Return to Reformation Resources
 

THE EPISTEMOLOGICAL PROPOSAL OF ALVIN PLANTINGA:
BELIEF IN GOD AS PROPERLY BASIC

[A paper presented at the 1996 Evangelical Theological Society (EPS) Meeting in Jackson, MS]

© Gregg Strawbridge, Ph.D.
Pastor of All Saints' Presbyterian Church, Lancaster, PA www.allsaintspresbyterian.com 



INTRODUCTION

While theism has been the heritage of the West, the Enlightenment was the tidal wave which pounded away at the philosophical justification of theism in natural theology. Though it is true natural theology has always had its opponents, it is safe to say that the mainstream of theological thought concurred with the "strong" and "weak" purposes of natural theology: (1) To produce objective arguments to demonstrate the existence of God(1) and (2) to show that belief in God is rational belief. As a result of the Enlightenment challenges to authority, especially religious authority, all beliefs, to be rational, demanded evidence. Could Christian theism stand the test of such evidential interrogations? Many believed that it could not, especially in the face of the rigorous counter argumentation to the primary natural theological arguments (ontological, cosmological, and teleological arguments), most notably David Hume and Immanuel Kant. Others, however, followed in the steps of Thomas Reid and the Common Sense reaction to radical empiricism, particularly, Nineteenth century American Protestants. Men such as Archibald Alexander and later, B. B. Warfield of the Princetonian school mounted the Baconian scientific method and reformulated theistic arguments to accept the evidential challenges to Christianity (Marsden, 1983).

Currently, many contemporary philosophers are quite willing to concede that the Enlightenment's evidential challenges to natural theology were successful and responses to it were not. Thus, the first purpose of natural theology--to provide a successful, objective argument for God's existence--has yet to be consummated as the received philosophical position at present. Nevertheless, the second purpose of natural theology has been the subject of surprising innovations in the last half of the Twentieth Century. There has been something of a Copernican revolution of epistemology in this century which has brought numerous criticisms to the traditional definition of knowledge as "justified true belief" (Gettier, 1993 [1963]). Further, new schools of epistemological thought have formally developed while refuting the very foundations of many of the Enlightenment challenges. Some significant changes in the intersection of epistemology and belief in God have been connected with one philosopher, Alvin Plantinga. Plantinga (1977) discusses natural theology in these terms, " . . . few who accept theistic belief do so because they find such an argument compelling. Instead the typical function of natural theology has been to show that religious belief is rationally acceptable" (p. 2).

Plantinga's theological roots are in the Protestant Reformed tradition. His claim to philosophical fame is most notably his restatement of the ontological argument using modal logic (Plantinga, 1974). In the past two decades, however, Plantinga and others with him have been involved in an epistemological project aimed at defending belief in God as a basic belief and as such, a rational belief. This is usually referred to as the new Reformed Epistemology. More broadly, Plantinga has been at the task of developing a full-orbed epistemology which squarely sits in the Reidian tradition (Plantinga, 1993a & 1993b). The remaining portion of this discussion will be focused on the exegesis of Plantinga's fundamental argument, objections to it , and the viability of it in the task of evangelical apologetics.
 

1. EVIDENTIAL OBJECTIONS TO BELIEF IN GOD
 

Atheological philosophers often argue that theistic belief is irrational, "noetically below par," unreasonable, or generally, intellectually irresponsible, since there is (allegedly) insufficient evidence for "rational belief" in God. W. K. Clifford, Brand Blanshard, Bertrand Russell, Michael Scriven, and Anthony Flew are a few representatives of this position. For example (the following are cited in Plantinga, 1983, pp. 17ff.), Clifford says if a

