A Perspective on Plantinga’s Theory of Warrant

One characterization of what happens with specialization in philosophy is that the strategy becomes that of collecting patches for an idea, and that certainly characterizes Plantinga’s theory of warrant. In my view, the sequence of patches reveals something important (i.e., defective) about the theory.

In brief, Plantinga begins by identifying warrant with whatever closes the gap between true belief and knowledge. This approach allows Plantinga to use examples that drive development of the theory in terms of whether those examples are examples of knowledge. All one needs to do is to say this: suppose the belief in question were true–would the person in question have knowledge?

When reading Plantinga’s theory from the point of view of thinking of warrant as whatever turns true belief into knowledge, I find myself allowing some of these steps where I wouldn’t allow them if I were thinking more in terms of the kinds of normative evaluations we intuitively make about beliefs: intuitive normative notions including warranted belief but also responsible belief, justified belief, reasonable belief, etc. But given the methodology, it would be a mistake to approach Plantinga’s theory in this way. Instead, I find myself being at least somewhat sympathetic with the following steps: identify warrant with proper function, require a design plan for things that function properly, and then build in both truth-conduciveness into the design plan and a friendly environment as conditions for warrant.

But here come the patches.

The first patch is to weaken the statement of what warrant is. Initially it was that which closes the gap between true belief and knowledge, but then it because that quantity which, when you have enough of it, and add true belief to it, you have knowledge. The first patch acknowledges something about the intuitive notions of warrant, rationality, justification, and responsibility–namely, that they come in degrees. If warrant is simply that which when added to true belief gives you knowledge, then the degree point seems to get lost. So a first patch is needed, and used.

It is not clear that using this patch puts us in the same position about the cases Plantinga uses to develop the theory. Once we start honoring aspects of the ordinary normative notions, it’s no longer clear that we can use the same cases Plantinga uses to draw the same conclusions. Instead of the simple procedure of asking whether by adding true belief to the story, knowledge results, we have to do something more complicated and harder to assess. We have to ask whether, assuming the belief is true, we’ve travelled down the road from true belief to knowledge in a given case. Now my reaction depends on my mood. In my charitable mood, I’ll give a lot. In my normal(!) mood, I’ll balk every time I can find something good about the belief from a purely cognitive point of view (besides the good involved in having a true belief). The result is that in normal moods, even the first step of identifying warrant with proper function is suspect.

Things get worse, however. A second significant patch is needed for Gettier cases, as Plantinga admits in 1996 in response to papers by Klein and Feldman in the volume of essays I edited. The patch involves distinguishing between a maxi-environment and a mini-environment, and Plantinga to this date still doesn’t have a good theory of a mini-environment (the latest attempt is a really a kind of defeasibility theory, but, I think, not adequately sensitive to the need to distinguish misleading from non-misleading defeaters).

This patch makes the sequence of steps in developing the theory intolerable, I think. Recall that we began thinking of warrant as an amalgam of whatever conditions are needed to turn true belief into knowledge. So, having been schooled in the Gettier literature, I understand Plantinga to want warrant to be a combination of the third condition, usually clarified in terms of justification, and the fourth condition, for which, I say tendentiously, the defeasibility theory is the only interesting game in town.

But now the first patch conflicts with this second patch. I can either think of the second patch as an additional condition for knowledge, or as an additional condition for warrant. If the former, then all my charitable inclinations noted above were inappropriate: the theory is that knowledge is warranted true belief in a suitable mini-environment. I should evaluate the examples used to drive the theory of warrant the way I’d evaluate any examples used to drive any normative theory, and then the very first move, from warrant to proper function, is suspect (lots of normatively positive beliefs involve improperly functioning equipment, just as good things sometimes, even if rarely, happen when machines malfunction).

