Dialogue with an Agnostic on God as a “Properly Basic Belief”

Dialogue with an Agnostic on God as a “Properly Basic Belief” October 5, 2015


Alvin Plantinga in 2008 [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

Alvin Plantinga is considered by many to be the greatest living Christian philosopher. He is a Reformed Protestant. I subscribe to much of his epistemology of Christianity. This dialogue consists of agnostic JD Eveland‘s critique of Plantinga’s paper (that I recommended to him), Is Belief in God Properly Basic? Readers may consult the entire article if they wish. I do cite a great deal of it, below. Plantinga’s words will be in green, and JD Eveland’s in blue. Breaks in my citations of Plantinga signify different excerpts of his article; not merely his own paragraph breaks.

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It’s an interesting article, and I found much in it to respond to. I’m sure that in other articles he has further developed his ideas, perhaps even resolved some elements of my critique. I’d be interested in your assessment as to whether or not I’ve interpreted him correctly, and if not, where I’m wrong. But if I am right, does that compromise his essential argument? We’ll see.

Many philosophers have urged the evidentialist objection to theistic belief; they have argued that belief in God is irrational or unreasonable or not rationally acceptable or intellectually irresponsible or noetically substandard, because, as they say, there is insufficient evidence for it.

Some of my beliefs, . . . I accept but don’t accept on the basis of any other beliefs. Call these beliefs basic. I believe that 2 + 1 = 3, for example, and don’t believe it on the basis of other propositions. I also believe that I am seated at my desk, and that there is a mild pain in my right knee. These too are basic to me; I don’t believe them on the basis of any other propositions. According to the classical foundationalist, some propositions are properly or rightly basic for a person and some are not. Those that are not, are rationally accepted only on the basis of evidence, where the evidence must trace back, ultimately, to what is properly basic. The existence of God, furthermore, is not among the propositions that are properly basic; hence a person is rational in accepting theistic belief only if he has evidence for it.

Not quite. The belief that “2+1=3” is a special case of the general principle of the additive relationship in mathematical logic, which is a more foundational belief (or, more properly, an axiom necessary to make the rest of mathematics work). The propositions about sitting and knee pain are based on the more foundational principle that one can interpret various electrical signals passing along nerves as valid indicators of one’s relationship to the external world. There are indeed basic propositions, but they need to be phrased as generally as possible.

Yes, from strictly logical and/or scientific standpoints, all of this is true; I agree. I doubt that Plantinga would disagree. Therefore, I think that Plantinga’s immediate point was that he himself (in his own subjective epistemology) believed these three examples in and of themselves, as properly basic, and not based on something else. He said they were “basic to me.” He explains this in more depth in another excerpt that I have pasted, below.

Elsewhere I have contended that mathematics is a non-empirical, non-falsifiable belief-system based on unprovable axioms, which is accepted as true by atheists and agnostics (you yourself grant this above), and is also a starting-point for much of science.

Thus, I reasoned, the fact that not all of theism or Christianity is empirical or falsifiable by observable evidence, is not a disqualifier for someone to believe in either thing. Yet atheists — all the time — carp on and on about “evidence” as the key basis for belief in anything. I think that this is because they labor under the illusion (delusion?) that empiricism is the only valid approach to reality and reason.

You yourself deny that, which I think is a far more respectable intellectual stance. I think anyone who thinks about it for very long has to come to the same conclusion. All knowledge starts from axioms that cannot themselves be proven. Christianity is no different, and it ought not be singled out as some grand exception to normal thinking, as it so often is.

[T]he believer is entirely within his intellectual rights in believing as he does even if he doesn’t know of any good theistic argument (deductive or inductive), even if he doesn’t believe that there is any such argument, and even if in fact no such argument exists. . . . it is perfectly rational to accept belief in God without accepting it on the basis of any other beliefs or propositions at all.

The evidentialist objector holds that one who accepts theistic belief is in some way irrational or noetically substandard.

