Could atheism be a properly basic belief?

atheism Epistemology Philosophy of Religion

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Could people have a properly basic belief that God does not exist, so that they do not need any other arguments or evidence for that belief in order to be justified in holding it?

A recent conversation reminded me of what is now a rather old argument in relation to the question of belief in God (old in terms of twentieth century arguments anyway). Essentially, the issue was this: If my purported experience of knowing God / knowing that God exists via some sort of intuition or any other sort of experience should count as a reason for me to believe in God, then why can’t somebody else’s atheist experience (or at least their testimony of it) count as a reason for me to not believe in God? I say that I have a direct knowledge of God’s existence (let’s say I do). But what about someone who has direct, intuitive knowledge of something like “there is nothing out there, there is no purpose at all to life”? Surely, it was suggested to me, what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

There are two issues here. The first can be dismissed fairly quickly, but the second requires a bit more explanation. The first issue is this: The way another person’s testimony about their experience counts as a reason for me to believe something is different in kind from the way that my experience counts as a reason for me to believe something. The latter is experience, the former is testimony of experience. You can know what you experienced, but in the case of testimony you can only really know what someone told you they experienced. So there’s an obvious difference between why my experience should count as a reason for me to believe in God and the way in which another person’s testimony about their experience should count as a reason for me to believe their claims. They’re not on par.

But the other issue is more substantive: What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. If you get to say that you know God exists because it’s a properly basic belief, something you just “intuit” (this was the term used by my partner in conversation), then can’t an atheist, if they believe they have had such an experience, say that they know that God does not exist because they have had a profound experience of there being no purpose to the universe or our own existence?

The answer is no, and to appreciate why not, we need to make sure that we’ve actually understood what the theist is claiming when he says that belief in God can be properly basic. I say a lot more about this issue in my podcast episode, “Plantinga and Properly Basic Beliefs.” The essential thing to note is this: Saying that a belief is properly basic is not just a short cut to get around giving an argument for that belief. Saying that a belief is basic only tells us the kind of belief it is (i.e. it is not to give an argument for the truth of that belief). Some beliefs are inferred from other beliefs, while others – the basic ones – are not. But there are still conditions that need to be met before a belief can in fact be properly called a basic belief.

As articulated in some detail in the stellar epistemological work of Alvin Plantinga, if God – and not just any God but the God of traditional Christian monotheism – exists, then there’s a plausible account of just how belief in God might be properly basic. If God created the universe and the human race (completely ignoring for now any question of how God might have done that), then it makes sense to think of us as being here for a reason. There’s something that we were meant for and more than that, we were in some sense designed. God meant for us to be able to do certain things, and in particular he meant for us to form true beliefs. That’s the reason we have belief forming faculties, and they work as they were meant to work when they tend to produce true beliefs. One of those beliefs that we form when our belief forming faculties work as they were designed is the belief that God eixts. This involuntary belief is what is often called the sensus divinitatus, the “sense of the divine.” Now, if it is a proper function of us that we believe in God – that is, if, when our belief forming faculties are functioning as they were meant to, they – in response to the phenomenon of the universe – form the belief that God exists, then just as we can say that an immediately formed belief that “there’s a tree over there” can be said to be properly basic, so too the belief “God made this world” can be properly basic. In fact quite apart from twentieth-century analytical epistemology, Christians from earliest times have believed that because of how God made us, our natural response to creation is to believe in its creator. Of course, this is not an argument that God exists. It is no more than an account of how, if God did exist, belief in God could be properly basic.

This isn’t a defence of the notion of properly basic beliefs, or of the claim that theism, if true, could be properly basic. The person that I’m addressing has already come to grips with these claims, and accepts them. Here’s the issue I am addressing: Can the atheist play this game too? Not at all. Suppose that God does not exist, and the unbeliever wants to maintain that under those circumstances, he can have a properly basic belief that God does not exist. In order for this claim to have legs, there must exist an account of how this belief could work its way into the category of properly basic beliefs. After all just holding a true belief does not make it properly basic. It is hardly self-evident that “there is no purpose to the universe.” And it is not at all clear what sort of proper functioning system – I should add, proper functioning truth aimed system, could produce this belief in a properly basic way. Maybe you think you can put together a persuasive line of argument for that conclusion. But basic beliefs are not based on arguments (even if there are also arguments for them). You might think you have a strong intuition that there is no purpose to the universe. Maybe so, but how was that intuition formed? Obviously you do not believe that the lack of purpose to the universe created us to form this belief, as you don’t believe (failing a theory of alien life making us) that anything created us for anything. That’s part an parcel of believing that there’s no purpose to our existence.

And that’s why atheism doesn’t get to help itself to the notion of a properly basic belief about God’s nonexistence. Any claim that something is a properly basic belief should be followed up with a plausible account of how, if it’s a properly basic belief, it managed to obtain that status.

