Robert presents a scenario which he seems to believe presents a problem for an account of religious beliefs as being properly basic. It goes like this:
“imagine a biologist is confronted with new evidence that common descent is wrong, and replies, ‘That can’t be right. I have an inner witness that confirms common descent!'”
Now at this point we are supposed to shake our head at any scientist who would reason so. And then we are supposed to point the finger back to ourselves: “Wait, is that how I reason when it comes to God? Do I proceed from an inner witness? But if it is absurd for the case of the scientist, surely it is absurd for me as well.”
Therefore, properly basic accounts of religious belief are defeated, right?
Not so fast. There are two problems with Robert’s reductio.
Properly Basic and Properly Non-Basic Belief
The first problem is that Robert’s illustration is based on a kind of knowledge which all people agree is not properly basic. In other words, human beings do not first come to scientific truths through the kind of immediate intuition described in Robert’s scenario. Rather, they first come to those beliefs through the non-basic process of a posteriori investigation and testing in the natural world. Consequently, it looks bizarre for the scientist to propose that he could gain knowledge about the natural world in the way described here precisely because it is bizarre.
But what the illustration fails to recognize is that there are many sources of knowledge and rational belief which are immediate and intuitive: for example, our basic knowledge and rational beliefs borne of rational intuition, moral intuition, and intuition of danger. So Robert’s illustration mischaracterizes the nature of scientific investigation and then proceeds without argument to assume that beliefs about God must be acquired in the non-basic way the scientist acquires his beliefs rather a properly basic way parallel to rational intuition, moral intuition and danger intuition. In other words, Robert’s illustration begs the question.
Defeaters for Properly Basic Beliefs
This brings me to the second point. Note that Robert’s scenario depicts the scientist not simply gaining scientific knowledge by appeal to intuition. Instead, he proposes to defeat a defeater by way of intuition. But many if not most advocates of properly basic accounts of religious belief (like Alvin Plantinga and yours truly) do not take this view that immediate intuition is an intrinsic defeater defeater. Rather, we are of the view that countervailing evidence can provide a defeater for one’s religious belief which can undermine the justification of that belief.
Here’s an example. Imagine that Alice goes to a revival meeting in her church with the Rev. Billy Praiseworthy. In the middle of the meeting Pastor Praiseworthy lays hands on Alice and she feels a burst of energy surge through her body. Immediately she is enveloped in a sea of love and she falls to the floor to do “carpet time”. The next day Alice tells everyone that God met her at the meeting.
Then Alice’s pastor invites her into his office to watch a news investigation that shows Billy Praiseworthy is misappropriating ministry funds. The documentary also lays out how Praiseworthy uses well known psychological techniques to induce “God-like experiences” in the people who attend his meetings. The phenomena described comport closely with what Alice experienced. All this information could reasonably be taken to provide what epistemologists call an undercutting defeater to the divine origin of Alice’s experience. That is to say, she still may have experienced God, for the evidence doesn’t directly rebut the claim. But it does undercut her reason for believing she experienced God.
And that would, broadly speaking, be my view. I would think it epistemically prudent for Alice at the very least to be agnostic about the divine origin of her experience, at least until further evidence might arise to confirm it. What might that evidence look like? Well let’s say that Alice was an alcoholic and yet as a result of that encounter she lost all taste for alcohol. This could be taken as evidence that her experience was not simply the manipulation of a huckster. We can debate what kind of evidence would undercut Alice’s belief. But at least we can agree that some evidence could undermine it. And for that reason, Robert’s suggestion that properly basic accounts of religious belief must treat those properly basic beliefs as intrinsic defeater defeaters is false.
A Footnote on Intrinsic Defeater Defeaters
Let’s end with a footnote. I said that intuitive forms of belief are not intrinsic defeater defeaters. This means that an intuitive form of belief is in principle falsifiable, it is vulnerable to epistemic defeat from counter-evidence. But that does not mean that any old bit of evidence is sufficient to undermine justification that arises from a properly basic process. Imagine, for example, that Tim believes that rape is always wrong, and he believes this as a result of a pre-reflective but very powerful moral intuition. Tim then attends a lecture by an evolutionary psychologist who argues that rape is not always wrong. Tim may be unable to provide a defeater to the case presented by the evolutionary psychologist, but that does not mean the evolutionary psychologist’s argument is sufficient to undermine Tim’s justification for believing rape is always evil.
So while properly basic beliefs can be defeated by counter evidence, they are not vulnerable to any old bit of evidence which one might proffer.