Weblog of a Christian philosophy student

Weblog of a Christian philosophy student. Please feel free to comment. All of my posts are public domain. Subscribe to posts [Atom]. Email me at countaltair [at] yahoo.com.au. I also run a Chinese to English translation business at www.willfanyi.com.

Location: Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Plantinga's Argument To Properly Basic Theistic Belief

Plantinga's Argument To Properly Basic Theistic Belief
Will G
Originally posted 11/17/05
Edited 2/2/08

Summary: Most people would say that evidence for a view is a pretty critical part of any justification for it. Alvin Plantinga would disagree when it comes to belief in God, and would say that it's perfectly acceptable to believe in God with potentially no evidence. Why? According to his argument to properly basic theistic belief, if God created our cognitive faculties with (partly) the specific purpose of believing in the spiritual realm - if that was completely true, and we could all know that - then belief in God would be completely justified. He then says that the chance of this God existing is the chance belief in God is totally justified, and that this chance survives Occam's razor as long as there are no really good arguments against this kind of God. Therefore, belief in God is probably reasonable, commensurate with this chance.

1. Introduction

For many centuries, philosophers and theologians have tried to show that God exists using natural reason. While this may have been a successful approach in times past, since David Hume and other famous skeptics the idea of 'natural theology', or using reason to prove the existence of God has faltered, and is an approach not now taken seriously by many philosophers. One Christian to reach this conclusion was Alvin Plantinga, and in response he formulated an argument that attempted to demonstrate belief in God could still be reasonable despite this through arguing it can be 'properly basic'.

2. Foundationalism And Basic Beliefs

Plantinga's ideas about properly basic beliefs, being epistemological, first require a discussion of epistemology.

To begin with, we must ask some basic epistemological questions. What makes an ordinary belief justified, and what, if anything, is a properly basic justified belief? What justifies a properly basic belief? Can theism be basic?

Well, what makes a belief justified? There are many schools of epistemology which attempt to answer this question. Perhaps a person making an initial study of epistemology would be inclined to answer:

1. If belief X has a reasonable amount of evidence in its favour, then belief X is justified.

Which is undoubtedly a decent answer. And by extension this answer means that if belief X does not have enough evidence then it shouldn't be thought of as justified.

However it was soon found with this solution that it was too simple and not sufficient an exposition. For example, take my belief that 2 + 2 = 4 or that a sound premise and argument will make a sound conclusion (logic.) My belief in any of these things is (technically speaking) not justified by evidence. I have no 'evidence' in the ordinary everyday sense that 2 + 2 = 4 because I can't bring in anything outside of mathematics to prove that 2 + 2 = 4, nor with logic can I bring in anything outside logic to prove logic.

For example, suppose we met some creature who could communicate with us and disbelieved in any kind of logic or mathematics. Could we prove to that being through any method at all that 2 + 2 = 4 or that sound deductive arguments were true? It doesn't seem so, because we would be using the tools of logic or mathematics to do so. So it seems, that although transcendentally obvious and true, logic and mathematics cannot be justified via external reasoning. They are simply believed in by all, considered inherently true, and are hence an example of a justified 'properly basic' belief.

In addition, there is the regress argument, which states that if every belief must be justified, then no belief can ever be justified as 'there's turtles all the way down' (so to speak.) Every belief is tenuous - every belief is justified only by a further belief, which in turn needs further justification, ad infinitum. So clearly, something has to be basic.

3. What Makes A Properly Basic Belief?

A school of epistemology more complex than the first example I gave of what makes a belief true is 'basic' (or classic) Foundationalism. Foundationalism is so called because it says that in addition to 'synthetic' a posteriori arguments like, if this ladder is very old and decrepit then it is likely to fail, because of the evidence it would be so, that there are properly basic foundational beliefs such as '2 + 2 = 4' that don't need evidence as in my earlier example. Basic Foundationalism would go like this:

2. A belief is justified if either a) It has evidence for it or b) It is properly basic.

Now we can see the outline of the approach of Plantinga's properly basic belief argument. In order to sidestep the questions about there not being enough evidence of God's existence Plantinga will have to show that belief in the existence of God is 'properly basic'.

Now we must ask - since we obviously have an example of two properly basic beliefs (logic and mathematics) - what makes them properly basic and are there any other properly basic beliefs?

A typical requirement of properly basic beliefs are that they are self-evident. In other words, they are self-authenticating. They intuit as being totally true and authentic although we don't discover, for example, mathematics by non-mathematical external reasoning. Another criterion often given is that a belief is incorrigible. That is, I am unable to change my belief in X. Suppose a person tried for some reason to stop believing 2 + 2 = 4 or that a sound argument shows the possibility of its conclusion. Such a belief is simply not able to be changed. A person may try to stop believing in logic, but those beliefs are definitely with us and are unchangeable.