Glenn Peoples

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{ 22 comments… add one }
  • Paul Baird May 18, 2011, 12:12 am

    “If you get to say that you know God exists because it’s a properly basic belief, something you just “intuit” (the term that was used at the time), then can’t an atheist, if they believe they have had such an experience, say that the know that God does not exist because they have had a profound experience of there being no purpose to the universe or our own existence?”

    That’s not an explanation of the origin of an atheistic viewpoint that I’ve encountered.

    Usually, afaik, atheism arises from issues with a particular theism and progresses from there.

    It’s the lack of “something” rather than the assertion of “nothing”.

    Nonetheless, I’m happy to be educated otherwise.

  • Leonhard May 18, 2011, 3:25 am

    Thanks for the post Glenn, I have some questions and probably quite a few misconceptions still about what theists (only Reformed Christian theists? ;3) mean about properly basic beliefs.

    I’m a physicist, not a philosopher and definitely not a theologian. I do debate a little online for my own edification and for the fun of it. When I encounter the creature ‘properly basic belief’ it usually comes from a person who claims that his belief in God is a properly basic belief, ergo God exists. Has he gotten it the wrong way around? Wouldn’t the right way be “God exists and has so and so properties, therefore my belief in this God is properly basic”? In other words it might still be an open question whether God exists. If someone claims that X is a properly basic belief and can give a story telling you how belief in X comes naturally, then is there any way of challenging this claim? I think you at some point argued against a philosopher who claimed that the belief in Cartesian Dualism was a properly basic belief.

    I’ve also heard the notion of ‘properly basic belief’ used in terms of incorrigible beliefs in Foundationalism. Ideas like ‘You are having experiences’. It would be impossible for you to be wrong about that sentence in any conceivable world. One could be wrong about the exact nature of those experiences, but not that you had them. What’s your thoughts on that?

  • Glenn May 18, 2011, 9:27 am

    “That’s not an explanation of the origin of an atheistic viewpoint that I’ve encountered.”

    Same here, Paul. The objection that I’m replying to is not that in fact atheists do regard their belief as properly basic. The objection is basically, “but why couldn’t an atheist make this claim too?”

    That said, I’ve heard people say that they have indeed had this intuition, but it’s not normal.

  • Glenn May 18, 2011, 9:33 am

    Leonhard, if someone says “God is a properly basic belief, ergo God exists” I would say they misunderstand the role of the argument concerning properly basic beliefs. It’s not an argument that God exists. It is only an argument that if God exists, then belief in God could be properly basic. The person who has a properly basic belief doesn’t need arguments in order to be warranted holding that belief, but they certainly need arguments before they have a reason that they can present anyone.

    The point is to say that anyone who wants to deny that a theist’s belief is properly basic must actually be willing to argue that the belief was not formed in the above way, and as such they don’t get to deny that it’s properly basic without also claiming that it’s false, so they need a defeater to give the theist.

    And yes, an incorrigible belief is a basic one. Of course, incorribile beliefs can lack warrant, however. For example you could have an incorrigible belief because of a hallucinogenic. This is where the idea of a properly basic belief is a stronger one, as it requires that a belief be warranted.

  • Joe May 18, 2011, 10:51 am

    If you taught at my local university (it’s a Christian one) I would be more motivated to go there. The people they have are OK, but after listening to your stuff, they just seem bland.

    Joe
    Florida

  • Garren May 18, 2011, 12:36 pm

    Seems like any of the atheists who take an intuitionist approach to moral epistemology could as easily claim intuition of a fundamentally natural world. And then conclude there must be something wrong with all the people who lack this intuition.

    But I doubt either of us takes the first case seriously anyway.

    I’ve never been too impressed with claiming God belief as properly basic. Anyone can do it who can imagine a story in which their belief is both true and non-inferentially held because it’s true. For example, I could claim a properly basic belief that a witch cursed me, if I conjecture that she also magically implanted knowledge that she did it because she wants me to know who’s responsible. Making up stories like this is really only good as a response to someone who says it’s impossible that a belief of this general kind could be properly basic. (Defensive ‘what if’ thinking is a big theme in Plantinga’s work.)

    I don’t think a well-informed modern atheist can honestly claim atheism as a properly basic belief either, but this isn’t a big deal.

  • matt May 18, 2011, 2:51 pm

    If I understand the idea of basic belief properly, or at least with respect to God, it is pretty much the same sort of belief that one has in an object when in the presence of it. That seems pretty uncontroversial. I don’t get why this gets the internet all in a fit. That said, maybe it’s the “divine sense” that gets people in a bunch. It does seem enough to say that if a creator exists then it is perfectly natural that his creatures should form beliefs very quickly about his existence, given that they are made to be rational and inhabit a comprehensible world. There is not much sense to me in trying to cast Plantinga’s account as defensive or ‘what iffy’ or anything at all like witches, curses or pumpkins. Of course, I could have really mangled it with my paraphrase.

  • Glenn May 18, 2011, 6:47 pm

    Anyone can do it who can imagine a story in which their belief is both true and non-inferentially held because it’s true. For example, I could claim a properly basic belief that a witch cursed me, if I conjecture that she also magically implanted knowledge that she did it because she wants me to know who’s responsible. Making up stories like this is really only good as a response to someone who says it’s impossible that a belief of this general kind could be properly basic. (Defensive ‘what if’ thinking is a big theme in Plantinga’s work.)

    Garren, I guess I don’t see the problem here (if there’s supposed to be one). Sure, if it’s true that a witch cursed you and magically caused you to know that she did it, then you would know that she did. And, as in the case of theism, I can’t deny that this belief is properly basic without also making the positive claim that a witch did not do this.

    Obviously the magical implantation of knowledge isn’t the same as the proper function account of belief forming structures that Plantinga gives, but that’s not the point. I grant your example. But it isn’t a counter-example. It’s a confirming parallel.

  • Peter May 19, 2011, 12:50 am

    If Hindus have experience of many gods then can belief in many gods be a properly basic belief? What about if someone has purported experience of big foot then can belief in big foot be a properly basic belief?

  • Glenn May 19, 2011, 8:32 am

    Peter, if it’s true that many gods exist and it’s true that they have given Hindus certain experiences, then sure, properly basic beliefs coule be formed that way.

    The bigfoot example is less clear because of the possibilities of visual perception being misleading, but let’s say Bigfoot did exist and a person clearly saw that creature. Then whether or not they realised it was bigfoot, sure, they could have a properly basic belief that the creature they saw existed.

  • Arthur Khachatryan May 20, 2011, 4:53 am

    Very good article, Glenn.

    But I’m having a hard time grasping how intuitive knowledge could possibly take the position of negating the existence of something. The way I think of it, intuition can only be used to affirm certain knowledge, not reject it. Now, if it were the case that intuition would yield an affirmation of knowledge that contradicted the intuitive affirmation of another, that would be different. But in and of itself doesn’t intuitive knowledge demand an affirmation of *something*?

  • Glenn May 20, 2011, 2:36 pm

    “But I’m having a hard time grasping how intuitive knowledge could possibly take the position of negating the existence of something.”

    You and me both, Arthur!

  • Basil Wellington May 20, 2011, 4:32 pm

    Glenn,

    I heard Dr Craig mention, in a podcast, that Quentin Smith has made a type of properly basic argument for atheism. Basically, he claims that when one sees some horrendous evil, that experience, serves as some ground to disbelieve in God. Anyhoo…
    ~BW

  • Glenn May 20, 2011, 6:53 pm

    Basil: Oh, it’s deceptively easy to say that an experience produces a properly basic belief. But the rub is always this: Can they give an account of what makes it properly basic? Quentin Smith can’t do that in terms of seeing a horrendous evil.

  • Garren May 22, 2011, 9:35 am

    @Glenn
    ..”Obviously the magical implantation of knowledge isn’t the same as the proper function account of belief forming structures that Plantinga gives, but that’s not the point. I grant your example. But it isn’t a counter-example. It’s a confirming parallel.”

    Right. I’m not disagreeing with your main point. Just wanted to give another explanation of what’s going on with ‘properly basic’ lingo. I tend to agree with Plantinga’s philosophy, so far as it goes, at least until he tries to go on the offense against naturalism.

    P.S. – Would be curious how you’d respond to my response to a recent Plantinga paper. It’s definitely in your area of interest.

    http://wordsideasandthings.blogspot.com/2011/03/on-naturalism-theism-obligation-and.html

  • Andrew May 22, 2011, 11:04 pm

    @Garren,

    I’m keen to get my hands on a copy of the article to which you’re responding, but when I click on the link on your page I can’t find it.

  • Andrew May 23, 2011, 1:07 am

    That is, the link comes up dead

  • Garren May 23, 2011, 2:54 am

    Andrew,

    Here’s a direct link to the official public posting:

    http://www.ammonius.org/assets/pdfs/plantinga.pdf

    Since you’re not the only one to have trouble using the link in the post, would you mind seeing if you can use the links on this page:

    http://wordsideasandthings.blogspot.com/p/anthologies.html

    I like to do this thing where my links are Google searches which turn up the right document wherever Google can currently see it. I’m curious whether you’re running into a browser issue, a geographical issue using Google, or what.

  • Nightvid Cole December 14, 2011, 2:25 pm

    God does not exist. My belief is properly basic because natural selection gave rise to neurons capable of interacting with each other in a truth-seeking way, which includes an understanding of Occam’s Razor.

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