Chapter 2


Of the three characteristic themes of Reformed epistemology that are being discussed in this chapter and the following two, that of the proper basicality of belief in God is the one that has received most attention in recent discussions, i.e., by such as Plantinga, Wolterstorff and  Alston.   It may be that a too exclusive concern with this one theme may lead to a somewhat distorted view of Reformed epistemology as a whole, an imbalance that I shall seek to redress in the following chapters.   However, in this present chapter I shall be mainly concerned to present a particular account of how belief in God could be held to be properly basic which differs in some important respects from that of the contemporary writers and which also seeks to go beyond them – or, at least, beyond that of Plantinga – to a fuller  account of the way in which a properly basic belief in God may be grounded in experience.  The resulting account is by no means free from fairly substantial philosophical problems but it does represent an attempt to come up with an account of this first theme which is as coherent and complete as possible.

I shall first briefly outline what I mean by belief in God since this is what is being taken to be properly basic.   To say that this belief is properly basic is to make a claim about its justifiedness or rationality so I shall also give a brief outline of what I am taking to be the nature of epistemic justification.   To talk of a belief being basic and properly so is to espouse some version of foundationalism so I shall attempt to develop a case for foundationalism against its main contemporary alternatives.

Foundationalism comes in various forms but I shall focus mainly on an intuitionist form which makes much of the idea of immediate awareness and I shall seek to develop this with relation to belief in God.   Finally I shall indicate some ways in which it may be possible to respond to some major objections to this kind of account of properly basic belief.


I shall assume in what follows a traditional orthodox Christian view of the nature of God as, apparently, have the majority of Reformed epistemologists.   In other words, I shall assume that God is, among other things, personal, infinite, the self–existent Creator of everything outside of himself, both transcendent and immanent, holy, omnipotent, omniscient and loving.   Philosophical problems concerning many of these attributes and the relations among them I shall leave to one side for the purposes of this study.

‘Belief in God’ is ambiguous between ‘belief that God exists’ and ‘trust in God’.   Belief that God exists is belief that ‘God exists’ is a true statement.   Trust in God, on the other hand, involves commitment, reliance, dependence and other such personal relations between the believer and God.   The ambiguity is between propositional belief and what might be termed ‘personal’ belief.

Two opposite kinds of reduction are possible because of this ambiguity.   On the one hand, it is possible to reduce belief in God to its cognitive component in a way that equates it with purely empirical belief so that belief that God exists is on a level with belief that an object in the universe exists.   The opposite position reduces belief in God to its conative component and guts commitment of its cognitive elements altogether.   Belief in God is certainly more than assenting to or accepting the proposition ‘God exists’ but I shall assume that it is at least that.   I shall assume that one cannot trust in God or commit oneself to God without believing that he exists.   The converse may not hold since the Bible tells us that the devils believe that God exists but it would seem odd to suggest that they trust in God.   The Bible adds that they also tremble so perhaps the belief that God exists is of such a kind that it is usually, if not always, accompanied by a certain affective attitude towards God, if not trust then perhaps fear.

Plantinga, Wolterstorff and other present–day Reformed epistemologists insist on this cognitive aspect of belief in God.1    Indeed, it would seem that this is at least one important respect in which their position differs from that of many philosophers of religion who propose varieties of what has come to be termed Wittgensteinian contextualism.   Reformed epistemologists generally seem to take belief in God to be an existential belief rather than, say, a commitment to an attitude or policy or way of living which does not have any entailment of the existence of God.

It would appear to be this cognitive core that is to the fore in talk of the proper basicality of belief in God so I shall generally use ‘belief in God’ as a shorthand for ‘belief that God exists’.


If a belief is properly basic for a person then, it would seem, he is epistemically justified in taking it to be basic.   This is not the same as being morally justified or being prudentially justified in doing so.   Epistemic justification is usually taken to have something to do with the aim of maximising truth and avoiding falsity in a large body of beliefs.2   Replacing the aim of maximising truth and minimising falsity by that of maximising moral goodness and minimising moral badness could serve to demarcate the area of moral justification.3   Likewise, the aim of maximising physiological, psychological, social and other forms of non–moral well–being and minimising their opposites could do the same for the area of prudential or pragmatic justification.   The relationships and order of priority among these aims are themselves problematic4 as is also the issue of the justification of the aims themselves.   However, in what follows, I shall be concerned with epistemic justification and I shall take its sphere to be defined approximately along the lines indicated.

Epistemic (and other kinds of) justification would also seem to be a matter of degree.   A belief may be more or less strongly or weakly justified.   An acceptable degree of justification would seem to be less than absolute because to insist otherwise would be to restrict the set of justified beliefs over much.

Prima facie justification is to be distinguished from ultima facie or all–things–considered justification.   Here ‘prima facie justified’ is to be taken not in the conditional sense of ‘justified provided certain conditions are met and otherwise not at all justified’ but in the sense of ‘having some degree of justification and justified on balance if the justification is not defeated’.5   This distinction is independent of that between strong and weak justification and a prima facie justified belief may well be strongly justified in that its grounds may be more than adequate for rational acceptance.

A further distinction of importance is that between the state or condition of being justified in believing something and the activity ofshowing that one is so justified.   I shall take it that it is possible to be justified in a belief without engaging in the activity of showing to another or even to oneself that one is.   I suggest too that being able to show that one is justified in believing something is distinct from being so justified and that it is unnecessary for being so justified since, after all, most people are unable to carry out a justification of any of their perceptual or introspective beliefs.6


Justification in general and epistemic justification in particular is, in a broad sense, an ‘evaluative’ notion.   In this sense, it contrasts with ‘factual’ in that it refers to a condition which is considered desirable, valuable or commendable from an epistemic point of view, i.e., from that of the aim of maximising truth and minimising falsity.   However, there is a narrower sense of ‘evaluative’ as well in which it is contrasted with what is usually termed ‘normative’, and sometimes ‘deontological’, justification.

Prominent among the epistemologists that make this distinction is William Alston.   He says that normative justification “has to do with how we stand vis–a–vis our intellectual duties or obligations, obligations that attach to one qua cognitive subject, qua truth seeker” whereas evaluative justification has to do with the assessment of a person’s condition “as a desirable or a favourable one from an epistemic point of view, vis–a–vis the aim of the attainment of truth and the avoidance of error”.7   Alston adduces examples of cases where practices of belief formation could be justified in one sense but not in the other.   He suggests that a naive member of an isolated, primitive tribe who, along with his fellows, unhesitatingly accepts the traditions of the tribe is normatively justified in doing so if he has no reasons for doubting the reliability of these traditions but he might not be evaluatively justified since this might not in fact be a reliable method of maximising truth and minimising error.   Alston’s second example is of a person who has been presented with evidence that is overwhelming but entirely spurious that for about half the time over the previous ten years he has been in a physiological laboratory where his sensory experience was artificially produced.   In such circumstances the person in question would be evaluatively justified in taking his perceptual belief–forming mechanism to be reliable because as a matter of fact it is reliable but he would not be normatively justified in doing so because he has stronger reasons for not taking it to be reliable.

In spite of the presence of a normative element in the very use of the term ‘justification’, some have claimed that it does not make sense to talk of intellectual obligations or duties since our believings are not, they say, subject to our direct voluntary control.   The “‘ought’ implies ‘can'” principle would require that they be so but it is generally, if not always, the case that we cannot simply will, decide or choose to believe something.   We cannot help believing something if we have sufficient grounds or evidence and we cannot refrain from believing what we already believe unless we are persuaded by an amount of contrary evidence or grounds.  There is, however, an effective response to this and that is to appeal to the possibility of indirect voluntary control over our beliefs.  Unless we take a wholly determinist point of view, it would seem plausible to suggest that we can choose to engage in activities that influence the conditions under which our beliefs are formed and maintained.   A useful analogy is with the obligation to be in good health and the steps we can take to influence the conditions that make for good or bad health.8   So, if we can do something to influence our beliefs, it would seem that it does make sense to talk of intellectual obligations.

