Plantinga on Whether Belief that God Exists is Properly Basic

Alvin Plantinga argues for the following two claims (Warranted Christian Belief, 186-190):

(1) If God exists, then basic belief that God exists is probably properly basic.

(2) If God does not exists, then basic belief that God exists is probably not properly basic.

Let’s assume that he’s right about (1) and (2). However, from (1) and (2) Plantinga infers that

(3) To answer the question of whether basic belief that God exists is properly basic, we must answer the question of whether God exists.

Here is what Plantinga says when he makes the inference:

And this dependence of the question of warrant or rationality on the truth or falsehood of theism [the dependence stated in 1 and 2] leads to a very interesting conclusion. If the warrant enjoyed by belief in God is related in this way to the truth of that belief, then the question whether theistic belief has warrant is not, after all, independent of the question whether theistic belief is true. So the de jure question we have finally found [of whether basic belief that God exists is properly basic] is not, after all, really independent of the de facto question [of whether God exists]; to answer the former we must answer the latter. (191, bold added)

There seem to be two importantly different readings of (3)—and, similarly, the bolded line above. On the first reading, (3) is unimportant. On the second, the inference from (1) and (2) to (3) is fallacious. The first reading is

(3a) To answer the question of whether basic belief that God exists is properly basic, is to thereby imply a (probabilistic) answer to question of whether God exists.

Fair enough: (3a) seems to follow (in some sense) from (1) and (2). But why would Plantinga care about establishing (3a)? If it’s true, all that means is that objections that are, in the first instance, de jure are also, in the end, de facto! Clearly this isn’t the conclusion Plantinga intends, because it’s meant to follow from (3) that

Atheologians who wish to attack religious belief will have to restrict themselves to objections like the argument from evil, the claim that theistic belief is incoherent, or the idea that in some other way there is strong evidence against theistic belief. (ibid)

The idea here, I take it, is that if (3) is correct, then atheologians will have to restrict themselves to objections that are, in the first instance, de facto. But how could that follow from (3a)? What follows from (3a) is that objections that are in the first instance de jure are also in the end de facto.

The other reading of (3), the one from which the above does follow (that is, the importnat one), is

(3b) To answer the question of whether basic belief that God exists is properly basic, one must first answer the question of whether God exists.

This seems to be the conclusion Plantinga wants. Unfortunately, it also seems not to follow from (1) and (2), as the following parody demonstrates:

1*) If Ivan is laughing, he probably just saw a comedy.

2*) If Ivan is not laughing, he probably did not just see a comedy.

3*) To answer the question of whether Ivan just saw a comedy, we must first answer the question of whether Ivan is laughing.

Even if (1*) and (2*) are true, and thus determining whether Ivan is laughing is one way to determine whether Ivan (probably) saw a comedy, there could still be other ways to determine whether he saw a comedy. Similarly, if (1) and (2) are true, and thus determining whether God exists is one way to determine whether belief that God exists is (probably) properly basic, there could still be other ways to determine whether belief that God exists is properly basic.

If someone has a more charitable reading of what Plantinga is up to, I’d love to hear it.

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12 Responses to Plantinga on Whether Belief that God Exists is Properly Basic

  1. Steve C. says:

    On the (3b) reading, perhaps we should assume that there’s an unstated premise to the effect that there are no other ways to determine whether or not basic belief that God exists is properly basic.

    Granted, that seems worth stating, perhaps even defending.

  2. Dustin says:

    Right. That’s the premise needed to make the conclusion follow. But that’s a hell of premise to leave unstated!

  3. Andrew Moon says:

    Interesting post. But I believe that P does state something to the effect of what Steve C suggests. At the end of that page, P says of possible de jure complaints that are supposed to be independent of de facto ones, “If my argument so far is right, though, there aren’t any sensible complaints of that sort. (More modestly, none have been so far proposed; it is always possible, I suppose, that someone will come up with one.).” So P does add that premise that there are no other ways, and he states (though he doesn’t defend) his belief that there haven’t been any or he hasn’t seen any, and he also implies that he believes that there likely won’t be any. I guess someone could just prove P wrong by finding a counterexample.

    Also, remember that, in the context of chapter 6, Plantinga is responding to the Freud-Marx objection as the only viable de jure objection. Almost all of the chapters leading up to it are supposed to consist of failed de jure objections and they are also pointing to the F&M objection as the most viable de jure objection (the last hope), and finally, chapter 6 responds to this powerful objection. Given the context in which Plantinga is writing those pages, it might be that we could say something like, “Given the F&M objection is the only viable de jure objection and, as we’ve seen, all those previous de jure objections failed, to answer the question of whether basic belief in God is warranted or not, we must first answer the question whether God exists.” And he might further back that up by saying that since whether basic belief in God is produced by truth-aimed proper function or not (whether F&M are right) is dependent on whether God in fact exists, we must answer the de facto question first. And Plantinga does say stuff along these lines. (Of course, I’d have to go do a careful read of the texts to back up this reading of Plantinga.)

  4. Dustin says:

    Hi Andrew,

    You say that Plantinga HAS stated the “premise that there are no other ways” [i.e., there are no ways to make a successful de jure objection that isn't in the first instance a de facto objection]. And you quote this line:

    “If my argument so far is right, though, there aren’t any sensible complaints of that sort. (More modestly, none have been so far proposed; it is always possible, I suppose, that someone will come up with one.).”

    I suppose the “there aren’t any sensible complaints of that sort” is what you interpret as the claim that “there are no ways to make a successful de jure objection that isn’t in the first instance a de facto objection”. But Plantinga clearly isn’t suggesting that that is a PREMISE of his argument–it’s intended to be a conclusion (“If my argument so far is right…”).

    The point I’m making in my post is that this conclusion (and thus 3b) doesn’t follow from what he’s said. It certainly doesn’t follow from the arguments for (1) and (2), because it doesn’t follow from (1) and (2), and it is clearly those arguments Plantinga is referring to when he says “my argument” (I suggest reading the entire section if you’re not convinced).

    Moreover, even if Plantinga is right (which he isn’t) that any argument for the F/M de jure objection presupposes atheism, and he’s concluding from that, inductively, that ALL de jure objections pressuppose atheism, then his argument is, to say the least, so weekly inductive that I’m not sure why he even mentions it.

    To be honest, I actually think that if push came to shove, Plantinga would claim that “my argument” refers to the earlier stuff about F/M and not the arguments for (1) and (2). If so, like I said, his conclusion only follows with the weakest of inductive strength. Moreover, if that’s what Plantinga intended, then I have to call shenanigans on him for stating his argument in such a misleading way. It seems to me like we’ve go the following situation: Plantinga has two arguments for (3b). One is incredibly weakly inductive. Thus, he doesn’t conclude (3b) just yet. Instead, he presents what is meant to be a stongly inductive argument for (3b). Now, if it’s discovered that this strong argument is actually fallacious (since it confuses ‘We cannot decide X without thereby deciding Y’ with ‘We cannot decide X without first deciding Y’) Plantinga can fall back on the weakly inductive argument and say that he intended that one all along. Like I said, I call shenanigans.

  5. Andrew Moon says:

    Hi Dustin,
    Yeah, I think that page could’ve been stated more clearly – you might be right. (Ehh… I’m a little too lazy to go back and read the whole section with careful scrutiny.) So I’m not sure about the Plantinga hermeneutics; I’m frankly not personally too interested in that (not to downplay your own endeavors… getting an author right is an important skill/craft). I’m more interested in whether there are any good de facto-independent de jure objections, so how about this argument (which is inspired by the text):

    1) All the de jure objections that are independent of the de facto objection to theistic belief examined in WCB (chapters 3&4) are bad.
    2) The F&M objection, which seems to be independent of the de facto objection, is actually dependent on the de facto objection (chapter 5&6).
    3) If (1) and (2) and Plantinga thinks there likely aren’t anymore good de jure objections to theistic belief that are independent of the de facto objection, then there are likely no good de jure objections.
    4) So there likely are no good de jure objections.

    Of course any of these premises could be disputed. I myself am pretty convinced of (1) and (2). You seem to disagree with (2), and I’m quite interested in hearing why (if you’re interested in pursuing that line).

    Look at (3). Given the track record I saw of the de jure objections knocked down in chapters 3&4 and given that the F&M complaint (and related complaints) is dependent on the de facto objection (chapters 5&6), and given that Plantinga’s read a vast amount of literature and hasn’t found what he considers are good de facto-independent de jure objections, then it seems likely that there are none!

    Perhaps I’m more inclined to agree with the conclusion (4) because I personally have a hard time thinking of any viable de facto-independent de jure objections. (So I think of Huemer’s epistemic conservatism, and theism seems justified on his account. I then think of Conee and Feldman’s seeming-evidentialism, and theism seems justified on their account. I think of BonJour classical foundationalism and Fumerton’s classical foundationalism, and I see that theism may not be justified on their account, but I see that a TON of common sense ordinary beliefs (like belief in other minds) are hard to justify on their accounts, so I don’t see any viable de jure objection from them. I think of the early Goldman’s process reliablism, but any de jure objection here (and from almost any form of reliabilism) seems dependent on the de facto objection. (You may disagree with this if you disagree with (2).)

  6. [...] Plantinga on Whether Belief that God Exists is Properly Basic [...]

  7. dtlocke says:

    Hi Andrew,

    I’ve been rereading WCB and can’t seem to find the place where Plantinga argues that the F&M objection in particular is independent of the de facto objection. You cite chaps 5 and 6. You’re not referring to the passages I cite and quote in my post are you? As I say in the post, the argument there, if it is meant to establish that the de jure objections are not independent of the de facto objections (in the sense of 3b, which is the important sense), is clearly fallacious.

    Is there another passage you would have me read?

    In any case, it is possible to confirm, say, Freud’s theory (and thus disconfirm the claim that theistic belief is properly basic), without presupposing atheism. Freud’s theory is that theistic belief is a product of wishful thininking–in particular, the wish for a ‘father-figure’ after one’s biological father ceases to be a ‘father-figure’ (i.e., ceases to be perceived as all-powerful, loving, etc). As one of my phil religion students pointed out in class the other day, empiricially testing this theory without assuming atheism is fairly straightforward: conduct studies and look for correlations between the loss of a natural father-figure and theistic belief.

    Of course, Plantinga is right, that FREUD never conducted such studies. Perhaps Plantinga is even right that FREUD’S argument for his theory presupposed atheism. But that of course is no reason to think that WE can’t argue for his theory, and thus against the claim that theistic belief is properly basic, without assuming atheism. All we need to is confirm Freud’s theory empirically, and we can do that without first settling the question of whether theism is true.

    Of course, I don’t mean to be endorsing Freud’s theory. I’m just using it as an example to show that it is easy to see how we can empirically confirm a theory that would, if true, show that theistic belief isn’t properly basic, without first settling the question of whether theism is true.

  8. dtlocke says:

    Oops! That should say ‘…and can’t seem to find the place where Plantinga argues that the F&M objection in particular is DEPENDENT ON the de facto objection’.

  9. Andrew Moon says:

    Hi Dustin,
    I don’t have a copy of WCB with me, and no, I don’t have a passage right now to give to you. (So I may be wrong in what I said above.)

    But I’m not sure if it gets us anywhere to show that it’s (epistemically?) possible that such a Freudian theory be correct. It just seems so darn implausible (even if possible)! Look, here’s another possible way to show that belief in God isn’t properly basic apart from a de facto objection. It’s possible that we get powerful evidence that an evil demon is producing belief in God in theists in a basic way. This would also do the deed. But I find this scenario quite implausible as well.

    Maybe I’m going too quick on claiming the implausibility. Or maybe I’m not sure what the Freudian theory is saying. I mean, most kids realize that their father is not all-powerful at an extremely early age. (They know, for example, that their father cannot fly like Superman, who flies on t.v.) The theory seems like such a bad theory from the get-go.

  10. Dustin says:

    Hi Andrew,

    “But I’m not sure if it gets us anywhere to show that it’s (epistemically?) possible that such a Freudian theory be correct.”

    I couldn’t agree more. I wasn’t arguing that

    (1) It’s possible that a Freudian theory is correct.

    implies

    (2) Belief that God exists is not properly basic.

    That would be crazy! Since I’m not crazy, what I WAS arguing for was

    (3) It’s possible to gain evidence that a Freudian theory is correct (or incorrect!) without first settling whether God exists.

    Thus (since if a Freudian theory is correct, then belief that God exists is not properly basic):

    (4) It is possible to gain evidence that belief that God exists is not properly basic without first settling whether God exists.

    And (4) is contrary to (3b)—that is, (4) is contrary to Plantinga’s claim.

    Of course, like you, I don’t find Frued’s theory all that plausible. (Why? Like you, empirical observations! See! We CAN settle the quesiton of whether Freud’s theory is correct without first settling the question of whether God exists!) Thus, as I said at the end of my last comment, I was just using Freud’s theory as an EXAMPLE of how one could gain empirical evidence for/against a theory that implies that belief that God exists is not properly basic (e.g., Freud’s theory) without first settling the question of whether God exists. If you’d like examples of more plausible (and contemporary) theories, I suggest reading, e.g., Atran “In Gods we Trust” and Boyer “Religion Explained”.

  11. Andrew Moon says:

    Hi Dustin,
    Just wanted to let you know that I’ve appreciated the discussion. I wasn’t thinking that you were trying to make the inference from (1) to (2). My crazy example (and an implausible Freudian theory) indicate to me only that, yes, (4) may be true, but those possibilities for evidence that belief that God exists is not properly basic (without firsts settling whether God exists) all seem to me to be weak. So I would revise Plantinga’s claim (3b) to say,

    (5) the only plausible way to settle whether belief in God is properly basic is to first answer the de facto question

    and (5) is true because the alternatives (demon scenario or Freudian hypothesis) are implausible. This is one way you could interpret (3b). Now I believe that you were taking (3b) to say

    (6) the only possible way to settle whether belief in God is properly basic is to answer the de facto question.”

    I’m not sure which one Plantinga actually intended (if he did mean (3b) in the first place), and I may be being unfaithful to the text, though the former reading may have been conversationally implied (so I’m not doing violence to the text). Anyway, I’d say that (5) is more defensible since (6) runs into your counterexamples.

    BUT, I have never read those books you’ve recommended, so maybe if I read those, then I would come to believe that (5) is false. I don’t currently think that, so we may just have to disagree until we have the same evidence base.

  12. Anthony Knopf says:

    Andrew, you may not find the entire Freudian thesis convincing but what of naturalistic explanations of religious belief that are in the same vein and also quoted by Plantinga. That people very much want there to be a Deity and our desires affect our perceptions. Given that people do want there to be a Deity and that our perceptions are often affected by our desires, doesn’t this provide a basis for doubting that the sensus divinitatis is a truth producing mechanism?

    Secondly, Plantinga says that the burden of proof is on Freud to show that, even if believers do believe in order to attain meaning, that this is not merely itself a mechanism implanted by the Deity to allow us to gain knowledge of Him. But why is the burden on Freud to show that this is not the case? Shouldn’t the burden be on Plantinga to show that it is the case??

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