DePoe on Properly Basic Belief
June 6, 2005 — 15:59

Author: Matthew Mullins  Category: Religious Belief  Comments: 6

In cruising the philosophy blogosphere I ran across an interesting post by John DePoe on whether belief in God is properly basic. John thinks that some criticism by Norman Geisler is particularly devastating. I’ll return to Geisler’s critique in a later post. For now I want to address some of John’s claims. It has been awhile since I read any Plantinga so what follows will be mostly from memory. Let me start with John’s exposition of a properly basic belief:

The criterion that designates a belief as properly basic seems to be that the belief is widely accepted or a central axiom that buttresses the central aspects of one’s life. Plantinga takes the belief that “God exists” to be properly basic.

Properly basic beliefs are not defined as those which are widely held though they may be. The notion of properly basic beliefs has existed in various forms as far back as the stoics. For Plantinga a properly basic belief is a belief that is not believed on the basis of other beliefs, but forms the basis for other beliefs. So it is likely a central axiom, but I don’t know that it need be. We come to have basic beliefs by trusting our cognitive faculties when we come to have certain beliefs. Plantinga appeals to analogies to show that we do this sort of thing all the time when we believe in other minds, believe in the past, etc. We didn’t need arguments to believe in the past or other minds we simply are inclined to have these beliefs. In similar fashion many of us are inclined to believe in God. Now it may turn out that the theist is wrong in believing in God. Properly basic beliefs are not infallible, but this doesn’t make them irrational. Of course theists may be wrong about the existence of God, but we may be wrong about other minds and the past too. One thing to be clear about is that the claim that belief in God is a properly basic belief is not to serve as a proof for God’s existence. As I recall Plantinga’s goal is to counter the claim that belief in God is irrational. So Plantinga’s approach seem a minimalist one in that he only has to show that belief in God is rational and not the harder task of proving that God exists.

This qualifies as a type of quasi-fideism since it permits one to believe that God exists without any reasons whatsoever.

This claim strikes me as simply false since it is not the case that the theist comes to have a belief in God for no reason. Plantinga thinks that there are good reasons why we come to have basic beliefs, but the reason isn’t other beliefs. John may mean arguments when he says reasons in which case I think the later portion of his statement is correct, but I don’t think it makes Plantinga a quasi-fidist. Plantinga doesn’t reject appeals to reason or arguments for God’s existence. He specifically says such actions can bring a person into the proper position to form a belief in God. Yet they are not the reason why someone comes to have such a belief. Curiously reading both Philosophers Who Believe and God and the Philosophers I don’t recall a single case of a person coming to believe in God based on arguments.

Comments:
  • Your account of a properly basic belief as “a belief that is not believed on the basis of other beliefs, but forms the basis for other beliefs” is actually what Plantinga calls a basic belief in general. A properly basic belief is a belief that’s ok to hold in such a way. Some potential basic beliefs are not ok to hold in that way. Plantinga thinks belief in God is ok to hold in that way, but it’s not because of fideism. It’s because he thinks we have faculties that, when activated and used properly, lead to belief in God in a reliable way through being caused by real interaction with God and spiritual reality. He doesn’t think he’s argued that belief in God is properly basic, but he thinks you can’t rule out the possibility that it is, and therefore the atheistic claim that belief in God is automatically irrational if there’s no evidence is undermined.

    June 6, 2005 — 18:20
  • When I wrote “This qualifies as a type of quasi-fideism since it permits one to believe that God exists without any reasons whatsoever,” I meant that one holds the belief without that person possessing any reason(s) for that belief. There may be some causal chain that causes one to generate that belief, but there is no requirement on Plantinga’s epistemology that the one holding that belief be aware that he is being caused to have that belief in the proper way. If you happen to have good evidence for the belief, then it is a nice bonus (according to Plantinga), but having evidence is not necessary (according to Plantinga) to believe in God. Also, I only said “quasi-fideist.” I think people keep missing the “quasi-” prefix. I’m not calling Plantinga a full-blown fideist.
    One last point: denying belief in God is properly basic does not mean everyone who is a theist must be converted on the basis of reasons. Some extraordinary cases of these conversions exist (e.g., C. S. Lewis), but it only implies that for one to be justified in believing theism that one has sufficient evidence for that belief. I’m not sure that the autobiographical stories are relevant in this regard.

