Theistic Notebook

May 13, 2011

Plantinga contra evidentialism (part 1)

Filed under: Notes — David P @ 8:34 pm
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W.K. Clifford once said that, “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”  To the contrary, Alvin Plantinga famously maintains that one can rationally believe in God without evidence.  In this series, I will take a look at Plantinga’s essay, “The Evidentialist Objection to Theistic Belief” (Religious Experience and Religious Belief, 1986).  A similar argument is given Faith and Rationality: Reason and Belief in God, 1983.

First off, Plantinga defines a properly basic belief as one that can be rightly held without evidence.  Contrary to popular opinion, properly basic beliefs are not gratuitous or groundless (more on this term later); nevertheless, philosophers disagree over what criteria we should apply to these basic beliefs–that is beliefs that don’t rely on other beliefs for their justification–to classify them as properly basic.  Many foundationalists maintain something like this:

(C) p is properly basic for S if and only p is self-evident, incorrigible, or evident to the senses of S.

Unfortunately, Plantinga finds that this claim can’t satisfy its own criteria for being properly basic (it is neither self-evident, incorrigible, or evident to my senses).  In the absence of any arguments in its favor (which themselves would need to rely on properly basic premises), Plantinga concludes that “the classical foundationalist is in self-referential hot water–his own acceptance of the central tenet of his view is irrational by his own standards.”

Next, Plantinga examines three basic beliefs:

(1) I see a tree.
(2) I had breakfast this morning.
(3) That person is angry.

We will focus on (1) for simplicity.  We can see that a certain sort of experience, perhaps alongside other criteria, justifies one in believing the proposition expressed by (1).  Here’s the trick: this belief has some criteria that grounds its justification; however, Plantinga doesn’t take what many of us see as obvious for granted.  He doesn’t consider the experience of seeing a tree as evidence for (1).  But why doesn’t Plantinga take my being appeared to treely as evidence for belief in the proposition I see a tree?  Because we don’t “infer that belief from others…[or accept it] on the basis of other beliefs.”  In other words, we don’t refer to any propositional evidence when justifying our beliefs about (1).  Thus, by Plantinga’s definition the treely appearance grounds the belief in (1) but it is not (propositional) evidence for (1).  A basic belief is grounded if held in the appropriate justifying circumstances.  Plantinga construes properly basic belief as follows:

(4) In condition C, S is justified in taking p as basic.  Of course C will vary with p.

C obviously includes the treely appearance but is that sufficient?  No.  Perhaps I am heavily dosed with hallucinatory drugs and am clearly not justified in holding (1) in the properly basic way under such conditions.  But regardless of the criteria which justifies this belief, this criteria is the “ground of its justification and, by extension, the ground of the belief itself.”  Next we’ll see how this ties in with belief in God.

1 – recall William Lane Craig’s showing versus knowing distinction


1 Comment »

  1. […] on the claim that properly basic beliefs are grounded by appropriate conditions.  In the previous post, we looked at some properly basic beliefs, and we found that the foundationalist criterion […]

    Pingback by Plantinga contra evidentialism (part 2) « Theistic Notebook — May 22, 2011 @ 8:42 am | Reply

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