In our previous discussions of Antony Flew and William Kingdon Clifford, we’ve been exploring the evidentialist thesis in the philosophy of religion. Evidentialism is the view that we require evidence to ground our beliefs: belief in the absence of evidence is contrary to reason, perhaps even to morality. Confronted with this challenge, a person of faith can either accept the burden of proof and attempt to meet it, or they can try to show that the skeptic’s ideas about proof are inadequate somehow. While, traditionally, natural theology goes in for the first approach, I think it’s fair to say that in philosophy of religion the second approach is the more common. In our previous article, on William James’s The Will to Believe, we encountered one such approach. James holds that a strict evidentialism in the philosophy of religion is too timid to be practical, and is really based on an exaggerated fear of being wrong.
Another more recent approach has been developed by Alvin Plantinga. He, too, questions the type of strict evidentialism advocated by Clifford, but not so much on that it is too timid as on the grounds that it overestimates what reason and evidence can really do for us. Consider, for example, my perception that there is a lamp on my desk. I do not know that my perception is true. Indeed, it could be false. After all, I learn from physics that what I perceive as a lamp is mostly empty space, from neuroscience that all my perceptions are caused by electrical signals in my brain, and from metaphysics that there may not be any external reality at all. I could, in other words, be a “brain in a vat” that merely thinks it is perceiving something external to it. Or then again, maybe everything I think is my life is only an extended dream. With many similar arguments we can raise doubts about the veracity of my perception that there is a lamp on a desk, and yet I am very far from doubting that there is, in fact, a lamp on my desk. The belief is, in other words, incorrigible. Try as I might, I simply cannot make myself believe that it isn’t there, notwithstanding that I am totally powerless to prove that it is, in fact, there.
Someone will point out that I could walk up to the lamp and touch it, that I could ask a neighbor if they share my experience, that I could take a picture of it and see if it’s still there in the photograph, or think of howsoever many other such tests that show that the lamp is, in fact, there. But all of this would miss the point because whatever test they can propose, it will rest on the assumption that we have been calling into question: namely, that my perceptions report true information about an external reality. After all, if my sense of sight can deceive me, why not also my sense of touch or hearing? If I can’t trust my sight to show me that the lamp is there, why should I trust it when it comes to the photograph? If the lamp may be a figment of my imagination, why not my friend who tells me it is really there? And so on. No matter what test we propose, it will always be possible to raise some such objection.
Now, the point is not, to repeat, that the lamp isn’t really there. Of course it is. The point is, rather, that I can’t prove it’s there, and neither can anyone else. If a person is determined to be a skeptic about the existence of an external reality, there are all sorts of clever arguments they can muster, and we will eventually have to admit that we are powerless to persuade them of the lamp’s reality. Thus my belief that there is a lamp on my desk rests not on reason, and not on evidence, but on something much better: a direct and incorrigible perception of its reality. Put differently, I don’t need to prove that the lamp is there in order to be fully rational in believing that it is. In fact, I don’t need to have any argument at all, and it would probably never even occur to me to formulate one until or unless some niggling metaphysician started questioning it. I just go through my daily life innocently, yet in no way irrationally, supposing that my perceptions of an external reality are truth-telling. The case is similar when we consider whether there has been a past (any argument designed to show that there has been a past will have to make use of the concept, “the past” itself, and will thus be exposed to the charge of circular reasoning), or whether there are other minds (no empirical test can distinguish between a conscious agent and a sufficiently sophisticated simulation). Yet, just as we go through our lives innocently-yet-rationally supposing that there exists an external reality, we do the same when it comes to the past and to other minds.
According to Alvin Plantinga, the theist is in the same position. It might be true that we can’t come up with a really knock-down argument for God’s existence, but it is not true, as Clifford or Flew suppose, that we need one, according to Plantinga. Indeed, the believer may hold that they have something better than an argument—they have a perception. And, having that perception, it is not up to them to show that it is truth-telling, but on the contrary, it is on the skeptic to give them some grounds for doubting it. Properly speaking, then, theism is not the belief that God exists, but the belief that the experience of God is truth-telling. But just as the lamp on my table will not go away just because I decide to doubt its reality, so, too, the experience of God will not go away if I accept some skeptical argument. In other words, there is something deeper going on here than propositional reason.
