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B. Presentation of the Model
Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin concur on the claim that there is a kind of natural knowledge of God (and anything on which Calvin and Aquinas are in accord is something to which we had better pay careful attention). Here I want to propose a model based on Calvin’s version of the suggestion, not because I think Calvin should be the cynosure of all eyes theological, but because he presents an interesting development of the particular thought in question. And here, as in several other areas, we can usefully see Calvin’s suggestion as a kind of meditation on and development of a theme suggested by Aquinas. According to the latter, “To know in a general and confused way that God exists is implanted in us by nature.”200200 Summa Theologiae I, q. 2, a. 1, ad 1. In Summa contra Gentiles Aquinas adds, “There is a certain general and confused knowledge of God, which is in almost all men . . .” (Bk. III, ch. 38). In the opening chapters of the Institutes of the Christian Religion,201201 Tr. Ford Lewis Battles and ed. John T. McNeill (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960 [originally published in 1555]). Page references to the Institutes are to this edition. Calvin concurs: there is a sort of natural knowledge of God. Calvin expands this theme into a suggestion as to the way in which beliefs about God can have warrant; he has a suggestion as to the nature of the faculty or mechanism whereby we acquire true beliefs about God. His idea here 171can also be seen as a development of what the apostle Paul says in Romans 1:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. . . . (Romans 1:18–20)202202 As Etienne Gilson says, very many medieval and later thinkers have found in this passage a charter for natural theology, construed as the effort to present proofs or arguments for the existence of God. But is Paul really talking here about proofs or arguments? Natural theology, as Aquinas says, is pretty difficult for most of us; most of us have neither the leisure, ability, inclination, nor education to follow those theistic proofs. But here Paul seems to be speaking of all of us human beings; what can be known about God is plain, he says. It is true that this knowledge comes by way of what God has made, but it doesn’t follow that it comes by way of argument, the arguments of natural theology, for example. See below, p. 175.
For our purposes, Calvin’s basic claim is that there is a sort of instinct, a natural human tendency, a disposition, a nisus to form beliefs about God under a variety of conditions and in a variety of situations. Thus in his commentary on the above passage:
By saying, that God has made it manifest, he means, that man was created to be a spectator of this formed world, and that eyes were given him, that he might, by looking on so beautiful a picture, be led up to the Author himself.203203 Commentaries on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans, volume XIX of Calvin’s Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979; originally printed for the Calvin Translation Society of Edinburgh, Scotland), p. 70.
In the Institutes, he develops this thought:
is within the human mind, and indeed by natural instinct, an awareness
of divinity. This we take to be beyond controversy. To prevent anyone
from taking refuge in the pretense of ignorance, God himself has
implanted in all men a certain understanding of his divine majesty. . .
. Since, therefore, men one and all perceive that there is a God and
that he is their maker, they are condemned by their own testimony
because they have failed to honor him and to consecrate their lives to
his will. . . there is, as
the eminent pagan says, no nation so barbarous, no people so savage,
that they have not a deep seated conviction that there is a God. . .
. Therefore, since from the beginning of the world there has been no
region, no city, in short, no household, that could do without
religion, there lies in this a tacit confession of a sense of deity
inscribed in the hearts of all. (Institutes I, iii, 1, p.
44)204204 The “eminent pagan” is Cicero. John
Beversluis suggests that these passages from the Institutes
are really directed to human
knowledge before the fall, and that, according to Calvin,
“fallen human beings lack
both the direct and immediate knowledge of God with which they were
originally created and the capacity to achieve it. In Plantinga’s
language, the ‘innate tendency, or nisus, or disposition’ to believe in
God with which human beings were originally created is no longer
operative in fallen humanity” (“Reforming the Reformed Objection to
Natural Theology,” Faith and Philosophy 12, no. 2 (April 1995), p. 193; see also p. 197).
Of course Calvin interpretation is not my project here; still, Calvin
is pretty clearly teaching that all people, fallen as well as unfallen,
have this knowledge (“naturally inborn in all”; “each of us is master
from his mother’s womb”). Furthermore, as Beversluis points out,
according to Calvin (following Romans 1) this knowledge renders those
who have “failed to honor him” condemned by their own words (guilty);
but of course that isn’t possible unless the sensus
divinitatis is working in them,
even if it is not in its pristine state.
There is an additional subtlety here: Beversluis speaks of a tendency “to believe in God.” There is obviously an important difference between believing in God and believing that God exists (that there is such a person as God); chapter 9 is devoted in part to that difference. Perhaps in unfallen humanity, according to Calvin, the sensus divinitatis is a disposition to believe in God (to love him, trust him, see his beauty and glory and loveliness), but in fallen humanity only a tendency to believe that there is such a person, just as (according to the book of James) the devils do. See chapter 7 on the noetic effects of sin.
