Monday, November 5, 2012

Sensus Elephantiasis

I have to apologize that posting has been so slow of late. Sometimes real life intervenes.

The argument from "sensus elephantiasis," refers, of course, to Plantinga's claim to have a sensus divinitatis, a direct sense of the divine. I previously called this "the worst philosophical argument ever."  Commenter Garren pointed out that there definitely are differences in people's perceptive abilities: if 99% of us were blind, the 1% would seem to have an amazing ability unavailable to the rest.

I can't fault the logical point here. Yet, it seems to me, by now we pretty much have agreement on what powers people possess and what powers they don't. Sight, smell, touch, hearing, taste, proprioception, yes. ESP, telekinesis, channeling, no. Any claim to further powers would seem to carry a large burden of proof.

Garren goes on to point out that the hypothetical blind scientists would easily devise tests to see whether the strange faculty of "sight" corresponded to the real world - i.e., did their perceptions agree with what could be sensed via the "normal" senses of touch, hearing, etc.? Religious claims of special senses fail the corresponding tests rather spectacularly: people differ greatly on the number, attributes, and powers, of gods.

Commenter c emerson has a response to my purple pachyderm argument at his own blog, Random Walk: first part, second part, third part.


  1. Slightly off topic but are we back to being Atheists or Agnostics in regards to the existence of the God Particle?

    If so I am sad. I had this big party planned for the next Higgs Day.......

    Are you there Higgs it's me BenYachov?

    Ok I've had my fun.

    Seriously what are your professional thoughts on the above link Prof O?

  2. A quick search of sensus divinitatis produced these two blog posts on the subject (one for, one against): Awakening Sensus Divinitatis at, and Alvin Plantinga: Sophisticated Theologian? at

    In part 2 of Maverick Christian's argument (MC has an internal link to it), MC offers this deductive syllogism: "If God does not exist, then objective morality does not exist. Objective morality does exist. Therefore, God exists." Imo the syllogism is not logically valid, because proving the negative of the "then" clause does not lead to the conclusion that the negative of the "if" clause is true. Nevertheless, that does not necessarily defeat MC's argument for the existence of the claimed innate sensus divinitatis.

    But as a commenter on my blog proffered (paraphrasing): if God is a mental construct ... then one thought to consider is what are such mental constructs and where do they come from? In other words, Is sensus divinitatis merely psychological? If it is, is it possible that it is evolutionarily innate (and accurate) or evolutionarily innate (and inaccurate)?

    The polls close soon, so Vote.

    1. Sorry, I retract what I said about MC's syllogism. I ignored the syllogistic condition that premise #1 is taken as a given, in which case yes the conclusion is valid and the dispute moves to the veracity of the premises.

    2. If it’s any consolation, you're not the first person I’ve seen claim the deductive argument isn’t deductively valid! Events like this are why (shameless plug ahead) I’ve started a series on logic using that very moral argument as an example of a valid argument and showing how one can use symbolic logic to prove its validity.

  3. >Mr. Plantinga, who recalled the event as “polite but not cordial,” allowed that he didn’t think much of Mr. Dennett’s line of reasoning. “He didn’t want to argue,” Mr. Plantinga said. “It was more like he wanted to make assertions and tell stories.”

    Unless you read Plantinga's formal argument in his books making a judgment like this "worst argument ever" from a sound bite it just irrational Prof O.

    It's like your average YEC hearing a soundbite explanation of Evolution and then saying "That is just ridiculous! Everybody knows apes give birth to apes not people".

    Have some pride man don't be in their category.

    OTOH I do seem to recall reading Feser talking about his move from Atheism to Theism but still stating that Plantinga's arguments about belief being "properly basic" he didn't find convincing.

  4. Jerry Coyne posted an update to his original article, which I quote from here: "UPDATE: P.Z. [Myers] ... posted ... he took apart some similar arguments of Plantinga two years ago. I like P.Z.'s point that our cognitive faculties aren't fully reliable and that's why we need science as a check on illusions. But I'd emphasize ... that the instruments that we design to scientifically test ... phenomena still depend on the assumption that our senses are reliable, especially when ... replicated. ... The key is not just the general reliability of our senses, but that the results of our senses are replicated among different investigators. That's why science wins and religion, whose "truths" can't be replicated by different faiths, or even different adherents to the same faith, loses."

    Additional comment to follow.

    1. One commenter (Lou Jost) to the Coyne article said this: "By the way, no one 'assumes' our senses give us reliable information about the universe. In fact, science is largely the process of taking our senses out of the equation. Physical reality turns out to be completely different from what our senses tell us - matter is not solid, space and time do not exist as separate dimensions ... the earth revolves around the sun and spins at 1000 mph, etc."

      Additional comment to follow.

    2. Despite appearances, I think Coyne, Myers and Jost are all actually in line with the notion that our physical senses can mislead us, and that we have devised scientific / empirical procedures to catch certain kinds of errors and to discover previously unseen physical 'truths'.

      Ironically, Coyne wants to defend the reliability of our senses, just not the type advocated by Plantinga (derived from Calvin), while Jost wants to deny the reliability of our senses (and presumably therefore any 'sense' of divine existence), yet readily admits that "physical reality" (but not spiritual reality) "turns out to be completely different from what our senses tell us."

      I don't mean for these remarks to sound like I am defending Plantinga's implied statement in the NY Times article (quoting journalist Jennifer Schuessler who is quoting Plantinga): "Theism, with its vision of an orderly universe superintended by a God who created rational-minded creatures in his own image, 'is vastly more hospitable to science than naturalism,' with its random process of natural selection."

      That statement seems far more theological than philosophical. But neither side to this debate owns the epistemology. Not yet anyway.