Reformed Epistemology and the Rationality of Theistic Belief – James F.
Reformed epistemology is the simple yet profound idea that theistic belief can be, and
typically is justified without appeal to evidence.
“Theistic belief” – any belief that directly entails the existence of the God of theism – the
God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Theistic belief is typically “properly basic” – deriving its justification immediately from
some appropriate experience.
Theistic beliefs are appropriately produced by certain experiences, and therefore
Important motivation for Plantinga’s Reformed epistemology theory is the doctrine of the
sensus divinitatis, introduced by the father of Reformed theology, the sixteenth-century
theologian John Calvin. Calvin argued that human beings have a “sense of the divine”
that enables us to perceive God in much the same way that our perceptual senses
enable us to perceive the world around us.
Plantinga’s most ffamous claim is that theistic belief is typically properly basic.
A belief is basic is to say that it is not based on any other beliefs one holds. That is, if a
person holds a basic belief, then she does not hold it because she has derived it from
any of her other beliefs. Now, this person may or may not be justified or rational in
holding her belief basically. If she is justified in holding her belief basically, then the
belief is said to be properly basic for her.
Whether or not a basic belief is properly basic is important for two reasons: first, if it is
not, then one is open to the charge of irrationality – a sort of epistemic sin or misdeed
that responsible people would typically want to avoid. Second, epistemologists have
long considered justification to be necessary condition for knowledge. That is, a person
knows a certain claim only if her belief of that claim is justified.
Therefore, the question of whether or not a given basic belief is properly basic is directly
related to the important question of whether or not the belief constitutes knowledge.
Plantinga has argued both that: (1) theists are typically justified or rational in their basic
theistic beliefs; and (2) basic theistic belief typically constitute knowledge for the theist –
provided that the beliefs are true.
Plantinga is not arguing that theism is true. He is not engaging in apologetics or natural
theology. Rather, he is arguing that theistic beliefs are typically justified, even when
basic – a separate issue from the question of their truth.
Plantinga clarifies this distinction by identifying two separate objections that have been
raised against theistic belief. The first, which he calls the de facto objection, is the claim
that theistic belief is inappropriate because theism is false. “logical argument from evil”.
Existence of evil is incompatible with the existence of the theistic God. Since it is bvious
that there is evil. There is also what Plantinga calls the de jure objection. This objection
is that it is irrelevant whether or not theism is true, because even if it is true the theist
could never know that it is true, because theistic belief cannot be justified. The de jure objection is aimed not at the question of the truth of theism, but at the question of the
epistemic justification of anyone who believes that theism is true.
Plantinga’s Reformed epistemology program is a response to the de jure objection, not
to the de facto objection. He is concerned with the question of whether or not theism
belief is justified.
Why should we accept the Reformed epistemology proposal? Why should we balk at
the idea of properly basic theistic belief? Plantinga says the major reason people reject
reformed epistemology is because they accept what he calls evidentialism.
Evidentialism is the view that theistic belief must be based on evidence in order to be
By “evidence” the evidentialist means propositional evidence in the form of other beliefs
one holds. The evidentialist claims that theistic belief is justified only if it is based on
other beliefs, and therefore only if it is not basic.
Theist – John Locke and David Hume espouse – agree.
Theistic philosopher Richard Swinburne and atheistic thinker John Mackie agree in
Evidentialism is simply the denial of Reformed epistemology. Reformed epistemology
and evidentialism stand as claim and counterclaim.
Evidentialism is not in itself a reason to reject Reformed epistemology; it is simply the
claim that Reform epistemology is false.
Why should we believe the evidentialist rather than the Reformed epistemologiest?
An: What kinds of beliefs are properly basic? Is there a criterion by which we can judge
whether beliefs can be justified without evidence or require some evidential base in
order to be justified?
Some beliefs are justified by being based on evidence, while other beliefs are justified
even though they are not based on evidence – even though they are basic. This two
fold division of justified beliefs forms the basis for the epistemological theory known as
Foundationalism is motivated by the conviction that not all justified beliefs can be based
on evidence. If all justified beliefs must be based on other justified beliefs, we fall into an
infinite regression of justification.
One can have a justified belief only if she has an infinite number of justified beliefs –
Plantinga claims that a certain consensus can be established throughout the history of
philosophy concerning what kinds of beliefs can be and typically are properly basic –
Classical foundationalism is actually a combination of two different views about proper
basicality, one arising from modern philosophy and one from Medieval philosophy. (Descartes, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, Human) limited properly basic beliefs to self-
evident or incorrigible (Plantinga calls this view modern foundationalism).
