Thursday, October 04, 2012

The Natural Knowledge of God

"As a deer longs for flowing streams,
so my soul longs for you, O God" (Ps 42:1)
Augustine wrote early in the fifth century in his beautiful opening prayer to Confessions, “Lord, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”[1] This is of course a prayer and therefore occurs within faith—it is not therefore technically a proof—and in it Augustine gives our natural yearning for God both an existential and creational caste.

More philosophically, the great thirteenth century Roman Catholic theologian, Thomas Aquinas (who thus wrote before the Protestant/Catholic divide), offered an initial outline of the famous “Five Ways.” First, there is the Argument from Motion: since everything that moves is moved by another, there must thereby exist an Unmoved Mover. Second, the Argument from Efficient Cause: the sequence of causes that make up this universe must have a First Cause. Third, the Argument to Necessary Being: since all things that exist are dependent on other things for their existence, there must exist at least one thing that is not dependent. This then is a Necessary Being. Four, the Argument from Gradation: Since all things that exist can be compared to such qualities as degrees of goodness, there must exist something that is an Absolutely Good Being. Finally, the Teleological Argument: The intricate design and order of existent things and natural processes imply that a Great Designer exists. 

Whether or not these Five Ways are maligned or praised, they have offered an excellent outline for subsequent thinkers who make philosophical arguments for God’s existence and for our natural knowledge of God. In fact they really constitute really a summary of what would have been known to his students reading the Summa and therefore not a full-blown proof are based on Thomas’s conviction that human beings have knowledge that God exists, although revelation is needed to know who God is.[2]
In the seventeenth century—right at the flowering of modern science—the mathematician Blaise Pascal offered another proof for God. He began, in a similar vein to Augustine with our existential search for rest: “By nature, we all seek happiness.” But where do we seek it? “Some seek the good in authority, some in intellectual inquiry and knowledge, some in pleasure.” Pascal continued by observing that all these various potential sources for happiness, for a beautiful life, leave us craving for more. He pondered what that meant:
What else does this craving, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him… since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.[3]
 C. S. Lewis echoed this conclusion about three hundred years after Pascale with a simple, logically compelling, phrase in his apologetics: “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”[4] Lewis believed that this argument from desire constitute one of the strongest proofs for God’s existence.
It may surprise some in the Reformed tradition—at least those who have read Karl Barth’s cavils against “natural theology”—that the seminal voice of Reformed theology, John Calvin, wrote similarly of the “awareness of divinity.” Calvin was not out to prove God, but to state that inherent in human existence is a basic, vague, and powerful natural knowledge of God. Indeed, in Calvin’s vastly influential 1559 Institutes of the Christian Religion, he wrote, “There is within the human mind, and indeed by natural instinct, an awareness of divinity.”[5] This awareness of divinity or sensus divinitatis is “beyond dispute” according to Calvin.

What do you think about a natural knowledge of God? (I'm working on these ideas as I sketch some thoughts toward a systematic theology in light of science.)

[1] Augustine, Confessions, 1.2.
[2] Summa 1.2.3.
[3] Pascal, Pensées #148.
[4]C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 114.
[5] Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.3.1.


Thomas Goodnow said...

From another angle, you might consider Barrett's "Born Believers: the science of children's religious beliefs." As psychology, it doesn't make an argument for or against God, but is an interesting foil to the sometimes-heard assertion that all people are naturally atheists until indoctrinated. Also makes several interesting points about how children often have a lot less trouble with Aquinas's five ways than educated adults.

GCootsona said...

This is excellent. Thanks, St. Thomas!

M Fitzpatrick said...

Well, clearly an awareness of divinity is not beyond dispute, because plenty do dispute it.

It seems like the approach of all the sciences and the humanities (i.e., all of philosophy) is that you first must have some phenomena which you need to explain, and then you apply a method to try to figure out how to explain it.

Lewis' comment, echoing Pascal, might be read as as following the aforementioned approach. There is some phenomena, my desire, and the explanation is that I am made for something beyond this world which satisfies it. But is this a good argument?

Notice that it depends on the premise that "Nature produces no desire in vain." In other words, every desire has a proper object. But this may not be true. Perhaps the desire for that perfect joy and love that Lewis' described is a desire for human joy and love, but without the inconstancy of human joy and love. It could be we've developed a desire in our self-conscious way that has no proper object - it is an existential despair that simply cannot be healed.