    June 6, 2005 — 23:52
  • Kevin Timpe

    Van Inwagen’s article in God and the Philosophers expresses, as one might expect, that arguments did play an important role, even if not the only one, in van Inwagen’s conversion. I highly recommend this, particularly in concert with his “Van Inwagen on Free Will” (in a 2004 MIT volume, Freedom and Determinism), which is also fairly autobiographical and perhaps the funniest piece of philosophy that I’ve ever read.

    June 7, 2005 — 10:40
  • What I remember of van Inwagen’s piece is that arguments play absolutely no role and that his reasons were not arguments at all but things that in principle he couldn’t put into words. The fact that he thinks theistic arguments are all pretty much inconclusive fits better with my memory than what you say, but I’ll have to check it out. Maybe my memory isn’t serving me well. It’s been a few years since the last time I read it (but I’ve read it at least twice).

    June 8, 2005 — 19:13
  • Thanks for the clarification Jeremy. I knew that I was bound to leave something off shooting from the hip. I was going to try to stretch things out, but your comment at FQI seems dead on.
    John-
    I suspect that much of the objection to calling Plantinga a quasi-fideist is that many of us don’t have a good grip on what John by this. I know what fideism is, but I just can’t get a sense of how Plantinga is in some regards fideistic. I think too that your statement probably strikes some as an attempt to tar Plantinga with concept most of us find distasteful. I’m not claiming that this in fact what you are up to, but that it is likely to be taken in such manner. Besides mischaracterizing a properly basic belief (I’m somewhat guilty here too) what concerned me was to parrot Jeremy “You can’t refute an externalist view by assuming internalism. That’s question-begging.” You’re response to this seems to be more of the same with an ad populum appeal to the elite:

    Justification for a belief, however, requires us to know why we believe it. This is what internalists (e.g., Fumerton, BonJour, Conee, Feldman, McGrew, among others…) have urged is wrong with externalist.

    Kevin-
    It struck me that C.S. Lewis’s apologetic work did much to bring van Inwagen around to seeing what orthodox Christianity was, but it didn’t bring him around to having belief in God. As a matter of fact it reads as if there was no way van Inwagen could bring himself to believe “it” on the basis of reason. He later says that

    As a Christian, I, of course, believe that conversions are the work of God and are thus largely invisible to the convert, save in their effects. Nevertheless, I believe, the convert must have turned to God and, in some fashion, have asked for His help. I have no useful memory of what I did to ask God for His help or of the form in which the help came.

    P.S. For a funny piece of philosophy see Timothy O’Connor’s “Pastoral Counsel for the Anxious Naturalist: Daniel Dennett’s Freedom Evolves

    June 8, 2005 — 21:26
  • Peter in Acts Chapter 2:15-36 expressed the gospel message to the Jews without argument. It is only looked upon as argument by those who believe in free will. If you believe in predestination you will at least have an intellectual understanding that as many as were ordained to eternal life were saved (Acts 13:48). However this intellectual understanding is not enough. It is necessary to experience the cutting of the heart that we see in Acts ch 2, not by any preaching of the law as the Covenant Theologians taught, but by Peter’s preaching of the gospel alone. Without this cutting of the heart no amount of intellectual reasoning or argument can contribute to God give faith in any way. I would be alarmed at the eternal “position” of someone with reasonable intellectual facilities intact who is stating that they “have no useful memory of what I did to ask God for His help or of the form in which the help came”.

    September 12, 2005 — 14:01