In view of the conceptual link between ‘justification’ and ‘obligation’, it would seem plausible to suggest that meeting one’s intellectual obligations is necessary for justified belief.   But is it sufficient?   Certainly, some specifications of a normative criterion of rational belief seem to leave one looking for more.   An example is Nicholas Wolterstorff’s proposal of such a criterion:

“A person S is rational in his eluctable and innocently produced belief Bp if and only if S does believe p and either:

(i) S neither has nor ought to have adequate reason to cease from believing p, and is not rationally obliged to believe that he does have adequate reasons to cease; or

(ii) S does have adequate reason to cease from believing p but does not realize that he does, and is rationally justified in that.”9

An ‘eluctable’ belief here is one that the person could have refrained from believing through the exercise of voluntary control whether direct or indirect.   The main problem with this criterion is that it rests on an ‘innocent–until–proved–guilty’ principle and is essentially negative, making rationality a matter of not being obliged not to hold a belief.   Believing is therefore rational as long as it is not irrational but this seems a fairly minimal notion in the light of the epistemic aim of maximising truth and minimising falsity.   Taking normative justification as a matter of merely being rationally permitted to go on believing something in the absence of negative considerations seems somewhat inadequate and leaves many people wanting something more.

Perhaps, the ‘something more’ is the strengthening of what seems a weak principle.   This could be a replacement of the ‘innocent–until–proved–guilty’ principle by a ‘guilty–until–proved–innocent’ principle.   This distinction derives from a famous debate in the ethics of belief between W. K. Clifford and William James and the harsher principle can be seen to underlie the objections to belief in God brought by Clifford and some other evidentialists opposed by Plantinga.   But this stronger requirement seems too strong since it would exclude as irrational many of our beliefs that are generally accepted.   We can not surely be expected to refrain from believing anything unless we have evidence or reasons for doing so.   Perhaps it can reasonably be asked of us in relation to certain doubtful or controversial beliefs but surely not in relation to most of our everyday beliefs, e.g., our ordinary perceptual beliefs.   If so, strengthening the normative principle to this extent cannot satisfy our demands for something more for rational acceptability.

Perhaps, the something more is also something else – something other than a purely normative criterion.    Evaluative justification was defined above as having to do with the assessment of a person’s condition as a desirable or a favourable one from an epistemic point of view.   A person may have done all that could be required of him in relation to the formation and maintaining of his beliefs and still be in a very unfavourable position with regard to the aim of maximising truth and minimising error, as, for example, the case of the culturally isolated mentioned by Alston.   The analogy with health could be used here again since the ill effects of some kind of physical handicap could be totally outside a person’s control.   This is a different concept of epistemic justification and some would argue that ‘justification’ is not a wholly appropriate term to apply to favourable status from an epistemic point of view where there is no reference made to intellectual obligation.   However, its usage in this way seems fairly well established in the literature and provided it is being understood in this wider sense it seems sensible to continue with it.

Of course, how precisely this kind of concept might be ‘filled out’ is not specified in merely formulating it in terms of favourable status from the point of view of maximising truth (any more than the normative one is without specifying intellectual obligations).  Plantinga’s ‘working properly’ notion would be one way of specifying an evaluative concept more precisely as would various versions of reliabilism where to say that a belief was formed in a reliable way is, more or less, to say that it was formed in a way that can generally be relied upon to form true rather than false beliefs.   Without being more specific at this stage, I shall assume that for a belief to be justified – or, more particularly, for a belief to be properly basic – it is necessary not only that the believer fulfil his intellectual obligations but also that he be in a favourable position from the point of view of maximising truth and minimising falsity.  For the present, I leave open the basis on which this evaluative status may ‘supervene’.


The distinction between internalist and externalist approaches to epistemic justification has only come to prominence in the post–Gettier age of epistemology.   Internalist approaches held sway from the time of Descartes until such as D. M. Armstrong began to talk of an alternative.10

The internalist holds that the believer’s perspective upon a situation is of central importance for the justification of his beliefs.  Epistemic justification of a belief depends upon what support or ground is available for it from within the believer’s perspective so that it is based on matters which are in some significant sense internal to that perspective.   Internalist accounts differ in relation to acceptable kinds of support or grounding relations and what can be regarded as being within the believer’s perspective.   Some limit the support relationship to inference and the believer’s perspective to his other beliefs or, more narrowly, to his other justified beliefs.   Others include a grounding relationship which is not inferential and they extend the believer’s perspective to include his experiences in variously broad or narrow senses of ‘experience’.   Alston suggests that what a belief is based upon could even include psychological states and what goes on below the conscious level, e.g., subconscious processes in the formation of short–term perceptual beliefs.11

On the other hand, the externalist holds that what matters for the justification of a belief is the obtaining of a relation between the believer and the world which is such as to make it at least probable that his belief is true.   This relation has been characterised in a number of ways: Armstrong wrote of a ‘nomological relation’, others of a causal relation and many make reference to the reliability of belief–forming mechanisms.   What is radical about externalist approaches is that the relation between the believer and the world which justifies his belief may be entirely external to his own perspective upon the world.   No awareness of this relation is required of the believer for him to be justified in believing as he does.

At first sight, it might seem that this could be better termed a subjectivist/objectivist distinction.   However, the distinction between subjective and objective can be made among internalist approaches themselves.   Indeed, most internalist approaches would be (at least partly) objectivist in that they make much of logical relations among propositions as determinants of whether beliefs are justified as against (purely) subjectivist considerations of, say, personal whim or fancy.   It would seem better therefore to use the internalist/externalist terminology.

A common objection to externalist justification is that it provides for the justification of ‘epistemically irresponsible’ believings in that a belief may be justified simply on the basis of relations between the believer and the world which are external to his perspective and regardless of evidence or grounds he may have against the belief or, simply, in the absence of any evidence or grounds for or against it.12   The case where the believer has evidence against the belief can be met by the addition to any statement of an externalist criterion of a non–undermining condition: a belief is justified only if it is not undermined by other beliefs already accepted by the believer.   The case of complete absence of evidence or grounds seems rather more difficult to meet and, I think, constitutes an insuperable objection to externalism.   If it is conceivable that a belief could be produced by some reliable mechanism of which the subject is completely unaware so that, as far as he is concerned, they simply pop into his mind, it seems counter–intuitive to say that such beliefs are justified.   I shall therefore assume that justified beliefs must be based on adequate grounds from within the subject’s perspective on the world.   This excludes unfounded hunches, mere wishful thinking or what are from his point of view accidentally true beliefs.

I am therefore taking for granted that justification should be regarded from a broadly internalist point of view.   I shall not restrict the grounds to other beliefs a person may hold but rather, at least for the present, I shall hold open the possibility of experiences providing grounds for justified beliefs, including those experiences that are religious or aesthetic and not only what we usually term ‘sense experience’.   I shall therefore be assuming that the believer’s perspective upon the world is of importance at least insofar as it is necessary for a belief of his to be justified that he have some awareness of the conditions that justify it.


Talk of the proper basicality of belief in God assumes a foundationalist view of the structure of a person’s beliefs.   Foundationalism comes in a number of different forms, some of which have been identified, as we have seen, by Alvin Plantinga.   All share a view of a person’s justified beliefs and knowledge as of an architectonic structure in which there is an asymmetric relation of physical support between floors and a foundation which supports them all but which is supported by none of them.   Foundationalists disagree as to what the foundations consist of, how fixed and certain they are and how precisely the floors are supported by them.

Coherentism is a leading alternative to foundationalism or, as Ernest Sosa puts it, the choice of metaphors for the structure of justified beliefs is between the pyramid and the raft.13   The raft metaphor – suggested by Otto Neurath – sees the structure of justified beliefs as floating free of any link to an external point by tie or anchor.   Any part can be repaired or replaced but to do so the person must take his stand on other parts.   The relation of support between parts is mutual or symmetric – unlike that between the parts of the foundationalist’s pyramid.

There are other alternatives which show that foundationalism and coherentism may ‘shade off’ into one another.   Quine’s metaphor of the ‘web of beliefs’ is an example of this for, as he puts it, the fabric “impinges upon experience only along the edges” although it is “underdetermined by its boundary conditions, experience”.14   In this figure, there is both the idea of anchoring, albeit of a loose and adjustable kind, and also a distinction between central and peripheral beliefs and both of these elements tend to give something of a foundationalist shade to the picture.    Imre Lakatos’ talk of the hard core and protective belt of his ‘scientific research programmes’ also presents something of an in–between metaphor.

In what follows I shall take it that pure coherentism does not provide an adequate account of epistemic justification.   I do not have space to do much more than mention the arguments involved.   The first of them is that, if coherence is to be a sole criterion for acceptability of a structure of beliefs, this would seem to provide for the possibility of a plurality of internally coherent structures with nothing to choose between them.   A second main and related objection is often referred to as ‘the isolation objection’ and this arises from the belief structure’s detachment from the empirical world or, more generally, from reality.   The problem arises at the periphery of the fabric of coherent beliefs and beliefs there may be replaced by different and inconsistent beliefs without affecting the coherence of the whole structure.   For example, replacement of ‘There is an armchair before me’ by ‘There is a three–legged milking–stool before me’ may not affect the coherence of my belief structure but it is impossible that both be true or justified in the same circumstances.   The point about such beliefs is that they may be at the periphery of the system of coherent beliefs but nevertheless require justification and the justification provided by their coherence with the rest of the structure may be rather weak whereas it would seem plausible to claim that such perceptual beliefs could be very strongly justified.   Both of these objections arise from the fact that pure coherence makes justification a matter which is wholly internal to the system of beliefs and totally unaffected by what lies beyond.   Admittedly this is the response of a realist and this itself is a far from uncontroversial philosophical position but, again, it is one that I do not have space to defend against anti–realist alternatives and I shall therefore have to take it for granted in what follows.

Further problems with pure coherentism include the difficulty of defining coherence and of justifying the adoption of coherence as the sole criterion of rationality.   In taking pure coherentism to be an unacceptable alternative to foundationalism, I am not dismissing coherence altogether as of no relevance to epistemic justification.   On the contrary, it would seem that significant lack of coherence must count against the overall perspective of a belief–system being accepted as true.   How much incoherence is acceptable or in what respects it may be present is difficult to say but at some point it would seem irrational to continue to accept the hard core or basis of an incoherent ‘system’.


The case for the necessity of properly basic beliefs has its starting–point in what has become known as ‘the regress problem’.   If a belief is justified by inference from another belief or set of beliefs, then this belief or set of beliefs requires in turn further beliefs for its justification and a chain of justification is set up.   There are four possible alternatives for this chain:

(i) It continues infinitely;

(ii) It forms a circle or loop;

(iii) It terminates with beliefs that are groundless or unjustified; or

(iv) It terminates with beliefs that are justified otherwise than by being inferred from other beliefs.

The first of these is often dismissed very quickly as if no reason were required for ruling out an infinite regress of justification but such a ready rejection can be questioned.15   Arguments against the rejection of an infinite justificatory regress tend to consist in attempts to produce actual counter–examples and these are usually mathematical.   Ernest Sosa makes a distinction between actual justificatory regresses and those that are merely potential.16   A potential justificatory regress is one of conditional justification so that each member of the chain is justified if its successors are justified.   An actual justificatory regress differs in that not only can each member be justified on the basis of its successors but it is also the case that each member is actually justified.

The example Sosa gives of an actual justificatory regress is as follows:

There is at least one even number

There are at least two even numbers

There at least three even numbers …

If the second of these beliefs is justified then the one above it in the chain, the first, is justified, and if the third is justified then the second is, and so on ad infinitum.   So it is a justificatory regress.   And it is an actual one since it is the case that every one of these beliefs is justified.

Sosa’s example of a potential justificatory regress is as follows:

There is at least one perfect number > 100

There are at least two perfect numbers > 100

There are at least three perfect numbers > 100 …

Again if the second is justified then so is the first, and if the third then so is the second, and so on.   Again this is a justificatory regress but where it differs is in that, if a person has no other belief about perfect numbers apart from the belief that a perfect number is an integer equal to the sum of its whole factors – so that, for example, 28 = 14 + 7 + 4 + 2 + 1 and is therefore perfect – then he is not justified in believing any member of the sequence in spite of the fact that each member is conditionally justified by its successor.

However, I do not think Sosa has shown that there is an actual justificatory regress where the only way of justifying beliefs in the chain is on the basis of their successors.   There is a proof of the denumerably infinite cardinality of the set of even numbers but not, as far as is known, of that of the set of perfect numbers.   In the absence of external information, any infinite justificatory regress is merely potential rather than actual.   This is the essence of proof by mathematical induction where the establishment of the potential justificatory regress is readily seen to be insufficient for proof of a conjecture for all positive integers unless the regress can be terminated by independent demonstration of its truth for the first integer in the chain.

Until an incontrovertible example of an actual justificatory regress is produced then it seems plausible to follow the intuition that rules out an infinite regress of justification.   In addition, it seems questionable to generalise from the rather specialised area of mathematical justification to that of empirical or other beliefs.

The second alternative above was that of the justificatory chain forming a circle or loop.   This seems relatively easy to dispose of since it amounts to the claim that a belief can be ultimately justified by itself.  If the other three alternatives were ruled out, it would mean that all justified beliefs must lie somewhere along circular chains of justification and it would be true of all beliefs that they are ultimately justified by themselves.   It is very difficult to see how all beliefs could be ultimately self–justifying in any straightforward sense of ‘justifying’.

The third alternative is to claim that the justificatory chain terminates with beliefs that are groundless or unjustified.   Something along these lines is the alternative preferred by those who share an outlook that has come to labelled ‘contextualist’.   A very wide range of philosophical viewpoints have had this label applied to them – viewpoints as diverse as those of Pierce, Dewey, Quine, Kuhn and Michael Williams – but perhaps the best known and most influential, not least in relation to religious belief, is that of the later Wittgenstein and such as Norman Malcolm and D. Z. Phillips.   Roughly speaking, the common core of all these approaches is that they make epistemic justification relative to some context of human action and social life.

The solution that contextualism provides for the regress problem is the claim that the justificatory chain terminates with beliefs that are unjustified.   But to sum up the position in such terms, as some indeed do,17 does not really do justice to the subtleties of the contextualist viewpoint when expressed by someone of the stature of Wittgenstein or many of his interpreters.   For to say of such terminating beliefs that they are unjustified is to suggest from the outset that they lack something that they ought to possess.   But this is a long way from what Wittgenstein probably meant when he said that “at the foundation of founded belief lies belief that is not founded”18 or when he asked “Why shouldn’t one form of life culminate in an utterance of belief in the Last Judgement?”.19   These beliefs are not like the beliefs for which they provide grounds for it is meaningless to say of them that they are true or false and it follows from this that it cannot be said of them that they are justified or unjustified.   As Wittgenstein himself said, “If the true is what is grounded, then the ground is not true, nor yet false”.20   Malcolm and others follow in describing such beliefs not as ungrounded but as groundless, because they require no grounds.   Truth, meaning and justification are all interwoven with the practices of a way of life of a human group and religion is a form of such life.   There are no standards of justification, conditions of truth or criteria of meaning that overarch forms of life and ‘language–games’.   Justification is internal to practices of different kinds which are embedded in forms of human life.   Statements of belief are justified by reference to the paradigm–cases in which the use of such statements has been learned.   The framework beliefs which give their distinctive shapes to social and linguistic practices or ‘language–games’ are therefore not beliefs for which it makes sense to require evidence.   Wittgenstein asserts that evidence for religious belief “would destroy the whole business” and goes on to castigate a certain Father O’Hara for adducing evidence saying “if this is religious belief then it is all superstition”.21   Wittgenstein rejects as foolish the demand for evidence for beliefs such as ‘I have two hands’ because of the role such beliefs play in our form of life.22   Scepticism about framework beliefs is meaningless.
It seems very far from adequate to summarise the relevant features of Wittgensteinian philosophy of religion as briefly as this.   An adequate account would merit a complete study in itself and an adequate response rather more.   All one can do is to point very briefly to reasons why a Reformed epistemologist might opt instead for his account of basic belief.  Both Wittgensteinian and Reformed epistemology have in common a rejection of the evidentialist challenge to religious belief, the former on the basis of an appeal to groundless framework beliefs that constitute the religious form of life and the latter on that of appeal to properly basic beliefs that are grounded in experience.   The Wittgensteinian position is bound up with what Bernard Williams calls its ‘transcendental idealism’23 whereas Reformed epistemology generally takes the form of a version of theological realism.   Alston, writing on the subject of the differences between Plantinga’s position and that of the Wittgensteinian, says that Plantinga differs in his insistence that “belief in God is either true or false in a perfectly straightforward sense of these terms, the same sense in which it is either true or false that snow is white”.24   Alston insists that he himself takes an “objective” view of the existence and reality of God and that he finds it meaningful in relation to religion  to ask the question “Is this language–game in touch with reality?”, a question which the Wittgensteinian would not find at all meaningful.25   The gulf between these two kinds of outlook is both deep and wide.   The differences are not only in the area of epistemology but, perhaps more fundamentally, in those of ontology and metaphysics.   They are from the point of view of Reformed epistemology differences in basic belief or, if it can be so stated, from that of the Wittgensteinian contextualist, differences in framework belief.

An adequate defence of the foundationalism of Reformed epistemology would have to show why it is preferable to the position of Wittgenstein and why realism is preferable to idealism and anti–realism.   It can hardly be simply a matter of digging in one’s heels and saying ‘Here I stand’ but to go into these issues now is impossible.   Assuming the adequacy of a realist perspective and finding that, because of this, the contextualist response to the regress problem is inadequate, we are now left with only the fourth alternative, the foundationalist response.

The foundationalist says that justificatory chains terminate with beliefs that are justified otherwise than by being inferred from other beliefs.   But as it stands this statement is negative and relatively uninformative about these basic beliefs.   A part of the task of showing why Reformed epistemology might be preferable to its alternatives is that of providing some account of how its basic beliefs are grounded.   After all, it was presumably dissatisfaction with foundationalism in the first place that made people turn to its alternatives so perhaps the task of providing a more satisfactory account of foundationalism is prior to that of showing flaws in its alternatives.


Mention in philosophical discussion of intuition in general – and of religious intuition in particular – is likely to be met by a ‘knee–jerk’ reaction that kicks it out of court immediately.   Such ready dismissal of a position seems so uncharacteristic and unworthy of philosophers that it is puzzling.   Perhaps the reasons for it are to do with a lack of definition of what might be meant by ‘intuition’ and the assumption that what is being claimed for it is rather more extravagant than is necessarily the case.    I shall attempt to develop a case for a relatively modest version of religious intuitionism as a way of filling out what might be meant by claiming that belief in God is properly basic and, in doing so, I shall try to formulate a more moderate form of foundationalism than that which claims some kind of Cartesian certainty.

Intuition is a rather ambiguous term.   Anthony Quinton distinguishes three senses of the word.26   First, there is what he terms ‘vernacular intuition’.   This is the ability to form correct judgements in circumstances where the kind of evidence usually required to justify them is not available.   This is what ordinary language usage takes intuition to be as, for example, when someone predicts impending disasters without having or being able to point to any evidence for their prediction.   Such intuition entails the truth of that which is intuited so that ‘intuit’ belongs to the same class of words as ‘know’ and ‘remember’.   A second sense of the word refers to what Quinton calls ‘psychological intuition’ and this covers particular beliefs formed by a particular person and accepted by him as justified where such acceptance is not based on inference from other beliefs that he holds.   These beliefs may or may not be true and may or may not be justified although the subject takes them to be justified.   The third sense is Quinton’s ‘logically intuitive beliefs’ and he writes of them:– “The terminal intuitive beliefs that are needed to bring the regress of justification to a stop need not be strictly self–evident in the sense that they somehow justify themselves.   All that is required is that they should not owe their justification to other beliefs.   … (L)ogically intuitive beliefs … do not need support from others (but) are not necessarily excluded from such support.”27

On the matter of support, Quinton distinguishes between ‘essential’ and ‘accidental’ support.   A logically intuitive belief may have accidental support but it does not require it for justification.   A belief that is not logically intuitive does require support to be justified and this support is therefore essential.   He suggests the example of a case where, in poor light conditions, a book is asserted to have a red cover not because the cover can be seen but because it is known to belong to a particular person, all of whose books have red covers.   The belief that the book is red is logically intuitive to the extent that it does not need the support of the general statement that all this person’s books are red and can be seen to be red under the right light conditions.   In this case, the support of the general statement is accidental.28   Logically intuitive beliefs will normally be psychologically intuitive as well but they do not have to be so because they may have (accidental) support which is recognised as such by the subject.   On the other hand, we may accept beliefs without reasons and only later find that they have essential support – so psychologically intuitive beliefs need not be logically intuitive.

Quinton’s ‘logically intuitive’ corresponds to Plantinga’s ‘properly basic’ and his ‘psychologically intuitive’ to being taken as ‘basic’.  Other contemporary foundationalists use ‘immediately justified’ for the former category.   Whether they be termed ‘properly basic’, ‘logically intuitive’ or ‘immediately justified’, the definitions of this category of beliefs that we have had so far share a negativecharacter that does little to say how they are justified apart from excluding their requiring the support of other beliefs.   I shall attempt to sketch out a positive account of one way in which they might be justified.   This is through their grounding in an experience of immediate awareness.


If a basic belief is to be properly basic (or immediately justified or logically intuitive, according to the terminology preferred), then it must be at least prima facie justified and grounded, not groundless.   I have chosen to take a route to epistemic justification which requires not only that the believer’s intellectual obligations be fulfilled but also that his position be a favourable one from the point of view of the aim of maximising truth and minimising falsity.   This differs from the notion of rationality used by Wolterstorff.   I am also assuming that the believer’s own perspective on the world is of importance for the justification of his basic beliefs at least insofar as he has some awareness of the conditions that ground or justify his belief.   This differs from the approach of Plantinga insofar as it is correct to regard his account of ‘working properly’ as externalist.   The question now is whether the notion of immediate awareness can help to provide an adequate account of proper basicality when it is understood in these terms.

Philosophers of both past and present have sought to base their foundationalism in immediate awareness.   A cluster of related terms have been used with ‘immediate’ sometimes replaced by ‘direct’ and ‘awareness’ by ‘consciousness’, ‘apprehension’ or ‘experience’.   Others have talked of objects (the content of perceptual experience, physical objects, sense–data, the meanings of some linguistic terms, etc.) being ‘given’ or ‘presented’ to the awareness.   All seem to be trying to get at the same kind of idea but it has proved very difficult to analyse.   One example of an attempt to analyse it is found in Russell’s definition of what he termed ‘knowledge by acquaintance’:

“I say that I am acquainted with an object when I have a direct cognitive relation to that object, i.e. when I am directly aware of the object itself.   When I speak of a cognitive relation here, I do not mean the sort of relation which constitutes judgement, but the sort which constitutes presentation.”29

Among recent and contemporary attempts to analyse immediate awareness, one of the most careful and thorough is that of Paul K. Moser.30   He puts it forward as a proposed account of empirical justification.   Can it be of help to Reformed epistemology in providing for the grounding of basic beliefs like Plantinga’s ‘God is speaking to me’?    I suspect that Moser would not approve of the application of his account to beliefs that are not empirical in the usual sense of the word but I think an adaptation of it can help to provide one possible account of how basic belief in God can be grounded in experience.   It will have its own weaknesses and limitations but I shall seek to present as adequate an account as possible.   If it is not really adequate for the task, then the tenability of this version of Reformed epistemology’s theme of the proper basicality of belief in God may seem rather doubtful.   But I do think  that it is  somewhere in  the  neighbourhood of this notion of immediate awareness, if anywhere, that a basis for this theme of proper basicality is to be found.   It seems to be an immediate awareness of God and his speaking to people and the sufficiency of the justification provided by this awareness to the corresponding beliefs that is at the heart of what Calvin, Kuyper, Van Til and other Reformed writers attempted to formulate.

Moser treats immediate apprehension as an occurrent psychological state which has phenomenological content without being a belief–state.   This immediate apprehension provides the basis for the immediate justification of a foundational belief without being identical with that belief.   Examples of this kind of awareness include the hearing of a particular tone rather than the hearing of a bell, the smelling of a particular smell rather than the smelling of a rose, the seeing of a bright yellow sphere rather than the seeing of the sun and the tasting of some particularly bitter taste rather than the tasting of vinegar.   It is what we experience when our attention is attracted by a completely novel perceptual object or when we hear two sounds in such quick succession – say, a gunshot followed by the loud ringing of a bell – that we do not have time to conceptualise the first as the sound of a gunshot.