All this doesn't look very good for Plantinga's chances for getting theism to be properly basic, as theistic beliefs are not self-evident, nor are they unchangeable. So we will look to Plantinga's special next criterion for properly basic beliefs which attempts to add to this.

4. Plantinga's Criterion

Plantinga's additional criterion is that a belief is basic if having the belief is one of the functions of a person's belief faculties.

For example, suppose you created a little mechanical robot, and you created it so that it would constantly walk forwards. Let's say you disappeared for a while and set it walking. The sole function you had designed for that robot is to keep walking forward - and as long as it keeps walking forward it is performing its intended function correctly.

Suppose that God exists (for the sake of the argument). Suppose further that he created humans. And suppose even further that he created humans with the specific intent of believing in him. That would be somewhat similar to the walking robot, in that if God created us specifically to believe in him, then we would be fulfilling (one of) our cognitive faculties' functions if we did so. Just like the robot walking continually forwards, believing in God under that model of reality would be the proper thing to do.

So we see here a third criterion. And it is:

3. A belief is justified if a) It is supported by evidence, b) It is properly basic because it is incorrigible or self-evident or c) the belief-making tools of a person were made to have that belief.

Quite clearly, if our mental tools, which allow us to believe anything in the first place, were shaped directly by God to have certain beliefs, then under those circumstances those beliefs are OK to have.

5. What That Means For Theistic Belief

So if Plantinga is correct, then a third criterion can be added to what constitutes a properly basic belief. Which brings us to the next question - what practical implications would this have with regard to any other arguments for Christianity?

According to Plantinga it goes something like this. We should still have our arguments and reasons for believing in God, but apart from the properly basic belief consideration, they don't have to be good ones.

For example, suppose I created a special robot whose sole function was to be in space and transmit a certain signal to Earth. However, for some strange reason I decided to give that robot free will, so that the robot was free to send the signal or not. According to Plantinga, it doesn't matter how that robot sends that signal back to Earth - as long as the basic signal gets out, by hook or by crook that robot is functioning correctly.

Similarly, if we believe in God, either by good arguments or bad arguments, then as long as we are believing in God under that specific situation then we are believing in God rightly. It doesn't matter HOW we get to belief in God - because one of our functions is to believe in God, the attainment of that belief is what matters - not the way we go about it.

For example, suppose this was my argument for God:

1. I have a red rose
2. Carpets are nice to have
3. Therefore, God exists

Or perhaps:

1. There is such a thing as a screwdriver
2. If there is a screwdriver, someone has a need for screws
3. Therefore, God exists

Now according to Plantinga it doesn't matter that these arguments are terrible arguments. And let's say that there are some people who believe in God because of arguments similar to these. But if the function of those arguments is to believe in God, then it doesn't matter whether someone has an argument like this or the most wonderfully sound deductive proof in the world - they are still believing in God and their beliefs are, because God created their cognitive faculties, functioning correctly. So what this properly basic belief thing does is render irrelevant any other criteria for good and bad beliefs when those beliefs lie on the line of function.

6. The Critical Next Step

Now we have been being kind to Plantinga by assuming for the sake of the argument that this kind of God exists and shaped our cognitive faculties. Under those circumstances it seems quite obvious that belief in God, due to the criterion of function, would be properly basic, and justified no matter how we achieved it. But, what if this is all just a fantasy? I mean, this argument is not going to be very persuasive if this God is just a figment of our imagination.

Well, Plantinga is aware of this circularity, and so the proper basicality of theistic belief becomes a funny kind of 'ghost' argument, relying on the possibility that such a God exists.

Let us say there are two possibilities. Either God does exist, and is like this, or God doesn't exist or is not the kind of God who instills properly basic beliefs. And let us say the possibility of either is 50%.

If the possibility of such a God existing is 50% (half a chance he does and half a chance he doesn't) then that would mean that there is a 50% chance that theistic belief is 100% justified, because if this God did exist, theistic belief would be totally justified. So in fact if the chances are 50/50 we are left with this conclusion, that, not knowing which universe we live in (the universe with God or the universe without God) we can say theistic belief in God is 50% justified. And that would be enough to make it a reasonable belief according to most people's standards.

However, this approach overlooks two things, which is the possibility of other arguments against this kind of a God and also that even if all other arguments against this God fail, there is still the argument that theism is an unparsimonious belief (i.e. it is vulnerable to Occam's razor.)