Calvin goes on to claim that many rejections of God, or attempts to do without him, are really further testimonies to this natural inclination:
Men of sound judgment will always be sure that a sense of divinity which can never be effaced is engraved upon men’s minds. Indeed, the perversity of the impious, who though they struggle furiously are unable to extricate themselves from the fear of God, is abundant testimony that this conviction, namely that there is some God, is naturally inborn in all, and is fixed deep within, as it were in the very marrow. . . . From this we conclude that it is not a doctrine that must first be learned in school, but one of which each of us is master from his mother’s womb and which nature itself permits no one to forget, although many strive with every nerve to this end. (I, iii, 3, p. 46)
Separated from the extravagance of expression that sometimes characterizes Calvin, the basic idea, I think, is that there is a kind of faculty or a cognitive mechanism, what Calvin calls a sensus divinitatis or sense of divinity, which in a wide variety of circumstances produces in us beliefs about God. These circumstances, we might say, trigger the disposition to form the beliefs in question; they form the occasion on which those beliefs arise. Under these circumstances, we develop or form theistic beliefs—or, rather, these beliefs are formed in us; in the typical case we don’t consciously choose to have those beliefs. Instead, we find ourselves with them, just as we find ourselves 173with perceptual and memory beliefs. (You don’t and can’t simply decide to have this belief, thereby acquiring it.)205205 See my “Reason and Belief in God,” in Faith and Rationality, ed. Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983), pp. 34ff. These passages suggest that awareness of God is natural, widespread, and not easy to forget, ignore, or destroy. Seventy years of determined but unsuccessful Marxist efforts to uproot Christianity in the former Soviet Union tend to confirm this claim.206206 It is no part of the model, however, to hold that the sensus divinitatis is never subject to malfunction; perhaps it is sometimes diseased or even inoperative. It can also be impeded in the usual ways, and its deliverances can perhaps sometimes be extinguished by the wrong kind of nurture.
Second, it also sounds as if Calvin thinks knowledge of God is innate, such that one has it from birth, “from his mother’s womb.” Still, perhaps Calvin doesn’t really mean to endorse either of these suggestions. The capacity for such knowledge is indeed innate, like the capacity for arithmetical knowledge. Still, it doesn’t follow that we know elementary arithmetic from our mother’s womb; it takes a little maturity. My guess is Calvin thinks the same with respect to this knowledge of God; what one has from one’s mother’s womb is not this knowledge of God, but a capacity for it. Whatever Calvin thinks, however, it’s our model; and according to the model the development of the sensus divinitatis requires a certain maturity (although it is often manifested by very young children).
The sensus divinitatis is a disposition or set of dispositions to form theistic beliefs in various circumstances, in response to the sorts of conditions or stimuli that trigger the working of this sense of divinity. Calvin thinks in particular of some of nature’s grand spectacles. Like Kant, he was especially impressed, in this connection, by the marvelous compages of the starry heavens above:
Even the common folk and the most untutored, who have been taught only by the aid of the eyes, cannot be unaware of the excellence of divine art, for it reveals itself in this innumerable and yet distinct and well-ordered variety of the heavenly host. It is, accordingly, clear that there is no one to whom the Lord does not abundantly show his wisdom. (I, v, 2, p. 53)
You see the blazing glory of the heavens from a mountainside at 13,000 feet; you think about those unimaginable distances; you find yourself filled with awe and wonder, and you form the belief that God must be great to have created this magnificent heavenly host. But it isn’t only the variety of the heavenly host that catches his eye here:174
anyone, then, be excluded from access to happiness, he not only sowed
in men’s minds that seed of religion of which we have spoken, but
revealed himself and daily discloses himself in the whole workmanship
of the universe. As a consequence, men cannot open their eyes without
being compelled to see him. . . . But upon his individual works he has
engraved unmistakable marks of his glory . . . wherever you cast your
eyes, there is no spot in the universe wherein you cannot discern at
least some sparks of his glory. (I, v, 1, p. 52)207207 Compare Charles Sanders Peirce:
A man looks upon nature, sees its sublimity and beauty, and his spirit gradually rises to the idea of God. He does not see the Divinity, nor does nature prove to him the existence of that Being, but it does excite his mind and imagination until the idea becomes rooted in his heart.
Quoted by Edward T. Oakes, “Discovering the American Aristotle,” First Things (December 1993), p. 27.