A similar criticism could be made of Aquinas' fourth way, that nature is not this perfect gradation between absolutes, but that we invent absolutes based on imagining the particulars, and then subtracting all the things we do not like. So God becomes perfect goodness, which might just be human goodness with our pretending that the imperfections of human nature have been removed. Omniscience might just be human knowledge but with the limitations of our knowledge pretended to be removed.

Problems have been found with all these natural theology arguments, which led Alvin Plantinga to develop his Reformed Epistemology, which makes belief in God properly basic, because he found too many problems with these natural theological arguments. What do you think Greg? Do you think they have merit? Or should we look elsewhere?

GCootsona said...

Good to hear from you, Michael!
I suppose it is not beyond dispute that there is an awareness of divinity, but I would be careful to equate disputing a claim with presenting a reasonable argument. The statistics are clearly in favor of belief in a generic deity and even more, those who disdain the notion of a god can recast their basic intuition as "transcendence" (e.g., Dawkins).
So, yes, I think a few of the Ways in Aquinas and Lewis's argument from desire actually work as proofs in the sense that they make more sense than the alternatives. But neither atheists nor theists possess deductive, knock-down conclusive proofs.
Nonetheless, I tried to be quite careful to present this as a survey of noteworthy expositions of natural knowledge of God. And here, I think you're right to note Platinga's "basic belief." Why is atheism more basic than theism? Why do we have to argue for God anymore than argue for materialism? I think natural knowledge of God can be properly basic, not needing additional proof.
At the end of the day, I've concluded that all human beings have a basic, unthematized belief in God that simply exists, but it is so vague that we can call it by any number of names. Does it constitute a proof? I would be hesitant to make that claim.
I hope that answers your questions.

Anonymous said...

"They say that God is everywhere,and yet we always think of Himas somewhat of a recluse."-Emily Dickenson

Attempts to "prove" God through nature only serve to demonstrate instead how far we think he is from us. We will not see God in nature, until we see him in our own.

Drawing on much data, E.O. Wilson concluded, “the human mind has evolved to believe in the gods…” And being an atheist is a luxury afforded by our increasing independence. A recurring preface in “SKEPTIC” Magazine is:...Humans evolved to be pattern-seeking, cause-inferring animals, shaped by nature to find meaningful relationships in the world..." This unique aspect of our nature is essential to our formation of is viewed skeptically however by some, when it leads us to "see God" in nature.

God is known in his visceral absence...the base relief of our self-consciousness. Rabbis note the ambiguity in the Hebrew wordplay of “mirror” and “vision.” Mirrors became symbols for the presence of God. Hosea (12:11) says, “...I make myself know to him in a vision/mirror [Marea] ” And Tyndale rendered 2 Cor. 2:18 as "“..and now the Lord’s glory appeareth in us all as in a glass.”

As C.S. Lewis put it, "The form of the desired is in the desire...we yearn, rightly, for that unity...called "we."'s visitations were... the moment of clearest consciousness..."

Beyond self-awareness, lies our “god-awareness.” Our vision is from “vanishing point to vanishing point”'s not unidirectional.We can flounder in our “self-doubt” as well as “god-doubt.” This is another way to say “we “bear” the image of God. “...we are not computers…we are creators,individually and collectively…”Anna Lemkow

There is a realization that the difference between the corpse, and what was once your dear friend is much more than a failure in chemistry. As Chesterton noted, "... a man may vanish as Chaos vanished in the face of creation... as God vanished in filling all things with that created life."

We are God's mirrors as Whitman wrote, "I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four,
and each moment then,
In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass...."

And this remarkable insight of Plato on the image of God within us:
“...clinging in recollection to those things in which God abides...who employs aright these memories…they are seen through a glass dimly...every soul of man has in the way of nature beheld true being..they have the less difficulty in finding the nature of their own god in themselves,...; their recollection clings to him, and they become possessed of him, and receive from him their character and disposition, so far as man can participate in God..he has forgotten mother and brethren and companions,...and is ready to sleep like a servant, wherever he is allowed, as near as he can to his desired one, who is the object of his worship, and the physician who can alone assuage the greatness of his pain…” Plato

-Bill Jackson, Oroville CA

M Fitzpatrick said...

Greg, this letter is part of an important conversation which touches on your topic here. Since it's VERY current, I think you should take a second to look at it and incorporate its reflections, and Nagel's reply, into your thinking on sensus divinitas.

M Fitzpatrick said...

Here's the conversation continued further.