Existence of God (part 26)

April 03, 2011     Time: 00:30:09


Belief in God as Properly Basic.

Excursus: Natural Theology
§ VI. Properly Basic Belief In God
Lecture 1

We have been talking about arguments for the existence of God, and I have suggested that there are a number of good arguments that make it probable that God in fact does exist. We looked at the Contingency Argument, the Kalam Cosmological Argument, the Teleological Argument, the Moral Argument, and the Ontological Argument. But I want to say something more now about a question that was asked last time, when someone asked, “What about a person who doesn’t have any arguments for God’s existence? How does he know that God exists?” Can you know that God exists, is it rational to believe in God, wholly in the absence of any arguments? I think that it is rational. This brings us to the subject of belief in God as properly basic.

There is a three step argument for this.

Defense of Premise (1)

1. Beliefs which are appropriately grounded may be rationally accepted as basic beliefs not grounded on argument.

Properly Basic Beliefs Characterized

What we are talking about here is a knowledge of God that is not based on argument. Rather it is a belief in God as a properly basic belief. What do we mean by properly basic? The idea here is that you can know that God exists without making an inference to God’s existence from something more basic. This is not an argument from religious experience to the existence of God. That would still be an argument. Rather the idea here is that belief in God can be part of your foundation of your system of beliefs, and it is grounded in experience. But it is not an inference from experience. It is not an argument for God from religious experience.

When you read the Bible, this is the way people in the Bible knew God. God for them wasn’t something that you needed to prove by argument. He was a real person in their lives. John Hick, a well known philosopher of religion, puts it this way:

God was known to them as a dynamic will interacting with their own wills, a sheer given reality, as inescapably to be reckoned with as destructive storm and life-giving sunshine . . . They did not think of God as an inferred entity but as an experienced reality. To them God was not . . . an idea adopted by the mind, but an experiential reality which gave significance to their lives.1

Philosophers call beliefs like this, that are part of a person’s foundations of knowledge, “properly basic beliefs.” These are beliefs that are not based on some other beliefs. They are not inferred from those other beliefs. Rather they are part of the very foundation of your system of beliefs. Other examples of properly basic beliefs would include things like belief in the reality of the external world around you and the physical objects in it, belief in the reality of the past, that the world was not created just five minutes ago with built in appearances of age, or the presence of other minds besides yourself.

When you think about it, beliefs like these cannot be proven on the basis of some other more foundational beliefs. Rather these are part of your very foundations of your system of beliefs. How could you prove, for example, that you are not just a body lying in the Matrix wired up with electrodes, being stimulated to live in a sort of virtual reality, making you think that you are here in this world listening to this class, when in fact you are actually just lying in the Matrix with tubes and wires coming out of you? There is no way that you can prove that that was false. Or imagine the belief that the world was not created five minutes ago. How could you prove that the world wasn’t created five minutes ago with built-in memory traces in our brains from events that never happened,2 breakfasts in our stomachs from meals we never really ate, and all the other appearances of age? There is no way to disprove that sort of wild hypothesis. Or how could you prove that there are other minds besides yourself? How could you prove that other people are not just soulless automata that exhibit all of the external behavior of a person with a mind, but in fact they are just really robot-like androids with no interior life? There is no way to prove any of those beliefs. These are just basic beliefs that are part of the foundations of our knowledge, rather than beliefs that you try to prove from some more foundational belief.

Properly Basic Beliefs Are Not Arbitrary

Although these beliefs are basic for us, that does not mean that these beliefs are arbitrary. And this is the second premise. Although these beliefs are basic, that does not mean they are arbitrary. Rather, these beliefs are grounded in the sense that they are formed in the context of certain experiences. For example, in the context of hearing and seeing and feeling things around me, I naturally form the belief that there are certain physical objects around me which I am sensing. Although this may be a basic belief which is not provable, nevertheless, it is not an arbitrary belief. It is grounded in my experience. It is perfectly rational to hold a belief like this unless you have some overriding reason to think that you are deluded. That is to say, unless you have some sort of defeater of this basic belief. In the absence of such a defeater, you are perfectly rational to entertain these basic beliefs. You would have to be crazy if you really thought that you were a body lying in the Matrix and that everything around you is illusory or if you thought the world around you was created five minutes ago. So although these beliefs are basic, they are not arbitrary. Rather, they are properly basic because they are formed in the context of certain experiences.


Question: Why isn’t this an argument?

