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. He is therefore guilty of equivocating. But he typically uses this equivocal phrasing only in casual speech. In his formal arguments, Plantinga more often shifts to a definition of omnipotence that has God being subservient to logic. Through this maneuver, Plantinga 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. 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.

Plantinga insists that religious faith is properly basic and that Christians like himself “may start with Christian beliefs and theorize on the basis of them.” In other words, belief in God is a foundational presupposition that requires no justi­fica­tion. Plantinga compares our awareness of God to our aware­ness when we “see a tree.” Religion thus stands on equal footing intellectu­ally with our trust in our senses.

That’s about as wrong as wrong can get. Everyone with a normal brain trusts his senses. Granted, a person might exclaim, “I couldn’t believe my eyes!” But that remark, even if meant literally, which it rarely is, doesn’t reflect a general mistrust of our senses. If we saw something so shocking that we ques­tioned whether we really saw it, our first reaction would be to take a sec­ond look. That recourse shows the depth of trust we continue to place in our senses. We might also ask other potential witnesses what they saw, which shows that we continue to trust human vision, even if our own is in doubt.

Religious faith is in no way comparable to our vision or other sens­es. Surveys in Nordic societies show that three out of four people reject religious faith. That’s a statistic you’ll never find with respect to vision or hearing.

If someone distrusted his vision so thor­oughly that he had his eyes surgically removed, we’d deem him both insane and handi­capped. In contrast, hundreds of millions of people worldwide have renounced religious faith, yet they’re among the most intellectually acute and socially prosperous people on the planet.

Every day people give up religion. No one voluntarily gives up their vision or hearing.

Notwithstanding our reliance on our senses, sense input is subject to intellectual scrutiny. It’s filtered, revised, and sometimes rejected. A rational person not only scrutinizes his observations and theories, but he’s also apt to in­vite his peers to scrutinize them. Rea­sonable people, despite trusting their sens­es and cognition, don’t uncritically accept their obser­vations and conjectures.

According to Plantinga, we needn’t be as scrupulous when it comes to adopting religious beliefs as we are toward sensory percep­tion or the performance of other cognitive tasks. If someone experiences the presence of the divine, perhaps in a vision of Christ, while gazing at a starry sky, that experience can be regarded as properly basic. Indeed, even without mystical visions or any trace of empirical evidence, the belief in God, if strong enough, can legiti­mately overrule contrary evidence and ar­guments.

Plantinga calls this special pleading on behalf of religion by the name reformed episte­mology. As one of these re­formists says, “What the Reformers meant to hold is that it is entirely right, rational, reason­able, and proper to believe in God without any evi­dence or argument at all…”

Plantinga says that a properly basic belief in God is potentially de­feasible. That is, the belief in God could, in principle, be revised or dis­carded in the face of contrary evidence. But one is war­ranted to be­lieve in God, he says, unless compelling evidence against belief is pre­sented. In his essay, Intellectual Sophistication and Basic Belief in God, Plantinga says, “To be successful, a potential defeater for [a basic belief] must have as much or more warrant as [the basic belief] does.”

Here’s the problem. On Plantinga’s view, the degree of war­rant for a basic belief doesn’t depend on objective evidence. The stronger one’s unevidenced commitment to belief in God, the stronger one would require the anti-God evidence to be before abandoning belief.

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 reformed epistemol­ogy. It’s akin to an appeal to personal revelation that, wholly or in part, overrules contrary evi­dence and argu­ments.

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 contends that this God-detection faculty malfunctions in religious skeptics because of their sinful natures.

Some critics have asked whether malfunctions of the sensus divini­tatis in be­lievers could have spawned the world’s tens of thou­sands of diverse religions and sects. Reformed epistemologists assure us that the sensus divinitatis is not to blame for sectarian diversity. It merely provides a vague awareness of the di­vine as opposed to providing a catalog of doc­trinal details. It’s 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.

This defense of the sensus divinitatis only raises more questions. What infor­mation can the sensus divinitatis reliably provide? Do we require evidence to decide the nature and scope of the infor­mation it can reliably provide, or shall we rely on it to tell us that, too? If the sensus divinitatis doesn’t provide doctrinal details, then doesn’t that put the onus on sectarians to provide objective evidence to substantiate their sectarian claims? Is the sensus divin­itatis the sci­entifically illiterate per­son’s way of accounting for the effects of our innate predisposi­tion to presume agency where there is none, otherwise known as hyperac­tive agency detec­tion (HAAD)? Could an atheist just as plau­sibly claim that atheism is a properly basic belief that we acquire from a hypo­thet­ical cogni­tive faculty called the sensus atheus?

In response to the last question, the theologian Glenn Peoples says that the sensus divinitatis is a gift from God. If there were no god, there could be no counter­part, no sensus atheus. If Peoples is right, then the sensus divinitatis is trustworthy only if God exists and embed­ded it in us, yet it is itself the source of the belief in God. People’s argument is question-begging.

Plantinga doubts the existence of the sensus atheus, but thinks this question might be settled by con­ducting surveys. The more common a belief is, he suggests, the more likely it is to be properly basic.

