Sunday Sermon on Sophisticated Theology: Plantinga proves God

February 26, 2012 • 7:14 am

I’ve begun to realize that some of us need to read and answer the arguments of sophisticated theologians, for that wasn’t really done in the four New Atheist volumes.  (And for good reason, too: why should those guys deal with arguments for a proposition plainly lacking empirical support?)

I don’t plan to write a book on this stuff, but I will go after their arguments from time to time on this website. I think it’s a useful exercise for three reasons: it gives us ammunition to answer the frequent accusation that nonbelievers haven’t come to grips with the “best thought” (I cringe to write that) about theology, it shows us how transparently fatuous all of these arguments are, and if we are against religion we must take on not just the “regular” believers but also their academically respectable spokespeople. Knowing these arguments is also useful in debate, for I don’t think many theologians have ever faced serious opposition to their ideas, at least on the debate platform.

On my birthday last year (oy, what a present!) I analyzed some of the arguments of Alvin Plantinga, world-famous theologian and accommodationist,  former president of the American Philosophical Society, emeritus professor at Notre Dame, and author of many books on apologetics.  Surely he represents the best and most sophisticated strain of theological thought, though, as someone who accepts evolution, he’s shown a surprising affection for the intelligent-design arguments of Michael Behe.

Today, my brothers and sisters, I’d like to speak briefly on Plantinga’s evidence for God’s existence, at least as laid out in his chapter “Reason and Belief on God”, pp. 102-161 in The Analytic Theist: An Alvin Plantinga Reader (James F. Sennett, ed., 1998, Eeerdmans Publishing Co.).  That chapter itself (free pdf here) is taken from a book edited by Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff:  Faith and Rationality: Reason and Belief in God (1983, University of Notre Dame Press).  Page numbers are taken from the Sennett-edited reader.

I’ll try to do justice to Plantinga’s arguments, though if you think I’ve distorted them, feel free to post below.

As we know, there’s no good empirical evidence for God’s existence, and to finesse that Plantinga argues against evidentialism: the idea that one’s belief in God must be grounded in evidence if such belief is to be intellectually respectable.  His warrant in this chapter is to show that one doesn’t really need evidence to believe in God:

So presumably some propositions can properly be believed and accepted without evidence [JAC: I give some of his examples below]. Well, why not belief in God? Why is it not entirely acceptable, desirable, right, proper, and rational to accept belief in God without any argument or evidence whatever? (p. 121)

After reviewing the history of theological evidentialism, beginning with Aquinas, Plantinga presents his own argument: that belief in God is a properly basic belief.  A “properly basic belief” is one for which one doesn’t need evidence, for it is manifest to the senses immediately.  Plantinga is fond of using philosophical logic to “clarify” ideas like this, and so this is how he defines his term:

For any proposition A and person S, A is properly basic for S if and only if A is incorrigible for S or self-evident to S. (p. 150)

What he means by A being incorrigible for S is twofold: 1) it’s not possible for S to believe A and that A would be false, and 2) it’s not possible for S to disbelieve in A if A is true.

Here are some examples of beliefs that Plantinga considers “properly basic,” i.e. beliefs for which one doesn’t need evidence. I’ll leave it to readers to judge whether evidence is unnecessary here:

  1. I had breakfast this morning
  2. I see a tree
  3. That person is in pain
  4. And, of course, there is a God

Plantinga sees these beliefs as prima facie evident,that is, as beliefs that “you are under no obligations to reason to [these beliefs] from others you hold. . ” (p. 151).  Nevertheless, he doesn’t see these beliefs as “groundless”:  for such beliefs are held on the basis of other beliefs (i.e., turtles all the way down).  That, of course, is a kind of evidence, but more on that in a minute.

But of course what is “evident’ to one person may not be so for others; for example, you may be deluded about whether you had breakfast, and the tree you see may be a hallucination. This is especially true for belief #4 above.  How does Plantinga get around that? By asserting that the grounds for belief may differ from person to person and from community to community:

Accordingly, criteria for proper basicality must be reached from below rather than above; they should not be presented ex cathedra but argued to and tested by a relevant set of examples. But there is no reason to assume, in advance, that everyone will agree on the examples. The Christian will of course suppose that belief in God is entirely proper and rational; if he does not accept this belief on the basis of other propositions, he will conclude that it is basic for him and properly so. Followers of Bertrand Russell and Madelyn Murray O’Hare may disagree; but how is that relevant? Must my criteria, or those of the Christian community, conform to their examples? Surely not. The Christian community is responsible to its set of examples, not to theirs. (p. 151)

I find this evasive, self-serving, and intellectually indefensible. What he is saying is that what counts as “grounds” (i.e., evidence) for God for some people won’t—and needn’t—count for others.  That, of course, is a big difference between science and theology.  Moreover, he says that it doesn’t matter what counts, so long as someone (or a group of believers) thinks it counts.  But remember that here he’s not just talking about what people believe, he’s talking about what exists, and what warrant we need to believe in that existence. In other words, if a pesky atheist doesn’t like your evidence, that’s too damn bad: God is still there.

Of course this argument can be used to support all kinds of nonsensical beliefs.  Plantinga brings up one: belief in The Great Pumpkin, of Peanuts fame. One could also adduce the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or any of the other deities that have been worshiped through history. Plantinga immediately dispels such nonsensical beliefs in a paragraph immediately following the one above:

So the Reformed epistemologist can properly hold that belief in the Great Pumpkin is not properly basic, even though he holds that belief in God is properly basic and even if he has no full-fledged criterion of proper basicality. Of course he is committed to supposing that there is a relevant difference between belief in God and belief in the Great Pumpkin if he holds that the former but not the latter is properly basic. (p. 151).

And what, exactly, is that relevant difference?

Thus, for example, the Reformed epistemologist may concur with Calvin in holding that god has implanted in us a natural tendency to see his hand in the world around us; the same cannot be said for the Great Pumpkin, there being no Great Pumpkin and no natural tendency to accept beliefs about the Great Pumpkin. (pp. 151-152).

What a tangled thicket of logic we must make our way through here!  First of all, not everyone has a natural tendency to see God’s hand in the world, and even if they do, how does Plantinga know that that tendency was implanted by God, rather than having been taught to credulous children by their parents or preachers?  Is there really a “natural tendency” to accept beliefs in God without having been taught them?  And which God?

And on what basis does he say “there is no Great Pumpkin”?  After all, that is a statement about reality—and Plantinga is using “basic belief” in God as a criterion for what really exists. He is not allowed to say that there is no Great Pumpkin if somebody—anybody—considers the Great Pumpkin a “properly basic belief.”  There is a natural tendency among Muslims to accept a God different in nature from the God of Christians: that is the Islamic “basic belief.”  According to Plantinga, that’s okay, because Muslims have different criteria than Christians (yeah, because they were brought up by Islamic parents!).  But we’re talking about more than just beliefs here, we’re talking about what exists.  And how does one adjudicate among competing existence claims—about Jesus versus Mohamed, for example? According to Plantinga, you can’t: each community has its own “basic beliefs” that can’t be argued against.  It’s madness. It’s no way to find out what’s true.

Now Plantinga really doesn’t think that belief in God is just prima facie evident, or at least that it’s intellectually respectable to think that. He is, after all, an intellectual. He argues further that God belief rests on other beliefs (aka “turtles”):

In this sense basic beliefs are not, or are not necessarily, groundless beliefs.

Now similar things may be said about belief in God.  When the Reformers claim that this belief is properly basic, they do not mean to say, of course, that there are no justifying circumstances for it, or that it is in that sense groundless or gratuitous.  Quite the contrary. Calvin holds [Plantinga is agreeing with him here] that God “reveals and daily discloses himself in the whole workmanship of the universe,” and the divine art “reveals itself in the innumerable and yet distinct and well-ordered variety of the heavenly host.” God has so created us that we have a tendency to see his hand in the world around us.  More precisely, there is in us a disposition to believe that propositions of the sort this flower was created by God or this vast and intricate universe was created by God when we contemplate the flower or behold the starry heavens or think about the vast reaches of the universe. (pp. 153-154)

And so, Plantinga gives us a list of the real basic beliefs that support a belief in God (the lower turtles):

 Of course none of the beliefs I mentioned a moment ago is the belief that God exists. What we have instead are such beliefs as:

  1. God is speaking to me
  2. God has created all this,
  3. God disapproves of what I have done,
  4. God forgives me,   and
  5. God is to be thanked and praised.

These propositions are properly basic in the right circumstance. (p. 154, items renumbered for convenience). .

. . . From this point of view it is not wholly accurate to say that it is belief in God that is properly basic; more exactly, what are properly basic are such proposition as [(1)-(5)], each of which self-evidently entails that God exists. It is not the relatively high-level and general proposition that God exists that is properly basic, but instead propositions detailing some of his attributes and actions.  (p. 154)

Remember, these are incorrigible beliefs: beliefs that it is impossible to hold without them being true!

I find this unbelievable, for all the propositions adduced above presume that God exists, so you know who is speaking to you, you know who has created all this, and you know who is forgiving and loving and yet demands to be thanked and praised. How can you use those “basic beliefs” to support the notion that “God exists” if they all presume that God exists?  How can you intuit, for example, that “God is to be thanked and praised” unless you have a basic belief that there’s a God in the first place?

And of course none of this justifies (nor does Plantinga attempt to justify) the” basic beliefs” in Plantinga’s own brand of Christianity, including his beliefs in the divinity of Jesus and the beneficence of God. Or are those not basic beliefs, but beliefs lifted from scripture?

To paraphrase Orwell, one has to be a theologian to believe things like this: no ordinary man could be such a fool.  This is not a coherent intellectual argument: it is a patently transparent exercise in trying to prove God’s existence in the absence of evidence. It is apologetics: the practice of making stuff up post facto to buttress what you already know must be true. And, at bottom—and despite all the intellectual gymnastics of Dr. Plantinga—it all comes down to revelation, to what a particular group of people happens to find amenable as a “basic belief.”

This cartoon, more than any words I could write, expresses the difference between science and theology (just substitute “the theological method” in the second panel):

(swiped from Richard Carrier’s blog)

227 thoughts on “Sunday Sermon on Sophisticated Theology: Plantinga proves God

  1. I don’t think engaging in an argument against this sort of rubbish is productive. I think the best approach is to use similar arguments to “prove” things someone such as Plantinga clearly would not agree with and to challenge him to find to find out what is wrong with it.

    1. That would be useful, yes: show the terrible logic, really clearly. This actually works.

      Remember that the target audience for Plantinga is not sceptics – it is believers with doubts, to give them something to shore up their belief. They’re the target audience.

          1. Well, depends on what you mean by “put up with”. If you mean “accept uncritically”, then, no. The actual reaction tends to be to marvel at the enormous amount of work Plantinga has put into constructing his complex network of interlocking arguments, borrow the interesting bits, then write a long paper ripping it to shreds… then, yeah.

            1. I’m surprised anyone gives it a moment’s notice, but then again there are professional philosophers who take p-zombies seriously. But he’s produced enough actual substance for you (a clear-thinking fellow who I’ve seen producing actually useful philosophical writing around wp) to do a Ph.D on?

            2. Well, it’s not entirely original. It’s dressing up an argument Wittgenstein made years ago. In fact, there’s bee a relatively large business in theology and philosophy of religion capitalizing on Wittgenstein’s work on basic beliefs.

    2. To be honest, one needn’t argue against this; all one need do is expose this “argument” to a greater populace and show the facile approach of this sophistamacated theology.