Answer: I am arguing that belief in God can be properly basic. So there is an argument here. But I am not arguing that we should infer the existence of God from experience or from this argument. In other words, I am giving an argument; but it is an argument for the position that it is rational to believe in God without argument.

Followup: I thought you said in the beginning that this was for a person that didn’t have an argument for God.

Answer: Right, a person who doesn’t have any arguments for God’s existence! I am giving an argument that that person can believe in God in a properly basic way, grounded in his experience of God, as we will see. This is the same way that you and I believe in the reality of the external world or the reality of the past. I am not giving an argument for the reality of the past or for the external world, but I am giving an argument for why it is rational to believe those things without arguments.

Question: Do you think that God was alluding to this when he answered Moses, and he said “I AM.” So just the fact that we exist is foundational to God’s existence.

Answer: I don’t know. As you will see in a moment, I am going to argue that the biblical view of the knowledge of God is that it is properly basic. Whether or not that would be a proof text I would appeal to, I am not sure. It did seem that Moses had a sort of experience there that was self-authenticating. When you come face-to-face with God in that way, you know it is God, and there is no mistaking that. It would be properly basic for Moses to believe that. But that isn’t a text that I had thought of appealing to.

Question: If we are in a Matrix, then who is controlling the Matrix?

Answer: Right, we do not know. We wouldn’t know. This isn’t an argument that there is no reality. Here is another popular example that philosophers often use.3 Maybe you are a brain in a vat of chemicals wired up with electrodes, and some mad scientist is stimulating you to believe that you are here listening to this class. Obviously, that doesn’t imply that there is no reality outside of your brain. There is the mad scientist, the laboratory, the electrodes – all of that is real and exists. But you wouldn’t know about it, and the people around you here that you see and, indeed, your own hands and your head are all illusions that the mad scientist is creating in you. There isn’t any way to disprove that kind of hypothesis. What you can simply say is the belief that I have a head is a properly basic belief, and in the absence of some defeater for that belief, I am perfectly rational to go on believing it, and, indeed, I think I know that I have a head.

Question: Another process that people can go through that don’t have an argument is Pascal’s Wager, where you think the evidence is equally balanced, nevertheless you choose to believe in God because the benefits of believing seem to outweigh the benefits if you reject. Can you comment on that?

Answer: This is a very good point. What you are talking about is not belief in God as properly basic, but belief in God in terms of practical reasoning, not theoretical reasoning. Pascal and certain other philosophers have argued that if you are in a situation where the evidence is equal – 50/50 – that God exists, you can have practical reasons for believing in God that would make it justifiable to believe in him. For example, Pascal’s view is that if you believe in God and you are right, then you have infinite gain – eternal life. On the other hand, if you believe in God and you are wrong, well, you have lost nothing, or very little – maybe you have given up the pleasures of sin for a season, but not much. On the other hand, if you don’t believe in God and he exists, then you have suffered infinite loss because you will be separated from him forever. If you do not believe in him and he doesn’t exist, well, then you have gained the pleasures of sin for a season but that is finite compared with the infinite loss you might suffer. So Pascal argues that you have infinity to gain by believing and infinity to lose by not believing, so practical reason dictates that you ought to believe. Pascal’s Wager is the subject of a great deal of controversy and some very interesting things have been written about it. I talk about it in the book Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview which I wrote with J. P. Moreland. If you are interested in this justification for the belief in God, take a look at the chapter in that book.

The essential difference between this approach, this Pascal approach, and properly basic belief in God is this: Pascal’s approach would be that you can be justified in believing in God in the absence of any warrant for it, that it is OK to believe something without warrant. The view that the belief in God is properly basic says that you are warranted in believing in God, but you are warranted in believing in it, not by an argument, but in a properly basic way. So it is very different. One is trying to say you can believe in God without any warrant at all – by just gambling, as it were. The other way is to say that you are warranted in believing in God, but in a non-inferential way. You are warranted in believing in God in a properly basic way, just as your belief in the external world is warranted or your belief in the reality of the past is warranted. Those aren’t just gambles. You are warranted in believing in those things. That separates these two approaches as very, very different from each other. I will say something more about properly basic belief and fideism (is this just by faith?) and how does warrant work here; but that will be later on.

Question: These would be existential proofs rather than objective proofs, correct?

Answer: I think I understand what you mean by saying that. They are not inferential. You do not say “If ..., therefore, God exists.”4 But it is more existential in the sense that you just have this belief in the context of this experience. So, yes, I think that would be a fair way to characterize it.

