Is Belief in God Properly Basic?

We will discuss this on Saturday, April 20.

Popular discussions about the existence of God tend to revolve around whether or not there is sufficient evidence to believe God exists.  Alvin Plantinga, a Christian philosopher, argues that this is the wrong question.  He points out that there are many beliefs which we all accept without evidence, such as the existence of other people’s minds and the general reliability of our own memories.  These beliefs that we accept without evidence are basic beliefs; the question is, can God be included as a properly basic belief?

Foundationalism and its Rejection

The common objection goes like this: belief in God is somehow irrational, unreasonable, or intellectually irresponsible because there is not enough evidence.  The common rejoinder is that there is plenty of evidence, and therefore we should believe.  What unites both positions is the idea that belief in God is only acceptable if there is enough evidence.  The idea is that someone is only rational, reasonable or responsible in accepting theistic belief if they base their belief in God on some other belief.

This is classical foundationalism.  Some beliefs are based upon others, so I believe A because of B.  For example, I believe that the word “umbrageous” is spelled the way it is because that’s how the dictionary says it is spelled.  However, there are some beliefs which we don’t have that kind of foundation for: these are basic beliefs.  Plantinga’s example here is arithmetic: I don’t believe 1+2=3 on the basis of any other propositions.  I also believe I am sitting in a chair, and I don’t believe that on the basis of another idea.

But some beliefs we don’t accept on the basis of any other beliefs.  These are basic beliefs.  For example, I don’t believe 1+2=3 on the basis of any other propositions.  I also think I am sitting in a chair.

For classical foundationalism, “some propositions are properly or rightly basic for a person and some are not.  Those that are not, are rationally accepted only on the basis of evidence, where the evidence must trace back, ultimately, to what is properly basic.” (3)  The key question is, is belief in God among those properly basic beliefs?

Theologians influenced by John Calvin are generally called reformed theologians.  Reformed theologians commonly reject natural theology, which is the attempt to provide proofs or arguments for the existence of God.  They say that not only are the attempts often unsuccessful, but the whole project is somehow misguided.  Plantinga thinks the core of this tradition is basically a rejection of classical foundationalism, but it’s a kind of unfocused, unclear sort of rejection.  Plantinga aims to clarify their thinking: he thinks they mean to argue that belief in God is properly basic.  He says,

“What reformed thinkers really mean to hold, I think, is that belief in God need not be based on argument or evidence from other propositions at all.  They mean to hold that the believer is entirely within his intellectual rights in believing as he does even if he doesn’t know of any good theistic argument (deductive or inductive)… even if in fact no such argument exists.”

The Ethics of the Mind And Foundationalism

A lot of the above language is normative – it is about what we should do or believe.  For example, it is irresponsible to believe something without evidence just like it is irresponsible to let your kids play in traffic.  The idea is that one who holds theistic beliefs is in some way irrational or substandard: “The theist fails to measure up to a standard he ought to conform to.”   We have duties and responsibilities concerning beliefs just as we do concerning actions: Plantinga quotes another philosopher who says, “Equate your assent to the evidence.”

The ethics of the mind could mean a few different things.  There could be a duty or obligation to not accept something without evidence, but one problem with this is that one’s beliefs are not always under one’s control.  Most of those who believe in God could not change that just by trying.  So maybe the idea is to cultivate a set of intellectual habits that will tend to accept propositions as basic that actually are basic.

Or the obligation could be teleological: “it is a moral obligation arising out of a connection between certain intrinsic goods and evils and the way in which our beliefs are formed and held.” Or it could be thought of as a matter of virtue: “there are valuable… intellectual states (whether intrinsically or extrinsically valuable); there are also corresponding intellectual virtues, habits of acting so as to promote and enhance those valuable states.”  Therefore we should encourage those states in ourselves and others.  Or it could be deontological: the obligation arises just because we have a certain kind of mental equipment.  What all these positions have in common is the idea is that there is such an obligation, and that a theist who believes without evidence is failing to meet this obligation.

Classical foundationalism states that an idea or proposition is properly basic for an individual if it is either self-evident, incorrigible, or evident to the senses.  Plantinga claims this is incoherent, because it cannot justify believing in very common things like perceptions (“I see a tree”), memories (“I had breakfast this morning”), and other people’s states (“That person is angry”).

These beliefs are often taken as basic, but they are not groundless.  An experience leads me to believe I am seeing a tree.  Being appeared to by a tree “plays a crucial role in the formation and justification of that belief.” That experience justifies me in holding the belief.