Calvin’s idea is that the workings of the sensus divinitatis is triggered or occasioned by a wide variety of circumstances, including in particular some of the glories of nature: the marvelous, impressive beauty of the night sky; the timeless crash and roar of the surf that resonates deep within us; the majestic grandeur of the mountains (the North Cascades, say, as viewed from Whatcom Pass); the ancient, brooding presence of the Australian outback; the thunder of a great waterfall. But it isn’t only grandeur and majesty that counts; he would say the same for the subtle play of sunlight on a field in spring, or the dainty, articulate beauty of a tiny flower, or aspen leaves shimmering and dancing in the breeze. “There is no spot in the universe,” he says, “wherein you cannot discern at least some sparks of his glory.” Calvin could have added other sorts of circumstances: there is something like an awareness of divine disapproval upon having done what is wrong, or cheap, and something like a perception of divine forgiveness upon confession and repentance. People in grave danger instinctively turn to the Lord to ask for succor and support, having formed the belief that he can hear and help if he sees fit. (They say there are no atheists in foxholes.) On a beautiful spring morning (the birds singing, heaven and earth alight and alive with glory, the air fresh and cool, the treetops gleaming in the sun), a spontaneous hymn of thanks to the Lord—thanks for your circumstances and your very existence—may arise in your soul. According to the model, therefore, there are many circumstances, and circumstances of many kinds, that call forth or occasion theistic belief. Here the sensus divinitatis resembles other belief-producing faculties or mechanisms. If we wish to think in terms of the overworked functional analogy, we can think of the sensus divinitatis, too, as an input-output device: it takes 175the circumstances mentioned above as input and issues as output theistic beliefs, beliefs about God. We must note six further features of the model.
According to the A/C model, this natural knowledge of God is not arrived at by inference or argument (for example, the famous theistic proofs of natural theology) but in a much more immediate way. The deliverances of the sensus divinitatis are not quick and sotto voce inferences from the circumstances that trigger its operation. It isn’t that one beholds the night sky, notes that it is grand, and concludes that there must be such a person as God: an argument like that would be ridiculously weak. It isn’t that one notes some feature of the Australian outback—that it is ancient and brooding, for example—and draws the conclusion that God exists. It is rather that, upon the perception of the night sky or the mountain vista or the tiny flower, these beliefs just arise within us. They are occasioned by the circumstances; they are not conclusions from them. The heavens declare the glory of God and the skies proclaim the work of his hands: but not by way of serving as premises for an argument. Awareness of guilt may lead me to God; but it is not that in this awareness I have the material for a quick theistic argument: I am guilty, so there must be a God. This argument isn’t nearly as silly as it looks; but when the operation of the sensus divinitatis is triggered by perception of my guilt, it doesn’t work by way of an argument. I don’t take my guilt as evidence for the existence of God, or for the proposition that he is displeased with me. It is rather that in that circumstance—the circumstance of my clearly seeing my guilt—I simply find myself with the belief that God is disapproving or disappointed.
In this regard, the sensus divinitatis resembles perception, memory, and a priori belief. Consider the first. I look out into the backyard; I see that the coral tiger lilies are in bloom. I don’t note that I am being appeared to a certain complicated way (that my experience is of a certain complicated character) and then make an argument from my being appeared to in that way to the conclusion that in fact there are coral tiger lilies in bloom there. (The whole history of modern philosophy up to Hume and Reid shows that such an argument would be thoroughly inconclusive.) It is rather that upon being appeared to in that way (and given my previous training), the belief that the coral tiger lilies are in bloom spontaneously arises in me. This belief will ordinarily be basic, in the sense that it is not accepted on the evidential basis of other propositions. The same goes for memory. You ask me what I had for breakfast; I think for a moment and then remember: pancakes with blueberries. I don’t argue from the fact that it seems to me that I remember having pancakes for 176breakfast to the conclusion that I did; rather, you ask me what I had for breakfast, and the answer simply comes to mind. Or consider a priori belief. I don’t infer from other things that, for example, modus ponens is a valid form of argument: I just see that it is so and, in fact, must be so. All of these, we might say, are starting points for thought. But (on the model) the same goes for the sense of divinity. It isn’t a matter of making a quick and dirty inference from the grandeur of the mountains or the beauty of the flower or the sun on the treetops to the existence of God; instead, a belief about God spontaneously arises in those circumstances, the circumstances that trigger the operation of the sensus divinitatis. This belief is another of those starting points for thought; it too is basic in the sense that the beliefs in question are not accepted on the evidential basis of other beliefs.208208 It is worth noting that even if I believe something in the basic way, it doesn’t follow that I wouldn’t cite various other propositions in response to your question, “Why do you believe p? What is your reason for believing p?” See “Reason and Belief in God,” p. 51.