Indeed, the believer may hold that they have something better than an argument—they have a perception.
Earlier, I described reformed epistemology as a more recent approach in the philosophy of religion. That’s true, but there’s also a sense in which it is a very old approach. It was once remarked that nobody really doubted the existence of God until Anselm, a twelfth-century ecclesiastic, undertook to prove it. While this is a bit of an exaggeration, there’s an important point here: namely, that it’s not obvious to every person of faith, even very sophisticated thinkers, that the existence of God is something that needs to be proven. Reformed epistemology is “reformed” in the sense of taking its starting point from the work of the reformed theologian John Calvin (Plantinga is a reformed, i.e., Calvinist, Christian.) According to Calvin, we are all born with an innate knowledge of God’s existence—a sensus divinitatus—which gives continual, internal testimony of God’s existence. Thomas Aquinas reasoned similarly, writing that “to know in a general and confused way that God exists is implanted in us by nature.” If that’s true, there would seem to be something suspect about this entire idea of proving God’s existence (i.e., natural theology). Properly, we already know that God exists—what we need to do is take that knowledge seriously. For this reason, reformed theologians have often been hostile not just to skepticism, but to natural theology as well, taking the view that, as Martin Luther said, “Atheism is not to be argued with, but to be preached at.”
Reformed epistemology has been challenged on several grounds, however. In the first place, who says there is a sensus divinitatus? If you say you have an internal, continual testimony that there is a God, perhaps I will respond by saying that I have an internal, continual testimony within me that there is not. Perhaps I have a “sensus atheistus” within me that is just the opposite of your sensus divinitatus, and perhaps you are not in a position to gainsay my sense any more than I am in a position to gainsay yours.
Secondly, if we get to appeal to our innate convictions anytime we’re challenged, then when will it ever end? If you can say, today, that you just do know that God exists, independent of argument or evidence—or if you can even go further and try to undermine my reasonable demands for argument and evidence, as somehow misguided or beside the point—if you can do all that today, then what’s to stop you from making some such similar claim tomorrow, about whatever crazy idea happens to seize your imagination? It’s not hard to see how appeals to some hidden, internal testimony could get out of hand. What we need, the skeptic might contend, is not private conviction, but public evidence. That’s what makes science qualitatively superior to religion: religion is based on how you personally feel, but science is based on publicly accessible evidence, capable of being rationally discussed, adopted, or discarded, as reason dictates.
Finally, an objection is possible on the grounds of the diversity of religious experience itself. When you walk into my living room, you reliably see the same lamp that I do. Maybe you can’t prove that the lamp is really there any more than I can, but it is surely more of a stretch to think that two people are hallucinating, are brains in a vat, or what have you, than that one person is. The consistency across perceptions helps to anchor their veracity. But when it comes to faith, that’s not at all the case. One person is a Christian, another a Muslim; one person a pantheist, another a deist, while for another there is no God at all; and on and on. Each person can validate their belief on the same grounds Plantinga appeals to in order to validate his. So there’s a problem of this argument not being selective enough—it seems to prove not too much, but too little. Further, if we were all having the same experience of God, maybe the skeptic’s argument would fall flat. But the sheer variety of such experience seems to argue for something other than simple perception. Perhaps the reason that there are so many different religious experiences is that there are so many different religions, and perhaps the reason there are so many different religions is that they’re all basically just stories that people tell each other—profoundly moving stories, perhaps, but stories nonetheless, with no necessary connection to any deeper, underlying reality. If Clifford’s evidentialism lets in too few beliefs, as James contends, perhaps Plantinga’s non-evidentialism lets in too many, and perhaps they undermine each other through their sheer variety and confusion.
We can’t get into all of the back-and-forth here. Suffice it to say that there is plenty a reformed epistemologist can say in defense. But when it comes to the first objection, at least—the appeal to a sensus atheistus—we have a fairly straightforward procedure for settling the question: we can look at the scientific literature on the cognitive science of religion, and find out which way our internal dispositions (at least most of the time) really do run. In our next article, we’ll begin just such an exploration.
Daniel Halverson is in the PhD program at the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, University of Toronto. His research focuses on the history of evolutionary biology in the Victorian and WWII eras.
If you’re just beginning to follow this series, or would like a handy reference, here are links to the previous articles: