Faith and Properly Basic Beliefs

Portrait of John Calvin

A reader asked my opinion of this quote: “The function of faith is to take a basic belief and cloak it in the aura of a properly basic belief.” ~ Anonymous


Here I take the reader to be referring to religious faith, although faith more generally is trust or belief in a person, thing, or concept. Furthermore, religious faith itself is a concept with various meanings. For instance, it might refer to believing in spite of or without evidence, having sufficient warrant for one’s beliefs, experiencing a personal relationship with some (perceived) God, or simply having concern about humanity. It is also thought to exist in degrees such that faith may develop, grow, and/or deepen.

For this discussion, I’ll consider religious faith, at least among Christians, as having belief or trust in a religious person (God, Jesus), thing (heaven, prayer), or concept (soul, grace). 

Properly Basic Beliefs

Properly basic beliefs (also called basic, foundational, or core beliefs) are, under the epistemological view called foundationalism, the axioms of a belief system. Foundationalism holds that all justified beliefs are either basic—they don’t depend upon other beliefs—or non-basic—they do derive from one or more basic beliefs.

In the philosophy of religion, reformed epistemology is a school of thought concerning the nature of knowledge as it applies to religious beliefs. Central to Reformed epistemology is the proposition that belief in God is “properly basic” and, therefore, it doesn’t need to be inferred from other truths to be rationally warranted.

Belief in God as Properly Basic

The philosopher/theologian most associated with this view is Alvin Plantinga. Basing his position on the theology of John Calvin he argues that we possess a special faculty or divine sense for knowing that God exists without any argument or evidence. As Plantinga puts it:

Calvin’s claim, then, is that God has created us in such a way that we have a strong tendency or inclination toward belief in him. This tendency has been in part overlaid or suppressed by sin. Were it not for the existence of sin in the world, human beings would believe in God to the same degree and with the same natural spontaneity that we believe in the existence of other persons, an external world, or the past. This is the natural human condition; it is because of our presently unnatural sinful condition that many find belief in God difficult or absurd. The fact is, Calvin thinks, one who does not believe in God is in an epistemically substandard position—rather like a man who does not believe that his wife exists, or thinks she is likely a cleverly constructed robot and has no thoughts, feelings, or consciousness. Although this belief in God is partially suppressed, it is nonetheless universally present. (Plantinga and Wolterstorff. Faith and Rationality. University of Notre Dame Press, 1983, pg. 66.)

Plantinga concludes that “there is a kind of faculty or cognitive mechanism, what Calvin calls sensus divinitatis or a sense of divinity, which in a wide variety of circumstances produces in us beliefs about God.” Thus belief in God is on par with other basic beliefs.  According to Plantinga, properly basic beliefs include:

  1. I see a tree (known perceptually),
  2. I am in pain (known introspectively),
  3. I had breakfast this morning (known through memory), and
  4. God exists (known through the sensus divinitatis).

This Is One Of The Most Desperate and Frightening Arguments in the History of Philosophy

It’s hard to believe that anyone would find this argument convincing unless they were already firmly committed to believing in, or are fervently motivated to believe in, a God. First of all, the lack of theistic belief around the world undercuts the argument that belief in a God is natural. Why then so many non-believers? Also, people’s ideas of the nature of Gods vary substantially. Why then so many different conceptions of God? Moreover, if the Gods are properly basic then why are they so hidden? Why century after century do they remain so silent, so absent?

Let me also say that I’m glad I didn’t study these arguments extensively. Becoming immersed in nonsense often gives it the aura of respectability. But does anyone really believe that the non-spatial, non-temporal God of classical theism—omnipotent, omniscience, omnibenevolent, immutable, etc.—is as basic as the other beliefs listed above? I’m sure some people would say yes, but why then is there infinitely more disagreement about the existence and nature of Gods than about the existence of trees and breakfast? I think even the Gods would be amused by this argument.

Finally, reformed epistemology is pernicious. Once you decide your privately held beliefs must be true and needn’t be justified by evidence available to all then I fear for what might follow. Believing one has a monopoly on truth often leads to disaster.

Back To The Quote

“The function of faith is to take a basic belief
and cloak it in the aura of a properly basic belief.”

I believe the quote has it about right. Here’s my explanation of how I think this works (psychologically.) You fervently believe something because it seems true, it comforts you, you want to believe it, your group believes it, etc. Then you dig in and hold on tenaciously. But at some point, you realize your beliefs could be mistaken. Then you look for an intellectual defense to bolster your emotionally held beliefs, to defend them against outsiders. In your search, you happen to discover Christian reformed epistemology, finding that your beliefs are axiomatic or properly basic. No need for evidence, problem solved!