Typically this objection has been rooted in some form of classical foundationalism, according to which a proposition p is properly basic for a person S if and only if p is either self-evident or incorrigible for S (modern foundationalism) or either self-evident or ‘evident to the senses’ for S (ancient and medieval foundationalism). [Elsewhere] I argued that both forms of foundationalism are self referentially incoherent and must therefore be rejected. Insofar as the evidentialist objection is rooted in classical foundationalism, it is poorly rooted indeed: and so far as I know, no one has developed and articulated any other reason for supposing that belief in God is not properly basic. Of course it doesn’t follow that it is properly basic; perhaps the class of properly basic propositions is broader than classical foundationalists think, but still not broad enough to admit belief in God. But why think so?

I’ve heard it argued that if I have no evidence for the existence of God, then if I accept that proposition, my belief will be groundless, or gratuitous, or arbitrary. I think this is an error; let me explain. Suppose we consider perceptual beliefs, memory beliefs, and be liefs which ascribe mental states to other persons: such beliefs as

(1)  I see a tree,

(2)  I had breakfast this morning, and

(3)  That person is angry.

Although beliefs of this sort are typically and properly taken as basic, it would be a mistake to describe them as groundless.Upon having experience of a certain sort, I believe that I am perceiving a tree. In the typical case I do not hold this belief on the basis of other beliefs; it is nonetheless not groundless.

We might say this experience, together, perhaps, with other circumstances, is what justifies me in holding it; this is the ground of my justification, and, by extension, the ground of the belief itself. If I see someone displaying typical pain behavior, I take it that he or she is in pain. Again, I don’t take the displayed behavior as evidence for that belief; I don’t infer that belief from others I hold; I don’t accept it on the basis of other beliefs. Still, my perceiving the pain behavior plays unique role in the formation and justification of that belief; as in the previous case, it forms the ground of my justification for the belief in question. The same holds for memory beliefs.

The phenomenology of memory is a rich and unexplored realm; here I have no time to explore it. In this case as in the others, however, there is a justifying circumstance present, a condition that forms the ground of my justification for accepting the memory belief in question. In each of these cases, a belief is taken as basic, and in each case properly taken as basic.

Now similar things may be said about belief in God. When the Reformers claim that this belief is properly basic, they do not mean to say, of course, that there are no justifying circumstances for it, or that it is in that sense groundless or gratuitous. Quite the contrary. Calvin holds that God “reveals and daily discloses himself to the whole workmanship of the universe,” and the divine art “reveals itself in the innumerable and yet distinct and well ordered variety of the heavenly host.” God has so created us that we have a tendency or disposition to see his hand in the world about us.

But propositions relating to God aren’t the only ones that might come to mind under these circumstances. For example, my own reaction/sensation is a fascination with the incredible detail of small parts of an incredibly large and diverse universe. That doesn’t require personalizing any portion of it.

True, but that is not what he is arguing at this point. He’s not denying these other possibilities. He’s only establishing that there is such a thing as “basic belief” that is not based on some evidentialist chain of reasoning in our head. He hasn’t gotten to the many reasons why he thinks belief in God is of this type. In another article he took apart empiricism or foundationalism as “self referentially incoherent”: an argument that I have made myself, many times. This paper is largely a response to those criticisms, heard ubiquitously when atheists or agnostics challenge Christians to justify their beliefs.

Calvin recognizes, at least implicitly, that other sorts of conditions may trigger this disposition. Upon reading the Bible, one may be impressed with a deep sense that God is speaking to him. . . . When life is sweet and satisfying, a spontaneous sense of gratitude may well up within the soul; someone in this condition may thank and praise the Lord for his goodness . . . 

Again, that’s not the only possible response. I can feel unhappy with something that I’ve done if it violates my own personal moral code. (I’ve written elsewhere about the kind of personal moral code that one can easily construct on the basis of the value of human life, without necessary reference to some external authority point such as God. In most respects, it probably looks a great deal like yours.) I can feel dissatisfied with my own behavior and resolve to improve it, simply by recognizing the discrepancy between what I’ve done and what I think I ought to have done. Ultimately, it seems to me more acceptable for me to acknowledge my own flaws and resolve to correct them, than it does to rely on some external force to “fix me.” As a general rule, it’s a lot more efficient and effective – not to mention adult – for me to deal with my own behavior than to wait for somebody else to do it for me.

All very true (though we Christians argue that such moral codes ultimately derive from a consciousness of God, Who gives us the notions of right and wrong, and conscience in the first place (and that no one starts out with a clean slate). Plantinga’s goal is (as often with him) to “defeat the defeater,” which in this instance is the charge that “non-sophisticated” Christian belief, of a sort not personally acquainted with philosophy or the particulars of science, is not necessarily unwarranted on that basis alone. In other words, one need not be a virtual philosopher or scientist to be justified or warranted in believing in Christian doctrines.

There are therefore many conditions and circumstances that call forth belief in God: guilt, gratitude, danger, a sense of God’s presence, a sense that he speaks, perception of various parts of the universe. A complete job would explore the phenomenology of all these conditions and of more besides. This is a large and important topic; but here I can only point to the existence of these conditions.

But as I’ve noted, the same conditions and circumstances might call forth an entirely different set of beliefs in someone not already predisposed to accept a personal supreme being. Are those beliefs inherently less valuable in some sense than beliefs that are predicated on such a being? I don’t see any basis for that conclusion.

I agree again, but on the other hand, the possibility of other conclusions does not establish that the Christian conclusions are irrational or unwarranted, which is Plantinga’s argument.

It isn’t the relatively high level and general proposition God exists that is properly basic, but instead propositions detailing some of his attributes or actions.

I don’t see that this follows. A properly basic proposition is one that does not require any other proposition to be true in order to establish its validity. The statement that “God forgives me” makes no sense unless predicated on the proposition that there is a God who has both the power and authority to “forgive“ (whatever that entails.) Without the latter underlying proposition, the former proposition simply makes no sense at all.

I agree. I’m not sure where Plantinga will go with this line of reasoning or how he would reply to what you bring up (I’m reading his paper as I reply), but it seems to me to be a weak part of his overall argument.

The proposition “I see a tree” is actually a verbal shorthand for a more involved and precise proposition, of the form “I’m currently receiving sense stimuli that cause me to conclude that there is in front of me an object with properties similar enough to a stored mental pattern that I have come to call a ’tree’.” This proposition in turn rests on a number of underlying assumptions, such as my ability to rely on sense stimuli to give me a picture of objects surrounding me and my set of stored mental patterns into which I can reach for something that sort of matches the object constructed by my sense stimuli. It seems to me that these latter assumptions are really “properly basic”, since without them any statement about seeing a tree can’t be properly interpreted.

I agree (it’s amazing how much we agree), but I would add that the person doing these things is, 99% of the time, not aware of all the intricate, technical scientific explanations, which is Plantinga’s point, as far as I can tell. He’s arguing it on a subjective basis of a person’s perceptive standpoint, whether they are highly sophisticated or not. Cardinal Newman made very similar arguments in 1870 in his Grammar of Assent. He was way ahead of his time.

If a person reports that they saw a tree, everyone assumes that 1) they did, and (unless blind or very near-sighted) 2) were justified in believing that they did. It’s uncontroversial. But it’s not yet “empirical,” strictly speaking (it’s on the line), and it’s not a “proof” that the tree actually exits. In any event, everyone agrees that he did see it (presupposing first that the tree was actually physically there) and that it’s not irrational for him to believe that he did.

A second objection I’ve often heard: if belief in God is properly basic, why can’t just any belief be properly basic? Couldn’t we say the same for any bizarre abberation we can think of? What about voodoo or astrology? What about the belief that the Great Pumpkin returns every Halloween? Could I properly take that as basic?And if I can’t, why can I properly take belief in God as basic?

In the palmy days of positivism, the positivists went about confidently wielding their verifiability criterion and declaring meaningless much that was obviously meaningful. Now suppose someone rejected a formulation of that criterion — the  one to be found in the second edition of A. J. Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic, for example. . . . the fact that he rejects the Classical Foundationalist’s criterion of proper basicality does not mean that he is committed to supposing just anything is properly basic.

