March 27, 2016

Properly Understanding Properly Basic Beliefs

"Another example would be the warrant for Christianity's truth that comes from the inner witness of the Holy Spirit. To assume that the experience of the Holy Spirit's witness to the truth of Christianity is mere emotions is question-begging. If God does exist, He is certainly capable of communicating His truth to you in an interior way as well as through external evidences. Again, certain Christian beliefs are, I'm convinced, known to be true in a properly basic way, grounded in the inner witness borne to us by God Himself. Interestingly, beliefs based on testimony--like my belief that your name is Grant--is a properly basic belief which I am rational to hold unless and until a defeater for that belief comes along. Similarly, many Christian beliefs are beliefs warranted to us by testimony--God's own testimony. Don't be too quick to dismiss it, lest you fail to hear the voice of God speaking to you."

Okay then. We have two properly basic beliefs:

(1) The testimony of others

(2) Inner witness

We know that at least one of these must be false, because the testimony of others report inner witnesses that, if accepted prima facie, would entail logical contradiction, the ur-example being the Mormon "burning in one's bosom" that Joseph Smith was a prophet in contrast with most everybody's inner witness that Mormonism is a pile of hooey.

Your way of resolving the contradiction is by denying (1). You think the Mormons are deceiving themselves and that you really do have the true inner witness. But this means that some properly basic beliefs are really more properly basic than others.

So that raises the following question: is the hierarchy of properly basic beliefs itself a properly basic belief?


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I don’t think you’ve properly understood the notion of properly basic beliefs, Tomislav. You mustn’t equate being properly basic with being indefeasible. Memory beliefs (e.g., “I left the car keys in the dresser”) and perceptual beliefs (e.g., “I see a cat in the backyard”) are, like beliefs grounded in testimony, properly basic but are defeasible, that is to say, they can be mistaken. The fact that my properly basic beliefs may sometimes be false does nothing to remove their proper basicality (that is, I am rational and exhibit no cognitive defect in holding such experientially grounded beliefs non-inferentially). If I become aware of some defeater of one of my properly basic beliefs, then I must give it up (or find a defeater of the defeater).

So the fact that some testimony is false doesn’t imply that testimonial beliefs are not properly basic beliefs. It only implies that such beliefs are defeasible and are sometimes defeated. I think that the Mormon’s “burning in the bosom” is an example of a false belief which many Mormons hold in a basic way.

By contrast I think that the witness of the Holy Spirit is veridical. Does this imply that “some properly basic beliefs are really more properly basic than others?” No, though adherents of so-called Reformed epistemology would affirm that properly basic beliefs do differ in their degree (the tenacity with which they are held) and depth of ingression (centrality to one’s system of beliefs). For example, my belief that “I have a head” has a greater degree of belief for me than “I left my keys in the dresser,” though both are for me properly basic. What I think you should say is that some properly basic beliefs enjoy greater warrant than others. That is not itself a properly basic belief but is just a matter of what we discover from experience.

The difference between my belief and the Mormon’s belief may just lie in the fact that, for whatever reason, the Mormon belief faces defeaters that my belief does not (e.g., DNA evidence that native Americans are not Semitic). It may be that while I have defeaters of the potential defeaters brought against my belief, the Mormon lacks such defeater-defeaters.

I suspect that what troubles you, Tomislav, is my claim that the witness of the Holy Spirit may be an intrinsic defeater-defeater, that is to say, a belief which is so powerfully warranted that it overwhelms the potential defeaters brought against it. While this claim is not essential to Reformed epistemology, it seems to me to be wholly plausible. Why couldn’t an omnipotent God so powerfully warrant belief in Himself that the believer regardless of his situation remains warranted in holding to his properly basic belief in God? What’s the problem supposed to be?