On Plantinga's account, true belief becomes knowledge under epistemic warrant; and epistemic warrant requires the 'proper functioning' of our cognitive faculties in the right kind of cognitive environment. Plantinga further holds that the resulting knowledge has a foundational structure which is most securely based on theistic assumptions. Can we consistently accept his account of epistemic warrant and reject the theistic foundationalism ?

Source of problem : A. Plantinga, 'Warrant and Proper Function', Oxford, 1993.

  • 1
    Can you define some of your jargon for us? Perhaps give some links? Commented Jun 8, 2011 at 1:53

1 Answer 1


In my opinion, an atheist can, but probably wouldn't accept Plantinga's account of warrant. To clarify what is being discussed, here's a formulation of Plantinga's warrant taken from a summary of his second book:

Cognition must be functioning properly (and functioning for the cognitive environment for which it was designed), the original plan of design must a good one, its relevant modules aimed at truth, and the objective probability of a belief being true (depending on all these underlying factors) must be high.

Although the word "design" is used a number of times, that does not in itself infer God or an intelligent designer. Design can come from undirected processes, which is the contention of Darwinian evolution. Another example of an undirected process that produces a functional design would be a river bed. Nobody tells the river where to flow, but the process of flowing haphazardly produces a path that efficiently moves water from high to low ground. It is a design in a sense, but there is no intelligent designer.

The difficultly Plantinga addresses, however, is how one would produce a design for a truth-determining mechanism such as a mind. It would seem that if the second and third criteria (a good original plan and modules aimed at truth) were denied, the final criterion (high likelihood of producing truth) would be denied as well. And it seems unlikely that any unguided process would be a good plan for producing a functional mind or that modules would be directed at truth rather than, say, fitness in the evolutionary sense.

But an atheist could suggest following Plato that Mind exists as an abstract and that our minds imitate or mimic the form of Mind. To put it in the terms above, the form of Mind is the original plan (and it is a good one) and the modules of minds aim at true because they mimic the modules of the form of Mind. I see that type of thought in the works of Douglas Hofstadter, for instance.

I'm not aware of any atheist thinker who does accept Plantinga's account of warrant, however. It seems to have been designed to counter the idea that since we have the mechanism of evolution, we no longer need a theory of epistemology besides the assertion that evolutionary processes must result in better and better minds.

  • 1
    I've never heard of this before - but it sounds interesting. Would it be reasonable to claim that a mind directed at fitness in the evolutionary sense would, in service to that fitness, tend to determine truth well? Commented Jun 7, 2011 at 23:50
  • 4
    @Ethel: In short: no. There's not much chance I can do Plantinga's work justice. One place to start would be: philofreligion.homestead.com/Papersbyplantinga.html Commented Jun 8, 2011 at 0:21
  • @Ethel Evans - It would be reasonable to claim that inasmuch as determination of truth is (a) not dreadfully difficult and (b) contributes positively to fitness, that minds would tend evolutionarily towards being good determiners of truth. You still have to argue that truth can be determined from sensory input, and that knowing the truth contributes positively to fitness. In fact, there are suggestions that humans in some ways make fit but untruthful estimates: a parent's estimate of their child's capabilities are usually woefully wrong, and yet they are more fit for holding their child dear.
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Aug 27, 2011 at 23:20
  • @JonEricson - Careful with the teleological baggage. Design cannot come from undirected processes unless those processes are themselves "designed". Water also does not flow haphazardly, but as it is determined to flow. Even the word "efficiency" is teleological because it implies "for an end". You can say that a particular path from A to B requires e.g. less energy, but there's no reason for that path-to-B except those causes which determined it. Furthermore, as stated above, (given a determined universe) one here must show that a capacity for truth contributes enough to survival to develop.
    – danielm
    Commented Nov 23, 2012 at 23:28

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .