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Monday, 6 April 2009

Belief without Proof: Is Belief in God Rational if there is no Evidence? Part II

In my previous post I criticised the rationalist objection to belief in God. In this post I want to sketch an alternative view of faith and reason defended by Alvin Plantinga. In my next post I will address two common objections to this conception.

Belief in God as Properly Basic
In several of his works Alvin Plantinga has suggested that the best way for Christians to proceed is to take belief in God as properly basic. Let me explain what this statement means. In Part I, I quoted Roy Clouser to the effect that if everything needs to be proven we get an infinite regress of proofs and can never know or rationally believe anything. One obvious way of avoiding this problem is to get to a point where proof is no longer needed, to have a set of beliefs which are rationally believed independent of proof. Plantinga refers to these beliefs as properly basic beliefs. It is important to elucidate carefully how such beliefs function.

First and very importantly, properly basic beliefs are not arbitrary or groundless. While one does not believe a basic belief based on an inference or proof, basic beliefs are often based on some form of experience. Plantinga discerns two types of experience; sensory evidence, such things as appearing to see, hear or feel a given object and doxastic evidence, which he describes as “the belief feels right, acceptable, natural,”[1] “the belief seems true, appropriate, the right thing to believe.”[2]

An example of sensory evidence would be the grounds for perceptual beliefs; I have an experience of a certain shape, colour and sound and so I form the belief that a car has driven past. I do not infer the belief from the experience by way of argument yet the belief is nevertheless grounded upon this experience.

An example of doxastic evidence is belief in basic axioms of logic; when one entertains the conditional of modus ponens it just seems to be correct, modus ponens feels obviously true in a way that an overtly-fallacious inference does not. Similarly, with memory beliefs; for me the claim that I used to live in Hamilton seems true. I have a strong experiential pull towards it. It feels right in a way that the belief that I used to live in Iran does not. I seem to remember one being the case and not the other.

The second thing to note is that while properly basic beliefs are rational in the absence of proof for their truth, it does not follow that they remain rational when one is aware of good arguments against them.

If I see John screwing his face up in a particular way and grasping his leg, I might form the belief that John is in pain. However, if later John tells me that he was not in pain but rather rehearsing his death scene in the coming dramatic play he is acting in. I take his word for it and believe he was not in pain.

The initial belief was properly-basic; however, because of what I later discovered its rational status was defeated. Sometimes we form other beliefs that lead us to question or deny our basic beliefs. Plantinga refers to these types of beliefs as defeaters.[3]

There are two types of defeaters, undercutting defeaters and rebutting defeaters. The former are beliefs that cause you to question the grounds on which the original belief was held. The latter are beliefs that are inconsistent with the original belief so that accepting the defeater entails rejection of the original belief.[4]

Finally, properly basic beliefs are foundational beliefs. Beliefs that we believe on the basis of proof are inferred from other beliefs which themselves must be rational if the proof is to stand. These further beliefs will need proofs and so on. Eventually the demand for proof will terminate in a set of beliefs that do not need proof. This is what I have referred to as a properly basic belief. What needs to be noted is that these beliefs will be the starting points that one reasons from to prove and assess everything else. Everything else one accepts or believes will be justified on the basis of whether or not it is supported by basic beliefs.

In a short treatment like this a full examination of Plantinga’s work is impossible. Instead I will simply spell out briefly a summary of his position. Plantinga notes that when rationalists argue that belief in God is irrational independent of proof they typically use the word ‘rational’ in what is called an internalist sense.

[W]hether for all I can tell from the inside, so to speak, my beliefs meet the appropriate internal standards ... whether I have properly taken account of other things I know, whether I have paid proper attention to objections and to what others say. [5]

The basic idea here is that of “epistemic responsibility,”[6] “believing responsibly given ones evidence … being formed responsibly in light of the available evidence.”[7] He notes that in this sense of rationality a belief can be totally deluded, even false but still formed responsibly given the evidence. “My memory unbeknown to me starts malfunctioning; I remember things that never happened. If I see no reason to think my memory is malfunctioning, and no reason to think those things didn’t happen.”[8]

Plantinga suggests that in this sense of the word ‘rational’ belief in God can be justified in the absence of proof. He notes that “for many people the doxastic evidence for belief in God is very strong.”[9] In Reason and Belief in God he gives a series of examples,

