Thomas Reid: A Clean Epistemology

Responding to skeptics, Reid notes that our beliefs are formed by our very constitution (40-41). We cannot always give a justifying foundation for every belief (indeed, for most), yet only a fool would say we are irrational in holding beliefs a…z. In fact, to use modern parlance, our natural condition is a belief-creating mechanism (see his famous quote on p. 118); indeed, one created by God. Along the way Reid, to anticipate Nicholas Wolterstorff, gives a fascinating retelling of the history of modern philosophy (pp. 106ff, 244). He ends with a discussion on what counts as “First Principles.”

Thomas Reid was responding to the idealism of Locke, Berkeley, and Hume. In a nutshell, and woefully oversimplifying what they believed, they said that in every act of memory there are two objects, one mental object in my head and the external, mediate object in real life. One of the dangers of this thought is that the external object, when the process is pushed to the limit, is dropped, leaving only as real the internal objects.

Reid’s answer to skepticism came like a summer rain: God created my brain in such a way, assuming I don’t have a concussion or something, that he will not deceive me. If I can use the laws of logic and grammar to understand what the Skeptic says about something difficult then I can understand something simple as when the prophet Isaiah tells me that the Servant suffered for the sins of my people (to use an example from hermeneutics).

But someone can respond, “Well, how do you know your mental faculties are working accordingly?” There are several responses:
I can return the question, “They must be working well enough for me to understand your question.”

This was Reid’s answer: Forgo the question right away. Simply suppose he is merry. If you find out he is serious, then suppose him mad.

“Defines common sense as those principles which we use everyday but can’t give a reason for using, yet the not-using of them leads to absurdity. Thus, contrary to the Van Tillians who think Reid is an autonomous rationalist, common-sense is a mode of knowing, not a set of propositions leading to a foundation.”

“grounds our knowing in our own constitution. Contra Hume, we don’t need to give an explicit justification for knowing x; it’s in our very constitution (thus avoiding Hume’s idealism). Holds to first principles, but says we don’t need to account for them. They are part of our constitution and people who deny them use them to deny them.”

The book was actually…fun. Reid is among the foremost prose stylist of English philosophy (I suppose that isn’t a great feat). While this edition is abridged, it’s not really a problem as it is the referenced edition among current Warrant studies.

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Review: Plantinga, Warrant and Proper Function

Plantinga begins by examining the Gettier-type problems that internalist accounts of knowledge face. Having shown these difficulties, Plantinga is now able to set the stage for his externalist approach to warrant. This he does by explaining our design function: Any well formed human being who is in an epistemically congenial environment and whose intellectual faculties are in good working order will typically take for granted at least three things: that she has existed for some time, that she has had many thoughts and feelings, and that she is not a thought or feeling (Plantinga 50).

He then examines three apparent weak points of externalism and show not only are they strong points, only a fool would challenge them: memory, other persons, and testimony. In the nature of the case we do not have basic beliefs about these three entities in the sense that evidentialism and classic foundationalism require (especially memory and testimony; solipsism has a host of problems beyond this). Throughout this defense we see the vindication of Thomas Reid.

The book is quite difficult and technical, though. The sections on probability will lose all but the most formidable philosophers. While reading these chapters one is reminded of Eowyn’s comments to Merry before the battle: “Courage, Merry; it will soon be over.”

He then gives a (mostly) wonderfully lucid discussion of coherentism, classic foundationalism, and Reidian foundationalism. Coherentism sees truth as a source of warrant in the existing relations of one’s beliefs: does a belief “cohere” and “mesh” in a larger noetic structure? Plantinga suggests this is inadequate because coherentism only tells us of the doxastic relationships between beliefs. Warrant, by contrast, needs far more, experience among other things (179). Classical foundationalism is wrong because it is self-referentially incoherent. It is not the case that the foundationalist claim (a belief is properly basic because it is either self-evident to me or immediately present to my senses) meets its own criteria: it is not self-evidently true nor is it available to the senses (182). This leaves us with Plantinga’s position: Reidian foundationalism. If a belief is formed in proper circumstances according to its proper cognitive design, it has warrant.