Of course there are options here. The model could be developed in such a way that the role of the sensus divinitatis is to enable one to see the truth of the crucial premise for a quick theistic argument—such as the heavens can be gloriously beautiful only if God has created them. This proposition is a consequence of theism in any event; what the present suggestion would add is that it plays a crucial role in the genesis of theistic belief.209209 For suggestions as to how the model could be developed in this direction, see Michael Sudduth, “Prospects for ‘Mediate’ Natural Theology in John Calvin,” Religious Studies 31, no. 1 (March 1995), p. 53. In the Summa Theologiae passage quoted above in footnote 3, Aquinas goes on to make a suggestion like this: he suggests that this natural knowledge of God is “immediate,” but also by way of inference:
this is due either to the fact that it is self-evident that God exists, just as other principles of demonstration are—a view held by some people, as we said in Book One—or, what seems indeed to be true, that man can immediately reach some sort of knowledge of God by natural reason. For, when men see that things in nature run according to a definite order, and that ordering does not occur without an orderer, they perceive in most cases that there is some orderer of the things that we see.
Here two things are noteworthy. First, what Aquinas says here suggests that this knowledge (the second variety) is by way of inference, so that, strictly speaking, this knowledge of God would not be basic. The inference, however, would be very quick, elementary, and obvious, so that perhaps believing by way of this kind of inference isn’t easily distinguished from believing in the basic way.
Second, note that this knowledge of God can indeed be very confused:177
But this knowledge admits of a mixture of many errors. Some people have believed that there is no other orderer of worldly things than the celestial bodies, and so they said that the celestial bodies are gods. Other people pushed it farther, to the very elements and the things generated from them, thinking that motion and the natural function which these elements have are not present in them as the effect of some other orderer, but that other things are ordered by them.
Contemporary naturalists such as Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins210210 See the former’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995) and the latter’s The Blind Watchmaker (New York: W. W. Norton, 1986). would presumably concur with those who think that “motion and the natural function which these elements have are not present in them as the effect of some other orderer.” Aquinas would apparently include them among those who have a natural knowledge of God—at least if they also believe that there is something (if only, e.g., natural laws) that orders the things we see. Apparently this kind of knowledge of God, oddly enough, does not preclude being an atheist or a naturalist.
Perhaps we can understand Aquinas as follows. Consider the description that which orders what we see. This description in fact applies to God. One who believes that it does indeed apply to something or other can therefore have de re knowledge of God; for example, she can believe of that which orders what we see that it has one or another properties—that it exists, is powerful, and indeed orders what we see. This would be to believe de re of God that he exists, is powerful, and orders what we see. But this knowledge also “admits of many errors”: for example, the naturalist thinks that what orders what we see is, in fact, the ensemble of natural laws; she therefore believes de re of God that he is the ensemble of natural laws.
Calvin’s view of natural knowledge of God would be a bit different. Following Paul in Romans 1, he holds that the natural knowledge in question is sufficient to render human beings guilty—guilty of failing to worship, obey, and commit ourselves to God. Hence this knowledge includes that God is to be worshiped and obeyed, so that God couldn’t be, for example, the ensemble of natural laws. (Of course there is a sense in which one does obey natural laws—if there are any211211 For arguments casting doubt on the existence of natural laws, see Bas van Fraassen’s Laws and Symmetry (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), pp. 17ff.—but in this sense you can’t fail to obey them, and wouldn’t necessarily be guilty if you could and did.)
2. Proper Basicality with Respect to Justification
On the A/C model, then, theistic belief as produced by the sensus divinitatis is basic. It is also properly basic, and that in at least two senses. On the one hand, a belief can be properly basic for a person in the 178sense that it is indeed basic for him (he doesn’t accept it on the evidential basis of other propositions) and, furthermore, he is justified in holding it in the basic way: he is within his epistemic rights, is not irresponsible, is violating no epistemic or other duties in holding that belief in that way. This is the sense of proper basicality that was foremost in “Reason and Belief in God.” That sense was foremost there because there I was contesting the views of the evidentialist objectors to theistic belief. They didn’t ordinarily say precisely what they think the problem is with believing in God in the basic way (without propositional evidence), but as far as I can see, they were claiming that belief in God taken that way is unjustified. Further, they apparently understood justification and lack of justification in deontological terms: to be unjustified is to be epistemically irresponsible, to flout an epistemic duty or requirement of some sort. As I argued above in chapter 3, however, it is really pretty obvious that a believer in God is or can be deontologically justified. You think about the matter carefully and at length, considering the F&M complaint and all the rest, but it still seems clear or obvious (perhaps even overwhelmingly so) that there is such a person as God: how could someone sensibly claim that you were being irresponsible or derelict with respect to some epistemic duty? That would be a hard saying indeed.
