Is Belief in God Properly Basic? – Part 2

In our previous post we looked at the basic outline of Alvin Plantinga’s argument that belief in God is properly basic. While Plantinga’s argument appears to be sound, philosopher Stewart C. Goetz believes there is a fatal flaw in it. And it is to Goetz’ rebuttal of Plantinga’s argument that we now turn.

Goetz wants know if Plantinga is justified in correlating properly basic belief in perceptual objects, such as given in points (9)-(11) in the previous post, with propositions such as (1)-(5). Goetz contends that these propositions are not directly parallel and lead to a problem within Plantinga’s argument. Goetz notes that propositions (9)-(11) are direct statements of fact concerning our awareness of perceptual objects. If (9)-(11) and (1)-(5) are to be directly parallel and sustain Plantinga’s argument, then propositions (1)-(5) should be worded in such a way that they reflect our awareness of God. Accordingly, propositions (1)-(5) should be restated as:

(1´) I am aware of God speaking to me,

(2´) I am aware of God as having created all this,

(3´) I am aware of God disapproving of what I have done,

(4´) I am aware of God forgiving me,

(5´) I am aware that I should thank and praise God.[1]

A direct parallel can now be made between these propositions and propositions (9)-(11) as they all now included an awareness of the properties of the thing that is being perceived. This is a necessary part of perception as individuating an object requires being able to perceive some of its properties. In the case of (9)-(11) the observer is able, for instance, to perceive the tree’s shape and color, the individual’s body language that indicates pleasure, and a memory of a past event. Propositions (1´)-(5´) state our perceptions of activities of God that allow us to individuate Him as being a distinct person: God speaking, creating, disapproving, forgiving, and evoking worship.

It is this self-revelation of God that Goetz finds ultimately problematic for Plantinga’s argument. Self-revelation by God entails that prior to that self-revelation the person perceiving God’s activities has a concept of God by which he can determine if it is God or some other person that is revealing themselves. It is possible in each of the propositions given in (1´)-(5´) to substitute the identity of another person and recognize that the statement could be true of them as easily as it is of God, i.e., a friend could be speaking, an architect may have created all that I see around me, my parents could disapprove of what I’ve done, my wife may forgive me, and I could be aware that I need to thank the person that gave me a gift. To determine that each of these should be directed towards my perception of God it is necessary that I understand, minimally, the requisite properties of God that are applicable in each proposition. As Goetz states, “…if God is to successfully reveal himself to me (or Plantinga) and, just as important, if I am to recognize him, I must know certain of his individuating properties that will ground my assent to his being God, and one or more of these properties will have to be manifested in the revelatory situation.”[2] Indeed, biblical examples, such as with the boy Samuel[3] and the Apostle Paul,[4] indicate that even in instances of direct revelation by God some identifying marker may yet need to be given.

What then can serve as the bare minimum understanding of God that can serve to identify him in revelatory situations? Goetz proposes an individuating property in humans that necessarily implies the existence of God. Foundational to our self-knowledge is the properly basic proposition that:

(12) I exist,

which has the implication, based upon self-reflection, that while I exist I am not a necessary being. So that we can state:

(13) I am a contingent being.

If both of these statements are true they necessarily provide a means by which we can identify the person in propositions (1)-(5) as being God. Goetz points out that,

Proposition [(13)] is particularly important for it will prevent me from identifying myself with the being referred to in propositions [(1)-(5)]. But if proposition [(13)] is properly basic, can propositions [(1)-(5)] likewise be properly basic? I don’t think so…if proposition [(13)] is properly basic it automatically excludes [(1)-(5)] from that status because it entails and I infer from it propositions, at least one of which is identical with or contradictory to [the proposition “There is such a person as God”]. And if something is inferred it is not properly basic.[5]


[1] Stewart C. Goetz, “Belief in God is Not Properly Basic, Religious Studies Vol. 19, Issue 04 Dec. 1983,, (accessed Nov. 26, 2013), 478-479.

[2] Ibid., 480.

[3] 1 Samuel 3:1-10.

[4] Acts 9:1-6.

[5] Goetz, Religious Studies, 482.


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