Proper Functionalism and the Metalevel : A Friendly Reply to Timothy and Lydia McGrew

Alvin Plantinga over the years has developed an epistemological system that would allow some beliefs to be warranted without the subject having to have internal access to those properties which confer warrant to those beliefs. Plantinga’s epistemology (proper functionalism) allows a subject be warranted so far as the right conditions relating to cognitive proper function are in place. Paraphrasing Joseph Kim’s summary (Kim 2011, 19.), Plantinga’s theory of warrant goes as follows:

S’s belief that P is warranted iff,
1) S’s cognitive faculties are functioning properly,
2) S’s cognitive environment is sufficiently similar to the one for which the cognitive faculties are designed for,
3) The design plan that governs the production of such belief is aimed at producing true belief, and
4) The design plan is a good one in that there is a high statistical (or objective) probability that a belief produced under these conditions will be true.

There have been however, objections to this externalist account of warrant. For the purposes of this paper, I will entertain Timothy and Lydia McGrew’s metalevel objection to Plantinga’s epistemology. I understand the objection to be an objection centering on a dialectical tension within Plantinga’s epistemology, in regard to needing to borrow from internalist conceptions of rationality in order to formulate defeaters. After articulating their objection, I will then proceed to argue that their objection fails for two reasons. Upon establishing this much, I will briefly engage with criticisms that could be raised against my responses. After arguing that such criticisms fail, I will take it that I have sufficiently answered the McGrews’ metalevel objection.

In the McGrew’s work Internalism and Epistemology, the McGrews argue that in order for Plantinga to use counterevidence and formulate defeaters, he must use internalist conceptions of rationality and counterevidence to which he has no claim.[1] The McGrews go about establishing this in two steps. Their first step requires them to bring up the distinction between metalevel beliefs and object level beliefs. For the McGrews, an object level belief is a belief that is not about the epistemic status of one’s own belief or the epistemic status of another subject’s belief.[2] At the object level, the McGrews point out that there appears to be a regress which would seem to pave the way for the need of a metalevel. This is so, as one could believe p on the basis of premises but eventually one could question p back to the premises on which it was based until one arrived at the epistemic bedrock.[3] According to the McGrews, “In this particular regress no terms of epistemic appraisal appear. This is a consequence of the fact that p is not a belief that employs epistemic concepts and S’s reasons for believing that p do not themselves employ epistemic concepts.”[4]

However, questions arise about the epistemic status of a subject’s belief. When one asks questions related to the epistemic status of an individual such as “Is S warranted in believing p at t?” one is going beyond the object level and is entering the metalevel. The McGrews argue that Plantinga’s system has a problem as it cannot demonstrate why a belief is justified at the metalevel. Furthermore, the McGrews argue that if internal rationality is not required, then there would be no way to avoid metalevel epistemic regress or circularity. In regard to this, the McGrews state,

Yet even there {metalevel circularity] may arise. Within Plantinga’s own system, for example, the proposition “God exists” may be held as “properly basic” without any premises. If one were to defend the claim that one is justified (or, in Plantingian terms, “warranted”) in holding it, using Plantinga’s own theory, one would state, inter alia, that God has designed us to have non-inferred spontaneous beliefs in His existence.[5]

Plantinga seems to admit that his system would entail epistemic circularity and he seems fine with it.[6]According to the McGrews, fellow Reformed epistemogist William Alston, likewise claims that having metalevel circularity is harmless. Alston states,

Surprisingly enough, {epistemic circularity}does not prevent our using such arguments to show that sense perception is reliable. … Nor, pari passu, does it prevent us from being justified in believing sense perception to be reliable by virtue of basing that belief on the premises of a simple track record argument. At least this will be the case if there are no “higher level” requirements for being justified…such as being justified in supposing the practice that yields the belief to be a reliable one, or being justified in supposing the ground on which the belief is based to be an adequate one.[7]

Thus, for Plantinga and Alston, there are no good reasons to accept that one must be justified at the metalevel in any significant sense. It seems likely that an externalist would want to reject metalevel requirements as these requirements would appear to be strictly internalist requirements and thus there would be no reason for an externalist to accept them.[8]

While the McGrews reject that one has to know that they know (KK theory) in order for a belief to be justified or warranted, they do advocate other additional conditions that need to be met at the metalevel. In regard to justification the McGrews advocate the Modal Principle. The Modal Principle states the following:

MP: If it is in principle impossible to show decisively that S’s belief that p is justified, then S is not justified in believing that p.[9]

The McGrews argue that if one wants to use the term warrant instead of justification, then they would invoke the Strong Modal Principle which states the following:

SMP: For any term E intended to indicate positive epistemic status, if it can be the case for some belief p that Ep while it is not in principle possible to show decisively that Ep, then E is not in fact a type of positive epistemic status.[10]

With this, the McGrews believe that they have sufficiently established that Plantinga’s epistemology must endorse metalevel circularity. Having the first step of their objection completed they proceed with the second step. According to the McGrews, accepting something like metalevel regress has consequences. For, if one were to reject KK, MP or SMP, then how could one formulate defeaters? Plantinga wants to formulate defeaters for the Great Pumpkin or for the believing in other things like naturalism, but given his theory of warrant, how could he do this successfully? For Plantinga, even if there is a defeater that invokes the irrationality of the belief which the subject holds, the subject could still be rational because internal rationality isn’t a necessary condition for warrant, being that the subject doesn’t have to meet any metalevel requirements. If internal rationality is not required for warrant, then how could one formulate defeaters that attempt to demonstrate internal irrationality? It seems that Plantinga and his disciples must steal from the internalist’s view in order to be consistent when formulating defeaters for other persons’ beliefs. Since Plantinga’s theory of warrant doesn’t give one any way to separate the epistemic sheep from the goats, it isn’t a preferable theory of warrant.[11] This would be so as a preferable theory of warrant would include an epistemological system that would allow one to formulate internal defeaters consistently and avoid this sort of epistemological nihilism that Plantinga’s view is apparently plagued by.

Clarifying Internal Irrationality and the Design Plan

But must those who advocate Plantinga’s theory of warrant steal from an internalist’s system when it comes to developing defeaters? If one’s system implied not being able to formulate defeaters for subjects’ beliefs, I could see why this theory of warrant would not be a preferable one; however, I think the advocate of Plantinga’s theory of warrant can avoid the McGrews’ criticisms in at least two ways.

Given that the McGrews are classical foundationalists, I assume for them that to be internally rational is to meet the traditional internalist requirements. Moreover, I assume that internal rationality would mean that one would have to have all of their beliefs properly based upon incorrigible or self-evident beliefs. If this is what the McGrews mean by internally rational, then I agree with Plantinga that internal rationality in this sense is not necessary for warrant. However, if all it means to be internally rational is something like the subject’s correct doxastic response (which for Plantinga, would include reflecting for defeaters as prescribed by the design plan)[12] to certain phenomenological imagery, then it would appear that the proper functionalist could endorse the necessity of some type of internal rationality.[13] In fact, the proper functionalist could even construe phenomenological imagery as evidence and thus, consider herself as an evidentialist. Having established this, defeaters could be formulated to demonstrate how a subject doesn’t appear to be giving the correct doxastic response. Moreover, it is important to point out that this being the case, given Plantinga’s design plan requirement for having to reflect for defeaters, one could not hold to a belief derived by proper function and either refuse to reflect on defeaters or refuse to make an appropriate doxastic response in light of a defeater.

Furthermore, just because the design plan doesn’t require a subject to always meet certain internalist requirements such as by having propositional arguments for their beliefs, it doesn’t follow that something like a propositional argument or certain evidence isn’t required for some beliefs.[14] Perhaps the design plan doesn’t require these sorts of internal requirements for beliefs like the belief in other minds or memory related beliefs, but it seems likely that it would require certain internalist conditions for things like the correct theory of warrant, high level scientific theories, or certain metaphysical beliefs such as the belief in naturalism. If the design plan did require these sorts of internal requirements for beliefs like the belief in naturalism, then it would appear that Plantinga isn’t being inconsistent when it comes to formulating defeaters that demonstrate the subjective irrationality of naturalism. Presumably then, the proper functionalist could actually advocate for something very close to the McGrews’ modal principle:

Proper Functionalist MP: If it is in principle impossible to show decisively that S’s belief that p is justified, then S is not justified in believing that p, insofar as the design plan requires such a requirement to be met for S’s belief that p.

Objections and Replies

Perhaps the McGrews would argue that their modal principles are analytic truths and if one wanted to incorporate their principles in a contingent manner, that is in a way that didn’t always hold and depended on the design plan of one’s cognitive system, it would be analogous to an individual saying something like 1+1=2 only insofar as it is a sunny day in Dallas. To make an analytic truth contingent in this way would rob it of its analytic meaning and render such a statement absurd. Even if the McGews pushed the proper functionalist to see that this would be the case if the their modal principles were analytic truths, if the proper functionalist thinks about and understands their modal principles and yet comes away unconvinced that such principles are analytic truths, it would seem to me that the McGrews would have to do more in order to motivate the proper functionalist to abandon her project. The McGrews could not simply argue that the principles are analytic and yet give no positive reason for the proper functionalist to affirm that they are. It seems to be that at best such an approach is asserting a groundless statement and at worst their argument could be taken in a way as to reflect circular reasoning. If the proper functionalist considers such principles and is left unconvinced that such principles are analytic, it would appear to me that the proper functionalist is in his epistemic right in rejecting such principles as analytic truths. Moreover, if this is the case, and such principles weren’t analytic, it would seem to me that the proper functionalist could incorporate their modal principles into a proper functionalist framework.