3. Proper Basicality with Respect to Warrant
There is another sense in which a belief can be properly or improperly basic: p is properly basic for S in this sense if and only if S accepts p in the basic way, and furthermore p has warrant for S, accepted in that way. Perceptual beliefs are properly basic in this sense: such beliefs are typically accepted in the basic way, and they often have warrant. (They are often produced by cognitive faculties functioning properly in a congenial epistemic environment according to a design plan successfully aimed at truth.) The same goes for memory beliefs, some a priori beliefs, and many other beliefs. I suppose the fact is most of our beliefs that have warrant, have it in this basic way; it is only in a smallish area of our cognitive life that the warrant a belief has for us derives from the fact that it is accepted on the evidential basis of other beliefs. Of course, sometimes beliefs are accepted in the basic way but do not have warrant. As we saw in chapter 4, this can be due to cognitive malfunction, or to a cognitive faculty’s being impeded by such conditions as rage, lust, ambition, grief, and the like; it can also be because the bit of the design plan governing the production of the belief is aimed not at truth but at something else (survival, e.g.), or because something in the testimonial chain has gone wrong (one of your friends has lied to you), or for still other reasons.
According to the A/C model I am presenting here, theistic belief produced by the sensus divinitatis can also be properly basic with respect 179to warrant.212212 And since a belief has warrant only if it is produced by properly functioning processes or faculties, a belief properly basic with respect to warrant is also properly basic with respect to rationality (that is, rationality as proper function; see above, p. 110). It isn’t just that the believer in God is within her epistemic rights in accepting theistic belief in the basic way. That is indeed so; more than that, however, this belief can have warrant for the person in question, warrant that is often sufficient for knowledge. The sensus divinitatis is a belief-producing faculty (or power, or mechanism) that under the right conditions produces belief that isn’t evidentially based on other beliefs. On this model, our cognitive faculties have been designed and created by God; the design plan, therefore, is a design plan in the literal and paradigmatic sense. It is a blueprint or plan for our ways of functioning, and it has been developed and instituted by a conscious, intelligent agent. The purpose of the sensus divinitatis is to enable us to have true beliefs about God; when it functions properly, it ordinarily does produce true beliefs about God. These beliefs therefore meet the conditions for warrant; if the beliefs produced are strong enough, then they constitute knowledge.213213 Of course it doesn’t follow that theistic belief can’t get warrant by way of argument from other beliefs; nor does it follow that natural theology and more informal theistic argument is of no worth in the believer’s intellectual and spiritual life. Note further that, according to the model, sin damages the sensus divinitatis and compromises its operation; see below, p. 184 and chapter 7.
There will be a complicated and many-sided interplay between the deliverances of the sensus divinitatis and the deliverances of other sources of belief, just as there is a complicated interplay between the deliverances of perception, which are accepted in the basic way, and other sources of belief. It is not the case, of course, that a person who acquires belief by way of the sensus divinitatis need have any well-formed ideas about the source or origin of the belief, or any idea that there is such a faculty as the sensus divinitatis. (Just as most of us don’t have well-developed ideas as to the source and origin of our a priori beliefs.) Nor would such a person accept the belief in question on the basis of the following sort of argument: this belief seems to be a deliverance of the sensus divinitatis; the sensus divinitatis is a reliable belief-producing mechanism; therefore, probably this belief is true. Of course not; here, as in the case of other original sources of belief (memory, perception, a priori belief, etc.), the belief in question isn’t typically accepted on the basis of any argument at all, and the belief can have warrant even if the believer has no second-level beliefs at all about the belief in question.180
4. Natural Knowledge of God
This capacity for knowledge of God is part of our original cognitive equipment, part of the fundamental epistemic establishment with which we have been created by God. In this, it contrasts with one of the subjects of chapter 8, the internal instigation of the Holy Spirit. As we shall see there, the latter is an element in the divine response to human sin and the human predicament, a predicament in which we human beings require healing, restoration, and salvation. According to fundamental Christian teaching, the central divine response to our predicament is the incarnation and atonement: the life, sacrificial death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the divine son of God. By virtue of this divine response, we human beings can be put right with God and live triumphantly with him in this life and the next. Another part of God’s response to our condition, however, is Scripture and the testimony of the Holy Spirit. God speaks to us in Scripture, teaching us his response to our fallen condition and the way in which this response is to be appropriated by us. By virtue of the inward instigation of the Holy Spirit, we see that the teachings of Scripture are true. This work of the Holy Spirit, therefore, is a very special kind of cognitive instrument or agency; it is a belief-producing process, all right, but one that is very much out of the ordinary. It is not part of our original noetic equipment (not part of our constitution as we came from the hand of the Maker), but instead part of a special divine response to our (unnatural) sinful condition. Later, we will look at these notions in more detail; here, the thing to see is the contrast between the activity of the Holy Spirit in our cognitive lives, on the one hand, and the sensus divinitatis on the other. The former is part of a special response to the fallen condition into which humankind has precipitated itself; the latter is part of our original epistemic endowment. The former is a special divine response to sin; presumably it would not have taken place had there been no sin. The latter would no doubt have been part of our epistemic establishment even if humanity had not fallen into sin.