Self-evident beliefs are those that we realize cannot possibly be false (Descartes called
these clear and distinct ideas). Simple truths of arithmetic (1+2=3) and logic (if A is taller
than B and B is taller than C, then A is taller than C), as well as simple definitional truths
(If John is a bachelor, then John is not married) are typical examples.
Incorrigible beliefs are beliefs that can possibly be false. They cannot be false if we
believe them. if we hold the belief, it must be true. Beliefs about our internal
psychological states (I am hungry, I am hungry with my mother) are typical examples.
Self-evident and incorrigible beliefs are infallible. It is impossible that they constitute
false beliefs. Thus, if properly basic beliefs are limited to these then there is never any
danger of error or falsehood in the foundations.
It is not difficult to show that it is impossible to justify much else at all based on these
foundations. If only self-evident and incorrigible beliefs are properly basic, then almost
nothing we think we are justified in believing is in fact justified. If these are the only
properly basic beliefs, we are thrown once again into a very disturbing skepticism.
St. Thomas Aquinas assumed that perceptual beliefs are properly basic, provided that
such beliefs are “evident to the senses.” If a perceptual experience is sharp and vivid,
so that a belief arising from that experience is distinctive and irresistible, then that belief
may be considered properly basic. The addition of beliefs evident to the senses to the
modern foundationalism pair of self-evident and incorrigible beliefs constitutes classical
Classical foundationalism is the view that beliefs are properly basic only if they are self-
evident, incorrigible, or evident to the senses.
The infallibility criterion of modern foundationalism must be given up.
Evident sensory beliefs are fallible – it is quite possible that one have a clear, vivid,
irresistible perceptual experience that leads to a false belief.
Why shouldn’t we believe the Reform epistemology claim? Why shouldn’t we accept
that theistic belief is or can be properly basic? The answer: because classical
foundationalism is true – because beliefs are properly basic only if they are self-evident,
incorrigible, or evident to the senses. Theistic beliefs are not self-evident, incorrigible, or
evident to the senses. Theistic beliefs are not and cannot be properly basic.
Plantinga argues that classical foundationalism cannot be the proper criterion for proper
basicality has two major lines. First, plantinga argues that classical foundationalism is
“self – referentially incoherent” (says self-referential incoherence is less important than
“problem cases” argument.). Second, and ultimately more important, Plantinga argues
that classical foundationalism cannot account for the full breadth of obviously properly
If classical foundationalism is true, one cannot be justified in believing it, since it cannot
meet its own criterion for justification. If, on the other hand, one can be justified in believing it, it must be false, since it is justified by some criterion that it does not specify
as a criterion for justification.
Either classical foundationalism is false or once can never be justified in believing it.
This is what Plantinga calls “self-referential incoherence.” When applied to itself, the
classical foundationalism test cannot be passed.
I wrote the first section of this chapter. That belief is not based on some inferential
process I’ve gone through. My belief is basic – grounded in a memory experience rather
than derived from any other beliefs I hold. This belief does not pass the classical
foundationalism test for justification, since it is basic and does not fall into one of the
properly basic categories. But surely it is a paradigm case of a justified belief. When
faced with the choice wither my belief that I wrote the first section of this chapter is
unjustified or classical foundationalism is false, I will certainly take the latter alternative,
and be fully justified in doing so. – problem case.
Properly basicality appears to be a phenomenon that is much more widespread and
endemic to our belief processes than can ever be captured in a simple list of belief kinds.
Plantinga’s regutation of classical foundationalism is an important step but a negative
Can Plantinga give reasons for thinking that theistic belief is or can be properly basic?
The answer is “yes”. But these reasons are best understood by explaining Plantinga’s
responses to three further objections to Reformed epistemology. First two objections he
raises himself. Third is offered by his Notre Dame colleague, Philip Quinn.
One might object that. If theistic belief is not based on evidence, then it is groundless –
that is, it has no foundation or basis at all.
There is a computer screen before me is not based on evidence, but it is certainly not
groundless.it is grounded in a certain kind of perceptual experience. First section of
chapter, is grounded in a certain kind of memory experience.
