A LOVE SUPREME

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Sunday, June 03, 2007

Mommy, it's Princess Leia!

As the orchestra closed the pops concert this afternoon with one of John William's Star Wars themes I heard a little girl say, "Mommy, that's Princess Leia!" The music had triggered some sort of association between the sound and the movie. Because of a recent post on John Calvin's sensus divinitatis (or SD for short) I had been ruminating on the nature of the SD. So, when I heard the little girl react the way she did methinks to myself, "Ah, that's a great example of SD!"

SD is the Latin for "sense of the divine" or perhaps we might say, "God-sense".

We are configured such that we make associations between sounds and experiences. Hence, the little girl can be easily conditioned to think of Princess Leia when she hears music from the Star Wars movies. This is something of the same thing that goes on with SD: God designs us such that certain circumstances should (if all things are working properly) produce in us some sort of notion or understanding of God. Hence, a majestic mountain top can trigger a sense of awe of God's power. Or committing wrong-doings can trigger a sense of accountability and culpability to the Ultimate Judge.

The two questions that arise in my mind as I think about SD are these:
1) What if someone has no sense of God? Is it possible that the SD can be defective?
2) Is it also possible that SD might just be some kind of cultural, religious conditioning? If Pavlov can condition his dogs to salivate when he rings a bell, then perhaps we can train ourselves to think about God in certain circumstances.

According to SD we are created to respond to the experiences of life in a way that either: produces belief in God, gives us a sense of God's nature and/or presence, or somehow reveals something about ourselves in relation to God (i.e. guilt when we do evil). Hence SD is something intrinsic to the design of human beings, something within us. (Crf. Romans 1:18) But one might argue that this is simply something we are conditioned with, and that, in fact, we might be conditioned to do just the opposite. A person might be conditioned to scoff at the very idea of God when s/he views a breathtaking scene of nature! Or a person might be conditioned to think that when s/he does something evil that God is actually the one who is accountable!

But these scenarios seem awkward to me. They do not seem very human to me, at all. They actually seem very unnatural and inhuman. There seems to be something very primordial about the response that humans have to God. The God question seems to permeate cultures and societies in a way that seems more than superstition. Who and what God is seems to penetrate each individual at a very deep and personal level. Whether we like it or not many of our most basic questions have to do with God. This strikes me as something that is more basic than rational. After all, what do I need God for if I want to make a million dollars and drive a sweet car and build a vacation home in Miami? The God-question nags at us at a more soulish and personal level. This is what the theory of SD attempts to discuss.

23 comments:

ktismatics said...

You reject conditioning as an explanation for how we might come to associate God with nature. What would constitute a more plausible explanation of how the sensus divinitatus "works" in human nature? Based on your post, the explanation would need to seem more "natural," more "human." It would have cross-cultural, pre-rational, even "primordial" validity. Suppose an explanation were put forward that explained how S.D.works and that met these criteria for plausibility. Would you regard such an explanation as evidence for or against the sensus divinitatus as something instilled in us by God?

samlcarr said...

Interesting question. If the SD was found to be something in-built and that had no other 'survival value', it would either have to be an aberrancy (an accidental side effct) or something deliberately imparted and which is linked to a different sort of survival altogether.

Celal Birader said...

An important aspect of the sensus divinitatis is that it can and does get suppressed because of the presence of original sin

samlcarr said...

celal, does that mean that 'original sin' makes the SD dysfunctional?

Jonathan Erdman said...

Ktismatics:
You reject conditioning as an explanation for how we might come to associate God with nature. What would constitute a more plausible explanation of how the sensus divinitatus "works" in human nature?...Suppose an explanation were put forward that explained how S.D.works and that met these criteria for plausibility. Would you regard such an explanation as evidence for or against the sensus divinitatus as something instilled in us by God?