5. Perceptual or Experiential Knowledge?
Suppose something like the A/C model is in fact correct: knowledge of God ordinarily comes not through inference from other things one believes, but from a sensus divinitatis, as characterized above. Would it follow that our knowledge of God comes by way of perception? That is, would it follow that the warrant enjoyed by theistic belief is perceptual warrant? Not necessarily. This is not because there is any real question about the possibility or, indeed, the actuality of perception of God. I believe William Alston has shown that if there is 181such a person as God, there could certainly be perception of him, and indeed is perception of him. Alston’s powerful discussion shows that the usual objections to perception of God (no independent way of checking, disagreement as to what God is like, differences from sense perception, apparent relativity to the theological beliefs of the alleged perceiver, and so on) have very little to be said for them.214214 Perceiving God; The Epistemology of Religious Experience (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991), chapters 1, 2, 5, and 6 (hereafter PG).
Of course it isn’t wholly clear just what perception is (there is as much dispute about that as about any other philosophical topic); conceivably, the way to think of perception strictly so-called is such that it essentially involves specifically sensuous imagery. This imagery need not be of the sort that goes with our sense perception; other kinds are certainly possible. (Perhaps sensuous imagery goes with the bat’s echolocation, a kind of imagery wholly foreign to us.) But sensuous imagery of some kind may be necessary for perception, and perhaps it is also required that this imagery plays a certain specific (and hard to specify) causal role in the genesis of the candidates for perceptual belief in question.
What Alston thinks of as putative perception of God, however, often appears not to involve sensuous imagery.215215 “Although mystical perception may or may not involve sensory content, I will be focusing on the non-sensory variety, since, in my judgment, it has a better claim to be a genuine direct perception of God” (PG, p. 36). If so, then, strictly speaking, there wouldn’t be perception of God; what Alston’s discussion would then show is that (given the existence of God) there could certainly be and probably is something very like perception of God (something that is epistemically on all fours with perception in that it, like the latter, can be a source of warrant). This something, therefore, can properly be called ‘perception’ in an analogically extended sense of that term. To the believer, the presence of God is often palpable. A surprising number of people report that at one time or another, they feel the presence of God, or at any rate it seems to them that they feel the presence of God—where the ‘feeling’ also doesn’t seem to go by way of sensuous imagery. Many others (by no means for the most part spiritual heroes or even serious believers) report hearing God speak to them. And among these cases, cases where it seems right or nearly right to speak of perceiving God (feeling his presence, perhaps hearing his voice), there is great variation. There are the shattering, overwhelming sorts of experiences had by Paul (then ‘Saul’) on the road to Damascus and reported by mystics and other masters of the interior life. In these cases there may be vivid sensuous imagery of more than one kind. Still, there is also a sort of awareness of God where it seems right to say one feels his presence, but where there is little or none of 182the sort of sensuous imagery that typically goes with perception; it is more like a nonsensuous impression of a brooding presence. And (apparently) there are all sorts of examples between these two extremes.
So I have no doubt that perception of God or something very much like it does occur, and occur rather widely. But would beliefs gained by way of the sensus divinitatis of the A/C model be perceptual belief—that is, would the knowledge of God afforded (in the A/C model) by the sensus divinitatis be by way of perception? I’m inclined to think not. There are different accounts of what is essential to perception; Alston’s, I think, is as good as any. As he puts it,
what I take to be definitive of perceptual consciousness is that something (or so it seems to the subject) presents itself to the subject’s awareness as so-and-so—as red, round, loving, or whatever. When I stand before my desk with my eyes closed and then open them, the most striking difference in my consciousness is that items that I was previously merely thinking about or remembering, if conscious of them in any way, are now present to me. (PG, p. 36)
Of course it isn’t easy to say, in every sort of case, when the object seems to present itself to the subject; let’s suppose we have something of a grasp of this notion and can tell within reasonable limits when it applies. Then I think it is clear that in some of the experiences that are, on the model, operations of the sensus divinitatis, there is a sense of God’s actually being presented to, present to, one’s awareness, but in others not. In the sorts of cases Calvin speaks of (the night sky, the mountains, the ocean), it is sometimes as if one feels, perceives the very presence of God. This would be what Alston calls (p. 21) indirect perception of God—the perception of God mediated by the perception of something else (the night sky, the mountains). In other cases of this sort, however, God doesn’t seem exactly present, or presented, even though various beliefs about him—that he is powerful, glorious, to be worshiped, obeyed, thanked—arise. And in some of the other sorts of manifestations of the sensus divinitatis—situations of guilt, danger, gratitude—the sense that God is actually present to one, as Alston is thinking of it, seems rarer. So according to the model, the operation of the sensus divinitatis doesn’t necessarily involve perception of God.
