Sunday, February 01, 2004

Plantinga and pluralism (IT IS ACCOMPLISHED!)

[UPDATE: The new post on Plantinga appears below this one! Scroll down!]

I'm going home early, but in this space, sometime in the next 24-36 hours, will be my review and critique of Alvin Plantinga's chapter, "Pluralism: A Defense of Religious Exclusivism," from The Philosophical Challenge of Religious Diversity.

You already know what I'm going to conclude about Plantinga, because I outlined my own stance in this post. So don't expect surprises-- just expect a bit more detail.

I do recommend Philosophical Challenge for people who want to get up to speed on the debate as it revolves around John Hick's version of the pluralist position (actually, there are many pluralisms), but pluralism is more than Hick. If anything, I'd say the granddaddy of all pluralists is Raimondo Panikkar, who in his many, many writings on the subject has anticipated just about every pro- and con- argument from every possible angle. Panikkar isn't a "models" person, either, and he's persuaded me that that's the right way to go.

Here's an incomplete list of books I've read that deal in some way or other with questions of pluralism and dialogue:

Abe and Lafleur (ed.). Zen and Western Thought.
Abe and Heine (ed.). Zen and Comparative Studies.
D'Costa and Knitter, eds. Christian Uniqueness Reconsidered.
Jacques Dupuis. Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism.
Richard Friedli. Le Christ dans les cultures.
S. Mark Heim. Salvations: Truth and Difference in Religion.
John Hick. A Christian Theology of Religions.
-----. An Interpretation of Religion.
Stephen Kaplan. Different Paths, Different Summits.
Hick and Knitter, eds. The Myth of Christian Uniqueness: Toward a Pluralistic Theology of Religions.
Paul Knitter, No Other Name?
Hans Kueng. Le christianisme et les religions du monde. (I have only the French edition, alas. I assume the English title is Christianity and the Religions of the World or something similar.)
Raimondo Panikkar. The Intrareligious Dialogue.
-----. Myth, Faith, and Hermeneutics.
Byron Sherwin. John Paul II and Interreligious Dialogue. (this book was declared "AWFUL!" by Rabbi Irwin Blank at CUA).
David Tracy. Plurality and Ambiguity.
Twiss and Grelle, eds. Explorations in Global Ethics.

For Buddhist reinterpretations of Christian thought (more often than not, these books are written by Christians! ...long story, but an important one... maybe I'll tell it sometime):

William Johnston. Christian Zen.
John Keenan. The Gospel of Mark: A Mahayana Reading. (Very academic, but this book kicks serious ass. Yogacara angle.)
-----. Meaning of Christ: A Mahayana Theology. (This came first. Also kick-ass.)
Robert E. Kennedy. Zen Spirit, Christian Spirit.
Kenneth Leong. The Zen Teachings of Jesus.
Thich Nhat Hanh. Living Buddha, Living Christ. (OK, yeah, he's a Zen [Thien] monk.)

There's more. But this gives you some idea where I'm coming from.

And for your edification: The KimcheeGI sent me a link to another very interesting post on the upcoming Mel Gibson film, "The Passion of Christ." The post is a great survey of various reactions to preview screenings of "The Passion," and covers questions like Gibson's religious affiliation, Gibson's father's adamant Holocaust denial, antisemitism, etc.

We have to make sure we're not talking past each other in this discussion: those of us with a religious motivation to push pluralism aren't going to be too responsive to the academic's desire to preserve religious variety for variety's sake, as if we were talking about biodiversity or adopting Hagrid's love of fierce and monstrous life forms. Religious diversity and biodiversity aren't analogous: whereas, in the real world, we do have both scientific and humanitarian reasons to maintain biodiversity, it's debatable whether we really need to retain shameful vestiges of our sociocultural past, as enshrined in such attitudes as religious exclusivism. I think a case can be made that exclusivism does more harm than good, and must therefore be combatted.

To people who appreciate exclusivism, the snake story (or more accurately, one of several versions):

Once upon a time, a woman was picking up firewood. She came upon a poisonous snake frozen in the snow.
She took the snake home and nursed it back to health.
One day the snake bit her on the cheek.
As she lay dying, she asked the snake, "Why have you done this to me?"
And the snake answered, "Look, lady, you knew I was a snake."



