The situation in which I would properly be said to have evidence for the statement that some animal is a pig is that, for example, in which the beast itself is not actually on view, but I can see plenty of pig-like marks on the ground outside its retreat. If I find a few buckets of pig-food, that’s a bit more evidence, and the noises and the smell may provide better evidence still. But if the animal then emerges and stands there plainly in view, there is no longer any question of collecting evidence; its coming into view doesn’t provide me with more evidence that it’s a pig, I can now just see that it is.
—J.L. Austin, Sense and Sensibilia
…for what can be so plain and evident, when we behold the heavens and contemplate the celestial bodies, as the existence of some supreme, divine intelligence, by which all these things are governed?
Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods
In this post I would like to explain what exactly do I mean when I speak of belief in God as being “natural”, and in that light, to investigate the role and shape of “evidences” for God’s existence.
From the outset I would like to distinguish between two distinct claims about God, first, between that of God as the orderer of this world against that of God as good or loving towards us. For the purposes of this discussion my focus would be mostly upon the belief in God as the divine orderer being natural as opposed to whether specifically He cares for us or loves us. To say that God ordered this world is one thing, to argue that God has any good intentions towards us or has any specific goal, purpose, or end for us, is another thing. Archbishop Thomas Cranmer captured this distinction when he pointed out in his Catechism:
For if we did only know, what God were, and did know nothing of his will toward us, whether he were our friend or foe, favourable or angry, pleased or displeased with us, then our conscience being other wavering and doubtful, should be destitute and void of comfort.
Thus it is one thing to know “what God were”, it is another thing to know “of his will toward us”.
How Exactly is Belief in God Natural?
To say that belief in God is “natural” is to say that that we humans would form this belief simply as a product of living as human beings. It is belief which we would form “naturally” in the same way that we would “naturally” arrive at the belief that tomorrow the sun will rise or water will boil when heated up. It is not a belief which one arrives at as the result of rigorous deduction or intellectual struggle like how one would form beliefs about Gauss’s Law or the desirability of republican forms of government. (Although admittedly to believe that God seeks our good is a belief which many struggle with in the face of so much suffering and evils in our lives, which is why I deliberately bracket and set apart that attribute of God from the outset.)
This is not to say that those beliefs, whether of God or that the sun will rise tomorrow, is true. For all we know tomorrow a black hole may pass through our solar system and swallow up the sun. It is merely to say that those are beliefs which are intrinsic and inevitable to living as humans. Of course people can say that we have no reason at all to hold to those beliefs, or even deny that those beliefs are true. Hume, for example, infamously posed the problem of induction when he argued that there is no reason whatsoever to believe that the sun will rise tomorrow since this assumes that the laws of nature is uniform. People who believe in apocalyptic doomsday prophecies may actually believe that the sun will not rise tomorrow. Likewise do many atheists deny the existence of God on the basis of a lack of evidence, etc. Thus saying that a belief is “natural” is compatible with saying that it may not have good evidence or maybe denied by certain people.
Belief in God a Properly Basic Belief?
There is a set of beliefs in philosophy known as “properly basic beliefs” which are beliefs which are rational without proof or evidence. For example, beliefs like 1+1=2, the same loaf of unspoilt bread which nourished me this morning will nourish me at night, we are not mere brains in a vat experiencing a computer generated world. Thus most people do not believe that the sun will rise tomorrow because they hold to a very sophisticated philosophical argument about the rationality of induction, and that is not a problem for we do not need an argument to hold to those beliefs rationally.
This is not to say that there is no such proof or argument for those properly basic beliefs. For all we know it might actually be possible to demonstrate that we are not living in a matrix world. (Daniel Dennett for example has an interesting argument about how the computing power to generate such a matrix world would lead to a combinatorial explosion and is thus not practically possible.) The point is that most people do not hold the belief water will boil when heated because they believe in Karl Popper’s falsification theory of science. The strength of their beliefs are not a function of the amount of evidence or philosophical arguments they possess but rather as a result of habitual reinforcement. If you keep observing that the sun will rise the next day, you will instinctively come to that conclusion every time you wake up. Likewise we may believe that violence against others is wrong as a result of reinforcements of punishment whenever we commit violence, independently of whether we have a good philosophical argument justifying the moral enterprise. (This was basically Hume’s “naturalistic” account for our belief in induction, morals, etc, especially in the light of his demonstration that one cannot infer a moral “ought” from an “is” fact.)
It has been argued that belief in God is such a “properly basic belief”, that belief in God is intrinsic and natural to human life and not the product of a sophisticated or complex metaphysical deduction or argument. There is however a snag in this attempt to draw an analogy between belief in God and other “properly basic beliefs”.