Well, even if this sort of knowledge of God isn’t perceptual, can we at any rate say that it is by way of religious experience? Can we say that the warrant it gets comes from experience? The first thing to see is that this term ‘religious experience’ is construed in a thousand different ways to cover a vast and confusing variety of cases; the question as it stands is multiply ambiguous and, in fact, we are probably better off boycotting the term.216216 As Alston (PG, p. 34) suggests. Still, perhaps we can say at least the 183following: the operation of the sensus divinitatis will always involve the presence of experience of some kind or other, even if sensuous imagery isn’t always present. Sometimes there is sensuous imagery; sometimes there is something like feeling the presence of God, where there seems to be no sensuous imagery present, but perhaps something (necessarily hard to describe) like it; often there is also the sort of experience that goes with being frightened, feeling grateful, delighted, foolish, angry, pleased, and the like. A common component is a sort of awe, a sense of the numinous;217217 See Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1958). a sense of being in the presence of a being of overwhelming majesty and greatness. None of these is inevitably connected with the operation of the sensus divinitatis, although perhaps no occasion of its operation fails to display one or another of these varieties of experience. But there is another sort of experience that is always present in the operation of the sensus divinitatis. Recall the distinction made a couple of chapters back between sensuous imagery and what I called above doxastic experience, the sort of experience one has when entertaining any proposition one believes. Entertaining, for instance, the proposition that 3 + 2 = 5 or that Mount Everest is higher than Mount Blanc feels different from entertaining one you think is clearly false—3 + 2 = 6, for example, or Mount Blanc is higher than Mount Everest. The first two feel natural, right, acceptable; the second two feel objectionable, wrong, eminently rejectable.218218 For more on doxastic evidence, see Warrant and Proper Function (hereafter WPF), pp. 190ff. As I say, this experience is always connected with operations of the sensus divinitatis, because always connected with the formation or sustenance of any belief.
So all of these varieties of experience can be found in the operation of the sensus divinitatis; doxastic experience accompanies any beliefs formed by its operation, as it does the formation of any other belief. So back to our question: shall we therefore say that knowledge by way of the sensus divinitatis comes by way of religious experience, that it is experiential knowledge? Shall we say that (on the model) the warrant it has comes from experience? I don’t propose to answer the question. An answer would involve a long and essentially irrelevant effort to answer another question: “What does it mean to say that the warrant of a belief comes from (or comes by way of) experience, religious or otherwise?” This is an interesting question, and a tough question (doxastic experience always accompanies the formation of a priori belief, and scraps of sensuous imagery typically accompany it; does the warrant of a priori belief therefore come from experience?). But we don’t need an answer to that question for our purposes. We 184can be satisfied with an account of how (on the model) the sensus divinitatis does in fact work; given that account, the answer to the question whether this is by way of experience is unimportant and optional.
6. Sin and Natural Knowledge of God
Finally, according to the A/C model this natural knowledge of God has been compromised, weakened, reduced, smothered, overlaid, or impeded by sin and its consequences. In the next chapter, we shall explore the noetic effects of sin in more detail, and in chapter 8 we shall see that (on the model) the sensus divinitatis is restored to proper function by regeneration and the operation of the Holy Spirit. For now, we note only that the knowledge of God provided by the sensus divinitatis, prior to faith and regeneration, is both narrowed in scope and partially suppressed. Due to one cause or another, the faculty itself may be diseased and thus partly or wholly disabled. There is such a thing as cognitive disease; there is blindness, deafness, inability to tell right from wrong, insanity; and there are analogues of these conditions with respect to the operation of the sensus divinitatis. According to Marx and Marxists, of course, it is belief in God that is a result of cognitive disease, of dysfunction. In an etymological sense, Marx thinks, the believer is insane. A milder, more conciliatory way to put it is that the believer, from those perspectives, is irrational; rational faculties fail to work as they should. But here the A/C model stands Freud and Marx on their heads (more accurately, what we see here is part of F&M’s extensive borrowing from Christian and Jewish ways of thinking); according to the model, it is really the unbeliever who displays epistemic malfunction; failing to believe in God is a result of some kind of dysfunction of the sensus divinitatis.
