Argument from divine sense

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The argument from divine sense, or sensus divinitatis is an attempt to justify reformed epistemology, which holds that belief in God can be considered properly basic, requiring no external justification. This particular argument has seen resistance from both believers and non-believers, though for fundamentally different reasons. Believers point out that the argument not only eliminates any need for traditional apologetics that attempt to offer rational defenses of faith and belief in God, it also eliminates traditional views of faith, encouraging a position akin to "God is real for me, and that's all that matters." Additionally, theists and non-theists point out that even if the argument were sound, it cannot justify any particular God or concept of God beyond what the individual claims to experience.


Foundationalism premise

The underlying premise for the argument rests in the concepts of foundationalism, which holds that beliefs can be divided into two categories:

  1. foundational beliefs (also called basic or properly basic), which are accepted axiomatically and require no external justification;
  2. all other beliefs, which are derived from foundational beliefs.

Foundationalism is not universally accepted, and competing epistemological philosophies exist which include objections to the premise of properly basic beliefs. (See Wikipedia:Foundationalism or our own article, Foundationalism for more information.)

Basic argument

One formulation of the basic argument from divine sense (tuned to Christianity, as Christian philosophers like Alvin Plantinga have been the major proponents of this claim):

  • Premise 1 (P1) - If Christianity is true, it is very probable that humans are endowed with a cognitive faculty in addition to memory, perception, etc. which we can call the sensus divinitatis
  • Premise 2 (P2) - If humans have a sensus divinitatis, then Christian belief can be foundational
  • Conclusion (C1) - If Christianity is true, (very probably) Christian belief can be justified, without independent evidence.

Objections, changes and more objections

Asserting the Sensus Divinitatis (SD)

Existence of SD

→ See main article on sensus divinitatis

In P1, we see "If Christianity is true, it is very probable that humans are endowed with a...sensus divinitatis." Those who accept this reformed epistemology assert that Christian teachings necessarily support the existence of SD and that this assertion can only be challenged on exegetical grounds. They hold that a number of passages in the Bible imply or affirm the notion that God has given everyone a mechanism for knowing and understanding his nature.

This assertion isn't accepted, to the same degree, by all Christians and additional passages from the Bible along with testimonials from believers clearly claim that God can, and does, interact with the physical world in empirically observable ways, not the least of which is the Christian doctrine that God came to earth in a physical form to deliver the most important message in Christendom. This sort of physical interaction would not be necessary if a properly basic SD existed.

Objections: This premise renders the argument circular - the truth of Christianity is being justified by a divine sense which is justified by Christianity. Additionally, if the basis for asserting the existence of SD is a specific interpretation of Christian scripture, then alternate interpretations render the assertion suspect and the first premise should read:

  • P1 - If this particular interpretation of Christian scriptures is correct, then humans have a sensus divinitatis

Apologists would claim that this is why the premise says "very probable" instead of "necessary" but there's no clear way to determine which interpretation can be considered "very probably" correct, if any can. In truth, the first premise is a personal opinion which, after removing the conditionals should read:

  • P1 - My interpretation of Christian scriptures supports the existence of a sensus divinitatis

Finally, the term sensus divinitatis may be an attempt at obfuscation by making the concept sound far more significant than it is. It certainly sounds important but, in reality, it isn't anything more than a "god detector". Without intending to be overly polemic, P1 could also be rephrased as:

  • P1 - If God exists, then he implanted a God detector in each of us.

Reliability of SD

In P2 we see, "If humans have a sensus divinitatis, then Christian belief can be foundational."

Objections: This premise makes the assumption that SD can be considered properly basic. Instead of acting as an argument supporting reformed epistemology, it merely assumes that position is true and moves on.

For foundationalists, the justification for considering any belief properly basic is, on the one hand, avoidance of an infinite regression. Belief B is justified by B', which is justified by B", etc. To avoid the regression, one simply accepts that some beliefs do not require justification. Those who agreed with this principle also understood that dogmatically declaring beliefs as basic is no solution, as anyone could declare any belief basic and avoid the need to justify it - in other words, something can't be properly basic just because we claim it to be so. One major objection, from Christians and non-Christians, alike, is that this argument attempts to do exactly that.

For modern foundationalists, properly basic beliefs aren't dogmatically asserted, they have an inherent justification which places them in the position of requiring no further justification. The defining characteristics which render a belief properly basic are consistency and reliability - to the point that questioning the justification of those beliefs is nonsensical and counter-productive. While sensory data was considered properly basic among classic foundationalists, modern foundationalists reject this notion - because our senses can be unreliable and aren't above question. Sensory data can be viewed as "near" basic, or justified by the basic notion that the information our brains process is generally reliable, but subject to corroboration.

This raises questions about the reliability of claims attributed to a sensus divinitatis. If we operate under the assumption that SD exists:

  • How do we explain the lack of such claims from the non-religious?
  • How do we explain contradictions between scientific knowledge and claims of divinely revealed knowledge?
  • How do we explain the many inconsistent and/or contradictory claims about god/God/gods made by members of various religions - including members who profess to be of the same religion?

There are more than 1000 denominations within Christianity and there have been many other religions and sects which claim to worship the same God, rely on many of the same scriptures and have claimed rough equivalents of SD. To even the most casual observer, this situation should call the reliability of claims regarding SD into question.

Why SD is unreliable

One common claim among apologists is that humans were created with a perfect sensus divinitatis, but after man sinned by eating from the tree of knowledge, part of his punishment was a separation from God which rendered this divine sense unreliable. They claim that this broken SD will be repaired, for true believers, by God. Some of those who would use this argument would re-write P2 to read:

  • P2 - If humans have a properly working SD, then Christian belief can be foundational

Objections: This ad hoc explanation completely destroys the argument.

First, this change of premise 2 creates a logical disconnect between the two premises. P1 refers to simply "SD" while P2 adds the qualifier "properly working". This invalidates the argument and the conclusion cannot be reached without also changing P1 to include the qualifier. If we modify P1 to reconnect the argument, the format is restored, but the dilemma (how do you explain inconsistencies?) returns and the complete argument has a new problem:

  • P1 - If Christianity is true, it is very probably that humans are endowed with a properly working SD
  • P2 - If humans have a properly working SD, then Christian belief can be foundational
  • C - If Christianity is true, very probably Christian belief can be justified without independent evidence

The new problem is that we've added yet another conditional to the argument - properly working - which, without additional information, renders the argument even more ineffective.

Modifying premise 2 demonstrates the fundamental flaws inherent in making claims of divine revelation:

  • How do you distinguish SD from psychosis, delusion or wishful thinking?
  • How do you know whether or not your SD is working properly?
  • How do you know that your SD isn't being intentionally manipulated by Satan?
    • Wouldn't a truly evil and near-god-like being prefer to have you believe you're understanding God when you're really understanding him?

The unreliable and often contradictory nature of claims attributed to SD clearly ensure that it shouldn't be considered properly basic. This is only exacerbated by ad hoc explanations to explain the unreliable nature of these claims which seem to be desperate attempts to avoid the obvious conclusion - there is no sensus divinitatis.

Questions for believers: The Bible is supposed to be the inspired word of God, clearly the work of men who's sensus divinitatis should have been functioning perfectly. This is, essentially, how believers justify the reliability of the Bible. If this is true, then the Biblical accounts of God performing, sanctioning or encouraging murder, rape, genocide and human sacrifice are true and reflect God's moral character. Does your current sensus divinitatis give you a similar mental image of God? If not, why is yours correct?

Application to other religions

Yet another objection to this argument is that it doesn't create an argument that necessarily supports only Christianity. Consider the argument again, with another religion or belief replacing Christianity along with it's claim of something akin to sensus divinitatis. The conclusion will work for any claim which includes a method of self-confirmation.

The reason for this is obvious if we continue to simplify the argument...

Simplified argument

Consider this argument:

  • P1 - If X is true, there should be some method of verifying this.
  • P2 - Y is a method of testing which is suitable for verifying X.
  • C1 - If X is true, Y will verify this.

If X(god answers prayer), Y(a double-blind study) will verify this. Yet double-blind studies have demonstrated that prayer appears to have no effect. The apologists' response is to claim that studies like this are unable to properly evaluate the effectiveness of prayer - essentially challenging P2 - because the test didn't use true believers, or because God won't be tested, or some other excuse.

As other refined Y-methods are tried, the results continue to fail to verify the efficacy of prayer. Instead of relying on the external justification (or dealing with the external invalidation) of Y, they opt for self-justification:

  • P1 - If X is true, X includes a method of self-verification, X'.
  • P2 - X' will be defined as 'properly basic'
  • C1 - If X is true, X' will be sufficient justification

Essentially, I know God answers prayers because he's answered mine. Or, continuing the reformation of the argument, This belief is true because I believe it.

This is extremely clear when we consider that we could make up any religion and declare that anyone who feels that the religion is true is, in reality, sensing God as he provides them with confirmation. If we expand this to state that those who continue to faithfully observe a specific set of rules and traditions will become more "in tune" with God and those who disobey will become less clear and in danger of damnation - we quickly promote a self-reinforcing delusion. In a group society, when a few trusted individuals buy into these claims, others will follow.

The core argument can be used to justify any religion which can be interpreted as having an internal mechanism of self-justification.

As this argument can be used to justify many religions, what happens if it can justify two contradictory religions?

  • P1 - The argument from divine sense justifies belief in Christianity
  • P2 - The argument from divine sense justifies belief in Islam
  • P3 - Christianity and Islam have contradictory doctrines and one or both of them must be false
  • C - The argument from divine sense justifies false beliefs

In logic, one fundamental element of a sound argument is that if the premises are sound and the argument is valid, the conclusion must be true. An argument which can be used to justify contradictory claims must be either invalid or unsound and its conclusions (though they may be true or false) are unsound.

This explains why the argument includes a number of conditionals which specifically eliminate this sort of analysis. For example, P1 above should read, "The argument from divine sense demonstrates that "If Christianity" is true, it is self-justified." The addition of the conditionals eliminates the counter argument above - but leaves us with an argument that doesn't prove a thing.

Conditional argument

The existence of several conditionals in the argument render it ineffective - "if Christianity is true", "very probable", "if humans have a sensus divinitatis". Even if it were valid and sound, the most it could ever prove is the possibility that the state of affairs it presents were true - and that possibility wouldn't be exclusive to any particular religion. Removing the conditionals removes this argument from the realm of the hypothetical and places the believer back in the position of having to defend the truth of the claims they make - and that's the real purpose of this argument: it is an attempt to avoid the burden of proof.

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