Alvin Plantinga’s Properly Basic Belief

The Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga, age 84, was awarded the 2017 Templeton Prize, along with its jackpot of $1.4 million. The prize is typically awarded to people who are credited with bridging the gap between religion and science. In short, the prize goes to people who labor valiantly to make religion appear reasonable.

Congratulations to Alvin Plantinga. Not only is he perhaps the most influential religious philosopher in recent decades, but he also seems like a nice gentleman. He is a good communicator and I think he is an honest spokesman for his views. That said, Plantinga’s contributions to philosophy are often overrated.

For example, Plantinga is credited by some philosophers with solving the logical problem of evil. This is the problem posed by the existence of evil in a world created by an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent god. There are numerous versions of the argument. One could argue, for instance, that there is simply no logical pathway from an all-perfect world to a less-than-perfect world. At least that must be the case if the world is a closed system, consisting initially of only a perfect god and subsequently the creations of that perfect god. If we’re not talking about a closed system, then there must be some external influence, meaning that God is not omnipotent.

Perhaps the most famous presentation of the logical problem of evil is that offered by the philosopher J. L. Mackie, who defined omnipotence as being able to do anything. This notion of omnipotence is the one expressed by most Christians I know, and has been held by religious scholars, including Peter Damian and Rene Descartes. Most Christians, it seems, continue to view God as the author of logic and the master over logic. He can alter logic at will. Plantinga has even used this same phrasing, saying that an omnipotent god can do anything. But he uses this phrasing only in casual speech. In his formal arguments, Plantinga shifts to a definition of omnipotence that has God being subservient to logic. Plantinga thereby rejects Mackie’s and most Christians’ definition of omnipotence. Adopting a more restricted definition of omnipotence was a strategically wise move, in that it allowed Plantinga to avoid the contradiction that Mackie’s argument successfully targeted. Plantinga’s decision to take recourse to a watered-down definition of omnipotence implicitly affirmed the irresistible force of Mackie’s argument. Most modern theologians have, like Plantinga, migrated to a sub-omnipotent god, against which Mackie’s formulation of the logical problem of evil does not apply. Plantinga was neither the first nor the last to embrace the watered-down definition. Even respected atheist philosophers like Graham Oppy deny that the logical problem of evil is insurmountable. But, again, they do so based on the watered-down definition of omnipotence, as opposed to the full-throated definition intended by Mackie and most Christians. While I give Plantinga credit for his insightful contribution to the discussion of the problem of evil, I reject the persistent myth that he “solved” the logical problem of evil.

One of Plantinga’s much-ballyhooed philosophical accomplishments was his modal ontological argument. I won’t delve into his argument here, since it’s already clear that I risk making this blog post too long—though I can’t resist noting that his ontological argument describes God’s “maximally excellent” omnipotence, directly contradicting his aforementioned description of God’s restricted omnipotence. Even Plantinga acknowledged that his modal ontological argument doesn’t prove there’s a god. But Plantinga has repeatedly boasted that his argument shows that it is nonetheless rational to believe in God. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy concluded, “Plantinga’s argument does not show what he claims that it shows.”

Plantinga has been praised by many religious apologists for his presentation of an evolutionary argument against naturalism. This was not an entirely original argument, having roots that trace back to the private correspondence of Charles Darwin himself. Plantinga joined the parade of people, believers and nonbelievers alike, who have pointed out that our cognitive faculties, being sculpted for the survival advantages they bestowed on our ancestors rather than for their truth-imparting property, may sometimes fail us. That is the mainstream position, backed up by lots of cognitive research concerning optical illusions, camouflage, and cognitive biases. Unfortunately, Plantinga was not satisfied to leave it at that. He tried to argue that our cognitive faculties are so dramatically unreliable that they could be lying to us fully half the time, and therefore that, if evolution is true, we should have little confidence in our intellectual judgments—and he especially singled out naturalism. Plantinga’s statistical claims concerning the reliability of our inferences have not been corroborated by empirical data. When challenged on his statistics, Plantinga admitted that he is just expressing his personal opinion. That’s fine. We all have the right to express our personal opinions. But the ability to express unsubstantiated personal opinions does not typically qualify one as a profound philosopher.