Question: Would you be making the argument that a belief based on sense data is more likely than, say, a belief contrary to our senses? You say it is basic, but if something goes against our senses, could that be a properly basic belief as well?

Answer: It would depend if you had some sort of experience that would ground that. Obviously, sometimes our senses do mislead us. We see the stick in the jar of water, and it looks bent, but we don’t believe that because we have a defeater for that. We know, by optics, that the light is refracted when it goes through the water, so the stick looks bent. Because of that defeater, that defeats that properly basic belief that the stick is bent. These beliefs that are known in a properly basic way are not indubitable. They can be revised if there are defeaters for them. Sometimes, you are quite right, we deny something that our senses tell us. We say it is a mirage or it is due to some other aspect of our sensory experience that isn’t the way reality is. But what we do say is that in the absence of a defeater, it is perfectly rational to go with what our senses tell us. Don’t think of “properly basic” as meaning “indubitable” or “unrevisable” because that is clearly not right. The idea is that in the absence of a defeater, you are justified with going with your experience and what you experience tells you.

Defense of Premise (2)

The second claim that I want to make is:

2. Belief that the biblical God exists is appropriately grounded.

The Inner Witness of the Holy Spirit

This can be a properly basic belief on our part. It seems to me that the fundamental way in which we, as Christians, know that God exists is not through argument. I think that arguments are sufficient to know that God exists, but they are not necessary. I want to suggest that the fundamental way in which we know that God exists is through the self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit.

What do I mean by the self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit? I mean the experience of the Holy Spirit is veridical – that is to say, it is an experience of a genuine reality. It tells us something that is true about reality. It is unmistakable for the person who has it. For the person who has the witness of the Holy Spirit and attends to it, he cannot be mistaken in thinking that it is the Holy Spirit. That doesn’t mean, however, that it is irresistible or indubitable. We can grieve the Holy Spirit through sin. We can repress the Holy Spirit by refusing to allow him to fill us – so we can resist the Holy Spirit. But for the person who attends to it and responds to it, the experience of the Holy Spirit is veridical and unmistakable.

I also mean that such a person doesn’t need to have supplementary arguments or evidences in order to know, and know with confidence, that he is, in fact, experiencing the Spirit of God. You can have supplementary arguments, but you don’t need them.

I also mean that this experience doesn’t function as a premise in an argument for God from religious experience. It is not as though you argue, “I have this experience of the witness of the Holy Spirit, and the best explanation of this is that God exists.” This is not an argument from religious experience. Rather, the idea here is that this is the immediate experience of God himself, so that belief in God is formed in a properly basic way.

I also mean that, in certain contexts, the experience of the Holy Spirit will imply that we apprehend certain truths about God like “God loves me” or “I am guilty before God” or “God forgives me through Christ” or “I am reconciled to God through Christ” or “Christ lives within me,” and so forth. In certain contexts, these beliefs will be apprehended by the witness of the Holy Spirit.5

And I mean that such an experience gives a person not only a subjective assurance of Christianity’s truth – it is not just that he feels confident – but rather that he actually knows that Christianity is true. He has an objective knowledge that God exists and has revealed himself in Christ.

And finally, I mean that arguments and evidence which are incompatible with these truths are simply overwhelmed by the experience of the Holy Spirit for the person who fully attends to it.

The New Testament teaches that this is the way in which we know that God exists and that Christianity is true, whether you are a believer or an unbeliever. Let me say that, at first blush, this appeal to Scripture might appear circular or self-defeating, as if to say we should believe in the witness of the Holy Spirit because this is what Scripture teaches. “We should believe there is a self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit on the basis of this other thing” would seem to be self-defeating. But insofar as we are all Christians here today and this is an in-house discussion among people who do accept the authority of Scripture, I think it is entirely appropriate to look at what the Bible has to say about the way in which we know that God exists. If we were talking with a non-Christian, obviously we wouldn’t appeal to the Bible to justify this. We would simply share with that person, “I do experience the witness of the Holy Spirit, and he does give me assurance of these truths.” But among friends, so to speak, or among family, I think it is entirely appropriate to ask, “What does the Bible teach about how we know that God exists and Christianity is true?” I think we will see that, in fact, it does teach that we know the truth of the great things of the Gospel through the witness of the Holy Spirit.


Question: Wouldn’t it be easier to prove the authority of the Bible through the basic knowledge of sense perception and causality? Peter said, “We don’t believe in myths” and “We report what we see and hear” and that the authority of the Bible can be proven. Therefore, if you can prove the authority of the Bible, then you can go from there. This seems easier.