Upon reading the Bible, one may be impressed with a deep sense that God is speaking to him. Upon doing what I know is cheap, or wrong, or wicked, I may feel guilty in God’s sight and form the belief God disapproves of what I have done. Upon confession and repentance I may feel forgiven, forming the belief God forgives me for what I have done. A person in grave danger may turn to God asking him for help; and then of course he or she has the belief that God is indeed able to hear and to help if he sees fit.[10]

Plantinga suggests that if a Christian has some doxastic or perceptual experience that makes it seem to them that God exists then provided that they have no defeaters for this belief and they have done things such as “carefully considered the objections”[11] they have encountered and “considered how it [theism] fits with other beliefs they hold”[12] then they are rational in continuing to believe. If one finds oneself in certain situations with a strong sense that God exists and on reflection finds no defeaters for this claim then one is internally rational in believing God exists. One may be deluded but one is not acting irresponsibly in believing what seems to oneself to be true and for which, one has no reason for doubting.

This internalist sense is contrasted with a more externalist sense, a conception of rationality “that is more attuned to truth or falsehood or probably of truth or falsehood,”[13] An externalist sense of rationality implies “not just that, that a justified belief has been formed in relation appropriately in response to doxastic evidence but, also that the doxastic evidence is not seriously misleading.”[14] The basic idea is that the belief “is produced by a cognitive faculty or process that is reliable, one that produces a preponderance of true over false beliefs.”[15]

With regards to external rationality, Plantinga’s position is more nuanced. Plantinga argues that if Christian beliefs are in fact true then one is externally rational in believing in God in the absence of proof. This is because if Christian beliefs are true then the kinds of process mentioned above are reliable processes. On the other hand if God does not exist then it is not reliable. Hence any argument that Theism belief is externally irrational will have presupposed from the outset that it’s false.

Of course the Christian cannot demonstrate that these processes are reliable in a non-circular fashion. This, however, is not as significant as one might think because one cannot provide a non-circular argument for the claim that reason or our perceptual faculties, are reliable either; nor can I provide a non-circular argument to the conclusion that my memory is reliable. To do so I would need good reasons for thinking my memory is reliable. Clearly, such reasons are not forthcoming as any argument I use to try to demonstrate my memory would be circular. I could attempt to show that most of the times I used my memory in the past it was correct but then I would need to remember how I had used my memory in the past and remember whether or not it was accurate. However, as I am not permitted to utilise memory in this way until I have reason for trusting it, any such argument could not get off the ground.

Nor would any other argument be forthcoming. Reasoning is a temporal process; one begins with the first premise and follows an inference through to a conclusion. One does not hold every step of an argument in one’s mind at the same time. Rather one relies on one’s memory to remember the first steps while the second is assessed and then remembers this step while the third is examined and so on. Hence, without first assuming the reliability of memory, one cannot reason at all.

With basic beliefs we simply trust the grounds upon which they are based are reliable and proceed on the assumption that they are and that what they deliver us is true. We cannot prove any of this by a non-circular argument; nevertheless we continue to trust them in the absence of evidence that the beliefs they deliver are false or that they are unreliable.[16] There is no reason why Christians should treat their basic beliefs any differently.

In my next post I will address two common objections to Plantinga's position.

[1] Alvin Plantinga Warranted Christian Belief (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000) 110-111.
[2] Alvin Plantinga “Reply to Tooley’s Opening Statement” Knowledge of God ed. Alvin Plantinga and Michael Tooley (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2008) 175.
[3] For further elaboration of Plantinga’s understanding of defeaters see Alvin Plantinga “Naturalism Defeated” (1994)
[4] Ibid.
[5] Alvin Plantinga “On Being Evidentially Challenged” in The Evidential Argument from Evil ed. D Howard-Snyder (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1996) 259.
[6] Plantinga “Reply to Tooley’s Opening Statement” 174.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid, 175.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Alvin Plantinga “Reason and Belief in God,” in Faith and Rationality ed. Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff (Notre Dame, ID: Notre Dame University Press, 1983) 80.
[11] Alvin Plantinga Warranted Christian Belief (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000) 225.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Plantinga “Reply to Tooley’s Opening Statement” 176.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid.
[16] For a good discussion of this point see William Alston Perceiving God: An Epistemology of Religious Experience (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1991) Ch 3-5.

Belief without Proof: Is Belief in God Rational if there is no Evidence? Part I
Belief without Proof: Is Belief in God Rational if there is no Evidence? Part III


  1. Fantastic! Another dynamic duo just like Tim and Lydia McGrew - will visit often.

  2. Thankyou - that is quite a compliment. Please do visit again :-)


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