And here we should note that the notion of warrant can be usefully generalized. So far, we have thought of warrant as a property or characteristic of beliefs; the basic idea is that a belief enjoys warrant when it is formed by properly functioning cognitive faculties in a congenial epistemic environment according to a design plan successfully aimed at truth—which includes, we should note, the avoidance of error. But withholdings, failures to believe, can also be dictated by a design plan successfully aimed at truth and the avoidance of error. You have conflicting evidence for the proposition that there is intelligent life in other parts of the universe: some of those you trust say yes, some say no, and some say there is little evidence either way. You therefore withhold that belief, believing neither that there is nor that there isn’t life elsewhere in the universe. Your friends with the rocky marriage tell you conflicting stories about the latest quarrel: by virtue of past experience in similar situations you have learned to believe neither story without further corroboration. Your young son asks 185you how high the highest mountain in Antarctica is; you have a dim impression of having heard that it is in the neighborhood of 16,000 feet, but don’t really know; you form no belief on the subject. In all of these cases, withholding is what the design plan dictates. Thus withholding displays a sort of analogue of warrant: it too can in certain circumstances be dictated by the proper function of cognitive faculties operating in a congenial epistemic environment according to a design plan successfully aimed at truth and the avoidance of error.
By contrast, if you call and ask what I am doing at the moment and I don’t form the belief that I am sitting at my computer trying to work on my book, there is something wrong somewhere in my noetic establishment. I am introduced to someone at a party; although I have no reason to do so, I withhold the belief that what I see before me is a person, motivated by nothing more than the broadly logical possibility that what I see is really an extraordinarily clever hologram with sound effects attached. I read Bertrand Russell and see that it is possible (in the broadly logical sense) and compatible with appearances that the world popped into existence just five minutes ago, complete with all those apparent memories, crumbling mountains, and dusty books; as a result, I withhold the belief that I am more than five minutes old. In these cases, my failure to believe is a sign, not of exemplary epistemic caution, but of cognitive malfunction; these withholdings lack the analogue of warrant. Of course I might, in a frenzy due to philosophical error, come to the conclusion that in some way I ought not to believe in other people; I might come to the conclusion that such belief is unjustified, somehow; and I might try not to believe in other people. I might even succeed for brief periods in my study. But it is exceedingly hard to maintain this attitude, as is demonstrated by the famous lady who dropped Bertrand Russell a postcard on which she wrote something like “I agree entirely with you that solipsism is the correct and most reasonable position: so why aren’t there more of us solipsists?” As Hume notoriously noted, it is exceedingly hard to maintain this attitude for long, or outside your study. The fact is that someone who consistently believes that she is the only person in the universe is suffering from a serious mental disorder, and the same is true for the person who is merely agnostic about the existence of other persons.
We could put the same point by saying that some withholdings are rational and some irrational. An important sense of the term ‘rational’219219 As we saw above, p. 110. is one in which a belief is rational if it is produced by cognitive faculties functioning properly. But the same can be said for withholdings: they can be produced by cognitive faculties functioning 186properly, as in the first three examples above, but also by cognitive faculties functioning improperly, as in the next three examples. According to the model, the same thing can happen with respect to belief in God. Failure to believe can be due to a sort of blindness or deafness, to improper function of the sensus divinitatis. On the present model, such failure to believe is irrational, and such withholdings lack the analogue of warrant. It doesn’t follow that failure to believe is unjustified—if it is due solely to cognitive malfunction, then there is no dereliction of epistemic duty—but it is nonetheless irrational. Contrary to a sort of ethos induced by classical foundationalism, it is not the case that the way to demonstrate rationality is to believe as little as possible; withholding, failure to believe, agnosticism, is not always, from the point of view of rationality, the safest and best path. In some contexts it is instead a sign of serious irrationality.
According to the present model, then, the sensus divinitatis has been damaged and corrupted by sin. Further, according to the extended model I mean to propose in chapter 8, the sensus divinitatis is partly healed and restored to proper function by faith and the concomitant work of the Holy Spirit in one’s heart. So the model as so far outlined is incomplete; the rest will come in chapters 8 and 9. Even if incomplete, however, the model as so far outlined will suffice for present purposes. For it shows us a sufficiently detailed way in which a properly functioning sensus divinitatis can produce theistic belief which is (1) taken in the basic way and (2), so taken, can indeed have warrant, and warrant sufficient for knowledge.
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