Answer: There are a number of things to say here. One is, even if that were easier, it would still be self-defeating because in that case you would not be believing in this in a properly basic way. You would be believing in it on the basis of Scripture.

Followup: Yeah, but you are basing it on truth. Things that are historical, things that happened.

Answer: No, it is not an argument, anymore than my belief in the external world is an argument that is based on sense experience. The idea is that this is a properly basic belief, and it isn’t an inference from anything. Let me say something else about what you said. I think that the view you expressed also has the disadvantage that it would rule out faith for anybody who didn’t have the Bible. Somebody, say, who doesn’t have it translated into his own language – and there are millions of people like that today. Or somebody who doesn’t have literacy skills, and so can’t read the Bible. I want to say that these persons aren’t shut out from salvation because of their illiteracy or their lack of translations of the Bible into their languages. If they hear the Gospel preached to them by a short wave radio, say, or by a friend or a missionary, I want to say that that person is rational in believing in the Gospel even if he has no evidence whatsoever that the Bible is true and can’t even read the Bible.6

Followup: I agree with that. But I thought you said that you really can’t prove the authority of the Bible. Did I misunderstand that?

Answer: I think you did misunderstand. What I said was that my appeal to the Bible here to help you see that this is the way in which we know God exists should not be thought to be circular because we are Christians and we do believe that the Bible is true and so it is totally appropriate for us to ask what the Bible has to say about how we know God exists.

Followup: But my faith is based on the twelve apostles and what they saw and what they heard. That is just the intellectual part.

Answer: What does the Scripture say? I am going to talk about this later on, but I want you to look at 1 John 5:9. John is reflecting on the apostolic testimony to Jesus, and he talks about the witnesses to Christ: the Spirit, the water, and the blood. The water is probably Jesus’ baptism, and the blood is his crucifixion. So these are the bookends of Jesus’ earthly ministry. The Spirit, the water, and the blood, he says, are the witnesses. And then in verse 9 he says, “If we receive the testimony of men,” (this is the apostolic testimony that you were just talking about) “the testimony of God is greater; for the testimony of God is this, that He has testified concerning His Son.” (He is talking there about the witness of the Spirit; remember there are three witnesses, the Spirit, the water, and the blood.) “The one who believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself.” I think that John is teaching that, as great as the apostolic testimony is and as credible as it is, it pales in comparison to the testimony of the Holy Spirit himself, who lives within us and gives us testimony that this is true. We should not think of these as competing with each other (and I wasn’t suggesting you did), but I do want to say that, biblically, in addition to historical evidences and testimony, there is this other thing called “the witness of the Holy Spirit” that is even greater and will apply to people who are illiterate and even mentally retarded people who can’t understand an argument for God’s existence. That person can believe rationally, too, because of the witness of the Holy Spirit.

Question: Certainly that is true that through the witness of the Holy Spirit for someone without the Bible we can come to a knowledge of the great truths of the Gospel. But most of us live in contexts where we have heard of the Bible, we have heard the evidences of God’s existence.

Answer: That is certainly true for those of us who had the benefit of living in America. But we need to think globally and historically. When you think globally, the vast majority of the world’s population doesn’t have the education, the library resources, or the leisure time to study arguments and evidence for God’s existence. Nor have most of the millions of people that have lived in the past, who were largely illiterate and never had the opportunity to do this. When we think globally and historically, there has got to be some way of knowing these things, I think, apart from apologetics and arguments and evidence. We will go into this in a lot more detail, but I think you can already see the interesting questions that this raises about how we know the great truths of the Gospel.

Question: What came to my mind when you were talking was when Christ said he was going to send the Holy Spirit. And that really is what he was saying – he is imparting this to us so that we would know this is real and this really happened.

Answer: I think that is right. What John says here in 1 John 5 is almost an echo of what Jesus says in John 14-16 about the ministry of the Holy Spirit. We will look at those passages next time.

Next time we will look at the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer, and then we will look at the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the unbeliever. And I will argue that in both cases the way in which we should know that God exists is primarily through the witness of his Holy Spirit.7


1 John Hick, “Introduction,” in The Existence of God, ed. with an Introduction by John Hick, Problems of Philosophy Series (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1964), pp. 13-14.

2 5:06

3 10:03

4 14:58

5 20:08

6 24:57

7 Total Running Time: 30:09