Tyler McNabb, PhD, is an associate professor of philosophy currently teaching at the University of St. Joseph in Macau on the south coast of China. Previously, he was an assistant professor at Houston Baptist University. He is the author of several well-regarded books, including Religious Epistemology (Elements in the Philosophy of Religion) and the co-author of Plantingian Religious Epistemology and World Religions. He spoke with the Word on Fire Institute’s Matt Nelson about reformed epistemology and how his teenage crisis of faith brought him to where he is today. This is the first in Word on Fire’s periodic series “The Evangelizer’s Path.”
Matt Nelson: First of all, can you say something about how you came to pursue philosophy as a professional vocation?
Dr. McNabb: When I was sixteen years old, I began to doubt the Christianity that I was brought up in. I thought that if God doesn’t exist, well, probably there are no objective moral duties, and I’m free to pursue whatever type of lifestyle I want. I thought, if I couldn’t play professional basketball, I’ll go into the military and just enjoy life. (I was really big into the Gundam anime, and flying military planes was the closest I could get to flying Gundams.)
Finally, one evening, I prayed to God and told him that this was it. If he didn’t reveal himself to me right then and there, I was going to become an atheist. So I did what every good millennial would do. I googled something like, “Proof of God’s existence.” I came across a website that had various passages from the Old Testament that Jesus seemed to have fulfilled. I remember reading Isaiah 53 and just finding myself convinced that this was talking about Jesus.
Well, the next day, I was running late to school. So instead of rushing to get to class, I decided to pull over in a parking lot and open my Bible. I asked God to reveal to me if Jesus really is divine. I did the unpardonable evangelical sin and randomly opened up to a passage, put my finger on it, and read it. Thankfully, it was a passage that very much seemed to reflect Christ’s divinity. It could have gone very badly! Anyway, after I read it, I closed my Bible and felt the Spirit of God consume my heart. It was just joy. Pure joy. I couldn’t stop praising God. I would rush home after school to study and read the New Testament. I started street evangelizing a few months later. God was with me.
I soon realized while doing street evangelism that I needed to get into apologetics so I could minister to everyone I encountered, regardless of religious background. A couple of years later, I started evangelizing with a guy named Earthquake. He was very kind to me and taught me all about philosophy. He even showed me debates and lectures. I couldn’t get enough of it. I started reading contemporary philosophy books, taking philosophy courses, and even buying lectures on the history of Western philosophy. When it was time to go to graduate school, I decided to do an MA in philosophy. Getting into a PhD program followed this!
What is reformed epistemology? What attracted you to it?
Reformed epistemology is the thesis that religious belief can be justified or warranted apart from argumentation. For our purposes, we can ignore the technical parts of this definition and simply say that reformed epistemology is the thesis that it is possible to know that God exists, even if we aren’t aware of good arguments that establish his existence. Now, don’t let the word “reformed” trick you. The thesis doesn’t entail Calvin’s view of predestination or a Protestant understanding of soteriology. A philosopher named Alvin Plantinga (one of the greatest minds of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries) called this thesis “reformed” as he was inspired by Calvin’s Institutes. Specifically, Plantinga was inspired by Calvin arguing that the human person possesses a sensus divintatis (a sense of divinity). That is, the human person possesses a special cognitive faculty that is responsible for making him/her aware of God and his activities.
There are various ways that one could argue for the thesis of reformed epistemology. Plantinga argues for his thesis, in part, by endorsing what he calls proper functionalism. Without getting into all the details, the main idea is that a person’s belief is warranted if the person’s belief is the result of properly functioning cognitive faculties that are successfully aimed at truth.
I’ll take a mundane example to help elucidate this point. A lot of philosophers aren’t too keen on there being good arguments for the existence of other minds. This needn’t worry the proper functionalist. If a subject is designed to produce the belief that another mind exists when the subject encounters another mind, and the subject’s faculties are properly functioning and successfully aimed at truth when the subject forms the belief that another mind exists, then the subject’s belief that another mind exists would be warranted. The subject can have knowledge of other minds apart from having access to arguments.
In the same way, the reformed epistemologist (at least of the Plantingian stripe) argues that it is possible that we have a faculty (or faculties) designed to make us aware of divinity and divinity’s activities. And if this faculty is properly functioning and successfully aimed at truth when we form a belief about God and his activities, our belief would be warranted.
Take the example of picking up a delicate flower. You look at all of its intricacies and simply find yourself with the belief that “God created this.” Assuming this belief is the result of the proper function of your faculties, you can know that God created this flower without postulating a cosmological argument. Similarly, imagine you find yourself in a beautiful Catholic Church, and you become overwhelmed and in awe of your environment. Let’s say you form the immediate belief that God founded the Catholic Church. If your belief is the result of properly functioning faculties, you could know that God founded the Catholic Church, even apart from having access to good arguments for the Catholic faith.
How can reformed epistemology inform us on the relationship between faith and reason?
Reformed epistemology is simply a thesis that religious propositions can be known apart from having access to good arguments for one’s faith. So reformed epistemology doesn’t really elaborate much on the roles of faith and reason. However, many who endorse the thesis think that faith and reason aren’t opposed and that faith can elevate reason. Following Plantinga, I have specifically argued that even if the evidence that was accessible to all (you can also call this a third-person perspective evidence) was seemingly in conflict with our religious belief, our religious belief would still be warranted if it was the result of the proper function conditions being in place. Nothing more is needed!
How else might reformed epistemology be helpful to Catholics in their evangelical endeavors?
I utilize reformed epistemology in my street evangelism. I’m kind of old school in that I open-air preach. I might start off by saying something like, “If God exists, we can know that he exists.” And I sketch the typical Plantinga story. Then I’ll say something like, “So, if God exists, would you be right with him?” I then proceed to talk about the consequences of sin and that through Jesus’ death, burial, and Resurrection, God is reconciling the cosmos to himself. I usually invite them to repent and be tied to Jesus and what he did (I’ll say that the normative way to do this is through being baptized).
More than just using this as an apologetic, I also think reformed epistemology can help us avoid having an existential crisis. I know there was a time before I was a professional philosopher where I was extremely concerned that some philosopher would come up to me and destroy my faith by showing me that all of my arguments for my faith were refuted. This actually caused me to have a year of great anxiety. When I became a reformed epistemologist, I realized that I didn’t have to know all the best arguments or answers to all possible objections. My belief/faith could be rational as long as it was produced from the right conditions (i.e., properly functioning faculties). This actually allowed me to look more objectively at various arguments from natural theology, as my faith that God exists didn’t rest on arguments.
Which resources do you recommend for people who want to learn more?
I’d suggest reading Alvin Plantinga’s Knowledge and Christian Belief for beginners. Once that is under your belt, I’d encourage you to check out my Religious Epistemology (Cambridge University Press) and a book I co-edited entitled Debating Christian Religious Epistemology (Bloomsbury Press).
Finally, if you are looking for something that thoroughly engages the Catholic tradition from a reformed epistemology perspective, see Gregory Stacey’s work, especially his PhD thesis Towards a Catholic Epistemology. Gregory, Erik Baldwin (he’s in the edited volume that I mentioned), and I are hosting a conference on reformed epistemology and Catholicism in March 2022. It will be an online conference, so anyone interested can contact me and can attend the conference virtually (for free!).
For more information, see https://philevents.org/event/show/91990. Of course, if academic conferences aren’t your thing, you could always come to the University of Saint Joseph in Macao (aka, the only Catholic University in China) and take an epistemology course with me!