      If you were to argue like this in high school, you’d be thrown out of class as a disruption.

    3. I agree. My view is that there is no need to argue against this sort of theological rubbish, because it destroys itself. The reason is that there is no need for such arguments for things that are clearly true, indeed the only possible use for such arguments is to support beliefs that are not just not supported by evidence, but that cannot be supported by evidence. These theological arguments indicate that the search for signs of god in the world has been abandoned.

      There is also no such thing as a basic belief; it’s utter philosophical nonsense – it’s one of silliest aspects of apologetics.

      Plantinga deserves no respect as a philosopher.

      1. Well I think that’s the entire point here – atheists are forever being chided for their simplistic outlook on religion and not looking deeper into the topic; for avoiding sophisticated religious thinkers and instead lambasting “soft targets” like creationists and jihadists. I think in this piece, Jerry is calling their bluff: “Ok, I’ll read your deep believer and his deep thoughts … ok, hmm, there’s actually nothing here after all (except larger words). Plantinga’s Emperor is as buck-naked as Jerry Falwell’s, he just wears a shinier crown.”

        This article will be a valuable shell in Jerry’s arsenal if he ever cops the “unsophisticated atheist” pejorative again; somewhere handy to direct anyone who challenges the intellectual foundations of Gnu arguments (accomodationists, theologians themselves and especially doubting believers).

    4. I disagree, of course. I think it’s useful for all of us to be exposed to what passes for “sophisticated theology” in the science-and-religion game. Then, at least, we can say that we’re familiar with the arguments.

      1. I’m not sure that Plantinga is what people are referring to when they talk about “sophisticated theology”. It tends to be more the mysteries and word salad brigade: Tillich, von Balthasar, Barth, Küng, Van Til, Schillebeeckx.

        To give a flavour of that sort of thing, here’s a quote from von Balthasar that I nicked from Wikipedia:

        “Before the beautiful—no, not really before but within the beautiful—the whole person quivers. He not only ‘finds’ the beautiful moving; rather, he experiences himself as being moved and possessed by it.”

        Compared to this kind of stuff, Plantinga’s writing is lucid and convincing.

        1. Plantinga keeps coming up amongst objectors to Dawkins as one of the names Dawkins hasn’t bothered properly researching, hence me knowing of him primarily as someone theists put forward as particularly good (the way I might Hitchens).

    1. The problem is these people have insulated themselves against reason and logic more thoroughly than ducks are proofed against water. They really don’t need anything sophisticated, they just believe and that’s it.

      The intelligent ones don’t actually believe, they just know an easy way to make a lot of money when they see one and they have no moral scruples about fleecing the endless supply suckers who can’t wait to give them everything they ask for. That’s god for you, I think if there was one he’d be proud of them.

      1. They may seem impossibly insulated, but you only need small leak along the keel of the S. S. Superstition to sink the whole magnificent confabulation, send it to the bottom. No matter if holds a magnificent engine, a beautiful deck, was the product of a famous naval architect, a ship is worthless, once resting beneath fathoms of water. That leak is transmigration of the “soul”. There is none. No soul. The Egyptians believed in transmigration, and it was successively adopted and successfully adopted by all major religions: =none= of whom had even ONE-PERCENT knowledge of how the human body worked. Memory dies when you die. Memory, the system that make you unique, goes nowhere, just the same as your eyes, nose, teeth stay right with your inert lifeless body once you die. We know much about the incredibly, inhumanly complex method by which memory is constructed: you’ve done six or seven phosphorylations just reading this sentence. Seth Grant, at the Sanger Institute outside London, has counted more than ONE THOUSAND PROTEINS present at the average synapse. How do these get picked, moved, to the afterlife??? They don’t. Cannot. Any more than flapping your arms will fly you to the top of a church steeple.

        If God exists, you don’t get to meet him when you die. Simple as that. You’ll be back to the nothingness from whence you came.

        1. “Memory dies when you die.”

          And often a lot of it dies a long time before then. So when Alzheimers or just dementia turns someone into “a completely different character”, and then completely suppresses any personality, what will happen to their “soul” when they die”? Will they be restored to how they were when they were 60, 40, 20…? Why then?

          1. @ Shuggy

            Augustine of Hippo got there 1600 years before you. After death, you will be reconfigured at the age of 30 (Jesus’ approximate age at the crucifixion) to bask in the glories of heaven and gloat at the miseries of the hell-bound. Yes, I know; me, neither.

        2. Memory is precisely the fuel of the Ego. So even if you lose your memory, it doesn’t mean you lose the “immaterial stuff” that makes you believe that you are your memory. Also, if you lose your memory when you die, you could remain in a constant eternal present, a no-time zone. That could be where God is hidden. We could borrow our consciousness right now from him without realizing it. That is why we would be One in reality.

          The nothingness you are referring to can only be a product of your imagination, an imagination that works on a certain mode, not an absolute mode. That mode is binary. if God exists, I presume that his reason isn’t limited by a dual/binary mode…

          If consciousness is an irreducible “no matter”, you may just return to its primal uncreated wholly form when you die, that could be what nothingness is. Because, we think on a dual mode, in terms of opposite, we imagine the opposite of life as the end of what we know.
          We are not realizing that we imagine things through a certain mode…

          1. “… in a constant eternal present, a no-time zone. That could be where God is hidden.”

            So, ‘god’ is imaginary?

              1. No indeed. We put faith in Occam’s razor because it works really well. If it didn’t, we wouldn’t. Your argumentum ad hominem makes no useful argument.

              2. “Occam himself was a monk who believed in God.”

                People believe many strange things. IIRC, Darwin toyed with a form of Lamarckism (as Pangenesis). Darwin was wrong on that, as Occam was wrong about gods.

            1. To David. Ad hominen?? Occam was a franciscan who developed a sophisticated theology. He argues that for the things the mind is able to grasp, you better use his razor. But he also advocates that our mind is limited and that his razor is useless when it comes to God…

              I do agree that our mind is limited by its dualistic process, but I also believe that you can reach a non-dual perspective that can tell you a lot about how works the everyday intellect and his limitations, and the problem with language as Occam also pointed.

              1. He may have said that it was useless when it came to God, but that doesn’t mean he was correct. The useful bit is the bit that science is largely based upon, and is the bit people care about because it works; the formulation that works is not susceptible to invalidation on the basis of a claim that Occam actually meant something different. It’s like claiming that Darwin recanted on his deathbed [which he didn’t] therefore evolution isn’t true.

              2. I agree with Occam that his razor can’t be applied to God but not for the same reasons…
                But it is not a coincidence that the bits that are useful for science aren’t for God. If God is the process itself that allows you perceive and reason, it is normal that you don’t find him. Your eye can’t look at itself just like your reason can’t reason itself, or water wet water.

                But would you agree with Occam that our reason must be somehow limited?

  2. I’m done. I simply can’t read any more ‘SoThe’. It’s just so painful and desperate. Once again, thanks Jerry for doing all the hard work.

  3. Such tortured, circular, question-begging tracts as Plantiga’s are the reason Thomas Jefferson, in founding the University of Virginia, wrote that “a professorship of theology should have no place in our institution.” But, instead, “This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”

    1. Which is probably one of the reasons why Santorum is currently crapping on the objective of everyone attending college.

        1. Not if they’re educated “properly”, ie, science teachers who understand that evolution is an unproven theory and it’s clear only god could have made all this and what more does anyone need to know except god loves them and they should just buckle down and get on with what he tells them to.

  4. The problem I have with this whole argument is that religious people DO keep trying to offer “evidence”, which, when investigated and tested, burns out to be invalid and unreliable. And then, after their “evidence” has been debunked, they come up with this nonsense that evidence isn’t needed.

    Baloney. L

  5. There are some atheists (not a majority I believe) that are absolutely certain (as a matter of belief) that no god exists.

    This must therefore be a basic belief that cannot be argued with (according to Plantinga).

    The existence of god is therefore both proved and disproved by the proposition, which means that the proposition is not well formed.

    Not much of an argument, really.

    1. It’s not the proposition being ill formed in this case that’s responsible for the contradiction (although it probably is all ill formed proposition). Rather, it’s that the logical system is faulty, and not in a very subtle way.

  6. The way this Plantinga wrote his sentences must be very convoluted. This must be a painful exercise for Jerry!

    Yes, somebody needs to read papers like this! Somebody not me …

    1. I think I’ve once heard of a program that automatically produces convoluted papers full of meaningless jargons without real content?

      Is it Plantinga’s?

        1. That generator is one of my all time favorite things on the internet. I get an extra special vicarious feeling of awesomeness off of it because I went to high school with the guy who built it.

  7. I have a deep mistrust of philosophers of the Alvin Plantinga ilk. I do enjoy the intellectual stimulation provided by readings in philosophy. But I am very careful not to mistake their musings for accurate descriptions of the material universe or reality.

  8. As far as I’m aware, Platinga’s reformed epistemology is not about what exists, but what you are entitled to believe as “reasonable”. It is bunk, nevertheless, but I don’t think that he is trying to “prove” God with this line of reasoning, just that you can “basic belief” away anything you want.

    And feel intellectually warm and fuzzy about it.

    1. Yes: he’s writing this for doubting believers to shore up their belief. “You’ve heard all these strong arguments against your belief, but here’s something you can use to tell yourself your beliefs are reasonable!” That is why dismantling this stuff is important.

  9. Another side-note: Platinga is a coherentist. He do not have to prove that God exists (that kind of explains why he is just trying to justify believing in It). All that he have to do is to provide intelectual notions that are coherent with his basic beliefs, AKA Jebus, and pray (sic) that nothing in reality contradicts it.

      1. My ignorance, when it comes to philosphy: I thought “coherentist” was a made up word, based on religious apologists’ bent for adding “-ist” and “-ism” to things to manipulate, redefine, and attempt to discredit the creditable, as in “scientism.” I had no idea “coherentist” wasnt just a joke.

        1. Okay, I’ll explain coherentism very quickly.

          Coherentism is one of a variety of answers to the demand for justification. Think of the possible answers you might give to a question that takes the form “why do you believe p?”

          Most people who are rational and reasonable want to answer that question with some other thing they know which serves as evidence. Why do I believe that Obama is the president? Because the newspaper said that he won the election. Why did he win the election? Because people voted for him. etc. etc.

          The problem is eventually the reasons end and you just have to appeal to basic beliefs that you cannot justify. If you are asking me why I believe the Moon exists, I will eventually come to simply point at the Moon and say “look!” This is called foundationalism.

          A not nearly as respectable option, you can also just say “well, look, the reasons go on forever”. This is called infinitism, and there are a few people who accept it, claiming that it isn’t a vicious regress.

          Finally, there’s coherentism, which basically says it is okay if those chains of justification occasionally loop back on one another.

          There are some problems with coherentism: it is perfectly possible to have a set of beliefs that are all coherent with one another, but which are not environmentally responsive. Plantinga, incidentally, gives an example of this: imagine you have a man up a mountain, believing he’s up a mountain. Then he has some weird brain anomaly and he continues believing he’s up a mountain even if he is actually in an opera house. Coherence isn’t enough, you also need to be able to take on new information and discard false information. Think also of the Omphalos argument: the idea that the world was created five minutes ago with geological evidence of the earth being billions of years old. Simply being coherent isn’t enough.

          What coherentism gets at is the plausible idea that beliefs should probably be coherent. If we did suddenly discover rabbits in the pre-Cambrian, there’s a lot of science we’d need to rewrite. So, coherence is good, even if coherence isn’t the whole story about knowledge. The intuition behind coherentism also underlies Occam’s razor and Bayesian statistics: the plausibility of some new belief is dependent on how it fits in with other beliefs we have.