To clarify, I am not saying that belief in God cannot be conditioned. Clearly we can condition people to believe in deities of many varieties. Or even to condition them not to believe in God. I guess as I'm feeling this issue out it is almost as though I believe that something more basic and more intrinsic exists within humankind to allow him/her to be conditioned for or against belief in the divine. I think this better explains our more natural bend and inclination to ask God-type questions and to feel accountable to Him.

Is it possible that there is something more primordial within us that allows for such conditioning? I'm curious on your thoughts on this, from a psychological standpoint. For example, do you view the belief in God to be something we are conditioned into similar to hearing the Star Wars music and thinking of Princess Leia? Or do you think there is something more primordial and intrinsic that gives rise to belief in God?

Maybe this goes back to our sense of meaning. We seem to associate meaning in life somehow with our conception of God.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Celal,

This may be a bit off of your point, but as you note on your blog, according to Romans 1 we are "without excuse." Hence, I infer that SD must be something we have some sort of access to that we can either accept or repress.

Somethings I think Calvinists (of which I am one) can jump the gun too fast and they tend to go straight for the repression without a proper acknowledgment of the access that humanity has to God through his/her experiences. In other words, I would submit that suppression of truth varies greatly depending on the individual in question. It doesn't strike me as a wholesale form of repression.

Jonathan Erdman said...

What, I wonder, is the correlation between the suppression of SD/truth in Romans 1 and conditioning a person such that they do not believe in God????

Jonathan Erdman said...

If one is conditioned not to believe in God or to believe in a god who is not God, then how accountable are they? Have they really suppressed truth, or merely been conditioned this way???

ktismatics said...

Forget conditioning, or any other specific explanation. I repeat the more hypothetical question: "Suppose an explanation were put forward that explained how S.D.works and that met your criteria for plausibility [natural, human, cross-cultural, pre-rational, primordial]. Would you regard such an explanation as evidence for or against the sensus divinitatus as something instilled in us by God?"

I.e., if a psychological process could be explained scientifically that theoretically and empirically supports Paul's position in Romans 1, what would be your reaction: that scientists had demonstrated how God works in the human mind, or that scientists had come up with a naturalistic explanation in order to eliminate the need for God? Or would you regard such work as irrelevant? I think this sort of question is apropos to how theism interacts with science.

Jonathan Erdman said...

First, it depends upon the nature of the explanation. But that's obvious.

Second, if you are asking me then the answer is obvious. I would interpret the evidence as support for Paul's position and be further convinced that SD or something like it is the right approach. For me it would be very relevant. Your question, however, is then one of hermeneutics, it becomes an interpretive issue: How does one interpret the "findings"? Right?

ktismatics said...

Jonathan -

I'm looking for some reconciliation between science and faith here. Scientists used to read Genesis 1 as Biblical support for investigating nature. That was Galileo's argument with Rome. The Church shouldn't have to settle for Aristotle's intuition that the earth is the center of the universe. Romans 1 says that man has the innate ability to discern God's workings by investigating nature. Therefore we should accept what we find by investigating nature and reflecting on our findings. The sun, not the earth, is the center of the solar system. If you interpret Scripture otherwise, then you need to change your hermeneutic. The Jesuits agreed with Galileo, and so did the Protestants; the Pope did not.

So now science turns to the study of man. How is it that man has a primordial and cross-cultural sense of God's presence in nature? How is it that man can understand phenomena by investigating them? Since Romans 1 asserts that man has this ability, and since man too is part of nature, it seems that man ought to be able to investigate his own ability to investigate things.

So, do evangelicals generally welcome or resist scientific investigations into nature and human psychology, would you say? I'd say they resist -- that they regard science as the work of people who worship the creature rather than the creator, who have given themselves over to the dark futility of their own minds. But it seems to me that Christians could still look at scientific findings, even findings investigating the workings of S.D., from a theistic point of view.

You seem to agree, although you slip in a caveat: "it depends upon the nature of the explanation. But that's obvious." So for you some scientific investigations, findings and conclusions are unacceptable a priori. What sort of explanation would be obviously unacceptable to you?

Jonathan Erdman said...