Plantinga is, without doubt, an intelligent and often thoughtful man. I am not trying to put him down. If my next door neighbor could speak with the level of insight and eloquence that Plantinga sometimes displays, I would praise him as the smartest next door neighbor I have ever had. Unfortunately, when I compare Plantinga to most other philosophers that I have read, he does not shine especially brightly. His record of accomplishment does not, in my view, warrant the level of adulation bestowed on him. To better explain what leads me to this judgment, let’s review his most widely lauded intellectual achievement, his argument that the belief in God is properly basic.

According to Plantinga, the belief in God need not be justified through natural theology or rational argumentation. The belief in God is, he insists, properly basic. Plantinga’s argument categorizes the belief in God with other beliefs recognized by many philosophers as properly basic. One alleged example of a properly basic belief is the belief that other people have minds. Let’s explore the comparison between believing in God and believing that other people have minds.

We don’t have to step through any sequence of logical inferences to conclude that someone we meet at the grocery store has a mind. That belief arises in our minds spontaneously. It is possible that we humans have an innate propensity to develop a belief that other people have minds. We do seem to have many psychological or cognitive propensities that are innate. For example, researchers have discovered that we humans, like other primates and like squirrels, have a propensity to recognize the shape of snakes, even if we have not personally ever seen a snake. We also know that the fear of falling is innate. Noam Chomsky famously argued that we have an innate propensity to develop language syntax.

But our belief that other people have minds may not be innate. Such a belief could be acquired strictly through first-hand experience with other people. We accrue a lifetime of experiences, beginning as early as our moment of birth, in which we repeatedly discover that other people react as though they have minds. By simple analogy with ourselves, we can infer that they are not mere robots, but are instead conscious agents. By the time children are old enough to engage in sophisticated social interactions with other people, their conclusion that other people are conscious agents is so ingrained that it is an automatic response. That does not mean that the belief does not arise from an inference. All it means is that the inference is so well trained, so rehearsed, that it occurs exceedingly rapidly and does not require any participation by the parts of the brain involved in conscious thought. In this respect, the belief in other minds may be comparable to the talents of a professional athlete or musician, whose mental performance is so well honed that it requires no conscious effort.

There are some properly basic beliefs that seem less controversially to be hardwired into our minds. For example, we naturally presume that the future will, in key respects, resemble the past. In other words, we naturally assume the principle of uniformity. This was first pointed out by the philosopher David Hume, who showed that we cannot provide a rational argument to prove that the future will resemble the past. It won’t work to argue that the future must resemble the past simply on the basis that it always has. That is a circular argument, taking for granted the very point in question. Unlike our belief that other people have minds, the belief that the future will resemble the past is not something we can learn strictly from experience. After all, our confidence that the future will resemble the past is the prerequisite mechanism of learning itself. Please note that I am not repudiating the principle of uniformity—and nor was Hume. If we are to reason at all, we must make the presumption of uniformity. The necessity of making this presumption is one of the criteria for designating properly basic beliefs. If you can toss an idea overboard and still reason, then that belief was not properly basic.

Philosophers debate over the specifics of how we define properly basic. They also debate about which beliefs qualify as properly basic. The belief in the uniformity of nature seems to be on the more secure end of the spectrum, whereas other putatively properly basic beliefs lie on the more controversial end of the spectrum. The properly basic status of the belief that other people have minds is controversial. It is regarded as properly basic by many, but not all, philosophers.

Plantinga’s claim that belief in God is properly basic is even more dubious than the claim that our belief in other minds is properly basic. It’s easier to doubt God’s existence than it is to doubt whether other humans have minds. We can probably come up with some reasonable explanations as to why these beliefs differ in intensity. One possible explanation for the comparative weakness of the belief in God is that we have not spent our entire lives observing countless gods displaying behavior that would lead us to attribute minds to them. Of course, postulating that the belief in God is properly basic is not intended to explain why we believe God is a conscious agent. The claim that the belief in God is properly basic is meant to explain why we believe in the existence of God.

