Cognitive Science And Calvin's 'Sensus Divinitatis'

When it comes to God and science, we'd like there to be definitive proof. A knock-down argument for the Deity would be nice.

"If only God would give me some clear sign! Like making a large deposit in my name at a Swiss Bank." -- Woody Allen

I've learned over the years of scouring arguments in the philosophy of religion that no proof for or against God is decisive, though, of course, some are better than others. Their best service is to offer plausibility to faith. They can tip the scales toward belief, but never command ascent.

On the other hand, science has similar limitations. It's rarely--if ever (this is debated)--that science has a "crucial experiment," one that decisively demonstrates a particular hypothesis or theory is superior to all other widely accepted hypotheses or theories. Scientific arguments, according to some of the top minds in the field, is summarized as "inference to the best explanation."

Best of all: if science could prove God's existence.

In fact, science cannot accomplish this task, as a friend and colleague, Geoff Mittelman phrased it so well in a widely popular blog post, "Sorry, Science Doesn't Make a Case for God. But That's Ok." Still, science can present intriguing convergences with religious belief, which helps us avoid the tired harangues about the conflict between science and religion, a culture war that 69% of college students find personally unappealing (like those I teach at Cal State Chico).

An evolutionary understanding of the development of the human brain provides specific starting point for an innate sense that God exists. Justin Barrett, through his work in developing a Cognitive Science of Religion, uses the findings of the cognitive sciences to argue that evolution has developed human beings so that we implicitly see purposes in events, or are predisposed toward teleology.

"Evidence exists that people are prone to see the world as purposeful and intentionally ordered." -- Justin Barrett, cognitive psychologist

This feature of early childhood, termed "promiscuous teleology" by the psychologist Deborah Kelemen, naturally leads to belief in a Creator.

Preschoolers "are inclined to see the world as purposefully designed and tend to see an intelligent, intentional agent behind this natural design." -- Justin Barrett

Of course, atheists can use this tendency to impugn belief in God--i.e., we cannot help but believe, and it starts at such an early age! This rejoinder strikes me as inextricably tied with their philosophical commitments--"Let's find evidence to prove God's non-existence." In fact, these findings from cognitive science can easily head in another direction.

Let's try a suppositional argument. Suppose we are created by God, wouldn't it be consistent to find an openness to belief as endemic to our cognitive structure?

At this point, it's worth noting that C. S. Lewis begins in Mere Christianity by asserting that we all have a common stock of morality that points us to a moral God, an argument that a leading geneticist and head of the National Institutes of Health, Francis Collins, finds particularly persuasive. Interestingly, brain research suggests that evolutionary pressures, particularly the human need toward cooperation as it leads to survival, produces a common stock of morality;

"A recurring theme is that humans seem to naturally converge upon a common set of intuitions that structure moral thought, such as 'it is wrong to harm a nonconsenting member of one's group.'" -- Justin Barrett

As I commented above, I'm not trying to prove God's existence, but note convergences between scientific insight and theism. And that brings me to the 16th century Reformer John Calvin and his notion of the sensus divinitatis or "sense of the divine." 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. In 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." -- John Calvin

This awareness points to a sense of the Numinous, powerful and brooding. "Where can I go from Your presence? Where can I flee from Your spirit?" cries the psalmist (Psalm 139). It is the feeling of being out in a forest at night, knowing that no one is there, but feeling something. Often this experience can frighten us, and yet it also opens us to theistic belief. It seems that God has used evolutionary processes to create this innate awareness.

Where does that leave us? Still without a definitive proof for atheism or theism? Yes. But it does provide a way to read the Book of Scripture and the Book of Nature without contradiction. That is both attractive and useful. As Pew Research concluded, "Most American adults (68%) say there is no conflict between their personal religious beliefs and science."

And I'm certainly willing to be counted in that number.