If I see someone displaying pain behavior, I take it that they are in pain.  It is not that the displayed behavior is evidence for that belief, per se.  I also do not infer that belief from other beliefs I hold.  The immediate perception of the pain behavior plays a unique role in the perception and justification of the belief that the person is in pain.  It is the same for memory; I cannot produce evidence that I had breakfast this morning, and I cannot infer the truth of that statement based on other beliefs.  It is immediate knowledge.

In each case, there is a circumstance that justifies belief.  In the case of believing I see a tree, the circumstances which justify that belief will involve seeing a tree.  But I might have a defect with my memory or vision – I am color blind, so maybe I’m not justified in seeing a green pool ball.

Belief in God

The same can be said of God.  It is not that there are no justifying circumstances for belief in God, or that such believe is groundless or gratuitous:

“Quite the contrary, Calvin holds that God ‘reveals and daily discloses himself to the whole workmanship of the universe,’ and the divine art ‘reveals itself in the innumerable and yet distinct and well-ordered variety of the heavenly host.’”

God has created us to have a tendency to see his hand in the world around us:

“More precisely, there is in us a disposition to believe propositions of the sort this flower was created by God or this vast and intricate universe was created by God when we contemplate the flower or behold the starry heavens or think about the vast reaches of the universe.”

Calvin implicitly recognizes that other circumstances can trigger that disposition.  Reading the Bible might give one the feeling that God is speaking to them.  Or upon having done something cheap or wrong, I might feel that God is displeased.  Upon confession and repentance, I might feel forgiven.

None of those beliefs are as simple as God exists, however.  Rather, they are beliefs such as “God is speaking to me.” Those ideas are properly basic in the right circumstances, but it could be said that the believer takes these beliefs as properly basic, not “God exists.”  That is, they believe God exists on the basis of those propositions.

If we take two statements along the lines of “trees exist” and “I see a tree”, which statement is properly basic?  Plantinga does not seem to think it matters; even if “I see a tree” or “God is speaking to me” are the basic ideas, rather than “Trees exist” or “God exists”, neither set is gratuitous.

The Great Pumpkin Objection

If belief in God is properly basic, why can’t just any belief be basic?  Anything from voodoo to astrology to the Great Pumpkin from the Peanuts comic strip could be declared basic and therefore acceptable without evidence.  Are the gates being thrown open to irrationalism and superstition?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Plantinga insists this is not the case. Why would the Reformed epistemologist be open to that critique just because he rejects the criteria for proper basicality put forward by classical foundationalism? For example, does a rejection of positivism mean that one must accept a nonsense statement as meaningful?  Maybe the real problem is that reformed epistemologists are in no rush to offer a substitute criterion.

Plantinga says we do not actually need a strict criterion before we can make any judgments: “Suppose I don’t know of a satisfactory substitute for the criteria proposed by classical foundationalism; I am nevertheless entirely within my rights in holding that certain propositions are not properly basic in certain conditions.”  Suppose you see a tree – you would be irrational in claiming that you do not see a tree.

Modern foundationalism says a properly basic belief is universal in two ways: an idea is properly basic for a person if that idea is incorrigible or self-evident for that person.  But that statement isn’t self-evident or obviously true. In fact, there are no necessary and sufficient conditions for proper basicality which follow from clearly self-evident premises by clearly acceptable arguments.

The best way to arrive at a criterion is inductive. We take examples of beliefs that are obviously properly basic, and examples of beliefs we are obviously not: “We must then frame hypotheses as to the necessary and sufficient conditions of proper basicality and test these hypotheses by reference to those examples.” And,

 “Accordingly, criteria for proper basicality must be reached from below rather than above; they should not be presented as ex Cathedra, but argued to and tested by a relevant set of examples.  But there is no reason to assume, in advance, that everyone will agree on the examples.  The Christian will of course suppose that belief in God is utterly proper and rational; if he doesn’t accept this belief in on the basis of other propositions, he will conclude that it is basic for him and quite properly so.  Followers of Bertrand Russell and Madelyn Murray O’Hare may disagree, but how is that relevant?  Must my criteria, or those of the Christian community, conform to their examples?  Surely not.  The Christian community is responsible to its set of examples, not to theirs.”

So, the Christian can say that belief in the Great Pumpkin is not properly basic, even if he has no full fledged set of criteria.


2 thoughts on “Is Belief in God Properly Basic?

  1. Thank you for sending me this mail. I will be in the discussion.

    See you there.

    Hyeyoung Lee

    Samsung Mobile에서 전송했습니다

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