A special gift

Thomas Nagel explains about Alvin Plantinga and his goddy epistemology.

You know how it goes. Having reliable cognitive faculties as a result of natural selection is not credible, while having them as a result of goddy selection is. (But then explain God. I know, that’s old news, but still – if the first thing isn’t credible, why is God credible? Why is the first any less credible than the second?)

We form our beliefs in various reliable ways – perception, rational intuition, memory. Also one more way.

So far we are in the territory of traditional epistemology; but what about faith? Faith, according to Plantinga, is another basic way of forming beliefs, distinct from but not in competition with reason, perception, memory, and the others. However, it is

a wholly different kettle of fish: according to the Christian tradition (including both Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin), faith is a special gift from God, not part of our ordinary epistemic equipment. Faith is a source of belief, a source that goes beyond the faculties included in reason.

A special gift from God? Not part of our ordinary epistemic equipment?

Why? Why make it a special gift? Why do it in that patchwork way? Why not include it as part of the standard equipment? Why make it a special upgrade?

And if it’s a wholly different kettle of fish, why include it as another basic way of forming beliefs? Why treat it as basic at all?

God endows human beings with a sensus divinitatis that ordinarily leads them to believe in him. (In atheists the sensus divinitatis is either blocked or not functioning properly.)

Uh huh. It’s the same old cheat. If you don’t believe in “God” (meaning the local God, because of course it’s not good enough to believe in the wrong one), something is broken. It’s not part of the ordinary equipment, but on the other hand if yours doesn’t hook you up to the right god then the only explanation is that something is amiss.

If all this is true, then by Plantinga’s standard of reliability and proper function, faith is a kind of cause that provides a warrant for theistic belief, even though it is a gift, and not a universal human faculty.

Well, so you say, but it looks to me like just plain having it both ways. It’s basic but special, and it’s universal but it’s often broken. Giving it a Latin name doesn’t solve the problem.


  1. briane says

    Sensus divinatus! Harry exclaimed and with a wave of his wand the the knowledge deniers were cast into Askaban.

  2. Rodney Nelson says

    Faith is belief in something for which there is no evidence. Faith is the theists’ fallback position when they have to admit evidence is lacking for their deities. “But I have faith!”

  3. aziraphale says

    Interesting that the sensus appears to point people towards just the god that is commonly believed in by their community. I wonder at what point this fine-tuning is done. Or is it the other way round – do different gods have responsibility for different communities?

  4. Paul W., OM says

    This is one of the things that makes me agree with Harris that moderate religion is in one important sense “worse” than extreme religion. (And by the same token, accommodationism is a big part of the problem.)

    Contra what moderate apologists say—or even most extreme theological liberals, notably Karen Armstrong—even very liberal, wildly heterodox religion is almost uniformly based on the scientifically implausible idea that people have some kind of supernatural sixth sense for religious truth. (Even if the people defending that idea shy away from calling it “supernatural” because they think that sounds stupid.)

    Almost everybody of almost every religion everywhere—including new Agers and austere, minimilastic “atheistic” Buddhists—thinks that human beings have something like a dualistic soul, which offers everybody, or at least the “spiritually gifted” a path to warranted belief that is beyond the reach of science and rational thought.

    It is that nearly universal idea—that spiritual people can tap into special information from beyond or below or within—that underpins essentially all religion IMO.

    (And IMO it’s not just “essentially all” religion, but all religion worthy of the name. It is the only reasonable candidate for a uniquely distinctive feature of religion.)

    Fundamentalists and orthodox-but-not-fundamentalist believers believe in divine revelation of a more obvious sort—prophets to whom God dictates his will, avatars of gods or God or the Godhead who appear to humans and tell or demonstrate things, or whatever.

    But that’s not the most important form of divine revelation in terms of making religion work. It’s not necessary.

    All you need is the belief that you or somebody you know or some special somebody you’ve heard of has been informed or enlightened by a spiritual gift that offers a fairly direct communication from another realm or aspect of reality—or just an experience of Something More. (The majority of irreligious people believe in Something More, which almost inevitably presupposes some form of supernaturalistic dualism, even if it’s not consciously analyzed in those terms.)

