Saturday, March 26, 2011

Short and Sharp - Basic Beliefs

In the essay ‘Is Belief in God Properly Basic?’ Alvin Plantinga argues that belief in God does not require evidential proof, as it is a properly basic belief (1). By this, he means it is a belief that cannot be based on any other belief. Another example of a basic belief is our memory; the belief that I have a memory cannot be based on any other belief; it is properly basic. Plantinga contends that belief in God is the same.

It should be noted that I agree with Plantinga’s foundationalism approach to epistemology; in that, I think that every belief we have can be boiled down to basic beliefs, which are self-evident and therefore do not require proof. For me, these basic beliefs are our senses, emotions, thoughts and memory (henceforth referred to as experiences). This is different from saying that our beliefs about our experience are properly basic; just that the experiences themselves are properly basic. This is known as basic empiricism and is discussed by Richard Carrier in his book ‘Sense and Goodness Without God: A Defence of Metaphysical Naturalism’ (2) or in this web article (3).

This is an important distinction to make as I believe this is primarily where Plantinga’s argument for God as a properly basic belief fails. There is a difference between experience and our interpretation of experience. Think acknowledging that you are having an experience compared to what that experience actually means. The first is undisputable; the second is quite easily disputable. To show the difference further, here are the examples that Plantinga uses to demonstrate basic beliefs:
  1. I see a tree.
  2. I had breakfast this morning.
  3. That person is angry.
The problem is that none of these are basic beliefs; they are interpretations of experiences and, therefore, can be wrong. The tree could be a realistic fake; you could have dreamed you had breakfast this morning and mistaken it for reality; you could not understand how that person displays anger. If you construct a foundationalist epistemology that is based off incorrect basic beliefs, you’re going to be wrong a lot of the time (even by the standards of your own epistemology). 


1. Cottingham J. Western Philosophy: An Anthology. 2nd ed. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Pub.; 2008. (Blackwell Philosophy Anthologies).
2. Carrier R. Sense & Goodness Without God: A Defence of Metaphysical Naturalism. Bloomington, Indiana: AuthorHouse; 2005.
3.  Carrier R. Defending Naturalism as a Worldview: A Rebuttal to Michael Rea's World Without Design; 2003 [27/03/2011]; Available from:


  1. Your point about the difference between foundationalism and beliefs premised on foundationalism sounds about right. It is certainly a step too far to argue from the indisputable fact that I have experiences that my interpretations of those experiences are therefore correct. The undeniable fact that I have experiences does not prove the content of those experiences true.

    But is Plantinga inferring that his belief in God is true from (1) the undeniability of his experiences or (2) the undeniability of God? That is, is God a different undeniable foundation to the undeniability of experience?

    [Delete this part of the comment] There are two typos in the first paragraph: "cannot be based any other belief" should be "cannot be based on any other belief"; "Plantinga contents" should be "Plantinga contends"

  2. *Ponders* I may have slightly misrepresented Plantinga's argument (here is a copy if you wish to verify for yourself;

    What I left out is that Plantinga does acknowledge the difference between 'I seeing a tree' and 'I am seeing something that I am interpreting as a tree'. His way around it is to say that the second implies the first.

    So, to answer your question, I think it is (1).