This one never got a title. The professor told me I did very exceptional work for my age. Written for critical thinking at Foothill College in winter quarter 2009.
Philosophy 1: Critical Thinking
13 March 2009
In Alvin Plantinga's essay “Intellectual Sophistication and Basic Belief in God,” he describes his view of belief and argues that these beliefs can be held in spite of appeals to their improbability and lack of evidence. He claims that this is a religious style of believing that allows for religious belief in spite of atheist arguments to the contrary. Although his argument is strong and well-thought-out, assumptions about these beliefs are faulty – namely, that they are easily distinguished from other types of beliefs, that they do not come from anywhere other than God, and that they are necessary for religious beliefs.
Plantinga starts with the concept of "properly basic belief." These are beliefs that are believed by a person at a given time but are "not accepted by that person at that time on the basis of any of his or her other beliefs at that time." Plantinga lists three things that can be taken as basic beliefs for a theist:
1. God is speaking to me.
2. God disapproves of what I have done, and
3. God forgives me for what I have done.
From here, he goes on to point out the nature of a basic belief. It is a belief that needs no evidentialist support, and therefore the burden of proof (from the viewpoint of the potential Christian convert to atheism) is on the atheists to make arguments refuting such properly basic beliefs. The question of belief vs. nonbelief is not a matter of b vs. ~b; it is a matter of deciding whether or not to take on ~b in the context of having belief b. (Think of "b" as "basic beliefs.")
The author whose article he is refuting, Philip Quinn, has cited two arguments against theistic belief: the problem of evil and theories of religion showing its inherent delusion, such as Freudian and Marxist theories. The latter is easy to ignore; this is called the genetic fallacy and says nothing about the truth-claims of such religious ideas. Plantinga refutes the former claim by pointing out that there is no conclusive argument to support the claim that the existence of evil is 100% incompatible with a God who "exists and is omniscient, omnipotent, and wholly good," only strong convictions that evil and God are improbably compatible. Plantinga goes on to argue that since his beliefs are "properly basic," he merely needs to refute ~b or point out that it is an argument based on probability to safely disregard it as a refutation of his basic beliefs. To him, the content of the basic beliefs cannot be separated from the way in which they are believed.
Furthermore, his basic beliefs (b) are themselves reasons for thinking anything opposing his basic beliefs (~b) is false. This is the same for experience-based "basic beliefs" as it is for any other type of belief. If he were talking a walk in the woods at 2 PM on Monday, then he would know that anyone who accused him of murdering his boss at 2 PM on Monday is wrong. He knows this by the simple fact that, to his own mind, his own beliefs have more validity than theirs, and he need only refute them with his own personal experience to remove himself from the obligation of believing their truth-claims. For the purposes of his own beliefs, he need only refute, not provide arguments for his own position. Inductive arguments or personal testimonies opposing his beliefs are simply not strong enough to sway his basic beliefs.
Though it is a realistic depiction of the way much religious belief works, Plantinga assumes that there is a clear difference in an individual's mind between evidentialist and non-evidentialist (i.e., "basic") beliefs. That is, even if Plantinga has clear criterion for what sorts of truth-claims can be regarded as properly basic, and he has a clear abstract distinction between evidentialist and "properly basic" beliefs, he doesn't have a verifiable method for applying the difference between basic beliefs and non-basic beliefs to one's own set of beliefs. Given the fact that we often fail to understand why we do or believe certain things, it is clearly impossible to have an acceptable level of certainty regarding the nature of various types of one's own beliefs. This is important because these basic beliefs have to be believed and defended differently than other beliefs (as in his example belief #7), and in order to do this one must know which beliefs are basic and which aren't. This can lead to confusion in understanding one's own beliefs. For example, Sam is an unemployed philosophy professor who decides to pray to God for a job. The next day, he is offered an endowed chair at Harvard University. He decides to argue that his belief in the power of his prayer is properly basic. And it is, in one sense: he believes it based on personal intuition and 'faith.' But it is also based on the evidence of his own experience: the logical sequence of events that he prayed to God and that he got a job, and the improbability of those events occurring in such a close sequence. His belief has two components:
an evidence component: his experience
a belief component: his interpretation of the experience in light of the God-concept.
Effectively, this belief is the same as Plantinga's basic belief that "God is speaking to me": it is based on both one's observation of a strong intuitive sense (or even a sensory voice) telling him one thing or another, and it is based on interpretations of those events taking place in consciousness, interpretations that link them with the concept of God.
This leads to a deeper problem with Plantinga's basic beliefs: he does not explain where they come from. To assert that they are truly not based on evidence but rather on pure belief from divine revelation, he must show the origins of such beliefs. If they are not strictly interpretations of evidence, then they must have some other source. After all, beliefs do not come from nowhere! Given that we often misunderstand our own beliefs, they may be evidentialist beliefs that we believe are properly basic - and we may defend them in this manner as well, which is improper. For example, his basic belief that "God forgives me for what I have done" is based on a feeling of forgiveness and being loved. Most likely, he assumes that this is associated with God, and that the God-quality of the experience is necessarily entangled with the experience. This is the same mistake that Descartes makes: he assumes that his "clear and distinct conceptions" come from God when in fact, they are products of the surrounding culture and his interpretation of his conscious experience (Homrighausen). This is key because if he were to assume that these beliefs did not come from God, he would not believe them. His assumption that they come from God makes them holy and believable. Had he not been predisposed by his culture to interpret them as events coming from God, he would not see them as coming from God. For example, if another voice in his head told him to eat twenty donuts, he would ignore this voice and not see it as coming from God because it is not something that his concept of God (as defined by his culture) would call upon him to do. From the standpoint of someone who has never even heard of this God-concept and has no understanding of what Christianity typically considers it to be, the likelihood that the feeling of forgiveness comes from God is not any greater than the likelihood that the command to eat donuts comes from God. Assuming that properly basic belief is a valid form of belief, there is nothing about the content of the beliefs that mandates one be held in a properly basic way while the other be a mere assumption.
Plantinga argues that properly basic beliefs must - by their very nature as basic beliefs - be held despite probable truths to the contrary. In his view, it is not enough for atheists to argue that God is highly improbable. They must have conclusive refutations of theistic belief before the theist need pay attention. These theistic beliefs have preference to other beliefs merely because of the way in which they are believed. However, he never explains why these beliefs (basic beliefs about God) must be held any differently than other types of beliefs. Why is “basic belief” a necessary way of believing in the first place? Why must a preexisting belief about God be of a type that skews an objective measure of the probabilities of two competing beliefs about God? Plantinga gives no answer, and seems to assume that these beliefs cannot be separated from the properly basic way in which they are held. This is a faulty assumption. As an example, take belief five:
5. God exists and is omniscient, omnipotent, and wholly good.
This refers to an entity outside the mind as well as a relation to that entity. There is nothing about this belief which suggests it must be held in the properly basic way. It may be a philosophical conclusion that one has arrived at, rather than a basic belief. If this were the case, then the person holding this theory could change their opinion if shown a merely probable (rather than a strictly deductive and conclusive) argument against it. Their belief in God would not be a Plantingian basic belief. And there is no reason to see fault with that.
Basic beliefs – as well as one’s general outlook on life - play a large role in how one interprets facts. For example, an atheist may interpret religious beliefs as Freudian delusions perpetuated by culture and gullibility, whereas a believer will interpret them as signs from God revealed to individuals in similar ways. Regardless of which explanation is more or less probable (if any objective measurement of such a thing is possible in this case), each chooses the explanation that makes more sense to him. Plantinga’s essay and my arguments against his thesis are included in this quandary. Plantinga with his basic beliefs may recognize the shortcomings of his arguments – that he assumes a clear distinction between basic and non-basic beliefs, that he assumes that these events and beliefs are intrinsically endowed with the God-quality necessary to make them basic beliefs, that he never provides an explanation why these basic beliefs are necessary in the first place – and while an atheist will look at these shortcomings and scoff that basic beliefs (and religious beliefs in general) are unnecessary delusions, Plantinga will merely take these as constructive criticism to develop his ideas with. Neither of these is more rational – it comes down to a matter of philosophical perseverance, a choice to stay with an idea riddled with problems or to disregard the entire façade of logic as pointless and embrace atheism.
One example of this quandary lies in whether or not Plantinga has created a burden of proof fallacy. Because Plantinga has created a style of belief that precludes an objective, opinionless means of evaluating beliefs and forever forces the atheist to prove his points more conclusively than the theist, his argument could be construed as a clever shifting of the burden of proof. This is a well-documented fallacy in which someone arguing a claim (person A) argues in favor of his claim by pointing out person B (the person attempting to refute A's claim) has no conclusive evidence that he is wrong. Although B may have inductive arguments showing A to be probably wrong, they do not have conclusive evidence, so A safely disregards B's arguments. Plantinga permanently pushes the burden of proof onto the atheist when arguing that properly basic beliefs must (by their very nature as basic beliefs) be held despite probable truths to the contrary. To an atheist, this is fallacious regardless of Plantinga’s reasons for justifying it, because it breaks down the framework of objective analysis that the scientific mind holds so dear. To a believer, this is different from the typical fallacy: the fallacy is usually used as a rhetorical device when one runs out of counterarguments, whereas here it is a rationally proven, descriptive framework in which to discuss beliefs about God.
The atheist is right that this framework does not resolve the philosophical questions at hand. Why is this necessary? Why must one person be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’? Surely rational human beings with different assumptions and experiences can disagree about philosophical ideas. Socrates understood this all to well; he led people to aporia, to the utter dead-end of thinking in which one is only puzzled. This is also the end result of Plantinga’s way of belief.
Homrighausen, Jonathan. "Flawed Conceptions of Human Perception in Descartes’ Meditations." Essay for PHIL 4: Introduction to Philosophy. Foothill College, Spring 2008.
Homrighausen, Jonathan. "It's...Plantinga time!" Online posting. 7 March 2009. .
Mesher, D. “Burden of Proof.” San Jose State University. 13 March 2009 .
Plantinga, Alvin. “Intellectual Sophistication and Basic Belief in God.” Faith and Philosophy 3 (1986). 3 March 2009 .
- Final Paper for Critical Thinking