    When we are encouraged to be “tolerant” and to “respect” liberal religion, that’s what we’re effectively endorsing.

    We’re supposed to pretend that the last 100 years of psychology and brain science didn’t teach us a fucking thing, as though we didn’t know that everything we know we know with our brains, and that “intuition” is just very fallible information processing that is prone to certain well-known, systematic errors that promote religious belief.

    The worst idea of all time is that people have dualistic souls with special gifts unexplainable by interactions of matter/energy.

    That’s the nearly universal idea we need to debunk and ridicule if we’re to get at the root of the problem of religion.

    Think about it. Most people believe in souls, and belief in souls predisposes people to believe all sorts of absurdities.

    If we have souls, what happens to them when we die? Even if they cease to exist when we die—as some very liberally religious people believe—what the heck are they for while we’re alive?

    If you accept that we have souls, presumably you accept, on some level, that they do something for us.

    The tradional answer, rarely questioned even by extreme theological liberals, is that they guide us in some sense or other—they help us tell, intuitively, what is True or Right or Good.

    As long as people believe that, they will be vulnerable to the excesses of religion—the idea that somebody knows better than people who don’t tap into this source of knowledge or wisdom or morality, and don’t defer to people who do.

    The main problem with religion is that it depends essentially on an argument from illegitimate authority, however nonauthoritarian the religion is supposed (overtly) to be. You should trust the prophet(s), or the Pope, or the Buddha…

    … or just your own gut if it’s telling you the kinds of things that we’re conditioned to think constitute spiritual knowledge, or wisdom, or experience.

    That fundamentally cripples critical thinking. It’s precisely what keeps religion even remotely plausible and what makes it so dangerous and prone to the excesses of orthodoxy and fundamentalism. It’s what keeps people on a slippery slope of credulity toward ridiculous and dangerous claims of all sorts.

  5. says

    God endows human beings with a sensus divinitatis that ordinarily leads them to believe in him. (In atheists the sensus divinitatis is either blocked or not functioning properly.)

    Well call me a skeptic, but I would like to see some evidence for this “sensus divinitatis” before I accept your hypothesis, Prof. Plantinga. I’m sure some neurological comparison between theists and atheists should shed some light on the matter.

    I suppose that not all theists’ sensus divinitatis functions equally well either. How else do you explain all the different, mutually incompatible religions out there? So if you can find and study this sensus divinitatis you can even settle once and for all, the question of which is the One True Faith™.

    I think some shrewd neurologist should try to get a Templeton grant out of this …

  6. smrnda says

    Isn’t this belief in this ‘faith sense’ a totally unfalsifiable hypothesis?

    I also think that natural selection gives us a brain good at some things and bad at others, but we’ve been studying how to get around our limitations for a long time now.

  7. infraredeyes says

    So… “sensus divinitatis” is Latin for “just because”?

    I think it’s Latin for “Shut up! that’s why!”

  8. says

    One can only wonder why the sensus divinatus kept coming up with such radically different, indeed downright contradictory, images of god(s) down the millennia. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that it’s such a faulty faculty we’d have been just as well off making stuff up…

  9. Morgan says

    I confess the Potterisms are deep-rooted enough in my brain that sensus divinatus just reads as detect scrying. Useful spell to have, mind, good to know when someone’s scrying on you.

    So God gives us a sense of his presence and desires, but it often doesn’t work. Shoddy workmanship!

  10. Tâlib Alttaawiil (طالب التاويل) says

    faith is part of our universal endowment, which is blocked or not working properly in atheists?

    so there’s something wrong with me if i don’t think like they do–there they go blaming the victim again.

  11. stewart says

    Regarding this sensus divinitatis I’m supposed to have that is either blocked or not functioning properly – I feel like saying something about a refund, but Plantinga would probably say Satan broke it or it’s my own fault – somehow.