This statement isn’t meaningless at all. It’s perfectly good English syntax; it simply uses some unfamiliar words. If you will recall,  Humpty Dumpty offered the definitions that you need – “brillig” is the interval of time between teatime and dusk; “slithy” describes something that is both lithe and slimy; the “wabe” is the plot of grass around the sundial; etc. As long as there are ways of translating unfamiliar words into familiar words, meaning is preserved. Presumably these words were part of Humpty Dumpty’s ordinary vocabulary, if not necessarily part of Alice’s.

His point here is not an analysis of the syntax of Lewis Carroll; it was to deny that “just any” belief must be regarded as properly basic, if belief in God is thought to be so. In that sense, the Great Pumpkin is the better example of his to analyze. As a Christian apologist active at Patheos, believe me, I hear every ridiculous thing imaginable compared to belief in God: the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, leprechauns, unicorns, the man in the moon, and on and on. That sort of condescending nonsense and inapt analogy is what Plantinga is replying to here.

Suppose I don’t know of a satisfactory substitute for the criteria proposed by classical foundationalism; I am nevertheless entirely within my rights in holding that certain propositions are not properly basic in certain conditions. Some propositions seem self-evident when in fact they are not; that is the lesson of some of the Russell paradoxes. Nevertheless it would be irrational to take as basic the denial of a proposition that seems self- evident to you.

The modern foundationalist’s criterion for proper basicality, for example, is doubly universal:

(18) For any proposition A and person S, A is properly basic for S if and only if A is incorrigible for S or self-evident to S.

Incorrigible” in the sense simply means “uncorrectable”; that is, there is no argument that I could offer that would induce you to change your opinion. Clearly, what is an unchangeable opinion for one person might be a changeable opinion for another. While I seriously doubt that I could convince you by argument that belief in a personal God is not an inevitable requirement for a moral life, I can and have convinced other people to the same effect. For me, “the value of a human life” forms a properly basic proposition analogous in many ways to your propositions about the existence of God. Just as I would have a hard time disabusing you of the existence of God, so you would have a hard time convincing me that human life has no value in and of itself. Both propositions are close to fundamental; but there is no logical basis for asserting that one is inherently more valid than the other.

Plantinga’s argument doesn’t have the burden of having to prove that one is inherently more valid than the other. His only aim is to show that belief in God is not irrational, and is valid on the basis of being properly basic, and that critiques of it as not properly basic fail.

But how could one know a thing like that? What are its credentials? Clearly enough, (18) isn’t self-evident or just obviously true. But if it isn’t, how does one arrive at it? What sorts of arguments would be appropriate? Of course a foundationalist might find (18) so appealing, he simply takes it to be true, neither offering argument for it, nor accepting it on the basis of other things he believes. If he does so, however, his noetic structure will be self-referentially incoherent. (18) itself is neither self-evident nor incorrigible; hence in accepting (18) as basic, the modern foundationalist violates the condition of proper basicality he himself lays down in accepting it. On the other hand, perhaps the foundationalist will try to produce some argument for it from premisses that are self-evident or incorrigible: it is exceedingly hard to see, however, what such an argument might be like. And until he has produced such arguments, what shall the rest of us do-we  who do not find (18) at all obvious or compelling? How could he use (18) to show us that belief in God, for example, is not properly basic? Why should we believe (18), or pay it any attention?

But (18) is really simply a definition. Definitions are not true or false as such, simply more or less useful in terms of facilitating communication and exchange of meaning.

If that is so, then I am justified in rejecting it as an untrue proposition, or quite possibly untrue (i.e., significantly untrustworthy) proposition. That would mean the collapse of this particular objection to theistic belief.

Dictionaries exist precisely to encourage similar usage of terms. You can disagree with my definition (or, as in the case of Humpty Dumpty above, fail to comprehend it because of vocabulary issues). In that case, we ought to sit down and work out a reasonable definition on which both of us can agree – the effectiveness test in this case being our agreement, not some abstract degree of truth or falsity associated with the definition.

Plantinga’s point is that this is not merely a matter of definition, but rather, of the questionable and not self-evidently true nature of a fundamental plank of (take your pick) foundationalism / empiricism / positivism: and one that is used to (fallaciously, erroneously) bash theistic belief all the time.

