the arguments for god’s existence are open to many counterexamples and responses that deny their conclusion. Arguments for Christianity in particular are in even worse shape, if you’ve watched my Countering the Argument for the Resurrection video.

Option 2 seems to put contemporary Christian apologists like Randal in a bit of a bind, because the only alternative is the traditional defenses of biblical slavery, genocide, the global flood, and denial of evolution, etc. – the very things that he sees driving Christians out of the faith.

As an atheist I have to agree with Randal’s assessment of the traditional defenses. I think it’s a win every time we can force a Christian apologist to become a Slavery or Genocide Apologist and we should force them to do that at every opportunity.

So it seems that the Christian apologist is stuck. I can have some sympathy for a genuinely kind soul like Randal in this situation, but honestly it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving religion.


  1. This was a masterful takedown of Rauser's sophistry.

  2. Awesome blog! Definitely saving this one.

    I however want to enquire, on the subject of Plantinga, do you have any usefull articles or links that addresses or gives counters to his "evolutionary agument against Naturalism" ?