    The most consistent thing I’ve found about Plantinga is that the time spent reading what he has to write is never worth it.

  12. stewart says

    Anyway, it’s neither philosophy nor theology; it’s simply a way for Plantinga to say, not quite verbatim enough for some of his readers to get it, “If you don’t believe in god, there’s something wrong with you.”

  13. bad Jim says

    The idea that humans can inherently sense God goes back to Paul, at least. It’s pretty standard stuff.

    What’s worse is Plantinga’s notion that evolution is refuted by the fact that humans are rational. The idea that humans are rational goes back at least as far as Aristotle, but it’s as obviously false as the contention that women have fewer teeth than men.

    The unreliability of human reasoning is the reason that unaided philosophy never makes much progress. The great innovation of science was to put the product of reasoning to the test through observation and experiment (though it has to be admitted that the invention of algebra was also enormously helpful).

    There may be no better demonstration that humans aren’t rational than a famous philosopher claiming that proof isn’t necessary because some of us have a God-given belief in God.

  14. sawells says

    As I said last time: theological tinnitus. An accurate sensus divinitatis tells you that there are no gods. Plantinga has a constant ringing in his metaphysical ears; he is detecting a god that isn’t really there.

    Honestly, when somebody claiming to be a philosopher invokes “The Force is strong in this one” as an argument, they need to be told to hush up because grownups are talking.

  15. barrypearson says

    bad Jim #14:
    The unreliability of human reasoning is the reason that unaided philosophy never makes much progress. The great innovation of science was to put the product of reasoning to the test through observation and experiment

    Yes. Here are 3 major obstacles to extending our knowledge and understanding of anything complicated, such as society or the universe:

    1. There are vastly more ways to be wrong than to be right.
    2. Knowledge and understanding come in dribs and drabs, not all at once.
    3. The inquiry is conducted by fallible human beings.

    If we systematically address each of these obstacles, we end up with “the scientific method”. Evidence-based reasoning; open publication; arguments to force more research; models & paradigm shifts; scepticism; peer review; etc.

    If we fail to address these, we end up with out-of-date incompatible religions (plural). The “religious method” often resolves conflict by suppression, including force & censorship, or by spawning new religions. Incremental knowledge can meet resistance for centuries.

    Religions start as failed sciences, and continue as hobbies.

  16. Carmichael says

    @sawells. “The Force is strong in this one”.
    Thanks. I got a good chuckle from that. Sums up Plantinga’s “argument” beautifully.

  17. sailor1031 says

    Well, Ithink this ‘sensus divinitatis’ has been more than adequately debunked, by Evan Fales among others. Search for it at infidels.org – there’s a lot of interesting stuff there. It is also pointed out that if Plantinga (and John Calvin) are correct – and that would probably be a first – then lack of ‘sensus divinitatis’ is proof of the non-existence of doG.

  18. says

    So, what? My sensus divinitatus just wore out in my early 40s? Will I get religion back if I take to a priest for an overhaul, and if so what kind? (That line of thought suggests a series of potential jokes equating various religious sects with well-known car repair franchises). Or is there a kind of spiritual viagra I should take?

  19. eric says

    One can only wonder why the sensus divinatus kept coming up with such radically different, indeed downright contradictory, images of god(s) down the millennia.

    Same reason revelation or biblical interpretation give widely varying answers: extremely poor precision.

    Most skeptics argue that such things aren’t accurate (and believers respond: is too!). But in a technical sense, we can’t really know if they are accurate or not because we don’t have any independent way of knowing the referent. We don’t even know if there is a referent. However, even having no access to the referent, we can point out that these God- or divine message- detecting methods are wildly imprecise.

    Imagine you’ve got a bathroom scale. You don’t know whether its accurate or not. It might be, in the technical sense that the mathematical average from a series of measurements gives your actual weight. But you DO know that when you step on it, any individual measurement of your weight seems to vary between -500kg to +500kg.

    What do you do with such a scale? Answer: you throw it out. Regardless of whether it is accurate or not, its imprecision makes it useless.

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