The Tentative Apologist
9/11/09 at 09:48 AM 0 Comments

What does it mean to say religious beliefs are properly basic?

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In "Why 'Religious people are just nuts' is easier said than defended" I recounted a conversation with my good friend AnAtheist.Net who can be found online at, uh, AnAtheist.Net. On his website, in the "About" section, he writes "Faith is not a virtue but a failure in applying critical thinking." Sigh. I dealt with this old canard awhile ago by demonstrating that all reason is faith based. Why hasn't he revised his website yet? (grumble)

Anyway, that's a rabbit trail we ought not hop down for now. This conversation we had was about the proper basicality of religious belief. Although we may not all be familiar with the term "properly basic" (and non-basic) the distinction is familiar to us. You walk into the room and see an apple on the table. As a result you come to believe "There is an apple on the table" and so that belief is justified for you.

But how does that justification occur? Is it that you walk into the room, undergo the experience of being appeared to apply (thanks to Roderick Chisholm for that famous formulation), and infer from the experience that there is an apple existing which corresponds to your sensory experience? Hardly. Your belief is not a second order inference from basic experience; rather, upon having the experience you immediately (and naturally) draw the belief. And that's the way it should be. Sense beliefs like this are, (absent defeaters), properly basic.

Incidentally what would be a defeater for a prima facie properly basic sense perception belief? Example one: you walk into the room and see a red apple. If you were wearing red tinted glasses all the while, you would have an undercutting defeater to believe the apple was red. (In other words, the apple might be red, but you would lack reason to think it is.) Example two: If you walked into the room, having just taken a hallucinogenic drug, and you see a red dragon, you would have another undercutting defeater. Example three: you're at a magic show and "see" somebody sawed in half. In this case you have both an undercutting defeater (you expect that everything you'll see is really trickery) and a rebutting defeater (people who are sawed in two die; the lady on stage looks perfectly comfortable; she's even waving to her son).

So sense perception is justified basically but not perfectly: new evidence can arise to undermine that justification.

It used to be believed that at least some of our basic beliefs are indefeasible, which is another way of saying that they could never be subject to defeaters, and thus we can be maximally certain of these beliefs. Some epistemologists still believe this but the last couple hundred years have seen the gradual growth of fallibilism that find even the most basic of our beliefs being subject to possible defeating evidence. (Hence, we exercise faith in our foundations of belief as elsewhere.)

A non-basic belief is one that requires evidence from basic beliefs in order to be justified. For instance, the belief "It is sunny today" requires evidence from properly basic beliefs such as looking outside and seeing it is sunny, or hearing testimony from somebody who has been outside.

My thesis is that at least some religious beliefs (e.g. beliefs like "God loves me") can be properly basic for us. That is, absent defeaters we can be justified in believing them sans evidence.

How so? Let's say that Albert is having his morning devotions. As he reads his Bible he looks out the window and sees that it is cloudy. The experience of being appeared to cloudy-wise provides the occasion for him to come to believe it is cloudy out. (It is a properly basic belief.)

As Albert prays, he senses strongly that God loves him and thus comes to believe "God loves me" with the same immediacy that he comes to believe "It is sunny." My argument is that absent defeaters, the latter can be as basically justified as the former. In other words, some religious beliefs can be justified in the same way that some sense perception beliefs are justified.

One immediate retort is to say: well Albert could be wrong about his God-belief. Yes, he could be. Maybe God thinks he's a stinker. Or maybe God doesn't exist. But then that just shows that religious beliefs are fallible in the same way that sense perception beliefs (and other basic beliefs) are fallible.

Here's where we'll go from here. First I'll deal with an attempt to argue categorically that Albert could not be justified in believing "God loves me" apart from evidence. Once I have laid out an argument that Albert could be prima facie justified I will be keen to explore any putative defeaters to this proper basicality (e.g. arguments for the non-existence of God; arguments that religious belief is delusion, arguments from the problem of evil et cetera). If all those fail, Albert will stand as justified.

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