Plantinga on God and Properly Basic Beliefs

Here’s a synopsis I did for my epistemology class on Plantinga’s Paper “Is Belief in God Properly Basic?”

Many philosophers in the foundationalist and evidentialist tradition argue that belief in God is only rational insofar as it has enough evidence to support it.  Properly basic beliefs are rational, but belief in God cannot be properly basic.  Plantinga argues that belief in God is properly basic, so it is rational to hold even without being supported by further beliefs, and that arguments against its basicality fail.  Philosophers who object to belief in God based on lack of evidence espouse a normative view that we have an obligation or a duty to follow the evidence where it leads and belief truth. The argument seems to be

1)      If belief in God is rational, then it is either because it has adequate evidence or because it is properly basic

2)      Belief in God is not properly basic.

3)      Therefore, if belief in God is rational, then it is because it has adequate evidence.

4)      Belief in God does not have adequate evidence.

5)      Therefore, belief in God is not rational.

Plantinga rejects (2).  His general argument is

6)      If belief in God is properly basic, then it is rational to believe even without evidence.

7)      Belief in God is properly basic.

8)      Therefore, belief in God is rational to believe even without evidence.

Plantinga mainly defends (7).  Properly basic beliefs are not inferred from other beliefs that we have, but are formed or occasioned by a justifying circumstance.  For Christians, belief in God is formed by certain circumstances such as knowing that one is guilty and needs forgiveness, a disposition to think that God made the world or that he is to be thanked and praised.  In these circumstances, Christians can belief God in a basic way properly, so are rational in believing he exists.

One objection to belief in God being properly basic is that the belief would be groundless or arbitrary if it is not supported by evidence.  However, basic beliefs are not groundless.  Beliefs like “I see a tree” or “I feel pain on my knee” are based on certain experiences, occasions, states of affairs, etc., so they are not groundless even if they are not accepted because of other beliefs.  The same can be said of God.  Maybe there are certain circumstances that occasion belief in God in a properly functioning mind, such as the feeling of guilt before a holy God and his forgiveness of your wrongdoing, or a sense of gratitude to some being when you see a sunset, etc.  If so, it is not a groundless belief.

Perhaps one will say that it is not strictly belief in God that is properly basic, but beliefs like “God is angry at me,” or “God forgives me” or “God made these things,” but it follows logically from these beliefs that God exists.  One may speak loosely about belief in God itself being properly basic, but it is not groundless.

If belief in God is properly basic, can just any belief be basic?  Some have argued that, but there does not seem to be any reason to think so.  If someone argued against the verifiability criterion, according to which propositions are not meaningful unless they can be empirically verified, that does not mean that he must think just any proposition is meaningful.  In the same way, thinking that belief in God is properly basic does not commit one to thinking that just any belief is properly basic.

Perhaps the problem is that the reformed epistemologist rejects a certain criterion for proper basicality, since he believes that God is properly basic, but he does not argue for a certain criteria.  But one does not need to argue for a certain criterion in order to be justified in rejecting another.  A person needs to start where he is at when taking the beliefs he has and coming up with a criteria for proper basicality.  For Christians, this will include God’s being properly basic, but it will not include the Great Pumpkin or some other belief that does not seem basic to the Christian.

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