I received a question recently about reformed epistemology and properly basic beliefs. The respondent was asking if our acceptance of belief in God as a properly basic belief wasn’t lowering our standards for justification. If we can be justified in believing in God without any evidence then what can we not be justified in believing?
My response is below:
Such an interesting question!!
Remember that the notion of Properly Basic Beliefs is a part of a larger epistemology known as “foundationalism”.
On foundationalism, we can ask of our beliefs, “Why do you believe that?” and expect an answer for only so long. At some point you will come to beliefs that are not based on other beliefs (a foundation). Consider that you are looking at a red barn. The conclusion that it is a “red barn” is a non-basic belief that is based on the belief, “I am perceiving such and such colors (red, etc) in such and such a pattern,” and the background belief, “Buildings of such and such a pattern and color are known as barns.”
Now consider your belief, “I am perceiving such and such colors (red, etc) in such and such a pattern.” Why do you believe this? You don’t come to this belief as a conclusion; it is just a foundational belief arising from your immediate experience. It is for this reason that the belief is a basic belief. We should also agree that such a belief is proper because it seems you are justified in such perceptual beliefs in the absence of some reason to disregard them (a defeater).
Thus a properly basic belief is a belief, not grounded on other beliefs, but for which you are justified in believing. Our claim that you are justified in the belief does not imply that you shouldn’t investigate or inspect the barn. We are simply claiming that you are justified in your belief about your perception in the absence of a defeater.
Now let’s circle back to the sensus divinitatus. The claim being made here is that, just like your sight perception, you have the immediate ability to sense the existence of God. This belief is not based on other beliefs, you just come to the belief as a result of your firsthand experience of sensing God. The argument being made by people like Alvin Platinga is that such a belief is rational in the absence of a defeater and is thus a “properly basic belief”. Acknowledging the sensus divinitatus as faculty from which a properly basic belief can arise doesn’t do anything to prescribe or proscribe further inquiry. Just like in our earlier example, the mere fact that you are justified in believing that you perceive the color red doesn’t do anything to prescribe or proscribe investigating the barn.
It seems to me that the greater liability here is not the fear of admitting false beliefs if one admits properly basic beliefs, but rather the fear of failing to admit true beliefs. Think of our belief systems like a multi-story building. Your higher floors are resting on the lower floors (just like the belief that the object you perceive is a “red barn” is based on a lower floor of “I’m perceiving red of such a shape,” and “such a shape is a barn”). If we are not going to admit proper basic beliefs, then we cannot ever admit a foundation to our “belief building”. There can never be a “lowest floor” that is not resting on yet lower floors. In such a scenario it is hard to see how any floor can ever be grounded, since they must always be resting on floors that are not grounded. It is for that reason that rejecting the appeal to proper basic beliefs will ultimately result in utter skepticism, in which we can never be justified in any belief. Thus no belief can ever be admitted as, “knowledge”.
Also think of the immediate consequence. If I do believe that I perceive the color red, am I really unjustified in such a belief without some sort of argument or evidence for it? It seems obvious that I would be justified in such a belief, but if I am justified in that belief then there can be proper basic beliefs.
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