So, a while ago I took up the challenge of reading Phillipse’s “God in the Age of Science?”. It didn’t go that well. What happened is that I was going along fine, things were going well … and then I hit the section on Plantinga (Chapters 3 and 4). And I wanted to say stuff about it. And, as is usual for me, I just never got around to writing that post. Now, I could have just gone ahead and kept reading, but I had also noticed that when I did that I, in general, never went back to write up those little things that I wanted to talk about. So I decided to wait. And I waited … and waited … and waited.
So, here’s the post. I’ve decided not to go back and re-read the chapters in detail, so this is mostly from memory with some spot checking, so I might be misremembering or misinterpreting him. But I don’t think it matters much for what I have to say anyway.
The most interesting thing is that what Phillipse relies on against Plantinga is essentially a variation of the geography argument: you could think that you have a sensus divinitatis and feel justified in that claim, except that there are other people who have come to a different conclusion than you have, which means that it isn’t justified. This is an interesting tack to take because as we’ve already seen Plantinga has already taken on that argument and found it wanting. So it’s interesting that Phillipse is relying on an argument against Plantinga that Plantinga has already dealt with … and doesn’t seem to have addressed that point. And he points out that he ran his chapter by Plantinga, and yet still didn’t feel the need to address that argument. What gives?
Well, it turns out that the argument doesn’t depend on any kind of Geography Argument at all, but is instead an argument that if two people claim to be using the same method and come to different conclusions, then at least one of those people are wrong. So if A uses their sensus divinitatis to conclude that the Christian God exists, and if B uses their capacity to come to the conclusion that the Hindu god exists, then we have an issue, as both are using the same method here; you can’t appeal to the method itself to settle the tie. So, then, we need some kind of external justification to claim that A’s capacity is working and is correct, or vice versa. And it doesn’t look like we can get that without having some kind of rational argumentation, or a rational natural theology. And Phillipse’s whole point here is that you can’t use this sort of argument to do an end run around needing a rational natural theology.
Now, as one of my initial objections stated, this might work against a knowledge claim, insisting that theists can’t use this to claim that they know God exists. This doesn’t work at all against someone who merely wants to feel that their belief is rational. Because while Phillipse talks a lot about how you have no reason to choose your conclusions over those of theirs, that only matters if you are making a universal knowledge claim. If you are just trying to decide what to believe, you have every reason to trust your conclusion more: it’s your conclusion. If you read the Bible and just feel that a certain conclusion is true, then the fact that someone else tells you that they get the opposite reading isn’t going to and ought not sway you from your conclusion. It may cast doubt on your conclusion, but it doesn’t prove their conclusion either. And there’s no real reason to force yourself to a neutral stance just because someone else comes to the opposite conclusion. So this doesn’t impact theists who aren’t making knowledge claims at all.
And the discussions of how the sensus divinitatis might be like sense perception or memory are more revealing. Phillipse tries to argue that perceptions contain a link to truth and to truth making that this capacity couldn’t have. But we all know that the truth of sense perceptions is not exactly justified itself. So, if we imagine that the sensus divinitatis works like sense perception, that means that when someone reads the Bible or sees that wonderful natural sight the truth of God’s existence seems to come onto them full blown. It just seems obvious to them that God exists and has certain properties. And if that’s the case, then we have to ask ourselves: what would we think if we saw something, and someone standing beside us said that they saw something different? In general, if I see something, I am justified in claiming to know that I see that, and from there am justified in saying that the thing exists and exists as I saw it. If someone else says that they saw something different, but we can’t check it in any other way, am I no longer justified in claiming to know that that thing exists? Are they? Sure, at least one of us is wrong, but all that means is that we are wrong about our knowledge claim, not that we aren’t justified in claiming knowledge. Unless you insist that knowledge requires certainty and that you can’t claim to know something unless you are certain that you are correct that you know it, which pretty much everyone rejects.
Now, it can be argued that with sense perceptions we have a way of testing our conclusions and settling which of us is right, which can’t be done with the sensus divinitatis. The problem is that we don’t really have that for sense impressions; every test we could do to test our sense perceptions requires us to assume that our sense perceptions are correct in the first place, which then is assuming what we were trying to prove. The sensus divinitatis has a different problem; we could use our sense perceptions to test it, but it doesn’t really make claims that are amenable to testing by sense perception. So it looks like, in that sense, we have a similar problem for both, for different reasons.
The key might be in what Phillipse specifically says:
…what is present in perception and triggers these basic beliefs is not identical with their truth-makers. … these Christians are reading the Bible; they are not reading God.
This sounds like a claim that when we see the world, we see the world, but that’s not the case for the sensus divinitatis; when we read the Bible, we don’t experience God. But that there’s really a world to see is in fact the challenge for sense perception, and the claim listed above is that it might just spring on us as a fully-formed conclusion that God exists from reading the Bible. So that doesn’t seem like a promising line of argumentation. However, what I think he might be getting at here is that the reason we trust our sense experiences is because they, in and of themselves, present the idea of an external world to us and their conclusions are indistinguishable from that — ie the instant we have a sense experience we believe that they are telling us about an external world, no matter what experience we have — it seems that in general when reading the Bible we wouldn’t come to the conclusion that God exists except for the fact that the Bible itself tells us that explicitly. We don’t read the Bible and think “Ah, God!” as an inherent part of the reading, but instead read the Bible telling us that God exists and that triggers our belief that God exists. So, in this case, the idea is not spawned in us by the Bible simply by experiencing the Bible, but is instead spawned in us by the Bible telling us and arguing for the conclusion. Thus, we always have to doubt our experience, and wonder if we would have the same experience without the argument. This isn’t true for sense experience, which is why that can be a basic belief and the sensus divinitatis can’t be.
How far this gets Phillipse is unclear. He might have good cause to make against using this sort of revelation as a knowledge claim, but that won’t impact belief. And the parallels with sense perception are a lot closer than he seems to admit. But from here we move on to more natural theology, and then into the bulk of his argument.