Labeling the belief in God as properly basic does not in itself provide any defense for the proposition that God exists. Labeling the belief as properly basic serves, if successful, only to assert that humans (or some of them) do actually believe in God without making any conscious inference.

Properly basic beliefs are typically universal across all humans. For example, we immediately perceive other humans as having normally functional minds, at least if they have normally functional brains. The belief in God does not meet the criterion of universality. Many people, including some of the most educated, successful, and philosophically astute people on the planet, do not believe in any gods. People raised in religious homes and who are subjected to religious indoctrination are far more likely to believe in God. Plantinga persists in labeling the belief in God as properly basic despite the fact that such belief, unlike other properly basic beliefs, lacks universality.

Plantinga contends that the belief in God is as immediate and indispensable as other properly basic beliefs, including not only the belief in other minds, but also the belief in an external physical reality that exists independently of our own minds, as well as the general causal uniformity of the world. I think Plantinga dramatically overstates his case. Consider, for instance, the fact that many of these other properly basic beliefs are shared by the members of every other conscious species on the planet. God-beliefs differ from other alleged properly basic beliefs in that they are held only by Homo sapiens. Moreover, god-beliefs are not held by all members of our species. To further discredit Plantinga’s case, among those who have god-beliefs, there is much disagreement about the nature and quantity of gods. Throughout most of human history, the belief in polytheism or animism was dominant.

It is common to distinguish basic beliefs from properly basic beliefs. I agree with those philosophers who maintain that properly basic beliefs are essential if we are to reason. That is, we can’t reason without using them. But Plantinga adopts a different, lower, standard for distinguishing properly basic beliefs. In his view, properly basic beliefs are not required to reason. He classifies as properly basic any reliable belief formed without conscious inference.

According to Plantinga, if someone experiences a sense of the divine, perhaps in the form of Jesus Christ, while gazing at a starry sky, that may be reliable and so the belief in God that it bolsters is properly basic. But if one hallucinates the presence of the Buddha, that is not reliable and therefore the belief that results from that experience is not properly basic. On one hand, Plantinga holds that we can gauge whether a properly basic belief is true by comparing it against real-world evidence. On the other hand, Plantinga cites the properly basic belief in God as a reasonable foundation for belief in God notwithstanding a paucity of confirmatory evidence or even the presence of disconfirming evidence. The belief in God, if strong enough, can legitimately overrule contrary evidence.

It’s important to remember that Plantinga’s expansive definition of properly basic includes beliefs that are potentially defeasible. He holds that it is possible to encounter sufficient evidence to defeat a properly basic belief. He has argued that one has rational warrant for accepting properly basic beliefs unless one encounters defeaters—that is, compelling counter-arguments against those beliefs. For example, he proclaims that one is warranted to believe in God unless compelling evidence against the belief in God were presented, and that the stronger one’s commitment to belief in God, the stronger one would require the anti-God evidence to be before abandoning belief in God. Essentially, Plantinga shifts the burden of proof to the nonbeliever. The atheist must prove God’s nonexistence, and the proof must be stronger than the believer’s subjective feeling that God is real. This is the crux of his reformed epistemology. It is akin to an appeal to the power of personal revelation, which can, wholly or in part, overrule contrary evidence and argumentation.

This burden-shifting is obviously convenient to believers in God. It can also be exploited by believers in fire-breathing dragons, fairies, or anything else. All the believer must do is assert that his or her belief is properly basic. Subjective and externally unfounded beliefs are warranted, according to Plantinga, unless and until the believer is dissuaded by compelling counter-evidence.

The mechanism by which we acquire belief in God is given a special label by Plantinga. He calls it sensus divinitatis, a term borrowed from John Calvin. Plantinga explains that this God-detection faculty malfunctions in religious skeptics because of their sinful natures.

