Is Belief in God Properly Basic? – Part 3

In our two previous posts we looked at Alvin Plantinga’s argument for the knowledge of God being properly basic and an objection raised by Stewart C. Goetz to Plantinga’s argument. Now we turn to a possible solution to how we have an innate knowledge of God that is founded upon innate knowledge rather than on properly basic knowledge.

If Goetz is correct in his assessment of Plantinga’s argument, then the existence of God being inferred from our own existence is indeed problematic for Plantinga’s argument. However, Goetz assessment correlates quite well to Wilhelm Gottfried Leibniz’ proposal for innate knowledge. In looking at Leibniz’ conception of innate knowledge it is important to understand that it is not the same conception that was argued against by the rationalists such as John Locke. The argument that Locke puts forward against innate knowledge rests upon refuting universal assent of ideas among a wide diversity of people. For Locke, innate knowledge cannot possibly be true because if ideas are innate we would expect to see the same ideas within the great majority of peoples. He maintains innate knowledge cannot be true because among a multiplicity of people we do not see this widespread agreement of ideas, nor would a widespread agreement prove that an idea is innate. It would only prove that it is widely accepted

Leibniz, in responding to Locke’s argument, bases his theory of innate ideas not upon universal assent but upon the nature of the human soul. Pertinent to our discussion is that Leibniz maintains that the exact nature of the human soul is the means by which we recognize God. He states, “…the inclination we have to recognize the idea of God is in human nature…the readiness which men have always shown to receive this doctrine comes from the nature of their souls.”[1] To analogize his thoughts, he compares the human soul to a block of marble with veins running through it, which determines the shape of the sculpture, rather than a tabula rasa that accepts whatever is imprinted upon it. In a similar way the human soul shapes and recognizes necessary truths because of the shape of the soul rather than receiving all ideas from sense perception. This is so because the human soul has its origination and is shaped by the,

Supreme and Universal Mind, which cannot fail to exist, whose understanding, to speak truly, is the region of eternal truths…these necessary truths being anterior to the existence of contingent beings, must be grounded in the existence of a necessary substance. Here it is that I find the original of the ideas and truths which are graven in our souls, not in the form of propositions, but as the sources out of which application and occasion will cause actual judgments to arise.[2]

The soul is capable of this action because the rational part of it, crafted in the imago dei, can recognize necessary truths about God, the nature of the created order, and the logical coherence and necessity of necessary truths.  It is important to note that innate ideas are not contained within the soul on Leibniz’ view. Rather, the soul can come to recognize necessary truths by reflecting upon its own nature, which is comprised of “being, unity, substance, duration, change, action, perception, pleasure, and a thousand other objects of our intellectual ideas.”[3] Thus the mind is capable of reflective knowledge of ideas concerning its own makeup based upon the fact that it recognizes the properties that it has in itself.

Leibniz further contends that the soul must be the origination of necessary truths and ideas because sense perception is incapable of showing the necessity of such properties. Sense perception functions only in a receptive faculty and is, therefore, indeterminate in helping to discern necessary truths. Such truths must then come from a disposition of the mind though our senses provide occasions for us to learn these truths by directing the rational part of the soul to reflect on a previously unnoticed aspect of its makeup. Knowledge can thus come from both the rational mind and through the senses, but it is only because of the action of the mind in recognizing properties that it holds in itself that “whatever particular number of experiences we may have of a universal truth, we could not be assured of it forever by induction without knowing its necessity through the reason.”[4] Leibniz further expands his theory of innate knowledge to include principles of logic and moral laws as also being rooted in the nature of the soul. An exploration of both of these areas would further strengthen the argument that belief in God is best explained as being innate, however, space constrains me from exploring these areas in depth.

It is at this point that I believe a connection between Goetz’ contention that knowledge of God requires recognizing our own contingency and Leibniz’ theory of innate knowledge being based on the nature of the soul can be drawn. My contention is that knowing that God exists is an operation of the soul whereby it knows its own nature and recognizes that a being could exist that has the properties of the soul, but maintains them in perfection. This bears a strong correspondence to the ontological argument in that the mind is capable of recognizing the existence of certain properties and extrapolating from those properties to a necessary being which must exist because it holds those properties in perfection. On this point it could be contended that Leibniz (though he never specifically says so), Goetz, and St. Anselm are in agreement that recognizing the contingency and mutability of the human soul is a necessary requirement for recognizing God’s existence. Anselm maintains that knowledge of God’s existence rests upon that fact that “everything else there is, except [God] alone, can be thought of not existing. [God] alone, then, of all things most truly exists and therefore of all things possess[es] existence to the highest degree…why then did ‘the Fool say in his heart there is no God’…when it is so evident to any rational mind that you of all things exist to the highest degree?”[5]

This highlights again the problem with Plantinga’s argument. While he wants us to accept that belief in God is loosely properly basic, the fact that it seems necessary to infer God’s existence from our own contingency leaves us without a means to have properly basic knowledge of God without first knowing ourselves. I believe this puts one too many links in the chain of our knowledge of God for it to be considered even loosely basic. Correlating this directly to Leibniz, we see that he considers such properties as being, unity, substance, duration, change, action, perception, and pleasure as being necessary components of the human soul that we can recognize. All of these properties can be recognized to be properties that could have been otherwise within ourselves or, paradoxically, be held in immutable perfection by another being. That I am who I am now does not preclude the reasoned inference that I could have been someone else or not been at all and further provokes the question of “what about a person necessarily exists or is immutable?” Thus, I believe that the initial conditions Leibniz proposes to demonstrate innate knowledge as being grounded in the soul are enough to show that a basic belief in God is best understood as coming from self-reflection rather than being properly basic.


[1] Wilhelm Gottfried Leibniz, Ne Essays Concerning Human Understanding, (Chicago, IL: The Open Court Publishing Company, 1916),, (Accessed Dec. 2, 2013) 72.

[2] Ibid., 516-517.

[3] Leibniz, New Essays Concerning Human Understanding, 45.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Anselm of Canterbury, Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works, ed. Brian Davies and G.R. Evans, (Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press, 1998), 88.


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