Conclusion:

The book began well and ended well. The middle sections were good, too, but likely only of interest to the most doughty of analytic philosophers. While I agree with Plantinga’s thesis, there are some shortcomings (but these can be excused because they have been treated in later works). The section on Reidian foundationalism, for example, while fundamentally sound, seemed to lack, forgive the pun, coherence in articulation. I kept seeing what RF was not in relation to classical foundationalism, but very little on what it was. The final chapters on naturalism are interesting, but have since been further refined in Plantinga’s later works.

Harassing the Hobgoblins: Intro to Analytic Theology

I am not an expert in analytic theology, and I have been critical of analytic philosophy in the past.  Nonetheless, it can be useful in clarifying concepts.  One problem is that people jump into the deeper waters, reading countless computer symbols and the analytic guys never bother to clarify what’s going on.  I’ll try.

Beginner

McCall, Thomas.  Introduction to Analytic Theology.  It is what the title says. He introduces some key concepts but doesn’t really get beyond Leibniz’s Law.  Still, anything McCall writes is worth getting.

Moreland, JP.  Love Your God with all your Mind.  What would it look like if you applied analytic reasoning to the development of the soul?

Morris, Thomas V.  Our Idea of God.  He doesn’t call it analytic theology, but it is an early essay into how it is done.  Wonderfully accessible.

Nash, Ronald.  The Concept of God.  Kind of a simplified version of Plantinga’s Does God have a Nature?  Some great responses to open theism.

Clark, Kelly.  Return to Reason.  This is the unsung volume in apologetics.

Intermediate

McCall, Thomas.  Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism?  Not primarily analytic theology, per se, but it is a great application of analytic theology.

Crisp and Rea, Analytic Theology: New Essays.  Some outstanding essays, some bleh.  Sadly, Rea, Wolterstorff, and possibly stump have surrendered the field on sexual ethics.

Craig and Moreland, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview.  Somewhat technical, but simply grand.

Moreland and Rae, Body and Soul.  Outstanding defense of substance dualism.  Moreland writes with Kingdom Power.

Moreland, JP.  Kingdom Triangle.  Triangulates (sorry) analytic theology with continuationist theology.

Morris, Thomas V. Logic of God Incarnate.  Rescues Christology from the contradiction charge.  Several very important concepts introduced.

Plantinga and Wolterstorff.  Faith and Rationality.  Almost as important historically as it is philosophically.

Richards, Jay Wesley. The Untamed God.  Introduces modal concepts and show where they advance beyond Aristotle.

Advanced

Kripke, Saul.  Naming and Necessity.  Some technical chapters, but a mostly accessible work on language and possible worlds.

Lewis, David.  Counterfactuals.  Very difficult, but Lewis does walk you through his method, so it is readable.

Plantinga, Alvin. Nature of Necessity.  One of the most important philosophy works in the last century.  Possible Worlds matter.

———–.  Does God Have a Nature? Plantinga got accused of denying simplicity in this book.  I never saw where he did so.  Great primer on how to do analytic theology.

———–.  Warrant and Proper Function.   Clears up a lot of (perhaps deliberate) misunderstanding on what Plantinga means by “warrant.

———.  Warranted Christian Belief.  Application of his previous two books.

Frame: Theology in the Enlightenment

In this chapter Frame refocuses his argument and explains why he spends more time on modern, rather than ancient thought.

A biblical metaphysic dictates an epistemology and ethic in which divine “revelation is the supreme authority” (Frame 214).  The problem for the Greeks–and I suspect for most of autonomous thought– is “that the object of knowledge–the world–is irrational,” which means the goal of knowing is to impose (violence?) a rational order on irrational chaos.

Frame says the two worst heresies the church faced are Deism and Liberalism (220).  I…um…don’t know about that.  But it does explain much of the book.  He defines liberal as anyone who doesn’t submit to the authority of Scripture (216ff).

He notes that Pascal is one of the first thinkers “to take seriously the subjective or existential dimension of knowledge, not as a barrier to understanding, but as a necessary basis for it” (231).