Alvin Plantinga is a big name when it comes to philosophical issues of warrant, justification, and rationality. I've been aware of his exclusivist stance for a while, and admit that, as a result, I've never been motivated to read him. Since I've been slogging through the interesting-but-difficult chapters of The Philosophical Challenge of Religious Diversity, though, I thought I should stop and report a bit on my internal dialogue with Plantinga's chapter in this book, which is titled "Pluralism: a Defense of Religious Exclusivism."

My initial reaction after reading the chapter was: Plantinga ain't so tough. I thought I was going to be in for a dense, impossible read, but Plantinga is actually less obscure than many other thinkers. It also helped that Plantinga's chapter is very focused, and the range of his argument is narrow (or "parochial," as I described it earlier).

Plantinga is fighting a defensive action in this chapter. I don't know what his larger project is, but if this chapter is any indication (and it seems to be in consonance with what I [vaguely] know of his other work), then he's restricting himself to a certain set of pluralist accusations which he considers unjustified.

By the time I finished Plantinga's chapter, I was pretty much in agreement with him.

Plantinga is interested in refuting the idea that exclusivists who hold their positions-- despite having had the chance to hear and evaluate other positions-- are somehow exhibiting arrogance. He also concerns himself with the question of whether an exclusivist's beliefs are justified, rational, and warranted.

A quick examination of these three key terms:

1. "The central core of the notion, its beating heart, the paradigmatic center to which most of the myriad contemporary variations are related by way of analogical extension and family resemblance, is the notion of being within one's intellectual rights, having violated no intellectual or cognitive duties or obligations in the formation and substance of the belief in question." (p.180)
2. Non-arbitrariness. (Ibid.)

Plantinga distinguishes five distinct but related senses of rationality:
1. Aristotelian rationality. Man is a rational animal in that he has ratio-- i.e., he can "look before and after, can hold beliefs, make inferences, and is capable of knowledge." Plantinga considers this form of rationality largely irrelevant to his discussion. (p. 183)
2. The Deliverances of Reason. If Aristotelian rationality is generic, a more specific type of rationality is one where reason is viewed "as the source of a priori knowledge and belief." (Ibid.) Further, "It is by reason thus construed that we know self-evident beliefs-- beliefs so obvious that they couldn't be false. These are among the deliverances of reason. Of course, there are other beliefs-- 38 x 39 = 1482, for example--that are not self-evident but are a consequence of self-evident beliefs by way of arguments that are self-evidently valid; these too are among the deliverances of reason." (Ibid.)
3. The Deontological Sense. This is about "intellectual requirement, or duty, or obligation: a person's belief is irrational in this sense if in forming or holding it she violates such a duty. This is the sense of 'irrational' in which, according to many contemporary evidentialist objectors to theistic belief, those who believe in God without propositional evidence are irrational." This kind of irrationality is a failure "to conform to intellectual or epistemic duties." (p. 184)
4. Zweckrationalität. This is "means-end rationality." It's "the sort of rationality displayed by your actions if they are well calculated to achieve your goals." (Ibid.) Plantinga questions whether this type of rationality applies to belief at all. (p. 185)
5. Rationality as Sanity and Proper Function. I.e., "absence of dysfunction, disorder, impairment, pathology with respect to rational faculties." (Ibid.)

The "coherentist" view of warrant is: "...what constitutes warrant is coherence with some body of belief." (p. 187) If I'm understanding this correctly, warrant can be understood as what I have when my beliefs are both justified and rational. Warrant, then, is the quality of integrity of belief. It's an indication of how strongly one's beliefs can and do correspond to reality.

Plantinga's tour through the various pluralistic objections of the exclusivist position end up at the conclusion that the pluralist is unable to make his accusations without subjecting himself to the same critique-- i.e., being "hoist on his own petard," as Plantinga writes. He is willing to concede the contingent nature of belief-- i.e., were he born in Madagascar, his beliefs would probably be different-- but here again, he contends that this is no less true for the pluralist who, if born and raised in another circumstance, could very well end up a non-pluralist.

Keep in mind that this whole chapter is a defensive action. It's a demonstration-- and a fairly convincing one-- of the epistemic and intellectual parity of reflective exclusivists and pluralists.

