Last time I introduced the notion that belief in God is properly basic, an idea developed by philosopher Alvin Plantinga. Let’s have a cursory look at what it means for a belief to be “properly basic.”
As I mentioned, Plantinga is an epistemologist. Most of us take for granted that we know certain things, but epistemologists want to explore this knowing business further.
For example, have a look outside; is it night, or day? (I pause while you answer). Very good sir/madame. But now the epistemologist wants to ask, “How do you know that?” And you might answer that the moon is shining brightly, or that the stars are out in glory, and the sun is nowhere to be seen. This is how you know it is night.
In this case, you know through your senses, principally your vision.
Now, this can go much further, and become quite twisted (and convoluted?) quickly. I might ask, for example, whether there are any such things as stars (and how do you know?), and whether your eyes are deceiving you (and how do you know they are not?) and whether you are just a body plugged into the Matrix (and how do you know you are not?). And if you are a body plugged into the Matrix, is it really night after all? Is there any such thing as a sun, anywhere?
Let’s not wander down any rabbit holes, at least for the moment. Rather, let’s assume your eyes do not deceive you, and that the things you perceive are real. Science, after all, believes such things. Under this assumption, we can say that your sense perceptions (what your physical senses tell you) are reliable. Sometimes they can be mistaken, but almost all of the time, they are essentially correct (or correctable).
Now, it’s not just that your senses are reliable, it’s that you believe what they are telling you. In other words, you believe that the “deliverances” of your senses constitute real knowledge.
An example: I walk cross the street. As I go, I hear a horn blaring, and I look and see a truck barreling down on me. Immediately, I jump out of the way. Take note – it’s not the immediacy of the reflex which I want to highlight, but the immediacy of the knowledge. How did I know there was a truck barreling down on me?
Allow me to state how I did NOT come to this knowledge. I did not first think: 1) I am appeared to “truckly.” 2) Usually, when I am appeared to “truckly,” this is because there really is a truck in the vicinity of my person. 3) I am walking on a street, which is where one might readily expect to be appeared to “truckly” because there really are trucks there. 4) A bystander yelled, “Truck! Look out!” This gives me further evidence that my perception is accurate, since there is another person who is appeared to “truckly.” 5) Therefore, I can be reasonably confident that there is a truck in the vicinity, and I should retreat to safety.
That is, I did NOT come to my conclusion about the truck by way of reasoning, by a successful argument. Rather, the very fact that I perceive the truck – and that alone – convinces me that there is a truck in the vicinity. There is no intermediate step between the perception (seeing the truck) and the belief (knowing there is a truck in the vicinity). And that is why Plantinga considers sense perceptions to be “properly basic” beliefs.^
So if our senses are reliable, we can obtain knowledge through them. Is this the only way we obtain knowledge?
Indeed, there are other cognitive faculties, says Plantinga. There is memory, for instance, which everyone takes for granted. I (the author now, and not Plantinga) might offer – I don’t think most people consider that there’s no scientific evidence that our memories are reliable.
Shall we explore this assertion?
How would you prove, for instance, that the world did not come into existence five minutes ago?° After the initial, “Of course the world began more than five minutes ago!” (after which I would say, “Prove it.”), you might begin to reflect and ask, “Well, how did we get here?”
And I will say that you were made by God five minutes ago, at your current age minus five minutes. If there is a God, this surely can’t be too tall an order.
You might reply, “But there is food in my stomach!”
And I will say that God has also created half-digested food in your stomach.
You might reply – and most objections you could raise will go the same way – that there are mountains that are crumbling, there are stars that are dying, you have a note written by your mother from 20 years ago, and that you are just so darned sure that you were real and alive “yesterday.”
And I will say – and my replies will follow the same pattern – that God created the world five minutes ago to appear as though it were millions, or billions, of years old. He even included details of your “past” which would give you the impression you’ve been alive for more than five minutes. (Young earth creationists propose a thing like this – and I don’t mean that to disparage them).
As for your certainty, I will only say, there is no scientific process – read, “inference from empirical data” – that proves this.
In fact, because memory stands on its own – Plantinga says, I know what I had for breakfast this morning, and I believe that I really did eat that breakfast – we can give the scientific method its full breadth. After all, if we were skeptical about our memories, why would we explore our origins? Why should I worry about the lifetime before mine (or the one 100, or 1,000, lifetimes before mine) if I disbelieve my memory? (Let alone more practical considerations – why trust the experiment I did yesterday? I’ll surely have to redo it, to be sure, “now,” that the results are true. I certainly couldn’t know, a priori, that an experiment’s results would be true).
More crucially, because memory beliefs are properly basic, we are not limited to scientism. (If that view could be more impoverished than it already is).
There are other cognitive faculties – things we know a priori, for example – which furnish us with properly basic beliefs. What Plantinga wants to propose in Warranted Christian Belief is that the sensus divinitatis is one of these faculties, and that belief in God and the “great truths of the Gospel” is properly basic. While Plantinga deals with both, and perhaps more particularly with Christian faith, we will only see (for now) how belief in the existence of God might be properly basic, then have a look at some objections and see how the analogy may help us through them.
^And if someone does not consider them properly basic, we begin to wonder about that person’s psychological integrity.
°I have seen quotations of Bertrand Russell pointing this out, saying, “there is no logical impossibility in the hypothesis that the world sprang into existence five minutes ago…” Plantinga makes extensive use of this device, and as he refers to Russell in other places, I’m confident he is aware of the proper attribution of the device.