Jonathan Edwards

Edwards held to biblical revelation but he did not react hysterically to the Enlightenment.  Edwards also allows us to examine some aspects of ontology:

Substance: God is the only true substance.  Hints and charges of pantheism.  I don’t think Edwards intended this but it is hard to escape the charge.  See Oliver Crisp’s works on Edwards.

understanding: faculty of the mind.  Arises as God supplies us with impressions and ideas.

Will: the seat of passions and affections.  (JBA: this is true but Edwards said MUCH MORE on the will).

Thomas Reid

Surprisingly good section on Reid.  Van Tillians as a whole have been very sloppy in their scholarship on Reid.  Frame summarizes Reid’s first principles (243):

  1. Consciousnesss is reliable in showing us what exists.
  2. Conscious thoughts reveal a self, mind, or person.
  3. Memory is generally reliable.
  4. Personal identity continues through time (Ship of Theseus).
  5. Sense perception is generally reliable.
  6. People intuit that they have free will.
  7. Natural faculties (reason) are generally reliable.
  8. Others have life and intelligence similar to ours.
  9. Physical expressions and actions of people reveal their minds.
  10. Human testimony is generally reliable.
  11. People’s actions are more or less regular.
  12. The future will be generally like the past.

Frame has a problem with (6).  But for the rest these can’t be proven.  Their are prior to proof.  They aren’t absolute and one can find exceptions to them, but they are generally the case for everyday life.  They “force assent.”

Thomas Reid on Freedom

William Rowe gives a fantastic discussion on how British philosophers from Locke to Reid dealt with the problems of free agency and determinism. Regardless of whether one is a free will theist or a determinist, Rowe nicely clarifies what each thinker believed on these subjects.

Rowe begins with Locke’s Volitional Theory of Action. Actions are of two sorts: thoughts and motions of the body. The action is preceded by a certain act of will. S is free with respect to action A just in case it is in S’s power to do A if S should will to do A and in S’s power to refrain from doing A if S should will to refrain (78).

Necessary agent: a person’s actions are determined by the cause preceding those actions. This does not conflict with Lockean freedom, for Lockean freedom does not require that given the causes we could have acted differently–only that we act.

Problem for Locke: what determines the will on a given occasion to suspend some desire that is otherwise strong enough to move the will towards some other action (Rowe 10)?

Rowe offers a devastating counter-factual scenario: if I inject you with a drug so you can’t move your legs, then on Locke’s view you aren’t sitting freely. But if instead I hook your brain to a machine where I take away your *capacity* to will otherwise, on Locke’s account it would seem that this is a “free action,” since nothing is “making me” sit down.

Agent or Event Causation:

Point of clarification: thoughts and bodily motions that are actions are caused by volitions, and the volitions themselves, although not caused by other events, are caused by the person whose volitions they are (31). The person is the cause of the volition. his is substance causation. It is not reducible to causation by events. FWA (free will advocate) do not deny that events cause actions, pace Jonathan Edwards, but that these events have a prior cause in agents.

Event causation: roughly a physical event. Rowe argues that a necessitarian cannot consistently see herself as an agent cause of some of her actions (64). Something cannot cause me to be the agent-cause of an action. Being caused to cause A implies that, given the cause, one lacked the power not to cause A (67).

Reid’s View of Causation and Active Power

Reid’s Three Conditions
1. An agent must have the power to bring about the act of will.
2. The power to refrain from bringing about the act of will.
3. Exert her power to bring about or refrain.

Reid’s most controversial point: every event has an agent cause (quoted in Rowe 55-56). Rowe is a good enough philosopher that he sees where Reid’s argument could go, though Reid himself didn’t make much of it. If every event has an agent cause, then at the root of the universe’s existence is a Personal Agent.

Reid’s Conception of Freedom

negative thesis: if an action of ours is free, then our decision to do that action cannot have been causally necessitated by any prior events internal or external (Rowe 75-76)

positive thesis: free acts of will are caused by the agent whose acts they are (76).  

In contrasting Reidian freedom with Lockean freedom, Reid never says that an agent must have been able to do otherwise if he had willed to do otherwise.

