W.K. Clifford once famously asserted, “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”1 Clifford’s position is often called Evidentialism. Please note that there is no sufficient evidence for Clifford’s claim, and thus even if it is true, by Clifford’s logic, it would still be wrong to believe it.
Furthermore, in everyday experience, we don’t accumulate “evidence” for ordinary things we believe to be true.
Examples of Basic Beliefs
How do you know that the people you believe to be your parents are your biological parents? Most of us have never had a paternity test. We have come to trust the people that we have known from an early age, and we assume that they are telling the truth about being our parents. We know of course that it is possible in the world of so many possibilities that our parents are lying to us and that we are the target of a nefarious plot. However, most of us don’t lose any sleep over it, nor are we irrational to hold the belief that the people who allege to be our parents are in fact our biological parents, even in the absence of further evidence or inquiry.
The identity of our parents is an example of the types of assumptions that we make on a regular basis, and that allow for human life as we know it. Try to imagine a world where even these assumptions are called into question at every turn!
Is that air you’re breathing?
Philosophers call this kind of knowledge a “basic belief,” and because in the case offered above the belief seems reasonable, we can further call it a “properly basic belief.” A properly basic belief is a belief that a rational person may hold as true without much or any additional inquiry. A better example of a properly basic belief is believing in other minds. How do you know that anyone else has a consciousness? By definition, you can only be conscious of your consciousness, so you can never have unquestionable proof of the existence of other minds. How do I know that other people experience pain? How do I know that other people experience joy?
Likewise, how do you know that the universe is older than five minutes? You can consult your memory, but how do you know that your memory is trustworthy? Can you prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that you had toast this morning for breakfast? Could it have been a particularly realistic dream rather than reality? Could someone have left breadcrumbs on your shirt and an open sack of bread on your counter to confuse you?
As it turns out, we usually don’t get lost in arguments about these questions. We treat our memory of the past and our belief in other minds as a properly basic belief, requiring no proof.
God and Other Minds
What Alvin Plantinga accomplished in his book, God and Other Minds, was to show that belief in God falls into this same category.2 If there is a god of any type even remotely like the God of Christianity, then it is reasonable to conclude that belief in this God would be basic. Throughout human history, the vast majority of people have believed in some god or gods as a way of making sense of the world. There is no reason to conclude that all of them were irrational people, except for your prejudice against their conclusion. Quite to the contrary, religious people have been contributors and leaders in every field of intellectual inquiry, including philosophy and modern science up to the present date.
So, why not conclude that belief in God is a properly basic belief? Why not conclude that it is perfectly rational to believe in God without requiring any additional evidence at all? Or put another way, why would we hold our knowledge of God to a higher standard than we hold any other belief we hold to be basic?
W.K. Clifford, “The Ethics of Belief” in Lectures and Essays, 1886, as found in Brian Davies, editor, Philosophy of Religion: A Guide and Anthology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 35.
Alvin Plantinga, God and Other Minds: A Study of the Rational Justification of Belief in God (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1967).
Ben Williams is the Preaching Minister at the Glenpool Church of Christ and a regular writer at So We Speak. Check out his new book Why We Stayed or follow him on Twitter, @Benpreachin.
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