A recent conversation reminded me of what is now a rather old argument in relation to the question of belief in God (old in terms of twentieth century arguments anyway). Essentially, the issue was this: If my purported experience of knowing God / knowing that God exists via some sort of intuition or any other sort of experience should count as a reason for me to believe in God, then why can’t somebody else’s atheist experience (or at least their testimony of it) count as a reason for me to not believe in God? I say that I have a direct knowledge of God’s existence (let’s say I do). But what about someone who has direct, intuitive knowledge of something like “there is nothing out there, there is no purpose at all to life”? Surely, it was suggested to me, what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.
There are two issues here. The first can be dismissed fairly quickly, but the second requires a bit more explanation. The first issue is this: The way another person’s testimony about their experience counts as a reason for me to believe something is different in kind from the way that my experience counts as a reason for me to believe something. The latter is experience; the former is testimony of experience. You can know what you experienced, but, in the case of testimony, you can only really know what someone told you they experienced. So there’s an obvious difference between why my experience should count as a reason for me to believe in God and the way in which another person’s testimony about their experience should count as a reason for me to believe their claims. They’re not on par.
But the other issue is more substantive: What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. If you get to say that you know God exists because it’s a properly basic belief, something you just “intuit” (this was the term used by my partner in conversation), then can’t an atheist, if they believe they have had such an experience, say that they know that God does not exist because they have had a profound experience of there being no purpose to the universe or our own existence?
The answer is no, and to appreciate why not, we need to make sure that we’ve actually understood what the theist is claiming when he says that belief in God can be properly basic. I say a lot more about this issue in my podcast episode, “Plantinga and Properly Basic Beliefs.” The essential thing to note is this: Saying that a belief is properly basic is not just a shortcut to get around giving an argument for that belief. Saying that a belief is basic only tells us the kind of belief it is. Some beliefs are inferred from other beliefs, while others – the basic ones – are not. But there are still conditions that need to be met before a belief can in fact be properly called a basic belief.
As articulated in some detail in the stellar epistemological work of Alvin Plantinga, if God – and not just any God but the God of traditional Christian monotheism – exists, then there’s a plausible account of just how belief in God might be properly basic. If God created the universe and the human race (completely ignoring for now any question of how God might have done that), then it makes sense to think of us as being here for a reason. There’s something that we were meant for and more than that, we were in some sense designed. God meant for us to be able to do certain things, and in particular he meant for us to form true beliefs. That’s the reason we have belief forming faculties, and they work as they were meant to work when they tend to produce true beliefs. One of those beliefs that we form when our belief forming faculties work as they were designed is the belief that God exists. This involuntary belief is what is often called the sensus divinitatus, the “sense of the divine.” Now, if it is a proper function of us that we believe in God – that is, if, when our belief forming faculties are functioning as they were meant to, they – in response to the phenomenon of the universe – form the belief that God exists, then just as we can say that an immediately formed belief that “there’s a tree over there” can be said to be properly basic, so too the belief “God made this world” can be properly basic. In fact quite apart from twentieth-century analytical epistemology, Christians from earliest times have believed that because of how God made us, our natural response to creation is to believe in its creator. Of course, this is not an argument that God exists. It is no more than an account of how, if God did exist, belief in God could be properly basic.
This isn’t a defence of the notion of properly basic beliefs, or of the claim that theism, if true, could be properly basic. The claim that I’m addressing has already come to grips with these claims, and accepts them. Here’s the issue I am addressing: Can the atheist play this game too? Not at all. Suppose that God does not exist, and the unbeliever wants to maintain that under those circumstances, he can have a properly basic belief that God does not exist. In order for this claim to have legs, there must exist an account of how this belief could work its way into the category of properly basic beliefs. After all just holding a true belief does not make it properly basic. It is hardly self-evident that “there is no purpose to the universe.” And it is not at all clear what sort of proper functioning system – I should add, proper functioning truth aimed system, could produce this belief in a properly basic way. Maybe you think you can put together a persuasive line of argument for that conclusion. But basic beliefs are not based on arguments (even if there are also arguments for them). You might think you have a strong intuition that there is no purpose to the universe. Maybe so, but how was that intuition formed? Obviously you do not believe that the lack of purpose to the universe created us to form this belief, as you don’t believe (failing a theory of alien life making us) that anything created us for anything. That’s part and parcel of believing that there’s no purpose to our existence.
And that’s why atheism doesn’t get to help itself to the notion of a properly basic belief about God’s nonexistence. Any claim that something is a properly basic belief should be followed up with a plausible account of how, if it’s a properly basic belief, it managed to obtain that status.