What is the difference between the power to will to refrain from doing A (Locke) and the power not to will do to A (Reid)?  

For Reid the power to will is the power to cause the act of will.  

For Reid, the power to refrain from an action =/= the power not to will

Locke gives a scenario of a man locked in his room.  He wills to stay in his room but he doesn’t know it is locked.  For Locke, the person acts voluntarily but not freely.  But here is the problem for Locke:  the locked door causally necessitates his staying in the room, it does not causally necessitate his voluntary action of staying in the room.

volition (for Reid): an act of the mind, a determination of the mind or will to do or not do something (87).  

Reid’s Arguments for Libertarian Freedom

Basic argument (95):
1. Certain actions are in our power.
2. Bringing about these actions requires that we will them.
3. Actions that are in our power depend upon the determinations of our will.
4. If actions that are in our power depend upon the determination of our will, then the determinations of our will are sometimes in our power.
5. The determinations of our will are sometimes in our power.

Conclusion:

This book, while technical at times, is a fine addition and even introduction to the free will debate.

A nonexistent interview I did a while back

This interview never happened.  It is between me and myself.  On a more serious note, I have noticed that my philosophical readings do not fit into any specific category.  That is good, I suppose, since “joining a school” is not the best start.

Question: You have read Van Til, doesn’t that make you a Van Tillian?

Answer:  Not really.  I don’t find all of his apologetics convincing, but I do appreciate his reading of Greek and medieval theology.  I think he has a lot of promise in that area.  More importantly, Van Til, better than anyone else at his time, showed the importance of God as a Covenantal, Personal God.

Q.  But didn’t you used to promote Thomas Reid’s Scottish philosophy?  All the Van Tillians I know reject it.

A. There are two different “Van Tillian” answers to that question, and his reconstructionist disciples only knew one of them.  In Survey of Christian Epistemology (p. 132-134) he notes that if the Scottish school takes man’s cognitive faculties as a proximate starting point and not an ultimate one, then there is no real problem.  Further, we see Thomas Reid and Alvin Plantinga saying exactly that.   Elsewhere, however, Van Til was not as careful in his reading of Reid, and the reconstructionists read him as condemning Common Sense Realism.

Q.  So, is there a contradiction between the two schools?

A.  If the above distinction is made, I am not convinced there is.

Q. You keep mentioning Alvin Plantinga.  Are you a Reformed Epistemology guy?

A. I’ve read quite a bit of Wolterstorff and Kelly James Clark.  I like what they have to say.  I am not an expert on Plantinga so I have to demur at that point.  I do think there is a dovetailing between Thomas Reid and Plantinga, and if that convergence holds there is an exciting opportunity to unite Reformed guys along different epistemological and even geographical lines.

Q. What do you mean?

A. The guys in Westminster (either school) claim Van Til.  There is a debate on how well they understand him, but that’s beside the point. I think I have demonstrated above that there is no real contradiction between the two at least on the starting point.  This means that guys who hold to some variant of Common Sense epistemology and/or Van Tillian presuppositionalism do not have to be at loggerheads.

Q.  There is still one other Dutch giant you haven’t mentioned.

A.  You mean Herman Dooyeweerd, right?

Q. Correct.

A.  If you trace the development of the Reformed Epistemology school, you can find something like Dooyeweerd at the very beginning.  When Wolterstorff and Plantinga edited Faith and Rationality, they were at that time strongly influenced by Dooyeweerd. I am not saying that’s where they are today.   However, I do believe that Dooyeweerd’s contention that all men have a pre-theoretical “faith commitment” from the heart is in line with what Kelly James Clark and Van Til say about pretended neutrality.

A Reidian Internalist?

Thomas Reid is seen as the predecessor to Alvin Plantinga.  The latter holds to a “warrant” view of epistemology:  I don’t have to justify endless justifications for foundational beliefs.  Plantinga draws heavily from Reid.

Yet here is a thought:  can one hold to an internalist epistemology (knowledge = justified, true belief) and incorporate many of Reid’s insights?  I think one certain can on issues like anthropology and the will.