          There have been attempts to take both coherentism and foundationalism, like Susan Haack’s “foundherentism”.

          It certainly isn’t a pejorative. It’s a perfectly legitimate position in epistemology.

          1. Coherentism sounds a lot like holism as used in semantics.

            As you note, a problem with coherentism and holism is that a system can be internally coherent but not be true — Star Trek fans can explain how that universe works in coherent detail, but that doesn’t mean Jim Kirk is real.

            1. The two are connected – people often come to a coherentist epistemology via a holistic philosophy of language. Haack’s on the money here as far as I am concerned, though. Bunge makes similar points, too – a foundationalist epistemology can be done with *transient* foundations in a noncircular way.

  10. Huh? He makes what sounds like a very post-modern argument about the perceptions of different communities, then winds up with Ergo Jesus?

    That’s just weird.

    If I don’t accept the “basic beliefs” of Reformed Christianity (because I’m an atheist/Catholic/Jew/Muslim/New-Ager/whatever), how and why would I come to accept them? How the hell does this guy propose doing evangelism? (Yeah, I know: as a Calvinist, he probably thinks God has to magically zark the necessary insights into my brain, or I’m screwed for eternity. The Calvinist god is a right bastard, and I never liked the guy, even when I was an Evangelical).

    1. It is indeed bizarre how some religious thinkers embrace relativism as a defense of “The Absolute”. You’d think their heads would explode from the contradiction.

      1. I think that’s because religion/spirituality usually combines relativism with a form of exceptionalism — the followers of the True God have that ‘certain special something’ (humility) which allows them to intuit, discern, and follow truth over illusion. Yes, all beliefs are an undifferentiated epistemic mush of faith-based motivated reasoning and subjective confirmation of whatever seems Properly Basic to the individual … but not all individuals are alike. Some people are just more harmoniously in tune with God, as meek and ‘umble as they are. Exceptionally meek and ‘umble.

        As Hitchens said, religion is a nasty combination of the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism.

    2. I find the Calvinist doctrine of predestination weird. If God has already decided whether I will be saved, why shouldn’t I just ignore Him and do and believe what the hell I like?

      1. Yep, proselytizing Calvinism seems like a contradiction: “It is vital that you believe that what you believe can’t change anything.”

      2. Indeed, it’s your duty to sin as much as possible:

        If He has decided you will be saved then the greater your sins, the more glorious is His mercy.

        If He has decided you will be damned then the greater your sins, the more just is His judgement.

        Go, and sin some more (John 8:11, Revised)

  11. A more sophisticated version of Plantinga’s argument comes from James Gardner. Gardner was a skeptic who conceded that the atheists have the better arguments, but also held that it was his prerogative to believe in God if he wanted to, which he did (I believe he was Catholic). A short version of his argument goes, I don’t need evidence to believe in something as long as there’s no definitive evidence that it does not exist. Even Dawkins concedes that the best we can do is to make a certain probability statement about God’s existence or non-. If the probability is not demonstrably zero, Gardner says, then it is reasonable to believe in God.

    1. This is a common sophistry, which conflates an utterly negligible probability with a non-negligible one. The argument goes:

      1. There is technically no such thing as certainty.
      2. Therefore, the uncertainty in [argument I don’t like] is non-negligible.

      Step 2 is the tricky one. Humans are, in general, really bad at feeling the difference between epsilon uncertainty and sufficient uncertainty to be worth taking notice of.

      It’s a terrible, terrible argument, and an unfortunately common one. It needs to be bludgeoned to death every time it’s brought up. Theists keep hitting Dawkins with it, and I’m surprised he doesn’t ask them to concede in turn they might therefore be wrong about God existing.

      1. I agree that this idea of “there is no absolute certainty” (along with the notion of “proof” within a system that does not define proof) has to be dismissed in every instance it is brought to bear as a foundation for an argument.

        It is the refuge of the “mild dabbler” who wishes to bask in the dim light of ambivalence.

    2. The probability that you’re a butterfly dreaming you’re a human is also not zero — is it “reasonable” to believe that as well?

    3. Max,

      I’m going to assume you meant Martin Gardner, but if there is a skeptical theist named James Gardner I am unaware of please ignore the following reply.

      I encourage you to read Gardner again, just about everything you said about his position is incorrect. For one thing, he wasn’t a Catholic, he clearly said he disbelieved all organized religion, and openly criticized them. He called himself a a philosophical theist and is usually identified as a deist.

      His reason for believing is that he thought belief in a god was comforting and thought (like in William James’ essay The Will to Believe) that for a limited number of very important open questions it was OK to believe if it made the person’s life better. He admitted that the arguments for atheism were better than against it and that his position was irrational, and seemed almost apologetic that he was a theist for emotional reasons. He absolutely did not claim that it was rational for people to believe anything that wasn’t probability = 0. He was a founder of the skeptic movement, so that position would be at odds with just about everything he wrote on alt med, Scientology, creationism, UFOs, faith healing, miracles, cryptozoology, etc. Two of his books you might want to read to get a better flavor for his though process is Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (on skepticism) and The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener (on his personal philosophy). I don’t at all agree with Gardner on religion, but his position was very different than your impression.

  12. So… The most sophisticated theological argument they can come up with is I think god exists, therefore god exists? And it doesn’t matter if you think anything else exists, because it only works when applied to the Christian god? You’d think when they’ve had two thousand years (for Christianity alone, let alone older religions) they would have been able to come up with something better than that.

    1. Sounds a lot like Descarte’s reasoning to me: “I think therefore I am.” Which reminds me of a joke:

      Descartes enters a restaurant for lunch. He is seated and the waiter asks what he would like from the menu. Descarte places his order. The waiter asks, “Will there be anything else Mr. Descarte?” Descarte pauses, ponders for a moment, and then says, “I think not.” And in a puff of smoke Descarte vanishes.

      Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could get Plantinga and all the other deluded apologists to disappear in a similar puff of smoke. Afterall, their arguments have about as much substance as smoke and these same arguments certainly don’t strike me as the most intellectually defensible position of a person who claims to think.

      1. Randy
        I had heard that, “I think therefore I am” was not what Descartes had originally wanted to write. At the very moment of his deliberation, and he had penned the words, “I think therefore ……” Descartes was rudely interrupted by the the door of his study swinging open distracting him momentarily and he lost his train of thought. It was not until well after the publication of his deep thoughts that he recalled what he had originally intended writing, “I think therefore …. God isn’t.”

        As they say, the rest is history.

    2. Ben: So… The most sophisticated theological argument they can come up with is I think god exists, therefore god exists?

      In this case, Plantinga is not arguing for God’s existence, but that it is reasonable to believe in God. Therefore his argument is more like, “I believe God exists, therefore it is reasonable to believe that God exists.”

      The circularity of the argument is apparent when he discusses The Great Pumpkin.

  13. [i]”it gives us ammunition to answer the frequent accusation that nonbelievers haven’t come to grips with the “best thought” (I cringe to write that) about theology”[/i]

    But, these arguments *have* been addressed. For example, opening my copy of [i]The Cambridge Guide to Atheism[/i] I find Plantiga’s arguments are dealt with in chapter 6.

    1. Damnit. I post often on another system that uses square brackets for markup and used them out of habit. I wish this blog had a preview.

  14. @ Ben: “The most sophisticated theological argument they can come up with is I think god exists, therefore god exists?”

    This is called the ontological argument. “I can imagine it, so it’s real.”

    1. That is to me the simplest definition of the ontological argument I’ve come across. Many thanks – maybe now I’ll remember it.

    2. I’m late to the party, but I think we should give the ontological argument its due – I’m pretty sure it does follow from its axioms in modal logic. “If god is possible then god necessarily exists.” is the argument, where “necessary existence” is predicable, unlike plain “existence.”

      Where it fails badly is that it equates “possibility” with “conceivability,” or if you like “metaphysical possibility” with “epistemic possibility.” I think it’s epistemically impossible to know whether god is metaphysically possible, so by conflating the two senses of “possibly” in the modal logic that is normally used, it ends up begging the question by affirming it in a premise (viz. “god is clearly possible”).

  15. You do a good job unmasking that the “10,000 words” equals “It is true because I — or someone — believes it.”

    For some reason Plantinga has become the front man for the more deeply hidden vein of apologia. I think it is because he is not embarrassed to trot out the 10,000 words and make claims for God in the intellectual culture. The more powerful intellects of the hidden vein therefore don’t have to make the claim. It is assumed in everything they say, but the extent to which they are able to avoid identifying as believers is astounding.

    I offer this guy as a prime example.
    He is a powerful analytic philosopher. He goes to extraordinary lengths (read his mission statement) to prove he does not believe in anything, does not stand for anything and need not, proudly. He even deeply avoids coming down on a given side of the Aristotle/Plato divergence, but there is really no hiding from that; in the end he makes a very tiny, begrudging admission that he is a Platonist. I have made up my mind that this person is a major apologist for god and christianity, based on specific incidents and arguments. You will make up your own mind. My point is, his premise is deeply hidden and he brings a powerful intelligence — WAY above Plantinga — to bear on the underpinnings of Belief-per-reason.

    Compared to the above, Plantinga is a barbie-doll among real women, a third string waterboy for the New York Jets.

    By the way, doesn’t it seem odd that Plantinga, after dancing around for a few thousand of the 10,000, suddenly uses the word “basic?” Why does he use that word? The proper destination of his dance is: Axiomatic. I submit that the reason he does not use the proper word ‘axiomatic’ is this: Plantinga has been many times exposed by Objectivists who refuse to give him the slightest respect because our Aristotelean deployment of “axiomatic” cuts Plantinga off below the knee. So, in a disgusting irony,, Plantinga, having been whupped by the word, has learned that he lusts after grounding his position in something axiomatic, and makes this cynical attempt to shimmy down his position to the root — to construct belief as axiomatic, but switches the sting away by avoidance. He calls it “basic” hoping you will respect it because after all, ain’t it sorta like an axiom?

    1. The reason Plantinga uses “basic” is because he’s offering a version of foundationalism, which is a theory of epistemic justification that has what it terms “basic beliefs.” Basic beliefs are different from axioms since the former do not need to be inferred from other propositions for you to know their truth (that is, they don’t need justification), whereas an axiom is one you simply do not infer from other propositions, whether or not in a deeper sense they need justification. That is, an axiom is just a premise, but one you won’t reject within the system you’re working in (whereas you can contradict and reject premises in general). So, if you’re modeling traffic flows, you might posit axiomatically that drivers drive in a pattern given by a math function, and it’s only when you “step outside” the model would you evaluate the empirical truth of the axiom.

      Ayn Rand had to have known this difference since her “axioms” are stolen from Descartes, who was also a foundationalist and who offered the basic beliefs Rand presented as her “axioms.” (iirc, Descartes (D) was the first explicit foundationalist.) D motivated the basicality of propositions like “existence exists” in a much more robust way than Plantinga motivated his garbage basic beliefs. D posited what we call the “Cartesian demon,” which has you as its thrall 9like the movie “The Matrix”) and can completely control all your sensory input. D then asked what you could possibly know (in an absolute sense), and answered the basic beliefs are ones like “existence exists.” Rand was pompous, and frankly I suspect the reason she didn’t want to call her so-called axioms by their name, “basic beliefs,” was simply that that name didn’t sound sophisticated enough. I disagree with you about Aristotle – Aristotle used the word “axiom” in a way not really compatible with Rand’s own use, since he defined “axiom” as a statement necessary to know anything, and Rand did not e.g. infer “consciousness exists” from “existence exists,” meaning the latter was unnecessary to know the former. (Note Aristotelian-axioms and basic beliefs are different! It’s all quite the linguistic tangle.)

