Saturday, August 25, 2007

Does Sin Corrupt our Ability to See God or Does the Religious Urge Corrupt our Reason?

A group of philosophers sympathetic with the Christian take on things have constructed a complicated and technical account of God beliefs and their source in human cognition known as reformed epistemology. On the view, espoused by Plantinga and Wolterstorff and widely cited and supported in recent years, humans are endowed by God with an innate faculty for sensing God under the right circumstances. This sensus divinitatus is one aspect of a properly functioning cognitive and belief forming system in humans. When it is not corrupted by the invasive noetic effects of sin, this faculty produces a belief in God that is immediate, direct, and non-inferentially justified. That is, a belief in God is properly basic according to the reformed epistemologists. It is not supported by any other independent or more fundamental facts. It cannot be justified on the basis of other beliefs. Rather, it’s axiomatic like the law of non-contradiction or the identity of indiscernibles. The sensus divinitatus will manifest itself in a variety of ways—when you see a sweeping vista of majestic mountaintops, or when your first child is born, or upon pondering the vastness and magnificence of the universe in the night sky.

Misinterpreting these feelings of the divine as indicators of a non-Christian God as a Hindu might, or suppressing them and denying that God is manifest in experience are all the by-products of a sinful nature. Doubters, skeptics, and deniers—anyone who doesn’t buy into the Reformed Epistemology picture—have all had their God given God detectors corrupted, co-opted, and distorted by sin. What they need, of course, is the salvation of Jesus to cleanse them of their immorality and to restore the proper function of their belief faculties. Then they will see that they were not right with God before. And then they will have properly basis religious experience of God. So the view has a the tidy way to deal with criticisms and legitimate objections. No objection to the whole scheme can have any merit because it arises from doubt, which is really just wickedness. If you had some experiences that seemed to have profound religious significance, like any normal person you would wonder about alternative explanations. Could this just be a weird artifact of my neurology? I wonder what natural explanation there could be for this strange disassociation? Maybe I ate something bad? The full-blown theistic supernatural explanation is one possibility. But according to Reformed Epistemology any suspicion that you have that it might have been something natural is really the result of your innately evil nature and the taint that sin has placed on your ability to think straight. They position undercuts any objections with an ad hominem attack on the moral character of the questioner.

The whole scheme is also clever (and insidious) for inventing a notion of private evidence that shouldn’t be held up for any public scrutiny by someone who has doubts. Once you’re in the special club, you’re provided with “self-authenticating witness of the holy spirit” that gives you perfect, unassailable assurance about your God doctrine no matter what empirical questions or doubts may arise. Ordinarily, evidence is something that is sharable and public. The prosecuting attorney displays the gun that was the murder weapon for everyone in the court, the dentist looks at X-rays, and your mechanic points to the leaking oil around a gasket as evidence that there is a problem. But this special God feeling isn’t like that; it’s just a feeling you have that something’s got to be true, so it can’t be shared with anyone else. Plantinga and some of the people in this camp suggest that the earnest Christian in this situation ought to consider alternative explanations for their experience. Many properly basic beliefs, including the God one presumably, are defeasible. If you have the experiences, and if your conviction that that’s really God your feeling persists after you have scrutinized the belief and reflected on what might be causing it, then you will have a warranted, and true belief that there is a God.

Needless to say, the notion of private evidence here is deeply problematic. Imagine an IRS agent telling you that she’s got self-authenticating, private evidence that you can’t see that you owe the government an extra $20,000 tax dollars. Imagine a doctor telling you that she’s got self-authenticating evidence that you’ve got cancer, but the evidence can’t be grasped by anyone who doesn’t already believe it. Or imagine your husband telling you that he’s got special, private, self-authenticating evidence that you’ve been cheating on him. Then suppose furthermore that they assure you that their conclusion is right because they have thought long and hard about it and considered other possibilities. Evidence that's private isn't really evidence at all and a mere feeling that something just must be true, no matter how strong or persistent, is never enough to give it warrant.

Here’s a model of human rationality and religious belief that is much more accurate. Humans are endowed by evolution with a remarkably effective set of problem solving skills that can be group loosely under the general heading “reason.” In the right circumstances, our reason allows us to devise complicated and elegant solutions to challenges, make accurate inferences and predictions, and arrive at many well-justified and true beliefs. We manage to cure diseases like polio and land people on the moon. But our cognitive systems are kludgey and imperfect. They’re strapped together with disparate functions and tools that were available at various stages in a long, convoluted evolutionary history. Sometimes they don’t track the truth at all, like when you have an attack of claustrophobia, or you can’t bear to even look at a dish that once made you sick when you were a child. Sometimes our cognitive faculties overreact, mislead, underestimate, or misjudge.

Our fancier faculties of reason are also often overwhelmed by a variety of emotional, psychological, and biological forces that erode our ability to reason well and see the truth. One legacy of our evolutionary history appears to be a powerful disposition towards religious belief, experiences, and feelings. Daniel Dennett and Stephen Pinker have recently argued that natural selection may have endowed us with a sort of mind-attribution module. Construing other organisms behavior as the product of the planning and goals within their minds, whether they really have them or not, would be an effective mechanism for anticipating and projecting the behaviors of potential predators and prey. But we’re just built to take it too far and endow everything with a mind—the wind, the ocean, the starry sky, and the world itself.

In an earlier post, I called it the Urge—a powerful and seductive need we have to be religious. Completely aside from the factual question of God, it is obvious to anyone who observes humans and their religious activities that we desperately want there to be a God and we will adopt the most contorted gymnastics of reasoning to rationalize the belief. Even if there are some theists with good reasons, there are far more with sloppy, fallacy ridden, biased grounds that they offer for their beliefs. And in lots of these cases, it’s not really the poor reasoning that is offered in defense of someone’s God belief that led them to believe at all. More often it is the case that people have the belief first as a result of the Urge’s infiltration of their consciousness, and then they back fill that conclusion with some superficial reasons. So the Urge is really the dark side of your nature that threatens to corrupt your more noble aspects. It’s the alluring, siren call of religion itself, not sin, that will co-opt reason’s ability to see the world in an accurate light.

Staying on the straight and narrow will require resisting the temptation of religion’s easy, emotionally satisfying answers to the biggest metaphysical questions. Living up to your potential to reason clearly and evaluate the evidence objectively demands that you be constantly vigilant against seduction of religion’s false comforts.


Josh May said...

Nice post.

I do admire the efforts of the Reformed Epistemologists to try to at least explain how Christian belief is warranted. It's much more respectable than the popular Christian move of playing the faith card. When theists play the faith card, they try to claim that their belief in God is somehow a legitimate stopping point in an argument; as if they have the right to hold their faith-based belief. But, as an earlier post here points out, they certainly do have the legal, institutional right, but no epistemic right (assuming the belief is faith-based, which typically means that it's held without evidence or in the face of evidence to the contary, or both). Playing the faith card really just botches the concept of a reason for belief (or at least the concept of a good reason---one that is evidence for the truth of some proposition).

So at least Plantinga and others realize that traditional faith-based beliefs alone (that is, without some additional story) are unwarranted; and consequently hold no water in a religious debate. However, as this post points out, Reformed Epistemology still botches the concept of a reason. Reasons are essentially public entities: if a proposition is offered as evidence for the truth of another proposition but is not public/shareable (in the sense discussed here), then it is not a reason.

I guess the devil is in the details of the notion of publicity here. I take it to be, at least, that a reason for belief has to be in principle a reason for anyone who is in the same epistemic situation. I guess this is sort of reminiscent of Wittgenstein private language stuff. The point is similar: the practice of seeking truth by providing independent evidence (a.k.a. grounds, reasons for belief, etc.) is a practice. As such, you're not engaged in that practice if your "reasons" for belief are essentially private. Now the Reformed Epistemologist might claim that they aren't private, they are reasons for all Christians who have their faculties working properly. But, of course, this violates another constitutive part of the practice: grounds/reasons must be independent of the conclusion (that is, non-circular). If your only "reasons" for belief are circular---in the sense that it's only a reason for a theist, one who already accepts the conclusion---then they aren't reasons at all. You can call them reasons, but that's really a misnomer.

Of course, Plantinga is no fool. He's got a very sophisticated, well-thought-out, and interesting theory. (I speak solely of Plantinga because he's the only one whose work I know on this stuff.) But I think it's just still not quite in line with the notion of warrant that we're interested in in epistemology. It's true that warrant/justification has to be generally reliably truth-tracking, but it also has to be public. And the notion of publicity must be non-circular in the sense that's exhibited in ordinary cases of engaging in the practice of seeking truth via reasons/evidence.

I think this post nicely points that out. Although I think that one needn't even rely on an evolutionary story to make the point. From a dialectical point of view, theists are after all often doubtful about evolution. I think the criticism can be successfully deployed by only relying on the concept of the practice of seeking truth via reasons/evidence.

Well, that's at least my current thinking on the matter.

Jon said...

Sounds like a form of sinless non-falsifiable qualia. At least we can trace the 'effects' of the qualia of say 'fear' to chemical reactions in the brain. Well, maybe when theists experience the God qualia, it is just a chemical reaction or wave function in the brain. Maybe this can be tested in order to naturalize it. Maybe this already has been done.

Anonymous said...

"Evidence that's private isn't really evidence at all and a mere feeling that something just must be true, no matter how strong or persistent, is never enough to give it warrant."