If the McGrews grant this, there is at least one more thing they could say in response to the proper functionalist who incorporates their modal principles into a proper functionalist framework. The McGrews could argue that I have not actually proven that their objection fails; I have only shown that it is epistemically possible that their objection fails. This is so as I only argue that it is possible that the design plan of our cognitive faculties require metalevel requirements be met for beliefs like the belief in the Great Pumpkin or the belief in naturalism. It is still possible however, that our faculties don’t require such metalevel requirements to be met for such beliefs to be warranted. And being that this is the case, I have failed to show that Plantinga doesn’t need to steal from the internalist’s view, rather I have only showed that it is only epistemically possible that he doesn’t need to steal from the internalist’s view.

Though I think this conclusion is right, I don’t see how this would be an objection. The whole externalist project is a conditional project and those who are sympathetic to it, aren’t likely to feel the need to know that we know what the design plan actually is in order to formulate defeaters towards particular beliefs that are produced from a subject’s cognitive system. The externalist is likely fine in formulating a defeater for the belief that ‘p’ as she personally thinks that ‘p’ isn’t part of the human design plan. And the externalist could rest assured, knowing that if the design plan does require certain metalevel requirements to be met, then her defeater would strip away such warrant for a subject who affirms ‘p.’ Now I suppose the McGrews would not be OK with this. Their internalist intuitions would leave them thinking that this should provide good reason for one to reject proper functionalism altogether. But why should the proper functionalist think that this is the case? Her intuitions are fine with the conditional nature of how one knows that ‘p,’ and this being the case, I don’t see any reason for why an already convinced proper functionalist would see the need to jump ship and abandon the project of proper functionalism. And with this said, I don’t see the McGrews’ objection as posing a major problem for proper functionalists.

In summary of this section, I have argued that Plantinga is not inconsistent in formulating defeaters for two reasons. First, I have argued that under Plantinga’s epistemology, all beliefs must be formed along with some degree of internal rationality. This being the case as the design plan requires an appropriate doxastic response to certain phenomenological imagery; an appropriate doxastic response that would even include one making the appropriate reflection for defeaters. If this is so, then one could not hold to a belief derived by proper function and either refuse to reflect on defeaters or refuse to make an appropriate doxastic response in light of a defeater. Second, I then argued that one could incorporate certain metalevel principles (even the McGrew’s own metalevel principles) into Plantinga’s proper functionalism. This of course would not work for all beliefs, but it seems epistemically possible that the design plan of our cognitive faculties could require their metalevel principle (or one like it), for certain beliefs. And in doing so, Plantinga would be in his right in directing defeaters towards those beliefs that do appear to need to meet metalevel requirements. Given what I have established here, it is clear that it is not the case that Plantinga must use internalist conceptions of rationality and counterevidence to which he has no claim, but in fact, certain internalist conceptions of rationality could rightly be seen within the proper functionalist framework.

[1] Timothy and Lydia McGrew, Internalism and Epistemology The Architecture of Reason (London: Routledge, 2007), 89.

[2] Ibid., 57.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 66.

[6] Ibid., 75.

[7] Ibid., 71. Also, cited from Alston, 1993, 16.

[8] Timothy and Lydia McGrew, Internalism and Epistemology The Architecture of Reason (London: Routledge, 2007), 77.

[9] Ibid., 73.

[10] Ibid., 74.

[11] Ibid., 88.

[12] See Beilby, 169.

[13] Here, I take phenomenological imagery to be synonymous or at least closely related to what is more commonly referred to in epistemology as ‘seemings.’ By ‘correct doxastic response,’ I just have in mind that a belief formed should be formed in an appropriate way as a response to the specific phenomenology one has. That is, there are particular ways in which you should form a belief given certain phenomenology that you have; and forming the right sort of belief from the corresponding stimuli, should be taken as a necessary condition (and perhaps sufficient in some cases) for internal rationality. If one has a particular experience that something is redly, the right sort of internal response would be to form the belief that something is redly.

[14] I take it that externalism just is the denial of internalism. That is to say, if one rejects that all beliefs need to meet some access requirement in order to be warranted, then one is espousing a variation of externalism. If this is the case, then Plantinga’s proper functionalism should still be considered as an externalist system, being that he denies that such access is required for certain beliefs (e.g. other minds).


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