      I looked at that Maverick Philosopher blog, and while I disagree he’s “powerful,” I agree he’s clearly Christian. He uses the Bible as authority, claims not all religious beliefs are superstitious, etc.

      1. I grant that it is common casual usage of ‘axiom’ to place it at the entrance of a container of context. For Sheldon Cooper, it “is axiomatic that chocolate is the best flavor of pudding.” You then wrote a convoluted position statement on the place of various terms, seemingly on a mission to disavow the importance of “axiom.”

        I would contest your hierarchy of “premise” and “basic belief” vs “axiom, but have little enthusiasm to unpack what you wrote since you fell into the error of psychologizing (“Rand was pompous therefore…”)

        Cutting through: Rand’s usage of “axiom” at the foundation of her philosophy is not contextual. Her axiom of existence is that truth which requires no proof, has no antecedent and is proven at every attempt — and for Ayn Rand’s metaphysics for every context — to disprove it. A premise is simply the floor foundation of step in a syllogistic chain. Yes, one can stipulate it as provisionally true for the sake of testing the logic of the next few steps, but that’s all: eventually, if one is discussing reality, all syllogism must fall back on an axiom. No one speaks of “the premise of identity” or “the premise of non-contradiction.” They are Laws or Axioms.

        More importantly, is not the exact “term” that matters. It is the position that while one might “contain” a statement and its truth-test in a context, anyone not willing to open up the container if necessary and trace the truth back to a foundational axiom, is simply spinning daydreams in the air.

        Sorry you got lost in the Matrix (a fictional film.) However, much more tragic is that — on your account — Descartes did too, and sophomoric trippers are carrying on his trick to this day. I once had a Buddhist, annoyed at existence and my obstinate stance, say “How do you know this is not all just a dream.” I just said “does the dreamer exist in objective reality?” and walked away.

        1. “Her axiom of existence is that truth which requires no proof, has no antecedent and is proven at every attempt — and for Ayn Rand’s metaphysics for every context — to disprove it.”

          Yes, that’s what makes it a basic belief (and again, “existence exists” is hardly “hers,” and I’m sorry you can’t see that the Cartesian-demon hypothetical simply motivates your argument I’ve quoted here). I did not disavow the importance of “axioms,” whether you meant in Rand’s sense or otherwise. I was making a terminological point, since you asked about terms. I’d agree there’s a colloquial sense of the term “axiom” that covers her usage in a broad sense, but note she defines it in a way that excludes nearly every colloquial use, so that’s not much help to you. It’s always amazing how defensive Objectivists are about how their usage of the term “axiom” has virtually no counterpart amongst other English speakers. It’s just a simple linguistic fact, not a normative criticism; what she terms “axioms” are what the rest of us call “basic beliefs.” There’s nothing to be defensive about.

          So yes, I’m sorry that you’re so touchy, and that you’re such an ideologue you can’t even acknowledge the simple fact she’s pompous (she could be pompous and right, after all). You should be able to be an Objectivist without idolizing her.

          @Patrick: yes, I largely agree. I’d regard Plantinga as continuing a modern cottage industry of degenerate foundationalisms, much like William Lane Craig.

          1. No, you started the obsessive blabber on terms, now topping it off calling me an ideologue when it is you who believes (irony intended) that a recent, dubious and slimy word and system for truth and truth test is universal and eternal. I’m going to post up higher, where a few people are actually brushing up against the important point.

            P.S. you should be ashamed of this: I did not object to you calling Rand “pompous”, although I reject it, separately. I scorched you for psycologizing: “Rand was pompous, therefore…” That is a fatal error in thought.

            1. I’m sorry, but your post is unhinged. A word is a term, and you asked why Plantinga used the word “basic.” I gave you a thorough, accurate answer. Regarding “psychologizing,” pomposity is a display, not a mental state, and if you read her work you can see the display clearly. And frankly, the “psychologizing” accusation is hypocritical coming from you, since you accused the Maverick blogger of pride, which *is* psychological. Lastly, it is utterly bizarre (though perhaps not all that surprising) you would lambast foundationalism when Rand, although she doesn’t use the term, is foundationalist herself, since she doesn’t infer her so-called “axioms” from other propositions.

      2. But he’s offering a very coherentist-y version of foundationalism. Its just weird.

        His argument is that one can’t say that believing in God is unreasonable without first proving that God doesn’t exist, because if God did exist, God could give us a magical sixth GOD DETECTING sense, and the output of that sense would count as properly basic, and believing in things that are properly basic is reasonable. Ok, so that’s a mouthful and probably didn’t have to be all one sentence, but there you go.

        He’s not even actually trying to show that God exists, or even that believing in God is reasonable. He’s saying that one can’t say with certainty that believing in God is UNreasonable unless one can first disprove the existence of God.

        And that’s a very, very coherentist-y claim.

  16. Is the state of modern American philosophy so withered that an incoherent collection of Po-Mo question-begging can be regarded as, as, something? This was the head of American Philosophical Society? This is what passes for thought?


    Are there any philosophers out there that give an idea of Plantinga’s standing “out on the streets,” as it were? Is he really respected as a thinker?

    1. Opinions are divided about Professor Plantinga, but then again, opinions are divided about a lot of philosophers, among philosophers.

      As far as I can tell, he is extremely highly respected in the fields of metaphysics and epistemology, and with good reason. His work on the metaphysics of modality, for example, has been very useful, and he has some important things to say about metaepistemology: the meanings of words such as ‘justified,’ ‘warranted,’ and ‘knowledge.’

      As for his philosophy of religion, I think people’s opinion of it divides much more among theist-atheist lines. His version of the Free Will Defense against the Logical Problem of Evil is very well regarded. But the great majority (probably over 70%) of professional philosophers are atheists or agnostics, and I don’t think I’ve ever met an atheist or agnostic philosopher who accepts Plantingian “Reformed” epistemology, that the sorts of beliefs he wants to be basic really are basic.

      I guess, then, you might say that he hasn’t persuaded very many people who don’t already believe in God of the truth of Reformed epistemology. (And plenty of theist philosophers reject Reformed epistemology, too.) Then again, just because you already believe in God, doesn’t mean you’ve made a mistake about whether to accept Reformed epistemology; that would be an ad hominem.

      1. Yep, that’s about right: I’d say that his contributions to epistemology are more than just metaepistemology (I don’t see the Warrant tomes as simply being linguistic analysis of epistemic terms, but that might be because I tend to side with David Armstrong and “put semantics last”).

        But, yes, both his older Reformed epistemology and his reformed Reformed epistemology aren’t convincing many people in the philosophical community.

        1. What about his work on modality do you think is nonsensical? (Even though I’m an atheist, I think he writes sentences that have intelligible content.)

          1. Last I checked he focuses too much on “logical” possibility and (to my knowledge at any rate) never notices that this applies to propositions, and hence is a possibility of provability or satisfiability, a la Boolos.

    2. Plantinga is respected in Christian philosophical circles. His work is also considered interesting in philosophy of religion and in epistemology. I’m an atheist doing a Ph.D on Plantinga’s epistemology–not so much his religious epistemology but his earlier work. I remember a professor once saying to a student “oh, religious epistemology? Yeah, you might want to read Plantinga” with a tone so dry and dismissive that the implied subtext was “yeah, if you are a complete moron”.

      Plantinga can be a very clear writer, but also very inconsistent. He’s a very clear thinker when he wants to demolish some theory he doesn’t like, but doesn’t then apply the same methodology he’s used to knock down his opponents to support his own positive accounts.

      So, in epistemology, Plantinga is happy to say that a theory having a possible logical counterexample is enough to discard it, and then freely constructs such examples. So if you have a philosophical theory for what makes something knowledge, he’ll come up with some wacky story involving cosmic radiation frying your brain and causing you to believe weird things (even if that story isn’t even vaguely scientifically plausible so isn’t something that we would really have to worry about in the real world). But when it comes to his account, he is happy to argue completely straight-faced that his theory need only explain “paradigm cases” not practically irrelevant but logically possible edge cases.

      Why then, given that Plantinga’s arguments seem pretty implausible, is he well respected? Personally, I’d say that while I think there are lots of very strong arguments against Plantinga’s case, the first two volumes of ‘Warrant’ have plenty of useful things to say even if you reject Plantinga’s overall philosophical project. His explication of some other issues in philosophy is very good: ‘The Nature of Necessity’ is, I’m told, an important contribution to the study of necessity and modality. Plantinga is smart and comes up with interesting arguments: don’t confuse that with saying he comes up with correct, plausible or rational arguments though.

  17. Here are some examples of beliefs that Plantinga considers “properly basic,” i.e. beliefs for which one doesn’t need evidence. I’ll leave it to readers to judge whether evidence is unnecessary here:

    1. I had breakfast this morning
    2. I see a tree
    3. That person is in pain
    4. And, of course, there is a God

    Really? Plantinga can’t see the difference between these “properly basic” beliefs? It reminds me of a song I once heard, years ago –

    One of these things is not like the others,
    One of these things just doesn’t belong,
    Can you tell which thing is not like the others
    By the time I finish my song?

      1. Strangely, that’s a version of Hamlet I’d pay good money to see: Muppet Hamlet.

        Should be Miss Piggy’s favorite play, anyway. 🙂

    1. Good, old, Sesame Street: Teaching critical thinking to pre-schoolers, even if they’re poor and only have one TV with over the air channels. Those were the good, old days.

    2. “I had breakfast this morning” is a personal fact claim that may not be verifiable. Evidence could be provided (receipt from a diner), but presumably this is such a trivial claim that Plantinga feels it doesn’t require evidence. Ok, I can go with that.

      “I see a tree” is a subjective statement which may be true or false independent of whether the tree exists. Someone could be hallucinating a tree. So whether someone sees a tree is less important than whether others can see the same tree. In general, we do not require evidence for statements of personal experience unless we have reason to suspect dishonesty or error.

      “That person is in pain” is a subjective judgment about another person’s experience and is highly subject to error. A child seeing a person having sex might wrongly conclude “that person is in pain.” This is something that absolutely requires evidence to determine, and I see no way of making it a “properly basic” belief.

      “There is a God” is just a straight up objective fact claim, nothing subjective about it. All fact claims require supporting evidence. This is no different.

      1. Moreover, “that person is in pain” is based on evidence – the facial expressions, body language, and vocalizations of the person in question. One could still reach an incorrect conclusion from this evidence, but either way it’s not a “basic belief”.

        For most people our brains evaluate that evidence rather quickly, so quickly that it might seem to us that the thought “that person is in pain” popped into our head without any antecedents. But you would have to be a pretty lazy thinker to call it a basic belief.

    3. Ah, yes, I always know if a person is in pain without evidence thereof. I’ll find plenty of evidence after deciding to help, though:

      Sometimes they are in so much pain that they hallucinate about being fine. Then they become aggressive when I try to help them.

      Sometimes their spasms of pain are so intense that I can’t get near without being hit by a stray limb.

      Or they run away, hoping to escape their pain, foolish through distress.

      The police are sick in the head. They always try to stop me, and leave the poor people to deal with their own pain, when they should be brought to a hospital. Then the pain is so intense that they don’t even struggle anymore, and almost seem to relax.

      All that evidence is completely unnecessary, though. I know what I know already.