Immediate apprehension is non–propositional, i.e., it does not involve a judgement that something is the case.   It is also non–conceptual, i.e., there is no conceptual relation between the perceiver and the content of his immediate apprehension whereby he engages in any “act of classifying, categorizing, or attributing a property to this content in accordance with some classificatory scheme”.31   Moser suggests that something like this non–conceptual awareness occurs when one counts objects or images without describing them or subsuming them under concepts, e.g., counting sounds rather than counting the chimes of a clock.  Moser argues that if apprehension required conceptualisation then an endless regress of conceptual events would seem to threaten.   The mental activity of classifying an object under a concept requires a (logically) prior awareness of the object to be classified and if this awareness itself required classification then this further mental act of classifying would require a further awareness and so on ad infinitum.   But ordinary perceptual experience would be impossible if such an infinite series of mental acts were required so, whatever apprehension is, it cannot be conceptual.

Moser also argues that the given in the case of immediate apprehension is not some “mere homogenous this” but determinateperceptual content having definite ostensible empirical properties.   This does not require conceptualisation for, he says, “it is possible to apprehend some determinate appearance of blue, for example, without engaging in the additional activity of classifying what one is apprehending, i.e., of deciding whether the appearance being apprehended is an instance of blue”.32   This is because immediate apprehension may be taken to have a cognate accusative of a quality or content rather than an objective accusative of an object or property.   Apprehension differs from conceptualisation then in that it has no object but a content in the determinate nature of the event of apprehending whereas conceptualisation has that content as its object.   The appearance of blue is not an object of one’s current visual experience, a sense–datum, but rather it is a kind of visual experience: Moser says that “to sense blue is to sense ‘bluely’ just as to dance a waltz is to dance ‘waltzily'”.33   The fact that ‘bluely’ is an adverbial description rather than an adjectival ascription of a property to an object does not make it any less determinate.   In addition, because the content of immediate apprehension is determinate, it is not ineffable, i.e., it is not inexpressible in language.

In order to get from immediate apprehension characterised in this way to the immediate justification of beliefs about the given, Moser proposes the following principle of immediate justification:

“A person, S, is immediately justified in believing that he seems to see an F at a time, t, if and only if at t:

(i) S immediately apprehends an ostensibly presented F, and

(ii) S understandingly believes in light of this event of apprehending that he seems to see an F.”34

Moser adds that talk of seeming to see could be replaced in this formulation by that of seeming to taste, smell, hear or feel without raising any special problems.

In this principle, the key justifying condition for the given belief that I seem to see an F is that I immediately apprehend an F.   This apprehension does not, as it were, lie side by side in the mind with the given belief in an unrelated way.   It is related to it by way of an immediate apprehension of an immediate apprehension of F and Moser proposes that this awareness of the apprehension of F is involved in the given belief – hence his use of the phrase ‘in light of’.   This satisfies the requirements of a broadly internalist approach to justification because there is an awareness of the justifying condition.

Moser includes the word ‘understandingly’ in his principle to meet an objection that could otherwise be put: one could only be justified in the belief that one seems to see an F if one has the independent information necessary to enable one to distinguish seeming to see an F from seeming to see a G.   Moser meets this very effectively by arguing that the information in question is only “semantic information … necessary for the understanding of what it means to claim that one is in a certain perceptual state rather than another”.35   This information is necessary in order that the believed proposition be intelligible – so that it is required for itsexistence rather than for its justification.   The kind of objection being met here is a fairly common one against properly basic beliefs and its weakness is that it confuses, in thinking about the ‘basis’ of a belief, what makes it acceptable with what makes it possible.36

I think that Moser’s principle could be strengthened by the inclusion of a non–undermining clause such as ‘S does not have adequate reason to believe that he is not seeming to see an F’.   Moser himself considers and rejects the possibility of adding such a clause and he does so mainly on the grounds that it leads to a circular account of justification.   But, since the principle itself is designed to apply to immediately justified beliefs and such a non–undermining clause refers to having reasons for doubt, I think it avoids this danger.   It also serves to emphasise the prima facie nature of immediate justification of basic perceptual beliefs.

There does seem to be another weakness with this account but I am not sure how to overcome it.   This has to do with the relationship between an immediate apprehension and the belief it justifies.   Moser is quite insistent that apprehension and belief must be related and he talks of believing ‘in light of’ the immediate apprehension but he accounts for this by saying that a “key component” of the given belief is another immediate apprehension – an immediate apprehension of the immediate apprehension that justifies the belief.37   But since he has defined an immediate apprehension as being both non–conceptual and non–propositional, it remains unclear how it can be involved in the given belief as a de re component.   He has to insist that it is non–propositional or else it would seem to stand in need of justification and the experience of immediate apprehension would become evidence rather than grounds or a justifying condition for the given belief.   At the same time, unlike the justifying immediate apprehension itself, the second–order immediate apprehension does have an object (the first–order justifying immediate apprehension) so it cannot be a case of apprehending apprehending–ly.   If so, does it make sense to regard this second–order apprehension as non–conceptual?   There does seem to be some sleight of hand involved here and yet the kind of thing Moser wants to say somehow seems right.   He does go on to say that this second–order apprehension does not require justification since it is a level–confusion to insist that if we justifiably believe something we must also justifiably believe that we justifiably believe it and here he does seem to be correct.38  According to a broadly internalist point of view, what is required of a believer is an awareness of the conditions that ground his belief but not necessarily a justified belief that these conditions provide adequate grounds for the belief.

Whether or not this is an adequate response to the apparent weakness to which I have referred I am not sure.   Assuming that it is and that Moser’s account is a more or less adequate one of the justification of basic empirical beliefs, can it be adapted to provide an adequate account for the justification of basic religious beliefs?


Appeal to an immediate awareness of God as grounds or a justifying condition for properly basic belief in God is not at all the same as appeal to such an experience of awareness as either sufficient evidence for the existence of God or as part of a ‘cumulative case’ for his existence.   The Reformed epistemologist denies the necessity of such evidence or any evidence for belief in God but he does not necessarily deny the possibility of its existence.   It may be available but, like Quinton’s ‘accidental support’, it is not required for justified belief in God.

If the account in the last section of an immediate awareness providing justification for basic empirical beliefs is along the right lines, then a significant step towards showing that it could be adapted to cover religious experiences is to show that religious experience is sufficiently like sense experience.   Obviously there are very great differences between experiences that purport to be of objects in the world and those that purport to be of its Creator but they can be disregarded if they can be shown to be epistemically irrelevant.

Religious experience comes in a wide range of varieties and, indeed, it is possible to talk of any and all experiences as having a religious dimension.   I shall be concerned with those experiences that purport to give an immediate awareness of God and, of these, only with those that are mediated through finite things.   That is, I am concerned with the experiences of the ordinary believer who claims an awareness of God through the Scriptures, the words of a preacher, a hymn or prayer, the beauty of nature, and so on rather than with the special experiences of the mystic, i.e., mainly with those experiences which fall into the first (and possibly the second) of the classes of religious experiences identified by Richard Swinburne.39   Insofar as mystical experiences are really inexpressible in an absolute sense, they do not help for present purposes since it is difficult to see how they can be the grounds of an expressible justified belief.   It is difficult, anyhow, to see how the object of an absolutely ineffable experience could be individuated as an object of worship.   The comparative rarity of such experiences is another reason for disregarding them in this attempt to show that the beliefs of the ordinary person–in–the–pew could be properly basic.

The experiences with which I am concerned here have what H. P. Owen terms a “mediated immediacy”.40   They are psychologically direct but, at the same time, there is an indirect process which is in some sense responsible for the experiences in question.   They differ therefore from the direct unmediated experiences which Alston has recently taken to be the basis of what he terms “the perception of God” in which “this presentation (of God) is not via any sensory qualities or sensorily perceivable objects”.41   I think it can rightly be said of such an account that it amounts to an appeal to mystical experience minus ineffability.42   I do not wish to deny that such experiences could take place or that they could ground justified basic belief in God but I am simply concerned with what seem to me the more usual types of religious experience.   An account of immediately justified belief would seem to be of less value if it does not cover the beliefs and experiences of as wide a population as possible although, of course, by no means all religious believers would claim that their belief in God is properly basic.