I don’t see how this “majority rules” principle can settle the ques­tion as to what beliefs are properly basic. This is a question of human psychology, how the mind works, not a question suitable for a public opinion poll.

A survey conducted in Scandinavia might suggest that atheism is properly basic. Throughout Asia, Buddhist conceptions might be deemed properly basic. If the survey could be applied to the en­tire history of Homo sapiens, ani­mism or polytheism might be classified as properly basic. If the sensus divinitatis can’t provide enough resolu­tion to distinguish atheism from Protestantism or Buddhism from ancient Greek religions, then what good is it?

Suppose survey respondents were asked, “Should evidence be adduced in favor of a proposition before we affirm that proposi­tion?” Most re­spondents would surely reply “yes.” Reformed episte­mology would thereby be defeated by this public opinion poll.

Reformed epistemology strives to legitimize intuitive or non-inferential religious beliefs, fortifying them against the onslaught of evidential challenges. This is a purely defensive maneuver. It’s a sign that religionists have been knocked backed onto their heels.

Non-Christian religions can also adopt this defensive maneuver, thus hin­dering Christian missionary and proselytizing efforts. Re­formed episte­mology prescribes no mechanism by which to persuade some­one whose sen­sus divinitatis is missing, broken, or dialed into a differ­ent frequen­cy. One can easily predict a Balkan­izing effect on the Great Debate.

Each belief community will rebuff other belief communities, not on an intellectually principled basis, but merely because the local community is culturally invested in their own ingrained belief system. The philosopher Michael Martin expounded upon a similar objection to reformed epistemology.

Reaching consensus on religious questions is challenging even when the various parties em­brace evidentialism and are commit­ted to follow­ing reason wher­ever it leads. If contending parties dig in their heels and insist that their presuppositions have merit even when due diligence is neglected, a stalemate will ensue. Victory will go to whichever cult implements the more effective program of childhood indoctrination, has higher breeding rates, and funds the mightier mil­itary.

I don’t question Plantinga’s sincerity when he says that he has a robust 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 that doesn’t qualify religious belief as properly basic. No belief is properly basic if it can be discarded without crippling the faculty of reason.

I categorize basic beliefs in three levels. Level I is the most basic and Level III is the least basic.

Level I basic beliefs are innate, uni­ver­sal, essential to reason, and don’t arise from conscious inference. Among these beliefs or facul­ties are (1) de­duction, (2) induction, (3) memory, (4) causation, (5) quantity, (6) parsimony, (7) belief in an external world, (8) sense of self, (9) object perception, (10) mereology, (11) pain and pleasure, (12) sense of the flow of time, (13) counterfactuals, (14) proportion­ality principle, (15) sound vol­ume and tone, (16) color bright­ness, hue, and sat­uration. Other contenders include (17) the belief that our fellow humans and some other animals are conscious beings, as op­posed to robots or zom­bies, (18) the belief that our thoughts control our bodies, and (19) belief in free will.

Level II beliefs resemble Lev­el I beliefs except that they’re not innate, universal, or required for reason. They may have initially arisen from con­scious inferences. In most cases, however, they have been passively absorbed from the subject’s familial-cultural milieu. They become “second nature” and are highly resistant to reform. Among our Level II basic be­liefs are racial preferences, gender stereotypes, and belief in God.

Finally, Level III basic beliefs are the products of conscious in­ference. These are typically strongly held convictions, which are rarely explicitly questioned, but they can be revised. Among these beliefs are the theory that Earth is spherical, the principle that democ­racy is better than tyranny, and the general belief in one’s own moral and intellectual rectitude.

I classify only Level I basic beliefs as properly basic, whereas Plantinga classifies both Levels I and II beliefs as properly basic. He has argued that if we’re justified in believing that other people have minds (Level I), then we’re justified in believing in God (Level II).

That’s a non sequitur. The belief in God isn’t on intellectual parity with belief in other minds. The belief in other minds has the princi­ple of parsimony working strong­ly for it, where­as the principle of parsimony stands in stark opposi­tion to be­lief in the supernatural. The empirical case for other minds is exceed­ingly strong. In contrast, the God hypothesis utterly fails.

Plantinga subsequently abandoned his so-called parity argument. But he did so only because he realized that he was offering an osten­sibly rational argument, which is a no-no for someone like himself who says rational arguments for God are unnecessary. Plantinga fell down a rabbit hole of his own creation.

Meticulous point-by-point refutations of natural theology argu­ments are readily available. Plantinga, not content to voice his intel­lectual disagreement with those refutations, proceeds to attribute religious disbelief to the disbeliever’s sensus divinitatis being corrupted by sin. Plantinga’s invoking of sin is a purely ad hoc maneuver that un­dermines the standing of anyone who dares to question the belief in God. The belief in sin is itself a belief that is, in accord with Plant­inga’s epistemic schema, properly basic.

In the Christian worldview, sin isn’t simply a cognitive failure. It’s 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’s perilously close to exhibiting a clear-cut case of attribution bias, attributing nonbelief to bad motives rather than to an honest appraisal of the evidence.

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.


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 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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