Last time we looked at a few examples of properly basic beliefs, including beliefs that come to us through the senses and through the memory. Surely you believe you read the last post in the not-too-distant past?
And so, Plantinga’s point, narrowed a bit for our purposes: Belief in God, like belief in yesterday and belief in an external world – and belief in other minds, the one composing this post and the one or two reading it – is properly basic.
Well, if Plantinga wants to say that belief in God is properly basic, he must supply a cognitive faculty which produces it. After all, the senses tell us there is an external world, and our memories tell us we have experienced a real past. For that, Plantinga points to a term used by John Calvin and Thomas Aquinas – the sensus divinitatis.
Now, the impetus for Plantinga’s project was the common objection that might be phrased like this: Whether or not Christianity is true, it is surely irrational to believe it. When Marx says that our minds are failing us, or when Freud blames “wish fulfillment” for religious belief, they point to this idea that our cognitive faculties are somehow failing or misguided in believing Christianity.
Plantinga makes the point that is almost painfully obvious: Doesn’t this assume atheism? And indeed it does – it does not address whether Christianity might really be true; it assumes Christianity is false. Given that, how can we explain religious belief?
But Plantinga – and I, in my more ordinary way – would like to know, why assume this? Has there been some great argument for atheism which only fools and religious devotees will ignore? Has Christianity suffered some powerful defeater which renders it impotent?
I have not seen these things, and I admit that I take Plantinga at his word that he has seen no such arguments either. He is, after all, in a much better position to say whether any really good arguments along those lines exist.
Rather, if we start and say, “Assuming there is a God, how would we explain this?” we might come upon what Plantinga calls the A/C Model (Aquinas/Calvin – though I’ve had to resist the urge to read it as the “Air Conditioning Model”).
Under the A/C model, Plantinga credits the sensus divinitatis with our properly basic belief in God. That is, in the same way that our memory produces memory beliefs, and our physical senses produce sense perceptions, our “sense of the divine” produces the belief that there is such a person as God. (He notes that the sensus divinitatis might apply to all theists in this basic way, though his aim is to serve Christianity in particular, and the “great truths of the gospel”).
Let’s take a quick step back – what does this mean for our analogy of God as author?
It would mean, I suppose, that in the course of telling a story, an author might give her characters a sense of the world which exists outside of that story. She, the author, might give them the ability to recognize her, in her movements and purposes in telling the story. No doubt this could lead to some bad literature, but it has actually populated great literature, too.
In the story of Oedipus, for example, what is that dark, foreboding presence Oedipus’ parents feel when they are told his fate (he will kill his father and marry his mother)? I’m not speaking of just the fear – I’m speaking of what the fear is a reaction to. Is it just to the words they heard from the oracle? That hardly makes sense – anybody might say anything, and one need not be afraid. (It is especially obvious that the oracle, herself, won’t be causing these events to occur).
So why this? They sense, beyond their physical senses, that some power has control over their world, and it is this power (whatever it might be) that will see to it that Oedipus’ tragic fate does, in fact, come about.
Sophocles (the author of Oedipus Rex) decided, as a matter of dramatic interest, that his characters should have this sense. Otherwise, if Oedipus’s parents thought they were only hearing words which had no force behind them, why would they have taken the actions they did? More importantly – how could the story possibly be interesting without that sense – that cognitive faculty – which produced beliefs that did not come from their physical senses (or memory, or a priori beliefs)?
But we need not have any familiarity with Oedipus in order to understand Plantinga’s point.