One feature shared by these purported experience of  God and those of objects in the world is that they both seem to be of something separate from and independent of oneself – unlike the experience of, say, dizziness.   Obviously the Creator is not an object in the world and, therefore, not perceivable by the senses.   But is it not what Alston terms ‘epistemic chauvinism’43 to assume that we can only be aware of something that is directly presented to the senses?   If such an assumption were correct, it would also exclude the possibility of the direct but mediated knowledge of other minds.   So the fact that God is not an object in the world is not epistemically relevant to the extension of our account of immediate awareness to include experience of God.   This is perhaps rendered more plausible by focussing, as we are, on the mediated immediacy of this awareness – God is perceived through things observable to the senses and, Christians believe, was even present in the world as incarnate in Jesus Christ.

Another difference is that sense experience is public and experience of God is private.   As far as phenomenological content is concerned, both are private but, being objects in the world, the objects of sense experience are open to public gaze whereas it would seem that God is not open in this way.   But why should this be thought relevant to the matter of epistemic justification?  Presumably, at least part of what is meant by this objection is that there are standard ways of checking a truth grounded in sense experience and, it is assumed, nothing equivalent in the case of purported experience of God.   We can check the evidence of one of our senses against that of the others and we can check further against the experiences of others and so on.   But one does not need to engage in this process of checking in order to be justified in believing that things are as they seem to be through the operation of one of our senses just as long as others of our senses or the experiences of other people do not defeat this justification.   In other words, what we are concerned with here is prima facie justification and there are defeaters (and ‘checks’ – with what scriptures say, with fellow–believers, etc.) for the justification of religious belief just as there are for empirical belief.   Since God is not an object in the world, the unavailability of confirmation by other senses does not defeat the justification of belief that one is immediately aware of him.   Other considerations might do so but why should it be thought strange that these particular checks are unavailable?   Indeed, it would be thought strange if one engaged in a checking procedure for every belief based on sense experience so why should I need to do so for what purports to be an awareness of God?

Moreover, the checks available for sense experience ultimately rely on sense experience itself.   There are no external checks so why should it be thought necessary that there should be external checks on religious experience?   Perhaps this is also an example of the use of what Alston terms a double standard on the part of those who argue on such grounds that these differences are epistemically relevant.44

This kind of objection may be put in terms of a certain lack of predictability in the case of experience of God as compared with sense experience.   Again, I think that the point about the justification of properly basic beliefs being prima facie meets this objection adequately.   In addition, insofar as it is true that experiences that purport to be of God do not have this predictable regularity, surely this is only to be expected given the nature of God as he is traditionally believed to be.   Although, for example, the Bible invites us to “taste and see that the Lord is good” and  to “seek and we shall find”, there is still no tight lawlike regularity in religious experiences but the traditional Christian view of the nature of God does not provide grounds for expecting it to be otherwise.45   It is therefore difficult to see why this should be thought to be epistemically relevant.

Another version of the same kind of objection could be to the effect that we all know what we mean when we say that we see or hear something but we do not know what is meant by talking of hearing or seeing God.   However, is it so obvious that we do know what we mean by saying that we see something or hear something or what we mean when we say we are aware of another person?   The previous section of this study surely illustrates how difficult it is to analyse perception.   Perhaps the concept of seeing is a bit like the concept of time – we all know what it is until somebody asks us what it is.   Could the same not be true of the notion of hearing or seeing God?   A person may know what it is like to experience “in the mind’s ear”, as Robert Audi puts it,46the voice of God and yet find it difficult, if not impossible, to say what it is.   Furthermore, this difficulty is quite understandable in the light of what is believed about the nature of God.

Perhaps the most commonly quoted objection to basing religious belief upon religious experience in this way is from the facts that the latter does not appear to be universal and that there is no universal agreement on the former.   This lack of universality is apparently Quinton’s main reason for rejecting fairly summarily the possibility of religious intuition (which he seems to identify with mystical experience without recognising the possibility of a more common non–mystical kind of awareness of God – not that this distinction really lessens the force of the objection to any significant extent).47   But the sheer fact of the numbers who believe or disbelieve seems epistemically irrelevant.   What might be of more importance is the issue of whether such experiences or beliefs are found distributed across cultures and time and it is not obvious that this is not so.

However, apart from this, there is the question of the conditions that have to be satisfied in order to have a particular experience of any kind – including sense experience.   These conditions are both subjective and objective: the observer must be in the right place under the right conditions, e.g., in the case of sight, the light conditions must be right.   It would seem understandable that the same kind of thing be true of experiences that purport to be of God and especially so as it seems to make sense that these should include the meeting of moral conditions and others that involve the whole person.   As Alston puts it, “God is not available for ‘voyeurs'”.48   And a further point made by Alston in this regard has to do with the learning of skills so that whereas we are almost all masters of perceptual practice in relation to the ordinary objects of sense perception, it may be plausibly maintained that we are by no means masters in the perception of God.49   There is also the fact that in the case of mediated experiences, one person may be aware only of the medium while another perceives something else through the medium.50   A technician examining a telescope mirror may see only the condition of the mirror whereas an astronomer sees an interesting galaxy.   In a similar way, two people may listen to the same sermon but one is aware only of the eloquence of the preacher while the other hears the voice of God in his words – and Saul of Tarsus heard the voice of Jesus while his companions apparently only heard a sound.

It might seem that this argument – that the differences between sense experience and religious experience are quite understandable in view of what is traditionally believed of the Christian God – shows that the Christian account has built into it a kind of unfalsifiability or criticism–deflecting device.   Is there not the possibility of a kind of pseudo–rational dogmatism51 whereby a theory has built into it an explanation–schema to cope with the fact of it not being universally accepted?   But the kind of reply that I have used to the objections in question is an appeal to the nature of religious belief as traditionally held prior to the formulation of any modern epistemological theory or of the particular objections under discussion, so it can at least be argued that this is not an ad hoc building in of a kind of irrefutability.

If the foregoing responses are adequate then the differences mentioned above between sense experience and experience that purports to be of God can be set aside as epistemically irrelevant.   However, there is a much stronger objection to grounding the justification of belief in God in an immediate awareness of him.   It starts from the plurality of conceptual schemes through which religious experiences are understood and it is to it that I now turn.


As a kind of prima facie justification, proper basicality grounded in an immediate awareness of God is defeasible.   But the Christian who forms a belief that he seems to be having an experience of God in light of an immediate awareness which is non–conceptual may come to face the fact that there are alternative conceptual schemes available.   Not only is it the case that there are significant differences in conceptual scheme among Christians themselves to say nothing of those between adherents of the different world religions some of which do not take God to be personal, but there are also naturalistic alternatives.   Aware of this, can the intellectually sophisticated adult be justified in holding belief in God as a basic belief?   Does not the existence of such a range of alternatives held by other intellectually sophisticated adults not defeat his properly basic belief?   In his response to the Great Pumpkin objection, Plantinga may be right in pointing out that there simply is no Great Pumpkin and no natural tendency to believe in the Great Pumpkin.   But this present objection cuts much deeper.   It could be argued that there is a natural tendency to conceptualise religious experiences in terms of beliefs that are clearly inconsistent with Christian beliefs, e.g., the belief that the object of religious experience is an impersonal God.

At first sight, at least, this seems to be a respect in which there is an epistemically relevant difference between sense experience and religious experience, a difference which is related to the argument from non–universality mentioned in the last section.   Against this, it could be claimed that, in fact, there may be  no difference here since, in the view of some anthropologists, not all cultures do objectify their sense experience in the same way.   But, if so, this is of little comfort to the Reformed epistemologist as it may be more of an argument against the proper basicality of beliefs grounded in sense experience that one for that of belief in God.

