Monday, July 15, 2024


Plantinga's Basic Belief: Not Quite Basic

by Francois Tremblay

The article I review here is Alvin Plantinga’s ‘Intellectual Sophistication and Basic Belief in God’. But before I begin, it is of great import to understand Reformed Epistemology, since it is the premise of Plantinga’s entire theological work.

I describe the position of Reformed Epistemology, which is a category of Christian apologetics, in my book “Handbook of Atheistic Apologetics”. Basically, Reformed Epistemology is an attempt to divert the burden of proof to atheistic shoulders by assuming that theism is a “properly basic belief”, giving it priority over “non-basic” positions like atheism. We can express the reasoning behind this apologetics position in a simple manner:

  1. Current (secular) foundationalism is incomplete because it does not account for direct perception.
  2. We have direct perception of God (by a “divine sense”).
  1. Therefore theism is properly basic.

    I detail three specific objections to Reformed Epistemology in my book. I also discuss the components of each premise in different articles. In ‘In Support of Secular Foundationalism’, I defend secular foundationalism against both skeptic attacks and religious demands to put God at its center. In ‘The Infallibility of Sense Perception’, I both defend sense perception and disprove the possibility of a divine sense.

    Sense perception is accounted for by secular foundationalism because it is the necessary center of rational thinking. If we accept that reality is objective, which is to say that it can only be found by extrospection, then the senses are by definition our sole fundamental means to find reality. This is not surprising, since the capacity to interface between the mind and exterior reality is precisely how we define the senses in the first place.

    Also, using sensory data is a more complex affair than simply receiving it, and can involve a lot of scientific and psychological information. We will see that Plantinga fails to understand this, even in obvious cases.

    As for the divine sense, it is obvious that there is actually nothing being perceived there. For one thing, the results of that “perception” is extremely cultural-dependent, which is an obvious sign of a subjective interpretation being imposed on simpler objective phenomena. All we really have in our minds is the emotional impact of holding religious belief, of which constructions of a divine sense seem to be nothing more than a rationalization. Theism is not superior to atheism in having a supposed perceived object, and even if it did, it would have no relevance to theism’s actual validity.


    In his theological discussions, Plantinga starts from the premise that Reformed Epistemology is a valid position. Having “established” that theism is properly basic, all he has to do now is to refute defeaters, his term for propositions that oppose a basic belief. But even in this simple task, we will now see that Plantinga fails. Leaning on Quinn (who is not even an atheologian, by Plantinga’s own admission), he posits that there is only one serious argument for strong-atheism, the Problem of Evil:

    So these substantial reasons for thinking theism false would be the atheological argument from evil together with theories according to which theistic belief is illusory or merely projective; here perhaps Quinn has in mind Marxist and Freudian theories of religious belief.

    And having summarily dismissed psychological arguments, he concludes:

    This leaves us with the atheological argument from evil as the sole substantial reason for thinking [that “God does not exist” is] true.

    This is normal laziness for bad, or even average, theologians, but from a supposedly top-notch thinker like Plantinga it is horribly deficient. It is well-known in the literature that there are many supporting arguments to the proposition “God does not exist”, including noncognitivism, other incoherency arguments, teleological arguments, Occam’s Razor, and yes, even evidential arguments of the type that Plantinga summarily rejects.

    Some of these arguments are discussed in books such as Smith’s “Atheism: The Case Against God”, Martin’s “Atheism: A Philosophical Justification”, “The Impossibility of God”, my own book, and on this web site as well, of course.

    Setting these aside, is Plantinga’s defense against the Problem of Evil satisfactory? He expresses it as a contradiction between these two propositions:

    1. God exists and is omniscient, omnipotent, and wholly good…

    2. There are 1013 turps of evil.

    With the “turp” representing a unit of morality. But even if we grant the coherency of (6), which is not necessarily problematic, Plantinga’s escape is once again lazy:

    At present, I think atheologians have given up the claim that (5) and (6) are incompatible, and quite properly so. What they now say is that (5) is unlikely or improbable with respect to (6).

    Why such sloppiness? In all my readings of actual atheologians, I have not yet seen such a position. Which atheologian upholds that (5) and (6) are not outright incompatible, and why? On this, he does not even sketch an explanation.

    It is hard to understand what Plantinga even means here: the Problem of Evil is certainly not an inductive argument. And there is no way for the theologian to declare (5) and (6) even potentially compatible: such attempts, even sophisticated ones, have repeatedly failed (see Martin’s book for an analysis of modern attempts, for instance).

    To come back to his presumption about atheology, he concludes:

    ... no atheologian has given a successful or cogent way of working out or developing a probabilistic atheological argument from evil; and I believe there are good reasons for thinking that it can’t be done…

    Plantinga seems to have a paucity of imagination, as surely even he can see that there is a correlation between the moral qualities of an individual and the moral qualities of his products, thus making an inductive argument obvious. But I do not need to formulate such an argument, since Michael Martin already did on page 326 of Atheism: A Philosophical Justification with his Argument from Apparent Fallibility (brackets his):

  2. In terms of our experience, most seeming errors or mistakes in the kinds of created entities we have so far examined are the result of the fallibility of one or more creators of the entities. [Empirical evidence]
  3. The universe is a created entity. [Supposition]
    1. If the universe is a created entity, then it is an entity of a kind we have so far examined, with seeming errors or mistakes. [Empirical evidence][Probably]
  4. The seeming errors or mistakes in the universe are the result of the actions of a fallible being or beings. [From (1), (2), and (2a) by predictive inference]
  5. If the theistic God exists, then the seeming errors or mistakes in the universe are the results of the actions of a being who is infallible. [Analytic truth]
  1. Therefore the theistic God does not exist. [From (3) and (4) by modus tollens]

    His fallacious use of the analytic-synthetic distinction notwithstanding, Martin’s argument is both inductive and sound. And while he applies it to suboptimal systems in evolution and biology, some of his examples (such as genetic deformities) also apply to the Problem of Evil.