This notion of private evidence is really nefarious; it reminds me of Orwellian Doublespeak, where the people are trained to have contradictory occurrent beliefs:

Love is war.

War is peace.

Evidence is private.

Ironically, although Theists would hate this interpretation, I think their "objective" beliefs about god really amount to nothing other than a hyper-subjective form of relativism.

However, most relativists would never have the hubris to call their subjective beliefs "absolute truth" or "private evidence."

David Corner said...

First, you say that evidence is ordinarily something that is sharable and public. I agree. Two questions arise:

(1) If my belief that P is a basic belief, can I be said to have evidence that P is the case?

(2) If the sensus divinitatus is shared by members of a religious community, can it be called private?

Second: You ask us to imagine that an IRS agent has self-authenticating, private evidence that I owe the government $20,000- or that a doctor has similar evidence for the claim that I have cancer. But I wonder if these are analogous to the God case. After all, aren't there clear-cut empirical procedures for settling questions like these? It seems to me that what is objectionable about these two cases is that they do an end-run around these empirical procedures. A belief that I owe $20,000 in taxes is not properly basic.

An obvious response here would be to say that reformed epistemology does the same kind of end-run around the requirement for empirical evidence for the existence of God. Clearly I am committed to denying that. It is not as though a clear demonstration of God's existence is waiting for us to develop more sensitive telescopes etc.

I am not a reformed epistemologist. (Does that mean I am unreformed?) However, the notion of a sensus divinitatus interests me. I think it can be made more plausible by understanding it, not so much as a special faculty, like sight, but as a *sense of the divine,* where this is more analogous to, say, a sense of rhythm. I can imagine two people arguing about whether a continuing, and varying, sound demonstrated a rhythm. Here the disagreement is not so much over what the senses give us, as it is over how the stimulus is to be understood. (Cf. John Wisdom and "Gods" here.)

I'm also interested in a comparison to Buddhism that had never struck me before. The Yogacara school is known for the thesis that our dispositions shape our experience of the world. According to Yogacara, this is the mechanism for karma. The way I have thought, felt, and acted in the past creates dispositions in me that affect the form taken by my current experience. It seems clear to me that dispositions can have this effect, and so I find this view plausible.

I wonder if this is how we ought to understand the sensus divinitatus; perhaps one is more open to experience the world in the manner characteristic of a theist- seeing the divine in the vastness of the night sky, to borrow your example- when one's dispositional nature is freed of the effects of sin.

Jon said...

What if a Zoroastrian was given a sensus divinitatus that gave him and his community the insight that Christianity was a sin and wrong? Which sensus divinitatus is then right? The Christian or the Zoroastrian?

Anonymous said...

"(2) If the sensus divinitatus is shared by members of a religious community, can it be called private?"

If you and I both share the sense of smell, and smell a rose together, can we be said to know with any certainty that the other is really smelling anything close to what we are at all?

No. We may say to one another: that rose smells great, but one of us may be lying -- one of us may be embarrassed that we have lost our sense of smell, or perhaps one of us is just deluded or pathological.

So no, oral reports, that is, testimony, do not provide CERTAIN evidence of an experience at all.

Testimony can only be judged by others to be credible within a relative matrix of probabilistic data.

Anonymous said...

If, for example, Hindus' divine sense is malfunctioning because they are clouded by sin, wouldn't we expect that Hindus would commit sins at a higher rate than Christians? Is there empirical evidence of higher murder or theft rates among Hindus than Christians? Or is there only ONE sin of which Hindus are more guilty -- the sin of not believing in the Christian God? Now we really are into epistemic la la land.

Anonymous said...

First, given the Reformed Epistemologists' assumption (based on what I read in the original post) that humans are fallen and that this fallen state hinders one's ability to see God, how can these R.E.s be sure that their fallen state is not the cause of their seeing their god -- just as a person strung out on LSD sees whatever he sees?

Second, and here I am responding to the first response, I do not admire the R.E.s' attempt to argue a reason for the belief in their god (again, based on what was conveyed in the original post) because it comes across as reasonable to anyone who already buys into the existence of a Christian god and, therefore, APPEARS as a valid argument when it really is specious. Throughout history, many arguments appearing to be valid have been based on faulty assumptions yet nevertheless gone on to have damaging consequences.

Moreover, I wonder why R.E.s even bother to argue for the existence of their god since they are, I am assuming, not likely to change their minds if their arguments are proven empty. I will take their arguments seriously if they are willing to admit that their argument could be wrong, but with the way the R.E.s' argument is presented (again, in the original post), no argument would be able to undermine the R.E.s' claims.

And just one more point: proof in the existence of some god would not necessarily cause me to revere and to worship this god. In fact, I would more likely follow Job's wife's suggestion.

F. Fletcher