Throughout July, we’re celebrating the legacy of philosopher Alvin Plantinga, who reintroduced the validity of Christian thought to the academy. Last year we commissioned 12 students to write on the importance of Plantinga for the modern university. Here is the third featured essay from Jeffrey Poomkudy, a junior at Dartmouth College:
In George Orwell’s novel, 1984, Winston is at odds with the Party, the totalitarian regime of Oceania. O’Brien, a member of the Party, utilizes the possibility of solipsism, the notion that nothing exists outside the mind, to bend Winston to the Party’s will. Winston is thoroughly disturbed by this: “And yet he [Winston] knew, he KNEW, that he was in the right. The belief that nothing exists outside your own mind—surely there must be some way of demonstrating that it was false? Had it not been exposed long ago as a fallacy?”[i]Winston’s question is a serious one, often discussed in epistemology, the philosophical field concerned with the nature of knowledge. Can Winston ever know with absolute certainty that what exists in the external world is real? Or is it rational to doubt our perception?
Thomas Reid, a prominent philosopher during the Scottish Enlightenment, responded to this notion in An Inquiry into the Human Mind, arguing that “there are certain principles…which the constitution of our natureleads us to believe, and which we are under a necessity to take for granted in the common concerns of life, without being able to give a reason for them.”[ii]Reid argues that there are certain ideas, namely those which our natureleads us to believe, that we must accept as true. Those beliefs can be considered to be basic, the foundations of our further knowledge. They form the foundations of other beliefs and are considered to be self-evident. For example, we take the existence of the external world, the world which we see, touch, and smell to be foundational, and then use scientific inquiry to further develop the set of what we take to be true. Our perception of qualia (sensory stimuli) and our belief in the existence of other minds are examples of what our natural disposition leads us to believe, and therefore are examples of beliefs that are within our epistemic rights to hold.
What if our knowledge of God was like that too, something that came from our nature—what if it is something all humans, simply by existing, ought to accept because it is something we are inclined by nature to believe? Something, like the existence of other minds, that is just so basically true, it precedes our rationality? Contemporary Christian philosopher and logician Alvin Plantinga argues in Warranted Christian Beliefand Reason and Belief in Godthat a belief in God is “properly basic” and is thus foundational to other beliefs.[iii]He argues that “warranted true belief” constitutes knowledge, and argues that theistic belief—and, furthermore, Christian belief, specifically—is warranted by a disposition that he calls the sensus divinitatis . He describes the sensus divinitatis as an innate capacity that enables human beings to discover and to know God, however vaguely or peripherally. I argue that the naturally inbuilt human capacity of sensus divinitatis exists, and furthermore by virtue of its being innate, makes belief in God basic.
Plantinga argues for the existence of a sensus divinitatis by utilizing the theology of both Aquinas and Calvin. Both agreed that there is some sort of sense of God, an ability to discover God that precedes our reason. Aquinas says, “To know in a general and confused way that God exists is implanted in us by nature.” It is a feeling, a sense, or, as Plantinga says, “a natural human tendency, a disposition.”[iv]Calvin gave it the name, sensus divinitatis, meaning “sense of the divine,” which helps us produce beliefs about God. Calvin wrote that, “There is within the human mind, and indeed by natural instinct, an awareness of divinity.”[v]This sense of the Divine, however, does not mean we have beliefs about God in the womb. The sensus divinitatis is rather a capacity, like memory or perception, that all humans have, that allows us to form beliefs about God. It is by interacting with the world that we actually come to have beliefs about God—just like we must interact with the physical world to perceive it or make memories about it. The sensus divinitatis “works in response to the sorts of conditions or stimuli that trigger the working of this sense of divinity.”[vi]When we see a beautifully verdant meadow or an immensely rugged and majestic mountain or the hustle and bustle of people in a city, beliefs about God simply arise within us. Plantinga argues that rather than providing the premises for an argument, our circumstances simply occasionthe rise of such beliefs within us. It is not becausethe Australian outback is menacing and dark that God exists. Plantinga argues that this notion would be logically fallacious.[vii]Rather, our perception of the outback causes such a belief to come forth. We develop our knowledge of other minds in a similar way. We are not born with the knowledge that other people have minds, but in our interactions with other people, we simply come to believe, consciously or unconsciously, that other people have minds. The sensus divinitatis works in a similar way.