Unfortunately, the sensus divinitatis seems to malfunction in believers as well as atheists. It gives false positives that result in humans believing in tens of thousands of different gods. This unreliability in the sensus divinitatis does not bother those who maintain that the purpose of the sensus divinitatis is to provide a vague awareness of the divine as opposed to providing knowledge of doctrinal details. Maybe it is just a crude organ of cognizance, comparable to the most primitive concave light sensitive organs on the swimming creatures of the Cambrian Era, which identified the general direction of the ambient light but didn’t allow for high resolution images. Likewise, the sensus divinitatis could provide humans with a general sense of the divine, without advising us as to the quantity or quality of these transcendent beings.

But the sensus divinitatis doesn’t even reliably convey a crude sense of the divine. An atheist could just as easily claim that belief that no god exists is properly basic. Plantinga responds to this objection to his epistemology by suggesting that we can survey people to find out which kinds of beliefs are more common. He argues that being more common is evidence of a belief being properly basic. In other words, the majority rules.

Another quandary concerns how an individual holding a properly basic belief in God can possibly engage in proselytizing. One cannot telepathically convey one’s properly basic belief to another. That belief is, after all, purely private. There seems to be no way to convince someone whose sensus divinitatis is missing, broken, or dialed into a different frequency. The determined proselytizer is forced to resort to evidentialism, precisely what Plantinga wanted to escape. Unfortunately, the proselytizer who appeals to evidentialism may become frustrated when confronted by a recalcitrant individual who insists that his own belief is properly basic and is therefore invulnerable (or highly resistant) to contrary external evidence.

This is primarily an epistemic issue. But there are also some practical, perhaps even political, repercussions. It’s hard enough to reach consensus when both parties embrace evidentialism and are committed to following reason wherever it leads. When one or both parties dig in their heels and insist that their private presuppositions are too strong to be defeated by contrary evidence, then we face an unbreakable stalemate. In such a circumstance, our differences cannot be resolved through dialog.

The belief in gods varies with geography. If you were raised in India, you’d likely be Hindu. If you were raised in Saudi Arabia, you’d likely be Muslim. Is this what we’d expect if the sensus divinitatis were real? Or is this what we’d expect if the sensus divinitatis were, in actuality, just another name for a culturally-ingrained belief, the mere product of indoctrination, aided by HAAD and other quirks of human cognition? Once we acknowledge that the sensus divinitatis fails far more often than it succeeds in producing correct religious beliefs, we have a defeater for trusting it. I’m not saying that this proves that any particular belief in God is mistaken, only that it would be a mistake to presume that the belief is trustworthy.

I do not question Plantinga’s sincerity when he says that he has a strong and non-inferential belief in God, a belief too powerful to be reasoned out of him by any of the available volumes of contrary arguments. But holding a strong opinion does not make that opinion properly basic. Any belief, no matter how correct or precious, that can be discarded without disabling reason, probably should not be classified as properly basic.

Let me mention, in passing, that I categorize basic beliefs in five levels. Level I is the most basic and level V is the least basic. The belief in causation, the recognition of quantity, and the trust in deduction and memory are among the beliefs that occupy level I. The belief in other minds is among the beliefs in level II. The belief in God is a level IV basic belief. By my lights, only level I basic beliefs qualify as properly basic. Plantinga cites beliefs that I classify as levels I through IV as properly basic. This difference in how Plantinga and I classify properly basic beliefs is not central to most of our disagreements. Perhaps our most fundamental disagreement is whether the belief in God is warranted by evidence and argument.

The atheist can provide a meticulous point-by-point refutation of natural theology arguments. Plantinga is unmoved by those refutations. Not content to merely voice his intellectual disagreement with those refutations, he proceeds to attribute religious disbelief to the disbeliever’s sensus divinitatis being corrupted by sin. The invoking of sin is purely ad hoc, used exclusively to defend those properly basic beliefs that sustain belief in God. Moreover, the belief in sin is itself a belief that can be alleged to be properly basic.

In the Christian worldview, sin is not simply a cognitive failure. It is a corruption of one’s whole being. Plantinga’s invoking of sin is a facile way of dismissing skepticism as the product of a moral defect. He is perilously close to exhibiting a clear-cut case of attribution bias. In Plantinga’s epistemology we witness the ever-present human impulse to retreat from reasoned argument, to substitute mere assertion of a belief, and to engage in character assassination against those who disagree. His is not an admirable epistemology. It is intellectual cover for anti-intellectualism coupled with an ill-conceived assault on the spirit of charity that lies at the root of philosophy.

