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Plantinga and the Rationality of Theism

The theistic philosopher, Alvin Plantinga, had recently forwarded an argument arguing that theism is a rational belief. [a] Plantinga argument arose as a defence from critics who claim that theism is not rational. They claim that theism is irrational because none of the so-called classical arguments for God's existence is successful. And since these numerous tries (as we have seen) all failed, a rational person should withhold any belief in God. We will look at his argument and why it is seriously flawed.

Plantinga's Argument

According to Plantinga, critics use foundationalism (whether explicitly or implicitly) when they criticise theists for not being rational. What is foundationalism? foundationalism is a philosophical principal that in many ways is past its heydey. In any case, the Foundationalist Principle (FP) is that all our non-basic beliefs can eventually be traced down to properly basic belief. Thus 234 X 567 = 132,678 may not be basic to all of us, but 1 + 1 = 2, once its terms are defined is basic to most people. To assure us that the former equation is correct, we could break it down into its basic constituents.

What constitutes a basic belief? "Classical" foundationalism defines three circumstances where a belief is properly basic if and only if [b]:

  • It is self evident
    This means anything that is seen to be true as soon as it is understood, such as 1 + 1 = 2.
  • It is evident to the sense
    Thus "There is a tree outside the window" is an example of something evident to the sense, if the phrase is used by someone to describe what he actually sees.
  • It is incorrigible
    Incorrigible propositions are something that one cannot be wrong about. Thus a proposition "It seems to me there is a tree outside the window." cannot be wrong, even if there is no tree there. For the proposition describes what seems to the subject to be the case.

Plantinga argues that classical foundationalism have not been able to show that their statement about the conditions of properly basic statement is either itself a basic statement or could be derived from a basic statement. Thus, Plantinga says, classical foundationalism is bankrupt.[1]

Of course Plantinga does not abandon foundationalism but suggests an amendment to it. In particular the constituents of properly basic beliefs. Plantinga says that an empirical method could be used to find out what constitutes these. Thus rather than defining what a basic belief is, we take two sets of beliefs, one we know to be properly basic and one we know to be not properly basic. We then try to extract general characteristics of properly basic statements and use these to evaluate those in the "grey" areas. Sound interesting and reasonable right?


You see the main problem is that Plantinga wants to include within the initial set of examples of properly basic beliefs-that of the belief in the existence of God! Why is this properly basic. According to Plantinga one experiences God in many ways some which include: "beholding the starry heavens or the splendid majesty of the mountains" [c], reading the Bible or the feeling when one has done something wrong. [2]

Thus with belief in God defined as a properly basic belief in Plantinga's system, theism become rational by definition!

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Evaluation of Plantinga's Argument

Even a glance at Plantinga's argument will give one the feeling that he is trying to pull a theological rabbit out of his philosophical hat. Indeed there are many serious flaws in Plantinga's argument. We will look at two of these here.

Plantinga's Critique of Foundationalism is Flawed

Plantinga failed to consider a few important issues in his supposed "demolition" of classical Foundationalism.

Firstly, if he can simply choose theism as a properly basic belief in his empirical method, why can't a classical Foundationalist do the same with the FP above? The classical foundationalist can simply assert, like Plantinga does, that these principles are properly basic to him. And that is similar to what Plantinga claim about experiencing God when one reads the Bible or see the starry heavens, the truth of the FP would be clear to those sufficiently attentive to its "witness." Thus Plantinga's has not shown why the FP could not the self-evident to its adherents. [3]

Secondly, and more importantly,classical foundationalism is not the only formulation of the FP. Modern foundationalist philosophers have made modifications to the classical theory and it is not clear that Plantinga's critique could work here. One such modification is by the ohilosopher, Anthony Kenny. He recommends that a belief can be properly basic if and only if:

  • it is self evident or fundamental
  • it is evident to the sense or memory
  • it is defensible by argument, inquiry or performance.

    Obviously the major change is in the third criterion. Kenny gives as an example his belief that the continent of Australia exists. To him this is a properly basic belief. However if someone were to ask him to prove this he could do this by showing them a map or travel guides or perhaps even have the person make a trip there! Thus it is defensible by argument.

    Note that under these principles, theism is back to square one. The only possible slot for it to be accepted as basic would be the third criterion. In other words, theist philosophers have to find arguments to prove God's existence! This they have tried, as we have seen, and have failed. Thus by this criterion , theism is not a properly basic belief! [4]

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    The Absurd Consequences of Plantinga's Position

    Another problem in Plantinga's argument is that since he had simply defined theism as a basic belief. Doesn't this leave the door open for, say, flat earthers, to slip in that the earth is flat as a properly basic belief? If Plantinga tries to argue that flat earth can be shown to be false based on other premises, then so can his position be shown to be false. Since reading the Bible does not invoke the same response in all people. Some may be nauseated by the presence of vulgarity and the clear misogynistic passages and some may turn skeptical at the presence of contradictions in it etc.

    Thus Paltinga's position leads to epistemological relativism. The atheist can claim atheism is a properly basic belief, believers in the tooth fairy can make claims for the existence of these dental saviours and believers in the Great Pumpkin will say that his return at Halloween is also properly basic. [5] What does Plantinga say about this? His position is revealing:

    the Christian will of course suppose that belief in God is entirely properly basic 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 quite properly so. Followers of Russel and Madelyn Murray O'Hare [sic] 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 for its set of examples, not to theirs. [6]

    Keith Parson in his book God and the Burden of Proof answers this passage succintly:

    There is something very odd about a defense of theism that would make it only one of the indefinitely many rational belief systems. Historically theism has sought to challenge opposing beliefs rather than accomodate them. Theists have traditionally asserted that belief in God is rationally superior to such alternatives as dualism, deism, polytheism, pantheism, atheism and agnosticism.
    However [given Plantinga's position] appears that theists can no longer claim such superiority. If atheism, for instance, is not inconsistent, incoherent or self refuting-atheists can confidently defy anyone to show that it is any of these things-then it seems that Plantinga must accept it as an equally rational alternative to theism. [7]

    Thus Plantinga's assertion that theism is rational is one that allows almost any belief to be considered rational.

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    a.Note how modest this claim really is. It merely asserts that theist can say they are rational people. It does not say, on the contrary that atheists are not. In fact as can be seen later, Plantinga's argument actually leads to a "religious relativism" where all beliefs can be considered "rational". That philosophers had had to resort to such modest argument sshould signal to the believer that the classical arguments for God's existence are no longer held to be convincing even by believers.
    b."If and only if" is a frequently used phrase in logic and mathematics. It means that the conditions outline exhaust all possibilities, i.e. the term "only if" means that there can be no other conditions that can bring forth "properly basic" beliefs.
    c.One would assume that based on this astronomers and geologists would be extremely devout people! Not!


    1.Martin, Atheism; A Philosophical Justification: p266-269
    Parsons, God and the Burden of Proof: p36-43
    2.Martin, Atheism; A Philosophical Justification: p269-270
    Parsons, God and the Burden of Proof: p45-49
    3.Martin, Atheism; A Philosophical Justification: p271
    4.Parsons, God and the Burden of Proof: p43-44
    5.Martin, Atheism; A Philosophical Justification: p272-275
    Parsons, God and the Burden of Proof: p50-52
    6.quoted in Martin, Atheism; A Philosophical Justification: p270
    7.Parsons, God and the Burden of Proof: p52-53

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