That leaves taking the second patch as revealing an additional condition for warrant. But if I take it this way, it looks like ‘warrant’ is, once again, nothing more than a placeholder for whatever plugs the gap between true belief and knowledge, and when I think of it in this way, I no longer have any reason to think that warrant comes in degrees (the motivation for the first patch). Some conditions for knowledge may come in degrees, and if Hetherington is right, even knowledge itself does. But there’s no inference from either of these points to any point about warrant, conceived of as a placeholder in the way described. So either way, the patches don’t fit together.


A Perspective on Plantinga’s Theory of Warrant — 5 Comments

  1. Hi Professor Kvanvig! It’s exciting to be commenting on your blog!

    Okay, I thought a LOT about your post since I’m personally convinced that something like Plantinga’s theory of warrant/knowledge is true or very close to the truth. I think part of the hangup is finding out whether Plantinga has a plausible theory of degrees of warrant when the warrant is not warrant sufficient for knowledge. (Of course, once that warrant IS sufficient for knowledge, however, then the degree of warrant is proportional to the degree of firmness by which the belief is held.) I’ll get back to you if I find a good account of degrees of warrant in this sense. I’m not familiar if Plantinga has explicitly tried to formulate this, although I know he does believe there are degrees of warrant even when that warrant isn’t sufficient for knowledge. (See my quote below.)

    Two more points: You say that Plantinga hasn’t come up with a good theory of a mini-environment. I don’t see anything particularly problematic in what he said in Analysis (1997), where he writes:
    “Just what does ‘appropriateness’… for a cognitive mini-environment, consist in: can we say anything more definite? Intuitively, a mini-environment is favourable, for an exercise of cognitive powers, if that exercise can be counted on to produce a true belief in that mini-environment…
    it’s not that a belief produced in an unfavourable mini-environment has no warrant at all, but only that it doesn’t have a degree of warrant sufficient for knowledge… no false belief has a degree of warrant sufficient for knowledge.” (I can’t find the page #).

    So an appropriate cognitive mini-environment is one with what he calls a “resolution condition”, which ensures true belief. This entails that warrant sufficient for knowledge entails truth, something Trenton Merricks has been arguing. I think I’m mostly convinced that Merricks is right. (I’ve just recently read Merricks’ article in PPR 1995, though I have yet to read Sharon Ryan’s 1996 response, nor Merricks’ response to Ryan in 1997. You seemed very skeptical of this thesis when I visited Missouri, but I’m more optimistic and I’m looking forward to reading the debate between these two.) Anyway, while I’m not completely satisfied with Plantinga’s analysis (and perhaps there’s a better one yet to come), I don’t particularly see a problem with his proposal mentioned here. What do you think? Also, you mentioned that Plantinga’s latest attempt is a defeasibility theory; what were you referring to?

    But here is the crucial point of your blog that surprised me: “I understand Plantinga to want warrant to be a combination of the third condition, usually clarified in terms of justification, and the fourth condition, for which, I say tendentiously, the defeasibility theory is the only interesting game in town.” I think if the third condition were justification, then Plantinga might agree that a defeasibility theory is the only game in town. But unless I’m misunderstanding you, Plantinga is very clear in rejecting the third condition as justification, because he wants to replace what he thinks is a deontological or internalist condition with his externalist, proper-functionalist view. So Plantinga wouldn’t want a fourth defeasibility condition because isn’t that the work that his maxi/mini-environment is supposed to do anyway? (To solve Gettier problems?) Plantinga, I think, would want his own proper-functionalist third condition (which is really four conditions in itself) to be that quantity or quality enough of which is sufficient for knowledge – no justification condition is necessary.

    That’s all!

  2. Andrew, thanks for taking the time to comment here. You’re right that Plantinga doesn’t want justification to be one of the conditions for knowledge. That’s why I referred only to a third and fourth condition, leaving open just what construal one gives of each (though it is true that the third is usually clarified in terms of justification).

    As to warrant entailing truth, I think there’s a lot to learn from the exchange between Ryan and Merricks. And about mini-environments, Tom Crisp’s paper on it is very good, as Plantinga acknowledges in WCB. It’s there that I believe he turns his theory into a defeasibility theory, though, of course, he doesn’t quite put it that way.