So the encounter with the intellectual argument augments one’s faith or belief. You begin with the belief, look for supporting reasons and then, not surprisingly, you find them. (For more see “Psychological Impediments to Good Thinking.”) Finding what seem to be good reasons further bolsters the faith. So faith makes you more receptive to viewing your beliefs as properly basic, and viewing your beliefs as properly basic bolsters your faith. The two exist in a feedback loop. Faith is the water in which all this swims and in its absence, an argument that your beliefs are basic, obvious, or self-evident will never be convincing.

Psychological Explanations

Of course, you can provide a psychological explanation of my own or anyone’s beliefs. Perhaps my natural psychological tendencies lean toward being skeptical, questioning authority, wanting intellectual explanations, etc. This, in turn, was exacerbated by a scientific and philosophical education and other environmental factors. Maybe our beliefs simply reflect the combination of our nature and nurture. But this isn’t completely right. Some ideas are true independent of people because they are more robust, more predictive, more consistent with the evidence, ie.,  more likely to be true. These are the well-confirmed ideas of modern science. All beliefs are not created equal.

Final Thoughts

In the end, I’m an evidentialist—the evidence is of primary importance to me regarding belief. As one of my intellectual heroes, David Hume said, “A wise man proportions his assent to the evidence.” But defenders of reformed epistemology claim that they don’t need evidence for properly basic beliefs because they’re axiomatic just like a = a, or triangles having three sides. But this is wildly implausible. I shiver at the thought of those who defend controversial beliefs by saying, “my belief in God is just like your belief that there is a table in front of you.” This is someone you cannot reason with and, as the Spanish painter, Francisco Goya so aptly put it. “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.”

Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes - The sleep of reason produces monsters (No. 43), from Los Caprichos - Google Art Project.jpg

Francisco Goyo, “El sueño de la razón produce monstruos”

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7 thoughts on “Faith and Properly Basic Beliefs

  1. Fantastic posting! Reformed Epistemology (as if it needed a reformation) is indeed on the rise not just in Christianity, but apologists for Islam have started taking it up as well. There is a video somewhere of two apologists, one Christian, the other Muslim, who are both presuppositionalists / Rerformed Epistemologists. Remember that Plantinga claims that theists who claim God as a PBB are justified via their sensus divinitatis

    Here’s a terrible paper written to commemorate the “legacy of Alvin Plantinga who reintroduced Christianity to the academy.”. Personally, I wish the Academy had feigned a prior engagement.

    It is this faculty that is defective in atheists and likely a result of sin. I shit you not. And this conclusion is, like everything it seems, self justifying. If a being of unimaginable grandeur, power, grace and justice can be justified “because I feel it’s true” then how is it different than claiming Flat Earthers are correct and justifying it via your sensus Flat-Earthitatis?

    He tries to salvage it from ironically devolving into complete and total moral relativism by claiming that others with a sensus divinitatis and especially other Christians can still argue within that bubble of shared justified beliefs made true via direct revelation. So at best you get moral relativism but between groups of theists.

    That this is gobsmackingly stupid does nothing to either diminish his standing in Christian circles nor prevent it from, as you suggest, inoculating their worldview against foundational or empirical criticism. So maybe Christianity as a concept does owe much to Plantinga…but he has enabled so many zealots and fundamentalists to cloak their own ignorance in the patina of the academy.

  2. “Some ideas are true independent of people because they are more robust, more predictive, more consistent with the evidence, ie., more likely to be true. These are the well-confirmed ideas of modern science. All beliefs are not created equal.”

    Re Christianity, it is permissible to accept verses in the Gospel depicting historical peace loving Jesus viciously saying he comes with a sword to separate unbelievers from believers. However the verses were likely written by Paul– not spoken by Christ– and Paul wrote many decades after the crucifixion.

    A believer would reply that Paul was divinely inspired by Christ; so the dialogue, or monologue, is speaking ’round in circles. I’m not tired of Christianity but, rather, tired of Christians. The only way to reach them is to tell Christian friends that they are too materialistic to even think of being Christian.

    Then they are no longer friends, proving that they are fair weather friends out for themselves– and not out for God.

  3. Thanks John:

    Sociologists and historians can show us many cultures in which individuals have had beliefs that they probably thought were properly basic. I suppose the major ideologies into which we are indoctrinated seem quite basic to those who have internalized them. Growing up in a slave state, many may think slavery stands in no serious need of justification. Growing up in a misogynist society, a belief in the natural superiority of men may appear (nearly) basic. These just are relatively easily accepted by those in the cultures as the way things are.