With all properly basic beliefs. They result from experiences of certain kinds that form
beliefs of certain kinds, such that it is appropriate for those beliefs to be formed in those
Theistic belief can be properly basic if it is appropriately produced by a certain kind of
experience. But are there any such experiences? It certainly seems so.
If dozens of Christians pray for the healing of a terminal cancer patient and that patient’s
cancer suddenly disappears, clearly, any one of those praying would be justified, upon
hearing the news, in forming the belief “God has answered our prayers.”
It seems perfectly natural and above reproach – in a word, rational – for the theist to
form his belief in these circumstances.
Plantinga’s positive claim about the nature of properly basic theistic belief: theistic belief
is properly basic if it is grounded in an experience that can appropriately produce theistic
beliefs. A nonprejudicial examination of ordinary belief-forming experiences of theists
would seem to suggest that such experiences abound. The Great Pumpkin objection is the claim that, if theistic belief can be properly grounded
in appropriate experiences, then any belief at all can be so properly grounded – even,
say, Linus Van Pelt’s belief that the Great Pumpkin returns every Halloween to bring gifts
to all good boys and girls.
Plantinga retorts, there is nothing in the claims of Reformed epistemology that entails or
even suggests that any other kinds of beliefs are or can be properly basic.
For one thing, the theist will hold that Great Pumpkin beliefs are simply false, and no
circumstances would ever appropriately give rise to them. (reformed epistemology is not
a natural theology program, Plantinga does not claim that properly basic theistic belief
proves the existence of God.)
If the addition of perceptual beliefs does not spawn the Great Pumpkin objection, then
there’s no reason to think that the addition of theistic beliefs would either.
Any another kind of belief that can be properly basic does not mean that we must now
admit belief kinds for which there is no reason whatsoever to think they could ever be
Plantinga points out that one key to proper basicality is that there is an epistemic
community that affirms and endorses the beliefs in question as properly basic.
One reason theistic belief can be understood as properly basic is that there is a natural
community within which such beliefs are accepted and condoned.
(The fact that this community is not universal is irrelevant – the community that endorses
beliefs based on vision is not universal either!)
The presence of such a community is important because without it there is no
justification for claiming that the beliefs are properly produced by the circumstances that
When applied to the Great Pumpkin objection, this community requirement is decisive.
There is no Great Pumpkin community.
This disanalogy shows the Great Pumpkin objection to be illegitimate and ineffective.
We have a second positive reason for Reformed epistemology. Basic theistic belief is
formed, like other obviously properly basic beliefs within the context of a community that
recognizes and endorses such basic belief formation as proper.
One important point in this rebuttal must be emphasized. Plantinga notes that the
theist’s conviction that Great Pumpkin beliefs are not true gives her reason to believe
that are not properly basic. This suggests that an important reason a theist might be
willing to accept theistic belief as properly basic is her prior commitment to the idea that
theism is true.
So Plantinga’s response to the de jure objection has here an important link to the de
Plantinga’s colleague at Notre Dame, Philip Quinn. Quinn argues that a belief cannot be
properly basic for someone if there is some other belief such that all of the following are true: (1) B* is good reason to think B false (either they are inconsistent or it is highly
unlikely that they are both true); (2) S is aware of (1); (3) S has good reason to believe
that B* is said to be a defeater of B for S.
So Quinn’s claim is that a belief cannot be properly basic for someone if there is a
defeater of the belief for that person. The person could be justified in holding the belief
only if she had evidence for it that outweighed her reasons for its defeater. But if the
belief is justified by evidence, it cannot be properly basic.
One example of such a defeater would be the claim There is horrendous evil in the
world for which we can see no justification. The problem of evil is as thorny a problem
as theism faces.
It is safe to say that most intellectually sophisticated theists recognize, would recognize
on proper reflection, that the existence and extent of evil in the world stands as a very
good reason to think that theism is false.
The problem of evil is a defeater for any theistic belief. So also for the claim there are
many rational, normally functioning human beings – including many of the most brilliant
people of the twentieth century, who deny theism.
Plantinga’s response to Quinn is twofold. First, it is not true that one must have evidence
for theistic belief in order to neutralize a defeater of theistic belief. It is enough to have
reason to reject the defeater. A defeater-defeater will not be evidence for the theistic
belief. So the theistic belief can still be justified without evidence.