Leaving doubtful theses about sense experience to one side, how can the Reformed epistemologist respond to this argument from the existence of alternative conceptual schemes?   I shall take a particular version of it which has been put forward by William Hasker.52   He claims that the existence of such a range of “non–discredited alternatives” to the Christian practice of forming Christian beliefs on the basis of purported experiences of God implies that the Christian practice cannot even be weakly justified.   If he is right, basic Christian beliefs cannot be properly basic.

Hasker says the situation is like that in a game of ‘hide–and–seek’ in which the person who is ‘it’ is hiding in one of four rooms and a seeker has no particular reason for choosing one room rather than another and, because of the presence of other seekers, only has time to search one room.   Hasker argues that in choosing a room to search, since the seeker has no particular reason to prefer the room he chooses, he is not strongly justified in his choice and, being more likely to be wrong that not, he is not even weakly justified.   Hasker goes on to conclude that the Christian who conceptualises his experience in terms of a Christian scheme is in no better position if we assume that there are different conceptual schemes which are (i) equally comprehensive in how they deal with the experience, (ii) inconsistent with each other and (iii) all ‘live options’ for the believer.   If, in addition, like the player who does have reason to believe that the person who is ‘it’ is hiding in one of the rooms, the believer has reason to believe that some member of the set of non–discredited alternatives is the right one to choose although he knows not which one, he may be very weakly justified in taking a gamble and opting for one.   Belief in God would not then be properly basic in any strong sense of ‘properly’.  Hasker goes on to suggest that if we desire some stronger form of justification, we shall have to engage in an intellectual quest with the goal of reducing the number of non–discredited alternatives to one.   By that time, our belief in God would be based on argument and, presumably, no longer basic.53

However, Hasker’s version of the argument we are dealing with seems to make some questionable assumptions.   For a start, there seems to be a problem with Hasker’s apparent insistence that at least 50% probability of reliability is required even for weak justification.   This is seen in the following extract from his argument:

“If B and C are non–discredited alternatives to A, then if either of them is reliable A is not.   But since B and C are ‘non–discredited’, either of them is as likely to be reliable as A is; so the likelihood of A’s being reliable is less than one–half, and A is not weakly justified.”54

Surely it is not the fact that the likelihood is less than one–half that matters here but rather that, in accordance with the set of assumptions he makes, each of the three alternatives is equally likely to be reliable.   Consider the situation in which A, B, C and D are alternatives such that pr(A):pr(B):pr(C):pr(D) = 40:20:20:20.   Here belief that A is reliable, now that it is twice as likely as any one of its alternatives, and assuming that one of the four is reliable, seems to be fairly strongly justified in spite of its being less than 50% and there being more alternatives than before.   If probability is to enter into the matter then it is the relative probability of an occurrence and not its absolute value that matters.

The problem just mentioned can be easily dealt with by a rephrasing of what Hasker says but there is a deeper assumption here which is rather more significant and, I think, likely to characterise other versions of this argument.   This is of a questionable doxastic voluntarism.   At times it may be that, as Hasker says, “life makes gamblers of us all”55 but it seems questionable to suppose ourselves caught in a state of suspended judgement about to choose between rival conceptual schemes for our experiences in a way that is analogous to his hide–and–seek illustration.   We do not find ourselves outside on the landing but actually within one of the rooms so it would seem sensible to search that one first before deciding to go on to one of the alternatives and we would only do that if we found that the person we were seeking was not there.

What I am suggesting here is that although there is a logical distinction between an immediate awareness and the belief that it grounds, i.e., the belief that conceptualises that awareness in accordance with a particular conceptual scheme, it seems questionable to assume that this distinction leaves a gap in which there is generally room for choice.   Rather, it is normally the case that we find ourselves with our experience conceptualised in a certain way – the process is spontaneous.   There may even be a kind of inevitability or irresistibility about it.   In such circumstances, the question is whether we have adequate grounds for trying to resist this process or to adopt an alternative conceptual scheme, whether we should consciously decide not to search the room we are in and instead go outside and choose another one.   There seems no strong argument for doing so.

But perhaps the metaphor should be changed to one that provides time for reflection.   Instead of talking in terms of rooms to search, we could see the situation as more analogous to finding an apartment in which to live.   Do we stay in the one in which we find ourselves and take it to be the most comfortable – in spite of that rather menacing–looking piece of black furniture called ‘the atheological argument from evil’ – or, hearing that others find other apartments to be comfortable, go and try one of them?   The intellectually sophisticated adult is aware that others like where they live and regard it as the most comfortable place to be and he can move if he wishes.   The upheaval in his life caused by having to move may be more than offset by the greater comfort of the new apartment.   There is room for choice now, the choice of whether or not to change, but in the absence of strong reason to do so, it would still seem that he is justified in continuing to live where he is.   Indeed, he may find himself strongly attracted towards his present surroundings and may even have reason to believe that the cupboard of the argument from evil can be accommodated there.

In Plantinga’s terms, what we have here are potential defeaters and defeater–defeaters.   The belief grounded in an immediate awareness is properly basic and continues to be so as long as there is no overriding or undercutting argument of which the believer is aware and which provides adequate reason for him to consciously cast off his conceptual scheme and conceptualise the belief in another way.   The knowledge that there are alternative conceptual schemes is not sufficient.   The knowledge that there are other sophisticated adults who find them acceptable is not sufficient either.   The justification of his belief is prima facie and it may well be very strong.   Only when he actually finds it to be defeated is he no longer justified in holding his belief to be basic.

This response to the argument in question comes quite close to appeal to something like Swinburne’s “Principle of Credulity”.56  With “seems epistemically” used to describe what the subject is inclined to believe on the basis of his present sensory experience and in opposition to the claim that religious experience is evidence for nothing beyond itself, Swinburne writes:

“So generally, contrary to the original philosophical claim, I suggest that it is a principle of rationality that (in the absence of special considerations) if it seems (epistemically) to a subject that x is present, then probably x is present; what one seems to perceive is probably so.   How things seem to be is good grounds for a belief about how things are.”57

His application of this principle to religious experiences leads him to suggest that:

“a religious experience apparently of God ought to be taken as veridical unless it can be shown on other grounds significantly more probable than not that God does not exist.”58

This is certainly similar in some respects to some of the things Plantinga, Alston and others say.   Is Swinburne also among the Reformed epistemologists?   I think not.   In the first place, the whole enterprise of the book from which these quotations come is to show that, on our total evidence, theism is more probable than not and he claims that it is the evidence of religious experience that finally – after considering other arguments and evidence – proves sufficient to make theism over all probable.59   The whole context of Swinburne’s appeal to his principle of credulity is therefore evidentialist in relation to the existence of God and consequently radically different from that of the project of Reformed epistemology.   A further respect in which it differs is in the very status of this and other principles of rationality.   Swinburne describes his principle as “ultimate” and as “a basic principle not further justifiable”.60   I shall shortly deal with the justification of epistemic principles and I shall suggest that they may be ultimately based on beliefs which include belief in God.   This represents a second way in which the approach I am adopting – and I am assuming it to be generally in line with that  of Reformed epistemology –  differs from that of Swinburne.

Apart from these contextual differences, there is the content of the principle itself.   Swinburne is taking the fact that it seems to a person that God is present as evidence for the conclusion that God is probably present.   I was attempting to ground a person’s belief that he seems to be having an experience of God in an immediate awareness when it would seem that there are other ways in which that awareness could be conceptualised.   The logical gap I was attempting to bridge is from awareness to belief that something seems to be the case whereas Swinburne is concerned with that between belief that something seems to be the case and something (not the belief that something …) actually being the case.   So there are differences both in starting–point and finishing–point and Swinburne’s starting–point seems to be my finishing–point.   Swinburne is trying to establish a conclusion about the existence of God.   I was trying to establish one about the justification of a particular person’s beliefs under certain circumstances and, in particular, the belief ‘I seem to be having an experience of God’.


What then of the gap between ‘I believe that I seem to be having an experience of God’ and ‘I believe that I am having an experience of God’?   That the gap is there is evident since the first belief does not commit the believer to accept that God exists while the second assumes his existence.   The first belief, as stated, leaves open the possibilities that the experience is drug–induced, hallucinatory, produced by a deceiving demon or some such cause other than by the presence of God.   The gap is logical and epistemological and it seems substantial.