Under the right conditions, for example, it is clearly rational to believe that you see a human person before you: a being who has thoughts and feelings, who knows and believes things, who makes decisions and acts. It is clear, furthermore, that you are under no obligation to reason to this belief from others you hold; under those conditions that belief is properly basic for you. But then (18) must be mistaken; the belief in question, under those circumstances, is properly basic, though neither self-evident nor incorrigible for you. . . . Of course it isn’t properly basic on the criteria offered by classical offered by classical foundationalists; but that fact counts not against you but against those criteria.

The Christian will of course suppose that belief in God is entirely  proper and rational; if he doesn’t accept this belief on the basis of other  propositions, he will conclude that it is basic for him and quite properly so. Followers of Bertrand Russell and Madelyn Murray O’Hare may disagree, but how is that relevant? Must my criteria, or those of the  Christian community, conform to their examples? Surely not. The  Christian community is responsible to its set of examples, not to theirs.

Isn’t this just another way of saying “I’ll believe whatever propositions I want to, and what you believe, think, or say I can simply reject with no obligation for dialogue”?

No; again, that is not the point of it. He is responding to a fallacious attack on the theistic belief-system. Proper basicality is a pre-rational, pre-dialogue phenomenon. That’s why it isn’t particularly harmed by supposed “rational disproofs.” Religious belief is not usually arrived at by merely being the end result of a series of syllogisms or other logical chains. It’s more fundamental than that.

Therefore, his present analysis is not concerned with whether one should dialogue or not. Of course, Plantinga would say they should. He’s a philosopher! That’s all they do! He is arguing, in effect, saying to Christians: “don’t let atheists persuade you that you are stupid and an unsophisticated rube, just because you may not have philosophical / scientific sophistication at your fingertips or be able to give an unanswerable rationale for why you believe as you do. They don’t have any solid epistemological or logical grounds for establishing any such thing.”

It’s certainly how a lot of people, particularly religious fundamentalists, behave.

Yes they do. But that is neither here nor there. But even the dreaded, despised fundamentalist is justified in his belief in God, whether he is aware of it or can properly explain it or not. He need not necessarily do so, argues Plantinga.

But I would argue that this assertion discouraging social dialogue doesn’t advance social goals in any way, but rather serves to further fractionalize society. We already talk almost entirely to those who agree with us. I’d suggest that making this a social norm is a Bad Idea.  

I totally agree. It’s one reason why I’m here dialoguing with you (and enjoying every minute of it). I only disagree over whether Plantinga’s article somehow encourages the sort of isolation and cliquishness that we both disparage. I wouldn’t be an apologist if I took that view. I’d simply isolate myself from society and listen to Wagner and Mahler and The Beatles and Van Morrison in my spare time. I still like them now, but I dialogue, too. :-) His point in context is that atheists don’t set the rules for Christians (we have our own well-thought out epistemology), and we need not abide by arbitrary (and illogical, fallacious) demands made on us from the outside. Plantinga argued that “18” is incoherent — cannot itself be proven as self-evident — and doesn’t rule out a properly basic belief in God.

Accordingly, the Reformed epistemologist can properly hold that belief in the Great Pumpkin is not properly basic, even though he holds that belief in God is properly basic and even if he has no full fledged criterion of proper basicality. Of course he is committed to supposing that there is a relevant difference between belief in God and belief in the  Great Pumpkin, if he holds that the former but not the latter is  properly basic. . . . the Reformed epistemologist may concur with Calvin in holding that God has implanted in us a natural tendency to see his hand in the world around us; the same cannot be said for the Great Pumpkin. there being no Great Pumpkin and no natural tendency to accept beliefs about the Great Pumpkin.

It’s one thing to believe that God has implanted in you “a natural tendency to see his hand”, and to use that belief to deny the existence of the great pumpkin or anything else. It’s something else to use that belief to justify, as Calvin did, burning someone like Michael Servetus at the stake simply for holding an alternate belief. I’m pretty sure that you are not in favor of burning people because they hold different beliefs, although there seems to be no shortage of people around the world, including in the US, who are perfectly willing to do just that. It’s hardly a Christian problem alone, of course.

This goes well beyond the present topic, but we don’t disagree. I would only note (as regards religious and general tolerance) that the medievals persecuted over religious matters for two reasons. They didn’t distinguish between subjective factors concerning erroneous beliefs and the objective beliefs themselves. They assumed everyone must be in bad faith; have an evil motive (mala fides). They also thought that heresy was as harmful to a soul as bodily harm, if not much more so, since it could potentially lead someone to hell. Therefore, it made sense (given that premise) to punish them for that, as well as for crimes like theft or murder. The thought was that souls in the overall society would be better protected.

The premise was correct (falsehood and heresy do harm souls and people), but the “solution” (capital punishment for heresy) was not. After the Thirty Years War in 1648, the Christian world figured out that it couldn’t resolve Catholic-Protestant differences and secularism became the new trendy outlook: and so it has been ever since. Obviously, the less a culture believes about religion, the less it will persecute over the denial of it. Christians stopped persecuting because they came to (rightly) see, more and more, the virtue in tolerance, and the importance of granting people the benefit of the doubt, as to sincerity and good faith.

They also saw that there is much truth in any given belief-system, alongside error. It was out of a motive of love. Secularists stopped persecuting because they no longer believed in enough (religious-wise) to persecute others over, and there was a tacit acceptance of a sort of relativism. The radical Islamic jihadists think anyone who differs with them is wicked and evil, and so they behead them. It’s “diabolically consistent” behavior based on a manifestly false premise.

I believe strongly in Christian tenets. But I also want to be as tolerant I can of others’ beliefs, and grant sincerity and good intentions. I don’t want to force anyone to believe as I do (what would be the point of coercion, anyway? It has to come from the heart!), but rather, to persuade them that Christianity and Catholicism are true, and good for them to believe.

But we need to be fair to those in other eras (avoid what C. S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery”), and understand their own rationales for their sometimes dubious actions. We look down on the Middle Ages and the secular world has even created a myth of the Dark Ages. The real Dark Ages was the time when the pagans like the Vikings and Danes were wreaking havoc on Christian society, swooping down and murdering all the monks in monasteries, etc.; it was not Christian in origin.

It’s a documented fact that Christianity preserved pagan (Greek and Roman) culture as well as the Bible, etc. The Scholastics, following St. Thomas Aquinas (13th c.), revived Aristotle and synthesized his thought with Christianity, as you know, I’m sure. The Renaissance was another attempt at merging the best aspects of pagan culture and Christian learning, with mostly good results.

Both anti-Catholic Protestants and “anti-theist” atheists have to invent wildly exaggerated myths about how wicked the Christians in the Middle Ages were, because the actual truth wouldn’t promote the desired contempt and felt superiority. The medieval European Catholics killed only a few thousand for heresy, according to the latest figures of serious, fair-minded historians who specialize in the Inquisition(s). And even those were technically actions of the government, not the Church, as I understand it. But I’ve had to deal with silly Protestant anti-Catholics (who should know better) who maintained with a straight face that “50-68 million” were killed in the Inquisition.

That was a very popular article here at Patheos because Catholics (who know their history and/or theology) are sick and tired of being lied about. I give them the “ammo” to shut the mouths of the liars who want to run down our beloved Church and our spiritual ancestors.

By way of conclusion then: being self-evident, or incorrigible, or evident to the senses is not a necessary condition of proper basicality. Furthermore, one who holds that belief in God is properly basic is not thereby committed to the idea that belief in God is groundless or gratuitous or without justifying circumstances. And even if he lacks a general criterion of proper basicality, he is not obliged to suppose that just any or nearly any belief — belief in the Great Pumpkin, for example — is   properly basic. Like everyone should, he begins with examples; and he may take belief in the Great Pumpkin as a paradigm of irrational basic belief.

This last paragraph really doesn’t follow from anything that the author says before.

Huh?! It summarizes the entire argument that he made.

He’s essentially established that his belief in God is properly basic for him; and that’s fine.

Well, no. He has shown, I think, that 1) belief in God is arguably proper basic (not for just him, but theists en masse), 2) is not irrational sans a coteries of evidential proofs, and 3) that foundationalist / evidentialist criteria used to discredit #1 are internally incoherent and thus, unsuccessful. That’s a pretty good day’s work!

But he has not established any basis for saying that belief in the great pumpkin is per se irrational if it is as foundational for someone else as his belief in God is for him.

That wasn’t his task in this paper. It’s very specific. All he was saying was that a person who believes in God, as a basic belief, is unjustly associated with a belief as silly as the great pumpkin: a notion that most people understand is intrinsically ridiculous and imaginary: as if the two things were epistemologically equivalent; on the same plane.

And he has not, as far as I can see, laid any basis for establishing why a belief in the Christian God – much less the particular version of that concept represented in Catholic theology – is to be uniquely privileged over belief in Buddha, Marduk, the Great Spirit, or the FSM.

Those are different arguments, and again, not his task at hand, which was a negative one (defeating failed objections), not a positive claim. He was simply defeating the claim that belief in God is irrational if not empirically demonstrable, or intellectually sophisticated. Christians have made several empirical arguments in favor of belief in God. St. Thomas Aquinas (following Aristotle’s method, merged with revelation) specialized in it. The cosmological and teleological arguments are of this nature (especially the former). I’m very fond of both, and have used versions of them in my writing. But I don’t think either absolutely proves that God exists, nor that they have to in order to maintain a rational belief in God. They do show, I think, that belief in God is at the very least as plausible as any other grand theory that attempts to make sense of the universe.

In any event, we make those arguments, and atheists and agnostics scorn them just as much as any other arguments we produce: even though they are based on empirical observation, that is held above any other kind of knowledge, by so many atheists. Nothing is ever sufficient to convince them. When atheists do become theists or Christians, it’s almost always based on something other than classic theistic arguments, just as is the case with anyone who converts to Christianity as a result of any sort of sincere, serious reflection: reasons beyond happenstance or wanting to marry a girl or guy, etc. This was true in my own case as well.

My evangelical conversion to Christ in 1977 at age 18 was based on intuitive, moral, and “nature mysticism” considerations, including being deeply moved by an excellent dramatic portrayal of the Gospels: Jesus of Nazareth. And it proceeded in another sense from existential (virtually nihilistic) despair: my six-month clinical depression. My Catholic conversion in 1990 was based on a growing admiration of Catholic moral theology and historical study of development of doctrine and the 16th century religious conflicts.

Neither had anything to do with being convinced by some rational argument in favor of God’s existence, though reason was involved at a very deep level: especially in my Catholic conversion. No one cares about the arguments for God except a few philosophers and apologists who love to speculate about such things, and mostly talk to each other up in ivory towers or the back pews of churches after everyone else leaves. That’s why it makes up very little of my overall work in Christian apologetics that I have been doing for 34 years now. It’s not how probably 99% of people become convinced of God’s existence or the truth claims of Christianity. They usually do because of an intuitive moral sense or some sort of personal experience: either of going through despair (as I did) or finding true peace and happiness within Christianity that they had never possessed before.

In fact, by falling back on a concept of “proper basicality” unique to an individual, it seems to me that he in fact makes alternative beliefs equally acceptable – which I doubt that he meant to do.

In a sense, yes, but ultimately, he was not dealing with these other beliefs, other than silly ones used as counter-examples. I can’t stress this highly enough. His was an exercise in “defeating the defeaters.” I’m well familiar with that because it is largely the work that apologists like myself do, too. We’re always removing objections or stumbling blocks; “roadblocks” on the journey of faith. We’re always trying to show how they fail, and therefore, are not reasons to reject Christianity.

This is why, for example, I analyze atheist “deconversion” stories, if I feel they have glaring errors in them that were not good reasons to reject Christianity, but rather, were demonstrable errors held by the person who is holding them up as reasons for why others should follow their exodus from Christianity (otherwise, why make it public? It serves the same function as Christian “testimonies”). So I go and seek to “defeat” those as best I can. Plantinga is defeating this particular anti-theistic tactic of the empirical-only crowd.

In my opinion, he has succeeded. You have not shown that he has not. All you’ve contended is that he proves too little, or could be seen as justifying goofy beliefs as well as a more serious belief in God. But you haven’t shown how he has not defeated the objection. Therefore, I submit that his reasoning stands unrefuted.

Thanks for a great exchange! If you want to continue it for another round, feel free!

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