Plantinga’s second response to Quinn it that, even if one does not have a defeater-
defeater, it might still be more rational to accept a basic belief than to reject it in favor of
a defeater. (the purloined letter, abridged)
The experiences producing properly basic beliefs can provide justification for the beliefs
that withstands very strong defeaters, without the aid of any defeater-defeaters, and
without the aid of any evidence for the belief in question. So neither defeater-defeaters
nor evidence are necessary for the justification of a properly basic belief. Hence,
Quinn’s objection fails.
Recent debates in epistemology have demonstrated that it is possible for a belief to be
justified or rational in certain senses even though the one holding the belief could not be
said to know t, even if it is true.
Plantinga focuses his attention on that property, whatever it is, that converts true belief
into knowledge. He gives this property the name “warrant”.
Does basic theistic belief count as knowledge if it is true == dies basic theistic belief
Two most important points:
Plantinga argues that no currently available epistemological theory provides an
adequate account of warrant. In the second volume he supplies one. In a nutshell, his
account is this: a belief has warrant if it is produced by properly functioning belief-
forming faculties in an appropriate environment. That is, warrant is conveyed by epistemic faculties functioning the way they are supposed to. If these faculties are
functioning properly, they will produce warranted basic beliefs. If the beliefs produced by
properly functioning faculties are true, then they constitute knowledge, since they are
So basic theistic belief has warrant if and only if it is produced by an epistemic faculty
that is supposed to produce basic theistic beliefs in proper environments.
If theism is true, then there is no reason to deny, and good reason to believe that God
would provide human beings with a capacity to know him in a basic way.
He developed what he calls the “Aquinas/Calvin Model,” based on the work of these two
great theologians. This model has at its foundation the sunsus divinitatis discussed
earlier. Plantinga argues that we can make sense of the sensus divinitatis as an
epistemic faculty on a par with perception, memory, and rational intuition.
So, if theism is true, then theistic belief is warranted, and that is basic way. In other
words, the de jure objection cannot be separated from the de facto objection.
The truth of falsehood of theism is irrelevant, since it cannot be rationally believed even
if it is true.
Plantinga’s claim is that one can only argue against the rationality or warrant of theistic
belief if one is also prepared to argue against its truth. So the de jure objection reduces
to the de facto objection.
Perhaps the most important insight to come out of the Reformed epistemology program.
Regardless of whether or not theistic belief is properly basic, one thing seems clear: if
the theistic God exists, it only seems obvious that He would form the world and human
beings in such a way that they could rationally believe that He exists – indeed, that they
could know that He exists.
Theism cannot be attacked on grounds of the de jure objection alone.
Plantinga’s project climaxes in a somewhat ironic place. Whether or not we can know
that theist belief is properly basic (or basically warranted) depends on whether or not
there is good evidence for the truth of theism.
While good evidence is not required for basic theistic belief to be rational or warranted,
good evidence may be required in order for it to be shown that basic theistic belief is
rational or warranted.
If she wishes to convince anyone else that her basic theistic belief is proper, she must
Reformed epistemology is not fideism. Fideism is doctrine that rationality is irrelevant to
theistic belief. For the fideist,, any question concerning the rationality of theistic belief is
Plantinga’s position is not fideism. Plantinga does not claim that rationality or warrant are irrelevant to theistic belief. He
believes that theistic belief can be rational or irrational, and that the preferable state for
the conscientious believer is that it be rational.
Reformed epistemology is not a version of the argument from religious experience.
The argument from religious experience is a natural theology argument that focuses on
the fact that so many people throughout history and all around the world have reported
having experiences that they take to be experiences of God in some way. Reformed
epistemology is not an exercise in natural theology or apologetics.
Reformed epistemology does not involve the claim that theistic belief producing
experiences count as evidence for the existence of God.
Reformed epistemology is not an attack on natural theology or apologetics.
The claim that theistic belief is properly basic does not imply or even suggest that the
practice of compiling evidence or constructing arguments for theism is unnecessary or
Far from being opposed to natural theology, reformed epistemology partners with it for a
complete religious epistemology. Introduction
Many of our previous units have covered specific arguments of either natural theology or atheology. Of all the different
sorts of things philosophers of religion do, constructing and criticizing such arguments is probably what they do most
commonly. Why is that? The reason is that most philosophers accept that the rationality/reasonableness/warrant of
religious belief stands or falls with the quality of these arguments.
According to this assumption, if the arguments of natural
theology are superior to those of atheology, then belief in Recall from Unit 1: negative atheism describes
God is rational (and disbelief irrational); on th