Context

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Alvin Plantinga’s Warrant and Proper Function offers a detailed version of a very widely accepted (and strongly disputed) analysis of knowledge. In this analysis, knowledge, for a person, is not to have evidence of his or her beliefs but rather for these beliefs to have been formed properly, for these...

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Alvin Plantinga’s Warrant and Proper Function offers a detailed version of a very widely accepted (and strongly disputed) analysis of knowledge. In this analysis, knowledge, for a person, is not to have evidence of his or her beliefs but rather for these beliefs to have been formed properly, for these beliefs to be the result of a reliable process of belief formation operating in a congenial environment under circumstances in which its operation is aimed at truth (rather than, for example, survival or convenience).

This book is the second of three books that form a trilogy in the theory of knowledge. The other two are Warrant: The Current Debate (1993) and Warranted Christian Belief (1999). Warrant examines in detail the debate concerning the nature of knowledge, asking what exactly it means for a person to know something. Plantinga attempts to analyze the claim “Jane knows that so-and-so is true if and only if . . . ,” where the blank is filled in with a statement of the conditions that must be satisfied. The analysis is intended to be general so that regardless whether what Jane knows is that her shoes are white, that ten is greater than nine, that God exists, that it is wrong to torture for pleasure, or that quantum mechanics has replaced classical Newtonian mechanics, the analysis will fit perfectly. The analysis is intended to cover every actual and every possible case of knowing. Warrant examines various analyses of knowledge and rejects them in favor of Plantinga’s analysis. Warranted Christian Belief discusses the relevance of the analysis offered in Warrant and Proper Function to questions of religious, particularly Christian, belief.

Internalism vs. Externalism

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Warrant was written to show that internalist theories of knowledge are mistaken, and that while externalist theories of knowledge are the right sort of analyses, only Plantinga’s externalist analysis has a certain very desireable feature and is not subject to refuting counter-examples. Warrant and Proper Function presents an in-depth examination of the theories set out in the first book, and an understanding of these theories is necessary to place the second work in its context.

The internalist versus externalist dispute occurs among philosophers who agree on at least two things. (1) A person can know something only if that something is true. It is what might be called propositional knowledge, or knowledge of what is expressed by true statements, that is under analysis, not knowledge by acquaintance or awareness of either external objects such as trees or internal items such as pains. Thus, these philosophers must agree that “Jane knows that P” entails “P is true.” (2) For a person to know something, the individual must believe it. Knowledge must include true belief, but true belief is not enough for knowledge. If Jane believes that the most expensive tea in the world costs twenty thousand dollars an ounce and believes this because she read about a twenty-thousand-dollar car while she was drinking a cup of tea, even if the most expensive tea in the world does happen to cost twenty thousand dollars an ounce, Jane has just luckily stumbled onto a true belief; she does not know it to be true. So the question becomes, “What, besides her having a true belief, must be true of Jane if she is to know something?”

An internalist theory of knowledge insists that knowers have something available to them that constitutes evidence for what they know. There must be something that the knowers are conscious of or at least can be conscious of that provides evidential support for what is believed. If Jane knows that she is in pain, she must be aware of an internal negative feeling or state and know that this state is a pain; if Jane knows that there is a tree outside her window, she must be having a sensory experience in which it seems to her that she sees a tree. If she believes that two plus two is four, then she must have a familiar, though hard to accurately describe, sort of cognitive experience in which the content of “two and two is four” is understood in such a way as to make its truth plain. Absence of evidence, whether experiential, propositional, or another appropriate sort, is sufficient for absence of knowledge.

Plantinga argues in Warrant and Warrant and Proper Function that the varieties of internalism are inadequate, either that one can satisfy the conditions that they specify and fail to have knowledge or that one can have knowledge while failing to meet the conditions that they specify (or, even worse, that both these things are true), and that this is so for all varieties of internalism now available. Further, he takes this not to be an accidental result of the various forms of internalism that happen to be on offer. He takes it that the sorts of debilitating weaknesses that available internalisms have plague the entire species of internalist accounts.

Varieties of externalism other than the one he favors, Plantinga contends, suffer from two sorts of defects. First, they too are subject to counter-examples: Either one can satisfy their externalist conditions and not know or one can know without satisfying their externalist conditions. Second, they have this inelegant feature: It is not the case that if they are true, then one is warranted in believing them. The meaning and force of this suggestion will be examined shortly.

Plantinga’s Externalism

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According to Plantinga, for Jane to know that some proposition is true—that her hair is properly brushed or that seventeen is a prime number or whatever—is for her to have the belief that this proposition is true when it is and under conditions in which her faculties that produced the belief in question are functioning properly in a congenial environment where those faculties operate in accord with a design plan that orients them toward truth seeking and where the design plan is good (such that if our faculties follow it, the plan will typically yield true beliefs). Plantinga contends that reference to a design plan is crucial in offering any defensible version of externalism. He also argues, by critically considering various accounts that lack this feature, that the design plan must be more than simply metaphorical or used for convenience.

His view is that if our cognitive faculties simply developed in a naturalistic or creatorless evolutionary environment, there would be no reason to think that their functioning properly relative to survival would also involve their functioning reliably relative to truth (and in particular, there would be no reason to think that they do so relative to beliefs about matters not related to survival such as evolutionary theory and the nature of knowledge). He contends that if we are to have an externalist account of knowledge such that we can know the account of knowledge to be the correct one, we need an externalist account in which our cognitive faculties are objectively likely to yield true beliefs. This, he contends, will be the case only for a monotheistic externalist account in which God has made people in a way that they are knowers, an account in which God has established a design plan for people’s cognitive faculties and an environment in which these faculties congenially operate so that their results (people’s actual beliefs) are likely to be true beliefs and hence (given their manner of production) to constitute knowledge.

Bibliography

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Additional Reading

Alston, William. Perceiving God. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991. Offers a discussion of a wide variety of perspectives in the theory of knowledge by way of embracing the view that a theistic practice of belief formation can reasonably be believed to be reliable.

Dancy, Jonathan, and Ernest Sosa, eds. Blackwell Companions to Philosophy: A Companion to Epistemology. Oxford: Blackwell, 1992. A series of discussions of a wide variety of perspectives, theories, ideas, and arguments in theory of knowledge, including internalism and externalism.

Kvanvig, Jonathan L., ed. Warrant in Contemporary Epistemology: Essays in Honor of Plantinga’s Theory of Knowledge. Lanham, Md: Rowman and Littlefield, 1996. This collection of essays examines Plantinga’s views on warrant and proper function and his theory of knowledge. Includes bibliography and index.

Sosa, Ernest. Collected Essays in Epistemology. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Defends an account of knowledge in which one is justified within an environment and relative to a community of believers.

Tomberlin, James, and Peter van Inwagen, eds. Alvin Plantinga. Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1985. Collection of essays on various aspects of Plantinga’s work, including the work that provided the background for the trilogy on warrant.

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