Valentin Teodorescu

Justified Faith without Reasons? A Comparison between Søren Kierkegaard’s and Alvin Plantinga’s Epistemologies

My intention in the dissertation is to compare Søren Kierkegaard’s epistemology with the epistemology of Alvin Plantinga. In my study I will try to show the similarities and the differences between these two epistemologies, the way in which they might enrich each other and the way in which a continental way of thinking and an Anglo-Saxon analytical one may enter in dialogue.

In the first part of my dissertation I will try to present the relation between both epistemologies in general.In my opinion, Kierkegaard seems to accept the kinds of epistemological premises that are often regarded as justifying antirealism, but he combines these epistemological views with a quite traditional acceptance of realism. Against Hegel, he rejects the idea that skepticism can overcome itself, because, in some sense, skepticism is a voluntaryor deliberate standpoint. In his opinion, the Hegelian knowledge of noumenal reality is illusory. The only thing in itself that can be truly known is the agent’s own actuality. However at times he uses the term ‘knowledge’ in a much looser sense, in which the human knower makes contact with an external world - but all such contact involves faith or belief.

Plantinga, coming from an utterly different context, is interested in the concept of ‘warrant’- which he defines as ‘that elusive quality enough of which, together with truth and belief, is sufficient for knowledge’. Taking an externalist epistemological stance, he affirms that a belief has warrant if ‘it is produced by cognitive faculties functioning properly in a cognitive environment congenial to them, and according to a design plan successfully aimed at truth’.An externalist believes – as Plantinga also does - that we may sometimes think we know something when in fact we do not, and conversely, that we may sometimes know something without knowing that we know it or how we know it. He also disagrees with the perspective of classical foundationalists (who hold that a proposition can be properly basic for someone if and only if it is either ‘evident to the senses’ or ‘incorrigible’) - one reason being that their view implies the denial of many propositions which we all believe like ‘There are persons distinct from myself’ or ‘There are enduring physical objects’. In this respect Plantinga’s stance is similar to that of Kierkegaard, who, as we saw, argues that all factual knowledgeis dependent on ‘faith’.

In the second part of my dissertation I intend to show that Kierkegaard and Plantinga hold similar views about the belief in God. Plantinga affirms that belief in God is properly basic (like the proposition ‘There are other beings with minds’), and that is reasonable to include God as part of the foundation of a person’s noetic structure. There are, in his opinion, justifying circumstances that render reasonable for us to hold this belief -certain experiences which play a crucial role in forming and justifying it. For example, there is in us a disposition to believe - when we contemplate a flower - the proposition‘This flower was created by God’. He considers this disposition, which he calls -following Calvin -, ‘sensus divinitatis’, to be a kind of cognitive faculty which in a wide variety of circumstances produces in us belief in God. Similarly with other cognitive faculties of ours – like perception or memory – ‘sensus divinitatis’ can be a belief-producing faculty, ‘which functions properly in a congenial epistemic environment, according to a design plan successfully aimed at truth’.

However, the religious skeptics might raise a serious objection to this model: why does a great number of people seem to have no tendency to believe in God when they see a flower? Plantinga’s answer is that our natural tendency to believe in God has been overlaid by sin. But for an atheist this ideasmacksof ad hominem.

Therefore, Kierkegaard’s view on this matter might offer a more satisfactory answer. Like Plantinga Kierkegaard believes that belief in God is somehow a natural knowledge, but he conditions this knowledge by what he calls ‘inwardness’ or ‘subjectivity’(the central and enduring concerns that give shape and substance to the personality, and which have in essence a moral and religious character). Thus, Kierkegaardseems to believe that a person can have a kind of awareness and even certainty of God’s reality, though one which is not based on intellectual arguments or proofs. In fact, one of the major criticisms of natural theology is simply that it makes something which should be certain appear as uncertain. Plantinga’s perspective might here complete and enrich this view, because it helps rejecting a common accusation raised against Kierkegaard’s thinking – that it is basically an irrational fideism. In this respect Plantinga’s model argues convincingly that is not irrational for someone to take belief in God as properly basic.

In the third part of my dissertation I intend to analyze what Kierkegaard and Plantinga have to say about the knowledge of Christianity in particular. In dealing with Christian belief, Plantinga develops what he terms the ‘extended Aquinas/Calvin model’, which purports to give an account of how Christian belief can be known to be true by humans. On Plantinga’s account, the plan of salvation has an epistemic dimension, with three main constituents: Scripture, the work of the Holy Spirit, and faith. The words of the Gospel, which are found inthe Scripture, are words that Christians come toendorse through the Holy Spirit - which creates faith in their hearts and repairs the damage done by sin. Plantinga adds that there are no cogent objections to the model that do not alreadypresuppose the falsity of Christianity. If, however, Christianity is true then the model is very likely to be true as well. Moreover, according to the model, faith (or the knowledge made possible by faith)has warrant, because this belief came into existence ‘by a belief-producing process functioning properly in an appropriate cognitive environment, according to a design plan successfully aimed at production of true beliefs’.

In addition to this, Plantinga says that grounding Christian beliefs on evidence is mistaken and inappropriate, for reasons which are very similar to those offered by Kierkegaard: the human sinfulness (a ‘natural antipathy’ to the gospel, very similar to the ‘offence’ of Kierkegaard), the fact that faith entails, beyond a mere change in opinion, a change in affection (for Kierkegaard faith is also ‘passion’), egalitarian motives (if faith is based on historical investigation, only a few people would acquire it – Kierkegaard also agrees that in the realm of moral and religious knowledge there is equality), and the insufficiency of evidence.Kierkegaard’s own account of how people come to know that Jesus is the Son of God is also similar to that of Plantinga. People do not come to accept Christianity by reasoning from premises that render Christian beliefs certain or at least probable; rather, such convictions are made possible by faith, and, like Plantinga, Kierkegaard considers faith a gift, a condition that must be created in the individual by God.

Despite these overall similarities there are some differences in their views on the knowledge of Christianity, too: for instance,Kierkegaard sometimes stresses the idea that faith is unreasonable, while Plantinga argues that there is nothing irrational or contrary to reason in believing the gospel. However, Kierkegaard thinks that a belief is reasonable, if it can be shown to be true by giving reasons; on that definition of ‘reasonable’, however, Plantinga would say the same thing. The difference is that Plantinga challenges the classical foundationalist claim that it is only reasonable to accept beliefs which are highly certain or based on highly certain beliefs.

In conclusion, the argument of my dissertation will be that on the one hand there is a great measure of agreement between the epistemologies (especially the religious ones) of Kierkegaard and Plantinga. On the other hand, whenand wherever their epistemological perspectives differ, they seem,in some important respects, to reciprocally complement each other.

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