  18. Way to take one for the team! I have tried to read William Lane Craig but I couldn’t distort my reality lens far enough to see things his way.

    After a couple more cups of coffee I’ll read the second paragraph…

  19. What he proposes doesn’t even qualify as properly basic:
    1. God is speaking to me
    2. God has created all this,
    3. God disapproves of what I have done,
    4. God forgives me, and
    5. God is to be thanked and praised.

    Instead it should be:
    1. I am hearing voices.
    2. I see all this stuff.
    3. I am feeling guilt.
    4. I remember having guilt, but I don’t feel guilt now.
    5. I feel the need to give thanks.

    These beliefs are what he would call incorrigible (basically any immediate first person experience qualifies), but he wouldn’t be able to justify his conclusion based on them. In addition, none of this even applies to past experiences since people misremember experiences they have had (thanks to scientific research on the reliability of memory).

    Also, someone could surely be mistaken about whether someone else is in pain (acting, hello!). It seems like he doesn’t even know how to apply his own criteria. I am continually dumbfounded as to how much praise he gets in relation to how poor his publications seem to be.

    1. I forgot to mention, Plantinga rarely argues for the truth of Christianity. Rather, he tries to demonstrate that believing in Christianity is rational. He tries to do this by comparing Christianity to other rational beliefs and using the same criteria that we use for those other beliefs and applies it to the Christian belief (which ends up looking like jamming a square peg in a round hole). He fails, but let’s not ‘straw man’ his effort as trying to argue for existence of God.

      1. “He fails, but let’s not ‘straw man’ his effort as trying to argue for existence of God.”

        Perhaps, but most Christians, when they refer to “sophisticated theologians” as a way to dismiss atheist arguments, presume otherwise.

        1. I think that theists who refer to sophisticated theologians are referring to someone who was the prime of their time period (e.g. Aquinas, C.S. Lewis) or someone more popular (e.g. Lane Craig).

          Plantinga is regarded as a sophisticated theologian, but it’s for his defense against the logical problem of evil, which again, is not an argument for God.

  20. I think Professor Coyne’s objections are generally the right objections to be making against Plantinga’s position.

    Let me see whether I can summarize a version of Plantinga’s position in a fairly simple form. Let’s start with just the example Plantinga gives, the proposition that God is speaking to one. Professor Coyne is surely correct that this belief can only be true if God exists.

    But I’m not sure it’s right to say that therefore, believing that proposition “presumes” that God exists. For example, suppose you look out your window and see a squirrel. You thereby form the belief that a squirrel nearby, outside. Does that “presume” that the squirrel exists? Well, it entails that the squirrel exists. But “presumption,” at least to me, implies that one has formed the belief before one has the evidence, which is clearly not the case here.

    Now let’s approach from a different direction. Unless we’re coherentists about epistemic justification–and we should not be–we have to make a choice between near-global skepticism and foundationalism. The latter position is just that some beliefs are properly basic: justified but not by any inference from any other belief. The reason we need this is that otherwise, we end up with a kind of global skepticism: if every belief needs to be justified by some other belief, we end up needing an infinite number of beliefs.

    So the first question here is: What allows some beliefs to be properly basic, and not others? If we all admit that some beliefs are properly basic, we’ll need some theory of why ‘God is speaking to me’ cannot be properly basic, but, say, ‘observation is trustworthy’ or ‘I am not dreaming right now’ or ‘it is not the case that the world was created five minutes ago, memories intact’ can. Does anyone have that theory?

    1. » Tom:
      But “presumption,” at least to me, implies that one has formed the belief before one has the evidence, which is clearly not the case here.

      And it is also completely irrelevant here. The belief that God spoke to you logically presupposes that God exists (whether or not you had the actual thought about Its existence before hearing It speak to you), hence to adduce God speaking to you as evidence for Its existence begs the very question.

      1. Here is an argument:
        (1) I see a tree.
        (2) If I see a tree, then a tree exists.
        (3) Therefore, a tree exists.

        Clearly there is a sense in which (1) cannot be true unless (3) is true. But the argument doesn’t thereby beg the question, does it? It seems only to beg the question in the sense that all valid deductive arguments “beg the question,” in that the denial of the conclusion is logically inconsistent with conjunction of the premises.

        The proposed parallel is this:
        (1′) God is speaking to me.
        (2′) If God is speaking to me, then God exists.
        (3′) Therefore, God exists.

        Now obviously most of us will say there is much better evidence for (1) than there is for (1′), at least for most cognizers. But as far as I can tell, neither argument begs the question, does it? As long as there is independent justification for (1) or (1′), the argument avoids requiring one’s interlocutor to commit to something she has no reason to commit to.

        Plantinga does think both arguments are sound, of course. He thinks the justification for (1′) is that it is properly basic. I happen to disagree, and I’m sure that most of us do.

        But so far, I still haven’t seen a theory of under what conditions beliefs get to be properly basic. And I’m prepared to argue that all of us are committed to some belief being properly basic. Until someone has a theory that will demarcate properly basic from not properly basic beliefs, it’s hard to see how one can argue that Plantinga’s (1′) isn’t.

        1. His definition of “properly basic,” in this context, is that its information generated by a functional sensory capacity operating in its proper context.

          So, if my eyes work and I’m in regular lighting, and I see Joe, my belief that I am seeing Joe is properly basic.

          Plantinga is arguing that God could give him a sensory capacity that senses God’s existence. If so, then if this capacity is functioning properly in its proper context, then what it tells him is properly basic.

          He then argues that it is reasonable to believe properly basic beliefs. From this, he concludes that if you want to say that belief in God is unreasonable, you have to disprove something from the above. And since that’s impossible, because all of it involves the existence of magical things that no one can see or detect, VOILA! THEOLOGY!

          1. Am I using Plantinga’s method correctly if I sense the imaginary-ness of gods, and I hold a “properly basic” belief that all gods are imaginary? So all I need to do is make a Latin name for my imaginary-ness-detecting-sense, then profit!!!?

            Am I correct that Plantinga’s method can argue just as easily for strong atheism as theism?

            1. I’m afraid not. If you posit a magical sixth sense that detects that gods don’t exist, Plantinga will ask you how you got that sense. It certainly doesn’t seem like the sort of thing one might evolve. Meanwhile, he’s got an answer for how he got his magical sixth sense that detects that gods exist: god gave it to him.

              You should never let internal consistency be the standard for evaluating religious beliefs. With enough shoehorning, any religious belief system can be made internally consistent.

              The closest you can come to critiquing his argument from this perspective is to claim that you don’t sense the existence of any gods, so either your god-detector is faulty, or else you haven’t got one because there is no god to give you one, and what Plantinga thinks is his magical god-detector is just his imagination. Plantinga will respond by talking about the noetic effects of sin.

              You can also point out that any religion, or indeed any stupid belief system, can avail itself of reformed epistemology. Muslims could claim they have an Allah-detector, for example. Plantinga is willing to bite that bullet, although he won’t accept that non theistic religions might avail themselves of this claim. He’s wrong, of course. Any religion as willing to make up imaginary mental faculties as he is would be able to make use of the reformed epistemology dodge.

              1. OK, I can accept those are his rules for his game, or what his response would be. Although it is a fact that when I listened to The God Delusion on audiobook, the discussion of cargo cults gave me a vivid imaginaryness-detecting-sense that has stayed with me since. I classify it in my sense of empathy for people, like when I’m in traffic, if I sense someone behind me is impatient and about to pull around to pass me, I feel empathy for these things people do. But I accept your description of Plantinga’s system, and your last sentence is well played.

              2. Dave Ricks: “OK, I can accept those are his rules for his game, or what his response would be. Although … the discussion of cargo cults gave me a vivid imaginaryness-detecting-sense that has stayed with me since.”

                Indeed. However one could always ask Plantinga to define the meaning of ‘god’, a task which still cannot be performed except for the most primitive examples and even then is rather dubious, as the biblical characteristics of Yahweh show.

          2. Right, this looks like an accurate summary from what I understand of Plantinga.

            I guess my main objection to Plantinga at this point is that he should impose higher standards on what counts as properly basic, but that would require getting into a much longer discussion about foundationalism, probably beyond our space available here.

            I would also object, as you consider below, to the idea that God-detectors (or sensi divinitati, pardon my Latin) wouldn’t occur naturalistically, especially if this God is supposed to be omnipresent.

        2. » Tom:
          Now obviously most of us will say there is much better evidence for (1) than there is for (1′)

          This is the exact part your analogy fails to address: A tree is something for whose existence and general characteristics we already have independent evidence, which we can check against our perception in order to come to the conclusion that we are, in fact, seeing a tree. No such reasoning is possible with “God”, since there is precisely no evidence whatsoever to speak to any characteristics at all of this putative being.

          A proper minor premise (1) for you would be something like, ‘I see a unicorn.’ Then, your major premise would be ‘All unicorns I see really exist’—and I hope that in this more closely parallel example you would agree that the truth of the conclusion, ‘Unicorns really exist’, cannot reasonably be inferred. Every deductive argument hinges on its premises, and to assume that you would simply know what (judging by the evidence) a purely fictional being would look like is, in effect, to assume certain characteristics to exist whose existence is the very issue. Hence, begging the question.

          1. Exactly. “I see a tree” builds upon the knowledge you already have about what a tree is.

            It’s not necessarily based on you believing that trees exist. It is possible that you had had a tree described to you, but had never seen one before.

          2. Its a bit worse because at least unicorns have enough of a coherent description that I can imagine one. With “God” there’s no description of what the thing would look like if it existed. Unicorns are imaginary, but “God” is less than imaginary.

            1. Yes, I thought it might have been better had I used ‘pixie’ instead of ‘unicorn’, but of course the point still is that the differences are gradual and that this only underlines the need for premises to be evaluated independently of the argument they’re used in if you are interested in the actual truth of the conclusion.

          3. Peter,

            I guess the assumption you’re worried about is begging a different question than the one we started with.

            In any case, what would you say about perception in general? Consider:

            (1”) I see something mind-independent.
            (2”) Therefore, something mind-independent exists.

            We don’t really have any independent evidence for (1”). (We might have intersubjective verification, but those subjects might just be figments of our imagination, too.)

            If (1”) can be properly basic, despite the lack of any independent evidence, Plantinga will ask why the same can’t be true for the equivalent of (1), something like
            (1) I am perceiving God.

        3. “Is this a dagger I see before me?” – Macbeth

          If I say “John sees a tree” I am normally asserting a relationship between an existing person, John, and an existing tree. So for “John sees a tree” to be true, the tree must exist.

          However “I see a tree” is ambiguous in it’s normal usage. If I say “I see a tree” it could mean, among other things:

          A. It seems to me as if I am seeing is a tree.


          B. I thing I am seeing actually is an existent tree.

          Note that I might truthfully assert “I see a tree” in sense B even if it seems to me that I am seeing a gorilla.

          When I say “I see a tree” I am normally saying something like A.

          My asserting “I see a tree” in sense A might be very good evidence for the tree existing if I was known to have good eyesight, to not lie about such things, that the lighting was good, and that there was no evidence of trickery using smoke and mirror etc..

          So the situation is that when under normal circumstances I feel justified in saying “I see a tree” I am also justified in believing the tree exists. But note that the justification depends on:

          1: The fact that it normally has been the case the when I feel justified in saying “I see a tree”, it has turned out that very powerful independent evidence for the tree’s existence has subsequently emerged.


          2: I am confident that all the stuff about normal lighting and trickery etc. are true. I.e. the normal environmental conditions that tend to ensure I am not mistaken are satisfied.