    But there is some difference between the examples of properly basic beliefs like “I see a tree,” or “I’m in pain” and beliefs like “There is a god” or “slavery and the subordinate place of women in society is natural” — namely, we don’t generally even ask for justifications for the properly basic beliefs, even if we are from a different culture with different views of metaphysics, proper political arrangements and so on. We would only ask for justifications of a statement, “I see a tree” if upon looking, we didn’t see it. We could ask about the views someone expresses about pain if the individual didn’t have bodily expressions that we associate with pain, but maybe ones we associate with joy instead. By contrast, in the case of the statements that God exists and has some particular set of characteristics, unless we are indoctrinated into the same cultures, we tend to want to know why an individual believes that God exists or has the characteristics the individuals attribute to Him or Her. For those kinds of statements we want to see some evidence.

    Christians demand evidence for why a Hindu believes what a Hindu believes or a Muslim believes what a Muslim believes. If told, “look within yourself and you will see,” many of these Christians would accuse the Hindu or the Muslim of having demonic possession, or of not rightly interpreting the internal perception. They not untypically apply one set of criteria to their own beliefs and another one entirely to those who seem to reach difference conclusions based on their alleged properly basic beliefs.

  4. If I might add a bit to the last comment: I rather imagining that if individuals from polytheist cultures met one another, they could see quite a few similarities in their views of the gods. If anything, through human history the polytheistic view has been more common than monotheism. Monotheism, and the view that this one God is omnipotent, omniscient, all-loving is a relatively late “achievement” of history. Looking at early history, you wouldn’t find it. By contrast, people did speak about seeing trees and feeling pain.

    Throughout human history, complimenting polytheism, and then the later monotheism, there has also been a widespread belief that the gods regularly intervene in human history to reward or punish individuals or groups for their behavior. And it has been common to think that some set of rituals or actions might appease the gods, win their favor, manipulate them in some way. The magical thinking has been so common that it probably seemed to earlier generations of people to be universal and “basic.” 

    We can see the great confusion that this widespread belief has led to in human history. It led the Aztecs to justify the removal of human hearts from people, it led various groups to engage in human sacrifices. It led Medieval Christians to burn witches or engage in the inquisition. It was at play in the Athenian sentence against Socrates. If anything this belief has been more widespread than monotheism in history. It has seemed less in need of justification than that one will stands behind the many contradictory things that go on in the world.

    But the fact that polytheism and magical thinking have been widespread and understood as in no special need of justification does not speak to their truth or of being basic in the sense that seeing and sensing pain is basic.

    This rather seems to lie in a tendency of humans to want explanations for things that we do not understand in a desire to control things outside of our control.  In addition to seeing, feeling, as basic, we have had widespread tendencies to reason badly, to be mislead by wishful thinking, and to commit many other fallacies. The fact that fallacious reasoning often has given rise to some similar sets of ideas is hardly proof of the truth of those ideas. Those ideas — which have nothing in common with properly basic beliefs other than being relatively widespread at varying times in history — need to be evaluated In light of evidence and clear reasoning. For this Plantiga doesn’t help us much.

  5. Yet a Christian I don’t ascribe to the belief in God as being necessarily properly basic, there is an undeniable quality about core beliefs that one must adhere to if he wishes to remain among the sane. However, from your own lips you proclaim “Some ideas are true independent of people because they are more robust, more predictive, more consistent with the evidence, ie., more likely to be true.” If we weighted Christianity by such measures without biasly disfavoring it we would find it passing your tests of what a formidable idea looks like. Historical accounts of Jesus, when factually approached bring forth a massive unique individual. When one considers every vein and facet of Christian presentation of a cumulative case, it is rather robust. When one measures the 300 plus fulfilled prophecies, they do find the Bible predictive. If we trace out the cities, the rulers, the terminology, the cultural references, etc… we come up with a very strong idea of God exactly consistent with the evidence. You did go on to say
    “These are the well-confirmed ideas of modern science. All beliefs are not created equal.” Thus being so, the factual case of Christianity, the depth, the breadth, the age, the penetration, the positive impact it brings upon humanity, is unparalleled in significance. One may hide behind his free will and independent preference to obscure what he fears might be true, but his inconsistency with truth betrays him. The idea of God might not be properly basic, but it is the strongest idea of any other in existence, one not able to be ignored, thus the discussion. If the idea of God was properly basic, then humans would not be left with the ability to deny Him if they so chose, maybe then why He left the idea one level removed from our core.

  6. The only problem with all of these arguments is that any knowledge is suspect and can only claim to be valid by minds that suspect certain and infallible knowledge, to begin with. Descartes is claimed to be a foundationist because he deduced the allegedly indubitable knowledge of his own existence and the content of his ideas, while Hume claimed that we ultimately have no valid conception of external things. I can say that I believe God is foundational but I wouldn’t say it dogmatically. If we question the existence of the external world and our senses, which are the key to the external world, then Plantinga can propose, theoretically, a sensus divinitatis

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