Other arguments against God cannot be discussed in this article to any degree of depth, only it must be point out that an atheist's sense of the probability of God will certainly be influenced by the acceptance of any of them. Plantinga's argument, or this interpretation of it, has to assume that there are no other really good nontheist arguments against this kind of a God, which Plantinga himself and probably most Christians would agree with, but atheists would disagree with. One can view other articles on this site for a discussion of many of these arguments.

But the existence of this kind of a God is still unlikely regardless of whether there are no real problems with asserting his existence. For example, suppose you have the possibility of X. There is no evidence for X and no evidence against X, however, besides this there is evidence against X in that X is a useless unnecessary term to a theory. In that sense, even if there is no other evidence against X, 'X' is still improbable. For example, you could say that your neighbour, in addition to driving down to the pet shop, got an ice cream on the way, but you have no evidence either way, so you could say that it was 70% likely or thereabouts that they didn't, because there is no need to add that term to your theory of what your neighbour did.

Plantinga would say that even with the drop in parsimony, even if theistic belief is only 30% likely to be true, then justified belief still is possible. A 30% chance of something being true is still a reasonable possibility, although it may not be the strongest belief relating to the subject available. As one might point out, many people have argued for something that was only 50% likely to be true relative to all other beliefs on the subject, or 30% likely or even less, that they could hold and make a case for with intellectual honesty. If that's true then a '30% God-belief' or thereabouts could be intellectually honest.

7. The Effects Of Valid Theistic Arguments

Now Plantinga apparently doesn't feel arguments are necessary for theistic belief and may even believe that there are no valid ones. However suppose that there are valid arguments. Well then the chances of God existing would not just be 3/10 or 5/10, they would be substantially higher. And the higher the chance, the higher the chance theistic belief is completely justified, as it would be completely justified if this God existed.

Therefore, valid theistic arguments would indeed be very friendly to Plantinga's argument.

8. Objections

9. Objection 1: The Great Pumpkin

This is a classic objection to willy-nilly making beliefs properly basic. Which is that shouldn't we demand evidence just on the principle of the thing? If this is true, couldn't you justify anything? The 'Great Pumpkin' objection is a reductio ad absurdum of religious epistemology. Basically there is the possibility of a 'Great Pumpkinus' who created the universe. This Great Pumpkinus shaped our cognitive faculties to believe in the Great Pumpkinus. Therefore it is properly basic to believe in the Great Pumpkinus. But this is absurd.

One response is to say that the 'Great Pumpkinus' is a flawed analogy. For example, we saw earlier with no evidence for or against God that it would seem that there is a 30/70 chance of belief in God being properly basic. Well, with the Great Pumpkinus the evidence against would be greater, because, for example, it seems unlikely a pumpkin God would place pumpkins in a low position if he was one (to be eaten), that a pumpkin God would not be intelligent and make pumpkins unintelligent, that out of all possible images of God, the pumpkin would not be a very likely image of God compared to rational beings, that there is nothing to really distinguish pumpkins very much from other vegetable candidates, etc... All this would probably be able to lower the probability of the existence of the Great Pumpkinus to below 30/70 and a reasonable amount. Provided there are no good arguments against God (and for more on that, see other articles on this site) then God-belief is in a much better position than belief in the Great Pumpkinus.

A second response would be that any properly basic belief argument to something should be able to show *some* evidence of the commonness of the defended belief. This is not the case with the Great Pumpkinus, and, to be fair, is also not the case with monotheism. But it *is* the case with polytheism, worship of nature, animals, ancestors, spirits and also along with all that, monotheism and the idea of a single God, all of which comes from humanity's religious impulse. Which leads to another objection...

10. Objection 2: People Don't Have Properly Basic God-Belief

Under this objection, there is evidence that humans don't have properly basic theistic beliefs because, well, it's just not common enough. Shouldn't God-belief be universal?

The best answer to this is - well, no, there is evidence of some (though not complete) universality. Even in an age where atheism is reasonable, over 90% of people believe in God or some religious being(s), and even in Western countries atheistic belief is not usually more than 15%. Just because a majority don't attend religious services regularly does not mean all others are agnostics or atheists, but may be believers who do not attend regularly, or may be spiritual seekers, or to varying degrees have religious/spiritual beliefs about reality, including beliefs that do not fit into an organised religion. Plus the fact that a lot of atheists were at one time religious or have experimented with religion could mean that they have been 'immunized', as it were, against it; i.e. the bad experiences from a flawed 'Christianity' or other religion has significantly contributed to them rejecting all religion. In other words perhaps most people are naturally religious to some extent and some become inoculated against it.

This would seem to have some support. The human race, for recorded history has been vastly religious. It's an anthropological fact that every known society has had religious beliefs. Mathematics and logic are definitely universal, and although less so, arguably the impulse to believe is too somewhat.

11. Conclusion

Edited 2/2/08