Friday, July 02, 2010

Maitzen's Argument Against the Existence of a Sensus Divinitatis

I'm currently re-reading Stephen Maitzen's excellent paper, "Divine Hiddenness and the Demographics of Theism" (Religious Studies 42 (2006), pp. 177-191). As the title suggests, Maitzen appeals to the data of the demographics of theism to defend the argument from divine hiddenness. However, in the same paper, he also offers a powerful argument against the existence of a sensus divinitatis (i.e., a natural capacity to form properly basic belief in God in a wide variety of circumstances or "triggering-conditions", such as (e.g.) looking at the starry heavens, reading the Bible, etc.) postulated by reformed epistemologists of the likes of Alvin Plantinga and others. Below is a summary of that portion of Maitzen's article.[1]

The argument summarized: The sensus divinitatis is supposed to be an innate capacity or faculty in all humans. Now innate human faculties tend to be evenly distributed among humans (e.g., hearing, sight, etc.). But the kind of belief that’s supposed to issue from the sensus divinitatis is very unevenly distributed among humans (e.g., Saudia Arabia contains 26 million people, and 95 percent of them are theists. By contrast, Thailand contains 65 million people, and only 5 percent of them are theists). We thus wouldn’t expect this data of “geographic patchiness” with respect to theistic belief if humans were endowed with a sensus divinitatis. However, such data is readily and naturally explained purely in terms of anthropological, sociological, political and economic factors. Therefore, the data of the demographics of theism provides good evidence against the existence of a sensus divinitatis within humans.

Objection: Christian theism entails that the sensus divinitatis was damaged – and perhaps even rendered inoperable – by human sin, whether the sin in question is the original sin from the Fall or the particular sins of humans in their earthly lives. Furthermore, Christian theism entails that it requires the work of the Holy Spirit (e.g., Plantinga’s notion of the internal instigation of the Holy Spirit) to repair and restore the sensus divinitatis in a given individual. Therefore, the fact that some people -- or even very many -- lack belief in the theistic god doesn’t provide good evidence against the existence of a sensus divinitatis within humans.

Reply: This objection misses the point. The problem isn’t the non-universality of theistic belief; the problem is the uneven distribution of theistic belief. As Maitzen puts it, “why has God bestowed this restorative grace so unevenly, contributing to a pattern that, coincidentally, social scientists say they can explain entirely in terms of culture?”[2] Thus, appeal to human sin and divine grace fails to adequately mitigate the criticism.
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[1] To see Maitzen's excellent criticism of a molinist response to problems related to the demographics of theism, see the exchange between Maitzen and Jason Marsh in the following two papers: (i) Marsh, Jason. "Do the Demographics of Theistic Belief Disconfirm Theism? A Reply to Maitzen", Religious Studies 44 (2008), pp. 465-471; (ii) Maitzen, Stephen. "Does Molinism Explain the Demographics of Theism?", Religious Studies 44 (2008), pp. 473-477.
[2] Maitzen, "Divine Hiddenness and the Demographics of Theism", 187.

12 comments:

Mike Almeida said...

We thus wouldn’t expect this data of “geographic patchiness” with respect to theistic belief if humans were endowed with a sensus divinitatis.

I find this pretty unpersuasive. There are many people who can distinguish flora finely, in the jungle, on sight. I can't do it. Very few people can do it. But it is bizarre to conclude from that that there is no ability we all have ot make such distinctions. I could, certainly, if I exercised the capacity, and so could lots of others. In general, there are abilities that do not work especially well without some cultivation. Is there some reason to believe that the sensus divinitatus is not such an ability?

smaitzen said...

Mike: Thanks for your comment. I'm not sure your analogy is apt. Many people can speak Swedish. I'm not one of them; I never cultivated the ability I once had (and to some degree still have) to speak Swedish. Furthermore, it's no mystery why Swedish-speakers are geographically clustered . But the sensus divinitatis isn't supposed to be like the ability to speak Swedish, is it? It's supposed to be like the ability to speak, i.e., something we expect in every normal person. We don't say that any child who doesn't speak Swedish by age 5 is abnormal, although we do say that any child who doesn't speak by age 5 is abnormal. Judging from what Calvin says about the SD in the Institutes, the SD is supposed to be like the universal ability of all normal human beings to speak. We don't expect the exemplification of that ability to be geographically clustered. --Steve

Mike Almeida said...

Steve,

What you're supposing, and what I am denying, is that the abilities are geographically clustered. What get's clustered in various ways is not the ability, but the exercise of that ability. I could exercise my ability to distinguish flora, but it would take some refinement and cultivation. So, what damage does it do to the sensus divnitatus to take it as an ability that requires some development? Certainly Calvin can't have meant that the ability is full blown in everyone. It is not full blown in children. It is not full blown in the mentally incapacitated. It certainly won't be full blown in people of psychological incapacities, those who have grown up under very severe psychological and social deprivation and abuse. So, the ability clearly supervenes on certain degree of intellectual, social and psychological development. It might also supervene on at least some exercise of the ability. But virtually no one takes any time to exercise that ability. So no surprise that the exercise is clustered.

Mike Almeida said...

...“why has God bestowed this restorative grace so unevenly, contributing to a pattern that, coincidentally, social scientists say they can explain entirely in terms of culture?”[2] Thus, appeal to human sin and divine grace fails to adequately mitigate the criticism

This has a very interesting structure. It's something like, if H is an explanation for E, then there should not be an hypothesis H' that also explains E. But a social scientist can explain why Smith went to the store in terms of his aims, goals, needs and enviornment. Why would such an explanation in terms of final causes turn out to be flawed by the discovery that we can also explain Smith's going to the store (as in fact we can) in terms of efficient causes? Is there something mysterious about the fact that the very pattern of Smith's behavior, explained by the social scientists in terms of final causes, is also explicable in terms of efficient causes? Should we doubt the social scientist's explanation, given that the very same pattern is otherwise explicable? I can't see why.

smaitzen said...

So no surprise that the exercise is clustered.

No surprise that the exemplification of the SD is geographically clustered -- and, coincidentally, in patterns that we can explain without assuming the existence of the SD? The factors you invoked -- the subject's age, level of mental development, psychological incapacity, severe psychological deprivation and abuse -- aren't geographically clustered. Why, then, should the exemplification of an ability hindered (or helped) by those factors be geographically clustered? Would you concede that the geographic clustering of the exemplification of the SD is at least more surprising on theism than on naturalism?

exapologist said...

I'd also add that Mike's point seems to me to be an unnatural fit at best, flatly inconsistent at worst, with Romans 1:20 -- assuming Plantinga is right that the sensus divinitatis is what Paul was referring to here wrt the means by which the existence and nature of God are (not just seen but) "clearly seen" in nature:

"Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse." (Rom. 1:20)

Mike Almeida said...

Steve,

I'm pretty sure your question is based on a misunderstanding of my point. I didn't say that the factors I listed accounted for the geographical pattern. I said that the sensus divinitatus might supervene factors other than those we know it supervenes on. The suggestion that it supervenes on the exercise of that capacity (just as one possibility) would not be ad hoc, since it would be just one more thing that it depends on. Perhaps it depends on the holy spirit (or the inspirations thereof). Perhaps it depends on responsiveness to the holy spirit. Perhaps cultural factors affect individual responsiveness to the holy spirit. This sounds to me pretty plausible.

But suppose the insirations of the holy spirit are open to anyone who is attentive. Suppose it is open to everyone, virtually no exceptions. Why do you expect any particular distribution of awareness of those inspirations? Here is a fact that is open to anyone who pays some attention. Count the number of concentric circles forming the print on the tip of your left index finger. Anyone could see that, anyone could count it. What do you think the distribution is of those who know that number? It will be an odd distribution determined those motivated to see what is as plain and obvious as anything could be. Why not see the sensus divinitatus the same way? Why think that we are just passive recipients of an overwhelming sense of the divine? It is perhaps as plain as day to anyone who is motivated to learn from it. It is certain that neither Calvin nor St. Paul thought that God made himself overwhelmingly obvious through any of our senses. It is not consistent with Scripture. God's presence is obvious in the same way that the number of concentric circles is obvious. You have to take time to see what's obvious.

exapologist said...

Paul taught that knowledge of God is sufficiently clear that it requires suppression to not "see" it. It seems to me to be a stretch to say that not seeing the number of concentric circles likewise requires "suppression".

Mike Almeida said...

Right. And it seems to me a stretch to say that having to suppress your awareness is consistent with 1 Kings 19:11-13.

11 The LORD said, "Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by."
Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.


Exchanging Biblical quotes is next to pointless in settling philosophical issues.

exapologist said...

It isn't pointless when the philosophical position in question, viz., Plantinga's, is tied to conservative biblical theology. It's of course interesting to consider the merits of philosophical theism for its own sake, completely disconnected from conservative Christianity. But part of my interest in posting on this topic is to help assess the epistemic merits of Plantinga's conservative, biblical position.

smaitzen said...

Why do you expect any particular distribution of awareness of those inspirations?

Mike: Must I expect a particular pattern of distribution in order to find some patterns surprising? If those with names from the A-N section of the alphabet voted overwhelmingly for Obama while P-Z voted overwhelmingly for McCain, that would be surprising. Maybe it's surprising only given a background expectation that alphabetical order doesn't correlate with voting. Likewise, then, for the SD: we assume that the distribution of this innate ability doesn't correlate with geography. Yet its exemplification, or exercise, does -- to a high degree.

The only thing you've said that comes anywhere near explaining the actual distribution we find is your suggestion that "Perhaps cultural factors affect individual responsiveness to the holy spirit." But here again I'd say we need to compare the plausibility of (a) the claim that God has allowed some cultures to ruin the soul-saving innate capacity of even innocent children and (b) the claim that we can explain the actual distribution we find without having to assume (a).

Mike Almeida said...

The only thing you've said that comes anywhere near explaining the actual distribution we find is your suggestion that "Perhaps cultural factors affect individual responsiveness to the holy spirit."

Let's be clear. I'm not claiming to know the reason for the distribution, nor am I proposing an explanation, nor am I claiming that some explanation is in order. There have been millions of geographical distributions of belief over countless time-slices in the world's history. That phenomenon is dynamic and evolving. Does the current distribution in the current time-slice singularly cry out for explanation? You're claiming that, not me.

But here again I'd say we need to compare the plausibility of (a) the claim that God has allowed some cultures to ruin the soul-saving innate capacity of even innocent children and (b) the claim that we can explain the actual distribution we find without having to assume (a).

I have no idea how anyone might have come to know (a) is true or even probable. So I don't have much to say about it. I do have something to say about (b). I've never heard a social scientific explanation that did not include lots of post hoc hand waving. Have you? That's probably because the explanadum is so complex that there's no single explanation that is not notably and admittedly incomplete. So it is almost certainly a wild overstatement to claim that we have anything like a complete and adequate explanation for the distribution.

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