Good thoughts, K.

The caveat was meant merely to say that the nature of the investigation and the nature of the findings will lend themselves to varying conclusions. Some scientific enquiries are more substantial and lend themselves to more substantial conclusions. That's what I was going for, which is why I said it was a rather obvious point. I didn't mean to say that one excludes a priori certain possibilities before the results are in.

I don't know if I would wholesale dismiss the Evangelical community as unscientific. Dobson, for example, believes very strongly that scientific and psychological investigation has supported his views on family and sexuality, that the traditional one man and one woman monogomous relationship is the way to go. I don't think Dobson says, "Well, science says one thing, but I don't accept it."

But I'm cautious with resting all of my conclusions on "science." It seems to me that on the most important issues scientific investigation is more analogous to a mirror than it is a telescope. That is, our investigations tell us more about ourselves than about the world.

An example.

Both sides of the global warming debate claim that the scientific conclusions of their opponents are fabricated and based on superstition or religion or corp. greed while believing that their own findings are the true science. Who is right? I am sure that "the truth is out there", but at this point I don't think I can make an informed decission due to the conflicting conclusions and the conflated data, and the political ramifications of the debate that are tainting the pure pursuit of scientific objectivity.

I agree with the general idea that scientific investigation should be rigorous and thorough and unbiased, and that we should approach it without a priori conclusions. I just don't know that it happens, or that it is even possible. Gadamer in Truth and Method complains that the Enlightenment unfairly categorized prejudice in a negative way. Gadamer said that our prejudices and our received traditions provide the framework (or "horizon") that make investigations and dialogue possible to begin with.

In light of this, however, my belief that we need to continue to investigate is why I asked you about what your thoughts were about SD, from a psychological perspective. I'm interested in getting thoughts on SD from a clinical perspective, rather than strictly a biblical one. Marx, for example, holds a view that religion is the "opium of the masses." On this view "god" would probably be some sort of projection of human need and also a fabrication of the powerful for the sake of control. (Confession: Haven't read Marx, so feel free to correct.)

Celal Birader said...

Hence, I infer that SD must be something we have some sort of access to that we can either accept or repress.

No, it's not a choice on our part. We are totally depraved.

It doesn't strike me as a wholesale form of repression.

It's not wholesale, it's piecemeal which is why total depravity doesn't mean we are as bad as we can be.

Yet, the fact that it is piecemeal does not mean we are under less condemnation : we are all damaged goods and damaged goods is damaged goods.

Celal Birader said...

celal, does that mean that 'original sin' makes the SD dysfunctional?

Yes, it does.

Celal Birader said...

If one is conditioned not to believe in God or to believe in a god who is not God, then how accountable are they? Have they really suppressed truth, or merely been conditioned this way???

The one who is conditioned is accountable because he/she is going against the clear revelation in the Creation of God's divine power and eternity. And yes, there is therefore a suppression of this revealed truth which allows the conditioned. We are pre-disposed to such wrong conditioning because we are sinners.

Celal Birader said...

If one is conditioned not to believe in God or to believe in a god who is not God, then how accountable are they? Have they really suppressed truth, or merely been conditioned this way???

The one who is conditioned is accountable because he/she is going against the clear revelation in the Creation of God's divine power and eternity. And yes, there is therefore a suppression of this revealed truth which allows the conditioned. We are pre-disposed to such wrong conditioning because we are sinners.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Celal, Paul does not say in Romans that God has made revelation clear. Paul says that God has "made it evident to them", i.e. they know. He does not say that they have clear revelation and that their depravity blinds them. Rather, they have access to the knowledge and reject the knowledge through an act of the will and a deliberate suppression. Personal responsibility and human culpability doesn't work if there is clear revelation that is blinded by depravity. We must have access to the revelation and reject it.

ktismatics said...

"Although we have to learn which specific afterlife people in our culture believe in (heaven, reincarnation, a spirit world, and
so on), the notion that life after death is possible is not learned at all. It is a by-product of how we naturally think about the world...

