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Christian Perspectives on Religious Knowledge.

Christian Perspectives on Religious Knowledge. Edited by C. STEPHEN EVANS and MEROLD WESTPHAL. Pp. viii + 224. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993. ISBN 0 8028 0679 1. Paper 10.99 [pounds sterling].

THIS is a collection of essays written in honour of the American academic, Arthur Holmes, by those taught or influenced by him. Its central focus is to be found in one major area of contemporary debate in the philosophy of religion, the nature of the response that we should make to the alleged collapse of Cartesian foundationalism--the view particularly associated with Descartes that there are single, right answers to the question of where the foundations of any claims to knowledge should be sought. Alvin Plantinga (himself one of the contributors to this volume) has helped shape what has come to be known as 'Reformed epistemology', which allows belief in God itself to be treated as a basic belief, not requiring any further justification. Closely linked with this claim (and helping to make it more plausible) is the substitution of an externalist account of justified belief for Descartes' internalism. What matters is not the structure of our belief system, but the mechanism by which they are produced: was the belief produced in a reliable way? Thus, just as our perceptions now become a matter of normal bodily function, so for the theist it would seem reasonable to assume a divine order such that under certain appropriate circumstances religious belief too is generated. It is that theory which all the earlier essays are either concerned with elaborating, or else with noting possible objections, of which account must then be taken. For instance, William Hasker raises the problem of what might be said of a scenario in which the right answer is produced through misfunction, as when someone blind nonetheless consistently gets his position right thanks to some quirk of the blindness that now allows him to do this through his magnetic field.

The other main concern of the volume might be described as historical revisionism, various arguments to the effect that traditional readings of the history of philosophy are unilluminating because they are wrong. By no means the first to do so, but still startling to those unfamiliar with the contention, Laura Garcia argues that Aquinas' nearest modern ally is in fact Reformed epistemology. Again, Donn Welton maintains that the starting point for Descartes' philosophy lies not in his analysis of the mind but in his 'almost daily' visits to the butcher to watch the dissection of animals. This is also the principal focus of the essays from the two editors. Ironically, Westphal criticizes Plantinga for not being Reformed or Calvinist enough. Plantinga criticizes Kant for his antirealism about human knowledge, that 'the thing-in-itself' remains quite distinct from what we actually perceive. But might, Westphal asks, this not be used to distinguish between divine and human knowledge, vitiated as the latter is by human sin? Evans uses the opportunity to argue that worries about basing faith on historical uncertainties have their origin not, after all, in empirical details of historical investigation but in rationalist presuppositions.

In Evans' case the wording of Lessing's ditch provides obvious support. But it seems much less plausible as a universal contention, and the real merit of the article, for me at least, lies in the way in which he attempts to harness Kierkegaard in support of faith venturing historical risk. That worry about Evans exaggerating his case raises a more general worry about the volume as whole. There is an insidious temptation always to want one answer. But might the truth of reliabilism or internalism not depend partly on the nature of the question? Similarly, it is surely a mistake to think that we can easily slot philosophers of previous generations into one single modern category. The reason why it is often easy to argue for radically opposed accounts is because their questions were only tangential to ours. We can, of course, still put our questions, but it would be absurd to suppose that this is all that is then required for an adequate dialogue.

DAVID BROWN
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Author:Brown, David
Publication:The Journal of Theological Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Apr 1, 1996
Words:680
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