I was at a philosophy conference this weekend, and in the same section in which I delivered a paper, there was another that compared natural and non-natural epistemologies. In the paper, the author argued that naturalists and non-naturalists (if I remember correctly, he compared Quine, Kim, Plantinga, and another naturalist) agree on most aspects, but naturalists simply “close themselves off” to anything that isn’t informed by a scientific approach. That is, naturalists unnecessarily limit themselves due to a committment to methodological naturalism, and close themselves off to other avenues for gaining knowledge.
I could tell, from the use of Plantinga, very early on where the paper was going. He (the author) mentioned “sensus divinitatis” as an example of such an avenue. He described how someone might see a mountain and “immediately know” that they were a result of God’s handiwork rather than just a process of natural creation. My initial response was a bit snarky: I simply asked if I could claim to have knowledge through a “sensus Zeusitatis” in the same way that Plantinga might claim to have knowledge of his God. The author, an incredibly nice and genuine guy, simply remarked “I don’t know. I suppose.” I’ve thought quite a lot about this issue since, and I’d like to further explore a different aspect.
John Calvin describes “sensus divinitatis” as follows:
“That there exists in the human mind and indeed by natural instinct, some sense of Deity [sensus Divinitatis], we hold to be beyond dispute, since God himself, to prevent any man from pretending ignorance, has endued all men with some idea of his Godhead…. …this is not a doctrine which is first learned at school, but one as to which every man is, from the womb, his own master; one which nature herself allows no individual to forget.” (Calvin)
You might ask, why should I trust this to be reliable? After all, people claim to have all sorts of crazy experiences all of the time. While you might not suspect they are always lying, there are probably better explanations for these moments than a genuine religious experience. Well, if God does exist, we might expect this sort of sense to be shared among humans. Alvin Plantinga has famously argued in Warranted Christian Belief (WCF) that this process could be reliable (as long as God exists) even if it does not appear so by examining it through the use of reason:
“Suppose our battery of ways of formingbeliefs, our belief-forming faculties, are in fact reliable; suppose, indeed, that we have been created by God,who intended that we be able to know the sorts of things we think we know by virtue of just such a batteryof faculties: reason, memory, sense perception, introspection, sympathy, the sensus divinitatis and the internal instigation of the Holy Spirit (see below, chapter 8), if there are such sources of belief, and all the rest. What reason is there to think that if these faculties are reliable, then it would appear that they are from the perspective just of reason, that bit of memory, and introspection?”
Plantinga has a much less ambitious goal in mind for WCF than actually validating theism or his own brand, Christianity. He is arguing that given God’s existence, we can expect a sort of “sensus divinitatis” to be reliable. He’s making the claim that if God wanted us to know things from this battery of senses (taste, touch, smell, sight, reason, sensus divinitatis, the Holy Spirit, etc.), it’s not necessarily true that something that is apparent to one sense (say the existence of God by way of the sensus divinitatis) would be readily apprehensible by another (sight, for instance). Plantinga notes that not everyone benefits from a properly functioning sensus, as we have all been corrupted by sin.
There have been a wide range of objections to this sort of claim. One is to argue that this sort of view is too permissive and that this sense can’t be considered reliable. If you want to claim a special knowledge of God given to you by a sort of magical sense, we need a way to make sure that (1) you are not pulling the wool over our eyes when talking about your religious experience and (2) we can differentiate between valid magical senses and non-valid magical senses. When I have a Christian telling me they have had religious experience of the God of the Bible, and a Hindu telling me that they have had religious experiences related to their faith, who do I trust and why? (See Dr. McCormick’s “sensus atheistus” post for more on this line of criticism.)
Others might be inclined to simply grant Plantinga’s argument, as it is a seemingly trivial claim (for example, here). As Luke points out in that article, Plantinga’s argument doesn’t accomplish much. If God exists, then belief in God is warranted. So? Well, I’d like to explore this claim a bit more. Let’s take Plantinga’s thesis for granted: we have a sensus divinitatis that operates as a conduit for God and in some mysterious way, independent of reasonable reflection, we can immediately apprehend God’s existence.
We know that Christianity (or mono-theism or classical theism) is a relatively modern belief, and that most primitive religions didn’t share these sorts of doctrines. Instead, we have polytheism, rampant mysticism, and tribal religions which don’t resemble any of the sort of monotheistic religions which are prevalent today. Presumably, these mechanisms also operated in these primitive peoples in the same way that our other senses presumably did. Why were they mistaken? Why did they not apprehend the God of monotheism as the correct author of these supernatural yearnings? If they had the same sense, shouldn’t they have gotten the same result?
One might argue that we have progressed, in some sense of the term, in our religious knowledge. We could argue that in the same way these primitives erred in regards to reason, they also erred in their appraisal of their sensus divinitatis. (Notice: we don’t have widespread disagreement about what color the sky is, so we’ve already moved past some sort of “immediate apprehension”.) They simply didn’t have the requisite ‘knowledge’ from this sensus that we have to make an informed decision. I don’t see how one can sensibly advocate for “progress” in regards to the sensus as it is described by Calvin, Plantinga, etc. The sensus isn’t like our reasoning faculties: we can’t acquire new knowledge and adopt different conclusions. We can’t know the conclusions provided to use by the sensus by reasoning about it.
The answer appears obvious: we can’t be sure we are right about God and they were wrong. In fact, we might even assume that the secularism of modern society (the increased emphasis on reasonable reflection, etc.) might further distance ourselves from this sense, and instead we should adopt the religions of yore. After all, they haven’t been corrupted by an adulterated sensus divinitatis as ours unquestionably has. I think that this vast difference in religious traditions in the history of humanity offers us a reason to suspect that even if God exists, our sensus may still be unreliable.