          Now let’s take the statement “God is speaking to me.” I think this must be taken in sense A i.e. as “It seems to me that God is talking to me.” Is this evidence for God?

          What we must ask is if I feel justified in saying “God is speaking to me”:

          1: Has it been normally the case that when I felt justified in saying this, powerful independent evidence for God’s existence has subsequently emerged?


          2: Are the normal environmental conditions for not being mistaken satisfied?

          For question 1 the answer is clearly “no”. As for question 2, there does not seem to be any way of answering it.

          So it would seem that my feeling justified is saying “I see a tree” can in many, perhaps the vast majority, of cases be taken as good evidence for the existence of a tree, my feeling justified in saying “God speaks to me” can never be taken as evidence for the existence of God.

          1. Bernard,

            I think these are generally the right objections to make, but there’s a danger that they prove too much. I’ll note something I said elsewhere: What would you say about perception in general? Compare:

            (1M) I seem to see something mind-independent.
            (2M) Therefore, probably, I see something mind-independent.

            (1G) I seem to perceive god.
            (2G) Therefore, probably, I perceive God.

            I’m claiming that the independent evidence for the inference from (1M) to (2M) is not clearly better than the independent evidence for the inference from (1G) to (2G), especially if ‘God’ is defined vaguely enough. (We could appeal to intersubjective verification, but of course we all might be dreaming right now, and in any case the theist will claim there’s intersubjective verification for (1G) as well.)

            (Here of course we are generally setting aside independent evidence against God’s existence. I think the main interesting question here is, if no such evidence exists, is the inference from (1G) to (2G) epistemically rational?)

              1. I think I just have to assume that Berkeleyan idealism is false. ‘Mind-independent’ means ‘does not depend for its existence upon the existence of minds.’ Normally we think tables and chairs, cats and dogs, and so on, are mind-independent.

                More generally, what non-circular evidence is there that our senses are trustworthy? Do we have to simply assume that they are? Is it possible to give a non-question-begging argument that they are?

              2. I thought the get-out was Bayes. You gather evidence of what comes into your senses and how it changes with (what you think are) your actions. You could be a simulation, or a brain in a vat being a very clever simulation, but it doesn’t matter unless and until you come up with evidence where that makes a difference.

                As it happens, you are a brain in a vat (a skull) living on a nutrient solution and fed sensory input from external senses, and your cognition does use a bunch of evolved quick versions of Bayes, with a large prior in your genes courtesy evolution.

              3. If all you need is to deny Berkeleyan idealism then “X is mind-independent” need only amount to “X is a thing that exists whether or not it is being perceived” when (1M) becomes:

                (1M’) I seem to be seeing something that would exist even if I did not perceive it.

                But “X does not depend for its existence upon the existence of minds” is a much stronger claim than “X is a thing that exists whether or not it is being perceived.” Moreover it isn’t clear what the former means until you have made it clear what “the existence of minds” means. It sounds like some sort of dualism to me.

                Clearly you can always find reasons to doubt any particular perception. But we wouldn’t have lasted long if our perceptions didn’t have some degree of general trustworthiness.

              4. Bernard,

                I agree that if our senses didn’t work, we wouldn’t have lasted long. But to argue that we lasted long, therefore, our senses work, seems to beg the question: the only evidence we have that we lasted long is that our senses work.

                So I’m still wondering what the non-circular evidence is that we can trust our senses. If there isn’t any, then Plantinga will respond that he doesn’t need non-circular evidence that he can trust his religious experience.

                Again, there might be independent evidence against what his religious experience delivers, but he’ll be happy so far to argue that his belief in God is at least prima facie justified.

              5. This is how I look at it

                The propositions “I see a tree” and “I hear God” are in no way analogous. The former is a paradigm case of what empirical evidence is. We cannot be certain of it but we can check it against other such propositions. This gives us a self-correcting body of evidence. The appearance of circularity is an illusion since we never check a proposition against itself. Any particular epistemic justification only goes back a finite way because justifications have to stop somewhere, but that does not mean that there are special preferred foundational propositions because any piece of evidence is defeasible.

                On the other hand “I hear God” can’t be checked against anything. It’s like a cog in a machine that just spins around on its own and does nothing.

              6. Bernard,

                I’m more concerned, not with ‘I see a tree,’ but more generally with, ‘my apparent sensory observations are trustworthy.’ I don’t think I’ve seen a non-circular justification for that. If there isn’t one, how is it more justified than, ‘my apparent perception of God is trustworthy’? (Is it?)

                You say that there’s no such thing as a preferred foundational proposition, a proposition justified but not by any inference from any other proposition. But you’re correct, how are we justified in believing anything? If all we can do is to keep checking propositions we believe against other propositions we believe, and there’s no way to get outside this web to justify it as a whole, isn’t it true (for all we know) that we’re just believing an elaborate fiction?

                (This is one of the most important objections to coherentism, the position that beliefs are justified not by deriving from some foundational source, but instead by being coherent with each other.)

              7. If your senses aren’t reasonably reliable (nobody claims they are 100% reliable, and the scientific evidence is clear that they are not), then you wouldn’t have survived infancy.

                True, this position cannot rule out that we are brains in vats being fed false information.

              8. truthspeaker: “True, this position cannot rule out that we are brains in vats being fed false information.”

                Is there a test for brain-in-vatitus? Preferably something involving me and Gail O’Grady?

              9. Tom,

                Now you make it easy!

                Both ‘my apparent sensory observations are trustworthy’ and ‘my apparent perception of God is trustworthy’ are claims to have some sort of expertise. The first claim can be tested the second cannot. A claim to be able to red billboards half a mile away can be tested. A claim to be able to read the mind of God can’t.

  21. “…for I don’t think many theologians have ever faced serious opposition to their ideas, at least on the debate platform.”

    I don’t know about that. I think it’s easy to forget that, while they are all lined up on the same side in defence of theism, theologians have been after one another for, well, millenia. I read an interesting little book last year called, “The Chaos of Cults: A Study of Present Day Isms” by Jan Karel van Baalen (Kessinger, 2004 [reprint of 1938 edition]), in which a Calvinist churchman goes after sects like the Mormans, Theosphists, and Christian Scientists. He does this on historical grounds, as well as scriptural. It’s interesting to see how one sect treats another’s tenets.

    As for Platinga, he sure sounds like a Platonist, and I suspect will be found to be defending absolute truths elsewhere. I will make a point that’s been my general conclusion on post-modernism: it is an attempt to defend relativism in argument and evidence because its champions don’t like the conclusions of more rigorous inquiries. It is pertinent in this context to point out that Modernism was originally a movement in theology, encompassing things like the higher criticism of David Strauss’s life of Jesus.

    Also, did anyone see the link from Arts & Letters Daily on Friday to the article in “Wired” on the Jerusalem Syndrome (the psychological condition where in it’s extreme form people think they are Jesus)? I think psychology has a number of challenges for the basic belief in basic beliefs.

  22. An alternative approach to that of Plantinga:

    The number of all possible gods equals the number of elemental particles in the universe divided by the number of elemental particles needed to create a god and increased by all possible (god wise) functional permutations and combinations.

    Could the professor:
    Quantify these numbers?
    Explain how to choose one god only out of the results?
    Explain why?

  23. It sounds like Plantinga isn’t so much arguing about what is actually true but arguing about what people can or should be allowed to believe is true. Some of the commenters seem to confirm that. If that’s the case, it strikes me as very fishy that we’re justifying one belief with another. We believe that some beliefs are foundational or basic or incorrigible and use this to justify further beliefs. Turtles all the way down indeed.

    I haven’t taken much philosophy but in one of the few classes in logic that I did take, one of the key ideas was that if you can take a set of propositions and derive a contradiction then your propositions must be inconsistent or contain a falsehood. That’s literally 101 level. It strikes me that Plantinga’s proposition quickly leads to contradictions, indeed JAC quoted him addressing several of them.

  24. You deserve a Nobel Prize for soldiering through this crap for our sake. I love these pieces because when I encounter anyone who endorses “sophisticated theology” like this I can just point them here..time saved; bonus! The summary is dead on: “This is not a coherent intellectual argument: it is a patently transparent exercise in trying to prove God’s existence in the absence of bottom—and despite all the intellectual gymnastics of Dr. Plantinga—it all comes down to revelation, to what a particular group of people happens to find amenable as a “basic belief.” I love to quote Thomas Paine’s _Age_of_Reason_ to believers (and occasionally I will slip this quote into bibles at Revelations Chapter 1):

    “Revelation, when applied to religion, means something communicated immediately from God to man.

    “No one will deny or dispute the power of the Almighty to make such a communication, if he pleases. But admitting, for the sake of a case, that something has been revealed to a certain person, and not revealed to any other person, it is revelation to that person only. When he tells it to a second person, a second to a third, a third to a fourth, and so on, it ceases to be a revelation to all those persons. It is revelation to the first person only, and hearsay to every other, and consequently they are not obliged to believe it.

    “It is a contradiction in terms and ideas to call anything a revelation that comes to us at second-hand, either verbally or in writing. Revelation is necessarily limited to the first communication–-after this, it is only an account of something which that person says was a revelation made to him; and though he may find himself obliged to believe it, it cannot be incumbent on me to believe it in the same manner; for it was not a revelation made to me, and I have only his word for it that it was made to him.”

  25. As I understand it, what is properly basic is what we come to at the very end of a chain of reasoning which is evidently valid. (Take the equations of the physicists. The conclusions they come to, even though perhaps not yet verified empirically, are, for purposes of theory construction, properly basic.) Wittgenstein does this sort of think in his book On Certainty. At a certain point one has to say that there is no further to go. We must simply assume that X is true. But that’s not what Plantinga is doing. He’s choosing a range of judgements, and then he’s saying that, since there is no evidence other than the experiences recorded in them, we must take these as properly basic. This is a nonsense, because there are so many other things that can be said at this point, since subjective experiences are so well known to be error prone.

    For example, Plantinga’s claim that there is no Great Pumpkin, therefore:

    Thus, for example, the Reformed epistemologist may concur with Calvin in holding that god has implanted in us a natural tendency to see his hand in the world around us; the same cannot be said for the Great Pumpkin, there being no Great Pumpkin and no natural tendency to accept beliefs about the Great Pumpkin.

    But this is circular. There is, in fact, a natural tendency to believe in gods, and there is no reason, since people have believed in practically any kind of god you care to imagine, that a Great Pumpkin should not have been among them. The mistake here is not in supposing that there is a ntural tendency to believe in gods, because that’s just what people like J Anderson Thompson (Boyer, Atran, Guthrie, etc.) are saying. The mistake is to suppose that this natural tendency is implanted by god. This is circular reasoning. We can give good reasons why human brains (or minds) have a tendency to believe in gods. We do not need to suppose that these beliefs are implanted by the gods. The fact that there is a plethora of gods should be a clue that Plantinga has it wrong.

    1. Yes, we should compare which is the more likely: that a false sense of some bigger agency has evolved in us, or that we’ve had a sensus divinitatis implanted. The first is more likely, given the evidence we have gathered.

      The theist might say that if God exists the second option is more likely, but that would clearly be begging the question.

      Is the first conclusion begging the question in the opposite direction? I don’t think so; an existence claim must require a higher standard than a non-existence claim, or we will be too liberal in our ontology. Non-existent things have the same evidence for and against existence, so we would have to allow the existence of non-existent things – a contradiction.

  26. As an exercise in philosophy and linguistics:
    A) Thomas Jefferson believed in a deist god, called “God”.
    B) He did not believe in a theist god, called “God”.
    Q) Did Thomas Jefferson believe in God?