Can Swinburne’s principle be used to bridge this gap?   I think not, because even if it can be invoked, its conclusion would be something along the lines of ‘I believe that I am probably having an experience of God’.   In other words, the belief would be tentative and this is not the same as the prima facie justified belief stated in ‘I believe that I am having an experience of God’ or ‘I believe that God is speaking to me’.   The evidentialism assumed in Swinburne’s principle warrants at best a statement which is held to be probably true.

I think a better way forward is to look at the beliefs that we normally find ourselves with, the actual beliefs that have the inevitability or irresistibility mentioned earlier.   When we are immediately aware of being appeared to in a certain kind of way, the beliefs we find formed in us are not ‘I seem to see something red’ or ‘I am being appeared to red–ly’ but ‘I see something red’ or the like.   Likewise, not even the intellectually sophisticated adult believer is very likely to say ‘I believe that I seem to be having an experience of God’.  The sceptic might say it but the believer seems to have vaulted the gap to ‘I believe that I am having an experience of God’.   He has not taken his experience as evidence for a belief which is probably true nor has he inferred his belief from other beliefs that he holds.   His belief that God is speaking to him is therefore basic but is it properly so?

Suppose that my response to the Hasker–type objection still applies at this point and that I do not need to search another room or move to a different apartment unless I have adequate grounds for doing so.   My belief that God is speaking to me is basic and I do not require inferential justification for it so it is properly basic for me.   But something seems wrong here.   If a study of the complexities of the relationship between immediate awareness and a ‘seems to be the case’ belief was required earlier to make that small step, how can the apparently greater step of crossing this epistemological gap be taken so easily?   Does appeal to immediate awareness add anything after all to the discussions of proper basicality of Plantinga, Alston and others?   I think it does because it attempts to show how a belief may be grounded in an immediate awareness.   The immediate awareness of this immediate awareness is not generally involved in the belief ‘I am being appeared to redly’ but actually in the occurrent belief ‘I see something red’.   And the adverbial description (red–ly) rather than the adjectival description (red) applies to the immediate awareness rather than to the belief that it grounds.   The point is that this is conceptualised spontaneously in the belief ‘I am having an experience of God’ rather than in ‘I seem to be having an experience of God’ and my response to the Hasker–type argument from alternative conceptual schemes applies to this belief just as effectively as to the other.

This matter of the spontaneity of conceptualisation takes us back to the objection from alternative conceptual schemes.   As Plantinga says, there is no natural tendency, under conditions like those under which basic belief in God is formed, to form beliefs like ‘I am having an experience of the Great Pumpkin’.   But, as mentioned earlier, it may be argued that there is a natural tendency, under the same conditions, to spontaneously conceptualise one’s experience in terms of, say, an impersonal God.   But, again, whether and to what extent the Christian finds this to be a defeater of his belief in a personal God depends upon whether he finds there are convincing counter–arguments available to him.   If, indeed, it could be shown to be the same experience that is being conceptualised spontaneously in inconsistent beliefs and that his own belief–producing mechanism is not functioning reliably or working properly, e.g., in that his beliefs are due to Freudian wish–fulfilment or self–delusion or the like, he would have grounds to revise his belief.   In the absence of reason to believe that either or both of these circumstances apply, he is justified in holding to his basic belief in God.


At this point – if not before – there is another objection to the proper basicality of belief in God that can arise.   It has to do with the status of the foregoing discussion of criteria for rationality and principles of justification.   It has to do with what I shall term ‘meta–justification’, the justification not of first–order beliefs but of second–order epistemic principles.

The objection is to the effect that in the foregoing there is more than a whiff of the threat of circular reasoning.   It was perhaps most noticeable when I suggested that the Reformed epistemologist may differ from Swinburne in holding that epistemic principles stand in need of justification.   Then, just now, I mentioned an externalist element for positive epistemic status, that of reliable functioning and, as we saw earlier, Plantinga and other Reformed writers have linked this with the idea of man being a planned creation of God.61   It would therefore seem that the discussion of the justification of an epistemic principle takes for granted the existence of God but this is the very belief that is being held to be properly basic.   So the principle assumes the truth of the belief, the justification of which is in question!

The situation seems to be as follows.   The foregoing discussion is intended to show that belief that God exists may be properly basic.   It makes use of a number of epistemic principles, e.g., religious experience is a reliable source of religious beliefs.   This example – and others that could be adduced – derives at least part of its mediate justification from the belief that man is created by God with reliable belief–forming mechanisms.   This assumes that God exists.   So ‘God exists’ appears both at the beginning and the end of this line of statements and the process appears circular.

The Reformed epistemologist is not without ways of responding to this charge of circularity.   For a start, he can point out that, if a belief is properly basic, then its justification is not derived from any other beliefs that the subject holds – including his beliefs that his epistemic principles are correct.   The subject is immediately justified in his properly basic beliefs.   It is unreasonable and a levels confusion to require of him not only that he be justified in his basic beliefs but also that he be justified in a belief that he is so justified.   It is a levels confusion because there is an ‘epistemic ascent’ from the level of first–order justification to that of meta–justification (and, it would seem, if this is required for justification then there is nothing to stop the demand for meta–meta–justification and so on ad infinitum).  It is unreasonable because it would require of the ordinary person at least the sophistication of an able epistemologist if he is to have any justified beliefs at all.   This meets the demand of what Moser terms the “JJ thesis”, his analogue in terms of justified belief of Hintikka’s “KK thesis” that requires not only that a person knows something but that he knows that he knows it.62   It is not therefore the justification of basic beliefs that is at issue but the whole basis of the discussion at the meta–level of this kind of first–level justification.

Secondly, the kind of circularity involved here is not the straightforward logical circularity of the conclusion of an argument appearing in its premises.   The conclusion here is that the belief that God exists may be properly basic under the appropriate conditions.   It is not an argument for the existence of God from premises that include the statement ‘God exists’.   It is not intended to produce rational conviction of this conclusion – for, if it could, belief in God would not be properly basic at all – nor is it even intended to produce rational conviction of the conclusion that belief in God is properly basic.   The intention is to show the coherence of the case for this conclusion rather than to convince of its truth.   The circularity is not vicious but, rather, something like what Alston terms “epistemic circularity”.63


In this chapter, I have approached the question of whether belief in God can be properly basic by making use of a concept of justification which is linear rather than holistic, normative but not purely normative, reliabilist but not purely reliabilist and broadly internalist rather than externalist.   From this standpoint, the epistemic regress problem appeared to be a real problem and the need to show how the epistemic supervenes on the non–epistemic a real need.   This led on to an account of some reasons for the elimination of various alternatives to moderate foundationalism.

I went on to attempt to set forth the main details of an intuitionist account of empirical justification and of arguments to the effect that the differences between sense experience and religious experience were no obstacle to the development of an analogue of empirical intuitionism which grounds belief in God in an immediate awareness of him.   I then set forth possible responses to three kinds of objection to this particular version of the first theme of Reformed epistemology.   The first of these was an argument from the plurality of schemes for conceptualising one’s experience and the response appealed to the spontaneous nature of conceptualisation under conditions of proper functioning of the mechanism of forming basic beliefs and to the prima facie nature of justification.   The second problem was of the epistemological gap between statements of phenomenological belief and of those of beliefs expressed in object–language and here I argued that the beliefs that are actually formed in light of immediate awareness are on the object–language side of the gap and I suggested that these could involve the immediate awareness in a similar way to that being postulated for phenomenological beliefs.   The third problem was of the circularity involved in the justification of epistemic principles and I suggested that there were reasons to view this as non–vicious.

This chapter therefore attempts to explore the notion of immediate awareness and to apply it to experience of God.   This may help to account for a way in which it could be that, as Reformed epistemology claims, belief in God is properly basic for some people.  Nevertheless, in addition to the problems mentioned in the chapter, it seems likely that it also suffers from a limitation due to its dealing with one theme of Reformed epistemology largely to the exclusion of the others.   In particular, I feel that it tends to approach matters rather too much from the manward side and tends to take God to be relatively passive in relation to man’s experience of him.   The possibility of his actively revealing himself to people is almost completely ignored.   The following chapter will represent an attempt to make up for this.