As noted before, other properly basic beliefs such as the fact that the sun will rise tomorrow gain their strength from being habitually reinforced by daily observation of the sun rising. The conviction that a certain action is wrong comes from habitual warnings and punishments of such wrong doings by proper authority. However what constitutes such a “habitual reinforcement” as far as belief in God is concerned? God isn’t self-evidently an object of direct empirical observation which is reinforced by virtue of simply opening one’s eyes or ears. As religion decouples from civic life, there is no longer the civic reinforcement of belief in God and besides, do we want to say that belief in God is really the product of punishments than something intrinsic to human nature?
The Role of “Evidence” and Theistic Arguments
Let’s review our argument so far. Belief in God is “natural” in that it pertains to human nature as humans. It is not the product of a rigorous argumentation or metaphysical deduction for most people. It is rational to hold it independently of the possession of evidence. Most “properly basic beliefs” are reinforced by habit or other belief reinforcing mechanisms, the task therefore is to find a similar belief reinforcing mechanism for belief in God.
However in the light of what has been argued, knowing God, on this conception, is a lot more like a seeing than an inferring. By an act of calculation I can infer that 25*25=625, or by a series of premises, “such as Apple is a fruit”, “this is an apple”, I can deduce that “this is a fruit”. However, God’s presence or existence is not so much grasped at the bottom of a series of arguments but it is already immediately present to one’s own mind (remember, it must be intrinsic to us as humans and not us as expert philosophers or scholars). In the same way, you either see the rat running under the car or you don’t see it, but the fact of the rat running under the car isn’t a matter of a deduction or calculation.
The analogy I am thinking of are those “spot the difference” puzzle games where you are given two almost identical pictures and you’re supposed to spot the difference. In a sense, the difference is right in front of your eyes, you are looking directly at the two pictures, you simply don’t know or realise it yet. A friend can however draw your attention to it by talking about neighbouring surrounding objects, for example, the wooden panels are of a different colour, it is next to the red vase.
This is what “evidences” for the Christian religion does, it attempts to direct your attention or concentrate your mind to help you “see” God’s presence in this world. Although it is framed in a deductive form the form itself is deceptive. God isn’t grasped at the end of a syllogism, we already live and move and have our being in him. Like the arcade game, he’s already within our cognitive field, we just don’t realise it. The evidences “make evident” God’s presence to us, they don’t exactly “demonstrate” him unless we’re talking about “demonstratives” or “pointing words” like “this”, “that”, “these”, etc. Evidences point to God, but ultimately you have to see Him for yourself, the evidences themselves are not God, they are the signs or clues to God’s presence. Arguments, as it were, jog our mind’s eyes and focus our attention to help us see him just as habitual observation reinforces our properly basic beliefs. It is like the detective who points out the clues which denotes that someone has entered the house, but the clues or evidences themselves are not that person.
However, I still prefer the arcade game analogy over the detective analogy because the detective analogy seems to imply that the suspect is out of sight and all we have are just the clues by which we have to “construct” the suspect’s presence. The arcade game analogy is better because the differences are already within your visual field, it is already present right before your eyes, you just don’t realise it yet. Likewise is God immediately present to the hearts and minds of man, some of us merely have a more difficult time grasping it and need an extra “jog” or exercise of our mind’s eye from philosophical arguments.
An interesting video about how focus can alter perception
Conclusion: The Sensus Divinitatis and the End of Evidence
John Calvin formulated the idea of a “sensus divinitatis” whereby every man possesses a natural “sense of divinity” by which he may “sense” God “directly”, analogous to our other five senses. This is not to say of course that everyone’s sensus divinitatis is working perfectly, any more than everyone’s eyes or ears are working perfectly. For some people good philosophical expositions, or evidences, maybe necessary to “focus” our mind’s eye to help us “see” God in the same way we need glasses or someone helping us locate an object within our visual field by pointing out landmarks.
This does not mean that we neglect the rigours of logic or high standard of argumentations. We ought, and should, marshal every epistemic and logic device to jog our “sensus divnitatis” and ensure that our attempts to stimulate that sense does not short circuit or do violence to our rational faculties.
However in the light of our foregoing discussion the purpose of evidence ultimately is not to present some absolute air tight infallible argument. It’s function is simply to exercise and jog our “sensus divinitatis” to lead us to “naturally” form a belief in God ourselves. Ultimately the success of this evidential enterprise is not guaranteed for various factors to do with one’s lives, desires, motivations, etc, may affect our “sensus divinitatis” or willingness to “see” or acknowledge God. In Christian theology our ability to know God is still dependent on God’s grace repairing and providentially coordinating our personal constitution to enable us to “see” him.