belief has been accepted on insufficient evidence, the pleasure is a stolen one. Not only does it deceive ourselves by giving us a sense of power which we do not really possess, but it is sinful, because it is stolen in defiance of our duty to mankind . . . To sum up: it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence. (1879, pp. 184, 186)
Flew commends Clifford's "luminous and compulsive essay" and claims there is a "presumption of atheism"--
...the onus of proof involves that it is up to the theist: first to introduce and to defend his proposed concept of God; and second, to provide sufficient reason for believing that this concept of his does in fact have an application . . . Until or unless some such grounds are produced we have literally no reason at all for believing; and in that situation the only reasonable posture must be that of either the negative atheist or the agnostic. (1976, pp. 14-15, 22)
Michael Scriven likewise argues that this kind of objection demands an obligatory character.
Now even belief in something for which there is no evidence, i.e., a belief which goes beyond the evidence, although a lesser sin than belief in something which is contrary to well-established laws, is plainly irrational in that it simply amounts to attaching belief where it is not justified. So the proper alternative, when there is no evidence, is not mere suspension of belief, e.g., about Santa Claus; it is disbelief. It most certainly is not faith. (1966, p. 103)
2. PLANTINGA'S ANSWERS TO EVIDENTIAL OBJECTIONS TO BELIEF IN GOD

Plantinga raises a number of particular criticisms to the various evidential objectors, separating their differences, internally critiquing their objections in his sharp analytical style. However, such details need not be considered here. The argument ultimately deals with this proposition:
 

(a) It is irrational or unreasonable to accept theistic belief in the absence of sufficient evidence or reasons.

The evidentialist objector, then, holds that it is irrational to believe in God without evidence. He doesn't typically hold, however, that the same goes for every proposition; for given certain plausible conditions on the evidence relation it would follow that if we believe anything, then we are under obligation to believe infinitely many propositions. (1986, p. 9)
Plantinga reasons that unless one wishes to be caught in an infinite regress of arguments for each proposition believed, some basic propositions must be found. "Foundationalism" has now become the label of one's epistemology which consists of basic beliefs from which all others are derived. That is, some beliefs form the foundations of all other beliefs. Ancient and medieval foundationalists, such as Aquinas, held that propositions which are (1) self-evident or (2) evident to the senses, are the criteria for proper basicality. Modern foundationalists--Descartes, Locke, Leibniz, etc.--have added to the list incorrigible propositions (cogito ergo sum). Thus, for these classical foundationalists, the criteria list for proper basicality is brief.

It is at this point that Plantinga and a host of other contemporary epistemologists have raised some serious problems for classical foundationalism. One such criticism is that many virtually universal beliefs such as, "I had breakfast this morning" (in such a case) or "the world has existed for more than five minutes," are not derivable from self-evident or incorrigible propositions and are not themselves self-evident nor incorrigible. Nonetheless, Plantinga's (presumably) fatal criticism is a demonstration of the self-defeating nature of classical foundationalism. He says, "Consider the main tenet of classical foundationalism:

(C) p is properly basic for S if and only if p is self-evident, incorrigible or evident to the senses for S." (1986, pp. 9-10)


But (C) cannot be justified on a foundationalist basis. It is neither a basic proposition nor is it derivable from basic propositions. Therefore, classical foundationalism turns out to be self-defeating, since the theory cannot justify its key criterion. Even critics of Plantinga admit he has "posed a serious problem for the classical foundationalist" (Goetz, 1983, p. 477). If classical foundationalism is faulty and is, in fact, the epistemology of the evidentialist objector, Plantinga's proposal effectively counters the reflective atheologian's challenge. Even more, it sends the evidentialist objector back to the philosophical drawing board for a coherent epistemology.
 

3. TAKING BELIEF IN GOD AS PROPERLY BASIC
 

From the demise of the above mentioned narrow (classical) foundationalism being quite restrictive of basicality, it follows, that theistic belief may indeed qualify for proper basic status and hence, not need evidential or propositional-rational argumentation to be rational. Plantinga suggests a person-relative method of discovering basic beliefs via an inductive investigation of the criteria of basicality. Since the incorrigible, self-evident, or evident to the senses criteria are no longer exclusive, then we are within our epistemic rights to believe and to hold belief in God as basic without any evidence or reasons at all. It is at this point that the atheologian feels the strong urge to preach against the "stolen pleasures" and the "sins" of unjustified belief (ala Clifford, et al).