But as I noted before:

The problem is that, by Plantinga's own argument, if exclusivism is safe from the accusation of arrogance, and pluralism shares the same epistemic and moral plane as exclusivism, then the accusation that pluralists are arrogant also fails. I'm sure Plantinga realizes this; as I said, his argument is very parochial-- his only purpose is to rebut the typical accusations made against exclusivism, not provide a wider, "objective" justification for the rightness of exclusivistic beliefs. But I'm amused because Plantinga has given pluralists the ultimate insulation against the countercharge that their pluralism is itself somehow arrogant and oppressive. By claiming epistemic and moral parity-- and nothing more-- Plantinga inadvertently reminds us that the substantive discussions lie elsewhere: outside the paltry issues of warrant and justification.

I've never contended that the exclusivist position is irrational, though I've said plenty of times that it's arrogant. Plantinga is suggesting that, because pluralism is a specific position among specific positions (something also contended by S. Mark Heim as he lays out his Rescherian "orientational pluralist" position), the same charge of arrogance can be leveled at the pluralist. Upon reflection, I tend to agree, and this doesn't keep me awake at night. If the basic point is that no point of view can be all-inclusive, then I grant this willingly. To put it boldly, pluralism contains its own exclusivism-- but there's no reason to view this as ironic or self-contradictory.

Exclusivist Plantinga and pluralist philosopher/theologian John Hick are staring at the same human evidence and arriving at completely opposite conclusions. Hick is saying, "Belief is highly contingent, therefore we can't assume our beliefs are any more or less legitimate than other people's beliefs." Plantinga is saying, "Belief is highly contingent, therefore we have no justification for assuming our own beliefs are less legitimate than other people's beliefs."

So if I grant Plantinga's point about epistemic parity, where does this leave the anti-pluralist? If, in truth, you can't accuse a thoughtful exclusivist of arrogance, then on what grounds can we charge the thoughtful pluralist with arrogance? Plantinga has, as I've argued, nullified that entire line of argument for both sides-- but this still leaves all the basic questions open. Here's one issue I wrote about before, and it's a serious one:

Plantinga's argument conveniently glosses over the issues implied in normative beliefs, and doesn't deal at all with the hegemonic nature of most traditional religious truth claims. He doesn't seem to understand that the exclusivist isn't merely content to continue believing what he believes-- not if his set of beliefs includes a missionary impulse, which it often does, especially in the case of the Abrahamic faiths. For the monotheistic exclusivist, contrary to Plantinga's misleading formulation, it's not just a matter of "I'm right and they're wrong"; rather, it's "I'm right, they're wrong, and I'm going to get them to change."

Because Plantinga restricts himself to a very narrow issue in the overall discussion, he avoids such obvious issues as the one above. People like Hick feel obliged to deconstruct those aspects of christology that are normative, while preserving Christ's (obvious and undeniable) uniqueness. Uniqueness was never really an issue in these discussions; normativity, however, was-- and is.

Plantinga suggests something I reject utterly (p. 176):

So what can the exclusivist say to herself? Well, it must be conceded immediately that if she believes (1) or (2), then she must also believe that those who believe something incompatible with them are mistaken and believe what is false. That's no more than simple logic.

[NB: The (1) and (2) mentioned in the above quote refer to these two propositions:
1. The world was created by God, an almighty, all-knowing, and perfectly good personal being (one that holds beliefs; has aims, plans, and intentions; and can act to accomplish these aims).
2. Human beings require salvation, and God has provided a unique way of salvation through the incarnation, life, sacrificial death, and resurrection of his divine son.]

Like many theologians since at least Aquinas if not before, Plantinga relies heavily on the principle of non-contradiction, which is fundamental to logic (Aquinas even applied this principle to God's very nature: the single major limit on God's omnipotence is his inability to do what is logically contradictory). But since we're talking about religious beliefs and realities, I think it's important to question-- forcefully-- the pride of place given to logic in such discussions.

Before I go further, I'll grant that a system of belief can't have much systematicity if logic (reason, rationality, etc.) doesn't enter the picture. Mental and spiritual anarchy are just anarchy. This should be pretty obvious to anyone. Even unreflective people whose belief systems are inherited (Plantinga deliberately avoids talking about these people in his argument-- another move I disagree with, given how many such folks there are) have worldviews that, so long as you find the right angle, are more or less coherent.

