Is Belief in God Properly Basic? – Part 1

In 1981 philosopher Alvin Plantinga published a paper entitled, Is Belief in God Properly Basic? in which he argued that belief in God is internally and externally rational. Further he argued that this rational belief in God is non-inferentially warranted, i.e., that we can know God exists as a piece of a priori knowledge without inference from other beliefs. I want to take some time to examine Plantinga’s argument in this post, raise an objection to it in another post, and then offer a possible solution to that objection in a final post.

Plantinga builds his argument that belief in God is properly basic first noting that to claim a belief as properly basic is not to “say, of course, that there are no justifying circumstances for it, or that it is in that sense groundless or gratuitous.”[1] Rather, there is a disposition within humanity to see God working around and in us based upon such evidences as the beauty and complexity of nature and our own responses of guilt or gratitude. None of these dispositions is, of itself, the properly basic belief that God exists. However, each disposition is properly basic in what it describes concerning itself. Plantinga gives the following examples of such dispositions:

(1) God is speaking to me,

(2) God has created all this,

(3) God disapproves of what I have done,

(4) God forgives me,

(5) God is to be thanked and praised.[2]

These propositions are meant to serve as self-evidential proofs that God exists within the mind of person perceiving them as they delineate specific actions and attributes of God that are being sensed. Plantinga further posits that while the proposition “God exists” is not properly basic, it is so self-evidentially entailed by the proposed dispositions that it could be loosely considered to be properly basic. In support of this he compares our belief in God to our belief in the existence of perceptual objects. He provides the following propositions that a person may hold in regard to perceptual objects:

(6) There are trees,

(7) There are other persons,

(8) The world has existed for more than 5 minutes

Each of these is not properly basic, but is founded upon the properly basic propositions:

(9) I see a tree,

(10) That person is pleased,

(11) I had breakfast more than an hour ago.[3]

The properly basic propositions (9)-(11) entail a set of beliefs in perceptual objects that is self-evident and may be stated as in propositions (6)-(8). He correlates these propositions to belief in God by stating:

“Of course propositions of the latter sort [(9)-(11)] immediately and self-evidentially entail propositions of the former sort; and perhaps there is thus no harm in speaking of the former as properly basic…The same may be said about belief in God. We may say, speaking loosely, that belief in God is properly basic; strictly speaking, however, it is probably not that proposition but such propositions as [(1)-(5)] that enjoy that status.”[4]

In effect, Plantinga is asserting that our knowledge of certain properly basic propositions is so closely related to our knowledge of God that that knowledge of God may just as well be properly basic. But is this the case? Philosopher Stewart C. Goetz believes that there is a flaw in Plantinga’s argument and it is to this that we will turn next time.

—————————————————————–

[1] Alvin Plantinga, “Is Belief in God Properly Basic?”, Nous Vol. 15, No. 1, 1981 (Mar. 1981),

http://www.jstor.org/stable/2215239, (accessed Nov. 26, 2013), 46. I have re-ordered the propositions throughout to reflect the order within this paper rather than the order in which they are presented in Plantinga’s paper.

[2] Ibid., 46-47.

[3] Ibid., 47.

[4] Ibid., 47-48.

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