Plantinga is quick to point out to objectors of this epistemology that rejecting classical foundationalism's criterion for basicality does not open the floodgate for any belief to be basic and thus, rational. This discussion is usually titled "The Great Pumpkin" objection--if belief in God could be properly basic why then could not belief in the Great Pumpkin (cf. Charlie Brown) be basic? However tempting this objection is initially, Plantinga seems to be right in pointing out the non-sequitur. It does not follow from the rejection of classical foundationalism's criteria for basicality that (1) there are no criteria for basicality and (2) that one must have an articulated criterion in order to rationally hold basic beliefs -- any more than rejecting the positivists' verifiability criterion (A. J. Ayer) rules out meaningfulness in language. He says,

The fact is, I think, that neither [the modern foundationalist's criteria--incorrigibility nor self-evidentness] nor any other revealing necessary and sufficient condition for proper basicality follows from clearly self-evident premises by clearly acceptable arguments. And hence the proper way to arrive at such a criterion is, broadly speaking, inductive. We must assemble examples of beliefs and conditions such that the former are obviously properly basic in the latter, and example of beliefs and condition such that the former are obviously not properly basic in the latter. We must then frame hypotheses as to the necessary and sufficient conditions of proper basicality and test these hypotheses by reference to examples. (1986, p. 15)
Therefore, a basic belief may have a prima facie justification. For example, when I am being appeared to (R. Chisholm) in a way we would normally describe as seeing a tree, I have prima facie warrant in believing that I see a tree. Therefore, basic beliefs are not necessarily groundless. There may be justifying conditions and circumstances, but they need not be of the nature generally demanded by Clifford or Flew and company. That is, one need not have coersive rational proof for God's existence in order to rationally believe it.

Similar to an experience of being "appeared to treely," a theist may have an experience upon which statements as "God is speaking to me" or "God disapproves of what I have done" or "God forgives me" could be basic. These kinds of statements self-evidentially entail God's existence. One may say, speaking loosely, even because of this that belief in God is properly basic (1986, p. 13).

Again, criteria for proper basicality are not presented ex cathedra, but are argued to and tested by a relevant set of examples. Plantinga allows that differences must exist in examples of basic beliefs. The Christian will suppose that belief in God is basic and rational. Followers of Bertrand Russell, Voltaire, Madelyn Murray O'Hare may disagree. But that does not nullify the theist's set of basic beliefs.
 

THE NEW REFORMED EPISTEMOLOGY

The direction of what is being called the new Reformed Epistemology taken by Plantinga, Wolterstorff, Mavrodes, etc. is illustrated in the suggestion of Wolterstorff. Our beliefs are rational unless we have reason for rejecting them. "They are innocent until proved guilty, not guilty until proved innocent" (1983, p. 163). More precisely, Wolterstorff defines his criterion with this exception: a person is rationally justified in a belief unless he has adequate reason to cease that belief or ought to have adequate reason to cease that belief. For example if one has not governed one's beliefs very well such a person may not recognize a reason to cease a belief although such a reason is available.

Thus, according to Reformed Epistemology, both the evidentialist objection to theistic belief and the necessity of objective natural theology is rooted in classical foundationalism. Though the first purpose of natural theology is derailed [(1) To produce objective arguments to demonstrate the existence of God], belief in God is not groundless or arbitrary. It has grounds and justifying conditions (Plantinga, 1983, p. 91). In Plantinga's words, the criterion of

being self-evident, or incorrigible, or evident to the senses is not a necessary condition of proper basicality. Furthermore, one who holds that belief in God is properly basic is not thereby committed to the idea that belief in God is groundless or gratuitous or without justifying circumstances. And even if he lacks a general criterion of proper basicality, he is not obliged to suppose that just any, or nearly any, belief--belief in the Great Pumpkin, for example--is properly basic. Like everyone should, he begins with examples; and he may take belief in the Great Pumpkin, in certain circumstances, as a paradigm of irrational basic belief. (1986, p. 16)
In fact, it is not entirely clear that Plantinga is opposed to proving the existence of God in the natural theological sense--only that it is not necessary for rational theistic belief.

4. OBJECTIONS CONSIDERED

(a) The Great Pumpkin Objection
The most popular objection has already been alluded to and Plantinga himself considers it, the Great Pumpkin objection. In effect the Great Pumpkin objection argues that if it is rational to accept the existence of God as a basic proposition, it should also be rational to accept the existence of the Great Pumpkin, or any other belief (even as ludicrous), as properly basic. On the contrary, we may reject such beliefs if there are reasons for disbelieving them. Although our beliefs are "innocent until proven guilty," it is quite possible for them to be proven guilty. I am rationally justified in giving up a basic belief, even belief in God, if I find some good reasons for disbelieving. As far as those reasons for disbelieving, Plantinga (1967; 1974) has done a great service to theists by rigorously refuting the main tenets of natural atheology such as the hard form of the problem of evil, verificationism, and the religious language problem.

However, not all are satisfied with Plantinga's response to this objection. Johnsen (1986) argues that the justifying circumstances such as a community of faith or the sensus divinitatis (of Calvin) which allow theistic belief could hypothetically allow for pumpkinist belief. "But given the latitude he allows himself in the selection of appropriate circumstances . . . he could himself provide a list of circumstances in which, on his own showing, belief in the Great Pumpkin would be properly basic" (p. 463). But what is one to conclude about increasingly popular beliefs such as alien abduction, pagan deities, reincarnation, "I am God," and so forth? Plantinga, would seemingly be committed to calling such beliefs, at least in the proper circumstances and with the right conditions, rational. This may be an uncomfortable conclusion for some, but this objection, could only be fatal if it demonstrated a contradiction in Plantinga's epistemology.

(b) The Necessary Being Objection
Stewart Goetz (1983) raises the objection that belief in God presupposes our contingency and God's necessity. Thus, a belief in God must be derived and not basic since we distinguish God from other persons on the basis of God being a necessary being. Plantinga specifically argues not that the statement, "God exists," is properly basic, but such a statement as "God is speaking to me" is basic. That kind of statement requires knowing enough about God to individuate Him. I must know certain individual properties which distinguish God.

I can know myself without inferring (or knowing) that any other contingent entity like the tree exists . . . But I cannot know myself without inferring that a necessary being exists, for in knowing myself I know that I am contingent. The existence of a contingent being implies the existence of a necessary being, but the existence of a contingent self need not imply the existence of another contingent being . . . One can only maintain that belief in God is properly basic by ignoring one's own contingency. (p. 484)


I suppose that if this objection succeeds it will also imply that a successful cosmological argument exists. On the other hand every objection to the "third way" of Aquinas would apply as a defeator to Goetz's objection. Still, I find no immediate reason to deny that a person can believe God exists with consciously making necessary/contingent being deduction.

(c) The Quazi-Evidentialist Objection.
This objection is aimed at the unclear distinction between grounds and reasons, negative grounds and positive grounds. Wolterstorff especially articulates the idea that there are negative grounds for rejecting beliefs, even when the beliefs are proposed as basic. Positive grounds for basic beliefs may also exist. The analogy Plantinga uses is beliefs based on perception. My being-appeared-to is what confers on me the right to hold a certain belief. Arguments are relevant to basic beliefs primarily in a negative way, but there is always the next step. Namely, a potential defeater of a defeater may be lurking in the background. Such a defeater of a defeater does not prove the truth of my belief, but it does remove an impediment to my holding it.

However, how can basic beliefs have grounds but not reasons, grounds but not evidence? Is there a valid distinction here or no? Plantinga seems to take reason exclusively in the sense of consciously articulated reasons, but grounds in a broader sense. Mavrodes (1983), provides the best formulation of this in his distinction between having a reason and giving a reason. Rather than saying that we have "grounds but not reasons," it seems better to say one has reasons even when one cannot give them.

Mavrodes also questions the simplicity of having only basic or derived beliefs. He asks, is it really that simple? "Readers of this volume who are theists might usefully try the following experiment on themselves. Pause for a moment and consider your own belief that God exists, just as it stands right now . . . Is that belief . . . based on some other beliefs that you hold? And if so, what are those other beliefs, and how is the belief in God's existence based on them? Do they entail it, for example, or render it probable, or what?" Mavrodes suspects there is no clear answer to these questions. The contrast between basic and derived beliefs oversimplifies the epistemic situation.
 

(d) The Natural Theology Objection
I suspect that there are a great many religious thinkers who are not content to relinquish the offensive (as opposed to defensive) task of natural theology, even if Plantinga implies that such an approach depends on classical foundationalism. Many evangelicals ready and anxious with refurbished God proofs are apt to let sleeping epistemological dogs lie. Not content to say that theism is minimally rational, arguments are thrust forth with a tone which sounds coercively rational. Hence, the atheist, not the theist is irrational.

There seems to be some prima facia "ground" for this in Romans 1:19-20. "...That which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse." The term rendered "without excuse," anapologhtouV (anapologetous, literally without an apologetic). Thus, how can a Christian theist, holding the inexcusability of atheism (and the denial of the true God), accept the proper basicality of atheism? Moreover, what seems to be taught by Romans 1:19-20 is that belief in God is not basic but evidentially derived, i.e., "through what has been made" (see Dunn, 1988, for more exegetical support).

In conclusion, the proposal of Plantinga strikes me as bittersweet. While providing a satisfactory answer to the evidential objections to theism, it does not provide a satisfactory offensive posture for theism. Can this difficulty be overcome? If so then perhaps Plantinga's epistemological proposal can become an important move for evangelical apologetics.



References

Blanshard, B. (1974). Reason and belief. London: Allen & Unwin,

Clifford, W. K. (1879). The ethics of belief. In Lectures and Essays. London: Macmillan.

Dunn, J. D. G. (1988). Word biblical commentary: Romans 1-8. Dallas: Word.

Flew, A. (1976). The presumption of atheism. London: Pemberton.

Gettier, E. L. (1993 [1963]). Is justified true belief knowledge? In L. P. Pojman (Ed.), The theory of knowledge: Classic and contemporary readings. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth).

Goetz, S. C. (1983). Belief in God is not properly basic. Religious Studies, 19, 475-484.

Johnsen, B. C. (1986). Basic theistic belief. Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 16(3), 455-464.

Marsden, G. (1983). The collapse of American Evangelical Academia. In A. C. Plantinga & N. Wolterstorff (Eds.), Faith and rationality (pp. 219-264). Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame.

Mavrodes, G. I. (1983). Jerusalem and Athens revisited. In A. C. Plantinga & N. Wolterstorff (Eds.), Faith and rationality (pp. 192-218). Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame.

Plantinga, A. C. (1967). God and other minds. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Plantinga, A. C. (1977). God, freedom, and evil. (A more popular level presentation of GOM, 1967) Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Plantinga, A. C. (1974). The nature of necessity. Oxford: The Clarendon Press.

Plantinga, A. C. (1981). Is belief in God properly basic? Nous, 17, 41-51.

Plantinga, A. C. (1983). Reason and belief in God. In A. C. Plantinga & N. Wolterstorff (Eds.),
Faith and rationality (pp. 16-93). Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame.

Plantinga, A. C. (1986). On taking belief in God as basic. (A condensed version of RBG, 1983) In C. K. Ihara & J. Runzo (Eds.) Religious belief and religious experience: Essays in the epistemology of religion. (pp. 1-18). Lanham, MD: University Press of America, Inc.

Plantinga, A. C. (1993a). Warrant: The current debate. (New York: Oxford).

Plantinga, A. C. (1993b). Warrant and proper function. (New York: Oxford).

Russell, B. (1957). Why I am not a Christian. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Scriven, M. (1966). Primary philosophy. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Stumpf, S. E. (1988). Socrates to Sartre (4th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Wolterstorff, N. (1983). Can belief in God be rational if it has no foundations. In A. C. Plantinga & N. Wolterstorff (Eds.), Faith and rationality (pp. 135-186). Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame.



1. Here and henceforth I am using "God" in the Western Christian tradition sense. Namely, a benevolent powerful being both transcendent and immanent, personal, yet incomprehesible.