The problem, though, is that in religion we're constantly faced with paradox. Pluralistic thought-systems such as those abounding in Hinduism routinely violate the principle of non-contradiction-- in how they envision the roles of various divinities, for example, and/or in the meanings of core terms. Perhaps, as Robert Aitken-roshi argues in The Ground We Share, there are no paradoxes in nature, and paradoxes are a function of the mind. This still doesn't make the issue of paradox irrelevant to the discussion at hand-- and as any Zennist can tell you, you eventually have to put reason aside if you plan to go deeper. In Christian language: reason is never an equal partner with faith.

So I'll back up a bit and register a major disagreement with Plantinga on this fundamental issue. It's a disagreement I have with a whole host of Christian theologians who, still in thrall to Greek thought, insist on importing the ghost of Aristotle into their theological discourse.

Finally, Plantinga fails to convince me of the innocence of his stance. Here's what he says at one point, as a rebuttal to accusations of arbitrariness (in his section on justification):

Am I then being arbitrary, treating similar cases differently in continuing to hold, as I do, that in fact that kind of behavior [in this case, he's talking about King David's adultery in the Bible] is dreadfully wrong? I don't think so. Am I wrong in thinking racial bigotry despicable, even though I know there are others who disagree, and even if I think they have the same internal markers for their beliefs as I have for mine? I don't think so. I believe in Serious Actualism, the view that no objects have properties in worlds in which they do not exist, not even nonexistence. Others do not believe this, and perhaps the internal markers of their dissenting views have for them the same quality as my views have for me. Am I being arbitrary in continuing to think as I do? I can't see how.

Plantinga, in the above paragraph, is arguing that he's justified-- not being arbitrary-- in condemning racism. Given the way that Plantinga's argument in this chapter so completely levels the playing field, where does this leave us with regard to the racist? If beliefs are contingent (i.e., depending on various factors), then it's only reasonable to expect that a person who's born and raised in a racist household will hold racist beliefs.

Plantinga would probably argue from moral grounds, as a Christian, that combatting racism is a worthy activity. He'd adopt this position knowing full well that a certain set of people-- racists-- aren't going to be happy about this stance. We could say that Plantinga's anti-racism excludes racists in that their stance places them in opposition to Plantinga. Fine. Plantinga, then, will act according to whatever internal justifications he has found or created for his beliefs, convinced of the rightness of his cause. Plantinga's trying to connect his justified anti-racism with his justified exclusivism.

You see that Plantinga's argument here has little bearing on the harmful reality of racism (granted-- if you're a racist, then you can't see this). As long as we're talking about justification, rationality, and warrant, we can glibly posit that the racist point of view is justified (by its "internal markers"), rational (thoughtful racists can present reasoned arguments for their position-- anything from science to scripture to personal experience, and might be able to do it very civilly), and warranted (i.e., the weight of the justification and rationality is enough to convince the racist of the coherence of his belief).

So at that point... we've just argued in defense of racism.

This is what leads me to believe that Plantinga's argument is, in the final analysis, completely irrelevant. I happen to agree with him that racism is something to be combatted, and I don't particularly give a shit about the racist's own point of view-- how justified, rational, and warranted it is. Much the same discussion is going on these days about the Islamic fundamentalist's point of view. It's possible to climb into the terrorist's mind and understand why he's thinking and acting a certain way, but as we've noted before, understanding doesn't translate to condoning.

Since I see exclusivism in its strong and weak forms as a form of bigotry that does oppress people in ways that are analogous to racism, I will use Plantinga's argument to submit that exclusivism has to go-- and this conviction is justified, rational, and warranted.

Perhaps an exclusivist is indeed being sincere-- and perhaps not being arrogant at all-- in consciously assuming responsibility for the logical consequences of his beliefs. I'm not convinced this is the case, but am willing to grant this point for argument's sake. However, this point isn't particularly relevant. The relevant question is how to evaluate the content of those exclusivist beliefs, and this involves being empirical and looking at their history and practical consequences. If we as a nation have been able to conclude, collectively, that slavery was an evil that deserved to be banished, then by Plantinga's own argument I feel comfortable concluding the same thing about exclusivism.