Well, that does it for my discussion of the esteemed philosopher Alvin Plantinga. Maybe next time I will explain why the much beloved folk singer Bob Dylan, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, is vastly overrated.

6 comments for “Alvin Plantinga’s Properly Basic Belief

  1. May 16, 2017 at 9:09 am

    Nicely written.

    • Dan
      May 17, 2017 at 6:39 pm

      Thanks, Phil.

  2. Berel Dov
    May 17, 2017 at 8:52 am

    I have never been a big Plantinga fan and it’s been a long time since I’ve read him, but I think you are being a bit uncharitable. Even if it is impossible to change properly basic beliefs through sheer argumentation, that doesn’t mean it would be impossible to influence someone’s properly basic beliefs by getting them to undergo certain experiences, to participate in a certain way of life, etc. Think Wittgenstein.

    • Dan
      May 17, 2017 at 6:09 pm

      Thanks for the comment, Berel Dov. I feel obliged to emphasize that I think Plantinga has made valuable contributions. I’m not sure that comes through in this post as clearly as I intended. Assuming we embrace Plantinga’s more expansive definition of properly basic, he and I would both agree that it is possible (in principle, at least), to revise those beliefs. My own view is that the belief in God is primarily the product of childhood indoctrination or later conscious inferences, which means that it is definitely subject to revision, both through argumentation and through the other kinds of life experience that you mention. Again, thanks.

  3. Vilas Wagholikar
    September 22, 2017 at 1:35 pm

    I am a commoner. But wish to point out that in all types of faith, the common factor is creator God.the details vary according to geography.eg Christian, God, Islam, Allah,Hindus, Bramha( anirvachaniya) and so on. This undercurrent is properly basic.

    • Dan
      September 23, 2017 at 4:53 pm

      Thank you for your comment. While I would agree with you that we humans have some innate proclivities toward religious belief, as for example our tendency to falsely infer agency (HAAD), and while any such proclivities could reasonably be classified as basic, they do not qualify as properly basic according to the strict criteria that I have adopted. I would classify as properly basic only those beliefs that are (1) essential to learning, (2) innate, (3) universal, and (4) result from unconscious inference. Obviously, these criteria are applicable only to humans equipped with normally functional brains, not to those who are pathologically impaired. Among the mental faculties that qualify as properly basic using the four criteria listed above are (1) the trust we typically place in our memory, (2) our sense of the flow of time, (3) our sense of there being an external world (and self), (4) our concept of truth, (5) the so-called laws of logic (identity, non-contradiction, excluded middle), (6) deduction, (7) induction (and the principle of uniformity), (8) parsimony, (9) our belief in causation, and (10) our comprehension of quantity. There are, as I see it, five levels of basicality. Four of those levels are less innately programmed into our neural circuitry than is the one level that qualifies as proper basicality. The belief in a god or gods is most plausibly classified as level IV. A key difference between a level I (properly basic) belief and a level IV (basic) belief is that the level IV beliefs are not universally held by all normally functional humans. This is clearly the case for the belief in gods, given that roughly one tenth of the U. S. population are atheists and agnostics. There are commonalities between beliefs at level IV and level I. For instance, beliefs occupying both levels I and IV are held as a result of unconscious inference, as opposed to careful deliberation. When it comes to religion, for example, over 80 percent of people who become Christians do so between the ages of 4 and 14. Children’s innate proclivities toward religious ideation, coupled with the indoctrination received in their formative years, results in most of them internalizing religious beliefs before the they have acquired full reasoning capabilities. Strictly from the standpoint of human psychology, I believe Plantinga makes a serious mistake in lumping together all basic beliefs as properly basic. When attempting, as Plantinga is, to establish an epistemological system, it is essential to avoid glossing over these important differences. Again, thanks for your interest in this topic.

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