The Benefit of the Doubt

A blog about Dialogue, Doubts, and Christian Faith ~Travis Dickinson~

Are Christian Beliefs Properly Basic?


Properly basic beliefs

If you have hung around philosophical discussions about God and Christianity, then at some point you’ve likely heard someone bring up the notion of a belief’s being “properly basic.” It can often sound like the Christian who employs this concept is simply helping him or herself to some wild claim without offering any reasons to believe it. That is, it can sound like a cop out. And, frankly, it may be a cop out. I’m guessing well-meaning Christians do use this as way to not have to give actual evidence. But if they do, they have misused the concept.

Let me explain.

Let’s first say what it is for a belief to be properly basic. In short, a basic belief is one that is based directly on a fact and not another belief. A properly basic belief is one that is based directly on a fact where the fact justifies the belief.

[If this is satisfactory, then you can skip to the next section. I explain things more fully below, but please note there are many technicalities of this discussion that will be completely left out.]

The basis of a belief

Some beliefs are based on other beliefs. Let’s say I watch the evening news and the weather man reports that tomorrow it will be 70 degrees and sunny. Call this belief B1. I believe B1 and I infer B2: that “tomorrow will be pleasant.” Since I inferred this belief, we say B2 is based on B1. B1 is my rational basis for believing B2. What we should notice is if I were to report B2 to my wife, she may appropriately ask why I think B2 is true. I would answer with B1. But here’s where it gets interesting. If she was in an uncharacteristically meddling mood, she could ask why I think B1 is true. In order for B1 to be rational, it seems I would need reasons for believing it.

Beliefs, by their very nature, are such that they are always either true or false. When we believe, we represent the world as being some such way and this is either how the world is or it is not how the world is. Again, this is simply a matter of the nature of a belief. Thus, one ALWAYS needs a reason for thinking the belief is true if one is going to assent to it. That is, if one lacked all reasons whatsoever for some belief, then it isn’t rational to hold that belief.

But not all beliefs are based on other beliefs. Some beliefs are, for example, based directly on an experience of some sort. Let’s say you stub your toe and experience a sharp pain and form the belief “I am in pain.” Remember, beliefs need reasons. So what’s your reason for this belief? Here it seems it is the very fact that you are in pain! We should notice we’ve based our belief directly on a fact and facts don’t need further reasons because they are, well, facts. Facts just exist. In other words, there are not true or false facts. There are just facts. This is a basic belief since its reason doesn’t involve any beliefs that would require further reasons. It’s based directly on a fact.

If a (nonbasic) belief is inferred from a prior belief, the prior belief must have justification for it to be rational. This is either some fact or another prior belief. The foundationalist believes that all inferential beliefs must ultimately lead, at some point, to a properly basic belief from which these beliefs were inferred. The thought is that an inferential chain cannot go on infinitely. It must ultimately terminate in a belief that is based directly on some fact or facts that generate justification without itself needing to be justified.

Consider the following:

Belief: “I should go to the doctor.”

Why think this is true?

Belief: “I am in pain.”

Why think this is true?

Experience: the pain itself

We should notice that the belief that “I should go to the doctor” is justified by the belief “I am in pain.” This is inferential. There is undoubtedly more going on with this inference than just this, but it seems we could sufficiently fill this picture out and, if we did, we’ll clearly see that it is a rational inference. But since the belief “I am in pain” is a belief, it makes sense to ask whether it is justified. If it is not justified, then the belief “I should go to the doctor” is not justified. Here the belief is basic. It is based directly on the experience of pain itself. The experience justifies the belief “I am in pain” which in turn justifies (by inference) the belief “I should go to the doctor.”

Are Christian beliefs properly basic?

There’s a legitimate discussion in Christian philosophy about which beliefs should be considered basic. To say that a belief is properly basic is not a cop out (or at least it need not be). It’s merely to assert that a belief is based not an inference from other beliefs, but on some fact or facts. So if a belief is to be properly basic (and not used as a cop out), one must come up with some justifying fact upon which it is directly based.

I’m an unabashed evidentialist in the sense that the rationality of a belief has only to do with what evidence one has.[1] It’s a big debate in epistmeology, but my own view is that a belief cannot be made rational by things of which one is unaware. But I think of evidence in a very broad sense. Though arguments can be evidence, it is not only arguments that can be evidence. Evidence includes both empirical and philosophical considerations. But we can have evidence of the direct sort. We can, for example, base a belief directly on an experience. When one is in pain, the evidence one has for believing one is in pain is the experience of pain itself. We also seem to know such things as mathematical and logical facts on the basis of intuition. I rationally believe that 2+3=5 not on the basis of an argument. I grasp this fact directly via my intuitive awareness of the relevant mathematical fact.

On what facts can we base our Christian beliefs?

What about our Christian beliefs? It seems clear we can have a direct encounter with God and thereby rationally believe that God exists on the basis of this encounter. It also seems we can know certain things about God on the basis of our intuitions similar to the way in which we know mathematical facts. Most Christian philosophers will agree that, when it comes to our Christian beliefs, we can minimally have these as properly basic beliefs.

But I think philosophers would agree that not ALL Christian beliefs are properly basic. There are very fine grained theological claims that seem to be the result of careful reflection and inferences from other claims. One cannot have direct experience of the facts of, say, eschatology, or so it seems to me. These will be inferred from prior beliefs.

So if there are some beliefs we know in the basic way and some that are clearly inferred, where is the divide? Again, there is considerable disagreement on this issue. I tend to be less permissive than others in what we can know in the basic way. For example, it is not clear to me one can know Jesus rose from the dead in a properly basic way. One can perhaps know that Jesus is real, given a direct encounter. But to know that in AD 30 (or thereabouts), Jesus of Nazareth was crucified and 3 days later rose from the dead seems clearly inferential given its historical nature. One will need to infer this from other beliefs about the Bible, history, God, etc. I’m also doubtful one can believe that Scripture is God’s revealed word in a properly basic way.[2] Again, it is difficult to know what facts on which one could base this belief for it to be basic.

We should keep in mind that just because something is not properly basic doesn’t mean it is any less rational to believe. Perhaps the structure the relevant beliefs will be a bit more complex and complexity may bring more opportunity for error. But as long as the belief is inferred in the appropriate way from a justified belief, then the belief can be rational for someone.

One last point is a person can have a properly basic belief that is also, at the same time, justified inferentially. One can have a direct encounter with God and believe that God exists on that basis. But one can also consider the dozen or more plausible arguments for God’s existence and have this belief also supported by them. This would be, for one, a well justified belief indeed.

[1] A non-evidentialist, like Alvin Plantinga, would say that a belief can be made rational by things of which one is unaware. Plantinga’s epistemological view is a version of externalism whereas evidentialism is typically construed as an internalism.

[2] Much of this turns on whether testimony is a source of properly basic beliefs.


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One Reply

  1. I remember the first time I read Plantinga’s argument about Christian belief being properly basic, it seemed so intuitive and obvious. Thinking back to when I came to faith, I definitely didn’t have any arguments for believing in Christianity (I’d never even heard the words ontological, cosmological, etc. in my life). Christianity just made sense in a new way. It’s kind of hard to explain, but I’ve always felt that this ineffable feeling is what proper basicality seeks to explain.