    The obvious problem is using one word “God” for more than one concept. This reminds me why philosophy and linguistics share a department at MIT, because of their intimate relationship. If this was math, it would be immediately obvious that we need more variables (or symbols) to unpack the exercise I wrote above. But with language, we don’t always see what we’re doing, because we’re simultaneously telling a story (in words) about how were using symbols for ideas (in words).

    Or to state the problem more colorfully, if you debate Plantinga about “God” (in English) then you implicitly agree to the First Commandment (in English) establishing this conflation of terms for concepts of gods (in English). Successful meme is successful, and you let Plantinga play the conflation however he likes.

    Confusion over a shared name is understandable, like confusing Darth Vader with his younger brother Chad who works in a grocery store. Both characters are still fictional, though.

    1. I’m not sure we have a multiple concepts problem, though we have plenty of contradictory words.

      The word “God” as used by theists seems not to be attached to any coherent concept. They’ll tell you what they think “God” did, but nothing about the thing itself — form, appearance, color, materials, parts, etc. are all unknowns.

      An unknown and undescribed something is believed to have done certain improbable things, based on zero evidence. That is theism. Not much concept there, IMO.

  27. Well, I think to defeat this logic is fairly simple. “I had breakfast this morning” only proves that you think you had breakfast, not that you actually did. “I believe in God” only proves that you do, in fact, believe there is a God, not that there actually is one.

    How idiotic the whole thing is.

  28. Good grief… also, there were two misspellings in Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s name (the text reads “Madelyn Murray O’Hare”). After all, she wasn’t an airport…

  29. I think the Rev’d Charles Dodgson was a better theologian than this Plantinga fellow: at least he appreciated the irrational nature of belief systems.

    1. Or, heck, Kierkegaard.

      I regard Kierkegaard as one of the most honest (with respect to the religion, that is) of all Christians. Christianity absurd? No problem, he says so. He says that even believes because it is such. Well, ok, that’s at least being truthful …

  30. Plantinga is making the exceedingly common error of equating ‘subjective truth’ with ‘objective truth’. Objective truth is fact-based and reality-tested, objective truth does not depend on what you believe or what you have experienced. Subjective ‘truth’ is entirely experience based and does not need factual support or to confirm with observable reality. They are not the same thing at all.

    Unfortunately a lot of people confuse the two, probably because our entire experience of reality is at least a little subjective. Discussing our subjective ‘truths’ with each other is often useful because our subjective ‘truths’ often have _some_ correlation with reality and because an exchange of information about subjective ‘truths’ with someone can enable a mutual improvement in how each person models the others behavior/internal state.

    But, while it may often be useful for me to know about the things that you experience as true without evidence that utility does not convey any status as an objective truth on a subjective statement. Subjective ‘truths’ cannot be disproved, although they can be discarded. Subjective ‘truths’ cannot be critiqued because their ‘truth’ is complete and self-evident.

    Thus Plantinga can make a statement of his subjective ‘truth’ that “God made this lovely world for us” and then use it as supporting ‘evidence’ for asserting that God exists because God having made the world obviously implies that God exists. This makes no sense whatsoever if his statement that “God made this lovely world for us” is examined as an objective truth, but Plantinga is not making that statement as an objective truth. Plantinga is stating it as a subjective ‘truth’, asserting its ‘truthiness’ according to the rules of subjectivity, and then – probably without understanding that he is doing so – assuming that ‘all truth claims are equal’, that his subjective ‘truth’ is – because he firmly believes it – the same thing as an objective truth.

    Plantinga should be deeply embarrassed to have made such an elementary error, but it is an elementary error that I and everyone who reads this blog has made in some way on more than one occasion. Confusing a claim about objective reality with a description of subjective reality, or vice versa, is the kind of problem that we invented science and logic for. Science and logic are our best tools for avoiding the conceptual error of confusing a ‘truth’ for a truth (or a truth for a ‘truth’).

    There is nothing intrinsically wrong with subjective ‘truths’, in a relevant sense they really are all that we ever experience, but – in my personal opinion – nearly every problem that human beings have experienced with each other can constructively be viewed as resulting from the erronious confusion of one sort of truth-claim for another sort of truth-claim.

    Thank you for letting me rant.

    1. There is no such thing as subjective and objective truth there is only truth. There may be things that only you can know for certain, e.g. that you prefer tea to coffee, but it is still either true or false.

      1. Subjective ‘truths’ are those things that you are convinced are true without regard to evidence. Objective truth is about reality.
        You may experience a preference for tea over coffee, but your experience of a preference can only be expressed objectively as statistical evidence and measurements of dopamine and serotonin. You might drink much more coffee than tea and still have a preference for tea. Measuring the physiological indicators does not give us perfect information about a person’s interior state – the enjoyment of coffee and tea could easily measure as equal and you could still have a preference for one sort of enjoyment over another. Furthermore, since this is a preference anyone attempting to present evidence that in actuality you do not prefer tea to coffee would probably have their evidence rejected. You know you prefer tea to coffee, a ‘truth’ that exists for you independently of what anyone else would consider to be evidence for the preference. All anyone attempting to convince you that you do not prefer tea over coffee would be able to prove is that there is no available objective evidence for the preference, to which your perfectly reasonable reaction would be ‘so what?’.

        The only truth that is _real_ is objective truth, but due to the limitations of our senses and of our understanding of things what we _experience_ as ‘real’ is subjective ‘truth’. A good way to discern the difference between the two is to ask yourself if someone could – in theory – prove that ‘X’ is not true. If someone cannot – even in the most hypothetical of scenarios – prove to you that you do not prefer tea over coffee then your claim is a subjective ‘truth’.
        Note: because subjective ‘truth’ is ‘made up shit’ that may or may not have any resemblance to reality it is quite easy to believe a subjective ‘truth’ and thoroughly understand the relevant objective truth. Thus a person can have a ‘clear memory’ of having seen something that he or she understands was not there, or having not seen something that he or she understands was there.

        Recognizing the ‘existence’ of subjective ‘truths’ is not itself a problem, the problem always occurs in assuming that a subjective ‘truth’ is synonymous with actual reality. ‘Made up shit’ is still ‘made up shit’ no matter how thoroughly you believe it and no matter how well it seems to describe reality.

        Having complex and contradictory beliefs about ‘reality’ is fine, we do not have to be perfect thinkers – but we need to always remember that experiencing something as real is not the same thing as it being real.

    2. Prof.Pedant, I agree with you completely. I’d even go so far as to suggest that the entire “Does God exist?” argument is a huge example of this confusion between objective, measurable, factual truth and subjective, meaningful, practical ‘truth’ (which is pretty much all we had to work with prior to the scientific revolution. (Kevin Kelly, in his book “What Technology Wants” points out that the distinction “fact” is only roughly 500 years old.)

      As Joseph Campbell, Huston Smith, Paul Tillich, David Sloan Wilson, Loyal Rue, and others point out, we simply cannot understand religion if we don’t understand the how the human mind instinctually relationalizes, or personifies, reality. (Michael Shermer in “The Believing Brain” speaks of it as “agenticity”.)

      Evidence from a wide range of disciplines (e.g., cognitive neuroscience, neurobiology, evolutionary psychology, comparative study of the world’s myths and religions, etc) all suggest that the world’s gods and goddesses are subjective interpretations — personifications of reality or some significant aspect of reality (not objective persons) AND that most people instinctually forget this (as we do with genuine projections). More, there seems to be no counter evidence — that is, there is no evidence that divine beings actually exist as objective persons rather than subjective personifications. This fact alone makes sense of the hundreds of competing stories around the world as to what God supposedly said or did.

      Poseidon was not the god of the oceans, as if some supernatural entity separate from water was looking down from on high or rising from the deep. Poseidon was the personification of the incomprehensibly powerful and capricious seas. Sol was not the spirit of the sun, as if there were a separation between the two. Sol was a sacred name for that seemingly eternal, life-giving source of heat and light, and occasionally a life-taking source in times of desperate drought. By saying “Sol,” “Helios” or some other proper name, our ancestors experienced that reality as a “Thou” to be related to. Today, of course, most of us have a starkly different subjective experience. We look up and say “the sun” and think of “it” in a depersonalized way: not as the God “Helios” but as the generator of elemental helium through stellar nucleosynthesis.

      Whenever any story or any scriptural passage claims that “God said this” or “God did that”, what follows is always a subjective interpretation of what some person or group of people thought or felt or sensed or wished reality (life/the universe/nature) was saying or doing, and almost always as justification after the fact or to make a theological point. Such subjectively meaningful claims are never objective, measurable truth. In other words, had CNN or ABC News been there to record the moment of “divine revelation” there would have been nothing miraculous to report on the evening news – nothing other than what was coming out of someone’s mouth, or pen, or whatever folks wrote with back then.

      Here are two posts I’ve written on this subject, in case you’re interested:

      God Is Reality Personified, Not a Person

      Religion Is Abut Right Relationship to Reality, Not the Supernatural

  31. “I’ve begun to realize that some of us need to read and answer the arguments of sophisticated theologians, for that wasn’t really done in the four New Atheist volumes.”

    Yes, and thanks for your labors, here and in posts to come. Critiques of theological arguments, especially concerning epistemology, are at the theology page at Naturalism.Org, Bottom line: empiricism really doesn’t have a rival in reliably representing reality.

  32. Thank you for your Sunday Sermon, Dr. Coyne. I feel better. My favorite bit:

    “What a tangled thicket of logic we must make our way through here!”

  33. It’s tempting to do a whole schtick here, about how bafflingly porous Plantinga’s defence of faith is and about how transparently poorly thought-out his reasoning is (especially for someone who is claimed to be oh-so fracking sophisticated – too much so for those simplistic funamentalist atheists), but I think might leave the following two words as my one and only comment on Plantinga’s entire argument:

    Holy Crap.

  34. Having just gone through the third revision for resubmission to a journal in my discipline (economics), I am utterly astounded at what is considered “serious” work in other disciplines. There is something seriously wrong with the peer review system if professional (i.e., academic) philosophers let this kind of garbage go through the process.

    To take the initial example of “properly basic beliefs”:

    ” 1. I had breakfast this morning
    2. I see a tree
    3. That person is in pain
    4. And, of course, there is a God ”

    For the fourth (life-shaping) example to be congruent with the other three, the full story would have to go something like this:

    1. I am an anorexic on a feed drip. Did I really have breakfast this morning? If I did, it would be a life-changing experience. I think I would want to check my belief against some pretty robust empirical evidence …

    2. I have been blind since birth and yet I think I have just seen a “tree” … as so on – you get my drift now.

    Better go back to my paper now!

    1. Professor La Manna,

      The material that Professor Coyne is addressing comes from a book, not from a professional journal, and books tend to have less strict standards in all disciplines, as long as your name is big enough.

      That said, do you think that professional philosophers are competent to evaluate whether economics articles should be published, based upon second-hand reviews that quote only a few passages? If not, do you think economists are competent to do so in philosophy, indeed to the degree that they can diagnose serious defects in its entire peer-review system on the aforementioned basis?

      1. If you’re looking to take votes, here, I go with the concrete mentality of the economist. I see shades of gray, especially in concrete. I just don’t try to stand on the fluffy, cloudlike things that happen to also be shades of gray, as they have no support.

        1. P.S. If you really tink an economist can’t judge validity in theologic philosophy, I won’t try to sell you beach property in Arizona. Instead, I’ll ask you to loan me $20. Only give me half of it, though. Then, you’ll owe me $10. Of course, I’ll owe you $10, too. So, we’ll be even! (Eonomy for the theology-minded.)

