Evaluating a Premise: More on Basic Beliefs

In a previous post in this series, I discussed what are called properly basic beliefs. Because this is a frequently misunderstood idea in my experience thus far, I thought I’d add a dedicated but brief exposition of the idea and when it is and is not appropriate.

A really great example of this goes back to the philosopher and mathematician RenĂ© Descartes. In his philosophical work, he discusses a very interesting question – is there anything that can be known so surely that it is impossible to doubt Descartes was able to rule out many extremely obvious beliefs we all hold as possible solutions to his question. For example, if it is even possible that a demonic being is deceiving our five senses (which on a purely logical level it most certainly seems to be), then nothing we see, taste, feel, hear, or smell is impossible to doubt, because we could doubt those things if the demon really existed.

However, Descartes arrives at a now-famous saying that provides a real solution to his question. The saying is cogito ergo sum – which translates to English as I think, therefore I am. Descartes’ point here is that you cannot be deceived into believing that you exist (more specifically that you are a thinking thing) because you cannot deceive a thing that is incapable of thought. You cannot, for instance, convince a rock that it doesn’t exist. Similarly, because you have thoughts, you must exist.

This is a famous example of what I mean by properly basic beliefs. A properly basic belief would be a belief that has within itself such strong justification for its truth that there is no reason to doubt it without immense counterevidence. That we exist is a very extreme example of a properly basic belief, but there are many more – some of which I have already mentioned in this article. Here are a few examples of kinds of beliefs that I would consider properly basic:

  • Our memories are mostly reliable.
  • The past actually happened (the universe was not created five minutes ago with an appearance of being older).
  • Our five senses are reliable.
  • The physical world around us actually exists.
  • I have arms, legs, fingers, etc.
  • My name is (fill in your name here).
  • Our own emotional states (i.e. “I am happy right now”).
  • People that I meet every day actually have thoughts and feelings – that is, they have minds just like I do.

It is worth noting that most of these things actually don’t pass Descartes’ test of “impossible to doubt.” The so-called “Evil Demon Hypothesis” can be used to hypothetically doubt all of these. However, there is no real reason to think that the evil demon world is actually the way things are. You could try to ‘debunk’ many of these with talk of being in a very long dream, or that we are all living in the Matrix, or that the entire world is a computer program. But none of these things are really serious reasons to question whether I actually have arms or not. My experience of having arms is in and of itself enough reason for me to reject any claim that I don’t have arms.

For an extremely deep discussion about properly basic beliefs, see Alvin Plantinga’s work. In this work, he even points out that if Christianity is in fact true, the the witness of the Holy Spirit would make our belief that God exists into a properly basic belief (I am oversimplifying here – I’ll try to write more on this once I feel educated enough on the matter to not misrepresent Plantinga). This example is much more controversial, and admittedly does depend on Christianity being true – and in fact Islam, Judaism, and Mormonism can make similar claims. But, philosophically, all this ends up meaning is that there is no “de jure objection” to belief that God exists, that there are only “de facto objections.” The distinction here is that you can try to show why someone is incorrect in something they believe in two ways. You can try to convince them that it is false (this is what de facto means). The other is more subtle – if you can convince someone that believes X that by believing X they end up in some way undermining their ability to rationally believe that X is true, then that is a good reason to stop believing X. This is what de jure means. As an example, a belief that leads one to believe that humans are incapable of thought is irrational, because that belief is itself embedded within the world of thought, so to speak. The argument that Alvin Plantinga makes is, in summary, that properly basic beliefs cannot be shown to be irrational, because there is nothing “deeper” than them that can be undermined.

And this is really the point of a belief that is properly basic. It is a kind of belief that is so foundational to our experience of reality that there is nothing “deeper” we can appeal to. For anyone who wants to learn more, Plantinga discusses some of these things in his book Warranted Christian Belief and other books that appear in a series with this one.

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