"Richard Dawkins writes that it appears almost as if 'the human brain is specifically designed to misunderstand Darwinism'...

"Although it's true that more Bush voters than Kerry voters are creationists, just about half of Kerry voters believe that God created human beings in their present form, and most of the rest believe that although we evolved from less-advanced life forms, God guided the process. Most Kerry voters want evolution to be taught either alongside creationism or not at all...

"But the real problem with natural selection is that it makes no intuitive sense. It is like quantum physics; we may intellectually grasp it, but it will never feel right to us. When we see a complex structure, we see it as the product of beliefs and goals and desires. Our social mode of understanding leaves it difficult for us to make sense of it any other way. Our gut feeling is that design requires a designer—a fact that is understandably exploited by those who argue against Darwin...

"Four-year-olds insist that everything has a purpose, including lions ("to go in the zoo") and clouds ("for raining"). When asked to explain why a bunch of rocks are pointy, adults prefer a physical explanation, while children choose a functional one, such as "so that animals could scratch on them when they get itchy." And when asked about the origin of animals and people, children tend to prefer explanations that involve an intentional creator, even if the adults raising them do not. Creationism—and belief in God—is bred in the bone...

"Religious teachings certainly shape many of the specific beliefs we hold; nobody is born with the idea that the birthplace of humanity was the Garden of Eden, or that the soul enters the body at the moment of conception, or that martyrs will be rewarded with sexual access to scores of virgins. These ideas are learned. But the universal themes of religion are not learned. They emerge as accidental by-products of our mental systems. They are part of human nature."

Quotes are from this article by evolutionary psychologist Paul Bloom (we'll see if the link works right this time). Even before considering the findings and theories about why all these things might be true and how it all works psychologically, it's interesting to observe that the evolutionary psychologists accept the premise that most people have an intuitive belief in god or gods and other supernatural beings, the afterlife, and a creator. So scientific evidence supports the existence of a sensus divinitatus.

Jonathan Erdman said...

You have pointed to this Paul Bloom article in a previous discussion. It is very interesting.

What do you think about the religion-as-accident theory?

And what do you think about Bloom's statement that even though a person may intellectually believe in evolution that we generally are not comfortable with it? He seems to be saying that we prefer to think of our world as designed by a Creator.

ktismatics said...

"What do you think about the religion-as-accident theory?"

I thought maybe I'd linked to this article before. For those who haven't read it, here's a fairly long summary.

Bloom begins by acknowledging that most people intuitively believe in God. He doesn't invoke conditioning as the reason, nor does he argue that people believe because it makes them happier and healthier -- maybe the two most popular psychological explanations. Nor does he make the quasi-evolutionary argument that theistic societies have a competitive edge over atheistic ones. Instead, Bloom says that belief in God is an accident of human brain evolution.

One "accident" is our innate tendency to infer that natural phenomena and events are intentionally caused by an intelligent being. Humans differ from all other animals in our ability to learn from one another. Learning depends on seeing other people as having motivations similar to our own. E.g., a child can watch another child putting rocks across a stream of water and infer that she intended to block the flow in order to make a pool. So now the observer can do the same thing if he feels like making a pool. The "accident" is that we naturally tend to infer intentional causality behind everything we observe. So if a child sees a lake, he will assume that someone purposely dammed up the stream in order to make it. Who's big enough to make a lake? Must be a god.

The other part of the "accident" is that humans seem to be natural dualists, regarding mind and body as two separate things. This accident is related to the first one, where we infer that all physical events are caused by conscious purpose and intent. You have goals and desires in your mind, and you act on them by moving your body through the world. Because of this mind-body dualism, it's easy for kids to grasp the idea of a disembodied spirit -- gods, angels, ghosts -- purposely making things happen in the material world. Bloom says this:

No scientist takes seriously Cartesian dualism, which posits that thinking need not involve the brain. There is just too much evidence against it. Still, it feels right, even to those who have never had religious training, and even to young children... They do not see the brain as the source of conscious experience; they do not identify it with their selves. They appear to think of it as a cognitive prosthesis—there is Max the person, and then there is his brain, which he uses to solve problems just as he might use a computer. In this commonsense conception the brain is, as Steven Pinker puts it, "a pocket PC for the soul." ...We can imagine our bodies being destroyed, our brains ceasing to function, our bones turning to dust, but it is harder—some would say impossible—to imagine the end of our very existence. The notion of a soul without a body makes sense to us.