Human behaviors and emotions seem to demonstrate the existence of a sensus divinitatis . Consider the feeling of guilt. Plantinga argues that guilt often evokes the feeling that someone is disappointed in us.[viii]But who have we really wronged when we misbehave in private? Guilt is a natural emotion that puts us at odds with our natural intuition of moral law, and consequently God, who undergirds the natural moral law. Similarly, Cardinal John Henry Newman used the existence of conscience to show an innate ability to perceive God. He writes, “If, as is the case, we feel responsibility, are ashamed, are frightened, at transgressing the voice of conscience, this implies that there is One to whom we are responsible, before whom we are ashamed, whose claims upon us we fear…yet, so it is, conscience excites all these painful emotions.”[ix]Our conscience allows us to perceive the good and the bad, and in doing so gives us a basic knowledge of right and wrong, to which our emotions, like guilt, cue us. Our conscience makes us ashamed of our mistakes and drives us to pursue virtuous action. The existence of a conscience provides evidence for the argument that there may be some innate capacity to know God and his moral law.
It is also worth considering how prevalent the belief in God has been anthropologically. Historically, human beings have developed beliefs about God that bear an uncanny resemblance to each other. Throughout the course of mankind, men have worshipped a higher power, an all-powerful being (or group of beings) that transcends human existence. It seems there is an inherent desire in humans to connect with something higher than themselves, a desire to connect with the transcendent. From animistic faiths in Indo-China to the gods that sit on Mount Olympus to the Abrahamic faiths, humans have constantly tried to seek and know God. Even into the modern era, where science helps us to explain the world, religious belief persists, and in some regions, it is as robust as ever.[x]Its prevalence throughout the history of mankind suggests that there is truly some universal, innate sense that attunes humans to divinity.
Platinga also argues that our belief in God is rational just as our belief in other minds is. He argues in his seminal work in the philosophy of religion, God and Other Minds, that “…if my belief in other minds is rational, so is my belief in God. But obviously the former is rational; so, therefore is the latter.”[xi]After explaining how we accept the existence of other minds, Plantinga makes the argument that the belief in other minds is the same, epistemologically, as a belief in God. We can only observe outward behavior or brain activity; we can never know for certain if other minds or consciousnesses truly do exist (this problem is known in philosophy as the “Problem of Other Minds”). But we have a natural sense that other minds in fact do exist and are as real and complex as our own. Similarly, belief in God is also epistemically acceptable through our sensus divinitatis . The sensus divinitatis gives us the same sort of knowledge that we accept when accepting the existence of other minds. Whether or not other minds, or even God exists, can be debated, but in any case, it is rational to hold both beliefs.
Before ending our inquiry into the sensus divinitatis , it is important to note the value of our faculties of reason in directing our primary faculties. Just like our memory or our perception, reason should shape the beliefs that arise from our sensus divinitatis . Though we may have a natural capacity to know God, it is our rationality that allows us to truly discover Him. Any natural capacities are only valuable insofar as they can be used as the basis of reasonable thought. The true value in our perceptive capabilities is not in the fact that they help us perceive things but in that they help us reason and discover truths about the world. In other words, perception is simply a starting place for our belief-formation. Similarly, the sensus divinitatis is valuable insofar as we move to adopt beliefs about God grounded in reason. Plantinga himself offers various arguments for the existence of God grounded in natural theology, such as the Modal Ontological Argument. Arguments such as his are worth examining because they help us develop a rational knowledge of God. When the sensus divinitatis is compounded with our faculties of reason and Divine revelation, we can come to know God more fully.
What about Winston? His natural capacity to know that others exist should help him to thwart the Party’s attempts to control him. By understanding that certain beliefs are basic, something that our disposition leads us to believe, he need not look for a demonstration of the falsity of solipsism. Winston will find that others do indeed exist outside his mind, and in the process, he can discover so much more.