      2. Dear Tom,

        I happen to have spent a few years on the economics of academic journal publishing and I can assure you that the standards of peer review are by no means uniform across disciplines, to an extent that would surprise you (the same applies to other dimensions of academic journal publishing, e.g., refereeing and publication lags, etc.). [Your point about books not being peer reviewed on the same basis as journals is well taken.]

        My comments were, of course, offered from a non-professional perspective (I, too, would be quite irritated by non-economists intruding into my discipline) and expected to be judged as such.
        I would not wish to belabour the point, as this is not the right forum.
        Thank you for your comments, anyway.

  35. I have said it before, and I’ll say it again: Someone should do to “sophisticated theology” what Alan Sokal did to postmodernism.

  36. Either I have an IQ of 250, or I’m missing something huge, but either way, Plantinga’s argument is just so transparently one great big non sequitir. So much for ‘sophisticated theology’. To echo Mandrellian above – Holy crap!

    One think I must thank Plantinga for. I’ve always had a soft spot for the Loch Ness Monster (or at least, the possibility of there being a Loch Ness Monster). Thanks to Plantinga, I can now claim it’s entirely reasonable to believe the Loch Ness Monster exists. So there we are – The Loch Ness Monster – more probable than God. 🙂

  37. “Here are some examples of beliefs that Plantinga considers “properly basic,” i.e. beliefs for which one doesn’t need evidence.
    I had breakfast this morning”

    I sometimes forget a meal, and have been known to think I had had breakfast when I hadn’t.

    “I see a tree”

    How far away? (It might be something else.)
    Am I looking at a stage or film set, a shop window, a work of art? (It might not be real.)

    “That person is in pain”

    Or acting, shamming or sexually aroused.

    None of those looks like a “basic belief” to me and the existence of God/dess/es doesn’t even fit among them.

    When you/he started talking about “basic belief” I was expecting something much more rigorous, like A=A and A =/= not-A…

    (“There is/are a god/dess/es” doesn’t fit among them, either.)

  38. I can’t believe (oh, damn) that this can pass muster as reasoning. By Te time I’d finished reading the definitions of incorrigibility I’d already found fatal flaws, and I’m no philosopher.

    Of course you need evidence to believe you’ve had breakfast. You could have dreamt it. If you didn’t have a watch, how would you know you hadn’t just had dinner. Etc.

    And that someone is in pain? Other possibilities, which you assess almost without thinking, include:

    If the person is writhing around and spouting red stuff, but is actually doing this on a raised platform, he or she may be … acting.

    If the person has lost a leg and is horribly mangled, but is in fact dead, then he or she will not be in pain.

    In other words, of course you need evidence.


    1. All religion is just wishful thinking. I have more respect for the 4 yr old girl playing with her Barbie doll – at least her ‘dreams’ are age appropriate.

  39. “So presumably some propositions can properly be believed and accepted without evidence [JAC: I give some of his examples below]. Well, why not belief in God? Why is it not entirely acceptable, desirable, right, proper, and rational to accept belief in God without any argument or evidence whatever? (p. 121)”

    “why not” – Alvin Plantinga on untruth.

  40. There’s no point in arguing for the existence of something, using “sophisticated” techniques or not, if you can’t even clearly define what it is you’re arguing for the existence *of*.

  41. This comment:

    Jim Jones “Indeed. However one could always ask Plantinga to define the meaning of ‘god’, a task which still cannot be performed except for the most primitive examples and even then is rather dubious, as the biblical characteristics of Yahweh show.”

    …. and others like it put a finger on the root of the problem. I am an outsider here and do not necessarily use your syntax, so I will just put it in plain language:

    Why do you even allow an argument onto the playing field which has imaginary nouns in it?

    I realize many of you do not respect Ayn Rand, but her position — and that of any other philosophical position antecedent to her — that unless the statement to be truth-tested contains only existents that have been proven to exist, it is a non-starter. . .isn’t that a god slayer?

    As soon as you allow a non-real noun into the statement, you are at the mercy of the person who imagined it. They invented the characteristics of the thing, and they can shift those characteristics at will underneath you. Worse, they can assert characteristics that are impossible or contradictory. Worse, they can leave out characteristics that drive behavior and leave you standing there, dumfounded, unable to refute the “results.”

    Any claim for god (or other imaginary things) should be met with “first identify god in reality and tell me how you induced its definition from its real, tested and demonstrated characteristics.”

    I realize this position might put a lot of analytic philosophers, “belief” testers and modal logic experts out of business. But wouldn’t it be worth it in order to destroy adherence to fantasy, magical thinking and religion?

    1. I realize many of you do not respect Ayn Rand, but her position — and that of any other philosophical position antecedent to her — that unless the statement to be truth-tested contains only existents that have been proven to exist, it is a non-starter. . .isn’t that a god slayer?

      Short version: there’s no clear meaning to the notion of “proving that something exists.” Here’s a good example: under this proscription we cannot talk about the bottom of the sea because we have not verified that every part of the sea has a bottom. Rand was not a very good ontologist or epistemologist. Also, philosophical arguments aren’t supposed to be gotcha games. “If you break this rule I just made up you lose the argument.” You may be able to “win” arguments on your own terms that way but you’ll never convince anyone of anything.

      My advice would be to drop Rand’s philosophy and look into how actual philosophers do it. Rand was inconsistent and often pretty incoherent. As with most subjects she completely ignored what had already been done in the field and assumed she knew better than everyone else. And she wasn’t nearly as smart as you seem to think she was.

      1. In the interest of not discouraging others to respond, i’ll just say — for the moment — that your response is rejected.

        Seriously, isn’t it incumbent on atheists and philosophers to hold a hard line against the admission of fantasy elements into claims?

  42. I think this comes down to an impressively well-disguised Argument from Popularity: If enough people believe it, then you are automatically justified in believing it too, even without evidence!

  43. 1) it’s not possible for S to believe A and that A would be false

    Wow, we left the rails pretty quickly there. I’ll need to some justification for asserting that there are any A which meet this criteria.

    2) it’s not possible for S to disbelieve in A if A is true.

    Does that mean the existance of so much as one atheist eliminates the possibility of god?

    1. I like it. Oooh, pick me. (Does a little dance). I exist, therefore …..
      ‘There’, says God, blowing the smoke off his fingers. ‘That’s sorted then, isn’t it?’


  44. With respect to basic belief 3 “that person is in pain”, the following illustrates the flaw, albeit in the inverse version.

    There is a scene in A Bit of Fry and Laurie where Stephen Fry appears to smack Hugh Laurie over the head with a stick and Laurie acts as though he is in pain. On watching you think “he’s not in pain, he’s just acting (quite badly)”.

    However, in a recent interview they mention that in that scene Fry really did hit him over the head and Laurie really was in pain.

    (Unless of course they are lying).

  45. “And for good reason, too: why should those guys deal with arguments for a proposition plainly lacking empirical support?” … This is actually a self defeating statement. Can you use empirical support to prove the truth or falseness of that statement? If you tried the only thing you can say it is so evidently true that it must be a … properly basic belief.

    Verificationism went out the window as a legitimate philosophical strain decades, almost 100 years ago. Science and empiricism are rooted in a larger context of a branch of philosophy called epistemology. That is where Plantinga is arguing from, and you are not engaging him from within the context of that discipline.

    Consider this analogy: You get very mad at your friend and threaten to kill him, in fact you threaten to kill him by stabbing next Tuesday afternoon. But, of course, you had no intention on doing that, so on Tuesday you went out into the woods to center yourself. When you come back you find your friend has been stabbed to death. In fact there are witness who claim that you did it. Now, just because all of the evidence points at you and everyone thinks you did it, doesn’t mean that you are irrational in believing that you did not do it. In fact, you would be irrational in believing you did do it, because you are, in reality, innocent. Now, because you ‘just know’ that you are not guilty, does not mean that at the trial you can use that as evidence to conceive others of your innocence. You would have to make your argument on other grounds, cell phone records, receipts, etc.

    In the same way, for some who believe that they have had a personal experience with God, does not mean that they themselves are **necessarily** irrational in making the conclusion that God exists.

    1. kevink

      If by “verificationalism” you mean Logical Positivism, which is a version of empiricism centering around a “verification principle,” it did not exist until the 1920’s but was more or less dead by 1950. This was mainly because of Karl Popper’s criticisms of the verification principle. But Popper’s philosophy of science is another form of empiricism, essentially a modification of Hume’s.

      Of course the epistemological theories of the the Logical Positivists are part of epistemology, but the fact that it is generally considered wrong does not Plantinga to put any old rubbish in its place. This is especially as there are many more reasonable alternatives available.

      Moreover what evidence do you have that anyone is a Logical Positivist except for the fact that they use the word “verification?” You simply can’t assume that anyone who asks for a empirical evidence to be verified is a Logical Positivist (i.e. a verficationist in the sense it which the idea is normally thought to be discredited.)

      Now let’s look at your examples. Consider:

      A: “I did not stab my friend”
      A1: “It seems to me that A
      A2: Given A1 it is rational to believe A


      B: “God spoke to me”
      B1: “It seems to me that B
      B2: Given B1 it is rational to believe B

      Your assertion that B2 is reasonable depends on two assumptions. First that the two cases are in relevant respects similar and second that A2 is reasonable. I will argue that neither of these is the case, at least if A2 is taken literally. I then have to show why A2 seems reasonable.

      The two cases are not parallel at all. First I would say that A2 is not reasonable as it stands. The mere fact that A1 is true does not allow me to rationally believe A. The rationality of my belief that A depends on a whole lot of other unspoken things such as:

      My memory is such that if I had stabbed my friend I could be reasonably sure I would remember it. (If, for instance, I suspected I was suffering from dementia, this might not be a reasonable assumption)

      My knowledge of how the world works is such that how things seem to me is logically inconsistent with A being false.


      In other words there is an epistemological framework F within which it is reasonable to believe A. In other words A2, as it stands is not reasonable, to make it so it should replaced by:

      A2a: Given A1 and F it is rational to believe A

      Now there is no similar epistemological framework within which B can be placed so there is no way to “patch up” B2 to make it reasonable.

      I should add that the mere fact that you use words like “epistemology” does not make what you say philosophically respectable. Y

        1. What’s the relevance to this debate anyway?

          (Though, having read Animal Farm, I find it hard to believe anyone with such skeptical views could bring himself to believe in any sky fairy).

          1. Orwell vs God

            “As with the Christian religion, the worst advertisement for Socialism is its adherents.”
            — George Orwell

            “Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent.”
            — George Orwell

            “The Catholic and the Communist are alike in assuming that an opponent cannot be both honest and intelligent.”
            — George Orwell


            1. Interesting article you referenced. Orwell was obviously a very complex character, but no more a Christian than Dr Dawkins. I’m still not sure what relevance Orwell has to the subject of this thread, though, viz. Plantinga’s non-sequitirical proof of God.

              1. It’s funny that he uses Christianity as his go to example of ‘bad’.

                And theists are like kittens in a toilet – they’ll grab at anything to get out of the hole they fell into.

  46. I was just finishing a chapter on religions for my book on reliion. I was going to show that the more sophisticated a person was, the less likely he was to have a belief in a God.
    To my surprise when I Googles “sophisticication belief in God”, I got articles which seemed to say that the more sophisticated a person the more likely he was to believ. Your article seemed to jump around like all the believer articles, since you don’t seem to have anything to say. Why can’t people say what they mean, and not beat around the bush?

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