So, what do I think about this theory? First, does it account for the evidence? Bloom cites various studies in which kids infer intent and purpose to inanimate objects, believe that a dead mouse continues to have thoughts and feelings even after it's dead, etc. Also, it makes sense in terms of what is already known about the distinctly human ability to infer intentionality in others, the crucial ability behind learning, language, dissemination of innovations across the species, etc.

But is belief in God an "accident," a byproduct of evolution that isn't necessarily adaptive in its own right? As Bloom points out, "accidents" aren't so bad -- our appreciation of music and our willingness to offer help to strangers we've never met aren't necessarily adaptive either. Early in this thread Sam said he'd be more convinced of a naturalistic explanation of sensus divinitatus if it wasn't obviously adaptive for survival.

Is there any way to tell whether this byproduct of evolution and human cognition is accidental or intentional, purposely put in there by God? Not really -- just like you can never definitively say whether the gravitational constants of our universe resulted from chance or design. But Bloom's theory does predict that people will naturally believe it's not an accident. We will intuitively believe that our non-adaptive but intuitive belief in disembodied spirits causing things to happen in the world has been intentionally designed into the human species by a powerful disembodied being who builds material brains according to his purposes...

So, might you be able to accept this sort of scientific explanation of sensus divinitatus? You don't have to accept the "accident" part, just the evidence-based parts: our natural tendency to infer intentionality behind practically everything, and the natural distinction we make between minds and bodies. As a means by which the S.D. might work, could you regard such an explanation as plausible and non-heretical? I.e., could you regard it as the psychological equivalent of Copernicus describing how the solar system works by investigating the evidence and proposing a theory to explain it?

Jonathan Erdman said...

Yeah, that's a good analogy. I could regard some of the aforementioned evidences as the psychological equivalent of the Copernicum explanation of the solar system.

For me SD is very much a work in process and I think it might be difficult to have a great deal of precision that might be more possible in certain branches of science or mathematics.

Also, I look at SD as more of a descriptive theological psychology rather than an apologetic. I don't know that I would use SD primarily as a proof like a Christian philosopher might use the ontological, teleological, or cosmological argument. SD might function as something of a proof, but I think it would not be a strictly rational proof. The appeal of SD might be rational, but it also appeals to our own intrinsic God-sense. So, if SD succeeds in being a good theological description of the way our psyche operates then a non-theist (atheist or agnostic or indifferent) might be compelled to reconsider his/her viewpoint on various God questions and re-examine how s/he is interpreting his/her experiences.

ktismatics said...

It's disconcerting to subject previously unexplored areas of experience to scientific investigation. This is a new area of research, so I more progress will be made. Bloom's explanations will undoubtedly be modified as new studies are done. Not that science is the only source of knowledge on God-awareness, of course.

I agree that the sensus divninitatus is descriptive in Romans 1. It points inward toward the self as a detector of God's presence, which is how most Christians use it these days -- as evidence that atheism is a sign of moral corruption. But the SD also points outward toward the universe as a place to look for information about God. That's how the Enlightenment scientists (mostly Protestants with good theological educations) interpreted their vocation. You could make a case that reluctance to engage in scientific investigation is to ignore the SD...

Jonathan Erdman said...

Yes. Good point. SD is not strictly an inward move. It is the experience of sensing God via the encounter with the world. In this sense the experience is reciprocal because as one encounters a sense of God and responds positively presumably this will change one's perspective on the world - the world will seem more "divine", for lack of a better word.