    Therefore the Arguments from Apparent Fallibility is an adequate “probabilistic atheological argument from evil”, and soundly refutes Plantinga’s claim that there is no such argument.


    His case does not end there. He also proposes that a basic belief can still stand in the presence of a strong defeater, because the existence itself of a basic belief is sufficient for complete, unwavering belief in the face of non-basic defeaters:

    ... if a belief p is properly basic in certain circumstances, then it has warrant or positive epistemic status in those circumstances in which it is properly basic-warrant it does not get by virtue of being believed on the evidential basis of other propositions. (By hypothesis it is not believed on the evidential basis of other propositions.)

    And that therefore:

    To be successful, a potential defeater for [a basic belief] must have as much or more warrant as [the basic belief] does. And [a basic belief] can withstand the challenge offered by a given defeater even if there is not independent evidence that serves either to rebut or undercut the defeater in question; perhaps the nonpropositional warrant that [the basic belief] enjoys is itself sufficient (as in the above case of the missing letter) to withstand the challenge.

    Plantinga’s case of the missing letter is interesting because it shows the kind of reasoning that leads him to believe that basic beliefs are universally superior. He sets up an example where all the circumstantial evidence (location, motive, opportunity, habitual behaviour) points to the position that:

  2. Plantinga stole a letter from the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

    But on the other hand, he clearly remembers that:

    1. [Plantinga] was alone in the woods all that afternoon, and [he] did not steal the letter.

    He concludes that the basic belief expressed in (2) is inherently superior to the propositional evidence that supports (1), indicating that basic beliefs are inherently superior because they necessarily hold more warrant to us.

    However, there is a major problem with this analysis. Even if we accept the analogy between (2) and a hypothetical divine sense, the analogy itself does not prove that basic beliefs are undefeatable by non-basic beliefs. It is set up to make the case in (1) much weaker than it could actually be, since circumstantial evidence is not as credible as direct evidence. For example, a surveillance video of Plantinga stealing the letter would be direct evidence, and thus would make (1) more credible.

    Like any reasonable person, Plantinga really compared the probabilities of (1) and (2) and concluded that his recollection was more reliable than circumstantial evidence. But if he was faced with a much stronger case for (1), of the type I just described, he would no doubt change his mind and conclude that his memory is incomplete or distorted. Otherwise, we would rightly say that he is being irrational. As such, even if one believes in a divine sense, which is irrational, perception of a god can in no way be considered universally superior to non-basic beliefs, for the same reason.

    I promised I would discuss the complexity of Plantinga’s so-called “basic beliefs”, and this would be a good time. As I just hinted at, (2) is not by any stretch of the imagination a “basic” proposition. While it is held on the basis of direct perception, its actual validity is predicated on a number of things, including the integrity of one’s memory, the validity of one’s concepts and capacity to apply them to reality, one’s sense of responsibility, and so forth.

    Granted, most of these restrictions apply to any proposition about one’s direct perception, including the direct perceptions that form the basis of (1), but the point is that (2), while still obviously more credible in this particular case, is not “basic” and not irrefutable.

    Another example, more damageable to Plantinga’s case, appears later in the article:

    When God spoke to Moses out of the burning bush, the belief that God was speaking to him, I daresay, had more by way of warrant for him than would have been provided for its denial by an early Freudian who strolled by and proposed the thesis that belief in God is merely a matter of neurotic wish-fulfillment.

    Let us express this basic belief as:

    1. God was speaking to Moses out of a burning bush.

    These examples are so complex that they show how absurd Plantinga’s foundationalism is. (3) relies on, amongst other things, the acceptance of miracles and the impossibility of naturalistic explanations to account for (3), the knowledge of what a god is and how it would speak, belief in the actual existence of a god, and so forth. And these, in turn, are impossible to prove. (3) is not only non-basic, but absurd.

    I have done enough already, but there is one last thing that needs to be pointed out. Plantinga’s position seems to be one of naive realism. As I explained in ‘The Infallibility of Sense Perception’, naive realism is the position that appearance (perceptual, in this case) is reality. It is often used as a straw man of realism in order to undermine the validity of the senses.

    In this case, however, Plantinga seems to be adopting it wholesale in order to bolster his superficial justification for theism. In essence, he is stating that a proposition based on direct perception is automatically valid regardless of the evidence. If a context appears to us directly as being a certain way, then it must be that way, whether we can actually understand and use the direct information correctly or not. So I would certainly qualify Plantinga’s position, and Reformed Epistemology in general, as naive in the technical sense.

    Last updated: January 1, 2005