  3. Okay, I know a little bit more about the subject now. Joel Pust makes a similar comment in an article in Analysis (2000) where he argues that Plantinga’s use of the term “warrant” to denote whatever turns a true belief means that he’s not allowed assuming that warrant comes in degrees. It is simply unclear that warrant will have the property of coming in degrees as justification does.

    Now here’s where I see a different sort of conflict in Plantinga’s account. On the one hand, when Plantinga talks about degrees of warrant, he initially (and I think even in WCB), speaks of those degrees as corresponding with the firmness by which we hold the belief. I believe simple mathematical truths more firmly than that I was born in Ohio, so the former belief has more degrees of warrant. This has some intuitive appeal. But upon reflection, this does not seem to be accurate because he thinks that we can only apply the notion of degrees of warrant corresponding to firmness of belief once the proper function conditions have been satisfied. But it doesn’t seem to be the case that those proper functionalist conditions come in degrees. Rather, I think it would have been better if Plantinga had said that ONE of the conditions for warrant, (the degree of strength in holding the belief) is what comes in degrees, not warrant itself.

    On the other hand, in his Analysis 97 article (and I believe in WCB), Plantinga talks about degrees of warrant in a different sense. This is where he says that in the case that a belief satisfies all of the proper functionalist conditions except for the minienvironment condition, the belief has some warrant, but not warrant sufficient for knowledge. So here he is talking about degrees in a different sense, one that doesn’t have to do with the firmness by which we hold the belief or the sorts of degrees we talk about when we talk about justification. But in this sense, it’s a very odd thing to talk about degrees of warrant (if we are talking about warrant meeting some of the proper functionalist conditions but not meeting the minienvironment condition). It seems like in this case, it’s better to just say that the belief has no warrant at all. But as Pust argues in his article, it’s likely that we don’t have much intuitive grasp of warrant outside of our intuitive grasp of knowledge and true belief.

    Here’s one way things could remain coherent. It may seem forced, but it may be what Plantinga thinks. We can think of degrees of warrant as corresponding to the number of proper function conditions cum firmness of belief conditions have been met and, secondarily, how strongly they’ve been met. This coheres with Plantinga saying that beliefs that meet all the proper functionalist conditions minus the correct minienvironment have some degrees of warrant, and it also coheres with his saying that the degrees of warrant increase when there is increased firmness of belief. (I can see that more details might have to be made, but I think this is enough.)

    But overall, I think it’s better to just say that warrant doesn’t come in degrees at all or take my first suggestion (where you say one of the properties of warrant comes in degrees – most internalists would be fine with this). It’s hard to assess that warrant itself (not merely one of the conditions for warrant) comes in degrees. Whatever the fourth condition is (or whatever the externalist condition is that replaces both the third and fourth conditions), it seems like it probably doesn’t come in degrees or we’re not in the proper epistemic situation to know it comes in degrees.

  4. One more point, just for the record. Plantinga’s most recent description of the use of the term “warrant” is found in WCB in which he writes, “Suppose we use the term ‘warrant’ to denote that further quality or quantity (perhaps it comes in degrees), whatever precisely it may be, enough of which distinguishes knowledge from mere true belief” (153). Here we see that Plantinga has backed off from stating that “warrant” denotes a property that comes in degrees (and instead indicates agnosticism by saying “perhaps it comes in degrees”), but at the same time, he implies that warrant does come in degrees in the last part of his description where he says “enough of which”. This is confusing. It may be a nitpicky detail of which there is nothing of interest to conclude, which is why I’m writing just for the record.

  5. Andrew, it would be a bad thing, I think, for Plantinga to give up on the idea that warrant comes in degrees. Epistemic conditions can be better or worse, even if you think that justification is not the appropriate epistemic condition to focus on when characterizing knowledge.

    There are pretty bad problems, though, for the attempt to piggyback degree of warrant on degree of belief. You might take a look at Markie’s paper in the collection I edited on Plantinga for a really nice account of the problems.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *