Episode 036: Alvin Plantinga and Properly Basic Beliefs

Epistemology Philosophy of Religion podcast

Here’s episode 36, in honour of the recent retirement of Alvin Plantinga as the John O’Brien Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. It’s sort of a “nuts and bolts” podcast episode on Alvin Plantinga, introducing the listener to his account of belief in God as a properly basic belief – a belief justifiably held, but not held on the basis of evidence or argument.




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{ 10 comments… add one }
  • Kenny June 14, 2010, 1:16 pm

    Good podcast Glenn!

  • Glenn June 14, 2010, 5:56 pm

    At last! Proof that someone heard it! 🙂

  • mike June 16, 2010, 12:55 am

    Great as usual.

  • Dave June 17, 2010, 8:25 am

    Hi there. This episode is giving me a headache (but just metaphorically though;-). I’ve listened to it 3 times now and have a few questions about it if you don’t mind:

    1. Is this somehow related to presuppositionalism, or does presuppositionalism describe a subset of properly basic belief (or vice versa)?

    2. Is this a Christian version of existentialism (we can’t really know that our properly basic beliefs are actually properly basic until we find out for sure at the final judgement which ones we hold are correct)?

    3. It seems to me that what this is describing is our intuitive/logical ability to (subconsciously?) put fragments of experience & thought together to make a whole belief about some specific concept. Is that kind of what Plantinga was getting at?

    4. What is the main value to Christendom of this concept of properly basic beliefs? My guess from what you are saying is that a Christian can say to himself “I don’t have to feel bad about those Christian beliefs that I can’t see evidence for because they might be properly basic and therefore have no direct evidence anyway.” If that’s the case though, and given that other Christians believe things that I think are untrue (and therefore my own beliefs might be untrue too) I don’t quite get where the value is…other than maybe that it is a formal way (i.e for smart people) of saying “we all ultimately have to rely on faith in something at some point”.

    5. Did you mis-speak when you said that “If its not properly basic, its not true”? Then that would exclude all the other secondary derived beliefs. I assume what you meant was “if its not true, its not actually properly basic”.


  • Glenn June 17, 2010, 9:36 pm

    Hi Dave –

    1. This really isn’t presuppositional apologetics. Presuppositional apologetics centres around a transcendental argument along the lines of “unless you take theism as a starting point, nothing else makes sense.” Plantinga’s argument only concerns whether or not evidence is required in order to believe, not whether or not we need to believe in order to know anything else.

    2. It’s certainly not a version of existentialism either. The issue is not so much whether or not we can know that our beliefs are properly basic, but simply over whether or not we can know that they’re true.

    3. It’s not really about putting bits and pieces together to form a whole belief. It’s about whether or not there may be something that justifies the crucial belief in question – and which really does justify the belief, but which is not evidence (i.e. it’s not something we can demonstrate).

    4) The main value to Christendom is that it shows atheists what they really need to do in order to discredit the kind of Christianity in question here, and it shows Christianity that one very popular line of arggument is not available to atheists after all (or that when they use it, they fail).

    5) No, I didn’t misspeak. The point I was making is that if Christian belief is properly basic, then you can’t discredit it by saying that it’s irrational because of a lack of evidence (even if we were to grant such a lack). If it’s a true belief system – and if what it says (or what this variety says) is correct then our knowledge of God can be properly basic and not derived from evidence, and hence fully rational. So in other words, to say that it’s not really properly basic is to actually attack the truth of the blief system, since according to the premises of the belief system, it is properly basic. So they can’t attack its rationality without attacking its truth. Sceptics need, then, to show that it’s not true.

  • Jonathan Speke Laudly June 25, 2010, 9:30 pm

    Hi, Jonathan Speke Laudly here,

    Is it possible that the me or the self or whatever Platinga refers to can exist sans the body? Well, it seems possible to me. I am not a physicalist, materialist or whatever else would eliminate that possibility. But he seems to be concluding that because it is possible then it is practically the case. In other words, if possible then it is nearly an actuality. Seems an Assumption.
    If I watch a log burn to ash in the fireplace, obviously I am still here while the log is gone (at least in its original form). Is the body analogous to the log? Could be. But could be is not is.
    Platinga is apparently holding that a mode of being, as long as it is non-existent, is close enough to actuality that we can assume it. If we could be separate, like we are separate from the log, then, if we add some kind of intuition that we are in fact separate from our bodies, then that is enough to conclude that we are.
    I guess he is saying that a strong intuition that we are different from our bodies plus some kind of objective conlusion that it is possible
    or probable or some such mode, is as good a basis for conclusion as
    most other kinds of knowledge.
    But isn’t the ultimate proof for Platinga’s contention available only after the body goes? And then who do you tell? Other folks whose me has survived the body? Seems superfluous at that point.
    In any case, I am in some sympathy with Platinga. Our knowledge of things does depend a great deal on our intuitions about what is correct. In fact you could say that logic—that something follows from something, is a kind of intuition—–But I just can’t agree to make the standard for positive conclusion one that obviates the need for testimony after the body goes. In any case, what does it matter if the person or personality or I or me goes withthe body? It is clearly the case that humans are a product of the universe and that our very existence is originated and sustained by its operations. In other words, we are an integral part of the the whole she-bang. If the me goes with the body so what? What we are basically, is the universe. No separation.
    That is enough immortality for me.
    I don’t feel the need, as Platinga apparently does, to convince myself that a self, with all its silliness, will stick around after the body is gone.

  • Jonathan Speke Laudly June 25, 2010, 9:32 pm

    sorry, I meant, in the third paragraph, as long as a mode of being is NOT non-existent. thanks

  • Glenn June 26, 2010, 1:09 am

    Jonathan, I think you meant to add these comments to the other recent blog entry about Plantinga, where he discusses mind body dualism.

  • Curtis S September 11, 2010, 6:52 pm


    Finished all 36 episodes in 5 days. Whew!! I’ve marked several to listen to again but I really do have a long attention span and I was paying attention, promise. I have some reading to do as well to catch up and gain some better insight.

    This episode, I think I get. One exception would be the phrase, “being appeared to “treely,””. What the *%!@^& does that mean? lol I replayed those parts several times looking for what I was missing. As a phrase it could have several meanings.

    The best I could come up with was a Plato and his “forms” kind of thing. Where “treely” would be roughly equal to “treeness.” Example: I believe it is a tree because it has accidents of treeness, or I believe….because it is treely, to me. I add the “to me” to the later because you used the word appeared. I see the difference between really being treely and appearing treely to me. Am I close?

    Further, I think I get and agree with Plantinga’s position unless confusion on the above would effect the other ideas in the podcast that I think I get.

  • Jonathan October 7, 2016, 5:53 am

    Apologies for being so late to discover your podcast but thank you for this show. It was the first I listened to and I look forward to the rest.

    I think the point of what Dawkins calls the invisible flying spaghetti monster thought experiment is not that we know he doesnt really believe in it so its not a real basic belief but that religious people follow many different religions and they cant all be right. Dawkins thinks none are, but I think his point more generously is just having a basic belief doesnt mean it is correct and so how are we to establish which, if any , are.

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