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Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Properly Basic Beliefs

A while back I got into a discussion of Plantinga's notion of properly basic beliefs with a philosopher who blogs under the suggestive pseudonym "exapologist."  I had thought the discussion had ended with one of my comments.  I was quite surprised this morning, almost two full years later, when I received a couple emails notifying me that exapologist had continued the discussion.  Since he doesn't show the dates of comments on his blog, I can't tell if the new comments are recent or several months old or what.  Could the notifications have taken almost two years to get to me?  Stranger things have surely happened in the online universe.  [Update: exapologist has informed me that his new comments were in fact made last night/this morning.]  In any case, I haven't done much research on the topic, and I never was any sort of authority on Plantinga, anyway, so my ability to contribute to the discussion is a bit limited.  With that disclaimer in hand, I'll venture an elaborate response to exapologist.

One of the issues we discussed was how we define a properly basic belief as such.  The idea is that a belief is properly basic if it is warranted (or justified) without any need for argumentative support.  Plantinga claims that theistic beliefs are properly basic even though they are often criticized and made a subject of debate.  One possible objection is that beliefs we commonly criticize or interrogate are, by that very fact, not properly basic beliefs.  This is sort of the argument that Quinn poses to Plantinga, and which exapologist discusses.  Quinn's point is that adults have been exposed to possible defeaters of theistic beliefs, and so their own theistic beliefs might not be properly basic any more (assuming that these same beliefs were properly basic when the adults were children).  To put it another way, if you are aware that your beliefs have coherent objections, then you are aware that your beliefs are open to discursive interrogation.  That means your beliefs are no longer properly basic.

Plantinga's response seems to be something like this: Theistic beliefs are so strong that their beliefs can never be defeated.  So no alleged counterarguments are going to diminish their status as properly basic beliefs.

If we look at this as a psychological issue, then Plantinga might have a point, but it's not one that advances his agenda.  The point may just be that people can be so stubborn in their unwillingness to acknowledge objections to their beliefs that they never fully recognize the fact that coherent objections have ever been made.  However, I don't think Plantinga is making an argument about stubborness.  Rather, his argument is that theistic beliefs are just so strong that they defeat any possible defeaters.  But, then, how can we decide that these beliefs really are that strong, and that these "true believers" aren't just being very stubborn?

We need some criteria for deciding whether or not a belief is properly basic beyond the mere saying that it is so.  As exapologist and I discussed, Plantinga seems to be relying heavily on the fact that there are believer communities which are invested in their theistic beliefs being properly basic.  I will quote one of exapologist's comments at length:

Plantinga follows Roderick Chisholm in his rejection of epistemological methodism, on the grounds that always requiring criteria for how one knows something leads to a vicious infinite regress, and thus to skepticism. He also follows Chisholm in adopting a particularlist, inductive method of generating criteria of proper basicality. As Plantinga puts it:

"We must assemble examples of beliefs and conditions such that the former are obviously properly basic in the latter, and examples of beliefs and conditions such that the former are obviously not properly basic in the latter. We must then frame hypotheses as to the necessary and sufficient conditions of proper basicality and test these hypotheses by reference to those examples." (Plantinga, Alvin. "Reason and Belief in God", in Faith and Rationality: Reason and Belief in God (U of Notre Dame Press, 1983), p. 76.).

So the idea is that clear cases of particular instances of knowledge are epistemically prior to general criteria for knowledge. From the particular cases, one examines what features they have in common, and then formulates hypotheses to the effect that all beliefs with those features are tokens of knowledge.

For what it's worth, I think Plantinga goes wrong by liberalizing and relativizing Chisholmian particularism. Plantinga intends his use of "obviously" in the passage above to be relativized to epistemic communities ("obvious to us folks"), so as to allow controversial beliefs that are nonetheless strongly held in a given epistemic community to qualify as "obvious", and thereby to allow for correspondingly relativized, theism-friendly criteria of proper basicality. This goes against the spirit of Chisholm's approach, as his intent was to only countenance Moorean facts as clear cases of knowledge. 

Ironically, Chisholm warns against the dangers of a liberalized standard of clear cases of knowledge in The Problem of the Criterion, the very book Plantinga appeals to as the basis of his fundamental epistemological approach: “We are all acquainted with people who think they know a lot more than in fact they do know. I’m thinking of fanatics, bigots, mystics, and various types of dogmatists.”
So, on the one hand, Plantinga wants an inductive method for identifying properly basic beliefs, but on the other hand, his criteria is relativized to particular epistemic communities.

It looks to me like a properly basic belief is defined as whatever a particular community decides is beyond rational criticism, but exapologist warns against making such an assessment.  As he points out, Plantinga's discussion hinges on the notion of a trigger.  Properly basic beliefs are "naturally and spontaneously" triggered in certain situations.  So, for example, if I am looking at at tree, I form the properly basic belief that I see a tree.  If I am trying to recall what I had for breakfast this morning, I form the properly basic belief that I had an apple for breakfast.  If I look at a person's face, I might form the properly basic belief that that person is angry.  So the idea of a properly basic belief is a psychological notion, a matter of what the members of an epistemic community will believe given the right stimuli.  On this account, it makes sense that the status of a belief as properly basic should be relativized to a community:  Different communities will produce people who respond differently to the same stimuli.  But then, a belief is properly basic because of psychological conditioning and instinct.

There is a problem here, because the sorts of ordinary beliefs we are discussing are clearly open to rational criticism.  For example, I might look at a tree and form the belief that I see a tree, but I can be convinced that what I see is not a tree.  Similarly about my memory of my breakfast, or my interpretation of a person's emotions.  There is nothing that prevents people from engaging in a rational discussion of their beliefs about what they see, what they've eaten, and how people look.  So why claim that these beliefs do not require argumentative support for their justification or warrant?  These are just the sorts of beliefs that can be questioned and defended with argument.

If we regard properly basic beliefs as whatever beliefs are "naturally and spontaneously" formed in various situations, then they are not clearly justified (or justifiable) without argumentative support.  Calling a belief "properly basic" does not give one license to avoid rational criticism. It just says something about the origins of their beliefs, in terms of psychology and circumstance.  We need something more if we are going to say that some beliefs are justified without argument.

I can be mistaken about what I had for breakfast, what I see in front of me, and how the people around me feel.  There is room for multiple points of view about whether or not I am seeing a tree, or whether or not I had an apple for breakfast.  When we talk about I see a tree or I had an apple for breakfast, there is nothing mysterious or inscrutable about the referents, and this distinguishes ordinary beliefs from theistic beliefs.  Theistic beliefs are not obviously referential at all--and if they are referential, it is not obvious what the referents are supposed to be.  A polite way of putting it is that theistic beliefs are either non-referential or referentially opaque.  I am a theological noncognitivist, which means I don't think theistic beliefs are propositional attitudes.  I do not think they involve propositions which refer to or attribute properties to things.  So I don't think theistic beliefs (e.g., "God exists") refer to anything.  Cognitivists about theistic belief will say that the beliefs are referential, but then there is the problem of opacity.  I believe this is why some theists claim their beliefs do not require argumentative support:  They cannot overcome the problem of reference.  I therefore find it hard to think that Plantinga isn't just bending over backwards trying to excuse theistic belief from rational debate.